Politics & Policy

Preferring Free False Teeth, &C.

We’re back to the old question of what government is for–and what it ought to spend money on. I’m talking about the central government, in Washington. When Bill Buckley wants to mock dumb federal spending, he sometimes mentions “free false teeth.” He uses that phrase in the most marvelously sarcastic way: “If, instead of paying for bombs, our government prefers to pay for free false teeth . . .”

I thought of this when reading of the Senate’s decision “to divert some of the money President Bush requested for the war in Iraq to instead increase patrols against illegal immigrants on the nation’s borders and provide the Coast Guard with new boats and helicopters.” I’m quoting from a wire report.

That report continues: “An amendment was adopted, 59-39, to cut Bush’s Iraq request by $1.9 billion to pay for new aircraft, patrol boats and other vehicles, as well as border checkpoints and a fence along the Mexico border crossing near San Diego.”

Look, war abroad and defense of the borders are two legitimate governmental activities–activities of the federal government. In fact, you can hardly get more legitimate than those. No reason Washington can’t, or shouldn’t, do both. Why should this be either/or? We’re not talking about midnight basketball, or a bridge in remotest Alaska, or free false teeth.

Come on, guys.

‐You think that radical Islam is starkly different from Soviet Communism, a new kind of enemy, for a new, terrible age. And then you read what was published yesterday: Ayatollah Khamenei threatened the United States when “speaking to workers in advance of the May 1 celebration of International Laborers Day.”

Oh, geez: These guys have May 1 celebrations, just like the Sovs? Do they sing the “Internationale,” too? And do the leaders’ wives weigh more than they?

(You may remember the old joke: “Mikhail Gorbachev must be a reformer because he is the first Soviet premier whose wife weighs less than he.” Turned out to be not so jokey.)

‐One of George Will’s favorite techniques is to say that Americans spend less on politics–campaigns and so forth–than they do on, say, yogurt. One of Will’s hobbyhorses is that there is too little political speech, and too little political activity, in this country, not too much. And it’s a fine hobbyhorse, too.

I thought of this when reading what Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, said to reporters: “Americans spent as much on ‘plastic Santa Clauses and tinsel’ and other holiday niceties last Christmas season as they do on their military for a year.” (I’m quoting the AP.)

Has General Schoomaker been reading George Will, and borrowing? If so, good for him. In addition to which: What an odd spelling of that last name. “Shoemaker,” we’ve seen plenty of, along with “Schumacher”–but “Schoomaker”?

‐I wish to join the chorus praising the article The New Republic had on Iran’s president: “Ahmadinejad’s Demons,” by Matthias Küntzel. If this article does not bring comfort, it certainly brings understanding. Very few pieces merit the designation “must reading”; I believe this does.

Also must reading is the piece that our own David Pryce-Jones had in NR: “A Particular Madness: Understanding Iran’s Ahmadinejad.” Of course, I consider all of P-J must reading, and have all my adult life.

As for Ahmadinejad, we surely have his number; the awful question is how to counter him.

‐For many years, we have heard, “There was no excuse not to know what Hitler was about; he laid it all out, as early as Mein Kampf.” Well, there’s no excuse with regard to Ahmadinejad either: The man is not shy, and not cryptic. He’s glad to tell you that Israel must be destroyed; that it must not be allowed “to continue to live.”

Are we not to take him at his word? Is this merely Islamofascist bravado? It is Islamofascist bravado that must be taken with the utmost seriousness. And all but the most delusional elements of Israeli society do.

What about ours?

‐Hillary Clinton may be the darling of the Left, but she’s not the darling of every leftist. A Brown student I know, Pratik Chougule, wrote an interesting article for Human Events Online. He reported on Hillary’s visit to his university, and the protests against her: She is not an opponent–an outright opponent–of the war. She prefers to carp now and then. And this has some of the antiwar red-hots upset.

I don’t believe the Left will cause her much trouble when she runs for president in ‘08. I believe she can do as much rightward pretending as she wants to do, or needs to do. She can sound like Curtis LeMay–and the Left won’t bat an eye, because they’ll know it’s just an act. They will know she’s only serving up “boob bait for Bubbas,” as the late Senator Moynihan once said.

(By the way, I’ve never liked that phrase: “boob bait for Bubbas.” Strikes me as redundant. Should be either “bait for Bubbas” or “boob bait.” I think Moynihan just fell in love with that extreme alliteration, with those three B’s. Music has its three B’s, Moynihan had his.)

Anyway . . . we’ll have plenty of time to talk about Hillary and ‘08. Too much time, I’m afraid.

