Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 28, 2014

Ancient Climate Change Doesn’t Bolster Environmentalist Extremism

Advocates of government measures intended to lessen the impact of global warming believe that skeptics of their theories and models are denying science. But in today’s New York Times, the environmental alarmist camp opened up a new front in their war to delegitimize their critics. According to Eric H. Cline, those who are resisting efforts to hamstring the U.S. economy aren’t just arguing with the mythical 97 percent of scientists who share Al Gore’s belief in apocalyptic scenarios about the planet’s future. In the view of this professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University, they are also denying history.

In an op-ed published today, Cline, the author of a book on the collapse of some of the ancient civilizations of the Near East in the second millennium before the common era, opens his argument by lampooning Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe for his doubts about the warming thesis. Inhofe claims the current climate change arguments are the result of a “hoax,” especially one recent report that warned of the shifts in temperatures causing global conflicts. But Cline claims what Inhofe needs is not so much a science lesson as a history tutorial and then proceeds to give us all a lecture about how a century-long drought brought on by a warming phase in the earth’s history caused a series of famines, wars, and empire collapses in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean around 1,200 BCE. It’s a fascinating piece of history and Cline tells it well, but the problem here is not the professor’s correct assumptions about ancient climate change. The error lies in his belief that the historical record about climate change that could not possibly be caused by human behavior should lead critics of environmental alarmism to abandon their skepticism. Rather than bolstering the Al Gore school of hysteria, the more we learn about past climate change, the shakier the assumptions that are the foundation of global warming theories seem.

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Advocates of government measures intended to lessen the impact of global warming believe that skeptics of their theories and models are denying science. But in today’s New York Times, the environmental alarmist camp opened up a new front in their war to delegitimize their critics. According to Eric H. Cline, those who are resisting efforts to hamstring the U.S. economy aren’t just arguing with the mythical 97 percent of scientists who share Al Gore’s belief in apocalyptic scenarios about the planet’s future. In the view of this professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University, they are also denying history.

In an op-ed published today, Cline, the author of a book on the collapse of some of the ancient civilizations of the Near East in the second millennium before the common era, opens his argument by lampooning Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe for his doubts about the warming thesis. Inhofe claims the current climate change arguments are the result of a “hoax,” especially one recent report that warned of the shifts in temperatures causing global conflicts. But Cline claims what Inhofe needs is not so much a science lesson as a history tutorial and then proceeds to give us all a lecture about how a century-long drought brought on by a warming phase in the earth’s history caused a series of famines, wars, and empire collapses in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean around 1,200 BCE. It’s a fascinating piece of history and Cline tells it well, but the problem here is not the professor’s correct assumptions about ancient climate change. The error lies in his belief that the historical record about climate change that could not possibly be caused by human behavior should lead critics of environmental alarmism to abandon their skepticism. Rather than bolstering the Al Gore school of hysteria, the more we learn about past climate change, the shakier the assumptions that are the foundation of global warming theories seem.

Contrary to Cline, no one, not even Inhofe, has claimed that the environment has remained static since the Big Bang. Even if we confine our study to the fraction of earth history coinciding with the rise of human civilizations that is called “recorded history,” there is no doubt that the climate has changed many times. Indeed, even if we leave the period studied by classicists and focus only on the last couple of thousand years, we find some extreme changes in climate. The Medieval Warming Period that took place approximately one thousand years ago led to Vikings settling what they called Greenland and finding fertile territory rather than the frozen wastes that currently exist there. That period of warming, which coincided with a new flowering of civilization after the depression of the Dark Ages, was followed by a period of cooling a few centuries later that took a devastating toll on Europe. That “Little Ice Age” that stretched from approximately 1300 to the 19th century led to much colder winters, especially in the period between 1600 and 1800. It was followed by another warming period that may be reaching its peak in our own time.

All of this is fact and demonstrates the impact that a changing climate can have on human existence. But none of it justifies any of the theories about human causation of warming that have become gospel among the chattering classes in our day. Indeed, the more we discuss the way the environment shifted in the period before it could be claimed that human activity or carbon emissions was causing the sky to fall, the less authoritative the talk about this new scientific consensus sounds. It may well be that humans are causing the climate to warm. But that assumption doesn’t explain why sun spots or thermal patterns would be the only possible answers for past warming or cooling periods but that natural causes could not possibly be responsible for what is currently happening.

In other words, rather than making Inhofe look foolish, Cline’s theories are a reminder that it is entirely possible for devastating climate change to occur without a single car being run or coal-fired power plant being operated. Rather than skeptics being in need of history lessons, it is those who take the talk of human causation as an unchallengeable doctrine that would do well to read up on the numerous examples of climate change that preceded the 20th century.

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Thomas Piketty and the Financial Times

The French economist Thomas Piketty has made quite a splash with his new book Capital in the 21st Century, which is now No. 5 on Amazon’s bestseller list. That’s an amazing achievement for a book that positively bristles with charts, graphs, and abstruse economic arguments. I suspect it will be more purchased than actually read.

But the Financial Times has accused Piketty of doing a poor job with his data. I am not in a position to have an opinion on this as it involves complicated statistical analysis that is above my pay grade. But Scott Winship, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is in such a position and he’s not very impressed with the Financial Times’s analysis:

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The French economist Thomas Piketty has made quite a splash with his new book Capital in the 21st Century, which is now No. 5 on Amazon’s bestseller list. That’s an amazing achievement for a book that positively bristles with charts, graphs, and abstruse economic arguments. I suspect it will be more purchased than actually read.

But the Financial Times has accused Piketty of doing a poor job with his data. I am not in a position to have an opinion on this as it involves complicated statistical analysis that is above my pay grade. But Scott Winship, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is in such a position and he’s not very impressed with the Financial Times’s analysis:

The Financial Times blew the data issues it identified out of proportion. Giles discovered a couple of clear errors and a number of adjustments that look questionable but have barely any impact on Piketty’s charts. Much of his critique could have been consigned to a footnote to the effect that he uncovered other mistakes and questionable choices that do not actually change Piketty’s results. Giles’s post is written in a way that makes you think the alleged problems with Piketty’s data are more legion than they are. And he’s made some errors himself along the way.

