Truth vs. Facts in Love & War

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    A Higher Truth A few years ago I was invited to take part in a debate about journalism at the Oxford Union, known among people who'd rather talk than fight as the oldest and most prestigious debate forum in the world. The hall where the debates are held is a replica of the House of Commons. The atmosphere during the debates can best be described as that of the Greek Parliament. Anyone can interrupt, jeer, hiss, cheer, applaud or even insult the speaker. Or pose a question at any given moment. The worst booing is reserved for those who read their speeches; in fact I don't know of anyone who was allowed to finish what he or she had to say reading from a prepared text. Having debated before at both Oxford and Cambridge, I began my speech by announcing that the public has no right to know anything whatsoever, and that the more people were informed the worse they get. The din that followed threatened to stampede the cows that were peacefully grazing on the outskirts of the medieval town. That is when I reminded the audience that, as a direct descendant of Demosthenes, I would brook no interruptions. "The truth cannot afford obstructions," I hollered over the hubbub. And that is when a very pretty young girl sitting in the front benches got up and very politely asked, in a weak but earnest voice, "Do you tell the truth?"

    Well, I did my best, but even as I spoke, and heard the winged words flying away, I knew I was doing a Pontius Pilate, or a Hillary Clinton, for that matter. Because let's face it, the only statements that appear in the press that are absolutely true are those that tell the time stores open, or the exchange rate of the dollar. Everything else is the truth of impression, rather than fact.

    The reason I'm writing about truth this week is Edmund Morris' book about Ronald Reagan, and the autobiography of Eddie Fisher about the various women he's bedded in the past. Not that I'm comparing the two. Morris is a somewhat respected quasi-academic and an able biographer of Teddy Roosevelt. Fisher is about as low as you can get, and I'm being charitable. (I had the bad luck to be with Peter Lawford in a nightclub underneath the 59th St. Bridge in January of 1965, and Lawford asked him to my table. I was then married to my first wife, Cristina de Caraman, known as the prettiest girl in Paris, and Fisher tried to pick her up by telling her she looked like Natalie Wood. "Unfortunately, you don't look like Robert Wagner," said Cristina, and sent him off.)

    No, what Morris and Fisher have in common is that in both cases the words may be true, but the message is not. Morris uses an English expression?"upstairs"?to indicate that Reagan did not like former president George Bush. The latter has denied it, and I believe him. This is Morris using emotional truth, and like all good Englishmen (he's South African born, but he's learned his English lesson well) he is a past master at it. I also watched Morris on 60 Minutes, and when he began to cry over Reagan's illness I thought it was the best acting I'd seen since Bill Clinton's performance at the prayer breakfast last year.

    Fisher is a sleazebag sans pareil, and his opus detailing the affairs he's had has to be on a par of grotesque taste with that of Geraldo Rivera's on the same subject. The one definition of a gentleman that I particularly like is that of "a man who never makes a lady feel anything but one." In Fisher's case, I don't even believe the purported factual truth. Michelle Phillips has denied having had an affair?she was eight months pregnant at the time the sleazeball claims he had her?and I believe her because she already has gone on record saying she was no angel and has listed her "sins." Even if Fisher is telling it like it was, there is no proof that the truth is being served. Of course I have not read nor plan to read his scummy book, but if he had any talent, which he doesn't, he would have treated his female subjects in the manner Alastair Reid, a travel writer of note, treated Spain: "If one wants to write about Spain, the facts will get you nowhere." (Reid fabricated conversations and created composite characters in a number of travel pieces about that most difficult to understand of countries.)

    Is there a worse way to define a woman than to describe what she did in bed? Men who write about their conquests are either very, very lousy at it, or feel extremely inferior. Fisher and Rivera qualify for either diagnosis, most likely both.