‐As readers may know, I’ve written rather a lot about Shostakovich lately. (For example, I have a piece on him in the current issue of NR.) This has to do with his centennial, mainly.

Anyway, I was reading some liner notes, and marked something sad–something really more sad than outrageous. Although you may find it slightly outrageous. These particular notes accompany the Emerson String Quartet’s recording of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110. This is deemed by many the greatest of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets (and it is certainly the most popular); in any case, it is a very great work.

Shostakovich wrote it while on a visit to Dresden in 1960. Moved by the evidence of destruction he saw there, he dedicated the quartet “to victims of fascism and war.”

And do you know what a member of the ESQ–the Emerson String Quartet–says in these liner notes? “[Shostakovich] implies that he’s writing about the Second World War.” But the composition is “not just about Germany and Hitler; this is about all victims of fascism and war. Of course, the Soviet Union at that time was very much a fascist state.”

Isn’t that sad? Because, you see, according to this mindset–a miseducated one–fascism is very, very bad, while Communism cannot be. To say otherwise would be crude, McCarthyite. And since the Soviet Union was obviously bad, it had to be . . . what’s that word for a bad state again? Oh, yeah: fascist.

This is the mindset that refuses to call a Communist state a Communist state.

There are many pieces, and books, explaining why fascism suffered opprobrium while its close cousin, Communism, did not. The best such piece I have read is by Paul Hollander, and it was published in National Review in 1994. It is collected in his Discontents, which I reviewed in April 2002.

Speaking of Hollander: He has performed another signal service. It comes in the form of From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States, which he edited. Paul Hollander never stops illuminating the totalitarianism that has choked our times. As I have often remarked, his work is not only diligent and excellent, but heroic.

And speaking of heroism: One of the contributors to From the Gulag to the Killing Fields is Armando Valladares, the great Cuban ex-political prisoner, and author of the memoir Against All Hope. I had the high honor of having lunch with him yesterday. He is not only brave, principled, and wise–he is warm, amusing, and merry.

“How’s your health?” I asked (for he endured very rough stuff–torture–during his 22 years in the Cuban Gulag). Very good, he answered. Both of his grandfathers lived to more than 100. And each died in an accident: one on a horse, the other in a car. So once he hits 100, says Armando, he will stay off horses and out of cars.

‐Saw a story under the headline “Songbirds May Be Able to Learn Grammar.” The lead sentence: “The simplest grammar, long thought to be one of the skills that separate man from beast, can be taught to a common songbird, new research suggests.” Well, if it can be taught to a common songbird–surely it can be taught to the common American schoolchild?

But do we have teachers equipped to impart it?

‐Speaking of songbirds: I was in Galveston, Texas, recently, where I heard many birds–several of them unfamiliar. I swear, I heard one bird say, “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.” He sounded like John Belushi, on Saturday Night Live.

Which reminded me: When National Review cruised to Bermuda, a group of us went to the golf course. In the taxi there, the driver told me that there was a bird on this particular golf course that seemed to say, “Hit the ball, hit the ball.” I thought that was a charming story. And not far into our round–I swear, I heard that bird, saying exactly that.

Or are birds like constellations? Do you hear what you’re told to hear, as you see what you’re told to see, in the sky? I mean, is that really a flying horse?

Anyway . . .

‐Let’s have a little music criticism, from the New York Sun. For a review of the violinist Midori in recital, please go here. And for a review of the New York Philharmonic, led by Mstislav Rostropovich, with the violinist Maxim Vengerov, soloist, please go here.

‐A visit to San Francisco last week confirmed for me that this is, indeed, the most beautiful city in America. (I have not visited them all–Seattle, for example–but most of them, I believe.) Rarely throughout the world is the eye so enchanted. While walking about the Marin Headlands, I found myself saying, “Wow, “Geez,” “Oh, my goodness,” repeatedly. Which was a little bit shaming.

When Gerard Manley Hopkins is awed by nature, he writes “God’s Grandeur.” When Jay Nordlinger is awed by nature, he goes “Wow!” over and over.

As I said, a bit shaming.

‐Got to tell you something hilarious, from last night. I attend the premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s opera Miss Lonelyhearts, at the Juilliard School. And there’s a sign at the entrance of the auditorium: “Please be advised, gunshots and herbal cigarettes will be used in this performance.”

Now, this opera–like the famed novella it’s based on–features assault, fornication, perversion, madness, murder, and virtually every other kind of depravity or brutality.

And what are we warned about? Gunshots and herbal cigarettes!

You ask for commentary on modern America (don’t you?)–you got it.


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