July 1, 2008
July 1, 2008
There’s a theory that everything is better with bacon. We believe that theory with all of our heart. To that end, we are introducing our line of bacon formal wear with Uncle Oinker’s Bacon Scented Bacon Print Tuxedo. You can get married in bacon, get confirmed in bacon or go to the Oscars in bacon! Wait until Joan Rivers gets a whiff of you. Each Tuxedo is tailored from chemically treated latex print fabric in one of four different sizes. Best of all, it smells just like bacon sizzling in the pan. Dry clean only.
Donatella Versace is working on a bacon evening gown.
July 1, 2008
From The American Scholar, an extraordinary article, The Disadvantages Of An Elite Education:
Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers
It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.
It’s not surprising that it took me so long to discover the extent of my miseducation, because the last thing an elite education will teach you is its own inadequacy. As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me, elite colleges relentlessly encourage their students to flatter themselves for being there, and for what being there can do for them. The advantages of an elite education are indeed undeniable. You learn to think, at least in certain ways, and you make the contacts needed to launch yourself into a life rich in all of society’s most cherished rewards. To consider that while some opportunities are being created, others are being cancelled and that while some abilities are being developed, others are being crippled is, within this context, not only outrageous, but inconceivable.
I’m not talking about curricula or the culture wars, the closing or opening of the American mind, political correctness, canon formation, or what have you. I’m talking about the whole system in which these skirmishes play out. Not just the Ivy League and its peer institutions, but also the mechanisms that get you there in the first place: the private and affluent public “feeder” schools, the ever-growing parastructure of tutors and test-prep courses and enrichment programs, the whole admissions frenzy and everything that leads up to and away from it. The message, as always, is the medium. Before, after, and around the elite college classroom, a constellation of values is ceaselessly inculcated. As globalization sharpens economic insecurity, we are increasingly committing ourselves—as students, as parents, as a society—to a vast apparatus of educational advantage. With so many resources devoted to the business of elite academics and so many people scrambling for the limited space at the top of the ladder, it is worth asking what exactly it is you get in the end—what it is we all get, because the elite students of today, as their institutions never tire of reminding them, are the leaders of tomorrow.
The first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it. Witness the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate.
But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college. (If I’d gone to Harvard, I would have learned to say “in Boston” when I was asked where I went to school—the Cambridge version of noblesse oblige.) I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.
I also never learned that there are smart people who aren’t “smart.” The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic. While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this.
What about people who aren’t bright in any sense? I have a friend who went to an Ivy League college after graduating from a typically mediocre public high school. One of the values of going to such a school, she once said, is that it teaches you to relate to stupid people. Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them. Elite institutions are supposed to provide a humanistic education, but the first principle of humanism is Terence’s: “nothing human is alien to me.” The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.
The second disadvantage, implicit in what I’ve been saying, is that an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth. Getting to an elite college, being at an elite college, and going on from an elite college—all involve numerical rankings: SAT, GPA, GRE. You learn to think of yourself in terms of those numbers. They come to signify not only your fate, but your identity; not only your identity, but your value. It’s been said that what those tests really measure is your ability to take tests, but even if they measure something real, it is only a small slice of the real. The problem begins when students are encouraged to forget this truth, when academic excellence becomes excellence in some absolute sense, when “better at X” becomes simply “better.”
There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s intellect or knowledge. There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail. From orientation to graduation, the message is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their sat scores are higher.
At Yale, and no doubt at other places, the message is reinforced in embarrassingly literal terms. The physical form of the university—its quads and residential colleges, with their Gothic stone façades and wrought-iron portals—is constituted by the locked gate set into the encircling wall. Everyone carries around an ID card that determines which gates they can enter. The gate, in other words, is a kind of governing metaphor—because the social form of the university, as is true of every elite school, is constituted the same way. Elite colleges are walled domains guarded by locked gates, with admission granted only to the elect. The aptitude with which students absorb this lesson is demonstrated by the avidity with which they erect still more gates within those gates, special realms of ever-greater exclusivity—at Yale, the famous secret societies, or as they should probably be called, the open-secret societies, since true secrecy would defeat their purpose. There’s no point in excluding people unless they know they’ve been excluded.
One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more. If I were religious, I would say, God does not love them more. The political implications should be clear. As John Ruskin told an older elite, grabbing what you can get isn’t any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your brains than with the power of your fists. “Work must always be,” Ruskin says, “and captains of work must always be….[But] there is a wide difference between being captains…of work, and taking the profits of it.”
The political implications don’t stop there. An elite education not only ushers you into the upper classes; it trains you for the life you will lead once you get there. I didn’t understand this until I began comparing my experience, and even more, my students’ experience, with the experience of a friend of mine who went to Cleveland State. There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. In other words, students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she’d been running an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in her term paper an hour late.
