Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 4, 2012

Reviving the Obama Race Canard

Race is the original sin of American history. To deny its influence on our society is as futile as it is illogical. Nevertheless, the attempt to cast President Obama’s re-election campaign as the focus of a racial backlash seems to be more about obfuscating the issues that are animating the vast majority of voters than providing any insight into public opinion.

Yet that is very much the conceit of a front-page feature in today’s New York Times titled, “Four Years Later, Race is Still Issue for Some Voters.” The Times’ sent a reporter to Steubenville, Ohio and beat the bushes to find some racists and found a few, though they seemed to come in some unlikely varieties. The piece failed to explain why if the president won this crucial swing state in 2008 he should be worried about the minority of voters who hold his skin color and ethnicity against him now. As should be apparent even to the Times editor who ordered up this tired attempt to revive the race canard against the Republicans, if the president’s hold on the state seems shaky — as polls say it is — it is clearly not because the portion of the electorate that is irredeemably prejudiced still won’t vote for him but because others who did (and therefore demonstrated their lack of racial bias) now judge his performance unsatisfactory.

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Race is the original sin of American history. To deny its influence on our society is as futile as it is illogical. Nevertheless, the attempt to cast President Obama’s re-election campaign as the focus of a racial backlash seems to be more about obfuscating the issues that are animating the vast majority of voters than providing any insight into public opinion.

Yet that is very much the conceit of a front-page feature in today’s New York Times titled, “Four Years Later, Race is Still Issue for Some Voters.” The Times’ sent a reporter to Steubenville, Ohio and beat the bushes to find some racists and found a few, though they seemed to come in some unlikely varieties. The piece failed to explain why if the president won this crucial swing state in 2008 he should be worried about the minority of voters who hold his skin color and ethnicity against him now. As should be apparent even to the Times editor who ordered up this tired attempt to revive the race canard against the Republicans, if the president’s hold on the state seems shaky — as polls say it is — it is clearly not because the portion of the electorate that is irredeemably prejudiced still won’t vote for him but because others who did (and therefore demonstrated their lack of racial bias) now judge his performance unsatisfactory.

It is undeniable that there are those in our country who still judge people principally by their race. That is unfortunate, and we can hope that the diminishing numbers of those who fall into that category will continue to decrease. President Obama is right when he says he does not think his election forever ended the discussion of race in America. But it did mean that the majority of Americans were no longer so constricted by prejudice so as to render it impossible for an African-American to be elected president. Indeed, as some of those quoted by the Times rightly point out, a desire to demonstrate a lack of prejudice as well as a wish to right some historic wrongs, played a not insignificant role in the Obama triumph in 2008.

The president’s problem this year is, as the Times puts it, “now that history has been made it is less of a pull.” Ohioans, like the rest of the country, are judging him on his performance, and the results are less than gratifying for the president. That means his cheerleaders in the media need to trot out the ghost of American racial politics in order to help stigmatize his opponents.

Despite the obvious evidence that race was not a significant factor in attitudes toward the president, from the outset of the Obama administration there has been a concerted attempt to put down the opposition that the president’s policies have aroused as just a variant of the same racism that gave us Jim Crow laws.  The purpose of this slander is not to root out the recalcitrant vestiges of race in American politics so much as an effort to delegitimize the push back against the billion-dollar stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. The dislike of Obama’s policies created the Tea Party revolt that swept the country in the 2010 midterm elections. It had nothing to do with race and everything to do with opposition to the president’s big government vision.

That means in order to run down die hard racists you wind up talking to people who don’t necessarily fit into the liberal stereotype of a Tea Partier who is motivated more by hatred for Obama’s race than his ideas. One example is a Steubenville bank employee dug up by the Times who says she didn’t vote for Obama in 2008 though she usually backs Democrats. Who then did she vote for? According to the article, she cast her ballot for far left fringe candidate Ralph Nader! The bottom line of this entire discussion is a refusal to take seriously the fact that even in Democratic-leaning counties of this rust belt state, most are judging Obama on the economy and little else.

President Obama’s historic status as the first African-American president brings with it some residual racial resentment but that has been more than overshadowed by the kid glove treatment he and his family have gotten in the mainstream press as well as the willingness by many in the media to brand his opponents guilty of racism until proven innocent. If he wins in 2012 it will not be because he is black nor will it be the explanation for his defeat. That’s exactly the way the vast majority of Americans feel about the question, but as long as the Times and other Obama sympathizers are determined to view his critics largely through the prism of race, it appears we are doomed to more tired efforts to shoehorn modern conservatism into the mold of segregationist sentiment to which it has no connection.

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A Very Ugly Jobs Report

I wanted to add to John’s fine summary of today’s jobs report.

It really is a very ugly set of data.

It’s not simply that unemployment has been above 8 percent for a record 39 months, which is bad enough. While news stories report that 115,000 new jobs were added in April, the true picture is much worse. More than 340,000 Americans dropped out of the labor force last month. The total employment level for April fell 169,000. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, who is hardly a conservative and has been quite sympathetic to President Obama, admits that unemployment “went down for the wrong reason: people dropping out of the labor force.”

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I wanted to add to John’s fine summary of today’s jobs report.

It really is a very ugly set of data.

