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Feb 27 11

And The Oscar Goes To…

by Editor

The Oscars are tonight and I have no plans to watch, as usual. Unlike in most years, I do feel a sudden compulsion to see one movie win. My pick: Gasland deserves the Oscar for best documentary, for being (as my wife aptly noted) a cross between An Inconvenient Truth and Erin Brockovich.

Directed by Josh Fox, the movie is disturbing and compelling, a race against an unseen clock to expose the devastation to drinking water and the environment caused by hydraulic fracturing (aka “hydrofracking”), a process for extracting natural gas from underground rock formations. The race is one that affects millions of people living along the east coast and those states just inland, to see whether the process of leasing land for hydrofracking and allowing new wells to be drilled can be stopped before the hydrofracking contaminates the water supply for about 16 million people. (So far, the outcome does not look good for those of us living in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and even Delaware.)

There are many, many problems one can point to in our society, from the financial shenanigans that helped bring about our recent depression, to our fundamental failure to confront “third rail” political issues like the funding of Social Security or Medicare and healthcare. What makes this story about hydrofracking especially powerful is that it connects all the dots on the spectrum: corporate malfeasance, political intransigence, bureaucratic expediency (because, yes, bureaucracies can be efficient when they want to be), hard science, loose medicine, and personal tales of loss in the face of all of the above.

Meanwhile, as if reporter Ian Urbina was watching the movie with me yesterday, the New York Times is running a story today about hydrofracking and its associated problems—though as usual (in service to “objectivity”) the article does what the documentary does not, in pointing out that there are always at least two sides to the story and that questions about “facts” remain.

In this case, it seems to me there are three sides: government officials who say all the right things about being watchdogs for the public good (while clearly failing); energy companies that downplay the known science (and working to hide what isn’t yet known) because it’s better for business that way; and environmentalists and average citizens who are witness to the devastation wrought by hydraulic fracturing, not least through the demonstrably flammable water emanating from the tap. Those scenes are a consistent highlight of the movie. Sadly, the Times neglects even to mention Gasland; this is all the more ironic given the scope of coverage the news organization is dedicating to the Oscars.

Our collective failure to confront this and other issues is more complicated than what is, or is not, reported in the news media. (Though that’s certainly one good starting point for a discussion.) Where An Inconvenient Truth may have been more abstract—it’s difficult to really grasp the implications of planetary changes you cannot see with your own eyes, as this recent episode of This American Life (#424, aired 14 January 2011) so ably demonstrated—Gasland is direct and in your face. A hard-to-avoid truth: your drinking water, and mine, may soon be ruined. If that’s not worth fighting for, what is?

Feb 12 11

Complicity Through Passivity

by Editor

If it takes two to tango, it takes at least as many to collaborate, in every sense of that word. Coming on the heels of my column last week about Israeli intransigence on peacemaking with Palestinians—while embracing the Germans in the years after the holocaust and every year since—I was stuck by the parallels in two reviews in the current New York Review of Books. First is Ian Buruma’s review of Alan Riding’s new book “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris”; Buruma focuses his review around those writers and artists who collaborated with the Nazis, those who didn’t, and the large swath of gray in between. He writes:

“Some French artists and intellectuals such as Jean Paulhan were active in the resistance, but for the most part the cultural elite made no special contribution. Should more have been expected of them? This is the question running through Riding’s book. The fact that writers were more harshly treated after the war than collaborating businessmen or bureaucrats suggests that it was certainly seen that way by many people in France. Sartre, for one, believed that intellectuals had a higher calling than other people. De Gaulle seemed to agree. He refused to save Robert Brasillach from execution (even as real killers, like René Bousquet, went on to enjoy successful careers in government), because, as he put it, ‘in literature, as in everything, talent carries with it responsibility.’ Unlike Americans, the French have traditionally treated their writers and thinkers with reverence. Was this trust betrayed?”

Decades after the war, this may feel like a question that is largely academic (so to speak). Where the issue has relevance is for contemporary situations that are, if not precisely analogous, then at least comparable in raising questions about how intellectual elites (or even mere mortals) respond under pressure. A few pages after Buruma comes David Shulman’s review of “What Is a Palestinian State Worth?,” the new book by Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh. Describing Nusseibeh and the environment in which he and other Palestinians and Israelis coexist, Shulman writes:

“Last July I heard Sari Nusseibeh speak at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities at an evening honoring its retiring president, Menahem Yaari. … Nusseibeh used the occasion of the academy lecture to deliver a damning indictment of the Israeli academic establishment for its truly astonishing passivity over the past forty-three years of occupation. Although, in general, the government is probably right in seeing the Israeli universities as a natural breeding ground for leftist—that is, liberal and peace-oriented—opinion, Nusseibeh is also right. Like everyone else, Israeli academic intellectuals as a group have failed to mount a sustained and politically effective protest against the occupation and the accompanying colonial project of settling Israelis in the territories. Like most other Israelis, with some notable exceptions, they live within the system and tolerate its misdeeds. The large audience at the academy listened to Nusseibeh’s scathing critique that evening with what seemed to me, for the most part, a stony and impassive silence.”

