Sometimes when you muck about with a well-known classic, you get into trouble by changing something that proved to be essential. Other times, though, you can get into trouble by the opposite – clinging to something that, in this new vision, was actually inessential. And sometimes it’s hard to tell which is the problem.
The current production of Hamlet at Classic Stage Co. in New York, directed by Austin Pendleton and starring Peter Sarsgaard, for both of whom I have a great deal of respect and affection, has a host of problems, from a speaking style that obscures the verse in an effort to make the language seem naturalistic, to a too-static set, to a generally lugubrious and mopey tone, to some downright peculiar casting decisions. But the “big idea” of this production is one area where I suspect Pendleton just didn’t push far enough.
That idea was to cut the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
Now, given that the entire play revolves around Hamlet’s response to the ghost’s information and the ghost’s command, this would seem to be a pretty risky choice. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw the promise in it, as a way of simplifying and psychologizing a play that can wander off into the philosophical and theological weeds. Not that those weeds aren’t really interesting – they most certainly are – but I find them more interesting to study than they are practical to explore on stage.
If we never see or hear the ghost, and neither do the other characters, then we don’t know whether it is even real, or a figment of Hamlet’s imagination – or even Hamlet’s excuse for his increasingly wild behavior, a part of his “antic disposition” act (if it is an act). From being a meditation on the inability to act, the play would become a story about the kinds of stories we have to tell ourselves in order to overcome our scruples about revenge. Indeed, Claudius, in such a reading of the play, might not be guilty at all – at least not of murder – and Hamlet’s wildness may in fact make a mortal enemy of a man who was entirely sincere in wanting to be a surrogate father. The result might be less Shakespearean – but it might be more, well, Scandinavian.
But if you wanted to stage that play, you’d have to cut a lot more than the part of the ghost. You’d have to cut the ghost’s earlier appearance on the battlements – which establishes its reality outside of Hamlet’s head. You’d have the option to cut Claudius’s confession – though you might keep “Now I might do it pat,” which would play very differently in the altered context. Or you could keep Claudius’s confession, and his guilt would be much more of a revelation if we hadn’t already heard the ghost’s accusation.
The point is: you’d have to do a thorough exorcism.
In this production, though, the ghost remains real – Horatio sees it before he meets Hamlet, just as in the canonical text. And the ghost speaks the truth – we learn Claudius’s guilt from his own mouth, again as in the canonical text. So this is still a play about the interplay between epistemology and ethics, about what Hamlet does or does not really know, and how that uncertainty “puzzles the will.” Except we, in the audience, are at a disadvantage relative to the Danes, in that we don’t see or hear the ghost.
Or, rather, we don’t see the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Other ghosts pop up unbidden and unconnected to the text. Polonius’s ghost walks solemnly off the stage after his murder, leaving no body for Hamlet to drag behind the stairs. Ophelia’s ghost starts eavesdropping on conversations she has no business hearing before she is even dead, and haunts her own funeral. These ghosts are there for us to see – but not for Hamlet.
I’m really not sure what Pendleton was after with these contradictory approaches to the seen and unseen. I wish I did, and I wish I could ask him. Because he could have been onto something interesting, and I’d still like to see that possibility staged, rather than have this production be the end of that particular line of inquiry.
* * *
In Brooklyn, meanwhile, you can see a Scandinavian play explicitly haunted in the manner of my hypothetical exorcized Hamlet: Ibsen’s Ghosts, adapted and streamlined to a mere 90 minute run time by director Richard Eyre. But this production, too, has been purged a bit of the qualities that should make it so haunting, I fear as a consequence of the effort to make the play move at a pace more congenial to contemporary audiences.
Ghosts appears at first to be a story revealing the hidden corruption in an apparently staid and upright Norwegian town. Helene Alving (Lesley Manville) has been a dutiful wife to her late husband, and now that he is gone she’s built an orphanage in his memory that will be managed by the local pastor (Will Keen). Very quickly, though, we learn that things are not as wholesome they seem. Helene, as a young bride, fled her brutal, drunken, whorechasing husband, into the pastor’s arms, which she had reason to hope would be loving. He convinced her to return to her duty, and to all outward appearances the husband reformed. But, Helene reveals, that was a sham she maintained to protect the family’s reputation. In fact, Mr. Alving changed not a whit his whole life long, and she suffered in silence, devoting herself to work that her husband got the credit for, and sending her beloved son, Oswald (Billy Howle) away from her not because she was uninterested in mothering him but to protect him from learning what his father was really like.
Well, now Oswald is home with his own plans and his own pains, all of which recall the ghost of his father in unwelcome ways. He’s fallen in love with Regina (Charlene McKenna), a servant girl in the house, not realizing that she’s his half sister; he appears to his mother (the only one who knows the girl’s true parentage) to be repeating the pattern of his father’s seduction of the girl’s mother. But he wants her not so much for romantic reasons as for need of her tender care. The big revelation of the last act of the play is that his inheritance from his father includes congenital syphilis, which has been rotting his brain and will soon incapacitate him. He had hoped to spare his mother the pain of seeing him deteriorate, and the worse pain of having to help him kill himself rather than go through the last stages of decline, but since she foiled his plans to marry Regina, she’ll have to do the job.
I say it appears to be this story – a story of hidden corruption coming to light. But the central story is not about the compact of mutual deception that allows such corruption to fester, but about the self-deception of poor Helene. She believes that she is the victim, but that she has risen above her parents’ crime in marrying her off for money, and done what was right and best under almost unbearable circumstances. She has survived, and thrived, and now she will put her ghosts to rest. But the play reveals, painfully, that this is largely untrue. She is as corrupt as the rest of the town, though she doesn’t know it because she believes she acted out of noble motives.
The key revelation is that she never told Regina her true parentage, and kept her as a servant (her mother’s station) rather than acknowledging her as family (her inheritance from her father). She never considered Regina’s position in her calculations, just as she never considered how her son would feel about her after being sent away. Her fault was not really that she didn’t consider the consequences of her actions, but that she acted in a silent vacuum, and therefore could only understand her actions from the limited perspective of her own awful predicament.
