Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 15, 2012

The New Catholic Fiction

As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction. True, I once ventured the guess that Richard Russo is — “after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995 — perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today.” I remain convinced that Empire Falls, which I continue to admire, is a deeply Catholic novel. These are, however, the stabs of an outsider. An ignoramus too.

My knowledge of Catholicism is confined to desultory unsystematic reading, warmed by feelings of closeness toward the Church of Rome after the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Add that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism share the fate of being dismissed as “legalistic and moralistic.” (The epithets are William James’s from The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Yet religious sympathy only makes it easier to misinterpret religious experience by converting it into a more familiar religious vocabulary. And after teaching a course on American Jewish fiction this past term to a class that was overwhelmingly Christian, I know from firsthand experience just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.

Fair warning, then. Treat everything that follows with the skepticism of an unbeliever.

William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha are two of the most impressive young novelists around. Both published their debut novels within the past year. Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was issued by Norton last August. (I reviewed it here.) Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder came out from Tin House earlier this week. (My review is here.) Both novels are Catholic, at the most obvious level, in being about characters who are openly Catholic — although in opposite directions. Charles Homar, the narrator of Giraldi’s joyous romp, is a renegade Catholic. “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all,” he insists; “you have to experience this virus yourself really to get my gist, though in the meantime trust me.” (A good example of Giraldi’s prose style, by the way.) Beha’s Sophie Wilder is a convert. “From the Latin, to turn,” Sophie understands. “As in Eliot: Because I do not hope to turn again.”

Despite this difference, Charles and Sophie have something profound in common. They are what James calls sick souls. They are, in Othello’s language, “Unreconcil’d as yet to Heaven, and Grace.” They are intimates of evil and the failure of love. They are afflicted by man’s fallen nature — their own sin and other people’s — and find no peace in the knowledge that man, created in the image of God, reflects his glory. As Charles puts it, “Our species swam laps in a cesspool,” which leaves him with “the pressing need to get monastic, take a vow, wear a robe.” His language is comic, but his need is not. Both he and Sophie are in need of redemption, and both Busy Monsters and What Happened to Sophie Wilder are odysseys of a soul in search of redemption.

Between them, in short, Giraldi and Beha may have begun to redefine Catholic fiction. As a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor emphasized God’s mystery — what she called, in a famous article, the “added dimension.” “A dimension taken away is one thing,” she wrote; “a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer must strike the right balance between nature and grace, and this for O’Connor entailed seeing life “in its concrete reality.” An older generation of Catholic novelists was distinguished, in other words, by what George Weigel calls a sacramental vision. Paul Horgan (“whom almost no one remembers today”) was motivated by a similar vision, Weigel says, which he describes as a way of “seeing ‘things as they are’ [the title of Horgan’s most-Catholic novel], because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary.” Such a way of seeing, Weigel concludes, is “a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

But this way of seeing is not Giraldi’s and Beha’s way of seeing. They see the torments of the soul that thirsts for God; they see that, unreconciled to heaven and grace, the sick soul must go on searching for reconciliation. Their emphasis is not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil. Giraldi and Beha will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists. If I am right, though, they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers. To say nothing of a new generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.

But then again, I may be all wet.

Update: In a message to him, I suggested to Christopher Beha that his Sophie Wilder was a saint. “You wrote a saint’s life,” I said. Wisely, he did not reply.

As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction. True, I once ventured the guess that Richard Russo is — “after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995 — perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today.” I remain convinced that Empire Falls, which I continue to admire, is a deeply Catholic novel. These are, however, the stabs of an outsider. An ignoramus too.

My knowledge of Catholicism is confined to desultory unsystematic reading, warmed by feelings of closeness toward the Church of Rome after the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Add that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism share the fate of being dismissed as “legalistic and moralistic.” (The epithets are William James’s from The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Yet religious sympathy only makes it easier to misinterpret religious experience by converting it into a more familiar religious vocabulary. And after teaching a course on American Jewish fiction this past term to a class that was overwhelmingly Christian, I know from firsthand experience just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.

Fair warning, then. Treat everything that follows with the skepticism of an unbeliever.

William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha are two of the most impressive young novelists around. Both published their debut novels within the past year. Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was issued by Norton last August. (I reviewed it here.) Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder came out from Tin House earlier this week. (My review is here.) Both novels are Catholic, at the most obvious level, in being about characters who are openly Catholic — although in opposite directions. Charles Homar, the narrator of Giraldi’s joyous romp, is a renegade Catholic. “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all,” he insists; “you have to experience this virus yourself really to get my gist, though in the meantime trust me.” (A good example of Giraldi’s prose style, by the way.) Beha’s Sophie Wilder is a convert. “From the Latin, to turn,” Sophie understands. “As in Eliot: Because I do not hope to turn again.”

Despite this difference, Charles and Sophie have something profound in common. They are what James calls sick souls. They are, in Othello’s language, “Unreconcil’d as yet to Heaven, and Grace.” They are intimates of evil and the failure of love. They are afflicted by man’s fallen nature — their own sin and other people’s — and find no peace in the knowledge that man, created in the image of God, reflects his glory. As Charles puts it, “Our species swam laps in a cesspool,” which leaves him with “the pressing need to get monastic, take a vow, wear a robe.” His language is comic, but his need is not. Both he and Sophie are in need of redemption, and both Busy Monsters and What Happened to Sophie Wilder are odysseys of a soul in search of redemption.

Between them, in short, Giraldi and Beha may have begun to redefine Catholic fiction. As a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor emphasized God’s mystery — what she called, in a famous article, the “added dimension.” “A dimension taken away is one thing,” she wrote; “a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer must strike the right balance between nature and grace, and this for O’Connor entailed seeing life “in its concrete reality.” An older generation of Catholic novelists was distinguished, in other words, by what George Weigel calls a sacramental vision. Paul Horgan (“whom almost no one remembers today”) was motivated by a similar vision, Weigel says, which he describes as a way of “seeing ‘things as they are’ [the title of Horgan’s most-Catholic novel], because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary.” Such a way of seeing, Weigel concludes, is “a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

But this way of seeing is not Giraldi’s and Beha’s way of seeing. They see the torments of the soul that thirsts for God; they see that, unreconciled to heaven and grace, the sick soul must go on searching for reconciliation. Their emphasis is not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil. Giraldi and Beha will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists. If I am right, though, they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers. To say nothing of a new generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.

