Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 16, 2011

Gang of Six May Step In With a Deal

How many times does the Gang of Six have to get rejected before it finally gives up? Another negotiation meltdown and scary looming deadline have encouraged the group to revive its old, rejected deficit reduction plan:

“The Gang of Six has a deal and it’s a deal that is of sufficient clarity and detail that it can be put into legislative language,” said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), a member of the group. “I would say we’re close enough that I think in short order, I don’t know whether that would be a couple days or couple of weeks, it could actually [be] put in fine-tuned language.”

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How many times does the Gang of Six have to get rejected before it finally gives up? Another negotiation meltdown and scary looming deadline have encouraged the group to revive its old, rejected deficit reduction plan:

“The Gang of Six has a deal and it’s a deal that is of sufficient clarity and detail that it can be put into legislative language,” said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), a member of the group. “I would say we’re close enough that I think in short order, I don’t know whether that would be a couple days or couple of weeks, it could actually [be] put in fine-tuned language.”

It normally couldn’t hurt to have another option lined up, but is there really nothing better than the Gang of Six deal? Republicans would basically be trading devastating sequestration defense cuts for catastrophic Gang of Six defense cuts – with tax hikes piled on top. The super committee still has seven more days to come to an agreement. But if it fails, Republicans would have no incentive to support a plan that would slash defense by $866 billion.

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The “Occupy Shooter” and the Imaginary Tea Party Threat

The fact that the person accused of firing a shot in the direction of the White House on Friday may have spent some time at the Occupy DC encampment should not lead anyone to leap to the conclusion that the radical squatters are part of a general or specific conspiracy. According to law enforcement officials, the suspect, Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, who was arrested for the crime today, had no connection with the occupiers. The media has been quick to highlight the disassociation of the movement from the shooter. Though there has been some justified criticism of the willingness of the mainstream press to whitewash the radicalism at the core of the movement, under the circumstances, allowing any doubt to linger about even a perceived link between the crime and the protests would be wrong.

But imagine just for a moment if a man who was described by police as being filled with anger at Washington and the president and who had a predilection for violence had, prior to losing a shot at the White House, lingered in the vicinity of a Tea Party demonstration, let alone an encampment of the group. Though they were routinely depicted as a threat to democracy, there was no Tea Party violence, just an occasional rude remark to members of Congress at town hall meetings. The notion of the Tea Party as a band of violent racists is a trope that was repeated endlessly by the same news outlets that are rightly endeavoring to make sure there is no guilt by association link established between the White House shooter and OWS.

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The fact that the person accused of firing a shot in the direction of the White House on Friday may have spent some time at the Occupy DC encampment should not lead anyone to leap to the conclusion that the radical squatters are part of a general or specific conspiracy. According to law enforcement officials, the suspect, Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, who was arrested for the crime today, had no connection with the occupiers. The media has been quick to highlight the disassociation of the movement from the shooter. Though there has been some justified criticism of the willingness of the mainstream press to whitewash the radicalism at the core of the movement, under the circumstances, allowing any doubt to linger about even a perceived link between the crime and the protests would be wrong.

But imagine just for a moment if a man who was described by police as being filled with anger at Washington and the president and who had a predilection for violence had, prior to losing a shot at the White House, lingered in the vicinity of a Tea Party demonstration, let alone an encampment of the group. Though they were routinely depicted as a threat to democracy, there was no Tea Party violence, just an occasional rude remark to members of Congress at town hall meetings. The notion of the Tea Party as a band of violent racists is a trope that was repeated endlessly by the same news outlets that are rightly endeavoring to make sure there is no guilt by association link established between the White House shooter and OWS.

Let’s also compare the rush to absolve OWS of any connection to Ortega-Hernandez with the stampede to tie Jared Loughner, the mentally disturbed man who attempted to assassinate Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, to conservative critics of President Obama and the Democrats. Though that supposed connection was almost immediately proved to be utterly false, the fact that some Republican groups (including one led by Sarah Palin) sought to “target” Giffords (as in, attempt to defeat her re-election bid) is still spoken of in many quarters as being somehow responsible for the attack.

The point here is not to try and play the same game at the occupiers’ expense. They have faults enough without trying to accuse them of violence that is, according to the police, unrelated to their cause. Rather, it is to show how easy it would be to do so. Unscrupulous journalists could, as they did with Palin’s handouts, try to mine OWS handouts for language similar to that uttered by the suspect so as to build a case for their influence on his behavior even if that was untrue.

Unlike the genuinely peaceful Tea Party, the OWS movement has proven itself to be violent and radical in nature, with many of its adherents guilty of extremist statements, including anti-Semitism. But they are not responsible for Ortega-Hernandez. Does anyone in their right mind believe the Tea Party would be treated as fairly if the situation were reversed?

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Did Gingrich Flip-Flop on Taking Freddie Mac Cash?

It’s no secret Gingrich did consulting work for Freddie Mac, though earlier reports may have grossly understated the amount of money he received, according to Bloomberg. The consulting position itself is forgivable, but what he actually did as a consultant is still unclear. Gingrich says he tried to warn the company about their lending practices. Freddie Mac sources in the Bloomberg piece dispute that:

What he did for the money is a subject of disagreement. Gingrich said during the CNBC debate that he advised the troubled firm as a “historian.” Gingrich said he warned that the company’s business model was a “bubble” and its lending practices were “insane.”

None of the former Freddie Mac officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said Gingrich raised the issue of the housing bubble or was critical of Freddie Mac’s business model.

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It’s no secret Gingrich did consulting work for Freddie Mac, though earlier reports may have grossly understated the amount of money he received, according to Bloomberg. The consulting position itself is forgivable, but what he actually did as a consultant is still unclear. Gingrich says he tried to warn the company about their lending practices. Freddie Mac sources in the Bloomberg piece dispute that:

What he did for the money is a subject of disagreement. Gingrich said during the CNBC debate that he advised the troubled firm as a “historian.” Gingrich said he warned that the company’s business model was a “bubble” and its lending practices were “insane.”

None of the former Freddie Mac officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said Gingrich raised the issue of the housing bubble or was critical of Freddie Mac’s business model.

The anonymous Freddie Mac officials didn’t provide any documents, memos or specific details that conflict with Gingrich’s story, so right now it’s just Newt’s word against theirs. And who knows what motives they may have here. If their allegations are accurate, it should be easy enough to provide supporting evidence.

