End of net neutrality, start of publishing monopoly, big cable merger—we’re approaching de facto censorship

Remember when the growth of the Internet was supposed to level the playing field between large and small companies and between rich and poor individuals and organizations. Sure, the wealthy and large could buy more ads, but the cost to set up a web page or blog—and later to build a network through social media—made it easier for the little guy to compete.  It seemed as if the world could really operate according to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idealistic notion that “if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door,” without the investment of millions into marketing communications.

Inherent in the promise of the web was the principle of a free market for good, services and ideas, undistorted by size, clout or spending.

But no market is ever absolutely free. The biggest players seem always to make sure of that. Without the constraint of government regulations, over time the large and connected will always crowd everyone else out of the marketplace, whether we are talking about widgets or political views. Large companies once hired children to work in factories until child labor laws. They sold adulterated food until the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906 and other laws. They got together to fix prices until the government stepped in. They opposed minimum mileage and seat belts in cars until the federal government stepped in.

But when it comes to the Internet and other media of mass communications, it seems that the government only steps in to help the big players.

We currently face three controversies which together could rip to shreds any hope of obtaining the state of grace predicted by Internet utopians. In fact, if the federal government makes the wrong decision in all three of these areas, we may end up living in a de facto state of censorship in which we can exercise freedom of speech but only the largest corporations and the richest people will actually be able to get through to significant numbers of people:

  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposal to end net neutrality
  • The merger of Comcast and Time Warner
  • The unfair monopolistic actions taken by Amazon.com against Hachette Book Group

Let’s look at what’s at stake when it comes to each of these issues:

Net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers (ISP) and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differently according to user, content, site, platform, application or type of equipment.  Earlier this year, the news media reported that the FCC is considering a new rule that will permit ISPs to offer content providers a faster track to send content for a higher fee. It means that Netflix will be able to pay more to ISPs like Verizon, Time Warner, Comcast, Cox, Frontier, Windstream and others for the right to have its programming delivered faster than other online streamers. The ISPs will be able to charge the Republican and Democratic parties more than smaller political groups to deliver their messages over the Internet. No longer will you wonder why a website is slow to download—it likely won’t be because of a bandwidth problem; no, in all probability the owner of the slow-to-load website couldn’t afford to pay the extra freight for faster delivery of the information.

Gone will be the days of an Internet level playing field.

Gone, too, will be any possibility of diversity in television programming, if the FCC allows the merger of Comcast and Time Warner into a cable TV leviathan that will control one third of all cable viewing. As it is, there is little difference in the offerings of the various cable networks around the country. Wherever you go across the country, you see pretty much the same menu of network offerings, “Law & Order” reruns, reality shows, religious shows, right-wing cant masquerading as news, centrists masquerading as progressives and sports, sports, sports.  But it will only get worse as one company will make the decision for what networks to buy for one third of all cable TV viewers. BTW, the merged Comcast Time Warner will also control 40% of the wired broadband Internet market.

Instead of merging, both Time Warner and Comcast should be forced to split themselves so that no company controls more than two or three percent of cable TV screens. We should return to the days when no company could own more than a very small number of TV and radio stations—five at the most—and no company could own both a TV station and newspaper in the same region. There are now six or seven companies that control most of the mass media, which is why we see a sad lack of diversity of opinion; why most of every daily newspaper looks like the daily newspaper in every other town; why you find Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on so many radio stations.

The Amazon-Hachette situation presents another aspect of the consolidation of the news media.  Amazon controls two-thirds of the market for digital books and about 30% of all books. Amazon and Hachette have been in some tough negotiations: Amazon wants the behemoth French publisher to accept concessions on their revenues from e-book sales, so Amazon can make more and charge the public less. Because Hachette is resisting, Amazon had removed the link on its website that enables customers to preorder Hachette books, slowed down delivery of Hachette books and not restocked popular Hachette titles.  I would think that this kind of pressure from such a large player with no pre-existing editorial policy definitely fits the description for an unfair monopolistic practice, which is illegal. (Now if Amazon claimed to be a Christian bookseller could justify not selling a Hachette book that promoted atheism, but Amazon declares itself to a marketplace for everything).

