Commentary Magazine


Topic: headache

Where Are the Smart Liberals?

So who does Job remind you of? I bet you didn’t think of Barack Obama. But that’s what pops into Jon Meacham’s mind, as Rick noted, prompting many of us to wonder how Newsweek lasted as long as it did. It was Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas who first proclaimed Obama a “sort of God,” so I suppose this tale is the modern version of Paradise Lost.

Has Obama lost his family? Become destitute? No, he’s just not popular anymore. Meacham explains:

Outside politics, President Obama thinks of himself less as a professor or community organizer and more as a writer — a man who observes reality, interprets it internally, and then recasts it on the page in his own voice and through his own eyes. And he is a reader of serious books.

Given that, he might find Alter’s new book congenial. John Boehner is not exactly a case of boils, but the president may feel differently at the moment, and thus the story of Job could be of some use to him.

Like Obama, Job was once the highly favored one:

Would that I were as in moons of yore, as the days when God watched over me,
when he shined his lamp over my head. …

But the Lord withdraws his protection, inflicting pain and death and misery on Job, who cries:

Terror rolls over me, pursues my path like the wind. …
At night my limbs are pierced, and my sinews know no rest.
With great power he seizes my garment, grabs hold of me at the collar.
He hurls me into the muck, and I become like dust and ashes.

God is having none of it. He will not be questioned by a mortal, even a mortal whom he once loved and who has honored him. Fairly snarling, the Lord taunts Job from a whirlwind: “Where were you when I founded earth? / Tell, if you know understanding.”

If you think about it (stop before you get a headache), this is utter nonsense. Obama has not been tested or punished to measure his faith in God. He’s being evaluated by voters for a shoddy two years. The entire point of the Job story is that Job had done nothing to deserve his fate, so far as mortals can imagine. Read More

So who does Job remind you of? I bet you didn’t think of Barack Obama. But that’s what pops into Jon Meacham’s mind, as Rick noted, prompting many of us to wonder how Newsweek lasted as long as it did. It was Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas who first proclaimed Obama a “sort of God,” so I suppose this tale is the modern version of Paradise Lost.

Has Obama lost his family? Become destitute? No, he’s just not popular anymore. Meacham explains:

Outside politics, President Obama thinks of himself less as a professor or community organizer and more as a writer — a man who observes reality, interprets it internally, and then recasts it on the page in his own voice and through his own eyes. And he is a reader of serious books.

Given that, he might find Alter’s new book congenial. John Boehner is not exactly a case of boils, but the president may feel differently at the moment, and thus the story of Job could be of some use to him.

Like Obama, Job was once the highly favored one:

Would that I were as in moons of yore, as the days when God watched over me,
when he shined his lamp over my head. …

But the Lord withdraws his protection, inflicting pain and death and misery on Job, who cries:

Terror rolls over me, pursues my path like the wind. …
At night my limbs are pierced, and my sinews know no rest.
With great power he seizes my garment, grabs hold of me at the collar.
He hurls me into the muck, and I become like dust and ashes.

God is having none of it. He will not be questioned by a mortal, even a mortal whom he once loved and who has honored him. Fairly snarling, the Lord taunts Job from a whirlwind: “Where were you when I founded earth? / Tell, if you know understanding.”

If you think about it (stop before you get a headache), this is utter nonsense. Obama has not been tested or punished to measure his faith in God. He’s being evaluated by voters for a shoddy two years. The entire point of the Job story is that Job had done nothing to deserve his fate, so far as mortals can imagine.

This brings me to another point. What’s happened to liberal intellectuals these days? It seems they’ve fallen down on the job and ceased to be serious people. I mean, comparing Obama to Job is downright embarrassing. Does the Gray Lady have no standards?

Another case in point: there apparently is a new film out about Fran Lebowitz directed by Martin Scorsese. The problem is that while liberal New Yorkers imagine her to be the quintessential left-leaning intellectual (actually, they don’t need the modifier since, by definition, are intellectuals share their worldview), she hasn’t written anything of note for years, and the sum total of her “contribution” to the intellectual and cultural life of the nation’s greatest city is a string of one-liners. Even this reviewer is somewhat put off:

Except for a children’s book and a series of wise Vanity Fair articles in the 1990s (which were really just well-edited conversations between Lebowitz and an editor on broad subjects such as race and money), Lebowitz hasn’t produced much. Instead, she’s a study in brilliant coasting, which can’t be as fun as it seems. For all its many laughs, “Public Speaking” carries a necessary undercurrent of the morose.

“No one has wasted time the way I have,” Lebowitz tells Scorsese’s camera in her usual rat-a-tat delivery, a voice coarsened by years of smoking. “[I am] the outstanding waster of time of my generation. It was 1979, I looked up, it was 2007.”

Instead of writing, Lebowitz spends her time talking about American society and culture — either through paid appearances on the lecture circuit or from her usual booth at the Waverly Inn, a dimly-lit, exclusively small West Village restaurant co-owned by her friend Graydon Carter, who edits Vanity Fair.

Talking, she says, is all she ever wanted to do.

You really can’t make this stuff up. And one wonders, is this thin gruel of cultural poses and condescension all the left has to offer anymore?

There’s much more: New York is too expensive to be interesting anymore. Tourists are “herds of hillbillies.” Gay men, who so dazzled Lebowitz with their highbrow tastes in the 1970s, have let her down by working so diligently to get married and join the army. And revenge is a wonderful thing: “I absolutely believe in revenge. People always say revenge is a dish best served cold. No. It’s good any time you can get it.”

She is asked: Is there such a thing as being born lucky? Yes, she replies: “Any white, gentile, straight man who is not president of the United States, failed. That’s what a big piece of luck that is, okay?”

Not exactly John Kenneth Galbraith. Or even Dorothy Parker.

The trouble liberals face in maintaining their intellectual chops is that they operate in a world of knowing glances, incomplete sentences, and shared cultural references. Conformity is seen as a sign of intellectual prowess. And you need not write anything intelligible, let alone intellectually compelling, to qualify as a liberal public intellectual.

