Get out your handkerchief.
Posts For: December 1, 2010
The aftermath of President Obama’s meeting yesterday with the GOP leadership sparked a discussion that recurs with some regularity within conservative circles. (President Obama pronounced the meeting “extremely civil,” and Republicans concurred.)
The argument is sometimes made, directly or obliquely, that civility is merely a guise, the first step toward bipartisan compromises that betray conservative principles. And at times there is something to this critique. Civility has been used as a cover for hollowed-out principles, for lukewarm philosophical commitments, and for those who believe in nothing and are willing to fight for nothing. I get all that.
But civility need not be any of this, and it’s important from time to time to remind ourselves why it’s quite important to our political and civic life. It’s therefore worth correcting some interpretations that, like barnacles that attach themselves to the hull of a ship, associate themselves with the concept of civility.
Civility is not a synonym for lack of principles or lack of passion. They are entirely separate categories. Civility has to do with basic good manners and courtesy, the respect we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. It is both an animating spirit and a mode of discourse. It establishes limits so we don’t treat opponents as enemies. And it helps inoculate us against one of the unrelenting temptations in politics (and in life more broadly), which is to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own.
We can possess civility while at the same time holding (and championing) deep moral and philosophical commitments. In fact civility, properly understood, advances rigorous arguments, for a simple reason: it forecloses ad hominem attacks, which is the refuge of sloppy, undisciplined minds. “Before impugning an opponent’s motives,” the philosopher Sidney Hook once said, “even when they may rightly be impugned, answer his arguments.”
Here a few caveats are in order. Civility does not preclude spirited debate or confrontation. Clashing arguments are often clarifying arguments. Civility does not mean we do not call things by their rightful name. Evil is sometimes evil; and wicked men are sometimes wicked men. Nor does civility mean splitting the difference on every issue under the sun. (Who was right — eight clergymen in Alabama who said civil rights activism was “unwise and untimely” or the young minister sitting in a Birmingham city jail who told these “white moderates” that they preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace with is the presence of justice”?) I would add that the most important debates and many of the most important figures in American history were polarizing. They stirred deep passions in people, which is precisely when civility and even a measure of grace are most needed, to keep democratic discourse from jumping the rails.
In all this, Abraham Lincoln is, as he almost always is, a model. Lincoln is the finest political writer and, with James Madison, the finest political thinker in American history. He set a standard for meticulous, sophisticated arguments that had never been seen and has never been matched. As a young man, it is said, his satirical inclination and self-confident polemical power provided him with the “power to hurt.” But as he matured, William Lee Miller has written, “one can almost observe him curbing that inclination and becoming scrupulous and respectful.” His personal and professional dealings — with clients, editors, supporters, and opponents — had a “distinctive quality of tact, generosity, and civility.”
In response to a visit by citizens after the 1864 election, Lincoln said, “So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”
None of us possesses Lincoln’s virtues. But all of us should aspire to cultivate them.
Rasmussen has just come out with a new poll of American adults indicating that 36 percent call themselves Republican and 34.7 percent Democrat. This is the first time in the history of Rasmussen’s polling, from 2004 to the present, that among all adults — not registered voters, not likely voters, but all adults — more consider themselves Republican than Democrat. Indeed, I believe it may be the first time in the history of major national polling that there has been such a finding.
Rasmussen writes: “In November 2008, following the presidential election, Democrats held a 7.6 percentage point advantage over the GOP. That means Republicans have picked up a net of approximately nine points over the past two years. That is a somewhat larger gain compared to the Democratic gains from the reelection of President Bush in 2004 to the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006. However, it is similar to the gains recorded by Democrats during the four-year period from Election 2004 to Election 2008.”
That nine-point shift means that something like 25 percent of American adults changed their minds about whether to call themselves Democrat or Republican in the past two years, and a similar percentage changed from 2004 to 2008. What we have here, then, is more evidence that we are in an uncommonly fluid, even unstable, political era. Anybody who thinks it’s possible to extrapolate from these numbers where we will be in 2012 is kidding himself, save one thing: Obama and the Democrats have to do something to alter the political dynamic in their favor, because people are saying they are Republican even though they don’t like the GOP very much either.
