Thursday, May 19, 2011

Revisiting Thoughts on the Future of Israel

Sorry for the partial rerun here.  On February 3, I wrote this:


Not Too Early to Ask – How Do You Feel About Israel? Are You Willing to Go to War for It? Egypt. Jordan’s unstable. Yemen is about to go and is a snakepit of al Qaeda conspiracy. The Muslim Brotherhood is on record for Israel’s destruction and jihad against the U.S. We know about Iran. When we leave Iraq, Afghanistan . . . . If those governments become radicalized, how long will Saudi Arabia be able to hold out?

Israel has been a critical U.S. ally for decades. Such a critical ally, that some say it has had an influence on U.S. policy that is disproportionate to its importance. At least until recently, we have been pledged to its survival.

Israel has military expertise, but take a look at the real estate involved
But folks, it is not too early to say that the noose is tightening. It is not too early to imagine Israel with not one single surrounding country with which it is reliably at peace.  

I don’t need to remind you that Iran will soon be nuclear, and Pakistan already is.

And the Islamists -- and, I very strongly suspect, some percentage of Muslims who in other respects would call themselves moderate -- hate Israel and desire its destruction not because it is imperialist, not because it threatens Islam, not because its treatment of Palestinians, but because it is not Islam. And because its founding was midwifed by the victorious WW II allies and placed in their midst. I am not here to debate whether the creation of Israel in 1948 was a good idea or whether Arab perceptions are accurate. I am here to say that diplomacy is not going to change the growing Muslim fundamentalism that holds that Israel must go. I read today that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has repudiated the Camp David accords.

So when the missiles begin to fall – not next year, maybe not for the next five years, but maybe a decade from now, how will the U.S. respond?

Which begs the critical long-term question, really the only important question that is going to come out of this, the question for our grandsons: If the Middle East as a whole decides for Islamist primitivism, and makes Israel its first target, will the U.S. risk a world war with Islam – that is what it would be – to come to Israel’s defense?


President Obama today gave a strongly pro-Palestinian address and called for Israel to return to its 1967 borders.   It's an extraordinary position for an American politician to take, but it is utterly unsurprising that this president took it.

Sooner or later, what is happening in this "Arab Spring" is going to be more about Israel's survival, and less about anti-Western terror.  Looks like it is going to be sooner.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Romance of the Sentence

I can’t draw. I can’t fix things. I can’t act. My singing talent, best described as “modest” – actually, that’s generous -- has been committed to CD. Don’t ask me to sculpt anything. The artistry of my photography is pretty much limited to bounce flash and primitive Photoshop 3 operations. If SEAL Team 6 broke in one night and said “your life or an engaging fictional plot,” I wouldn’t be here to write these lines.

But one thing I can do, is type. For this I have to thank my mother’s genes and Mrs. Humphrey’s eighth grade typing class, where I was the champ on a manual Remington with metal caps over the keys so you couldn't see the letters, even beating the kids who got the few IBM Selectrics, the iPads of their day.  (Fingernail polish hid the letters on the Selectric keys.)

You thought I was going to say, “One thing I can do, is write.” That is, of course, the animating conceit of this site and of much of my life, but when one’s public output is limited to blog entries, Christmas letters, and summary judgment briefs, one is reluctant to call oneself a “writer.”

I try to write well. My keyboard speedfingers are something of an enemy to this endeavor, as I’m able to dump pretty swiftly onto the page the contents of my head. The results frequently mirror the disorder of what is to be found there.

But once in awhile, I commit to binary code a nice sentence.

Writers are obsessed by sentences. Plots and ideas abound; words, easy. But assembling the latter to advance the former in a way that is pleasing and persuasive to the reader – brother, you gotta have sentences, and some of them gotta sing.

It didn’t start with the modern master, Hemingway, whose spare constructions are beautiful to the ear and nourishing to the inner eye. But his sentences brought the art to the attention of a larger public. Teachers of writing programs tear their hair out at the crummy sentences their charges urp out. Some of it is a lack of knowledge of syntax and punctuation. But a lot of it is simply the lack of an ear for the music of which the English language -- the palette of Shakespeare, the scribes of the King James Bible, Henry James, the Bront√ęs, Austen, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Chandler, and their descendants – is capable. I've written here of my admiration for Merrilil Gilfillan, whose sentences, both spare and flowing, are exquisite.

