Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Worst Top 24 Ever!

Every year around this time, my sister says -- in the past often in an email, this year as a post on Facebook -- that this season of Idol has the most talented top 24 ever, or the best final 12 ever. And every year, because it's the way I am, I respond with something like, "I think that remains to be seen--let's see them sing first." This year, I wrote something similar in response to Amy's post, and then said, "I think there are some talented women, but not so sure about the guys." Well, the women were a little disappointing last night, but at least there was some talent there, some people you could at least sort of envision winning American Idol. But tonight -- wow. Even after sounding caution about the guys, that was worse that I ever imagined. I'm not even sure I want to waste my time blogging about that horror show. Each singer, for a while, seemed worse than the previous one.

So while Ellen still sucked as a judge tonight (really, Ellen, not everyone is "great"), and there's still no reason to have four judges, there are much bigger problems with this show right now -- a lack of talent. Seriously, tonight's show reminded me of the semifinal rounds in seasons one and two--just a bunch of mediocre and uninspired singers. Casey James wasn't that great, but he sounded like Kelly Clarkson on Big Band Night compared to what came before.

A few words on each before I return to watching Olympic hockey...

Todrick Hall ("Since You've Been Gone") -- I don't even know what to say about this odd performance-- it was a total reworking of a very good song that, as the judges said, made the verses barely recognizable. Having said that, the judges are always saying that they want to see people change up songs--so it appears they only want people to change them a little bit, not too much. Looking back on this after hearing the following 11 performers, at least he showed that he had some personality, was kind of interesting to watch and had a decent voice -- which was much more than most of the group did.

Aaron Kelly ("Here Comes Goodbye") -- Wasn't this kind of the male equivalent of a bunch of female performances last night. You know, the ones that the judges said were too much like the original version, showed nothing original, etc. There was nothing wrong with it, but I didn't notice the amazing voice the judges claimed he had, either.

Jermaine Sellers ("Get Here") -- Jermaine goes with the song Justin Guarini sang about eight times on the show in season one. The beginning of the song was so soft and weak that I could barely hear him over the heating system in my apartment. Then he got loud and strange and the less said the better.

Tim Urban ("Apologize") -- Now we know why he was a late addition to the top 24. That sucked. Off key and not good.

Joe Munoz ("You and I Both") -- Who is this guy? Had we even heard him sing before tonight? I have a feeling the last time we'll hear him sing is Thursday night when he's eliminated. It was boring and he had little personality and didn't he kind of sound like he was singing in Spanish or some other language at points in the song? Or was it just me. As for Kara's statement that he should be given a show to "get his bearings," I actually agree. Except that last night, Kara was upset that she didn't know who various people will be as an artist via the song they chose. So which is it, Kara?

Tyler Grady ("American Woman") -- Yeah, so he acts like he wants to be Jim Morrison and that will get old quick, but his voice was OK and he had some personality on stage so he was at least tolerable.

Lee Dewyze ("Chasing Cars") -- I agreed with Simon, I did like his voice and thought he had a decent performance, even if I have no plans to be downloading his song from ITunes. As for Kara's suggestion that he should be doing a Bad Company song, I never want to hear anyone sing a Bad Company song (and didn't she just get through telling Tyler to not do classic rock songs but do newer songs? Doesn't she listen to herself?)

John Park ("God Bless the Child") -- Liked his marriage proposal for Shania Twain. Didn't like his flat, bland singing.

Michael Lynche ("This Love") -- Another performance with very little originality and singing that was nothing special. But, as others have written already, he's probably destined for the "big guy who seems like a nice guy" spot in the final 12 previously occupied by Matt Rogers and Matthew Sarver -- where he'll go out in the first few weeks because he has no chance of winning whatsoever.

Alex Lambert ("Wonderful World") -- This guy has negative stage presence and charisma, and in the brief clips we saw with him from Hollywood Week, that was the way he was there -- stiff as a board. So the judges should have known what they were getting. Having said that, he did have a nice, raspy, sort of Bryan Adams thing going on with his voice, although he did miss some notes.

Casey James ("Heaven") -- As I mentioned before, pretty good, but compared to the rest of the junk we were subjected to, sounded like he actually was Bryan Adams. Seems to know what he's doing, has a decent voice, and was certainly in the top two tonight.

Andrew Garcia ("Sugar We're Going Down") -- Not sure why the judges had such a problem with this. I thought it was fine -- not his "Straight Up" from Hollywood Week, but in the same vein. He just altered a much worse song. My concern is that Andrew is a one-trick pony, and his one trick will get old very quickly.

I have no idea who is going home, because there are so many who deserve to. I would send home Tim Urban and Joe Munoz, and I think that's what America will decide too.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #9: How Stephen Walt ignores the facts

Reading Stephen Walt's blog reminds me of that Simpsons episode where a cartoon version of Ed Begley, Jr. shows off his new environmentally friendly car, which he says is powered by his "own sense of self-satisfaction." Combine that with some kind of martyrdom complex, and you've got his Monday post, "On Grabbing the Third Rail."

The post is Walt's "Ten Tips for Handling a Smear Campaign," which he of course claims he has been subjected to because of his writings on the "Israel lobby. Simplifying his post to one sentence, it would be something like "If people are criticizing you, it must be because you're right -- and not because perhaps you don't know what you're talking about or actually made errors." (You should read the whole thing if you have a chance, but just be prepared to want to throw your computer out the window by the time you get about two-thirds of the way through.)

OK, maybe that's simplifying it a bit, but Walt, of course, ignores the real reason people keep criticizing him -- he continually distorts or just flat out ignores facts that he doesn't like or don't agree with his and Mearsheimer's thesis on the Isarel lobby. The best example of this comes from just last week.

