Thursday, May 28, 2009


A Bronx cheer, but not a real Bronx cheer, but a cheer from the real Bronx for our soon to be newest member of the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. She’s 54; I’m 54. (At least I will be for another five days or so. Oh, BTW, happy birthday, Rob.) She was born and raised in the Bronx. I was born (in Manhattan actually) but raised in the Bronx. She lived in a housing project in the South Bronx, and then moved to a Mitchell-Lama cooperative in the Bronx (Co-op City.) I lived in a Mitchell-Lama cooperative in the South (or Southish) Bronx. Okay, I didn’t go to Catholic school, or Princeton, or Yale Law School, but other than that, our backgrounds seem to be more or less identical. (And we look alike too, and talk alike, and you can lose your mind, when —I’m sure Sonia would get the reference.) So what does Sonia Sotomayor got than I ain’t got? Why is she going on the US Supreme Court, while I toil away in blogging anonymity?

I don’t know, but of course one answer, that one is already hearing among stupid white men (and those of all genders and races who think like stupid white men) is that because she was underprivileged, she had all the advantages, and had her path to the court smoothed by her hard road I success, and that she is being picked as a charity case, a political sop to her ethnic and gendered constituencies, another proof that white men (who with Sotormayor’s elevation will still control 2/3rds of the seats on the court with about 25% of the population) just don’t stand a chance. (After all, what has it been, five months or so since there was a white man who was president of the United States?) It is all so pathetic. The most interesting thing that has come out of her nomination is a silly debate about whether Benjamin Cardozo was Latino or Hispanic or not. Was Maimonides the first great Latino philosopher? If you were of Visigothic ancestry, would you check the Latino/Hispanic box on the census, or just list your ethnicity as Gothic? (Or Hunnish? Funny, you don’t look Hunnish.)
The one serious point I have to make about Judge Sotomayor is that she not only lived in a project in the South Bronx, but moved, in the late 1960s to Co-op City in the northwest Bronx, into a two bedroom apartment, sharing a bedroom with her brother. Now there has been a lot of nonsense written about Co-op City by the Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtables of the world (you can throw in Robert Caro if you want a white guy), and those looking for monocausal explanations of the decline of the Bronx, who have often seen Co-op City as the biggest monocause of them all, the vapid, sterile seductress luring middle class Jews to their doom (or at least, the Bronx’s doom) on the marshy grounds of a former amusement park, while their old homes on the Grand Concourse went to seed. First of all, as the Sotomayor’s circumstances indicate, a lot of people who moved to Co-op City were in the middle class only if the middle class is defined as more or less everyone who has steady employment. And as the Sotormayor’s circumstances also indicate, not every one who moved to Co-op City was Jewish, and not everyone came from the Grand Concourse. (No more than one-sixth or seventh of the 15,000 families were from the Concourse.) Co-op City, far from destroying the Bronx, has played a significant role in its revival, but this is another story to be told elsewhere.
But along with Gouverneur Morris, Edgar Allan Poe, Babe Ruth, Dion and the Belmonts, Herman Badillo, Colin Powell, and Afrika Bambaataa, Sonia Sotomayor takes her place in the pantheon of famous Bronxites, and maybe someday will warrant a bust in that moribund Bronx institution, the Hall of Fame of Great Americans. I am sure that Sotomayor will be a mighty vessel of jurisprudential excellence on the nation’s highest court, and I hope she does her bit to push it to the left, showering and flooding the court with her effusions of empathy. And it’s great to see someone from the Bronx, who grew up sort of like I grew up (though in much tougher circumstances), make it so far. Usually when you’re sitting on the bench in the Bronx, it means you’re not in the starting lineup. But Sonia’s starting, and playing. Everyone rise, ‘cause here comes the judge.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Barack Obama, Konrad Adenauer, and Parmenides

The spectacle of Senate democrats voting against closing the military prison facility at Guantanamo is more than an exercise in collective pusillanimity. It raises the most profound questions about the nature of the Obama administration. It also raises profound philosophical questions, of the sort that has vexed metaphysicians since Parmenides and Plato; what is change?; is change real?; is change possible?. And more specifically, since, we assume, one cannot change the past, how does this effect our ability to change things in the present or future?

