Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 27, 2012

Obamacare’s Stepchildren: The Food Police

The debate about Obamacare and the way the government is using it to mandate that institutions pay for services they oppose such as contraception has brought the whole question of intrusive federal regulation back into the public eye. But those who believe this is something that will be limited to health care are probably deceiving themselves. The impulse to tell people how they should live and what they should do is implicit in the ideology that gave birth to Obamacare. If some influential people have their way, Washington’s power to impose its will may be extended into other spheres that were heretofore considered so far out of the government’s purview as to have been considered laughable. But as New York Times Magazine food columnist Mark Bittman wrote yesterday, the day may be fast approaching when government bureaucrats will be telling some, if not all citizens, what foods they may or may not eat.

Bittman picks up on the attempt by a conservative Republican in the Florida legislature to pass a bill that would prevent recipients of food stamps from spending their chits on junk food like candy, chips or soda. The willingness of a right-winger to join the food police encourages Bittman to think the time will not be long before sugar is regulated the way the production and marketing of alcohol and tobacco are controlled by the government. While Bittman’s nutritional advice about the dangers of over-consumption of products drenched in sugar and corn syrup is well taken, the notion that such choices will be taken out of the hands of consumers ought to frighten anyone who values individual freedom and understands the perils of a nanny state. Some may scoff at this possibility, but the Obamacare precedent and the power the president’s signature program will give the government may change everything in the future. Bittman’s argument that the costs of health care will make such government micro-managing of our lives inevitable may prove prophetic if Obamacare is not repealed next year.

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The debate about Obamacare and the way the government is using it to mandate that institutions pay for services they oppose such as contraception has brought the whole question of intrusive federal regulation back into the public eye. But those who believe this is something that will be limited to health care are probably deceiving themselves. The impulse to tell people how they should live and what they should do is implicit in the ideology that gave birth to Obamacare. If some influential people have their way, Washington’s power to impose its will may be extended into other spheres that were heretofore considered so far out of the government’s purview as to have been considered laughable. But as New York Times Magazine food columnist Mark Bittman wrote yesterday, the day may be fast approaching when government bureaucrats will be telling some, if not all citizens, what foods they may or may not eat.

Bittman picks up on the attempt by a conservative Republican in the Florida legislature to pass a bill that would prevent recipients of food stamps from spending their chits on junk food like candy, chips or soda. The willingness of a right-winger to join the food police encourages Bittman to think the time will not be long before sugar is regulated the way the production and marketing of alcohol and tobacco are controlled by the government. While Bittman’s nutritional advice about the dangers of over-consumption of products drenched in sugar and corn syrup is well taken, the notion that such choices will be taken out of the hands of consumers ought to frighten anyone who values individual freedom and understands the perils of a nanny state. Some may scoff at this possibility, but the Obamacare precedent and the power the president’s signature program will give the government may change everything in the future. Bittman’s argument that the costs of health care will make such government micro-managing of our lives inevitable may prove prophetic if Obamacare is not repealed next year.

Bittman is right to say obesity has become a major national health problem. Nor would I dispute his arguments that American nutritional habits are doing us and the country no good. But the notion that this is reason enough to give the government the power to prevent people from buying the food they wish to eat is a fundamental assault on individual liberty.

Food stamp recipients are vulnerable to such regulation because their poverty and dependence renders them helpless against such intrusions. If they are taking our money, some people reason, then we should be able to tell them what to do, especially if it is obviously for their own good. But this sort of utilitarian argument has no limits. If the national exchequer is burdened by the costs of caring for those who suffer from obesity, then we can just as easily be told that sugar or any other substance selected by the food police (Bittman prefers the term “vigilantes”) can be regulated or banned for everyone, not just those who rely on government handouts.

The ideological underpinning of this thinking can be found in Bittman’s assertion that it is the government’s job to take care of itself. If, as he believes, the government is failing to sufficiently protect us from ourselves, then it is time for enlightened souls to step in and force it to take control. However well-intentioned Bittman’s prescription for the national diet may be, government involvement on the scale that he is discussing is the epitome of the political trend that Jonah Goldberg aptly styled Liberal Fascism.

One might assume the food industry will fight this expansion of government control tooth and nail. But the example of Obamacare demonstrates all too well how businesses can be co-opted into acquiescing to a takeover by the federal leviathan. Unless Obamacare is stopped next year by a new president and Congress, we may well eventually find out just how far the reach of an empowered government can go.

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Mitt Romney’s Opportunism

Earlier today, I made the case that Rick Santorum’s language has been intemperate of late. The problem for Mitt Romney is a different one: opportunism. I have in mind, among other things, last week’s debate, when Governor Romney, in criticizing Santorum, said, “Well, I’m looking at [Santorum's] historic record” — including “a whole series of votes. Voting to fund Planned Parenthood…” and more.

This charge is technically correct but incomplete. In fact, it creates an utterly false impression. Santorum voted for a large spending bill that included funding for Planned Parenthood, the kind of difficult and prudential judgment members of Congress are often forced to make. (It helps explain why long-serving members of Congress rarely win the presidency.) But that vote cannot obscure this fact: Santorum has been one of America’s most vocal champions for the pro-life cause, to the point that he opposes abortion even in the case of rape and incest, and we all know he would defund Planned Parenthood in a millisecond if he could have his way. On culture of life issues, Rick Santorum is among the least compromised of all politicians.

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Earlier today, I made the case that Rick Santorum’s language has been intemperate of late. The problem for Mitt Romney is a different one: opportunism. I have in mind, among other things, last week’s debate, when Governor Romney, in criticizing Santorum, said, “Well, I’m looking at [Santorum's] historic record” — including “a whole series of votes. Voting to fund Planned Parenthood…” and more.

This charge is technically correct but incomplete. In fact, it creates an utterly false impression. Santorum voted for a large spending bill that included funding for Planned Parenthood, the kind of difficult and prudential judgment members of Congress are often forced to make. (It helps explain why long-serving members of Congress rarely win the presidency.) But that vote cannot obscure this fact: Santorum has been one of America’s most vocal champions for the pro-life cause, to the point that he opposes abortion even in the case of rape and incest, and we all know he would defund Planned Parenthood in a millisecond if he could have his way. On culture of life issues, Rick Santorum is among the least compromised of all politicians.

Beyond that, though, what makes the charge particularly unfair is that Romney, at one time in his career, strongly favored the right to an abortion, attended a Planned Parenthood fundraiser in 1994, and according to press reports, his wife Ann donated to Planned Parenthood. So to have Romney attack Santorum for being insufficiently pro-life is a bit much.

Romney has shifted his position on abortion, and I’m glad he has. But for him to portray Santorum as unprincipled on this issue strikes me as deeply unfair. It might work in a narrow tactical sense. But these attacks are dangerous for Romney, because they can easily reinforce a pre-existing impression, which is that there’s a shamelessness to Romney’s attacks that can be discrediting. (Trying to lay blame for Obamacare at the feet of Santorum is also a fairly brazen charge.)

There are plenty of arguments Romney can make on his own behalf, as well as criticisms he can level against Santorum. But Santorum being an ally of Planned Parenthood is an argument Romney really should stay away from.

