Obama is presenting the case for another dive into peace talk with rhetoric denouncing Palestinian rejectionism and support for Israel’s security. He says no peace will be imposed but says the status quo is not sustainable. True. But that doesn’t speak to the Palestinian’s consistent refusal to make peace.
Posts For: May 19, 2011
The president is making a great deal of sense about promoting trade and economic development in the Middle East. Prosperity may lead to reform. But the idea that prosperity can squelch Islamist radicalism is a delusion. Terrorists often come from middle class backgrounds.
The president is right to proclaim America’s devotion to religious liberty in Egypt for the Copts and the rights of women. Unfortunately, the party that will benefit the most from the Egyptian Revolution — the Muslim Brotherhood — is opposed to both. No explanation as to how we square that circle.
Would Iraq be on the road to democracy as the president just said, if we had listened to him in 2006 and pulled out to abandon the country to Islamist insurgents? That’s down the memory hole along with the Democratic critique of neoconservatism.
The criticism of Iran and Obama’s correct observation that the unrest began in Tehran in 2009 omits the fact that his administration was so besotted with “engagement” at that time that it failed to react strongly to Ahmadinejad’s stolen election and the slaughter in the streets.
The president spoke of his Syria policy as somehow the moral equivalent of our policy in Libya. But he failed to explain why we fought in one place and not in another.
We’ve just heard the rationale for intervention in Libya. But doesn’t the same rationale apply to Syria? We have not only not intervened in Syria, our ambassador to Assad’s regime is still in Damascus.
The president says the United States opposes the use of violence and repression by dictators, supports universal rights including free speech and assembly, freedom of religion, equality of men and women, rule of law and right to choose our own leaders as well as political and economic reform. This is good policy. But wasn’t this the neoconservative policy of George W. Bush that the Democrats used to mock?
This speech is astonishingly similar in its thrust to the 2005 Bush push for democracy in the Middle East.
The first five minutes of this speech represent a complete rejection of the logic of Obama’s own 2009 Cairo speech, down to the astonishing statement that attacking Israel was the only outlet for political expression allowed by Arab dictators.
The president’s tribute to the demand for democracy on the part of Arabs in repressive countries does not, of course, mention the fact that during the first two years of his presidency, American promotion of democracy was dismissed by the administration as a neoconservative heresy adopted by Bush which must be replaced by realism.
Predictably, the president leads off his speech by spiking the football with a passage on the defeat of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
Rumors are flying that President Obama will get specific about treating the 1949 armistice lines as the starting point for future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. If true, that’s an unprecedented departure for the United States. He could soften that blow by echoing President Bush’s 2004 letter which stated explicitly that a peace accord would have to recognize the reality of the Israeli presence in Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank. If not, it will be another blow to the U.S.-Israel relationship and make the meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu even more tense than was expected.
One interesting thing about Barack Obama as his presidency has progressed: He now consistently misses the scheduled times of his own speeches. His Mideast speech was due to be delivered at 11:40; it’s 11:59 as I write and no Obama. This lateness is not habitual, but it has now become a thing; he once seemed as time-disciplined when it came to these things as George W. Bush, but now he more closely resembles Bill Clinton.
I know you own a great many books, David, but the truth is the book business as a business does not rely upon collectors; if it did it would have folded up shop long ago. It depends on people who buy books casually, a few times a year, and on wildly successful long-published books from the “backlist.” I think it’s beyond argument that the “backlist” is going to go entirely digital, because reading devices are almost certain to become standard in schools and colleges a few years hence. That leaves nothing but the bestseller business to prop up the printing press, and it’s in bestsellers that the Kindle is scoring its greatest successes. Don’t worry; the fact that new books will no longer be printed except in the way that, say, new vinyl records are still released for high-end stereo fans will make your own collection far more valuable over time. And you can still read to your son from the Kindle. I read one of the Beverly Cleary books to my daughter on mine when she forgot it on a plane ride and I grabbed it on the runway in ten seconds.