It’s not simply that unemployment has been above 8 percent for a record 39 months, which is bad enough. While news stories report that 115,000 new jobs were added in April, the true picture is much worse. More than 340,000 Americans dropped out of the labor force last month. The total employment level for April fell 169,000. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, who is hardly a conservative and has been quite sympathetic to President Obama, admits that unemployment “went down for the wrong reason: people dropping out of the labor force.”

He’s quite right. The labor force participation rate (64.3 percent) reached its lowest level in more than 30 years, while the employment-population ratio (58.4 percent) is lower still.

According to Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, if labor force participation had stayed the same in April as it was in March, the unemployment rate would have risen by three-tenths of a percent (to 8.4 percent). And if the labor force participation rate today was what it was when Obama took office, the unemployment rate would be roughly 11 percent. The real unemployment rate, including those who are working part-time due to economic reasons, now clocks in at nearly 15 percent (14.5).

“In the weakest recovery since the Great Depression, more than four-fifths of the reduction in unemployment has been accomplished by a dropping adult labor force participation rate — essentially persuading adults they don’t need a job, or the job they could find is not worth having,” according to University of Maryland economist Peter Morici.

Any way you slice it, last month’s jobs report is dispiriting. The unemployment rate, which is already at historically high levels, is being kept artificially low because of growing despair and hopelessness. The will and energy of many Americans is being ground to dust.

We know what Obama sounded like in theory (hope, change, unity, prosperity). Now we know what Obamaism looks like in practice. It isn’t a pretty sight. And I’m afraid the president is affirming the observation of Camus, which is that destruction is an easier, speedier process than reconstruction. But at least let the reconstruction begin.

The prerequisite for that to occur, it seems, is for Obama to be a one-term president.

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Beinart’s Argument Was Already Debunked

As a further thought to Michael Rubin’s response to Joe Klein’s defense of Peter Beinart, it is not true that nobody has yet replied to Peter Beinart’s demographic argument. First of all, the argument is not Peter Beinart’s. He’d deserve a response if he had raised a new, original insight to the debate – but the argument about how Israel’s Jewish character is incompatible with its democratic nature if Israel indefinitely rules over millions of Palestinians is not something Peter Beinart discovered – he merely parroted a widely held view. And as for the need to respond to him, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley did so already last year, writing in the New York Review of Books, a publication that is hardly sympathetic to Israel and which hosted Beinart’s opening shot against Israel:

Demographic developments undoubtedly are a source of long-term Israeli anxiety. But they are not the type of immediate threat that spurs risky political decisions. Moreover, the binary choice Palestinians, Americans, and even some Israelis posit—either a negotiated two-state outcome or the impossibility of a Jewish, democratic state—assumes dramatic and irreversible changes that Israel would not be able to counter. Yet Israel possesses a variety of potential responses. Already, by unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, former prime minister Ariel Sharon transformed the numbers game, effectively removing 1.5 million Palestinians from the Israeli equation. The current or a future government could unilaterally conduct further territorial withdrawals from the West Bank, allowing, as in the case of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s West Bank government, or compelling, as happened in Gaza, large numbers of Palestinians to rule themselves and mitigating the demographic peril. The options, in other words, are not necessarily limited to a two-state solution, an apartheid regime, or the end of the Jewish state.

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As a further thought to Michael Rubin’s response to Joe Klein’s defense of Peter Beinart, it is not true that nobody has yet replied to Peter Beinart’s demographic argument. First of all, the argument is not Peter Beinart’s. He’d deserve a response if he had raised a new, original insight to the debate – but the argument about how Israel’s Jewish character is incompatible with its democratic nature if Israel indefinitely rules over millions of Palestinians is not something Peter Beinart discovered – he merely parroted a widely held view. And as for the need to respond to him, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley did so already last year, writing in the New York Review of Books, a publication that is hardly sympathetic to Israel and which hosted Beinart’s opening shot against Israel:

Demographic developments undoubtedly are a source of long-term Israeli anxiety. But they are not the type of immediate threat that spurs risky political decisions. Moreover, the binary choice Palestinians, Americans, and even some Israelis posit—either a negotiated two-state outcome or the impossibility of a Jewish, democratic state—assumes dramatic and irreversible changes that Israel would not be able to counter. Yet Israel possesses a variety of potential responses. Already, by unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, former prime minister Ariel Sharon transformed the numbers game, effectively removing 1.5 million Palestinians from the Israeli equation. The current or a future government could unilaterally conduct further territorial withdrawals from the West Bank, allowing, as in the case of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s West Bank government, or compelling, as happened in Gaza, large numbers of Palestinians to rule themselves and mitigating the demographic peril. The options, in other words, are not necessarily limited to a two-state solution, an apartheid regime, or the end of the Jewish state.

Since he relied on NYRB, Beinart should at least have done his homework and taken into account what others had already opined in the Review on the same subject. It is a testament to how sloppy Jewish anti-Israel sanctimony is that the best argument on how the demographic argument is largely overblown should come from a Palestinian intellectual and an American former negotiator known for his pro-Palestinian sympathies.

