The Shutdown, and the Sickness at Our Core

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To me, the most ominous feature of this political moment is the fact that most of the American people appear to regard “shutting down the government” as so dangerous, so frightful, so morally detestable, that they will suffer virtually anything, including the horrors of Obamacare, to avert such Days of Doom.

Many of our fellow citizens do not realize, even after 20 years of threats and experiments in this field, that the real effects of the “shutdown” will be minimal. It will mean a short-term lapse of certain “non-essential government services” (there being thousands of such services deemed essential). But I think that most people do realize that. Nevertheless, they are unwilling to part with even a few of the alleged benefits of government, even temporarily, even for an important cause. In other words, they are willing to burden themselves and everyone else with trillions of dollars of debt, to support programs that most of them heartily dislike, at the behest of lawmakers whom they scorn and ridicule, merely to avoid . . . what? Not getting their mail on Saturday? But they probably will get their mail on Saturday.

I know many people who will fight almost to the death to avoid paying for some item they bought that turned out to be defective, but who rant against the Republicans for resisting Obamacare with the only weapons that are available. None of these people happen to be on the government dole, at least in any way that could conceivably be affected by a “government shutdown.” They all have their own, big beefs with government, and do not hesitate to talk about them. Yet this is how they behave.

The usual explanation for such behavior is “cognitive dissonance”: a clash between two attitudes, both of them devoutly held but each in opposition to the other. Yet in cognitive dissonance theory, people try to find some way of reconciling their opposing attitudes, or at least of rationalizing the opposition. That is not happening now. Our fellow citizens simply announce their hatred for government and their hatred for anyone who tries to act against government.

I am afraid that we are witnessing one of those phenomena that signal a deep sickness within a culture, a sickness for which no name or diagnosis appears to be available. You can see it, but you don’t know what it is.

The woodland Indians of North America valued an attitude of grave deliberation, often spending days or weeks in solemn meditation on the right course to take on issues of practical or moral import. Yet their favorite entertainment was the fiendish torture of other human beings, conducted amid scenes of riotous celebration and clinical interest in every detail of suffering. Something, clearly, was amiss — but nobody thought there was, or tried to reconcile the conflict.

Our fellow citizens simply announce their hatred for government and their hatred for anyone who tries to act against government.

When you watch reports of a political demonstration in the Middle East, what do you see? Usually it is a crowd of young men dressed in designer jeans and the latest sneakers, riotously denouncing Western culture and appropriating every possible Western means of communication to advertise their denunciations. Again, one can see the symptoms of some deep internal conflict, but the conflict inspires no reflection among the participants.

I would consider it wrong for someone on welfare, or Social Security, or a government payroll, to advocate strong government, lecture everyone about the virtue of following government orders, and denounce opponents of big government as anarchists. This would, however, be readily understandable, self-consistent, and in its way psychologically healthy: you benefit from big government; therefore, you openly advocate it. But so far, only Harry Reid, a creature from outer space, has done that; only he has called the opponents of big government “anarchists.” Tens of millions of other citizens lament the government and all its works, as if they themselves were anarchists, while simultaneously resenting and denouncing the very idea of “shutting” it.

In this way — this way alone, but it’s an important way — they are sick, and Harry Reid is healthy. There is something very wrong with this picture.




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Think Twice

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Prisoners is an aptly named film filled with characters who are all imprisoned in one way or another. The central story involves the search for two little girls, Anna (Erin Gerisamovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), who have gone missing on Thanksgiving Day as their families celebrate together. The prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally deficient young man whose camper was seen parked in the girls' neighborhood earlier that day. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the lone-wolf police detective who is determined to find the girls.

Subtle hints suggest that Loki is a prisoner of some childhood trauma. He blinks a little too deeply and a little too long, especially when he is stressed. He works alone and is normally calm, determined, and controlled, but he bristles at his captain's authoritarian attitude and is prone to sudden violent outbursts when he is frustrated. Loki has numerous small tattoos on his fingers and hands, the kind that appear to be self-applied. While investigating the disappearance of the girls, he interviews known sex offenders and hints that he knows the pain of their victims. And he wears on his pinky a small silver ring with the Freemason symbol on it, suggesting metaphorically that he has built a wall around himself. Even his name, Loki, suggests that he is a flawed god.

Even more determined to find the girls is Anna's father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). Dover is drawn initially as a stereotypical right-wing Bible-thumping survivalist. He "prays for the best but prepares for the worst." He has a basement full of survival supplies, sings the Star Spangled Banner in the shower, and recites the Lord's Prayer as he is teaching his son to shoot his first deer. His truck radio is set to a Christian station and a cross hangs from his rear view mirror. But he swears a blue streak and he has a sadistic side that comes from somewhere deep inside his past. He is so certain of Alex's guilt that when the police let Alex go for lack of evidence, he grabs the young man and holds him hostage in an abandoned building where he resolves to beat the truth out of him. For days.

Well, what would you do? the film seems to ask. Wouldn't you break every law, risk every punishment, to rescue your sweet little child? Echoing last year's Zero Dark Thirty, in which torture was used to uncover terror plots, he tells Joy's parents, "We hurt him until he talks. Or they're gonna die."

The scenes of torture are not easy to watch. The rest of the film is. Full of suspense but not of gore, the plot is superbly written and tensely developed. The film is as much about the many prisoners of their past as it is about finding the missing young girls. It exists in the closed universe that is essential for this kind of thriller, and also essential for the central metaphor of prisoners; the characters can hide behind their emotional walls, but they can't escape their setting. There are no good guys or bad guys in this film, just prisoners who do good things and bad things as they try to escape their own private hells.

