Monday, July 25, 2016

Hillary Clinton Says She Was "Saddened" By A Republican Convention She Didn't Watch--And Admits She Didn't Understand...

Hillary Clinton: Well, I didn't hear it, because I wasn't watching. But I certainly heard about it, yes.
Scott Pelley: Did you feel threatened by that?
Hillary Clinton: No, I felt sad.
Scott Pelley: Sad?
Hillary Clinton: It felt very sad, Scott. I mean-- I don't know what their convention was about, other than criticizing me. I seem to be the only unifying theme that they had. There was no positive agenda. It was a very dark, divisive campaign. And the people who were speaking were painting a picture of our country that I did not recognize. You know, negative, scapegoating, fear, bigotry, smears. I just was so-- I was saddened by it.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Garry Apgar's Mickey Mouse is a Symbol for Our Time

In his two recent books on the celebrated American rodent--a magisterial art historical survey published by the Walt Disney Family Foundation, titled Mickey Mouse, Emblem of the American Spirit; and an academic sourcebook published by the University Press of Missisisippi, A Mickey Mouse ReaderGarry Apgar's Mickey Mouse is portrayed an "emblem of the American spirit" who inspires the nation to overcome difficulties--beginning with his youth in the Great Depression. 

Just as I had opened these 2 beautifully written and illustrated volumes for review, news came of the horrific massacre in Orlando, home to Walt Disney World, where, The Daily Mail reported gunman Omar Mateen had been a Disney fan himself:

"The walls of the apartment are adorned with photos of Mateen's three-year-old son. Loads of toys including a Spiderman bicycle, toy trucks and Mickey Mouse posters can be seen throughout the two-bedroom home...There is a Mickey and Minnie Mouse calendar marked 'D-Day, 10 pm' on June 7th. The real D-Day is June 6th leaving open the question was Mateen planning something sooner than the June 12 morning of horror. Or was it just marked for Ramadan, the Muslim holy holiday?"

It seemed that Mickey Mouse had found his way into a story not entirely in keeping with his more conventional image as a playful sprite.

Far from being the "Happiest Place on Earth," Orlando at that moment was perhaps the saddest--a crucible for all the international cultural, political, religious, sexual and military tensions of the planet, rather than a "Magic Kingdom" of fantasy and fun.  

By linking Orlando with  International Terror, the massacre was objectively an attack on Walt Disney, as well as an LGBT nightclub--for Orlando is a city described as "married to the Mouse" by Richard Fogelsgang.

Therefore it did not come as a surprise to read that the gunman had cased Walt Disney World and Downtown Disney, before deciding to attack the Pulse Club. 

Security at Disney is high, and there was certainly a greater chance of a mishap in going for, say Snow White's Castle. 

Nevertheless, downtown Orlando is not far away, and the location of the club reminds everyone that Disney is also in Orlando--many millions of people have been to Disney, and some of the victims may have worked for Disney.

So seeing Mickey Mouse as most recent target of  Jihad is not far-fetched.  As Apgar discusses, the Mouse represents the "American spirit"-- most obviously "the pursuit of happiness" guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence, and Walt Disney's oeuvre.

That our world has been shaped in part by Disney and Mickey Mouse, is a big claim. But Agpar backs it up, for he treats Disney as both an artist and a sociological phenomenon.

Did Disney affect even those who pretended to be enemies of capitalism? Did he have a role in the last great ideological struggle, the Cold War? Yes.

What would a communist artist have thought of Disney? 

Perhaps a clue might be found in a couple of pages in Apgar's reader, written by the husband of the now almost as iconic (at least among art students) Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, contemplating what artistic life might hold after the revolution triumphs:

Finally we may conclude that perhaps if the films can be preserved, the people who at last will possess a theatre, will refuse to accede the cine-dramas most admired today. The masses which will have realized by then the genuine revolution, will not interest themselves greatly in the 'revolutionary films' of today. An tall that, together with the pictures and statues and poetry and prose which may have survived the general cleansing of the world, will be looked at with compassionate curiosity. But probably the animated cartoons will divert the adults then as now and make the children die laughing.

