Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 27, 2011

Untangling Ideology From Incompetence on Obama’s Iraq Withdrawal

Just one more underline under Max Boot’s underlining of Pete Wehner’s post on the disgraceful eviction of American troops in Iraq.

Max describes at some length just how badly the White House fumbled the Status of Forces Agreement negotiations that would have enabled our forces to stay in Iraq. The sticking point was the Iraqis’ refusal to grant legal immunity to U.S. forces, which Max points out was nothing new. Bahgdad had raised similar objections during the 2008 SOFA negotiations under President Bush, and the Bush administration had managed to persuade the Iraqis to grant immunity.

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Just one more underline under Max Boot’s underlining of Pete Wehner’s post on the disgraceful eviction of American troops in Iraq.

Max describes at some length just how badly the White House fumbled the Status of Forces Agreement negotiations that would have enabled our forces to stay in Iraq. The sticking point was the Iraqis’ refusal to grant legal immunity to U.S. forces, which Max points out was nothing new. Bahgdad had raised similar objections during the 2008 SOFA negotiations under President Bush, and the Bush administration had managed to persuade the Iraqis to grant immunity.

Bluntly put, one of two things is true. Either the Obama administration did not want to keep our troops stationed in Iraq or it was unable to prevail upon the Iraqis to grant immunity as the Bush administration had. If it’s the former, then the president and his staff dismissed the concerns of our military commanders and strategists, all of whom insisted we must maintain a military presence in the country, and instead chose to leave Iraq to the tender mercies of the Iranian mullahs. If it’s the latter, then the Obama administration is – by definition – orders of magnitude less diplomatically competent than the Bush administration. The fiasco certainly speaks poorly of the White House’s gratingly self-professed Smart Power.

There doesn’t really seem to be a third option. Either they wouldn’t or they couldn’t. The Bush administration wanted to and did.

As to what the actual answer is, there are obviously arguments on both sides. But it seems like the public evidence leans toward incompetence, inasmuch as there’s a pile of statements showing the White House tried to secure a SOFA and a pattern of Iraqi behavior showing utter disregard for other parts of the administration’s regional policy. The Obama administration simply got steamrolled by Iraq, just like they’ve been steamrolled in other forums.

Now the rest of the world is rushing to fill the vacuum we’re leaving behind.

Turkey is establishing a permanent military presence in Iraq, part of a broader and deliberate campaign to bring portions of the country under its control. Iran doesn’t really need to send in troops to physically occupy Iraqi territory, given that the same IRGC agents who tried to orchestrate the Washington, D.C., assassination of Saudi Ambassador Adel al Jubeir also run anti-U.S. military operations in Iraq. There are even reports that Hamas is getting involved on the ground. Only we’re leaving with our tails between our legs.

Obama and the rest of the foreign policy left spent a decade insisting the war in Iraq was a failure. Now they’re going to make sure of it.

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Michael Moore, Hypocrite and Liar

The filmmaker Michael Moore was on Piers Morgan’s CNN show a couple of nights ago and was asked (via Twitter) how he squares the fact that he’s benefitted enormously from capitalism while turning into one of its leading critics. In the exchange that followed, Morgan asked (rhetorically, he thought), “You’re in the top one percent, right?” To which Moore replied, “I’m not in the top one percent. No.”

Now just for the record, the latest data shows that the top one percent means you’re a person with an adjusted gross income of roughly $380,000. Michael Moore’s net worth is estimated to be around $50 million. Which means he’s closer to being in the top one-tenth of one percent of earners in America. But no matter. Moore had a lie to tell, and tell it he did, and several more times. Piers Morgan, knowing Moore was misleading him and his audience, said, “I need you to admit the bleeding obvious. I need you to sit here and say, ‘I’m in the one percent.’ Because it’s important.” To which Moore said, “Well, I can’t. Because I’m not.”

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The filmmaker Michael Moore was on Piers Morgan’s CNN show a couple of nights ago and was asked (via Twitter) how he squares the fact that he’s benefitted enormously from capitalism while turning into one of its leading critics. In the exchange that followed, Morgan asked (rhetorically, he thought), “You’re in the top one percent, right?” To which Moore replied, “I’m not in the top one percent. No.”

Now just for the record, the latest data shows that the top one percent means you’re a person with an adjusted gross income of roughly $380,000. Michael Moore’s net worth is estimated to be around $50 million. Which means he’s closer to being in the top one-tenth of one percent of earners in America. But no matter. Moore had a lie to tell, and tell it he did, and several more times. Piers Morgan, knowing Moore was misleading him and his audience, said, “I need you to admit the bleeding obvious. I need you to sit here and say, ‘I’m in the one percent.’ Because it’s important.” To which Moore said, “Well, I can’t. Because I’m not.”

“You are, though,” Morgan said.

“No, I’m not. I’m not,” Moore insisted again.

“You’re not in the one percent?” an exasperated Morgan asked again.

“Of course I’m not!” Moore shouted. “How can I be in the one percent?”

“Because you’re worth millions,” Morgan said.

To which Moore said, emphatically, “No, that’s not true.”

Except that it is true. And everyone knows it’s true.

The only thing Moore conceded is that he does “really well.” As for the line of questioning, Moore plaintively asked, “What’s the point?”

Since he asked, let’s see if we can help Moore answer that question.

The point is that in roughly four minutes Michael Moore, icon of the left, established beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is both a hypocrite and a liar (though not a terribly good one; he’s clearly not Clintonesque when it comes to delivering repeated lies). Being a left-wing ideologue is bad enough; being an unprincipled one is worse.

