Point Counterpoint

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Dinesh D’Souza is a debater beyond compare. I have watched him debate at least a dozen times, and he is simply brilliant in the way he sets up his opponent, recognizes the opponent’s position, and then systematically takes it apart and refutes it. Once when he was debating Christopher Hitchens on the value of religion, Hitchens called D’Souza’s bluff by not making his own case, thereby giving D’Souza nothing to tear apart. Undaunted, D’Souza first told the audience what Hitchens should have said about the bad things that have happened in the name of religion, and then went ahead with his own side of the debate, never missing a beat and managing to stay within his time limit to boot.

I thought about those debating skills while watching D’Souza’s new movie, America: Imagine a World Without Her. The film begins with an imagined reenactment of a Revolutionary War battle in which Washington dies and America never comes into existence. What might the world look like without the American philosophy? He then switches into devil’s advocate, listing five significant areas in which Americans should feel deep shame:

  1. Theft of lands from Native Americans, and genocide against them
  2. Theft of the American Southwest from Mexico
  3. Theft of life and labor from African-Americans
  4. Theft of resources from around the world through war and expansionism
  5. Theft of profits from consumers through capitalism (“You didn’t create that business — someone else built those roads, educated those employees, etc.”)

Watching this part of the film, especially as the first three points were elaborated, I nodded my head in agreement and disgust. These were terrible events that blot our nation’s history. How would D’Souza debate his way out of this one, I wondered?

D’Souza then steps back to give context and historical background to these situations. He does not denigrate or trivialize the suffering of the people involved, but he widens the story to give a broader perspective. By the time he is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history. In fact, our pride is restored for the good that we have accomplished, despite our slowness sometimes in getting there. Quoting both Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, he calls the equal rights vouchsafed in the Declaration of Independence a “promissory note” that took decades — nay, two centuries — to pay off, and indeed is still a promissory note in some instances.

By the time D’Souza is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history.

I was especially pleased that D’Souza included a segment on Madam C.J. Walker, the first black American woman to become a millionaire. Walker made her million manufacturing and selling cosmetics and pomades for African-Americans. She started as a cotton picker, worked her way up to cook, and saved her money to start her business. She is a true entrepreneurial hero who is often overlooked in the history books, I think, because she doesn’t fit the cult of victimhood ascribed to blacks and women, and because she made it on her own through entrepreneurship, not through political activism. I only know about her because her mansion is a mile from my house. (It survived the Roosevelt wealth tax devastation by serving as a tax-exempt old folks home for several decades, but is now a private residence again.) Now, thanks to D’Souza’s movie, others will know about this American entrepreneurial hero.

I would have been happy if the film had ended there, but then D’Souza turns to his opponents in this debate, such people as Boston University professor Howard Zinn, whose 1980 book A People’s History of the United States 1492–Present has influenced many political activists; and Saul Alinsky, whoseRules for Radicals heavily influenced such politicians and “community organizers” as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Like a good debater, D’Souza defuses the ammunition his detractors might use against him, the business about his recent run-in with the law, by addressing it head-on instead of giving his opponents an opportunity to whisper about it or suggest that he is hiding something. He admits that what he did was wrong (he reimbursed two friends who donated to another friend’s campaign in order to circumvent campaign contribution limits established by law — a law, by the way, that many people consider a violation of First Amendment right to free speech.) D’Souza frames his admission within the context of selective prosecution (some would call it political persecution) in retaliation for his previous film, 2016: Obama’s America.

America: Imagine a World without Her opened this week to coincide with the Fourth of July. It is an impressive piece of filmmaking, not only for its well-structured arguments but for its production qualities. Producer Gerald Molen, who won an Oscar as producer of Schindler’s List, is the man behind the magic. The film is also a featured selection at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival as part of FreedomFest at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas next week (information about FilmLovers Passes is at anthemfilmfestival.com).