Prisoners is the kind of film that keeps the viewer engaged long after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up. So much is left unsaid and unexplained about the characters and what makes them tick, yet the clues are all there. Director Denis Villeneuve trusts his audience to figure it out, even if it takes a day or two to exit the maze. It's not the kind of film for lone-wolf reviewers like me, so take someone with you so you can talk about it later. The complexity of the characters will keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen next, even after you learn who done it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Prisoners," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Alcon Entertainment, 2013, 153 minutes. (Use the bathroom before you go in — you won't want to miss a minute!)



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The Kinda-Coolness of Liberty

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There’s a lot of confusion, these days, about who is, and who is not, a libertarian. It has actually become fashionable to apply the term to oneself, sometimes on the most tenuous of bases.

Many conservatives (and some liberals) think that liberty is kinda cool. Because they believe in the kinda-coolness of liberty, and recognize that, especially these days, they don’t have enough of it, they consider themselves libertarians. They don’t realize there’s more to the definition than that.

Most of those who use the libertarian label, based on its hip cachet and kinda-coolness, are conservatives. Liberals who worship at the shrine of statism love to point at them and cry, “See? All libertarians are really big old rightwingers!” Albeit, perhaps, rightwingers who smoke pot or like gays.

When my liberal friends identify libertarian-leaning conservatives as “typical libertarians,” it brings out the English major in me. I diagram the term for them. “Conservative” is a noun, and “libertarian-leaning” its modifying adjective. Therefore libertarian-leaning conservatives are still conservatives. I always hope this helps, though it usually doesn’t.

I understand why, to liberals who find libertarianism threatening, the temptation to confuse us with conservatives is so compelling. It’s a lump in which they may tidily dispose of us. They’ve got an argument they deem satisfactory against every conservative idea, and they don’t want to have to scrounge up a whole set of new ones to contend with us.

Liberals are scared of us. Conservatives don’t necessarily like us much, but they’ll cozy up to us when it suits them.

Some of the things “libertarian” conservatives say, I must admit, can be rather troubling. I recently invited a friend of mine — a gay conservative blogger — to a meeting of our local chapter of Outright Libertarians. We’re a gay and lesbian group, striving to promote libertarian ideals in what is euphemistically termed “the community.” She got into a flame-war, on our website, with some Outright members, and emailed me in an awful funk. Why, they actually committed the heresy of opposing America’s glorious War on Terror!

Her argument against our point of view boiled down to this: “My brother is over in Afghanistan, fighting for your freedom of speech. So shut the hell up!”

What was I to do? As gently as I knew how, I told her she probably wouldn’t be a good fit for our group. That she is not, so far as I can see, in any way, shape, or form a libertarian, I suppose I need to let her figure out for herself. Modern-liberal statists determined to toss all dissenters into the same, convenient dumpster have no incentive to figure it out.

On a blog where I regularly comment, I was told — by a “progressive” who dislikes libertarians — that he was wise to the despicableness of my convictions. His proof? Some college kids, who identified as libertarians, told him they didn’t care if the poor starved. Or something like that.

Why is it that “progressives” can’t believe anything said by those on the right of the political center, on any subject — from global climate change to whether it’s going to rain next Thursday — yet find so credible the name they choose to bear? At least, as long as it’s this particular “L” word. They can be taken at face value about absolutely nothing else, but when they call themselves libertarians, their word is gold.

I think we know the answer to that question. Liberals are scared of us. Conservatives don’t necessarily like us much, but they’ll cozy up to us when it suits them. And if they want to survive the next generation, they’d better do it a lot.

I have learned something rather interesting, however, about liberals. Once I’m able to speak to them, one by one, they’re less hostile to libertarian ideas than I was told they’d be. Rightwingers warn that liberals will never listen to us when they cozy up to our kinda-coolness. But once they find out that many of our beliefs are actually quite similar to theirs, my leftist friends and relatives begin to open their minds.

One special surprise has been that even deep in the woods of Obama’s rule, far more liberals express concern about government overreach and the erosion of our freedoms than I remember conservatives displaying when Bush II was in power. We can, perhaps, tell more about people’s affinity for liberty when their “side” holds the upper hand than we can when they are out in the cold. Outright Libertarians, I know, are attracting far more interest from those to the left of us than we are from conservatives such as my snarling friend with the brother in Afghanistan.

Maybe that’s why dedicated leftwing statists are so afraid of libertarians. The field may be riper for poaching than we realized. That is a very interesting discovery. And for this former progressive Democrat, it is a heartening one.




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The War of Words

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I am writing this during a long road trip. You know what happens when you’ve driven a few thousand miles and you’ve been through all your CDs and you’re off in the middle of farm country where there’s nothing between you and the stratosphere except NPR (which is everywhere), the daily hog reports, and Sean Hannity. So you listen to Sean Hannity. At least I do. Despite the fact that I dislike him intensely.

Well, not him. His shows. This side of the White House, there’s no purer example of partisan talking points. Every week Hannity has one thing to say, and he says it all week. During the week of September 16, his talking point was how terrible it was that President Obama gave a speech that day in which he made “noble” statements about the shootings at the Navy yard in Washington, then proceeded to give his scheduled speech about the economy in which he dissed Republicans and the former Republican administration. On Sept. 17, Hannity said, “I can’t think of anything more despicable” than Obama’s going on with that scheduled speech. Hannity said that for the rest of the week, in every context and on all occasions.

If you’re looking for overkill, look no further. Indeed, if you’re looking for irrationality, look no further. Obama’s remarks about the economy and about Republicans were nonsense; they always are. They were also obnoxious. But they were not obnoxious because a madman happened to conduct a shooting spree on the same day.

If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.

What offended me was the fact that the president canceled a performance of Latin music that was supposed to be staged at the White House that evening. Why should he do that? People in Amarillo didn’t cancel music events that night. So what if the shooting took place in Washington, within miles, in the constantly reiterated media phrase, of the White House? Is life, such as it is in Washington, supposed to come to a stop because of a minor event (yes, I said minor event) like that? Was the Latin music troupe supposed to spend the night meditating about violence in our society? Or initiating a national conversation about our treatment of the mentally impaired? Were the rest of us supposed to do that? If Obama had any kind of leadership, he would have issued a brief statement and continued as usual, despising the criticism of people like Hannity, who was blue with anger for no reason at all.