Hachette is another media behemoth, but if Amazon gets it way it way, it will make it much harder for both the large and small publishing houses to turn a profit. And think of this: today Amazon is messing with a publisher for financial reasons. In the future, it might decide to mess with a someone for political reasons, much as Wal-Mart used to make record companies provide special censored versions of CDs with lyrics that did not fit Wal-Mart’s conservative moral stance.

And yet we have heard nothing from the Justice Department on this issue. Maybe they’re too busy rousting immigrants. It doesn’t seem as if any of our Senators or Congresspersons with a special interest in freedom of speech has heard that Amazon is trying to unfairly and illegally push its weight around.  I know that some of them are very busy defending the right of a Duck Dynasty star to make rancid sexist and racist statements. Other publishers and writers are wringing their hands, but there have been few if any calls for a boycott of Amazon.  Although Amazon is easy to use—and you can also order your dish soap and sox at the same time—it is not the only place to buy books or anything else on the Internet.

Imagine the worst case scenario occurring:  the merger goes through, net neutrality ends and Hachette knuckles under. The Internet will become the province of large corporations and moneyed individuals.  The chances of a book from a little publisher becoming a best seller through the Internet grapevine will be negligible. The possibility of an article in a small magazine not backed by big money getting onto the Google News or Yahoo! homepage will shrink to almost nothing. A small record label might not be able to download music directly to customers and be forced to give a cut of its profit to Amazon or some other large Internet merchant. Whether it’s a book or a TV show, the little guy will need more resources to compete and so will be unable to do so. A handful of large corporations will control our public discourse even more than they do now.

As Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis shows, governments have waged war instead of helping citizens for centuries

Global Crisis by British historian Geoffrey Parker presents the 17th century as a case history of the devastation that climate change can wreck upon human societies.

The 1600s experienced an enormous number of droughts, lengthy winters, floods, major earthquakes and other extreme weather phenomena resulting from what scientists and historians call “The Little Ice Age.” The Little Ice Age hit human societies hard, leading to famines, plagues and other disasters in all the continents, which put pressure on the still forming nation states throughout the world to go to war to gain or protect their resources. An enormous number of civil wars also broke out, as nobles and/or peasants resisted higher taxes and confiscation of grain and land. The world population was much less in 1680 than it had been in 1600, with some regions losing perhaps a third of their population.

Parker isn’t saying that the sudden cooling of the earth in the 17th century caused all the mayhem of the period, but that sudden climate change combined with and exacerbated political instability to push the world into general disaster and decline. I’m only about a third through this 700+ page tome, but I’m already convinced that Parker gives us a roadmap to our future if we don’t slow down global warming: resource shortages, natural disasters and population displacements could plunge most of the world into a living hell of poverty, warfare, epidemics, famine and environmental degradation.

The topic of today’s OpEdge article is not, however, Global Crisis, but one paragraph on page 34 of the book.  The topic of the paragraph is what Parker calls “indirect” or “opportunity” costs, which refers to the lost opportunity to spend money on something because you have already spent the money on something else. In the paragraph in question, Parker refers to the many positive initiatives that 17th-century governments did not pursue because they had already spent so much fighting wars:

  • Philip IV of Spain, who spent £30 million to finance foreign wars between 1618 and 1648, claimed that he didn’t have the funds to set up a national banking system.
  • Charles I of Great Britain, whose wars between 1625 and 1630 cost £6 million, decided he could not afford to create public granaries for famine relief.
  • After Manchu raiders broke through the Great Wall in 1629, the emperor’s drastic reductions in non-defense spending included closure of one-third of all postal stations.

Parker suggests that these examples represent the tip of an iceberg of societal needs that went unfilled in the 17th because rulers were raising armies to grab or defend land.