Editor's Note: Review of "America: Imagine a World Without Her," directed by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan. Lionsgate, 2014, 103 minutes.



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Iraq and Isolationism

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I have no wisdom to offer about the current crisis in Iraq; I’m simply immobilized by astonishment over the idea, still dominant in Washington, that the United States should arrange and enforce a united Iraq. But I do have some thoughts about libertarian attitudes toward Iraq and other targets of American intervention.

Isolationists — and almost all libertarians are isolationists of some kind — can take pride in opposing the intervention that overthrew Saddam Hussein. It would have been better for virtually all concerned in this mess if Saddam, lunatic fool that he was, had stayed on his throne. Then at least we might not have seen the victory, in one part of the country, of a corrupt Shi’ite authoritarianism, and the worse victory, elsewhere, of a mob of howling Sunni fanatics vowing to lock women in their houses and behead or crucify all opponents of their holy cause. They have already advertised on the internet the massacre of hundreds or thousands of captured and disarmed soldiers of the Iraqi government — the kind of atrocity that even Hitler concealed.

It would have been better for virtually all concerned in this mess if Saddam, lunatic fool that he was, had stayed on his throne.

But there is something about this situation that isolationists should consider more carefully than we usually do. There is evil, intractable evil, in this world, and the more we isolate ourselves from it, the more intractable it reveals itself to be. America’s gradual withdrawal from world military conflict allows us to see more clearly that this evil cannot all be attributed to America, or the West, or colonialism, or imperialism, or G.W. Bush or Barack Obama or even the accursed Lyndon Johnson. The enslavement of women in Nigeria is not an effect of Western intervention. The vile fanaticism of the Iraqi insurgents is not the result of Western intervention. The modern steel gallows on which the religious leaders of Iran hang gay men are not the effect of Western hegemony. Like the other things I just mentioned, they are an attempt to appropriate the material culture of the West and place it in the service of depraved native ideals.

When I see a sign that says “Live and Let Live” my heart leaps up. That is liberty; that is what I believe in. But I do not believe that most cultures in the world are based on that principle, or that they would be if we would simply obey it ourselves. Libertarian commentary on American foreign policy often creates the impression that the extended meaning of “Live and Let Live” is “All Will Be Well If You Do.” It won’t. There is evil in America, and by the same token there is evil in the rest of the planet, and plenty more of it — inexhaustible supplies, in fact. Isolation is not the road to utopia. It should be the road to realism.




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Memories of War

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Last month I visited the Kamikaze Peace Museum in Chiran, Japan, a small town characterized by cherry-lined streets and what remains of a centuries-old Samurai village. The museum is a moving tribute to the 1,000 or so young men who were ordered to give their lives for god and country (the emperor was considered divine) by flying their planes directly into American targets in the Pacific during the final months of World War II. Chiran was the departure point for most of those flights.

The museum contains photographs of all the men, along with the letters many of them wrote to their families on the eve of their death. These pilots were little more than boys, most of them aged 17–28, some of them photographed playing with puppies as they posed, smiling, in front of their planes. In their letters they urged their mothers to be proud, their sisters to be comforted, their girlfriends to move on without them, and their children to be brave. One man wrote, “I am sorry that Papa will not be able to play horsey with you any more.” Another’s girlfriend leapt from a bridge to her death after she read his letter, and yet another’s wife drowned herself and her children before his flight so he could die without regret. Several of these young pilots were Koreans conscripted into the service against their will. None felt he had a choice; living with the loss of honor would be much more painful than any fear of death. I felt nothing but sadness for these young boys.

Two weeks later I was in Oahu, where over 200 Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor in the early morning of December 7, 1941, killing 2,400 Americans, wounding another thousand, and crippling the American fleet. The attack brought America into war in the Pacific. One cannot visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial without feeling profound sadness for the loss of life that day and in the four years that were to come. Yet, having just visited the Kamikaze Peace Museum, I could not hate the men who flew the bombers into Pearl Harbor. The words of Edwin Starr resonated in my mind: “War: What Is It Good For?”

