Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 9, 2007

Power to the Private Sector

Both the Washington Post and the New York Sun are reporting on a major snafu involving Osama bin Laden’s last videotape.

It seems that the SITE Intelligence Group—a private firm that tracks terrorist activities online and is headed by Ritz Katz, an Israeli citizen born in Iraq and now living in the U.S.—managed to get an advance copy of bin Laden’s rantings from an al Qaeda server. SITE shared its haul with the White House and the National Counterterrorism Center with the proviso that it was meant to be kept strictly confidential to protect SITE’s sources. Within hours the video leaked to the press, however, and apparently al Qaeda webmasters were able to shut down the anomaly that SITE had exploited to keep tabs on the terrorists.

This story is disturbing on several levels: first, for the lack of security within the U.S. government (which makes other governments wary of sharing confidential information) and second, for the apparent lack of capacity within the U.S. intelligence community. With all the billions we spend on surveiling al Qaeda, is it really the case that a small, non-governmental organization can get its hands on a major al Qaeda video before the government can? It’s hard to know for sure because the government is never going to come clean about what it does and does not know, but the high-level officials quoted in these news articles certainly did not dispute the notion that SITE can find out things the government can’t.

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Both the Washington Post and the New York Sun are reporting on a major snafu involving Osama bin Laden’s last videotape.

It seems that the SITE Intelligence Group—a private firm that tracks terrorist activities online and is headed by Ritz Katz, an Israeli citizen born in Iraq and now living in the U.S.—managed to get an advance copy of bin Laden’s rantings from an al Qaeda server. SITE shared its haul with the White House and the National Counterterrorism Center with the proviso that it was meant to be kept strictly confidential to protect SITE’s sources. Within hours the video leaked to the press, however, and apparently al Qaeda webmasters were able to shut down the anomaly that SITE had exploited to keep tabs on the terrorists.

This story is disturbing on several levels: first, for the lack of security within the U.S. government (which makes other governments wary of sharing confidential information) and second, for the apparent lack of capacity within the U.S. intelligence community. With all the billions we spend on surveiling al Qaeda, is it really the case that a small, non-governmental organization can get its hands on a major al Qaeda video before the government can? It’s hard to know for sure because the government is never going to come clean about what it does and does not know, but the high-level officials quoted in these news articles certainly did not dispute the notion that SITE can find out things the government can’t.

This seems further to confirm the general impression of ineptitude on the part of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. (See Tim Weiner’s meticulously researched book, Legacy of Ashes, for details of this sorry story’s stretching back to the 1940’s.) There is, however, a silver lining to this news. It is good to know that the private sector is filling in where government lags behind.

That is precisely what we should be doing—taking advantage of our strengths as a society to compensate for the weaknesses of our government. There are a lot of smart, entrepreneurial people in America; and while most of them devote their energies to the “business of America”—i.e., business—some can be very effective freelance terrorist-fighters. In the past, I have suggested mobilizing an army of geeks to fight al Qaeda online; that is precisely what the SITE folks are doing, and more power to them.

In fact, as I write in my latest book, War Made New, the Information Age increasingly is taking power away from large, hierarchical, centralized organizations like the U.S. government and giving more power to small, nimble, decentralized, networked entities like al Qaeda. But SITE and its ilk can be just as nimble and networked as al Qaeda. They can be effective in ways that the lumbering U.S. government cannot. Instead of treating them as unwelcome competition, the government would be well advised to encourage our NGO’s to battle their NGO’s.

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China’s Colonial Troubles

News of military unrest has come this past week from Chinese-occupied East Turkestan, the 636,000-square-mile territory on the northwest frontier of the People’s Republic, officially called Xinjiang. According to the Associated Press:

Cotton farmers in China’s far west clashed with police and paramilitary guards over alleged price-fixing by local authorities, leaving 40 people injured, witnesses and Hong Kong media said Friday.