La plus ça change, as the French say: The more things change, the more they remain the same.  The United States currently spends more than $680 billion a year on the formal military budget, or about 19% of all federal government spending and 28% of estimated tax revenue. That’s more than we spend on education, highways and bridges, research, job creation, safety inspectors, agencies such as the Center for Disease Control and the Federal Drug Administration and all other discretionary goods and services.  This enormous number—enough to build 340,000 new houses a year at $200,000 a pop or to cut the annual college tuition build by $10,000 for about 6 million people—does not include what we spend to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which for some reason Congress and the Bush II Administration decided to keep out of budgetary and deficit discussions.

By itself, the United States military budget accounts for 40% of global arms spending with a budget from 6-7 times that of China.

No wonder our roads are full of pot holes. No wonder federal aid to higher education has been slashed. No wonder our space exploration program is winding down instead of ratcheting up. No wonder there are more outbreaks of food poisoning and food recalls, which safety inspections help to prevent.

I’m not saying that we should do without military expenditures, but I’m fairly confident that if we swore off hegemonic foreign invasions, cut our nuclear force (which could destroy life as we know it on Earth many times over), cut research on new military weapons and significantly reduced our current armed forces, that we would be able to invest our tax revenues in more productive means.

Of course the dirty little non-secret of a capitalist system with few restraints on the market is that it needs war and military spending to provide enough jobs.  Of course, this dirty little secret has its own dirty little secret, which is that we would not harm a flourishing economy with a small military budget—but we would make a tremendous shift in wealth from military suppliers to suppliers of alternative energy and environmental protection equipment, social programs, highway builders and engineers and other segments of the economy that do not have as much lobbying clout as the military-industrial complex.

Jump Street: once again, a movie character portrayed as intelligent is uncoordinated and socially inept

With “22 Jump Street” one of the most popular movies of the summer, it is instructive to remember how the two bros of this cop bromance met in “21 Jump Street,” the first of the Jump movies.

The Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum characters knew each other in high school, but only as acquaintances. Seven years later at the police academy, Channing—a handsome and tall stud who dominates the physical training—notices that klutzy Jonah earned a 100% on a written exam which Channing flunked. The two become best buds—Jonah’s character helping Channing’s to raise his written test scores to a “C,” while under Channing’s tutelage, Jonah improves his conditioning enough to pass the physical exams, even though he still is more uncoordinated than you would ever want a police officer to be.

Once again in a mass entertainment, a highly intelligent character is presented as physically inferior—out of shape, weak, poorly coordinated, slow.

But it gets worse. We also learn that Jonah’s character is also socially inept: the girl he wants to take to the prom rejects him.

So yes, once again mass entertainment creates the myth that if you’re smart, you are likely unattractive to the opposite sex.  We get this myth big-banged into us  in television shows, movies, cartoons and commercials. It seems as if only the superhuman freaks like Ironman can be smart and sexy.

Of course, real life is different. While there are some smart people who flat line after doing one sit-up or sit shyly and stiffly in a corner at parties, there are many others who play competitive athletics and have an active social life. When I see the highly intelligent portrayed as social pariahs or weaklings, I think of the top 25 chess players at the national chess tournaments in my son’s grade when he was playing youth chess. Among the top 4-6 players, there were kids who looked as pale as a white sheet and were either soft and blubbery or very thin—these were the kids who studied chess three or more hours a day, every day. But most of the top-ranked boys (since mostly boys played chess back then) in the country were like my son: muscled and always moving with an athletic grace. And why not—these extremely intelligent kids were usually involved in one or more sports. Another example would be astronauts: these men and women have very high intelligences and are athletically gifted; no one has reported that an astronaut ever had a hard time getting a date.

Since it’s mostly very smart people who write, direct and produce movies and TV shows, why do they insist on insulting themselves by telling what amounts to a big lie? My own theory is that the makers of our mass entertainments reflect the views of the people who pay the piper—the very wealthy, who rightfully sense that a true meritocracy would result in their losing their money and position. They also see that computerization has dramatically decreased the number of good jobs around; by denigrating the intelligent, they may hope to discourage the poor from striving in school, thus reducing competition for their offspring.  Both today and in the past, religious figures have denigrated intelligence as inferior to unquestioning faith. The application of intelligence generally involves questioning, and one thing that the sellers of goods and services don’t want is for us to ask questions in the marketplace. Thus, in many ways, promoting intelligence and scholarly activity as a social value upsets the status quo of American consumerism.

