Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 9, 2014

‘Poof,’ Saith John Kerry

In the New York Post today, I suggest that perhaps our secretary of state is angry at Israel because his dream of a Nobel Prize to console him for the loss of the presidential race in 2004 is now at an end. You can read my piece here.

In the New York Post today, I suggest that perhaps our secretary of state is angry at Israel because his dream of a Nobel Prize to console him for the loss of the presidential race in 2004 is now at an end. You can read my piece here.

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What’s To Be Done About Lois Lerner?

The House Ways and Means Committee voted today to urge the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner. There is good reason to believe Lerner violated the law by directing a discriminatory campaign by the tax agency against conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. But neither committee chairman Dave Camp nor any other member of the Republican majority in the House is under any illusions about whether Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff will act on their recommendation. Though the Justice Department has been investigating this scandal since it came to light, there is little reason to believe they will act against Lerner or anyone else involved in the mess at the IRS. Democrats believe that the only reason the House GOP caucus is still focusing on Lerner long after most of the news media got bored with the story or took the hint from the White House to move along is that they still harbor the hope that her testimony could implicate the administration in the scandal and prove the illegal behavior was not just the actions of a “rogue” agency office in Cincinnati.

But whether or not they’re right about that, Lerner remains the key figure in a scandal about which we’ve learned little since the initial flurry of coverage in 2013. Since Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called before the House Oversight Committee last year (though not before she also claimed to have done no wrong and thereby, at least in theory, waiving her Fifth Amendment rights), the question of her fate has been held hostage to an undignified spat between that committee’s Republican Chair Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings. But if Republicans — and anyone else for that matter — want to get to the bottom of this affair, they’re going to have to find a way to make Lerner talk. And though Issa is seemingly loath to give up the fight to indict her for contempt that means offering Lerner immunity.

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The House Ways and Means Committee voted today to urge the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner. There is good reason to believe Lerner violated the law by directing a discriminatory campaign by the tax agency against conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. But neither committee chairman Dave Camp nor any other member of the Republican majority in the House is under any illusions about whether Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff will act on their recommendation. Though the Justice Department has been investigating this scandal since it came to light, there is little reason to believe they will act against Lerner or anyone else involved in the mess at the IRS. Democrats believe that the only reason the House GOP caucus is still focusing on Lerner long after most of the news media got bored with the story or took the hint from the White House to move along is that they still harbor the hope that her testimony could implicate the administration in the scandal and prove the illegal behavior was not just the actions of a “rogue” agency office in Cincinnati.

But whether or not they’re right about that, Lerner remains the key figure in a scandal about which we’ve learned little since the initial flurry of coverage in 2013. Since Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called before the House Oversight Committee last year (though not before she also claimed to have done no wrong and thereby, at least in theory, waiving her Fifth Amendment rights), the question of her fate has been held hostage to an undignified spat between that committee’s Republican Chair Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings. But if Republicans — and anyone else for that matter — want to get to the bottom of this affair, they’re going to have to find a way to make Lerner talk. And though Issa is seemingly loath to give up the fight to indict her for contempt that means offering Lerner immunity.

We don’t know if, as many conservatives seem to take as an article of faith, Lerner and other IRS officials were acting on orders from higher up in the food chain. Given Lerner’s own past tangles with conservatives, there is good reason to believe she was an eager participant and perhaps was responding to the open hints about targeting conservatives and Tea Partiers issued by an administration determined to demonize their opponents. But given that there is little chance that Holder will act decisively to find out the truth about the IRS, the only way Lerner can be persuaded to talk is if Issa and his colleagues find a way to get her back in the witness chair prepared to talk.

As he seems to have done successfully with the fallout from the Benghazi terror attack and the lies told by administration figures about what happened, the president is seeking to run out the clock on the IRS. A year after the initial news that provoked outrage and even an apology of sorts from Obama, the mainstream press has moved on and Democrats are dismissing the issue as a partisan talking point rather than a blatant violation of trust that ought to concern both parties. To some extent this is the fault of Issa and House Republicans who have preferred to engage in verbal fisticuffs with Democrats rather than engaging them in an investigation that the president and his party would like to terminate. But no matter who’s fault this is, unless Republicans act soon to use their leverage with Lerner to get her to tell the truth, it will soon be too late to get to the bottom of a an act of criminal misbehavior that cries out for justice.

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Correcting DeMint’s Historical Confusion

Former Senator Jim DeMint gave an interview that requires some correction and amendment.

Senator DeMint was asked what he would say to a liberal who argued, “That Founding Fathers thing worked out really well. Look at that Civil War we had eighty or so years later.” To which DeMint answered this way:

Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. I mean it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately, there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property. But the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘”all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights” in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

Senator DeMint, who counts himself, I believe, a “constitutional conservative,” quotes from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, but seems to ascribe the words to the Constitution. In addition the Constitution, of course, contained the three-fifths compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) and also allowed for the importation of slaves until the early part of the 19th century (Article 1 Section 9). Why? Because the Southern states threatened to withdraw from the Constitutional Convention if slavery was banned. In Madison’s words, “great as the evil [slavery] is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” Madison was right; it was a difficult but necessary and prudential judgment. Furthermore, he believed that the Constitution would eventually put slavery on the road to extinction. In fact, that required the Civil War.

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Former Senator Jim DeMint gave an interview that requires some correction and amendment.

Senator DeMint was asked what he would say to a liberal who argued, “That Founding Fathers thing worked out really well. Look at that Civil War we had eighty or so years later.” To which DeMint answered this way:

Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. I mean it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately, there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property. But the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘”all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights” in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

Senator DeMint, who counts himself, I believe, a “constitutional conservative,” quotes from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, but seems to ascribe the words to the Constitution. In addition the Constitution, of course, contained the three-fifths compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) and also allowed for the importation of slaves until the early part of the 19th century (Article 1 Section 9). Why? Because the Southern states threatened to withdraw from the Constitutional Convention if slavery was banned. In Madison’s words, “great as the evil [slavery] is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” Madison was right; it was a difficult but necessary and prudential judgment. Furthermore, he believed that the Constitution would eventually put slavery on the road to extinction. In fact, that required the Civil War.

Senator DeMint is certainly right that part of the impetus to end slavery came from the people, including people of faith, including abolitionists and individuals like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who authored Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the first novel to criticize the institution of slavery. (Supposedly Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe, said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war?”) Oddly, though, DeMint mentions William Wilberforce, a great opponent of the slave trade but who was English, not American (as the interviewer, sensing trouble, quickly points out) and who died decades before the American Civil War.

Fine. But where DeMint really gets into trouble, I think, is when he claims, “the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government.” In fact, the move to free the slaves did come from the federal government – in the form of Lincoln, the chief executive at the time; in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment; and in the form of the Civil War itself. Lincoln himself, it should be said, vastly expanded the powers of the federal government, including instituting the first federal income tax. And Lincoln’s prosecution of the war was based first and foremost on preserving the union, though his commitment to end slavery became an increasingly important factor.