However, the distinguished economist Martin Feldstein, a professor at Harvard and the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Ronald Reagan has other bones to pick with Piketty’s book, principally that Piketty failed to take into account how changes in American tax law affected people’s behavior and thus deeply affected the statistics:

These changes in taxpayer behavior substantially increased the amount of income included on the returns of high-income individuals. This creates the false impression of a sharp rise in the incomes of high-income taxpayers even though there was only a change in the legal form of that income. This transformation occurred gradually over many years as taxpayers changed their behavior and their accounting practices to reflect the new rules. The business income of Subchapter S corporations alone rose from $500 billion in 1986 to $1.8 trillion by 1992. …

Finally, Mr. Piketty’s use of estate-tax data to explore what he sees as the increasing inequality of wealth is problematic. In part, this is because of changes in estate and gift-tax rules, but more fundamentally because bequeathable assets are only a small part of the wealth that most individuals have for their retirement years. That wealth includes the present actuarial value of Social Security and retiree health benefits, and the income that will flow from employer-provided pensions. If this wealth were taken into account, the measured concentration of wealth would be much less than Mr. Piketty’s numbers imply.

And I certainly agree with Prof. Feldstein’s conclusion:

The problem with the distribution of income in this country is not that some people earn high incomes because of skill, training or luck. The problem is the persistence of poverty. To reduce that persistent poverty we need stronger economic growth and a different approach to education and training, not the confiscatory taxes on income and wealth that Mr. Piketty recommends.

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The Dangerous Divided Jerusalem Fantasy

On this date in the Hebrew calendar 47 years ago, Israeli forces ended the division of Jerusalem. The city had been split during the Arab siege of the capital in 1948 and it remained cut in half by an ugly wall as well as by dangerous no-man’s-land zones. The victory in the Six-Day War ended an illegal occupation of the eastern portion of the city as well as the walled Old City by Jordan that had lasted for 19 years but was not recognized by the world. In breaking down the barriers, the Israelis not only reunited the city but opened access to its religious shrines—including the Western Wall and the Temple Mount—which had been off limits for Jews during the Jordanian occupation. But as Israelis celebrated what is known as “Jerusalem Day” today, support for the push to reinstate the division of the city in the international community has grown. Every Middle East peace plan proposed in the last 15 years, including the three Israeli offers of statehood that the Palestinians turned down, included a new partition of Jerusalem even though both sides remain murky about how that could be accomplished without reinstating the warlike atmosphere that prevailed before June 1967.

But for those who believe that such a partition is essential to peace, the process by which a city that has grown exponentially in the last five decades, with Jews and Arabs no longer neatly divided by a wall, could be split is merely a matter of details. To fill in the blanks for its readers, Haaretz published a Jerusalem Day feature that provided the answer to the question. Highlighting a complicated scheme put forward by a Jerusalem architectural firm, the paper asserted that most Jerusalemites wouldn’t even notice the difference if their city was re-partitioned. On the surface the plan, which has been funded by a variety of left-wing sources, seems practical if complicated and expensive. But it is not only completely unrealistic; it is based on a fantasy that the real problem in Jerusalem is primarily one of engineering, aesthetics, and logistics. Like every other element of other utopian peace plans that are sold to both the Israeli and Western publics as the solution that “everybody knows” must eventually happen, this vision of Jerusalem ignores the fundamental problem of peace: the fact that the Palestinians don’t want it.

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On this date in the Hebrew calendar 47 years ago, Israeli forces ended the division of Jerusalem. The city had been split during the Arab siege of the capital in 1948 and it remained cut in half by an ugly wall as well as by dangerous no-man’s-land zones. The victory in the Six-Day War ended an illegal occupation of the eastern portion of the city as well as the walled Old City by Jordan that had lasted for 19 years but was not recognized by the world. In breaking down the barriers, the Israelis not only reunited the city but opened access to its religious shrines—including the Western Wall and the Temple Mount—which had been off limits for Jews during the Jordanian occupation. But as Israelis celebrated what is known as “Jerusalem Day” today, support for the push to reinstate the division of the city in the international community has grown. Every Middle East peace plan proposed in the last 15 years, including the three Israeli offers of statehood that the Palestinians turned down, included a new partition of Jerusalem even though both sides remain murky about how that could be accomplished without reinstating the warlike atmosphere that prevailed before June 1967.

But for those who believe that such a partition is essential to peace, the process by which a city that has grown exponentially in the last five decades, with Jews and Arabs no longer neatly divided by a wall, could be split is merely a matter of details. To fill in the blanks for its readers, Haaretz published a Jerusalem Day feature that provided the answer to the question. Highlighting a complicated scheme put forward by a Jerusalem architectural firm, the paper asserted that most Jerusalemites wouldn’t even notice the difference if their city was re-partitioned. On the surface the plan, which has been funded by a variety of left-wing sources, seems practical if complicated and expensive. But it is not only completely unrealistic; it is based on a fantasy that the real problem in Jerusalem is primarily one of engineering, aesthetics, and logistics. Like every other element of other utopian peace plans that are sold to both the Israeli and Western publics as the solution that “everybody knows” must eventually happen, this vision of Jerusalem ignores the fundamental problem of peace: the fact that the Palestinians don’t want it.

The conceit of the divided Jerusalem scheme is that the old “green line” that once cut through the city as well as the West Bank is alive and well. Since the second intifada, Jews largely avoid Arab sectors of the city and Arabs do the same in Jewish sections. The only problem then is how to “soften” the appearance of a division so as to codify the reality of a divided city without actually reinstating the ugly and perilous military fortifications that served as the front lines for the Arab-Israeli wars from 1949 to 1967.

There is some truth to the notion that Jerusalem is currently divided in this manner. But it is a fallacy to assert that it is anything as absolute as the authors of the plan and their media cheerleaders claim. Contrary to the notion popularized by the terminology used by the media, there is no real east or west Jerusalem. The city is built on hills with much of the “eastern” section actually in the north and south where Jewish neighborhoods on the other side of the green line have existed for over 40 years. The idea that this can all be easily sorted out by handing out the Jewish sections to Israel and the Arab ones to “Palestine” won’t work.