The protesters, however, were no ordinary “farmers.” To begin with, they were not indigenous Turks. Nor were they civilians. They were members of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which is to say, Chinese soldiers and their families, descended from the original occupation troops sent to colonize the territory in 1954, today numbering over two million, and still having military organization. According to reports, the units involved were the 127 and 123 brigades of the Seventh Division of the corps.

Since at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese rulers have settled soldiers on frontiers and in occupied territories in tuntian or “agricultural military colonies.” The idea has always been that the men and families so settled would support themselves by farming, while being available to fight attackers or local inhabitants, if required. The Seventh Division’s farms extend over a politically-charged area near what used to be the border with the USSR, now with Kazakhstan, where the Ili river flows out of the People’s Republic though mountains to Lake Balkhash.

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News of military unrest has come this past week from Chinese-occupied East Turkestan, the 636,000-square-mile territory on the northwest frontier of the People’s Republic, officially called Xinjiang. According to the Associated Press:

Cotton farmers in China’s far west clashed with police and paramilitary guards over alleged price-fixing by local authorities, leaving 40 people injured, witnesses and Hong Kong media said Friday.

The protesters, however, were no ordinary “farmers.” To begin with, they were not indigenous Turks. Nor were they civilians. They were members of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which is to say, Chinese soldiers and their families, descended from the original occupation troops sent to colonize the territory in 1954, today numbering over two million, and still having military organization. According to reports, the units involved were the 127 and 123 brigades of the Seventh Division of the corps.

Since at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese rulers have settled soldiers on frontiers and in occupied territories in tuntian or “agricultural military colonies.” The idea has always been that the men and families so settled would support themselves by farming, while being available to fight attackers or local inhabitants, if required. The Seventh Division’s farms extend over a politically-charged area near what used to be the border with the USSR, now with Kazakhstan, where the Ili river flows out of the People’s Republic though mountains to Lake Balkhash.

It seems the soldiers originally sent to secure the region, who now are settled in paramilitary formations, are rioting against the exactions of the currently active Chinese Army there. The Army has set the price at which it buys the cotton raised by the soldiers near or below the cost of production. On September 22 and 23, according to incomplete reports in the South China Morning Post, military farmers responded to nighttime army searches for hidden cotton in their homes by turning out en masse to destroy the local headquarters of the Chinese Army cotton purchasing and policing units. The protesters reportedly numbered about five thousand.

This story is of particular importance because the conflict it reports is not between Turks and Chinese in occupied East Turkestan (these are common), but between the descendants of the first wave of Chinese occupiers and the current Chinese military authorities. How will the army respond if called upon to repress its own? This question must be a headache for Beijing.

More broadly, these developments lend support to two predictions about the future of the People’s Republic of China. The first is that its terminal troubles will begin internally, as this army versus army conflict suggests. The second is that the problems will begin not on China’s highly developed east coast, but rather in its vast and ragged far western border region, where lie the profoundly alien and uncongenial (to Chinese people) occupied territories of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and East Turkestan.

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The Cocktail Party

The most interesting article I read this past weekend? Glad you asked. It was this column by the Wall Street Journal’s “How’s Your Drink?” columnist, Eric Felten. His subject is the history of the cocktail, and in 1,200 or so words, he distills a lot of complex facts into a high-octane tale.

Felten pours scorn on the notion that Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s older brother and an author himself) invented the cocktail party in London in 1925. He concludes that the credit, such as it is, must go to Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. of St Louis, who in 1917 threw what was supposedly the world’s first cocktail party.

Why did I find this article so fascinating? It’s not because I’m a lush or an aficionado of beverage history or a friend of Felten. (I’ve never met the multi-talented author, who is not only a writer, but also a jazz musician based in Washington, D.C.). But somehow I always find his columns to be delightful and instructive reading—just the right “pick me up” for a dreary Saturday morning, and with none of the hangover associated with the more traditional variety.

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The most interesting article I read this past weekend? Glad you asked. It was this column by the Wall Street Journal’s “How’s Your Drink?” columnist, Eric Felten. His subject is the history of the cocktail, and in 1,200 or so words, he distills a lot of complex facts into a high-octane tale.