Since I’ve said this much, I may as well say more. None of the shootings about which the country has paused, prayed, lowered the flag to half-staff, engaged in a national conversation, mourned the victims of tragedy, kept the families in our hearts and prayers, etc., etc., has been anything but a festival of hypocrisy. If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.

Many of the deep mourners over the shooting victims are simply gun-control fanatics, happy enough to discover victims (of guns, not the lack of guns, which is a somewhat greater problem). Many of the others are chasers of thrills, ecstatically snuffing the air of crisis. Many of the rest are slaves of the eye, not followers of the brain: they mourn the deaths of anyone killed on national TV, but when they find out that someone they actually know has died from a car accident (or cancer, or a heart attack, or suicide), their reaction is to move on with their lives, in the same way they were five minutes before. Their reaction to violent news on television is sensationalism: the quest for sensations. But sensations aren’t moral feelings.

I am happy that in September the American populace staged a revolt against sensationalism, when they rejected the president’s plan to punish Syria for its government’s alleged gassing of some of its people. The point was clear: there are people who feel real concern about human life, and then there are people who merely think they do, or act as if they did, because they are interested in the latest media sensation; and that the latter group should not be allowed to set policy for the former.

Multitudes of people have died, in Africa and other places, because environmentalists succeeded in restricting the use of DDT, thus allowing insect-borne diseases to thrive, with devastating effects. Christians, gay people, and members of other minority groups are martyred daily in both “friendly” and “unfriendly” Islamic countries. Uncounted thousands of people have died in Syria, butchered by the government and its foes. Fifteen hundred of those people are thought to have died of a gas attack. Why is the conscience of the world aroused by the latest event and not by the earlier ones?

And what is the response of those whose consciences are so highly exercised? The response is that we should bomb the Syrians — not to remove the government, not even to cripple the government, but just to show ’em. Or, if you’re John McCain, the response is that we should send guns and ammo to antigovernment fighters (curiously, they’re never soldiers; I guess that would make them look bad, somehow), many of whom stand ready to become the jihadist foes of the United States. Do you think that more than 1500 lives might be lost in that way?

But now comes the Obama administration, with a hypocrisy even greater than that of the strict interventionists. And here I need no help from Hannity in discerning the debased quality of our leaders’ rhetoric.

On August 20, 2012, President Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation." It was typical of Obama, that weird combination of faux folksiness (“a whole bunch”) and faux acadamese (“calculus,” “equation”).

The weirdness continued on Sept. 4 of this year. You remember the president’s remarks on that day. “First of all, I didn’t set a red line,” he said, with the high-school-principal petulance that expresses his dislike of criticism. “The world set a red line.” He continued, with equal testiness: “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.” He also mentioned America’s credibility, and that of Congress. There he went beyond hypocrisy. He told a set of flat-out lies.

Isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies?

Of course, the weirdest thing about the Syria affair was John Kerry, the dove turned screaming eagle. First Kerry ranted like a maniac about the gas attacks, which he insisted, because of evidence he would not reveal, were both real and the responsibility of the Syrian government, not that of its equally nasty opponents. About this, he said, in the bullying voice with which the global warming nuts announce their findings, there were “no dissenters.” (Whenever someone says that, you know they’re trying to fool you.) According to him, all good people must unite in hitting Syria so hard that it would never dream of gas again. Then, after he was criticized for being a warmonger, which he visibly was, he insisted that the airstrikes he advocated would be (dramatic drum roll) “unbelievably small.”

Tell me: can someone with such wild mood swings be believed about anything?

It’s curiously appropriate, isn’t it, that Kerry should come to roost on the word “unbelievably.” And isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies? Can it be, can it be, that they have never actually read a book?

Consider President Obama’s comments about Syria on Sept. 6:

"When there's a breach this brazen of a norm this important, and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn't act, then that norm begins to unravel. And if that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling, and that makes for a more dangerous world, and that then requires even more difficult choices and more difficult responses in the future."

Can you think of a good author who has ever tried to foist an image as bad as an unraveling norm? Jane Austen would slit her wrists before doing something like that. Jane Austen, hell; Harry Truman would slit his wrists. Not only did Obama evoke that unvisualizable image: he insisted on it; he used it three times in a row. It’s the kind of image that only the most childish of bureaucrats would use. You can picture them, hunched over the computers, proudly crafting their next public utterance. So, they’re thinking, there’s this really cool word, that word we hear all the time on NPR . . . norm, normed, normative, norming . . . And there’s this other hip, cool word, which is unravel. Like, uh, our initiative unraveled, our funding unraveled . . . . So yeah! It would be really really cool if we put them together and said, like, our norm, our norm unraveled.

James Rosen, the Fox News correspondent who probably dislikes Obama as much as Obama dislikes him, which is plenty, opined on August 31 that “this president, so attuned to literature,” would put a lot of effort into preparing his next speech on Syria. Obama would be all worked up about the judgment of history and so forth. But what’s the evidence that Obama is thus “attuned”? Name one author whom Obama reads and quotes. You can’t — and that’s enough to make my case. No one ever charged Obama with fleeing the responsibilities of office in order to curl up with a book. He is charged, instead, with fleeing his responsibilities to play golf or watch basketball on TV.

Obama is not only unattuned to literature; he’s unattuned to grammar. Try this passage, selected virtually at random from his recent (Sept. 6) verbal interventions:

"For the American people, who have been through over a decade of war now with enormous sacrifice in blood and treasure, any hint of further military entanglements in the Middle East are going to be viewed with suspicion." Obama is a great orator. He just can’t make his subjects match his verbs.