Let me make this less abstract. Listening to Dick Cheney this week, one was reminded how deeply and radically evil was much of what the Bush administration tried to accomplish especially in the area of human rights and foreign policy. And radical evil, unless it is extirpated, will continue to fester. Now some sort of continuity with the past is generally useful in human events. Stare decisis is generally a good political policy in moderation; certainly regimes that try to totally and utterly break with the past, like the Bolsheviks, generally don’t figure high on the human rights scale, in large part because this can only be accomplished by force. But the other alternative is merely differentiating oneself from an evil past, without really coming to terms with it. One thinks of post-war West Germany. Now, Konrad Adenauer was better in every possible way than Adolf Hitler, but under Adenauer the Nazi past and the Holocaust was something one didn’t speak of. Reparations were paid to Israel and Holocaust survivors, but thousands of ex-Nazis occupied positions of influence and power in both the private and public spheres. Easy gestures were made; deeper reckonings were avoided. The watchword of the Adenauer administration was, once the necessary rupture with past was made, as much continuity as possible.
Let me avoid making specious Nazi analogies, and I really am not, but I worry that Obama can become the Konrad Adenauer of our time. He is a good man, and his government is a far better government than that of his predecessor. There was, in the election last November, a democratic rupture and repudiation of the recent past. But Obama has, on a number of issues, out of expediency , out of a sense of the complexity and difficulty of the task, out of a desire to remain on good terms with the military, sort of split the difference with the evil of the Bush administration; banning torture while not pursing criminal cases against the torturers or allowing photographs to be released; modifying but not ending the practices of military commissions, changing the tactics but not the overall strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these policies are still unfolding, and I have my fingers crossed, but it seems to me his decisions feed into a national mood that wants to turn the page from the Bush administration without making any fundamental changes, and the Guantanamo reaction shows what can happen if evil is not directly addressed, cauterized, extirpated. Its poison remains in the system. And it will strike you down. Parmenides argued that since you can’t change the past, you can’t really change the future either. The future is determined by what came before it, and all we can do in the present is witness the unchangeable past inexorably becoming the immovable future. We do not need change that we can use; we need change that is painful, cathartic, and ultimately liberating. Let us hope that Barack Obama is up to task.

Normality and Morality in Riverdale

I attended services this morning at the Riverdale Temple in the Bronx, one of the two synagogues targeted for bombing by the accused plotters arrested Wednesday. I went there in a sense of solidarity and found a morning service with a bar mitzvah that acknowledged the weight of tragedy in Jewish life but leaned toward optimism and the task of healing and transforming a broken world. And that's exactly as it should be.

My cousin's family belongs to the synagogue; I've attended two bar mitzvahs there already. And I know and admire the Riverdale Temple's Rabbi Judith Lewis from her days at Temple Israel on the Upper East Side.

On the night before, as Rabbi Lewis explained to me, the synagogue had been especially crowded with congregants and neighborhood residents reacting to the news of the plot. This morning, when congregants, friends and family observed the bar mitzvah of Frank Jacob Lyon, the general atmosphere resembled earlier services that I had attended on less fearful days.

Frank read in a strong voice, and Rabbi Lewis did her usual excellent job of balancing the particular and the universal in Judaism. She reminded Frank of his obligation to his family, to Judaism, to humanity and the planet--to practice tikkun olam and heal a very broken world.

This was perfectly in harmony with Rabbi Lewis' response to the initial revelations of the plot, as the Times reported on Friday.
Rabbi Lewis’s response to the bomb plot was one of simple resolve: “My message is we go on with our mission.”

On Thursday morning, for example, she woke early to take two candidates who are converting to Judaism to a ritual bath, called a mikvah. “The first thing I asked them was, ‘Are you sure you want to do this after what you saw last night — to tie your fate to a people frequently under this kind of threat?’ ” she said. “They said, ‘Even more so now.’ I cried.”