Felten pours scorn on the notion that Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s older brother and an author himself) invented the cocktail party in London in 1925. He concludes that the credit, such as it is, must go to Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. of St Louis, who in 1917 threw what was supposedly the world’s first cocktail party.

Why did I find this article so fascinating? It’s not because I’m a lush or an aficionado of beverage history or a friend of Felten. (I’ve never met the multi-talented author, who is not only a writer, but also a jazz musician based in Washington, D.C.). But somehow I always find his columns to be delightful and instructive reading—just the right “pick me up” for a dreary Saturday morning, and with none of the hangover associated with the more traditional variety.

I still treasure the Pimm’s Cup recipe he produced this summer, which made for some very contented guests at Boot Manor. And I keep reading even though we have some fundamental ideological disagreements. I think he is understandably, if sadly, deluded in his notion, expressed in this interview, that a “true” martini must be made with gin, not vodka. (I do find myself agreeing with him, however, that it is “fanciful” to think “that there is an appreciable difference among competing brands of vodka.”)

The cocktail history article grabbed me in particular because Felten mentions one of my favorite characters of all time—Smedley Butler, a Marine who won two Medals of Honor before being drummed out of the service (for insulting Mussolini in public of all things), and before he turned into an isolationist and pacifist in the 1930′s. Butler, a teetotaler sometimes known as “The Fighting Quaker,” occupies a prominent place in my book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. He makes a fascinating cameo in Felten’s article:

The first cocktail party to get much ink in the New York Times . . . was a scandalous evening of drinking at San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado. One evening in April 1926, the commander of the local Marine base, Brig. Gen. Smedley D. Butler, arrived at an officers’ party at the hotel and found one of his subordinates, Col. Alexander S. Williams, to be crocked. It might have all been ignored had Butler not loathed Williams’s politics, which were left-enough-of-center to be described as “anarchistic.” And so Butler had the man charged with intoxication. The court-martial that followed in the “cocktail party case” was something of a sensation, with a parade of junior officers perjuring themselves, attesting to Williams’s total sobriety. Old Smedley suffered a nervous breakdown, attributed to “worry over the coolness toward him by society since he made charges of intoxication” against Williams. The opprobrium felt so acutely by the general is some indication of the high esteem in which society already held the institution of the cocktail party.

I must remember the next time I have my favorite cocktail, a vodka gimlet (another drink, like the martini, that fundamentalists erroneously insist must be made with gin), to raise a toast to Felten and wish him all success on his forthcoming book, a compilation of his Journal columns.

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Left and Right

Broadly speaking, the political mood of the public can be gauged in terms of its shifting calculation of risk and reward. If, as in the period from about 1980 to 2004, the promise of new rewards outweighs the fears of accompanying risk, the market-oriented Republicans will be the beneficiaries. But if, as in the period from 1932 to 1966, the fear of risk is more salient than the hope of enhanced rewards, the result will be movement away from free-market policies and towards the presumed protections of government regulation.

For all its benefits, globalization (and the accompanying issues of massive illegal immigration) has brought to an end the period that privileged risk over reward. The Republican Party seems unable to face up to this shift. Some of my GOP friends blame it all on Bush. They rail at the failings of the Bush administration with the kind of vitriol usually reserved for leftists. Others, taken aback by the plunge in Republican party identification, trot out consoling ploys along the lines of “You should have seen the other guy!” Take, for example, Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma. While he acknowledges the unpopularity of the GOP, after a wave of scandals, the setbacks in Iraq, etc., he also emphasizes the misfortunes of the Democrat-controlled Congress.

Cole sees the 2008 election as shaping up like the one in 1992, when incumbents of both parties had a hard time. It’s true that Congress as a whole has only a 29 percent approval rating, lower than that of President Bush. But the problem for the GOP is that, as Washington Post columnist David Broder notes, half of the voters blame Bush and the Republicans; only 25 percent place the onus on the Democrats.

