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October 17, 2004

Matsui Ruins Stephen King's Saturday
And the Ending of His Baseball Book (Maybe)

by Ron Hogan

Poor Stephen King--he spends his Saturday night at Fenway sitting through a rather humiliating blowout by the Yankees, and tomorrow when the NYTBR lands at his front door, Michael Agger's going to look at The Dark Tower and ask, "[W]ould anyone read these things if they weren't by Stephen King?" He's not so sure, and I'm not entirely sold on his reasons why, but I appreciate the choice he made to put this final volume in perspective and review the epic as a whole, even if I think it would take a Believer article, or something of comparable length, to really do it justice.

That said, there's a lot to like in this week's Review, which may finally be hitting its stride. Judith Shulevitz does an excellent job on Robert Alter's translation of the Pentateuch, especially since she's given sufficient space to really delve into the issues, textual and metaphysical, raised by Alter's work. And having reviewed Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale for Publishers Weekly as a layperson with a strong curiosity about science, I was engaged by Carl Zimmer's more specialized take, especially since it led me to his blog, The Loom, where he's already talking about things he couldn't fit into the Times piece. I even liked Jon Meacham's premature eulogy for William F. Buckley, even if you have to look hard for the parts that are actually about the book he just wrote.

Nobody's perfect, though, and while I endorse the basic idea behind revisiting Eichmann in Jerusalem in the context of Saddam Hussein, I'm not sure that the execution (if you'll forgive the choice of words) holds up. I'm willing to accept the reinterpretation of Eichmann, but less convinced by Michael Massing's suggestion that Arendt suffered "a serious lapse in moral judgment" in her analysis. I'm even less convinced when, after speaking eloquently of "the unspeakable acts that ordinary people, when placed in the right circumstances, are capable of committing," he then addresses "the happenings at Abu Ghraib," an unfortunate choice of understating vocabulary at best, and lapses into an inexcusably passive voice to suggest of the American soliders that:

...placed in a situation where certain ends (good intelligence) were demanded from prisoners who had been demonized and dehumanized, they showed how quickly the dictates of conscience can fade.

One might reasonably describe soldiers on military assignment as "placed in a situation," though it would then be appropriate to ask by whom they had thus been placed. But to suggest that said soldiers were thus "placed in a situation" with "prisoners who had been demonized and dehumanized" begs the pressing moral question of who committed these acts of demonization and dehumanization, if not those soldiers themselves. Is Massing suggesting that the soldiers facing court-martial for what happened at Abu Ghraib inherited the "situation" rather than initiating and perpetuating it through those acts in which "certain ends...were demanded"? And all he can say is that those acts "showed" the illustration of a moral lesson? By eliding over these atrocities and falling back on the branding of Saddam as an evil monster seems an almost willful missing of the point, a deliberate failure to confront the implications of everything else he has to say. His bloodless description of Abu Ghraib is made even distasteful by its appearance just three pages after the review of Chain of Command, which appears to be raising precisely the important questions about who placed the soliders in that situation and what demands they made concerning the achievement of which ends. A Review that can consistently deliver the kind of coverage Michael Ignatieff gives Sy Hersh and Judith Shulevitz gives Robert Alter, with less of the issue-oriented hot air in essays like Massing's, is going to be a Review worth reading.


Arendt's response ( standard form and glib as it may be ) to the anti Defamation league hysteria was to suggest that she wished they had read her book as their accusations seemed to be about another book.

Massig 's focus on Arendt's abhorrence of the Judenrat (the Nazi appointed Jewish police) strikes me as a modernization of the old anti Arendt hysteria as does the quibbling about the quality of "Eichmann in Jerusalem" as a trial report and inclusion of evidence of Eichmann's anti Semitism that was "discovered" much later.

But his alliterative conclusion, "Somehow Hannah Arendt, in the course of writing her messy, meandering, morally muddled account of the Eichmann trial, managed to come up with a phrase that captures an essential and chilling truth about the darkest recesses of the human psyche." certainly made it a priority for me to reread Arendt's book.

And Ron, good for you, that you have not been so blinded by the partisan (and mostly on target) critique of the NYTBR that you can't seem the occasional gems.. I think Dylan had it right (though I can't quite remember which song it comes from), "Take what you need and leave the rest."

Posted by: birnbaum at October 17, 2004 05:34 AM

I agree completely that the NYTBR is indeed 'hitting its stride' ... the last few have been more pointed and meaty than the last few YEARS before.

But Massing's condemnation of Arendt for ranking Jewish cooperation with the Nazis as almost worse than what the Nazis themselves were doing bugged me. Collaboration with evil is morally contemptible under any circumstances - but collaboration with an evil bent on YOUR OWN destruction, an evil that's made it clear you yourself won't be spared even AFTER you've cooperated - well, I think Arendt was right to find that almost incomprehensibly craven.

Posted by: steve donoghue at October 17, 2004 05:25 PM
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