 And Kerry is worse, much worse. As if to emphasize his total lack of literary education or sensitivity, Kerry (or one of his assistants, deputed to the hard task of fishing through the internet for jazzy quotes) discovered a cliché that has been kicking around for about 250 years. It started as one of Samuel Johnson’s witty remarks. According to Boswell’s Johnson, it went like this: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." 

That’s still quotable, I suppose. But when something, even a cliché, gets into Kerry’s maw, it ends up horribly mangled. “A lot of people,” he intoned on Sept. 10, à propos his threats to Syria, “say that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.”

I would like to find some cunning here. I would like to think that Kerry didn’t credit Dr. Johnson because he didn’t want to ruffle the rubes by implying that he could actually quote an actual author, and had therefore, at some desperate hour, managed to read a book. I would like to think he wondered about the possibility that someone would think, “Strange — I never heard anyone say that ‘nothing focuses the mind,’ etc.,” but concluded that the possibility was remote: no one would check his memory on that point. And I would like to think he substituted “focuses” for “concentrates” because he knew that “concentrates” would take the rubes as much as two seconds to figure out. But there’s no evidence that Kerry himself is anything but a rube. And that goes for the rest of our statesmen, too.

the judgment of historyJohnson




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Woody Allen: He’s Still Good

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When Cate Blanchett walks up to the podium to accept her Best Actress accolades next spring for her stunning performance in Blue Jasmine (and she most certainly will be winning them all, from Golden Globe to Oscar), she will be sharing the award with the ghost of a white Chanel jacket tastefully trimmed in black. That jacket says more about her character, Jasmine Francis, than any piece of costume since Superman's cape. It is Jasmine’s connection with the world she once inhabited, and she wears the expensive jacket casually, as you or I might toss a windbreaker over our shoulders.

Jasmine Francis is a woman beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown; she has already gone over the edge, and is desperately trying to hang on. She not only lives in the past, she talks to people in her past, rehashing old conversations right out loud, while standing on the sidewalk or sitting at a party. We see this as flashbacks triggered by key words or images that remind her of her old life. Through this process we see the juxtaposition of Jasmine’s old life as a glamorous socialite and wife of a multibillionaire, and her new life as the poverty-stricken widow forced to live with her sister, a spunky San Francisco grocery clerk.

The story is a thinly veiled roman à clef that imagines the post-scandal life of Bernie Madoff's wife, Ruth. Madoff, of course, was the investment banker who swindled $65 billion from friends, relatives, and charitable organizations in the largest financial fraud in history. After the Ponzi scheme came to light, Ruth Madoff complained that she couldn't go anywhere without being vilified. Shunned by her former friends, she couldn't go to her gym, her favorite restaurants, or even shopping because everyone stared at her and made disparaging remarks. Well duh! It's one thing for a legitimate money manager to misjudge the markets and suffer losses once in a while. But Madoff never even tried to be a wise money manager for his clients. He just kept raking in the dough and spending it on yachts and homes and cars, while sending out phony statements to keep his clients happy. How could anyone feel anything but contempt for such shysters?

Like Ruth Madoff, Jasmine goes to live with a sister. Ginger (Sally Hawkins) lives in a tiny, frowsy San Francisco apartment with her two young sons. Ginger's marriage has also collapsed, partly because Jasmine's husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) had convinced her and her husband to invest their $200,000 lottery prize in his "real estate fund" instead of supporting their goal to start a business of their own. Of course, there was no investment fund; Hal had been funneling everyone's money into his own personal accounts. The big question is: how much did Jasmine know? An even bigger question: how can a person deliberately defraud a family member or friend? Simply shocking.

Jasmine is tasteful and smart and elegant, but she has absolutely no idea how to exist in the real world. She has no income and virtually no money, yet she gives her taxi driver a $100 tip and flies across country first class because she cannot imagine any other way to act. (When Ginger asks, "How did you pay for a first class ticket?" Jasmine responds with a dismissive wave of her hand, "I don't know. I just did.")

Popping Xanax like breath mints and washing it down with Stoli vodka, Jasmine lives in a daze of denial. She knows she has to reinvent and redefine herself, but she can't let go of the past that was so comfortable, nor can she come to terms with how it all happened. Meanwhile Ginger and her friends try in vain to welcome Jasmine into their world of pizza, beer, and cheap dates. The disconnection provides for many comic moments, but the undercurrent of tragedy is always present.

Woody Allen is one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood. He has been making films for nearly half a century, but (in my opinion) he has done his best work in the past decade, at an age when other people are retired and chasing golf balls. Last year's Midnight in Paris, about a frustrated writer who mysteriously finds himself hobnobbing with the likes of Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds in 1920s Paris, was brilliant. So is Blue Jasmine. It is one of Allen's finest films. The story is at once contemporary and timeless and true. Cate Blanchett gives an utterly fearless and totally vulnerable performance as Jasmine, and the rest of the cast rise to her level of abandon, forgetting themselves in the characters. And kudos to Suzy Benzinger as costume designer . . . I hope that Chanel jacket shows up at the Oscars.


Editor's Note: Review of "Blue Jasmine," written and directed by Woody Allen. Perdido Productions, 2013, 98 minutes.



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When Greed Isn't Good

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Film and the Fight for Freedom

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In many works of fiction, the protagonist is an "outsider," either one who literally comes from outside the community or one who resides within the community but nevertheless is an outsider in terms of personal values and behavior. This character allows the reader or the audience to identify with the community and at the same time view the beliefs and values of the community through fresh eyes — often, in so doing, reevaluating ideas and practices that we once took for granted as self-evident and unalienable.

In Wadjda the title character (Waad Mohammed) is this kind of protagonist. She is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons, which are replete with the acknowledgement that everything is controlled by the goodness of Allah. When one of her pre-pubescent classmates is married over the weekend, Wadjda giggles but is not concerned. These are givens in her community.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean). She is attracted to the culture of the West, even though she is immersed in the culture of the Middle East.

