Commentary Magazine


Topic: Monty Python

Nonproliferation We Can Believe In

Each day seems to bring news of another ill-advised policy move by the Obama administration. Today’s comes from a May 6 New York Times article quoting administration officials on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, which George W. Bush shelved in the wake of the August 2008 invasion of Georgia. Obama wants to revive it.

According to the Times, “Reviving the agreement has been a top priority for Russia since Mr. Obama took office.” The issue brief on the agreement from the Nuclear Threat Initiative website outlines these provisions:

If concluded, the agreement would allow cooperation on a wide range of issues, including the development of advanced reactor technologies, production of mixed-oxide (MOX, a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides) fuel, and storage and possible reprocessing of U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel in Russia.

There are sound arguments against moving irresponsibly on any of these provisions, but sending spent uranium of U.S. origin to Russia for storage and reprocessing tops the list. Most of the instances of nuclear smuggling since the end of the Cold War trace back to Russia. The latest incident in which the collusion of Russians is probable occurred in Georgia in March 2010 (though Russian officials deny it). Russian nationals have been involved in all aspects of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, from warhead design to the procurement of prohibited technology and materials. Russia also, of course, has an official role in Iran’s civil nuclear-power program, which only complicates the assessment of Moscow’s true overall involvement.

It’s worth noting, moreover, that the agreement could include the shipment of uranium of U.S. origin to Russia from the other nations whose reactor complexes use our uranium under contract. This would, in and of itself, introduce an additional window of vulnerability into the lifetime security of reactor fuel.

The Times article cites a concern from the deal’s critics that Obama wouldn’t be getting enough from Russia in exchange for reviving the nuclear cooperation agreement. But a more basic criticism is that the agreement would conflict directly with Obama’s own policy emphasis on securing nuclear materials around the globe. The progress of his nonproliferation effort to date looks like a vignette from Monty Python: on the one hand, getting good citizens Chile and Mexico to shuffle some uranium around and accept U.S. help in upgrading their reactors; on the other, hoping to ship U.S. uranium to Russia, the nation with the highest rate of unauthorized uranium leakage. Maybe Obama’s proliferation-security advisers should try Hillary Clinton’s checklist method for a while. Whatever they’re doing now isn’t producing a coherent policy.

Each day seems to bring news of another ill-advised policy move by the Obama administration. Today’s comes from a May 6 New York Times article quoting administration officials on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, which George W. Bush shelved in the wake of the August 2008 invasion of Georgia. Obama wants to revive it.

According to the Times, “Reviving the agreement has been a top priority for Russia since Mr. Obama took office.” The issue brief on the agreement from the Nuclear Threat Initiative website outlines these provisions:

If concluded, the agreement would allow cooperation on a wide range of issues, including the development of advanced reactor technologies, production of mixed-oxide (MOX, a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides) fuel, and storage and possible reprocessing of U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel in Russia.

There are sound arguments against moving irresponsibly on any of these provisions, but sending spent uranium of U.S. origin to Russia for storage and reprocessing tops the list. Most of the instances of nuclear smuggling since the end of the Cold War trace back to Russia. The latest incident in which the collusion of Russians is probable occurred in Georgia in March 2010 (though Russian officials deny it). Russian nationals have been involved in all aspects of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, from warhead design to the procurement of prohibited technology and materials. Russia also, of course, has an official role in Iran’s civil nuclear-power program, which only complicates the assessment of Moscow’s true overall involvement.

It’s worth noting, moreover, that the agreement could include the shipment of uranium of U.S. origin to Russia from the other nations whose reactor complexes use our uranium under contract. This would, in and of itself, introduce an additional window of vulnerability into the lifetime security of reactor fuel.