Earlier in the month, Walt wrote a post entitled "I don't mean to say I told you so, but ... ", in which he proudly touted "a new piece of evidence" that had come to light strengthening his an Mearsheimer's case that the Israel lobby played a "key role" in the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. It's a quote from then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said in testimony to the Iraq war commission in the UK about a meeting he had with President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas in 2002: "As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations that we had even with Israelis, the two of us, whilst we were there. So that was a major part of all this." Walt then writes: "Notice that Blair is not saying that Israel dreamed up the idea of attacking Iraq or that Bush was bent on war solely to benefit Israel or even to appease the Israel lobby here at home. But Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted in the planning for the war.

The problem with that quote, as JTA's Ron Kampeas and The New Republic's John Judis point out, is that it doesn't prove in any way what Walt contends and has been totally ripped out of context. As Judis writes:

The real problem is that Walt does not seem to have taken the trouble to have read the transcript of Blair’s testimony. If he had, he would have realized that Blair was not talking about how invading Iraq might benefit Israel, but about the conflict then occurring between Israel and the Palestinians. The second intifada had reached a new height with the Passover and Haifa suicide bombings and the beginning of the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and Blair was concerned that the Bush administration was not actively pursuing the peace process. Blair wanted the administration to put the Arab-Israeli issue on a par with the threat of Iraq.

Both Judis and Kampeas provide other examples -- from later in the testimony and from the press conference that followed the 2002 Crawford Blair-Bush meeting -- to show that the references to Israel had nothing to do with the Iraq situation but were about the situation in the West Bank at the time.

So I eagerly read Walt's post last week in which he said he was responding to Judis. And it was remarkable -- because, incredibly, he completely ignored the problem Judis and Kampeas identified with Walt's original post. Here's what he writes:

First, I made it clear in my post that Blair's comments were not a "smoking gun" that proved we were right, and I neither suggested nor implied that Blair's testimony demonstrated that Bush went to war at Israel's urging or to accommodate the Israel lobby. I merely noted that Blair had said that concerns about Israel were part of the discussion, and that Israeli officials were consulted as part of the conversation.

He then reproduces the quote from his original post that I mentioned above and states "In short, Judis is attacking me for claims I did not make."

OK, it's true that Walt didn't literally call the Blair remarks a "smoking gun" -- he just called his blog post "I don't mean to say I told you so, but...." and said "yet another piece of evidence surfaced that suggests we were right all along." Sure seems like Walt thought this was pretty important. If the gun wasn't smoking, that kind of trumpeting of this alleged "revelation" certainly leads one to think Walt was at the very least implying the gun was still warm. Walt at least believed the gun was still warm.

Then Walt says, "I neither suggested nor implied that Blair's testimony demonstrated that Bush went to war at Israel's urging or to accommodate the Israel lobby." Fine, he did explicitly deny he was saying that in his original post.

But then he states: "I merely noted that Blair had said that concerns about Israel were part of the discussion, and that Israeli officials were consulted as part of the conversation." But that's exactly what Judis is denying, with convincing evidence on his side. Judis and Kampeas specifically make the case that the discussion Blair was referring to had nothing specifically to do with the Iraq war, but with the completely separate issue of the second Intifada and Israel's operation at the time in the West Bank. And Israeli officials were consulted about this issue, not the Iraq war.

So when Walt claims that Judis is "attacking me for claims I did not make," the irony is that Walt is actually not even acknowledging the most persuasive claim Judis is making that he's wrong. It's the main thrust of Judis' article and Walt acts like it doesn't exist! That's why people get angry at you, Professor Walt -- you just ignore the facts, and it's infuriating.

For more evidence of Walt's dishonesty and willingness to smear his critics, check out this blog post I wrote last month.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The last season of Idol as we know it begins

I've avoided blogging about it so far, but now that we're down to the top 24, I guess it's time to start blogging American Idol again -- especially because with Simon leaving, this is the lastyear of AI as we know it. Before we get into the singers, though, I must say that after the first Hollywood episode, when everyone was praising Ellen DeGeneres for how good she was as a judge, I should have blogged what I was thinking then--which was judging the few, edited clips of Ellen they showed is not a true picture of the judge Ellen will be on the weekly live shows. And tonight I didn't really find that she had much insightful or interesting to say at all. In fact, I kept thinking all night when we went to the judges what I thought most of last year: "Why again did we need four judges?" Just like last year, when Paula seemed to step up her game with Kara around, I did think that both Kara and Randy stepped it up tonight--Randy occasionally offering an insightful comment, and Kara not being nearly as annoying with her "artistry" crap as last year. The only thing I can remember about Ellen tonight is the opening bit--which was funny when she talked about Simon being into her, and then became unfunny quickly with that videotaped bit with the hands on the leg, which looked like a bit that Jay Leno rejected.

As far as the singers, my general impression was that it's a very attractive group of women, most of whom are solid singers. No clear frontrunner, but a bunch with breakout potential. As for Ryan's comment when the show started that we "know this group better at this stage of the competition" than others," I have no idea what he's talking about. There were four or five people tonight I'd either never heard sing or heard no more than 20 seconds of singing from them over the last five weeks. Yeah, I know that Katelyn Epperly's parents got divorced and Didi Benami's friend died and Katie Stevens' grandmother has Alzheimer's, but don't we know that kind of stuff about a handful of the Idols every year?

Paige Miles ("It's All Right Now")--What an strange, bad choice of song. Not a strong melody, and the chorus is the same thing repeated over and over. Even worse, the backup singers drowned her out or sung instead of her on the chorus. I know Simon says she has the best voice of the women, but while her singing wasn't bad, she didn't really show me anything memorable. Combine the fact that she went first in a two-hour show, we didn't know anything about her before tonight, and her clip at the end of the show was mostly of the chorus singing, and I think she's in danger of going home.

Ashley Rodriguez ("Happy")-- Didn't think it was the montrosity that the judges thought it was, but it was unoriginal and predictable. She's pretty, though.