So why call attention to these matters? In part, I think, because it’s important for conservatives to undo some of the confusion that DeMint created. But there’s another, somewhat deeper point to be made about the danger of approaching history and politics through an overly ideological lens. In this case Senator DeMint, a fierce critic of the federal government, has reinterpreted history in order to make it fit into his particular narrative. He seems so eager to refuse to give credit to the federal government for anything that he insists it didn’t play a role in the abolition of slavery. And that’s where he made perhaps his biggest error.  

I worry, too, that some on the right invoke the Constitution without really understanding it and its history. For example, many conservatives who profess reverence for the Constitution are vocal and reflexive critics of compromise per se – despite the fact that the Constitution was itself a product of an enormous set of compromises. (For more, see this National Affairs essay I co-authored with Michael Gerson. As we wrote, “A recovery of constitutional ideals is, to be sure, a worthwhile endeavor — but it does not point quite where [certain Tea Party and conservative] leaders and activists often suggest.”)

In the end, I would argue that conservatism and the cause of limited government are undermined by loose talk and an excessive animus toward the federal government. These days, in fact, conservatives would be well served to focus a good deal more attention on the purposes of government, not simply its size. I say that because during the Obama era the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of, and for understandable reasons. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do. That needs to be corrected — and in the process conservatives need to be careful to speak with care and precision about our Constitution and the role of the federal government in our history.

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Israel Has Few Options With Palestinians

The Palestinian Authority has thumbed its nose at both Israel and the peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry. By making it clear that it won’t back a U.S. framework for continued negotiations or to agree to any of the mainly symbolic measures that would indicate they are willing to end the conflict with Israel, it’s clear PA leader Mahmoud Abbas seized on the first flimsy pretext for walking out on the talks that came along. The fact that he has been rewarded for this intransigence with a mendacious statement from Kerry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that turned the truth on its head and placed the blame for the collapse of his initiative on Israel will only make it even less likely that Abbas will be more amenable in the future. That leaves both the U.S. and the parties with the dilemma of what to do next.

Abbas is happily returning to the Palestinians’ pointless campaign for more recognition from the United Nations and its constituent organizations. That won’t do a thing for the Palestinian people either in terms of their desire for independence or their crying need for a better government both in the Fatah-run West Bank and in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Kerry is pondering how to find an excuse for a continuation of his fool’s errand in the Middle East.  Common sense as well as the interests of the Obama administration would indicate that putting the entire enterprise on hold is both the better part of valor and an opportunity to devote his department to more important foreign policy problems.

But it is Israel that is in the most delicate position of the three parts to this love/hate triangle. They would like to put pressure on the Palestinians to get back to the table and to do something to make it clear to Kerry that he won’t get away with scapegoating the Jewish state. But options for doing either of those things are neither palatable nor in the country’s best interests.

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The Palestinian Authority has thumbed its nose at both Israel and the peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry. By making it clear that it won’t back a U.S. framework for continued negotiations or to agree to any of the mainly symbolic measures that would indicate they are willing to end the conflict with Israel, it’s clear PA leader Mahmoud Abbas seized on the first flimsy pretext for walking out on the talks that came along. The fact that he has been rewarded for this intransigence with a mendacious statement from Kerry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that turned the truth on its head and placed the blame for the collapse of his initiative on Israel will only make it even less likely that Abbas will be more amenable in the future. That leaves both the U.S. and the parties with the dilemma of what to do next.

Abbas is happily returning to the Palestinians’ pointless campaign for more recognition from the United Nations and its constituent organizations. That won’t do a thing for the Palestinian people either in terms of their desire for independence or their crying need for a better government both in the Fatah-run West Bank and in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Kerry is pondering how to find an excuse for a continuation of his fool’s errand in the Middle East.  Common sense as well as the interests of the Obama administration would indicate that putting the entire enterprise on hold is both the better part of valor and an opportunity to devote his department to more important foreign policy problems.

But it is Israel that is in the most delicate position of the three parts to this love/hate triangle. They would like to put pressure on the Palestinians to get back to the table and to do something to make it clear to Kerry that he won’t get away with scapegoating the Jewish state. But options for doing either of those things are neither palatable nor in the country’s best interests.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government are rightly outraged by Kerry’s offhand swipe at them yesterday when he claimed that the announcement of a housing project in a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem was the reason the talks collapsed. Not only did that have nothing to do with the Palestinian decision to bug out of the process, it was also false to claim that Israel had ever promised not to build in its capital, let alone in established areas that no one questions would stay in the Jewish state even in the event of a peace treaty. But there is little the Israelis can do to make their displeasure with the Americans felt that would not harm an alliance that is essential to its security. While Netanyahu has proved in the past that attacks on his policy of defending the unity of the capital only serve to strengthen him, venting anger at Kerry won’t accomplish anything. As with past insults delivered by President Obama, Netanyahu knows all too well that keeping his powder dry is the best, indeed, only option.

But Israel does have substantial leverage over the Palestinians. The PA depends on Israel for all sorts of revenue as well as on cooperation to keep their ramshackle government and the shoddy services it provides its people from collapse. Even more important, cooperation between the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus does more than deter terrorism against the Jewish state. It also ensures the personal survival of Abbas and his Fatah faction against potential trouble from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If Israel really pulled the plug on the PA — rather than just taking symbolic steps such as Netanyahu’s order to end meetings between Israeli officials and their Palestinian counterparts, the Fatah apparatus would collapse.

While that sounds good to Israelis who dream of formal annexation of the West Bank in a one state solution that would exclude any Palestinian self-government, that is the last thing Netanyahu wants. The PA foments terrorism and incites hatred of Jews and Israel in its official media. People who have made it clear they won’t make peace with Israel under virtually any circumstances — as Abbas proved in 2008 when he fled talks with Ehud Olmert rather than accept independence — run it. But at this point it is also a necessary evil that Netanyahu understands that he must tolerate.

Without the PA, the task of maintaining Israel’s security would be even tougher. Nor is anyone in Jerusalem seriously interested in returning to the pre-Oslo status quo where the Israelis directly administered the West Bank. Netanyahu can make his displeasure with the PA felt for its UN gambit. But there are limits to how far he can go in punishing them that have nothing to do with American pressure.

