Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 2, 2014

A League of One’s Own

In the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Bachman has an interesting piece on “The Decline of the Company Softball Team.” She writes, “the New York Corporate Athletic League … had about 30 teams in 2008. Now it has eight.” The trend seems to be national. “Just 12% of U.S. organizations sponsor a company athletic team, down from 29% seven years ago, according to the Society for Human Resource Management,” Bachman notes. “The Amateur Softball Association doesn’t track corporate leagues, but says its adult-team registrations in 2013 had dropped 56% in 20 years.”

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In the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Bachman has an interesting piece on “The Decline of the Company Softball Team.” She writes, “the New York Corporate Athletic League … had about 30 teams in 2008. Now it has eight.” The trend seems to be national. “Just 12% of U.S. organizations sponsor a company athletic team, down from 29% seven years ago, according to the Society for Human Resource Management,” Bachman notes. “The Amateur Softball Association doesn’t track corporate leagues, but says its adult-team registrations in 2013 had dropped 56% in 20 years.”

One could look at this as a lightweight culture story, but political and social scientists are in the business of finding meaning in such phenomena. And they’re right. In a country with abundant freedoms, the choices we make say a great deal about who we are and where we’re headed.

The decline in company softball echoes the findings of political scientist Robert D. Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone looked at the increasing dissolution of what he termed “social capital” in America. Social capital comprises the willingness to be among family, friends, clubs, associations, and so on. Through wise investment (not all social activities are equal), significant social capital may enrich national life. Putnam believes that genuine human connections make us kinder, happier, more moral, more trusting, and better equipped to face challenges.

More than that, voluntary organizations offer a distinctly American rebuke to state coercion. Alexis de Tocqueville noted famously that “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. … Nothing strikes a European traveler in the United States more than the absence of what we would call government or administration. … There is nothing centralized or hierarchic in the constitution of American administrative power.” (These days, that quote can feel a bit like the mockery of the ages.)

As evidence of our growing disconnectedness, Putnam pointed to decreased membership in school PTAs, the Boy Scouts, churches, and various charitable organizations. His critics claimed that while the organizations he cited were losing members, participation in new social organizations, such as support groups, book clubs, and environmental movements, was on the rise. Putnam countered with data showing that “membership” in these new associations required far less involvement with other people. The new associations were largely nominal. Putnam blamed the atomization of American associations on the self-directed culture of both Baby Boomers and Generation X. He also blamed the enervating and isolating effects of watching television.

And where are we now? The tedious nihilism of Millennials addicted to the Internet makes Boomer TV watching look like the model of civic engagement. The softball piece is apt because Putnam’s title also came from the realm of amateur sports. While Americans still liked to bowl, he found, they were becoming less likely to do so on teams. One can’t play softball alone, so we’ll probably just see the game played less and less. Which, by the way, might please today’s identity obsessives, who see softball as an expression of sexism.

Bachman quotes one former company softballer on the decline of the game: “We don’t have that connection anymore, that little silly thing you talk about on the side.” On its own, yes, a small thing. But that connection is not so silly and it has been central to our national character.

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Poroshenko Stands Up to Putin. Can He Count on the West?

Whenever tempers flare in the Middle East, a bit of a news diversion is inevitably created. And the significant foreign-policy news that seems to be flying a bit under the radar right now is that Ukraine’s new government has put Vladimir Putin on his heels. The country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, ended the unilateral ceasefire with the rebels, a move that appears to have caught Russia off-guard. The New York Times reports:

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Whenever tempers flare in the Middle East, a bit of a news diversion is inevitably created. And the significant foreign-policy news that seems to be flying a bit under the radar right now is that Ukraine’s new government has put Vladimir Putin on his heels. The country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, ended the unilateral ceasefire with the rebels, a move that appears to have caught Russia off-guard. The New York Times reports:

In a stern warning that cited civilian casualties in war-torn eastern Ukraine, Russia on Wednesday demanded that the Ukrainian government reinstate a cease-fire and halt its military operation aimed at suppressing the pro-Russian separatist insurrection that has laid siege to the region for more than three months.

“Again we resolutely demand that the Ukrainian authorities — provided they are still able to evaluate sensibly the consequences of the criminal policy they conduct — to stop shelling peaceful cities and villages in their own country, to return to a real cease-fire in order to save human lives,” the Foreign Ministry said.

The statement went on to accuse the government of President Petro O. Poroshenko of the “physical annihilation of citizens of their own country” and, citing the evacuation of an orphanage in the Luhansk region, said, “the Ukrainian authorities do not even care about the fate of small children.”

Even in the context of the deeply embittered relations between the Kremlin and the government in Kiev, the Russian statement was unusually harsh and signaled blistering outrage in Moscow over the renewed military effort to end the rebellion.