Over at the Debt-Reduction Commission, bipartisanship broke through this morning after all, though the votes necessary to give the recommendations force still aren’t there. Add Democratic and Republican Senate Budget Committee leaders Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg to the ranks of those endorsing the plan, which is now officially available. Stay tuned.
While most around the country breathed a sigh of relief after undercover FBI agents foiled an Islamist extremist bomb plot in Portland, Oregon, this past weekend, apparently some Muslim leaders are unhappy about the bureau’s tactics. A “news analysis” in today’s New York Times details the complaints made by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which described the successful police work as having gone too far. The head of the Los Angeles branch of the group claimed that the agents who monitored Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the man who planned to turn a public Christmas-tree lighting into a scene of mass murder, had somehow pushed the alleged terrorist “over the edge” from mere anti-American rhetoric to terrorism.
Seeking to deflect attention from yet another Islamist terror plot uncovered in the United States, CAIR and other Muslim leaders were quick to blame the firebombing of the mosque Mohamud attended in Corvallis, Oregon, on the FBI. The responsibility for that crime (which thankfully resulted in no loss of life) belongs to the perpetrators, who, we hope, will soon be caught. But it is not the FBI’s fault. If the members of the mosque are unhappy with the publicity that was drawn to their place of worship, the fault lies with their fellow congregant who sought to commit mass murder, not the law-enforcement officials who prevented the planned crime. Also unmentioned in the story is the possibility that he may have been inspired to terrorism by his religious mentors, not the FBI.
While the Muslim groups seem to be implying that the FBI agents acted as agents provocateurs, there is no evidence that this is the case. Left unsaid here is the fact that the alternative to such proactive tactics is a situation where legal authorities simply sit back and wait for the terrorists to do their worse, which reflects a pre-9/11 mentality that is simply unacceptable.
Instead of a legitimate complaint, this appears to be yet another example of how CAIR (which was originally founded as a political front for a Hamas fundraising group that has since been shut down by the federal government) and other allies and fellow-travelers of Islamist ideology have sought to change the subject from the very real issue of home-grown Muslim terrorism to discussion of a “backlash” against Muslims. While crimes such as the attack on the mosque are deplorable, they are the exception that proves the rule of American tolerance for Muslims. Such attacks are, as I noted recently, quite rare and still outnumbered by a factor of eight to one by anti-Semitic hate crimes.
Even more to the point, as the Times article illustrates, most American Muslims are eager to cooperate with the FBI in the very real fight against domestic terrorism and have proved invaluable in preventing many lethal attacks planned by Islamists in the United States. Instead of putting this cooperation in jeopardy, as the Times’s piece alleges, the Portland plot proves the necessity of such cooperation. Rather than continuing to focus on a mythical backlash against Muslims, this story again demonstrates the very real nature of the threat from Islamist terrorists and the need for law-enforcement agencies and patriotic citizens of all faiths to do everything possible to stop them.
The White House won’t allow any new oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico for at least the next seven years because of the BP oil spill.
A senior administration official told The Associated Press on Wednesday that drilling leases won’t be considered in the waters off Florida as part of the change. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision hadn’t been announced yet.
This is a reversal of the administration’s October decision to lift the drilling ban. Because what America needs right now is a loss of jobs and a constriction of the economy in response to a one-off accident that left no long-term damage.
You’ll be hearing a lot today and tomorrow about an issue bubbling over in Washington called “net neutrality.” You’re probably aware of the concept of “stickiness” — an idea or concept that stays with you no matter what. “Net neutrality” is an example of an “anti-sticky” idea. No matter what you do, you can’t remember what the hell it is.
So rather than trying to understand the issue’s confusing contours, you should instead look at the key question: who benefits? The truth is that net neutrality is about who controls broadband — the pipe through which we now connect to the Internet. Internet service providers, who bring us broadband, naturally want to control the pipe. That seems logical; it’s their pipe. But companies providing the content that goes through the pipe don’t want the Internet service providers to exert that control, because they fear the providers could figure out ways to secure an advantage for content the providers own. That also seems like a reasonable concern.
The providers say that a) they don’t know how to do what the companies fear they will do, and b) there’s so much competition in the field that it wouldn’t matter anyway, because if they were to restrict access to their pipe, a consumer could just go elsewhere for his service. The first point smacks of disingenuousness because, of course, there are ways to privilege certain kinds of content and block others, even now. The second, competitive point is the most important one. Free-market theory says plainly that we should not expect any one provider of a good to act in service of the broader public interest; his goal is to maximize his own profit. The force that disciplines him, controls his appetite, and compels him to behave in responsible ways is competition — that’s what guides the “invisible hand,” in Adam Smith’s Olympian image.
