The Nation, 20 July 2009

nation 20 july 2009An article by Robert Dreyfuss explores the division among the Iranian political elite that has contributed to the recent mass demonstrations there.  Dreyfuss convinces me that the government has a narrow base of support among elite groups in the city of Teheran.  Most of the people he talks to regard Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmedinejad as too hard-line and traditionalist, while many others are turning to rightist groups that accuse those men of being too soft.  However, I’m skeptical of Dreyfuss’ attempts to suggest that the Teherani elite is in this matter representative of the country as a whole.  Dreyfuss cites the Chatham House study which compared voter turnout in Iran’s 2005 presidential election with turnout in this year’s contest, concluding that the number of votes reported had increased by so much that fraud was a likelier explanation than was a rise in actual participation.  On Dreyfuss’ own showing, though, the opposition has the support of many key power players.  Among them are many men who may be in a position to falsify votes.  And the fact remains that the only opinion poll conducted in Iran before this year’s election predicted the same result that the authorities certified.  The election may well have been a phony, but Dreyfuss definitely wrong to say that it “seems far-fetched” to think that Ahmedinejad may have won. 


The Nation, 13 July 2009

nation 13 july 2009Alex Cockburn rages at the Americans who cheerlead for the protests in Iran while they ignore politics in their own country, giving the Obama administration carte blanche to break every promise Mr O made to help working people and curb the national security state.  As for Cockburn’s view of Iran, readers of his newsletter Counterpunch are familiar with his suspicion that the protests are something of a phony put up by advocates of war.   

An editorial about the Obama administration’s approach to the righs of sexual minorities begins by pointing out that in Mr O’s first bid for public office, for the Illinois state senate in 1996, he was asked where he stood on same-sex marriage.  Unlike other candidates, who either checked “yes” or “no,” Mr O went out of his way to add the sentence “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”  At that time no state recognized same-sex marriages, and many criminalized same-sex sex.  Now, the country has moved on.  Even the governor of Utah has endorsed civil unions for same sex couples.  And Mr O has moved backward.  Now he opposes same-sex marriages, presides over the continuation of “don’t ask- don’t tell,” and hasn’t lifted a finger to support legislation to protect sexual minorities from workplace discrimination, legislation 89% of Americans say they favor.  The editorial sums it up: “At this rate, Obama is in danger of being outpaced on gay rights not just by the American people but by the nonsuicidal wing of the Republican Party.”  

Lisa Duggan celebrates Salt Lake City’s surprisingly visible, surprisingly politicized sexual minorities.  Countering those who have called for a boycott of Utah to protest the role of Mormons in the campaign to end gender-neutral marriage in California, Duggan quotes Salt Lake City residents who’ve called for a “New Queer Pioneer Movement,” one that would emulate the sect trains of the Mormon nineteenth century and flood the state with same-sexers. 

Joseph Stiglitz claims that the current global economic crisis presents us with a stark alternative: either we adopt nationalistic policies of subsidy and protection that mean we renounce economic globalization, or we adopt United Nations-based regulatory schemes that mean we embrace political globalization.  As Stiglitz is the head of the UN’s Commission of Experts on the crisis, it will not come as a complete surprise that he favors the latter option.


The American Conservative, 18 May 2009

The Balance of Power

The Balance of Power

Michael Desch’s cover story, “Apocalypse Not,” argues that while Iran is nowhere near having nuclear weapons, things wouldn’t be so bad even if it did have them.  Desch quotes some of the overheated rhetoric of anti-Iranian hawks.  One line that stuck out for me was a quote from Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu: “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying.”  To which an uncharitable observer might add, he should know… 

In response to assertions of this sort, Desch points out, first, that deterrence kept both Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung from using nuclear weapons, and no one seriously argues that Iran’s leadership today is more warlike than were Stalin or Mao.  Second, the Iranian political system does not centralize decision-making to any one man, as the Soviet and Chinese systems did in the days of Stalin and Mao.  Therefore, it is far less vulnerable to the paranoid delusions of a single leader than were the systems those men dominated.  So if nuclear deterrence was good enough to keep Stalin and Mao in check, it should be good enough to keep Ahmedinejad in check as well.  Desch goes further, arguing that acquiring a nuclear arsenal might even lead the Iranian regime to become less difficult for its neighbors to live with.  The existence of such an arsenal might enable the US and Israel to adopt a containment strategy towards Iran, which might lead to a mellowing of the regime, as the Soviet regime mellowed in the decades of containment following Stalin’s death.     

Stuart Reid claims that “The truth is that man is no longer civilized enough to wage war.”  What we call war, earlier ages would have seen as sheer murder. 

