Politics & Policy

Antúnez and the EU, &c.

From time to time, I have mentioned a man known as “Antúnez.” His full, formal name is Jorge Luis García Pérez. He is a Cuban dissident, and one of the best — one of the most inspiring and most persistent. He was in prison for 17 years.

And, by the way, he’s an “Afro-Cuban,” as they say. Why do I bother bringing this up? You know I am stubborn for the irrelevance of race. Well, one of the cherished myths of pro-Castro apologists is that the Communist regime has been good for blacks. I wonder if it embarrasses them, these apologists, that so many of Cuba’s most prominent and persecuted dissidents are black.

In addition to Antúnez, there’s Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet, whom President Bush awarded the Medal of Freedom (in absentia, of course) last year.

In any case, Antúnez was protesting prison conditions, in partnership with his wife, Iris Pérez Aguilera. This was last week. Iris’s brother, Mario, is a political prisoner, and was on a hunger strike.

Well, in the city of Matanzas, the authorities swooped in and violently arrested Antúnez and Iris, along with other human-rights activists. Their whereabouts are now unknown. Why do I bother mentioning this? This is just a routine day in Cuba, right? Right.

Except for this: Just hours before Antúnez et al. were arrested, the EU, in its wisdom, lifted diplomatic sanctions on Cuba. Above, I mentioned embarrassment: Are the EU-ers the least embarrassed?

For more information, see the Directorio Democrático Cubano, here.

‐I have been reading reports, not only about Cuba, but about Iran — specifically, how Syria and North Korea have abetted its nuclear program. And I have thought, for the thousandth time, about the phrase “axis of evil” — much derided as fanciful, provocative, and “neocon.” Instead, it is a fact. And a fact is a stubborn thing, for better or worse . . .

‐What is it about the Middle East and torture? People there are fascinated by it, and, worse, they practice it. Leaving aside practice for a moment: People lovingly pass around those beheading videos. These videos are a sick porn — sicker than normal sick porn.

There is an insightful essay to be written about the Middle East and torture — written by someone else — but I bring up the subject because of an article from the AP. Its headline: “U.S. businessman: Videos show torture by UAE royal.”

The opening paragraph (and you may not want to hear more) goes,

As a trusted adviser to a member of the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates, Texas businessman Bassam Nabulsi says he safeguarded the sheik’s most important documents: financial records, investment documents, and videotapes showing the sheik torturing people with a cattle prod and a spiked plank.

When the business relationship began to deteriorate, Nabulsi says, he also was imprisoned for months and tortured by jailers trying to get the tapes back.

Lovely. This follows a familiar pattern, I suppose: You engage in a sick practice, and soon you want to videotape it, to prolong or relive the pleasure . . .

And what must Middle Easterners think of American “torture” — the type of thing that has gone on at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? I imagine they must think of it as NFL players think of sixth-grade girls playing touch football.

‐You will recall our old friend Mohamed ElBaradei: the Nobel Peace Prize-winning head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, known as the U.N.’s “nuclear watchdog” — or, as some people like to say, “nuclear watchpuppy.” An interview he gave recently to al-Arabiya has gotten a lot of attention — particularly the sentence, “In my view, a military strike would be the worst thing possible. It would turn the Middle East into a ball of fire.”

ElBaradei was referring to a strike on Iran.

Also, he threatened to resign if the U.S. or its allies undertook such a strike. And he said, “I don’t think that what we are seeing today in Iran poses a clear, imminent, and immediate danger.”

I hope you are reassured — particularly if you are Israeli.

But somewhat overlooked in his interview is this: “If Iran wants to turn to the production of nuclear weapons, it must leave the NPT [Nonproliferation Treaty], expel the IAEA inspectors, and then it would need at least . . . six months to one year.”

Six months to one year. I ask again: Are you reassured?

(For the ElBaradei al-Arabiya interview, see the Middle East Media Research Institute, here.)

‐A little music? For a recordings roundup, published in the New York Sun, go here. Under consideration are the Berlin Philharmonic, under Sir Simon Rattle, in Borodin; Anne Sofie von Otter in contemporary Swedish song cycles; and Stephen Kovacevich and Colin Davis in the Bartók piano concertos.