    But back to the truth. In everyday life, truth is not just a matter of facts one can pin down. I remember an American friend of mine being shocked to see two Greek families shrieking abuse at each other from the opposite sides of a Greek courtroom, while the judge stood by, positively encouraging the shouting. When my friend whispered something to me about the rules of evidence, an old and wizened Greek hack next to us whispered back, "In this part of the world, factual truth is not as important as emotional truth."

    I happen to agree, at least sometimes. Take for example the case of truth in a marriage. Gianni Agnelli, the most charismatic, civilized and Don Juanish of CEOs?he's head of Fiat?said it perfectly. Asked about his extracurricular activities on ABC, he refused to comment, but said, "One can be a very good husband who fools around, just as one can be a very bad husband who doesn't." Hear, hear! Half the trouble with divorce cases is that they hinge on factual truth. But a man can be a good husband, come home on time, even be considerate in the sack, but it doesn't necessarily mean that he loves his wife and will not leave her for a newer model later on. On the other hand, the man may be a real swine, get drunk, bring women home when she's away, yet never bore the old lady and never make her feel unwanted. See what I mean by emotional truth? (But try explaining it to an American judge.)

    By all this I don't mean that our whole tradition of trying to establish objective facts should be sneezed at; only that facts have a way of obscuring the higher truth at times. On to higher truth, says I?but I don't expect the Fishers, Riveras and Clintons to be listening.


    Scott McConnelL THE CONFORMIST Hitler Studies I often wish I had a video of Columbia historian Fritz Stern's lectures on European and German history, which I attended as an undergraduate 25 years ago. I still have my notebooks. And my memory, in which remain dozens of snippets from the lectures, phrases that brought to life all the passion and tragedy of 20th-century European history. One that has been popping up was Stern's comment on A.J.P. Taylor, the leading British historian who created a firestorm in academia and beyond in 1961 with his publication of The Origins of The Second World War. It was near the end of the two-hour period, and late in the semester; Stern's comments were after the bell and, I recall, a bit rushed. He called Taylor's book?which asserted that Hitler had neither planned nor caused the war; that appeasement was not necessarily a bad thing; that the new totalitarian ideologies were less significant than the traditional aims of statecraft (such as Germany's drive to the East) for understanding the roots of the conflict?"profoundly mischievous." The comments were designed to provoke controversy and succeeded without a doubt. Stern didn't agree with Taylor's argument, but urged us all to read it over the summer, if we hadn't already. (It had, I think, been recommended but not required course reading.) The controversy Taylor generated with his little volume, for which he was accused of the "de-demonization" of Hitler, continued for years. For Stern, this kind of give and take was the essence of the "speculative richness of history"?a phrase he used often.

    This memory is raised by the orchestrated pileup on Pat Buchanan for writing, in his A Republic, Not an Empire, a chapter on World War II that fell equally outside the boundaries of the conventional wisdom. There is some overlap between the Taylor and Buchanan theses (a subject too complex to be treated in this space) but in the main, they run parallel to one another. But while Taylor's book gave birth to a substantial academic skirmish, Buchanan's has resulted in the most venomous denunciation, demands that its author be banished from the Republican Party and pushed once and for all beyond the margins of American politics.

    As I write, there are Internet reports of the book being removed from the shelves of large chain stores; on Sunday my wife went to a Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side to buy it and was first told by a clerk that there was a big pile of them on display near the front, then: "Gee, I don't know what happened to it... We may have one copy in the political science section." (There wasn't.) For a moment I had the dark thought that Buchanan's foes might push for public burnings of the book.

    Great Britain lost far more in World War II than the United States. But in 1961, the Brits could sustain a debate about the war's origins, a feat Americans cannot manage in 1999. Perhaps one day a volume will be written on how this came to be. Of course Buchanan is being attacked because of who he is and the interests he challenges as much as for what he wrote: a liberal historian I saw over the weekend told me that Buchanan's points had been put forth by Yale's Bruce Russett (and have been amplified by the late Eric Nordlinger, of Brown) without causing notable convulsion on either campus.