Perhaps it is good for peace. But at what price? I thought of this as I watched The Railway Man, based on the memoirs of a British soldier, Eric Lomax (Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine) who was captured by the Japanese during World War II, forced to help build the railway through Thailand that was immortalized by the Oscar-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and tortured by his captors when he built a radio receiver inside their prison. The title of the film has dual meanings; not only does Lomax help build the railroad through Thailand, but from his youth he has had an obsession for trains and has always memorized details about train schedules, train depots, and the towns that surround train stations. In context, the title also suggests a metaphor for the bridges that are eventually built, through arduous effort, between Lomax and others, including his wife Patti.

None felt he had a choice; living with the loss of honor would be much more painful than any fear of death.

As the film opens, Lomax (Firth) is a middle-aged man who meets a pretty nurse, Patti (Nicole Kidman), on a train. He immediately falls in love with her. (The film implies that this is a first marriage for the shy and socially inept Lomax, but the real Eric Lomax was already married at the time he met Patti. He married Agnes just three weeks after returning from the war, and then divorced her just a few months after meeting Patti on the train. This, and the rest of the story, suggests to me that he returned from the war safe, but not sound.) Eric notes morosely, “Wherever there are men, there’s been war,” and Patti replies with a gentle smile, “And wherever there’s been a war, there’s been a nurse like me to put them back together.”

This introduces the key to their relationship. The war has officially ended 35 years earlier, but it still rages in Lomax’s mind. He will need the kind and patient wisdom of a nurse to help put him back together again. His struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder is skillfully portrayed when ordinary events trigger painful memories that transport him immediately to his jungle experiences as a POW. For example, the sound of the shower triggers terrifying memories of the water torture he endured at the hands of his brutal captors. The unexpected intrusion of these scenes demonstrates the unending aftermath of war and the difficulty of controlling its horrifying memories.

Wise casting adds to the pathos of this fine film. Much of what I know about World War II has been shaped by the films I’ve seen, and most of those were populated by actors well into their 30s and 40s. But in this film Young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) and his comrades are played by slender boys in their early 20s who can’t even grow a stubble of beard after four days aboard a prison train. They are closer to the tender ages of the soldiers they are portraying, and this increases the pathos of the story and our admiration for the strength and resolve of these boys who are thrust into manhood, much like the kamikaze pilots, before they even know what war is.

The Railway Man is a character-driven film that demonstrates the choices we have, even when it seems we have no choices at all. Jesus demonstrated the power of choice when he said, “If a man requires of you his coat, give him your cloak also” and, “If a man smites you, turn the other cheek.” He wasn’t telling his followers to give up and give in, but to take charge and move on, by invoking the right to choose one’s attitude when it seems that the freedom to choose one’s actions is gone. This film demonstrates that same transformative power of choice.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Railway Man," directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Weinstein Company, 2014, 116 minutes.



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Post-Traumatic Story Disorder

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The latest of our nation’s mass-media-broadcast shootings took place yesterday (April 2) at Fort Hood, where a gunman—according to reports, one Ivan Lopez—murdered 3 and wounded 16 before killing himself.

Given the ghoulishness of the 24-hour-cycle press, it’s unsurprising that their first, hopeful question was whether this was a terrorist attack. Given their stupidity, it’s also unsurprising that, once they found out poor Lopez was just some guy possibly suffering from PTSD following a stint in Iraq, they reached precisely the wrong conclusion: that this wasn’t about terrorism after all.

You idiots. Of course it’s about terrorism. It’s all about our government’s stupid, belligerent, macho response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, knocking over countries with little or no connection to those attacks, in the mistaken belief that we could run those countries better than they were already being run. It’s all about how Congress and the military have removed hundred of billions of dollars from the American economy in order to build and maintain palatial outposts of Empire, only to strand our people there at the first sign of trouble. It’s all about how we continued to recruit unfledged and underemployed men and women and dispatch them into conditions that favored the advancement of sadists and psychopaths, places where anyone of normal disposition would end up damaged in mind, if not also in body.