This production does many things extremely well. Lesley Manville is a powerful and thoroughly real Helene, persuasive in her thwarted affection for her son, Oswald; in her sense of newfound liberty now that her hated husband has died; even in love for Pastor Manders, though as played by Keen I could see little reason for her to harbor any such feelings. There’s fine work as well from Billy Howle, and from Brian McCardie as Jacob Engstrand, as Regina’s cynical and corrupt father. Tim Hatley’s set is positively luminescent, bringing the title of the play hauntingly to life in the images of actors passing behind panes of frosted glass.
But I fear that the text has been streamlined too much for the revelations of the play to land with the force they need to. Helene’s arc felt to me foreshortened, as did Regina’s. I didn’t get to know these people as well as I needed to before I was hurried on to the next turn of the screw. Ibsen had a lusty enthusiasm for melodrama, which he bent to his deeper purpose, but as is more often the case with stage adaptations of novels, the severe cuts left the bones of the melodrama insufficiently fleshed for me to feel their true weight of the living.
Nonetheless, if the final view of Oswald, writhing and twitching in the bloody dawn light, doesn’t haunt you as you leave the theater, I don’t know what will.
Hamlet runs at the Classic Stage Company in New York through May 10th. Ghosts runs at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn through May 3rd.
I agree with the bulk of Damon Linker’s latest column, which is about the absurdity of defenestrating everyone who opposes gay marriage when this was the default position of even progressive leaders a few scant years ago. But of course, agreeing is boring – so let me focus on two points of disagreement.
The first: on whether the oft-made analogy between opposing gay marriage and opposing miscegenation is tendentious. Linker says that, while he finds the arguments against gay marriage to be wrong,
[T]heir arguments are not frivolous — and certainly not as frivolous as rationales that were once used to justify racial inequality. Arguments in favor of traditional marriage — rooted in claims about the natural sexual complementarity of men and women — are also far more deeply rooted in human civilization the world over, and Western civilization specifically, than arguments against miscegenation.
He goes on to quote Ryan Anderson, the topic of his column, saying that basically no great thinker on the subject of marriage, from any religious or non-religious tradition, talks about race, whereas all talk about the complementarity of the sexes.
For the contrary view, I’ll cite Numbers 25:6-13:
And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting. And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand. And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand. And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ’Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace; and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’
Now, I’m not going to pretend that this passage interprets itself. But when I read it in context, without bias, what I see is a straightforward condemnation of exogamy. The people of Israel want to intermarry with the Midianites, mingling their cultures and religions along with their blood. Members of a prominent Israelite and Midianite family boldly proclaim their union at the central institution of Israelite religion. A patriotic Israelite stabbed them to death (stabbing the woman through the belly, so as to symbolically cut off any possible issue as well). And God was pleased.
This is, of course, the foundational text of Western religion, and the importance of endogamy is not a trivial theme therein. And if we go outside of a Western context, endogamy is exceptionally important across Asia. All the major northeast Asian groups have a strong sense of consciousness of themselves as peoples, and strong taboos against marrying out, taboos which are only now being challenged in any serious way. Cousin marriage is a common norm across the Middle East. And Hindu India, with its caste system, raised endogamous preference to the level of art.
The Jim Crow South was indeed a very peculiar place with peculiar institutions – institutions we now anathematize for a reason. But we should not, as a consequence of our anathematization, delude ourselves that the peculiarity was the desire to preserve social separation from a less-favored group, including by prohibiting intermarriage. Because that desire is quite common, historically and still today.
Which brings me to my second point of disagreement with Linker. He says:
Versions of these traditionalist arguments were accepted by nearly every human being who’s ever lived until a couple of decades ago — and (supposedly) Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton until just a few years ago. Like them, I’ve come to reject those arguments. But saying they now seem wrong is one thing. Relegating them to the category of the foulest prejudice is something else entirely. It’s reckless to break so quickly with the past and jump so easily to moral condemnation.
Except . . . that’s precisely what we, as a society, did with respect to miscegenation. In a few years, objections to sexual relations between blacks and whites went from being an extremely commonly held opinion (and not just in the South), to one that was still extremely common but could not be admitted to in public without being deemed profoundly retrograde.
Think about the pace of change. Brown vs. Board was 1954. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg was in 1971. In 17 years, we went from a society that promulgated racial separation and white supremacy from childhood onward, to a society committed to using the force of the law to undo and reverse what the earlier social and legal system had forcibly imposed, and to indoctrinate children in the opposite ideology. Loving v. Virginia was in 1967, a time when the defense of segregation was still active and violent. After Loving, how long was it respectable for a public figure to say that sexual relations between blacks and whites was wrong, and a threat to American civilization? Five years? Ten?
Considering the depth and longevity of official white supremacy in American history, we broke with the past with what one might call “all deliberate speed,” and moved quickly to moral condemnation even though huge numbers of people stubbornly refused to change their no-longer-respectable views.
Now, I’m not arguing that the analogy is a good one in all respects. In particular, the social and legal disabilities that gay people and black people suffered under in American history are wildly disparate in their operation and effects. I’m just saying that the end of legal and social support for miscegenation in America was radical. It didn’t radically redefine what marriage was – but it radically redefined what the United States was. It made it impossible to argue that the United States was a country by and for white people, and arguing that the United States was precisely such a country had a long, long history in America.
And, let me note that I am suspicious of claims that gay marriage radically redefines marriage as such. It seems to me instead that it’s a capstone achievement of the “Romeo and Juliet revolution” that treats marriage as rooted in love, and that sees its legal purpose as an institution for mutual aid and responsibility between individuals (particularly for child-rearing), rather than as a means of securing legitimacy for heirs and the continuity of extended family lines – and, not at all incidentally, of the feminist revolution that questions any distinction between “natural” male and female roles as likely to be a way of enforcing an inegalitarian distribution of power.
But gay marriage may, in fact, make it extremely difficult for traditional Christians to continue to think of the United States as a Christian country. Which, notwithstanding that equality for non-Christian citizens goes all the way back to the founding, we have a long, long history of thinking of this country as being. That, I think, is where the radicalism of gay marriage really lies, for America’s many conservative Christians. And if I’m right, then the potency of the analogy with miscegenation may not be so weak after all.
