Jonathan Chait

Adventures In Context From The Weekly Standard

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William Kristol has an item at the Weekly Standard entitled, "J Street: Maybe 'Israel Really Ain't A Very Good Idea.'" This turns out to hinge upon the following quote from Daniel Levy:

Daniel Levy, a founder of J Street: Look, bottom line: If we’re all wrong, if we’re all wrong and a collective Jewish presence in the Middle East can only survive by the sword, it cannot be accepted, it’s not about what we do. Sound familiar? They hate us for what we are, not what we do. If that’s true, then Israel really ain’t a very good idea.

I'm not exactly a huge fan of Daniel Levy, and I'm pretty sure the feeling is mutual. But the quote here is making the opposite of the point Kristol suggests. Levy is arguing that if his opponents' premise is true, then Israel is not a good idea. He is making that point in order to discredit his opponents' premise. This is a very common form of argumentation: if we believe A, then we must believe B, and since B is false, we shouldn't believe A. For Kristol to site such an argument as evidence the speaker believes B is... completely unsurprising, actually.

Meanwhile, the print issue of the Standard has this delightful (subscription only - it's not worth your money) tidbit:

Buried at the end of an otherwise milquetoast New York Times article (“Obama Seeks a Course of Pragmatism in the Middle East,” which The Scrapbook supposes is a generous interpretation of the fact that there’s outward clue the White House has any clue whatsoever) was this jarring nugget of reporting:

Mr. Obama has told people that it would be so much easier to be the president of China. As one official put it, “No one is criticizing Hu Jintao’s words in Tahrir Square.”

Indeed. When you’re president of China and you’re concerned that people in the hinterlands are bitterly clinging to their guns ’n’ religion, you can simply take those things away. When you’re president of China, all radio is National Public Radio. When you’re president of China, you don’t have to worry about annoying off-year elections. When you’re president of China…We could go on.

No doubt some readers are stunned that a democratically elected president would empathize with the leader of the deadliest regime in human history. (In the wake of new archival evidence unearthed last year, one prominent University of Hong Kong professor now places the death toll of Mao’s Great Leap Forward at 45 million.)

Okay. We don't have any larger context for Obama's comment. But I think it's pretty clear that he was not expressing an actual desire to preside over a dictatorship. Nor is he expressing support for the Chinese regime. He's saying the Chinese regime suppresses dissent and his government doesn't.

Let me analogize this in a way that the Standard might understand: It would be much easier to be a lazy welfare queen, pulling down fat government checks for popping out babies, but some of us have to work for a living. That statement is the opposite of empathizing with a welfare recipient. Throwing in that bit about the Great Leap Forward is an especially comic touch -- it's not enough to smear Obama as a sympathizer with a brutal Chinese government, you have to stretch the attack to tie him in with the murder of 45 million people during the 1950s.

It's getting harder to distinguish that magazine from a cheap oppo research shop.

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