Netanyahu would be foolish to go on releasing terrorist murderers to bribe Abbas to come back to the negotiations. Nor should he be asked to make any other unilateral concessions merely for the sake of talks that Abbas does not wish to advance no matter what he was offered. But this is perhaps the moment for him to return to a theme he has sounded in the past about helping make the West Bank more livable via economic development. Now that he has rid himself of the reform-minded Salam Fayyad as his prime minister, Abbas no longer has to pretend he cares much about good government. But it is on this point that he is most vulnerable. Managing the conflict rather than solving it remains the only short-term solution to either side. If Kerry wanted to do something constructive rather than promote a process that is fueled more by his ego than any reasonable prospects of success, that’s what he’d be emphasizing. But in the absence of such a change of heart, Israel has little choice but to sit tight and await the next move by both Kerry and Abbas.

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The Fierce Urgency of the Next Five Years

In his prepared testimony yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “this is a world where American engagement is absolutely critical,” because “no other nation can give people the confidence to come together and confront the most difficult challenges the way the United States can and must.” He related that he hears this particularly about the Middle East peace process — “where I have yet to meet anyone who has argued to me that it’s going to be any easier next week, next year, five years from now.”  

I wish I could meet Secretary Kerry, so he would have to amend that last statement. 

Or perhaps he should just schedule a meeting with Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who last Sunday on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS said he is not only “skeptical” that the situation is “ripe for peace,” but believes it has occupied too much of Secretary Kerry’s time:

I think what we have to admit is that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, while it’s of importance to Israelis and Palestinians, it’s become a local dispute. It won’t affect the dynamics of the Middle East. It’s not going to affect the trajectory of the civil war in Syria or what’s going on in Egypt between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood or what’s happening elsewhere. This has become a local dispute, that, quite honestly, is not worthy of the time and attention the secretary of state and the United States are giving.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is irrelevant to the situation in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, North Korea, the South China Sea — all of which present challenges more serious and direct to American foreign policy than a peace process in which the Palestinians cannot even bring themselves to endorse “two states for two peoples.”

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In his prepared testimony yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “this is a world where American engagement is absolutely critical,” because “no other nation can give people the confidence to come together and confront the most difficult challenges the way the United States can and must.” He related that he hears this particularly about the Middle East peace process — “where I have yet to meet anyone who has argued to me that it’s going to be any easier next week, next year, five years from now.”  

I wish I could meet Secretary Kerry, so he would have to amend that last statement. 

Or perhaps he should just schedule a meeting with Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who last Sunday on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS said he is not only “skeptical” that the situation is “ripe for peace,” but believes it has occupied too much of Secretary Kerry’s time:

I think what we have to admit is that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, while it’s of importance to Israelis and Palestinians, it’s become a local dispute. It won’t affect the dynamics of the Middle East. It’s not going to affect the trajectory of the civil war in Syria or what’s going on in Egypt between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood or what’s happening elsewhere. This has become a local dispute, that, quite honestly, is not worthy of the time and attention the secretary of state and the United States are giving.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is irrelevant to the situation in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, North Korea, the South China Sea — all of which present challenges more serious and direct to American foreign policy than a peace process in which the Palestinians cannot even bring themselves to endorse “two states for two peoples.”

 

Not next week — and probably not next year either — but maybe five years from now, the Palestinians will have an elected president, not someone more than five years past the end of his term. Perhaps they will have a president who can travel in both halves of their putative state. Perhaps they will have a president who condemns the morality of suicide bombers and groups that fire rockets at civilians, instead of simply asserting the methods are not prudent. Perhaps they will have a president who dismantles those terrorist groups, as he once promised, instead of dedicating public space to terrorist “heroes.” Perhaps the Palestinian president will endorse a Jewish state, instead of constantly re-iterating he never will, even in a “peace agreement.” Perhaps he will give a Bir Zeit speech to match the Israeli prime minister’s Bar-Ilan one. Perhaps he will give Israelis confidence that, when the Palestinians sign an agreement not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations with Israel, the Palestinians will actually adhere to their agreement, instead of repeatedly violate it and then ask for pre-negotiation concessions for their agreement to observe it for a few more months.

And I suspect there are more people out there, besides Richard Haass and me, who believe there are urgent foreign policy problems the U.S. is currently ignoring in its messianic quest for a Middle East peace agreement — problems that require leadership from the front, rather than self-congratulation for an asserted ability to “give people the confidence to come together.”

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The Shame of Brandeis

If you have not yet heard, Brandeis University has rescinded its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist whose work has focused on the barbaric misogyny rampant in Islamic societies like the one in which she was raised—and whose efforts to call attention to them as a legislator in the Netherlands led to a political crisis there and her eventual flight to the United States. Given that it only takes a Google search to find out everything one would need to know about her, including the controversial aspects of her views, it is laughable for Brandeis President Fred Lawrence to claim he had to withdraw the degree because of information he had only lately discovered. Ayaan Hirsi Ali said this afternoon that she was not surprised she came under attack from demagogic apologists like the Council on American Islamic Relations: She has come to expect such things.

What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation–lines from interviews taken out of context–designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree. 

What Lawrence has done here is the nothing less than the act of a gutless, spineless, simpering coward.

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If you have not yet heard, Brandeis University has rescinded its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist whose work has focused on the barbaric misogyny rampant in Islamic societies like the one in which she was raised—and whose efforts to call attention to them as a legislator in the Netherlands led to a political crisis there and her eventual flight to the United States. Given that it only takes a Google search to find out everything one would need to know about her, including the controversial aspects of her views, it is laughable for Brandeis President Fred Lawrence to claim he had to withdraw the degree because of information he had only lately discovered. Ayaan Hirsi Ali said this afternoon that she was not surprised she came under attack from demagogic apologists like the Council on American Islamic Relations: She has come to expect such things.

What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation–lines from interviews taken out of context–designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree. 

What Lawrence has done here is the nothing less than the act of a gutless, spineless, simpering coward.

My late uncle, Marver Bernstein, served as the university’s president from 1972 to 1983. I know Marver would have been appalled beyond belief at his shameful successor’s monstrous capitulation to the screaming voices of unreason. As should we all be.

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Kerry Seems to Be Aiming for Bad Iran Deal

Listening to members of the administration talk about Iran’s nuclear program, it’s often difficult to tell quite what kind of timescale they think we’re on. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama gave the impression of having all the time in the world, and he has certainly used enough of it; during the course of which Iran has only lurched increasingly closer to having weapons capabilities. Understandably, countries in the region that are easily within range of a nuclear Iran—particularly Israel and the Sunni Gulf states—are a little more nervous. What is indeed concerning is the way that the administration’s estimates for when Iran could reach breakout capabilities keep on changing, and not for the better.

Secretary of State John Kerry is now saying that the U.S. believes Iran to be two months away from having breakout levels of enriched uranium. Yet, much less than a year ago the administration was claiming that we were at least a year or more away from that point. So either the administration’s estimates are inaccurate and unreliable or in the period since sanctions were partially lifted and negotiations began Iran has massively advanced in its program. Neither possibility will fill America’s allies–or anyone else for that matter–with any confidence about Obama and Kerry’s handling of the Iran threat, which may soon become the Iran crisis.