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. But nice girls don't ride bicycles. A fall could be dangerous to their virginity — and we know how important that is in Middle Eastern culture. So no one encourages or helps Wadjda in her goal.

"Wadjda" does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film.

Nevertheless, Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and with a determined voice and a winning smile convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes instant gratification in order to save for her big purchase when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store when her friends go shopping. Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price.

So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Quran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Quran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadja's mother (Reem Abdullah) is also an entrepreneur of sorts who understands that success requires taking risks. (Significantly, she has no name in the film except "Mother.") Her mother-in-law is shopping for a second wife for her husband, and she is determined to thwart that plan by showing everyone in the community that she is beautiful and desirable so that no other woman would be willing to become a second wife to her. To do this, she decides to invest her money in a stunning red dress to wear to a relative's upcoming wedding. This will remind everyone, including her husband, that she is not an old woman to be set aside and replaced. She is still beautiful, sexy, and valuable — not the kind of woman that another woman would want to compete with as second wife. She also makes it clear to her husband that she will no longer live with him connubially if he takes another wife. Like Wadjda, she risks everything to accomplish her goal.

As with the best of outsider fiction, Wadjda does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film. In fact, it is more about following one's dreams and making things happen than it is about the evils of a particular culture. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour presents the Saudi culture respectfully and matter-of-factly, without exaggeration or overt criticism. The film is subtly nuanced and carefully crafted not to offend; in fact, a true believer in the Saudi way of life could view this film as an example of what happens to women who rebel. No men ever step in to exert authority over the women. No overt abuse occurs. No legal authorities step in to limit these women's rights.

In fact, most of the rules are applied by other women. They simply accept the cultural mores regarding gender and enforce the rules themselves. The bike shop owner (a man) has no problem selling a bike to a girl; the men who see Wadjda and the other girls in public do not tell them to withdraw. In fact, it does not even seem to be against the law for girls to ride a bike; it simply isn't done, and it is the women, not the men, who enforce this cultural taboo. Moreover, Wadjda's father seems to be a very loving and affectionate man who is somewhat trapped by the culture himself.

Nevertheless, it took great courage to make this film in Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that Al-Mansour expects her audience to open their eyes and see the hypocrisy and injustice that the characters themselves seem to overlook. Nineteenth-century writers and dramatists such as Jane Austen and Henrik Ibsen opened the eyes of their audiences in similar ways. They presented the current culture as it was, creating a setting in which the audience felt comfortable and at home. Then they skillfully allowed an outsider protagonist to lead the audience into discovering the hypocrisy and injustice of the culture in which they felt so comfortable. Why should Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), two of Jane Austen's most beloved characters, have fewer opportunities for happiness in marriage simply because their fathers did not inherit the family wealth? Why should Nora (Ibsen's proactive protagonist in A Doll's House), be forced to hide in the attic, earning money by copying documents, simply because she is a married woman and doesn't have her husband's consent to work?(Writers today take it another step and challenge the Victorian idea that marriage is the key to happiness.)

Works of fiction still have the power to influence their culture by shining subtle lights back upon itself. They have more power to change a cultural mindset than all the "pinprick" assaults and direct attacks of war will ever have. Film has the power to change minds and hearts, and Wadjda is an instance. It presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wadjda," written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Highlook Communications and Razor Film Produktion (2012), 98 minutes. (In Arabic with English subtitles. But don't let that hold you back.)



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Critical Thinking

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Government is the froth that floats on the surface of a fluid. That fluid is the culture. The dirtier it is, the dirtier the froth it generates.

As a kid growing up in India, I always found that local goons, tyrants, sociopaths, and freeloaders emerged spontaneously, almost in direct proportion to the quality of the social environment in which they appeared. If you got rid of them, they soon reemerged. There was no way to avoid the emergence of goons, unless the underlying culture was addressed. This was invariably true, even if a vast majority of people opposed those goons, for the existence of goons is correlated not with people’s conscious views about them but with people’s own character, with the general culture.

As American society degenerates, its politics degenerate in direct proportion. Improvement in culture must precede any improvement in the quality of our politics. I have no prescription for how to improve the culture, but I do have an opinion about how people are mentally enslaved.

I have been to about 60 countries and have lived in four of them. Other people travel the world to see the world. I travel the world to use it as a mirror, to understand myself. Twenty-three years ago, when I left India for the first time, I decided to stop eating Indian food. I stopped having Indian friends. I did not want to have anything to do with India. I hated it.

Alas, I have left India but India hasn’t left me. I am still recovering from the indoctrination, conditioning, and irrationality of the culture I grew up in. This has been the case despite the fact that I have revolted against authority and irrationality for as long as I can remember. That is the grasp of indoctrination on the psyche.

Government is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem is within the society, which is extremely superstitious and irrational.

People often think that the problem of India is its government. Sane investors and Western institutions keep insisting that India should focus on some very simple, basic issues: build up infrastructure, make the bureaucracy more responsive, control inflation, remove unnecessary regulations, provide better schooling and primary healthcare, and better law and order. They believe that addressing these issues would have an extremely high-leveraged effect on the Indian economy. But while these policy suggestions appear simple and rational, they never stick.

Even in these days of technology, more than 50% of India’s population has no access to toilets. People must go in the open to defecate. A rational investor might think that investment in some very basic communal sanitation would yield significant results in months, if not weeks. But this never happens. The same rational person has been saying for over two decades that given democracy and an English speaking population, India will eventually overtake China. The reality is that not too long back India had a higher per capita GDP than China. Today, an average Chinese is four times richer than an average Indian. And the Chinese economy continues to grow much faster than the Indian.