None of which means that we have to anathematize those who hold to the old dispensation. But then, maybe anathematization isn’t a liberal tool of persuasion at all, even when you are dealing with “rank bigotry” and “the foulest prejudice.”
Last week, I examined what I considered to be one of the best realist cases against the deal with Iran, penned by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. Today, I’m going to look at the realist case for the deal, ably made by Stephen M. Walt.
His case has four parts:
- The details of the nuclear deal don’t really matter. Iran could have gone nuclear already if it really wanted to; perhaps it doesn’t really want to for a variety of rational reasons. And if Iran did go nuclear, that wouldn’t be a disaster. The deal is important because it ends Iran’s isolation, which makes it possible for America to engage in a normal, businesslike manner, and not because it solves the problem of Iran’s nuclear program.
- An Iran re-integrated into the international community would be the strongest single state in the region – which is why it makes America’s allies nervous – but would not become a regional hegemon or a serious problem for the United States. Why? Because most of the surrounding states distrust Iran for ethno-religious and historical reasons, and so will not engage in bandwagoning; and because the United States is still so overwhelmingly powerful that Iran could be readily deterred if it tried to pursue a truly hegemonic role (and, particularly, control of the region’s oil).
- Moreover, better relations with Iran would be expected to change its foreign policy as maintaining good relations became more important. And cultural and economic interaction could change Iran internally as well.
- Finally, the “deal or no deal” choice is false because we do not actually have the option of keeping the pressure on; in the absence of a deal, Russia, China, India and much of Europe will abandon the cause of isolating Iran, and it is America that will wind up isolated on the issue.
What’s most interesting to me about Walt’s case for the deal is on how few points it disagrees with Kissinger and Shultz’s case against it.
Much of Kissinger and Shultz’s case consisted of arguments that the nuclear deal does not adequately restrain Iran’s nuclear program. Walt doesn’t dispute any of this; he says it doesn’t matter. Kissinger and Shultz argued that enforcement would be difficult because other powers won’t want to restore sanctions. I pointed out in my post that this completely undermined any argument for continuing sanctions in order to get a “better deal.” Walt makes the same point but also argues that Iran is the one that will not want to risk poisoning improved relations by violating a deal. But the point is: both sides apparently agree that the rest of the world is not so interested in pressuring Iran further.
The rest of Kissinger and Shultz’s argument revolved around the reaction within the region. Saudi Arabia, Israel and the smaller Gulf states are unhappy about the deal because it will make Iran stronger, and they fear a stronger Iran. Walt doesn’t dispute this. Kissinger and Shultz point out that if America is trying to engage in “offshore balancing” that we should be allying with Iran’s opponents rather than cozying up to Iran, since Iran is already the most powerful player. Walt simply argues that Iran is a long way from being able to dominate the region, and that we have plenty of time to engage in that kind of balancing if it tries to behave like a hegemon. But they agree that our regional allies are pretty much all opposed to the deal.
Kissinger and Shultz worry about Saudi Arabia going nuclear or seeking other partners. I pointed out that there aren’t really any other available partners that could remotely approximate America’s capabilities. Walt makes a similar point by noting that there are no other superpowers capable of projecting power into the region, which should make us less-worried about possible Iranian adventurism. But neither of us have a good answer to the risk of Saudi nuclear proliferation that an Iranian nuclear breakout could lead to (other than Walt’s point that that risk is a good reason for Iran not to cross the threshold).
So as I say: there’s a whole lot more agreement here than disagreement. Kissinger and Shultz don’t have any better idea of how to prevent Iran going nuclear than the deal they criticize, and Walt doesn’t offer any reassurance that the deal will work – it’ll work if Iran doesn’t really want a bomb, and it’ll fail if it really does. And there’s broad agreement as well on how our regional allies will react.
The real disagreements boil down to two basic points:
- Do you believe Iran is a radical, revisionist power or an opportunistic but basically conservative one? By the former, I do not mean a suicidal regime in thrall to a messianic religious apocalypse. I simply mean a regime whose legitimacy is tied to an agenda of overturning the regional order as it stands, rather than maximizing its national power within that order.
- Do you believe that America’s regional allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, have too much leverage over American policy, and that we should seek to make them recognize that they need to court our support rather than taking it for granted; or do we need to reassure them of our complete support in order to maintain the leverage we want over their behavior?
If you believe that Iran is a radical, revisionist power and that this will not change absent a change of regime, and that we need to cleave to Israel and Saudi Arabia for fear that, if we don’t, they will go off the reservation, then we should never have tried to get a deal with Iran in the first place. That implies that we would also never have assembled the current diplomatic coalition, and that Iran’s nuclear program would proceed largely unconstrained. The case for preventative war to stop Iran from acquiring a bomb simply has not been made (and I don’t think can be made honestly). This is the case for maintaining a hostile posture even at the risk that the result is the failure of the nonproliferation effort.
If, on the other hand, you believe either that Iran is not so radical, but largely opportunistic in its efforts to enhance its national power, and that America’s regional allies don’t have realistic alternatives to an American alignment, and so we don’t need to cater to them quite so thoroughly, then we should sign this deal even if the result is to bless Iran’s status as a nuclear threshold state.
Where do I stand on these two questions?
On the first question, I tend to split the difference. That is to say: I really don’t think the Iranian regime could survive a realignment to truly normal relations with America. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth pursuing – just that I think it’s much more likely Iran will seek opportunities for limited conflict because it needs America as an enemy. (This “conservative of enemies” dynamic may be in play within America as well, by the way.)
Moreover, I think virtually all the major players in the Middle East today are revisionist to some extent; there are precious few status quo powers. (Jordan is probably the best candidate for the title.) Iran has actively destabilized Lebanon and may be doing the same in Yemen in order to expand its influence. But Saudi Arabia is actively destabilizing Syria and Iraq in an effort to limit Iranian influence. Pakistan regularly meddles in Afghanistan to support the Taliban. And the United States, of course, took an aggressively revisionist course under the Bush Administration with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and has to some extent continued that policy under President Obama with the invasion of Libya. There isn’t really a stable status quo in the Middle East to preserve; that’s one reason why the region is in the news so much.