 

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Is There a Romney-Paul “Alliance”?

Rick Santorum is claiming Mitt Romney and Ron Paul forged some secret backroom non-aggression pact with each other, and today a Think Progress study is adding fuel to that story. Out of the 20 debates Paul has participated in so far, he’s directly attacked the other candidates 39 times – but hasn’t once laid his gloves on Romney:

Rick Santorum has directly accused Paul and Romney of working together, noting “their commercials look a lot alike, and so do their attacks.” A review by ThinkProgress of the 20 GOP debates suggests Santorum might be onto something.

While Paul has freely attacked Romney’s top rivals, he has never once attacked Romney.

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Rick Santorum is claiming Mitt Romney and Ron Paul forged some secret backroom non-aggression pact with each other, and today a Think Progress study is adding fuel to that story. Out of the 20 debates Paul has participated in so far, he’s directly attacked the other candidates 39 times – but hasn’t once laid his gloves on Romney:

Rick Santorum has directly accused Paul and Romney of working together, noting “their commercials look a lot alike, and so do their attacks.” A review by ThinkProgress of the 20 GOP debates suggests Santorum might be onto something.

While Paul has freely attacked Romney’s top rivals, he has never once attacked Romney.

Twenty debates and no Romney attacks? As Allahpundit quips, “Out: Conspiracy theories advanced by Ron Paul. In: Conspiracy theories involving Ron Paul.”

There’s clearly a pattern here, but it’s important to get perspective. The same “Romney alliance” rumor has gone around about other candidates, including Michele Bachmann before she dropped out. Legal Insurrection detailed the theory last December:

The speculation was fueled by Bachmann’s relentless and often inaccurate attacks on everyone who rose to be the lead challenger to Romney, first Pawlenty, then Perry, then Cain, and most recently Newt.  Yet Romney was spared the wrath of Bachmann, other than the “Newt Romney” line.

Bachmann’s former campaign manager Ed Rollins later speculated that she took it easy on Romney because she was holding out for a VP slot. A less calculated reason could be that she knew she wasn’t going to win and didn’t want to alienate the party’s most likely nominee.

But Paul also has a personal and professional interest in maintaining good relations with Romney. Like Bachmann, he knows he can’t win the nomination. But he’d like some signs of respect at the GOP convention, and wants to leave as many bridges intact in the party as he can for his son. Beyond that, Paul and Romney seem to have a friendly rapport, while Paul has had a rocky personal history with both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. It’s a perfectly logical reason, but not a scandalous one.

 

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Religion and the Public Square

Like Alana, I re-read John F. Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in light of Senator Santorum’s statement that he wanted to “throw up” in reaction to it. I concur with much of what Kennedy said, even as I’m familiar with (and somewhat sympathetic to) those who believe the speech went too far in dividing people’s private beliefs from their public duties and keeping religious convictions from shaping our public debate. Respectful disagreement with a serious speech is one thing; feeling the need to vomit all over it is quite another.

There are some important things missing from Santorum’s critique of Kennedy’s address. One is context. Those who served by Kennedy’s side have said no obstacle to the presidency handicapped Kennedy more than the widespread charge that a Catholic in the White House could not uphold America’s traditional and constitutional distance between the church and the state. The fear was that Kennedy would take his orders from the Vatican. Polls showed that well over half of Hubert Humphrey’s support was based solely on Kennedy’s religion. “People here aren’t anti-Kennedy,” said the publisher of West Virginia’s Coal Valley News. “They are simply concerned about the domination of the Catholic Church.” One article, written prior to the 1960 Wisconsin primary, mentioned the word “Catholic” 20 times in 15 paragraphs, even as it overlooked Kennedy’s positions on key public policy matters. That is what Kennedy was facing at the time.

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Like Alana, I re-read John F. Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in light of Senator Santorum’s statement that he wanted to “throw up” in reaction to it. I concur with much of what Kennedy said, even as I’m familiar with (and somewhat sympathetic to) those who believe the speech went too far in dividing people’s private beliefs from their public duties and keeping religious convictions from shaping our public debate. Respectful disagreement with a serious speech is one thing; feeling the need to vomit all over it is quite another.

There are some important things missing from Santorum’s critique of Kennedy’s address. One is context. Those who served by Kennedy’s side have said no obstacle to the presidency handicapped Kennedy more than the widespread charge that a Catholic in the White House could not uphold America’s traditional and constitutional distance between the church and the state. The fear was that Kennedy would take his orders from the Vatican. Polls showed that well over half of Hubert Humphrey’s support was based solely on Kennedy’s religion. “People here aren’t anti-Kennedy,” said the publisher of West Virginia’s Coal Valley News. “They are simply concerned about the domination of the Catholic Church.” One article, written prior to the 1960 Wisconsin primary, mentioned the word “Catholic” 20 times in 15 paragraphs, even as it overlooked Kennedy’s positions on key public policy matters. That is what Kennedy was facing at the time.

“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed,” JFK said in Houston, “in other years it has been — and may someday be again — a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.”

That is a warning worth heeding. And when Kennedy insisted that “I do not speak for the Catholic Church on issues of public policy,” he was simply saying what Santorum is saying today on the matter of contraception. Senator Santorum says he has his own personal views on contraception, which track with the teaching of the Catholic Church, but that he has no intention of banning contraception. (Hopefully, no faithful Catholic will develop emesis based on Santorum’s stand.)

The core argument Kennedy was making in his 1960 speech is that there should be no religious test for public office – and in making that argument, Kennedy was upholding the Constitution (specifically Article VI). To Kennedy’s credit, he said, “If the time should ever come – and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible – when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.” Kennedy also stated he would not “disavow my views or my church in order to win this election.”

I’d simply add that President Kennedy, in his remarkable inaugural address, gave one of the most eloquent reaffirmations of the animating spirit of the Declaration of Independence. “And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe,” President Kennedy said, “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” Obviously, Kennedy was not in favor of a completely naked public square.

There are many Democrats Rick Santorum could target with wrath and contempt; John F. Kennedy should not be one of them.

 

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Romney Not Out of the Woods in Michigan

Up until today, the trend in Michigan had seemed to be running heavily in Mitt Romney’s favor as Rick Santorum’s February surge sputtered to a halt amid his controversial social issue stands and poor debate performance. But the results from two of the latest polls are a portrait of a race still up for grabs. Both Rasmussen and the Mitchell/Rosetta Stone surveys of Michigan Republicans showed a slight uptick for Santorum. The previous Rasmussen poll taken last Thursday (immediately after Santorum’s bad debate night) showed Romney leading by a 40-34-percentage point margin. Their latest poll conducted on Sunday shows Romney only up by 2 points at 38-36. Last Thursday, Mitchell/Rosetta Stone had Romney up 36-33. By Sunday, their pollsters found Santorum was leading 37-35.