Gingrich, by the way, has an inconvenient history of criticizing Democrats for taking money from Freddie Mac. His opponents are sure to make an issue out of comments like these:

“I think Senator McCain should have turned and said, ‘Senator Obama, are you prepared to give back all the money that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae gave to you? Are you prepared to fire your housing adviser, who was paid $90 million over six years while helping ruin Fannie Mae? Are you prepared to fire your adviser, who is the former head of Fannie Mae, Mr. Johnson? Are you prepared to dissociate yourself from Chris Dodd, who was the highest recipient of money from Fannie Mae? And who, by the way, as you know, was also getting a below-market loan from Countrywide before they went broke.”

To be fair, Obama and Dodd taking political donations from Freddie and Fannie while serving in Congress is very different from Gingrich taking a salary as a private citizen and paid consultant. But it’s an easy hit on Newt, ties into the whole “flip-flopping” narrative against him, and will no doubt be pounced on by his critics.

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OWS Represents Modern Liberalism and the Democratic Party Under Obama

A new survey released by Public Policy Polling (PPP), a Democratic firm, shows the following:

The Occupy Wall Street movement is not wearing well with voters across the country. Only 33 percent now say that they are supportive of its goals, compared to 45 percent who say they oppose them. That represents an 11 point shift in the wrong direction for the movement’s support compared to a month ago when 35 percent of voters said they supported it and 36 percent were opposed. Most notably, independents have gone from supporting Occupy Wall Street’s goals 39/34, to opposing them 34/42.

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A new survey released by Public Policy Polling (PPP), a Democratic firm, shows the following:

The Occupy Wall Street movement is not wearing well with voters across the country. Only 33 percent now say that they are supportive of its goals, compared to 45 percent who say they oppose them. That represents an 11 point shift in the wrong direction for the movement’s support compared to a month ago when 35 percent of voters said they supported it and 36 percent were opposed. Most notably, independents have gone from supporting Occupy Wall Street’s goals 39/34, to opposing them 34/42.

As for the Tea Party, 42 percent say they support its goals (45 percent say they oppose). And when asked whether they have a higher opinion of the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street movement, the Tea Party wins out 43-37, representing a flip from last month when Occupy Wall Street won out 40-37 on that question. Again the movement with independents is notable- from preferring Occupy Wall Street 43-34, to siding with the Tea Party 44-40.

None of this is surprising, and the hemorrhage is bound to continue. Despite the extraordinary media double standard when it comes to the Tea Party v. Occupy Wall Street (and its progeny), the essential nature of OWS – it’s violence, lawlessness, nihilism, anti-Semitism, and overall filth — is emerging. This is a movement the Democratic Party, starting with the president, has embraced, championed, and supported. Why the GOP has not done more to point this out – why it has not done more to draw attention to the Democratic Party’s strong support for such an ugly uprising – is a mystery to me.

There is a historic precedent to which one can look. We know, for example, the damage the Democratic Party’s embrace of transgressive social movements/the counterculture did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This remains, even to this day, a liberal fault-line. If conservative lawmakers and political leaders were wise, they would do much more than they have to expose this movement that represents, in fundamental ways, the heart and soul of modern liberalism and the Democratic Party under Barack Obama.

 

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No, Condoleezza Rice Does Not Blame Georgia for the War

Strangely preoccupied with undercutting the pro-Georgia attitudes prevalent in the American national security establishment’s position on the sometimes-violent Russia-Georgia conflict, leftist writers have sought—unconvincingly—to portray Georgia as the aggressor in the two countries’ August 2008 war.

The latest such effort comes from Joshua Kucera over at the Atlantic. The headline and subheadline are both wildly off the mark—and telling. The article is titled, “Condoleezza Rice Blames Georgian Leader for War With Russia,” a claim based on Rice’s newly released memoirs, and is echoed by Kucera in his first paragraph, where he writes that Rice accuses Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili of letting Russia provoke him into “starting a war over South Ossetia.” The second headline–written by the Atlantic’s editors–is even more revealing: “The former secretary of state contradicts the view, held by many U.S. Republicans, that Russia began the 2008 war.” Let’s start with the latter claim.

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Strangely preoccupied with undercutting the pro-Georgia attitudes prevalent in the American national security establishment’s position on the sometimes-violent Russia-Georgia conflict, leftist writers have sought—unconvincingly—to portray Georgia as the aggressor in the two countries’ August 2008 war.

The latest such effort comes from Joshua Kucera over at the Atlantic. The headline and subheadline are both wildly off the mark—and telling. The article is titled, “Condoleezza Rice Blames Georgian Leader for War With Russia,” a claim based on Rice’s newly released memoirs, and is echoed by Kucera in his first paragraph, where he writes that Rice accuses Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili of letting Russia provoke him into “starting a war over South Ossetia.” The second headline–written by the Atlantic’s editors–is even more revealing: “The former secretary of state contradicts the view, held by many U.S. Republicans, that Russia began the 2008 war.” Let’s start with the latter claim.

It is fashionable to assert that it’s just some “Republicans” who refuse to give Russia a fair shake. But during that 2008 war, here is how Barack Obama, then a candidate for president, described the start of the war: “What is clear is that Russia has invaded Georgia’s sovereign — has encroached on Georgia’s sovereignty.” I don’t think President Obama considers himself a Republican. The Washington Post editorial board, no mouthpiece for the Republican party, calls Georgia “a U.S. ally subjected to a Russian invasion in 2008.”

Kucera also mentions Ronald Asmus to bolster the claim the U.S. briefly considered helping Georgia militarily. He could also have quoted Asmus—an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration—that the size of Russia’s immediate military deployment made it clear Russia had planned this war in advance. Here is Asmus’s account:

It was not only the scope and size of that deployment that points to many months of preparation. Everything, from the modernization of military bases and railroad infrastructure, to the increased deliveries of advanced weapons systems and matériel to both Russian and separatist forces in the months prior to the invasion, as well as the prepositioning of key elements of the Black Sea fleet, suggests a major undertaking planned well in advance.

So, far from being some kind of Republican conspiracy theory, the evidence clearly points the finger at Russia. Partisans of both parties have followed that evidence. With regard to Kucera’s claim that Rice blames Saakashvili, Kucera gets the quotes right but the analysis wrong.

It’s true, as Kucera writes, Rice warned Saakashvili not to let the Russians provoke him, and Saakashvili refused to sign a non-use-of-force agreement before full-scale war broke out. But he also quotes this line from Rice as confirmation of his theory: “Despite Georgia’s unilateral ceasefire earlier in the day, South Ossetian rebel forces continued shelling ethnic Georgian villages in and around the capital, Tskhinvali. In response, the Georgian military commenced a heavy military offensive against the rebels…”

Here’s the next sentence, however, in Rice’s memoir, which Kucera should have included as well: “Only thirty minutes after Georgia began its offensive, Russia came to the aid of the South Ossetian rebels, moving its 58th Army tanks through the Roki Tunnel into Georgian territory.” So what we have is a unilateral ceasefire from Georgia before Russia’s involvement in the hostilities. When rebels continued shelling sovereign Georgian territory, Saakashvili decided he had to defend his citizens. And that’s when Russia—who everyone agrees was not attacked—enacted their pre-planned assault by moving their forces in to fight the Georgian army.