Janell Wheeler ("What About Love?")-- She's pretty, too, and apparently is Tim Tebow's ex-girlfriend. (I hope her position on abortion, whatever it may be, doesn't become an issue....) That was not good. I really liked Janell doing "American Boy" during Hollywood Week, but her Taylor Swift song later in the week wasn't very good, and this was disappointing. Ellen, apparently taking the Paula role, praised her for how she "moved easily on stage." Yes, she at least didn't fall down. That kind of sums it up for Janell.

Lily Scott ("Fixing A Hole")--That was really cool. Unique voice, good choice of song, sounded great. Not sure what to make of Kara's comment that the best thing for a singer is to stand on the street and busk. Really? When I come out of the Metro and see someone busking, sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes I don't, but I never think, "We really need someone singing on every street corner." Oh, well. I was disturbed, though, at the way Kara seemed so excited that Simon put his hand on her leg. Didn't I read you got married, Kara?

Katelyn Epperly ("Oh, Darling") -- I thought Katelyn was one of the weaker singers in the final 12 women, but that was surprisingly good. Yeah, her voice isn't as powerful or unique as some others, but the whole thing worked for me. An offbeat song choice, a fun performance and she looked cute--unlike Kara, I didn't mind that she tarted herself up. But at least Kara called herself a bitch--that was satisfying.

Haeley Vaughn ("I Want to Hold Your Hand")-- When they announced what Haeley's song was, I said, "Oh, no. Why would you do that?" And yet, I actually liked Haeley's arrangement of the song. I just didn't like Haeley's singing of the song, which was screechy and pitchy and all over the place. Yeah, Haeley's different, but she's 16 and way too young and has no chance of coming close to winning this thing. Too bad they didn't tell her to come back next year with another year under her belt, and give her slot to poor Angela Martin, who had a sad story and was a better singer.

Lacey Brown ("Landslide") -- Lacey, let me give you some advice. For your first song on the semifinals of American Idol, why would you pick a song that was sung by Stevie Nicks, one of the most distinctive female rock vocalists of the last few decades, and has also been covered by another hugely popular and distinctive singer in Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks? What chance did you have of doing anything that would make us forget them? And when she said that she chose the song beacuse it
"speaks to me as a person," I realized that she hasn't read my blog over the past few years. How many times have I said that you pick a song for how it makes your voice sound, not because you like the lyrics? You can worry about the lyrics once you win. Anyway, it was boring and kind of off-key and a big mess.

Michelle Delamor ("Fallin") -- This song should have been banned from American Idol by now--we must have heard it 40 times, especially in the audition rounds. Having said that, she did a solid but unspectacular job on it, even though the backup singers were too dominant at times. Since I don't remember hearing her sing previously on the FIVE WEEKS I've already sat through, I hope we get to hear her sing again on a less familiar song.

Didi Benami ("The Way I Am")-- Didi was my favorite coming into tonight for a number of reasons. That version of Kara's song "Terrified" she did with a guitar during Hollywood Week was terrific, she's quite attractive, and she's apparently Jewish. (The name Benami is Hebrew meaning "son of the people," and her given first name is "Vered," which is also Hebrew for rose.) But I was a little disappointed tonight--she left the guitar home, did a song I hadn't heard before and did an OK but nothing special job with it. In fact, she kind of reminded me of Megan Joy from last year--in that she sang an offbeat song in an offbeat way--and that's not a good thing. I hope she steps it up next week. (OK, I actually voted a couple times for her--just wanted to make a full disclosure.)

Siobhan Magnus ("Wicked Game")-- Wow, she's a glassblowing apprentice. Who knew there stil was such a thing? The first two lines of the song were terrible for Siobhan, but as Randy would say, I thought she "worked it out" and the rest of the song was quite good, different and vocally solid. I'm intrigued.

Crystal Bowersox ("Hand in My Pocket")-- I've never really liked this song, but Crystal kind of made me like it. The guitar, the harmonica, the vocals--all of it worked for me. Simon is correct, though--she does have to do something to surprise us, not just sing acoustic versions of female singer-songwriter hits. I hope she can do that.

Katie Stevens ("Feelin Good") -- Love when American Idol announces that a song was by, in this instance, Michael Buble, when someone else, in this case Nina Simone, actually popularized the song and Buble is only the most recent to do it. Then again, of all the things wrong with American Idol, this is probably the least important. Anyway, Katie did OK, and with her being in the "pimp spot," it's obvious the producers want her to advance. She's got a nice, rich voice, but it was kind of a strange choice of song for a 17-year-old, as the judges said. On the other hand, it always seems like when the judges say that, they're implying that they want her to sing a Britney song or something. Why? Maybe she's showing that she wants to be a artist who sings jazz songs. It's not going to win her American Idol, but it's still a persona as an artist...

Who's going home? This is tough, but I'll say Lacey Brown and Paige Miles, for the aforementioned reasons, although I wouldn't rule out Haeley Vaughn or Ashley Rodriguez either. But the word Haeley was trending on Twitter a little while ago, so she's probably safe (unless everyone's tweeting about how bad she was, in which case I have no idea.)

Fingerhut out!


Jewish Fact Check #8: Glenn Greenwald and "revolting provenance"

I don't necessarily want to keep harping on this issue of critics of Israel falsely claiming they can't talk about Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism, but if writers like Glenn Greenwald keep writing things that distort and misinterpret what others have written, I guess I have no choice.

