I nearly missed this column by Ben Stein because it appears in The New York Times and I just don’t have a use for that organization. But Stein is a gem and his piece deserves your attention. FOr those who wish to avoid visiting the NYT I will post the text below the break so you can read it all…
Looking for the Will Beyond the BattlefieldIT’S been a bitter month or so.
Mighty Israel, the redeemer of faith in what free men and women can do with arid desert if they are motivated, redeemer of faith that maybe there is a place for the Jews as a sovereign people and technological superpower, has been fought to a standstill by Hezbollah.
Can it possibly be that Hezbollah is better motivated, better led, better dug in and better armed than the Israeli army, which is supposed to be the best army, pound for pound, in the world? Can it be that Israel, which used to beat whole armies of countries like Egypt and Syria, has been humbled by a few thousand very well-motivated and well-armed men firing from between apartment buildings?
Or could it be that what’s different this time is the trumpet and, specifically, its uncertain sound? Israel geared up for a huge offensive, then called it off, then huffed and puffed, then called it off again, then said, “Watch out, this time we’re really going to blow your house down,” and then called it off again.
Now, Israel’s very survival is on the line, and it is a tiny state, about the size of New Jersey. If Israel cannot get it together to fight a serious war against a group, Hezbollah, that the State Department identifies as a terrorist organization, who will?
So, Israel, which was supposed to be the shining light of how peace is won, is not shining as bright — despite President Bush’s extreme support for a good long time.
Terrorists are still hatching plots against the air traffic system of the West, and this time bigger and worse than before. Obviously, Al Qaeda is far from dead. We have much to fear from it still. The fact that the suspects were almost all home-grown Britons makes the situation that much more frightening and unpredictable. How long will it be until American-born terrorists strike against American targets? We are a big country and we have a lot of unhappy people. How long until they organize themselves to kill? Not long, I am afraid.
While we’re at it, yes, it’s miraculous and wonderful that the plot was foiled, if it was. But now the whole Western world will be seriously inconvenienced in its travel for years, maybe decades. Isn’t this already a victory for our enemies? Isn’t this already a blow against world business? Might it be enough to push our already slowed growth into a recession?
But the worst is what is to come: I got a jolting hint of this when I read the obituary for John L. Weinberg, who ran Goldman Sachs from 1976 to 1990. Mr. Weinberg was 81 when he died this month in Greenwich, Conn., after a lifetime of major achievement. I had the pleasure of dealing with him when he and I were a lot younger and I was in law school, also studying finance, at Yale.
My dear old father was a friend of his father, the venerable Sidney J. Weinberg, who ran Goldman Sachs from 1930 to 1969. My dad wangled a job interview for me with John Weinberg, an unprepossessing figure but obviously a smart guy. After some talk, he offered me a job. I would start by spending two years sitting at a desk until late at night going over spreadsheets. “Really?” I asked. That did not seem to be so glamorous. “Yes, really,” he said. “That’s how we all start.”
I turned it down and became a poverty lawyer instead. But what I did not know about John Weinberg was that even though he was rich and well connected, as a young man he joined the Marines to fight the Japanese in the Pacific, then fought again in Korea. That was America’s ruling class then. The scions of the rich went off to fight.
My longtime pal and idol, Peter M. Flanigan — a former high honcho of Dillon, Read; a high aide to my ex-boss, Richard M. Nixon; and heir to a large brewing fortune — was once a naval aviator. My father left a comfortable job in Washington to join the Navy. The father of my pal Phil DeMuth left a successful career to be an Army Air Corps pilot, flying death-defying missions over Burma. Congressmen resigned to serve. Senators resigned to serve. Professional athletes resigned to serve in the uniform.
Now, who’s fighting for us in the fight of our lives? Brave, idealistic Southerners. Hispanics from New Mexico. Rural men and women from upstate New York. Small-town boys and girls from the Midwest. Do the children of the powers on Wall Street resign to go off and fight? Fight for the system that made them rich? Fight for the way of life that made them princes? Surely, you jest.
And that’s the essence. The other side considers it a privilege to fight and die for its beliefs. Those on the other side cannot wait to line up to blow themselves up for their vision of heaven. On our side, it’s: “Let the other poor sap do it. I’ve got to make money.” How can we fight this fight with the brightest and best educated rushing off and working night and day to do private equity deals and derivatives trading? How can we fight this fight with the ruling class absent by its own sweet leave?
I keep thinking, again, that if Israel, with its back to the sea, cannot muster the will to fight in a big way, then the fat, faraway U.S.A. will never be able to do it. I keep saying this and it terrifies me.
We’re in a war with people who want to kill us all and wreck our civilization. They’re taking it very seriously. We, on the other hand, are worrying about leveraged buyouts and special dividends and how much junk debt the newly formed private entity can support before we sell it to the ultimate sucker, the public shareholder.
We’re worrying whether Hollywood will forgive Mel Gibson and what the next move is for big homes in East Hampton. We’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The terrorists are the iceberg.
WHAT stands between us and the iceberg are the miraculously brave men and women of the armed forces. They’re heroes and saints as far as I’m concerned. But can they do it without the rest of us? Can they do it while we’re all working on our tans and trying to have our taxes lowered again? How can we leave them out there all alone to die for us when we treat the war to save civilization as something we can just wish away?
If we don’t win this war against the terrorists, there’s not going to be business as usual ever again. If the terrorists get to their goal, there’s not going to be a stock exchange or hedge funds or Bain Capital or the Carlyle Group or even Goldman Sachs. If the terrorists get their way — and so far, they’re getting their way — there’s not going to be business, period.
Everyone with the really big money at stake is — again — bidding for the best deck chairs as the iceberg looms, not so far, any longer, under the surface, and very large and very cold and very solid.
Ben Stein is a lawyer, writer, actor and economist. E-mail: email@example.com.