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Too Little, Too Late on Tax Cuts

Obama’s election-eve conversion (akin to a deathbed one) to the benefit of tax cuts seems to have come too little too late.

Business leaders were unimpressed:

Business executives said Tuesday that the measure might deliver a temporary lift to business spending. But several said a more enduring way to spur demand would be to extend the Bush administration income-tax cuts—which expire in January—for higher earners. Some also called for more permanent changes to corporate-tax rules.

It reminds some of cash for clunkers. (“Many executives … compared the speeded-up tax deduction to earlier Obama tax breaks for buyers of cars and houses. Those breaks stimulated a rush of buying that was followed by a big drop in sales once the incentives ended.”)

Nor is it clear there is support in Congress to pass the president’s proposal or time to do it. Congress returns next week and has three weeks before recessing to head for the campaign trail. I don’t think Democrats are going to be open to staying in Washington beyond that date, leaving the trail to their challengers.

The sure sign the plan is a dud? The White House is talking nonsense. Robert Gibbs says the stimulus plan is not a stimulus plan. Because it’s too small to make any difference, presumably. If this is giving you a headache, imagine how House Democrats feel.

Obama’s election-eve conversion (akin to a deathbed one) to the benefit of tax cuts seems to have come too little too late.

Business leaders were unimpressed:

Business executives said Tuesday that the measure might deliver a temporary lift to business spending. But several said a more enduring way to spur demand would be to extend the Bush administration income-tax cuts—which expire in January—for higher earners. Some also called for more permanent changes to corporate-tax rules.

It reminds some of cash for clunkers. (“Many executives … compared the speeded-up tax deduction to earlier Obama tax breaks for buyers of cars and houses. Those breaks stimulated a rush of buying that was followed by a big drop in sales once the incentives ended.”)

Nor is it clear there is support in Congress to pass the president’s proposal or time to do it. Congress returns next week and has three weeks before recessing to head for the campaign trail. I don’t think Democrats are going to be open to staying in Washington beyond that date, leaving the trail to their challengers.

The sure sign the plan is a dud? The White House is talking nonsense. Robert Gibbs says the stimulus plan is not a stimulus plan. Because it’s too small to make any difference, presumably. If this is giving you a headache, imagine how House Democrats feel.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Jane Hamsher or Bill Kristol? “This bill will mandate that millions of people who are currently uninsured purchase insurance from private companies, or the IRS will collect up to 2% of their annual income in penalties. … The bill was written so that most Wal-Mart employees will qualify for subsidies, and taxpayers will pick up a large portion of the cost of their coverage. … In 2009, health care costs were 17.3% of GDP [but] in 2019 [under the] Senate bill [they’ll be] 20.9% of GDP. … This bill does not bring down costs.”

The end of the Blue Dogs: “The party made a concerted effort in 2006 and 2008 to recruit candidates that could win moderate or GOP-leaning districts. That’s a key reason why Democrats won such big congressional majorities. But after forging a big-tent caucus, Speaker Pelosi has not governed that way. Instead, she pushed Blue Dog and other moderate Democrats to vote as if they represented her San Francisco district.” When the Republicans did this, I think the media narrative was that the party was risking majority support for ideological extremism.

Quin Hillyer channels the anti–Bart Stupak anger: “And if he thinks he will be ever live it down or be allowed to forget it, well, maybe he doesn’t think very well.”

How incompetent is NPR to get duped by a fake AIPAC release saying the group favors a settlement freeze? Doesn’t public radio know anything about AIPAC? Your tax dollars at work.

Marco Rubio is crushing potential opponents: “Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio for now runs well ahead in a three-way race for the U.S. Senate in Florida, should Governor Charlie Crist decide to run as an independent. The first Rasmussen Repots telephone survey of a potential three-candidate Senate race finds Rubio earning 42% support from likely voters in the state. Democrat Kendrick Meek picks up 25%, and Crist runs third with 22%. Eleven percent (11%) are undecided.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell on ObamaCare: “[T]his massive and complex piece of legislation allows the federal government to exercise control over one-sixth of the United States economy. … Most disconcerting is the provision mandating that every American must purchase health insurance or face a monetary penalty. … Just a few days ago I approved a bill, passed on a bipartisan basis, which prohibits mandatory insurance purchases for Virginians. Virginia’s Attorney General has rightly chosen to challenge the constitutionality of the federal mandate. I anticipate that he will be joined by a number of other states.” It now becomes an issue in every state race.

Yuval Levin on the latest regarding the Cornhusker Kickback: “That kickback was of course offered as an enticement to win the vote of Senator Ben Nelson, and to help him forget about his pro-life principles. Well lo and behold, Nelson has now announced that he opposes the reconciliation bill and will vote against it. Apparently it taxes and spends too much. It really renews your faith in politicians, doesn’t it?”

Not just a headache or fodder but potential grounds for prosecution: “The formidable Patrick Fitzgerald is leading a probe of Guantanamo Bay defense lawyers whom the CIA accused of giving detainees photos of CIA agents in an attempt to identify interrogators. … The investigation could be a headache for the Justice Department, and fodder for the attacks from Liz Cheney and others on the Guantanamo Bay lawyers.”

Perhaps Obama picked a fight on the wrong issue. Most Israelis think Bibi Netanyahu was aware of the decision to approve additional housing units in Jerusalem, but “most of those asked by the survey supported the view that construction in east Jerusalem should be treated like construction in Tel Aviv, despite the harsh criticism launched at the government over the recent diplomatic dispute with the US. Only a quarter of those polled believe the construction project should not have been approved, with 41% saying that only the timing was wrong. The number of people supportive of the construction in Ramat Shlomo neighborhood is twice that of its objectors.”

ABC staffers are grumbling over the hiring of Christiane Amanpour for This Week. Well, if it’s any consolation to the eminently qualified Jake Tapper, the criterion used was apparently “celebrity.” It certainly wasn’t objectivity. Or accuracy. Remember this one.