If the news of the Riverdale plot made me feel lucky and grim at the same time, today's service reminded me that there are still good things to work for in the future.

Aligning the Past and Future of Journalism

Todd Gitlin's recent piece in, "Journalism's Many Crises," is an excellent analysis of the multiple woes that afflict journalism today. If we are to work journalism out of this mess, we need good pieces like Todd's and more thinking that puts the present situation in a historical context that properly weighs the vices and virtues of the old news media system that is collapsing around us.

In the USA, where the crisis can be traced to the deregulation of television in the 1980s, it is helpful to remember two contrasting ideas.

One, there was no golden age of US journalism. In the US, the media system that emerged after World War II had all sorts of flaws and blind spots, particularly in its deference to state authority in the Cold War.

Two, for all its flaws, the "old media" in the US nevertheless had real virtues that are worth recovering in new times. If objectivity was American journalism's chief ideal, it was an ideal that was always open to question and criticism. Equally important, perhaps even more important, was the media's ability to assemble and serve a broad public. Metropolitan daily news papers, national magazines, and national networks created a national public and a belief in common concerns that had to be addressed with information, analysis and debate.

As Todd rightly observes, the mass media's ability to assemble a broad public always flew against the tendencies toward the private strain in American life. But constructing the public was an important function of the American media nonetheless. (Think of what the history of the civil rights movement would have been if freedom marches had remained a "southern" story with no claim on the national conscience.)

I am guardedly confident that someone will figure out an economic model to sustain journalism in the future. In the USA, the pursuit of wealth will always find a way. But in this age of media fragmentation, we need a new model for public service media that is attentive to the wholes and parts of our public life. What that might look like, and how we might achieve it, is still an open question that demands our deepest thoughts and strongest actions.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fiddler in the Heights

The gap between the old New York of European immigrants and the new city wrought by Latino, Asian and Afro-Caribbean newcomers can sometimes seem vast, particularly in Northern Manhattan. There, I once astonished a Dominican man by telling him that Incarnation Church was once the centerpiece of a largely Irish parish. I've also heard German Jews complain that their story isn't part of the superb musical In the Heights. But at Symphony Space over the weekend, these two worlds came together beautifully, thanks to Sheldon Harnick and Lin-Manuel Miranda,

Harnick was the lyricist for the great Fiddler on the Roof, among other productions, and Miranda gave us the music, lyrics and original concept for In the Heights. They appeared together for an onstage conversation at Wall to Wall Broadway, a splendid day of performances , interviews and discussions held at Symphony Space. Harnick came onstage first, and to the delight of the audience, rapped a tribute Miranda. (Pretty good for a guy born in 1924.)

Miranda then appeared and talked about how much he was influenced by Fiddler on the Roof. When creative disputes arose when he was staging In the Heights, he explained, Fiddler was his trump card: the structures and sequencing of the show were so good that he applied the thinking behind them in his own work. He topped this by returning Harnick's favor with a rapped version of "Tradition."

Fiddler's "Tradition" and the "In the Heights," the opening number of the musical, are both fantastic songs. But it was especially nice to see how much their creators learned from each other and admired each other. There's a lesson in that for everyone who cares about the old New York, the new New York, and what they have to offer each other.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Benny Goodman

May 30th this year marks the 100th birthday of Benny Goodman, who was the most popular jazz musician in America during the 1930s and 1940s, when jazz was the most popular music in America. I mention this a few weeks early because WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station is in the early stages of a two-week plus marathon of Goodman’s recordings, playing them all in chronological order. They are up to his recordings from 1933, and there’s a lot of music to be played until they get to Goodman’s final recordings, in the year of his death, 1986. I urge anyone interested at all in American music to listen to at least part of the Goodman marathon.