That may be an extreme example, but it is unthinkable at an elite school. Just as unthinkably, she had no one to appeal to. Students at places like Cleveland State, unlike those at places like Yale, don’t have a platoon of advisers and tutors and deans to write out excuses for late work, give them extra help when they need it, pick them up when they fall down. They get their education wholesale, from an indifferent bureaucracy; it’s not handed to them in individually wrapped packages by smiling clerks. There are few, if any, opportunities for the kind of contacts I saw my students get routinely—classes with visiting power brokers, dinners with foreign dignitaries. There are also few, if any, of the kind of special funds that, at places like Yale, are available in profusion: travel stipends, research fellowships, performance grants. Each year, my department at Yale awards dozens of cash prizes for everything from freshman essays to senior projects. This year, those awards came to more than $90,000—in just one department.
Students at places like Cleveland State also don’t get A-’s just for doing the work. There’s been a lot of handwringing lately over grade inflation, and it is a scandal, but the most scandalous thing about it is how uneven it’s been. Forty years ago, the average GPA at both public and private universities was about 2.6, still close to the traditional B-/C+ curve. Since then, it’s gone up everywhere, but not by anything like the same amount. The average gpa at public universities is now about 3.0, a B; at private universities it’s about 3.3, just short of a B+. And at most Ivy League schools, it’s closer to 3.4. But there are always students who don’t do the work, or who are taking a class far outside their field (for fun or to fulfill a requirement), or who aren’t up to standard to begin with (athletes, legacies). At a school like Yale, students who come to class and work hard expect nothing less than an A-. And most of the time, they get it.
In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse. The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but that’s true only up to a point. Getting through the gate is very difficult, but once you’re in, there’s almost nothing you can do to get kicked out. Not the most abject academic failure, not the most heinous act of plagiarism, not even threatening a fellow student with bodily harm—I’ve heard of all three—will get you expelled. The feeling is that, by gosh, it just wouldn’t be fair—in other words, the self-protectiveness of the old-boy network, even if it now includes girls. Elite schools nurture excellence, but they also nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls “entitled mediocrity.” A is the mark of excellence; A- is the mark of entitled mediocrity. It’s another one of those metaphors, not so much a grade as a promise. It means, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. You may not be all that good, but you’re good enough.
Here, too, college reflects the way things work in the adult world (unless it’s the other way around). For the elite, there’s always another extension—a bailout, a pardon, a stint in rehab—always plenty of contacts and special stipends—the country club, the conference, the year-end bonus, the dividend. If Al Gore and John Kerry represent one of the characteristic products of an elite education, George W. Bush represents another. It’s no coincidence that our current president, the apotheosis of entitled mediocrity, went to Yale. Entitled mediocrity is indeed the operating principle of his administration, but as Enron and WorldCom and the other scandals of the dot-com meltdown demonstrated, it’s also the operating principle of corporate America. The fat salaries paid to underperforming CEOs are an adult version of the A-. Anyone who remembers the injured sanctimony with which Kenneth Lay greeted the notion that he should be held accountable for his actions will understand the mentality in question—the belief that once you’re in the club, you’ve got a God-given right to stay in the club. But you don’t need to remember Ken Lay, because the whole dynamic played out again last year in the case of Scooter Libby, another Yale man.
If one of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security. When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts down? An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed. We live in a society that is itself so wealthy that it can afford to provide a decent living to whole classes of people who in other countries exist (or in earlier times existed) on the brink of poverty or, at least, of indignity. You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist—that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort. You have to live in an ordinary house instead of an apartment in Manhattan or a mansion in L.A.; you have to drive a Honda instead of a BMW or a Hummer; you have to vacation in Florida instead of Barbados or Paris, but what are such losses when set against the opportunity to do work you believe in, work you’re suited for, work you love, every day of your life?
Yet it is precisely that opportunity that an elite education takes away. How can I be a schoolteacher—wouldn’t that be a waste of my expensive education? Wouldn’t I be squandering the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide? What will my friends think? How will I face my classmates at our 20th reunion, when they’re all rich lawyers or important people in New York? And the question that lies behind all these: Isn’t it beneath me? So a whole universe of possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.
This is not to say that students from elite colleges never pursue a riskier or less lucrative course after graduation, but even when they do, they tend to give up more quickly than others. (Let’s not even talk about the possibility of kids from privileged backgrounds not going to college at all, or delaying matriculation for several years, because however appropriate such choices might sometimes be, our rigid educational mentality places them outside the universe of possibility—the reason so many kids go sleepwalking off to college with no idea what they’re doing there.) This doesn’t seem to make sense, especially since students from elite schools tend to graduate with less debt and are more likely to be able to float by on family money for a while. I wasn’t aware of the phenomenon myself until I heard about it from a couple of graduate students in my department, one from Yale, one from Harvard. They were talking about trying to write poetry, how friends of theirs from college called it quits within a year or two while people they know from less prestigious schools are still at it. Why should this be? Because students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They’ve been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure. The first time I blew a test, I walked out of the room feeling like I no longer knew who I was. The second time, it was easier; I had started to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world.
