Book Review: More on Richard M. Nixon


July 2, 2015

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/books/review/being-nixon-and-one-man-against-the-world.html?ref=books

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President Richard M. Nixon–America’s Most Tortured President

In May, to start the final broadcast of David Letterman’s late-night show, a dimly familiar yellow-tinged 1970s video began to play. “My fellow Americans,” Gerald Ford intoned, “our long national nightmare is over.” In specially recorded messages, Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama then recited the famous line, which Ford had first spoken just after the disgraced Richard Nixon left the White House, the only president ever to resign. No one in the Letterman bit mentioned Nixon’s name, but his specter — as it so often does in our political culture — hovered over the whole thing.

Being NixonHard though it may be to recall, for a time during the 1990s Richard Nixon seemed bound for rehabilitation. He had spent his last years romancing the pundit class, fashioning an image as a sage. Historians, digging into his administration’s domestic record, developed a ­man-bites-dog story line that pronounced him a Great Society liberal. And as the flood of Watergate memoirs dried up, kooky conspiracy theories flourished, some exonerating Tricky Dick from a key part in the 1972 burglary and cover-up that brought him down.

Now we’ve come full circle. The release of White House tapes and documents since Nixon’s death in 1994 has rendered the pro-Nixon historiography of yesteryear a musty artifact. Washington ­pseudoscandals have come and gone, clarifying anew how breathtaking Watergate was. And this summer brings two major new Nixon books — Tim Weiner’s “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon” and Evan Thomas’s “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” — neither of which offers much that’s novel but which together reaffirm the old (and new) consensus. These well-researched efforts remind us, fundamentally, that Nixon himself led the criminal conspiracy at the heart of his presidency, the revelation of which forever tarnished the White House in the public mind.

Both authors are highly accomplished journalists. Weiner, a former New York Times national security reporter, is decidedly hostile to Nixon, structuring his account of the presidency around a litany of transgressions related to Watergate and the Vietnam War. Thomas, a prolific author and veteran Newsweek editor, aims for a more fully rounded portrait, carefully pairing each indictment of Nixon with a mitigating perspective or flattering ­counterexample. Weiner makes more fruitful use of primary sources, while Thomas has a surer command of the secondary literature. Whether you prefer the edgier Weiner or the judicious Thomas may depend on whether you like your political history fizzy or still, spicy or mild, extra crispy or original recipe.

Dozens of splendid works on Nixon already exist, of course. My short list would include Garry Wills’s “Nixon Agonistes,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “The Final Days” and Stanley I. Kutler’s “The Wars of Watergate” (all still in print). Yet there remains no authoritative cradle-to-grave biography. Stephen E. Ambrose banged out a solid, breezily written trilogy, but his wanton acts of plagiarism and the posthumous revelation that he fabricated interviews with Dwight Eisenhower have rendered his work unusable. Tom Wicker and Herbert S. Parmet each tried to fill the Nixon biography void, but they produced gargantuan tomes without touching key parts of his presidency. Roger Morris wrote a magisterial, if slightly conspiratorial, first installment of a planned multivolume work, but its thousand-plus pages reached only to the end of 1952. The other volumes never appeared.

Thomas’s “Being Nixon” aspires to be the go-to one-volume life. The author guides us from Nixon’s boyhood and eventful early career through the war-making, peace-making and policy-making of his presidency, to his post-resignation comeback bid. But it’s no knock on Thomas’s storytelling powers to conclude, on finishing his study, that a satisfying one-volume biography probably just can’t be written. The sheer yardage that one has to traverse simply defies easy narration.

Thomas has a fine eye for the telling quote and the funny vignette, and his style is eminently readable. But for much of the book he pin balls from one topic to the next. A quick take on school desegregation dissolves into a riff on Nixon’s taste in movies and then it’s off to Cambodia. The insistence on tackling so much material also precludes the sort of fine-grained analysis — whether of politics or policy or personality — that a porterhouse steak of a biography like this implicitly promises.

Fathoming the murky psychological depths of our most tortured president also presents a challenge. To his credit, Thomas treats Nixon as a human being, not a cartoon. Always on the lookout for the good deed or the sympathetic angle, he stresses not the familiar hatreds and well-known vindictiveness but Nixon’s shyness, his devotion to family, his sentimentality: “Being Nixon” opens with a meditation on Nixon’s love of the movie “Around the World in 80 Days,” and he is later shown listening happily to recordings of “Carousel” and “The King and I.

Empathy is admirable and even necessary in a historian, but Thomas’s fulsome charity obscures the rage, paranoia and chilling amorality that propelled Nixon to the peak of power and brought on the Watergate nightmare. In some places Thomas relies uncritically on dubious sources, like a 1993 Nixon hagiography by the conservative British politician Jonathan Aitken. At other times, his ­evenhandedness yields misleading understatement and ludicrous litotes. “Nixon was not completely free of prejudice,” he writes of this racist, anti-Semitic churl. “Favoring hush money over full disclosure was a moral lapse,” another sentence begins. He starts the book’s last paragraph, “Nixon was no saint,” before ending with the claim that Nixon tried “to dare to be brave, to see, often though sadly not always, the light in the dark.”