Interestingly enough, the Jump movies manifest not only the traditional disdain of intellectuals in American society, but also represent an alarming social trend: the infantilization of adults. More and more adults are maintaining their entertainment habits of childhood, playing with My Little Pony dolls or Legos, reading comic books and Harry Potter novels and spending vacations at theme parks. Many movies in recent years have glorified the life of adults—especially adult men—who remain children and teenagers.

Add the Jump series to entertainment in which men behave as boys.  The cops are adults who go undercover in a high school and pretend to be average teenagers. In other words, they have formal permission from authorities to behave as children, despite being adults. Their job is to be “not grown up.” The Jump movies therefore show another way for adults to remain kids and retain the predilections and habits of their teen years.

No matter what happens, we shouldn’t send troops to Iraq

People don’t seem to want to give Barack Obama credit for the little improvements he has made over former presidents. No matter how bad drone assassinations are, they are much less barbaric and inhumane than Bush II torture.  Under Obama, our veterans wait a long time to get quality care, to be sure. But under Bush II, they weren’t getting quality care. Unlike Bush II, Obama went looking for Osama bin Laden in the places where the terrorist leader was hiding and not in other countries. Too bad it turned out to be another assassination mission, and not the capture for trial of a criminal. The Affordable Care Act is only a slight improvement over what we had before—there are still many people uncovered and medical care still costs too much.

And now President Obama has managed to do something a little bit better than Gerald Ford. Obama got American troops out of a country before the weak government we installed there collapsed.

I see many hints in the news about the possibility of U.S. military involvement to shore up the democratically-elected government of Iraq and retake Mosul and the other territories controlled by the Sunnis. One article proposes that American bombing of rebel positions would go a long way to achieving those goals. Others wonder whether the President is willing to put some feet on the ground or whether he will now be forced to shift away from his plan to transfer our foreign policy focus to Asia.

We were the ones who shattered Iraq through invasion and a decade-long war. I know that fact should make us morally responsible to ensure that democratic institutions prevail. But the United States in not prepared to make the monetary commitment it would take to give Iraq permanent security from terrorism and rebel armies.  Anything less than a full long-term commitment will only make things worse, as we saw during the war years.  The President couldn’t even get anyone to back bombing Syria when atrocities had been committed. Besides, we have no money, having spent so many trillions of dollars fighting two useless, goalless wars for most of this century.

For the United States to put troops or military resources in Iraq at this time would be completely crazy.

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has hinted that Iran may want to step up to the plate and provide military assistance to Maliki’s duly-elected government. I say let them do it.

It’s Iran’s turn.

Latest bad idea from right-wing economists: cure wealth inequality with more policies that make us unequal

Now that conservatives and their academic factotums realize that they can no longer deny that we have become a world in which inequality is growing, they are beginning to fight a rear-guard action by declaring that the way to reverse the trend of greater inequality is to promote the very policies that created it.

In a Wall Street Journal article titled “The Blue-State Path to Inequality,” Stephen Moore, chief economist of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, and Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, compare the inequality of income in red states and blue states and finds that there is a greater spread in the blue states, which they aver without proving have greater social safety nets.

Moore and Vedder cook up a stew of bad math and faulty logic to try to prove their point.  Their reasoning is so laughably inept that I think I’ll refer to them as the “Keystone Profs,” in honor of the Keystone Cops, a fictional crew of incompetent police officers from the silent movie era.

Let’s start with the bad math. To demonstrate that inequality of income is greater in the blue states, the Keystone Profs use the Gini coefficient, a single number cooked up by an Italian statistician Corrado Gini more than a century ago.  The Gini coefficient takes a set of raw data and tries to turn it into a single number that can be compared to similar sets of raw data of other populations; the lower the Gini the less inequality of income exists in the population being measured.