It is a falsehood to assert that 40 percent of Jerusalemites can’t vote in municipal elections. Residents of Arab neighborhoods could vote but don’t. If they did participate they would hold real power, but for nationalist reasons they choose to boycott the democratic process and the result is that they have been shortchanged. While current Mayor Nir Barkat opposes division of the city, he has rightly argued that Israel has to do better in serving Arab neighborhoods because with sovereignty comes responsibility. But what the plan’s authors also leave out of the equation is that a division would deprive many of these same Arabs of their employment and health coverage since a great number work on the Israeli side or get their medical treatment there. Will they give that up for Palestine? Just as when the security barrier was erected, many Arabs will clamor to stay on the Israeli side of any divide for obvious reasons.

Left unsaid in the piece is the fact that there are actually a number of interlocked Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. Nor does it explain how the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus (which was isolated as a Jewish enclave during the Jordanian occupation) could be reached from what they propose to be Israeli Jerusalem or how Jerusalemites could access the scenic Sherover/Haas promenade in the city. And those are just a few of the anomalies that go unsolved or unanswered in a scheme that treats transportation patterns and border security as if they were mere blots on the map rather than avoidable facts.

There’s also no mention here about how security in this intricately divided city could be administered. Would Israelis really be prepared to cede the security of their capital to foreign forces? Could peace monitors be relied upon to respect Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish neighborhoods if they become, after peace, the object of a new intifada whose purpose would be to chip away at the rump of the Jewish state?

Nor is there any reason to believe the newly partitioned city would be one in which religious freedom at the holy places would be respected, especially since the Arab side of the new wall will almost certainly be declared a Jew-free zone by the Palestinian Authority and its Hamas allies/antagonists.

Just as important, rather than allowing a city that has grown by leaps and bounds to continue to thrive, a new partition would create more than political barriers. It would strangle the city’s economy, a common fate for all divided cities. That is something that would damage both Jews and Arabs.

But even if we were to concede that all these problems could be somehow miraculously worked out to the satisfaction of all sides, one big obstacle remains to the implementation of this plan: Palestinian cooperation. This is, after all, pretty much the same plan that Ehud Olmert offered to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. Abbas fled the negotiating table rather than be forced to respond to a plan that would have involved recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Compromise is always possible when both sides desire an outcome in which each will get some but not all of what they want. But so long as Palestinian national identity is still inextricably linked with the war on Zionism, no plan, no matter how reasonable sounding, can work.

It is telling that although groups dedicated to co-existence liberally funded the partition plan, there is not one Palestinian Arab architect associated with it. That is not an accident. Had the Palestinians wanted to accept a divided Jerusalem as part of their new state they could have had one in 2000, 2001, 2008, or even this year had they chosen to negotiate seriously with a Netanyahu government that was already prepared to cede most of the West Bank. But they didn’t take it and there’s no indication that they will change their mind anytime soon.

The obstacle to dividing Jerusalem isn’t one of aesthetics or engineering or even the problem of drawing a border in a place that causes the least harm to both sides. It is about a conflict that won’t be resolved until the Palestinians give up their fantasy of eradicating the Jewish state. When that happens, then perhaps utopian designs such as this one will be feasible and Israelis will be willing to give up their rightful to claim to all of their historic capital and share sovereignty. But until then, the only point of such plans is to undermine Jewish claims to the city in a manner that undermines hope for peace.

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Snowden, Greenwald, and the NY Times’s “High Standards”

Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, believes that the paper’s Book Review made an error in assigning Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide to Michael Kinsley. No Place to Hide is Greenwald’s account of how he helped to expose the revelations of fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, first in the pages of the Guardian, where Greenwald briefly worked as a blogger, and then through the auspices of First Look Media, an online news organization that he launched last October alongside documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and radical journalist Jeremy Scahill. (I wrote about this trio last year.) Kinsley, needless to say, did not like the book.

That’s his right, Sullivan acknowledges, but she nonetheless found his review to be “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Why? First is its “sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald,” a fantastically oblivious criticism given Greenwald’s trademark contemptuous writing style. Next, Sullivan accuses Kinsley of repudiating the “special role for the press in America’s democracy.” This is a complete mischaracterization of Kinsley, who merely argued that “newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences.” Snowden and Greenwald have arrogated to themselves that final say; Kinsley believes, quite reasonably, that these two men should not be the final arbiters of America’s national-security secrets.

Sullivan believes that Book Review editor Pamela Paul made a mistake in not thoroughly scrubbing the review of such heresies. “It’s wrong to deny that role,” she writes, of Kinsley’s supposed trashing of the First Amendment, “and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand.” Having failed to adopt the Greenwaldian view of state secrets (a view apparently shared by Sullivan), Kinsley thus had no right to express his disapproval in the august pages of the Times

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Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, believes that the paper’s Book Review made an error in assigning Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide to Michael Kinsley. No Place to Hide is Greenwald’s account of how he helped to expose the revelations of fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, first in the pages of the Guardian, where Greenwald briefly worked as a blogger, and then through the auspices of First Look Media, an online news organization that he launched last October alongside documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and radical journalist Jeremy Scahill. (I wrote about this trio last year.) Kinsley, needless to say, did not like the book.

That’s his right, Sullivan acknowledges, but she nonetheless found his review to be “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Why? First is its “sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald,” a fantastically oblivious criticism given Greenwald’s trademark contemptuous writing style. Next, Sullivan accuses Kinsley of repudiating the “special role for the press in America’s democracy.” This is a complete mischaracterization of Kinsley, who merely argued that “newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences.” Snowden and Greenwald have arrogated to themselves that final say; Kinsley believes, quite reasonably, that these two men should not be the final arbiters of America’s national-security secrets.

Sullivan believes that Book Review editor Pamela Paul made a mistake in not thoroughly scrubbing the review of such heresies. “It’s wrong to deny that role,” she writes, of Kinsley’s supposed trashing of the First Amendment, “and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand.” Having failed to adopt the Greenwaldian view of state secrets (a view apparently shared by Sullivan), Kinsley thus had no right to express his disapproval in the august pages of the Times

In light of Sullivan’s concern for how the Times chooses writers to cover particular subjects, I wonder what she has to say about another matter in this regard. Last August, the New York Times Magazine assigned Peter Maass to write a profile of Poitras, whose fervently critical films about the Iraq War attracted the attention of Snowden, who reached out to her when he was contemplating how to publish the NSA information he had stolen. Poitras, Maass wrote sympathetically, had become “the target of serious – and apparently false – accusations,” namely, that she had foreknowledge of a deadly ambush carried out on American troops in the town of Adhamiya in 2004 by Iraqi insurgents, an ambush that she filmed. Ever since that incident, Poitras has been questioned dozens of times by Homeland Security officials upon re-entering the United States, a tribulation that Maass writes about with uncritical sympathy.