What does this mean? The experience of the last month illustrates plainly that anyone who tries to predict the outcome of anything to do with the GOP presidential race is likely to be wrong the majority of the time. How Santorum managed to gain ground during a three-day period when he seemed to do nothing but stumble is beyond me. But perhaps we are looking at this problem from the wrong end of the telescope. Every time Romney has seemed ready to cruise to an inevitable victory, his failure to connect with grass-roots voters has dealt him setbacks. It may be that more Michiganders thought Romney looked silly speaking to a tiny crowd in cavernous Ford Field or found his comment about his wife’s Cadillac collection off-putting than paid attention to Santorum’s swipes at John F. Kennedy. But no matter what the explanation, Romney’s well-oiled organization and party establishment support will need to turn out the vote for him tomorrow lest he be dealt a devastating setback.

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Up until today, the trend in Michigan had seemed to be running heavily in Mitt Romney’s favor as Rick Santorum’s February surge sputtered to a halt amid his controversial social issue stands and poor debate performance. But the results from two of the latest polls are a portrait of a race still up for grabs. Both Rasmussen and the Mitchell/Rosetta Stone surveys of Michigan Republicans showed a slight uptick for Santorum. The previous Rasmussen poll taken last Thursday (immediately after Santorum’s bad debate night) showed Romney leading by a 40-34-percentage point margin. Their latest poll conducted on Sunday shows Romney only up by 2 points at 38-36. Last Thursday, Mitchell/Rosetta Stone had Romney up 36-33. By Sunday, their pollsters found Santorum was leading 37-35.

What does this mean? The experience of the last month illustrates plainly that anyone who tries to predict the outcome of anything to do with the GOP presidential race is likely to be wrong the majority of the time. How Santorum managed to gain ground during a three-day period when he seemed to do nothing but stumble is beyond me. But perhaps we are looking at this problem from the wrong end of the telescope. Every time Romney has seemed ready to cruise to an inevitable victory, his failure to connect with grass-roots voters has dealt him setbacks. It may be that more Michiganders thought Romney looked silly speaking to a tiny crowd in cavernous Ford Field or found his comment about his wife’s Cadillac collection off-putting than paid attention to Santorum’s swipes at John F. Kennedy. But no matter what the explanation, Romney’s well-oiled organization and party establishment support will need to turn out the vote for him tomorrow lest he be dealt a devastating setback.

The main takeaway from a bruising Michigan primary may be that even if Romney prevails in a state that many thought would be in his pocket, his difficulty in closing the deal with conservatives will affect his long-range prospects. As a result of an increasingly bitter fight, Santorum and Romney have suffered setbacks in terms of their appeal to independents. Though a win by any margin in the state where he was born would be welcome for Romney, any outcome that gives hope to Santorum to keep fighting will not be helpful to his prospects in November.

That’s because no matter who loses in Michigan there is the possibility that due to the state’s delegate allocation rules that treat each congressional district as a separate entity, the loser may end up the winner in terms of delegates. As the New York Times’s Nate Silver explains, the GOP’s fuzzy delegate math makes the outcome of a protracted and close race difficult to predict. The longer the Republican race lasts, the weaker the eventual winner will be. Which means that absent a big Romney win tomorrow in Michigan, the GOP will be mired in a nasty internecine war for weeks, if not months, to come.

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The Hypocrisy of the “Cultural Boycotters”

Abe’s post about the hypocrisy of rock stars who preach morality while cozying up to dictators inevitably brings the anti-Israel cultural boycotters to mind. Take, for instance, Grammy-winning jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, who canceled a planned performance in Israel last week at the behest of pro-Palestinian activists. But somehow, she discovered her moral conscience only one day after having received full payment for the scheduled show – of which she has so far agreed to refund only part. In other words, this paragon of morality used her newfound passion for the Palestinian cause to commit robbery in broad daylight.

Or then there’s indie pop group, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, which recently canceled their planned performance in Israel. They, too, cited “political” reasons, in addition to scheduling pressures. But somehow, their moral conscience awoke only after they had managed to book a more lucrative gig in Malaysia for the same time.

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Abe’s post about the hypocrisy of rock stars who preach morality while cozying up to dictators inevitably brings the anti-Israel cultural boycotters to mind. Take, for instance, Grammy-winning jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, who canceled a planned performance in Israel last week at the behest of pro-Palestinian activists. But somehow, she discovered her moral conscience only one day after having received full payment for the scheduled show – of which she has so far agreed to refund only part. In other words, this paragon of morality used her newfound passion for the Palestinian cause to commit robbery in broad daylight.

Or then there’s indie pop group, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, which recently canceled their planned performance in Israel. They, too, cited “political” reasons, in addition to scheduling pressures. But somehow, their moral conscience awoke only after they had managed to book a more lucrative gig in Malaysia for the same time.

If this naked greed posing as morality is the best the cultural boycotters can do, I don’t think Israel has much to worry about on the moral high ground front. But it’s time for the rest of the world, including Israel, to start calling a spade a spade. These artists don’t give a fig about either Palestinian suffering or Israeli “human-rights abuses”; if they did, they wouldn’t have booked gigs in Israel in the first place. At best, all they care about is earning some positive publicity by feigning concern for Palestinian rights. And at worst, as with Cassandra Wilson and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, their crocodile tears are merely a convenient way to earn some extra lucre.

In short, they aren’t “cultural boycotters,” and they shouldn’t be dignified as such – because that term at least implies taking a moral stand, however warped. They are cynical poseurs who have found a way to exploit the Palestinian cause for their own gain.

 

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Media Matters’ Worst Nightmare?

If you’ve been keeping up with Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, you know he’s recently been battering President Obama for his association with the anti-Israel group Media Matters. While Dershowitz is a Democrat who supported Obama in 2008, he’s demanded the president cut ties with the left-wing media watchdog group, whose writers have made anti-Semitic remarks.

Today, Dershowitz took it a step further, promising to turn the issue into an election matter during an interview with WABC’s Aaron Klein (via BuzzFeed):

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, a leading Democratic lawyer who takes a hawkish line on Israel, has declared a personal war on the liberal group Media Matters, which has branched out into sharp criticism of Israel.

“Not only will [the Media Matters controversy] be an election matter, I will personally make it an election matter,” Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School, told WABC’s Aaron Klein today. …

“I don’t know whether President Obama has any idea that Media Matters has turned the corner against Israel in this way,” he said. “I can tell you this, he will know very shortly because I am beginning a serious campaign on this issue and I will not let it drop until and unless [writer and activist MJ] Rosenberg is fired from Media Matters, or Media Matters changes its policy or the White House disassociates itself from Media Matters.”

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If you’ve been keeping up with Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, you know he’s recently been battering President Obama for his association with the anti-Israel group Media Matters. While Dershowitz is a Democrat who supported Obama in 2008, he’s demanded the president cut ties with the left-wing media watchdog group, whose writers have made anti-Semitic remarks.

Today, Dershowitz took it a step further, promising to turn the issue into an election matter during an interview with WABC’s Aaron Klein (via BuzzFeed):

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, a leading Democratic lawyer who takes a hawkish line on Israel, has declared a personal war on the liberal group Media Matters, which has branched out into sharp criticism of Israel.