This peroration is unpersuasive, not least because Thomas himself show­cases so many scenes of Nixon rolling up his sleeves to break the law. “Being Nixon” doesn’t neglect the notorious train of abuses — from Henry Kissinger’s illegal wiretaps to the “Saturday Night Massacre” firing of the Watergate special prosecutor — that amounted to the worst constitutional crisis of the century. On the contrary, Thomas’s account gets exciting precisely when it hits Watergate and the obligatory discussions of wage and price controls and the office of consumer affairs recede. His gentle judgments thus ring false.

If “Being Nixon” struggles to encompass Nixon’s whole life, “One Man Against the World” zeros in on the Vietnam War and Watergate, with other Cold War dramas — China, détente, Chile, the Yom Kippur War — also getting attention. This focused approach avoids the pitfalls of sprawl. Weiner’s barrage of information, however, devolves into a charmless inventory. Intent on reeling off facts, he provides little scene setting, few character sketches and a dearth of political or historical context. And where Thomas suffers from a surfeit of empathy, Weiner displays too little.

Weiner’s staccato typewriter prose, with its one-sentence paragraphs and bullet judgments, also contrasts with Thomas’s inoffensive, glossy lyricism. On whether Nixon should be considered a liberal, for example, Thomas writes (correctly, in my view): “He was not, but he was a crafty activist who loved to outflank and confound his foes.” He then dilates dutifully on such topics as the environment and welfare reform. Nixon’s onetime assistant budget chief, James Schlesinger, is quoted saying that the president even reviewed the details of fiscal policy.

Weiner, on the other hand, states emphatically that Nixon “cared little about domestic affairs: least ofNixon One Man Against the World all housing, health, education, welfare and civil rights” — all true enough — and his narrative skirts those issues almost entirely. Yet he goes on to assert that “getting rid of things was the heart of Nixon’s domestic policy — especially tearing down the structures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.” I know of no historians today who would endorse that claim. Nixon did in fact preside over a welter of new liberal programs, but mainly because the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, public opinion was demanding activist government and the president had bigger priorities than fighting those battles.

Differences also arise in the two biographers’ takes on the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, which Nixon mounted to stop the North Vietnamese forces from hiding across the border. Weiner emphasizes the president’s deceit in concealing the operation from the American people and in having the military issue false reports about it. And he concludes ominously, in the last sentence of one chapter, “The bombing of a neutral nation arguably violated the laws of war.”

Widening the war into Cambodia fueled tensions at home, and the concealment of the operation typified Nixon’s furtive diplomatic style. But it’s noteworthy that Congress dropped the Cambodia incursion from the charges of impeachment it drafted in 1974, and Weiner is compelled to include the deflating adverb “arguably” for a reason. As Thomas explains in his more balanced account, “The North Vietnamese controlled Cambodia’s bordering territory,” and “‘hot pursuit’ into neutral territory is an old military doctrine.”

Weiner’s book is valuable insofar as it adds details to confirm what we knew about Nixon’s desperate Vietnam gambits and his central role in directing the Watergate cover-up. For example, he unearths an incriminating May 1973 tape of Nixon talking to his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, about memos from the previous summer that had been delivered by Vernon Walters of the C.I.A.; those documents described the president’s illegal effort to have the agency shut down the F.B.I.’s burgeoning probe of the Watergate break-in on the bogus grounds that it would compromise national security. “It will be very embarrassing,” Nixon says of releasing Walters’s notes. “It’ll indicate that we tried to cover up with the C.I.A.”

Weiner has clearly logged time in primary sources — C.I.A. files, Nixon’s tapes, oral histories, the State Department documents collected in “Foreign Relations of the United States” — and he serves up delightful nuggets of information. He discovers, for instance, that Nixon included a sentence in his first inauguration speech, “Our lines of communication will be open,” at the suggestion of the Soviet intelligence operative Boris Sedov, as a signal to Moscow. Unfortunately, Weiner exaggerates the import of this diplomatic wink, calling it “the K.G.B.’s proposal to ghostwrite a passage of the inaugural address.” Here and elsewhere, hyperbole undercuts his reliability.

Throughout the book, and in his public appearances promoting it, Weiner inflates his own contributions, sometimes leaving the impression that he first uncovered the information he cites. In truth, this volume adds less to our knowledge than two other recent books: Ken Hughes’s “Chasing Shadows,” about Nixon’s efforts during the 1968 election to keep the South Vietnamese from agreeing to Lyndon Johnson’s peace proposals, and John W. Dean’s “The Nixon Defense,” which uses hundreds of original tape transcriptions to illuminate the purpose of the 1972 Watergate break-in and the depth of Nixon’s knowledge of his aides’ obstruction of ­justice.

In 1994, during the height of the revisionism, one pro-Nixon scholar crowed that as time went on, Nixon would come to be known first for his social programs, next for his diplomacy and only incidentally for the orgy of lawlessness that had otherwise defined his reputation. Among the other verdicts that these two notable books offer — for all their sundry virtues and forgivable flaws — is the unmistakable conclusion that those revisionists were completely wrong.