The case, however, is not as clear-cut as Maass portrayed. “It seems that she had pre-knowledge that our convoy, or our patrol, was going to get hit,” Brandon Ditto, the leader of the platoon that was ambushed, told John McCormack of the Weekly Standard last year. Skepticism of Poitras was also voiced by John R. Bruning, author of a 2006 book that detailed the ambush. “To be exactly positioned to capture a vehicular ambush in the middle of Baghdad is either a huge fluke or you have foreknowledge that that was coming,” he said. To Maass, however, Poitras is a dissident hero, harassed by the jack-booted thugs of a government out to silence her.

Fast-forward six months. Maass is rewarded for his obsequiousness with a job as senior writer at none other than First Look Media. This is somewhat akin to the revolving door that thrusts mainstream, supposedly “straight” news reporters (16 at last count) into the Obama administration. When someone who has devoted their career to reporting abandons that line of work to join the very people he used to write about, it is entirely fair to question the quality and objectivity of their previous work. Why, after all, would Barack Obama choose a Jay Carney as his spokesman (as opposed to some career Democratic Party flack) unless he had found his reporting to be eminently favorable? In light of the Maass episode, which, to my knowledge, no media ethicist has yet to comment upon, one might think that an editor at the Times magazine (or, failing that, the Times’s public editor), would question whether the magazine has buyer’s remorse for assigning a piece about a highly controversial figure to a man whose writing about said figure was so credulous that she later awarded him a job.

Last year, when Poitras learned that the Guardian had assigned veteran news reporter Ewen MacAskill to accompany her and Greenwald to Hong Kong, where Snowden was hiding, she became angry and suspicious. “Who has vetted him?” she demanded of Greenwald. In the contest for most sycophantic coverage of the Snowdenista crew, Peter Maass passed with flying colors.

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The Mann/Ornstein Thesis Is Even Worse Than It Looks

In 2012, When Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein published their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, primarily blaming Republicans for congressional gridlock, they began a campaign of writing op-eds laying out their thesis in various political publications. The two complained, however, that none of the political talk shows wanted to have them on to sell the book. As they told the Washington Post:

“Not a single one of the Sunday shows has indicated an interest, and I do find it curious,” Ornstein told me, adding that the Op ed (sic) had well over 200,000 Facebook recommends and has been viral for weeks. “This is a level of attention for a book that we haven’t received before. You would think it would attract some attention from the Sunday shows.’

Over 200,00 Facebook recommendations and still no takers on the Sunday shows! But in fact it wasn’t so strange. The thesis they laid out in column after column was just plain wrong, and unambiguously so. It might have sold books and fooled the occasional liberal commentator, but those who worked in Washington had at least a basic knowledge of congressional politics, which was all that was needed to know Mann and Ornstein were peddling nonsense on stilts.

In the last couple of weeks, we got additional reminders of that. First came the revelation that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, after having effectively dismantled the filibuster, was removing yet one more way for the minority party to have any participation in the legislating process: blocking amendments on a bipartisan bill. Reid’s well-established role in perpetuating congressional gridlock is easy enough to disregard for partisans fully committed to their own blissful ignorance.

Enter Thomas Mann. On Monday he published a long piece at the Atlantic in which he continued pushing his long-debunked thesis. Unfortunately for Mann, today we received yet another indication–this time from President Obama himself–that the talks shows that ignored Mann and Ornstein were doing their viewers a favor. This time the subject was immigration reform.

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In 2012, When Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein published their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, primarily blaming Republicans for congressional gridlock, they began a campaign of writing op-eds laying out their thesis in various political publications. The two complained, however, that none of the political talk shows wanted to have them on to sell the book. As they told the Washington Post:

“Not a single one of the Sunday shows has indicated an interest, and I do find it curious,” Ornstein told me, adding that the Op ed (sic) had well over 200,000 Facebook recommends and has been viral for weeks. “This is a level of attention for a book that we haven’t received before. You would think it would attract some attention from the Sunday shows.’

Over 200,00 Facebook recommendations and still no takers on the Sunday shows! But in fact it wasn’t so strange. The thesis they laid out in column after column was just plain wrong, and unambiguously so. It might have sold books and fooled the occasional liberal commentator, but those who worked in Washington had at least a basic knowledge of congressional politics, which was all that was needed to know Mann and Ornstein were peddling nonsense on stilts.

In the last couple of weeks, we got additional reminders of that. First came the revelation that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, after having effectively dismantled the filibuster, was removing yet one more way for the minority party to have any participation in the legislating process: blocking amendments on a bipartisan bill. Reid’s well-established role in perpetuating congressional gridlock is easy enough to disregard for partisans fully committed to their own blissful ignorance.

Enter Thomas Mann. On Monday he published a long piece at the Atlantic in which he continued pushing his long-debunked thesis. Unfortunately for Mann, today we received yet another indication–this time from President Obama himself–that the talks shows that ignored Mann and Ornstein were doing their viewers a favor. This time the subject was immigration reform.

Today’s edition of the New York Times reports that President Obama “has directed the secretary of Homeland Security to delay until after the summer a deportation enforcement review that officials feared would anger House Republicans and doom any lingering hopes for an immigration overhaul in Congress this year, officials said Tuesday night.” The president was contemplating, once again, taking executive action that would preempt Congress on immigration.

Obama’s habit of using executive action has consistently undermined congressional lawmaking authority–the kind of thing that those who are truly concerned about a “broken Congress” would be up in arms about. Those obsessed with blaming Republicans for everything, however, have forgiven such action because they have chosen sides in a partisan battle. (Which is certainly their right, of course.) Obama did this once before: heading into his reelection, he torpedoed Marco Rubio’s bipartisan immigration reform with executive action to keep the issue alive for his party’s base.

And all indications were that he would do so again. His congressional allies such as Chuck Schumer were openly threatening Republicans that if they didn’t pass a bill the White House liked within a defined period, the president would take executive action again. Having killed immigration reform twice now (once as senator, to the chagrin of Ted Kennedy, and once as president), Obama seems hesitant to do so yet again.