So what case do the content providers have? Their case is that the Internet is not a marketplace but a combination of a Wild West in which nobody is making the rules and an oligarchy in which a few powerful behemoths have managed to secure unlimited control. This is an illogical argument — a system can’t simultaneously be anarchic and authoritarian — but it is a powerful one, in the sense that the only thing we care about when it comes to the Internet is the content. We don’t care about the pipe; we care about the water that comes through the pipe. Any force that limits our access to the water is a force that cannot be tolerated. Read More
Finally, Washington is getting some bipartisan cooperation from some congressional leaders — but it may not be what those who bemoan the lack of bipartisanship in politics have in mind. The New York Times reports that there is unanimous opposition from the six Democrat and six Republican members of Congress who sit on the president’s debt-reduction commission to issuing a final report today. We’ve known for weeks that the commission was having problems reaching consensus on how best to deal with the mounting public debt — nearly $14 trillion and climbing — though its co-chairs, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, are on the same page: cut spending and raise taxes.
The chairmen’s plan would cap annual spending for both domestic and military programs; build on the cost-savings steps in Mr. Obama’s health-care law; raise Social Security payroll taxes for affluent taxpayers while slowly increasing the retirement age to 69 from 67; and reduce or eliminate a raft of popular tax breaks, including the mortgage-interest deduction, in return for lower income-tax rates for individuals and corporations.
But neither Bowles nor Simpson has to face voters, as the 12 congressional members do. In order to issue a report, the commission must win support for its recommendations from 14 of the 18 members; but that is looking unlikely at the moment, even though the commission has extended its deadline to Friday. Predictably, Democrats don’t want to endorse many of the spending cuts, while Republicans are averse to tax increases.
Since when has any presidential or congressional commission actually solved a complex issue? (Not that Congress does such a great job either.) Sure, compromise is often necessary, but the pleas emanating from editorial boards and pundits for more bipartisanship in Washington more often than not mean they want Republicans to abandon their principles. But since we’re talking about debt here, there really is only one solution — stop spending so much. Tax revenues will increase without hiking rates for anyone or taking away deductions when people start working again. But unless we do something about spending, most importantly on entitlements, we will never begin to pay down that debt.
George W. Bush has written a powerful and elegant op-ed on why AIDS in Africa is America’s fight. The former president argues that it has served American interests to help prevent the collapse of portions of the African continent. He points out that early in 2003, there were perhaps 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa on AIDS treatment; today, nearly 4 million are. He recounts how on World AIDS Day in 2005, two young children from South Africa, Emily and Lewis, came for a White House visit. “They chased around the Oval Office before Emily did what many others no doubt wanted to do,” Bush writes. “She fell asleep in her mother’s lap during my speech. Both young children were HIV-positive but had begun treatment. I could not even imagine all that curiosity and energy still and silent.”
President Bush concludes this way:
I am happily out of the political business. But I can offer some friendly advice to members of Congress, new and old. A thousand pressing issues come with each day. But there are only a few that you will want to talk about in retirement with your children. The continuing fight against global AIDS is something for which America will be remembered. And you will never regret the part you take.
The United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is a historically impressive achievement. It will rank among the handful of the most important things George W. Bush did as president. And it’s an excellent example of a federal government program that works and has advanced tremendous human good — the kind of effort conservatives, some of whom have a tendency simply to denigrate government, should proudly champion and seek to replicate.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” the book of Proverbs tells us, “for the rights of all who are destitute.”
There are worse ways a president can spend his time than speaking up for, and saving the lives of, the defenseless and the voiceless.
According to some media reports, the U.S. government is exaggerating the security threat of the latest WikiLeaks document dump. Take this McClatchy article, for instance. First the paper chides U.S. officials for “overstating the danger from WikiLeaks,” and then it commends reporters for their “unprecedented act of self censorship” by withholding information that could have put innocent lives in danger.
“[D]espite similar warnings ahead of the previous two massive releases of classified U.S. intelligence reports by the website, U.S. officials concede that they have no evidence to date that the documents led to anyone’s death,” reported McClatchy.