Moore is clearly a conflicted man. He hates capitalism even though he’s (over) eaten from the fruits of its tree. He’s made tens of millions of dollars on a system he considers irredeemably corrupt. And in the interview he tries, with comic ineptness, to portray himself as virtuous.

But the filmmaker is a fraud, from hat to toe. And the wonderful thing is that it’s all been caught on camera.

The whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

 

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Occupy Oakland to “Shut Down City” in Name of Injured Activist

Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran and “Occupy” activist, was seriously injured when he was reportedly struck in the head with a tear gas canister fired by police trying to disperse a mob of protesters. Olsen has become the latest rallying cry for the movement, which is working to “shut down the city” in his name next week:

“We mean nobody goes to work, nobody goes to school, we shut the city down,” organizer Cat Brooks said. “The only thing they seem to care about is money and they don’t understand that it’s our money they need. We don’t need them, they need us.” …

Brooks said a general strike was a “natural progression” following a crackdown by the city of Oakland early on Tuesday morning in which protesters were evicted from a plaza near City Hall and 85 people were arrested.

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Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran and “Occupy” activist, was seriously injured when he was reportedly struck in the head with a tear gas canister fired by police trying to disperse a mob of protesters. Olsen has become the latest rallying cry for the movement, which is working to “shut down the city” in his name next week:

“We mean nobody goes to work, nobody goes to school, we shut the city down,” organizer Cat Brooks said. “The only thing they seem to care about is money and they don’t understand that it’s our money they need. We don’t need them, they need us.” …

Brooks said a general strike was a “natural progression” following a crackdown by the city of Oakland early on Tuesday morning in which protesters were evicted from a plaza near City Hall and 85 people were arrested.

Olsen’s injury sounds like a tragic accident, but causing citywide disruptions isn’t likely to inspire much sympathy for the cause. City residents were already tired of the protesters, and now police are apparently letting them run wild out of fear of repeating the Olsen incident:

Protesters sought to re-take that plaza on Tuesday night and were repeatedly driven back by police using stun grenades and tear gas. It was during one of those clashes that protesters say Olsen was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police.…

More than 1,000 protesters moved onto the streets of Oakland again on Wednesday night as police largely kept their distance.

Fortunately, it sounds like Olsen is improving. He’s still in the hospital, but Fox News is reporting his condition has been upgraded to “fair.”

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Israel-Cyprus Military Exercises Show Turkey is Increasingly Isolated

More evidence that Turkey’s neo-Ottoman campaign to isolate Israel is backfiring badly:

Cypriot media outlets reported last week that Israel was conducting Air Force exercises with its Greek Cypriot counterpart over the Mediterranean and Greek island. The exercise is being seen by some reports as a “message to Turkey,” which has repeatedly threatened both Israel and Cyprus over deep-sea drilling in the Mediterranean. Greek Daily Phileleftheros published a document detailing the Israeli-Cypriot exercise, which included mid-air refuelling of fighter jets and quick touchdown landings by Israel Air Force combat helicopters in Cyprus.

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More evidence that Turkey’s neo-Ottoman campaign to isolate Israel is backfiring badly:

Cypriot media outlets reported last week that Israel was conducting Air Force exercises with its Greek Cypriot counterpart over the Mediterranean and Greek island. The exercise is being seen by some reports as a “message to Turkey,” which has repeatedly threatened both Israel and Cyprus over deep-sea drilling in the Mediterranean. Greek Daily Phileleftheros published a document detailing the Israeli-Cypriot exercise, which included mid-air refuelling of fighter jets and quick touchdown landings by Israel Air Force combat helicopters in Cyprus.

The exercises are particularly noteworthy in light of a rumored incident over Cypriot airspace, where Israeli and Turkish planes may or may not have almost had an “aerial encounter.” If there are to be incidents in the area as American influence precipitously declines, the signal is presumably being sent–Cyprus and Israel will be on one side and Turkey will be on the other. Israel and Cyprus’s newly forged ties are in line with recent moves made by Athens and Sofia to solidify their mutual defense interests with Israel.

In the Arab and Muslim world, Turkey finds itself at odds with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood over democratization, distanced from Iran over missile defense, and alienated from Syria over the Arab Spring. With Russia also alarmed at Turkey’s moves against energy exploration, seemingly the only reliable ally Erdogan has left is President Obama.

Per reports, “by all accounts Mr. Obama sees Erodgan as a constructive partner, speaks with him frequently by phone and seeks his views on the region.” Obama is supplying Turkey with F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Predators, and Super Cobra helicopters. Those assets contain technology that Turkey seems increasingly predisposed to transfer to our enemies, reverse engineer for its own uses, and turn against Israel. So at least they’ll have plenty of U.S. technology to play with, even as the Middle East and Europe turn against them.

None of which has stopped Erdogan’s shills in the media and the foreign policy community from celebrating his oh-so-delicate regional diplomacy.

As a small example, Anthony Shadid of the New York Times is desperately trying to peddle “analysis” to the effect that Erdogan is, despite all outward appearances, popular in the Middle East. Given the mountain of evidence showing the exact opposite, one almost wonders whether Shadid’s private opinion – “that Israel’s foreign policy is myopic and it is the most short-sighted state in the region” – is a bit of wishful thinking that’s clouding his journalistic objectivity.

Shadid is better known for his journalism-cum-agitprop dispatches during Lebanon II (my favorite example of his Hezbollah propagandizing is here, and CAMERA debunked him here). These days he can’t seem to get over how awesome Erdogan is, with content typical of vapid paint-by-numbers media pseudo-sophistication but a style all his own.