Stanley Fish, an extremely controversial literary critic and university administrator -- he is colorfully attacked by both the left and right, which probably means he’s on to something -- has written a very fine little book about sentences called How to Write a Sentence -- and How to Read One.  I think we can put his political notoriety aside; I did not detect an ideological agenda here.

The title is a little misleading. After you finish it, you will not have learned very much about how to write sentences. He makes a stab at taking the reader through a few simple exercises, but his heart isn’t in it. What he really wants to do is bring to the reader’s attention the importance of the sentence, to describe the different types of sentence, and to provide numerous examples of good ones from literature and non-fiction.

You will learn more about how to read one.  As I made my way through this slim volume, I recalled pleasures from my own reading. I recalled a crime novel by one of the better writers in that genre, T. Jefferson Parker, and encountering a paragraph stringing together some of finest sentences I have ever read – and their subject matter was probably rather lurid, given the subject matter. And there are those sentences like the first sentences of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (in translation), that never quite leave you: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” And I just now remembered another one; I had to go to my library to find it because I have long forgotten the novel and its author (although strangely, when I went to the stacks, I pulled it right out). It is the first sentence from a novel called Now You See It (1991) by Cornelia Nixon, and goes: “In the summer of 1949, in eastern Colorado, far from the nearest metric wrench, our car died and sunk in a sea of sheep.”

What is it about the sentence? Do we break up our communications in this way because it mirrors our need to take a breath during speech? Or is it something more fundamental – does it reflect the way we think, in discrete bundles of information and reasoning? As I composed this essay, it occurred to me that there may be no particular reason that thinking, and speech, and writing – which is to say, understanding and perception -- could not be seamless, freed from the tyranny of subject-verb-object. But it’s the way we’re put together, and the sentence is likely with us to stay. Even the extremely long sentence as practiced by the likes of Faulkner, James, the late David Foster Wallace must be broken up into separately comprehensible clauses to allow us to get from one end to t’other.

Here’s my formula for a great sentence: (1) It must stand on its own as pleasing to the inner ear, with pauses (or not), vocabulary, word choice (not the same thing), and grammar suitable to the nugget of information it is designed to communicate. (2) It must have some intrinsic interest. It need not be something surprising, as in the two examples above, but it should provoke at least some slight recognition that there is something different here to which heed must be paid. This second requirement is not found in every single sentence, because sometimes one has to advance the narrative without even a hint of razzle-dazzle: “He drove the boulevard looking for a McDonald’s.” Perhaps this is just another way of saying that not every sentence has to be great. Sometimes you just have to say something  simply and quickly to get to the more interesting stuff.

And (3), the fine sentence must be a part of the rhythm of the other sentences in the narrative. One great line does not make a great song, and the great line will sink if it is disharmonious with its fellows. (I think of Pauline Kael’s film reviews as examples of melodic writing.) Perhaps Professor Fish will favor us with a volume on “How to Write a Paragraph.”

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes about writing, from Russian short-story writer Isaac Babel, who was tortured and murdered in Stalin's Great Purge:

"No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place."

Isaac Babel, practicing what he preached.

Friday, May 6, 2011

We Learned More about the President from the Release of His Birth Certificate Than He May Have Intended

I was never a birther. Those newspaper announcements were pretty persuasive.

I am nevertheless very pleased that President Obama authorized the release of his Hawaiian birth certificate. I understand that the birther/truther/assassination/Roswell conspiracy crowd will continue to howl about this, and I understand some book is coming out that has some stuff in it that’s supposed to be pretty hot, but this controversy is just about dead. I’ve seen a convincing explanation of why the typed information on the online version released by the White House can be made to disappear. For the good public officials of the State of Hawaii to have been hornswoggled into releasing a fraudulent document would have required a conspiracy that would make some of the nutbag Kennedy murder theories look convincing – and would have had to have taken place under the eyes of public scrutiny of the Hawaiian archives that has not let up since the man became a presidential candidate. And the argument that he’s not a “citizen” because his birth and adoptive fathers were not – folks, it’s nuts.

Nope, the President was born here and possesses the technical qualifications to be President of These States United.