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Romney Blasts Obama Economy in Ohio

In an open letter to President Obama in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mitt Romney doesn’t hold back:

Mr. President, forgive me for being blunt, but when it comes to economic affairs, you’re out of your depth. Unlike you, I am not a career politician. Unlike you, I’ve spent more than two decades working in the private sector, starting new businesses and turning around failing ones. Undoing the damage you’ve done will be a daunting challenge. But I’ve learned a thing or two about how government policies can kill private investment and stifle job creation and I have a plan to get government out of the way.

Mr. President, while campaigning for the presidency nearly four years ago, you declared that you were “absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Mr. President, the American people are tired of the grandiose promises. And they are even more tired of the paltry results.

Some conservatives are critical of this “Obama’s a nice guy, but out of his element” message that Romney’s been pushing, and they do raise valid issues. But the fact is a lot of the voters Romney’s trying to reach out to do think Obama’s a nice guy, regardless of whether he is or not. If Romney starts attacking Obama as a person, these voters may just tune out.

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In an open letter to President Obama in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mitt Romney doesn’t hold back:

Mr. President, forgive me for being blunt, but when it comes to economic affairs, you’re out of your depth. Unlike you, I am not a career politician. Unlike you, I’ve spent more than two decades working in the private sector, starting new businesses and turning around failing ones. Undoing the damage you’ve done will be a daunting challenge. But I’ve learned a thing or two about how government policies can kill private investment and stifle job creation and I have a plan to get government out of the way.

Mr. President, while campaigning for the presidency nearly four years ago, you declared that you were “absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Mr. President, the American people are tired of the grandiose promises. And they are even more tired of the paltry results.

Some conservatives are critical of this “Obama’s a nice guy, but out of his element” message that Romney’s been pushing, and they do raise valid issues. But the fact is a lot of the voters Romney’s trying to reach out to do think Obama’s a nice guy, regardless of whether he is or not. If Romney starts attacking Obama as a person, these voters may just tune out.

As his column shows, there are ways to forcefully attack the president’s record without getting personal. It was also well timed to combat the spin from the White House over the jobs numbers out today. The unemployment rate dropped slightly last month to 8.1 percent, but as John Steele Gordon wrote earlier today, that’s because Americans are giving up on looking for employment. Jim Pethokoukis calculates that if the workforce participation rate stayed the same as it was when President Obama was elected, the current unemployment rate would be 11.1 percent. The White House is counting on the falling official unemployment rate to reassure the public that its policies are working, but as conservatives have pointed out today, this number alone tells us little about the current health of the economy.

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Hunger Strikers’ Goal is Not Peace

For decades, foreign cheerleaders for the Palestinians have sought to portray those fighting against Israel as potential disciples of Gandhi as they seek to portray the Jews as stand-ins for the role of colonial oppressor. But there have always been two main problems with this scenario. The first is the fact that most Palestinians view violence against Israelis as not only a legitimate tactic but also something that is integral to their national identity. The second is that even if they were to adopt a policy of non-violence, the Palestinian goal is not their own state living in peace beside Israel but the end of the Jewish state and its replacement by one in which Arabs will rule.

These obstacles to the creation of a movement of Palestinian Gandhis remain. But that didn’t stop the New York Times from going back to a familiar theme today with a feature  by new Israel bureau chief Jodi Rudoren in which a hunger strike by some security prisoners is used as a launching point for a discussion about a possible change in tactics by the Palestinians. Since, as she notes, the peace process is “stalled” and “internal Palestinian politics adrift,” activists hope to use “the hunger strike as a potential catalyst to bring an Arab Spring-style uprising to the West Bank.” But the question Rudoren fails to ask is what do the hunger strikers or their supporters think will come from what they hope will be a new intifada? Do they see it as a path to a Palestinian state or something else? If the goal is a state, then they need not bother with non-violent resistance or violence. What they need to do is to instruct their leaders to negotiate with Israel. Read More

For decades, foreign cheerleaders for the Palestinians have sought to portray those fighting against Israel as potential disciples of Gandhi as they seek to portray the Jews as stand-ins for the role of colonial oppressor. But there have always been two main problems with this scenario. The first is the fact that most Palestinians view violence against Israelis as not only a legitimate tactic but also something that is integral to their national identity. The second is that even if they were to adopt a policy of non-violence, the Palestinian goal is not their own state living in peace beside Israel but the end of the Jewish state and its replacement by one in which Arabs will rule.

These obstacles to the creation of a movement of Palestinian Gandhis remain. But that didn’t stop the New York Times from going back to a familiar theme today with a feature  by new Israel bureau chief Jodi Rudoren in which a hunger strike by some security prisoners is used as a launching point for a discussion about a possible change in tactics by the Palestinians. Since, as she notes, the peace process is “stalled” and “internal Palestinian politics adrift,” activists hope to use “the hunger strike as a potential catalyst to bring an Arab Spring-style uprising to the West Bank.” But the question Rudoren fails to ask is what do the hunger strikers or their supporters think will come from what they hope will be a new intifada? Do they see it as a path to a Palestinian state or something else? If the goal is a state, then they need not bother with non-violent resistance or violence. What they need to do is to instruct their leaders to negotiate with Israel.

