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It Was 32 Years Ago Today... | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

It Was 32 Years Ago Today...

 My new “Think Again” column is called “When Money Talks, Who Listens (besides politicians)?” and it’s here.

And my new Nation column is called "Obama's Failures ... and Ours" that's here.

Also, Happy Birthday Tom Terrific!  Brightest star of my pre-Springsteen childhood and adolescence.

"The Promise" ("The Darkness" Box)

As I’m sure you know it’s here. The only question I have is whether it’s the single greatest thing ever or only the single greatest thing you can buy right now. Anyway, what is there to say. I’d grown tired of “Darkness” a long time ago, but the 21 new songs—and new versions of old songs—are fresh and new and make you fall in love with pop music all over again, even if like me, you already were. The guys at Backstreets like the remix of Darkness but I’ve not listened to it. Neither have I watched the Houston ’78 show because they sent me two of the other disc and I’m waiting for the switch. But the Bluray of the outtakes from the '76 recording session and the '78 Phoenix show is to remember what it’s like—actually just about to feel like—what it is to be young again.  Ditto the documentary, which has performances not included anywhere, and a beautiful picture of how a genuinely benevolent dictatorship operates. And the contemporary performance of Darkness is really kind of scary. It’s that good.  I plan to have lots of people chime in about the release in the next few weeks and I will have more to say once I get the bluray of Houston. But what a gift. Oh and I almost forgot the notebooks. Goodness gracious, Bruce has really come through for the fanatical base and in a way that until recently, he purposely avoided. You can read all about what’s contained in the release here, and watch a few videos too.

The documentary, “My So-Called Enemy,” directed by Lisa Gossels, got terrific word of mouth at the Hamptons International Film Festival last month, and so I asked my young friend, seminary student (and daughter’s Bat-Mizvah tutor), Rachel Druck, to watch it with us and write up her thoughts. They appear below:

Rachel Druck on “My So-Called Enemy”

In the summer of 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, I was staying with relatives in a suburb of Jerusalem. Over the course of the weekend, as I bonded with the family, I became a particular favorite of a ten-year-old cousin who enjoyed bragging to me about his fearlessness. The crack in his bravado came as I prepared to leave, when he took me aside and admitted that he was, in fact, scared of one thing: Arabs. It was a heartbreaking moment, not only because it was a testament to having lived through months of intense fear, but also because of what it said about the ways in which the next generation was already relating to those on the other side of the conflict. An Arab village was close enough that the morning call to prayer would wake me up every morning that I stayed with the family. Yet the extent to which my young cousin interacted with its inhabitants rendered them as replacements for the monsters who were hiding under his bed only a few years earlier.

That same summer a group of twenty-two Israeli and Palestinian girls were heading for New Jersey to participate in a leadership program for women, “Building Bridges for Peace.” Leaving aside the program’s rather awkward name and eyeroll-inducing activities, (including actual miniature bridge-building), its purpose is deceptively straightforward: bringing together young women from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and forcing them to interact with one another. In the process, these young women are compelled to confront the difficult feelings that each harbors towards the other participants and the sides of the conflict they represent. "My So-Called Enemy" follows six of the program’s participants, Jewish Israelis, Christian Palestinians and Muslim Palestinians, through the summer and throughout the six tumultuous years that follow. The film compellingly captures the toll of living in a state of perpetual conflict, and the powerfully contradictory feelings that arise in the process of establishing friendships while being a forced participant in a larger conflict.

Watching this evocative documentary was both a deeply moving, and deeply uncomfortable, experience. I am the same age as the women portrayed in the film, and relatively frequent trips to Israel meant that I was often in the country when many of the events that took place over the course of filming occurred. I was frantically phoning Israeli friends and relatives after the bombing at Hebrew University that threw the fragile bonds within the program into chaos, and sat in that very café three years later during the disengagement from Gaza, another event covered in the documentary. And like these young women, I have grown up with my own narrative of the conflict in the Middle East, and whether by choice or circumstance, have had little opportunity to have that narrative questioned. Moments such as the one where a Palestinian woman admits to admiring suicide bombers, and insists that her Israeli interviewer and her family would be fine if they moved to Iran confirmed my worst fears about what I would hear if I opened myself up enough to engage in uncensored dialogue. And yet being forced to listen to a wide range of opinions, and "My So-Called Enemy" forced me, along with these young women, to understand the limits of the narrative I have come of age with, and to honestly confront the face of the other.