The problem is that the Gini coefficient is highly inaccurate. One of the first things that Thomas Piketty does in his Capital in the 21st Century is to discredit the Gini coefficient as a viable tool for measuring wealth inequality.  Even the Keystone Profs admit there are many flaws in the Gini coefficient.

We cannot assume the Gini coefficient sorts out the states accurately. The differences in Gini coefficients in the red and blue states the article references are slight; all are in the .400s. For example, the difference between red state Texas (.477) and blue state California (.482) is slight—certainly within the margin of error of a Gini coefficient comparison.  We cannot depend on a Gini ranking of the states to reflect reality. Yet the Keystone Profs persist in using it.

But even if we accept the flawed Gini coefficient as our tool for measuring inequality of income, Moore and Vedder’s argument doesn’t hold water for two reasons. First of all, they assume that the wider social welfare net in blue states causes inequality when in fact social welfare programs are a response to inequality.  Large inequality of wealth developed earlier in the blue states, which industrialized and urbanized first and include those two big-wealth magnets, New York City and California. While the wealthy and ultra wealthy live everywhere, no one can deny that more of them make their money or end up living in New York City and the state of California.  The large 19th and early 20th century fortunes were made in or transferred to New York and Chicago. Today’s high income professions are focused in New York and California—entertainment, banking, high tech. New York and California have always spawned multimillionaires at a higher rate than other states. No wonder blue states communities recognized the problem of inequality earlier than red states and have done more about it.

But while the blue states do more than red states to foster equality of income and wealth, it isn’t much more on the world’s scale. All states are providing less support to public school and university education than 30 years ago and all have put the lid on or cut property and state income taxes. All have suffered from lower federal taxes, a federal policy that has been anti-union or neutral for more than three decades and the decline in local jobs generated by the federal government.

The bigger mistake, then, is to limit the comparisons between blue and red states. That’s like reciting the alphabet from C to E.

There isn’t that great a difference in what blue and red states do to counteract the tendency of free market capitalism to create wide inequalities of wealth when compared to what governments do in western Europe and Japan, which take more taxes from the wealthy and provide better educational, healthcare and retirement benefits to everyone.  While wealth and income inequality have grown in western Europe and Japan (see Piketty’s book for a great analysis) over the last 35 years, the populations of these countries still enjoy more income and wealth equality than we do in the United States. By excluding western Europe and Japan in the discussion, the Keystone Profs cook the books.

Vedder and Moore follow Piketty in saying that economic growth removes inequality, but they advocate policies that are not pro-growth, but pro-corporation. They assume that unions, minimum wages and high income taxes are bad for economic growth when in fact the economic history of not just the Unites States but the entire world proves that high taxes on the wealthy and high incomes for workers lead to high growth because more of the wealth circulates to people who will spend it as opposed to accumulating it in overvalued assets, which is what the ultra-wealthy do with all of the extra wealth they have from lower taxes.

And all you Wall Street Journal subscribers in the audience thought it was the fish bones that stank so putridly when you entered the kitchen this morning. No, it was the newspaper you wrapped them in!

Obama Administration trade for Bergdahl shows they’ve learned the meaning of due process

The hullabaloo around the exchange of one U.S. serviceman for five Taliban prisoners kept for years at the Guantanamo prison on the island of Cuba has grown beyond the point of a tremendous echo that is so loud it swallows itself.

But lost in the numerous condemnations and defenses of the Obama Administration’s actions and the rescued soldier’s character is the fact that the Obama Administration may have learned lessons from its past failures to follow due process in the so-called war on terrorism. In the past, Obama’s operatives saw no problem shredding the concept of due process by using drones to assassinate an American citizen suspected of terrorist activities. Obama’s soldiers also failed to follow the law when they killed Osama bin Laden instead of taking him into custody and putting him on trial.  If we consider gathering evidence as part of due process, then the National Security Agency (NSA) has been denying millions of Americans due process since Obama took the oath of office (and before that, of course!).