ONE MAN AGAINST THE WORLD
The Tragedy of Richard Nixon
by Tim Weiner
369 pp. Henry Holt & Company.

BEING NIXON
A Man Divided
by Evan Thomas
Illustrated. 619 pp. Random House. $35.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image” and the forthcoming “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”

Christian Evangelism: Interview with Iain Buchanan


June 12, 2015

Christian Evangelism: Interview with Iain Buchanan, Author, The Armies of God

by Yogesh Pawar

http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/interview-evangelical-christianity-devils-in-high-places-1524855

From shaping American foreign policy to manipulating local Third World conflicts, evangelical Christianity has become a powerful force that has a vast global network of modern warriors engaged in ancient — and destructive — spiritual warfare, author of The Armies Of God, Iain Buchanan says.

iain-buchanan-armiew-of-godIn his explosive new book The Armies Of God: A Study In Militant Christianity, British-born, Malaysia-based academic Iain Buchanan blows the lid off a subject that most scholars and journalists tend to shy away from: the rise of US evangelism as a force in global affairs.

His book looks at how some of the powerful evangelical outfits operate — often as US government proxies — in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and of course, India, and the disastrous effects this has had on the relationship between the Christian West and non-Christian cultures, religious communities and nations. He also unmasks the role played by the seemingly secular ‘success motivation’ industry, and its leadership gurus such as Zig Ziglar and Ken Blanchard, who are not only management experts but also conscious agents of US-style Christian evangelism.

Excerpts from an interview:

What led you to write this book?

I grew up in an agnostic family with respect for spirituality of all kinds — from animism to true Christianity. I suppose one of my strongest incentives for writing the book was to show how, in the West, inherently decent things like liberal secularism and Christian spirituality (no necessary conflict here!) are so deeply corrupted by political power and so dishonestly vaunted as marks of cultural superiority.

Not many would want to come out in the open and talk about the issues raised in your book. Was that a concern for you?

In the West, certainly, there is a reluctance to enquire too deeply into the affairs of organised Christianity — both at home and overseas. Western culture is a deeply, subliminally Christian culture, and even committed secularists have trouble avoiding Christian parameters in their arguments, and recognising the Christian capacity for wrong-doing. Among other things, this leads to a rather benign view of the behaviour of our missionaries overseas — fed partly by ignorance, and partly by a sense that the Christian mission can be equated with civilisation. And such myopia has increased dramatically over the past 40 years, as the secular West has managed to define a global order largely in its own terms, with decisive help from its Christian missionaries.  By contrast, of course, the behaviour of non-Christians (especially Muslims) is scrutinised ruthlessly, misunderstood, and demonised.

Academics who have attempted to study the work of missionaries in India have been accused of helping the right-wing Hindutva brigade. Has this been your experience too?

The glib response to this would be to say that religious extremism of any kind needs to be exposed. But it is more complex than this. There is a need to go beyond the purely religious objection to Christian missionising, and examine the global forces which define it, and which are subverting countries like India in a far more comprehensive and profound way than most people realise.

A key contention of my book is that the extremism of Christian evangelicals is no more benign than the extremism found in non-Christian religious groups. Indeed, its local impact can be hugely destructive — precisely because of its ability to draw upon a vast global network of forces (including powerful secular ones), and its ability to penetrate and shape local forces, whether they be ethnic, religious, political, or social, according to alien priorities.

You speak at length of the US’s use of Christianity for it own geopolitical designs. Is this manifestly part of US strategy worldwide?

Most Western leaders (not just Bush and Blair) will claim they are inspired by their Christian beliefs. Sometimes, as with both Reagan and George W Bush, they quote chapter and verse in support oIain Buchananf policy, although usually it is not so blatant. Certainly, deep in Washington, self-professedly Christian pressure groups (like the Fellowship Foundation and the Council for National Policy) have a highly influential membership and a powerful grip on policy.

Of course, one can debate whether US strategy is manifestly Christian in inspiration — few Americans would say it is not, although most would probably insist that such strategy is guided primarily by secular concerns.

But there is no doubt at all that US strategy makes deliberate (and somewhat cynical) use of Christian agencies in pursuit of foreign policy — and that the distinction between the religious and the secular is deliberately blurred in the process. There are over 600 US-based evangelical groups, some as big as large corporations, and between them they constitute a vast and highly organised network of global influence, purposefully targeting non-Christians, and connecting and subverting every sector of life in the process.

Most of the major evangelical corporations (like World Vision, Campus Crusade, Youth with a Mission, and Samaritan’s Purse) operate in partnership with the US government in its pursuit of foreign policy goals. World Vision, which is effectively an arm of the State Department, is perhaps the most notable example of this. There is also the benefit of a custom-built legislation, with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 providing necessary sanction to bring errant nations into line.

This means that evangelisation is an intensely secular pursuit, as well as a religious one. In turn, of course, the secular powers, whether they be departments of state or corporate businesses, find such evangelicals to be very effective partners.