Greenwald's Feb. 18 article in Salon is mostly a strange attack on Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), but I'll get to that later. First, though, let's look at this passage in Greenwald's piece:'d best keep in mind the stern warnings issued last week by Jonathan Chait and Jeffrey Goldberg: namely, the mere suggestion that some Americans favor U.S. aggression in the Muslim world due to concerns about Israel, rather than the U.S., has a "revolting provenance" that "should disgust all thinking people." Thus, while quasi-clearing Andrew Sullivan of anti-semitism charges, they warned all of us that one had better be extremely careful in how one discusses such matters (as Sullivan failed to do) lest one be justifiably (even if wrongly) accused of anti-Semitism

So Greenwald is saying that Chait and Goldberg (actually, Goldberg merely linked approvingly to Chait's piece) claim that even uttering the fact that concerns about Israel enter into some Americans' views of the Middle East is evidence of possible anti-Semitism. Greenwald would be right, that would be ridiculous -- except The New Republic's Chait never wrote anything of the sort. Here's what Chait did write:

Leon notes, correctly, that Andrew has begun repeating tropes that happen to track classic anti-Semitic canards. His obsession with the singular power of the Israel lobby, writes Leon "has a provenance that should disgust all thinking people." Agreed. But just because an idea has a revolting provenance, it does not follow that everybody who subscribes to any version of it shares the same motive.

Chait didn't write that anyone who makes the "mere suggestion that some Americans favor U.S. aggression in the Muslim world due to concerns about Israel" is guilty of holding an idea with a "revolting provenance," he said that an obsession with the "singular power of the Israeli lobby" has an "revolting provenance." Being obsessed with the "singular power of the Israeli lobby"--that means thinking the Israel lobby is the most powerful lobby in the U.S., bar none. That means believing that the Israeli lobby is much more powerful than the farm lobby or the gun lobby or anything else, that it alone drives the decisionmaking of the United States in the Middle East. Yeah, some people may believe this, but it's simply not true. And that view does have a "revolting provenance"--it's an obvious echo of the anti-Semitic trope that Jews are pulling the strings, controlling the world. And yet Greenwald somehow equates having an obsession with the "singular power of the Israeli lobby" with "the mere suggestion that some Americans favor U.S. aggression in the Muslim world due to concerns about Israel." It's hard to believe a guy like Greenwald, who makes his living writing and using words, could so obviously misconstrue someone else's article--unless he was just trying to make a political point.

The main thrust of Greenwald's piece, though, is his thoughts on a nine and a half-minute speech Rep. Gary Ackerman gave to Jewish groups in New York. He writes that after listening to the speech: "It's simply impossible to deny that this highly influential American Congressman, devoted to pushing the U.S. to war with Iran, is driven, at least in substantial part, by his fervent devotion to Israel. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but there is much wrong with trying to force people to pretend it's not true."

First, a couple of facts. Ackerman, of course, devotes about 30 seconds to Iran in the speech highlighted, and says nothing about war or military action. He simply says that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is a "worry" and "concern." Does anyone seriously disagree with that? Ackerman has supported sanctions on the Iranian regime, but has not endorsed a military strike. In fact, earlier this month, he counseled "patience" in trying to figure out how to support the dissident movement in Iran while also hastening the demise of the regime. (Greenwald is likely thinking of a resolution Ackerman sponsored two years ago, which critics said was "an act of war" but which Ackerman said was no such thing, while also pointing out that it was a non-binding resolution merely advocated increased economic and political pressure on the regime.)

Second, in all of Greenwald's fury over Ackerman's defense of Israel in the speech over the Goldstone Report and other matters, the Salon writer ignores the most interesting part of Ackerman's speech: the passage in which he urges Israel to negotatiate a settlement with the Palestinians, something I'd think Greenwald would want to hear. The New York congressman talks about how Israel currently has a "qualitative edge" in military technology, but such an edge will get increasingly smaller. "Time is not friendly to you if you're winning the race," he said. "Cut your deal, get the best deal when you're ahead," he continues, adding that Israel
"has to figure out a way to get the Palestinians back to the table and talk peace."

But Greenswald's main point is this "It's simply impossible to deny that this highly influential American Congressman, devoted to pushing the U.S. to war with Iran, is driven, at least in substantial part, by his fervent devotion to Israel. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but there is much wrong with trying to force people to pretend it's not true."

Who exactly is trying to pretend that's not true? Everyone knows Gary Ackerman is Jewish and a supporter of Israel. No one is denying that. And no one can deny -- or is denying -- that the pro-Isarel community has been leading the call for sanctions on Iran. I sure won't. But why exactly is it so important to point this out? Yes, stopping Iran from acquiring nukes would be good for Israel. It's also an outcome that's desired by all the other nations in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. And it's also a major concern o the United States--it has the potential of destabilizing the Middle East, where the U.S. gets a lot of its oil, and could allow Iran to fund terrorism throughout the world with impunity--knowing that it has a nuclear threat to prevent retaliation. So why are the alleged motivations of increased pressure on Iran so important. Greenwald, and those who agree with him, could argue that those things don't matter, or that such threats are exaggerated, or that it's no big deal if Iran gets nukes. Fine. But why is it so important to identify and make part of the argument the background of the other side? Is it because they can't respond to the other side's arguments?

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #7: Where Joe Klein proves my point from Jewish Fact Check #6

Wow. When I wrote my blog post earlier this week pointing out that critics of Israel seem to take pride in being called "anti-Semite," even to the point of exaggerating or making up accusations of anti-Semitism, I never dreamed that three days later I would read something that would make my point even better than any of the examples I used in the original post.

Not surprisingly, it comes from Joe Klein, who I also cited as an example in my original post. He wrote a column for Time Magazine which began by recounting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech to the U.S.-Islamic Conference in Doha on Sunday, and her statement that a solution to the blockade of Gaza can only come with a comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Klein writes that's the "wrong answer" and suggests that when he came into office, instead of trying for a comprehensive settlement, President Obama should have tried solving the Gaza crisis first. Klein then argues that the White Hosue needs to "engage" Hamas.

That brought a retort from Commentary's Jonathan Tobin, who calls that a bad idea and says that "what Klein fails to understand is that no matter who sits in the White House, it is not in America’s interest to rescue the killers of Hamas. Rather, it should be our policy to isolate and hopefully oust them from power." Tobin, while criticizing Obama's general foreign policy, even praises the president and Clinton for opposing any engagement with Hamas.