And the esthetes of that day will find that MICKEY MOUSE (emphasis Rivera's) was one of the genuine heroes of American Art in the first half of the 20th Century, in the calendar anterior to world revolution.

Or, consider the views of Frankfurt School founder Walter Benjamin:

Similarity to Fairy Tales. Not since fairy tales have the most important and most vital events been evoked more unsymbolically and more unatmospherically. There is an immeasurable gulf between them and Maeterlinck or Mary Wigman. All Mickey Mouse films are founded on the motif of leaving home in order to learn what fear is.

So, the explanation of the huge popularity of these films is not the mechanization, their form; nor is it a misunderstanding. It is simply the fact that the public recognizes its own life in them.

In 1968, James Michener denounced Mickey Mouse as "one of the most disastrous cultural influences every to hit America," in a New York Times Magazine article titled "The Revolution in Middle Class Values."

But during World War II, the British Royal Air Force had another view. The called the electrical distributor used to release the bombs which targeted Nazi Germany: "Mickey Mouse."  The Royal Navy called its minesweepers, "Mickey Mouses" (or "Mickey Mice," or "MMs"). And one RAFT Lancaster bomber was dubbed "Mickey the Moocher" and decorated with a picture of a pot-bellied Mickey Mouse--transporting a bomb.

Author and editor Garry Apgar himself compares Mickey Mouse to Charles De Gaulle, noting that in 1944 "Mickey Mouse" had been used as a code for Normandy landings on D-Day in 1944. Thus did Mickey save France in World War II, and as Apgar points out:

...Yet, the mouse remains an image of optimism and pluck, and nowhere more than in France. This is one Disney-crazed country! You're liable to run into Walt's progeny decorating custard cups, mustard jars or postcard racks anywhere in town.

Not to mention, Disneyland Paris. So, a connection between the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Hyper Cacher, and Bataclan and the Orlando massacre becomes apparent in the meaning of Walt Disney's mouse.

As Apgar concludes his introduction to Mickey Mouse: Emblem of the American Spirit:

Mickey is nothing if not iconic. To be authentically "iconic," however, entails an attribute greater, and more provocative, than garden-variety celebrity, notoreity, or excessive familiarity. Lest we forget, the term derives from a word, ikon, used to describe traditional sacred portraits in Eastern Orthodox religious art. Even today, properly applied, it notes a being or thing touched by a vital spark, providing meaning, comfort and connectedness across generational, ethnic, national and class lines.

Now that jihadists have gone after Mickey by attacking his hometown, perhaps it is time to think about asking Mickey Mouse to come to our rescue, as he did in World War II and the Cold War?

Thursday, June 02, 2016

With Dr. Thorne, Julian Fellowes Takes Alistair Cooke's Chair...


A recent email from announced that the latest costume drama produced by Downton Abbey impressario Julian Fellowes for Hat Trick Productions would be on streaming video from Amazon Prime--instead of PBS. (I had missed reviews in The New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere, so Amazon's email alert was the first I heard about it.)

This email was welcome news to a fan of Masterpiece Theatre, who had little interest in Amazon's so-called "edgy" (but to my taste, off-putting and creepy) original programming for streaming video--until now.

We streamed Fellowes' adaptation of Anthony Trollope's nuanced depiction of English country life in the Barsetshire Chronicles with eager anticipation.

The four-part series was not so reverential as Downton, sometimes veering towards the grotesque, but once you got used to the different cinematic approach, extremely enjoyable.

Everyone is good, and Tom Hollander does a solid job as Dr. Thorne, but my favorite characterization was Ian MacShane's Sir Roger Scatcherd, a self-made railway robber baron and jailbird who killed a man, who runs for Parliament in an election campaign employing insults and mockery somewhat like that of Donald Trump. In television prophecy of the "what's past is prologue" variety, Scatcherd wins his seat against the odds, against a proper and dignified opponent supported by the Establishment.

But even better than the episodes were the intros and outros...