It should also be noted that Russia’s terms for ending hostilities included the demand that Saakashvili be removed from power in Georgia. Rice writes that she was so infuriated by the suggestion she immediately called European leaders and told them the outrageous suggestion from the Russian government. She writes: “The whole thing had an air of the Soviet period, when Moscow had controlled the fate of leaders throughout Eastern Europe. I was certainly not going to be party to a return to those days.”

Not only had Russia planned the war in advance, but the Kremlin had done so in order to overthrow the elected president of a post-Soviet country. Kucera gets it backwards; Rice’s account—when read and quoted in full—confirms the bipartisan consensus that Russia deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the war.

UPDATE: The post has been updated to reflect the fact that framing the article as a partisan attack on Republicans was the Atlantic’s editorial decision, not Kucera’s.

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America Must Commit to Both the Far East and Middle East

It was great to see President Obama signing an accord with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to station several thousand U.S. Marines in Australia, thus deepening what is already one of America’s closest defense alliances. It was only a few years ago–in 2007 to be exact–that Australia elected a Chinese-speaking prime minister (Kevin Rudd, now the foreign minister) and all the talk was about how Australia needed to expand its ties with China, now its largest trading partner. But China’s aggressive behavior since, which threatens regional stability, has driven Australia to draw ever closer to the U.S. The same phenomenon is evident across East Asia; even Communist Vietnam is seeking American ties to ward off the looming Chinese hegemon. The new accord is a sign the U.S. is having some success in balancing the growth of Chinese power–something that should remain a priority for the future.

But the Washington Post is right to warn that we cannot be so focused on pivoting to the Pacific that we lose sight of the major dangers that still confront us in the Middle East. With the looming withdrawal from Iraq and the drawdown from Afghanistan, there is a temptation in Washington to say that we must redirect scarce military resources to the Pacific. There is no doubt we need to increase our naval and other military deployments in the region to counter China’s rise. But we cannot afford to decrease our commitment in the Middle East–not at a time when the entire region is being swept by political upheaval, when Iran is on the verge of going nuclear, and groups such as Hezbollah and the Haqqanis remain as potent a threat as ever.

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It was great to see President Obama signing an accord with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to station several thousand U.S. Marines in Australia, thus deepening what is already one of America’s closest defense alliances. It was only a few years ago–in 2007 to be exact–that Australia elected a Chinese-speaking prime minister (Kevin Rudd, now the foreign minister) and all the talk was about how Australia needed to expand its ties with China, now its largest trading partner. But China’s aggressive behavior since, which threatens regional stability, has driven Australia to draw ever closer to the U.S. The same phenomenon is evident across East Asia; even Communist Vietnam is seeking American ties to ward off the looming Chinese hegemon. The new accord is a sign the U.S. is having some success in balancing the growth of Chinese power–something that should remain a priority for the future.

But the Washington Post is right to warn that we cannot be so focused on pivoting to the Pacific that we lose sight of the major dangers that still confront us in the Middle East. With the looming withdrawal from Iraq and the drawdown from Afghanistan, there is a temptation in Washington to say that we must redirect scarce military resources to the Pacific. There is no doubt we need to increase our naval and other military deployments in the region to counter China’s rise. But we cannot afford to decrease our commitment in the Middle East–not at a time when the entire region is being swept by political upheaval, when Iran is on the verge of going nuclear, and groups such as Hezbollah and the Haqqanis remain as potent a threat as ever.

The prosaic reality is that America must commit to both the Middle East and Far East. That means maintaining a healthy level of defense spending and avoiding further cuts on top of the $450 billion that has already been lopped off this year. We must build up the Navy and Air Force without cutting much if any force structure from the Army and Marine Corps. Such a commitment may appear to be costly at a time of skyrocketing federal debt, but the costs of ignoring either region–and letting our enemies have their way–will be higher than we can bear.

 

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Bursting the Gingrich Bubble

With the bulk of the Republican Party finally waking up to Herman Cain’s foreign policy ignorance and his campaign’s ineptitude, the media has embraced the latest trend in the GOP race: the Newt Gingrich boomlet that has seen the former Speaker of the House’s poll numbers rise in recent weeks. As Alana noted, a McClatchy poll issued yesterday even shows him scoring the highest of any Republican in a head-to-head matchup versus President Obama.

The reasons for the rise of Gingrich are not obscure. Virtually every other candidate has had their 15 minutes of notoriety and soon collapsed. Gingrich, who has thrived in the numerous debates that have become the focus of the race, suddenly looks a lot more attractive than he did a few months ago if for no other reason than the alternatives. But before we start thinking seriously about the prospect of Gingrich actually winning the nomination, it is necessary to recall why it was that this possibility was so widely dismissed when his campaign was launched. If Gingrich is no longer merely one more talking head on the stage but a genuine contender, then we’re going to be hearing a lot more about why few thought his presidential ambitions realistic. Which is a polite way of saying it shouldn’t take too long for his bubble to burst.

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With the bulk of the Republican Party finally waking up to Herman Cain’s foreign policy ignorance and his campaign’s ineptitude, the media has embraced the latest trend in the GOP race: the Newt Gingrich boomlet that has seen the former Speaker of the House’s poll numbers rise in recent weeks. As Alana noted, a McClatchy poll issued yesterday even shows him scoring the highest of any Republican in a head-to-head matchup versus President Obama.

The reasons for the rise of Gingrich are not obscure. Virtually every other candidate has had their 15 minutes of notoriety and soon collapsed. Gingrich, who has thrived in the numerous debates that have become the focus of the race, suddenly looks a lot more attractive than he did a few months ago if for no other reason than the alternatives. But before we start thinking seriously about the prospect of Gingrich actually winning the nomination, it is necessary to recall why it was that this possibility was so widely dismissed when his campaign was launched. If Gingrich is no longer merely one more talking head on the stage but a genuine contender, then we’re going to be hearing a lot more about why few thought his presidential ambitions realistic. Which is a polite way of saying it shouldn’t take too long for his bubble to burst.