    I took a particular interest in the Buchanan firestorm because as it broke, I was talking with the campaign about a job. Last week I was offered the opportunity to come on board as senior policy adviser, and jumped at the chance. After a brief, long-planned and many-times-delayed trip to Europe with my wife, I'll be moving to Virginia.

    To those who might wonder, my own views on World War II are conventionally liberal internationalist. But I also believe the global system has changed fundamentally since 1939, and more since 1989, and without a Hitler or a menacing Soviet Union, the United States needs to rethink its role. As it is, we are a nation with a shrinking military that nonetheless keeps thinking up more reasons to insert ourselves in the middle of local conflicts, whether or not they directly affect American interests. Sometimes our actions as world cop and "only superpower" clearly contravene international law, as was the case in our attack on Serbia and our apparent support for creation of an independent Kosovo, to be eventually melded into "Greater Albania."

    Surely when we shoot our cruise missiles hither and yon, puffed up with the rhetoric of our virtue, we are creating many enemies. As small states or terrorist groupings find it increasingly possible to acquire their own nuclear or biological weapons, ordinary Americans may one day pay a fearsome price for Washington's promiscuous use of military power. While some senators and congressmen on both sides of the aisle are coming around to this view, only Buchanan is ready to carry these issues into the arena of presidential politics.

    Then there is immigration, another grand issue, largely ignored by the leadership of the two major parties. A radical transformation of the American state is being carried out for no good reason. The net impact of immigration at current rates and according to current laws (some 1.3 million per year)?apart from the costs in crowding?is increased social inequality and redistribution of income favoring high-income Americans over the less skilled. In short, the federal government, through its policies, is waging a full-scale assault on America's own working poor. The concept of assimilation?so necessary to this country's success with past waves of immigrants?has been largely abandoned: even Clinton officials say that now America's European stock population will be required to make the cultural adjustments. Whenever people are allowed to vote on the subject (as in California's Proposition 187), they choose tighter border controls, and a reduction of the flow. Whenever nonbiased experts study it (as did the Barbara Jordan-led commission, appointed by Clinton) they reach similar conclusions.

    But the left wants immigration rates high because it smashes up the traditional "Eurocentric" American nation-state, and the Beltway and business Right wants them high because the continuous flow of unskilled workers keeps wage rates down and the work force docile. So again, the two big parties are mute on the issue: only Buchanan will raise the banner of immigration reform and bring it before the American people.

    The chance to be part of such an enterprise, which could have a huge and lasting impact on the American political system, is one of the greatest privileges I can imagine.

    A column in NYPress/"Top Drawer" is one of the great slots of journalism, and I'll miss it enormously. Taki's sometimes spoken, always present admonitions to writers to leave behind their instinctive caution is a great spur?a kind of advice very rare for editors to give out these days. Russ Smith has created a unique product: one that gets read by the New York publishing community and by a impressive slice of other folks, from all over the political spectrum. Seldom in my many years at the Post did I receive the kind of detailed, sharp and especially unpredictable response from readers that I've had often in six months at NYPress. Warm thanks to all.


    George Szamuely THE BUNKER Liar, Liar It is hard to match the United States for mendacity and cruelty. The other day The Washington Post ran a story informing us that the "Clinton Administration increasingly sees [Kosovo's] secession as inevitable." This was hardly a shocking revelation. To be sure, such an outcome would violate UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which speaks of the "commitment of all member states to the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." But the United States has been violating the Resolution from the beginning. Kosovo already has its own currency (the D-mark); the border with Albania has ceased to exist; it has its own customs posts; Albanian flags hang on every building. And now, thanks to valiant U.S. efforts, the KLA has been delegated to act as the province's official police force?to be known as the Kosovo Protection Corps.