That observation speaks for itself. And while the Israelis are not engaged in systematic murder in the mode of the Nazis, it is difficult to deny the reality of the oppressive occupation of the West Bank and, previously, Gaza—raising questions of complicity through passivity.

Likewise the interview on NPR last night with Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States. Shoukry was by turns direct (e.g., in response to a question about who is in charge and what has been communicated about it, Shoukry says “…as of yet, we have not received any definitive information related to the process of governing.”) and slightly evasive. He concluded by noting that the future looks bright for Egypt and its children—but, of course, Ambassador Shoukry was appointed by now deposed President Hosni Mubarak, which surely raises questions about his own role in government, past and future.

Complicity through passivity. It is an interesting concept, challenging as much for its lack of nuance as for its wide applicability. Are we, Americans, complicity in the loss of our own civil rights, through Big Brother-esque laws like the Patriot Act, by not protesting more loudly? Yes. (And kudos to the new members of Congress who, in the midst of other, less positive tendencies, have also tried to put the brakes on the renewal of this terrifying piece of legislation.) Are we complicit in the ethically problematic (if questionably legal) tactics—from torture to targeted assassination—practiced by our government? Slavery. Segregation and oppression of minorities, from Native Americans to African-Americans to the GLBT community. Support for dictators, from Marcos to Mubarak.

With Egyptians now optimistically looking to a freer future, after the fall of a regime the United States supported for three decades, we must ask ourselves these questions again. We may not agree on the answers; indeed, we may not come up with much of an answer at all. But the world would—will—be a better place if we confront these issues, ask the right questions about our own actions, and seek to achieve the higher values we espouse rather than the realpolitik that is more easily reached.

Feb 2 11

A Failure of Leadership & Imagination

by Editor

“Mr. Netanyahu called on the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to resume peace negotiations without preconditions. But the prime minister also said it was possible that the gaps between the two sides were too wide to be bridged.” The New York Times, February 2, 2011


Between 1933-1945, the German government murdered around 6 million Jews, as part of an official policy of state-sanctioned genocide. Two years after the creation of the state of Israel, the two nations were talking. Twenty years after the end of the war, in 1965, Germany and Israel established formal diplomatic relations. By 2008, Germany and Israel had $6 billion in annual bilateral trade, and Germany is Israel’s largest trading partner after the United States.

There is probably some crude math one could do there—6 million dead Jews to $6 billion in annual trade—but let’s skip to the point: over a 78 year period, the situation between Germans and Jews went from desperately murderous to fairly lucrative.


Between the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and now, 2011, fewer than 100,000 Israelis have been killed, despite several wars, numerous terrorist attacks, and a long-standing and simmering conflict with the Palestinians and some Arab nations. While there has been a peace treaty in place with Egypt since 1979, Israel has not been able to negotiate a formal peace with its Palestinian neighbors over the last 63 years.

Recently released papers suggest that the failure to make a peace deal over the last decade rests more with the Israelis than the Palestinians—despite common perceptions to the contrary—but the question of who precisely is to blame for this irrelevant right now. What matters is the mindset embodied by the expression of distance by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu: that we cannot make peace, the gap between our views is too big.

I am having a tough time with the irony here. That would be the irony of Israel’s largely happy and mutually beneficial trading relationship with the nation that once murdered millions of Israel’s progenitor Jews—while steadfastly insisting that peace is not possible with a neighbor whose inflicted casualties have been but a fraction of the damage previously done.

In 2011, of course, most of the Germans who participated in World War II are dead, and most of the Jews who managed to survive the holocaust are also dead. By contrast, many more of the Israelis and Palestinians involved in conflicts since 1948 remain alive. But this suggests that some generational turnover is necessary for peace, and that was clearly not true with Germany.  Nor can one simply point to German reparations or an internal sense of guilt and shame, and suggest that these kinds of feelings are missing on the Palestinian side: post-war Germany had plenty of ex-Nazis in government, presumably no less anti-Semitic than they had been before, and it took decades for the view of German history to catch-up to the reality of the war and the holocaust. There are also demographic and different kinds of existential threats from the Palestinians, sure. Yet what is more of an existential threat than concentration camps, gas chambers, and ovens—things that the Palestinians (for all their issues with Jews and Israelis) have never attempted to construct.