The beauty of the debates for Gingrich is that they have taken the spotlight off of his record and personality and allowed him to play the role he likes best: the professorial ideas maven who rises above the political fray to pontificate on the great issues of the day. As Charles Krauthammer noted on Fox News yesterday, the comparison with the last two candidates to try on the role of conservative frontrunner — Herman Cain and Rick Perry — is especially flattering for Gingrich. Compared to Cain’s abysmal ignorance and cliché-ridden non-explanations of policy and Perry’s chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease, anyone would look like a genius, let alone a veteran policy wonk who has been part of our national political life for more than 30 years. So it’s no surprise that those Republicans shopping for a candidate not named Mitt Romney as well as some stray moderates might alight on Gingrich after watching him perform credibly on television. Though his big ideas are often as not superficial takes on the issues, he is what passes for an intellectual in our public life. That is no small thing in a field where some of the contenders have seemed to be in short supply of intellect.

But as much as the debates have dominated the campaign, the nomination will not be decided solely by what has become the nation’s favorite political reality show. If Gingrich is really going to challenge Romney, he will resume getting the scrutiny he has avoided since the spring. During the course of this period we’ve learned in excruciating detail about the name of Rick Perry’s hunting camp, Mitt Romney’s religious activities and his financial career, the sexual harassment charges leveled at Herman Cain and even Michele Bachmann’s headaches. But none of that compares to the mother lode of opposition research material that exists about Gingrich.

Even a brief summary of Gingrich’s baggage would require a great deal of space, but here are a few bullet points:

  • Support for a government health care individual mandate that is comparable to the Massachusetts legislation that is the millstone around Romney’s neck.
  • Consulting work done for the Freddie Mac government mortgage giant that helped sink the economy in 2008 and which is part of the mantra of GOP complaints about Democrats.
  • Support for global warming initiatives including shooting an advocacy spot on the issue with Nancy Pelosi.
  • His made-for-Iowa ethanol love affair.
  • His bizarre flip-flops on foreign policy issues such as Libya.
  • His tasteless personal attacks on the president such as claiming Obama was the product of a “Kenyan anti-colonial mentality.”
  • His personal life and public hypocrisy.

In short, Gingrich can easily be portrayed as being as much, if not more of a RINO than Romney, which makes the case for his role as the new conservative “non-Romney” untenable.

As for the last item, many Republicans have taken to viewing any discussion of a candidate’s personal life as beyond the bounds of decency. Americans are basically forgiving of celebrity flaws so long as people are honest about them. Divorce hasn’t been a disqualifying factor in political life for several decades. But it would be dishonest to pretend Gingrich’s circumstances are not unique. Many Americans may not care that much about whether he cheated on his first two wives, but the fact that he was committing adultery with wife number three while married to number two at the same time that he was leading a moral and legal crusade against Bill Clinton for his peccadilloes remains one of the most loathsome examples of public hypocrisy by a major political figure in our nation’s history.

Even if you argue this is all in the past and forgiven, Gingrich has never stopped producing weird stories that, while not damning by themselves, paint a portrait of an unstable character on a personal journey with an uncertain destination. Though some of us have rediscovered the speaker as the guy at the debates who isn’t afraid to talk about ideas or scold idiot moderators, the notion that a man with this much baggage can win the nomination or survive the onslaught of the Democratic attack machine is comical. While some conservatives have carried on about Romney’s vulnerabilities, they pale in comparison to those of Gingrich.

The tenor of the discourse of the GOP race may be the better for Gingrich’s participation, but with that record, he has very little chance of being sworn into office in January 2013.

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Obama Must Help Facilitate Collapse of Assad Regime

Bashar Assad’s days are truly numbered. If he lasts a year, I would be surprised. Not only is the whole world turning against him–even the Arab League has now suspended Syria, and Turkey is talking about cutting off electricity–but his own people continue to fight against him in spite of his willingness to slaughter them in the streets. Indeed, the revolt appears to be accelerating and turning into a full-blown civil war.

That, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw from the latest news that army defectors armed with anti-tank rockets and other weapons attacked a large intelligence complex near Damascus. It is clear the army is increasingly unreliable. Only Alawite troops appear willing to defend the regime. Sunnis, who comprise the vast majority of the population, are clearly fed up and either unwilling to fight for the regime or are actively fighting against it.

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Bashar Assad’s days are truly numbered. If he lasts a year, I would be surprised. Not only is the whole world turning against him–even the Arab League has now suspended Syria, and Turkey is talking about cutting off electricity–but his own people continue to fight against him in spite of his willingness to slaughter them in the streets. Indeed, the revolt appears to be accelerating and turning into a full-blown civil war.

That, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw from the latest news that army defectors armed with anti-tank rockets and other weapons attacked a large intelligence complex near Damascus. It is clear the army is increasingly unreliable. Only Alawite troops appear willing to defend the regime. Sunnis, who comprise the vast majority of the population, are clearly fed up and either unwilling to fight for the regime or are actively fighting against it.

This is already starting to create a strategic shift in the region with signs that Hamas, for example, is pulling away from its longtime patrons in Damascus and Tehran because, as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, it cannot afford to be publicly associated with a regime that is slaughtering its own Muslim Brothers; Hamas appears increasingly to be seeking support in Arab capitals from Doha to Cairo. Such support may be forthcoming because Hamas is a Sunni group. But it will be much tougher for Hezbollah–a Shiite organization–to maintain its supply lines if there is a change of regime in Damascus.

This is a big, big deal. I hope President Obama is not too distracted by myriad other issues. He needs to do whatever he can to help facilitate the collapse of the Assad regime. There may be dangers in its wake, but there will also be huge strategic opportunities.

 

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Rants and Hypertextual Deception

A few days ago, the graphic novelist Frank Miller lost patience with the Occupy Movement supported by a thousand of his literary peers. Writing on his blog, Miller called the occupiers

nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.

Absorbed with their “self-pity” and “narcissism,” the Occupy Movement had ignored the real threat to America — the “ruthless enemy” that fights under the names al-Qaeda and “Islamicism.”

The outrage was immediate and explosive. The Guardian reported that his “rant” had alienated Miller’s fans. The New York Observer agreed that the “vitriolic rant” was “not well-received.”

Nearly everybody agreed that Miller had written a rant. Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds said it was an “idiotic, reactionary rant.” Miller was bidding to “become the Al Capp of his generation,” he added, by venting his “cranky, bitter, reactionary ‘opinions’ (if you can call them that).” (The political opponents of the literary left do not really have “opinions,” I guess. They must only have superstitions or irritable mental gestures or something.) It was a “strange rant,” it was a “bilious rant,” it was a “ridiculous rant.” Ah, the refreshing diversity of opinion on the literary left!

Miller’s readers threatened a boycott. The Guardian was quick to tut-tut that Miller’s politics (love of freedom, commitment to justice, aversion to anarchy, hatred for totalitarianism) added up to “mixed messages.” The comic-book writer Mark Millar warned against the “cyber-mob mentality” that was engulfing any discussion of Miller and his work, but few people seemed to be listening.