Imagine my delight when the program opened with Julian Fellowes seated in an upholstered wing chair set before a blazing gas fire, in a cosy English room--in clear homage to the late, great and much-missed Alistair Cooke!

While Fellowes' accent, intonation and delivery were perhaps a bit more Hitchcockian, and quick cuts from close-up to wide angle camera shots appeared at a somewhat dizzying pace compared to the slow and majestic zooms in Alistair Cooke's introductions, there could be no doubt that Julian Fellowes is a worthy successor as presenter of classic British costume drama on American television.

Fellowes has the background, the gravitas, and the twinkle in the eye that made Alistair reason enough to tune-in Masterpiece. He knows he's playing the role of the stage Englishman, and he's playing it to the hilt (Cooke was an American citizen when he did Masterpiece).

Plus, Fellowes soupĨon of Hitchockian irony ties him to two legendary British presenting traditions  on American television, at once: Alfred Hitchock Presents as well as Masterpiece Theatre. Like Hitchcock, Fellowes not only introduces his shows--he produces them.

We certainly look forward to more from whence this comes...

Meanwhile: Hail to a worthy successor to the throne of Alistair Cooke: Baron Fellowes of West Stafford!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Morley Safer, Remembered...

Permit a few words of tribute to pay my respects to Morley Safer, who died last week aged 84. 

At a time when the public's trust in news organization has reached record lows in Gallup Polls--some six out of ten respondents declaring that they have "not very much" or no confidence in mass media--Morley Safer's life and work is a reminder that once upon a time there were honest reporters who worked in television news, who told it like it is, who covered stories--instead of presenting "narratives."


I never had the pleasure of meeting Safer, but favorably crossed paths with the legendary 60 Minutes anchor in relation to two of his 919 stories.

In 1993, while I was writing about the National Endowment for the Arts, Safer hosted a segment of 60 Minutes titled "But Is It Art?" This brief glance at the art biz was so devastating to the art establishment that both The Washington Post and New York Times reminded readers upon his death that disapproval of Safer's "Emperor has no clothes" report had followed him to his grave. 

Obituary writer Robert D. McFadden took a swipe at the dead in a significantly non-front page Times obituary:

Still, Mr. Safer sometimes raised hackles, as when he questioned the basic premise of abstract art in a 1993 report, calling much of it “worthless junk” destined for “the trash heap of art history” and saying it was overvalued by the “hype” of critics, art dealers and auction houses. The art world recoiled, but Mr. Safer, who described himself as a “Sunday painter,” stood his ground. 

In 2012, he aired another blast at modern art, visiting a Miami Beach show that he called “an upscale flea market” and complaining that “the art trade” was a “booming cutthroat commodities market.” In a commentary, the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith called Mr. Safer’s performance “a relatively toothless, if still quite clueless, exercise,” adding: 

“Basically, he and his camera crew spent a few hours last December swanning around Art Basel Miami Beach, the hip art fair, and venturing nowhere else, letting the spectacle of this event, passed through quickly and superficially, stand for the whole art world.”

Likewise, in the Washington Post, Matt Schudel reminded readers that Safer had never been forgiven for his transgression of art world dogma:

Mr. Safer incurred the wrath of the art establishment with his cheeky 1993 segment “Yes . . . But Is It Art?” He quoted the baffling commentary of art “experts” and showed auctions at which prices soared into the millions. He openly questioned whether the creations of such celebrated artists as Jeff Koons, Julian Schabel, Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat were anything more than “worthless junk.”
The art world was incensed and bore a grudge for years. When Mr. Safer later tried to enter New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a “60 Minutes” segment, he was barred at the door.
That Safer was an art lover and amateur painter, his wife and daughter arts administrators, seems not to have helped him in the least. Safer impressively "stood by his story," regardless. It was encouraging to this critic of the art world to have a respected newsman come to the same conclusions, independently, and not back down under pressure.
My second encounter was while writing a section of PBS: Behind the Screen in relation to Safer's experience with Bill Moyers during the Johnson administration. 
I had heard that Safer and Moyers feuded over LBJ's attempts to get him fired by CBS for his reporting on problems with the Vietnam War, while Moyers served as Johnson's press secretary. 
Safer had written critically of Moyers in his own memoir, Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam. He blamed Moyers, whom he characterized as "the sometimes overly pious public defender of liberal virtue, the First Amendment and rights of minorities," for Johnson's picking on him:  "Johnson threatened that, unless CBS got rid of me and 'cleaned up its act,' the White House would 'go public' with information about Safer's 'Communist ties.'" Mike Wallace later leaked a memo from Moyers "on steps we can take to improve coverage of the Vietnam War. . . . We will never eliminate altogether the irresponsible and prejudiced coverage of men like Peter Arnett and (Morley) Safer, men who are not American and who do not have the basic American interest at heart."
Safer's revenge was to characterize Moyers as a sleaze bag:
[Moyers'] part in Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover's bugging of Martin Luther King's private life, the leaks to the press and diplomatic corps, the surveillance of civil rights groups at the 1964 Democratic Convention, and his request for damaging information from Hoover on members of the Goldwater campaign suggest he was not only a good soldier but a gleeful retainer feeding the appetites of Lyndon Johnson.
In addition, at a time when a number of working journalists (including Moyers himself) refused to talk to me, Safer gave me a telephone interview which helped me to write my book, although I am sure he disagreed with much that I had to say.
From that time onwards, I especially looked forward to watching Safer on 60 Minutes, with deep respect for his integrity.  Morley Safer was an honorable, decent, and authentic person. In other words, a real mensch.
I miss him already.

Monday, May 09, 2016

America's Post-9/11 Foreign Policy Evolution: Appeasement-Collaboration-Confrontation

It has become a cliche to cite Winston Churchill's famous wisecrack about Americans, yet one is hard put to find a better explanation of the evolution of US foreign policy in the aftermath of 9/11 than this one-liner often attributed to him: "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing--after exhausting all the alternatives."

This election seems to be proving that statement prophetic, specifically in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The rise of Donald Trump as well as Bernie Sanders shows that America's response is evolving in a new direction. Basically, each administration has tried a different approach to the problem of Islamic Fundamentalism.

As prior strategy has failed,  America has embraced an alternative, in a series of stages: 1. Appeasement under George Bush; 2. Collaboration under Barack Obama; 3. Confrontation under either Donald Trump, via restriction on Muslim immigration, or Bernie Sanders, with the election of an openly Jewish President (perhaps even more objectionable to Islamic fundamentalists).


For whatever reason, while he did topple the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring Bin Laden (temporarily, without eliminating them, and while permitting Pakistan to keep Bin Laden as prisoner) President George W. Bush also responded to 9/11 by  appeasing the Saudis, whose citizens had attacked the World Trade Center with demonstrable help of their diplomatic removing their greatest foe, Saddam Hussein, covering up evidence of Saudi participation, whisking members of the Bin Laden family out of the United States (who might have been held as hostages in exchange), preventing families from seeking financial compensation, and instituting Islamic law in US-occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as establishing Islamic-friendly policies in US government agencies which led to the elimination of official "Merry Christmas!" greetings and the promotion of US Army Major Nidal Hasan. As a result the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in the United States is a Bush Administration legacy.

Perhaps the President's thinking had been this could buy time for fracking to kick in and free America from Saudi influence, much as Stalinists subsequently justified the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (or as some apologists may have done for the Munich Pact) as a way to buy time to build up armed forces before World War II.

Or, perhaps Bush wanted to demonstrate to "the Arab Street" that America was not anti-Islamic. Bush openly prioritized winning "Hearts and Minds," although this very strategy failed dramatically in Vietnam, rather than unconditional surrender (Saddam Hussein was caught, and executed, but he never actually surrendered or pledged loyalty to the occupation government).

Promoting democracy is usually an easy sell to the American public, and since the Arab masses wanted an Islamic state, the move could  have been undertaken as straddle to the obvious conflict between the principles of the Islamic world and those the West. By rejecting a clear provocation to engage in a "Clash of Civilizations," perhaps the Bush administration thought it had "ducked a bullet" in the way Bush himself ducked the shoe thrown at him by an Arab protester during a press conference.  Nevertheless, despite eight years of war and trillions of dollars in expenditures, Bush administration policies clearly failed to defeat Al Quaeda, and the "Global War on Terrorism" ended with a victory for well as the election of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States.