Instead of condemning Bowe Bergdahl for desertion by letting the Taliban keep him, the Obama Administration assumed he was innocent and did what it was supposed to do—get our soldiers out. With Bergdahl home, the Army can now decide whether there is enough evidence of desertion to order a court martial trial.

Those who are angry that we made the deal because Bergdahl is or may be a deserter are just wrong. Following the law is always a good thing and we should all be delighted that Obama Administration followed the legal concept of due process in deciding to make the deal.

Whether Obama broke the law by not telling Congress of the completion of the deal ahead of time is another story. A Wall Street Journal editorial said Obama was within his rights not to tell Congress. A New York Times editorial disagreed. I tend to side with the Times’ view, but understand the President’s frustration with Congress at this point. The Republicans have been so quick to put barriers in the way of conducting the nation’s business, I can see why the Administration was tempted to interpret its past discussions with Congress on this exchange of prisoners to have been sufficient. After all, it wasn’t as if we were bombing Cambodia or selling arms to Iran.

Those who are angry with the president for not telling Congress are thus making a mountain out of a mole hill.

The third objection to the trade—that we gave away too much for too little—is absolutely bogus. As David Brooks and distinguished anti-death penalty attorney, Marshall Dayan, have both pointed out, Israel has been known to trade hundreds of Palestinians for one Israeli soldier.

The implication behind saying “we gave away too much” is that each soldier is an asset and not a human being who is part of our community. It’s akin to saying that a favorite baseball team gave us too much when it traded five players for one. It’s all about what you get and what you give up, even if an American life is at stake. I reject this attitude.

But even if we accept this anti-humanistic view and judge the situation with a cold, business-like attitude, the statement “we gave away too much” is ridiculous. The five Taliban fighters exchanged for Bergdahl had all been incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay for years. If we are to extrapolate from past reports about Guantanamo, these men have probably undergone the most punitive and harsh kind of treatment. They may all be useless in battle, mere shells of what they had once been. They could all be broken men by now.  If we assume that Bergdahl went through similar horrors, then the trade could result in one nothing for five nothings.

Those who are saying the president gave away too much are therefore just wrong.

But as with everything good and bad that happens in the Unites States since January 2009, the far right turns it into a failure that shows Obama’s incompetence and his so-called “socialist” predilections. If anything, the Bergdahl controversy demonstrates that large numbers of Americans have a double standard for presidents—a higher one for African-Americans.

For years, I saw this ugly trend play out on a local level in Pittsburgh several times: Hire an African-American for a high visibility position with a large community organization and then start attacking everything he or she does and hold the person to a much higher standard than would be required of a “good old boy.” In one case, after firing a prominent African-American from a critical position in public education, a board of education of a local school district hired a white who proposed a very similar program of school cuts and closures that the African-American had. Of course, the white was praised and the plan implemented.

Obama has clearly been a disappointment as president, but his administration does not deserve the pile-on it has gotten for many things, including health reform, Benghazi, the Ukraine and Bergdahl.  Let’s blame him for his real mistakes like obtrusive NSA spying and caving into the Republicans about the sequester, but not for his successes or for doing things that every other president would have done in the same situation.

Biography of Ariel Sharon shows that the general known for his brutal treatment of Palestinians was always just following orders

I have another book review in Jewish Currents, this one about David Landau’s extensive biography of Ariel Sharon, known for both his brutal prosecution of war against the Palestinians and his unilateral decision in 2005 to dismantle Israeli settlements and withdraw from occupied territory. For the complete review and some other very interesting articles in Jewish Currents, visit the website.

Here are some excerpts from my article:

Napoleon once said that he needed ten thousand new soldiers a month to wage his wars. What he meant was that he knew that ten thousand of his own troops would die every month. He was stating what every war-time general understands: You can’t fight a war without causing a lot of death and destruction to both losers and winners. Throughout history, virtually all war-time generals have been willing to shed a lot of blood, both the eminently successful ones like Scipio Africanus, Ulysses S. Grant, and Georgy Zhukov, and the failures like Robert E. Lee and Luigi Cadorna.