Indeed, most missionaries are not obviously religious. A case in point is the Success Motivation industry.  Many of the most popular ‘leadership gurus’ — Zig Ziglar, Paul Meyer, Os Hillman, Richard DeVos, John C. Maxwell, and Ken Blanchard, for example — are not just management experts, they are also evangelical Christians and conscious agents of US-style evangelisation. Conversely, groups which, on the face of it, are primarily religious, may also serve a powerful secular agenda, such as the collection of intelligence, the grooming of political or commercial elites, or the manipulation of local conflicts.

Some accuse the church of fomenting dissent among poor tribals by exploiting them; others say the church is a liberating force. This debate has gone on for decades in India’s North-East. What is your view?

The situation of India’s tribal people, like that of tribal people elsewhere in Asia, is certainly tragic. And it may be that Christian activity offers an opportunity to escape the various forms of homegrown oppression — state and corporate abuse, Hindu contempt, and so on. But Christianity in India is a very diverse thing. There are many situations where the Christian church has taken firm root, and is deeply involved in local administration, social welfare, education, and so on. Nagaland is a case in point. There are movements for tribal welfare elsewhere which are Christian-inspired and doing excellent work.

But there are many cases, too, of evangelical missions which go into tribal areas with little respect for local realities, and with an agenda far removed from tribal welfare. In this, they may be no better and no worse than the home-grown oppressor. But there is an important difference. Such missionaries often belong to an evangelical network whose strategic purpose is defined elsewhere, and which has little loyalty to the local population, its cultures, its communities, and its welfare, let alone to the nation as a whole. This is particularly true of the new breed of US-inspired evangelicals, led by Baptists and Pentecostalist/Charismatics, who have spearheaded evangelisation over the past 50 years. It is the working of this wider, and self-consciously global, structure of behaviour which is of concern.

It is unfortunate that missions doing good work in tribal areas have their efforts tarnished by others whose approach is more opportunistic and exploitative. For the new evangelicals, distaste for paganism is just part of the equation — oppressed tribal groups are a relatively easy target to penetrate in a much wider war against non-Christians generally, and for influence in strategic (especially border) areas. In this respect, even a relatively long-established Christian presence — as in Nagaland — has utility as a strategic outpost.

These are turbulent times for India as its number of hungry and poor are growing exponentially even as the wealthy in the cities are becoming billionaires. Does this make harvesting of souls easy? Do missionaries love turbulence?

It certainly seems, sometimes, that evangelicals thrive on suffering and disaster. India’s own KP Yohannan, for example, welcomed the tsunami of 2004 as “one of the greatest opportunities God has given us to share His love with people” — and he was only one of many expressing such sentiments. There is no question that many evangelicals exploit the poor and marginalised for reasons which have a lot to do with narrow theology and political self-interest, and relatively little to do with long-term practical help.

But evangelicals court the wealthy and the powerful of a society with equal passion. One of the most telling features of the new evangelism is the way it has turned Christianity into a force for protecting the rich and powerful. US Protestantism, in particular, has worked hard to undermine the impulse in the church towards social justice and reform. A measure of its success has been the defeat of Liberation Theology and the remarkable expansion of US Pentecostalism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. More than a quarter of all Christians now belong to Pentecostalist and Charismatic churches.

In these, as in most new evangelical churches, great attention is paid to a ‘theology’ of economics which stresses individual profit, corporate obedience, the sanctity of making money, and the power of “miracles, signs, and wonders.”  This ‘theology’ is a key part of modern imperialism: it offers something to both rich and poor, it is safely counter-revolutionary, and it ties tightly into the wider global network of more secular influences (in business, government, education, the media, the military) which underpins Western expansion.

So the evangelical church has a key role to play in a society as disparate as India’s. It is a form of social management: it gives divine sanction to the rich, it gives hope to the struggling middle class, and it cultivates discipline (and distraction) amongst the poor — and it does all this with a keen eye to the West’s self-interest. This is not to suggest that India does not have its own mechanisms for doing the same things. But such evangelisation, as a concomitant of Westernisation, is bound to strengthen as India urbanises and looks ever more Westwards.

A recent issue of the Texas-based magazine, Gospel For Asia, says: “The Indian sub-continent with one billion people, is a living example of what happens when Satan rules the entire culture… India is one vast purgatory in which millions of people …. are literally living a cosmic lie! Could Satan have devised a more perfect system for causing misery?” How and why does such propaganda work in a developed country like the US in the era of the Internet and the media?

There are two important points here. First, we must not assume that the ‘developed’ West is free from willful ignorance. Indeed, willful ignorance is often a very useful weapon. We need enemies, and, as religious people, we need demons. The utility of Islamophobia is a case in point.  Besides, there’s a useful role for such bigotry within the system: as a foil for the liberal powerful to prove their liberal credentials.

But such attitudes are nothing new, of course. Christians have waged such ‘spiritual warfare’ against their enemies for centuries, and with the same kind of language. What is new is the vastly increased facility, offered by the electronic media, for fighting such a war. And this is the second point.

