Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 1, 2014

Jay Carney’s Tower of Lies

Guy Benson, one of the nation’s outstanding young conservative commentators, lays out the case (here and here) of the White House’s mendacity on the matter of the lethal attacks against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. 

It’s now beyond dispute that contrary to its previous claims, the White House (a) had not released all the relevant Benghazi-related material to Congress and (b) did far more than make a single, cosmetic adjustment to the talking points used by then-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice when she went on five Sunday talk shows. In fact it was the White House–in the person of Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications–who urged Rice to “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” 

One problem: It was widely known within the administration that this was not the case. In addition, the key (fallacious) claim made by Ms. Rice wasn’t the product of what the CIA produced; it’s the result of what the White House invented.

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Guy Benson, one of the nation’s outstanding young conservative commentators, lays out the case (here and here) of the White House’s mendacity on the matter of the lethal attacks against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. 

It’s now beyond dispute that contrary to its previous claims, the White House (a) had not released all the relevant Benghazi-related material to Congress and (b) did far more than make a single, cosmetic adjustment to the talking points used by then-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice when she went on five Sunday talk shows. In fact it was the White House–in the person of Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications–who urged Rice to “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” 

One problem: It was widely known within the administration that this was not the case. In addition, the key (fallacious) claim made by Ms. Rice wasn’t the product of what the CIA produced; it’s the result of what the White House invented.

When Mr. Carney was pressed yesterday to defend his previous claim that the White House didn’t play a role in shaping the misleading talking points in light of the September 14, 2012 email from Ben Rhodes, he claimed the email was not about Benghazi. 

This is not just a lie; it’s a transparent and stupid lie. And if you watch Mr. Carney’s exchanges with reporters (like this one with ABC’s Jonathan Karl), you’ll find Mr. Obama’s official spokesman to be a particular kind of liar–the smug, patronizing kind. The type who becomes peevish when his lies are challenged. And who takes special pride in placing one lie atop the other, like a child using wooden blocks to build a tower.  

It’s been quite a journey for Mr. Carney, from a journalist who once pursued the truth to a White House official now disfiguring it. I wonder if, when he looks back at his corrosive and corrupting tenure, he will feel the slightest shame.

Probably not.

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Latest Palestinian ‘No’ Leaves Israel Pondering Unattractive Options

Today Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu went to Israel’s Independence Hall in Tel Aviv to announce his push for the Knesset to adopt a new basic law that would formally declare that Israel was the nation state of the Jewish people. The proposal, uttered in the same spot where David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence in 1948, would not compromise the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities but does seek to remove any doubt about the future of the country either in the aftermath of a peace treaty with the Palestinians or without it. Some of his domestic critics were right to point out that the passage of such a law would change nothing in Israel since it is already a Jewish state with full and equal rights for non-Jews. But the latest revelations about the recently scuttled peace talks speak volumes about why the negotiations promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry failed.

As the Times of Israel reports, Israel tried to get Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to agree to anything that would acknowledge that Israel was a Jewish state. They even proposed wording that would at the same time say that the new Palestinian nation was the state of the Palestinian Arabs. But the two states for two peoples formula that has always been at the heart of the pro-peace agenda among Jews is not one that Abbas could swallow even in its most even-handed form. The goal was mutual recognition rather than forcing the Palestinians to accept an Israeli ultimatum. But not even the most flexible formula was something the PA would even discuss let alone accept because doing so would implicitly concede that the Palestinians were concluding the conflict and accepting that the verdict of the War of Independence is final.

This leaves Israelis pondering what their next step will be now that the Palestinians have blown up the process.

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Today Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu went to Israel’s Independence Hall in Tel Aviv to announce his push for the Knesset to adopt a new basic law that would formally declare that Israel was the nation state of the Jewish people. The proposal, uttered in the same spot where David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence in 1948, would not compromise the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities but does seek to remove any doubt about the future of the country either in the aftermath of a peace treaty with the Palestinians or without it. Some of his domestic critics were right to point out that the passage of such a law would change nothing in Israel since it is already a Jewish state with full and equal rights for non-Jews. But the latest revelations about the recently scuttled peace talks speak volumes about why the negotiations promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry failed.

As the Times of Israel reports, Israel tried to get Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to agree to anything that would acknowledge that Israel was a Jewish state. They even proposed wording that would at the same time say that the new Palestinian nation was the state of the Palestinian Arabs. But the two states for two peoples formula that has always been at the heart of the pro-peace agenda among Jews is not one that Abbas could swallow even in its most even-handed form. The goal was mutual recognition rather than forcing the Palestinians to accept an Israeli ultimatum. But not even the most flexible formula was something the PA would even discuss let alone accept because doing so would implicitly concede that the Palestinians were concluding the conflict and accepting that the verdict of the War of Independence is final.

This leaves Israelis pondering what their next step will be now that the Palestinians have blown up the process.