Benny Goodman has received a lot of bad press over the years. He doesn’t seem to have been a very nice person, or at least was a difficult and demanding colleague; stories of his glare of disapproval, the infamous “ray” are legion. And many have political objections to Goodman, in particular to his appropriation of the sobriquet “the king of swing” in effect dethroning the sundry Dukes, Counts, and Earls who might be thought to be better candidates for the title. And his whiteness had led to other accusations, that he was simply blander than the black bandleaders he imitated, transforming the hard, tough charts of Fletcher Henderson and C hick Webb into a softer and more palatable mush.

Without getting into a long dissertation on this, let me just say, as any listen would amply demonstrate, Benny Goodman was just a superb jazz musician, certainly the best jazz clarinetist of his time, black or white, whose crackling sense of swing and overall musical intelligence and creativity can be heard in almost every solo in his long career. And he was also a pop musician, who recorded the schlock and dross of his age, with indifferent band singers. But it was as a pop musician, and a pop idol to rival a Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, that he was able to raise the somewhat hermetic status of jazz to the status of a genuinely popular music (to where it would return in be-bop and later jazz movements.) And Goodman was so much more else as well. He was a classical musician of the highest order, who made wonderful recordings of Mozart’s clarinet works, commissioned works from Bartok and Stravinsky. He also in his various trios, quartets, and sextets, largely created a new genre of chamber jazz.

And beyond his musical talents, there is Benny Goodman also deserves some mention for his sociology. That jazz, a music created by blacks in New Orleans, had a color line was of course ridiculous, but then again what can one have expected from a music born in the South c. 1900. Goodman, by hiring Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian and others, did more than anyone else to break the color barrier. And Benny Goodman, from a poor Jewish family from Chicago, as much as anyone else in America in the 1930s, incarnated the belief in democratic possibility that defined the best of American aspirations of the times, that Americans could create a new democratic culture, closed to no one, drawing on the talents and abilities of everyone, that would without pomposity or pretension be dedicated to pursuit of liveliness, exhilaration, and excellence. Long may his music live, and once again, catch some of the Benny Goodman festival on WKCR.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Government and the Crisis of Journalism

The crisis of economics and purpose in American journalism continues, but in all the confusion and despair we can be fairly certain of one thing: journalists won't be able to think their way out of this one because they don't know the history of their own profession. For proof of this, see a recent column in the New York Times on this topic by David Carr, a normally fine media analyst whose skewering of Fox News in 2008 was one of the sharpest and braves pieces I have ever read in the Times.

This week, though, Carr was off the mark in declaring that government has no role to play in saving journalism. He argues that this would automatically turn the nation's news media into mouthpieces for the government.

But this ignores the history of the American press. As Paul Starr observed in his fine book The Creation of the Media, content-neutral postal subsidies helped the press grow in our country's formative years. In this, the postal system is a model for government media policy.

Carr also suggests that public broadcasting will degenerate into a mouthpiece for Bib Brother. But does anyone want to argue seriously that any of the privately-owned networks in the USA has a better long-term track record as a news organization than the publicly-supported BBC? Public media isn't the same as government media, and privately-owned media does not always act in the public interest.

Carr dismisses the idea of newspapers organized on a non-profit basis because that would bar them from making editorial endorsements. But in this age, when opinions on the Web are available for free--even mine--newspapers' right to make editorial endorsements doesn't seem like something worth sacrificing them for.

Carr closes his article with a quote from David Simon, who is no longer a journalist but directs people who play them on tv. “High-end journalism can and should bite any hand that tries to feed it,” Simon said. “And it should bite a government hand most viciously.”

As is so typical with journalists, Simon confuses the ideals of journalism with its more complicated but ultimately edifying history. The recent history of US journalism, particularly with regard to the Iraq War, is filled with examples of reporters lapping up government pronouncements. That's bad. At the same time, the deeper recesses of journalism history offer ways of thinking about how government might help journalism get out of its crisis without destroying editorial independence.

Lincoln Center Reconsidered

There has been a lot written about Lincoln Center recently, in notice and appreciation of the 50th anniversary of its groundbreaking. Both its faults and its virtues have been exaggerated.

