To Err is to be a Columnist
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 3, 2003
Rereading my column of two weeks ago, ``Politics and double standards," it now strikes me that I made too little of the scandal surrounding Likud’s internal elections. Though I made clear that Attorney-General Elyakim Rubenstein was right to order to order an immediate probe, some of my terminology describing the allegations -- ``petty chicanery," ``venality," ``run-of-the-mill sleaze" – downplays the seriousness of those allegations.
That families with known connections to organized crime viewed the Likud elections has an opportunity to gain influence and profit is no laughing matter. And the possibility that the Prime Minister’s son and closest advisor did not shun contact with such families is even less so.
The central argument of the previous piece – that the nose of the Israel media for scandal is highly selective and determined by political sympathies – still strikes me as true and worth reiterating. Virtually all agree today that Prime Minister Sharon was right to dismiss Naomi Blumenthal for refusing to answer the questions of police investigators. Yet few in the media are equally outraged by Yitzchak Herzog’s refusal to do so or are calling for his removal from the Labor list. Nevertheless the Likud corruption scandal is serious, and the fourth estate has a duty to pursue it like bloodhounds.
Perhaps growing up in Chicago, where Democratic ``Boss," Richard Daley reigned supreme, desensitized me to the seriousness of government corruption. I suspect, however, that the true explanation for my failure lies closer to home. Who can bear to contemplate the implications of serious corruption in the Likud? If the current allegations are true, the choice of Israeli voters between Likud and Labor is one between Tammany Hall and insanity verging on the suicidal. (Tommy Lapid’s anti-religious demagoguery is no more appealing to me.)
Rather than confront squarely the unappetizing nature of the choice confronting us, I understated the seriousness of Likud corruption. Who says that Yossi Beilin, who once described Oslo as the product of his psychological inability to live in a world in which peace is impossible, is the only one for whom the wish is father to the deed?
GOVERNMENTAL CORRUPTION, however, is a serious business. Countries in which bribery and corruption are endemic tend to be grouped towards the bottom of the scale of economic development. Such corruption skews markets by introducing all manner of irrational calculations, and thereby stifles individual initiative. Where large groups of citizens are convinced that the playing field is not level, they will simply stop playing the game.
Yet there are all manner of ways in which the playing field is tilted, of which vote contracting is only one. Today’s efforts by certain groups to buy political influence is, in part, an effort to counter the culture of proteksia that favored the early Ashkenazi settlers, and which still has not been eradicated.
The devolution of power to determine societal norms to the Supreme Court is another example of distortions in elective democracy. As Professor Ruth Gavison has pointed out, no other supreme court has appropriated that power to such a degree. That concentration of power in the hands of the Court is further exacerbated by the fact that the justices are unrepresentative of the society whose norms they would establish. They constitute a self-selecting and self-perpetuating "sect" (to quote Gavison again).
As Simcha Dinitz and Eli Hurwitz have cause to know, it does not harm ones chances before the Court to travel in the same social set as the justices. Nor will it hurt to choose an attorney who is one of Justice Theodore Orr’s closest friends.
Justice Michael Cheshin’s decision to ban Moshe Feiglin from running for Knesset on the grounds that Zo Artzeinu’s campaign of civil disobedience against the Oslo Accords constituted crimes of ``moral turpitude" typifies the latitude taken by justices in determining norms. To the contrary, Feiglin’s civil disobedience was the highest affirmation of the rule of law. He stood prepared to bear the legal consequences of his actions precisely in order to arouse public opinion to reverse the Knesset decisions he opposed.
From one point of view, we might even be optimistic that anyone even thought that the Knesset still wields enough power to be worth purchasing influence over MKs. (On the other hand, if half the Likud MKs end up as ministers or deputy ministers, the investment might be worth it.)
Yet a third tilt of the democratic playing field is the open political bias of the public media, well documented by Media Watch. Arutz-7, which Justice Cheshin, as head of the Elections Committee, has ordered to refrain from election propaganda, only exists because of the hold over the media by one band of the ideological spectrum. Contrary to what Justice Cheshin believes, Arutz-7 operates under no greater presumption of propagandizing than Israel Radio.
* * *
RECONSIDERATION OF my own failures provokes some thoughts on the columnist’s art. My friend Ben-Dror Yemini of Ma’ariv likes to describe columnists as people who know nothing about everything. Columnists tend to have lots of opinions and the ability to express them sharply, not necessarily any particular expertise in the subjects about which they write. In most cases, they lack access to anyinside information not generally available to anyone who reads widely. I, for instance, have a decent academic background in law and a more or less intimate knowledge of the haredi community, which most readers are lacking, but many of my columns draw on neither.
Those who write many columns a week are also not immune to factual mistakes, despite their (hopefully) best efforts. Take, for instance, my recent assertion that the current Likud Central Committee was known to be sympathetic to Netanyahu, which ignored Prime Minister Sharon’s largely successful efforts to remake the Central Committee in his own image through the massive registration drive of new Likud members.
Not all columnists, of course, are equally ignorant. When Daniel Pipes writes about Islamist terrorism, he does so as a leading expert on the subject. Every piece by this paper’s Evelyn Gordon cries out the thoroughness of her research.
On the other hand, academic qualifications are neither a necessary or sufficient condition for excellence in a columnist. Charles Krauthamer is a psychiatrist by training, but that has little to do with his incisive analysis of a host of issues. George Will did graduate work at Oxford and Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist. While their vast reading undoubtedly shaped their world views, its only immediate evident in their work in the historical analogies and metaphors they choose. Mark Steyn’s rapier wit and keen eye for idiocy make him worth reading whatever his training.
In his study of public intellectuals, Judge Richard Posner, notes the tendency of pundits to engage in apocalyptic prophesying for rhetorical effect. Of one such intellectual, Posner writes, ``He was shameless in prophecy and undaunted by repeated falsification." In short, there are few penalties for wrongheaded columnists, even ones who are repeatedly betrayed by subsequent events. By the time their mistakes are glaringly obvious, the pages filled with their words are being used to wrap dead fish.
I still remember the well-known Israeli military commentator who confidently predicted that America would never attack Iraq in 1991 only hours before the first bombs were dropped on Bagdhad. That was hardly his only such failure; a friend once remarked that it was too bad he was not a stock picker – one could make a fortune doing the opposite. Yet that record of missed predictions did nothing to impede his professional advance to the pinnacle of Israeli journalism.
What is the lesson of all this? To readers – never forget to take what you read with a grain of salt, even when it agrees with your own opinions. To columnists – be ever mindful of your all-too evident fallibility and ready to reexamine long-held opinions.
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum
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