However friendly President Bush's policies were to Islamic fundamentalism--including the institution of Islamic Law in American-designed constitutions for Afghanistan and Iraq, and support of Muslim Brotherhood allied organizations around the world as part of "democracy-building," the Bush Administration shrank from overthrowing long-time American allies for the sake of the Muslim Brotherhood. President Obama's "Cairo Speech" of June 4, 2009 signaled a new direction--collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood and the embrace Islamic Fundamentalism so long as it remained "non-violent." The speech was titled "A New Beginning," and it marked the beginning of American-supported overthrow of secularist governments by Islamists that culminated in the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. America had moved from appeasing Islamists, to collaborating in their seizure of power. In his second term, Obama reached out to Shia as well as Sunni fundamentalists, by giving them de facto (although not de jure) permission to develop an atomic weapon.

Perhaps the Obama administration felt that Bush simply had not gone far enough, that lingering resentment of the United States and the West in the Islamic world was caused by the "disproportionate" power imbalances, and that "leveling the playing field" between Islam and the West would result in friendlier relations--and an end to Terror. After all, if the Islamic world could see that not only was America not anti-Islamic, but rather pro-Islamic, there would be no reason for terror attacks. Maybe this is one reason for increasing Muslim immigration to Europe and the United States, despite obvious risks. Unfortunately, despite active American support for Muslim Brotherhood groups around the world, terror attacks continued against the West--in Boston, in San Bernadino, in Paris, and in Brussels.

Whatever benefits collaboration with Islamic Fundamentalism may have seemed to offer the Obama Administration, as a strategy it was no more successful (arguably even less so) than the Bush administration's appeasement of Islamists.  Unfortunately for her campaign, Hillary Clinton cannot credibly distance herself from an administration in which she served as Secretary of State.


Many have noted similarities between the appeal of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Despite ideological differences--Sanders is a socialist, Trump a capitalist--both candidates appeal to outsiders and deliver passionately "anti-Establishment" and nationalistic stump speeches. And, when it comes to Islamic Fundamentalism, both candidates offer a stark contrast to either the Bush or Obama administration foreign policy.

Obviously, both candidates are native New Yorkers. Both have New York accents, both have New York mannerisms, and both publicly express anger in ways common to their birthplace (Russell Shorto has made a persuasive case that New York culture is a legacy of Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam).

Although Sanders is a Vermont resident, parts of that state nowadays seem to resemble the North Bronx of the pre-Robert Moses era, with headquarters for successful companies such as Ben and Jerry's or Green Mountain Coffee, not to mention numerous second homes and hobby farms of affluent New Yorkers, instead of flinty farmers tilling rocky soil.

Sanders has stated that he would "move away from a policy of regime change." That means, by implication, an end to US support for the Muslim Brotherhood. While Sanders does not emphasize his Jewish roots, he does not deny them. Given that Osama Bin Laden targeted New York in part because of its large Jewish population, election of a Jewish President of the United States from New York City would inevitably send a message of defiance to the Islamic world, independent of any particular policy choices made by the candidate.
It goes without saying that Donald Trump's foreign policy views are better known than Sanders'. The outspoken New Yorker has called for a temporary moratorium on Muslim immigration to the United States; he has stated "frankly, we are having problems with Muslims," and he has declared that George Bush failed to keep America safe.

To a successful construction magnate who probably suffers from an "edifice complex," destruction of the World Trade Center in front of his own eyes must have left an indelible mark. There can be no doubt that one of his motivations is to avenge the attacks of 9/11. There can be no question that he would confront ISIS, just as he has promised--it's clearly personal.

There are precedents for dramatic policy swings: The United States dramatically changed policy from collaboration with slavery under President Buchanan in 1860 to confrontation under President Lincoln in 1861--going from fighting, trying, and executing John Brown for attempting to free slaves at Harper's Ferry to invading the South with the Union Army singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the tune of "John Brown's Body" in order to end slavery in the United States of America.