But then again, I may be all wet.

Update: In a message to him, I suggested to Christopher Beha that his Sophie Wilder was a saint. “You wrote a saint’s life,” I said. Wisely, he did not reply.

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Can Israel Afford a Moral Foreign Policy?

Earlier this week, I noted the fact that while President Obama has chosen not to visit Israel since taking office even when visiting the Middle East, Russia’s Vladimir Putin will be making his second trip to the Jewish state this month. The fact that Obama is still so resentful of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he couldn’t bring himself to go to Jerusalem even when it would clearly be in his political interests to do so, while Putin thinks it is good politics to go there, struck me as interesting. But our friends at the Forward have a very different take on the story. In an editorial published this week, they think it is wrong for Israel to receive Putin and urge it to cancel the visit.

In assessing this position, we need to start by saying this is the sort of editorial that explains why there is a difference between government and journalism. In seizing the moral high ground on Putin, the Forward editorialist is taking a stand that no Israeli government, no matter how righteous or devoted to the cause of human rights in Russia, Syria and Iran it might be, can possibly take. Israel has enough enemies without picking a fight with Putin even the United States would be wary of starting. This is the sort of unrealistic moral preening that we journalists love to indulge in. There is also the fact that the Forward, whose idolatry of Barack Obama seems to be boundless, has been noticeably quiet in expressing criticism of the administration’s desire for a “reset” with Putin or his appeasement of Russia on a number of different fronts.

But having said that, I’m prepared to concede the editorial has a point, especially with regard to the egregious praise of Putin on the part of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and that the question of how moral Israel’s foreign policy should be is not solely a matter for idle journalistic posturing.

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Earlier this week, I noted the fact that while President Obama has chosen not to visit Israel since taking office even when visiting the Middle East, Russia’s Vladimir Putin will be making his second trip to the Jewish state this month. The fact that Obama is still so resentful of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he couldn’t bring himself to go to Jerusalem even when it would clearly be in his political interests to do so, while Putin thinks it is good politics to go there, struck me as interesting. But our friends at the Forward have a very different take on the story. In an editorial published this week, they think it is wrong for Israel to receive Putin and urge it to cancel the visit.

In assessing this position, we need to start by saying this is the sort of editorial that explains why there is a difference between government and journalism. In seizing the moral high ground on Putin, the Forward editorialist is taking a stand that no Israeli government, no matter how righteous or devoted to the cause of human rights in Russia, Syria and Iran it might be, can possibly take. Israel has enough enemies without picking a fight with Putin even the United States would be wary of starting. This is the sort of unrealistic moral preening that we journalists love to indulge in. There is also the fact that the Forward, whose idolatry of Barack Obama seems to be boundless, has been noticeably quiet in expressing criticism of the administration’s desire for a “reset” with Putin or his appeasement of Russia on a number of different fronts.

But having said that, I’m prepared to concede the editorial has a point, especially with regard to the egregious praise of Putin on the part of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and that the question of how moral Israel’s foreign policy should be is not solely a matter for idle journalistic posturing.

Since its birth in 1948, the State of Israel has been under siege and has almost never been in a position to pick its friends with impunity. Indeed, so desperate has it been for any sign of friendship from other countries, let alone genuine cooperation or alliance, that it led to the development of a deep cynicism about its place in the world, which led it to be willing to sometimes take the hands of some unsavory regimes. Friends of Israel were right to take umbrage at the notion that an embattled nation was expected to be more punctilious about its foreign policy than greater and far more secure nations. Nevertheless, as Israel’s position grew stronger in recent decades, it was fair to say that its willingness to embrace apartheid-era South Africa or any Third World dictator who would stand apart from the global chorus of Israel-haters was often ill-considered and sometimes counter-productive.

Though Israel’s governments were justified in prioritizing security and defense, a public posture of moral blindness ill befit a nation that also sought to play upon the international community’s sense of justice. Even if it could not expect fair play for itself, brazen cynicism on such questions did nothing to enhance its position. Israeli leaders of both the left and the right have generally been uncomfortable taking stands on disputes elsewhere in the globe. But this shyness about defending human rights when Jews were not the victims only fueled the unfair comparisons of its own complex problems vis-à-vis the Palestinians to real tyrannies that are often voiced by anti-Semites and other Israel-haters.

So while it is clearly unreasonable to expect Israel to attack Putin directly or to rebuff his overtures, it is not wrong to point out that Lieberman’s coziness with the Moscow regime is an embarrassment.

In his defense, it should be noted that although he was widely considered unsuitable for his task when he took office in 2009, Lieberman has been as good a practitioner of cynical realpolitik on his country’s behalf as any of his seemingly more accomplished predecessors. Though he gets little credit for it, it was his diplomatic skills — often exercised with unsavory Third World governments — that helped stave off the so-called Palestinian “diplomatic tsunami” at the United Nations last year.

But behind the scenes diplomacy is one thing; public endorsements of Putin’s tyranny are quite another. Though only a fool would think it is not in Israel’s interests to keep Russia from sliding back to the open hostility that characterized relations during the era of the Soviet Union, there is no need for Israel to go as far as that.

As much as Israelis have vainly hoped for a normal existence, the Jewish state has also always aspired to stand for Jewish values and the Jewish people. As such, it is far from wrong to expect it to support not merely democracy for itself but the rights of all peoples.