Tobin's post seemed like a fairly standard, relatively innocuous blogosphere post , but it brought an bizarre, almost unhinged response from Klein, in an "update" to an ealrier blog post linking to his column. It has to be read in full to be believed. It begins: "The neocon extremists over at Commentary have wasted no time responding to my column with their usual bile and bullying." He then goes to on identify a couple minor errors in Tobin's piece and claims something is an error that really isn't (he says that Tobin said he blamed Israel for the Gaza situation; in fact, Tobin says Klein blamed Israel for "Obama's acknowledged failure in the Middle East," which was obviously a reference to Klein's line "U.S. envoy George Mitchell's slow-moving effort to start talks tanked because of Israel's unwillingness to stop building illegal settlements on Palestinian land.") And he reiterates some of the points he made in the column

Then Klein writes this:

My suggestions--or their distorted burlesque of my suggestions--are, apparently, what passes for anti-Israel extremism over at Commentary. But anything that doesn't conform to their half-crazed macho crusaderism is seen as either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Their constant fury, their slightly-veiled calumnies against the President--and against the very notion of diplomacy--would be laughable if they weren't so dangerous and disgraceful.

Whoa! Anti-Israel? Anti-Semitic? Where'd you get that, Joe? Tobin's piece said your proposal to engage with Hamas was a bad one because it wasn't in America's interest to help out terrorists. Tobin may be right, he may be wrong, but he never said anything about you being "anti-Israel" or "anti-Semitic" anywhere in the piece. He didn't even imply it. He just didn't like your ideas, and didn't like your statement that Israel was at fault for the failure of George Mitchell's efforts. But in your attempt to make yourself out to be some courageous truth-teller, you claim you've been smeared -- when you're the one doing the smearing.

Klein lowers himself even further when he writes that "the barely concealed anti-Arab bigotry so frequently found on the Commentary blog, reveals itself in this sentence: That answer pleased neither the Arabs nor Klein," a sentence which referred to Clinton's answer when asked about Gaza. Klein accurately points out that he was attending a U.S.-Islamic forum in which Arabs were just about half of the delegates. I'm not sure how that mistake is clear and convincing evidence of "anti-Arab bigotry," but it would be a bad mistake on Tobin's part. Except that here's what Klein writes in his column: "Clinton's tough talk on Iran got most of the U.S. headlines, but her position on Gaza was far more important to the Islamic participants at Doha, especially the Arabs."

In other words, Klein specifically said that those at the U.S.-Islamic forum who were most interested, and thus obviously the most disappointed, by Clinton's remarks on Gaza were the Arab delegates. Should Tobin have said Muslims? It would have been better. But in using Arabs, he was only following Klein's lead.

I used to really like Joe Klein as a writer. And I was really impressed about a decade ago when I saw him speak at a local synagogue. It was around the time of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, and in part of his talk he discussed his view that personal matters were getting way too much attention in politics and destroying Washington. I asked him how he could make this argument when a few years earlier he had written an really interesting article for Newsweek on Bill Clinton (I think it was titled "The Politics of Promiscuity") in which he argued that Bill Clinton as a president was like Bill Clinton in his private life--promiscuous and unable to stick to one woman or one idea. I gained a lot of respect for Klein when he answered, "I was wrong" and that he shouldn't have written that article. But after his most recent attack, I've lost most of that respect. Hopefully, he'll admit he's wrong this time, too.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why Marc Thiessen doesn't seem to be a very good columnist (aka Hockey Fact Check #1)

There seems to be a lot of people upset that the Washington Post has hired former Bush speechwriter Marc A. Thiessen as a new weekly columnist, primarily because he's been a strong proponent of torture and has even written a book defending it (although if you read the comments bashing him below his first column, you'd think he'd personally waterboarded prisoners at Gitmo.)

Sure, I find it a little odd that after hiring former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson to write an op-ed column, the Post would a couple years later hire another former Bush speechwriter -- but if the guy has something interesting to say and a fresh way of saying it, why not? Unfortunately, I read his first column, which is about hockey -- something I know a lot more about than torture. And if it's a preview of what's to come, Thiessen won't be a very good columnist, because all he does is demonstrate that he has no idea what he's talking about when it comes to hockey.

Thiessen's argument in his column, "Don't expect miracles in Vancouver," is that it's too bad professional hockey players now participate in the Olympics, because we can never have a repeat of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team, where a U.S. team of college kids and other amateur players knocked off the greatest hockey team in the word from the Soviet Union. As he writes:

If Team USA defeats Russia in the Vancouver Olympics, Max and I will be cheering -- but I doubt a generation of children yet-to-be born will be celebrating the victory decades from now. The Miracle on Ice is considered one of the greatest moments in U.S. sports history not just because of the cold war backdrop, but because a bunch of college kids took on the greatest hockey team in the world and won. If the American squad had been made up of NHL players, it's unlikely that they would have inspired a blockbuster movie, or that we'd be marking the anniversary of their win.

That's a noble, good-hearted sentiment, but it completely ignores reality -- and history.

First of all, the Olympics now, as opposed to 30 years ago, doesn't require amateurism (or not earning money from your sport) in order to participate. All the top Olympic athletes in every sport are professionals. But even if the NHL decided it won't allow its players to participate in the Olympics, that wouldn't mean that we'd ever get a repeat of anything close to the "Miracle on Ice." Back in 1980, while the Western nations could only send amateurs, the Eastern bloc nations were somehow able to skirt those rules and send their best professional hockey players to the Olympics (I think they claimed, for instance, that their top team, the Soviet Red Army team, actually earned their money by working for the army or something--I never really undestood this, but somehow the Soviets got away with it.) But 30 years later, with no Iron Curtain, almost all the best Russian hockey players are now playing in the NHL. So if the NHL didn't send its players to the Olympics, you'd have a bunch of U.S. college kids competing against a bunch of Russian college kids, young players who haven't left for the NHL yet -- and maybe a few past-their-prime Russians now playing in the top Russian league, like a 40-year-old Sergei Fedorov. You think that would inspire a movie or an anniversary commemoration? Don't think so.