On a smaller scale, President Reagan's election ended the "malaise" of the Carter years, vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.

Likewise, election of either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump promises to bring dramatic change of direction to American foreign and domestic policy.

Thus, 2016 has already proven to be a watershed election year.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Isadora Duncan Goes To Washington

Idealism met reality in Washington on April 16th, when Harvard University's Center for Hellenic Studies hosted "Maenads and Muses: A Celebration of the Dances of Isadora Duncan and the Greek Ideal." It was a historic clash of civilizations--the beauty, transcendence and inspiration of imaginary Athenian festivals amidst the horse-trading, log-rolling, and lobbying activity in Our Nation's Capital in the midst of an election cycle. Director Gregory Nagy deserves kudos for organizing such a memorable "outreach" performance.

Costumed in flowing gowns inspired by Greek vases, sculptures, and bas reliefs, the Duncan Dance Project company brought to life the beauty, grace and transcendence pioneered by the heroic dancer from San Francisco; one who tragically ended her life as a Soviet citizen living in exile in Paris in a freak  automobile accident due to the type of flowing scarf used in her idiosyncratic recreations of archaic dance (a scarf given to her by movie director Preston Sturges' mother). 

The Center's terpsichorean celebration lasted all afternoon and on into the evening hours, and as befits a research institution, the program featured an academic panel, reception, and "talkback."  Thus the spectacle of dance performed in nature combined with scholarly and academic discussions of the influence of Greek ideals on aesthetics and philosophy. 

Although the festivities lasted until 9 pm; I attended only the first act in the day's offerings, from 3-5 pm: "Dances of Nature, Love and Friendship by Isadora Duncan," an afternoon gambol in which the Duncan Dance Project and local guest dancers skipped, leapt, and frolicked amidst grasses, trees, and shrubbery to recorded music by Chopin, Schubert and others in a delightful reincarnation of the art spirit. 

Seeing the dances much as Duncan must have performed them sparked interest in her legacy, leading to compulsive web-surfing of Isadora sites on YouTube and Google, screening Karel Reisz's 1968 "Isadora" starring the radical (and sometimes naked) starlet  Vanessa Redgrave, with Jason Robards and James Fox (screenplay by redoubtable BBC radio host Melvyn Bragg); then pursuing the "Delsart v Stanislavsky" debate over theatrical styles, a cursory study of which made it clear Isadora's poses owed more than a little to gestures used in silent film melodramas.

Of course, Washington being Washington, one could not escape political implications of a salute to Greek civilization by a daughter of the American frontier. Isadora was a Communist who became a Soviet citizen, marrying Sergei Yesenin in 1921 (they separated in 1923), because she held it represented the future. Her progressive bona-fides are beyond question--she believed in revolution, free love, and practised polyamory with women as well as men. Yet underlying her progressive vision was a today unfashionable commitment to Greek ideals of beauty and democracy, as well as an American "do-it-yourself" approach to natural dance that owed much to New England Transcendentalism, as is apparent in her choreography. Isadora was not a classically trained dancer, and her "barefoot" style rejected the restraints of toe-shoes or dancing on point familiar in classical ballet. Her nature-worship, combined with her liberation from restraints, may have been Dionysian...but in another way she was an American original, whose improvisatory approach and lack of technical expertise contributed further to her charms as a performer--Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley come to mind as similar phenomena closer to our day.

In this individualism, this exceptional quality, she was not only a romantic, she embodied the almost libertarian sense of self championed by writers such as Ayn Rand, who as an anti-Communist likewise developed a cult of artistic personality reminiscent of Isadora Duncan's circle of admirers and "Isadorables." There is a clear commitment to personal liberation, to an aesthetic of freedom, in both women's work. Perhaps the Athenian ideal, the Greek Hero, may equally lead to Libertarianism as Socialist Revolution...if not to Objectivism.