I should add that I myself have written in the past to chide some Israelis — even those whom I greatly admired — for being willing to treat the question of human rights as somehow not being their business. In February of 1997, I even tweaked Natan Sharansky, a man whom I consider a genuine hero and then serving as Israel’s Trade Minister— for not using a meeting with his Chinese counterparts to raise the topic of the status of prisoners in the Chinese gulag. The piece (written originally for the Jerusalem Post under the headline “Say it Ain’t So, Natan,” is not available on their website, but can be read here on the site of San Francisco’s J Weekly which subsequently picked it up) motivated Sharansky to use a second meeting with the Chinese to do exactly as I had asked him to do. That earned him a rebuke from Israel’s Foreign Ministry but confirmed my high opinion of his integrity.

The standard here should not be, as the Forward’s piece seems to want, to demand that Israel be tougher on Russia than even the United States, but that it must be prepared to speak up about human rights, even when it is inconvenient. The Jewish state may still be beleaguered, but it is not so weak that it must be compelled to prostitute itself on behalf of Putin, as Lieberman appears willing to do. A completely moral foreign policy is a luxury that not even a superpower can always afford, but we have a right to expect that Israel’s approach to the world should consist of more than raw cynicism.

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Five Reasons Why Romney is the Favorite

Why is Barack Obama’s road to re-election so steep and uncertain at this stage?

There are five important reasons.

1. An indefensible record. Every election which features an incumbent is, at least in good measure, a referendum on the record of the incumbent. The problem facing Obama is that he can’t offer a convincing case that his policies have succeeded. Recall that at the outset of his presidency, Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer, “I will be held accountable. I’ve got four years… If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.” Yet last October, Obama had to concede to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that “I don’t think [people are] better off than they were four years ago.”

In addition, the main achievements of the Obama presidency – including the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus package – are deeply unpopular. By virtually any measure, then, the president has presided over a failed first term. He cannot reinvent, and therefore he cannot successfully defend, his record.

2. A weakening economy. The Obama campaign rested its hopes on the American economy getting stronger rather than weaker. This would have allowed the president to argue that while things haven’t improved as quickly as Americans had hoped, the trajectory was encouraging, that progress was being made, that the building blocks to prosperity were in place. From there, Obama would say he needed a second term to complete what he (belatedly) started in his first. But the data this year – including dismal economic growth, job creation, and factory orders – have left the Obama narrative in ruins. In the fourth year of his presidency, Obama is presiding over a weak economy that is becoming weaker still. The issue the public cares most about (the economy) is the issue the president is most vulnerable on.

3. Intellectual exhaustion. The Obama campaign is out of ideas. On the economy, Obama has used virtually everything in his progressive toolkit. Nothing has worked. And so the president, unable to defend his record in the first term, is left with no compelling vision to offer in a second term. Witness his speech in Ohio yesterday. It was billed as a “major” address on the economy. But it was widely panned even on the left for being empty and uninteresting. The president himself cannot articulate why his agenda in a second term would be more effective than what he’s done in his first term. He’s running on empty.

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Why is Barack Obama’s road to re-election so steep and uncertain at this stage?

There are five important reasons.

1. An indefensible record. Every election which features an incumbent is, at least in good measure, a referendum on the record of the incumbent. The problem facing Obama is that he can’t offer a convincing case that his policies have succeeded. Recall that at the outset of his presidency, Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer, “I will be held accountable. I’ve got four years… If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.” Yet last October, Obama had to concede to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that “I don’t think [people are] better off than they were four years ago.”

In addition, the main achievements of the Obama presidency – including the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus package – are deeply unpopular. By virtually any measure, then, the president has presided over a failed first term. He cannot reinvent, and therefore he cannot successfully defend, his record.

2. A weakening economy. The Obama campaign rested its hopes on the American economy getting stronger rather than weaker. This would have allowed the president to argue that while things haven’t improved as quickly as Americans had hoped, the trajectory was encouraging, that progress was being made, that the building blocks to prosperity were in place. From there, Obama would say he needed a second term to complete what he (belatedly) started in his first. But the data this year – including dismal economic growth, job creation, and factory orders – have left the Obama narrative in ruins. In the fourth year of his presidency, Obama is presiding over a weak economy that is becoming weaker still. The issue the public cares most about (the economy) is the issue the president is most vulnerable on.

3. Intellectual exhaustion. The Obama campaign is out of ideas. On the economy, Obama has used virtually everything in his progressive toolkit. Nothing has worked. And so the president, unable to defend his record in the first term, is left with no compelling vision to offer in a second term. Witness his speech in Ohio yesterday. It was billed as a “major” address on the economy. But it was widely panned even on the left for being empty and uninteresting. The president himself cannot articulate why his agenda in a second term would be more effective than what he’s done in his first term. He’s running on empty.

4. A formidable opponent. The Obama campaign’s attempt to disqualify Mitt Romney on grounds that he’s too extreme to be president has fizzled. Whatever complaints one may have about Romney, being an extremist is not a plausible one. As Bill Clinton admitted, Romney has been a governor, had a “sterling business career,” and “crosses the qualification threshold.” Since securing the GOP nomination, Romney has made few unforced errors. He’s begun to repair the damage he had sustained. He’s shown impressive discipline and focus as a candidate. He’s outraising the president. And Governor Romney’s campaign is, at least as of now, clearly superior to the president’s.

5. The late break. In most presidential elections, undecided voters break in large numbers for the challenger. If someone is undecided about an incumbent they know well, they will usually cast their ballot for the challenger. That’s particularly true when the country is suffering from economic difficulties and the political fundamentals are bad for the person occupying the Oval Office, which is certainly the case today.

Craig Shirley’s book Rendezvous With Destiny reminds us that 10 days before the 1980 election, Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan by one point in a CBS News/New York Times poll; and the morning of the presidential debate (October 29), a Gallup Poll reported that Carter had a three-point lead over Reagan. Yet Reagan outdueled Carter in the debate and ended up winning 44 states and defeating Carter by almost 10 points.

I have long believed, and continue to believe, that the durable dynamic in this race will be that a majority of the public, and a large majority of independent voters, (a) consider Barack Obama’s tenure to be a failure and (b) are inclined to vote against him. They are bone weary of his presidency, and they want it over.