But more than that, he’s also making clear that he understands that such executive action–and the threats that come with it, even implicit ones like the deportation review–only serve to further grind Congress to a halt and impede the business of legislating public policy. And so he’s backing off this time.

This argument may sound like it goes around in circles, but actually Mann’s latest contribution is quite revealing. While President Obama thinks the solution to partisan deadlock is to stop impeding bipartisan legislation and enable the two sides the space to find common ground–which they’ve already done on this issue–Mann thinks the solution is:

Perhaps more promising are approaches that focus directly on the parties as they exist within our constitutional system. One-party government seems an essential first step, one that can sustain itself in office long enough to put in place and begin to implement a credible governing program. The second is nudging the Republican Party back into being a genuinely conservative, not radical, party that aspires to win presidential as well as congressional elections over the long haul. The third is dampening the intense and unrelenting competition for control of Congress and the White House, which is itself an historical anomaly.

That’s right–one-party rule, which he makes clear would be the Democrats. During the time when the Democratic Party can do whatever it wants with no accountable check on power save the high court, Republicans would be “nudged” to … become more like Democrats. That would be followed by the “dampening” of electoral competition.

Welcome to the brave new world of Thomas Mann, where a balance of power is replaced by hundreds of immensely powerful lawmakers who agree with him. Maybe if he phrases it that way he’ll get those TV invitations he’s been waiting for.

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Edward Snowden’s Ego Trip

I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

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I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

“The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia,” he said in a second excerpt broadcast on NBC’s “Today Show.” “I had a flight booked to Cuba onwards to Latin America, and I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in Moscow Airport. So when people ask why are you in Russia, I say, ‘Please ask the State Department.’ ”

That comment drew a sharp reaction from Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview on the same program. “For a supposedly smart guy, that’s a pretty dumb answer, frankly,” Mr. Kerry said. He added: “He can come home, but he’s a fugitive from justice, which is why he’s not being permitted to fly around the world. It’s that simple.”

Indeed, Secretary Kerry is on the mark. Snowden’s comment is a dumb thing to say, though it’s less likely that Snowden is stupid enough to believe it and more likely that he just assumes the American media and his cheerleaders back in the States are stupid enough to believe it. Kerry isn’t buying it, but his response to Snowden wasn’t done. Later in that story, Kerry adds:

“The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country, where he has taken refuge,” he said. “He should man up and come back to the United States if he has a complaint about what’s the matter with American surveillance, come back here and stand in our system of justice and make his case. But instead he is just sitting there taking potshots at his country, violating his oath that he took when he took on the job he took.”

Shots fired, as they say. Snowden probably thinks this is some sort of victory, since it shows that he got under Kerry’s skin. But it won’t help Snowden or his followers that Washington is pushing back and engaging in the battle to define and frame Snowden and his antics. It may not lure him back home to face the consequences of his actions, but it’s still worth engaging Snowden’s selective smearing of American institutions for the benefit of states like China and Russia.

And the provocations go in both directions. It appears President Obama got under Snowden’s skin as well, leading Snowden to protest that he’s not just some low-level techie but a masterful weapon created by the elite minds at America’s espionage organizations:

“They’re trying to use one position that I’ve had in a career here or there to distract from the totality of my experience,” he said, “which is that I’ve worked for the Central Intelligence Agency undercover overseas, I’ve worked for the National Security Agency undercover overseas and I’ve worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency as a lecturer at the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy, where I developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world.” …

“I am a technical specialist,” he said. “I am a technical expert. I don’t work with people. I don’t recruit agents. What I do is I put systems to work for the United States. And I’ve done that at all levels from — from the bottom on the ground all the way to the top. Now, the government might deny these things, they might frame it in certain ways and say, ‘Oh well, you know, he’s — he’s a low level analyst.’ ”

How dare the president deny the “totality of [Snowden’s] experience.” Surely he’s aware of the work Snowden does when he powers down his laptop, jumps into the nearest phone booth, and emerges with cape flowing. Doesn’t the president know he is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? That he’s the hero Gotham deserves? That he is the terror that flaps in the night?

I’m not sure if Snowden thinks it helps his case to declare that he is a defector of far greater significance than he’s been given credit for thus far. And to be honest, this cry for attention and validation is almost endearing. He just wants to be appreciated, to give his perpetual adolescence some meaning. Kerry’s quest to get Snowden to “man up” is probably futile, but good for Kerry for pointing it out–and for referring to Snowden’s new home as an “authoritarian country.” It’s a welcome dose of clear-eyed straight talk from Foggy Bottom.

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The Obama Foreign-Policy “Successes”

President Obama, in his West Point address, was obviously striking back at critics who claim that his foreign policy is a failure. So what successes does he have to point to? At the beginning of his talk, he listed several:

We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.

All of this is true as far as it goes–but it doesn’t go very far.

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President Obama, in his West Point address, was obviously striking back at critics who claim that his foreign policy is a failure. So what successes does he have to point to? At the beginning of his talk, he listed several:

We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.

All of this is true as far as it goes–but it doesn’t go very far.

Yes, Obama has removed U.S. troops from Iraq–but the consequences have been disastrous. Violence is back up to 2008 levels and al-Qaeda in Iraq, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is back in control of major chunks of Anbar Province. Its fighters are now advancing on Baghdad where they regularly set off car bombs while Iranian-backed militias are committing their own atrocities in retaliation.

Yes, Obama is “winding down our war in Afghanistan”–but “their” war goes on unabated. Sure, the president can pull U.S. troops out by the end of his presidency, but that doesn’t mean that the conflict will end. The more likely outcome is that, as in Iraq, our pullout will embolden our enemies and lead to greater levels of fighting.

Yes, “Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated” and Osama bin Laden killed, but in many ways al-Qaeda itself is stronger than ever. Its affiliates have spread to Mali, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and, above all, Syria, which U.S. intelligence officials warn is now as dangerous to the United States as Afghanistan was prior to 9/11.

I applaud the ingenuity of the president’s speechwriters who managed to put forward their claims in a way that is technically true–but they are presenting a misleading impression and everyone who doesn’t work in the West Wing of the White House knows it.