Meanwhile, another writer with a wide and enthusiastic following had delivered a controversial political judgment a few days earlier and almost no one had noticed. China Miéville, the British fantasy novelist who writes self-described “weird fiction,” posted on his blog a deadpan reaction to the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after five years in Hamas captivity:

     Gilad Schalit is showing signs of malnutrition. What have his captors done to him? Such shocking revelations must mean fresh scrutiny of those who have held him.
     How could it not? What kind of power, after all, would deliberately starve even the youngest captives, according to chillingly cynical calorifico-political calculation, as a matter of publicly stated policy?

I have reproduced Miéville’s entire post, including each of his hypertext links, so that you don’t have to click over to his blog. By a sly use of hypertext, Miéville is able to imply, without bothering to say outright, that the state of Israel has the deliberate policy of starving the children of Gaza. You might think that such a monstrous charge might deserve a full explanation and defense. You would be wrong. Miéville resorts to hypertext to do the hard work of argument. He wants to leave the impression, unsubstantiated but unshakable, that the Jewish state is exactly the same as the Islamic terrorists of Hamas, and Gilad Shalit got nothing less than what he deserved.

I won’t hold my breath for the outrage or threats of boycott. This much might be said, however. To “rant” is to display moral courage; it is to risk being held publicly accountable for direct and unsparing statement. China Miéville is a literary coward who hides behind hypertextual cleverness to avoid taking ownership of his political opinions. Susan Sontag once lamented that the camera can lie. To the artist’s bag of lying devices can now be added hypertext.

Give me an honest rant any day.

A few days ago, the graphic novelist Frank Miller lost patience with the Occupy Movement supported by a thousand of his literary peers. Writing on his blog, Miller called the occupiers

nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.

Absorbed with their “self-pity” and “narcissism,” the Occupy Movement had ignored the real threat to America — the “ruthless enemy” that fights under the names al-Qaeda and “Islamicism.”

The outrage was immediate and explosive. The Guardian reported that his “rant” had alienated Miller’s fans. The New York Observer agreed that the “vitriolic rant” was “not well-received.”

Nearly everybody agreed that Miller had written a rant. Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds said it was an “idiotic, reactionary rant.” Miller was bidding to “become the Al Capp of his generation,” he added, by venting his “cranky, bitter, reactionary ‘opinions’ (if you can call them that).” (The political opponents of the literary left do not really have “opinions,” I guess. They must only have superstitions or irritable mental gestures or something.) It was a “strange rant,” it was a “bilious rant,” it was a “ridiculous rant.” Ah, the refreshing diversity of opinion on the literary left!

Miller’s readers threatened a boycott. The Guardian was quick to tut-tut that Miller’s politics (love of freedom, commitment to justice, aversion to anarchy, hatred for totalitarianism) added up to “mixed messages.” The comic-book writer Mark Millar warned against the “cyber-mob mentality” that was engulfing any discussion of Miller and his work, but few people seemed to be listening.

Meanwhile, another writer with a wide and enthusiastic following had delivered a controversial political judgment a few days earlier and almost no one had noticed. China Miéville, the British fantasy novelist who writes self-described “weird fiction,” posted on his blog a deadpan reaction to the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after five years in Hamas captivity:

     Gilad Schalit is showing signs of malnutrition. What have his captors done to him? Such shocking revelations must mean fresh scrutiny of those who have held him.
     How could it not? What kind of power, after all, would deliberately starve even the youngest captives, according to chillingly cynical calorifico-political calculation, as a matter of publicly stated policy?

I have reproduced Miéville’s entire post, including each of his hypertext links, so that you don’t have to click over to his blog. By a sly use of hypertext, Miéville is able to imply, without bothering to say outright, that the state of Israel has the deliberate policy of starving the children of Gaza. You might think that such a monstrous charge might deserve a full explanation and defense. You would be wrong. Miéville resorts to hypertext to do the hard work of argument. He wants to leave the impression, unsubstantiated but unshakable, that the Jewish state is exactly the same as the Islamic terrorists of Hamas, and Gilad Shalit got nothing less than what he deserved.

I won’t hold my breath for the outrage or threats of boycott. This much might be said, however. To “rant” is to display moral courage; it is to risk being held publicly accountable for direct and unsparing statement. China Miéville is a literary coward who hides behind hypertextual cleverness to avoid taking ownership of his political opinions. Susan Sontag once lamented that the camera can lie. To the artist’s bag of lying devices can now be added hypertext.

Give me an honest rant any day.

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SEIU to Rally for Obama

President Obama may not want to get his own hands dirty by actively supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement, but not to worry. The Service Employees International Union is there to vouch for him to their fellow Occupy activists. The union gave the president an early endorsement today, promising that he “side[s] with us, the 99 percent.”

The SEIU’s first effort to generate enthusiasm for Obama is an “Occupy the Bridges” rally in various Michigan cities on Bridge Action Day. Coincidentally enough, it turns out that the annual “Bridge Action Day” is on the same day as Occupy Wall Street’s “Day of Action.”

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President Obama may not want to get his own hands dirty by actively supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement, but not to worry. The Service Employees International Union is there to vouch for him to their fellow Occupy activists. The union gave the president an early endorsement today, promising that he “side[s] with us, the 99 percent.”

The SEIU’s first effort to generate enthusiasm for Obama is an “Occupy the Bridges” rally in various Michigan cities on Bridge Action Day. Coincidentally enough, it turns out that the annual “Bridge Action Day” is on the same day as Occupy Wall Street’s “Day of Action.”

Here’s the Michigan SEIU’s description of the rally, which will probably be totally peaceful and in no way cause massive traffic disruptions like previous Occupy Bridge events:

Support President Obama’s American Jobs Act

NATIONAL OCCUPY BRIDGE DAY

President Obama [sic] American Jobs Act would bring over $900 million and thousands of good jobs to Michigan – including repairing our bridges and roads. But politicians are playing games, not passing the bill and not creating jobs. Join us in sending a clear message to Congress – Pass the AJA now! …

On Nov. 17th, We Will Declare an Economic Emergency for the 99%:

-       25 million Americans are looking for work – but Congress can’t pass a jobs bill

-       Super-Committee budget cuts could kill millions of jobs

-       The economy works for the richest 1% – not the 99%

If the Democratic Party wants to exert any influence over OWS, this is the way they’re going to have to do it. By now, the Occupy movement has become too toxic for the White House to continue to praise. And many of the Occupy activists appear to be disillusioned with the president. But unions like the SEIU can still help rally support for the Obama campaign and try to steer the movement’s goals to align with the political objectives of the White House.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Dana Gioia

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 remain optimistic in general terms about the United States. Despite all the troubling economic, political, and social trends, I still trust the energy and common sense of the average American. However slowly and painfully, the country will eventually sort out its most pressing problems.