The peace process remains “stalled” for one main reason: the Palestinians won’t negotiate unless Israel guarantees in advance that they will give in on every territorial dispute. But even then there is no guarantee or any likelihood that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority as currently constituted, let alone after it consummates its unity deal with Hamas, would be able to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

A new intifada, whether conducted by people throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails or mere demonstrators, is no substitute for a commitment on the part of the Palestinians to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors. With even Israel’s supposedly right-wing government willing to accept a two-state solution, the time is long passed for stunts whose only purpose is to embarrass or intimidate the Israelis.

As it happens, even the supposedly non-violent Palestinians gave away some of the game in Rudoren’s account:

On Thursday in Ramallah, 300 women marched to Al Manara Square, chanting, “Yes for hunger strike, no to submission” and “Down with the olive branch, long live the rifle.”

Is there another way to interpret a chant that calls for an end to peace and the use of “the rifle” but as a call for violent attacks on Israel?

The featured hunger striker, one Thaer Halahleh, is described as a sympathetic character. We are told that he “stopped political activity” soon after his marriage in 2009. But given the Palestinian definition of that term, a more experienced observer than Ms. Rudoren might have concluded that this meant he was a terrorist operative. Because people involved in such activities rarely voluntarily retire, the suspicion of Israeli authorities that he was not innocent is understandable. While the policy of administrative detention which can result in long periods of incarceration without trial may seem contrary to an American sense of justice, it should be pointed out that neither does the usual expression of Palestinian “politics” which is terrorism. As the return to violence on the part of Palestinians released in the Gilad Shalit exchange deal illustrate, the idea that Halahleh, if sent home will not engage in violence, is either naïve or deceitful.

However, the article does accurately portray the difficulties encountered by those seeking to create this new intifada. Their biggest problem is apathy from a Palestinian population that understands this latest plan for confrontation will not improve their lives and won’t lead to self-determination. Despite the obstacles the imperatives of Palestinian political culture of Palestinian society put in the way of peace, perhaps some are starting to recognize that the glorification of those who engage in violence and the identification of communal rights only in juxtaposition to the denial of the same to Jews is a dead-end street.

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Israel’s Unprecedented Election Campaign

Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.

After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.

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Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.

After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.

The government has dissolved in anticipation of the expiration in August of the Tal Law, which grants ultra-Orthodox/haredi Jews exemptions from military service. The question of how to replace this law will feature prominently in this electoral campaign, as will the more general conversation about the roles of the haredim and Israeli Arabs in Israeli society, and the related, ongoing controversies about conversion (and marriage, burial, etc.), haredi treatment of women, and the power of the chief rabbinate.

Indeed, the voices on these issues have already mobilized. Yair Lapid, a media personality and son of a former well-known minister, has launched a new party to run on such issues. And so has Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, who was expelled from the Sephardic haredi party, Shas, for pressing for a more lenient approach to conversion – though one still within the parameters of Orthodox Jewish law. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party will also weigh in on these questions, which are of interest to its rightist and Russian immigrant constituencies. And the ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties will, naturally, pursue their predictable positions as well.

Meanwhile, with one of the few economies in the world to have withstood the global recession, Israel is able to focus more closely from a position of strength on inequities in its society. And with last summer’s tent protests still fresh in the Israeli memory, Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich will make these socio-economic issues the center of her party’s campaign. It is a testament to the bankruptcy of leftist approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict that she has been elevated to her party’s leadership. The ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties – both representing poorer and more peripheral areas and groups (remember Shas has broader Sephardic support beyond its haredi base) – may also insert themselves into this conversation as well.

Not only will these parties campaign on their niche issues, but the big parties (Likud, Kadima, and Labor) will have to answer on them as well, and this may give the electorate an idea of what governing coalition will emerge – for although Netanyahu’s Likud may be poised for a big victory come September, the constitution of the Knesset as a whole will determine which policies will ultimately be enacted.

Regardless of one’s opinions on the role of religion and on the reality and resolution of socio-economic concerns in Israeli society, it is about time Israel had a real electoral conversation on these matters. Israel has Netanyahu to thank for it. And, if the polls are indicative, they will.

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SEALs to Attack Obama’s Football Spiking?

The group is called Veterans for a Strong America, and they’ve already released one ad blasting President Obama’s handling of the bin Laden death anniversary. BuzzFeed reports there’s more on the way:

In the wake of a warm conservative reception for a web video trashing the president for “spiking the football” on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, the conservative group Veterans for a Strong America plans to gather Navy SEALs and Special Forces operators to criticize the White House during the 2012 campaign.

“We’re looking to [put together] a coalition, to field SEALs and operators that want to come out publicly,” executive director of Veterans for a Strong America, Joel Arends, tells BuzzFeed. “I’ve had a lot of discussions with former SEALs and current SEALs. I’ve been talking to operators in the community. There is palatable discontent.”

Arends, a 35-year old Iraq war veteran who has spent the last six years in conservative activist circles, started the group last fall during the Republican primaries.

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The group is called Veterans for a Strong America, and they’ve already released one ad blasting President Obama’s handling of the bin Laden death anniversary. BuzzFeed reports there’s more on the way:

In the wake of a warm conservative reception for a web video trashing the president for “spiking the football” on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, the conservative group Veterans for a Strong America plans to gather Navy SEALs and Special Forces operators to criticize the White House during the 2012 campaign.