“Not only will [the Media Matters controversy] be an election matter, I will personally make it an election matter,” Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School, told WABC’s Aaron Klein today. …

“I don’t know whether President Obama has any idea that Media Matters has turned the corner against Israel in this way,” he said. “I can tell you this, he will know very shortly because I am beginning a serious campaign on this issue and I will not let it drop until and unless [writer and activist MJ] Rosenberg is fired from Media Matters, or Media Matters changes its policy or the White House disassociates itself from Media Matters.”

Dershowitz launched his campaign today with a column denouncing Media Matters’ use of the term “Israel Firster” in the New York Daily News. The law professor has successfully battled left-wing anti-Israel groups in the past, including J Street. Here’s what Dershowitz had to say about J Street during a debate with its president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, last year:

“The reason you have to attack me is very simple: I am J Street’s nightmare. Let me tell you why. Because I am a liberal Democratic Jew who strongly opposes the settlements, who strongly favors a two-state solution, who supports Obama, who supports Hillary Clinton, who supports Petraeus, but who does not support J Street. You have to create the illusion that everybody against J Street is a member of the right, and is part of the Sarah Palin-Rush Limbaugh group. And you can’t explain me.”

A vocal campaign against Media Matters, especially if it includes other prominent Democrats in the Jewish community, could cause major problems for Media Matters and increase pressure on Obama to distance himself from the group.

But it will also be a test of whether Democrats are willing to call out anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing within their own ranks. After former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block criticized Media Matters staffers for making anti-Semitic comments late last year, the Truman Institute cut its association with him, claiming Block was trying to shut down “honest debate.” Will Democratic Party institutions side with Dershowitz on this issue? Or will they continue to stay silent on the uncomfortable but very real Israel problem at Media Matters?

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In Honor of Steinbeck’s Birthday

In honor of John Steinbeck’s 110th birthday — it is also Peter De Vries’s 102nd, Lawrence Durrell’s 100th, N. Scott Momaday’s 78th, and my 60th — the used-book site AbeBooks has compiled a list of the bestsellers from the Great Depression. There you can enjoy the original jackets of such novels as Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s Dark Hester, Gladys Hasty Carroll’s As the World Turns, Kenneth Roberts’s Northwest Passage, and Warwick Deeping’s Old Wine and New. The whole list is a welcome reminder that not even ripe avocados are more perishable than literary fame.

A definitive list of Depression Era literature would have to include Steinbeck, although at this distance in time it is clearer than ever that he was really a master of midcult. The Grapes of Wrath is a potboiler of overwrought lyricism. A more representative novel of the era is In Dubious Battle (1936), his radical strike novel.

The decade 1929–1939 was the heyday of proletarian literature, the great bulk of it unreadable now. Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs and Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money, both published in 1930, are exceptions. The Studs Lonigan trilogy of James T. Farrell (also born on February 27, coincidentally enough) has not stood up, but Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots (1935) was the first novel of a writer who does not merit his current neglect.

Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) has been wrongly described as a proletarian novel. It is, instead, a deeply Jewish novel — and only one of several that belong to the decade, creating an American Jewish literature before the boom of the Fifties and Sixties.

The others include Myron Brinig’s Singermann (1929), the first American novel about a Jewish department-store family, Vera Caspary’s Thicker Than Water (1932), the first novel about American Sephardim, Nathanel West’s pitiless Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934), an unsentimental tour of immigrant Brooklyn, Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed (1934), about over-energetic New York Jewish intellectuals who start a magazine, Meyer Levin’s The Old Bunch (1937), which follows a legion of Chicago adolescents from the Twenties to the World’s Fair and beyond, and Milton Steinberg’s historical novel about the Talmudic Era, As a Driven Leaf (1939).

The decade started with A Farewell to Arms, although Hemingway’s novel looks back on the First World War. It was also the decade of Faulkner’s greatest productivity: The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Faulkner’s Thirties are not Steinbeck’s. Nor Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s nor Gladys Hasty Carroll’s either, for that matter. And yet they may be the second third best decade in American literary history.*
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* After the 1850s and 1920s.

In honor of John Steinbeck’s 110th birthday — it is also Peter De Vries’s 102nd, Lawrence Durrell’s 100th, N. Scott Momaday’s 78th, and my 60th — the used-book site AbeBooks has compiled a list of the bestsellers from the Great Depression. There you can enjoy the original jackets of such novels as Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s Dark Hester, Gladys Hasty Carroll’s As the World Turns, Kenneth Roberts’s Northwest Passage, and Warwick Deeping’s Old Wine and New. The whole list is a welcome reminder that not even ripe avocados are more perishable than literary fame.

A definitive list of Depression Era literature would have to include Steinbeck, although at this distance in time it is clearer than ever that he was really a master of midcult. The Grapes of Wrath is a potboiler of overwrought lyricism. A more representative novel of the era is In Dubious Battle (1936), his radical strike novel.

The decade 1929–1939 was the heyday of proletarian literature, the great bulk of it unreadable now. Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs and Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money, both published in 1930, are exceptions. The Studs Lonigan trilogy of James T. Farrell (also born on February 27, coincidentally enough) has not stood up, but Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots (1935) was the first novel of a writer who does not merit his current neglect.

Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) has been wrongly described as a proletarian novel. It is, instead, a deeply Jewish novel — and only one of several that belong to the decade, creating an American Jewish literature before the boom of the Fifties and Sixties.

The others include Myron Brinig’s Singermann (1929), the first American novel about a Jewish department-store family, Vera Caspary’s Thicker Than Water (1932), the first novel about American Sephardim, Nathanel West’s pitiless Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934), an unsentimental tour of immigrant Brooklyn, Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed (1934), about over-energetic New York Jewish intellectuals who start a magazine, Meyer Levin’s The Old Bunch (1937), which follows a legion of Chicago adolescents from the Twenties to the World’s Fair and beyond, and Milton Steinberg’s historical novel about the Talmudic Era, As a Driven Leaf (1939).

The decade started with A Farewell to Arms, although Hemingway’s novel looks back on the First World War. It was also the decade of Faulkner’s greatest productivity: The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Faulkner’s Thirties are not Steinbeck’s. Nor Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s nor Gladys Hasty Carroll’s either, for that matter. And yet they may be the second third best decade in American literary history.*
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* After the 1850s and 1920s.

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Muslims and the First Amendment

For the past several years, there have been two competing narratives about Islam in America. One put forward by groups that purport to represent believers in Islam and the liberal media would have it that in the post-9/11 era, American Muslims are besieged by a wave of hatred and violence (even though there is no statistical evidence to back up such claims). The other is one articulated by critics of Islam who argue that Muslims are demanding and getting accommodations from government and other institutions that are an unconstitutional establishment of Islamic or Sharia law. Advocates of this point of view are the driving force behind efforts to enact laws that would prohibit recognition or use of Sharia law in U.S. courts. This cause has often seemed to be, at best, the result of overblown fears because, unlike in Asia and Africa where Muslim efforts to make Sharia the law of the land, there is little danger of that happening in Oklahoma or other states where anti-Sharia statutes have been proposed.