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Listening to members of the administration talk about Iran’s nuclear program, it’s often difficult to tell quite what kind of timescale they think we’re on. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama gave the impression of having all the time in the world, and he has certainly used enough of it; during the course of which Iran has only lurched increasingly closer to having weapons capabilities. Understandably, countries in the region that are easily within range of a nuclear Iran—particularly Israel and the Sunni Gulf states—are a little more nervous. What is indeed concerning is the way that the administration’s estimates for when Iran could reach breakout capabilities keep on changing, and not for the better.

Secretary of State John Kerry is now saying that the U.S. believes Iran to be two months away from having breakout levels of enriched uranium. Yet, much less than a year ago the administration was claiming that we were at least a year or more away from that point. So either the administration’s estimates are inaccurate and unreliable or in the period since sanctions were partially lifted and negotiations began Iran has massively advanced in its program. Neither possibility will fill America’s allies–or anyone else for that matter–with any confidence about Obama and Kerry’s handling of the Iran threat, which may soon become the Iran crisis.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Secretary Kerry reported the time-period for what he described as “so-called breakout” is “about two months.” Contrast this with the fact that back in October, shortly before the announcement of November’s interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries, Obama claimed that that same breakout point was at least a year or more away. The interim agreement awards Iran partial relief from sanctions in return for Iran agreeing to reduce its enrichment activities and its cooperation with both inspections and negotiations that are supposed to move us towards a final agreement with Iran. So are we to assume that, as had been feared by many, the interim period has allowed Iran a window in which to speed ahead with enrichment? There are only two other alternatives. One is that the administration’s own ability to assess Iran’s progress is dangerously limited, the other is that for political reasons Obama was intentionally underestimating Iran’s progress; most likely to undermine public and Congressional support for tougher action against Iran.

If all of that wasn’t alarming enough, then Kerry’s apparent lack of clarity about his objectives with Iran are all the more so. Obama has already been dropping hints about being “realistic” as far as a final deal is concerned; the implication being that it will be some kind of trade off that won’t definitively end Iran’s nuclear capacities. Time and time again Kerry has claimed that he would prefer no deal to a bad deal, yet speaking before the Senate committee it sounded a lot like a bad deal is precisely what is in the making.

When asked whether a breakout window of up to a year was now the goal of negotiations, the Secretary faltered, as if he had let something slip that he shouldn’t have. “So six months to 12 months is – I’m not saying that’s what we’d settle for, but even that is significantly more,” Kerry responded to the question. It seems that the administration thinks we should be grateful if they manage to drag Iran back to the six month point, half what they claimed we were looking at back in the fall. Kerry makes no commitment as to whether they would settle for that or not, but simply assures us that this is much better than what we have right now. The problem is that with the administration’s margin for error apparently so wide when it comes to these predictions, and with the period of time in play being so narrow, it seems plausible that Iran could cross the threshold to full breakout capabilities before anyone has time to sound the alarm and figure out what to do.

Amidst this latest round of negotiations to end Iran’s illegal nuclear program, this time taking place back in Vienna, Iran celebrated a rather curious national holiday; National Day of Nuclear Technology. During the festivities Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that Iran’s “nuclear achievements are unstoppable.” We live in disconcerting times when the words of Iran’s grand ayatollah are more convincing than those of the secretary of state.   

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Is the U.S. Waging a War of Ideas?

I was struck by two recent, seemingly unrelated news articles that have unexpected relevance to the struggle against violent jihadism.

The first of these concerns revelations from a new book about how in the 1950s the CIA helped disseminate Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago to undermine the appeal of communism.  

The second concerns efforts by Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to retool his outfit, born of the Cold War, to meet new challenges.

In my view the first article implicitly suggests what the CIA and other agencies of the US government should be doing today to wage the current version of the Cold War–a struggle not against communism (whose appeal does not extend beyond a few Western college campuses) but against Islamism. In the Cold War, the CIA saw its mission as waging ideological war, which meant publishing “subversive” books among other things. Is the CIA doing anything similar today?

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I was struck by two recent, seemingly unrelated news articles that have unexpected relevance to the struggle against violent jihadism.

The first of these concerns revelations from a new book about how in the 1950s the CIA helped disseminate Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago to undermine the appeal of communism.  

The second concerns efforts by Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to retool his outfit, born of the Cold War, to meet new challenges.

In my view the first article implicitly suggests what the CIA and other agencies of the US government should be doing today to wage the current version of the Cold War–a struggle not against communism (whose appeal does not extend beyond a few Western college campuses) but against Islamism. In the Cold War, the CIA saw its mission as waging ideological war, which meant publishing “subversive” books among other things. Is the CIA doing anything similar today?

It’s hard to know for sure, since such programs are necessarily covert, but I doubt there is anything approaching the scale of the Cold War efforts. If it isn’t doing so already, the CIA and other organs of the U.S. government should be paying to translate great works on liberty, from novels to philosophical tracts, from Western languages into Arabic, Pashto, Farsi and other relevant languages while also spreading the work of liberal Muslim writers. I know I know: Books are so 20th century. So, sure, we should also be propagating such ideas in cyberspace but even today books have resonance that is hard to match for spreading ideas.

As for the second article, it suggests that we are currently wasting some of the scarce funds that could be going to wage political warfare for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. While the article’s focus is on how Rajiv Shah is changing USAID’s focus away from simply funding contractors toward using loan guarantees to enable efforts by private industry–a good idea, no doubt–the lead example is a bit discomfiting: “Here in South Africa, in one of the signature new deals for the agency, Dr. Shah brought in corporate America — General Electric — to guarantee a portion of a bank loan to help buy $30 million in much-needed equipment” for a new children’s hospital.

The hospital is no doubt a laudable undertaking, one that will benefit the children of South Africa. But how exactly does this project benefit the foreign policy of the United States? South Africa is already one of the most prosperous and stable states in Africa; it is not home to terrorist groups or other developments that threaten U.S. security. So why is USAID spending any portion of its $20 billion budget in South Africa instead of concentrating on countries such as Mali, Libya and Yemen–to pick three at random–which are threatened by jihadist groups that are also enemies of the United States?

USAID should be focusing on nation-building in those front-line states as part of a coordinated counterinsurgency strategy worked out with the CIA, the U.S. military, the State Department and other agencies of government; it should leave purely charitable work to private institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for which Shah used to work.

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Scare Tactics Backfire for Environmentalists

President Obama and other leading liberal lights keep telling us that the debate about global warming is over. Though the notion that scientific debates are decided by a vote of scientists or rather than research is decidedly unscientific, this conclusion is echoed throughout the mainstream media and popular culture. Those who are skeptical about the claims that human activity is changing the climate are treated like Holocaust deniers or lunatics. But the problem that those trying to mobilize public support for extreme measures intended to avert the extreme consequences of global warming are having is that most Americans aren’t buying it. Even worse for them, the scare tactics they’ve been employing are actually backfiring.

