Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.
By this author
Can there be a more thankless task than assembling such texts? Paying homage to clichés ancient and contemporary; nodding to every constituency, large or small, lest anyone feel slighted; claiming to know history’s very purposes, while taking care to package such claims in bland (and therefore incontrovertible) generalities; inserting anticipatory rebuttals to the inevitable sniping of partisan critics: These number among the essential elements. Satisfying them necessarily results in a product that is to expository prose what Spam is to a pig: highly processed and short on nutrition.
Bacevich digs through the Spam to uncover the document's underlying logic, which is as evident in its omissions as in its "highly processed" rhetoric. He is especially hard on the NSS's flourishes of self-congratulation:
As measured by “might, technology, and geostrategic reach,” U.S. military forces are “unrivaled in human history.” More accurately: While the United States undoubtedly possesses enormous military power, it has yet to figure out how to translate armed might into politically purposeful outcomes achieved at reasonable cost. Time and again, vast expenditures of lives, treasure, and political capital yield results other than those intended.
The United States is “embracing constraints on our use of new technologies like drones.” A bit of a stretch, that. More accurately: Through its shadowy campaign of targeted assassination, the Obama administration is erasing long-established conceptions of sovereignty while removing constraints on the use of force. Something of a novelty when inaugurated by George W. Bush, drone strikes have now become routine—about as newsworthy as traffic accidents. In effect, Washington claims the prerogative of converting lesser countries like Yemen or Somalia into free-fire zones. What these precedent-setting actions imply for the future is anybody’s guess. One thing seems likely: As drones proliferate with astonishing speed, others are likely to avail themselves of the same prerogative.
In the current New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a thoughtful piece about last week's massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. He provides some useful history, makes some important distinctions, and points out that, even in an era when the capacity of images to shock is supposed to have been enfeebled by "repetition and availability," a cartoon can still enrage.
This point has been made elsewhere, and no doubt it will be made again and again in the next few days, because it's an obvious point. But it's also an important one, so let me make it here too: Marco Rubio's sanctimonious response to yesterday's announcement that the Obama administration will begin normalizing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba is impossible to take seriously. From the New York Times:
Dana Milbank: "The New Republic is dead, thanks to its owner, Chris Hughes":
At a 40th-birthday party in July for Franklin Foer, editor of the New Republic, the magazine’s young owner, Chris Hughes, got all choked up as he pledged to the roomful of writers at Foer’s country home in Pennsylvania that the two would be “intellectual partners for decades.”
There have recently been many good articles about what Amazon is doing to the book trade. In February, the New Yorker's George Packer offered a short history of the company, along with some shrewd ideas about how publishers might escape its vise grip. In October, Franklin Foer, the editor of the New Republic, described how Amazon violates the spirit, if not the letter, of our anti-trust laws. Back in 2012, TNR's Leon Wieseltier published this nice little lament for some of the important things Amazon is destroying. And in our own November 14 issue, Albert Wu wrote about how the French government, scrappy independent bookstore owners, and others are resisting Amazon's growing control over publishers, authors, and, yes, readers.
Now comes Ursula K. Le Guin, who lit into Amazon last night at the National Book Awards. She did not name the company; she did not need to. But her target was bigger than Amazon, and she hit it:
I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.
After the jump, Le Guin's whole speech—all 432 words of it.
Steven Rattner on income inequality. Bad news: it's still getting worse. And after the GOP's gains in the midterm elections, it seems unlikely Washington is about to do anything about it:
The race to control the Senate is not about legislation, because the pivotal negotiations on any legislation involve Obama and the House. Appointments are a different story, because the House has no power over appointments. The Senate has power over appointments. And this is the power that lies on the razor’s edge.
Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, “Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”
A year after Witness was published and two years before his articles and reviews begain appearing in a new publication called the National Review (where he would write his famous take-down of Ayn Rand), Whittaker Chambers wrote an essay about St. Benedict that was published in Commonweal. By that point, the former Communist spy had become a kind of twentieth-century Henry Adams, seeking refuge in the Middle Ages from what he regarded as the moral and political decadence of his own time. Chambers begins his Commonweal essay by remarking on how little he—and other educated Americans of his generation—had been taught about the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance: "[U]nder the sunlit skies of my boyhood, the Dark Ages were seldom mentioned: if at all, chiefly by way of contrast to the light of our progress."
The Dark Ages were inexcusable and rather disreputable—a bad time when the machine of civilization in its matchless climb to the twentieth century had sheared a whole rank of king-pins and landed mankind in a centuries-long ditch. At best, it was a time when monks sat in unsanitary cells with a human skull before them, and copied and recopied, for lack of more fruitful employment, the tattered records of a dead antiquity. That was the Dark Ages at best, which, as anybody could see, was not far from the worst.
If a bright boy, leafing through history, asked: “How did the Dark Ages come about?” he might be told that “Rome fell!”–as if a curtain simply dropped. Boys of ten or twelve, even if bright, are seldom bright enough to say to themselves: “Surely, Rome did not fall in a day.” If a boy had asked: “But were there no great figures in the Dark Ages, like Teddy Roosevelt, King Edward, and the Kaiser?” he might well have been suspected of something like an unhealthy interest in the habits and habitats of spiders. If he had persisted and asked: “But isn’t it clear that the Dark Ages are of a piece with our age of light, that our civilization is by origin Catholic, that, in fact, we cannot understand what we have become without understanding what we came from?” he would have been suspected of something much worse than priggery—a distressing turn to popery.[...]
I was in my twenties, a young intellectual savage in college with thousands of others, before the fact slowly dawned upon me that, for a youth always under the spell of history, the history I knew was practically no history at all. It consisted of two disjointed parts—the history of Greece and Rome, with side trips to Egypt and the Fertile Crescent: and a history of the last four hundred years of Europe and America. Of what lay in between, what joined the parts and gave them continuity, and the pulse of life and breath of spirit, my ignorance was darker than any Dark Age. Less by intelligence than by the kind of sixth sense which makes us aware of objects ahead in the dark, I divined that a main land mass of the history of Western civilization loomed hidden beyond my sight.