However, every now and then a story pops up which makes such fears seem more reasonable. One concerns the assault by a local Muslim on a man wearing a costume during a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, last year. The attacker said the costume depicted a zombie version of the Prophet Muhammad. The attack was recorded on film and witnessed by a police officer who promptly arrested the assailant, who was later charged with harassment. But, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley notes in his blog, the judge who heard the case not only dismissed the case on the grounds that the offense to Islam was not protected speech but also lectured the victim on the wrongheaded nature of his views. Judge Mark Martin’s decision was based on the idea that the assailant, one Talaag Elbayomy, was merely defending “his culture.” Turley, who posted a video of the assault and a partial transcript of the judge’s comments, concludes that Martin’s decision “raises serious questions of judicial temperament, if not misconduct.” But I would go farther and point out that the judge’s behavior seems to reflect a bizarre notion of Muslim entitlement that is by no means unrelated to the attempt to sell the country on the myth of a post 9/11 backlash.

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For the past several years, there have been two competing narratives about Islam in America. One put forward by groups that purport to represent believers in Islam and the liberal media would have it that in the post-9/11 era, American Muslims are besieged by a wave of hatred and violence (even though there is no statistical evidence to back up such claims). The other is one articulated by critics of Islam who argue that Muslims are demanding and getting accommodations from government and other institutions that are an unconstitutional establishment of Islamic or Sharia law. Advocates of this point of view are the driving force behind efforts to enact laws that would prohibit recognition or use of Sharia law in U.S. courts. This cause has often seemed to be, at best, the result of overblown fears because, unlike in Asia and Africa where Muslim efforts to make Sharia the law of the land, there is little danger of that happening in Oklahoma or other states where anti-Sharia statutes have been proposed.

However, every now and then a story pops up which makes such fears seem more reasonable. One concerns the assault by a local Muslim on a man wearing a costume during a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, last year. The attacker said the costume depicted a zombie version of the Prophet Muhammad. The attack was recorded on film and witnessed by a police officer who promptly arrested the assailant, who was later charged with harassment. But, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley notes in his blog, the judge who heard the case not only dismissed the case on the grounds that the offense to Islam was not protected speech but also lectured the victim on the wrongheaded nature of his views. Judge Mark Martin’s decision was based on the idea that the assailant, one Talaag Elbayomy, was merely defending “his culture.” Turley, who posted a video of the assault and a partial transcript of the judge’s comments, concludes that Martin’s decision “raises serious questions of judicial temperament, if not misconduct.” But I would go farther and point out that the judge’s behavior seems to reflect a bizarre notion of Muslim entitlement that is by no means unrelated to the attempt to sell the country on the myth of a post 9/11 backlash.

Martin called Ernie Perce, the Pennsylvania director of American Atheists, a “doofus” and, citing his own experiences serving in Iraq and other Muslim countries, told him his conduct could be punished by death in such countries. He went on to claim the Framers did not intend the First Amendment to be used to “piss off other peoples and cultures” and therefore did not protect his right to criticize Islam even in the context of a Halloween parade. Martin not only seemed to accept the idea that Elbayomy was conditioned to attack critics of Islam by his background and faith but that the law ought to recognize his need to not be so offended. This “cultural defense” seems to treat Muslims as so inherently aggrieved by living in a country where their religion is not the law of the land that they deserve some sort of special legal protection for their own blatantly illegal behavior.

As Turley states, the fact that the victim was a recognized antagonist of the Muslim faith had no bearing on whether he ought to be allowed to exercise his right to speak his mind without being physically attacked. Though insulting the prophet is a death-penalty offense in much of the world, such behavior is not illegal in a country that recognizes the right to free speech.

It should be specified that this is just one clearly incompetent judge who used his godlike control of his courtroom to vent his personal opinions and perpetrated a miscarriage of justice. But what is really troubling is the way his decision seems to reflect a growing sense that Muslim sensibilities are so delicate they may override the rights of others to comment on their faith. One need not endorse the insult of any faith to understand Perce’s conduct was legal and his attacker was in the wrong.

It is hardly a stretch to point out the connection between this case and something all too common in Muslim countries where insults or perceived attacks on Islam — such as the recent incident in Afghanistan — are treated as justifying riots and murder. For all of the unsubstantiated talk about a rising tide of Islamophobia, critics of Islam are still far more likely to be subjected to attacks than are Muslims. Like all Americans, Muslims are entitled to the full protection of the law for the expression of their beliefs. But attempts to enshrine their notion of what is a sacrilege into secular law are a path to the destruction of the Constitution.

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Paying the Price in Egypt and Iran

I have already compared the trial of 16 Americans, along with a number of Egyptians, in an Egyptian court on trumped-up charges of violating various laws to the Iranian hostage crisis in terms of the challenge it poses to American power. There is another similarity worth noting: In both cases we were in some sense reaping what we sowed.

Much of the reason Iranians were so anti-American in 1979, after all, was the unlimited backing we had given to an unpopular dictator, the Shah. Likewise, much of the reason Egyptians are anti-American is because of the unlimited backing we gave to another unpopular dictator, Hosni Mubarak. It did not matter in either case that at the last minute, when both men were in danger of toppling, the U.S. effectively withdrew its backing. All that the people of Egypt and Iran would remember was the decades of support for a dictator which preceded the regime’s demise.

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I have already compared the trial of 16 Americans, along with a number of Egyptians, in an Egyptian court on trumped-up charges of violating various laws to the Iranian hostage crisis in terms of the challenge it poses to American power. There is another similarity worth noting: In both cases we were in some sense reaping what we sowed.

Much of the reason Iranians were so anti-American in 1979, after all, was the unlimited backing we had given to an unpopular dictator, the Shah. Likewise, much of the reason Egyptians are anti-American is because of the unlimited backing we gave to another unpopular dictator, Hosni Mubarak. It did not matter in either case that at the last minute, when both men were in danger of toppling, the U.S. effectively withdrew its backing. All that the people of Egypt and Iran would remember was the decades of support for a dictator which preceded the regime’s demise.

Needless to say, I do not condone this anti-Americanism, but I can understand it–just as I can understand why so many American governments found it prudent to back the Shah and Mubarak. The regime which succeeded the Shah makes his rule seem paradisiacal by comparison; the same might yet be said of whatever regime emerges in Egypt, which will be dominated by Islamists. Perhaps there was no “third way” possible (to evoke that Cold War phrase), but we should have at least tried harder to find it by pushing our dictatorial allies to reform and providing support to moderate opposition elements.

We didn’t do that in the case of Egypt and Iran and are now paying the price. It is not too late in the case of other regional allies such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We need to push them to liberalize, or else we can expect more hostage crises and show trials in our future.

 

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Iranian Regime Officially Beyond Parody?

Iran declares victory over the criminal Zionist entity…at the Oscars:

Iran trumpeted the Islamic Republic’s first foreign film Oscar win Monday as a triumph over archfoe Israel – even as audiences in Israel packed theaters to watch the movie that beat their country’s entry at the Academy Awards. …

But Iranian state media used the Oscar-winning film to trumpet a success over Israel. The state TV broadcast said the award succeeded in “leaving behind” a film from the “Zionist regime,” the phrase often used in Iran to describe Israel. …

Javad Shamaghdari, head of Iran’s Cinematic Agency, portrayed the Oscar decision as the “beginning of the collapse” of Israeli influence that “beats the drum of war” in the U.S.