Indeed it was harsh. The parenthetical phrase “provided they are still able to evaluate sensibly the consequences of the criminal policy they conduct” is diplospeak for “they have gone completely insane.” But as an accompanying Times editorial points out, it’s not clear Poroshenko had much of a choice.

The ceasefire was, after all, unilateral. Poroshenko would no doubt like to stop the violence with means other than civil war, and he is attempting to do so. This is understandable: a civil war has a way of perpetuating itself. Once a central government commits militarily to routing rebels, it can be difficult to know when the war is officially, or should be, “over.” It also can require ongoing security and surveillance of restive populations, which can have the unintended and paradoxical effect of treating a rebellious corner of the country as a breakaway province while insisting it is part of the whole.

On top of all this, such a task becomes even more complex for a new government, and doubly so for a new government with a weak army. The last thing Kiev would want to do is demonstrate that the rebels, aided by Moscow, are on a level playing field (or more). But they also can’t let yet another province just slip away without a fight. It would not only humiliate Kiev (again); it would also show Ukraine to be less than a sovereign country, a nation being looted for parts.

The Times editorialists praise the West for restraint until now, but warn the U.S. and Europe that Poroshenko has made his decision to ally with the West and they must not abandon him:

Mr. Poroshenko also has little room left to maneuver. Having signed a trade pact with the European Union that his ousted predecessor rejected, and now having sent troops to quell the rebellion in the east, he has committed Ukraine to a struggle that is bound to be long and painful. Russia has already raised Ukrainian gas prices and has threatened “serious consequences” over the trade agreement, and things are likely to get worse, economically and militarily, before any potential advantages of the European Union agreement kick in.

The United States and Europe have been right, so far, to moderate their response and to give diplomacy every chance. Nobody wants a trade war; certainly not Europe, with its heavy dependence on Russian energy, and not the American businesses that have begun lobbying against sanctions. And every effort must be made to convince the Russians that this is not about “deterrence.” But the agreement that Ukraine signed, along with Georgia and Moldova, is not only about trade. It’s also a commitment by the West to support them in their progress toward a higher standard of governance. Washington and Brussels have drawn lines and threatened serious sanctions, and the time has come to show they mean it.

That strikes me as a key point. The catalyst for the uprising in Ukraine was the fight over whether Kiev would sign a trade deal with Europe. The protests that erupted from a last-minute turn back to Moscow ended up bringing down the government and led to a Russian invasion and now a Russian-supported rebellion.

Ukraine has signed the deal, officially throwing in its lot with Europe at high (and still mounting) costs in the near term. The West must put its money where its mouth is and make sure they don’t send the message that it’s better to let Moscow dictate your foreign policy than gamble on the democracies of Europe and America.

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Obama’s Awful Poll Reflects His PR Strategy

The latest Quinnipiac poll showing Americans believe Barack Obama to be the worst post-World War II president demonstrates that, in a perverse way, Obama’s PR strategy is working. The key part of the poll, which shows Americans overall coming to the realization that Obama’s presidency has been disastrous, is that a majority consider the president to be incompetent. Where would they get that idea? From the president himself, to judge by his characteristic responses to the manifold corruption and abuse-of-power scandals emanating from his White House.

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The latest Quinnipiac poll showing Americans believe Barack Obama to be the worst post-World War II president demonstrates that, in a perverse way, Obama’s PR strategy is working. The key part of the poll, which shows Americans overall coming to the realization that Obama’s presidency has been disastrous, is that a majority consider the president to be incompetent. Where would they get that idea? From the president himself, to judge by his characteristic responses to the manifold corruption and abuse-of-power scandals emanating from his White House.

Quinnipiac writes: “American voters say 54 – 44 percent that the Obama Administration is not competent running the government. The president is paying attention to what his administration is doing, 47 percent say, while 48 percent say he does not pay enough attention.” This is, in general, the president’s own strategy at work.

Back in May, the Washington Free Beacon’s David Rutz compiled a supercut of Obama and his spokesmen claiming he learned about various scandals from the media:

The latest ugly story that the White House claims Obama only learned of from the news is the VA scandal, where veterans’ hospitals around the country have mistreated or forgotten veterans seeking medical care.

“If you mean the specific allegations that I think were reported first by your network out of Phoenix, I believe we learned about them through the reports,” said Press Secretary Jay Carney Monday. “I will double-check if that’s not the case. But that’s when we learned about them, and that’s when, as I understand it, Secretary Shinseki learned about them and immediately took the action that he has taken, including instigating his own review — or initiating his own review, but also requesting that the Inspector General investigate.”

The story about the Justice Department seizing records from the Associated Press? The news that the IRS had deliberately targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status? The Fast & Furious gun-running scandal? That time the plane flew over Manhattan without authorization?

Obama learned about all of it on the news.