But if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual. This will seem counterintuitive. Aren’t kids at elite schools the smartest ones around, at least in the narrow academic sense? Don’t they work harder than anyone else—indeed, harder than any previous generation? They are. They do. But being an intellectual is not the same as being smart. Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework.
If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. They are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.
Being an intellectual means, first of all, being passionate about ideas—and not just for the duration of a semester, for the sake of pleasing the teacher, or for getting a good grade. A friend who teaches at the University of Connecticut once complained to me that his students don’t think for themselves. Well, I said, Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to. I’ve had many wonderful students at Yale and Columbia, bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it’s been a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them have seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul. These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers.
Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions. I don’t think there ever was a golden age of intellectualism in the American university, but in the 19th century students might at least have had a chance to hear such questions raised in chapel or in the literary societies and debating clubs that flourished on campus. Throughout much of the 20th century, with the growth of the humanistic ideal in American colleges, students might have encountered the big questions in the classrooms of professors possessed of a strong sense of pedagogic mission. Teachers like that still exist in this country, but the increasingly dire exigencies of academic professionalization have made them all but extinct at elite universities. Professors at top research institutions are valued exclusively for the quality of their scholarly work; time spent on teaching is time lost. If students want a conversion experience, they’re better off at a liberal arts college.
When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. Although the notion of breadth is implicit in the very idea of a liberal arts education, the admissions process increasingly selects for kids who have already begun to think of themselves in specialized terms—the junior journalist, the budding astronomer, the language prodigy. We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.
Indeed, that seems to be exactly what those schools want. There’s a reason elite schools speak of training leaders, not thinkers—holders of power, not its critics. An independent mind is independent of all allegiances, and elite schools, which get a large percentage of their budget from alumni giving, are strongly invested in fostering institutional loyalty. As another friend, a third-generation Yalie, says, the purpose of Yale College is to manufacture Yale alumni. Of course, for the system to work, those alumni need money. At Yale, the long-term drift of students away from majors in the humanities and basic sciences toward more practical ones like computer science and economics has been abetted by administrative indifference. The college career office has little to say to students not interested in law, medicine, or business, and elite universities are not going to do anything to discourage the large percentage of their graduates who take their degrees to Wall Street. In fact, they’re showing them the way. The liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities.
It’s no wonder that the few students who are passionate about ideas find themselves feeling isolated and confused. I was talking with one of them last year about his interest in the German Romantic idea of bildung, the upbuilding of the soul. But, he said—he was a senior at the time—it’s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.
Yet there is a dimension of the intellectual life that lies above the passion for ideas, though so thoroughly has our culture been sanitized of it that it is hardly surprising if it was beyond the reach of even my most alert students. Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile. It means foreswearing your allegiance, in lonely freedom, to God, to country, and to Yale. It takes more than just intellect; it takes imagination and courage. “I am not afraid to make a mistake,” Stephen Dedalus says, “even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity, too.”
Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at the most prestigious universities. Some students end up at second-tier schools because they’re exactly like students at Harvard or Yale, only less gifted or driven. But others end up there because they have a more independent spirit. They didn’t get straight A’s because they couldn’t be bothered to give everything in every class. They concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resumés.
I’ve been struck, during my time at Yale, by how similar everyone looks. You hardly see any hippies or punks or art-school types, and at a college that was known in the ’80s as the Gay Ivy, few out lesbians and no gender queers. The geeks don’t look all that geeky; the fashionable kids go in for understated elegance. Thirty-two flavors, all of them vanilla. The most elite schools have become places of a narrow and suffocating normalcy. Everyone feels pressure to maintain the kind of appearance—and affect—that go with achievement. (Dress for success, medicate for success.) I know from long experience as an adviser that not every Yale student is appropriate and well-adjusted, which is exactly why it worries me that so many of them act that way. The tyranny of the normal must be very heavy in their lives. One consequence is that those who can’t get with the program (and they tend to be students from poorer backgrounds) often polarize in the opposite direction, flying off into extremes of disaffection and self-destruction. But another consequence has to do with the large majority who can get with the program.
I taught a class several years ago on the literature of friendship. One day we were discussing Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, which follows a group of friends from childhood to middle age. In high school, one of them falls in love with another boy. He thinks, “To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?…There is nobody—here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful games and tradition and emulation, all so skilfully organised to prevent feeling alone.” A pretty good description of an elite college campus, including the part about never being allowed to feel alone. What did my students think of this, I wanted to know? What does it mean to go to school at a place where you’re never alone? Well, one of them said, I do feel uncomfortable sitting in my room by myself. Even when I have to write a paper, I do it at a friend’s. That same day, as it happened, another student gave a presentation on Emerson’s essay on friendship. Emerson says, he reported, that one of the purposes of friendship is to equip you for solitude. As I was asking my students what they thought that meant, one of them interrupted to say, wait a second, why do you need solitude in the first place? What can you do by yourself that you can’t do with a friend?