The Times article cites a concern from the deal’s critics that Obama wouldn’t be getting enough from Russia in exchange for reviving the nuclear cooperation agreement. But a more basic criticism is that the agreement would conflict directly with Obama’s own policy emphasis on securing nuclear materials around the globe. The progress of his nonproliferation effort to date looks like a vignette from Monty Python: on the one hand, getting good citizens Chile and Mexico to shuffle some uranium around and accept U.S. help in upgrading their reactors; on the other, hoping to ship U.S. uranium to Russia, the nation with the highest rate of unauthorized uranium leakage. Maybe Obama’s proliferation-security advisers should try Hillary Clinton’s checklist method for a while. Whatever they’re doing now isn’t producing a coherent policy.

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The South Park Test

I admit it. Until now I have always been a bit of an Islamophobia skeptic. Living in the Middle East, I have no illusions about what radical Islam, given the right kinds of fuel and the right weapons of oppression, can do in the parts of the world under its control, or to immediate neighbors who challenge its reign. And while I share in many Europeans’ concern about the spread of violent Islam’s influence across the Continent, I have never really seen it as cause for panic about the future of Western civilization, or even of Europe. An inveterate optimist, I have a great deal of faith that Europeans, deep down, understand what has made them special and will do what’s needed to defend themselves and their culture. And as for the U.S.? It frankly never occurred to me that there was any danger, not now, not ever. Americans cherish their freedom too much and are too willing to defend it even by force of arms for fans of Jefferson and Paine to be truly worried.

Until now. And all because of South Park.

For those of you who’ve missed it, this week South Park attempted to parody the prophet Muhammad, just as it’s parodied Jesus, God, Moses, and every institution of religion big enough to merit its parody. Yet after an Islamist website posted a veiled threat, to the effect that the creators of South Park would end up like Theo Van Gogh, the film director murdered in Amsterdam for publicly criticizing Islam, the folks at Comedy Central buckled. The episode was removed from the website. For more details about this and similar acts of self-censorship in the past few months, read Ross Douthat’s crucial column in the New York Times.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The core of liberal society is the belief that every new thought, every iconoclasm, every “dangerous” idea, can be uttered somewhere, by someone, as long as it doesn’t openly incite violence — and that every sacred cow is ultimately just a cow. I may watch my tongue about the things I hold sacred, but as long as others have a right to criticize, parody, or publicly rebuke even those things I revere without fear for their lives, I know that society is a free society, and that when the time comes, I too will be protected. (It is the fate of the Jew always to wonder what will happen to him when the mob goes wild. That is why so many Jews are liberals.) Religion, especially, needs to be protected — both its affirmation and its negation — precisely because religion claims to hold in its hands the ultimate truths, on which life and death, war and peace, often turn. And the more power hungry a given religion appears to be, the more we have to protect every person’s right to critique it, whether through parody or public debate. Nor is this just a matter of legal rights: the moment someone feels that his life is in danger because he publicly criticized a religious figure or institution, we are all in trouble.

No cultural institution in our world has embodied this right more than South Park. Aside from being very, very funny (my apologies to the dour souls who disagree), it is also often vile, filled with offensive ideas, language, images, and more. I have often been forced to turn it off, especially if kids are watching. But that’s the whole point of it, as everyone knows. South Park has, until now, been the one place where every holy thing can be made fun of, every taboo broken — especially religion, in the best tradition of Voltaire and Monty Python. Nobody has to watch it if they don’t like it. But it should be out there, somewhere.

With the collapse of South Park‘s credibility as the slayer of all cows, something has been lost, something very deep to the inner logic of liberty. We have caught a glimpse of a world where religion is, well, so sacred as to brook no humor whatsoever. It is a dark world that we escaped several centuries ago, a world where power and claims of ultimate truths fuse together to crush freedom, creativity, and the bold human endeavors that have given us our entire world of scientific and political advancement. In a flash, we moderns are now forced to contend with the myth of our own invincibility: are we so arrogant as to think that modernity can never be undone? (Oh, and another thing: this seems especially ironic at a time when the Catholic Church has been hammered with demands for transparency and accountability an a willingness to defy centuries-old sanctities, yet many of us refuse to demand the same from Islam.)

