Politics & Policy

That “We” Again. My Kingdom For a Columnist. Brushes With Greatness. and More.

I was reading an op-ed piece by Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post, and he began by quoting Jon Stewart, the comedian, who said, “We did it! We had the election. And now we can say to Iraq, ‘Goodbye!’”

#ad# The words “We did it!” brought me up short. I thought, “What do you mean, we?”

It will be just like the Cold War, I think. George W. Bush and his allies will make progress in the Middle East, and then, with selective amnesia, those who fought Bush & Co. tooth and nail will say, “We, we, we.” We liberalized Afghanistan, we liberalized Iraq, blah, blah, blah.

If it had been up to Jon Stewart and his ilk, that election in Iraq would never have taken place.

“We did it!” indeed.

‐By the way, I don’t think “and his ilk” is patented by Robert Novak, but I may be wrong.

‐Perhaps you remember a vow I took many moons ago: No more commenting on Thomas L. Friedman, no more commenting on Maureen Dowd. I had despaired over them as long as I could. After a certain point, why bother?

And if you don’t comment–when you’re in my strange business–do you read?

Last Sunday, a friend asked whether I had seen that day’s Friedman column, about which he was sputtering. I could only smile serenely and say no. “Why do you do it to yourself?”

And yet, one always looks for an honest liberal columnist, something to enhance one’s media diet. Michael Kinsley once served this purpose for me. But that was . . . well, it’s been a while. And Peter Beinart? The guy who declares that conservatives simply don’t care about people? What can be gained from reading that? I can stroll down the streets of Ann Arbor, my hometown–or walk outside here in New York–and hear that any time I want.

I have always read Richard Cohen–but I don’t know. In the past, he merely visited Friedman/Dowd Land. Now it seems that he has taken up permanent residence there.

Disdain, sarcasm, silliness, nastiness, unreason–he’s afflicted with all those traits. Take his column of Feb. 10 (please). It begins,

The line–the semiofficial one, that is–has changed on George Bush. Where once he was supposedly the sort of guy who eschewed books and even thinking and favored instead a decision-making process that was almost entirely the product of instinct, we are now told that the president reads books–really and truly. Among those cited, and famously so, is Natan Sharansky’s “The Case for Democracy,” which supposedly enthralled Bush because up to then, we may deduce, the case for democracy was not obvious to the man who heads the world’s most powerful . . . er, democracy. Better late than never, I suppose.

This must be disingenuous–because Cohen can’t be so stupid as not to know that the debate is over the role of democracy in checking terror and changing the Middle East. And he can’t be so stupid as not to know that the Sharansky position remains, throughout the West–certainly in Washington, D.C.–a minority position. Has Cohen ever talked to Brent Scowcroft? How about virtually the entire Democratic party?

Later, Cohen writes, ” . . . two presidential elections and a war have shown Bush what he must have long suspected–that he has vast leadership abilities and that he has been called (and you know by who) to his historic role.”

Leave the grammar aside. Snide Bush critics are always saying that the president considers himself on a mission from God. Funny, but the president doesn’t say that, and his administration doesn’t say it, and his supporters don’t say it. Only the snide critics say it.

We shouldn’t ignore language altogether. Cohen writes, “Because Bush is certain he can bend history his way, he just might become one of those American presidents who is thought to have made a difference.” That should be, “one of those American presidents who are thought to have made a difference.” Cohen is misled by the “one,” like most everyone else.

Last, we get, “This quality, this firm and unmistakably American belief that history is our pal, our angel–ours, and not anyone else’s–and that we can alter it, bend it and embrace it for our own needs . . . “

I know a lot of Americans, and I know a lot of conservatives. I bet I know more conservatives than Richard Cohen does. And I don’t know a human being who believes that history is America’s pal, or angel, and no one else’s. Not one. Not a friggin’ one.

Richard Cohen–perhaps thinking that he needs to write Inherit the Wind over and over–imagines conservatives who do not exist. He seems unwilling to debate, or consider, conservatives as we truly are. He is a caricaturist, and I’m looking for a columnist, and it is very, very hard.

‐May I give you a little Mark Steyn? You never object to a little Mark Steyn, do you? I wish to quote from his recent Spectator essay.