Jane Hamsher or Bill Kristol? “This bill will mandate that millions of people who are currently uninsured purchase insurance from private companies, or the IRS will collect up to 2% of their annual income in penalties. … The bill was written so that most Wal-Mart employees will qualify for subsidies, and taxpayers will pick up a large portion of the cost of their coverage. … In 2009, health care costs were 17.3% of GDP [but] in 2019 [under the] Senate bill [they’ll be] 20.9% of GDP. … This bill does not bring down costs.”

The end of the Blue Dogs: “The party made a concerted effort in 2006 and 2008 to recruit candidates that could win moderate or GOP-leaning districts. That’s a key reason why Democrats won such big congressional majorities. But after forging a big-tent caucus, Speaker Pelosi has not governed that way. Instead, she pushed Blue Dog and other moderate Democrats to vote as if they represented her San Francisco district.” When the Republicans did this, I think the media narrative was that the party was risking majority support for ideological extremism.

Quin Hillyer channels the anti–Bart Stupak anger: “And if he thinks he will be ever live it down or be allowed to forget it, well, maybe he doesn’t think very well.”

How incompetent is NPR to get duped by a fake AIPAC release saying the group favors a settlement freeze? Doesn’t public radio know anything about AIPAC? Your tax dollars at work.

Marco Rubio is crushing potential opponents: “Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio for now runs well ahead in a three-way race for the U.S. Senate in Florida, should Governor Charlie Crist decide to run as an independent. The first Rasmussen Repots telephone survey of a potential three-candidate Senate race finds Rubio earning 42% support from likely voters in the state. Democrat Kendrick Meek picks up 25%, and Crist runs third with 22%. Eleven percent (11%) are undecided.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell on ObamaCare: “[T]his massive and complex piece of legislation allows the federal government to exercise control over one-sixth of the United States economy. … Most disconcerting is the provision mandating that every American must purchase health insurance or face a monetary penalty. … Just a few days ago I approved a bill, passed on a bipartisan basis, which prohibits mandatory insurance purchases for Virginians. Virginia’s Attorney General has rightly chosen to challenge the constitutionality of the federal mandate. I anticipate that he will be joined by a number of other states.” It now becomes an issue in every state race.

Yuval Levin on the latest regarding the Cornhusker Kickback: “That kickback was of course offered as an enticement to win the vote of Senator Ben Nelson, and to help him forget about his pro-life principles. Well lo and behold, Nelson has now announced that he opposes the reconciliation bill and will vote against it. Apparently it taxes and spends too much. It really renews your faith in politicians, doesn’t it?”

Not just a headache or fodder but potential grounds for prosecution: “The formidable Patrick Fitzgerald is leading a probe of Guantanamo Bay defense lawyers whom the CIA accused of giving detainees photos of CIA agents in an attempt to identify interrogators. … The investigation could be a headache for the Justice Department, and fodder for the attacks from Liz Cheney and others on the Guantanamo Bay lawyers.”

Perhaps Obama picked a fight on the wrong issue. Most Israelis think Bibi Netanyahu was aware of the decision to approve additional housing units in Jerusalem, but “most of those asked by the survey supported the view that construction in east Jerusalem should be treated like construction in Tel Aviv, despite the harsh criticism launched at the government over the recent diplomatic dispute with the US. Only a quarter of those polled believe the construction project should not have been approved, with 41% saying that only the timing was wrong. The number of people supportive of the construction in Ramat Shlomo neighborhood is twice that of its objectors.”

ABC staffers are grumbling over the hiring of Christiane Amanpour for This Week. Well, if it’s any consolation to the eminently qualified Jake Tapper, the criterion used was apparently “celebrity.” It certainly wasn’t objectivity. Or accuracy. Remember this one.

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Stalling on KSM

Julie Mason of the Washington Examiner picks up on this exchange with Robert Gibbs:

Q: Robert, do you know when we can expect a decision on the KSM trial?

Mr. Gibbs: I don’t expect a decision on that for several or many weeks.

Q: Will it be the president’s decision?

Mr. Gibbs: The president obviously has gotten involved because Congress has actively been involved in venue options for any trial involving Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The president’s obviously strong equity in this is seeing that after many long years that justice is brought.

I don’t know what the faux legal-speak in the last sentence means (“strong equity”?) either. But the point here is that the administration is in stalling mode. The current approach, both as to the specific venue and a civilian trial more generally, has proved unworkable and grossly unpopular. Yet at the very time their Justice Department lawyers are under attack, in part for having come up with this screwy recommendation, the administration is loathe to retreat. Their base is semi-unhinged enough (you know, with the coming demise of health care and all), and this is no time to push the netroots over the edge.

Nevertheless, I think we’ll never see KSM in a civilian courtroom. No jurisdiction will want the headache, the public thinks the idea is dangerous, and the logistics (the cost, the potential for acquittal or any punishment less than the death penalty) — which the Justice Department brain trust failed to think through — are daunting. So the president stalls. Like so much else on the Left’s agenda (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, cap-and-trade), the president will get to it when he gets to it.

Julie Mason of the Washington Examiner picks up on this exchange with Robert Gibbs:

Q: Robert, do you know when we can expect a decision on the KSM trial?

Mr. Gibbs: I don’t expect a decision on that for several or many weeks.

Q: Will it be the president’s decision?

Mr. Gibbs: The president obviously has gotten involved because Congress has actively been involved in venue options for any trial involving Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The president’s obviously strong equity in this is seeing that after many long years that justice is brought.

I don’t know what the faux legal-speak in the last sentence means (“strong equity”?) either. But the point here is that the administration is in stalling mode. The current approach, both as to the specific venue and a civilian trial more generally, has proved unworkable and grossly unpopular. Yet at the very time their Justice Department lawyers are under attack, in part for having come up with this screwy recommendation, the administration is loathe to retreat. Their base is semi-unhinged enough (you know, with the coming demise of health care and all), and this is no time to push the netroots over the edge.