So there they were: one young person who had lost the capacity for solitude and another who couldn’t see the point of it. There’s been much talk of late about the loss of privacy, but equally calamitous is its corollary, the loss of solitude. It used to be that you couldn’t always get together with your friends even when you wanted to. Now that students are in constant electronic contact, they never have trouble finding each other. But it’s not as if their compulsive sociability is enabling them to develop deep friendships. “To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?”: my student was in her friend’s room writing a paper, not having a heart-to-heart. She probably didn’t have the time; indeed, other students told me they found their peers too busy for intimacy.
What happens when busyness and sociability leave no room for solitude? The ability to engage in introspection, I put it to my students that day, is the essential precondition for living an intellectual life, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. They took this in for a second, and then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?” Well, I don’t know. But I do know that the life of the mind is lived one mind at a time: one solitary, skeptical, resistant mind at a time. The best place to cultivate it is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system.
The world that produced John Kerry and George Bush is indeed giving us our next generation of leaders. The kid who’s loading up on AP courses junior year or editing three campus publications while double-majoring, the kid whom everyone wants at their college or law school but no one wants in their classroom, the kid who doesn’t have a minute to breathe, let alone think, will soon be running a corporation or an institution or a government. She will have many achievements but little experience, great success but no vision. The disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have.
July 1, 2008
The largest humanitarian relief effort in the world has done little to alleviate the tragedy in Darfur.
Church groups and religious organizations are doing their best to make a difference. All the while, the left is doing nothing. They even refuse to identify the perpetrators.
Despite five years of genocidal counter-insurgent warfare in Darfur, millions among its ravaged civilian population will soon enter a third month of receiving only half the necessary food rations from the UN’s World Food Program (WFP). Even with the presence of the world’s largest humanitarian relief operation, the people of Darfur begin the current rainy season with only half the minimum kilocalorie diet necessary to sustain human life. Since the rainy season coincides with the traditional “hunger gap”–the period between spring planting and fall harvest–we may expect to see significant human starvation in the coming months, relentlessly adding to the hundreds of thousands of deaths from ethnically targeted violence and displacement. A grim genocide by attrition is set to enter into its deadliest phase.
How can this be? And why don’t the alarms sounded by humanitarian organizations compel greater international response? The answers to these questions tell us too much about why Darfur’s agony shows no signs of abating.
Since the beginning of May, WFP has delivered to Darfur only half the required food tonnage. The reason is because of Darfur’s insecurity. Food convoys face the constant threat of violent hijacking. Drivers are beaten, robbed, and too often killed; as a result, they increasingly refuse to make the dangerous trip through the western part of Kordofan Province and especially inside Darfur. The Khartoum regime should of course provide military escorts for these critical, though highly vulnerable, convoys. But the National Islamic Front comprises the very men responsible for orchestrating the Darfur catastrophe. Although they have made soothing noises about protecting food convoys, they have in fact done nothing of significance.
Indeed, Khartoum is much more interested in militarily supporting its proxy force of Chadian rebel groups, reportedly massing for a new assault on N’Djamena and the regime of Idriss Déby. Khartoum holds Déby responsible for supporting the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attack on Omdurman, and this would appear to be the moment in which the regime means to settle the score.
Just as scandalous, the protection force authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1769 (July 2007) has failed to improve the situation, and despite two years of planning by the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the UN-African Union “Hybrid” Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) is failing badly–and rapidly losing the confidence of Darfuris. Humanitarian groups repeatedly say in private conversations that they are fearful of being too closely associated with UNAMID because its growing failure is perceived by Darfuri civilians and rebels as a sign that it has implicitly sided with Khartoum.
Khartoum’s largely successful campaign of obstruction of UNAMID deployment only fuels the deep anger and resentment among the people of Darfur who justly feel that they have been abandoned. Khartoum refuses to allow key battalions of troops, engineers, and special forces to deploy, has deliberately attacked UNAMID forces, and has looked on with indifference as its Janjaweed militia allies recently humiliated a UNAMID patrol in West Darfur, taking the soldiers’ weapons and communications gear.
For their part, the militarily capable nations of the world have done little to augment UNAMID, or to confront Khartoum over its obstructionist tactics. As a consequence, UNAMID currently operates without required logistics, without critical transport capacity (especially helicopters and trucks), and without other essential military equipment.
Insecurity has not only severely compromised the delivery of food into Darfur, it has also diminished access to what the UN estimates are 4.3 million conflict-affected persons scattered throughout a region the size of France. The consensus among humanitarian workers on the ground is that they have access to about 40 percent of this vast population–leaving as many as 2.5 million people without reliable access to food, clean water, and primary medical care
The problems don’t end here, however. Malnutrition rates, especially among children under five, have risen above the emergency threshold last fall, following a disastrous harvest in South and North Darfur (regions that make up three-quarters of Darfur’s total population). And yet important subsequent malnutrition studies have not been disseminated because Khartoum has objected to their publication and humanitarian organizations–fearing a loss of access–have acquiesced. Just as troubling, new malnutrition studies and collections of data are also being obstructed by Khartoum’s génocidaires in a patent effort to obscure the growing threat of widespread, engineered starvation.