I am far less confident, however, about the nation’s cultural and intellectual future. There has been a vast dumbing down of our public culture that may already be irreversible.

There can be no doubt from the many detailed and reliable studies available that Americans now know less, read less, and even read less well than they did a quarter century ago. These trends have measurable consequences in lowering academic achievement and economic productivity. They also demonstrably diminish both cultural activity and civic participation. We live in a society addicted to constant electronic entertainment—mostly done by individuals at home, isolated not only from their communities but increasingly even from their own families. 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 remain optimistic in general terms about the United States. Despite all the troubling economic, political, and social trends, I still trust the energy and common sense of the average American. However slowly and painfully, the country will eventually sort out its most pressing problems.

I am far less confident, however, about the nation’s cultural and intellectual future. There has been a vast dumbing down of our public culture that may already be irreversible.

There can be no doubt from the many detailed and reliable studies available that Americans now know less, read less, and even read less well than they did a quarter century ago. These trends have measurable consequences in lowering academic achievement and economic productivity. They also demonstrably diminish both cultural activity and civic participation. We live in a society addicted to constant electronic entertainment—mostly done by individuals at home, isolated not only from their communities but increasingly even from their own families.

Our public culture consists mostly of low-level entertainment and advertising (often intermixed), which is now ubiquitous—filling not only television, radio, the Internet, and print, but also restaurants, bars, airports, and even gas stations and elevators. Media saturation is no longer voluntary but mandatory for anyone entering public spaces. The goal is to fill every moment of human consciousness with paid commercial content. Perhaps this is good to stimulate economic consumption, but it cannot be good for human thought and reflection. “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”

Cultural vitality has fewer advocates than do wealth and prosperity. When the arts and humanities break down, the outer signs are less immediately visible. There are no sophisticated monthly measurements to track their progress or decline. But their collapse has human consequences as devastating as material decline, even to a society that may have forgotten why they once mattered.

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Dana Gioia is a poet and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Gingrich – Most Electable GOP Candidate?

In what may be the most surprising development of the Newt Gingrich surge, a new McClatchy-Marist poll found that Gingrich scores better in a national matchup with Obama than any other Republican candidate:

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives is neck and neck with the incumbent president, back just 2 percentage points among registered voters. Obama leads 47 percent to 45 percent.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is next closest, trailing Obama by 4 percentage points. In that matchup, Obama leads 48 percent to 44 percent.

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In what may be the most surprising development of the Newt Gingrich surge, a new McClatchy-Marist poll found that Gingrich scores better in a national matchup with Obama than any other Republican candidate:

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives is neck and neck with the incumbent president, back just 2 percentage points among registered voters. Obama leads 47 percent to 45 percent.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is next closest, trailing Obama by 4 percentage points. In that matchup, Obama leads 48 percent to 44 percent.

If you remember from the sweeping Pew Poll back in August, 66 percent of registered voters said there was “no chance” they would vote for Gingrich in a general election. Obviously that’s changed, and while the McClatchy poll hasn’t provided the internal data, it seems likely the shift was driven by GOP voters changing their minds about Gingrich. In the August Pew survey, nearly half of Republicans said they wouldn’t consider voting for the former Speaker. I guess the specter of having Romney as the party’s standard-bearer in 2012 has forced a lot of Republicans to radically recalculate their previous opposition to Gingrich. Also, the media has been giving Gingrich a pass since his campaign flat-lined during the summer, but his surge in the polls is sure to revive the negative coverage.

Will voters still find him electable after his checkered past gets picked apart by reporters? Probably depends on how averse they are to voting for Romney.

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National Book Award Predictions

The National Book Awards will be announced at a benefit dinner this evening in New York. None of the year’s best novels — Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, Lee Martin’s Break the Skin, Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl, Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Marriage Plot — was nominated. All literary prizes are advertisements to sell more books, but in recent years the National Book Award has abandoned all pretense of recognizing literary merit. Like a socially despised group that proudly adopts a popular slur, the National Book Awards seem to be in a rush to acknowledge that “literary fiction” is no longer mainstream fiction but just exactly what the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany has always called it — mundane fiction.

The agenda behind this year’s class of nominees is so blatant that predicting the eventual winner is not much of a challenge. “[W]hat better use is there for a literary prize than to draw attention to fine work that might otherwise be missed?” Michael Dirda asked in reviewing Andrew Krivak’s Sojourn. Krivak was the only male nominated for the Award. He won’t win.

Building upon its new policy of “drawing attention” where attention might otherwise not be drawn, the National Book Awards nominated two titles from small presses (Krivak’s novel and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision), two debut novels (Krivak’s and Téa Obreht’s Tiger’s Wife), and two “minority” writers (African American Jesmyn Ward and Asian American Julie Otsuka).

With its quotas filled, the prize jury chaired by the novelist Deirdre McNamer will probably settle upon Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, a collection of 34 stories by a 75-year-old writer who has been working faithfully for four decades, publishing in venues ranging from Seventeen and Redbook to the little magazines (and including one story in COMMENTARY), without drawing much attention to herself at all. The new policy of the National Book Award was crafted for a writer just like Edith Pearlman. Her book, a volume of “new and selected stories,” represents a life’s work. And it has the added bonus of being published by a very small press “pledged to seek out emerging and historically underrepresented voices.” Besides, Binocular Vision actually deserves the Award. At least it is the best book of the bunch.

The National Book Awards will be announced at a benefit dinner this evening in New York. None of the year’s best novels — Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, Lee Martin’s Break the Skin, Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl, Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Marriage Plot — was nominated. All literary prizes are advertisements to sell more books, but in recent years the National Book Award has abandoned all pretense of recognizing literary merit. Like a socially despised group that proudly adopts a popular slur, the National Book Awards seem to be in a rush to acknowledge that “literary fiction” is no longer mainstream fiction but just exactly what the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany has always called it — mundane fiction.

The agenda behind this year’s class of nominees is so blatant that predicting the eventual winner is not much of a challenge. “[W]hat better use is there for a literary prize than to draw attention to fine work that might otherwise be missed?” Michael Dirda asked in reviewing Andrew Krivak’s Sojourn. Krivak was the only male nominated for the Award. He won’t win.

Building upon its new policy of “drawing attention” where attention might otherwise not be drawn, the National Book Awards nominated two titles from small presses (Krivak’s novel and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision), two debut novels (Krivak’s and Téa Obreht’s Tiger’s Wife), and two “minority” writers (African American Jesmyn Ward and Asian American Julie Otsuka).