With the PA having embraced the Hamas terrorist movement, negotiations are not likely to be resumed soon. With the U.S. perhaps considering issuing its own peace plan that is likely to be more in line with Palestinian demands than Israel’s position, some in the Jewish state feel the time is right for some unilateral steps. It is in this context that Netanyahu’s Jewish state proposal must be seen. But that symbolic gesture aside, Israel would be wise to avoid seeking to repeat the mistake it made in 2005 when Ariel Sharon sought to unilaterally set Israel’s borders by withdrawing from Gaza. No matter what Israel gives up, it will get no credit from the international community.

Respected thinkers like Michael Oren, the immediate past Israeli ambassador to the U.S., believe that there must be a “plan B” in the aftermath of the collapse of the talks. He suggests a withdrawal to the security fence that would remove some settlements and make it clear that the settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem will forever be part of Israel.

But the problem here is that withdrawing from one place won’t convince anyone that Israel has a right to keep another. To the contrary, as with the various withdrawals that Israel has undertaken since the start of the Oslo Accords, every retreat is considered by both the Palestinians and the international community as proof that the territories are all stolen property that must be returned to the Arabs rather than as disputed lands that should be split as part of a rational compromise. The Gaza fiasco should have taught the Israelis this truth as well as making clear how costly in terms of its security such retreats can be.

Nor should anyone be holding out much hope for another try at the process even though it is doubtful that Kerry is ready to concede that his quest was nothing more than a fool’s errand. Ironically, former President Bill Clinton spoke at length during an appearance at Georgetown University this week about his own peace process push in 2000. Not for the first time, Clinton exploded the myths put forward by Obama National Security Council staffer Robert Malley that the Palestinians were not at fault for the failure of the Camp David Summit. Clinton repeated his previous assertions that it was Yasir Arafat who turned down Israel’s offer of peace in spite of the fact that then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was ready to concede control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

This is significant because it set the pattern that Abbas has followed in the years after Arafat left the scene. The rejection of even a mutual declaration of recognition by Abbas constituted the fourth Palestinian no to peace and statehood in 15 years. That won’t change until the political culture of the Palestinians that inextricably links rejection of Zionism to their national identity changes.

But rather than seeking unilateral moves that will strengthen neither Israel’s security nor its popularity abroad or another deep dive into a peace process that is doomed to failure, the Jewish state must be prepared to wait patiently until the Palestinians are finally ready to make peace. Managing the conflict doesn’t satisfy those who want to resolve the conflict. But, as the Israelis have shown over the last forty years, it is the safest and most reasonable approach to a problem that, despite their best intentions, they can’t solve by themselves. It remains the best of a number of poor choices available to them.

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Breaking Up Conference Won’t Help Israel

The day after J Street failed in its bid for admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the backlash about the vote is growing. The group that represents the largest denomination of American Jewry, the Union of Reform Judaism, is demanding that the Conference change its one group, one vote policy while also openly threatening to leave the umbrella group. An official of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is also demanding changes. Meanwhile liberal commentators are blasting the Conference for its 22-17 vote to deny entry the left-wing lobby and making extravagant claims about this vote symbolizing the growing alienation of the Jewish establishment from the wishes of most of those it purports to represent.

Which means that, all things considered, it was a very good day for J Street. As I predicted yesterday before the vote was held, a defeat at the Conference was the best possible outcome for the left-wing organization that came into existence not to fit in and cooperate with existing Jewish groups and coalitions but to blow them up. The negative vote enables J Street and its various left-wing sympathizers to play the victim and boosts their agenda to first delegitimize groups like the Conference and AIPAC and then to replace them.

But while it is understandable that the Reform and Conservative movements would join the lament about J Street’s defeat in order to assuage some of their liberal constituents who support the left-wing lobby, they should be careful about advancing any agenda that could undermine umbrella groups like the Conference. While such organizations can seem at times to be irrelevant to the day-to-day business of American Jewry, they still serve a vital purpose. If the non-Orthodox denominations help J Street destroy them, they will soon learn that not only will it be difficult to replace them but also they and their constituents will not be well served by the politicized chaos that follows.

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The day after J Street failed in its bid for admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the backlash about the vote is growing. The group that represents the largest denomination of American Jewry, the Union of Reform Judaism, is demanding that the Conference change its one group, one vote policy while also openly threatening to leave the umbrella group. An official of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is also demanding changes. Meanwhile liberal commentators are blasting the Conference for its 22-17 vote to deny entry the left-wing lobby and making extravagant claims about this vote symbolizing the growing alienation of the Jewish establishment from the wishes of most of those it purports to represent.

Which means that, all things considered, it was a very good day for J Street. As I predicted yesterday before the vote was held, a defeat at the Conference was the best possible outcome for the left-wing organization that came into existence not to fit in and cooperate with existing Jewish groups and coalitions but to blow them up. The negative vote enables J Street and its various left-wing sympathizers to play the victim and boosts their agenda to first delegitimize groups like the Conference and AIPAC and then to replace them.

But while it is understandable that the Reform and Conservative movements would join the lament about J Street’s defeat in order to assuage some of their liberal constituents who support the left-wing lobby, they should be careful about advancing any agenda that could undermine umbrella groups like the Conference. While such organizations can seem at times to be irrelevant to the day-to-day business of American Jewry, they still serve a vital purpose. If the non-Orthodox denominations help J Street destroy them, they will soon learn that not only will it be difficult to replace them but also they and their constituents will not be well served by the politicized chaos that follows.