That’s the conclusion from Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research organization who co-authored an op-ed in today’s New York Times titled “Global Warming Scare Tactics.” In it, they point out that rather than helping build support for carbon caps or other restrictions on industry or individuals the attempt to give the impression that an environmental apocalypse is around the corner is backfiring. Most specifically, the widespread practice of linking natural disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires is having the opposite effect on the public.

More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.

For instance, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” popularized the idea that today’s natural disasters are increasing in severity and frequency because of human-caused global warming. It also contributed to public backlash and division. Since 2006, the number of Americans telling Gallup that the media was exaggerating global warming grew to 42 percent today from about 34 percent. Meanwhile, the gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether global warming is caused by humans rose to 42 percent last year from 26 percent in 2006, according to the Pew Research Center.

While Nordhaus and Shellenberger are not global warming skeptics they are dismayed at the way the alarmists have undermined the case for climate change.

Claims linking the latest blizzard, drought or hurricane to global warming simply can’t be supported by the science. Our warming world is, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, increasing heat waves and intense precipitation in some places, and is likely to bring more extreme weather in the future. But the panel also said there is little evidence that this warming is increasing the loss of life or the economic costs of natural disasters.

That makes a lot of sense but don’t expect this to change the tactics being employed by either the White House or most environmental activists. Without the gloom and doom scenarios they’ve been trying to float this past decade, they have little to offer either the public or Congress.

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President Obama and other leading liberal lights keep telling us that the debate about global warming is over. Though the notion that scientific debates are decided by a vote of scientists or rather than research is decidedly unscientific, this conclusion is echoed throughout the mainstream media and popular culture. Those who are skeptical about the claims that human activity is changing the climate are treated like Holocaust deniers or lunatics. But the problem that those trying to mobilize public support for extreme measures intended to avert the extreme consequences of global warming are having is that most Americans aren’t buying it. Even worse for them, the scare tactics they’ve been employing are actually backfiring.

That’s the conclusion from Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research organization who co-authored an op-ed in today’s New York Times titled “Global Warming Scare Tactics.” In it, they point out that rather than helping build support for carbon caps or other restrictions on industry or individuals the attempt to give the impression that an environmental apocalypse is around the corner is backfiring. Most specifically, the widespread practice of linking natural disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires is having the opposite effect on the public.

More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.

For instance, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” popularized the idea that today’s natural disasters are increasing in severity and frequency because of human-caused global warming. It also contributed to public backlash and division. Since 2006, the number of Americans telling Gallup that the media was exaggerating global warming grew to 42 percent today from about 34 percent. Meanwhile, the gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether global warming is caused by humans rose to 42 percent last year from 26 percent in 2006, according to the Pew Research Center.

While Nordhaus and Shellenberger are not global warming skeptics they are dismayed at the way the alarmists have undermined the case for climate change.

Claims linking the latest blizzard, drought or hurricane to global warming simply can’t be supported by the science. Our warming world is, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, increasing heat waves and intense precipitation in some places, and is likely to bring more extreme weather in the future. But the panel also said there is little evidence that this warming is increasing the loss of life or the economic costs of natural disasters.

That makes a lot of sense but don’t expect this to change the tactics being employed by either the White House or most environmental activists. Without the gloom and doom scenarios they’ve been trying to float this past decade, they have little to offer either the public or Congress.

 There are a few problems with the scare tactics Gore helped popularized. One is that they aren’t credible. There’s plenty of evidence popping up that shows the increase in temperatures isn’t as advertised as well as that its effects are not as devastating as the global warming alarmists claim. If even the UN is prepared to debunk the notion that every hurricane or fire is the fault of global warming, not to mention the idea that the East and West coasts will be under water within a decade or two, why would anyone imagine that Americans who have good economic reasons to be skeptical about these claims would buy into Obama’s recommendations.

Another is the refusal of the environmental crowd to embrace the most obvious responses to concerns about carbon-based energy: the nuclear option. Nordhaus and Shellenberger say that more Americans respond positively to environmental claims when they are put in a context with viable alternatives rather than calls for draconian cuts in economic activity or personal autonomy that is integral to the use of automobiles and other sources of carbon emissions. But since the same people who are trying to sell us on the notion that the sky is falling about warming are the ones who have already delegitimized nuclear power because of fears that are equally exaggerated or unfounded.

Lastly, the authors have discovered that the extreme scenarios put forward by people like Gore as well as the attempt to convince people that natural disasters are part of the warming scenario don’t increase public support for their ideas. If anything, research shows that hysteria increases skepticism rather than diminishing it. If, as they ask, “climate change is a planetary emergency, why take nuclear and natural gas off the table?”

Nordhaus and Shellenberger have some good advice for environmentalists, especially their effort to convince them to pose their arguments in a context that is more about finding popular solution based in technology rather than pie in the sky scenarios about transforming the planet. But they shouldn’t expect, their warnings to be heeded. The most extreme scare tactics used by global warming alarmists aren’t just a tactic; they are integral to the worldview of these activists. Its not just that they fear that extreme weather will cause damage, if you listen closely to many of them, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that some think humanity has it coming as a natural consequence of capitalism.

Most of all, it’s that sense that we are being sold a bill of goods by the Al Gores that has fueled the backlash against warming advocates. Having tied themselves to claims that are easily debunked, even by those who agree with them on many questions, the environmental movement has painted itself into a corner from which no amount of common sense can extricate them.

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Paycheck Pander All About Trial Lawyers

Senate Democrats are following up on the White House “Equal Pay Day” dog and pony show yesterday with another push designed to highlight their supposed concern for the plight of female workers. The Paycheck Fairness Act that was put to a vote today had no more chance of passage than it did when it was last introduced before the 2012 election. But as it did that previous time, Democrats are hoping that it will serve to feed their fake “war on women” theme that has helped them gain an advantage with female voters while also helping to distract voters from the president’s second term blues and discontent about the implementation of ObamaCare.

Republicans who underestimate the potential impact of this strategy are making a mistake but GOP senators are right not to take the bait. As tempting as it might have been to let this legislation pass in order to undermine the Democrats’ blatantly political motivations, they were right to hold the line on the bill. Just as “Equal Pay Day” attempts to hype an issue based on misleading statistics, the Paycheck Fairness Act does nothing to address the problem of gender discrimination. Even worse, though it is easily understood as a ploy to solidify female support for President Obama’s party, it is even more of a pander toward one of the mainstays of the Democratic Party: the trial lawyers. The law is geared not so much to address inequality as to make it easy to sue businesses for discrimination without proof. While it’s an open question as to whether these maneuvers may save the Democrats in the midterm elections, allowing this bill to pass would result in a windfall for trial lawyers.