“[T]he end of the physical book may be coming hard upon us faster than anyone ever anticipated,” John warns, reporting the news that Amazon now sells more digitalized Kindle-friendly texts than hardbacks and paperbacks combined.
I remain skeptical that the codex, the paper-and-binding book, will disappear completely. For two reasons. First, there is a distinction between books that are consumed and never returned to—consumer books—and books that are collected, treasured, preserved from destruction. If nothing else, there is the Bible. For someone like me, who taught for two decades in the South, it is hard to imagine Christians abandoning their favorite Bible—the one they read at night, the one they carry to church—for an electronic copy. For many Christians, the first Bible is a major event in their lives. (For Jewish children, the equivalent is receiving their first siddur or prayerbook.) The book is often presented to them in a public ceremony, engraved in gold with their name. (Can you even inscribe a Kindle copy?)
But not only Bibles. Every reader has books that are special to him. Randall Jarrell used to say that he owned several copies of Christina Stead’s Man Who Loved Children (1940), because he so loved the novel that he pressed it upon friends (and friends never return books). Books to be used up and discarded—bestselling fiction, self-improvement guides, popular biographies, books on current affairs—belong nowhere else but on the Kindle. There is, however, another class of books altogether.
“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and far more often) worth reading at the age of fifty,” C. S. Lewis said. And that brings me to my second reason for doubting the final disappearance of the “physical book.” Namely, children don’t learn to read on the Kindle, but from the pages that they turn excitedly with their parents. “Talk to it, Daddy,” my son Saul used to say when I opened a book to start reading aloud. When he grew older, he began to acquire his own first books—fine printed editions of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The House at Pooh Corner—which he would proudly take to preschool with him, even though he could not even read them. “An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only,” Lewis also said. I am willing to grant that “literary” readers have always been and will remain a minority, but trained in childhood to love the physical qualities of print on paper, the minority will always insist on a few bound books.
Obama’s speech today on his Middle East policy needs to do what his last major foreign policy address failed to—give a broad, coherent vision of his goals in the region, and explain how we get there.
Already there are some hints about the president’s plans. According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama’s decision to make the speech at the State Department represents a policy shift toward diplomacy and democracy promotion, and away from the “realist” philosophy of the Pentagon. Jay Solomon and Adam Entous write:
Even as the U.S. pursues “principally military and intelligence efforts” to fight terrorism and build toward an exit from Afghanistan, “the longer future in the Middle East we believe will have a huge diplomatic component to it,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
That puts the military in a bind. Many in the Pentagon ascribe to what Washington policy wonks call the “realist” theory of foreign policy, which believes in narrowly defined international goals, not reshaping the world. “We take countries as they are, not as we might wish they could be,” said a senior military officer working on the Middle East.
Since Obama’s last speech on Libya, many have found his foreign policy contradictory. Why did the U.S. intervene in Libya while ignoring Syria? But the administration’s decision to tighten sanctions on Syria yesterday indicates that they may be moving toward a more consistent policy. It’s more important for Obama to clearly articulate the philosophy that will drive his Middle East strategy than to lay out specific solutions to individual problems in the region.
A couple of weeks ago Congresswoman Michele Bachmann said that she was praying for Divine guidance about not only whether she should run for president but who ought to run her campaign. But her comments in an interview with Fox News made it sound as if at least some of her prayers have been answered. Bachmann may jump into the race in advance of planned trips to both Iowa and New Hampshire next week.
For the majority of pundits who have been concentrating on reading the tea leaves in Indianapolis as Mitch Daniels keeps Republicans waiting, Bachmann’s choice is not as big a deal. But although I would agree with those who would parachute Daniels in at the head of the pack once he launches his campaign, Republicans would be foolish to underestimate the impact of a Bachmann candidacy. Bachmann is considered by most pundits to be too flaky to win the nomination, let alone the presidency. But she has three factors going for her that could make her a formidable contender.
First, although all of the Republican contenders will claim to represent the interest of Tea Party voters, Bachmann is the real thing. No other candidate will have the same combination of extreme distaste for government and populist fervor that animates Bachmann. Her rise to national prominence is the direct result of Tea Party activism and she will be able to count on their enthusiastic backing.