For starters, Lincoln Center was built on the rubble of Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill, one of the most prominent African American neighborhoods in Manhattan. Its destruction was unnecessary, and certainly not one of Robert Moses’s better moments. On the other hand, one needs to be cautious, as always, about imputing too much causality and power to Moses’s actions, and I suspect, even without Lincoln Center, the whole of the Upper West Side would have been gentrified, and the character of the blocks around Lincoln Center would have very different from when it was the putative setting for “West Side Story.”

Lincoln Center is one of the first modern performing arts complexes, with your opera house, your place for the symphony orchestra, your theater for the ballet, and a few other venues thrown in for good measure. Are there synergies? When you go to the opera, do you feel good that there is a symphonic concert going on next door? (I have always appreciated that you can go to the bathrooms at Avery Fisher Hall without having to be a patron, unlike the Met. Once, in an Avery Fisher Hall bathroom, I was one urinal down from Felix Rohatyn.)

So, synergies? Not that much, but I am skeptical of the common claim that proximity to the Met has basically ruined the NYC Opera. It seems to me, from the opening at Lincoln Center in 1966 through about the mid 1990s, the NYC Opera was doing just fine, with Beverly Sills, with more interesting offerings and cheaper tickets than the big brother across the plaza. And then, something happened. The Met got smarter and hipper, and the NYC Opera got.. .. I’m not sure… but it just wasn’t competing as well. I don’t think you can blame the decline of the City opera on its location.

This brings me to an interesting question—is NYC big enough for two opera companies? How many cultural institutions can NYC support?

NYC has never, or at least since 1928 I think, had two big time symphony orchestras, and the opening of Lincoln Center would have been the perfect excuse to start a second symphony orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and they tried to do so, but despite the efforts of Leopold Stokowski, the American Symphony Orchestra never really got off the ground.

Now, Rochester, with a metropolitan area population of about a million people (or somewhere around 1/15 of the metro area population of NYC) supports a symphony orchestra—even if its plays little else besides Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, that is, when it isn’t offering the “Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra plays the greatest hits of Billy Joel” and stuff like tha.

So you'd think, that NYC should at least be able to have two full scale symphony orchestras, if not three or four. But it rarely works that way, and in our cultural organizations, as in American life in general, we increasingly live in a “winner take all” society, in which the strongest crowd out and marginalize the second tier, and the Met, which was always the wealthiest and strongest performing arts organization in the city (if not in the country, and very possibly in the world) has been able to slowly strangle its rival, its days as the “people’s opera company” started by Fiorello La Guardia far behind.

This, if anything, is the greatest problem with Lincoln Center. It has enhanced and concentrated the position of the winners, and turned the second tier rivals into losers. But, one suspects, even without Lincoln Center, this would have happened anyway.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Subway Art

If you think of the New York City subway only as a transportation system, you don't grasp its full significance in the lives of New Yorkers. In the tiled walls, sculptures and murals that decorate stations, it is a also a work of art. And in the ways that certain lines and stations gain layers of meaning in the lives of passengers, the subway is also a huge repository of New York memories. Both of these under-appreciated traits, the subway of art and the subway of memory, inspire the paintings of Rochelle Weber.

I first saw her work yesterday, at a fair outside the Museum of Natural History at 81st and Amsterdam. As a lifelong subway rider, the grandson of a transit worker, and the author of the book Transit Talk: New York's Bus and Subway Workers Tell Their Stories I was immediately taken with the textures, strong colors and sense of composition in her paintings.

Weber hated the hot and smelly subways that she rode to her summer job while she was a college art student. She turned to paining the subway system, however, as part of her interest in scenes of the Lower East Side. Using acrylic paint, she discovered a way to give her paintings the look and feel of subway tiles. She made her first sale in Virginia Beach in 1986, then looked north for more sales. Owners of her work range from private citizens to public figures like Rudy Giuliani.