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Senate Democrats are following up on the White House “Equal Pay Day” dog and pony show yesterday with another push designed to highlight their supposed concern for the plight of female workers. The Paycheck Fairness Act that was put to a vote today had no more chance of passage than it did when it was last introduced before the 2012 election. But as it did that previous time, Democrats are hoping that it will serve to feed their fake “war on women” theme that has helped them gain an advantage with female voters while also helping to distract voters from the president’s second term blues and discontent about the implementation of ObamaCare.

Republicans who underestimate the potential impact of this strategy are making a mistake but GOP senators are right not to take the bait. As tempting as it might have been to let this legislation pass in order to undermine the Democrats’ blatantly political motivations, they were right to hold the line on the bill. Just as “Equal Pay Day” attempts to hype an issue based on misleading statistics, the Paycheck Fairness Act does nothing to address the problem of gender discrimination. Even worse, though it is easily understood as a ploy to solidify female support for President Obama’s party, it is even more of a pander toward one of the mainstays of the Democratic Party: the trial lawyers. The law is geared not so much to address inequality as to make it easy to sue businesses for discrimination without proof. While it’s an open question as to whether these maneuvers may save the Democrats in the midterm elections, allowing this bill to pass would result in a windfall for trial lawyers.

The problem for Republicans is that even though the facts are on their side when it comes to the debate about gender pay discrimination, the emotional advantage is with the president and his followers. It doesn’t matter that the president’s constant spouting of figures that show that women make only 77 percent of what men earn is completely disingenuous. The number is accurate but the differences are accounted for by factors such as job choices, education and the fact that women often choose to take years off from work to raise families and often seek greater flexibility in hours worked than men. The same factors account for the fact that women who work in the White House make less on average than the men there. Yet the White House says the same justifications for its policies don’t apply everywhere else. The reason they can get away with it is that while the numbers are misleading, most women justifiably sense that they are not always treated fairly by men. Thus, to say, as the GOP has been forced to, against laws that won’t help anyone but lawyers, puts them in the position of seeming like a party of vintage male chauvinist pigs.

Republicans rightly argue that the law of the land already forbids gender discrimination. But claiming that even more legislation won’t help things isn’t as persuasive as Obama’s emotional pleas for more fairness. Yet the problem with the Paycheck Fairness Act isn’t just that it is superfluous, it’s that it creates a legal environment in which bogus claims of discrimination can cause havoc in the business world. According to its terms, the burden of proof in such cases will be on the employers to show that they haven’t discriminated rather than on the plaintiffs to prove they have been victimized. This will not only be a gold mine for ambulance-chasing trial lawyers looking to shake down companies with settlements rather than be put through the cost and the agony of a trial but will also discourage merit pay and flexibility in hiring and hours worked — developments that will materially harm hard-working women.

This is a bridge too far for even those female Republican senators who backed past discrimination bills. They know this is simply a payoff to the trial lawyers as well as a transparent political gesture intended to put the GOP on record as opposing an equal pay bill even though such an assertion is a gross distortion of the facts. Standing up for principle is not without cost. News cycles in which talk of gender discrimination and GOP votes against such bills do feed the “war on women” propaganda being spouted on the networks and contribute the the false notion that the Democrats care more about women. Thus, Republicans must reconcile themselves to being hurt by the issue and hope that, in the long run, the truth about the issue will filter out enough to mitigate the damage and allow them to stay on message about ObamaCare and the president’s failed leadership.

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Liberalism Ends at Home

It is striking that America’s campuses, a sphere arguably dominated by liberals and their agenda, have become places where real tolerance and freedom of expression are increasingly under attack. While left-wing progressives love to claim that they advocate talking truth to power and champion dissenting voices, when presented with views that transgress their own thought system they all too reflexively reach for the censorship button. Kevin Williamson in his piece The Liberal Gulag cites a plethora of examples of liberals having not only demonized those out of line with the prevailing liberal orthodoxy, but he even details instances where “liberals” have advocated the taking of harsh measures against those not sufficiently adhering to left-think.   

The matter of how Islam is discussed on our campuses is a case in point. Recent events demonstrate how the doctrine of political correctness is being used to try and shut down the kind of discussion about Islam that other cultures and religions are routinely subject to. Yesterday brought the announcement by Brandeis University that it has withdrawn its decision to award human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree. These moves come in the wake of a campaign similar to the one currently pressuring universities into not showing the documentary Honor Diaries which highlights the work of Muslim women speaking out against the domestic abuse that women are subject to in parts of their community. In both of these cases the accusation of Islamophobia has been employed in an effort to drive out those who have been in anyway critical of practices in the Islamic world.   

Having been raised in Somalia, and then forced to flee ‘tolerant’ Holland when police informed her they could no longer protect her from those threatening to kill her as an apostate, Ayaan Hirsi Ali certainly knows about the dark side of hard-line Islam. Once she’d escaped her background, it would have been so easy for someone who suffered the abuse Ali did to have simply kept her head down and lived a quiet life. Instead she has valiantly and tirelessly campaigned for women’s rights in the Islamic world and having served as a member of the Dutch parliament she is now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. An honorary degree from Brandeis would have been just a small token of recognition to her unimaginable fearlessness. Instead the university authorities have caved in the face of a campaign by Muslim groups that accuses Ali of having demonized all Islam. It may be true that at times Ali has not expressed such a clear distinction between extremist and moderate Islam, but one cannot help but feel that in many of these people’s eyes her real crime was to have spoken out all. For having dared to criticize Islam Ali has risked her life, but in revoking the award, Brandeis sets itself on the same side of the spectrum as those who insist it is unacceptable to criticize Islam.

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It is striking that America’s campuses, a sphere arguably dominated by liberals and their agenda, have become places where real tolerance and freedom of expression are increasingly under attack. While left-wing progressives love to claim that they advocate talking truth to power and champion dissenting voices, when presented with views that transgress their own thought system they all too reflexively reach for the censorship button. Kevin Williamson in his piece The Liberal Gulag cites a plethora of examples of liberals having not only demonized those out of line with the prevailing liberal orthodoxy, but he even details instances where “liberals” have advocated the taking of harsh measures against those not sufficiently adhering to left-think.   

The matter of how Islam is discussed on our campuses is a case in point. Recent events demonstrate how the doctrine of political correctness is being used to try and shut down the kind of discussion about Islam that other cultures and religions are routinely subject to. Yesterday brought the announcement by Brandeis University that it has withdrawn its decision to award human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree. These moves come in the wake of a campaign similar to the one currently pressuring universities into not showing the documentary Honor Diaries which highlights the work of Muslim women speaking out against the domestic abuse that women are subject to in parts of their community. In both of these cases the accusation of Islamophobia has been employed in an effort to drive out those who have been in anyway critical of practices in the Islamic world.   