One of the most admirable features of the film is that no side is allowed to “win,” and the stories that are told are not neatly resolved. The Israelis are still drafted into the IDF, the wall between the West Bank and Gaza rises, and the lines of communication between the program participants become increasingly tenuous. Yet while the film reinforces a strong pessimism about the future of peace in the Middle East, it nonetheless reaffirms the strength and resolve of young women as they grow into adult leaders. In a world in which women are urged, above all, to “Be Nice,” and avoid conflict, these women learn to express themselves powerfully and confront each other and their own contradictory, wide-ranging set of feelings. "My So-Called Enemy" ends ultimately with the hope that one day we will live in a world where my cousin can call his friend in the next village, and they can share their fears with each other.

Now here’s Reed:

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Honestly, I don’t know why Nancy Pelosi bothers. After all, she could easily announce her resignation, hand over her safely Democratic seat after a quick special election, and then head off to go make millions writing books and speaking on the rubber chicken circuit. Instead, she has decided to stick around and take a demotion from Speaker to Minority Leader to fight for Democratic principles in a Congress that is shaping up to give Robespierre’s Revolutionary Courts a run for its money in the pantheon of history’s greatest collections of right-wing radicals.

Plus, she wouldn’t have to bother with Beltway pundits like the Washington Post’s David Broder, who are willing to write something like this last July about the ill-timed political exits of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, which concluded thusly:

These are hard calls, and those of us on the outside, who can only imagine the pressures of public office, can show some sympathy for the people who have to wrestle with the conflict between their conscience and their sense of obligation to the administration in which they serve […] McNamara stayed too long and left too quietly. Palin is bailing out on her people far too soon. Neither can serve as an example for those in government wrestling with the decision of when to quit.

Pundits who, this past Wednesday, turn around and, despite the fact that the resoundingly reelected Pelosi is neither hanging around to simply collect a paycheck as an ineffective back-bencher nor jumping ship to cash in on her popularity among like-minded liberals, now write this:

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi lost no time after the returns came in this month in signaling that she would not go gently…. Normally, this would not matter much. But we are about to start a Congress in which everything depends on the willingness of the leadership in both parties to face up to hard choices—on the budget, Afghanistan and a dozen other issues. Too often in the past, Democrats have avoided making hard choices by throwing more money in the pot or taking similar self-indulgent steps. When it came to the stimulus legislation and health-care reform, for example, Democrats spent to buy votes rather than make tough choices. The Democrats' unwillingness to face the hard choice in this internal fight sends exactly the wrong signal.

First off, I think what sends the “wrong signal” is when pundits imply the presence of overweening ambition run amok by using pejorative terms like “lost no time,” when actual reporting says otherwise. But even leaving that aside, according to Broder’s convoluted, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t logic, Pelosi and Democrats’ demonstrated willingness to compromise over the past two years on the stimulus and healthcare and a dozen other issues—something a suddenly delicate Broder now disparages as “buy[ing] votes”—to actually pass legislation that will help millions of Americans is now somehow proof that they didn’t “mak[e] hard choices.” (Unsurprisingly, he feels no need to mention the Republicans’ consistent and unapologetic refusal to do the same.) Instead, what portends an ominous Democratic intransigence is an internal party decision to keep Pelosi as its leader and add a fourth leadership position to the minority caucus. Honestly, in what parallel universe does this type of transparently thin argument make any sense?

Of course, as justification for his position, Broder explains that there is precedent to be paid attention to here. If a House Speaker presides over a mid-term election where dozens of fellow party members lose their seats, they never stick around as Minority Leader, right? Not exactly:

Although Gingrich and Hastert took themselves out of the leadership equation after electoral losses, history is full of speakers who remained as head of their caucuses through good times and bad. The most familiar example for political buffs may be Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving House speaker. He held the post three separate times and remained as Democratic minority leader between his speakerships when his party lost its House majority in 1947 and 1953.