Sacha Baron Cohen needs to grab a notepad and take a seat, because Iran just showed him how satire is done.

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Iran declares victory over the criminal Zionist entity…at the Oscars:

Iran trumpeted the Islamic Republic’s first foreign film Oscar win Monday as a triumph over archfoe Israel – even as audiences in Israel packed theaters to watch the movie that beat their country’s entry at the Academy Awards. …

But Iranian state media used the Oscar-winning film to trumpet a success over Israel. The state TV broadcast said the award succeeded in “leaving behind” a film from the “Zionist regime,” the phrase often used in Iran to describe Israel. …

Javad Shamaghdari, head of Iran’s Cinematic Agency, portrayed the Oscar decision as the “beginning of the collapse” of Israeli influence that “beats the drum of war” in the U.S.

Sacha Baron Cohen needs to grab a notepad and take a seat, because Iran just showed him how satire is done.

It’s actually pretty rare for the regime to comment on these types of entertainment awards. While the Associated Press speculates this could be a sign Tehran is easing its hardline stance on the movie industry, it probably has more to do with the regime’s unrestrained animosity toward Israel. Note that any perceived success vis-à-vis the Jewish state (even an Oscar win) is framed in nationalistic and moral terms by the regime: the beating drums of war are slowing because an Iranian filmmaker won the foreign language award over a handful of other countries, including Israel. And this isn’t even portrayed as a sign of artistic achievement on the Iranian movie industry’s part, but as a sign of Israel’s “collapse.”  That’s some deep psychological stuff right there.

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A Revealing Skepticism about the Putin Assassination Plot

Russia faces a tense presidential election. The Russian people’s complaints about the lack of promised freedoms grow louder. An apartment building collapses after an explosion. A plot to carry out terrorism in Russian population centers and even against the president himself is uncovered.

The year is… 2012. This morning, in fact. But it bears a peculiar resemblance to the circumstances surrounding Vladimir Putin’s election in 2000 and the election of his successor in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev. The most noticeable difference today is probably the cynicism with which the news has been greeted. Miriam Elder reports:

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Russia faces a tense presidential election. The Russian people’s complaints about the lack of promised freedoms grow louder. An apartment building collapses after an explosion. A plot to carry out terrorism in Russian population centers and even against the president himself is uncovered.

The year is… 2012. This morning, in fact. But it bears a peculiar resemblance to the circumstances surrounding Vladimir Putin’s election in 2000 and the election of his successor in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev. The most noticeable difference today is probably the cynicism with which the news has been greeted. Miriam Elder reports:

The Russian and Ukrainian special services have foiled a plot to assassinate Vladimir Putin immediately after Russia’s presidential election next Sunday, state television reported.

Channel One said several men who were arrested in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa in January had been dispatched to kill Putin by the Chechen rebel Doku Umarov, the leader of Russia’s separatist Islamist movement….

It was unclear why news of the arrests was not released sooner, but the announcement – which was made just one week ahead of an election that is expected to sweep Putin back into the Kremlin despite growing protests against his rule – was treated with suspicion in liberal circles in Moscow.

“Do I understand correctly that no one believes in the assassination attempt on Putin?” Danila Lindele, a leader of the opposition Blue Bucket movement, wrote on Twitter.

Another Russian user wrote: “It’s better to pretend we believe it. Or else they’ll start blowing up homes again.”

In fact, later this morning news broke that a residential building collapsed in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan after what seems to be a gas explosion. Shaun Walker, the Independent’s Moscow correspondent, looked into it and tweeted: “FSB ‘not excluding’ that Astrakhan explosion was a terrorist act. It looked like gas. Let’s hope so. If not this is all eerily familiar….”

He was alluding to the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia that boosted Putin, the newly designated successor to Boris Yeltsin, and was used to justify the Second Chechen War. Putin has been accused of having the FSB carry out the bombings and blame them on Chechen terrorists. The evidence for that claim is mostly circumstantial, but it nonetheless has dogged Putin throughout his tenure.

It has also become a symbol of the mistrust and suspicion Putin has earned, especially from younger Russians not aligned with pro-Kremlin youth groups and with the independent press. Still, there are reasons for skepticism about this latest alleged plot. Ben Aris writes at Business New Europe that he flat-out doesn’t believe it. Aris says the evidence found constitutes intent, perhaps, but not serious planning, and the suspects were apprehended weeks ago. The actual plan, he writes, doesn’t make too much sense either:

The stated plan was to plant mines along Kutuzovsky prospekt and detonate them as Putin’s convoy passes on his way to work. But there are a string of problems with this too. I used to live on Kutuzovsky and everyday as Putin drove past, the street would fill up with beefy FSB officers every 100 metres or so along the route to check the road. Secondly, Kutuzovsky is an eight-lane road and Putin’s entourage drives extremely fast down the middle as all traffic is cleared out of the way. A bomb that could reach and catch Putin’s car (which is armoured) and actually destroy it would have to be massive and very hard to hide – certainly they would have to be more powerful than to simply “tear apart a truck” that a security officer told Russia’s First Channel.

Still, even this is all possible. But what makes this alleged attack most unlikely is that the style of the whole plan is totally out of keeping with all the other Chechen attacks, which can be divided into two types: hostage taking and bomb attacks.

That may be true, but there are exceptions. The alleged planned attack on the 2006 G-8 meeting in St. Petersburg involved rockets, and was a much more serious assassination attempt with almost no chance of success (and Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who was apparently killed by Russian security forces after the plot was uncovered and tracked, seemed to know this—an extensive “plan B” was sketched out).

The most likely scenario here is that the plot was real, but not designed by Caucasus Islamist leader Doku Umarov, and that the apparent gas explosion was just that (something the Russian authorities will likely confirm today). But the timing of the news appears to be a transparent attempt by Putin’s team to increase their expected margin of victory this weekend. It’s clear, however, that a large enough segment of the population no longer takes anything Putin says at face value. That’s a crisis of legitimacy, the magnitude of which few administrations could survive.

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The Campaign to Ignore the Iranian Threat

In the last week, more evidence of the serious nature of Iran’s nuclear threat has been made public. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has dramatically increased its production of highly enriched uranium that is close to weapons-grade fuel. Much of it is being produced in a mountain bunker in Fordow in northwestern Iran. Friday’s report claimed Iran already has enough enriched uranium to build four nuclear weapons, and the move of the operation to underground bunkers and a larger stockpile of uranium could shorten the time needed for Iran to develop a nuke. All this undermines the credibility of the claims put forward by Iran’s apologists that there is no proof of their intentions to make a bomb. As Frederick Kagan and Maseh Zarif write in today’s Wall Street Journal, “There is no case to be made that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. There is no evidence that Iran’s decision-makers are willing to stop the nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions or anything else.”

The IAEA report, which built upon the evidence in previous releases from the agency, makes all the more curious the efforts by the Obama administration to cast doubt upon the idea that Iran is working towards building a bomb. U.S. intelligence sources have been plying the mainstream press with spin about the data coming from Iran while even citing the long-discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Iran had abandoned its weapons program. Given the volume of findings about Iran’s nuclear project and Tehran’s refusal to take steps that would reassure the international community they are not working toward a bomb, the Pollyanna-like faith that the Islamist regime poses no nuclear threat to the world is, at best, naive, and, at worst, a cynical attempt to prevent any Western or Israeli effort to forestall the danger.