Another excuse Republicans are likely to make is that America is still, largely, a center-Right country. That’s true—but the center has shifted towards the Left. On a range of key issues, from trade to health care to economic inequality, the number of Americans who share some classic Democratic concerns has risen, notes the Wall Street Journal. A recent Pew poll found that “Three-quarters of the population is worried about growing income inequality. Pew also showed that two-thirds of those polled favor government-funded health care for all.” At the same time, Pew reports that “Support for a government safety net for the poor is at its highest level since 1987.”

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Broadly speaking, the political mood of the public can be gauged in terms of its shifting calculation of risk and reward. If, as in the period from about 1980 to 2004, the promise of new rewards outweighs the fears of accompanying risk, the market-oriented Republicans will be the beneficiaries. But if, as in the period from 1932 to 1966, the fear of risk is more salient than the hope of enhanced rewards, the result will be movement away from free-market policies and towards the presumed protections of government regulation.

For all its benefits, globalization (and the accompanying issues of massive illegal immigration) has brought to an end the period that privileged risk over reward. The Republican Party seems unable to face up to this shift. Some of my GOP friends blame it all on Bush. They rail at the failings of the Bush administration with the kind of vitriol usually reserved for leftists. Others, taken aback by the plunge in Republican party identification, trot out consoling ploys along the lines of “You should have seen the other guy!” Take, for example, Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma. While he acknowledges the unpopularity of the GOP, after a wave of scandals, the setbacks in Iraq, etc., he also emphasizes the misfortunes of the Democrat-controlled Congress.

Cole sees the 2008 election as shaping up like the one in 1992, when incumbents of both parties had a hard time. It’s true that Congress as a whole has only a 29 percent approval rating, lower than that of President Bush. But the problem for the GOP is that, as Washington Post columnist David Broder notes, half of the voters blame Bush and the Republicans; only 25 percent place the onus on the Democrats.

Another excuse Republicans are likely to make is that America is still, largely, a center-Right country. That’s true—but the center has shifted towards the Left. On a range of key issues, from trade to health care to economic inequality, the number of Americans who share some classic Democratic concerns has risen, notes the Wall Street Journal. A recent Pew poll found that “Three-quarters of the population is worried about growing income inequality. Pew also showed that two-thirds of those polled favor government-funded health care for all.” At the same time, Pew reports that “Support for a government safety net for the poor is at its highest level since 1987.”

Republicans have long been the party of de-regulation in the name of freer markets. Yet, a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News Poll finds a dramatic shift by Republican voters against our current free trade policies. Sixty percent “agreed with a statement that free trade has been bad for the U.S. and said they would agree with a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulations to limit foreign imports.” Indeed, faced with growing competition from inexpensive Chinese imports that don’t have to incorporate the costs of American safety requirements, some U.S. manufacturers are receptive to new regulations that, as they see it, could level the playing field.

The socially-conservative Right is waning as the Left waxes. It’s not just that evangelicals are increasingly divided among themselves. Pew found that between 1987 and this year, support for “old-fashioned values about family and marriage” had dropped 11 percentage points. The percentage of those who said gay teachers should be fired dropped 23 points.” Politicians have noticed. When Fred Thompson was asked by Sean Hannity about James Dobson’s criticism of him, the former senator, once seen as the great social conservative hope, replied curtly “I don’t dance to anyone’s tune.”

With Karl Rove’s fantasies of a GOP realignment having come to an end, Republicans have been pouncing on Bush’s numerous inadequacies. They are all too real, but so are the underlying changes that will be with us after Bush leaves the White House. From the look of things, the Republicans are no more ready to adapt than were their Democratic predecessors of the 1970’s.

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It’s Only a Chinese Moon

“I personally believe that China will be back on the moon before we are,” said NASA administrator Michael Griffin, in Washington to mark the organization’s October 1 anniversary. “I think when that happens, Americans will not like it. But they will just have to not like it.”

In 2004, President Bush set 2020 as the goal for returning to the moon. His sixteen-year schedule is twice as long as it took after President Kennedy proposed the challenge in 1961. Although optimistic projections indicate we might return by 2019, the Chinese will still be there to greet us. Beijing has detailed and well-funded plans to reach the moon by 2017. The Chinese have a schedule of preparatory moon landings, while America appears to be going through the motions.