Nevertheless, I think we’ll never see KSM in a civilian courtroom. No jurisdiction will want the headache, the public thinks the idea is dangerous, and the logistics (the cost, the potential for acquittal or any punishment less than the death penalty) — which the Justice Department brain trust failed to think through — are daunting. So the president stalls. Like so much else on the Left’s agenda (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, cap-and-trade), the president will get to it when he gets to it.

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No Life Preserver for Tax-and Spend Democrats

The Democrats are frantically searching for a political lifeboat. They have been on a tax-and-spend jag, run up the debt, and only angered the public. So they latched on to a “solution” — a debt-reduction commission to recommend tax hikes and spending cuts, with a goal to report back after the congressional elections with a plan, this report explains, “for shrinking the federal budget deficit to 3% of the gross domestic product by 2015 from the current 10% level, and on steps to contain long-term budget problems through tax increases and changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” The commission would have a total of 10 Democrats (six appointed by the Congress, the rest by the president) and eight Republicans (six appointed by Republicans in Congress, the rest by the president).

Meanwhile, the Congress can go merrily along with health care and the rest of its agenda, spending to its heart’s content. As the report notes: “Underscoring the problem, the Senate is poised to vote to raise the national debt ceiling by $1.9 trillion, just weeks after a $290 billion increase at the end of 2009. The debt currently stands at $12.322 trillion.”

Why in the world would Republicans go along with this charade? Well, they aren’t, it seems. Their immediate concerns are the lack of statutory authority for the commission and the absence of any requirement for Congress to even vote on its recommendations:

Republican Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire dismissed it as a political fig leaf and instead called on President Barack Obama to support enactment of a law that would establish a commission and require an up-or-down congressional vote on its recommendations. Tuesday’s plan would create the panel by executive order. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) has also withheld his support.

But even if these obstacles were overcome, there are substantive and political reasons for conservatives not to play along with this scheme. For starters, with 10 Democrats plus two Obama-handpicked Republicans, the outcome is preordained. The recommendation will include hefty tax hikes. But the crux of the problem is that it lets the big spenders off the hook. In fact, it encourages them to keep it up, since an independent commission is going to take care of all that deficit stuff. As the Wall Street Journal editors point out:

We can see why Democrats would love this idea. In the past year they have passed: a $447 billion omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2009, a $787 billion stimulus, $3 billion for cash for clunkers, $75 billion in mortgage assistance, $34 billion for children’s health care (Schip), $30 billion in anticipated auto bailout losses, with another nearly 11% spending increase teed up for fiscal 2010 for domestic programs. This party was fun, but now comes the headache (see Massachusetts) and the need for GOP tax partners.

Emboldened by Scott Brown’s victory, Republicans seem poised to play it smart and not offer the drowning Democrats a life preserver. Democrats thought there was no consequence, economic or political, to their spending spree. The loyal opposition should take the rest of the year to explain why they were wrong.

The Democrats are frantically searching for a political lifeboat. They have been on a tax-and-spend jag, run up the debt, and only angered the public. So they latched on to a “solution” — a debt-reduction commission to recommend tax hikes and spending cuts, with a goal to report back after the congressional elections with a plan, this report explains, “for shrinking the federal budget deficit to 3% of the gross domestic product by 2015 from the current 10% level, and on steps to contain long-term budget problems through tax increases and changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” The commission would have a total of 10 Democrats (six appointed by the Congress, the rest by the president) and eight Republicans (six appointed by Republicans in Congress, the rest by the president).

Meanwhile, the Congress can go merrily along with health care and the rest of its agenda, spending to its heart’s content. As the report notes: “Underscoring the problem, the Senate is poised to vote to raise the national debt ceiling by $1.9 trillion, just weeks after a $290 billion increase at the end of 2009. The debt currently stands at $12.322 trillion.”

Why in the world would Republicans go along with this charade? Well, they aren’t, it seems. Their immediate concerns are the lack of statutory authority for the commission and the absence of any requirement for Congress to even vote on its recommendations:

Republican Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire dismissed it as a political fig leaf and instead called on President Barack Obama to support enactment of a law that would establish a commission and require an up-or-down congressional vote on its recommendations. Tuesday’s plan would create the panel by executive order. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) has also withheld his support.

But even if these obstacles were overcome, there are substantive and political reasons for conservatives not to play along with this scheme. For starters, with 10 Democrats plus two Obama-handpicked Republicans, the outcome is preordained. The recommendation will include hefty tax hikes. But the crux of the problem is that it lets the big spenders off the hook. In fact, it encourages them to keep it up, since an independent commission is going to take care of all that deficit stuff. As the Wall Street Journal editors point out:

We can see why Democrats would love this idea. In the past year they have passed: a $447 billion omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2009, a $787 billion stimulus, $3 billion for cash for clunkers, $75 billion in mortgage assistance, $34 billion for children’s health care (Schip), $30 billion in anticipated auto bailout losses, with another nearly 11% spending increase teed up for fiscal 2010 for domestic programs. This party was fun, but now comes the headache (see Massachusetts) and the need for GOP tax partners.

Emboldened by Scott Brown’s victory, Republicans seem poised to play it smart and not offer the drowning Democrats a life preserver. Democrats thought there was no consequence, economic or political, to their spending spree. The loyal opposition should take the rest of the year to explain why they were wrong.

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D.C.’s Boggling Bag Tax

This week, the District of Columbia began charging shoppers 5 cents for each plastic bag. Consumers and grocery-store clerks are in for a headache.

A nickel might not seem like much. But anyone who has lived recently in Hong Kong and experienced their 6-cent bag tax knows how burdensome that levy makes commerce. There, grocery-store clerks must cram as much as possible into a single, side-split reusable bag – or face a perturbed customer. (Never underestimate the public’s desire to save a buck.) Milk, butter, and eggs become Tetris blocks; and consequently, the checkout lines grow longer and longer as clerks painstakingly pack for maximum space efficiency.

But that is not all. Customers once re-used their grocery bags to dispose of trash; now, in Hong Kong, they buy trash bags. This suggests the tax is not effective in reducing bag consumption; it certainly doesn’t encourage conservation of resources. But it does, evidently, cause delay and hassle for everyone.