So I don’t think Iran is uniquely evil or destructive, but I also don’t think we should be pollyanna about the nature of the Iranian regime or its likely course of action after a nuclear deal. Indeed, I would expect Iran to challenge the status quo in some noticeable way almost immediately after a deal, if only to placate its own hard-liners. And I would expect our hard-liners to seize on such actions as evidence that Iran cannot be trusted.
But on the second question I side with Walt. There is something perverse about saying that we should not conclude a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program for fear that Saudi Arabia will initiate a nuclear program in response. America can’t let itself be held hostage in that manner. That doesn’t mean I have a ready answer to the question, “how would you prevent Saudi Arabia from going nuclear with Pakistan’s help” – but I’m pretty sure “remain hostile to Iran forever” is not the answer.
Finally, I don’t agree with Walt that the details of the nuclear deal itself don’t matter. I think they do matter – that we really should be trying to prevent Iranian proliferation, even if the question isn’t an existential one (which it isn’t). It’s clear to me that scuttling the deal at this point will leave Iran’s program unconstrained, so in that sense a deal is obviously preferable. But of course we want the best deal possible – and to get the best deal possible, you have to be willing to walk away at some point without a deal. That’s just negotiation 101.
There’s one more question worth mentioning that neither Walt nor Kissinger and Shultz pay much attention to, and it also, to my mind, militates in favor of a deal. And that is: what the consequences of failure in either case?
If the United States signs the deal with Iran, and Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons by some combination of overt (permitted) and covert (not permitted) means, and ultimately abrogates the deal and declares themselves a nuclear state, that will be a huge failure. Walt says that an Iranian bomb wouldn’t actually be a big problem – but it would be a huge failure of nonproliferation in the context described, with profound consequences for the confidence any other international actors might have in the nonproliferation regime.
But refusing to sign the deal on the table, and a subsequent successful Iranian march to the bomb, would be an even bigger failure, a declaration by the United States that it is incapable of taking yes for an answer and is devoted to the cause of hostility to Iran more than to achieving any concrete ends. And, as I’ve said several times, preventative war is completely unjustified and would be a disaster.
To my mind, it’s clear that the first risk – the risk of a deal that fails or is abandoned by Iran – is one worth taking if the United States has any interest in maintaining an international system characterized by cooperation on common security problems. But it is worth noting in passing that the risk of failure is one argument for never trying in the first place. And I think that’s one not-fully-articulated reason why Kissinger and Shultz argued for scuttling the deal even though they have no real backup plan.
American support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen may be appalled on a variety of grounds, most obviously humanitarian. At least tacit support for this kind of intervention is far from rare, though; America did not try to reverse Rwandan intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil war, and we actively encouraged Ethiopian intervention in Somalia. Over the decades, we have condemned interventions that we wanted to stop and given various degrees of support to interventions that we thought were good ideas. There’s no neutral standard being imposed and there never was.
The two real questions regarding Yemen therefore are whether the intervention is actually a good idea in terms of the future of Yemen, and whether we have good reasons to support it even if it isn’t.
The first question looks like a pretty clear “no” at this point. Just from a humanitarian perspective, it’s a disaster. The Saudis don’t really seem to have any kind of a game plan – the intervention is a reflex reaction to increased Iranian influence on the Arabian peninsula, which the Saudis fear deeply – in part because of the impact such influence might have on their own Shiite minority. From a Saudi perspective, a Yemen that becomes a failed state where al Qaeda and the Islamic State find footholds may be preferable to a Yemen that tilts toward Tehran, and that may be exactly the Yemen we are going to get as the result of this intervention.
From an American perspective, of course, such an outcome would be terrible (to say nothing of what it would mean to the poor Yemenis). It goes without saying that the precedent isn’t one to crow about either; Iranian intervention to assist the Assad regime, and Russian intervention to re-install the ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, would be entirely justified according to the same principles justifying the Saudi intervention in Yemen. So why would we be doing this?
Well, it’s obvious why, isn’t it? We’re demonstrating to the Saudis that our eagerness to close a nuclear deal with Iran doesn’t mean we’re switching teams. We’re pretty explicitly indicating that we consider the Arabian Peninsula to be a Saudi sphere of influence and that we will support them in keeping any other power from gaining so much as a toehold. It’s an entirely cynical move, but not actually hard to understand.
This is just one of the burdens of being a global hegemon. Our intervention in Libya was substantially driven by the desire not to disappoint allies in Europe and the Gulf who saw friendly dictators deposed in the Arab Spring and didn’t want to send the message that they should have done what Gaddafi did instead. It has taken concerted effort to avoid being dragged even further into the Syrian civil war than we have been already. Yemen is the latest sordid episode. It’s easy to say we should stay out, or that we should try to mediate between the two sides instead of siding with Saudi Arabia – that these would be neutral postures and who could fault us for that? But they would not be perceived as neutral – they would be perceived, at least in the Gulf, as more evidence that we were tilting toward Tehran.
And we don’t want to give that impression – precisely because we are tilting more toward Tehran, and we want to minimize the cost of that change to our position with other powers that fear Iran. I am pessimistic generally about the idea that Iran could become an American ally, or even that we could expect helpful cooperation anywhere but in areas where Iran’s interests are being served directly. The Iranian regime’s ideology is fundamentally anti-American, and Iran gets no obvious benefits from an alignment with America. But by the same token, I favor an active effort to achieve normal relations. Our policy of hostility to Iran prevents us from cooperating where our interests do align, and, more importantly, leaves us hostage to other allies whose interests do not align with ours.
The depressing paradox is that if we were willing to leave ourselves hostage to Saudi demands, and scuttled the Iranian talks, we might have had the leverage to try to moderate this intervention – but at the price of a greater likelihood of war between America and Iran. Trying to achieve peace with Iran without alarming the Saudis, we’re reduced to endorsing the bloodbath in Yemen. And deciding we don’t give a fig for Saudi Arabia would offer unnecessary and unearned encouragement to Iran (who would take such an action as evidence that we support Iran’s own ambitions), and might well lead to even more strenuous action by the Saudis to maintain their own position.