“We’re looking to [put together] a coalition, to field SEALs and operators that want to come out publicly,” executive director of Veterans for a Strong America, Joel Arends, tells BuzzFeed. “I’ve had a lot of discussions with former SEALs and current SEALs. I’ve been talking to operators in the community. There is palatable discontent.”

Arends, a 35-year old Iraq war veteran who has spent the last six years in conservative activist circles, started the group last fall during the Republican primaries.

The campaign is already being compared to the ‘04 Swift Boat Veterans. And while this is probably the most effective tactic to take against the White House on the bin Laden issue, Allahpundit raises some concerns:

Turning the bin Laden raid into a story about Obama’s ego would break one of the biggest arrows in his electoral quiver. And needless to say, the optics of SEALs criticizing O for making the OBL raid all about him are … not so good for the White House. Are they worse, though, than Obama having to defend eight-plus percent unemployment? He’d much rather have an argument with conservatives over the OBL raid than the economy since every minute spent talking about Bin Laden is (a) a reminder that O did in fact give the order to liquidate the bastard, however shoddy his behavior might have been afterward, and (b) a minute not spent talking about the thoroughgoing crappiness of, oh, pretty much every other part of his record.

And that’s if the Veterans for a Strong America campaign is actually successful at turning the story into one about Obama’s ego. There’s also a chance it could backfire. Yes, Obama is politicizing the bin Laden raid to death (which is the crux of the VSA criticism), but what will SEALs think of a campaign bashing Obama for this on their behalf? If many of them found Obama’s football-spiking tasteless, quite a few would probably object to a campaign like this as well.

And the Obama campaign will not be blindsided by this line of attack, nor will they go down without a fight. They’re not about to relive the perceived failures of the 2004 campaign.

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CNN’s Failing Biased Business Model

The news that CNN’s ratings are at a ten-year low should come as no surprise to viewers of the cable news channel. The consensus is the downward spiral of the network’s viewership is due to the fact that it is caught in the middle between two supposedly hyper-partisan competitors — Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left — with the result that their brand of nonpartisan news is being marginalized.

But this interpretation of events is not only incorrect, it misses the point about why audiences aren’t thrilled by CNN. When given a choice between channels that don’t pretend to be totally even-handed like Fox and MSNBC and one that is masquerading as above such things, most will inevitably choose the former over the latter. Contrary to the self-serving excuse that CNN’s professionalism doesn’t sell as well as the partisanship exhibited on Fox and MSNBC, the viewers aren’t being fooled. They know that most of the hosts on CNN tilt sharply to the left and are put off by the pretense of objectivity.

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The news that CNN’s ratings are at a ten-year low should come as no surprise to viewers of the cable news channel. The consensus is the downward spiral of the network’s viewership is due to the fact that it is caught in the middle between two supposedly hyper-partisan competitors — Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left — with the result that their brand of nonpartisan news is being marginalized.

But this interpretation of events is not only incorrect, it misses the point about why audiences aren’t thrilled by CNN. When given a choice between channels that don’t pretend to be totally even-handed like Fox and MSNBC and one that is masquerading as above such things, most will inevitably choose the former over the latter. Contrary to the self-serving excuse that CNN’s professionalism doesn’t sell as well as the partisanship exhibited on Fox and MSNBC, the viewers aren’t being fooled. They know that most of the hosts on CNN tilt sharply to the left and are put off by the pretense of objectivity.

Just as is the case with Fox, much of the straight news coverage on CNN is pretty fair. It should also be specified that their primary night coverage throughout the Republican nomination race led by Wolf Blitzer was actually superior to what was broadcast on Fox.

But does anyone really think that most of CNN’s on-air hosts are any less biased than those on Fox or lean to the left any less than their competitors on MSNBC? Two recent examples, Piers Morgan’s ambush of Jonah Goldberg and Soledad O’Brien’s illiterate riff on race theory during what turned into a debate with Breitbart.com’s Joel Pollak, illustrate the network’s liberal bias.

In both cases, the interviewers didn’t just challenge conservative guests, they debated them and did their best to shut out and denigrate views they disliked. Morgan didn’t even want to talk about Goldberg’s book, let alone allow the author to explain his thesis. O’Brien pretended to act as an authority on something she clearly didn’t understand in order to defend President Obama and one of his radical mentors. We expect that sort of thing from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews or from a Bill O’Reilly on the right at Fox, but it gives the lie to CNN’s much-hyped stance of nonpartisanship.

If CNN wants to broadcast liberal shows, that’s their right. But what viewers don’t like is the same thing they despise elsewhere in the mainstream media: partisans pretending to be objective. The genius of Fox was that it gave people fed up with liberal bias being passed off as even-handed coverage a place to go to get an alternative. MSNBC profits from being a channel where liberals can go to get left-wing punditry without the gloss of faux objectivity. As Dylan Byers writes at Politico, it isn’t just that its harder for viewers to feel an affinity for someone in the middle of the road; it’s that personalities who act as if they are something different from what they obviously are inspire animus, not viewer loyalty.

 

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Dealing with Troughs is a Test of Character

George Will has a lovely tribute to his son Jon, who is a Washington Nationals fan who also happens to have Down syndrome.