To call Ariel Sharon a bloodthirsty butcher, then, merely states the obvious. Of course he was: he commanded in war time. In Arik, his new biography of Ariel Sharon, David Landau demonstrates a painful awareness that a savage inhumanity comes with the job description for military leaders like “Arik, King of the Jews” as many Israelis proclaimed Sharon after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. But Landau, former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, also strives to make clear that for many of the years before he became prime minister Sharon was not a decision-maker in the inner sanctum, but only an instrument who followed orders as effectively and ruthlessly as possible. Whenever Sharon wrought too much death and destruction, his hands were slapped, but he was protected and always held in reserve for the next dirty job.

For example, David Ben-Gurion and his cadre of young advisors expected and then fretted little about the many civilian deaths incurred when Sharon’s troops raided Jordanian villages in the early 1950s. In the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, it was again someone else’s vision and policy — Menachem Begin’s — that Sharon pursued with a brutal disregard for civilian life.

Make no mistake about it, Sharon always advocated a take-no-prisoners approach to war. He sought to inflict the maximum pain possible on the enemy, was not squeamish about sacrificing soldiers to attain a goal, and thought little of protecting civilians. Take his use of bulldozers and grenades to drive out terrorists in Gaza in the early ’70s. Landau reports he cleaned out an entire Bedouin community in one day.

It was, however, Sharon’s ruthlessness and persistence that won the 1973 war when his troops took the beachhead at which the Israeli military could cross over from the Sinai onto the mainland of Egypt. He did it with cunning and aggressiveness; as Landau describes his approach, “Surprise the enemy, throw him off balance, come at him from an unexpected angle, attack, attack, attack.”

Sharon always got the dirty jobs: As Minister of Defense, he cleared the Sinai of settlers to comply with the peace treaty with Egypt. He later said this was a mistake, but Landau believes it served as Sharon’s model for the more significant forced evacuations of Jewish settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank in 2005.

Another dirty job: Sharon held various cabinet posts for twenty years, but whatever the job title, he was always in charge of settlements.

Through Landau’s book, five recurring themes emerge:

1. As a general, Sharon always went further than ordered. In Lebanon, for example, he went into West Beirut without the knowledge or explicit permission of the cabinet. Landau acknowledges, however, that Sharon’s overreaching was usually implicit in the actual orders given him, so that Israeli leaders knew or could surmise that he might march further, take more prisoners or let his soldiers behave more brutally than commanded in the official orders.

2. Sharon was prone to lie about what he had done and why. For example, as the new head of infantry training, he lied about why he missed a regularly scheduled meeting, and it was only through the intervention of Ben Gurion that he was allowed to stay in the army.

3. Sharon was usually a disruptive force, screaming and insulting others. When he disagreed with policy, he usually went public with his dissent.

4. As portrayed by Landau, Sharon was always ambitious for a higher rank and more power, never willing to “wait his turn,” and often used threats and lies to climb the ladder.

5. A succession of governments followed the pattern of punishing Sharon for overstepping his authority or creating too much bloodshed, then bringing him back for the next dirty job.

Landau quotes Shimon Peres’ belief that it was Sharon who broke the 1984 Labor-Likud deadlock by negotiating the terms by which the two parties could form a government. In return, Sharon was named Minister of Industry and Trade. During the time that Labor controlled this “unity” government, he created the 6-4 edge by always voting with Labor.

Sharon’s gradual rehabilitation and transformation is the overarching storyline in Arik. After his resignation as defense minister in the wake of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, he gradually grew from hothead to wise man. His public persona as prime minister was of a kind and comforting grandfather, revered and loved with “an aura of mature unflappability and gravitas,” as Landau puts it. Sharon himself encapsulated his approach in his slogan, “Restraint is strength.”