But, to be fair, Broder pointed out that “Republicans have established a pattern and precedent of trimming their leadership from top.” Except, of course, when they don’t follow that pattern either:

However, [Republican] Joseph William Martin, Jr. and [Democrat] Sam Rayburn were the two most recent cases of outgoing Speakers seeking the Minority Leader post to retain the House party leadership, as their parties swapped control of the House in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

All this talk of Rayburn, why does that name ring a bell? Oh yeah, I think I remember something I read in Broder's own newspaper:

But under the Capitol dome, Pelosi is a towering figure, perhaps even a historic one. Capped by her central role in passing the landmark health-care bill in March, the California Democrat, 70, has transformed herself from the caricature of a millionaire liberal with impeccable fashion taste into a speaker on par with the revered Sam Rayburn, according to historians, pollsters and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Gee, if Pelosi has been judged such a powerful and effective House leader, I still don’t understand why she didn’t step aside to make way for this Blue Dog Democrat instead. A guy whose consistent undermining of his own party’s agenda rivals his performance during a brief NFL career, which was marked by throwing twice as many interceptions to the opposition as he did touchdown passes to his teammates and was, just this week, judged to be the 42nd Worst Ever in the history of the league.

I mean really, what is Pelosi thinking by staying to fight? Didn’t she learn anything this week? Nowadays, American politicians, when faced with a major electoral defeat, look to the years of hard governing work that lay ahead and the sacrifices to be made upholding their sworn commitment to their constituents and say: No thanks, I have other priorities.

The mail:

Jeremy Ben Ami
(Boston, for today)

Eric —
I just landed in Boston, and I need your help.

I was scheduled to speak tonight at a reform synagogue here, but a small group of right-wing activists intimidated the board into canceling the event.

Outrageous, you say?

Know that this is not an isolated example. All across the country, week in and week out, small numbers of right-wing activists and donors regularly intimidate synagogues Hillels, and other communal institutions out of presenting views on Israel they don't like.

* We've had enough, and I hope you have too. It's time to draw the line and say we simply won't be silenced any more. *

Click here to sign a communal petition saying you will not be silenced by right-wing intimidation over Israel.

We've moved tonight's event to a school down the block, and I hope publicity over the cancellation means we'll get an even larger crowd. And I'd love to tell that crowd that in just a matter of hours—thousands of our supporters and friends signed a petition to say we've had it. We won't be silenced any more.

Will you add your name—and get a few friends to sign with you?  I'll present it tonight and we'll use it every time someone tries to shut the door on open debate about Israel and American policy in the Middle East.

Click here to send a message—we won't be scared into silence on Israel.

There couldn't be a more crucial time for an honest conversation about Israel.  Settlement building has resumed, the U.S. government is trying to broker a deal to stop it again temporarily, and peace hangs in the balance. Most important, so too does the future, security and character of Israel.

*Please act right now.* Our movement is getting big enough that a small minority shouldn't be able to silence our pro-Israel, pro-peace voice any longer.

Let's show our strength with thousands of signatures now in these few hours before tonight's event.

And, together, let's open the doors of our community wide to the vibrant debate on critical issues that we all must hear.
- Jeremy

Steve Nelson
Kent, WA

Lee Roskin from Thailand nailed it!! No, no, not his critique of Alterman.  He nailed his head to the floor.

Terry
Cheyenne

Mr. Roskin:  Now is apparently the time of all good women to come to the aid of a favorite American voice, namely, Eric Alterman. One is left to wonder who made you the great arbitrator of Jewishness to decry John Stewart and Alterman "just alike."  For one thing, while Eric is very funny, he is NOT as funny as John Stewart.

Perhaps you missed the pages of thoughtful criticism Alterman has offered regarding Obama and his administration, a far distance from the one-line, sweeping generalization style at which you are so adept.  Here a reader will find scholarly, fact-based arguments and a body of work to support it.  I especially recommend When Presidents Lie.  Here, too, a variety of voices and ideas are welcome and interact.  A concern I have is that Alterman does not suffer a fool gladly, so were I you I'd watch out.

Eric Alterman has proved himself a great champion of truth, justice, and the  liberal way.  He is not a typical anything.  You'll have to do better than this to trash him.  You might want try some work at becoming a mensch.

(Please note, Eric, I did not call him an ass-hat, but I wanted to.)

Eric adds: A lot of you have written in to ask about a rather glaring absence in the Altercation lineup. I share your regrets. It is unavoidable and I’m afraid I cannot be any more specific than that, but your letters are appreciated.

 Editor's Note: You can write to Eric Alterman here.

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