I can understand the fear and trepidation that must result from watching the revolution in Egypt play out, with uncertain outcomes on a range of fronts. Still, the perspective captured by that New York Times article and others is depressing. This is a tumultuous time. But tumultuous times demand bold and visionary leadership. An Israel that found ways to support democracy in Egypt might find an Egypt that supports Israel. And an Israel that took this moment of tumult to re-engage with the Palestinians, to finally seek a conclusion to this conflict and the senseless Occupation, might find the long-desired peace it seeks with the Palestinians as well as with its other Arab neighbors.


1. There is an excellent piece in The Economist about supporting democracy in Egypt, rather than fearing it.
2. The New York Times is running a story about fears in Israel, again reinforcing the Israeli view that repression in Egypt is better than democracy. Also sad is the degree of support that this view receives from the likes of Malcolm Hoenlein and others, who still pretend to represent the broad views of American Jews. And on that note, if you (still) have not read Peter Beinart’s incredible piece on this broad subject, please do.
3. Read Yasmine El Rashidi’s posts on the New York Review of Books blog. Click here, then click the tab for the “NYRBLOG” right under her bio.

Oct 30 10

Preamble or Postmortem?

by Editor

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

For anyone who has forgotten, that is the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, and it remains a phenomenal articulation of purpose, both for the political framework it introduces and for the role of government.

If only we were as good about implementing it as we think we were.


It’s a statement of the obvious to say that there are many things about our daily lives that were not top-of-mind for the founders of the United States and the framers of the Constitution. From air and space travel to the internet, these are generally things that might have been dreamed of in the 18th century (after all, Leonardo dreamed of some of them centuries earlier), but they probably could not have been conceived of as real elements of near-future lives.

Then there are all things that the founders lived with but may also not have envisioned changing, such as the elimination of slavery, the provision of the right to vote for women, or the use of the Commerce Clause to justify many of the biggest expansions of government over the last century.

In this back-to-the-future laundry list, one thing is missing: advances in the practice of medicine and health care. Here too it would be conjecture to say that the founders couldn’t have predicted all that we would be able to do, and all that we know, about human biology and how to work with it. But I would guess that this is the one area where they would most have desired the knowledge we have today. Who wouldn’t? Being able to end (or severely limit) the spread of the myriad small diseases and infections that killed people, or having understanding of the basic sanitation systems needed to keep us healthy day to day—these are all thinks I think our pragmatic founding fathers would have happily accepted as a gift from the future.


So, back to the Preamble: “insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare,” three very clear clauses defining the purpose of the Constitution and, therefore, the purpose of government. Which raises a question: Why aren’t we considering government-supported healthcare as essential to the fulfillment of our responsibilities under the Constitution?

All this is top-of-mind right now, as we head into the mid-term elections next week—and as the Democrats mostly run from their own record of supporting the healthcare legislation President Obama worked to push through Congress. I am ambivalent about this healthcare legislation—because it didn’t go far enough and because it went too far. It addressed many of the easy parts of the problem (e.g., subsidies to help people) without addressing the bigger challenges (rising costs and access), and failed to find a rational way of addressing both guaranteed access and a marketplace of choice. Restricting freedom of choice would be just as inconsistent with the principles of the Constitution as failing to promote our general welfare.

Still, running from it is not just political cowardice, it’s political stupidity. Regardless of Justices Scalia and Thomas’ inability to admit it, interpretation is at the heart of Constitutional law because we have no other choice. What any legislator who voted for the Obama healthcare legislation needs to be doing right now is explaining why this legislation is good, and to fight for and defend it on basic Constitutional grounds: because a healthy populace is essential to “insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare.”


In his interview with Jon Stewart on Wednesday, President Obama did a good job of addressing the record of his administration over the last two years, and made that point that he never said that everything would be fixed or changed in two years or less. True as that may be, the scope of work that remains is enormous, and yet we are no closer to addressing the underlying principles behind certain policy decisions, or any closer to living up to the civil liberties promises on which Obama campaigned. (If there is one link you look at here, let it be this one.) He may have been mugged by reality—indeed, he suggested as much in his Daily Show interview—but to my mind that’s no argument for giving up the fight. And not just the fight on pragmatic grounds, but on principled ones.

On Tuesday, November 2nd, Americans again get to make a choice. Preamble or postmortem: what’s it going to be, people?