Weber's paintings are carefully composed. Even where they don't duplicate the exact proportions of subway station signs, they vividly recall actual images to be found on the subway. In some of her works, she brings together fanciful associations that a station might have in a person's life, like her 57th Street painting that brings to mind Judy Garland and her famous Carnegie Hall concert. A painting given to Mark Messier, formerly of the New York Rangers, contains references to the Rangers, 34th Street and Madison Square Garden. As a frequent patron of the Astor Place stop on the Lex, I'm particularly partial to the painting depicted here.

This summer, Weber is booked into art shows all around New York City. She works on commission. If you want to check out her work and her prices, visit her web site at

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Thoughts about Pakistan

I have long thought that if I had the time (and the knowledge), I would like to write a book entitled, “The Two Partitions of 1947, and How They Permanently Screwed Up the World,” a book that would consider the partitions of India and Palestine in 1947, both badly botched by hastily departing British imperialists (with an assist by feuding Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), that in both cases, divided the colonies between Muslims and non-Muslims, and did so with so little regard for the actual conditions on the ground, and so inflamed the easily inflamed sensibilities on both sides, that it almost guaranteed that the successor states (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza under various sovereignties: India, and Pakistan), would be plunged immediately and repeatedly into war, and they have ever since.

Its hard not to pick up a newspaper these days (if anyone still engages in this archaic act) without reading of the “existential crisis” facing Pakistan. (“Existential Crisis” is a good term for retiring for overuse; when I was growing up, the only existential crisis I was familiar with was caused by teenagers who had spent too much time reading Camus and Sartre, and who bored their friends by wondering too much about the meaning of life.)

Anyway, there is a great fear on the part of the Obama administration that the Taliban will overrun Pakistan, force everyone into a Madrassa, aim their newly gained nuclear arsenal at Tel Aviv, New Delhi, and Washington, and gleefully start World War III. This fear has been repeatedly debunked, and does not need to be gone into here (e.g., the Pashtun-based Taliban has little or no chance of imposing its will on the 85% of the Pakistani people who are not Pashtun.)

The Taliban problem in western Pakistan is the successor to the longstanding inability of any central government to impose effective control on the northwest frontier, and this problem has clearly been exacerbated by the failure of US policy in Afghanistan, and it seems to me that we are perilously close to that traditional remedy for US foreign policy failures, to assume that one can fix a problem by making the problem worse, with a Bay of Pigs or Da Nang solution to the Taliban problem, but that is also a subject for another day.

But if Pakistan does indeed face an “existential crisis” it is the simple question of why it exists at all. No nation has a more curious parturition. Before the British announcement in the spring of 1947 that in a few months time, in August 1947, a new nation called Pakistan would be created, it had little more than a gleam in the eye of the Muslim League. Until a few days before it was created, no one was sure or clear what it boundaries would be. The unseemly haste of the British departure, and the absurdities of the new national boundaries, the so-called Radcliffe Line, in both Bengal and the Punjab, ensured that India and Pakistan would be fighting from the first moment of their creation. And no one, including those who ardently supported the creation of Pakistan, could have ever imagined that say, that they were creating two hostile states, with uncrossable borders and little or no human, cultural, or economic contact.

Perhaps, if it had planned more carefully, the partition of India could have been effected with less pain, and perhaps, if cooler heads would have prevailed, a united India, with greater degree of local autonomy, could have been forged. As it is, India inherited most of the departing British bureaucracy, while Pakistan inherited part of the British army, and Pakistan has been a military state ever since, with its dominant rationale for existing to protect the 1947 partition.

All of this is laid out in its complexity and accompanying horrifying detail in Yasmin Khan’s excellent new book The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (Yale, 2008.) It is a reminder, if one be needed, that history is little more than the concatenation of unintended consequence, and that one misstep often ensures another. If nothing else, when contemplating intervention in Pakistani affairs, America ought to tread with the utmost wariness. The great powers have already made blundered enough.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jack Kemp