The challenge for Mitt Romney is to sufficiently reassure these voters that he’s up to the task of being president and that he would be an improvement over Obama. There have been higher bars to clear in the history of American politics, and at this stage in the race – with less than 150 days to go – the former Massachusetts governor is on course to do just that. Which is why he should be considered the favorite in the race.

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Beware Gulf States’ Role in Syria

Every day seems to bring fresh, horrific revelations of atrocities in Syria, which Amnesty International says amount to crimes against humanity. The latest news concerns the Sunni village of Al Heffa in the northwest, where UN monitors found “fiery devastation, the smell of death, vacated homes, looted stores and vestiges of heavy weapons.”

The Obama administration remains committed, it appears, to staying on the sidelines of this growing crisis, but it is finding it hard to ignore entirely the cause of the rebels. Thus, the Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. diplomats and intelligence operatives have increased contacts with the opposition. But rather than provide arms directly to the Free Syrian Army, the U.S. representatives are content to let Gulf states do the dirty work. As the Journal notes, the “U.S. in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”

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Every day seems to bring fresh, horrific revelations of atrocities in Syria, which Amnesty International says amount to crimes against humanity. The latest news concerns the Sunni village of Al Heffa in the northwest, where UN monitors found “fiery devastation, the smell of death, vacated homes, looted stores and vestiges of heavy weapons.”

The Obama administration remains committed, it appears, to staying on the sidelines of this growing crisis, but it is finding it hard to ignore entirely the cause of the rebels. Thus, the Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. diplomats and intelligence operatives have increased contacts with the opposition. But rather than provide arms directly to the Free Syrian Army, the U.S. representatives are content to let Gulf states do the dirty work. As the Journal notes, the “U.S. in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”

On the surface this may appear to be “smart power” in action: Why should the U.S. take the lead if allies are willing to do it? But actually this is a fundamentally dumb and dangerous policy which risks repeating the same mistake the U.S. made in the 1980s when we subcontracted the arming of the Afghan mujahideen to the Pakistanis and Saudis. Who did these fundamentalist-dominated states choose to support? Not surprisingly, the bulk of their support went to brutal Afghan fundamentalists such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyr–closely connected to an obscure Saudi financer named Osama bin Laden–rather than to more moderate and pro-Western figures such as Ahmad Shah Massoud. We are now paying the price for building up Haqqani, Hekmatyr, et. al: They have gone from fighting the Red Army to fighting NATO forces and their allies in Afghanistan.

For this reason, I am considerably alarmed by news of the growing Saudi, Emirati and Qatari role in Syria. These are not the countries we want determining the future of Syria. Yet the longer we stand on the sidelines, the more their role will grow. Heaven help us if their proxies come to power in Syria as they eventually did in Afghanistan.

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McConnell Vows to Defend Citizens United

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled that Republicans will fight attacks on Citizens United and other assaults on political expression during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute earlier today.

“Campaign contributions are speech,” said McConnell. “If we lose the right to speak, we’ve lost the battle before it starts.”

The left has decried the Citizens United decision since the beginning, but the recent Wisconsin recall election reenergized efforts to fight it. Despite the fact that Citizens United had little impact on the election spending in Wisconsin, progressives blamed it for their loss and seem determined to make it a top issue in the presidential election.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled that Republicans will fight attacks on Citizens United and other assaults on political expression during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute earlier today.

“Campaign contributions are speech,” said McConnell. “If we lose the right to speak, we’ve lost the battle before it starts.”

The left has decried the Citizens United decision since the beginning, but the recent Wisconsin recall election reenergized efforts to fight it. Despite the fact that Citizens United had little impact on the election spending in Wisconsin, progressives blamed it for their loss and seem determined to make it a top issue in the presidential election.

The latest example is David Axelrod, who promised earlier this week that if Obama wins a second term, he will pursue any option — including a constitutional amendment — to restrict these rights:

“When we win, we will use whatever tools out there, including a constitutional amendment, to turn this back. I understand the free speech argument, but when the Koch brothers can spend $400 million, more than the McCain campaign and the Republican Party spent last time, that’s very concerning.”

At AEI, McConnell blasted Axelrod and the Obama administration for the proposal.

“Amending the First Amendment for the first time in history is an act of radicalism,” said McConnell.

There are other indications that the issue of political money will be back at the top of the news this summer. The Supreme Court reportedly met earlier this week to consider a Montana case that challenges some aspects of the Citizens United decision and a subsequent Appellate Court ruling on unlimited political contributions. The Los Angeles Times reports that the appeal isn’t expected to be denied, and the Supreme Court may either decide to hear the case or write a summary opinion defending the Citizens United ruling.

McConnell said as the election nears, some Republicans may be tempted “to take the issue off the table or make concessions.”

“My advice is to resist the temptation,” he said.

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McCain’s Cheap Shot at Adelson

It is perhaps to be expected that Sen. John McCain would still be whining about the way the Supreme Court’s Citizens United 2010 decision effectively neutered the campaign finance law he co-authored with Wisconsin liberal Democrat Russ Feingold. McCain is still claiming the decision made politics more corrupt, but he is deaf, dumb and blind about the way his legislation restricted free speech, added further complications to an already byzantine system and drove campaign cash further underground. But while there is nothing remarkable about McCain beating his favorite dead horse, his latest comments cross the line between fair comment and slander.

In an interview with the PBS Newshour program, McCain didn’t just assert that Citizens United is aiding corruption but that the contributions made by Mitt Romney’s leading donor may be the product of “foreign” — and therefore by definition illegal — money. The reference to billionaire Sheldon Adelson — whose billions come in part from casinos in Macao — was a cheap shot, especially as it came directly after McCain predicted  there would be “scandals” that would come out of Citizens United. McCain knows very well there is nothing illegal or underhanded about Adelson’s money or his willingness to spend it to promote the causes and candidates he supports. The scandal here isn’t the fact that a billionaire is making money overseas and spending it at home on political speech; it is the willingness of the political class to restrict the right of Americans to have a voice in the political system.