In May, under the headline “Leader Transcends Complex Politics of Turkey,” Shadid declared that Turkey under Erdogan was “emerging as a decisive power… building relationships with Iran and Arab neighbors at the expense of Israel.” A few months later, under the headline “In Riddle of Mideast Upheaval, Turkey Offers Itself as an Answer,” Shadid offered that while “no one is ready to declare a Pax Turkana in the Middle East” just yet, “officials of an assertive, occasionally brash Turkey have offered a vision” for the Middle East’s future.

Back in the real world, of course, Turkey ended up on the wrong side of just about everyone in the region. Which isn’t to say Turkey won’t manage to become a regional hegemon. It’s only to emphasize if they do so it will be because of the gunboats and helicopters we gave them, not through Erdogan’s vaunted soft power. Meanwhile, Shadid and like-minded foreign policy reporters will keep peddling the tale of oh-so-delicate Turkish diplomacy and oh-so-pervasive Israeli isolation – the better to lull a quiescent West into telling itself that Everything Is OK – even as evidence piles up that the region is terrified of Turkish ascendency.

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How Hillary Became Likable

The transformation of Hillary Clinton’s public image during the past three years has been remarkable. After her own party rejected her back in 2008, few would have predicted she’d be polling higher than Obama in a 2012 matchup with Republicans:

Clinton would beat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 17 points, 55 percent-38 percent, according to Time magazine. And the former first lady would blow away Texas Gov. Rick Perry by 26 points, 58 percent-32 percent.

In contrast, that same poll shows that Obama leads Romney by only 3 percentage points and Perry by 12 points.

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The transformation of Hillary Clinton’s public image during the past three years has been remarkable. After her own party rejected her back in 2008, few would have predicted she’d be polling higher than Obama in a 2012 matchup with Republicans:

Clinton would beat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 17 points, 55 percent-38 percent, according to Time magazine. And the former first lady would blow away Texas Gov. Rick Perry by 26 points, 58 percent-32 percent.

In contrast, that same poll shows that Obama leads Romney by only 3 percentage points and Perry by 12 points.

Once seen as a divisive far-left opportunist, Clinton owes a lot of her newfound respect to her position as secretary of state. Before she took office, Clinton was mainly known for her domestic policy views. But foreign policy tends to be less visibly partisan, which likely helped soften her image with Republicans and independent voters.

Plus, the only major victories of Obama’s presidency have been foreign policy-related, which is ironic considering how little Obama seems to care about these issues. And while there’s plenty to criticize about this administration’s national security policies, that’s also the area where Obama has been the least ideologically rigid, keeping many of Bush’s counterterrorism policies in place. Foreign policy issues are also where Obama tends to score highest in national polls.

The Clinton-Republican matchup poll will probably spark another round of calls for her to run in 2016, or at least knock Joe Biden out of the VP slot in 2012. It’s not going to happen. But while Clinton may never get to the White House, this is probably a good thing as far as her legacy is concerned.

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Libya at Great Risk of Renewed Fighting

Amid all the media hoopla about a new way of war supposedly being born in Libya, it is sobering to take note of some new revelations which suggest there is precious little new about what has just happened.

In the first place, Qatar has now admitted that hundreds of its Special Forces were on the ground in Libya helping the rebels to train their forces and communicate with NATO. This was in addition to the previously disclosed presence of British and French Special Forces. In other words, just as in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, it took an outside contingent of troops to galvanize a scattered opposition and transform it into a militarily effective force.

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Amid all the media hoopla about a new way of war supposedly being born in Libya, it is sobering to take note of some new revelations which suggest there is precious little new about what has just happened.

In the first place, Qatar has now admitted that hundreds of its Special Forces were on the ground in Libya helping the rebels to train their forces and communicate with NATO. This was in addition to the previously disclosed presence of British and French Special Forces. In other words, just as in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, it took an outside contingent of troops to galvanize a scattered opposition and transform it into a militarily effective force.

Having been midwived by outside military intervention, the new Libyan government is not ready to go it alone, either. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, chairman of the Transitional National Council, has asked NATO to continue its mission through at least the end of the year by providing military training and continuing air support for the rebel forces. This is especially important because the rebel leadership so far has had no luck in amalgamating various rebel militias into a single military force. Unless a strong national army can be created and the militias disarmed, Libya stands at great risk of renewed fighting. Unfortunately, that is precisely the risk we are running because NATO appears set to end its mission next week.

That will not, of course, stop individual NATO states or non-NATO states for that matter from providing help to the Libyans. But there is much to be said for NATO taking the lead role rather than deferring to, say, Qatar, an opportunistic state that hosts a U.S. military presence while also sponsoring al Jazeera, cultivating friendly ties with Iran, and providing a platform for Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric who is one of the most popular jihadist demagogues in the entire Middle East.

The U.S., Britain, France and Italy need to stay closely involved in Libyan developments to help ensure that the revolution, so far successful, does not go off the rails. But for that to happen, President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, and President Sarkozy will have to take a break from all the victory laps they have been taking since the fall of Tripoli and the death of Qaddafi. Much hard work remains ahead if the promise of the Libyan revolution is to be realized.

 

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Turkey: We Still Hate Israel, Even Though We’re Accepting Israeli Earthquake Aid

Despite the devastation wrought by the 7.2 earthquake that struck the country’s southeast, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his Islamist AKP ilk seemed determined over the weekend to reject Israeli disaster aid. The prefabbed houses and relief supplies being offered were, apparently, unacceptably Jewish. Then, facing significant domestic criticism over his government’s mishandling of the earthquake aftermath, Erdogan reversed himself. He acquiesced to assistance from the Jewish State, and the Israelis responded within hours.