Only hours after their defeat J Street was already attempting to make hay from the vote with a fundraising email sent out to their list. It read, in part:

“Thank you, Malcolm Hoenlein and the Conference of Presidents.”

Yesterday’s rejection of our bid to join the Conference validates the reason for J Street: those claiming to speak for the entire Jewish community don’t in fact represent the full diversity of pro-Israel views in our community—or even its prevailing views.

Thus despite J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami’s public expression of disappointment about the vote, the group was clearly prepared all along to exploit a rejection to further their campaign to brand both AIPAC and the Conference as out of touch. J Street came into existence hoping to do just that, but over the course of the last five years failed miserably to do so. Though J Street’s raison d’être was to serve as a Jewish cheerleader for Obama administration pressure on Israel, it has little influence on Capitol Hill and has even, to its dismay, sometimes been repudiated by a president it supports unconditionally. Thus it hopes to use this incident to gain more traction against mainstream groups.

But those, like Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev, who are using this vote to bash pro-Israel groups should be asking themselves why so many members of the Conference which already includes left-wing organizations like Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu would vote against adding one more to their ranks. The reason is that many centrist groups clearly resented J Street’s unwarranted pretensions to speak for American Jewry and to undermine the broad-based AIPAC.

The Conference was created to provide a way for a diverse and cantankerous Jewish community a single structure with which it could deal with the U.S. government. The point was, though its members have often disagreed and true consensus between left and right is often impossible, the Conference still provides Congress and the executive branch an address through which they can reach a broad and diverse coalition of Jewish organizations. Adding one more on the left wouldn’t have changed that but unlike other left-leaning groups, J Street has never had any interest in playing ball with rivals or allies. Its purpose is not to enrich and broaden that consensus but to destroy it. And that was something that groups that had no real ideological fight with J Street rightly feared.

Moreover, the arguments that only groups like J Street can speak to Jewish youth are also easily debunked. Rather than seek to bolster the efforts of pro-Israel groups on American campuses, J Street’s cohorts seem more interested in making common cause with anti-Zionist and pro-BDS groups than in standing together with the courageous Jews who are resisting the boycotters.

But if the Reform and Conservative movements aid J Street in this effort what follows won’t aid their cause. If the formal structures of American Jewry split between those backed by the centrist establishment and the J Street-led left, this won’t advance the cause of Israel or the interests of American Jews. Dividing the Jews in this manner will only serve the cause of those who wish to wage war on Israel’s democratically elected government and to widen the splits between Jerusalem and Washington. That isn’t something that any group that calls itself “pro-Israel” should want. Non-Orthodox Jews who wish to bolster the position of their members in the Jewish state should also be especially wary of anything that will make it harder to make their voices heard in Jerusalem.

Whatever one may think of the Conference or of its decision to play into J Street’s hands with this rejection, the notion that including the left-wing group would strengthen Jewish unity or the community’s outreach to youth is a myth. J Street may have failed miserably in its effort to defeat AIPAC in Washington, but its campaign to trash the pro-Israel consensus and replace it with one that seeks to undermine the Jewish state is still very much alive.

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Why Hillary Attacks the Press: It Works

One of the memorable moments of the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama primary debates in 2008 was when Clinton referenced a Saturday Night Live sketch poking fun at the kid gloves with which the media treated Obama. It was easy to see why Clinton was unhappy with the press: they were captivated by Obama and had begun treating Clinton like a Republican.

But as a fascinating piece in Politico explains, Clinton’s antipathy for the political press has deep roots. While many observers might think Clinton got tougher treatment in 2008 because of her Democratic opponent (who obviously wouldn’t be on the ballot next time) and that she can expect the kind of adoring press in 2016 that Obama received at her expense in 2008, the Politico piece makes it clear Clinton sees it very differently:

If Clinton says yes, she’ll have access to a bottomless pool of Democratic political talent and cash to match all those hyperbolic pronouncements about her inevitability. If she doesn’t run, the single biggest factor holding her back will be the media, according to an informal survey of three dozen friends, allies and former aides interviewed for this article. As much as anything else, her ambivalence about the race, they told us, reflects her distaste for and apprehension of a rapacious, shallow and sometimes outright sexist national political press corps acting as enablers for her enemies on the right. …

When asked why Clinton hasn’t done more to reach out to reporters over the years, one Clinton campaign veteran began to spin several theories. She was too busy, she was too prone to speaking her mind and the like—then abruptly cut to the chase:

“Look, she hates you. Period. That’s never going to change.”

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One of the memorable moments of the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama primary debates in 2008 was when Clinton referenced a Saturday Night Live sketch poking fun at the kid gloves with which the media treated Obama. It was easy to see why Clinton was unhappy with the press: they were captivated by Obama and had begun treating Clinton like a Republican.