With its quotas filled, the prize jury chaired by the novelist Deirdre McNamer will probably settle upon Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, a collection of 34 stories by a 75-year-old writer who has been working faithfully for four decades, publishing in venues ranging from Seventeen and Redbook to the little magazines (and including one story in COMMENTARY), without drawing much attention to herself at all. The new policy of the National Book Award was crafted for a writer just like Edith Pearlman. Her book, a volume of “new and selected stories,” represents a life’s work. And it has the added bonus of being published by a very small press “pledged to seek out emerging and historically underrepresented voices.” Besides, Binocular Vision actually deserves the Award. At least it is the best book of the bunch.

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Nicholas Kristof’s OWS Self-Parody

New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof has received more than his share of criticism over the years for the self-reverential manner in which he has carried out his brief as the paper’s envoy to the Third World, but in the insular news culture of the Grey Lady, he remains a star. Kristof’s grating self-righteousness is so tough to take that he can make his pleas on behalf of even the best causes seem insufferable.

But even Kristof’s advocacy can’t discredit concern about human trafficking or the plight of refugees in Africa. However Kristof, whose trips to visit refugee camps and other sites of misery abroad are so integral to his writing style that he has held contests to choose interns to accompany him, seems to have lost some perspective about his much ballyhooed jaunts. Take a look at this video posted on the Times website, in which the fearless reporter braves the wilds of Lower Manhattan to visit “displaced” Occupy Wall Street squatters and to comment on their plight.

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New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof has received more than his share of criticism over the years for the self-reverential manner in which he has carried out his brief as the paper’s envoy to the Third World, but in the insular news culture of the Grey Lady, he remains a star. Kristof’s grating self-righteousness is so tough to take that he can make his pleas on behalf of even the best causes seem insufferable.

But even Kristof’s advocacy can’t discredit concern about human trafficking or the plight of refugees in Africa. However Kristof, whose trips to visit refugee camps and other sites of misery abroad are so integral to his writing style that he has held contests to choose interns to accompany him, seems to have lost some perspective about his much ballyhooed jaunts. Take a look at this video posted on the Times website, in which the fearless reporter braves the wilds of Lower Manhattan to visit “displaced” Occupy Wall Street squatters and to comment on their plight.

Kristof considers the arrest of some demonstrators as “over the top” and is clueless about the support most Americans have for Mayor Bloomberg’s belated decision to clear out the pesthole in Zuccotti Park. But the notion of the intrepid do-gooder wandering the public parks to find examples of downtrodden unemployed leftists rather than his usual fare of teen sex slaves and rape victims is the stuff of self-parody. Even the Onion couldn’t have mocked Kristof more thoroughly than he has done to himself.

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Occupy Wall Street Without the Occupation

In a not-so-stunning turn of events, a judge ruled that camping out in a private park against the wishes of the owner does not qualify as free speech. From the ruling (via NRO):

The movants have not demonstrated that they have a First Amendment right to remain in Zuccotti Park, along with their tents, structures, generators, and other installations to the exclusion of the owner’s reasonable rights and duties to maintain Zuccotti Park, or to the rights to public access of others who might wish to use the space safely. Neither have the applicants shown a right to a temporary restraining order that would restrict the City’s enforcement of law so as to promote public health and safety.

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In a not-so-stunning turn of events, a judge ruled that camping out in a private park against the wishes of the owner does not qualify as free speech. From the ruling (via NRO):

The movants have not demonstrated that they have a First Amendment right to remain in Zuccotti Park, along with their tents, structures, generators, and other installations to the exclusion of the owner’s reasonable rights and duties to maintain Zuccotti Park, or to the rights to public access of others who might wish to use the space safely. Neither have the applicants shown a right to a temporary restraining order that would restrict the City’s enforcement of law so as to promote public health and safety.

The responses from Occupy supporters seem to fall into one of two categories: 1.) Astonishment at this miscarriage of justice, and calls to defy the judge’s ruling; or 2.) Pollyannaish declarations that this is actually a great development for the movement – as in, “hey, maybe this is just the nudge we need to become a real political force!”

The idea the eviction is some sort of lemons-into-lemonade moment is transparently phony spin, which is probably why it seems to be taking awhile to catch on. The entire point of the Occupy movement, we were told again and again at the beginning, was simply the act of “being there.” Remember when the media was blasted for daring to ask about the goals of the movement, since “the Occupation is the message”?

The activists were right. The occupation was the message. Underneath all that, they’re just the same group of left-wing professional activists who show up at every radical protest. Maybe the novelty of their campsites ended up attracting some additional curiosity-seekers and homeless people to fill out the ranks a bit. But the only way for “Occupy” to survive in any capacity right now is to transition into a political movement – which means developing leaders, a chain of command, goals, allies, fundraising capabilities. The minute it does this, Occupy can no longer pretend to be a grassroots uprising of the so-called 99 percent. It will be lumped in with left-wing activist groups, and covered that way by the media. And it will lose the narrative, because a plurality of Americans self-identify as conservative.

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What Change Looks Like Under Obama

Speaking to a crowd in Hawaii, President Obama contrasted his uplifting, high-minded campaign with the “narrow, cramped vision of an America where everybody is left to fend for themselves.” (That would be the Republican vision). Obama went on to say this: “That was what the campaign was about — the belief that the more Americans succeed, the more America succeeds. We knew it wouldn’t come easy, we knew it wasn’t going to come quickly, but three years later, because of what you did in 2008, we’ve already started to see what change looks like.”

Since the president raised the issue himself, why don’t we sketch out what “change looks like” under the stewardship of Obama. Some of the highlights:

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Speaking to a crowd in Hawaii, President Obama contrasted his uplifting, high-minded campaign with the “narrow, cramped vision of an America where everybody is left to fend for themselves.” (That would be the Republican vision). Obama went on to say this: “That was what the campaign was about — the belief that the more Americans succeed, the more America succeeds. We knew it wouldn’t come easy, we knew it wasn’t going to come quickly, but three years later, because of what you did in 2008, we’ve already started to see what change looks like.”

Since the president raised the issue himself, why don’t we sketch out what “change looks like” under the stewardship of Obama. Some of the highlights:

* A misery index that is at a 28-year high.

*America’s credit rating downgraded for the first time in American history.

* A standard of living for Americans that has fallen further and more steeply over the past three years than at any time since the government began recording it five decades ago.

* An unemployment rate that now stands at 9.0 percent. October marks the 33rd consecutive month in which the unemployment rate was above the 8 percent level that the Obama administration said it would not exceed as a result of his stimulus program. And 28 out of the last 30 months has seen unemployment at 9.0 percent or above — the longest stretch of high unemployment since the Great Depression.