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It is perhaps to be expected that Sen. John McCain would still be whining about the way the Supreme Court’s Citizens United 2010 decision effectively neutered the campaign finance law he co-authored with Wisconsin liberal Democrat Russ Feingold. McCain is still claiming the decision made politics more corrupt, but he is deaf, dumb and blind about the way his legislation restricted free speech, added further complications to an already byzantine system and drove campaign cash further underground. But while there is nothing remarkable about McCain beating his favorite dead horse, his latest comments cross the line between fair comment and slander.

In an interview with the PBS Newshour program, McCain didn’t just assert that Citizens United is aiding corruption but that the contributions made by Mitt Romney’s leading donor may be the product of “foreign” — and therefore by definition illegal — money. The reference to billionaire Sheldon Adelson — whose billions come in part from casinos in Macao — was a cheap shot, especially as it came directly after McCain predicted  there would be “scandals” that would come out of Citizens United. McCain knows very well there is nothing illegal or underhanded about Adelson’s money or his willingness to spend it to promote the causes and candidates he supports. The scandal here isn’t the fact that a billionaire is making money overseas and spending it at home on political speech; it is the willingness of the political class to restrict the right of Americans to have a voice in the political system.

McCain clearly believes all political donations are inherently a form of corruption, a view he has hewed to since his involvement in the Keating Five Savings and Loan Scandal almost ended his political career. Since then, he has adopted a self-righteous posture on the issue and sought to impose severe restrictions on the ability of citizens to make contributions. But far from helping to clean up politics, McCain-Feingold only made things worse. It made it harder for candidates and political parties to raise money and opened the way for other entities to be created to fill the void.

Because money cannot be taken out of politics any more than it can be removed from the banking system, the growing volume of campaign finance laws has only added layers that made the system less accountable. Moreover, the danger of scandal does not come so much from the wealthy willing to spend to advance the ideas they cherish but from politicians who sell their votes to gain popularity.

Even more to the point, bills like McCain-Feingold give undue influence to the mainstream media as it made them the only venues for political discussion that could not be limited by the government. And by making it harder to raise money, McCain-Feingold was in effect an incumbent protection program that helped create an informal system of congressional tenure.

As for Adelson, the notion that any of his money comes from laundered accounts belonging to foreign players is absurd. Adelson’s conservative and pro-Israel views are no secret, and it is not likely that anyone in China is using him to advance those causes. That makes McCain’s smear a cheap shot that ought to be incompatible with the high-minded reformist stances the Arizona senator believes he embodies.

McCain is entitled to spout off about Citizens United and he is also within his rights in expressing contempt for the gaming industry that has made Adelson a billionaire. But he is way out of line when he wrongly smears the wealthy donor as a foreign agent or an emissary of corruption. He owes Adelson an apology.

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The Joke is on Obama in Israel

The investigation into the leaks about the New York Times’s story on Iranian cyberattacks are just getting under way. Alana discussed the controversy surrounding the picks for prosecutors to examine the case earlier this week and explained why many inside and outside the Beltway are curious about the White House’s role in the leaks:

But the Times’s Iranian cyberattack story was a different beast altogether. From the headline to the Situation Room details, the leaks were clearly a) from top administration officials, and b) intended to make Obama look as good as possible.

The administration, if nothing else, had the ability to put a hold on the Times story and declined to do so. Despite bipartisan intelligence committee anger and frustration about the leaks, Senate Democrats quickly squashed a resolution to appoint a special counsel to investigate.

In Israel, it appears the public’s mind is made up about where the leak originated and how it will affect the already rocky relationship between Israel and the U.S. Latma, a famous Israeli satirical group, just released a video about  a fictional pair of secret agents imprisoned and tortured in a secret Iranian prison.

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The investigation into the leaks about the New York Times’s story on Iranian cyberattacks are just getting under way. Alana discussed the controversy surrounding the picks for prosecutors to examine the case earlier this week and explained why many inside and outside the Beltway are curious about the White House’s role in the leaks:

But the Times’s Iranian cyberattack story was a different beast altogether. From the headline to the Situation Room details, the leaks were clearly a) from top administration officials, and b) intended to make Obama look as good as possible.

The administration, if nothing else, had the ability to put a hold on the Times story and declined to do so. Despite bipartisan intelligence committee anger and frustration about the leaks, Senate Democrats quickly squashed a resolution to appoint a special counsel to investigate.

In Israel, it appears the public’s mind is made up about where the leak originated and how it will affect the already rocky relationship between Israel and the U.S. Latma, a famous Israeli satirical group, just released a video about  a fictional pair of secret agents imprisoned and tortured in a secret Iranian prison.

The pair sing a song called “Tell on Me,” to the tune of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” about U.S. President Obama (the leaker-in-chief). While the video is light-hearted, the message is clear: trust in the Obama administration to maintain a level of secrecy surrounding events that might make the president look good has all but disappeared completely. The two prisoners have one thing in common: betrayal by the Obama administration. One was exposed because the Obama administration couldn’t resist concealing details of the bin Laden raid; the second by the Obama administration’s desire to dish to the New York Times about cyberattacks on Iran.

It’s still unclear how the majority of the Israeli public and government feel about the leaks, if they attribute them to the Obama White House like this well-known satirical group, although it’s telling that the U.S. president’s integrity (or the lack thereof) has moved into the realm of public mockery. President Obama’s approval ratings were already scraping the bottom of the barrel in Israel; thus the repercussions of these alleged leaks may be difficult to gauge. Only time will tell if Israeli leaders and the public have any more faith left in the Obama administration. We’ll find out just how much remains the next time Israel is in possession of sensitive information or plans.

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Politics Dictates Deportations Policy

For three and a half years, Hispanic activists have complained the Obama administration was all talk and no action when it came to satisfying their demands for more lenient immigration guidelines. But with the president’s re-election campaign looking increasingly shaky, the need to solidify the Democratic base has led to a not terribly surprising policy about face. The announcement today of an executive order that the United States will cease any efforts to deport young illegal immigrants is just another instance of how politics rules all in the Obama administration.