But as a fascinating piece in Politico explains, Clinton’s antipathy for the political press has deep roots. While many observers might think Clinton got tougher treatment in 2008 because of her Democratic opponent (who obviously wouldn’t be on the ballot next time) and that she can expect the kind of adoring press in 2016 that Obama received at her expense in 2008, the Politico piece makes it clear Clinton sees it very differently:

If Clinton says yes, she’ll have access to a bottomless pool of Democratic political talent and cash to match all those hyperbolic pronouncements about her inevitability. If she doesn’t run, the single biggest factor holding her back will be the media, according to an informal survey of three dozen friends, allies and former aides interviewed for this article. As much as anything else, her ambivalence about the race, they told us, reflects her distaste for and apprehension of a rapacious, shallow and sometimes outright sexist national political press corps acting as enablers for her enemies on the right. …

When asked why Clinton hasn’t done more to reach out to reporters over the years, one Clinton campaign veteran began to spin several theories. She was too busy, she was too prone to speaking her mind and the like—then abruptly cut to the chase:

“Look, she hates you. Period. That’s never going to change.”

In fairness to Clinton, some of the press she’s received has indeed been sexist–though a great deal more of it has been fawning precisely because of her potential historic status. She’s also been in public life long enough to believe the source who told Politico her opinion of the press is not going to change.

But this is more than working the refs. As the article notes, Clinton’s strategy for combating bad press and preventing future bad press is not simply regurgitating SNL lines or accusing reporters of sexism. The Clintons have always practiced the politics of personal destruction, and this is no different. Over at National Review, Jim Geraghty picks out what is undoubtedly the most disturbing sentence in the story:

To this day she’s surrounded herself with media conspiracy theorists who remain some of her favorite confidants, urged wealthy allies to bankroll independent organizations tasked with knee-capping reporters perceived as unfriendly, withdrawn into a gilded shell when attacked and rolled her eyes at several generations of aides who suggested she reach out to journalists rather than just disdaining them.

“In a sane world,” Geraghty writes, “this would prompt a lot of people to doubt they want this person in the Oval Office”–especially, he notes, people in the media. Indeed, they are currently dealing with an obsessively secretive and thin-skinned president (today’s press briefing with Jay Carney was a rather astounding example of this) and probably don’t want to do so again.

But here’s the thing: folks in the press more or less know this–though maybe aren’t aware of the extent of it–and they already know she despises them. (They also know Barack Obama despises them.) And–it’s worked. Here, for example, is how the story opens:

Over the 25 years Hillary Clinton has spent in the national spotlight, she’s been smeared and stereotyped, the subject of dozens of over-hyped or downright fictional stories and books alleging, among other things, that she is a lesbian, a Black Widow killer who offed Vincent Foster then led an unprecedented coverup, a pathological liar, a real estate swindler, a Commie, a harridan. Every aspect of her personal life has been ransacked; there’s no part of her 5-foot-7-inch body that hasn’t come under microscopic scrutiny, from her ankles to her neckline to her myopic blue eyes—not to mention the ever-changing parade of hairstyles that friends say reflects creative restlessness and enemies read as a symbol of somebody who doesn’t stand for anything.

Forget all that troubled history, and a Clinton run for president in 2016 seems like a no-brainer, an inevitable next step after the redemption of her past few years as a well-regarded, if not quite historic, secretary of state. But remember the record, and you’ll understand why Clinton, although rested, rich and seemingly ready, has yet to commit to a presidential race (people around her insist it’s not greater than a 50-50 proposition), even as she’s an overwhelming favorite.

Got that? Clinton, who has hated the press for twenty years and worked to undermine and discredit them for much of that time period, still has her “negative” press stories open up with two paragraphs proclaiming her a victim and declaring her treatment so unfair as to be reason enough for her not to want to run.

In other words, the press’s attitude to Clinton’s malicious and career-threatening campaign against them is to declare themselves the problem! Is Clinton’s press really so bad if her unflattering stories must begin with two hundred words of apologetic throat-clearing? I think not. And if Clinton doesn’t really think so, then she is astoundingly dishonest. If she does really think so, then she is sealed off from reality. Either way, her behavior toward the press gets results, and it would only get more pronounced if she does run for president.

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Which Is More Dangerous: a Racist NBA Owner or a Bigoted Member of Congress?

As we noted earlier this week the controversy over the racist comments of Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling demonstrated conclusively just how much American culture had changed in the 50 years since the civil-rights movement put an end to Jim Crow laws. Expressing hostility to African-Americans in that manner was enough not only to cause Sterling to be banned from the National Basketball Association but to make him perhaps the most reviled person in the country. Though the unanimity with which every sector of the country denounced Sterling proved how marginal such prejudice had become, many on the left–and especially among those who seek to keep organizations dedicated to pretending that America is still a racist nation alive–preferred to see it as evidence of the endemic hate that still lingers in the hearts of Americans. But it turns out that the proof that they weren’t entirely wrong came from an unlikely source: a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi unwittingly provided evidence that race-based hate is alive and well when, in an interview with a Nation of Islam radio program, he not only claimed that all opposition to President Obama was rooted in racism and that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is an example of this but that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is “an Uncle Tom.” Thompson isn’t backing down and, in an interview with CNN, even suggested that he could say such things because he’s black. Given the lack of outrage about this, especially from liberals who take it as an article of faith that political incivility is strictly a conservative problem, he may be right. But the outburst in an interview with a program sponsored by a hate group does raise an interesting question: Which is more dangerous? A racist NBA owner or a bigoted member of Congress?