Naturally (if not conventionally), the legacy of Ancient Athens in America dates from the founding of the Republic, on Greek and Roman models, by founders steeped in Enlightenment ideals, who themselves attempted to perfect Classical models. The toga worn by Isadora is not so different from the toga worn by George Washington in his statue by Horatio Greenough, now on display at the Smithsonian Museum. And the Greek columns of Isadora's sets are of a piece with the columns, statues and bas reliefs found on the Capitol, White House, Memorials, Museums and government offices of Washington today. 

This perhaps is the greatest gift Isadora Duncan and the Center for Hellenic Studies had to offer a contemporary audience: a reminder that American institutions are the fruit of Classical Civilization; that ideals such as democracy, republicanism, liberty and freedom spring from a shared heritage of what  Edith Hamilton called "The Greek Way."

In reminding us of our inherited Western Civilization, Isadora Duncan stands in memory as an almost-Greek tragic heroine, who sacrificed herself for Art. And, in the tradition of New York Harbor's Statue of Liberty--likewise clad in neo-classical robes, likewise linked to France, an inspiration to the nation. In fact, Duncan paid homage to the French civilizational ideal in her dance to the "Marseillaise," which she composed and performed during the First World War. As she wrote in her autobiography, My Life:

Coming from bleeding heroic France, I was indignant at the apparent indifference of America to the war, and one night, after a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, I folded my red shawl around me and improvised the "Marseillaise." It was a call to the boys of America to rise and protect the highest civilization of our epoch--that culture which has come to the world through France. The next morning the newspapers were enthusiastic. One of them said:

"Miss Isadora Duncan earned a remarkable ovation at the close of her program with an impassioned rendition of the "marseillaise," when the audience stood and cheered her for several minutes...Her exalted poses were imitative of the classic figures on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Her shoulders were bare, and also one side, to the waist-line, in one post, as she thrilled the spectators with the representation of the beautiful figures (of Rude) on the famous arch. The audience burst into cheers and braves as the living representation of noble art."

Professor Nagy and the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies deserve our gratitude for a heroic effort to promote the values of Western Civilization in our National Capital, in the presentation of "Maenads and Muses: A Celebration of the Dances of Isadora Duncan and the Greek Ideal." 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Russian Lessons for the Next President

"Russia Policy for the Next Administration" panel at CGI
(l-r) Michael Purcell, Andrew Kuchins, Thomas Graham, Nikolai Zlobin

Washington, DC is getting ready for the election of a new President, and so think-tanks are jockeying for position to influence the incoming administration, whether Democrat or Republican. 

In that context, yesterday's Center on Global Interests panel at the City Club of Washington headlined "Russia Policy for the Next Administration" was indeed "of interest." 

An all-star troika of Russia-watchers opined on the past, present, and future of relations between the two nuclear superpowers, and it was a sobering discussion. Basically, the panel argued that American policy towards Russia--whether in the Ukraine, Syria, Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, or in relation to China--has failed. Relations are worse than at any time since the end of the Cold War. While Russia was helpful in negotiations with Iran on nuclear weapons, and Syria on chemical weapons, it has otherwise gone from strategic partner to strategic adversary, complicating American relations with the rest of the world. American "meddling" in Russian internal politics has turned the average Russian citizen, as well as the Russian government, anti-American. Russia is getting stronger, not weaker; sanctions are not stopping military re-armament; and Putin remains both popular and potent, despite American opposition. The next President, therefore, will need to re-think Russia policy in order to avoid establishment of a New World Order in which resurgent Russia and booming China are able to outperform the military and economic power of the United States. NATO expansion, which had been intended to reassure, pacify and economically strengthen Europe, has instead resulted in fear, war, and economic uncertainty. 

The experts who shared these gloomy conclusions spoke from personal experience in the corridors of power.  Harvard Ph.D. Thomas Graham was the National Security Council Russian guru from 2002-2007, and currently works for Kissinger Associates. His outlook was bleak, and offered little cause for optimism to listeners in the room. Russia may be only a regional power, but the regions involved are those which affect American national interests...and our attempted strategic partnership with Russia had failed.