None of the foregoing means that I support the Administration’s course on Yemen. I’m just doing taxonomy. Yemen is another one of those savage little wars of peace that hegemonic powers so often find themselves facilitating, frequently without any clear idea or even belief that they will have any beneficial effect. And hegemony itself is more a consequence of power than of policy, which is why it is so difficult to put down the poisoned chalice.
Remember that old Groucho Marx line about not wanting to join a club that would have him as a member? Well, at the risk of ruining the line forever, what exactly is the joke there?
On the obvious, surface level, the joke is about the divided consciousness of the upwardly-mobile striver. Groucho wants to join the best club because he is trying to rise in the world – and membership in that club will prove that he has done so. But if the club is willing to let an upstart like him join, how good can it really be? The only way out is to be conscious of the dilemma, and to laugh at it.
On another level, though, the joke is about Groucho’s refusal to join. It’s not that any club that would accept him has proven itself to have too-low standards; it’s that Groucho has such absurdly high standards that he finds himself lowered by any association. This is Groucho not as the immigrant striver but Groucho as a kind of Alceste figure of negative romanticism.
I’m meditating on Groucho because today, my job is to ask you to join our club – and become a member of The American Ideas Institute, which publishes The American Conservative. And I have a funny feeling there are more than a few negative romantics out there among our readers who will bristle at the suggestion that they affiliate.
Well, allow me to make the argument that, in this case, we may be the club for you. After all, just about the only thing we have in common here at TAC is that we all chose this place as the place to hang our hats in spite of its extremely limited resources. Because this is the place where our hat can hang according to its own fancy, even if that fancy is to disdain the comportment of its fellow hats.
Which makes it not a bad club to hang out in.
So: If you enjoy hanging out with us here, and in print, consider membership. It’ll help the clubhouse stay open. And you might even discover that membership has its pleasures even – especially – when it offers precious little privilege.
The Kissinger/Shultz piece from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal makes the best case I’ve seen yet against making a deal with Iran – one that doesn’t rely on apocalyptic rhetoric or fantasies about the efficacy of alternative approaches, and that traffics exclusively in terms that realists accept. The piece doesn’t actually say it’s against the deal, but the tone is consistently one that suggests this is a bad deal that will have negative consequences. How strong is the case?
The argument has four parts:
- Verification of compliance will be complicated by the diversity and scope of the permitted facilities, to say nothing of the size and sophistication of the country as a whole.
- Enforcement will be made extremely difficult first by the fact that violations will rarely be clear-cut and then by the fact that assembling a coalition to reimpose sanctions, particularly in the case of disputable of ambiguous violations, will be much more difficult than assembling the initial coalition was.
- Even under the terms of the agreement, Iran could establish itself as a nuclear threshold state after a decade without material violation.
- Saudi Arabia and some other American allies in the region may well view the deal as a sign either of an American tilt toward Iran or, at least, of American acquiescence in Iranian hegemony; either could lead them to pursue alliances with rival powers or to seek to go nuclear themselves.
As a supporter of a deal with Iran, I have to say that I think advocates of the deal on the table too often fail to acknowledge the difficulties of verification and enforcement when making their case. Nonetheless, the we have to consider what the alternatives might be to the deal on the table, either diplomatic or not. In that regard, a diplomatic alternative would only be superior on the first and third points – the difficulty of verification and the question of whether the deal goes far enough in limiting Iran’s program even if scrupulously complied with – if it achieved more dramatic concessions from Iran to substantially reduce or even eliminate their nuclear program. To achieve those, America would have to have the leverage to extract those concessions.
But the second point – that enforcement will be difficult because the currently-assembled coalition will not be eager to restore sanctions even in the face of Iranian violations – implies pretty clearly that we do not have that leverage. After all, to turn the screws tighter on Iran now would require international support – and if that support would not be there in the future in the face of Iranian violations of the agreement, it certainly would not be there today if America were the one to refuse to take yes for an answer.
That doesn’t mean these points are invalid. But this could conceivably be a deal that effectively blesses Iran’s status as a nuclear threshold state while also being the best deal we could plausibly get from our strongest diplomatic position, with much of the world united behind sanctions that have real bite. That would be a reasonable conclusion if many of the other powers who would need to be supportive of any effort to put effective pressure on Iran – China, Russia, Germany, etc. – are less troubled by the prospect of Iran as a nuclear threshold state than we are.
This leads to the final point, that the deal with Iran would lead Saudi Arabia and possibly other regional allies to doubt America’s commitment to their defense and either seek other partners or to go nuclear themselves. In effect, Kissinger and Shultz are saying we should take these allies’ interests into greater account than those of other powers on whom we depend for leverage to pressure Iran effectively. While larger and more important powers outside the region are less-interested (or outright uninterested) in continuing a confrontational policy towards Tehran, many of our regional allies and clients would welcome a continuing of confrontation – possibly because they fear an Iranian threat, possibly because they fear losing the leverage they currently have over American policy were the confrontational policy towards Iran to be dropped, likely for both reasons.
But do they really have substantial other options? What other power is going to provide for Saudi Arabia’s defense? China simply doesn’t have the capability to do so. Russia is an oil-exporting state with no substantial common interests. And suppose, for the sake of argument, that there was an uprising in the Saudi oil region (which is majority-Shiite), comparable to the Shiite uprising in Yemen, and when the Saudis tried to crush said uprising (as Bahrain crushed a similar uprising in that country), Iran intervened, counting on a nuclear shield to keep outside powers from retaliating against them directly. Which other power would take that risk if the United States was unwilling to do so?
As for the prospect of Saudi nuclearization: that is indeed a distressing prospect. But if two wars against regional rival Iraq and active support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen are not enough to convince Saudi Arabia that we will not tolerate a foreign power seizing control of the oil region, then I’m really not sure there’s anything that would be sufficient. We can’t put ourselves in a position where our regional policy is held hostage to our allies’ threats to go nuclear if we don’t initiate preventative wars against rival powers, or at a minimum maintain a hostile posture against interest.