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As we noted earlier this week the controversy over the racist comments of Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling demonstrated conclusively just how much American culture had changed in the 50 years since the civil-rights movement put an end to Jim Crow laws. Expressing hostility to African-Americans in that manner was enough not only to cause Sterling to be banned from the National Basketball Association but to make him perhaps the most reviled person in the country. Though the unanimity with which every sector of the country denounced Sterling proved how marginal such prejudice had become, many on the left–and especially among those who seek to keep organizations dedicated to pretending that America is still a racist nation alive–preferred to see it as evidence of the endemic hate that still lingers in the hearts of Americans. But it turns out that the proof that they weren’t entirely wrong came from an unlikely source: a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi unwittingly provided evidence that race-based hate is alive and well when, in an interview with a Nation of Islam radio program, he not only claimed that all opposition to President Obama was rooted in racism and that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is an example of this but that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is “an Uncle Tom.” Thompson isn’t backing down and, in an interview with CNN, even suggested that he could say such things because he’s black. Given the lack of outrage about this, especially from liberals who take it as an article of faith that political incivility is strictly a conservative problem, he may be right. But the outburst in an interview with a program sponsored by a hate group does raise an interesting question: Which is more dangerous? A racist NBA owner or a bigoted member of Congress?

Thompson’s defenders, if there are any willing to publicly engage on this subject, will no doubt claim that his exemption from the racist charge is not only due to his being black but because what he was doing was complaining about racism. But this is an argument that doesn’t hold water.

There is nothing that is more pernicious to democracy than efforts that seek to divide the country on racial lines. That’s exactly what he was doing, not only by lending his presence to extremists like the Nation of Islam but by claiming that criticism of President Obama’s policies is inherently based in prejudice against his race. Seeking to smear all Republicans and Obama critics as racist is not only false but clearly an effort to set up a permanent political war between blacks and whites. Moreover, his attack on Thomas, which was based on the fact that the Supreme Court Justice is black and not just on the content of his decisions, is just as unreasonable. It goes beyond incivility and crosses into the realm of racial epithet. Thompson’s rant can’t be defended as the complaint of a racial minority when it is, for all intents and purposes, as a manifesto of intolerance, racial division, and hate.

The facts of political life are such that minorities can get away with making statements that would end the careers of whites. Given the inherent advantages that accrue to being part of the majority perhaps this is an understandable tradeoff. Yet it’s worth asking even as we all join in the national disgust-fest about Sterling whether it is far more dangerous for the country to have a person like Thompson spouting hate speech in Congress than for the owner of the Clippers to be a bigot. Sterling’s statements were outrageous and rightly earned him a permanent exile from his team and decent society. But so long as people like Thompson are crowding the public square, it appears the greater threat to both civility and the growing sense of racial harmony in American society are bigots like the Mississippi congressman.

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John Paul Stevens’s War on Speech

Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case Democrats are still trying to turn back the judicial tide that is running against the campaign finance laws they cherish. In that landmark case, the court spiked the government’s efforts to regulate independent expenditures used to promote issues and to express an opinion about candidates. The court’s recent ruling in the McCutcheon case in which it eliminated the cap on aggregate donations has only deepened their frustration. As far as President Obama is concerned these decisions are all about an effort to allow the wealthy to buy American democracy. As it turns out one of the primary boosters of this point of view is the man who wrote the dissent in Citizens United, retired Justice John Paul Stevens.

Stevens is back in the public eye this month primarily to promote a new book he has written in which he proposes six new Constitutional Amendments which would essentially abrogate much of the Bill of Rights by granting the government broad powers to restrict both free speech (First Amendment) and gun rights (Second Amendment). As such, he was recruited to come to Capitol Hill yesterday to lend support for a futile Democratic effort to create an amendment to overturn the impact of Citizens United. As Seth noted earlier, this is a futile exercise as the chances of any such Amendment being passed are less than zero. But it was nonetheless interesting in that it allowed Stevens yet another platform from which he could promote his idea that “money is not speech.”

These comments were widely applauded on the left, but some of his comments as well as others made during the course of his book tour illustrate the slippery slope that Stevens and his Democratic cheerleaders wish to take the country down. Far from proving his case that what the country needs are more restrictions on the ability of citizens to make their voices heard on issues, the upshot of this debate makes it all the more clear that the real focus here is on silencing views they find inconvenient.

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Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case Democrats are still trying to turn back the judicial tide that is running against the campaign finance laws they cherish. In that landmark case, the court spiked the government’s efforts to regulate independent expenditures used to promote issues and to express an opinion about candidates. The court’s recent ruling in the McCutcheon case in which it eliminated the cap on aggregate donations has only deepened their frustration. As far as President Obama is concerned these decisions are all about an effort to allow the wealthy to buy American democracy. As it turns out one of the primary boosters of this point of view is the man who wrote the dissent in Citizens United, retired Justice John Paul Stevens.