The change, which resembles to some extent the Dream Act that would have granted a path to citizenship for youngsters who came to the country illegally, will mean that up to 800,000 undocumented people will be able to get a two-year deferral on steps to make them leave the country and then allow them to apply for work permits. Though Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claims the measure is not a form of amnesty and does not grant immunity, that is exactly what it is. While there is a strong argument to be made that such deportations are a waste of government resources and that the country will be better off if such persons have their status normalized, there is no question the motivation here is purely political. But whether the president’s fiat will help more with Hispanics than it hurts with the clear majority of Americans who take a dim view of policies that seek to legalize the presence of undocumented aliens is yet to be determined.

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For three and a half years, Hispanic activists have complained the Obama administration was all talk and no action when it came to satisfying their demands for more lenient immigration guidelines. But with the president’s re-election campaign looking increasingly shaky, the need to solidify the Democratic base has led to a not terribly surprising policy about face. The announcement today of an executive order that the United States will cease any efforts to deport young illegal immigrants is just another instance of how politics rules all in the Obama administration.

The change, which resembles to some extent the Dream Act that would have granted a path to citizenship for youngsters who came to the country illegally, will mean that up to 800,000 undocumented people will be able to get a two-year deferral on steps to make them leave the country and then allow them to apply for work permits. Though Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claims the measure is not a form of amnesty and does not grant immunity, that is exactly what it is. While there is a strong argument to be made that such deportations are a waste of government resources and that the country will be better off if such persons have their status normalized, there is no question the motivation here is purely political. But whether the president’s fiat will help more with Hispanics than it hurts with the clear majority of Americans who take a dim view of policies that seek to legalize the presence of undocumented aliens is yet to be determined.

Even Mitt Romney, who swung hard to the right on immigration, has said he was willing to accept some form of the Dream Act, as long as it solely covered those illegals who were willing to serve in the armed services. But public resistance to what might otherwise be considered a humanitarian and prudent course of action has been considerable. Support for stringent enforcement of immigration laws has never waned principally because most Americans see the porous border as a sign the rule of law is breaking down. Amnesty provisions such as this executive order make sense in that deporting all 800,000 illegal youngsters is no more feasible than deporting all of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. But doing so effectively makes a mockery of the concept that laws on the books must be enforced.

However, the timing of the announcement at the start of a long general election campaign strips away any pretense that the decision has been dictated by anything but politics, especially because the president could have issued this executive order at any time in the last three years. As to the impact on the November election, it may help bring out the Hispanic vote for the president in some states, but it is also likely to create a backlash among the majority who believes illegal immigration is a serious problem. That makes it doubtful the move will have much effect on battleground states such as Arizona and New Mexico, where the large number of Hispanics who may be happy about the decision will be offset by other voters who see it as an example of how the administration has disregarded their concerns about the impact of illegal immigration on their communities.

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Bloomberg vs. Science and Common Sense

The Associated Press reported yesterday that soft drink makers are considering legal action against the Pop Czar’s latest edict: banning larger size soft drinks in certain locations. It doesn’t appear that Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban will be in all that much legal trouble, though the article notes some constitutional objections to the plan as well. But there is another, possibly more effective way for opponents of the ban to fight the policy, and it’s one they really haven’t employed: science.

Politico’s Tim Mak wrote a comprehensive piece on opposition to the soda ban this week, but nearly every “expert” who opposed the drink ban gave Mak a variation of the following quote, from Quinnipiac’s Mickey Carroll: “The people who are against it aren’t against it because it’s bad health [policy] but that it’s over-intrusive government.” But that’s silly–it’s terrible policy. Why cede this ground? Over at the Atlantic, two economics professors who focus their research on food economics introduce a bit of reality into the equation:

In similar lab settings, this kind of approach has inspired various forms of rebellion among study participants. For example, openly serving someone lowfat or reduced-calorie meals tends to lead to increased fat or calorie consumption over the whole day. People reason that because they were forced to be good for one meal, they can splurge on snacks and desserts at later meals.

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The Associated Press reported yesterday that soft drink makers are considering legal action against the Pop Czar’s latest edict: banning larger size soft drinks in certain locations. It doesn’t appear that Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban will be in all that much legal trouble, though the article notes some constitutional objections to the plan as well. But there is another, possibly more effective way for opponents of the ban to fight the policy, and it’s one they really haven’t employed: science.

Politico’s Tim Mak wrote a comprehensive piece on opposition to the soda ban this week, but nearly every “expert” who opposed the drink ban gave Mak a variation of the following quote, from Quinnipiac’s Mickey Carroll: “The people who are against it aren’t against it because it’s bad health [policy] but that it’s over-intrusive government.” But that’s silly–it’s terrible policy. Why cede this ground? Over at the Atlantic, two economics professors who focus their research on food economics introduce a bit of reality into the equation:

In similar lab settings, this kind of approach has inspired various forms of rebellion among study participants. For example, openly serving someone lowfat or reduced-calorie meals tends to lead to increased fat or calorie consumption over the whole day. People reason that because they were forced to be good for one meal, they can splurge on snacks and desserts at later meals.

Although the authors tell us that Bloomberg’s scheme contradicts “150 years of research in food economics,” we don’t actually have to go back that far for a case study in Bloomberg’s super-sized record of public health failure. No, I’m not talking about his indefensible delay in clearing the unsanitary roving rape circus that Occupy Wall Street became in downtown Manhattan. I’m referring to the 2008 law that mandated the posting of calorie counts in the city’s chain restaurants. When researchers studied the law’s effect, they “found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect.”

In other words, Bloomberg is contributing to–or at least doing nothing productive to fight–obesity in the city. No one should pretend this is good health policy when our empirical research (not to mention common sense) tells us this isn’t.

But that actually brings me to the one positive aspect of the soda ban. Its obvious ineffectiveness is a good thing, at least with regard to civil liberties. The encroaching nanny state does its most far-reaching damage to personal liberty when its policies are at least successful. Nobody likes the fact that the TSA is groping children and humiliating sick, elderly travelers. But opposition has grown beyond civil libertarians because all signs point to the program’s futility.