The nice thing about living in Washington is that voters choose all of their city-council members, unlike Hong Kongers. Next time they’re voting, the harried shoppers of D.C. might remember this lesson in the unintended consequences of government meddling.

This week, the District of Columbia began charging shoppers 5 cents for each plastic bag. Consumers and grocery-store clerks are in for a headache.

A nickel might not seem like much. But anyone who has lived recently in Hong Kong and experienced their 6-cent bag tax knows how burdensome that levy makes commerce. There, grocery-store clerks must cram as much as possible into a single, side-split reusable bag – or face a perturbed customer. (Never underestimate the public’s desire to save a buck.) Milk, butter, and eggs become Tetris blocks; and consequently, the checkout lines grow longer and longer as clerks painstakingly pack for maximum space efficiency.

But that is not all. Customers once re-used their grocery bags to dispose of trash; now, in Hong Kong, they buy trash bags. This suggests the tax is not effective in reducing bag consumption; it certainly doesn’t encourage conservation of resources. But it does, evidently, cause delay and hassle for everyone.

The nice thing about living in Washington is that voters choose all of their city-council members, unlike Hong Kongers. Next time they’re voting, the harried shoppers of D.C. might remember this lesson in the unintended consequences of government meddling.

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The Dubai Effect

Max Boot is quite right that the Middle East needs Dubai, and not only because it embraces modernity and flouts the region’s taboos. It’s also an example of good government, at least by the Arab world’s standards, and good economics if you look past its excesses.

The United Arab Emirates’ most extravagant city-state has a more or less transparent market economy and a degree of personal freedom rarely found elsewhere in the Middle East outside Israel and Lebanon. The government doesn’t micromanage the personal lives of its citizens as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nor does it smother the economy with heavy state socialism as in Egypt and Syria. Its bureaucracy is efficient — investors don’t spend years acquiring permits and filling out paperwork before they can open a shopping center, a hotel, or a Starbucks. The Islamic religion is respected as it is everywhere else in the Middle East, but clerics don’t make the rules. Read More

Max Boot is quite right that the Middle East needs Dubai, and not only because it embraces modernity and flouts the region’s taboos. It’s also an example of good government, at least by the Arab world’s standards, and good economics if you look past its excesses.

The United Arab Emirates’ most extravagant city-state has a more or less transparent market economy and a degree of personal freedom rarely found elsewhere in the Middle East outside Israel and Lebanon. The government doesn’t micromanage the personal lives of its citizens as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nor does it smother the economy with heavy state socialism as in Egypt and Syria. Its bureaucracy is efficient — investors don’t spend years acquiring permits and filling out paperwork before they can open a shopping center, a hotel, or a Starbucks. The Islamic religion is respected as it is everywhere else in the Middle East, but clerics don’t make the rules.

Lebanon and Iraq have both been hailed as possible models for the rest of the region, but they aren’t really. Maybe they will be someday, but they aren’t today. Freewheeling Lebanon is more or less democratic, but it’s unstable. It blows up every year. The Beirut Spring in 2005 ousted the Syrian military dictatorship, but shaking off Iran and its private Hezbollah militia has proved nearly impossible. Iraq is likewise still too violent and dysfunctional to be an inspiring model right now.

Many of the skyscrapering steel and glass cities of the Persian Gulf feel like soulless shopping malls. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to suggest that one of these places is “the Paris of the Middle East,” as Beirut has often been called. Dubai’s outrageous attractions and socially liberal atmosphere, however, makes it something like a Las Vegas of the Middle East as a traveler’s destination. And it really is something like a Hong Kong or Singapore as a place to do business.

It features prominently in Vali Nasr’s compelling new book Forces of Fortune, where he argues that the Middle East may finally liberalize politically after it has first been transformed economically by a middle-class commercial revolution. Most in the West haven’t noticed, but that revolution has already begun. And what he calls “the Dubai effect” is a key part of it.

“People in the region who visit Dubai,” he writes, “return home wondering why their governments can’t issue passports in a day or provide clean mosques and schools, better airports, airlines and roads, and above all better government.”

He’s right. Most Beirutis I know look down on Dubai as artificial and gimmicky, but just about everyone else in the region who isn’t a radical Islamist thinks it’s amazing.

It’s different geopolitically, too. The government is more sincerely pro-American than the nominally pro-American governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Michael Yon put it this way when he visited in 2006 on his way to Iraq: “Our friends in the UAE want the Coalition efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to succeed, and they are vocal about it. While much of the west, including many of our oldest allies, postures on about how the war on terror is a horrible mistake, the sentiment in the UAE is that it would be a horrible mistake not to face the facts about our common enemy, an enemy that might be just as happy to destroy the UAE as America.”

Its leadership has also stepped a long way back from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Neither Dubai nor any of the other UAE emirates have gone so far as to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but they also aren’t participating in the conflict or making it worse. Israeli citizens can and do visit, which is unthinkable almost everywhere else in the Arab world. A rotating tower designed by an Israeli architect is slated to be completed next year. There isn’t a chance that even Egypt or Jordan, both of which have signed peace treaties, would let an Israeli design one of their architectural set pieces.

Dubai has problems, of course, aside from the inevitable bursting of its financial bubble. Its government is a fairly benign dictatorship, especially compared with the likes of Syria and Iran, but it’s a dictatorship all the same. Many of its imported laborers live and work in ghastly conditions, and some are lured there under false pretenses.

It’s flawed, it’s weird, and its overall model of development can’t be ported everywhere else. Only so many cities can build ski resorts in the desert and underwater hotel rooms that go for $5,000 a night. But Dubai’s model needn’t be copied and pasted as-is, and Nasr’s “Dubai effect” is a powerful thing. The city proves to everyone who goes there that when an Arab Muslim country opens up its economy, keeps the clerics out of the saddle, and eschews radical causes, it can build places that are impressive not just by local standards but by international standards as well. If even half its foreign and domestic policies are adopted by its neighbors, the region will be a much nicer place for the people who live there, and less of a headache for everyone else.