Stevens is back in the public eye this month primarily to promote a new book he has written in which he proposes six new Constitutional Amendments which would essentially abrogate much of the Bill of Rights by granting the government broad powers to restrict both free speech (First Amendment) and gun rights (Second Amendment). As such, he was recruited to come to Capitol Hill yesterday to lend support for a futile Democratic effort to create an amendment to overturn the impact of Citizens United. As Seth noted earlier, this is a futile exercise as the chances of any such Amendment being passed are less than zero. But it was nonetheless interesting in that it allowed Stevens yet another platform from which he could promote his idea that “money is not speech.”

These comments were widely applauded on the left, but some of his comments as well as others made during the course of his book tour illustrate the slippery slope that Stevens and his Democratic cheerleaders wish to take the country down. Far from proving his case that what the country needs are more restrictions on the ability of citizens to make their voices heard on issues, the upshot of this debate makes it all the more clear that the real focus here is on silencing views they find inconvenient.

Stevens backed up his assertion yesterday that money can’t be equated with speech by claiming that political speech is just one of the things that campaign contributions can be. The example of a non-speech expenditure that popped into his mind was the Watergate break-in that was, he pointed out, financed from contributions to President Nixon’s reelection campaign. Citing Watergate in the context of a campaign finance debate is, in one sense, appropriate, because the entire confusing welter of laws produced by the federal government in a quixotic attempt to keep money out of politics started with the fallout from that incident. But outrageous and unusual examples of criminal behavior like Watergate don’t tell us much about the way politics is practiced in the United States.

After all, liberals aren’t worried that Republicans are raising money to finance squads of comically incompetent unemployed ex-spooks to spy on their campaign headquarters, as Nixon did. Their problem with the effort to overturn these laws is that doing so opens up the public square to far more political speech. Stevens and the Democrats think all this speech is creating an unfair playing field in politics and they want to level it off by making it harder for candidates and independent groups to raise the kind of money needed to get their messages out. According to Stevens, Citizens United’s protection of independent expenditures has created vast amounts of “dark money” that cannot be directly traced back to donors, thus raising the possibility that sinister forces will manipulate and purchase the elections of favored candidates. But as we learned with the recent controversy that drove the CEO of Mozilla from his job because of a contribution to California’s Prop 8 campaign, stripping anonymity from donors is no different than abolishing the secret ballot.

The last 40 years have shown that the main effect of campaign finance laws if not their prime motive is to protect incumbents and to silence outlier movements that seek to protest against the political establishment of both major parties. The campaign finance laws also maximize the impact of the mainstream media that can slant the news or editorialize as much as they like in order to promote or trash candidates and causes.

But while money is not needed to be able to express one’s point of view at a Maine town hall meeting—the example of pure democracy repeatedly cited by Senator Angus King who chaired the committee hearing on the law—it is absolutely necessary if one is to mount a challenge to an incumbent member of the House or the Senate or to get one’s ideas about any issue before the public.

Money has and will always be the mother’s milk of politics and no law will ever be able to change that. But the point here is that it is the primary way in our mass media culture in which to reach other Americans. As such, it has become, more than it ever was before, absolutely essential to the expression of political speech. And if there was anything that the Founders of our republic intended to insulate from government interference it was political speech.

As a feature in the New York Times about Stevens’s book pointed out, the former justice isn’t just interested in restricting campaign expenditures but is willing to listen to arguments about banning or at least placing restrictions on the publication of books about politics. That sentiment alone should raise alarms to Americans about the intent of these laws no matter whether they are liberals or conservatives.

When placed in that context, there’s no question that Justice Stevens’s own book as well as the efforts of Democrats to pass amendments trashing the Bill of Rights isn’t so much about playing fair as it is in waging a war on speech.

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Dems’ Plan to Counter Criticism: Outlaw It

A common pattern in American political discourse is for conservatives to accuse liberals of some statist extremism, liberals to insist the complaint has no merit whatsoever, and then when it’s clear conservatives are on to something liberals lament, more in sorrow than in anger, that conservatives had a point but took it way too far. How vindicated conservatives then feel if information comes to light to back up their warnings about the slippery slope of state power.

The evolution of the Democrats’ deranged attacks on the Koch brothers and political participation in general has followed precisely this pattern. The trickle of mentions of the Kochs turned into a flood, as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid became thoroughly incapable of discussing any topic–campaign finance, Ukraine, the minimum wage–without calling out the libertarian philanthropists. He called their participation in the political process “un-American” in an ever-escalating crusade to declare them former people and seek to pressure the judiciary into permitting limitations on free speech rights.

Conservatives warned that high-profile Democrats’ hostility to the First Amendment was liable to result in the curbing of Americans’ constitutional rights. Liberals scoffed. Yet now, the Hill reports, Democrats–who haven’t exactly been models of subtlety, but who at least permitted liberals some plausible deniability–are through beating around the bush. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has announced his party’s newest midterm election strategy: amend the Constitution to rein in its free speech protections. From the Hill:

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A common pattern in American political discourse is for conservatives to accuse liberals of some statist extremism, liberals to insist the complaint has no merit whatsoever, and then when it’s clear conservatives are on to something liberals lament, more in sorrow than in anger, that conservatives had a point but took it way too far. How vindicated conservatives then feel if information comes to light to back up their warnings about the slippery slope of state power.