But more than that lack of knowledge of history or hockey, what annoyed me about Thiessen's piece was his line that "for the sake of hockey fans and for the sake of the NHL," the NHL should decide not to send its players to the next Olympics. Now there is a solid argument -- even if I don't agree with it -- for why the NHL should consider not sending NHL players to the Sochi, Russia Olympics in 2014. Thiessen doesn't even really make it.

He does mentions the risk of injuries -- which is of some concern but I think is somewhat blown out of proportion. At the most, it's six extra games, and of course there is the risk of injury. But there's a risk of injury in every game when the players return to the NHL, too. That's just sports. The actual good argument that the NHL has in its quiver is its concern that shutting down its league for two weeks during the stretch run of the season in February may not be worth it financially, considering the lack of benefit the league gets from it. The NHL originally agreed to shut down the season every four years for the Olympics because they hoped it would show off their most talented players to the much bigger television audience that the Olympics provides. But with the games either being broadcast live in the middle of the night (as in Nagano in 1998 and likely in 2014 in Sochi) or never being shown -- or on most nights even mentioned -- on the NBC prime-time broadcast but instead totally shunted off to NBC's sister networks like USA and CNBC like this year, they wonder whether they're getting any exposure except to diehard hockey fans. The disrespect from NBC has gotten even worse in the last two days--six out of the seven games played as I write this have been joined in progress in the first period either because curling went into overtime or CNBC was showing the last five minutes of a 13-0 women's hockey game. I actually think even with the indignities heaped upon the NHL, though, this Olympic tournament will help the NHL in the long run. The league hasn't had this many young, exciting stars in as long as I can remember, and a potential Russia-Canada meeting in the gold medal game would only pump up the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry even more for what hopefully will be meeting this spring in the playoffs.

But even if the NHL doesn't get that much benefit from these games, I don't care -- because I'm a hockey fan. That's what makes me so angry about Thieseen's piece, that he claims that not sending NHL players to the Olympics is somehow the best thing for hockey fans. Thiessen is apparently not an actual hockey fan, because any true fan of the sport wants to see the best players in the world. And he's not going to be a very good columnist, because he doesn't even try to refute -- or even acknowledge -- his opponents' best argument.

Thiessen argues that the Olympics should be reserved for seeing up and coming stars in college and junior hockey, because that level of hockey doesn't get the exposure that college basketball and football get. Well, yeah, because hockey in the U.S. just isn't as popular a sport as football and basketball are. But if you want to see college and junior hockey, ESPNU and ESPN broadcast the Frozen Four and other games in the NCAA hockey tournament, and the NHL Network broadcast much of the World Junior Championships this past December and January. If Thiessen wants to see those tournaments, he now knows where to find them.

In the Olympics, why shouldn't we want to see great hockey? The Olympic hockey tournament is any hockey fan's dream -- Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the USA all with teams loaded with NHL stars playing not in some all-star game where no one cares who wins, but for an Olympic gold medal. It features great skating, skill and goaltending and intense games. Missing out on such games would be good for hockey fans? How exactly? People have been talking about this tournament for weeks--and have you seen how excited Canadian fans are for it?

Thiessen argues that NHL players wouldn't trade a Stanley Cup for Olympic gold. That may be true for most players, but it's not a clear-cut call in many cases. (In fact, Alex Ovechkin has repeatedly refused to say which is more important, saying he wants to win both, and saying only, "The Olympics is first, then the Stanley Cup.") This isn't like tennis, for instance in the Olympics, where any player would rather win Wimbledon than a gold medal. Hockey has a great tradition of international games. One of the most famous moments in Canadian sports history in Paul Henderson's goal with 34 seconds left to win the 1972 Summit Series for Canada over Russia. That led to the international Canada Cup tournaments in the 1970s and 1980s featuring professional players. And of course, being part of Team USA still is a huge thing for any American hockey player who lived through or even heard stories of the Miracle on Ice.

I'm going to watch the end of the USA-Norway game and get excited for the Russia-Slovakia game later tonight. I hope if Thiessen really is a hockey fan he'll be watching too. I can only hope that Thiessen decides to write about torture in his next column for the Post. He's got to know more about that than he does about hockey, right?

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #6: Who's really using the term "anti-Semite"?

"There they go, flinging around baseless charges of anti-Semitism again." That was the general thrust of many responses to last week's piece by Leon Wieseltier on Andrew Sullivan, that supporters of Israel (or "neocons") were allegedly once again smearing critics of the Jewish state as anti-Semites rather than arguing their case fairly. I found this charge a little odd, considering that in his more than 4,000 word piece, Wieseltier only uses the term "anti-Semite" or "anti-Semitic" in reference to Sullivan once -- in reference to Sullivan's depiction of a "Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing" of the Jewish community, Wieseltier writes that the idea that "every thought that a Jew thinks is a Jewish thought is an anti-Semitic assumption, and a rather classical one." Yes, the insinuation of anti-Semitism by Sullivan runs through much of the piece, but the fact that Wieseltier doesn't actually use the term must mean something, doesn't it? Wouldn't one think that writers, who making their living through words, would at least find that noteworthy? But they didn't seem to notice.(Wieseltier, in a response to Sullivan's response to him, has since written, "I did not propose that he is an anti-Semite. I did propose that the scorn and the fury that characterizes his discussion of Israel and some of its Jewish supporters is wholly unwarranted by the requirements of a critical analysis of the settlements or the Gaza war, and that it may therefore be mistaken for bigotry.")