“The U.S. has to get over this feeling that it has to be a competition,” says John Marburger, the White House science adviser. If there is anything we have to get over, it is a sentiment like Marburger’s. China has plans, announced in August, to map every inch of the moon. As far back as 2005, Beijing discussed its intentions to mine it for minerals. By the time we get there, it may really be just a sliver.

Americans once dreamed big. Now, evidently, we’re too mature to do that. At this moment, we’re the leading spacefaring nation; it looks like we will soon be living under the light of a Chinese moon.

“I personally believe that China will be back on the moon before we are,” said NASA administrator Michael Griffin, in Washington to mark the organization’s October 1 anniversary. “I think when that happens, Americans will not like it. But they will just have to not like it.”

In 2004, President Bush set 2020 as the goal for returning to the moon. His sixteen-year schedule is twice as long as it took after President Kennedy proposed the challenge in 1961. Although optimistic projections indicate we might return by 2019, the Chinese will still be there to greet us. Beijing has detailed and well-funded plans to reach the moon by 2017. The Chinese have a schedule of preparatory moon landings, while America appears to be going through the motions.

“The U.S. has to get over this feeling that it has to be a competition,” says John Marburger, the White House science adviser. If there is anything we have to get over, it is a sentiment like Marburger’s. China has plans, announced in August, to map every inch of the moon. As far back as 2005, Beijing discussed its intentions to mine it for minerals. By the time we get there, it may really be just a sliver.

Americans once dreamed big. Now, evidently, we’re too mature to do that. At this moment, we’re the leading spacefaring nation; it looks like we will soon be living under the light of a Chinese moon.

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Jimmy Carter’s Good Deeds

Is Jimmy Carter a saint? As James Kirchick has argued, the former President does deserve applause for the courage he displayed last week in the Sudan. He may be our worst ex-President ever, as Joshua Muravchik has irrefutably demonstrated, but it does not follow that every single thing he does today is bad.

The same thing can be said of his presidency. Reviewing Carter’s book, Living Faith, in the Wall Street Journal in 1996, I made the case that he was one of the worst Presidents of the 20th century. Carter read my review and took umbrage. The Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted him saying about me: “The guy, and I don’t know him, was vituperative about everything. He even condemned the poem I wrote about Rosalynn, which is one of the most popular parts of the book.”

Carter did, and does, have many appalling defects–the least of them his execrable poetry. But let’s give him his due. Even a terrible leader sometimes does some good things. Let me recall a tiny and ancient sliver of the past.

In June 1978, Carter appointed the former Representative Bella Abzug, then at the nadir of her own political career, to head his 40-member National Advisory Committee for Women. He and his staff probably had no idea of her Stalinist past–and if they did have an idea, given Carter’s stated desire to rid Americans of their “inordinate fear of Communism,” they probably would not have cared.

bellaandcarter.jpg

But if Carter was indifferent to Abzug’s lifetime membership in the Vladimir Ilich Lenin wing of the Democratic party, he still might have paid attention, if only out of self-interest, to the fact that she was a loud-mouth and a bully. Almost immediately on her appointment as “chairperson,” Abzug characteristically displayed her gratitude to her patron and rescuer by biting the hand that fed her.

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Is Jimmy Carter a saint? As James Kirchick has argued, the former President does deserve applause for the courage he displayed last week in the Sudan. He may be our worst ex-President ever, as Joshua Muravchik has irrefutably demonstrated, but it does not follow that every single thing he does today is bad.

The same thing can be said of his presidency. Reviewing Carter’s book, Living Faith, in the Wall Street Journal in 1996, I made the case that he was one of the worst Presidents of the 20th century. Carter read my review and took umbrage. The Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted him saying about me: “The guy, and I don’t know him, was vituperative about everything. He even condemned the poem I wrote about Rosalynn, which is one of the most popular parts of the book.”

Carter did, and does, have many appalling defects–the least of them his execrable poetry. But let’s give him his due. Even a terrible leader sometimes does some good things. Let me recall a tiny and ancient sliver of the past.