    Yet thanks to our compliant media the United States continues telling fairy tales. However, the administration still felt obligated to issue a denial of the story: "Any suggestion that we have altered our policy on the question of the future status of Kosovo is wrong and incorrect," lisped the State Dept.'s Jamie Rubin. Well, that wasn't quite the suggestion actually. "We are supporting the development of a democratic, autonomous, self-governing Kosovo under UN oversight and NATO protection," he explained. The pompous platitude is a lie. U.S. policy has been to detach Kosovo from Serbia.

    In a recent article in The New York Times the loathsome Richard Holbrooke let the cat out of the bag. He referred to the people of Kosovo as having "known nothing but various forms of oppression since at least 1912." His choice of 1912 was revealing. That was when Kosovo was detached from the Ottoman Empire and became part of Serbia. Evidently, according to Holbrooke, life in pre-1912 Kosovo was pretty cool. That Kosovo's 1910 rebellion against Turkish rule was put down savagely does not trouble him. That the Kosovo Serbs were treated with almost unimaginable cruelty during both world wars concerns him even less. In Holbrooke's view, Muslims can commit atrocities against fellow Muslims.

    And they can commit atrocities against Christians in the bargain. The point of the Post story was to soften us up for the inevitable announcement that, due to circumstances beyond the administration's control, Greater Albania is now a fact of life. We will then be told that, sadly, U.S. policymakers have also had to give up on their commitment to create a "multiethnic Kosovo."

    The United States, of course, never had the slightest intention of permitting the Serbs to stay in Kosovo. Even before NATO's arrival in Pristina, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon was telling the world: "The fact of the matter is that I don't think Kosovo is going to be a very happy place for Serbs? As Kosovar Albanians flow back in, our assumption is that many Serbs will leave Kosovo." But the tv sitcom-addled public will apparently believe anything. The Post's followup to the Kosovo "secession" story was even phonier than the initial story. The reporter described a Punch-and-Judy debate supposedly going on behind the scenes. On one side were the Europeans. They believe that "ethnic enmity can fade, and Kosovo can be pressured to remain part of Yugoslavia once [Milosevic] is removed from office." On the other side are the Americans. They have given up on "multiethnic" Kosovo. Guess who will get the better of this debate!

    We went through this charade last month on the issue of the KLA. The Europeans wanted the KLA to disarm. The Americans wanted to turn the KLA into the province's security force. They split the difference and turned the KLA into the province's security force. NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana announced that the new Kosovo Protection Corps would be "multiethnic." Now, the Corps is to be under the command of KLA Chief of Staff Agim Ceku. Ceku masterminded the worst act of ethnic cleansing since 1945?the 1995 expulsion of 300,000 Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia. Obviously neither European nor American officials are stupid enough to believe that Ceku has any intention of presiding over a "multiethnic" force. Once again we are being told fairy tales about that great bunch of naive, humanitarian guys?our rulers.

    Speaking of humanitarian guys, whatever happened to the Serb atrocities? Back in April, about a month after NATO bombs started dropping on Belgrade, the soft-spoken Jamie Rubin estimated that 100,000 Albanians had already lost their lives at the hands of the Serbs. Shortly after the arrival of the NATO troops in Kosovo, we were reliably informed that the number was 10,000. A few days ago, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia?a U.S.-run operation?announced that it had exhumed bodies from 150 mass graves in Kosovo. And there were still 350 potential sites left to examine. Moreover, the Tribunal's spokeswoman cheerfully pointed out, "new sites are reported?on virtually a daily basis. We anticipate just as big an effort next year as we have had this year."

    Next year! Bosnia rides again. More than four years after the fall of Srebrenica, Tribunal investigators are still desperately digging and digging trying to find the bodies of those 8000 Bosnian Muslims supposedly killed by Serbs. So how many Albanians were killed in Kosovo? The spokeswoman replied that she would not be drawn into a "numbers game." However, she added helpfully, "we are talking about thousands." Month after month, the United States played the "numbers game." It had nothing whatsoever on which to base its wild allegations. Now that it has the free run of Kosovo and all its alleged "mass graves," suddenly it gets tongue-tied about numbers.