Landau lends drama and a sense of inevitability to the false turns and disappointments that led to Sharon’s 2005 decision to unilaterally withdraw and dismantle settlements, the stated goal of which was to set the stage for a two-state solution. According to Landau, Sharon showed signs of understanding the necessity of a two-state solution to preserve a democratic Jewish state years before he became prime minister by being the only general in 1970 who voted to support the Palestinians in their efforts to overturn King Hussein.

Because his focus is on Sharon’s role in events, Landau occasionally assumes that readers know the basic facts and sometimes leaves out important detail.

Landau also fails to explore the militarization of Israeli society and politics. Modern Israel is a nation in which military men have always held a goodly share of the cabinet posts and mostly guided policy. He does present the post-1967 Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as less capable and heroic than we in the United States generally think of them. They blundered often after 1967, for example in the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War and in their early reaction to the second intifada, in which they apparently ignored the lessons of the first.

But Landau eschews any discussion of how militarization has affected larger society and the economy. For example, he notes that Sharon appointed Netanyahu as minister of finance and gave him the job of improving the economy by cutting government benefits, but while Landau discloses that one goal of the cuts was to compel the ultra-religious and Arab women to get jobs, he never recognizes that the heavy military burden was one of the major causes of the sluggish economy.

We are so used to depicting the Jewish culture as peaceful, and imagining Jews as victims, that we forget that a strain of militarism runs through Jewish history. Three times in its ancient and/or mythical history, Jewish generals have waged wars of conquest: the original conquest of Canaan; the war by David using the troops of Israel’s enemies to dethrone King Saul; and the civil war in which the ultra-religious under the Maccabees wrested control of ancient Israel. (One could build a case that the revolt against British authority after World War II marked a fourth such war of conquest.)  Many Jews look to Jewish religious documents to justify these wars, and the justification has always reduced to the same idea: God gave the land of Israel to the Jews. Archeology has demonstrated, however, that the justifications were mostly written after the wars ended. After all, the histories of wars are usually written by the winners.

Being in a constant state of siege transforms even the most inherently humanistic of societies, and modern Israel has faced constant warfare since its inception as a democratic homeland for the Jews. Defenders of the state have always made a moral distinction between Israelis and the enemy, taking the high ground by virtue of religious texts, Israel’s existence as a democracy, and an almost smug belief in the moral essence of Jewish society and leadership. Uncritical defenders trust that this moral essence prevents Israel from waging anything other than a “just war.”

The Israel Defense Force (IDF) proclaimed this moral high ground with its ”Purity of Arms” principle, one of the ten values of IDF’s basic doctrine: “The soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property.” But even a cursory readings of Arik will unearth enough incidents of civilian casualties, “collateral damage,” and outright brutality to put the lie to the “Purity of Arms” concept. Just as the principle of American exceptionalism has been used to justify the moral right of the U.S. to wage wars of aggression, so has the Israeli government and society bolstered its continued preference for violence over negotiation with a Jewish version of exceptionalism. It’s easy for a nation at war for more than seventy years, with a near-universal military draft and career soldiers dominating government, to delude itself about its conduct during wars, but the acts speak for themselves.

Sharon’s career before assuming the office of prime minister reminds me of the character of Li Kui in the classic Chinese war novel, The Water Margin. Li Kui, or the Black Whirlwind, is the most violent and vicious of the hundred and eight heroes who band together to defeat the imperial Chinese army, which has fallen into corrupt hands. Impetuous, bloodthirsty and untrustworthy, Li Kui is always kept out of the inner circle of decision-making, but when the band needs a particularly bloody or untidy piece of work accomplished, they turn to him. His violent and bombastically antisocial ways are often set in contrast to the group’s charismatic leader, the venerable and intellectual Song Jiang, who has a global view of the struggle for justice. The novel presents Li Kui as a kind of alter ego to Song Jiang, the flip side of the same coin.

Perhaps the saddest recent development in Israel is that a stroke prevented Ariel Sharon from fully shedding the persona of a Jewish Li Kui and becoming the wise and far-seeing Song Jiang — a figure so tragically missing in contemporary Israel.