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In the last week, more evidence of the serious nature of Iran’s nuclear threat has been made public. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has dramatically increased its production of highly enriched uranium that is close to weapons-grade fuel. Much of it is being produced in a mountain bunker in Fordow in northwestern Iran. Friday’s report claimed Iran already has enough enriched uranium to build four nuclear weapons, and the move of the operation to underground bunkers and a larger stockpile of uranium could shorten the time needed for Iran to develop a nuke. All this undermines the credibility of the claims put forward by Iran’s apologists that there is no proof of their intentions to make a bomb. As Frederick Kagan and Maseh Zarif write in today’s Wall Street Journal, “There is no case to be made that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. There is no evidence that Iran’s decision-makers are willing to stop the nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions or anything else.”

The IAEA report, which built upon the evidence in previous releases from the agency, makes all the more curious the efforts by the Obama administration to cast doubt upon the idea that Iran is working towards building a bomb. U.S. intelligence sources have been plying the mainstream press with spin about the data coming from Iran while even citing the long-discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Iran had abandoned its weapons program. Given the volume of findings about Iran’s nuclear project and Tehran’s refusal to take steps that would reassure the international community they are not working toward a bomb, the Pollyanna-like faith that the Islamist regime poses no nuclear threat to the world is, at best, naive, and, at worst, a cynical attempt to prevent any Western or Israeli effort to forestall the danger.

As Kagan and Zarif point out, much of the current debate about Iran is utterly disingenuous. The attempt to draw analogies between Iran in 2012 and the intelligence failures that preceded the invasion of Iraq fall flat when you realize there isn’t much about Iran’s program that has been kept secret. While the contradictory and often confused statements of American intelligence chiefs about Iran seem more about their desire to atone for past mistakes completely unconnected with present dilemmas, the attempt to raise the Iraq precedent seems solely intended to halt any discussion about what to do about the specter of an Iranian bomb.

The plain fact of the matter is the Obama administration does not wish to be forced to make a decision about Iran. It prefers to spend the next eight months of the presidential campaign reiterating the president’s tough rhetoric about not letting the Islamist regime attain nuclear capability while not actually having to do much, if anything, to fulfill its pledges on the issue. Thus, its priority now is to pressure Israel not to take action on its own that might upset this scheme of prevarication. But any argument based on the premise that further negotiations or engagement with Iran constitute a fruitful path towards resolution of this problem is not serious. Nor can much hope be placed in the administration’s irresolute dedication to pursuing sanctions which it appears China and Russia will sabotage.

There are, as Kagan and Zarif stipulate, good reasons to fear the results of any resort to force against Iran by either Israel or the United States. But, as they say, arguments against attacking Iran should be made in a straightforward manner and not disguised by dishonest attempts to cloud the truth about the nature of this threat.

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Santorum Should Take a Tip from JFK

On the eve before the Michigan primary, with polls showing Rick Santorum’s emphasis on social issues is hurting him with voters, this is what the candidate chose to say on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”:

Asked Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” how his faith fits in with his ideas about governing, Santorum said he disagreed with the “absolute separation” between church and state outlined by [President] Kennedy in a 1960 speech.

Santorum said reading the speech made him want to “throw up.”

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

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On the eve before the Michigan primary, with polls showing Rick Santorum’s emphasis on social issues is hurting him with voters, this is what the candidate chose to say on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”:

Asked Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” how his faith fits in with his ideas about governing, Santorum said he disagreed with the “absolute separation” between church and state outlined by [President] Kennedy in a 1960 speech.

Santorum said reading the speech made him want to “throw up.”

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

At the Washington Examiner, Conn Carroll rightly points out:

Rick Santorum should be talking about his economic agenda today. He has an op-ed titled, “My Economic Freedom Agenda,” in today’s Wall Street Journal laying out a perfectly conservative 10-point plan. But nobody is going to be talking about it.

Instead, people will be talking about Santorum’s appearance on ABC News‘ “ThisWeek,” where host George Stephanopoulos asked Santorum if he stood by comments he made just last October criticizing President Kennedy’s speech on religion on politics. In that College of Saint Mary Magdalen speech, Santorum said of Kennedy’s speech, “Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up. You should read the speech.”

If you’ve never heard Kennedy’s speech, take Santorum’s advice and read it over. It may make Santorum “want to throw up,” but it’s actually a compelling defense of religious liberty. In fact, the speech provides a blueprint for what Santorum should be saying to steer the race away from religious issues and back to the serious concerns of our day: the deficit, a nuclear Iran and unemployment.

As Carroll notes, if only Santorum would use a line like this from Kennedy the next time he’s asked about his views on birth control:

“While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election…These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.”

Moreover, Kennedy’s views on the separation of church and state are uncontroversial. He didn’t deny religion played a major role in shaping our country, or that issues of conscience are often decided on religious lines. But he does reject the notion that the leadership of one religion (in his case, Catholicism) should be able to control the president’s actions:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

If Santorum opposes this, as he told Stephanopoulos, he needs to be more specific about what he’s disputing. Does he believe the U.S. president should take orders from the leaders of his religion? Does he believe the president should make decisions based on the rulings of religious bodies, rather than his own personal conscience? This is something voters need to know before pulling the lever for Santorum.

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Sting and the Police State

In terms of lifestyle, dictators and rock stars occupy the same stratum. Consider only a fraction of what they share: palace residences, obsessively broadcast concern for the poor, appearances before strange crowds who chant their names, flattery from identical media sycophants, protection from hired flunkies who allow their eccentricities full expression, an ever-ready foul word for Israel, and another for the United States. Experientially, rock stardom is dictatorship without death squads and the pretense of governance.

Perhaps that’s why newly released pictures of British rock star Sting laughing it up with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2008 seem to capture a moment of natural affinity. Who but a rock star understands the demands of the dictatorial daily grind? Viewing photos in the Daily Mail of the two happy men with glamorous wives in tow, it’s easy to imagine they’re trading stories of bumbling private-jet stewards or the headaches of polo-court installation or condemning rapacious capitalists (present company celebrated, of course) or whatever else the dictator-rock star class gets up to when not dictating or rock starring.

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In terms of lifestyle, dictators and rock stars occupy the same stratum. Consider only a fraction of what they share: palace residences, obsessively broadcast concern for the poor, appearances before strange crowds who chant their names, flattery from identical media sycophants, protection from hired flunkies who allow their eccentricities full expression, an ever-ready foul word for Israel, and another for the United States. Experientially, rock stardom is dictatorship without death squads and the pretense of governance.

Perhaps that’s why newly released pictures of British rock star Sting laughing it up with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2008 seem to capture a moment of natural affinity. Who but a rock star understands the demands of the dictatorial daily grind? Viewing photos in the Daily Mail of the two happy men with glamorous wives in tow, it’s easy to imagine they’re trading stories of bumbling private-jet stewards or the headaches of polo-court installation or condemning rapacious capitalists (present company celebrated, of course) or whatever else the dictator-rock star class gets up to when not dictating or rock starring.