The evolution of the Democrats’ deranged attacks on the Koch brothers and political participation in general has followed precisely this pattern. The trickle of mentions of the Kochs turned into a flood, as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid became thoroughly incapable of discussing any topic–campaign finance, Ukraine, the minimum wage–without calling out the libertarian philanthropists. He called their participation in the political process “un-American” in an ever-escalating crusade to declare them former people and seek to pressure the judiciary into permitting limitations on free speech rights.

Conservatives warned that high-profile Democrats’ hostility to the First Amendment was liable to result in the curbing of Americans’ constitutional rights. Liberals scoffed. Yet now, the Hill reports, Democrats–who haven’t exactly been models of subtlety, but who at least permitted liberals some plausible deniability–are through beating around the bush. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has announced his party’s newest midterm election strategy: amend the Constitution to rein in its free speech protections. From the Hill:

Democratic leaders on Wednesday unveiled a plan to vote on a constitutional amendment “very soon” to overturn the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, which have empowered wealthy donors such as Charles and David Koch.

The amendment has virtually no chance of passing this year because it must garner two-thirds support from both chambers of Congress and receive ratification from three-quarters of the states. Democrats believe it will help them preserve their Senate majority, however.

Campaign finance reform traditionally rates low on voters’ lists of concerns, but Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, believes a battle over a constitutional amendment will bolster their populist economic message.

“The constitutional amendment we know requires two-thirds, it’s a long hard road. But given the McCutcheon decision we have to begin it,” he said. “Most Americans don’t believe the system works in their favor. We are showing whose side you’re on.”

Now, of course the idea of amending the Constitution itself isn’t crazy, and Schumer should be commended for at least adhering to the process. But the First Amendment is rarely the target. Voters tend to be pretty fond of that one, though Democrats increasingly aren’t.

Campaign-finance restrictions of the sort Democrats favor are quite plainly incumbent protection plans. Democrats have been taking a beating lately in the polls, as public opinion has soured on their flailing agenda. So Schumer has proposed a solution: no need to change the policies to adhere to public opinion if you can just restrict the public’s ability to express that opinion.

A constitutional amendment to outlaw criticism is a bit heavyhanded even for someone like Schumer. But it has the effect of confirming, from the mouths of Democrats themselves, that yes, there is a slippery slope from criticizing the wealthy to explicitly targeting constitutional rights–and they intend to slide down it head-first.

Obviously the attempt will fail to get the votes; whatever their faults, it’s doubtful most of the Democrats running for reelection have completely lost their minds. Additionally, the Democrats have already sacrificed seats for The Cause, by voting for ObamaCare and then getting their clocks cleaned in the following midterms. I’m not sure how many times the White House and Democratic congressional leadership can hope to get their party to vote for abusive federal power grabs that are openly hostile to public opinion and individual rights.

The point, according to Schumer and Co., is really about messaging anyway. The message is this: they have to take away your rights in order to take away the Kochs’ rights. Democrats are keen on fairness, and it’s only fair to legally bar everyone from certain constitutionally protected political activism in order to weaken Democrats’ opponents. It’s possible this sounded less crazy in Schumer’s head before he announced it, but either way he seems pretty committed to it now, a fact which I imagine delights Republican candidates across the country.

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Ukraine Admits Defeat

Ukraine’s acting president yesterday confirmed what is now appallingly obvious: Russia has succeeded in invading and occupying eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s security forces have been helpless to dislodge the “green men”–a combination of local pro-Russian militants and Russian security forces–who have occupied many of the important public buildings in the east.

“Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces, the acting leader, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, acknowledged. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties.”

Now Putin and his minions are pressing their advantage by announcing a May 11 referendum on autonomy or possibly independence for the east. This is designed to preempt Ukraine’s presidential election at the end of May by presenting a fait accompli to whoever is elected Ukraine’s next president. In case Kiev gets any funny ideas about trying to retake its country, Putin is keeping more than 40,000 Russian troops on high alert close to the border and now he is demanding that “Ukraine must remove its military from the southeastern region of the country.” Or else.

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Ukraine’s acting president yesterday confirmed what is now appallingly obvious: Russia has succeeded in invading and occupying eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s security forces have been helpless to dislodge the “green men”–a combination of local pro-Russian militants and Russian security forces–who have occupied many of the important public buildings in the east.

“Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces, the acting leader, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, acknowledged. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties.”

Now Putin and his minions are pressing their advantage by announcing a May 11 referendum on autonomy or possibly independence for the east. This is designed to preempt Ukraine’s presidential election at the end of May by presenting a fait accompli to whoever is elected Ukraine’s next president. In case Kiev gets any funny ideas about trying to retake its country, Putin is keeping more than 40,000 Russian troops on high alert close to the border and now he is demanding that “Ukraine must remove its military from the southeastern region of the country.” Or else.