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“No Mind Has Stamped More of Its Impression On American Institutions”

Lynne Cheney has written a splendid new biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

There are many things one could focus on in a book on Madison, from his personal modesty and his “remarkable sweet temper” (in the words of William Pierce), to his loving marriage to Dolley and his lifelong, intimate friendship with Thomas Jefferson, to his indispensable role in the creation of the Constitution and his wartime leadership as president. Madison was a man of unusual self-possession and a steady temperament, brave in his struggle with seizures (which may have been caused by epilepsy), and fervently committed to religious liberty. 

But there’s one part of Madison’s life I want to concentrate on for the purposes of this post, which has to do with the fight for ratification in Madison’s home state of Virginia, which at the time was the nation’s largest and most important state. Mrs. Cheney sets the scene:

On June 14 [1788], the delegates finally began the point-by-point debate on the Constitution that George Mason had proposed eleven days before. Soon a pattern developed. [Patrick] Henry, George Mason, or James Monroe, who also opposed the Constitution, would claim there were reasons for grave concern in this clause or that one, and Madison would rise to explain briefly and cogently why their worry was unfounded. To Madison it often seemed a Sisyphean effort. He later told Edward Coles, his secretary, that Patrick Henry could undo an hour’s work with a single gesture… He wrote to Hamilton, “My health is not good, and the business is wearisome beyond expression.” … Two days later, Madison wrote to Washington, “I find myself not yet restored and extremely feeble.” He was, nevertheless, putting in a magnificent performance. One observer reported that although “the division” in the Virginia Convention was very close, a narrow win could be expected for the Federalists – “notwithstanding Mr. Henry’s declaratory powers, they being vastly overpowered by the deep reasoning of our glorious little Madison.” One of the delegates, Archibald Stuart, wrote to a friend on June 19, 1788, “Madison came boldly forward and supported the Constitution with the soundest reason and most manly eloquence I ever heart. He understands his subject well and his whole soul is engaged in its success…”

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Lynne Cheney has written a splendid new biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

There are many things one could focus on in a book on Madison, from his personal modesty and his “remarkable sweet temper” (in the words of William Pierce), to his loving marriage to Dolley and his lifelong, intimate friendship with Thomas Jefferson, to his indispensable role in the creation of the Constitution and his wartime leadership as president. Madison was a man of unusual self-possession and a steady temperament, brave in his struggle with seizures (which may have been caused by epilepsy), and fervently committed to religious liberty. 

But there’s one part of Madison’s life I want to concentrate on for the purposes of this post, which has to do with the fight for ratification in Madison’s home state of Virginia, which at the time was the nation’s largest and most important state. Mrs. Cheney sets the scene:

On June 14 [1788], the delegates finally began the point-by-point debate on the Constitution that George Mason had proposed eleven days before. Soon a pattern developed. [Patrick] Henry, George Mason, or James Monroe, who also opposed the Constitution, would claim there were reasons for grave concern in this clause or that one, and Madison would rise to explain briefly and cogently why their worry was unfounded. To Madison it often seemed a Sisyphean effort. He later told Edward Coles, his secretary, that Patrick Henry could undo an hour’s work with a single gesture… He wrote to Hamilton, “My health is not good, and the business is wearisome beyond expression.” … Two days later, Madison wrote to Washington, “I find myself not yet restored and extremely feeble.” He was, nevertheless, putting in a magnificent performance. One observer reported that although “the division” in the Virginia Convention was very close, a narrow win could be expected for the Federalists – “notwithstanding Mr. Henry’s declaratory powers, they being vastly overpowered by the deep reasoning of our glorious little Madison.” One of the delegates, Archibald Stuart, wrote to a friend on June 19, 1788, “Madison came boldly forward and supported the Constitution with the soundest reason and most manly eloquence I ever heart. He understands his subject well and his whole soul is engaged in its success…”

On June 25, 1788 delegates voted 89 to 79 to ratify the Constitution. If Virginia’s vote had gone the other way, Cheney points out, in all likelihood so would New York’s, in which case the whole constitutional enterprise might have come crumbling down. A French diplomat wrote home saying this: “Mr. Madison is the one who, among all the delegates, carried the votes of the two parties. He was always clear, precise, and consistent in his reasoning and always methodical and pure in his language.”

This underscores one of Madison’s most impressive qualities. In an assemblage filled with extraordinary minds, Madison was equal to them all. But he was also the best-prepared person at the Constitutional Convention. Prior to it Jefferson, then in Paris, sent Madison crates of books–more than 200–to study various forms of government. (This led him to author “Of Ancient and Modern Confederacies.”) When Madison submitted his recommendations for the ideal legislator’s library, he cited the works of Locke, Hooker, Plutarch, Hobbes, Hume, Montesquieu, Machiavelli, Plato, and Aristotle, among others. No one studied harder or knew more about the requirements for self-government. 

Several years after the death of the “father of the Constitution,”  the lawyer and politician Charles Jared Ingersoll would say, “no mind has stamped more of its impressions on American institutions than Madison’s.” 

Different people will argue over who was the greatest founder. Some would argue that George Washington was America’s “indispensable man.” Others would point to the brilliant mind and beautiful pen of Thomas Jefferson. But on careful reflection, taking all things into account, it would be difficult to place anyone above the remarkable man from Montpelier.

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Obama vs. His Imagined Critics

In his much ballyhooed West Point address, President Obama employed what in the 1990s was known as “triangulation”–but not an effective or convincing form of triangulation, rather one that appears to be mainly rhetorical instead of policy oriented. 

The president set up a conflict between “self-described realists” who warn against “foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being” and “interventionists on the left and right” who claim “that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”

Naturally Obama claimed that his policy is equidistant between these extremes: “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. … But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”

Yet who says “that every problem has a military solution”? Obama is punching at a straw man, and he continued to do so throughout his address. Some more examples:

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In his much ballyhooed West Point address, President Obama employed what in the 1990s was known as “triangulation”–but not an effective or convincing form of triangulation, rather one that appears to be mainly rhetorical instead of policy oriented. 