But such a risk grows by the day. Suleiman Jamous, previously the senior rebel humanitarian coordinator and the most reliable of rebel leaders, recently told me he expected that there would be large-scale starvation in rebel-held areas (the vast majority of Darfur), at least among communities without any livestock reserves. Not nearly enough food has been pre-positioned prior to the rainy season, a season that makes much of Darfur an impassable sea of mud and raging streams. Without food pre-positioned in Darfur, there are insurmountable logistical obstacles in providing adequate food to the immense and badly weakened populations that are the most at risk. Jamous also told me that he believes well over half the “banditry” so often invoked in explanations of insecurity in Darfur is anything but random: Khartoum either acquiesces to, is complicit in, or orchestrates the attacks that have claimed the lives of so many humanitarian workers, and so attenuated humanitarian access.
Tens of thousands of civilians continue to be displaced–so far, over 150,000 in 2008. Many were displaced during Khartoum’s large-scale scorched-earth campaign north of el-Geneina in February–and a significant number of the the displaced fled into eastern Chad and extremely uncertain humanitarian conditions. The camps for displaced persons have long been badly overcrowded, and there is no way to accommodate many of the newly displaced. Moreover, water tables for potable water are dropping dangerously, increasing the risk of deadly water-borne disease during the rainy season.
What must not be lost in any understanding of the current phase of Darfur’s humanitarian crisis is the deliberateness with which it has been engineered. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, recently offered to the UN Security Council (June 5, 2008) a searing indictment of the Khartoum regime.
Invoking the horrors of Nazi Germany and the UN failure at Srebrenica, Moreno-Ocampo declared that the evidence he has accumulated over more than two years of sustained investigation, authorized by the UN Security Council, “shows an organized campaign by Sudanese officials to attack civilians, in particular the [non-Arab] Fur, Massalit, and Zaghawa, with the objective [of] physically and mentally destroying entire communities.”
There could be no clearer assertion of genocidal intent. Nor is there any evidence that the consequences of that intent will diminish anytime soon.
If Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg is crazy for Barack Obama, the guy must really be something special, right?
This, clearly, is the line of thinking Team Obama hopes voters will follow as it thrusts the lone surviving child of John F. Kennedy to the fore of its presidential effort. First there was Kennedy Schlossberg’s endorsement of the candidate during the primaries, followed by her appearance in a campaign ad and at multiple rallies for him. Then, upon securing the nomination, Obama promptly tapped Kennedy Schlossberg for his vice-presidential selection committee.
Critics may deride Kennedy Schlossberg as an unqualified and twitty political dilettante, but it doesn’t take a strategy expert to grasp why Obama has carved out such a prominent role for her. She is a Kennedy. She is a woman. Better still, up to this point she has largely steered clear of the unseemly business of electoral politics. Instead, she has nurtured the family legacy by quietly tending the memories of others: first dad, then mom, and even brother John. In a family full of paparazzi magnets, self-promoters, and aspiring political stars, Kennedy Schlossberg has long glowed softly in the minds of many as the Great Custodian–an eternally gracious, dignified, selfless link to a purer, more buoyant political age.
But this alliance may be an even shrewder move for Kennedy Schlossberg than for Obama. It’s been 45 years since the fall of Camelot, and the family brand has begun to fade. A growing portion of the electorate was born after the deaths of John and Bobby and has a tough time relating to the Kennedy fixation of its elders. Under such conditions, what’s a committed custodian of the family legacy to do? Hitch her clan’s wagon to the hottest political star in decades. With a little luck, even as that old Camelot magic rubs off on Obama, the candidate’s energy and relevance will help sustain the Kennedy brand for a little longer. If that means Kennedy Schlossberg must surrender her cherished privacy to suffer through unflattering media cycles and self-conscious stump speeches (memo to the campaign: urge her not to try a fist pump again–ever), then so be it. For JFK’s daughter, preserving the family legacy has always come first. And, as the last few months have shown, she’s pretty darn good at it–or, at least, better than her reputation as a political naif would suggest.
For Americans of a certain age, Caroline Kennedy will forever be the cherubic blonde tot riding her pony on the White House lawn–an image so heartwarming it spurred songwriter Neil Diamond to pen “Sweet Caroline.” As an adult, much of her professional energy has been dedicated to restoring the spirit and ethos of that time. In 1989, she, her mother, and her brother founded the Profiles In Courage Award to honor public officials “whose actions best demonstrate the qualities of politically courageous leadership in the spirit of” JFK’s 1957 Pulitzer-winning book by the same name. She serves as president of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and on the advisory board of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, established by the family as a living tribute to the former president.