Second, unlike some of the more mainstream candidates, she will also have a strong appeal for social conservatives who are looking for a standard bearer for their issues now that Mike Huckabee has taken himself out of the race. That will be crucial in Iowa which will be a make or break state for Bachmann.
Third, she will inherit the mantle of Sarah Palin. Granted, such a label would be a liability in many contexts but no one is better placed to appeal to the many Republicans who lined up to buy Palin’s books and cheer the former vice presidential candidate. While Bachmann doesn’t have the same level of charisma as Palin, as the only attractive, outspoken conservative woman in the race, she will be the natural home for Palin’s fans.
Bachmann is prone to gaffes and her radical approach to governance means that there is probably a low ceiling to her support. And there is always the chance that Palin could decide to run which would sink Bachmann’s hopes. But if Palin stays out, Bachmann will have no problem raising money and, like Huckabee in 2008, could emerge from the early going as the most viable of all the so-called second-tier candidates. After there it is hard to plot a path for her to get to the nomination. But one imagines that her strategists, whether they have been sent to her from the Almighty or not, are not thinking past Iowa and the other early states.
Princeton Professor Cornel West has ignited an intense debate among African American commentators by calling President Obama a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” West added, “I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men. . . . It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation.” West went on to say that Obama’s politics are more centrist than progressive and do not uplift the poor, calling the president a “newcomer . . . who wanted to reassure the establishment” and “someone who was using intermittent progressive populist language in order to justify a centrist, neoliberalist policy.”
About these comments several things can be said, starting with this. Cornel West’s comments are extremely patronizing and arrogant. He speaks as if he sits astride Mt. Olympus and is worthy to judge who and who is not an authentic African American. There’s nothing West has done or written that merits this self-regard.
Professor West’s comments also indicate the degree to which those on the left believe liberal social policies are the synonymous with caring for the poor, despite the evidence that the opposite is often true (see welfare reform as but one example).
Finally, West’s comments are damaging to how we think about race in America. It would be entirely appropriate for West to offer a harsh progressive critique of Obama’s policies, if the Princeton professor believes that is warranted. But to argue that the president’s deviations from left-wing orthodoxy are manifestations of a “certain fear of free black men” is ludicrous and terribly unfair to Obama. There is no valid reason for West to have injected race into this discussion. It assumes two things: (a) everything needs to be seen through a racial lens and (b) when it comes to politics and political philosophy there is a single preestablished “black” position—and those who don’t embrace it fully and completely are racially suspect. In the case of Barack Obama, he is said to be a “white man with black skin.”
In fact, Barack Obama is an American citizen who happens to have black skin. He is a mascot and a puppet to no one. It’s a disgrace, really, to suggest otherwise.
Given Professor West’s history on racial matters, what he’s doing now is perfectly predictable. But that doesn’t make it any less ugly or divisive.
The most important news today, in world-historical terms, won’t be the president’s speech or the disposition of the Strauss-Kahn case or anything like it. The most important news today came from Amazon.com, the nation’s leading online book retailer, which accounts for (depending on what you read) 14 to 25 percent of the overall book market in the United States. The news is that Amazon is now selling more books for its Kindle reader than it is selling hardcover and paperback books combined:
- Since April 1, for every 100 print books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 105 Kindle books. This includes sales of hardcover and paperback books by Amazon where there is no Kindle edition. Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the number even higher.
- Amazon sold more than 3x as many Kindle books so far in 2011 as it did during the same period in 2010.
- Less than one year after introducing the UK Kindle Store, Amazon.co.uk is now selling more Kindle books than hardcover books, even as hardcover sales continue to grow. Since April 1, Amazon.co.uk customers are purchasing Kindle books over hardcover books at a rate of more than 2 to 1.
There have been signs and portents that the traditional book is in danger of going the way of the dodo, but this is actually the first real-world indication that the end of the physical book may be coming hard upon us faster than anyone ever anticipated. This is as significant a development in the world’s cultural history as any since the mass marketing of the phonograph record in the early decades of the 20th century.