But the Turkish government wants everyone to know that, aid or no aid, they still hate Israel:

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Despite the devastation wrought by the 7.2 earthquake that struck the country’s southeast, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his Islamist AKP ilk seemed determined over the weekend to reject Israeli disaster aid. The prefabbed houses and relief supplies being offered were, apparently, unacceptably Jewish. Then, facing significant domestic criticism over his government’s mishandling of the earthquake aftermath, Erdogan reversed himself. He acquiesced to assistance from the Jewish State, and the Israelis responded within hours.

But the Turkish government wants everyone to know that, aid or no aid, they still hate Israel:

The Turkish government was quick on Thursday to downplay any hopes that Israeli distribution of aid to earthquake victims would lead to a warming in diplomatic ties between the two countries, according to a report in today’s Zaman newspaper… Erdogan backtracked on Monday and allowed other countries to send desperately-needed supplies. Israel quickly sent an El Al cargo plane with five mobile housing units, 2,000 warm jackets, 2,000 blankets, and 100 inflatable beds. Defense Ministry officials said that another plane with an additional five mobile housing units is expected to be sent to Turkey in the coming days.

In fairness, it would be tough for Turkey to pursue rapprochement with Israel at the same time they’re doggedly boosting their ties with Hamas. Hamas already considers Ankara to be a “trustworthy, reliable ally,” and the terrorist organization recruits and fundraises throughout Turkey. So given the alliances that Erdogan is pursuing as he indulges in his feverish neo-Ottoman fantasies, it would probably be a waste of everyone’s time for him to pretend he was interested in un-destroying the Turkish/Israeli relationship.

Instead, the AKP will undoubtedly continue to pursue and persecute the Israeli soldiers who participated in the raid on the MV Marmara (there’s no word yet on whether any of those soldiers are among those delivering life-saving aid to Turkey). Turkey’s government has close ties to the IHH terrorist group that instigated the incident, and close ties to the Hamas government they were trying to assist, so they’re at least doubly invested in punishing the Israelis for defending themselves.

A neo-Ottoman crank like Erdogan, especially one who understands how to play the international community for suckers, isn’t going to stop trying to isolate and undermine Israel. He’s not even willing to suspend diplomatic attacks on Israel as Israeli disaster relief planes head toward a Turkish disaster area.

Quite the performance from the man crowned by Reuters as the “new champion for Arabs.”

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Rubio’s Univision Problem

Marco Rubio may be the victim in the Univision blackmail scandal, but his clash with the Spanish-language news station could actually end up hurting him if he’s looking to secure the VP nomination next year. Columnist Ruben Navarrette, who regularly advocates for more dialogue between Republicans and the Hispanic community, argues that the Rubio-Univision feud effectively shuts off a major channel of communication between the groups:

There’s a war going on between the GOP’s Hispanic golden boy and the Spanish-language television giant. Is Miami big enough for both of them?

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Marco Rubio may be the victim in the Univision blackmail scandal, but his clash with the Spanish-language news station could actually end up hurting him if he’s looking to secure the VP nomination next year. Columnist Ruben Navarrette, who regularly advocates for more dialogue between Republicans and the Hispanic community, argues that the Rubio-Univision feud effectively shuts off a major channel of communication between the groups:

There’s a war going on between the GOP’s Hispanic golden boy and the Spanish-language television giant. Is Miami big enough for both of them?

Meanwhile, the fallout from the Univision incident is bad news for Latino Republicans who want to establish a dialogue between the GOP and Latinos. That’s not easy under the best of circumstances. They build a bridge, and then a Republican blows it up by saying something thickheaded about immigration. But at least, when candidates appear on a network that reaches 95 percent of the 13 million Hispanic households in the United States, there is an avenue of communication. That’s valuable.

Trying to convince Latinos to give the Republican Party a fair shake is a mission that is hard enough already. Now that the GOP and Univision are feuding, it could be mission impossible.

Rubio has plenty of qualities conservatives look for in a VP candidate, but there’s no doubt Republicans are also keenly aware of his potential for attracting Hispanic voters. Will this still be a factor if the largest Spanish language network in the country has a personal vendetta against him?

And outreach is only half the problem. There are always other ways to reach Hispanic voters, including the Telemundo debate, which the candidates will participate in. But the Univision-Rubio scandal seems to show the network has no qualms about acting as a mouthpiece to damage the reputation of a politician it doesn’t like. And that’s a possibility that should concern Rubio – and the Republican Party – as the election nears.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Kate Christensen

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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I’m an optimist by nature, and a comic writer; all my novels, dark as they are, end with an uplift. I believe in sweetness and light. But there are some very good reasons to be direly pessimistic about the future of this country, which has come to feel like an amalgam of corporatocracy, fascist police state, and mini-mall. I feel by turns overwhelmed and angry and worried about the environment, the food industry, corporate greed, and the ballooning (in both senses) population. There are seemingly so many systemic failures that facing and fixing any of them, let alone all of them, feels impossible.

Where to start? Our great Constitution is simultaneously disregarded, on the one hand, in the fearmongering interest of “national security,” and on the other, iron-fistedly brought to bear on Supreme Court decisions that hinder necessary social progress. Monsanto is taking control of agriculture and the food industry with non-propagating seeds and genetically modified “Frankenplants.” Obesity already affects a third of our population, and will likely affect 50 percent of us by 2030. Our population itself is projected to reach 400 million by 2043, doubling in my lifetime. The pursuit of oil and natural gas to meet the energy needs of this growing population threatens what’s left of our environment. Weather patterns are changing in drastic and undeniable ways and, by all reputable accounts, it’s too late to stop them.