The problem is that the so-called rational person, often blinded by political correctness, looks at India in a very superficial way. He fails to understand the philosophical underpinnings that guide the Indian society.

The situation is not too dissimilar to that of a health fanatic suggesting to an obese person that he must reduce his sugar consumption and smoking. To the fanatic, the prescription looks easy and simple; to the obese person, it does not. It is hard for the prescription to stick unless the obese man addresses his deeper problems. Moreover, if the fat man does stop consuming sugar and smoking, the health fanatic will soon be likely to discover that the target of his advice is now consuming other bad things — more alcohol, more carbohydrates, more something. For the problem truly to be addressed, one must go to the source. Similarly, what look like simple policy prescriptions that India must follow consistently fail to produce results.

The problem of India is not its government. Government is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem is within the society, which is extremely superstitious and irrational.

A lot of what you and I perceive as corruption is not what the Indian society sees. Morality is relative, and mostly based on expediency. There are common expressions in India such as “you can only scoop butter with a crooked finger,” which is basically a rationalization for crookedness. Another is that “Dharma [religion] is for the temple.” This suggests that you can forget about morality once you are outside the temple precincts. Indeed, India has never been through the age of reason or the age of enlightenment. In many ways the mindset is still very medieval. It is grossly lacking in rational philosophical anchors. To top it all, Indian culture seriously discourages critical thinking, thereby ensuring that dogma and superstition stay in place.

One of my earliest memories is of being slapped by my teachers for asking questions.

In a relatively capitalist country such as America, rational people can see what causes what effects. The more socialist a society becomes, the more the path from causes to effects becomes convoluted and difficult to understand. The minds of those who grow up in such a culture are an entangled web, embedded with corrupted instincts. If you become aware of your own mental tangle — which is very, very unlikely — and you try to undo the damage, you cause yourself more mental difficulties, because every thinking pattern that you try to straighten out conflicts with several others, and you must suffer for decades dealing with it.

One of my earliest memories is of being slapped by my teachers for asking questions. During the winter season, my school, instead of starting later in the morning, started even earlier. In winter I had to wake up at four in the morning, for no apparent reason. If we enjoyed any particular subject, the teachers ensured that the enjoyment would not last. They would beat us for exactly the same reason that led them to praise us on another day. If one kid did something wrong, the teacher would beat everyone. To avoid this, if you told the teacher who was the wrongdoer, she would beat you for snitching. And then of course we could be beaten for not snitching, on a later occasion. This is not just about the teachers but about how people in the surrounding society interacted with one another.

You grow up utterly confused and cloudy in your thinking, with an uncertain sense of causality. Your mind then becomes capable of absorbing all sorts of garbage, irrational and contradictory beliefs, and superstitions. Your eyes and senses no longer experience the truth as they are designed to see it.

You are forced to respect authority, not virtues; and the result is you become incapable of differentiating between right and wrong. You become extremely gullible. You speak what sounds good, not what is true. Speaking the truth for the sake of speaking the truth was a revelation to me when I arrived in the West. Our elders told us always to speak the truth, in the same way in which they gave us the concept of not worrying about the concept of morality outside the temple, and we parroted the saying, because it sounded good. But it had no significance apart from making us hypocritical. Critical thinking was washed away in dogma and authority.

The system cripples you mentally. Even if a vast majority of superstitious and hypocritical people consciously oppose the state and how it is run, it will still exist, for the anti-nutrients that feed the state do not come from people’s vote but from their character.

Adults face the same system as the children. A collectivist system — as in India — detaches people from the consequences of their actions. The feedback people receive in their interactions with society contradicts the truth of how the world works, because the costs get socialized while the gains do not. Trickery and heavy handedness seem to work, with those at the receiving end having no recourse to retribution. Bad behaviour goes unchallenged and never registers in the core of one’s being as “bad.” Real wealth creation in such a system feels like an unnecessary hassle with little economic advantage to be gained from it. From an individual’s point of view, time and capital may be better spent elsewhere. Political connections and “bribes” look like much more efficient ways to make money.

You become dull, apathetic, and mostly non-thinking. A trillion fights keep happening in your brain, with no rational means of resolving them. You are left with no confidence, because everything you see or believe is a floating abstraction, often in conflict with what your senses appear to tell you.

Indian brains are imprisoned by authority, American minds by political correctness.

It is important to distinguish the collectivism of Mao’s China from that of India. In China, the individual and his survival was in conflict with the state. In contrast, in the case of India, collectivism has been made a part of the individual’s DNA. In such a society, what individuals tend to do is exactly more of what created the original problem. Indians are very impervious to rational suggestions, and one must expect to face massive verbal attacks if one tries to extricate them from their mental slavery.

Judging from the way in which societies have historically worked, at one point India must collapse under the weight of its irrationalities and break into smaller pieces. Of course, this transition will not be easy and not without huge strife. Some of it has already been seen in the religious strife that rent the country at independence, and that still manifests itself, sometimes in acute forms.

Some might think that what happens in India will never happen in the US.

To respond to that I must again go back 23 years, to the time when I first arrived in the West. The airport was a happy place. The immigration officer addressed me as “Sir.” I looked around to make sure that he was addressing me. How could a government officer not treat me like garbage? In those days airport security was courteous and prompt for most Western people. But what would have been impossible to imagine then is now common and acceptable. Security now has no inhibitions about asking even old ladies to strip off their clothes. And alas, people gladly do that. In Canada, where you don’t have to take your shoes off before going through scanners at airports, most people do anyway. In just 23 years, I have seen North Americans increasingly groveling before the ever-more-mindless bureaucrats.

Western people endlessly worry about real or perceived discrimination. They worry about segregating their garbage and about ensuring that they buy so called fair trade coffee. They discuss the issue of sweatshops in faraway countries, about which they have absolutely no clue. “Everyone should have the right to free healthcare and a living wage,” they say. Political correctness forbids Americans to discuss any possible fallacies in these one-dimensional views.