Likewise, Johns Hopkins Ph.D. Andrew Kuchins, who ran the Carnegie Center in Moscow, had little sunshine to offer, other than suggestions that the US President stop insulting Vladimir Putin, and reduce attempts at interference in Russian domestic politics. Russia is no longer weak, is not badly run, and needs to be dealt with on its own terms, rather than on terms of American wishful-thinking, Kuchins seemed to say. Negotiations would have to be conducted on a basis of mutual respect, rather than domination. Russia was just not going to accept American hegemony over the former Soviet space.

The most interesting moments came during the Question and Answer session, when the audience of Washington insiders peppered the experts with tough problems. One retired intelligence analyst shouted that Russia would become a Sunni nation by 2050, that he had seen the demographic projections--both classified and unclassified. Russians were not having children, while Muslims were having large families. Therefore, Islam was the future of Russia, he maintained.

Both Graham and Kuchins seemed skeptical of these claims. Yet to me, this outburst helped to explain what otherwise has seemed a perplexing American policy toward Russia--one which appears to support Chechen terrorists, as well as other Muslim-Brotherhood affiliated groups in the former USSR. Some influential American experts obviously believe that "demography is destiny," and since Muslims have higher birthrates, pursuing a form of identity politics similar to American "diversity" program would lead to an increase in American influence. Thus, American indulgence towards those whom the Russians see as  bloodthirsty terrorists resulted in horrible public blowback when the US-supported Tsarnaev Brothers, a family brought to the United States by the CIA, blew up the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. 

Moderator Nikolai Zlobin, himself a historian, responded quickly to the analyst, that the former Soviet Union had a larger Muslim population than post-Soviet Russia. That fact, which some in the audience did not seem to understand, spoke volumes. Russia has been dealing with Islam for hundreds of years, it is nothing new, it is an essential element of Russian history. Islam is one of the four official national religions recognized by the Russian state (the others are Judaism, Buddhism, and Russian Orthodoxy). The attempt to use Islam against Russia had been tried by the Ottoman Empire, the Germans in World War I and World War II, and the United States in the Cold War. It has failed every time, because, in the words of the famous cliche, when you scratch a Russian, you find a Tatar. Russian ideology--whether today's nationalism or yesterday's Soviet approach--was historically concerned with what Stalin called "the nationalities issue." Russification of Sunni Muslims in the Russian Empire, Soviet Union, or "near abroad" has been a consistent pattern. The Hammer and Sickle resembled an Islamic Crescent and Orthodox Cross. That American experts continue to believe in the "weaponization" of Islam against Russia--at a time when the United States and Western Europe are subjected to increasingly violent attacks in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2015, struck this listener as dangerous and suicidal.

Demography is not destiny; and the trajectory of history is unknown. It may very well be that the intelligence expert is on the wrong side of history; that his demographic data will not track with ideological or national self-identification; and that Vladimir Putin has a better sense of Russia's national interest than the Islamist apologists in America's Intelligence Community--who have lost Russia, may lose Europe, and could possibly lose America if they are permitted to remain in power much longer.

Another questioner, from TANAM, a company affiliated with RUSATOM, pointed out that sanctions on Russia were hurting the American nuclear power industry, which depends on cheap, high-quality Russian nuclear fuel to run American reactors and provide cheap electricity. Panelists offered him little hope of a speedy resolution. But the point was clear: American sanctions on Russia are hurting Americans, too.

After listening to the panel presentation and audience discussion, it became clear that a Hillary Clinton Presidency could only offer more failed policies, such as the so-called "Reset," that led to the current stalemate with Russia. 

On the other hand, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would seem to have a good chance at developing truly new approaches to Russia. Trump, as the author of "The Art of the Deal," would be in a good position to negotiate a "new Yalta" that many Russians had asked for, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sanders, as a socialist who spent his honeymoon in Russia and youth on a communist Kibbutz in Israel, would understand the deep-seated motivations and history affecting the former Soviet space, and deal with Russians as equal partners--which is all they are asking, if the panelists are to believed.

The take-away: Big changes could be in store for Russian-American relations if Bernie or Donald are elected in November.