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The Moderate Supermajority

My CONTENTIONS colleague Abe Greenwald takes a gloomy view of a new Gallup survey that shows 93 percent of the world’s Muslims are moderates. “We need to find out from one billion rational human beings why they largely refuse to stand up for humanity and dignity instead of cowering in the face of fascist thugs,” he wrote.

First of all, I’d like to agree with Abe’s point that even this sunny survey suggests we still have a serious problem. If seven percent of the world’s Muslims are radical, we’re talking about 91 million people. That’s 65 times the population of Gaza, and three and a half times the size of Iraq. One Gaza is headache enough, and it only took 19 individuals to destroy the World Trade Center, punch a hole in the Pentagon, and kill 3,000 people.

Some of the 93 percent supermajority support militia parties such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the West Bank’s Fatah. So while they may be religious moderates, they certainly aren’t politically moderate.

I’m less inclined than Abe to give the remaining Muslims — aside from secular terror-supporters — too hard a time. I work in the Middle East, and I used to live there. I meet moderate Muslims every day who detest al Qaeda and their non-violent Wahhabi counterparts. I know they’re the overwhelming majority, and a significant number are hardly inert in the face of fascists.

More than one fourth of the population of Lebanon demonstrated in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square on March 14, 2005, and stood against the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis that has been sabotaging their country for decades. When I lived in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Beirut, the overwhelming majority of my neighbors belonged to that movement. The international media gave them lots of exposure, but moderate, liberal, secular, and mainstream conservative Muslims elsewhere rarely get any coverage. They are almost invisible from a distance, but it isn’t their fault.

Journalists tend to ignore moderate Muslims, not because of liberal bias or racism, but because sensationalism sells. At least they think that’s what sells.

And reporters often assume extremists are mainstream and “authentic” when they are not. Somehow, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been designated the voice of American Muslims. But CAIR is, frankly, an Islamic wingnut organization with a minuscule membership that has declined 90 percent since September 11, 2001. (More people read my medium-sized blog every day than are members of CAIR.)

The coalition of Islamist parties in Pakistan got three percent of the vote in the recent election. Pakistan’s radicals have made a real mess of the place, but they can’t get any more traction at the polls than Ralph Nader can manage in the United States.

Riots in the wake of the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad was one of the most pathetic “activist” spectacles I’ve ever seen, but the press coverage blew the whole thing way out of proportion. The same gaggle of the perpetually outraged have been photographed over and over again, like the bussed-in and coerced Saddam Hussein “supporters” at rallies in the old Iraq who vanished the instant television cameras stopped rolling. Take a look at the excellent 2003 film Live from Baghdad, written by CNN producer Robert Weiner, and you will see a dramatization of this stunt for yourself.

Last July in Slate Christopher Hitchens busted his colleagues. “I have actually seen some of these demonstrations,” he wrote, “most recently in Islamabad, and all I would do if I were a news editor is ask my camera team to take several steps back from the shot. We could then see a few dozen gesticulating men (very few women for some reason), their mustaches writhing as they scatter lighter fluid on a book or a flag or a hastily made effigy. Around them, a two-deep encirclement of camera crews. When the lights are turned off, the little gang disperses. And you may have noticed that the camera is always steady and in close-up on the flames, which it wouldn’t be if there was a big, surging mob involved.”

Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has been quoted in tens of thousands of articles, but hardly any journalists have ever mentioned, let alone profiled, Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini, the liberal Lebanese cleric who outranks Nasrallah in the Shia religious hierarchy and is an implacable foe of both Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Every suicide and car bomber in Iraq gets at least a passing mention in newspapers all over the world while far fewer reporters have ever told their readers about the extraordinary anti-jihadist convulsion that swept the entire populations of Fallujah and Ramadi last year.

Almost no mention is given to the Kurds of Iraq who are just as Islamic as the Arabs in that country, and who purged Islamists root and branch from every inch of their autonomous region. “We will shoot them or break their bones on sight,” one Kurdish government official told me. More people have been murdered by Islamists in Spain than in their region of Iraq in the last five years. Such people can hardly be thought of as passive.

Let us also not forget the mass demonstrations and street battles with government thugs that have been ongoing all over Iran for several years now.

There is, I suppose, a dim awareness that the world’s newest country – Kosovo – has a Muslim majority. But who knows that the Kosovar Albanians are perhaps the most staunchly pro-American people in all of Europe, that they chose the Catholic Mother Theresa as their national symbol, that there was a cultural-wide protection of Jews during the Holocaust? Their leaders told Wahhabi officials from Saudi Arabia to get stuffed when help was offered during their war with the genocidal Milosovic regime in Belgrade.

Radical Islamists are more densely found in parts of the Arab world than most other places, but Arab countries as diverse as Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates are nearly Islamist-free. “Nothing Exploded in Tunis or Dubai Today” isn’t a headline, but I think it’s safe to infer from the utter dearth of sensationalist stories from such places that radical Islamism there isn’t much of a problem. It isn’t exactly clear to me what more the people in those countries ought to be doing. I have met hundreds of brave Iraqis who joined the police force and the army so they can pick up rifles and face the Islamists, but the moderate Muslims of countries such as Turkey, Kazakhstan, Mali, and Oman have few resident radicals to stand up against.

There certainly were radicals in Algeria. 150,000 people were killed there during the Salafist insurgency during the 1990s, and the government, military, police, and civilian watch groups have since all but annihilated the jihadists.

The world could use more moderate Muslims who push back hard against the Islamists, but huge numbers already do wherever it is necessary and possible. So far with the exception of Gaza, mainstream Muslims everywhere in the world risk arrest, torture, and death while resisting Islamist governments and insurgencies whenever they arise.

My CONTENTIONS colleague Abe Greenwald takes a gloomy view of a new Gallup survey that shows 93 percent of the world’s Muslims are moderates. “We need to find out from one billion rational human beings why they largely refuse to stand up for humanity and dignity instead of cowering in the face of fascist thugs,” he wrote.