Having been raised in Somalia, and then forced to flee ‘tolerant’ Holland when police informed her they could no longer protect her from those threatening to kill her as an apostate, Ayaan Hirsi Ali certainly knows about the dark side of hard-line Islam. Once she’d escaped her background, it would have been so easy for someone who suffered the abuse Ali did to have simply kept her head down and lived a quiet life. Instead she has valiantly and tirelessly campaigned for women’s rights in the Islamic world and having served as a member of the Dutch parliament she is now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. An honorary degree from Brandeis would have been just a small token of recognition to her unimaginable fearlessness. Instead the university authorities have caved in the face of a campaign by Muslim groups that accuses Ali of having demonized all Islam. It may be true that at times Ali has not expressed such a clear distinction between extremist and moderate Islam, but one cannot help but feel that in many of these people’s eyes her real crime was to have spoken out all. For having dared to criticize Islam Ali has risked her life, but in revoking the award, Brandeis sets itself on the same side of the spectrum as those who insist it is unacceptable to criticize Islam.

It is this same argument about the failure to acknowledge a difference between moderate and extremist Islam that is being used to prevent Honor Diaries from being shown on campuses. Both the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois have been pressured into canceling screenings. Yet here, those speaking in the documentary have been very clear about drawing a distinction between moderate and hardline Islam. When the Council on American Islamic Relations—which has been loudly opposed to the film—was invited to debate the subject the group reportedly responded that the film was “so hopelessly anti-Muslim that they couldn’t dignify it with their presence.” This only adds to the suspicion that this whole campaign is actually about wishing to prevent critical discussion of anything relating to Islam.

Qanta Ahmed, who worked on Honor Diaries, wrote in National Review that, “Just like the women and girls it portrays, the movie has been silenced and its progenitors shamed.” Exactly the same shaming is now being inflicted on Ali because she has dared to speak out. In the petition opposing Ali, one signatory writes “She is not a role model, and certainly not someone whose ideas should be welcome in a university campus, where tolerance should be spread through kind words and loving spirit.” But this is precisely the problem, when the left-liberal notion sets in that tolerance means endorsing all cultures and ideologies, including intolerant ones. Accordingly, the only people who cannot be tolerated are those who refuse to embrace this ultra-tolerance of all things, such as Ali. 

Responding to the idea that Ali might receive the award, Brandeis’s chairman of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies Joseph Lumbard remarked, “this makes Muslim students feel very uneasy.” But as we have seen with Jewish students and the demonization of Israel, hurt feelings are not considered reason for censorship, and rightly so. Nevertheless, the anti-Israel campaign has turned from fair debate to outright intimidation and bigotry and still university authorities have been reluctant to intervene. The fact that Muslim student groups seem to be gaining a veto over what is “offensive” is a sign that this is really about the contours of political correctness.

As Ahmed writes, “Constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom does not mean that we can censor the examination of cultures…does not mean abandoning difficult debate for fear of offending believers.” Yet a dangerous precedent is being set. Liberals delight in ridiculing religious conservatives in the West, but within their own sphere of influence—the universities—they refuse to promote liberal values where other cultures are concerned.  

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Mozilla and the Prophet Isaiah

By now most readers of this site know about the controversy that erupted in the aftermath of the forced resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. His offense? A half-dozen years ago he gave $1,000 to support Proposition 8, an effort by California citizens to prevent the redefinition of traditional marriage. (It passed with 52 percent of the vote.) The Mozilla decision has elicited a lot of commentary, much of it good and much of it coming from proponents of gay marriage – including to their credit Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Damon Linker, Conor Friedersdorf and Jonathan Rauch.

At the core of what’s driving this effort by some supporters of gay marriage is the belief that holding traditional views on marriage is akin to being an anti-Semite and a racist. That is, holding views that until 15 years ago were almost universally embraced and that have been held by every major religious faith since their founding is now deemed not only wrong but also so offensive that those who hold them must be punished. Their views are deemed so malicious – so obviously and unequivocally evil — that if held there must be a cost. 

Christian Rudder, president of OkCupid, the online dating service whose campaign to boycott Mozilla if they kept Eich helped lead to his departure, described those who oppose gay marriage as “our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.” Mr. Rudder admitted he “wanted to show the many would-be Eichs out there” what could happen to them if they don’t conform to liberal cultural attitudes.

This fanatical cast of mind is quite problematic for a free society, where we have to learn to live with those with whom we have deep differences. It is one thing to proclaim a person’s views to be wrong and to show why; it’s quite another to declare those views illegitimate and those who hold them to be persona non grata. We’ve seen this sort of thing take hold in the academy, the most close-minded institution in American life today. It’s now spreading through the rest of American society. And it’s not good.

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By now most readers of this site know about the controversy that erupted in the aftermath of the forced resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. His offense? A half-dozen years ago he gave $1,000 to support Proposition 8, an effort by California citizens to prevent the redefinition of traditional marriage. (It passed with 52 percent of the vote.) The Mozilla decision has elicited a lot of commentary, much of it good and much of it coming from proponents of gay marriage – including to their credit Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Damon Linker, Conor Friedersdorf and Jonathan Rauch.

At the core of what’s driving this effort by some supporters of gay marriage is the belief that holding traditional views on marriage is akin to being an anti-Semite and a racist. That is, holding views that until 15 years ago were almost universally embraced and that have been held by every major religious faith since their founding is now deemed not only wrong but also so offensive that those who hold them must be punished. Their views are deemed so malicious – so obviously and unequivocally evil — that if held there must be a cost. 

Christian Rudder, president of OkCupid, the online dating service whose campaign to boycott Mozilla if they kept Eich helped lead to his departure, described those who oppose gay marriage as “our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.” Mr. Rudder admitted he “wanted to show the many would-be Eichs out there” what could happen to them if they don’t conform to liberal cultural attitudes.

This fanatical cast of mind is quite problematic for a free society, where we have to learn to live with those with whom we have deep differences. It is one thing to proclaim a person’s views to be wrong and to show why; it’s quite another to declare those views illegitimate and those who hold them to be persona non grata. We’ve seen this sort of thing take hold in the academy, the most close-minded institution in American life today. It’s now spreading through the rest of American society. And it’s not good.

The successful effort to force Eich out, then, is a significant cultural moment. It revealed an illiberalism and a level of intolerance within some quarters on the left that is chilling but not wholly surprising. And if this current of thought is not checked and challenged, it will create ruptures and divisions that will hurt everyone, those who favor gay rights no less than those who oppose it.