Kissinger and Shultz spend no time at all on the possible alternatives to diplomacy. Nobody I find credible has made a case for preventative military action that is remotely persuasive to me – it might well fail in the short term, to say nothing of the long term; it would certainly lead to extremely negative consequences for our relations with a host of states, and would essentially shred what is left of formal international restraints on the use of force; and it might well lead to a completely unnecessary large-scale war. If this is a case for military action – which I don’t think it is – it is thoroughly inadequate.
But that does leave the option of simply giving up on the idea of restraining Iran through diplomacy, but opting to remain hostile anyway.
This would seem to be ruled out by the article’s concluding peroration:
If the world is to be spared even worse turmoil, the U.S. must develop a strategic doctrine for the region. Stability requires an active American role. For Iran to be a valuable member of the international community, the prerequisite is that it accepts restraint on its ability to destabilize the Middle East and challenge the broader international order.
Until clarity on an American strategic political concept is reached, the projected nuclear agreement will reinforce, not resolve, the world’s challenges in the region. Rather than enabling American disengagement from the Middle East, the nuclear framework is more likely to necessitate deepening involvement there—on complex new terms. History will not do our work for us; it helps only those who seek to help themselves.
Continuing the hostile policy of the past generation would hardly seem to be a “new strategic political doctrine” but I wonder. It’s telling that Kissinger and Shultz don’t give a single clue what that doctrine might be. The more I look at the case Kissinger and Shultz make, the more I wonder whether in the background, the second-best-case scenario (best case being total Iranian capitulation at the bargaining table) isn’t simply staying the course with a policy of hostility, even if it ultimately failed to prevent Iranian nuclearization. [UPDATE: I mean the second-best-case scenario from Shultz and Kissinger's perspective, not mine. As noted at the top, I favor the deal with Iran. Just making that clear.]
It’s worth contemplating why that might be, but I’m going to save that for another post.
Between a family vacation, a new feature film I’ve been involved with, and the Passover holiday, I’m afraid life has kept me away from my computer. Not so much that I haven’t kept somewhat abreast of the news – but honestly, where do we get this notion that the news has anything to do with us?
Well, every now and again it does, and it can be a real punch in the gut. I got one of those recently when I learned that the coach of my old high school debate team was arrested for soliciting teenage boys to send him nude photos.
Regular readers of this blog know how much competitive high school debate meant to me. I didn’t know Jon Cruz particularly well personally, but I knew how well he was regarded by his predecessor coaches and by his students. While the Times substantially exaggerates his role in building up the program - my old coach, Richard Sodikow, founded the program and built it into a national powerhouse; Cruz came along much later, and only seemed so tall because he stood on that giant’s shoulders – it’s still true that Cruz was felt by everyone to be an exceptionally good advocate for the program, a dynamic and tireless leader of a program that needed such a leader to return it to its glory days. And he clearly loved the kids. Which makes it especially painful to learn that “love” turns out to not be quite the right word.
A lot of my fellow alumni, when they read or heard the story, were immediately angry – at the betrayal of trust, at the potential damage to the program, at the threat to “our” kids. I admit, my initial reaction was sadness. Cruz confessed immediately upon being arrested, and to me that read like a sign of a man who had been hoping to be caught, hoping to be stopped. It made me think of this article about a teenage pedophile who had never abused a child and wanted never to do so, and who set out to help himself and others by providing support for those with a similar orientation who wanted to avoid doing harm, and how unlikely it is that anyone with such inclinations will get help, until its too late and he’s in the hands of the criminal justice system. And what a sad shame that is.
The anger came eventually, as I thought more about why he might have sought out the job he did, becoming a teacher, becoming a debate coach, putting himself in proximity to potential victims (and, perhaps more to the point, potential “beards” to help him pose as a teenager online; Cruz did not solicit any students at the school he taught at, so far as we know). He might have done so consciously, which paints him in a much more sinister light than if I imagine he sought consciously to satisfy his affinity for teenagers in a healthy way, all the while carrying this darker secret. Regardless, the betrayal is profound. Cruz didn’t just betray those who hired him, praised him, gave him responsibility; nor those he had in his charge. He betrayed every future teacher who displays similar enthusiasm and tender concern for their students, and then faces suspicion because of it. He betrayed every future student who will miss out on a level of trust that they deserve to experience. He made the world a colder place for those who will never even know his name.
But even in that anger, I find myself thinking of Cruz primarily with compassion and sadness. This is a man who could have been – by all accounts, was – a great teacher, someone who really made a difference in young lives. We kid ourselves if we think the people who can do this generally have entirely unmixed motives. As I mentioned in my eulogy for my beloved high school debate coach, a lot of people who are exceptionally good at working with adolescents have something of an arrested adolescent about them. In my late coach’s case, he was too emotionally bound up in our lives; he lived too much through us. He lacked an adult’s emotional detachment. In Cruz’s case, well, it looks like that feeling was bound up with a sexual fetish that he either couldn’t or didn’t want to keep under control. That failure of his is now likely to send him to prison for many years, and to brand him with a stigma which he will never escape.
And – at the risk of being badly misunderstood – I want to point out that it will send him to prison for behaving like a teenager. Teenagers solicit nude photos of each other; teenagers manipulate each other; teenagers torture each other emotionally, sometimes to the point of serious anxiety and depression. I’m not saying this to exonerate Cruz – there’s very good reason what he is accused of is illegal, and I’m not really interested right now in whether justice should be tempered with mercy. I’m saying this so that we see the person past the pathology – or, perhaps, so that we see the pathology for what it is, a humanly comprehensible thing. I’m saying that justice should be administered with compassion.
The wheels of justice will now turn in their due course, and turn they should. I hope that wherever justice sends him, Jon Cruz finds someone who can help him to a better self-understanding, and a way to continue living without doing what I suspect he always knew was real harm. Unfortunately, I doubt he will.
This is school break week for my son, so we’re away on a family vacation. And because I don’t understand the concept of “beach read” I brought Michel Houellebecq’s acclaimed novel, The Elementary Particles along. (Soumission is not yet available in English; this is preparatory reading for when it is.) I will hopefully finish it today.