A review of Defending the Republic: Constitutional Morality in a Time of Crisis commends its authors, conservative legal scholars and political theorists, for recognizing that while the center-left still tries to use the courts to do what should be done through the elected branches of government, “there is an anti-constitutional Right as well.”  Irving Babbitt scholar Claes G. Ryn contributes an essay to the volume in which he equates the neoconservatives with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, likening the wars of the Bush/Cheney years with the Vendée and the first stirring of Napoleon’s campaigns of conquest.  The title of Ryn’s essay is “Neo-Jacobin Nationalism or Responsible Nationhood?,” proposing a dichotomy of the sort Babbitt would have relished.   Ryn develops the same dichotomy here.

Seven recent issues of The Nation

Ever since I started writing here, I’ve been referring to “Mrs Acilius.”  Until last month, that was a bit of an exaggeration, as I had not actually married the lady in question.  We tied the knot 12 May.  So lately, I’ve had things on my mind other than this blog.  That’s why I haven’t been posting “Periodicals Notes” regularly.  But I’ve vowed to catch up.  So here are my notes on the last seven, yes seven, issues of The Nation.

nation 25 may 200925 May: It’s been almost 60 years since a jury found that former State Department official Alger Hiss was lying when he denied that he had passed classified documents to an agent of Soviet military intelligence during the years 1934-1938.  The Nation has never let go of the Hiss case, and still publishes articles, columns, and reviews at regular intervals maintaining his innocence.  When Hiss died in 1996, I read a few books about the case.  Hiss’ own book, In the Court of Public Opinion, and his son Tony’s memoir of him, Laughing Last; Alistair Cooke‘s A Generation on Trial; and Allan Weinstein’s Perjury.  I mention the fact that I read these four books not because they qualify me as an expert on a matter as complex and hotly disputed as the Hiss case; obviously they do not.   All I want to do is explain that I have a certain familiarity with the Hiss case, and that I take an interest in discussions of it. 

D. D. Guttenplan reviews two recent books, Susan Jacoby‘s Alger Hiss and the Battle for History and Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev.  In regard to Spies, Guttenplan’s main goal is disprove the book’s accusation that journalist I. F. Stone was a Soviet agent.  I would be inclined to say that Guttenplan achieves that goal easily.  I haven’t read the book, but unless there is a great deal more to it than Guttenplan acknowledges it would seem that its authors have not only failed to make the case against Stone, but have actually made a compelling case that Stone could not have been the man the Soviets codenamed “Blin” “”Pancake.”)  

Guttenplan’s contribution to the Hiss debate is less of a triumph.  The review goes on and on about the absence of Hiss’ name from declassified KGB documents.  It would be difficult to imagine a less relevant point.  Hiss was never accused of spying for the KGB.  The KGB was an organ of Soviet State Security.  Hiss was accused of passing documents, not to Soviet State Security, but to Soviet Military Intelligence (the GRU.)  The man who identified himself as Hiss’ contact was Whittaker Chambers, whom no one denies was an operative of Soviet Military Intelligence.  In the Soviet system, Military Intelligence was a bitter rival of State Security; they most assuredly did not share with each other the names of highly placed agents whom they had recruited. 

Hiss’ defenders are not alone in ignoring this point.  So, those who are most convinced of his guilt often bring up the “VENONA Intercepts,” cables sent by KGB station chiefs in Washington to Moscow and intercepted by the FBI in the years 1946-1980.  These cables use the codename “ALES” to refer to a man who sounds more like Alger Hiss than anyone else, and describe him as an agent of Soviet intelligence.  They do not report direct contacts with ALES, however, nor do they include any intelligence gathered from him.  The likeliest explanation, then, is that the station chief had heard a rumor that Hiss was working for Soviet Military Intelligence and was reporting this rumor to headquarters.  That such rumors were circulating about Hiss in various intelligence services around the world before Chambers made his charges public has been known for some time; in the first edition of Perjury, published in 1978, Allan Weinstein devoted a whole appendix to indications that a number of European intelligence services believed Hiss was a Soviet agent.  VENONA does nothing but add Soviet State Security to the list of these services.   

nation 1 june 20091 June:  Akiva Gottlieb reviews Clint Eastwood’s latest bout of macho self-pity masquerading as a movie.  The last two paragraphs sum up Gottlieb’s view:

In the closing scene of Gran Torino, a lawyer reads from the dead man’s will, which Walt had written himself. It turns out that he had chosen to bequeath the titular totem of middle-class luxury to Thao, “on the condition that you don’t chop-top the roof like one of those beaners, don’t paint any idiotic flames on it like some white trash hillbilly and don’t put a big gay spoiler on the rear end like you see on all of the other zipperheads’ cars.” In other words, Walt gets to keep his racial epithets and be the hero, too. The closing credits roll over a shot of Thao cruising in his new vehicle of assimilation, with Eastwood’s raspy voice cooing gently on the soundtrack, reminding the next generation just who we have to thank for our liberty.