How the Indian grows up muddled in thinking is different from how the American psyche is being muddled — but assuredly it is being muddled. In India we were made unreasonable by fear, irrational feedbacks, and mental self-numbing. In America, the self-esteem movement wants adults to provide “positive feedback” to kids even if they are not doing well. Doesn’t this confuse their understanding of causality? Aren’t they made irrational, in a feel-good way? Through love and warmth, kids in the West are, for instance, induced to swallow politically correct positions on the environment — something they don’t have the data or the competence to understand. Doesn’t this impede critical thinking? Indian brains are imprisoned by authority, American minds by political correctness.

Orwell’s 1984 is likely the later stage of collectivism, as is the case with India, but Huxley’s Brave New World is likely the earlier stage, as is the case in the West. The mental virus that afflicts Indians now increasingly afflicts those in the West.

Apathy has rapidly sunk its deep roots here. What is happening to Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning has been reduced to an orgy of public entertainment. Irrespective of the merit of their cases, should Snowden return to the US to face “due process” when Bin Laden was killed and dumped in the ocean and when the prison at Guantanamo Bay continues to run? Similar cases a few decades back would have probably have brought a change in the US government. Even civil libertarians talk about why the NSA should not be spying on American citizens or why the president should not have the right to pass executive orders to kill Americans. But, what about non-Americans? Are they not human beings? Are their lives and privacy not important? Try discussing these issues, and Americans will start going around in circles and start responding irrationally, not unlike the way Indians do. “Due process” and “the rule of law” were seen as very fundamental to the Western civilisation. In an era of expediency, they are still much talked about but are getting increasingly diluted in their moral essence.

Americans are impressed when they hear that many women in the poor parts of the world do not have a sense of self or of an independent existence. They do not reflect that they themselves are slaves for more than half of their lives, paying taxes and following stupid regulations. They fail to see any connection. It is so easy to see the slavery of other people but not your own.

Collectivism is increasingly present in the DNA of those in the West. Individuals in the West are likely to keep doing more of exactly the same things that created the initial problems, slowly retracing their steps, back to the medieval period. Will the West become another India? I would not be surprised at all.

It is so easy to see the slavery of other people but not your own.

Obama and Bush, however criminally minded they may be, are only symptoms of problems. The problem lies in the current state of the Western culture. In my view the danger is not the tens of trillions of dollars of Western governmental debt but the process of cultural degeneration in which reason and evidence are replaced by dogma and unverified belief systems are protected by a lack of critical thinking.

Lack of liberty is the result of a lack of freedom within our minds. Our conscious search for liberty will be futile if we fail to address our deeper mental constructs. Only a rare human being would claim not to want to be free, yet many people who claim to want freedom exist in wretchedness and slavery. The good thing is that bureaucrats and politicians, the purveyors of collectivism, are often lazy and stupid. They have no power that the culture does not give them. They will wither away or take to begging on the streets if we as people give up the virus of irrationality and take to critical thinking.

/div




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Non-Starters

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President Obama recently made a whirlwind tour of colleges and issued a series of proposals for making college more affordable. On the good side, his speeches spurred public discussion about the problems of higher education, especially its costs. On the bad side, they deflected attention from the causes of the problems.

U.S. higher education has been providing questionable products at high costs for years. Under the Bush administration, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings tried to address the weaknesses with a special commission on higher education. Among other things, the commission proposed requiring schools to report their students’ learning outcomes. (That is, did they learn anything?) This caused something of a stir among universities, which scurried to create a voluntary program of “accountability” — briefly. The urgency faded away, especially when university lobbyists got Congress to forbid the Department of Education from making too many demands.

It was only with the 2008 crash and recession that the public took notice of higher education again. The economic downturn revealed that many college graduates, some with mindnumbing debt loads, were not able to get jobs. That public notice meant that President Obama would not be far behind.

Unfortunately, Obama’s recommendations are superficial. The centerpiece is the idea of rating colleges on affordability, graduation rates, and access to low-income students. That’s not very much different from the College Scorecard that the Department of Education issues now. The department even has a “hall of shame” — an annual listing of colleges that have too-high tuition or that raised their tuition too much. These efforts don’t seem to have had much of an impact, although more information is generally a good thing.

Obama wants to use the rating system to reward the schools that score well. He would provide higher Pell grants to students at schools that have both high graduation rates and high percentages of low-income students. But it is simply a fact that high percentages of Pell grantees are correlated with lower graduation rates. To have both a high percentage of Pell grantees and high graduation rates would probably require gaming through grade inflation (and grade inflation is already a problem).

Fundamentally, President Obama is trying to “fix” college problems through regulation and legislation, without changing the underlying incentives that push costs up at most schools. It does not take rocket science to diagnose what is wrong with higher education.

Essentially, too many students are going to school who don’t want to, who don’t benefit, and who don’t learn enough to justify high wages. The national mantra that “everybody ought to go to college” is reinforced by federal grants and loans (and, until recently, federal guarantees of private loans).

This artificial demand, a lot like the artificial demand for housing in the mid-2000s, enables colleges to keep pushing up their tuitions. They do this shamelessly because they are spending for education, which is “priceless.” Furthermore, most colleges are either government-owned or nonprofit, and thus there is no pressure to make, or even identify, a profit. The result is that all revenues are spent, and the hard task of controlling costs is ignored (again, education is “priceless”). Since there is no market for control (economists’ words for potential buyers scrutinizing a company to decide whether they can run it more efficiently and thus profitably), there is no pressure to keep prices down . . . as long, of course, as there is this continual demand.

With these university characteristics firmly in place, the president’s proposals are window-dressing. And it’s unlikely that Congress will pass any of them.