I have a bunch of thoughts about the book, which has struck me by turns as touchingly sharp in its portrait of one very sad character (Bruno, who feels like something of an author-surrogate) and quite dull in its sweeping indictments, which amount to the assertion that this character, in his boredom and misery, is the exemplary hero of our age. It strikes me that the need to assert this – to pontificate upon the nature of society – is an index of failure as a novelist, the inability to see the world through any lens but that of his deeply alienated protagonist. That’s not how Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or Gogol’s mad diarist – or Roth’s Portnoy – earn our empathy, and through that empathy our appreciation for their understanding of the world.
I keep feeling that what Houellebecq sees as a novel of ideas is really just a novel of punditry, a degenerate notion of an idea that really amounts to an attitude or orientation. When Tolstoy or George Eliot lecture me in the midst of a novel, I put up with it because I know I am in the presence of actual ideas worth grappling with. With Houellebecq, so far at least, all I get is the feeling that I know the type, I’ve heard this before, and if I haven’t already been convinced I’m not going to be.
Perhaps that just means he was still searching for his ideal form, and perhaps now he has found it: what Mark Lilla, in his thought-provoking review of Soumission, called a “dystopian conversion tale.” We’ll see what I think when that novel comes out in English. But color me skeptical: I don’t think that ideas, the currents of civilization, can actually be blamed for one’s own personal inability to connect with other human beings or find meaning. The Elementary Particles is best when it stares unflinchingly at that condition as embodied in a single person, and worst when it engages in the evasion of blaming the world for that condition.
There’s a lesson in that for novelists – but also for pundits.
Let’s take a quick look back at my before-they’re-hatched analysis of the latest Israeli election’s chickens, and see how I did.
1. This election is not about the rise of the left or the fall of the right, but about a reshuffling of the left and right into new configurations.
Likud is now projected to win about 30 seats. Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu are now projected to win 14 seats, for a national bloc total of 44 seats.
That same bloc has 43 seats in the current Knesset.
2. This election is about the fickle center.
In the prior Knesset, there were two “centrist” parties: Hatenuah and Yesh Atid. They had 25 seats between them, and sat in the government in the last Knesset. This time, Hatenuah ran on a joint list with Labor as the Zionist Union, and Yesh Atid was widely expected to be a partner of the Zionist Union rather than Likud.
Well, Yesh Atid is projected to have lost 8 seats, and we don’t know how many seats the center-left lost, but if you add Meretz, Hatenuah and Labor together, that coalition went from 27 seats to a projected 28 seats.
However, a new center-right party – Kulanu – was born in this election, led by another defector from Likud unhappy with Netanyahu. Kulanu won 10 seats.
So, in broad strokes, the centrist leaders from the last Knesset have decided to switch from center-right t0 center-left. As a consequence, they lost a bunch of seats to a new center-right party.
3. This election is about the rise of the Joint Arab List.
The Joint Arab List did indeed come in third, with a projected 13 seats. What this means for the future depends on what the Arab parties do with their newfound clout.
If I were to advise them, it would undoubtedly come off as trolling. But it seems to me that the only way ultimately to effect change is to make political demands: we will sit in coalition if you agree to such and such. The Arab parties are now a large enough bloc, as a joint force, that they should start saying what that if consists of. Then the left-wing Zionist parties can debate whether it’s worth acceding to those demands or not.
I can guarantee you that the gap will be too large right now. But that doesn’t mean it will be too large forever. It won’t start narrowing, though, until someone lays down a plausible marker for where the negotiation begins.
4. This election proves the Israeli electorate doesn’t really believe Netanyahu’s scare-mongering on Iran.
Correct: but it also proves that the Israeli electorate does believe his scare-mongering on the Israeli Arab vote and on negotiations with the Palestinians. His final pitch was: you have to stop the left from winning because the left is soft on the national question, and the only way to stop the left from winning is to vote Likud, not for any other right-wing party. The pitch worked: the other right-wing parties dropped, in some cases by more than projected, but Likud surged.
5. The election proves that parliamentary systems aren’t all that.
Consider the rise of the Arab bloc. Why isn’t the third-largest party in the Knesset a plausible coalition partner?
Well, perhaps the problem is a structural one. So long as Israel has a proportional-rep system, there’s a natural logic to having Arab parties. So long as there are Arab parties, they will gravitate toward the center of gravity of Arab politics – which is decisively opposed to Zionism as such. So any Zionist party that forms a coalition with them has to navigate, as part of the coalition agreement, the question of the nature of the state.
By contrast, if Israel had a quasi-Presidential system, the President could campaign for Arab votes along with Jewish votes. The Arab vote would naturally gravitate toward the left side of the aggregate Israeli spectrum, Jewish and Arab together. And the Arab vote would, by definition, matter in a way that it still does not today.
On the other hand, it’s possible that under a Presidential system the Jewish vote would simply move more to the right as the left became more associated with Arab votes, so that Arab voters were just as effectively shut out of the system. After all, Mississippi voters divide very neatly on racial lines, resulting in right-wing and white domination at the gubernatorial level (regardless of whether the party expressing that domination is Democratic or Republican).
But that result would just reinforce my point that the decisive questions relate to the underlying structure of a given society, and that good institutions can at best marginally ameliorate deep divisions in that society. Israel’s institutions aren’t doing an obviously better job of that than American institutions.
Tomorrow, Israelis go to the polls, in an election called by the sitting prime minister to strengthen his hand, and that looks increasingly likely to weaken it, and possibly to cost him his office. But the true import of the election may lie elsewhere. Herewith five matters to consider about the upcoming election.
1. This election is not about the rise of the left or the fall of the right, but about a reshuffling of the left and right into new configurations. Currently, Labor and Hatenuah (“The Movement”), a moderate party founded by a Likud defector, have 21 seats between them. These two parties are now running as an alliance, the Zionist Union, projected to win about 25 seats. Meretz, the most left-wing Zionist party, has 6 seats, and Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”), a centrist (on security and national questions), secularist and liberal party has 19 seats. These are the most-plausible coalition partners for the Zionist Union, and they are projected to win about 5 and 12 seats respectively. In other words, a coalition currently totaling 46 seats is expected to drop to 42 seats, plus or minus.