First of all, I’d like to agree with Abe’s point that even this sunny survey suggests we still have a serious problem. If seven percent of the world’s Muslims are radical, we’re talking about 91 million people. That’s 65 times the population of Gaza, and three and a half times the size of Iraq. One Gaza is headache enough, and it only took 19 individuals to destroy the World Trade Center, punch a hole in the Pentagon, and kill 3,000 people.

Some of the 93 percent supermajority support militia parties such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the West Bank’s Fatah. So while they may be religious moderates, they certainly aren’t politically moderate.

I’m less inclined than Abe to give the remaining Muslims — aside from secular terror-supporters — too hard a time. I work in the Middle East, and I used to live there. I meet moderate Muslims every day who detest al Qaeda and their non-violent Wahhabi counterparts. I know they’re the overwhelming majority, and a significant number are hardly inert in the face of fascists.

More than one fourth of the population of Lebanon demonstrated in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square on March 14, 2005, and stood against the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis that has been sabotaging their country for decades. When I lived in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Beirut, the overwhelming majority of my neighbors belonged to that movement. The international media gave them lots of exposure, but moderate, liberal, secular, and mainstream conservative Muslims elsewhere rarely get any coverage. They are almost invisible from a distance, but it isn’t their fault.

Journalists tend to ignore moderate Muslims, not because of liberal bias or racism, but because sensationalism sells. At least they think that’s what sells.

And reporters often assume extremists are mainstream and “authentic” when they are not. Somehow, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been designated the voice of American Muslims. But CAIR is, frankly, an Islamic wingnut organization with a minuscule membership that has declined 90 percent since September 11, 2001. (More people read my medium-sized blog every day than are members of CAIR.)

The coalition of Islamist parties in Pakistan got three percent of the vote in the recent election. Pakistan’s radicals have made a real mess of the place, but they can’t get any more traction at the polls than Ralph Nader can manage in the United States.

Riots in the wake of the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad was one of the most pathetic “activist” spectacles I’ve ever seen, but the press coverage blew the whole thing way out of proportion. The same gaggle of the perpetually outraged have been photographed over and over again, like the bussed-in and coerced Saddam Hussein “supporters” at rallies in the old Iraq who vanished the instant television cameras stopped rolling. Take a look at the excellent 2003 film Live from Baghdad, written by CNN producer Robert Weiner, and you will see a dramatization of this stunt for yourself.

Last July in Slate Christopher Hitchens busted his colleagues. “I have actually seen some of these demonstrations,” he wrote, “most recently in Islamabad, and all I would do if I were a news editor is ask my camera team to take several steps back from the shot. We could then see a few dozen gesticulating men (very few women for some reason), their mustaches writhing as they scatter lighter fluid on a book or a flag or a hastily made effigy. Around them, a two-deep encirclement of camera crews. When the lights are turned off, the little gang disperses. And you may have noticed that the camera is always steady and in close-up on the flames, which it wouldn’t be if there was a big, surging mob involved.”

Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has been quoted in tens of thousands of articles, but hardly any journalists have ever mentioned, let alone profiled, Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini, the liberal Lebanese cleric who outranks Nasrallah in the Shia religious hierarchy and is an implacable foe of both Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Every suicide and car bomber in Iraq gets at least a passing mention in newspapers all over the world while far fewer reporters have ever told their readers about the extraordinary anti-jihadist convulsion that swept the entire populations of Fallujah and Ramadi last year.

Almost no mention is given to the Kurds of Iraq who are just as Islamic as the Arabs in that country, and who purged Islamists root and branch from every inch of their autonomous region. “We will shoot them or break their bones on sight,” one Kurdish government official told me. More people have been murdered by Islamists in Spain than in their region of Iraq in the last five years. Such people can hardly be thought of as passive.

Let us also not forget the mass demonstrations and street battles with government thugs that have been ongoing all over Iran for several years now.

There is, I suppose, a dim awareness that the world’s newest country – Kosovo – has a Muslim majority. But who knows that the Kosovar Albanians are perhaps the most staunchly pro-American people in all of Europe, that they chose the Catholic Mother Theresa as their national symbol, that there was a cultural-wide protection of Jews during the Holocaust? Their leaders told Wahhabi officials from Saudi Arabia to get stuffed when help was offered during their war with the genocidal Milosovic regime in Belgrade.

Radical Islamists are more densely found in parts of the Arab world than most other places, but Arab countries as diverse as Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates are nearly Islamist-free. “Nothing Exploded in Tunis or Dubai Today” isn’t a headline, but I think it’s safe to infer from the utter dearth of sensationalist stories from such places that radical Islamism there isn’t much of a problem. It isn’t exactly clear to me what more the people in those countries ought to be doing. I have met hundreds of brave Iraqis who joined the police force and the army so they can pick up rifles and face the Islamists, but the moderate Muslims of countries such as Turkey, Kazakhstan, Mali, and Oman have few resident radicals to stand up against.

There certainly were radicals in Algeria. 150,000 people were killed there during the Salafist insurgency during the 1990s, and the government, military, police, and civilian watch groups have since all but annihilated the jihadists.

The world could use more moderate Muslims who push back hard against the Islamists, but huge numbers already do wherever it is necessary and possible. So far with the exception of Gaza, mainstream Muslims everywhere in the world risk arrest, torture, and death while resisting Islamist governments and insurgencies whenever they arise.

Read Less

China’s Colonial Troubles

News of military unrest has come this past week from Chinese-occupied East Turkestan, the 636,000-square-mile territory on the northwest frontier of the People’s Republic, officially called Xinjiang. According to the Associated Press:

Cotton farmers in China’s far west clashed with police and paramilitary guards over alleged price-fixing by local authorities, leaving 40 people injured, witnesses and Hong Kong media said Friday.