Apart from his evident love and appreciation for his son, Will takes aim at the “full, garish flowering of the baby boomers’ vast sense of entitlement, which encompasses an entitlement to exemption from nature’s mishaps, and to a perfect baby.” He goes on to write about Jon’s gift of serenity. “With an underdeveloped entitlement mentality,” Will writes, Jon has “been equable about life’s sometimes careless allocation of equity. Perhaps this is partly because, given the nature of Down syndrome, neither he nor his parents have any tormenting sense of what might have been. Down syndrome did not alter the trajectory of his life; Jon was Jon from conception on.”

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George Will has a lovely tribute to his son Jon, who is a Washington Nationals fan who also happens to have Down syndrome.

Apart from his evident love and appreciation for his son, Will takes aim at the “full, garish flowering of the baby boomers’ vast sense of entitlement, which encompasses an entitlement to exemption from nature’s mishaps, and to a perfect baby.” He goes on to write about Jon’s gift of serenity. “With an underdeveloped entitlement mentality,” Will writes, Jon has “been equable about life’s sometimes careless allocation of equity. Perhaps this is partly because, given the nature of Down syndrome, neither he nor his parents have any tormenting sense of what might have been. Down syndrome did not alter the trajectory of his life; Jon was Jon from conception on.”

Here Will is touching on an enormous shift in human expectations that has occurred in modern times – the belief that we are owed, that we are entitled, to certain things, including a life very nearly free of hardship, of pain, and of loss. The reason for this shift is progress. In the West, we’ve seen fantastic gains made in medicine, technology, and standards of living. Early death was once a common feature; according to historian Lawrence Stone, during the Middle Ages, two or more living children were often given the same name because it was so common that at least one of them would die. Today, in America, early death is blessedly rare. We are also far less patient and far less willing to be inconvenienced than ever before. We forget that there was once a life before GPSs and ATMs; before iPhones, iPods, and iPads; before e-mails, Twitter, texting, Skype, Google, ESPN, and flat screen televisions.

We’ve all benefited from these gains in one way or another, and they have added new and comforting dimensions to our daily lives. Families are able to stay in close touch long after children have left home. Almost no one who is not Amish would voluntarily give up these things, and understandably so. But these advancements in material progress can bring their own challenges as well, including how to keep reasonable expectations when we have come to expect lives of comfort and ease.

It is easier than we like to admit that these days being dealt a hard blow in life is viewed as a cosmic injustice. Now this isn’t new; people have been embittered by life since the dawn of civilization. Great novels (like Moby Dick) have been written about such things. But one cannot help but suspect that we have higher expectations of life than past generations and therefore are less able to deal with deprivation and adversity with equanimity. That is why, I think, some of us hold a special place of honor for those who have faced tragedies and particular hardships with courage, without chronic self-pity, and with some measure of grace.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil (Screwtape) reminds the junior devil (Wormwood) that “one of our best weapons [is] contented worldliness.” Lewis – who later in his life absorbed a crushing blow when his wife died of cancer, which forced him to work through his own grief and doubts — then added this:

As long as [human beings live] on earth, periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.

To decide what the best use of it is, you must ask what use the Enemy [God] wants to make of it, and then do the opposite. Now, it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.

How we handle the inevitable troughs and the painful troughs and the unequal allocation of troughs is a test of character. They probably wouldn’t admit it, but by that measure, Jon Will and his parents have done pretty well.

 

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“Literary Journalism”: What It Is, What It Is Not

This morning, over at Critical Mass (the blog of the National Book Critics Circle), Geoff Dyer reveals the five “works of literary journalism” that he likes best. Dyer won the Circle’s 2011 criticism award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays. It’s not his fault that his list of favorites is dull and vapid. The classification of “literary journalism” is dull and vapid.

As a term, literary journalism is first cousin to “literary fiction,” another dull and vapid classification the republic of letters could do without. Apparently, literary journalism is fancy journalism, highbrow journalism. It is journalism plus fine writing. It is journalism with literary pretensions. But here’s the thing about literary pretensions. They are pretentious. They are phony. Good writers don’t brag about writing literature, which is a title of honor. Good writers accept the moral obligation to write well — that is, they subjugate themselves to the demands of the text under hand — and they leave the question of literature, the question of lasting value, up to the literary critics.

The word journalism does not denote a genre, but a venue. Journalism is what gets printed in journals and their digital successors, including blogs and even Twitter. Literary journalism is periodical writing about literature. I am a literary journalist, because I write about books for COMMENTARY. Edmund Wilson is the patron saint of literary journalists. But when he wrote book-length criticism that was not originally conceived as a series of contributions to the journals (Patriotic Gore, for example), Wilson was no longer writing as a journalist. And when he wrote journal pieces like those collected in The American Earthquake but originally published in the New Republic (about “the arts of the metropolis, from Stravinsky conducting Pétrouchka to Houdini, nightclubs and burlesque shows, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, the painting of O’Keeffe and George Bellows,” as his biographer describes them), Wilson was no longer writing as a literary journalist.

Most of what gets referred to as “literary journalism” is some combination of history and travel writing — history because it undertakes to determine what happened in a past, travel writing because it depends upon first-hand observation in addition to documented evidence. Those who object that journalism (of any kind) is not history are doing little beyond disclosing their own prejudices and assumptions. “The question in history,” Michael Oakeshott wrote, “is never what must, or what might have taken place, but solely what the evidence obliges us to conclude did take place.” Thus the historian and the journalist share the same obligation — an obligation to the evidence. What did take place might have taken place five minutes or five centuries ago, but as long as it belongs to the past, historian and journalist share the same interest in it.