New technology is spreading, and hardening, such bigotry. Since the mid-1960s, the evangelical movement has systematically computerised its entire global operation, creating huge databases of information on its non-Christian enemies, centralising administration, and linking some 500 million ‘Christian computers’ worldwide for the purposes of fighting ‘spiritual warfare’ against non-believers in strategic places. And ‘spiritual warfare’, for the evangelical Christian movement, is not just a matter of prayers and metaphor: it is also, very decisively, a matter of ‘virtuous’ troops, tanks, and drones.

Book Review: Joe Stiglitz’s The Great Divide


One Man Against the 1%

For the past 50 years, liberals have gotten almost exactly the policies they’ve wanted. So why are they still complaining?

by Brian Wesbury

Along with Greece and Detroit, the modern liberal economic argument has gone completely bankrupt. That’s what Joseph E. Stiglitz proves in “The Great Divide.”

_piketty_krugman_stiglitz_wagnerThe book, which is a compilation of articles written over the past seven years by the former World Bank chief economist, is built on three major themes. First, it blames the financial crisis of 2008 on President George W. Bush, bankers, deregulation and inequality. Second, it laments the great income divide in America.

Mr. Stiglitz describes himself as a “comrade in arms” with contemporary Marxist economist Thomas Piketty, while making the argument that contemporary democracy is “closer to a system of one dollar one vote than to one person one vote.” Third, Mr. Stiglitz thinks that if he could just run the world, all would be well.

“In my [Oct. 17, 2008] Time article,” he writes, “I put forward a simple agenda [to fix the crisis]. Regrettably, what was done reflected more the interests and perspectives of the banks and the 1 percent than it did the agenda I laid forth.” Mr. Stiglitz proposed a five-step plan: recapitalize banks; increase bank regulation; stop foreclosures; boost stimulus spending; and create a new global financial-markets regulator. This agenda, he argues, was stymied by “the role of special interests in our politics.” The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailed out shareholders—not homeowners. The stimulus was too small. And regulation didn’t go far enough.

Mr. Stiglitz claims that he saw the crisis coming, and in a general sense this is true. One of the pieces in this book was originally published in Vanity Fair in December 2007. Titled “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush,” the piece argued that the financial problems already evident in sub prime loans were caused by tax cuts for the wealthy, deficits, low interest rates and the war in Iraq. Later in the book, Mr. Stiglitz also blames Alan Greenspan, ratings agencies, regulators, mortgage originators and, for good measure, Ronald Reagan.

Some fiscal conservatives may find a little common ground with Mr. Stiglitz’s analysis—at least his 2007 analysis. Low interest rates were a problem. But conservatives didn’t like TARP because it implicitly admitted that the government was needed to save the economy. Mr. Stiglitz and other liberal economists argue that TARP was aimed at the wrong target—the 1%—while the 99% were left to manage on their own.Some fiscal conservatives may find a little common ground with Mr. Stiglitz’s analysis—at least his 2007 analysis. Low interest rates were a problem. But conservatives didn’t like TARP because it implicitly admitted that the government was needed to save the economy. Mr. Stiglitz and other liberal economists argue that TARP was aimed at the wrong target—the 1%—while the 99% were left to manage on their own.

Joe Stiglitz's Great DivideThe reality, however, is that the financial crisis was not caused by inequality or by banks. It was caused when the government used Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, under the banner of equality, to encourage subprime lending to promote home ownership. Then the government allowed a very strict mark-to-market accounting rule to be enforced, turning a fire into an inferno. The crisis would have never spun out of control if government had avoided overly strict mark-to-market accounting rules.

Mr. Stiglitz acknowledges that global inequality has narrowed in recent decades, but he says that “American inequality began its upswing 30 years ago, along with tax decreases for the rich and the easing of regulation on the financial sector.”

He contrasts this with the decades after World War II, when the U.S. “grew at its fastest pace, and the country grew together.” But now, he says, “the American dream is a myth.” The 1% are sailing along, while the rest are drowning. Like advisers to FDR who believed the Soviet Union had found the secret to growth through central planning, Mr. Stiglitz holds up China as a role model, praising the country’s top-down economic management. Yet the truth is that embracing Western-style free markets and adopting technologies invented in the U.S.—not central planning—have lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty.

A running theme of the book is that the American dream is dead because policy makers have failed to implement truly liberal policies. But for the past 50 years, liberals have gotten almost exactly what they wanted. Between 1950 and 1965, government spending outside of defense was just 7.8% of GDP.

Liberals weren’t happy with that, so they proposed to make America a “Great Society” by creating the modern welfare state along with Medicare and Medicaid. After five decades of growth in these redistribution programs, non defense government spending is now 16.8% of GDP. In other words: Core, prosperity-sharing government spending has more than doubled, while military spending has fallen from 9.5% of GDP to less than 3.5%.

Liberals have shaped the tax code to their preference as well. In 1979 the top 1% paid 14.2% of all federal taxes. In 2011 that share had risen to 24%. The lowest quintile paid just 0.6% of all federal taxes in 2011, down from 2.1% in 1979. Following the expiration of the temporary Bush tax cuts in 2012, and the new surcharges in ObamaCare, this dichotomy has widened.