‐A little language? The other week, a graduate student asked me some questions about WFB and language. This is a subject I know rather well — having worked with Bill, and having talked with him about language ad nauseam (or ad wonderful-am). I thought you might enjoy this exchange, between the student and me (“the student and I,” Barack Obama would say). Both the questions and the answers are brief.

Question: WFB was known as a lover of language. What was his general outlook on grammatical correctness?

Answer: He liked to be correct, but he wasn’t fanatical. He went by ear — artistry. He wouldn’t let a rule, or alleged rule, get in the way of a natural and good sentence or turn of phrase.

Q.: What were his pet peeves?

A.: I don’t think he really had pet peeves, because he wasn’t that type of person. I can remember his stressing the distinction between “like” and “such as,” however. By the way, The Right Word — a marvelous collection — contains many of his thoughts about language.

Q.: Did he ever reject an editorial submission outright because of grammar, syntax, spelling, or punctuation?

A.: Probably not — those things can be fixed. Substance, thought, is what matters in a submission (although he did like beautiful prose, it’s true).

Q.: Did he ever discuss grammar with Noam Chomsky? If so, what was the nature of this discussion?

A.: I don’t think so — although he did debate Chomsky once, and said he was a distressingly nice guy.

Q.: Was WFB a stickler for spelling and punctuation?

A.: Certainly not in his personal correspondence! No, Bill wasn’t a stickler for anything — except taste and artistry. Musicality.

By the way, William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, told him he (Bill) didn’t know how to use a comma. Bill claimed injury, but I think it was more a feigning. When it comes to Shawn vs. Buckley on commas — I’ll go with Bill.

Q.: Please add anything you think would be appropriate.

A.: Okay, one more thing: Pretty much everyone says, “Johnny’s one of those people who has an opinion on everything.” The correct sentence is, “Johnny’s one of those people who have an opinion on everything.”

And Bill liked to correct people on that — but only people who should know better. I heard him correct two illustrious writers on this point!

But, to say again, Bill wasn’t a great stickler for grammar — certainly not rigid — and he was not fundamentally prescriptive. He was really an ear man, as you can tell by his (matchless) prose.

‐It is a great cliché for journalists to report on their conversations with cabbies. I don’t care. Was in Milwaukee and had a cabbie with one of those white Muslim hats on — those Muslim beanies. I asked him where he was from. He said Somalia. And he said — utterly unprompted by me — how grateful he was to be in America. For one thing, his native country was war-torn.

And then he said, “This is America, the land of opportunity” — and he said it with such a sweet sincerity (in that lilting, musical accent).

Very odd that I should have mentioned Anne Sofie von Otter earlier in this column. She is a Swedish mezzo-soprano, and she features in an episode I have discussed in Impromptus before. Years ago, she was in Carnegie Hall, and she had occasion to refer to America as “the land of opportunity.” (I won’t bog you down in details now.) And many in the audience laughed — laughed because they thought ASvO was being sarcastic or ironic. Instead, she was being perfectly sincere.

Anyway . . .

Friends, I am a restrictionist, when it comes to immigration. Even so, I sometimes think — when I meet such people as that Somalian — that immigrants will be the salvation of us all. White, liberal, secular America is tired, clouded, and unappreciative.

‐A final vignette, or scene, or mood from the Midwest: I was in a small town in Illinois — a village, really. A farming community. The sky seems bigger there than in the East — broad, long, and huge. The clouds are enormous, and impossibly white and puffy.

The cemeteries are filled with German names, and the earliest tombstones are engraved in German. Yes, they are part and parcel of the American story.

Through my windows in a gracious old home wafted soft, warm breezes — “What is so rare as a day in June?” Also through those windows wafted churchbells and train whistles — lots of train whistles, which is such an American sound.

President Reagan ended his second inaugural address with that phrase, that idea: the “American sound.” (And he was from small-town Illinois, incidentally.)

What is my point? None, really — just appreciation, and I’ll see you real soon.

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