* Obama is now on track to have the worst jobs record of any president in the modern era.

* The share of the eligible population holding a job has reached its lowest level since July 1983.

* Chronic unemployment is worse than the Great Depression.

* Almost 26 million are either unemployed, marginally attached to the labor force, or involuntarily working part-time – a number experts say is unprecedented.

* A smaller share of 16-19 year-olds are working than at any time since records began to be kept in 1948.

* Black unemployment is at its highest level in 27 years, with black youth unemployment now closing in on 50 percent.

* The rate of economic growth under Obama has been only slightly higher than the 1930s, the decade of the Great Depression.

* Federal spending as a percent of GDP, the budget deficit as a percent of GDP, and the federal debt as a percent of GDP have all reached their highest level since World War II.

* Confidence among U.S. consumers has plunged to the lowest level in more than 30 years.

* The housing market has recently entered a double dip and the crisis is now worse than the Great Depression. Home values are worth one-third less than they were five years ago. And the home ownership rate is the lowest since 1965.

* The number of people in the U.S. who are in poverty has seen a record increase on President Obama’s watch, with the ranks of working-age poor approaching 1960s levels that led to the national war on poverty.

* A record number of Americans now rely on the federal government’s food stamps program.

* Government dependency, defined as the percentage of persons receiving one or more federal benefit payments, is the highest in American history.

* The share of Americans without health coverage is just a shade under 50 million people, the largest in more than two decades.

A reasonable question is whether Obama is single-handedly responsible for all of this bad news. To which the answer is: No president is responsible for all the blame (or all the credit) when it comes to the economy. His influence is greater on some things (unemployment and economic growth) than others (the housing crisis). At the same time, the Reagan era showed us that a president’s agenda can make a world of difference. And unlike Reagan, Obama’s policies have not made things better – even Obama admits we’re not better off than we were four years ago — and in many respects, they have made things worse.

I’d add two other points–the first of which is when the president criticizes his predecessor and Republicans, he shows an impressive capacity to resist what I’m sure is his natural impulse: fair-mindedness toward the opposition. Let’s just say that charity and understanding toward others is not a hallmark of the Obama presidency (except when it comes to, say, Occupy Wall Street, where he has shown an amazing ability to overlook lawlessness, violence, and anti-Semitism).

The other observation worth making, I think, is that one merely needs to hold Obama to his own standards. It was the Obama administration, after all, not Mitt Romney, which said unemployment would not exceed 8 percent under his watch if his stimulus program was passed. (Based on the administration’s own projections, unemployment should be around 6.5 percent at this stage.) It was Obama who said, in the early days of his presidency, “I will be held accountable. I’ve got four years… If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.” And it was Obama who said on the night of his election, “This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids, to restore prosperity.”

This was their moment. This was their time. And they’ve had their chance. The Obama record is one of almost undiluted failures. And no group of Americans have been hurt more by his failures than the poor, the weak and defenseless, and those living in the shadows of society. One might even say that compared to his predecessor — who said that our national character shines in our compassion; that we must be rich in justice and moral courage; and that Americans have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity in our lives and in our laws — Obama has offered a vision of America where everybody is left to fend for themselves.

Ineptitude has a high human cost.

 

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Robert Darnton

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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Pessimist? Optimist? Why not go all out and embrace the great American tradition of the jeremiad? Given the slightest excuse, we Americans rend our garments, fill the air with lamentations, and prophesy doom. The end is approaching; strap on your seatbelts; we are going to hell. Evidence can be found everywhere: harvests wilting, prices rising, oil spills gushing, banks defaulting, Congress stalemating, and the economy threatening to collapse.

From my corner of the world (I am a professor and a university librarian), there is a lot to lament, beginning with the use of language. Students’ papers contain phrases such as “between you and I.” Deans say, “going forward” instead of “in the future.” And a corporate idiom has invaded everything. We deal in “trade-offs” and “takeaways” and can’t pursue a course of action without issuing “mission” and “vision” statements, preferably in color and with arrows pointing to boxes meant to show where we are headed and how we intend to get there.

I take the language as a symptom of something more serious: the commercialization of the world of knowledge. Learning never was free, and research libraries are complex organizations, which require business plans. But how can we balance our budgets when the price of scholarly journals, set by monopolistic publishers, has spiraled out of control? The average institutional subscription price to a journal in physics is now $3,368 a year, and several journals cost $30,000. 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?

_____________

Pessimist? Optimist? Why not go all out and embrace the great American tradition of the jeremiad? Given the slightest excuse, we Americans rend our garments, fill the air with lamentations, and prophesy doom. The end is approaching; strap on your seatbelts; we are going to hell. Evidence can be found everywhere: harvests wilting, prices rising, oil spills gushing, banks defaulting, Congress stalemating, and the economy threatening to collapse.

From my corner of the world (I am a professor and a university librarian), there is a lot to lament, beginning with the use of language. Students’ papers contain phrases such as “between you and I.” Deans say, “going forward” instead of “in the future.” And a corporate idiom has invaded everything. We deal in “trade-offs” and “takeaways” and can’t pursue a course of action without issuing “mission” and “vision” statements, preferably in color and with arrows pointing to boxes meant to show where we are headed and how we intend to get there.

I take the language as a symptom of something more serious: the commercialization of the world of knowledge. Learning never was free, and research libraries are complex organizations, which require business plans. But how can we balance our budgets when the price of scholarly journals, set by monopolistic publishers, has spiraled out of control? The average institutional subscription price to a journal in physics is now $3,368 a year, and several journals cost $30,000.

It once seemed as though Google would democratize access to knowledge by digitizing all the books in our research libraries. But when Google struck a deal with the authors and publishers who had sued it for breach of copyright, it turned its digitizing operation into a commercial venture; the prices it could charge libraries for subscriptions to its database could have escalated as badly as the prices of journals did. Fortunately, a New York court declared the deal unacceptable because it threatened to eliminate all competition, and now we have an alternative to Google Book Search.

I refer to the Digital Public Library of America, a project to digitize millions of books and to make them available free of charge to everyone in the world. Far from being a utopian dream, this plan is doable. A coalition of foundations will provide the funding, and a coalition of libraries will supply the books. We will announce its details at a conference in Washington, D.C., on October 21, and we expect it to begin providing books and all kinds of digital material to the public within three years.

Despite my lamentations, therefore, I look forward to a promising future, at least insofar as ordinary people will have access to their cultural heritage. Am I an optimist? Yes, but not a cockeyed optimist.

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Robert Darnton is the Carl. H. Pforzheimer University Professor and university librarian at Harvard. He is the author, most recently, of Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Belknap).

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