In June 1978, Carter appointed the former Representative Bella Abzug, then at the nadir of her own political career, to head his 40-member National Advisory Committee for Women. He and his staff probably had no idea of her Stalinist past–and if they did have an idea, given Carter’s stated desire to rid Americans of their “inordinate fear of Communism,” they probably would not have cared.

bellaandcarter.jpg

But if Carter was indifferent to Abzug’s lifetime membership in the Vladimir Ilich Lenin wing of the Democratic party, he still might have paid attention, if only out of self-interest, to the fact that she was a loud-mouth and a bully. Almost immediately on her appointment as “chairperson,” Abzug characteristically displayed her gratitude to her patron and rescuer by biting the hand that fed her.

The day before a scheduled meeting with Carter in January 1979, the women’s committee prepared a press release blasting the White House for increasing unemployment, curtailing social programs, and funding “military extravagance.” At the meeting itself, Abzug wagged her finger at the President, haranguing him about the critical role of the committee that he himself had created and was now, allegedly, neglecting.

Was what happened next a profile of presidential courage or of presidential rage? Whatever the answer, it was certainly not a case of lust in his heart; it took no more than minutes after the meeting concluded for Carter to fire Abzug. Never mind that she was occupying a volunteer position; she and her big hats went out the White House door never to return.

Jimmy Carter was indeed among the very worst Presidents of the 20th century. It is not an accident that even the few minor good things he ever did consisted of nothing more than undoing some of the many bad things he also did.

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John Burns’s America

John Burns, the distinguished New York Times foreign correspondent who just recently left his posting in Baghdad (where he had been stationed since before the Iraq war), granted an interview with the British Independent last week. Burns is an honest reporter who never lets ideology get in the way of his work, and his Iraq coverage is widely admired by both those who oppose and support the war.

A man perhaps more well-traveled than anyone, a member of “a new tribe that lives on 747′s,” Burns, who is British, offers his views of the United States:

He is a “tremendous admirer” of the U.S. and thinks anti-Americanism is fool-headed. “People need to make a clear distinction in their mind between a war at present that they judge ill and a country that is a very great nation of which we are all—not just we Brits but all of us everywhere—beneficiaries. What kind of world would this be without America, its power, its culture, its generosity, its enterprise, its invention, and what it has taught us all about liberty? I’m sorry if that sounds jingoistic—I believe it.”

Perhaps Naomi Klein’s husband, Canadian television host Avi Lewis, will invite Burns onto his talk show. As Lewis did with previous guest Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he can inform Burns that his “faith in American democracy is just delightful,” and ask the distinguished Englishman, “Is there a school where they teach you these American clichés?” No doubt Burns’s credibility would underscore the foolishness of Lewis’s ruminations.

John Burns, the distinguished New York Times foreign correspondent who just recently left his posting in Baghdad (where he had been stationed since before the Iraq war), granted an interview with the British Independent last week. Burns is an honest reporter who never lets ideology get in the way of his work, and his Iraq coverage is widely admired by both those who oppose and support the war.

A man perhaps more well-traveled than anyone, a member of “a new tribe that lives on 747′s,” Burns, who is British, offers his views of the United States:

He is a “tremendous admirer” of the U.S. and thinks anti-Americanism is fool-headed. “People need to make a clear distinction in their mind between a war at present that they judge ill and a country that is a very great nation of which we are all—not just we Brits but all of us everywhere—beneficiaries. What kind of world would this be without America, its power, its culture, its generosity, its enterprise, its invention, and what it has taught us all about liberty? I’m sorry if that sounds jingoistic—I believe it.”

Perhaps Naomi Klein’s husband, Canadian television host Avi Lewis, will invite Burns onto his talk show. As Lewis did with previous guest Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he can inform Burns that his “faith in American democracy is just delightful,” and ask the distinguished Englishman, “Is there a school where they teach you these American clichés?” No doubt Burns’s credibility would underscore the foolishness of Lewis’s ruminations.

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