Many of us have been hoping that the emergence of democracy and liberty around much of the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union could have an impact within the Islamic world as well — that somehow there would emerge a force of religious moderation, a realm of truly free speech, that could some day form the basis of peaceful coexistence and an end to the endless bloodshed. Instead, the battle lines are shifting the other way — and freedom is in retreat. South Park was a temple to the healthy cynicism and pushing of boundaries that have to exist somewhere if we are to feel truly free anywhere. We may hate it, and hate ourselves for enjoying it. But now we need to protect it. Or we, too, like the third-grader South Park recently depicted in a scathing assault on Facebook, will have 0 friends.

I admit it. Until now I have always been a bit of an Islamophobia skeptic. Living in the Middle East, I have no illusions about what radical Islam, given the right kinds of fuel and the right weapons of oppression, can do in the parts of the world under its control, or to immediate neighbors who challenge its reign. And while I share in many Europeans’ concern about the spread of violent Islam’s influence across the Continent, I have never really seen it as cause for panic about the future of Western civilization, or even of Europe. An inveterate optimist, I have a great deal of faith that Europeans, deep down, understand what has made them special and will do what’s needed to defend themselves and their culture. And as for the U.S.? It frankly never occurred to me that there was any danger, not now, not ever. Americans cherish their freedom too much and are too willing to defend it even by force of arms for fans of Jefferson and Paine to be truly worried.

Until now. And all because of South Park.

For those of you who’ve missed it, this week South Park attempted to parody the prophet Muhammad, just as it’s parodied Jesus, God, Moses, and every institution of religion big enough to merit its parody. Yet after an Islamist website posted a veiled threat, to the effect that the creators of South Park would end up like Theo Van Gogh, the film director murdered in Amsterdam for publicly criticizing Islam, the folks at Comedy Central buckled. The episode was removed from the website. For more details about this and similar acts of self-censorship in the past few months, read Ross Douthat’s crucial column in the New York Times.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The core of liberal society is the belief that every new thought, every iconoclasm, every “dangerous” idea, can be uttered somewhere, by someone, as long as it doesn’t openly incite violence — and that every sacred cow is ultimately just a cow. I may watch my tongue about the things I hold sacred, but as long as others have a right to criticize, parody, or publicly rebuke even those things I revere without fear for their lives, I know that society is a free society, and that when the time comes, I too will be protected. (It is the fate of the Jew always to wonder what will happen to him when the mob goes wild. That is why so many Jews are liberals.) Religion, especially, needs to be protected — both its affirmation and its negation — precisely because religion claims to hold in its hands the ultimate truths, on which life and death, war and peace, often turn. And the more power hungry a given religion appears to be, the more we have to protect every person’s right to critique it, whether through parody or public debate. Nor is this just a matter of legal rights: the moment someone feels that his life is in danger because he publicly criticized a religious figure or institution, we are all in trouble.

No cultural institution in our world has embodied this right more than South Park. Aside from being very, very funny (my apologies to the dour souls who disagree), it is also often vile, filled with offensive ideas, language, images, and more. I have often been forced to turn it off, especially if kids are watching. But that’s the whole point of it, as everyone knows. South Park has, until now, been the one place where every holy thing can be made fun of, every taboo broken — especially religion, in the best tradition of Voltaire and Monty Python. Nobody has to watch it if they don’t like it. But it should be out there, somewhere.

With the collapse of South Park‘s credibility as the slayer of all cows, something has been lost, something very deep to the inner logic of liberty. We have caught a glimpse of a world where religion is, well, so sacred as to brook no humor whatsoever. It is a dark world that we escaped several centuries ago, a world where power and claims of ultimate truths fuse together to crush freedom, creativity, and the bold human endeavors that have given us our entire world of scientific and political advancement. In a flash, we moderns are now forced to contend with the myth of our own invincibility: are we so arrogant as to think that modernity can never be undone? (Oh, and another thing: this seems especially ironic at a time when the Catholic Church has been hammered with demands for transparency and accountability an a willingness to defy centuries-old sanctities, yet many of us refuse to demand the same from Islam.)