It is not only her father’s legacy that she labors to uphold. Upon her mother’s death in 1994, Kennedy Schlossberg became more visible in New York’s philanthropic and cultural world. Most prominently, she took over Jackie’s seat as honorary chair of American Ballet Theatre, presiding over the company’s annual gala. (ABT’s school was renamed after Jackie in 2004.) And, in the wake of her younger brother’s tragic plane crash in 1999, Kennedy Schlossberg temporarily took on some of his duties. Among her first public appearances after John’s death was to present the JFK “hero awards” bestowed by the Robin Hood Foundation, one of her brother’s pet charities. At the time, she spoke to people of her desire to support the causes that John had cared about.
As for politics, Kennedy Schlossberg’s involvement has typically been confined to the service of the family. During her undergraduate years at Harvard, she spent summers interning in “Uncle Teddy”‘s Senate office to gain an appreciation of the family’s history. In 1994, she stumped for both Ted’s sixth Senate bid and cousin Patrick’s House race in Rhode Island. She declined an invitation to chair the 1992 Democratic Convention but spoke briefly at the 2000 gathering, officially introducing her uncle.
None of this is to suggest that Kennedy Schlossberg has no identity beyond that of Kennedy custodian. An attorney by training, she has done extensive work with the New York City public schools and also lends her star power to the occasional crusade: In 1998, she came out against an anti-affirmative action initiative in Washington State and spoke at the United Nations urging the U.S. Senate to ratify an international treaty on children’s rights.
But even some of her independent endeavors have an elegiac feel. Often identified as an author and editor, Kennedy Schlossberg has co-written two books on civil liberties. Of the books she is best-known for editing, however, most involve her famous family, including a collection of her mother’s favorite poems, an update on her father’s book (Profiles in Courage for Our Time), a collection of Christmas stories including personal writings from her family, and a collection of her favorite children’s poems, knit together with anecdotes from her childhood. To some degree, she is less an editor than an anthologist of family memories.
Even now, as she makes the rare foray onto the trail on behalf of a non- relative, Kennedy Schlossberg invariably frames her support in terms of restoration rather than revolution–of how Obama is renewing our faith in the American Dream like no politician since JFK. Her official endorsement in the January 27 New York Times–headlined A PRESIDENT LIKE MY FATHER–began: “Over the years, I’ve been deeply moved by the people who’ve told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president. This sense is even more profound today. That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama.” The TV spot she cut for the campaign, “Caroline,” opens with grainy news footage of President Kennedy and of the moon walk.
This back-to-Camelot message carries obvious advantages for Obama, but also potential downsides. Some detractors have, for instance, pointed out that glomming on to the Kennedy mystique is a peculiar strategy for a man whose entire candidacy is predicated on shaking up the status quo and rewriting the rules of the game.
There are, however, fewer apparent negatives for the Kennedys, and therein lies the genius of what Caroline has done. In a lifetime of looking out for the Kennedy name, attaching herself to Obama could turn out to be her most important endeavor yet–allowing her to bolster the family brand in the minds of young voters and thus secure it a role in the party’s future. Because, if Barack Obama is crazy for the Kennedys, they must really be something special, right?
My thinking on Iran is more or less mainstream thinking in Israel, what many Israelis within the defense and foreign policy establishments feel, even if they say it in a more diplomatic way.
Today’s Iran is multi-layered. It is an imperial power, just as Persia was once an imperial power toward the Middle East and other parts of the world. It is also a regional power, one of the largest states in the Middle East demographically (66 million people), along with Turkey, Egypt, and Israel. Iran has long had aspirations to lead the region, not just under the current regime.
The current regime represents another, Islamic layer in Iran’s identity as a state. This layer has been very clear since the Islamic Revolution in 1979; Iran propagates a particular, very radical version of Islam, and has a jihadist agenda to spread this version of Islam everywhere—not only to Palestine but also to Andalusia (Spain of today), once the domain of the Islamic empire. To put today’s Iran in strategic terms, I would use Yehezkel Dror’s category of crazy states, which means that it a state that has far-reaching goals, much beyond its border, it is revisionist, it has a great commitment to achieve those goals, it is even willing to pay a heavy price domestically in order to achieve its goals, and it has a quite unconventional style, which one sees, for example, in how Ahmadinejad speaks about Israel. This is quite unusual in today’s international discourse.
Why does Iran want nuclear weapons? First, as an insurance policy for the regime, which fully understands that it is more difficult to destabilize a country armed with nuclear weapons. Outsiders do not know what kind of people will get their hands on the weapons in case of an external intervention designed to destabilize the regime—witness what is happening nowadays in Pakistan. The U.S. administration accepted Musharraf the dictator; we did not want anyone to mess with nuclear weapons. Moreover, a nuclear weapon is in Iran’s view a weapon able to deter an American invasion. As a member of the “Axis of Evil,” they observe that the U.S. preferred to attack Iraq, which did not have nuclear weapons at that time, rather than go after North Korea, which had a much more advanced program.