Steyn notes that Sir Simon Jenkins has written, “The neocon bragging over a ‘beacon of democracy’ now being raised over the Muslim world is absurd. There were active, contested elections in Palestine in 1996, Egypt in 2000 . . . ” Steyn interjects,

Whoa, hold it right there. C’mon, man, the winner of Egypt’s 2000 election was never in any doubt (though I note that in the 1995 Egyptian elections more people were killed than on Iraq’s polling day). As for Palestine, Sir Simon complains that “America refused to acknowledge Yasser Arafat as a democrat.” Maybe that’s because he was elected in 1996 to a five-year term: You do the math. He stayed on till he died–and, indeed, if the rumors coming out of that French hospital were true, for several days after he died. If he hadn’t been carried out by the handles in the ninth year of his five-year term, he’d doubtless be planning big public festivities to mark its tenth anniversary. If Bush were to stay on till, oh, 2011, I doubt that Sir Simon would be eager to acknowledge Dubya as a democrat. The fact is the Europeans’ willingness to string along with that kind of sham “democracy” is one reason why Arafat felt under no pressure to change his ways.

Steyn continues,

Arafat fetishization was embarrassing enough when the old monster was still around to slobber all over fawning emissaries from the EU and the Vatican and teary-eyed BBC correspondents. But the thing is he’s dead now. Even the Palestinians have moved on. Contempt for the Iraqi electorate is all very well, but frantically trying to jump-start Arafat’s corpse to prove your point makes you look as dead as he is. You can’t flog a dead horse, even if it’s an Arab. And you don’t have to subscribe to popular regional theories that the Zionist Entity poisoned him to recognize that Arafat did more for “the Middle East peace process” by dying than he’d done in the previous 40 years. If any kind of peace is to be forced on the Palestinians, it’s going to be closer to the Bush-Rice vision of things than the EU Arafat-pandering.

I don’t have any point to make–except to revel in this thinking and writing.

‐I’m grateful to Amir Taheri for giving me a phrase: “Saddam nostalgics.” As in “The Arab Sunni boycott was far less solid than Saddam nostalgics had hoped–and the community, some 15 percent of Iraq, more divided.” That phrase is hugely useful, fills a great need. And I have quoted from Taheri’s New York Post column, found here.

Elsewhere in that column, he says, “The first free election ever in Iraq has revealed a nation thirsty for democratic reform, pluralism, and the rule of law.”

I also wish to quote Ralph Peters, who had a column on the same page (in more ways than one, actually): “Moqtada al-Sadr, the bigoted thug who cast himself as the voice of Iraq’s Shi’as? His party gets three seats out of 275. So much for Shi’a extremism. Democracy works.”

Godspeed to the follow-through.

‐Who is the most obnoxious kind of New Yorker? Well, you may think the competition stiff, but I offer the Fran Lebowitz kind. (I can’t remember who Fran Lebowitz is, actually. I guess I confuse her with Annie Leibovitz.) The Post asked her what she thought of The Gates, the big Christo installation in Central Park, and she replied, “This is why we live in New York, this is what is great about New York. This is New York flag-waving. The only thing I don’t like is that it attracts more tourists, and I try to repel tourists.”

There are essays and essays to write, from that statement. I’ll confine myself to a couple of words.

You know what repelled tourists? Dinkins-era New York. And that’s the way the Lebowitzes liked it. Taheri speaks of “Saddam nostalgics.” There are actually squalor, fear, and crime nostalgics in New York. People who long for the old, unvisitable Times Square. If you don’t believe me when I say this, I don’t blame you–it’s almost too perverse to comprehend.

I happen to enjoy tourists in New York. A lot. It makes you feel that the world is around you, even as you stay put. The Fran Lebowitzes want New York to themselves. What a ghastly place that would be–no one would want to come here, that’s for sure, to tour or to stay.

‐I suppose I should say something about The Gates, too. Most of the people I respect the most have denounced it as a monstrosity and a con. They’re probably right. I defer to my betters on art, if you can call this installation art (and what isn’t?).

But let me tell you about my first sight of The Gates. It was wonderful. I had forgotten it was going up. And I was walking down my side street, on the way to Central Park, to cross over to the East Side. That first glimpse was almost breathtaking: The “gates” looked strange and beautiful against those bare trees, with the morning sun glinting off those orange materials. The project was exotic, playful, delightful.

But that was the first look. You know how people say that the first bite of chocolate cake is the best, and everything else is downhill? Well, I don’t have that experience with chocolate cake–I think all the bites are “cosmic,” as we used to say–but I had a similar experience with The Gates. At first, it was kind of thrilling. But after a minute or so . . . monotonous. Boring. Even slightly annoying.