Mr. Stiglitz constantly refers to income inequality without adjusting for taxes and transfers. But this is misleading. A 2014 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study showed that the lowest quintile of income earners saw their market income grow just 16% between 1979 and 2011, while the highest quintile experienced a 77% increase. But after adjusting for taxes and transfers, the CBO found that the lowest quintile, which receives about a third of its income from transfers, saw an increase in income of 72%, while the top quintile had a gain of 87%. In other words, liberal policies of tax and redistribute have created a much more level playing field than liberals will admit.

Liberals are like the dog that finally caught the car. Now what will they do? If Mr. Stiglitz is indicative, they will gripe about the wealthy, argue that their ideas of redistribution weren’t tried hard enough and blame self-interest for hampering real progress. Conservatives said that our current fiscal path would be bad for the economy; liberals insisted that it would be good. The fact that Mr. Stiglitz is still complaining would seem to be proof that liberals were wrong.

Mr. Wesbury is chief economist at First Trust Advisors LP in Wheaton, Ill.

Reagan: The Life by H.W.Brands


June 7, 2015

NY Times Sunday Book Review

Reagan: The Life by H.W.Brands

Book Review: Burma’s Spring–Real Lives in Turbulent Times


May 31, 2015

BOOK Review

Burma’s Spring: Real Lives in Turbulent Times

Rosalind Russell,Burma’s Spring: Real Lives in Turbulent Times
London: Thistle Publishing, 2014. Pp. xxvi, 173.

Reviewed by Chit Win.

Burmas-Spring

This new book by Rosalind Russell brings colorful but ordinary Myanmar stories to life from an outsider’s perspective. As the sub-title suggests these are “Real Lives in Turbulent Times”. Burma’s Spring shows the spice and flavor of Myanmar’s nascent transition. For non-Myanmar readers it may seem to deliver the expected: stereotypical perceptions of the military regime and the suffering inflicted on the people. But Russell goes further by covering not only the struggle and sacrifice of prominent figures like Aung San Suu Kyi but also tales of unsung heroes that we have overlooked. We learn of their lives, their beliefs and, more importantly, their hopes, in a journey that introduces readers to everyone from undercover journalists to undercover officials, from a housemaid to a girl band, from a monk to the 969 movement.

Burma’s Spring starts with the double life of Russell herself as an undercover journalist for Reuters sent in to cover the monks’ uprising in 2007, also known as the Saffron Revolution, and as an undercover reporter for The Independent. She was known as Phoebe Kennedy, the pseudonym that she used while accompanying her spouse, who was head of an international aid agency in Myanmar in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Whether it was worth risking her own welfare and the agency’s reputation to produce Burma’s Spring, whether it was ethical to do so, and even whether it is now worth her exposing herself will depend on the judgment of the reader. But one thing is quite certain: her book highlights the difficult position of aid workers and their families in controlling the temptations to risk an aid agency’s relationship with the host country. It makes me wonder how a Myanmar government official would react to reading Burma’s Spring.

The book gives a mixed picture of Myanmar society prior to the ongoing period of reform and liberalisation. Discussion of the fears of the military about “R2P”—jargon for the “responsibility to protect”—in the wake of Cyclone Nargis and of the struggle of “the Lady” and other activists offers readers the usual information that they will learn from the international media.

But Russell extends our understanding of Myanmar society by introducing us to her main characters Mu Mu, a Kayin migrant worker, and Zayar, a fixer for Phoebe Kennedy whose dream is to become a journalist. Mu Mu was Russell’s housemaid. And Russell tells us about her life as a migrant worker who travelled to Bangkok and was pressured by her family to send regular remittances and never to come home. Her hopes of taking a short cut out of poverty were hampered when she failed in the effort that, having had nothing to do with politics and ethnic conflict inside Myanmar, she made to become a refugee. In the meantime, her boyfriend—also a migrant worker from her hometown—betrayed her so that he could fast-track his place on the waiting list to be resettled in Canada by marrying a Kayin refugee. On the other hand, Zayar, whose wife wanted him to become a common salary man, chose instead to struggle as an amateur reporter in Yangon and worked hard to make sure that Phoebe Kennedy was exposed to real stories.

We also get a taste of the resilience of the “MeNMa girls” and Darko’s “Side Effect” punk group against the backdrop of what is still a conservative society. These groups struggled to distinguish between creativity and indecency. Then there is Min Wai, a fortune-teller who has to play his role carefully when predicting good and bad karma and acting as a social counselor in a superstitious society. We get to know Monk Owen,born on the eve of the 8.8.88 uprising, and how he came to be exposed to a modern education that supported his desires to change Myanmar. Taken together, these characters help sketch a portrait of Myanmar’s society in the mind of readers.