When the networks say it’s not about “terrorism,” what they mean was the shooter wasn’t Muslim, or they can’t connect him to any extremist groups at home or abroad—more’s the pity for them, deprived of their latest bogeyman, their newest Tsarnaev or Nidal Hasan. Lopez, if it is him, is just some schmuck they can’t fit into a preexisting narrative; at least, not one they’re willing to broadcast. But the story’s clear enough to anyone who doesn't purposefully blind themselves to it.



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The Crimean Crisis

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As readers of this journal may remember, I am not an isolationist, if “isolationist” be defined as “one who deems it immoral for the United States to use force across its borders”; but I am an isolationist if the word be defined as “one who thinks the United States should mind its own business.” To my mind, the Crimean crisis is a classic instance of a conflict about which the United States should do just that.

I am at least a mild supporter of the Ukrainian revolution, as I understand it. And I have little or no use for Vladimir Putin, as I understand him. I can understand why Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians would like to hang on to the Crimea. But I can also understand why Putin would like to get it away from them (as he virtually has, right now). It’s the location of a Russian fleet. The majority of its population speaks Russian, is Russian, and resents attempts of Ukrainian nationalists to make them speak and be Ukrainian. The Russians presumably know what can happen to dissenting nationalities when even the most “liberal” revolution heats up. And after all, the Crimea is part of Ukraine only because the old Soviet dictatorship, in an idle moment, gave it to Ukraine.

There are some reasons why the United States should not want Russia to annex the Crimea. It’s generally best for us when the Russians have an unstable base, such as Ukraine, for their military power. Even the least legitimate borders are often better than no borders at all, so it would generally be better if nationalists of every kind thought it was futile to try rearranging them. And it would be unfortunate to see a guy like Putin win.

This does not add up to a reason for us to “get tough” with Putin. It would be almost impossible to do so anyway, and expect any degree of success. President Obama may draw “lines in the sand,” but no one in the world believes what he says, even if it’s accidentally true.

So this is a good time for us to enjoy our isolationist traditions to the full. Bad things may happen; bad things undoubtedly are happening. This is to be expected wherever 19th-century European nationalism rears its head again. But that is, and must be, their problem.




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Fog of War

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Cuckoo War Games?

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Harry Lime — the fabulous villain in the superb film The Third Man — opined about the Swiss: “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!”

Of course, this was as historically false as it was insulting. The Swiss have never been pacifists; they have been fierce fighters, when necessary. In fact, Switzerland has the largest armed forces per capita of any European nation, and it still has the draft. At age 19, all men must undergo military training for five months, and they must take refresher training periodically until age 30.

Regarding Switzerland’s creativity, suffice it to say that among nations with a significant population (over a million citizens), it ranks first in per capita number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences.

All this was brought to mind by the story that in its most recent war games, the Swiss army conducted an exercise that simulated the invasion of Switzerland by — France!

Yes, the Swiss army is training for the scenario in which France, bankrupted by its welfare state excesses, splits into warring sections, and one of them (dubbed “Saonia”) decides to invade Switzerland, to steal its money.

Lord, is this not simply exquisite?

In the simulated invasion, Saonia is dominated by a paramilitary group called the Dijon Free Brigade (the “BLD”), which has convinced its followers that Switzerland somehow stole their money. The BLD invades on three fronts, near Geneva, Lausanne, and Neufchatel.

Considering how offensive the anti-“Saonia” exercise might be to the French — legendarily hypersensitive to slights, or perceived slights — a delicately defensive Swiss captain, Daniel Berger, noted that “the exercise has nothing to do with France, which we appreciate. . . . It was prepared in 2012, when fiscal relations between both countries were less tense.” But, as the article explains, since France elected its socialist government it has become more confrontational about secret Swiss bank accounts — no doubt because most of the productive French citizens who haven’t yet fled the country have hidden their assets abroad.