    Lying about numbers, lying about almost anything, is the driving principle of the U.S. government. As soon as NATO hoisted the KLA into power, the province's Serbs were being murdered and expelled. Initially, the U.S. line was to justify this by referring to the Albanians' understandable desire for "revenge." However, as the atrocities mounted the U.S. had to come up with a new story. The KLA's hands were clean, we were told. "There is no organized KLA effort to retaliate against the Serbs," a Clinton administration official announced in typically lawyerly fashion in June. The demented Wesley Clark went further: "From the leadership of the KLA, we've seen continuing expressions of support for multi-ethnicity?so I can't put a finger on who is doing this."

    This story, too, wore thin after a while. So Clark came up with another explanation. The Serbs were responsible for the atrocities perpetrated against them. How? Apparently, Milosevic was sending in Serb paramilitaries to provoke violence. Bernard Kouchner, the UN Secretary-General's special representative to Kosovo, parroted the story: A "lot of non-official people are coming," he rumbled ominously the other day, "Some of the incidents have been organized." Asked if he had any proof for this allegation, he admitted that he had none. However, he blustered, Milosevic "has been accused of war crimes?and if he is capable of committing war crimes then he is capable of sending people to destabilize the regime." There speaks the voice of contemporary international justice! If he is "capable" of it, then he must have done it!

    Kouchner, The Washington Post reported, "was initially viewed with suspicion in Washington but is now highly regarded as a valuable ally." One can see why. Though a Frenchman, he has become totally Clintonized.

    Wesley Clark, however, was not done yet. The other day he came up with yet another story. There had been no ethnic cleansing of Serbs. "I discovered, interestingly enough," he announced, "that a complete survey has been taken of how many Serbs remain in Kosovo. It's not 30,000. The figure that KFOR came up with is 97,000." "Came up with" is the appropriate expression. The International Committee of the Red Cross reckons that 160,000 Serbs and Gypsies have fled Kosovo. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also estimates that around 160,000 have left. Therefore, both organizations calculate that something like 30-40,000 Serbs and Gypsies remain in the province. Clark does not believe a word of this. "I think one has to recognize that whenever one's dealing in the Balkans there's always a certain amount of incorrect information put out. So there's a lot of mythology now about this reverse ethnic cleansing."

    Clark is still NATO Supreme Allied Commander. The man is a mass-murderer. He clearly belongs in a straitjacket. One has to ask: Will the day ever come when Americans feel ashamed of themselves for letting a pack of liars, gangsters and lunatics speak for them?


    Toby Young ARRIVISTE The End of Nothing Can I propose a moratorium on books called The End of something? It's become such a cliche. With a little help from I counted 176 of them. I assume you knew that History was over, but were you aware that Science, Masculinity and the Nation State have thrown in the towel as well? I spotted one book called The End of Fame, which Donald Trump clearly hasn't read. All human life as we know it, apparently, has come to an end. Even Nature?Nature!?has become extinct. I better hurry up and get this article finished before the Printed Word gets erased. Whoops! Too late. There it is on The End of Intelligent Writing by Richard Kostelanetz. Now, just when you thought it was safe to go back into Barneys, comes The End of Fashion. Okay, I know pashmina scarves are on the way out, but the end of fashion? Come on. Last year Vogue generated $149.99 million in advertising revenue and the first six months of 1999 saw its ad pages jump by 8.6 percent. Its September issue was so fat it required liposuction, for heaven's sake. If fashion's finally kicked its clogs?or rather, its Manolo Blahniks?the consumers have yet to hear about it. According to a recent estimate in The New York Times, the American apparel industry is worth $180 billion. I wish I had those kinds of problems.