People are often willing to trade their personal liberty for productive policy, even if invasive. But the constant failure of policies like Bloomberg’s health initiatives–which, let’s remember, he doesn’t follow himself–does more to discredit the nanny state just about anything else.

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DNC Bus Tour to Shadow Romney

As Jonathan noted, the latest poll out of Michigan is more evidence that the state is seriously in play for Mitt Romney. Take into account that Obama won Michigan by 16 points in 2008, and was up by 14 points in a Public Policy Polling survey taken just last month. Whether the tightening of the Michigan race is due to fallout from the Wisconsin recall or the latest jobs report, something has clearly shifted the momentum to Romney in the past few weeks.

The Romney campaign sees an opening, and it’s tapped Michigan as the final stop on its swing-state bus tour next week. If you’re wondering how nervous Democrats are about losing the rust belt, take a look at this desperate gambit:

Democrats are launching a bus tour this morning to mirror Mitt Romney’s weekend bus tour of several swing states. The Democratic National Commmittee’s bus will stop in the same states Romney is visiting, carrying Democratic surrogates and Massachusetts officials to highlight the weaknesses in Romney’s record as Bay State governor and to criticize his economic platform. For instance, the bus is scheduled to stop in Scranton, Pa., this afternoon with former Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Massachusetts teacher and a member of the Pennsylvania teacher’s union aboard. …

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As Jonathan noted, the latest poll out of Michigan is more evidence that the state is seriously in play for Mitt Romney. Take into account that Obama won Michigan by 16 points in 2008, and was up by 14 points in a Public Policy Polling survey taken just last month. Whether the tightening of the Michigan race is due to fallout from the Wisconsin recall or the latest jobs report, something has clearly shifted the momentum to Romney in the past few weeks.

The Romney campaign sees an opening, and it’s tapped Michigan as the final stop on its swing-state bus tour next week. If you’re wondering how nervous Democrats are about losing the rust belt, take a look at this desperate gambit:

Democrats are launching a bus tour this morning to mirror Mitt Romney’s weekend bus tour of several swing states. The Democratic National Commmittee’s bus will stop in the same states Romney is visiting, carrying Democratic surrogates and Massachusetts officials to highlight the weaknesses in Romney’s record as Bay State governor and to criticize his economic platform. For instance, the bus is scheduled to stop in Scranton, Pa., this afternoon with former Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Massachusetts teacher and a member of the Pennsylvania teacher’s union aboard. …

Democrats are calling their tour the “Romney Economics: The Middle Class Under the Bus.”

Obama was right about one thing in his speech yesterday. This election will be about two competing economic visions — Romney’s actual proposals, versus the negative Democratic spin on Romney’s proposals.

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If Obama Loses Michigan, Can He Win?

Panicky supporters of President Obama got another reason to reach for the smelling salts yesterday with the release of a new survey of Michigan voters by the Democrat polling firm of Foster McCollum White and Associates/Baydoun Consulting. The poll showed the president falling into a virtual dead heat with Mitt Romney with a 47-46 percentage point lead. While as recently as last month, Obama was shown as having a 14-point lead, the Foster/Baydoun poll more or less confirms the findings of a Detroit Free Press poll that gave Romney a one-point lead.

Democrats have long counted on Michigan as a solid blue state that would inevitably fall into the president’s column in November. But as it must now be classified as a toss-up where native son Mitt Romney has the momentum, the question must be asked whether the president can win without it. The answer is a qualified yes. It is easy to compile a map that would give either one a victory without its 16 electoral votes. Nevertheless, it is much harder to imagine Obama getting to the magic total of 270 electoral votes than Romney without Michigan in his pocket. Barack Obama can win without Michigan, but it is hard to imagine him losing it without also going down in neighboring Ohio and Wisconsin. That is a scenario that means Democratic defeat.

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Panicky supporters of President Obama got another reason to reach for the smelling salts yesterday with the release of a new survey of Michigan voters by the Democrat polling firm of Foster McCollum White and Associates/Baydoun Consulting. The poll showed the president falling into a virtual dead heat with Mitt Romney with a 47-46 percentage point lead. While as recently as last month, Obama was shown as having a 14-point lead, the Foster/Baydoun poll more or less confirms the findings of a Detroit Free Press poll that gave Romney a one-point lead.

Democrats have long counted on Michigan as a solid blue state that would inevitably fall into the president’s column in November. But as it must now be classified as a toss-up where native son Mitt Romney has the momentum, the question must be asked whether the president can win without it. The answer is a qualified yes. It is easy to compile a map that would give either one a victory without its 16 electoral votes. Nevertheless, it is much harder to imagine Obama getting to the magic total of 270 electoral votes than Romney without Michigan in his pocket. Barack Obama can win without Michigan, but it is hard to imagine him losing it without also going down in neighboring Ohio and Wisconsin. That is a scenario that means Democratic defeat.

President Obama won in 2008 not just by winning blue states but by stealing a number of red ones such as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia. The odds of him repeating that feat are not very good at the moment. Polls have shown Indiana probably to be a lost cause for the Democrats and North Carolina slipping away, too. But the recent dismal economic news is putting states like Michigan and Wisconsin into play as well. While Obama can lose the states that turned a narrow victory into a cakewalk four years ago, the political facts of life for Democrats is that they cannot lose the rust belt and hope to prevail.

What makes this especially problematic is that the Obama camp assumed Romney’s opposition to the General Motors bailout along with the huge Democratic registration advantage in the state would make it impossible for them to lose Michigan. Though they knew all along that Ohio would be a coin flip and that the resurgence of the GOP in Wisconsin under Scott Walker would make it close, there was no reason to doubt that working-class Michigan would reject the wealthy Romney.

Along with a raft of other state polls, the Michigan numbers show that Democrats clearly underestimated Romney’s ability to recover from the beating he took in the GOP primaries and that the early attacks on him from the Obama campaign as a radical right-winger haven’t worked. But this poor showing in a state he shouldn’t have to fight so hard for tells us a lot more about President Obama’s shortcomings.