The president set up a conflict between “self-described realists” who warn against “foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being” and “interventionists on the left and right” who claim “that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”

Naturally Obama claimed that his policy is equidistant between these extremes: “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. … But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”

Yet who says “that every problem has a military solution”? Obama is punching at a straw man, and he continued to do so throughout his address. Some more examples:

* “I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

* “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”

*“As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers – no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon. As President, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war [in Syria], and I believe that is the right decision.”

*“Of course, skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong.”

I wonder if Obama or his speechwriters could possibly identify a single person who thinks that it’s a good idea to invade “every country that harbors terrorist networks,” or who thinks that putting American troops into Syria is the way to go, or who argues that “working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness.” 

Maybe there is such a person out there but I have yet to meet him or her, much less to find a large movement espousing such views. What Obama is doing here is caricaturing criticism of his foreign policy so he can rebut it more easily. In particular he is conflating “tough action” with “military action” and “military action” with “boots on the ground.”

No one is arguing that we should bomb Russia but many (including me) are arguing that we need a tougher response to Russian aggression to include more wide-ranging sanctions and the stationing of U.S. troops in NATO frontline states. 

Likewise, no one is arguing for sending troops to Syria. But many have been arguing for stepping up assistance to the Syrian opposition and employing air strikes if necessary to aid their campaign to overthrow the Iranian-supported Assad regime. 

Obama himself used just such a combination of covert aid and air strikes to overthrow Qaddafi in Libya—as Clinton did in Bosnia and Kosovo and as George W. Bush did initially in Afghanistan. This is a relatively low-cost way to project American military power that doesn’t risk putting troops on the ground. But to listen to the West Point address you would think this option doesn’t exist—the only choices Obama seems to recognize now are either diplomatic posturing or a massive, Iraq-style ground invasion.

Finally, no one I know of seriously thinks that “working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness.” What many (including me) argue is that, while we should try to utilize multilateral institutions where possible, we should not hold our policy hostage to a failure to win agreement at the UN Security Council—as Obama seems to be doing in the case of Syria and Iran.

In rebutting his many critics, Obama would be more persuasive if seriously engaged their arguments instead of rebutting arguments that no one is making in the real world.

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Latest Gun-Control Push Explains Why It Will Fail

The tragedy in Isla Vista, California last week is leading to new calls for more gun-control legislation. The actions of Elliot Rodger, the disturbed person who murdered six people (three by stabbing and three by shooting) at the University of California at Santa Barbara is seen by some as yet another reason for Congress to act to make it more difficult to purchase weapons or to ban them. The anguished demand of Richard Martinez, a parent of one of the victims, “When will this insanity stop?” rapidly went viral and his accusation that his son’s death was the fault of “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA” is being taken up by those who are still wondering why the national outrage at the shooting of 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut didn’t result in the enactment of more gun laws.

But this time even liberals are conceding that Martinez’s demands won’t be heeded. As Chris Cilizza writes today in the Washington Post, resistance to more draconian restrictions has stiffened since Newtown and more states have loosened gun laws than tightened them. Though some on the left, like the Los Angeles Times’s Steve Lopez, are doubling down on the anger about guns that such incidents provoke, the main reaction from liberals is to lament the fact that the emotional surge after a shooting has never provided the tipping point on the issue they desire. Though polls have always shown public sympathy for proposals for more background checks, as Cillizza notes, support for more gun control in general has actually dwindled in the last two decades, including in the last year since Newtown.

Why? There are two reasons. One has to do with the fact that the public rightly believes that such laws won’t prevent mass killings by madmen. The other has to do with a belief that such calls are not about “common sense gun control” but abrogation of constitutional gun rights. Indeed, the anger of gun-control advocates after these tragedies has the perverse effect of heightening suspicions about their true intent.

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The tragedy in Isla Vista, California last week is leading to new calls for more gun-control legislation. The actions of Elliot Rodger, the disturbed person who murdered six people (three by stabbing and three by shooting) at the University of California at Santa Barbara is seen by some as yet another reason for Congress to act to make it more difficult to purchase weapons or to ban them. The anguished demand of Richard Martinez, a parent of one of the victims, “When will this insanity stop?” rapidly went viral and his accusation that his son’s death was the fault of “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA” is being taken up by those who are still wondering why the national outrage at the shooting of 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut didn’t result in the enactment of more gun laws.

But this time even liberals are conceding that Martinez’s demands won’t be heeded. As Chris Cilizza writes today in the Washington Post, resistance to more draconian restrictions has stiffened since Newtown and more states have loosened gun laws than tightened them. Though some on the left, like the Los Angeles Times’s Steve Lopez, are doubling down on the anger about guns that such incidents provoke, the main reaction from liberals is to lament the fact that the emotional surge after a shooting has never provided the tipping point on the issue they desire. Though polls have always shown public sympathy for proposals for more background checks, as Cillizza notes, support for more gun control in general has actually dwindled in the last two decades, including in the last year since Newtown.

Why? There are two reasons. One has to do with the fact that the public rightly believes that such laws won’t prevent mass killings by madmen. The other has to do with a belief that such calls are not about “common sense gun control” but abrogation of constitutional gun rights. Indeed, the anger of gun-control advocates after these tragedies has the perverse effect of heightening suspicions about their true intent.

The lack of any real connection between most gun-control proposals, including the most anodyne involving background checks such as last year’s bill sponsored by Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, and the actual chain of events leading to crimes such as the ones at Newtown or Isla Vista undermines the argument that these laws would save lives. Most of those who commit gun violence would never fall under the category of those whom the checks would prevent from purchasing a gun. Moreover, those who would be stopped can almost certainly obtain them by extralegal means.

Even more frustrating is the possibility that even an emphasis on mental health—which is the underlying cause of almost all mass shootings—wouldn’t do much to prevent these incidents from occurring. As clinical psychiatrist Richard Friedman explains today in a New York Times op-ed:

As a psychiatrist, I welcome calls from our politicians to improve our mental health care system. But even the best mental health care is unlikely to prevent these tragedies.

If we can’t reliably identify people who are at risk of committing violent acts, then how can we possibly prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who are likely to kill? Mr. Rodger had no problem legally buying guns because he had neither been institutionalized nor involuntarily hospitalized, both of which are generally factors that would have prevented him from purchasing firearms.

Would lowering the threshold for involuntary psychiatric treatment, as some argue, be effective in preventing mass killings or homicide in general? It’s doubtful.