Public education is primarily concerned now with teaching kids how to pass multiple-choice tests. Health care and Social Security are unsustainable; we can no longer afford them. Our all-encompassing “culture industry” has proved Theodor Adorno right: popular art seems increasingly to exist primarily to feed market interests, and any potential counterculture is immediately enveloped by the market. Then there’s the growing disparity between rich and poor—when our only agency lies in the dollar, not the vote, only the rich have any power—the skyrocketing debt, the crumbling of basic infrastructures, and the toxic divisiveness of our political culture. Read More

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

I’m an optimist by nature, and a comic writer; all my novels, dark as they are, end with an uplift. I believe in sweetness and light. But there are some very good reasons to be direly pessimistic about the future of this country, which has come to feel like an amalgam of corporatocracy, fascist police state, and mini-mall. I feel by turns overwhelmed and angry and worried about the environment, the food industry, corporate greed, and the ballooning (in both senses) population. There are seemingly so many systemic failures that facing and fixing any of them, let alone all of them, feels impossible.

Where to start? Our great Constitution is simultaneously disregarded, on the one hand, in the fearmongering interest of “national security,” and on the other, iron-fistedly brought to bear on Supreme Court decisions that hinder necessary social progress. Monsanto is taking control of agriculture and the food industry with non-propagating seeds and genetically modified “Frankenplants.” Obesity already affects a third of our population, and will likely affect 50 percent of us by 2030. Our population itself is projected to reach 400 million by 2043, doubling in my lifetime. The pursuit of oil and natural gas to meet the energy needs of this growing population threatens what’s left of our environment. Weather patterns are changing in drastic and undeniable ways and, by all reputable accounts, it’s too late to stop them.

Public education is primarily concerned now with teaching kids how to pass multiple-choice tests. Health care and Social Security are unsustainable; we can no longer afford them. Our all-encompassing “culture industry” has proved Theodor Adorno right: popular art seems increasingly to exist primarily to feed market interests, and any potential counterculture is immediately enveloped by the market. Then there’s the growing disparity between rich and poor—when our only agency lies in the dollar, not the vote, only the rich have any power—the skyrocketing debt, the crumbling of basic infrastructures, and the toxic divisiveness of our political culture.

What did I leave out? Oh yes, the economy. It’s bad.

How is any of this ever going to be reversed when all indications are that it’s entrenched and accelerating? The idea of protesting unchecked corporate power strikes me as futile, like punching the Pillsbury Doughboy in the stomach—all you do is bury your arm in corrupt goo, and then you’re stuck trying to pull it out again before it gets swallowed. And, of course, full-out revolution is impossible. There’s nothing to topple. Our government is impotent, and the multinational corporations whose interests it serves are like mutant super-ivy embedding itself into the planet’s surface with enormous stems and horror-movie tentacles.

In the face of this clear and overwhelming and deeply upsetting evidence that we’re already in the handbasket to hell, I see no alternative but to abandon all hope. This breaks my heart. I remember believing as a kid that this was a great country, that America was free and strong and full of possibility. I would love to be optimistic, in the end, about Americans pulling together to overcome any crisis. But I can’t convince myself, much less anyone else, that there’s anything we can do, given what this country has become and what it is further becoming. All I can do is mourn.

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Kate Christensen is a novelist and the author, most recently, of The Astral (Doubleday).

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Dead Zone at the Core of American Life

In one of his typically remarkable posts at the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead reflects upon the story of Rajat K. Gupta, who was indicted yesterday on charges of insider trading. As head of the distinguished consulting group McKinsey & Co., Gupta was “privy to the most sensitive information in American corporate life,” Mead explains.

Gupta abused the trust of his clients in (allegedly) trading on the information to enrich himself. “If the government proves its case,” Mead says, “it will demonstrate that the American establishment has lost its ability to discern character and demand integrity”:

That a criminal could win the trust of so many of the “best and the brightest” in philanthropy and business chillingly demonstrates the moral and intellectual vacuum in the corporate world. Years of excessive payment for executives, okayed by go along to get along boards of directors, a culture of entitlement and a lack of personal character and strong moral codes have created a dead zone at the core of American life.

A haunting phrase — the dead zone at the core of American life. Success is now the measure of respectability throughout the culture; men and women of principle put themselves at a competitive disadvantage, and are roundly hooted at.

It is not merely “the corporate world” that is to blame, however. Where in American life is the living zone of personal character and strong moral codes? The churches? Perhaps in the more Evangelical ones (and in Mormon temples), but the mainline Protestant churches have abandoned their tradition of moral radicalism, according to the great novelist Marilynne Robinson:

     What are called now the mainline churches were very much in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement. They truly were radical in the terms of the time, and ahead of their time. . . . And I think that they are radical institutions in their deepest impulses, but that they have been stereotyped as the archetypal conservative institutions. . . .
     They don’t like this characterization. They don’t think past it. And they’ve been very much intimidated by these kinds of things. I think that they would be very well positioned to assume an important place in contemporary culture. For them, the issue seems to be, “Should we imitate others?” and it never seems to be, “How can we be more fully ourselves?”

Kal v’homer, as the Jews say — how much more true of Reform and Conservative Judaism, which together account for 70 percent of American Jews. Much of the religious life in America is simply a lowered-voice rush to accommodate itself to the dead zone.

The universities? Don’t make me laugh. Even if the “best and brightest” in academe were not so keen to throw off the burden of the liberal arts — which were once the zone of strong moral codes in American life — the university has irretrievably lost its position as the training ground of personal character.