The protesters, however, were no ordinary “farmers.” To begin with, they were not indigenous Turks. Nor were they civilians. They were members of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which is to say, Chinese soldiers and their families, descended from the original occupation troops sent to colonize the territory in 1954, today numbering over two million, and still having military organization. According to reports, the units involved were the 127 and 123 brigades of the Seventh Division of the corps.

Since at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese rulers have settled soldiers on frontiers and in occupied territories in tuntian or “agricultural military colonies.” The idea has always been that the men and families so settled would support themselves by farming, while being available to fight attackers or local inhabitants, if required. The Seventh Division’s farms extend over a politically-charged area near what used to be the border with the USSR, now with Kazakhstan, where the Ili river flows out of the People’s Republic though mountains to Lake Balkhash.

Read More

News of military unrest has come this past week from Chinese-occupied East Turkestan, the 636,000-square-mile territory on the northwest frontier of the People’s Republic, officially called Xinjiang. According to the Associated Press:

Cotton farmers in China’s far west clashed with police and paramilitary guards over alleged price-fixing by local authorities, leaving 40 people injured, witnesses and Hong Kong media said Friday.

The protesters, however, were no ordinary “farmers.” To begin with, they were not indigenous Turks. Nor were they civilians. They were members of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which is to say, Chinese soldiers and their families, descended from the original occupation troops sent to colonize the territory in 1954, today numbering over two million, and still having military organization. According to reports, the units involved were the 127 and 123 brigades of the Seventh Division of the corps.

Since at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese rulers have settled soldiers on frontiers and in occupied territories in tuntian or “agricultural military colonies.” The idea has always been that the men and families so settled would support themselves by farming, while being available to fight attackers or local inhabitants, if required. The Seventh Division’s farms extend over a politically-charged area near what used to be the border with the USSR, now with Kazakhstan, where the Ili river flows out of the People’s Republic though mountains to Lake Balkhash.

It seems the soldiers originally sent to secure the region, who now are settled in paramilitary formations, are rioting against the exactions of the currently active Chinese Army there. The Army has set the price at which it buys the cotton raised by the soldiers near or below the cost of production. On September 22 and 23, according to incomplete reports in the South China Morning Post, military farmers responded to nighttime army searches for hidden cotton in their homes by turning out en masse to destroy the local headquarters of the Chinese Army cotton purchasing and policing units. The protesters reportedly numbered about five thousand.

This story is of particular importance because the conflict it reports is not between Turks and Chinese in occupied East Turkestan (these are common), but between the descendants of the first wave of Chinese occupiers and the current Chinese military authorities. How will the army respond if called upon to repress its own? This question must be a headache for Beijing.

More broadly, these developments lend support to two predictions about the future of the People’s Republic of China. The first is that its terminal troubles will begin internally, as this army versus army conflict suggests. The second is that the problems will begin not on China’s highly developed east coast, but rather in its vast and ragged far western border region, where lie the profoundly alien and uncongenial (to Chinese people) occupied territories of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and East Turkestan.

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Weekend Reading

“The news from Israel is of headache and annoyance, trouble and difficulty.” These words—written by Milton Himmelfarb in COMMENTARY just months after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War—have proved to be of timeless relevance. And never more relevant than today, on the fortieth anniversary of that war, when numerous observers have concluded that Israel’s smashing victory in that hair’s-breadth conflict led to nothing but decades of even worse “headache and annoyance, trouble and difficulty.”

But Himmefarb himself did not stop there. “The news from Israel is of headache and annoyance, trouble and difficulty,” he wrote, and then continued: “We have almost forgotten the joy of unbelievable victory.”

COMMENTARY devoted most of its August 1967 issue to the war. In his “Letter from the Sinai Front,” Amos Elon narrated the Israeli experience from the closest of perspectives. Widening the lens to the utmost, Theodore Draper explored the “peculiar combination of internal and external forces” in world politics that led to the war, while Walter Laqueur examined Israel’s radically changed place among the nations in its aftermath. As for the war’s impact on American Jews, Arthur Hertzberg argued that it had caused an “abrupt, radical, and possibly permanent change.”

And speaking of timelessly relevant words: only months later, Martin Peretz would be writing in COMMENTARY about the momentous turn of the American Left against the Jewish state. Thirty years later, on the occasion of a half-century of Jewish sovereignty, the great British historian Paul Johnson confidently predicted that Israel itself, the “product of more than 4,000 years of Jewish history,” fully deserved to be known forever, and to be celebrated forever, as a “Miracle.”

In that Johnsonian spirit, we offer all of these articles for your weekend’s reading.

“The news from Israel is of headache and annoyance, trouble and difficulty.” These words—written by Milton Himmelfarb in COMMENTARY just months after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War—have proved to be of timeless relevance. And never more relevant than today, on the fortieth anniversary of that war, when numerous observers have concluded that Israel’s smashing victory in that hair’s-breadth conflict led to nothing but decades of even worse “headache and annoyance, trouble and difficulty.”

But Himmefarb himself did not stop there. “The news from Israel is of headache and annoyance, trouble and difficulty,” he wrote, and then continued: “We have almost forgotten the joy of unbelievable victory.”

COMMENTARY devoted most of its August 1967 issue to the war. In his “Letter from the Sinai Front,” Amos Elon narrated the Israeli experience from the closest of perspectives. Widening the lens to the utmost, Theodore Draper explored the “peculiar combination of internal and external forces” in world politics that led to the war, while Walter Laqueur examined Israel’s radically changed place among the nations in its aftermath. As for the war’s impact on American Jews, Arthur Hertzberg argued that it had caused an “abrupt, radical, and possibly permanent change.”

And speaking of timelessly relevant words: only months later, Martin Peretz would be writing in COMMENTARY about the momentous turn of the American Left against the Jewish state. Thirty years later, on the occasion of a half-century of Jewish sovereignty, the great British historian Paul Johnson confidently predicted that Israel itself, the “product of more than 4,000 years of Jewish history,” fully deserved to be known forever, and to be celebrated forever, as a “Miracle.”

In that Johnsonian spirit, we offer all of these articles for your weekend’s reading.

Read Less




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