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Human Rights, Aid Groups Flak for Hamas

Fifty international organizations issued a public appeal yesterday for an immediate end to the blockade of Gaza, which they deemed a “violation of international law.” The signatories were the usual suspects: human rights groups like Amnesty International, aid organizations like Oxfam, and six UN agencies.

As Haaretz Palestinian affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff points out, this appeal is sheer nonsense. Israel ended restrictions on civilian imports to Gaza two years ago, and today, the only civilian product not available “in abundance” is fuel – which isn’t Israel’s fault:

The source of that problem stems from the Hamas government’s refusal to pay the high price for a liter of fuel (like every Israeli citizen pays) and its insistence on receiving smuggled fuel from the Egyptian side at a cheap price, facing off against the Egyptian regime’s complete refusal to allow the continued smuggling of fuel into Gaza (also in light of the serious fuel crisis in Egypt itself).

And while Israel does maintain a naval blockade of Gaza, that blockade was deemed legal by no less an authority than the UN itself, in last year’s Palmer Report.

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Fifty international organizations issued a public appeal yesterday for an immediate end to the blockade of Gaza, which they deemed a “violation of international law.” The signatories were the usual suspects: human rights groups like Amnesty International, aid organizations like Oxfam, and six UN agencies.

As Haaretz Palestinian affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff points out, this appeal is sheer nonsense. Israel ended restrictions on civilian imports to Gaza two years ago, and today, the only civilian product not available “in abundance” is fuel – which isn’t Israel’s fault:

The source of that problem stems from the Hamas government’s refusal to pay the high price for a liter of fuel (like every Israeli citizen pays) and its insistence on receiving smuggled fuel from the Egyptian side at a cheap price, facing off against the Egyptian regime’s complete refusal to allow the continued smuggling of fuel into Gaza (also in light of the serious fuel crisis in Egypt itself).

And while Israel does maintain a naval blockade of Gaza, that blockade was deemed legal by no less an authority than the UN itself, in last year’s Palmer Report.

So why are these agencies suddenly trying to resurrect a nonexistent issue? Granted, most of them need no excuse to attack Israel, but there’s a more urgent motivation – a need to divert attention from the real culprit before the world, and the Palestinians themselves, cop onto the truth: Gaza’s real problem is that the Palestinians’ own elected government couldn’t care less about its people’s welfare.

Last week, Gaza’s only power plant shut down because armed gangs in Sinai hijacked a fuel convoy, and there were no fuel reserves to cover the shortfall. Given the ongoing security chaos in Sinai, that is likely to recur with increasing frequency if Hamas continues to insist on relying exclusively on smuggled fuel.

But the alternative, importing fuel legally via Israel, is unacceptable to Hamas – not only for financial reasons (legal imports both cost more and deprive Hamas of the taxes it collects from the smuggling tunnels), but as a matter of principle: It would rather see its own people suffer than cooperate with Israel.

Consider, for instance, what happened in February, when another shortage of smuggled fuel shut down the power plant. Egypt promptly offered to send an emergency shipment via Israel, beause the Egypt-Gaza border terminal isn’t equipped to handle large cargo shipments. But Hamas refused, saying it would only accept the shipment if it came through Sinai. In other words, it preferred leaving its people without power during one of the coldest months of the year to accepting a shipment via Israel.

Nor is this exceptional: As I noted last week, it would also rather have its people drink polluted water than let Israeli firms help build a desalination plant.

But if the world woke up to the fact that the party that actually won the last Palestinian election was more interested in hurting Israel than in helping its own people, it might question the Palestinians’ readiness for statehood. And that, of course, would undermine one of these agencies’ most sacred dogmas. So instead, they’ve decided to flak for Hamas: to cover its own sins by redirecting international anger at Israel.

In short, organizations founded to defend the little people against oppressive rulers are now instead defending the government that oppresses them. It’s a sad commentary on how low these groups have fallen.

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Will Obama Oppose Anti-Israel Candidate?

So far, President Obama has kept his distance from the Democratic congressional primary between extremist ex-Black Panther and anti-Israel activist Charles Barron and New York assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. But BuzzFeed reports that the White House is now quietly signaling its support for Jeffries:

A second senior Democrat, who is close to the White House, noted that the administration had quietly sent its own message: Jeffries, a lawyer who has drawn union opposition for his support for charter schools, was invited to a fundraiser for President Obama at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City two weeks ago, to have his photograph taken with Obama and Clinton — a valuable piece of campaign literature in a heavily African-American district.

Obama does not endorse candidates for open seats Democratic primaries, but the president “wished him luck on the race,” the first Democratic official confirmed.

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So far, President Obama has kept his distance from the Democratic congressional primary between extremist ex-Black Panther and anti-Israel activist Charles Barron and New York assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. But BuzzFeed reports that the White House is now quietly signaling its support for Jeffries:

A second senior Democrat, who is close to the White House, noted that the administration had quietly sent its own message: Jeffries, a lawyer who has drawn union opposition for his support for charter schools, was invited to a fundraiser for President Obama at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City two weeks ago, to have his photograph taken with Obama and Clinton — a valuable piece of campaign literature in a heavily African-American district.

Obama does not endorse candidates for open seats Democratic primaries, but the president “wished him luck on the race,” the first Democratic official confirmed.

Obama posing for a picture with Jeffries at a fundraiser may seem like a pretty lame gesture of public support, but consider the fact that most guests at the Waldorf  Astoria event that night had to pay $15,000 for the same privilege. Still, it’s hard to believe Obama couldn’t do more if he really wanted to show support for Jeffries, even if his policy is to only endorse incumbent Democrats in primaries. And at a time when many Democratic candidates are running away from Obama, this particular congressional primary is one where the president’s backing actually carries a lot of weight (in a good way).

For instance, Obama didn’t officially endorse anyone in the recent runoff between Democratic Reps. Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell. But he still made it clear he was backing Rothman, even sending David Axelrod to New Jersey to campaign for him.

Will Obama make a similar move in the race between Jeffries and Barron? Or is he reluctant to publicly snub Barron — an extremist street-protest agitator — in case it further strains tension between him and the black activist community?

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