As a blogger at Ace of Spades HQ put it in asking whether education is the “root cause” of our current political dramas, “[A]n uber-expensive university system . . . encourages students to take on debts approaching a house mortgage yet leaves them ill-prepared to actually earn a living, much less pay back their loans.” Even the sharp-toothed Charles Krauthammer, liberally educated at McGill and Balliol College, Oxford, shares the same basic assumption about university education. In a recent column on Occupy Wall Street, he wrote:

These indignant indolents saddled with their $50,000 student loans and English degrees have decided that their lack of gainful employment is rooted in the malice of the millionaires on whose homes they are now marching —

and not in those worthless English degrees, I suppose, that left them ill-prepared to earn a living. The purpose of a university education, everyone now agrees, is to help you get ahead; not, as William James once said, underlining every word, to “help you to know a good man when you see him.”

That leaves literature. In preparing The Aspern Papers for a course on Henry James recently, I stumbled upon a 1995 article by Joseph Hynes in the South Atlantic Review. Now retired from the English department at the University of Oregon, Hynes is a scholar of postwar British fiction who wrote one book on Muriel Spark’s novels and edited another. He calls his essay “Morality and Fiction,” and he focuses largely upon James, because James reveals “something valuable about fiction” — in his own work and since then. James himself is a “highly sensitive moralist trying to find some roots for his conviction that responsible choices require attention to how we ought to live our lives,” Hynes writes.

But James was one of the last American novelists with any such conviction. “[S]ince James’s time, fiction-writers have written more and more painstakingly about less and less,” Hynes observes. Which brings us to our own time, and to what Hynes calls “the determined refusal, on display in contemporary fiction, to enter into conscious moral debate. . . .”

Religious men and women, scholars, writers — the company once known as humanists — suffered a failure of nerve. Scorned by “the corporate world” for principles and codes that seemed fully to explain their own economic shortcomings, confined to a zone of culture without power or influence, they were quick to capitulate. They preferred to imitate the standards of success. But the zone they abandoned is now dead, and the institutions that once made it possible for the fugitives to earn a living — the mainline churches, the research universities, the publishing trade — are not much better off. If a new zone of personal character and strong moral codes is to be created in American life, it will have to be the work of a counterculture.

In one of his typically remarkable posts at the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead reflects upon the story of Rajat K. Gupta, who was indicted yesterday on charges of insider trading. As head of the distinguished consulting group McKinsey & Co., Gupta was “privy to the most sensitive information in American corporate life,” Mead explains.

Gupta abused the trust of his clients in (allegedly) trading on the information to enrich himself. “If the government proves its case,” Mead says, “it will demonstrate that the American establishment has lost its ability to discern character and demand integrity”:

That a criminal could win the trust of so many of the “best and the brightest” in philanthropy and business chillingly demonstrates the moral and intellectual vacuum in the corporate world. Years of excessive payment for executives, okayed by go along to get along boards of directors, a culture of entitlement and a lack of personal character and strong moral codes have created a dead zone at the core of American life.

A haunting phrase — the dead zone at the core of American life. Success is now the measure of respectability throughout the culture; men and women of principle put themselves at a competitive disadvantage, and are roundly hooted at.

It is not merely “the corporate world” that is to blame, however. Where in American life is the living zone of personal character and strong moral codes? The churches? Perhaps in the more Evangelical ones (and in Mormon temples), but the mainline Protestant churches have abandoned their tradition of moral radicalism, according to the great novelist Marilynne Robinson:

     What are called now the mainline churches were very much in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement. They truly were radical in the terms of the time, and ahead of their time. . . . And I think that they are radical institutions in their deepest impulses, but that they have been stereotyped as the archetypal conservative institutions. . . .
     They don’t like this characterization. They don’t think past it. And they’ve been very much intimidated by these kinds of things. I think that they would be very well positioned to assume an important place in contemporary culture. For them, the issue seems to be, “Should we imitate others?” and it never seems to be, “How can we be more fully ourselves?”

Kal v’homer, as the Jews say — how much more true of Reform and Conservative Judaism, which together account for 70 percent of American Jews. Much of the religious life in America is simply a lowered-voice rush to accommodate itself to the dead zone.

The universities? Don’t make me laugh. Even if the “best and brightest” in academe were not so keen to throw off the burden of the liberal arts — which were once the zone of strong moral codes in American life — the university has irretrievably lost its position as the training ground of personal character.

As a blogger at Ace of Spades HQ put it in asking whether education is the “root cause” of our current political dramas, “[A]n uber-expensive university system . . . encourages students to take on debts approaching a house mortgage yet leaves them ill-prepared to actually earn a living, much less pay back their loans.” Even the sharp-toothed Charles Krauthammer, liberally educated at McGill and Balliol College, Oxford, shares the same basic assumption about university education. In a recent column on Occupy Wall Street, he wrote:

These indignant indolents saddled with their $50,000 student loans and English degrees have decided that their lack of gainful employment is rooted in the malice of the millionaires on whose homes they are now marching —

and not in those worthless English degrees, I suppose, that left them ill-prepared to earn a living. The purpose of a university education, everyone now agrees, is to help you get ahead; not, as William James once said, underlining every word, to “help you to know a good man when you see him.”

That leaves literature. In preparing The Aspern Papers for a course on Henry James recently, I stumbled upon a 1995 article by Joseph Hynes in the South Atlantic Review. Now retired from the English department at the University of Oregon, Hynes is a scholar of postwar British fiction who wrote one book on Muriel Spark’s novels and edited another. He calls his essay “Morality and Fiction,” and he focuses largely upon James, because James reveals “something valuable about fiction” — in his own work and since then. James himself is a “highly sensitive moralist trying to find some roots for his conviction that responsible choices require attention to how we ought to live our lives,” Hynes writes.