Nor do their objectives differ, no matter how far apart their methods and prose might seem to put them. Oakeshott again: “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.” Both historians and journalists recreate the past in the name of reporting what the evidence obliges them to conclude took place. Historians may claim to be more comprehensive and objective; “literary” journalists, to be more compelling and timely. But these claims are justified merely by the fact that some historians and some journalists have bought into them. They are self-advertisements, not logical distinctions.

There is no reason for anyone to repeat them, nor to compile lists of their favorite “literary journalism.”

This morning, over at Critical Mass (the blog of the National Book Critics Circle), Geoff Dyer reveals the five “works of literary journalism” that he likes best. Dyer won the Circle’s 2011 criticism award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays. It’s not his fault that his list of favorites is dull and vapid. The classification of “literary journalism” is dull and vapid.

As a term, literary journalism is first cousin to “literary fiction,” another dull and vapid classification the republic of letters could do without. Apparently, literary journalism is fancy journalism, highbrow journalism. It is journalism plus fine writing. It is journalism with literary pretensions. But here’s the thing about literary pretensions. They are pretentious. They are phony. Good writers don’t brag about writing literature, which is a title of honor. Good writers accept the moral obligation to write well — that is, they subjugate themselves to the demands of the text under hand — and they leave the question of literature, the question of lasting value, up to the literary critics.

The word journalism does not denote a genre, but a venue. Journalism is what gets printed in journals and their digital successors, including blogs and even Twitter. Literary journalism is periodical writing about literature. I am a literary journalist, because I write about books for COMMENTARY. Edmund Wilson is the patron saint of literary journalists. But when he wrote book-length criticism that was not originally conceived as a series of contributions to the journals (Patriotic Gore, for example), Wilson was no longer writing as a journalist. And when he wrote journal pieces like those collected in The American Earthquake but originally published in the New Republic (about “the arts of the metropolis, from Stravinsky conducting Pétrouchka to Houdini, nightclubs and burlesque shows, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, the painting of O’Keeffe and George Bellows,” as his biographer describes them), Wilson was no longer writing as a literary journalist.

Most of what gets referred to as “literary journalism” is some combination of history and travel writing — history because it undertakes to determine what happened in a past, travel writing because it depends upon first-hand observation in addition to documented evidence. Those who object that journalism (of any kind) is not history are doing little beyond disclosing their own prejudices and assumptions. “The question in history,” Michael Oakeshott wrote, “is never what must, or what might have taken place, but solely what the evidence obliges us to conclude did take place.” Thus the historian and the journalist share the same obligation — an obligation to the evidence. What did take place might have taken place five minutes or five centuries ago, but as long as it belongs to the past, historian and journalist share the same interest in it.

Nor do their objectives differ, no matter how far apart their methods and prose might seem to put them. Oakeshott again: “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.” Both historians and journalists recreate the past in the name of reporting what the evidence obliges them to conclude took place. Historians may claim to be more comprehensive and objective; “literary” journalists, to be more compelling and timely. But these claims are justified merely by the fact that some historians and some journalists have bought into them. They are self-advertisements, not logical distinctions.

There is no reason for anyone to repeat them, nor to compile lists of their favorite “literary journalism.”

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Chen and Family to “Study Abroad” in U.S.

The State Department confirmed this morning that it’s reached a deal with the Chinese government in the case of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng:

The Chinese Government stated today that Mr. Chen Guangcheng has the same right to travel abroad as any other citizen of China. Mr. Chen has been offered a fellowship from an American university, where he can be accompanied by his wife and two children.

The Chinese Government has indicated that it will accept Mr. Chen’s applications for appropriate travel documents. The United States Government expects that the Chinese Government will expeditiously process his applications for these documents and make accommodations for his current medical condition. The United States Government would then give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention.

This matter has been handled in the spirit of a cooperative U.S.-China partnership.

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The State Department confirmed this morning that it’s reached a deal with the Chinese government in the case of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng:

The Chinese Government stated today that Mr. Chen Guangcheng has the same right to travel abroad as any other citizen of China. Mr. Chen has been offered a fellowship from an American university, where he can be accompanied by his wife and two children.

The Chinese Government has indicated that it will accept Mr. Chen’s applications for appropriate travel documents. The United States Government expects that the Chinese Government will expeditiously process his applications for these documents and make accommodations for his current medical condition. The United States Government would then give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention.

This matter has been handled in the spirit of a cooperative U.S.-China partnership.

The statement says Chen has been offered a fellowship at an “American university,” but notably doesn’t mention which one yet. Obviously, the details are still being hammered out. But the deal sounds like a good one for all sides. Not only was the Chen case a public relations disaster for the Obama administration, it also put the Chinese government’s human rights abuses in the international media spotlight. Both had an incentive to end this story as quickly as possible. And it sounds like it will be a happy ending for Chen and his family, who will be able to take time in the U.S. and decide what they want to do on a permanent basis.