The paper said that Julian Assange and the reporters he leaked to took all the proper precautions to “ensure nothing released could endanger lives or national security.”
And French newspaper Le Monde, one of the initial five media organizations to receive the documents, added that “All the identities of people the journalists believed would be threatened were redacted.” News outlets apparently even coordinated with WikiLeaks to “ensure sensitive data didn’t appear on the organization’s website.”
I suppose stories like these may help WikiLeaks’s defenders sleep well at night. But they shouldn’t. People who think that vulnerable human rights activists and journalists were the only ones endangered by the release of the documents are sadly mistaken. The leak doesn’t pose a threat just to the individuals directly mentioned in the cables; it puts all Americans (and our allies in the war on terror) in danger. As James Gordon Meek notes at the New York Daily News, WikiLeaks may have severely compromised the ability of U.S. officials to obtain intelligence about future terrorist attacks on our soil and around the world:
Allies in countries with populations that aren’t pro-U.S. may simply let Americans die rather than pass on tips about terror suspects if they think their secret role will wind up in the public eye.
Leaks that keep the government honest are good — but not if they ultimately put innocents in the terrorists’ cross hairs.
Preventing attacks in the U.S. isn’t just about eavesdropping with high-tech gadgets, invisible ink and undercover ops. It’s about relationships with tenuous allies from Islamabad to Sana’a. These disclosures may choke off critical intelligence to thwart terrorism, such as last month’s attempted bombings of U.S.-bound cargo planes from Yemen. That plot was stopped after a tip from Saudi Arabia — not long ago an unreliable partner against Al Qaeda.
These closet allies have little to lose if they neglect to warn the U.S. of a potential terror attack. But if their covert cooperation with our government is exposed, they run the risk of losing political capital within their own countries. Add that to the WikiLeaks-fueled perception that the U.S. can’t keep a handle on its own secret documents, and this could hinder our national security intelligence-gathering for years to come.
The call by Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Carl Levin for AIPAC to back passage of the stalled START treaty with Russia speaks volumes about the growing desperation of both the White House and its Senate allies.
The administration is reportedly going all-out to push Jewish groups to lobby for the treaty, but it is unlikely that AIPAC will succumb to the pressure. The group has been scrupulous about sticking to its agenda of working only on behalf of Israel-related issues, a policy that keeps it strictly neutral on arms control measures like START. Nevertheless, Schumer and Levin claim that friends of Israel are obligated to back a measure that is key to Obama’s “reset” of relations with Russia because it is the price the United States must pay to keep the Medvedev/Putin regime on board with the effort to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear capacity.
That’s an argument that the liberal-leaning Anti-Defamation League as well as Obama’s cheering section at the National Jewish Democratic Council and J Street have accepted, though the latter group seems to be backing it more out of a knee-jerk reaction to any appeasement measure rather than concern about Iranian nukes. But this selling point is based on a false assumption about both Russia’s intentions and its interests.
While the need to build an anti-Iranian coalition is something all friends of Israel care about, it is far from clear that Obama’s impulse to sacrifice America’s own defense interests in the cause of making the authoritarian regime in Moscow more comfortable is something that will tangibly impact the ability of the international community to confront Tehran. The Russians have exacted a high price from Obama for their half-hearted support for tepid sanctions on Iran that are clearly inadequate to the task, even though it is obviously just as much in their interest to stop Tehran as it is in the rest of the international community’s.
Moreover, once we strip away the talk about this treaty’s being essential to Iran policy, it is easy to see that its passage has more to do with Obama’s fetish about arms control agreements than anything else, and it is on the merits of that issue alone that this issue should be decided.
As for Jewish groups that might be tempted to wade in on START, they also need to understand that the push to pass the treaty before the end of the year in Congress’s lame duck session smacks of the sort of partisanship that groups like AIPAC and the ADL ought to avoid. While Jewish Democrats are fond of castigating the GOP for attempting to win votes by comparing its record on Israel to that of the Democrats, what’s going on here is a far more blatant instance of Jewish groups carrying the water for one side of the political aisle. The Senate ought to wait until January, when newly elected members are seated and will have a chance to consider this treaty. And Jewish and pro-Israel organizations should stay out of a fight that has everything to do with the Obama administration’s foreign policy obsessions and little to do with the defense of Israel.