Perhaps that is my attention span, or eye.

Anyway, I’ve walked through the park every day since the installation went up–I walk through the park pretty much every day–and people seem enchanted by it. They smile, they murmur, they marvel. I can hardly begrudge them their enjoyment, no matter what I think.

This morning, I saw a little old lady tumble out of The Plaza, dressed all in orange, ready for her trip through those orange gates. She had such a gleam in her eye.

Okay. Whatev. (No, I did not forget the “er”–aren’t you with the lingo, man?)

‐Readers have been nice enough to beg me to comment on the naming of this new submarine for Jimmy Carter. I’m afraid that I . . . can’t. I apologize for this failure, indeed, dereliction. I’m just Cartered out, as I’ve said for many months, and I can go no further. (Let’s not have the further/farther debate right now.) I wrote about him at last summer’s Democratic convention. I had written about him tons before. Carter has been with me pretty much my entire sensate life. I can just truck with him no more.

(But I’ll be back, you know it.)

‐You remember that Letterman segment “Brush with Greatness”? (This was years ago–I can’t vouch for Letterman now.) (I can’t vouch for Letterman since about 1987.) Well, I’ll give you a couple of brushes.

At lunch, alongside Tony Danza: The definition of boyish. Charming, warm, likable. No wonder he’s succeeded in the business. (Why am I saying “the business”?)

At Zankel Hall, in the lobby with Paul Newman: Has anyone ever looked better in half-glasses, at 80? And think of how staunch he has been in behalf of Republican causes!

Oh, yeah . . .

I’m afraid I can’t top the moment in the airport last summer with Natalie Portman–she was going to the Dem convention (speaking of that)–but I’m trying, trying.

Oh, yes, there was Sharon Stone at Davos, but . . .

Hang on, did you read in the gossip pages that Eason Jordan has wound up with SS (I’m speaking of the actress, not Germans)? Not a bad deal for having offended his way out of CNN.

‐Have some music criticism, if you wish: For a review of Verdi’s Nabucco, at the Metropolitan Opera, please go here. And for a review of the Emerson String Quartet, at the aforementioned Zankel Hall, please go here.

‐Care for some language? I’m going to put aside my own notes, and give you some Paul Johnson. He devoted his recent Spectator column to language. And he had this very interesting paragraph against dumb prescriptivism:

But some highly placed people are as violently in favour of splitting infinitives as Granville was against. George Bernard Shaw threatened to cancel his subscription to the Daily Chronicle because its style editor had attacked “second-rate newspapers” for permitting such “abominations” as “to boldly say” and “to suddenly go.” Denouncing the man as a pedant, an ignoramus, an idiot, a self-advertising duffer, Shaw urged the paper to “put this fatuous man out” and “replace him with an intelligent Newfoundland dog.” Experts like Lounsbury, Fowler and Grove supported Shaw and pointed out that Donne, for instance, went in for split infinitives on a large scale and that Macaulay deliberately, in revising an article, put one in. Coleridge, George Eliot and Browning were also splitters. Yet it is still regarded as a literary crime today.

And I got news for you, kiddies: That business about not ending a sentence with a preposition? It has nothing to do with English. It is an error instilled by education in Latin. Would that we could correct it, at this late date.

Incidentally, for a review of David Crystal’s recent Stories of English, please go here.

Finally, I wish to douse you with some more Spectator, Michael Henderson’s superb essay “Time to Rescue BBC English.” For one thing, Mr. Henderson is a defender of English–I don’t mean its correctness, I mean its glory: “How often does one hear the world’s greatest language spoken with . . . ” He just out and says it, like you could! He later writes, “Although it is our greatest gift to the world–and the world has not withheld its thanks–too many English people . . . ” Amazing (English as “our greatest gift to the world”). It’s especially so when you consider the vogue of English-bashing, which is just a branch of anti-Americanism, really.

About Tony Blair, Henderson writes, “His popular touch is not infallible . . . but it doesn’t stop him [from, Americans would say] trying to sound like a pop star, which is really what he has always wanted to be.”

Funny, but at Davos last month, the pop star Bono–seated next to Blair–was asked whether he’d like to be prime minister. Blair got a priceless look on his face. Then Bono said, “I wouldn’t move to a smaller house.”

I have lots more, friends, but, gosh, have I run over, and I’ll see you later.

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