Just as depressing as Russia’s aggression is the toothless response from the West. The U.S. has been willing to sanction a few more Russians than the EU, but neither the U.S. nor EU is willing to target entire sectors of the Russian economy–not even the financial sector, which is especially vulnerable to being barred from doing business in the West. Thus the targets of the sanctions react with insouciance. Typical is this throwaway line:

“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest the U.S. delivers its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the recipient of a U.S. asset freeze and travel ban, said Tuesday, referring to the international space station. The United States relies on Russian space shuttle flights to launch astronauts into orbit.

Ha-ha. But the fact that Putin and his cronies are laughing at us tells us why they’re winning. They are not afraid of us, and we–especially the Europeans–are afraid of them. 

At this rate, the Baltic republics can expect their existence as independent and sovereign states to be threatened before long, notwithstanding their membership in NATO. In fact their very membership in NATO could prove a lure to Putin who may be tempted to confront the Western alliance with a fresh crisis to expose its haplessness. 

It’s still not too late to impose sanctions with bite. Whatever happens in Ukraine, it is vitally important to make Russia pay a steep price for its aggression if only to deter potential imitators around the world.

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Debating Race in America

Mike Gallagher is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host who has had me on his program many times in the past. Sometimes we agree, and sometimes not. But in my experience Gallagher, a fine and intelligent man, is willing to give me my say and explore our differences of opinion. That occurred earlier this week, when he had me on to discuss my post “Being Black in America,” which was written in the aftermath of the racist comments by Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, comments we learned about within a matter of days. 

I told Gallagher that America has made tremendous strides on race and that there are pernicious forces on the left who recklessly ascribe racism to those with whom we disagree. At the same time, racism–including subtle forms of racism–still exists, probably more than many of us imagine. Moreover, many young black males today are viewed with suspicion, in some cases for reasons that may be understandable but are still unfortunate. What if you’re a law-abiding young African American and yet because of your race there’s a cloud of suspicion over you? How would you feel?

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Mike Gallagher is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host who has had me on his program many times in the past. Sometimes we agree, and sometimes not. But in my experience Gallagher, a fine and intelligent man, is willing to give me my say and explore our differences of opinion. That occurred earlier this week, when he had me on to discuss my post “Being Black in America,” which was written in the aftermath of the racist comments by Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, comments we learned about within a matter of days. 

I told Gallagher that America has made tremendous strides on race and that there are pernicious forces on the left who recklessly ascribe racism to those with whom we disagree. At the same time, racism–including subtle forms of racism–still exists, probably more than many of us imagine. Moreover, many young black males today are viewed with suspicion, in some cases for reasons that may be understandable but are still unfortunate. What if you’re a law-abiding young African American and yet because of your race there’s a cloud of suspicion over you? How would you feel?

Mr. Gallagher conceded there’s merit to the last point, but what troubled him is that by his lights I am (inadvertently) perpetuating a myth, which is that America is deeply racist; that my COMMENTARY post is saying that Sterling is “a pretty good representative of how all whites feel”; and that by suggesting that someone like Sterling “is kind of the way this culture is” I’m setting back race relations by decades. In addition, Gallagher asserted that I was taking these two “overblown” cases and ascribing far too much importance into them. Needless to say, I believe Gallagher overstated my views by a considerable degree.

In any event, near the end of our conversation Gallagher, playing off my statement that it’s worth re-thinking just a bit what it must feel like to be black in America today, challenged me (twice) to write a column on what it feels like to be white in America today. He spoke with passion about his liberal son, who is no racist but who graduated from college saying, “Black people hate me because I’m white.” Mr. Gallagher went on to say this:

We are supposed to be guilty.  We are supposed to feel shame over what people did 50 or 100 or 200 years ago that we had nothing to do with. And we are constantly accused of having a hatred in our heart that we don’t have.

Which brings me to my main observation. Our exchange is an illustration of two people–in this case two conservatives–looking at the same events and reacting in very different ways. I interpreted events through one prism, Gallagher through another. In thinking things through I became somewhat less confident in my previous assimilation of things; he became somewhat more certain (or at least emphatic) that his approach was the right one. In the aftermath of the comments by Bundy and Sterling, I was thinking of racism as it applies to African Americans; he wanted to bring the focus back to racism directed against whites. Here’s the thing, though: We might both have valid points but for a host of reasons–life experiences, disposition and temperament, the people we interact with and who influence our thinking, et cetera–be drawn to one rather than the other.

In their book The Mystery of God, the theologians Steven D. Boyer and Christopher A. Hall describe what they call the more sophisticated proponents of postmodernism–those who are very explicitly not advocating a wholesale abandonment of truth. “Instead,” Boyer and Hall write,

they are inviting us to recognize that our knowledge of the truth is always influenced by who we are as finite, fallen creatures. The truth that we know is never “absolute” because we ourselves are not absolute. For human persons who are both finite and fallen, no single truth claim, nor set of truth claims, can ever capture the whole truth, completely undistorted and undiluted, with nothing whatsoever falling through the cracks. Our knowledge is always partial, always in need of correction or refinement.

Every one of us would probably do better to bear these words in mind, and to see how they apply not only to others but also to us.

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