The right is a mirror image. Likud currently has 18 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) has 13 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) has 12. In the new Knesset, Likud is projected to have around 22 seats, Yisrael Beineinu to shrink to 5 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi to 11 seats – but a new center-right party, Kulanu (“All of Us”) founded by a breakaway Likud MK, is expected to garner about 9 seats, and is a likely partner for a Likud-led coalition. So a bloc currently numbering 43 seats is expected to grow to 47 seats.
Meanwhile, in the same polls that show the Zionist Union outpolling Likud, Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor party that forms the largest part of the Zionist Union, trails Benjamin Netanyahu by 14 points on the question of who was the “most appropriate” candidate to be prime minister.
And that’s supposed to be a big left-wing victory.
2. This election is about the fickle center. What’s wrong with the above analysis is that Yesh Atid and Hatenuah were both members of the 19th Knesset governing coalition that Netanyahu lead, but now they are expected to be part of a center-left government. As a result, both parties are projected to lose seats – but their rumps will be better coalition partners for the left. So this election does mean a shift to the left: a shift of centrist party-leaders who now prefer a center-left coalition to a center-right one.
More to the point, for the first time in a while these centrist parties are not running as alternatives to left and right, but as logical partners for the left. Yesh Atid expects to join a Labor-led government. Hatenuah is running on a joint list with Labor. The typical pattern recently is for such parties to collapse completely – as Kadima and Shinui did. If that doesn’t happen, it’s a kind of victory for the left.
So perhaps the better way to describe the election is: the left was so weak going into this election that even a significant set of defections from the center-right is not enough to get them close to being a governing coalition.
3. This election is about the rise of the Joint Arab List. Israel’s Arab citizen have full political rights, and there are several parties representing largely Arab voters in the Knesset, including an Arab nationalist party, two Islamist parties, and a formally non-sectarian party that has some Jewish members and leadership, a descendant of Israel’s old Communist party. This year, for the first time, all of these parties have united into a single joint list under the new leadership of Ayman Odeh of Hadash (the former Communists).
These diverse (indeed, ideologically contradictory) parties have united because of a new law raising the vote percentage threshold for inclusion in the Knesset. Every one of them was at some risk of not clearing the new bar; if they did not hang together, they might very well hang separately. As a result, the joint list, though projected to win not many more seats than the collection of constituent parties currently hold, may wind up being the third-latest party in the Knesset.
Does that matter? In terms of coalition politics, probably not. The list has said they would not serve in a Zionist government, and the major parties have all ruled out including the list in their governments anyway. That doesn’t preclude the Arab-dominated parties from supporting a congenial governing coalition from the outside – but if would do so together they would likely have done so separately.
The real significance will be if the parties are able to work together over a longer period of time, and thereby transform Israeli Arab politics into something with a bit more heft. There are really only two plausible happy futures for Israel’s Arab population: recognition as a national minority and concomitant greater autonomy for Arab-dominated areas within Israel; or greater integration into an Israel that has evolved in an explicitly post-Zionist direction.
Hadash, the leading partner in the joint list, explicitly advocates the latter, but either goal will require the existence of a party with substantial heft that can put itself in a position to make demands of the Israeli state. Whether the joint list evolves in that direction remains to be seen.
4. This election proves the Israeli electorate doesn’t really believe Netanyahu’s scare-mongering on Iran. If there were any validity to that scare-mongering, and Israel faced an unprecedented risk to its very existence, many things would be happening, none of which are. The major parties would be talking about the necessity of a unity government. There would be across-the-board support for the prime minister in his efforts to rally international support for Israel in its hour of crisis. There would be grim debate about what Israel will do if it cannot rally that support, and must act alone. You would see, in other words, all the signs Israel exhibited in the run-up to war in 1967.
Instead, Netanyahu has been undermined by economic discontent, but even more so by a sense of fatigue with his schtick, which hasn’t changed over his entire tenure in politics. Netanyahu’s pitch has always emphasized warning of the enormous threats Israel faces, and the unreliability of all other candidates in standing up to those threats. He has made no progress in actually addressing those threats because, from Netanyahu’s ideological perspective, progress is not actually possible; the threats are permanent and need to be faced with implacable resolve forever. Unless one exercises the kind of totalitarian control of a North Korean god-king, this is a viewpoint that wears thin after some time, even if the objective threats are significant and longstanding.
5. The election proves that parliamentary systems aren’t all that. Matt Yglesias made a bit of a stir a couple of weeks ago predicting the doom of American democracy because we have a presidential rather than a parliamentary system. Under a presidential system, you have two branches – executive and legislative – that each have substantial authority, and that each get a mandate directly from the people. As a result, when they clash, there’s no “principled” way to resolve the conflict, raising the specter of endless gridlock, extra-constitutional attempts to do an end-run around that gridlock, and finally civil strife between partisans of each opposing faction.
The fact that France’s presidential fifth republic has proven much more stable than the preceding two parliamentary republics should have been enough to raise real questions about this thesis, but Israel provides another useful counter-example. Because of proportional representation, Israel has always had a riot of parties representing distinct demographic segments or ideological interests, and has never had a majority government (every government has been a coalition). But in this next election, the most popular candidate for head of government (Netanyahu still is that) may lose the election, the winning party may prove unable to form a government (because of a lack of plausible coalition allies), and any coalition that does form may well have to reject the views of a substantial majority of voters on certain crucial issues (for example, the relationship between religion and state) in order to build a functional coalition.
Moreover, apart from the parties representing discrete segments of the population (ultra-Orthodox Jews, settlers, Israeli Arabs), no party will be able to identify a constituency to which it is accountable, as would be the case in a district-based system. This is one reason for the perennial instability of Israel’s political system: the voters do not have any clear way of assigning blame and punishing those who have failed to deliver on lunchbox issues, and so increasingly vote on identity-based questions.
Israel tried to resolve these longstanding problems two decades ago by switching to a quasi-presidential system involving direct popular election of the prime minister. This, of course, only made the problems worse.
All of which suggests that, relative to the underlying social structure, institutional design may not be quite as important as some political scientists think.