And this is not the first time the Swiss military has staged politically incorrect war games. Last year, its games simulated an invasion by hordes of southern European refugees after the collapse of something it dubbed “The European Single Currency.” Hmm . . . wonder what that might refer to?

I am moved to offer the plucky Swiss a suggestion for next year’s war games. The Obama neosocialist regime has also pressured the Swiss to provide access to banking information, since some productive Americans who have not yet fled this country are apparently hiding taxes from the president’s “you didn’t earn that” tax ambitions. So perhaps the Swiss should have war games structured around an imagined infiltration of American commando squads, to be dubbed the Obamanista Liberation Army (OLA). The OLA squads would spread through the Swiss countryside, staging attacks on banks, coordinated by their free Obamaphones.

Just a thought.




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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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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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Football? Why?

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Me? I like tennis, a much more gentle and gentlemanly sport than the current favorite, football. Knocking people down takes little skill. Pounding a “down the line” passing shot that just ticks the line takes super hand-eye coordination. Notice that in football the home team fans are encouraged to hoot and scream like the lynch mob in front of the jailhouse, to drown out the quarterback’s signals. Contrast that with the silent courtesy given to the server even if you’ve got 50 bucks riding on the match against him.

So — a brief note on college football. I used to be a fan. (And the origin of that word, by the way, is not “fanatic,” but “fancier.” People arefanciers of the University of Alabama.) I used to enjoy the game, although I never saw a defensive tackle turn to the ref, shed a tear, and mumble, “I held No. 33.” But I’ve seen McEnroe overrule the ump: “No, his ball was in.”

Then I realized that while to me football is entertainment, to students it’s a distraction and corruption. Colleges are institutions supposedly dedicated to the education and maturation of youth. I assume that’s the wellspring of their nonprofit status. But football, in its current form, downplays sportsmanship. It recruits — in most cases — large, fast, violent young men who specialize in using their large, fast, violent bodies to knock down and inflict serious injury on opponents. This is not exactly a lesson in sportsmanship or human relationships. Our colleges accept this anomaly in their mission because a stultified public allows it. And in many cases a gang of alumni — who evidently got a lousy education — sponsor it. The G-d of mammon — not learning — reigns. The lure of reinforced endowments and bulging bank accounts is irresistible. Who said that colleges’ nonprofit status carries over to sports and other athletic activities? A courtroom full of lawyers could debate that for a semester or two.

Coaches make millions — much of it from my taxpayer pocket. It should be an optional item on my tax form. And after all, it seems only fair that if the school makes a profit, I should get a proportionate refund.

But money is not the main issue. (Most schools lose money on their athletic programs.) It’s the disproportionate emphasis on sports, which might involve 1 to 2% of the student body, versus the rest, who are purchasing the school’s educational products. If I’m going to be a drunken spendthrift with institutional money (and remember, nobody spends your money like it’s their own), I’d rather pay two million to the head of the engineering department than two million to the football coach.

Which skill is more important? Creating a bridge, a new concept of combustion engines, a new source of energy — or whacking an anonymous opponent, which sounds a lot like modern warfare? And don’t think that the coach tears up and shouts at the defensive tackle who breaks the leg of an enemy quarterback, “Oh, dear, you broke his leg. His incompetent backup will have to finish the game. I so wanted to go against their first team.” Such lines are never spoken on the gridiron battlefield. Sportsmanship is a rare commodity. And winning, as misspoken by some coaches, isn’t everything. You learn from losing, too. And life is full of losing as well as winning.

I only scratch the surface. But you get the idea. Why are colleges in the entertainment business? Certainly not for the benefit of their primary customers. It’s as though the municipal fire department held courses in arson, on the side.




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