And he has performed perhaps the greatest public service of his presidency, which is to have utterly marginalized the odious vulgarian Donald Trump. Another punch-line presidential candidate sliding off the charts, thank Jah.

[Photo Credit:  CBS/Getty Iimages]
And yet, as we have seen with the Osama killing (I’ll favor you with my thoughts on this soon), the episode leaves us with an uneasy feeling about this gifted but perplexing man.

What Took Him So Long? The questions of the circumstances of his birth, while coming from a faction of the right given to hysterical accusations against leaders they don’t like, were not entirely unserious. There existed circumstances which gave rise to doubt which hovered close to the “reasonable” range. For him to have ignored – more, dismissed -- this black-and-white issue of his qualification to hold office was just plain weird. I’ll come back to this.

He Made His Supporters Look Foolish. We kept hearing from the President’s supporters that he had done all he could do, that the record was as complete as it could be, that nothing further was required or even possible. I found this odd, since it did appear that a simple request from him would have sprung that birth certificate. Turns out, there was something definitive he could have done, and at long last, he did it. His supporters are probably jubilant, but from here those sounds of triumph over the birthers seem to be coming from under that bus over there.

His Delay Fed the Impression of Dishonesty About His Personal Record. His peculiar silence on this topic of immense importance served to remind people about how they elected a guy they didn’t know a whole lot about; whose academic record remains in shadow; who almost certainly did not compose Dreams of My Father (I’m not a birther, but the case that he’s fibbing about his authorship is strong); and whose political associations over the years have tended more toward the radical than he has chosen to admit.

He Managed to Look Bad Doing It.  When he finally got around to authorizing the release of his birth certificate, he was – well, he was pissy about it.  He actually had the sand to be petulant, not so much that anyone was asking about where he was born but that anyone even thought it was important. “We do not have time for this kind of silliness,” he said. (And how much time, exactly, did it take him to authorize the release of his certificate? The only thing that kept this issue alive, it turns out, was his refusal to resolve it.  And what is "silly" about formal constitutional mandates?) Above I said he “waited too long,” but that’s not quite right. He wasn’t “waiting” – he believed that the entire topic was beneath his -- anyone's -- notice.

Barack Obama's inaction and attitude have a single explanation:  He does not regard the subject of whether he is constitutionally qualified to be president of any importance.

We have seen this in him before. Here's what I wrote back in August::

He recently made a statement which summed up for me the reasons I have come to find the course of his Presidency so disturbing. At a speech at the American University School of International Service a couple of weeks ago, he reportedly said: 'Being an American is not a matter of blood or birth, it’s a matter of faith.' Even allowing the President some rhetorical license here, it's a very revealing remark, and a silly one. Being an American has almost everything to do with birth. The very first sentence of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads: 'All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.'

“While the President knows this, he doesn't really feel its truth. He far prefers the comfort of the abstract thought that America is not a chunk of real estate with borders, but rather a bundle of concepts that have something to do with freedom and equality and abundance and other fine things everyone should experience. And if you value those things, if you have faith in those Americanish things, well, then you must be an American.

 “It is similar to what John F. Kennedy meant when he said 'Ich bin ein Berliner' -- that is, all people who love freedom are, in a sense, citizens of Berlin who had been confined by the Berlin Wall. President Kennedy was speaking conceptually, and in his hands it was a powerful metaphor and a signal moment of the Cold War.

 “But President Obama wasn't just offering an attractive metaphor like Kennedy was. He didn't just say that people who have faith in American values are Americans, a pleasant but not terribly helpful thought in the current border controversy. He said that being born here had nothing to do with being an American. Unlike President Kennedy's graceful formulation, President Obama's treats the metaphor as reality by expressly rejecting the fact that where you are born has anything to do with being an American.

 “This is how he thinks. Not troubled by rules, constitutions, statutes, traditions, voting.”

It is a very academic attitude. His conviction as to his historic inevitabilty -- and rightness -- proceeds from first principles of his own devising (rather, the devising of the academic social theorists he admires), and not from the principles of American constitutional government or even the evidence of history.

And it gives rise to an extraordinary irony:  An event that should have put to rest the issue of his qualification for the White House has only yielded more evidence that he shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the place.