The first time I saw a professional football game, back in 1965, it was the Jets at Shea Stadium, with Joe Namath, against the Buffalo Bills, with Jack Kemp. I think the Bills won. Kemp certainly had a more interesting post-football career than Namath. He was, arguably, the most important New York State politician on the national scene in the second half of 20th century. (Hillary might give him a run for the money for the 21st.) And he was the most important politician from western New York since Grover Cleveland, I think. He was one of only three New Yorkers to be a national ticket in the past sixty years (a paltry sum considering the Roosevelt-rich sixty years before) all in losing causes, Kemp in 96, Ferraro in 84, and William E. Miller in 64. Don’t speak ill of the dead—if anyone ever truly deserved the title of “compassionate conservative,” it was Kemp, who seemed genuinely concerned about the plight of the poor and minorities, and tried, with little or no success, to rekindle the affection between blacks and the Republican Party. And perhaps, some of his ideas, such as Empire Zones, helped, at least at first, more than they hurt. Certainly almost any helping hand was welcome in the 1980s, when our cities slowly started to climb out the morass into which they fell in the 1960s.

But to speak ill of the dead: compassionate conservatives are probably more dangerous than the uncompassionate ones, first, because they provide cover to the garden variety conservative who believe that anyone who is poor and black or Latino is that way because they deserve it, and because nothing is less helpful than rescuers people who encourage to jump into a safety net with a big hole in the middle. Jack Kemp will be forever associated with supply side economics, and the belief that tax cuts can pay for themselves, and that the lower the taxes, the better the economy, are two of the cardinal principles of the economic philosophy that led to the great crack-up of America, from the sub-prime mortgage crisis (related, in various ways, to compassionate conservatism) to the Wall Street bankruptcies. From what I have observed, and what I have read, Jack Kemp was a decent enough guy. But Jack Kemp came on the scene when the Republican Party was chock full of “ideas,” to turn back liberalism, and Kemp’s ideas, as much as anyone else’s over the past three decades, have gone a long way to ruin the United States of America. Or, to make a bad and by now somewhat obscure pun, "what has Kemp Roth?"

Torture at the Times

Recent debates in the columns of the New York Times over the use of the word "torture" to describe waterboarding call to mind something Bruce Springsteen said years ago: if you don't use your own mind, somebody else will use it for you.

As public editor Clark Hoyt observes in his April 25 column, "Telling the Brutal Truth," the Times editorial page long ago accepted the use of the word "torture" to describe what the Bush administration preferred to call "enhanced interrogation techniques." But Times news reports use other terms, such as "brutal" interrogation techniques--even when they describe waterboarding. The rationale for this is offered by Douglas Jehl, an editor in the Washington bureau, in the same piece.
Jehl said that when the paper is discussing what is generally regarded as the most extreme interrogation method the C.I.A. used, waterboarding, “we’ve become more explicit in saying in a first reference that it’s a near-drowning technique” that Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and many other experts “have called torture.” But he said: “I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?” Jehl argued for precision and caution. I agree.

One of the best answers to this argument came in letters to Hoyt published in this week's public editor's column.

Douglas Jehl, the Washington Bureau deputy editor, asks, “On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict” on what constitutes torture?

How about on the basis of legal theory, international treaty, statute and case law, which provide several centuries’ worth of settled definitions?

Medieval and early modern jurists argued about the effectiveness and desirability of using torture — they were well aware of its potential to produce false confessions. Enlightenment debate turned to prohibition. Regardless, jurists agreed about what constituted torture.

The deliberate euphemisms of the Bush administration add something new: redefine torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This sleight of hand should not triumph in The New York Times.

Appleton, Wis., April 27, 2009

Span's letter gets to the heart of the matter. Jehl, in waiting for a Washington consensus on the definition of torture, is abdicating his own judgment and letting presidents and attorneys general think for him. And that leaves the all-important choices of words and definitions to officeholders less interested in truth than in framing terms and issues in ways that let them do what they want to do.

The answer is not for journalists to invent meanings and apply them as they wish. But when there is a dispute over a word, the Times has every right--indeed every obligation--to clarify the situation with research and analysis of its own. After that, I am confident, it would reach the reasonable conclusion that waterboarding is a form of torture.