Many of us have been hoping that the emergence of democracy and liberty around much of the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union could have an impact within the Islamic world as well — that somehow there would emerge a force of religious moderation, a realm of truly free speech, that could some day form the basis of peaceful coexistence and an end to the endless bloodshed. Instead, the battle lines are shifting the other way — and freedom is in retreat. South Park was a temple to the healthy cynicism and pushing of boundaries that have to exist somewhere if we are to feel truly free anywhere. We may hate it, and hate ourselves for enjoying it. But now we need to protect it. Or we, too, like the third-grader South Park recently depicted in a scathing assault on Facebook, will have 0 friends.

Read Less

Run Away! (Apologies to Monty Python)

Obama keeps telling his fellow Democrats that ObamaCare will cure what ails them. But the facts — polls and the behavior of candidates – tell us otherwise.  As this reports explains (h/t Mark Hemingway): “Representative John Boccieri, Democrat of Ohio, whose vote on major health care legislation could be crucial to the outcome, will not be attending President Obama’s health care rally on Monday in Strongsville, Ohio, not far from Mr. Boccieri’s own district, a spokeswoman said.” We’ve seen this before, as Democrats in swing states steer clear of Obama. And given the polling data in Ohio, it isn’t surprising that a Democrat would want to evade the president. A Quinnipiac poll recently reported:

President Obama’s negative 44-52 percent job approval is down slightly from 45-50 percent November 12, led by a big drop among independent voters, who approve 38-57 percent, down from 45-49 percent in November. Republicans are negative 11-87 percent, while Democrats approve 81-13 percent. Ohio voters give Obama a negative 39-57 percent approval for handling the economy, and a negative 34-58 on his handling of health care. Voters approve 55-39 percent of Obama’s decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Voters mostly disapprove 56-33 percent of the current health care reform plan, but say 53-44 percent that Obama and Congress should keep trying to pass reform legislation. “Given that President Obama carried the state with more than 51 percent of the vote, these numbers mean many Ohioans who were in his corner have now deserted him,” said [polling director Peter] Brown.

Democrats can avoid Obama on the stump, but there will be no avoiding the consequences of their votes — no matter how disguised or fuzzed up. Democrats, as Obama told us, need to vote up or down and live with the aftermath. So far it seems like those most at risk have good reason to stay as far from the president’s agenda as they can.

Obama keeps telling his fellow Democrats that ObamaCare will cure what ails them. But the facts — polls and the behavior of candidates – tell us otherwise.  As this reports explains (h/t Mark Hemingway): “Representative John Boccieri, Democrat of Ohio, whose vote on major health care legislation could be crucial to the outcome, will not be attending President Obama’s health care rally on Monday in Strongsville, Ohio, not far from Mr. Boccieri’s own district, a spokeswoman said.” We’ve seen this before, as Democrats in swing states steer clear of Obama. And given the polling data in Ohio, it isn’t surprising that a Democrat would want to evade the president. A Quinnipiac poll recently reported:

President Obama’s negative 44-52 percent job approval is down slightly from 45-50 percent November 12, led by a big drop among independent voters, who approve 38-57 percent, down from 45-49 percent in November. Republicans are negative 11-87 percent, while Democrats approve 81-13 percent. Ohio voters give Obama a negative 39-57 percent approval for handling the economy, and a negative 34-58 on his handling of health care. Voters approve 55-39 percent of Obama’s decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Voters mostly disapprove 56-33 percent of the current health care reform plan, but say 53-44 percent that Obama and Congress should keep trying to pass reform legislation. “Given that President Obama carried the state with more than 51 percent of the vote, these numbers mean many Ohioans who were in his corner have now deserted him,” said [polling director Peter] Brown.

Democrats can avoid Obama on the stump, but there will be no avoiding the consequences of their votes — no matter how disguised or fuzzed up. Democrats, as Obama told us, need to vote up or down and live with the aftermath. So far it seems like those most at risk have good reason to stay as far from the president’s agenda as they can.

Read Less