    The End of Fashion is actually quite a respectable book. Its author is Teri Agins, a Wall Street Journal reporter who's been covering the industry for 10 years, so I ordered it through to see what her thesis was. Not surprisingly, she doesn't actually claim that fashion has come to an end. She doesn't even maintain it's on its way out, which I was expecting. Rather, she thinks that the era of the creative role of fashion designers, their preeminence as arbiters of style, is drawing to a close. From now on, she believes, new fashions will come from the street rather than the swanky European couture houses of old, by which she means the 80s. Taste used to be dictated from the top down; now it's defined from the bottom up. Democracy, it seems, has come to 7th Ave.

    This sounds suspiciously like wishful thinking to me. I'm always a little skeptical when anyone claims democracy has triumphed anywhere. Democracy came to East Timor for about 30 seconds then packed its bags and took the first flight out. Won't the apparel industry's equivalent of pro-Indonesian rebels?the Fashionistas?restore the ancien regime? In any case, where's the evidence of this revolution?

    Agins identifies four "megatrends" that are responsible for the end of fashion. First, women have lost interest in high-end clothes as they've climbed the corporate ladder. Now that they're competing with men in the workplace they're beginning to dress like them, too. (This is a development that began in the 80s, apparently.) Second, informality is now the preferred style of ordinary Americans, thanks largely to the examples set by billionaire computer nerds like Bill Gates. (She could have called this "megatrend" "the khaki revolution," except there isn't a single joke in the book.) Third?and this is the best "megatrend" she comes up with?stores like the Gap, Banana Republic and J. Crew have started selling well-designed clothes at bargain prices. Why go to Bergdorf's when you can get it at Express for half the price? Finally, the top designers have stopped gambling on fashion. As Polo Ralph Lauren, Liz Claiborne and Tommy Hilfiger have become publicly traded companies, obliged to maintain steady growth, they've stopped taking chances. The result is the bland, cookie-cutter fashions we see on the high street today.

    Agins definitely has a point here. When it comes to fashion, the European couture houses are no longer at the head of the parade. But that doesn't mean there's been a democratic revolt. On the contrary, the reason ordinary Americans have started dressing down rather than up is because they're following the example of the rich and famous. Agins' mistake is to assume that the couturiers were ever the arbiters of style. As Thorstein Veblen pointed out in The Theory of the Leisure Class, the upper classes have always led the way in matters of taste.

    It's only because the plutocracy has momentarily deserted the fancy-schmancy designers that their styles are no longer knocked off in high street stores. Take a look at the group photograph of the New Establishment in Vanity Fair's October issue. They seem less like the most powerful men in the world than a collection of pharmacists from Minnesota. As the taste of the ruling class has become more "democratic"?less flamboyant, less conspicuous, less flashy?so have the fashions in the malls of America. But that doesn't mean that new styles now "bubble up from the street," as Agins claims. Insofar as a revolution in taste has occurred in the past 10 years, it's been led by the Gulfstream Jetset, not Mr. & Mrs. Joe Sixpack in their Chevy Blazers. The masses are still aping the styles of their social superiors.

    There's been no paradigm shift in the fashion industry. Veblen's trickle-down theory still applies. The rich have just momentarily shifted their allegiance away from the hoity-toity European designers to more mainstream American labels. That could easily change next season. All that's really happened is that one style has been replaced by another?in other words, business as usual. Unfortunately, this rather takes the wind out of Agins' sails?or, rather, her sales pitch.

    When I open a book called The End of anything, I expect to learn about a seismic shift, a radical, earth-shattering change that has permanently altered the landscape. If only she'd given it a less definitive title, I wouldn't have been so disappointed. Unfortunately, the conservative trend she identifies in the fashion industry has yet to take hold in the publishing business, where hyperbole is still very much in vogue. These days, calling a book The End of anything is the equivalent of wearing a pair of Chanel fuck-me shoes to the office Christmas party: It's so 80s, dah-ling.