Obama has had to choose between two unpalatable options. Either he was aware of what he and his administration were doing, or he wasn’t. The latter is absurd and not remotely credible in some cases, but Obama sees it as preferable to the former, which would be openly admitting to the corruption the rest of the country sees unfolding practically daily.

Some attempts to absolve the president from his own presidency have been downright comical. Here, for example, was David Axelrod last year echoing conservative and libertarian critiques of the government in defense of Obama:

SCARBOROUGH: He’s saying to those at the University of Chicago’s school of politics, to students, to others, when they’re talking about looking at the IRS scandal and what an administration should or should not do.

AXELROD: Look, it’s an interesting case study because if you look at the inspector general’s report, apparently some folks down in the bureaucracy — you know we have a large government — took it upon themselves to shorthand these applications for tax-exempt status in a way that was, as I said, idiotic, and also dangerous because of the political implications. One prima facie bit of evidence that nobody political was involved in this, is that if anybody political was involved they would say: are you nuts?

Part of being president is there’s so much underneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.

Obama’s defenders are so desperate to avoid blame that they’ll even, as a last resort, take refuge in the idea that conservatives are right about the size and scope of the federal government. It’s true that government is so unwieldy as to insulate it from accountability and thus foster unmanageability and ultimately corruption. But this does not absolve the left. After all, Obama and his party want to continuously, recklessly expand the government even while claiming that doing so makes it impossible to govern properly.

And in this way Obama’s defenders end up indicting their hero (and themselves) anyway. The corruption they are enabling either helps them politically, as in the case of the IRS targeting Obama’s opponents, or perpetuates a fiction necessary to the liberal project, such as the Veterans Affairs scandal in which the failures of government-run health care were covered up rather than admitted while veterans died waiting for care.

Obama’s defense, then, has been incompetence. Perhaps that’s the silver lining in this poll, though also a warning: it might only be his incompetence that saves him from an even worse rating.

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An Extraordinary Letter

The other day my wife Cindy came across a hand-written letter from her uncle, Frank Keaton, that was written to his parents on February 8, 1944. Mr. Keaton landed on Omaha Beach before D-Day, one of a preliminary group to secure an area for the medics. He held the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, Two Oak Leaf Clusters and the Purple Heart. Shot while crossing the Rhine, he refused to go back behind the lines because he did not want to leave his company (he was part of the “Old Hickory” Division). He survived the war. His letter follows: 

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The other day my wife Cindy came across a hand-written letter from her uncle, Frank Keaton, that was written to his parents on February 8, 1944. Mr. Keaton landed on Omaha Beach before D-Day, one of a preliminary group to secure an area for the medics. He held the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, Two Oak Leaf Clusters and the Purple Heart. Shot while crossing the Rhine, he refused to go back behind the lines because he did not want to leave his company (he was part of the “Old Hickory” Division). He survived the war. His letter follows: 

February 8, 1944

Dear Mother and Dad:

Here is the letter I both like and dislike to write. Tomorrow we are scheduled to board the ship which will take us wherever we may be going. I know how you feel about my leaving the States. But I also know how I feel about it, and my way is the way you must learn to look at it.

In my thirty-one years I have had everything a boy could want. I had the love of two parents and wonderful brothers and sisters, with all the [kindness] we had a home that had everything a home should have. Our whole family combined to give me a name of which I can be justly proud. Through these people and through myself there is a list of true friends, many of whom have gone further than anything that friendship demands.

I’ve grown up with the constant help and guidance of these people. I have gone to school, later to college to learn a profession with every advantage of heritage and surroundings. I’ve had everything a boy needs to shape a life of usefulness.

My eyes have seen much of this country of ours. If I do not come back there is nothing to be sorry about because I have had all of these things. I’ve done most of the things I’ve wanted to do, I’ve seen many of the things I wanted to see, and I’ve already had a life-time of fun.

Now, here is the most important thing of all. Up to now, I’ve given nothing for what I have taken, and now I am at the age when usefulness to our society and to the world at large is expected of me, so that my life will be justified in the eyes of God and man.

What better thing can a man ask for than a chance to fight for what he believes in, fight to give the new generation and the generations not yet born a chance to live a life like my own has been, a chance to play, to go to school and learn about the world, not just one race and one creed; a chance to love and be loved, a chance to see the greatness of the world that God has given us, and a chance to add a name to the long line of great men and women who have made names for themselves in every line of endeavor.

When I think of this my heart swells up and chokes me. Here, early in life, I’m given the opportunity to serve, to make the living of my life not in vain. Some men live a full lifetime and do not achieve this one distinction. This world conflict has given me an easy chance and a big opportunity.

This, then is the way I want you to look at it. You both have given me everything that it was in your power to give me. Give all the kids a big hug and kiss for me and say good-bye to all my friends. My last request of you is “Do not pray only that I shall return, but that I will have the power to do my duty.”
Your ever loving son,

Frank

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