In closing, I should say that one of Obama’s suggestions is a good one: He thinks that students should not be able to get additional Pell grants if they have not completed a specific number of courses within a certain period of time. That would be a start in reforming the $30-billion-a-year Pell grant program — but only a start. Much more needs to be done.




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Obama’s Syrian Folly

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President Obama is about to ask Congress to endorse military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Over the past week momentum has been building against the Obama policy of airstrikes to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons against civilians. It’s not that the case against the Assad regime is weak. On the contrary, it is clear that sarin was used by regime forces at Ghouta near Damascus on August 21, killing hundreds of civilians including children. (It is not known whether Assad personally ordered the use of gas, but it is virtually certain that his forces, and not the Syrian rebels, are responsible for the August 21 attack.) But a war-weary American citizenry simply sees no compelling reason to start yet another war in the Middle East. The atrocity in Ghouta does not rise above the many ghastly events that occur around the world on an almost daily basis. I have mentioned before in this space that some 7 million people have been killed in the Congo since civil war broke out there in 1996, and yet America has done nothing to stop the killing. Why then is Obama so keen to avenge what in comparison is a small-scale atrocity in Syria?

We should be clear that the president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility. In 2012 he foolishly called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that al-Assad must not cross. At Ghouta his bluff was called. Undoubtedly he now feels that he must strike in order to restore respect for himself and the nation he leads. He has in recent months been dissed by China (over hacking and other matters), Russia (over Edward Snowden), and Britain (where Parliament voted down a government proposal to join the US in attacking Syria). As Obama sees it, to do nothing would only further erode what remains of the respect he commands on the world stage.

A second reason for the strike is the misguided humanitarianism of the president and his closest advisors, particularly National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry. This past weekend Kerry bloviated ad nauseam about Bill Clinton’s regret over not intervening to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. Rice is known to believe in military action to fulfill humanitarian goals. Leaving aside the fact that there are more humanitarian crises in the world than we have forces to deploy on such missions, there is in fact no reason whatsoever to believe that lobbing a few cruise missiles into Syria will alleviate the suffering there. It may, in fact, increase suffering by intensifying and spreading the conflict. Al-Assad’s Shiite allies in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon have indicated that US and other targets in the Middle East and perhaps beyond will be hit if we act against Syria. Are they bluffing? Perhaps. But do we want to find out, given that we have already exhausted ourselves fighting terrorists and others over the past dozen years?

The president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility.

Russia has said that it will provide advanced weaponry to Syria in the event the US goes to war. Such a move could lead to additional US strikes to knock out Syria’s augmented defenses. A spiraling escalation of the conflict, while unlikely, should not be discounted. Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.

The US and the new government in Iran have been talking behind the scenes about negotiating an end to the nuclear issue that has divided them for years. The prospect of ending the danger of war in the Persian Gulf, of avoiding yet more American blood and treasure spent, will be thrown away if we attack Syria.

In recent days world opinion as well as opinion here at home has turned decisively against the idea of US intervention in Syria. It remains to be seen whether the US Congress will find the courage to stand up to the president. Obama shrewdly asked Congress for authorization to strike, which places the burden of responsibility equally on its shoulders. The leadership of both parties appears to be “on board.” A certain amount of obfuscation has been used by the administration to persuade the leadership to support war. House Speaker John Boehner and others have been told that the strikes will be limited, that we will basically be sending Assad a message. At the same time, Senate hawks were told that the strikes will be more extensive and punishing. Its prestidigitation may come back to haunt the administration in the near future, assuming that Congress does vote for war.

We will soon know whether members will follow the leadership down the primrose path. At present, members see their constituents opposing war by 10-to-1 and even 100-to-1 margins. Most of them will await the president’s speech to the nation on Tuesday to see whether the political winds shift. Opponents of war on the far Left and far Right will vote their consciences; most of the rest will vote according to what’s best for them politically. Much therefore rides on Obama’s performance Tuesday. If his speech is well received, congressional authorization will be assured, and the missiles will fly soon thereafter. For what it’s worth, this analyst is convinced that Congress will vote to authorize war.

One hopes that the strikes will be limited, and that we will then declare that Assad has been taught a lesson, followed by a return to the status quo ante. Syria’s allies will choose not to act, and the war will not spread. But in the past few days the Defense Department has expanded its list of targets, some of which will require attacks by strike aircraft. An air campaign stretching out for days or possibly even weeks could be in the offing. Such an expanded campaign is more likely to provoke a response from Syria and Syria’s friends. A longer, messier intervention by US forces could conceivably devolve into a regional war. If events spin out of control, the possibility of boots on the ground cannot be excluded.

Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.

It’s pretty clear that the military dreads such a possibility. On Sept. 5 Major General Robert Scales (ret.) published a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post opposing Obama’s march to war. Within the last two days I have spoken to a retired Army colonel and a captain in the Army Reserves. Both feel Syria would be the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The colonel in particular, a former brigade commander, spoke passionately about the need for the Army to recuperate from a dozen years of war. He told me that in his opinion, the Army is “broken,” pointing to the rise in suicides and the epidemic of sexual assault as sure proof of this. He would not exclude the possibility that another war now might end in defeat and a complete breakdown of the force.

A certain feeling of dread overhangs the movement toward war. US public and world opinion are strongly against any US action, allies are falling away, and enemies seem prepared to retaliate. The Congress is likely to endorse the war nonetheless. And the administration seems determined, come what may, to strike. Perhaps the event will prove less dramatic than one fears — a few days of bombing accompanied by shrieks of protest and threats from Assad and his friends. In that case, Obama and his friends will feel vindicated; presidential credibility will be, at least in part, restored. But nothing will have changed on the ground in Syria. The killing will continue. And there remains the possibility that we will become involved in a new war, a war that may extend beyond Syria. All this because the president chose to cavalierly lay down a “red line” he thought that a tinpot dictator wouldn’t dare to cross. Helluva way for a great power to conduct foreign policy.




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