Friedman concludes that the idea that improving our mental health system might prevent such horrors is a myth. While that shouldn’t preclude us from efforts in that direction, the sobering truth is that these shocking yet rare incidents can’t be legislated out of existence. This is a piece of wisdom that increasingly large numbers of Americans seem to have figured out for themselves without benefit of a degree in psychiatry.

Just as important in explaining the failure of more gun control is the fact that most gun owners and others who support Second Amendment rights don’t believe the assurances they hear from liberals about not wanting to take away their guns. Indeed, the more they hear from those advocating more restrictions, the less they trust them. In particular, this latest incident in which Rodger shot three of the victims with a handgun makes the case for such laws even more difficult. Gun-control advocates seized on the assault weapon used in Newtown as an example of the sort of gun that ought not be legal. Though the distinction between that sort of rifle and others was largely cosmetic, it made sense to a lot of Americans. But there is a broad judicial consensus that the right to possess a handgun is not in question. If, in response to Martinez’s heartfelt pleas, liberals think they can leverage the Santa Barbara incident into another legislative push, the effort may backfire.

The nation should grieve with Mr. Martinez and the other families who have suffered as a result of Isla Vista murders. But blaming the crime on politicians and the NRA tells us more about the need to vent about a senseless atrocity than it does about reasonable policy options. If calls for more gun control have been rejected, it is not because our politicians are too corrupt or the NRA too powerful. It is because most Americans rightly believe more such laws would do no good and possibly abridge their constitutional rights.

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The Tone and Thought Police at the New York Times

Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, is charged with investigating “matters of journalistic integrity.” Her recent takedown of Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Kinsley reveals a disturbing view of what that means.

At issue is Kinsley’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, in which Greenwald recounts his role in the Edward Snowden case. Greenwald is the activist blogger to whom Snowden leaked classified documents that shed light on the NSA’s controversial electronic surveillance programs.

Kinsley, truth to tell, is unkind to Snowden, and that is where the trouble begins. Sullivan thinks Kinsley’s “sneering tone” is “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Kinsley says, among other things, that Greenwald, whatever he may really be like, comes across as a “self-righteous sourpuss” in the book. Never mind that the New York Times would not have an op-ed section if sneering were ruled out of bounds. Although Kinsley gives us Greenwald’s own words to back up his assertion, it is too much for Sullivan, who apparently thinks that Kinsley should have found a way to indicate that Greenwald’s authorial voice is that of a self-aggrandizing blowhard without being insulting.

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Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, is charged with investigating “matters of journalistic integrity.” Her recent takedown of Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Kinsley reveals a disturbing view of what that means.

At issue is Kinsley’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, in which Greenwald recounts his role in the Edward Snowden case. Greenwald is the activist blogger to whom Snowden leaked classified documents that shed light on the NSA’s controversial electronic surveillance programs.

Kinsley, truth to tell, is unkind to Snowden, and that is where the trouble begins. Sullivan thinks Kinsley’s “sneering tone” is “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards.” Kinsley says, among other things, that Greenwald, whatever he may really be like, comes across as a “self-righteous sourpuss” in the book. Never mind that the New York Times would not have an op-ed section if sneering were ruled out of bounds. Although Kinsley gives us Greenwald’s own words to back up his assertion, it is too much for Sullivan, who apparently thinks that Kinsley should have found a way to indicate that Greenwald’s authorial voice is that of a self-aggrandizing blowhard without being insulting.

Sullivan also sympathizes with Greenwald’s boosters, who have complained that Kinsley never should have been chosen to write the review. To prove the point, she links to the very same piece Glenn Greenwald does in his own published complaint about the review. Kinsley devotes a small portion of that eight-year-old piece to questioning the opinion that journalists have an absolute privilege to refuse to disclose their sources. Kinsley also devotes a few sentences to the question of whether the Constitution offers absolute protection to journalists who disclose classified information. He does not answer the question, but Sullivan, a ventriloquist for Greenwald in this matter, evidently thinks that the Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, erred when she picked someone who had ever expressed any doubt about a person’s right to do what Greenwald did without facing any consequences.

On the other hand, it’s no problem for Sullivan to take Greenwald’s side, even though she is a recipient of Greenwald’s prior, recent, and lavish praise. Greenwald has called her an “invaluable voice on all of the key issues of media criticism,” praised her willingness to “write about issues that scare away even the bravest journalists,” and credited her with “revolutioniz[ing] the public editor position in the best possible way.” Of course, Sullivan should be allowed to write about people who think she is American elite journalism’s answer to Joan of Arc, but she is surely more at fault for choosing herself to write about Greenwald than Pamela Paul is for choosing Kinsley to do the same.

Echoing Greenwald again, Sullivan proposes that the main reason Kinsley’s review was inadmissible is that Kinsley does not hold the same view as she assumes the Times must about the proper balance between national security and freedom of the press. How can the Times, famous for publishing the Pentagon Papers, print a review that argues, as Kinsley does, that “the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences”? Sullivan thinks that Kinsley’s view is inadmissible because of, well, an assortment of platitudes: there is a “special role for the press in America’s democracy”; the “Founders intended the press to be a crucial check on the power of the federal government.” Of course, these admittedly important claims do not settle the question of how best to handle the disclosure of classified information, and Kinsley doesn’t deny either of them. Nonetheless editors “should not have allowed such a denial to stand.”

To be sure, Sullivan does not insist that Pamela Paul should have rejected the review. She thinks, instead, that “editing ought to point out gaping holes in an argument.” But what if Kinsley refused to acknowledge that his disagreement with Greenwald and Sullivan meant that his reasoning was deficient? Sullivan’s argument certainly implies that, insofar as the review would then remain “unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards,” Paul would be obliged to turn it down. Yet, since Sullivan envisions no circumstance in which Kinsley’s view could be defended in America, there is no version of it that would not, for her, be full of gaping holes.

Here, then, are the standards the public editor of the New York Times applies in investigating “matters of journalistic integrity” in the book review section. 1. Readers must not be told that a favored author’s voice is grating, no matter how grating it is; 2. No one who has ever expressed doubt about a beloved author’s views can review that author’s books; 3. Reviewers who express views that, however plausible, are considered out of bounds by Times staff should be compelled to recant if they wish to get published.

The paper is in the best of hands.

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