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State Polls Illustrate Romney’s Difficult Path to Victory

The formula for electing Mitt Romney to the presidency isn’t all that complicated. He must hold all the states John McCain won in 2008, take back normally Republican states that went to President Obama such as Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Indiana and win at least one of the major swing states such as Ohio or Pennsylvania. That sounds easy in theory but as the latest round of polling — which, thanks to the Electoral College, are the numbers we should be watching more closely than the national tracking polls —in individual states shows, Romney’s path is far from clear.

While the certain Republican nominee should be encouraged by surveys of voters in Florida and Ohio, the numbers from Virginia and to a lesser extent in Pennsylvania are daunting. As much as the national popular vote looks to be almost a dead heat between Romney and Obama right now, the Democrat’s Electoral College advantage is clear. Even more to the point, unless Romney finds a way to come from behind in Virginia and North Carolina, putting Florida and North Carolina back in the red column won’t matter.

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The formula for electing Mitt Romney to the presidency isn’t all that complicated. He must hold all the states John McCain won in 2008, take back normally Republican states that went to President Obama such as Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Indiana and win at least one of the major swing states such as Ohio or Pennsylvania. That sounds easy in theory but as the latest round of polling — which, thanks to the Electoral College, are the numbers we should be watching more closely than the national tracking polls —in individual states shows, Romney’s path is far from clear.

While the certain Republican nominee should be encouraged by surveys of voters in Florida and Ohio, the numbers from Virginia and to a lesser extent in Pennsylvania are daunting. As much as the national popular vote looks to be almost a dead heat between Romney and Obama right now, the Democrat’s Electoral College advantage is clear. Even more to the point, unless Romney finds a way to come from behind in Virginia and North Carolina, putting Florida and North Carolina back in the red column won’t matter.

The new Washington Post poll of voter sentiment in Virginia confirms what a Public Policy Polling survey of the state showed earlier this week: the president has a substantial lead in a state that Romney must have if he is going to win. The Post poll shows Obama ahead by 51-44 percent among registered voters. PPP gave him a similar 51-43 edge. A Survey USA poll showed Obama leading by a smaller 47-43 percent margin in North Carolina. Less depressing for the GOP are Quinnipiac University polls that show Romney ahead 44-43 percent in Florida and almost even in Ohio with Obama leading there by 44-42 percent. Quinnipiac also has Obama comfortably ahead in Pennsylvania by 47-39 percent.

The Real Clear Politics Electoral College map illustrates Romney’s problem. RCP shows the president ahead in states totaling 253 electoral votes with states that are either likely or leaning to Romney giving the GOP standard-bearer only 170 votes. That means Romney must win 100 of the 115 votes in the tossup states to get to the magic number of 270 that guarantees victory.

Given the tight national polls and general dissatisfaction with the president’s job performance, that is far from unlikely, let alone impossible. But it gives Romney very little margin for error. He must, more or less, run the table in swing states. This means that although the GOP has good reason to believe it can win in both Florida and Ohio, it can’t afford to lose either Virginia or North Carolina without scoring a far more unlikely upset in Democrat-leaning Pennsylvania or Michigan.

Democrats believe the changing demographics in Virginia and North Carolina, as both have become more urban, dictates that their recent history as reliable Republican states is over. But those factors will not save Obama if the economy continues to lag on his watch. Today’s figures that show disappointing job growth and a still high unemployment rate make it clear the Democrats are quite capable of blowing this election and losing all the swing states. If Romney is to overcome his current Electoral College deficit, he must, as he did this week, concentrate on campaigning in states like Virginia and stick to his message about the economy. Obama’s current advantage there is daunting, but with six months to go and little reason to believe the economy will improve over the summer, there is plenty of hope left for the Republican.

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Another Dismal Jobs Report

The monthly jobs report, released on the first Friday of every month, came out at 8:30 this morning, and it isn’t pretty. While the unemployment rate ticked down to 8.1 percent, that was largely because people dropped out of the workforce rather than people finding jobs. The broader measure of unemployment, which counts people in part-time jobs who would rather work full-time, remains at a dismal 14.5 percent. The percentage of the population in the workforce dropped to a 30-year low at 64.3 percent, as 522,000 people left the labor force.

Only 115,000 new jobs were created last month (130,000 in the private sector, while government lost 15,000 jobs) and, thanks to population growth, the country needs 125,000 new jobs a month just to keep the unemployment rate steady.

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The monthly jobs report, released on the first Friday of every month, came out at 8:30 this morning, and it isn’t pretty. While the unemployment rate ticked down to 8.1 percent, that was largely because people dropped out of the workforce rather than people finding jobs. The broader measure of unemployment, which counts people in part-time jobs who would rather work full-time, remains at a dismal 14.5 percent. The percentage of the population in the workforce dropped to a 30-year low at 64.3 percent, as 522,000 people left the labor force.

Only 115,000 new jobs were created last month (130,000 in the private sector, while government lost 15,000 jobs) and, thanks to population growth, the country needs 125,000 new jobs a month just to keep the unemployment rate steady.

This is the third year in a row that job growth, after a promising start in the early months of the year, stalled in the spring. But this isn’t any year. It’s a year divisible by 4. In six months, President Obama has to face an electorate that has lived through the most sluggish recovery since the Great Depression lingered on and on in the 1930’s. And Obama is no FDR (nor does Mitt Romney have anything in common with Alf Landon except party registration).

 

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