Let me speak from a perspective within my own faith community. Based on conversations and having written and taught classes on the subject of Christianity and homosexuality, my sense is that many evangelical Christians are working through how to approach the issues of their faith and the gay rights movement with a good deal of care and integrity. They are attempting to be faithful to Scripture in a way that is characterized by grace rather than stridency. Even as they continue to oppose same-sex marriage, they are asking whether their own attitudes have been distorted by their own cultural and political assumptions and that the focus on homosexuality is, as I’ve put it elsewhere, wildly disproportionate to what one finds in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Particularly among younger evangelicals, there’s a palpable discomfort with the approach taken by prominent figures over the last few decades – people like (but not exclusive to) Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. They are not the spokesmen they want to represent them or their faith. In terms of public policy, there’s discussion about shifting focus from opposing gay marriage to protecting religious liberties.  

I’ve had discussions with faithful Christians whom I deeply admire who wonder whether their approach needs to be refined – not completely jettisoned but refined — in light of a fuller and deeper understanding of the Christian faith. A thoughtful friend of mine, a pastor, wrote to me last week, asking, “How do you live in a broken world? How do you adapt in a way that maintains faith in God’s character, in ethical standards, and yet maintains an attitude of grace and mercy in a world in which there is a lot more gray than we’d like to admit? you are certainly correct when you suggest that in focusing on this issue [homosexuality], we ignore matters (like greed; like caring for the poor, etc.) that appear to be much more important to Jesus.  And these we blithely sweep under the rug because they are too uncomfortable, and we’ve learned to live with compromises and filter them out.”

The response of those who don’t share this view is that they’re standing for truth in an increasingly depraved time. The danger comes from those who are diluting Scripture to accommodate the world. And gray is just another word for capitulation. This isn’t an easy thing to sort through, then, as anyone who has honestly faced these issues can tell you.

What’s not reasonable or realistic to assume is that millions and millions of Christians will simply toss aside what they view as the clear teachings of the Bible because those who have contempt for their views and faith tell them to do so. And what won’t work is for the gay rights movement to try to intimidate into silence those with whom they disagree. To break their will. And to force religious organizations – including parachurch institutions and eventually churches – to embrace views they believe are at odds with the teachings in Scripture. A faith whose central symbol is the cross is not going to collapse or surrender in the face of pressure by progressives and secularists. (Historically the church has often thrived under persecution.)

This all could get pretty nasty pretty quickly, and intensifying the culture wars isn’t in anyone’s interest. Civility is, as Stephen Carter has written, a precondition of democratic dialogue. There ought to be rules of etiquette, even (and perhaps especially) in public and political discourse. Asking for civility is quite different from insisting on agreement, and absence of agreement is a case for further (and better) debate, not putting an end to it.

When the dust finally settles, we still have to live together and occupy the same nation, the same airwaves, the same soccer fields and schools and workspaces. Surely treating others with a certain degree of dignity and respect shouldn’t be too much to ask of those who oppose gay marriage and those who support it. 

“Come now and let us reason together,” the prophet Isaiah said. That counsel beats a lot of alternatives, including targeting and destroying those who don’t conform to the beliefs of our new cultural commissars.  

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Divestment Kosher for Passover at Cornell

Late in March, after a lengthy and dramatic debate, the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government voted against a resolution urging the University to divest from companies allegedly connected to Israeli activities in the West Bank. Much as one hates to give the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement credit, they have clearly learned a lesson from the defeat: don’t get involved in a debate with your opponents.

They are now applying that lesson at Cornell University, where, as William Jacobson has reported, a similar divestment resolution comes up for initial discussion by the Student Assembly on Thursday. The discussion is so last minute an addition that it was not included in an agenda for the meeting circulated on Tuesday and appeared only on a revised agenda issued at 8:42 P.M. that evening. So the resolution’s opponents have less than 48 hours to prepare.

Proponents of divestment understand that in the course of a prolonged debate, it is hard to keep one’s mask on. Some of their supporters may forget that the movement isn’t supposed to be anti-Semitic and, as they reportedly did at the University of Michigan, refer to their opponents as “kikes” and “dirty Jews.” That makes it much harder to pass a resolution.

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Late in March, after a lengthy and dramatic debate, the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government voted against a resolution urging the University to divest from companies allegedly connected to Israeli activities in the West Bank. Much as one hates to give the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement credit, they have clearly learned a lesson from the defeat: don’t get involved in a debate with your opponents.

They are now applying that lesson at Cornell University, where, as William Jacobson has reported, a similar divestment resolution comes up for initial discussion by the Student Assembly on Thursday. The discussion is so last minute an addition that it was not included in an agenda for the meeting circulated on Tuesday and appeared only on a revised agenda issued at 8:42 P.M. that evening. So the resolution’s opponents have less than 48 hours to prepare.

Proponents of divestment understand that in the course of a prolonged debate, it is hard to keep one’s mask on. Some of their supporters may forget that the movement isn’t supposed to be anti-Semitic and, as they reportedly did at the University of Michigan, refer to their opponents as “kikes” and “dirty Jews.” That makes it much harder to pass a resolution.

Proponents of divestment also understand that the more that people learn about their movement; the less likely they are to support it. It is a standard and good argument against them that they focus solely on Israel and ignore the abysmal human right records of other nations, like China, with which their colleges and universities have extensive dealings. But the argument acquires a little more force when one goes over to the blog of Students for Justice in Palestine-Cornell, which is evidently behind the resolution. The most recent entry, on Syria, literally does not mention the crimes perpetrated by the Assad regime, preferring to place responsibility for the violence in Syria squarely on the shoulders of “the U.S. and its client states.” If “a humanitarian intervention is needed,” the authors argue, “it should be through the revocation of the corporate charters of the criminal U.S. arms conglomerates.” In short, SJP-Cornell is not so much ignoring human rights violations as proposing that they would not take place if we would only join the fight against the U.S. and Israel, its partner in imperial crime.

If that kind of thing gets out, one might lose even the kind of liberal who supports a targeted boycott of West Bank settlement products. Even those who think Israel is deeply at fault, after all, are unlikely to think that they benefit from association with the view that Obama is a bigger villain than Assad. Such a liberal may fear that even a resolution narrowly drafted to oppose “the occupation,” rather than the very existence of Israel, will, if passed, be viewed as an endorsement of the odious world view of its leading proponents.

Perhaps most of all, proponents of divestment worry about what happens when the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has a chance to be heard, as it did during the Michigan debate, courtesy of historian Victor Lieberman. At that debate, the BDS line, according to which Israel has always been the aggressor, was exposed as propaganda, and student representatives, who may already have been thinking that student governments ought not to make Mideast policy, voted 25-9 against the resolution.

So I commend the proponents of divestment for realizing that if they want their resolution to pass, they had better ram it through as quickly as possible. But their cleverness does not end there. As Jacobson explains, the period during which the resolution will be discussed on campus coincides with the period during which many Jewish students will be out of town celebrating Passover.

This resolution will be much easier to pass without the Jews around.

Read Less




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