Tehran also views the nuclear weapon as a way to achieve regional hegemony in a way similar to how the French looked upon it. It signifies a certain status in the region. They believe that their past entitles them to have a nuclear bomb and to put them in the same rank as the large, important powers of the world.
Finally, Iran’s nuclear program is also designed to try to block Western influence in the region. Iranians have a very ambivalent attitude toward the West. On the one hand, they see it as a dying, decadent civilization, but at the same time they are very much afraid of the corrupting influence of Western culture and morals.
The Iranians’ nuclear strategy is simple: it’s to talk and build. They are ready to talk. The bazaars of Tehran offer good guidance in how to bargain with the West, and the gullible West has been ready to talk to Iranians already for 15 years, and we all know the result of the talk and diplomacy. It’s basically a North Korean model; North Korea adopted the same strategy and was successful. Tehran is ready to talk to the Europeans, the International Agency on Atomic Energy, but its goal is to gain time. It wants to bring about a fait accompli and present the world with an Iranian bomb.
An Iranian nuclear bomb would be very dangerous. A nuclear Iran will be a clear threat to anyone in the radius of its range—they now have a missile with a range exceeding 2000-2500 km, within which is the whole Middle East, Eastern Europe, India, Pakistan, even part of China. It is a real threat to a very large area.
At the systemic level, Iran challenges American dominance in world affairs. Seeing America as the enemy, Iran allies itself with people like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. It is in the company of North Korea. An Iranian nuclear bomb will be a poke in America’s eye. It will be very dangerous to the NPT regime, which to its credit has to some extent stabilized many regions of the world and been successful at preventing nuclear proliferation. An Iranian nuclear bomb, like the North Korean nuclear explosion, will be an additional blow to this type of arms control diplomacy.
Nuclear weapons will give Iran tremendous influence over the energy sector of the world economy. Not only is Iran situated along the Gulf, but it also is located along the Caspian Sea. We can speak about an energy ellipse which encompasses the Caspian Basin and the Gulf area that includes some 70-80 percent of the world’s oil reserves. Nuclear weapons will give them great influence over the countries in that region and a much greater voice in the area of energy. As long as the world consumes oil and gas, as it will have to for some time to come, I don’t think it’s a good idea to give the Iranians even a larger voice in that sector.
A nuclear Iran will also embolden all radicals, Islamists as well as others, and allow them to feel that they have a nuclear umbrella, a strong country they can rely upon that plays an important role in world affairs.
At the regional level, nuclear weapons will greatly strengthen the regime. Few attempts have been made to destabilize this regime, and after Iran becomes nuclear there will be even less. We will see regional hegemony, many countries around Iran will bandwagon—they’ll get closer to Iran rather than ally against it. We see already a cozier relationship between Egypt and Iran, the Gulf states trying to get closer to Iran, because they’re afraid that if they ally against Iran, they will pay a heavy price. The alliance of Sunnis against Shiites exists more on paper. We don’t really see much action in the Middle East of the Sunnis allying against the Shiite threat coming from Iran.
Indeed, nuclear weapons will help Iran export its Islamic revolution, particularly to the Shiites in the Gulf—Bahrain and Iraq. Of course, Iran already has great influence in southern Iraq, and it will gain influence in Saudi Arabia, where most of the oil is in the northeastern province, which is populated by Shiites.
A nuclear Iran will strengthen all its regional radical allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, who will feel much more secure with a strong patron.
Another important repercussion of a nuclear Iran concerns Turkey, which is now undergoing an identity crisis. We see in recent years that a more Islamic party is gaining power, and there is a real struggle over the country’s future identity over to what extent the Islamic dimension will be part of modern Turkey. In the past we’ve seen the Iranians attempt to help terrorist organizations against Turkey, because Turkey is anathema to Iran. Secular Turkey is an alternative model for the Muslim world. While Tehran espouses “Islam is the solution,” the Turks have a different view on how the Muslim world should modernize. Of course the ayatollahs think their model should be emulated, and after the nuclearization of Iran we may see greater attempts on part of Iran to destabilize Turkey, which is a very important country. If Turkey fell under Islamic rule, it would be very bad news to the West. Turkey is playing a difficult game nowadays with this type of government, but it is definitely in danger should Iran become nuclear.
Another area where the West will lose is Central Asia. Since gaining independence after the end of the cold war, most of the new republics adopted some kind of pro-Western orientation, which was strengthened after 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. A nuclear Iran will put an end to this orientation. The countries in Central Asia will either bandwagon, becoming closer to Iran, or alternatively, try to find some nuclear umbrella in powers which are much closer to the region—Russia and China. A nuclear Iran could well bring about the elimination of Western influence in Central Asia. The West will lose the Great Game.