In fact, the whole Wieseltier-Sullivan episode has served to illustrate an emerging trend among critics of Israel: Their eagerness to allege that they've been accused of being an anti-Semite. I do agree that some of Israel's defenders are too quick to throw out charges of anti-Semitism or "self-hating Jew," and that's lamentable and a problem. But it seems that among many of Israel's critics, claiming that you've been accused of being an anti-Semite has become some sort of bizarre badge of honor. And quite a few of those that have allegedly been accused of being an anti-Semite, according to Wieseltier's critics, either were never smeared with such a term or were only accused of making a specific problematic remark and not tarred with some broad brush of disliking Jews, as they claim.

The best example of this overheated "He called me an anti-Semite" charge is a column by Glenn Greenwald last week. Early in the article, he writes: "As Charles Freeman can attest, frivolous anti-semitism accusations can still damage those seeking high-level political positions, but those accusations no longer pack any real punch in virtually any other realm" and later gives us this paragraph:

If The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, and Time's Joe Klein, and Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt, and the University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer, and Gen. Wes Clark (a TNR target), and Howard Dean, and former President Jimmy Carter, and a whole slew of others like them are "anti-semites," then how terrible of an insult is it?

So let's examine a few of Greenwal'd alleged victims. First we have the oddest name on this list, Howard Dean. Yes, when running for president in 2003-04, Howard Dean was criticized for some remarks he made about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But I couldn't remember any point where he was referred to as an anti-Semite. Well, in fact, the Salon article that Greenwald links to in order to apparently make his case on Dean doesn't even include the words "anti-Semite" or "anti-Semitism" anywhere in its more than 2,000 words. Yes, the article includes people, inside and outside the Jewish community, criticizing Dean as insufficiently supportive of Israel. That criticism may have been overheated or somewhat unfair -- but no one ever said Dean was anti-Semitic. In fact, the article makes the point that the most vocal critic of Dean was John Kerry, who last time I checked isn't a neocon and isn't Jewish (and for you smart alecks, yes, his paternal grandfather was Jewish, but Kerry isn't.) Dean was being criticized for his position on Israel by another candidate in the heat of a presidential primary contest. It happens all the time on many issues -- and it's called politics.

How about Charles Freeman? There were a lot of words written about Freeman's eventually aborted nomination to the National Intelligence Council, from the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb, former AIPACer Steve Rosen, and The New Republic's Jonathan Chait, among others. Some of these pieces criticized Freeman's "realist" approach to foreign policy, some his opinions and feelings about Israel. Did some of the things written about Freeman unfairly distort his past writings? Sure, and that's not good, but that happens on issues in Washington every day. Was there a legitimate argument to be made that too much focus was being put on Freeman's opinions on the Middle East, and that it shouldn't matter for his appoitment to this intelligence post? Sure. But the only -- and please, we're not counting someone's anonymous comment left at the bottom of a Politico article or something -- mainstream figure to ever make any kind of argument that Freeman had any hostility to Jews was Marty Peretz, who wrote that the former ambassador had a "hostility to Jews generally." That line is unfortunate -- and also completely unrepresentative of the vast majority of criticism of Freeman, but was seized upon by his defenders as the only statement that really mattered about Freeman. (Accusations of anti-Semitism later were made about Freeman, but only after his bizarre screed blaming the "Israel lobby" for his withdrawal.)

Let's move on to Joe Klein, who claims he was called an anti-Semite by the ADL's Abe Foxman. Actually, he wasn't. Here's what Joe Klein originally wrote that raised the ire of Foxman:

The notion that we could just waltz in and inject democracy into an extremely complicated, devout and ancient culture smacked--still smacks--of neocolonialist legerdemain. The fact that a great many Jewish neoconservatives--people like Joe Lieberman and the crowd over at Commentary--plumped for this war, and now for an even more foolish assault on Iran, raised the question of divided loyalties: using U.S. military power, U.S. lives and money, to make the world safe for Israel.

Foxman objected to Klein's reference to "Jewish" neoconservatives and his use of the term "divided loyalties" and wrote this: "The notion that Jews with 'divided loyalties' were behind the decision to go to war is reminiscent of age-old anti-Semitic canards about a Jewish conspiracy to control and manipulate government..." That's the only time Foxman uses the term "anti-Semitic" in his letter, and it's hard to argue that he's using it incorrectly. Klein says, pretty clearly, that some American Jews supported the war in Iraq, and are supporting another with Iran, because of "dual loyalties," and accusing Jews of dual loyalties is, as Foxman writes, an "age-old anti-Semitic canard."

Klein's response is essentially to say he was telling the truth--and then rip Foxman for calling him an "anti-Semite"--but he never actually proves that what he says is the truth. His examples are "people like Joe Lieberman and the crowd at Commentary" but he offers no links or quotes to substantiate that claim. (As far as I'm aware, Joe Lieberman never said the U.S. needed to go to war to "make the world safe for Israel," and I'm not sure who he means by the Commentary crowd--those who wrote there in 2003, before the war? Those who were there in 2008, when he wrote the blog item at issue? Klein and his defenders would likely respond that he's referring to American Jews who are strong supporters of Israeli security that also strongly backed the war. OK, fine--but while the (now discredited) neoconservative theory which apparently animated the war would have no doubt made Israel's neighborhood safer if it had worked, the idea was that it would spur the rest of the Middle East to go democratic, which would benefit the U.S. in innumerable ways (from cheaper oil to not having to be militarily involved there anymore--after all, it's not like the U.S. was new to the region, we'd fought a war in Iraq already 12 years earlier!) Klein's contention that it was simply to benefit Israel is something he just asserts with no proof--and therefore is, as Foxman argues, reminiscent of an age-old canard. That doesn't mean he's an anti-Semite, just that he used inappropriate language. It's similar to what happened with Bill Clinton in South Carolina in 2008. He was accused of making a racially-charged remark, but no one seriously believes Bill Clinton is a racist. (Oh, by the way, here's Joe Klein calling Clinton's remarks a "racial jab." So is Joe Klein saying Bill Clinton is a racist? And here's TNR's Chait saying Commentary's Jennifer Rubin used a "classic anti-Semitic trope" in describing why Jews don't like Sarah Palin. He wasn't saying that the Jewish Rubin is an anti-Semite, just that she was using that language--and no one seemed to complain.)