Russell’s book offers insights for Myanmar readers about changes that they do not notice or changes that they may consider unimportant. It also shows the differences between views from inside and outside with regard to recent changes in Myanmar. For a regular traveler to Myanmar, the changes in Myanmar mean visas on arrival, fewer travel restrictions, money exchange counters, ATMs, mobile phones and air-conditioned taxis. These changes are mostly physical. For people like Mu Muand Zayar, the awakening of their hopes and the economic and political breathing spaces are really the most significant changes in recent times. In relating Mu Mu’sdecision to go back and settle in Myanmar, Russell has clearly reflected the feelings of some among the vast Myanmar diaspora.

Burma’s Spring may disappoint some Myanmar readers for not including a chapter on Naypyitaw, the new capital which has profoundly affected the lives of Myanmar people—especially public servants and their families—since its establishment in 2005. And I really doubt whether the general public in Myanmar have the same view as Russell, who portrays the MeNMa girls or the punk bands as important markers of social change. What is important to an outsider may not be so important to an insider. It is also something of a pity that Phoebe Kennedy could not persuade senior government officials to come out of the closet and reflect on their experience as servants of the system, which is so very human.

In summary, Burma’s Spring serves its purpose for multiple readerships. It is pleasant reading on the good and the bad guys, with a twist in the tail. For serious readers, it will garnish their understanding of Myanmar. It would be interesting to read any book reviews from Myanmar, should the book be translated into the Myanmar language. A note of caution is that Burma’s Spring should not to be confused with The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation (2015) by Rena Pederson. The latter obviously focuses on the Lady while the former brings real stories from real lives. Stories so real, yet so often overlooked.

Chit Win is a PhD candidate in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Reference

Pederson, Rena. The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation. New York and London: Pegasus Books, 2015.

‘The Daemon Knows,’ by Harold Bloom


May 27, 2015

Phnom Penh

NY TIMES Sunday Book Review

‘The Daemon Knows,’ by Harold Bloom

Read Bloom, and you may be led to suppose it so. “Walt Whitman,” he writes, “overwhelms me, possesses me, as only a few others — Dante, Shakespeare, ­Milton — consistently flood my entire being. . . . Without vision, criticism perishes.” And: “I rejoice at all strong ­transports of sublimity.” And again: “True criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir.” And finally, emphatically: “I believe there is no critical method except yourself.” It is through intoxicating meditations such as these that Bloom has come to his ­formulation of the American Sublime, and from this to his revelation of the daemon: the very Higgs boson of the sublime. Bloom’s beguiling daemon can be construed as the god ­within; he is sire to the exaltations of apotheosis, shamanism, Gnosticism, Orphism, Hermeticism and, closer to home, ­Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” He is made manifest through the voice of poets and in the chants of those weavers of tales, like Melville and Faulkner, who are kin to ­poets.

Harold BloomDaemon Knows,” the enigmatic title of Bloom’s newest work of oracular criticism, is strangely intransitive. What is it that the daemon knows? We are meant to understand that the daemon is an incarnation of an intuition beyond ordinary apperception, and that this knowing lies in the halo of feeling that glows out of the language of poetry. “To ask the question concerning the daemon is to seek an origin of inspiration,” Bloom asserts, and his teacherly aim is to pose the question in close readings of 12 daemon-possessed writers whom he interrogates in pairs: Whitman with Melville, Emerson with Dickinson, Hawthorne with Henry James, Mark Twain with Frost, Stevens with T. S. Eliot, Faulkner with Hart Crane. He might well have chosen 12 others, he tells us, reciting still another blizzard of American luminaries, but dismisses the possibility “because these [chosen] writers represent our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” (A question Bloom does not put — we will approach it shortly — is whether shamanism, Orphism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism and all the other mystical isms, including the idea of the daemon, do in fact cling to humanism.)

For Bloom, the origin of inspiration is dual: the daemon who ignites it from within, and the genealogical force that pursues it from without. The bloodline infusion of literary precursors has long been a ­leitmotif for Bloom, from the academic implosion of “The Anxiety of Influence” more than 40 years ago to the more recent “The Anatomy of Influence.” Here he ­invokes the primacy of Emerson as germinating ancestor:

“For me, Emerson is the fountain of the American will to know the self and its drive for sublimity. The American ­poets who (to me) matter most are all Emersonians of one kind or another: Walt ­Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, Henri Cole. Our greatest creators of prose fiction were not Emersonians, yet the protagonists of Hawthorne, Melville and Henry James frequently are beyond our understanding if we do not see Hester Prynne, Captain Ahab and Isabel Archer as self-reliant questers.”

Though Bloom’s persuasive family trees are many-branched, the power of influential predecessors nevertheless stands apart from daemonic possession. According to Bloom, the daemon — “pure energy, free of morality” — is far more intrinsic than thematic affinity. However ­aggressively their passions invade, it is not Whitman alone who gives birth to Melville, or Emerson to Dickinson, or Hawthorne to James, or Mark Twain to Frost; and certainly it is not the lurid Faulkner, all on his own, who rivals the clay that will become Hart Crane. Literary heritage is half; the rest is the daemon. “ ‘Moby-Dick,’ ” Bloom sums up, “is at the center of this American heretical scripture, our worship of the god within, which pragmatically means of the daemon who knows how it is done.” But there is yet another pragmatic demonstration to be urged and elaborated. “Hart Crane’s daemon,” he adds, “knows how it is done and creates an epic of Pindaric odes, lyrics, meditations and supernal longings without precedent.”Without precedent: Surely this is the earliest key, in Bloom’s scheme, to the daemon’s magickings.