A nuclear Iran would also affect the subcontinent. The Iranians are very close to India, which is just 300 km away. It will have a domino effect on the precarious Indian-Pakistani nuclear balance. Pakistan, which borders Iran, will have to adjust its nuclear posture to a nuclear Iran. Whatever it does will influence India. This is the basic security dilemma we teach in International Relations courses. So we may see a negative influence on the India-Pakistan nuclear balance, which could reverberate even to China, and we shouldn’t forget that India and Pakistan were close to a nuclear exchange during the Kargil war.
A nuclear Iran may not hesitate to transfer nuclear technology to other bad guys in the region. It’s not likely, but we may even see the transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorists or radical states. The danger of nuclear bombs falling in the hands of extremists if chaos comes to Iran is obviously something we have to think about.
The most important repercussion of a nuclear Iran is that it would heighten threat perception in the Middle East. In contrast to other parts of the world, in the Middle East, threat perceptions are very high. It’s not only the Israelis who are concerned about security, Jordanians are afraid of the Syrians and Iraqis, the Syrians are afraid of the Turks and Israelis, and the Saudis are afraid of everybody. A nuclear Iran will only heighten those threat perceptions and bring about nuclear proliferation in this region. We see already the first steps of many countries trying to gain some nuclear technology. Turkey has renewed its civilian nuclear program, which uses the same technology as nuclear weapons. Egypt is doing the same. We cannot be sure that the Pakistanis will not supply weapons to the Saudis, who have subsidized part of their nuclear program.
Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is a nightmare, because a nuclear Middle East cannot be stable. It is very dangerous to believe that the type of nuclear stability that existed between the Soviet Union and United States can be easily emulated in the Middle East. Americans like Kenneth Waltz produce theories that the more weapons, the better, that spreading nuclear weapons is bringing about stability because leaders are afraid of conflicts escalating. I doubt this. If the countries in the Middle East have nuclear weapons, there’s a greater chance than ever before they will use them.
Of course, there is no extended deterrence. I don’t think the Arabs believe that an American nuclear umbrella is effective, for the same reason the French didn’t believe that a U.S. umbrella would be effective—namely that Americans would not risk Washington to save Paris. The same type of rationale would be adopted by the Middle East elite, who have seen Ottomans coming and going, French, British, and I think they also see Americans coming and going and don’t know exactly how the Americans would play out the Iraqi scenario. But many people in the Middle East believe the Americans have already decided on an exit strategy and are just groping for how to do it. So I don’t think that an American promise to the Arab countries to defend them in the case of a nuclear attack will be trusted. And also there is no defense against nuclear weapons at this stage. Israel’s Arrow system, which is attuned to intercept such ballistic missiles, can intercept only 80-90 percent, but if it comes to missiles armed with nuclear warheads, 90 percent is not good enough.
Therefore, there is a regional consensus that Iran must be stopped. There is wide agreement across the Middle East that a nuclear Iran is very bad news. So what can be done? Diplomacy has just about run its course. Actually, everyone in the world is on a different page. The world has already decided to go for sanctions. So far the sanctions were rather vegetarian, and diplomacy without sharper teeth will be ineffective.
Furthermore, I don’t think economic sanctions alone would be effective, because Iranians are willing to pay a heavy price to get the bomb. The record is not encouraging. Cuba is still under sanctions, Saddam Hussein was under sanctions and he did not care whether the children in the streets of Baghdad or Basra had enough medicine, he just blamed it on the Americans. The same is true in Iran. If they had no refined oil and gas, the ayatollahs would reconcile to seeing their people ride donkeys rather than in cars.
As to regime change, don’t hold your breath. We are talking about a police state. It’s true that this type of state does not last forever, but the Iranian police state has been successful so far at staying in power even though it’s not very well liked. There don’t seem too many courageous Iranians fighting the regime within Iran. I see opposition here and in Los Angeles, but to be in opposition in Iran is a different story.
That leaves us with two options. One is a credible threat to act militarily, which I hoped could be effective in supporting the diplomacy, but since the NIE report I think the only thing we really have left is military action. A credible threat means someone that Iranians are afraid of. To great extent President Bush served this purpose before the NIE because he was viewed in the Middle East as a cowboy, ready to draw his gun. He has acted militarily in Afghanistan, in Iraq, why not Iran? An ultimatum by President Bush could have been useful in freezing the nuclear program, primarily the uranium enrichment component. This is no longer true. Perceptions are important. After the NIE, the Iranians are at ease, believing that they’re off the hook. So what is really left is only military action to try to destroy parts of the program which will slow down the Iranian attempt and to gain time. Gaining time is an important goal of foreign policy, it’s doable by the U.S. if it wants to. The U.S. is close in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, it has tremendous military power.
If the U.S. doesn’t do this, and I preempt the question already, the Israelis will have to think seriously about whether to do it on their own. Israel has done such a military feat in the past on Osirak in 1981. This is a different type of operation nowadays, it’s much more complicated, but it can be done. In my view as a former paratrooper there is no such thing as an impregnable target. We just have to be ready to pay the price.