Finally, Sullivan himself -- unintentionally -- best illustrates this point with a Monday blog post about Johann Hari entitled "What Often Happents to Israel's Critics, Part 1." He finds a 2008 column by British journalist Hari, who had written a column charging that sewage from Israeli settlements was poisoning the water of Palestinian reservoirs and was outraged by the reaction. He claims that "there was little attempt to dispute the facts I offered. Instead, some of the most high profile 'pro-Israel' writers and media monitoring groups – including Honest Reporting and Camera – said I an anti-Jewish bigot akin to Joseph Goebbels and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

So I eagerly googled Honest Reporting's piece attacking Hari and found hardly anything to substantiate Hari's claim. Midway trough an 888-word blog post, the phrase "modern day 'poisoning the wells' libel" is used. Some hyperbole that would have been better left out? Yes. But the other 882 words in the post are indeed a lengthy attempt to "dispute the facts" that Hari offered. There's a charge that Hari used a fabricated quote from David Ben-Gurion, that he gets the history of Israel wrong, and that the Palestinians are equally to blame for polluting the West Bank. I don't know who's correct on these issues, but for Hari to claim that the Honest Reporting piece compared him to Goebbels and didn't address his arguments is simply not true. (And the CAMERA piece is much the same.)

None of this excuses the responsibility of some of Israel's defenders to be less eager to throw out the anti-Semitism charge. But here we have examples of four different public figures who were supposedly victims of the charge of anti-Semitism -- except that the charges are either false or wildly exaggerated. Which leaves the question: Why exactly has claiming you've been called an anti-Semite become so cool lately? Could it be that those claiming they've been called anti-Semites find it easier to do that that actually defend their positions with facts?

More on this issue later in the week.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #5: Obama, Israel and Haiti relief

Despite that old saying, "But is it good for the Jews," sometimes we need to remember that's it's not all about us. That's certainly the case when we talk about aid to post-earthquake Haiti.

I saw this blog post by The New Republic's Marty Peretz entitled "Maybe I'm Getting Paranoid .... About Obama" and thought, "Yes, Marty is getting paranoid about Obama." Basically, Peretz posits that the president was snubbing Israel because the Jewish state was not one of the six countries Obama mentioned in a list of those supplying aid to Haiti in a Jan. 15 speech:

At the airport, help continues to flow in, not just from the United States but from Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, among others.

Peretz notes that "next to our country, Israel sent the largest contingent of trained rescue workers, doctors, and other medical personnel," and adds that "the Israeli field hospital was the only one on the ground that could perform real surgery," and then argues that the reason Obama didn't mention Israel is because Arab states hadn't made a contribution equivalent to Israel's.

But I decided to not ignore it any longer after the Zionist Organization of America repeated Peretz's claims in a press release Monday entitled "ZOA Critical Of President Obama's Omission Of Israel From Among Countries Helping Haiti." (It's not up on the group's Web site yet--I will link when it appears.) The release also reiterates Peretz's questionable supposition that the omission of Israel somehow had to do with Obama's unwillingness to offend the Arab side in the Middle East peace process.

Let's leave aside the accuracy of that comparison (while maybe not as much as Israel, a bunch of Arab states did in fact send aid, as catalogued here, although apparently the Saudis had to be shamed to contribute $50 million), and just look at a couple important facts here.

First, as this Associated Press article from Jan. 13 notes, by the day after the earthquake, 16 countries had already pledged aid. So realistically, the president couldn't name every country, or it would have been a very boring speech (and by Jan. 15, when Obama gave the speech, the number had surely risen from 16). He did say "among others," after all--it's not like he ever implied that the countries he named were only the ones giving aid. And let's look at who he did name. All except one are immediate neighbors of Haiti, located in either North or South America (Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and, of course, the Dominican Republic, which is located on the same island). The only other country he names is France, which, of course, has a long history with Haiti. He didn't name the Netherlands, who sent $3 million and a 60 person rescue team, for instance -- or Great Britain or Spain or, for obvious reasons, Cuba.

But the main reason why the suspicion about Obama's motives is unwarranted is this glaring fact: According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Israeli aid team landed in Haiti on the evening of Jan. 15. That's right, around the same time -- or perhaps a couple hours after -- Obama actually gave the speech. So that means that all the truly great work that Israelis did in Haiti -- the work in the field hospital, the rescuse of someone trapped in the rubble more than a week after the quake -- all occurred AFTER the Obama speech which Peretz cites. Sure, Israel had announced that they were sending a field hospital and rescue personnel, but they hadn't actually done anything yet. So citing the great accomplishments of Israel in Haiti and then wondering how Obama overlooked them -- when the only way he could have mentioned them in that Jan. 15 speech is if he had time-traveled to the end of January -- is ridiculous.

In their press release, ZOA unwittingly proves this point by contrasting Obama's remarks with former President Bill Clinton, who was quoted in a Haaretz piece telling Israeli President Shimon Peres, "I don't know what we would have done without the Israeli hospital at Haiti." Of course, the article is from January 29, and Clinton made the remarks the previous day at the Davos economic forum.

So if you want to be upset at Obama, you can criticize him for leading with a settlement freeze in the Middle East and then, when it seemed to backfire, apparently not having a Plan B. You can criticize him for botching health care reform, by spending way too much time talking about how health reform will magically lead to fewer tests and fewer pills, when he should have been talking about real people, and how health reform would mean you won't lose your health insurance when you lose your job and you'll be able to actually get coverage even if you have a pre-existing condition. But don't get mad at him for somehow snubbing Israel in his list of countries that helped Haiti--because it just didn't happen.

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