Sting’s second career is self-righteous pontification. He has irritated on the matters of trees, earthquakes, and the poor. He has served since 1981 as “ambassador” for Israel-bashing Amnesty International. He is the unparalleled rock-star activist self-parody. Which, of course, is why his flirtations with human-rights abusers are so delectable. Yes, flirtations—plural. Sting is one of those human-rights promoting singers who take big money to sing for human-rights abusers (while opposing the evil regime of George W. Bush, naturally.)

In 2010, he played a concert in Uzbekistan organized by the regime of Islam Karimov. Accused of boiling his opposition alive, Karimov nevertheless pays well. One night’s work earned Sting £2million.

An ungenerous reading of Sting’s public comments might lead one to believe he’s sympathetic to the likes of Karimov and Assad. In 2010, he told CNN’s Don Lemon during some cause-oriented interview, “We’re asking for big government, basically.” Lemon clarified: “You want big government?” Sting’s response: “Of course we do. This is a huge problem, and only the government can solve it. You know, the man on the street can do a little bit, but big governments need to make decisions.”

What, exactly, was the “huge problem”? Here’s a better question: What’s the difference? There’s no shortage of huge problems that activists beg big government to handle, from energy policy to healthcare to wealth distribution. Sting was stuck on forests at the moment, but the details of the 11th hour crisis du jour don’t matter. The point is, if big government is your thing, no one goes bigger than dictators. In Syria—even way back when in 2008—every breath you take, every move you make, Assad is watching you. And in time, killing you. Sting doesn’t have to convince him the man on the street can only do “a little bit.”

Which is where the man on the street parts ways with Sting. The latter, as an international superstar with hundreds of millions of dollars in disposable income, dinners with world leaders, and millions of impressionable fans, can do plenty. Every time I write about some pop star-bad regime alliance, I get comments and emails begging me not to waste Contentions real estate on clueless performers. Know-nothing narcissists, I’m told, are irrelevant to the real problems we face. Maybe. But who owns the culture: cerebral neoconservative scholars or people who look, sound, and act like Sting? Viral videos of pop stars and actors pledging allegiance to Barack Obama were hardly irrelevant to the unprecedented youth vote that delivered our 44th president to the White House.

Culture matters, even when it’s superficial and base. That’s why more people need to understand that celebrity activism is an outgrowth of lifestyle. You buy a yacht, schmooze a dictator, do an Occupy photo-op, and sign on to save the rainforest. It all comes from the same silly place. Sting is only hypocritical when you look at him through the lens of convictions and values. But why would you ever do that? As a longstanding member of the superstar set, his behavior is perfectly consistent.

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Survey Says: Santorum’s Social Views Killing Him in Michigan

There’s a chance Rick Santorum may still scrape out a win in Michigan tomorrow. This morning’s Public Policy Polling survey has Mitt Romney leading him by just a few points, 39 percent to 37 percent. But the internal numbers look worse for Santorum, and his ongoing slide in the state seems to be due to his focus on social issues:

One place Santorum may have hurt himself in the last week is an overemphasis on social issues. 69 percent of voters say they’re generally more concerned with economic issues this year to only 17 percent who pick social issues. And with the overwhelming majority of voters more concerned about the economy, Romney leads Santorum 45-30. Santorum’s winning those more concerned about social issues 79-12 but it’s just not that big a piece of the pie.

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There’s a chance Rick Santorum may still scrape out a win in Michigan tomorrow. This morning’s Public Policy Polling survey has Mitt Romney leading him by just a few points, 39 percent to 37 percent. But the internal numbers look worse for Santorum, and his ongoing slide in the state seems to be due to his focus on social issues:

One place Santorum may have hurt himself in the last week is an overemphasis on social issues. 69 percent of voters say they’re generally more concerned with economic issues this year to only 17 percent who pick social issues. And with the overwhelming majority of voters more concerned about the economy, Romney leads Santorum 45-30. Santorum’s winning those more concerned about social issues 79-12 but it’s just not that big a piece of the pie.

Santorum’s net favorability has also taken a hit:

The last week of the campaign in Michigan has seen significant damage to Santorum’s image with GOP voters in the state. His net favorability has declined 29 points from +44 (67/23) to now only +15 (54/39). Negative attacks on Romney meanwhile have had no negative effect with his favorability steady at +20 (57/37). Two weeks ago Santorum’s net favorability in Michigan was 34 points better than Romney’s. Now Romney’s is 5 points better than Santorum’s. Those kinds of wild swings are the story of the GOP race.

If Santorum does win Michigan tomorrow, you can point to the timing. He’s on the downswing in the state, and his momentum is fading by the day. If this race was taking place Friday instead of Tuesday, you could safely bet on Romney.

It’s also interesting that negative attacks against Romney have largely been a bust, while negative attacks against Santorum have clearly hit the mark. Just a few weeks ago, when Santorum was rising in the polls, Romney was warned not to go too negative on his opponent. The backlash from attacking Santorum – a conservative favorite and someone who’d been careful to avoid getting into the mud – seemed to be too much of a risk. But clearly, the predictions were wrong.

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Rick Santorum, Culture Warrior

Rick Santorum has been given the gift of using vivid language to make his points. For example, at a Tea Party event in Troy, Michigan, Santorum said, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!” He described the purpose of college as “indoctrination.” Santorum added, “Oh, I understand why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

If going after the current Democratic president wasn’t enough, Santorum decided to take on an iconic one from a half-century ago. In describing his reaction to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Santorum repeated a statement he made in the past. Kennedy’s speech, Santorum said, made him want to “throw up.”

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Rick Santorum has been given the gift of using vivid language to make his points. For example, at a Tea Party event in Troy, Michigan, Santorum said, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!” He described the purpose of college as “indoctrination.” Santorum added, “Oh, I understand why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

If going after the current Democratic president wasn’t enough, Santorum decided to take on an iconic one from a half-century ago. In describing his reaction to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Santorum repeated a statement he made in the past. Kennedy’s speech, Santorum said, made him want to “throw up.”

In the last several days, Santorum has also asserted that Mitt Romney is “in bed with Barack Obama on destroying these vital mediating institutions of our society by starving them of money from the very people that keep these organizations alive and well in our society.”

The connecting thread to this rhetoric is intemperance. Even arguments that have a germ of truth to them — such as college is not for everybody – is framed in language that is immoderate and wildly overstated. And why Santorum would double down on his fight with JFK rather than easily pivoting out of it tells you quite a lot. (Ronald Reagan, during his presidency, had nothing but praise for Kennedy.)

Senator Santorum is a smart and experienced man; he doesn’t need to resort to rhetoric that simply reinforces the impression he’s a deeply polarizing and strident figure. He seems to be reflexively drawn to these fights, much like Pat Buchanan was. The effect of this is to put people, even those somewhat sympathetic to Santorum’s views, on edge.

There are a lot of ways for Republicans to run against Barack Obama; coming off as anti-college and anti-Kennedy isn’t one of them.

 

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