But James was one of the last American novelists with any such conviction. “[S]ince James’s time, fiction-writers have written more and more painstakingly about less and less,” Hynes observes. Which brings us to our own time, and to what Hynes calls “the determined refusal, on display in contemporary fiction, to enter into conscious moral debate. . . .”

Religious men and women, scholars, writers — the company once known as humanists — suffered a failure of nerve. Scorned by “the corporate world” for principles and codes that seemed fully to explain their own economic shortcomings, confined to a zone of culture without power or influence, they were quick to capitulate. They preferred to imitate the standards of success. But the zone they abandoned is now dead, and the institutions that once made it possible for the fugitives to earn a living — the mainline churches, the research universities, the publishing trade — are not much better off. If a new zone of personal character and strong moral codes is to be created in American life, it will have to be the work of a counterculture.

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The Ron Burgundy-ization of the Washington Post

The Washington Post has a story today on Marco Rubio–actually, correct that. The Washington Post has a story today about the Washington Post, which is pretty much all the Washington Post writes about these days.

More specifically, the Post story is an exploration of whether the Post’s earlier story on Rubio–in which they misleadingly claimed Rubio has been dishonest about his family history–will damage Rubio among Hispanic voters. The Post’s original story, which was all based on the reporter’s misunderstanding of the word “exile,” was amended after the Miami Herald effectively tore the story to shreds. But those reading today’s story will soon forget whether they are reading about Rubio, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Rick Perry, or any number of Republican politicians subjected to the same treatment.

Read More

The Washington Post has a story today on Marco Rubio–actually, correct that. The Washington Post has a story today about the Washington Post, which is pretty much all the Washington Post writes about these days.

More specifically, the Post story is an exploration of whether the Post’s earlier story on Rubio–in which they misleadingly claimed Rubio has been dishonest about his family history–will damage Rubio among Hispanic voters. The Post’s original story, which was all based on the reporter’s misunderstanding of the word “exile,” was amended after the Miami Herald effectively tore the story to shreds. But those reading today’s story will soon forget whether they are reading about Rubio, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Rick Perry, or any number of Republican politicians subjected to the same treatment.

I don’t want to dwell too much on today’s edition, because a forgettable story should be forgotten. But it’s worth noting here just why the Post’s reputation has plummeted. It isn’t bias, because that isn’t anything new. It’s the fact that the Post uses its vast resources to talk about itself in the third person. The Post operates as though it is run by Ron Burgundy and Chad Ochocinco.

Considering the dire financial condition of the newspaper world, a bit of shameless back patting can be forgiven. And if the Post were breaking actual stories, I wouldn’t begrudge them the self-congratulation. But McDonnell’s thesis was a nonstory; a racist rock that no one could find but the Post had heard once existed was a nonstory; the fact that Rubio’s parents had come to the U.S. before going back to Cuba before leaving for good was a nonstory.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much sympathy for a mainstream newspaper’s ombudsman, however.

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The Beginning of the End for OWS?

The Occupy protest movement probably won’t disappear overnight, but there are growing signs the public’s nerves are wearing thin. Police have cleared out the protests in Oakland and Atlanta, and L.A. looks like it will be next. The latest problems seem to stem from the fact that homeless people, drug addicts and assorted violent criminals have – shockingly! – set up camp with the protesters, creating public safety and health hazards:

From coast to coast, there were signs Wednesday that the Occupy demonstrations, which began in a Lower Manhattan park to protest corporate greed and other economic issues, face a growing backlash over concerns ranging from issues such as noise and sanitation to public safety and general cleanliness.…

Read More

The Occupy protest movement probably won’t disappear overnight, but there are growing signs the public’s nerves are wearing thin. Police have cleared out the protests in Oakland and Atlanta, and L.A. looks like it will be next. The latest problems seem to stem from the fact that homeless people, drug addicts and assorted violent criminals have – shockingly! – set up camp with the protesters, creating public safety and health hazards:

From coast to coast, there were signs Wednesday that the Occupy demonstrations, which began in a Lower Manhattan park to protest corporate greed and other economic issues, face a growing backlash over concerns ranging from issues such as noise and sanitation to public safety and general cleanliness.…

Providence, R.I., Mayor Angel Taveras plans to pursue legal action to evict more than 100 protesters from the city’s Burnside Park.

In Minneapolis, where 100-150 protesters crowd onto the Hennepin County Government Center plaza during the day and many spend the night, some residents are tired of the occupation and the cost of providing police services, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson says.

The New York Post reports that the influx of vagrants is even starting to irritate many of the protesters, especially the cooking staff who are fed up with having to serve food to the “professional homeless” all day:

The Occupy Wall Street volunteer kitchen staff launched a “counter” revolution yesterday — because they’re angry about working 18-hour days to provide food for “professional homeless” people and ex-cons masquerading as protesters.

For three days beginning tomorrow, the cooks will serve only brown rice and other spartan grub instead of the usual menu of organic chicken and vegetables, spaghetti bolognese, and roasted beet and sheep’s-milk-cheese salad.…

“We need to limit the amount of food we’re putting out” to curb the influx of derelicts, said Rafael Moreno, a kitchen volunteer.

The occupiers have been prepping for winter, but does anyone actually believe public officials will risk letting them live out in the elements for months? This is going to end at some point soon, whether it’s due to activists leaving out of concern for their own physical safety or police being forced to crack down on the movement.