Theme and tone and voice may have authorial ancestors; what we call inspiration has none. Turning to one of his two commanding ­touchstones (the other is Whitman), Bloom cites Emerson: “This is that which the strong genius works upon; the region of destiny, of aspiration, of the unknown. . . . Far the best part, I repeat, of every mind is not that which he knows, but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing unpossessed before him.” So when Bloom tells us there can be no critical method other than the critic himself — meaning Bloom — we should not take it as blowhard hyperbole. With Emerson, he intends to pry open the unpossessed and to possess it, and to lead the reader to possess it too: a critical principle rooted in ampleness and generosity.

In this way, the illustrative excerpts Bloom selects from the work of his hallowed dozen are more than concentrated wine tastings; they are libraries in little. In considering Hawthorne, he discusses — in full — “Wakefield” and “Feathertop,” two lesser-known stories, as well as “The Blithedale Romance,”  “The Marble Faun” and the canonical “The Scarlet Letter” and “The House of the Seven Gables.” In his descant on James, Bloom supplies entire scenes from “The Portrait of a Lady,”  “The Bostonians” and “The Wings of the Dove,” in addition to long passages of “The Jolly Corner.” And in crisscrossing from Hawthorne to James and back again, he leaves nothing and no one unconnected. “Where indeed in American fiction,” he asks, “could there be a ­woman loftier, purer, as beautiful and as wise as Hester Prynne? Isabel Archer is the only likely candidate,” though he goes on to lament her choice of the “odious ­Osmond.” For Bloom, Moby-Dick consorts with Huck Finn, and Emily Dickinson with ­Shakespeare, while Whitman underlies, or agitates, Stevens, Hart Crane and, surprisingly, T. S. Eliot.

Of all Bloom’s couplings, Stevens and Eliot are the oddest and the crankiest. ­Despite the unexpected common link with Whitman, the juxtaposition is puzzling. Bloom’s veneration of Stevens, ­sometimes “moved almost to tears,” is unstinting. “From start to end, his work is a solar litany,” he confesses. “Stevens has helped me to live my life.” Yet nearly in the same breath Bloom is overt, even irascible, in his distaste for Eliot, partly in repudiation of “his virulent anti-Semitism, in the age of Hitler’s death camps,” but also because of his clericalism: “Is it my personal prejudice only that finds no aesthetic value whatsoever in the devotional verse of T. S. Eliot? . . . His dogmatism, dislike of women, debasement of ordinary human ­existence make me furious.” In the same dismissive vein, he disposes of Ezra Pound: “I at last weary of his sprawl and squalor.” Nowhere else in this celebratory volume can such a tone — of anger and disgust — be found. Not even in Bloom’s dispute with what he zealously dubs “the School of Resentment” (the politicization of literary studies) is he so vehement as here.

Still, emotive disclosures are not foreign to this critic’s temperament. He has, after all, already told us that criticism can be a form of memoir. “I am an experiential and personalizing literary critic,” he explains, “which certainly rouses up enmity, but I go on believing that poems matter only if we matter.” Out of this credo grows a confiding intimacy: “The obscure being I could call Bloom’s daemon has known how it is done, and I have not. His true name (has he one?) I cannot discover, but I am grateful to him for teaching the classes, writing the books, enduring the mishaps and illnesses, and nurturing the fictions of continuity that sustain my 85th year.” A touching reminder of the nature of the human quotidian, its riches and its vicissitudes, its ­successes and its losses: tangled mortal life itself, pulsing onward in the daylight world of reality. But is this what Bloom’s exalted 12 have taught of how the daemon, that rhapsodic creature of “pure energy, free of morality,” is purposed? The daemon who is trance, who is the mystical whiteness of the white whale, who is harp and altar of Hart Crane’s bridge, and who enters solely into seers and poets? Can the daemon’s lover — who is Bloom — harbor the daemon in himself? Or, to put it otherwise: May the professor of poetry don the poet’s mantle?

Meanwhile, the daemon knows, and Bloom knows too, who are his most ­dedicated antagonists. They are those verifiable humanists, the rabbis who repudiate the kabbalists, who refute the seductions of Orphists and Gnostics, who deny the dervishing god within and linger still in that perilous garden where mortals dare to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and daemons of the sublime are passing incantatory delusions.

Well, never mind — at least while Bloom’s enrapturing book is radiant in your hand. The daemon knows, and Bloom knows too, that in Eden, birthplace of the moral edict and the sober deed, there ­never was a poet.

THE DAEMON KNOWS
Literary Greatness and the American Sublime
By Harold Bloom

524 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $35.

Cynthia Ozick’s most recent book is the novel “Foreign Bodies.” Her new collection, “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary ­Essays,” will be published next year.

A version of this review appears in print on May 24, 2015, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Shared Visions.