The question is whether Occupy Wall Street will be able to channel its current energy and create something beyond the current aimless “Be-In” it is right now. If this is going to become a legitimate political movement, it must create specific political goals — something OWS has been allergic to so far. Right now the activists have a physical place to rally around, which means they don’t necessarily need a specific checklist of shared goals and ideals to maintain cohesion. They simply need to show up – just being there is the entire end-game. Once that’s taken away, the only thing that can unite them is a mutual purpose. Whether they’re able to do that remains to be seen.

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2012: Bush-Dukakis Redux?

In a recent Weekly Standard piece, Jay Cost argues that without strong support from independents, Barack Obama has no chance of victory. The problem for the president is that his standing with independents has dropped 17 percentage points since Election Day 2008 (from 52 percent to 35 percent in the most recent Gallup poll). Here’s why that’s a frightening political fact for Obama and his team:

If 2012 turns out to be a good Republican year, then we might see a partisan spread similar to 2004, when the two parties were evenly matched among the electorate. If we do indeed find that kind of result, and the president wins just 35 percent of the independent vote, next year will be a blowout, the likes of which we have not seen in nearly a quarter century. The Republican candidate would win a 10-point nationwide victory, and pull in close to 400 electoral votes.

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In a recent Weekly Standard piece, Jay Cost argues that without strong support from independents, Barack Obama has no chance of victory. The problem for the president is that his standing with independents has dropped 17 percentage points since Election Day 2008 (from 52 percent to 35 percent in the most recent Gallup poll). Here’s why that’s a frightening political fact for Obama and his team:

If 2012 turns out to be a good Republican year, then we might see a partisan spread similar to 2004, when the two parties were evenly matched among the electorate. If we do indeed find that kind of result, and the president wins just 35 percent of the independent vote, next year will be a blowout, the likes of which we have not seen in nearly a quarter century. The Republican candidate would win a 10-point nationwide victory, and pull in close to 400 electoral votes.

What we would be looking at, in other words, is a Bush-Dukakis redux (Bush won 40 states, 426 electoral votes, and by 7.7 percentage points). That gives you a sense of just how steep the hill is the president has to climb, a year and two weeks away from Election Day 2012.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: James W. Ceaser

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

There is no sadder sight than an American pessimist. Americans—Jean de Crèvecoeur told us—are born a free and hopeful lot, “a new race of men,” blessed with a bounteous land and a moderate government. Lincoln called Americans an “almost chosen people,” a designation bound to leave many readers of this magazine wondering at the divine improbability of being selected not once, but twice. Optimism, by nearly all accounts, has been an integral part of our national DNA.

What, then, is one to think of opinion polls today showing that, by a margin of almost 4 to 1 (77 percent to 20 percent), the public considers the nation to be on the “wrong track”? Malaise of such Carteresque proportions might easily be interpreted to mean that Americans have lost faith in themselves and in the future.

I am not so sure. Contrary to initial impressions, the real pessimists today are probably to be found among the “right-trackers,” clinging stubbornly to the change they once believed in. Having put their dream team on the floor, under the leadership of one touted to be the greatest political talent of our era, these die-hards have little choice now but to put on a grim public mask of hopefulness. For two years (2009–2011), we enjoyed by their reckoning virtually unchecked government of the best, by the best, and according to the best theories. Read More

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

There is no sadder sight than an American pessimist. Americans—Jean de Crèvecoeur told us—are born a free and hopeful lot, “a new race of men,” blessed with a bounteous land and a moderate government. Lincoln called Americans an “almost chosen people,” a designation bound to leave many readers of this magazine wondering at the divine improbability of being selected not once, but twice. Optimism, by nearly all accounts, has been an integral part of our national DNA.

What, then, is one to think of opinion polls today showing that, by a margin of almost 4 to 1 (77 percent to 20 percent), the public considers the nation to be on the “wrong track”? Malaise of such Carteresque proportions might easily be interpreted to mean that Americans have lost faith in themselves and in the future.

I am not so sure. Contrary to initial impressions, the real pessimists today are probably to be found among the “right-trackers,” clinging stubbornly to the change they once believed in. Having put their dream team on the floor, under the leadership of one touted to be the greatest political talent of our era, these die-hards have little choice now but to put on a grim public mask of hopefulness. For two years (2009–2011), we enjoyed by their reckoning virtually unchecked government of the best, by the best, and according to the best theories.

Yet things have not panned out. The outcome is being blamed on the difficulty of the challenge, on fate, or on severe headwinds, but doubt must certainly be creeping in that the fault is theirs. Right-trackers today are a desperately dispirited group, filled with dread that their opponents will take over and fail or, much worse, succeed.

One segment alone of the right-trackers seems upbeat: the so-called foreign-policy realists. For decades, intellectuals of this persuasion have yearned for a much less assertive America on the world scene. They have a president who agrees. Now, with constraints imposed by our current indebtedness as the rationale, these thinkers insist that America has no choice but to cede leadership to others. Blessed is the nation in decline, for it shall disinherit the earth.

And what of the almost four-fifths of Americans who think the nation is on the wrong track? Many, perhaps most, in this group have not lost hope. Dismayed almost to the point of despair at where the nation is now heading, they nevertheless see a path to revival and restoration by a change of direction. They reject a no-growth economy as the “new norm,” affirm a return to more limited government, and back a vigorous foreign policy. Their rallying cry has been American exceptionalism, a concept vague in its content but expressive of a strong, almost defiant, spiritedness.

Whether optimism or pessimism prevails will not by itself determine the outcome to the crisis the nation now faces. Far more will depend on the soundness of our leadership and the wisdom of the policies it adopts. The prophet, not the prognosticator, alone can know the future. Still, only a nation that possesses an underlying confidence that it can shape its own destiny is prepared for greatness.

_____________

James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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