Commentary Magazine


Topic: Seattle

Morning Commentary

What’s driving the disturbing trend of self-immolation in Arab countries? The Jerusalem Post editorial board writes that it’s a combination of pent-up frustration, a desire to encourage others through dramatic self-sacrifice, and the rise of new media: “Perhaps the recent flurry of self-immolation is an extreme aspect of this trend toward individualism. The personal stories of despair that led up to these acts of self-sacrifice are inevitably brought to the forefront. And the very nature of protest through self-immolation emphasizes the importance of exceptional individual acts and their capacity to generate widespread empathy via self-identification.”

Who said there wouldn’t be any benefit from Obama’s schmoozing with Hu Jintao last night? During the state dinner, Obama announced that China had made an exciting concession to the U.S.: “The Chinese and American people work together and create new opportunities together every single day. Mr. President [Hu], today we’ve shown that our governments can work together as well, for our mutual benefit. And that includes this bit of news — under a new agreement, our National Zoo will continue to dazzle children and visitors with the beloved giant pandas.”

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a pro-Palestinian group that was barred from running anti-Israel advertisements on Seattle buses. The lawsuit is aimed at forcing the transit agency to run the controversial ads: “’In a free and democratic society, we cannot allow the government to suppress lawful speech, even speech that may stir emotions,’ Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, said in a statement about the suit on Wednesday.”

After the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the next big military debate may be over whether women should be allowed to serve as combat soldiers. Proponents of the policy change say that the current rules don’t give women the same advancement opportunities as men, while critics argue that women lack the physical and physiological qualities necessary for combat: “The number one thing that soldiers, men going into battle, especially ones going into battle for the first time, are afraid of is that they are going to be cowards,” Kingsley [Browne said]. “That kind of fear, fear of cowardice, is highly motivating.”

Less than two weeks after suffering a bullet through the head, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is almost ready to get transferred to a rehab facility, says her doctor. The tenuous date for her departure from the hospital is Friday, depending on how her condition progresses. So far, Giffords’s recovery sounds miraculous — her husband says she’s begun reading get-well-soon letters sent to her by elementary-school students.

What’s driving the disturbing trend of self-immolation in Arab countries? The Jerusalem Post editorial board writes that it’s a combination of pent-up frustration, a desire to encourage others through dramatic self-sacrifice, and the rise of new media: “Perhaps the recent flurry of self-immolation is an extreme aspect of this trend toward individualism. The personal stories of despair that led up to these acts of self-sacrifice are inevitably brought to the forefront. And the very nature of protest through self-immolation emphasizes the importance of exceptional individual acts and their capacity to generate widespread empathy via self-identification.”

Who said there wouldn’t be any benefit from Obama’s schmoozing with Hu Jintao last night? During the state dinner, Obama announced that China had made an exciting concession to the U.S.: “The Chinese and American people work together and create new opportunities together every single day. Mr. President [Hu], today we’ve shown that our governments can work together as well, for our mutual benefit. And that includes this bit of news — under a new agreement, our National Zoo will continue to dazzle children and visitors with the beloved giant pandas.”

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a pro-Palestinian group that was barred from running anti-Israel advertisements on Seattle buses. The lawsuit is aimed at forcing the transit agency to run the controversial ads: “’In a free and democratic society, we cannot allow the government to suppress lawful speech, even speech that may stir emotions,’ Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, said in a statement about the suit on Wednesday.”

After the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the next big military debate may be over whether women should be allowed to serve as combat soldiers. Proponents of the policy change say that the current rules don’t give women the same advancement opportunities as men, while critics argue that women lack the physical and physiological qualities necessary for combat: “The number one thing that soldiers, men going into battle, especially ones going into battle for the first time, are afraid of is that they are going to be cowards,” Kingsley [Browne said]. “That kind of fear, fear of cowardice, is highly motivating.”

Less than two weeks after suffering a bullet through the head, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is almost ready to get transferred to a rehab facility, says her doctor. The tenuous date for her departure from the hospital is Friday, depending on how her condition progresses. So far, Giffords’s recovery sounds miraculous — her husband says she’s begun reading get-well-soon letters sent to her by elementary-school students.

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Morning Commentary

It looks like concerns over al-Qaeda wave attacks throughout Europe during the holiday season were justified. Nine men have been charged in connection to a British bomb plot today, just days after Dutch officials also arrested a dozen terrorism suspects: “In recent days, European concerns over terrorism have also seemed to mount after a suicide attack in Sweden by a British resident, a number of terrorism arrests in Spain and France, and other alarms in Germany over fears of a terrorism attack modeled on the 2008 Mumbai killings. The alerts have been given added weight by a warning in October from the State Department in Washington, cautioning of reports of a planned attack in a European city.”

Under mounting public pressure, King County officials have rejected the anti-Israel ads that were set to run on city buses. But it looks like the controversy may continue, as anti-Israel activists promise to fight the decision. [Correction: This post originally reported that Seattle officials rejected the metro bus ads, but the decision was made by King County officials. We apologize for any confusion.]

Under mounting public pressure, Seattle officials have rejected the anti-Israel ads that were set to run on city buses. But it looks like the controversy may continue, as anti-Israel activists promise to fight the decision.

Yesterday, the Iranian government halted the execution of a Kurdish student, but there are some indications that the death sentence may be imminent. Several of the student’s family members were reportedly arrested late last night, and the Internet and phone services have slowed noticeably in his home city.

A New York Times reporter gives a rare account of daily life in North Korea, where government officials are trying to boost the economy in preparation for the 2012 centennial of Kim Il-Sung’s birth.

Amir Taheri takes aim at the misguided argument that Iraq is simply a vessel state for the Iranian government. He points out that the money Iran poured into the recent Iraqi elections failed to translate into political power, and also notes that the Iraqi government refused to attend a political conference in Tehran: “The new Iraqi government represents a victory for all those who reject both Islamism and pan-Arabism as outdated ideologies. The biggest winners are those who assert Uruqua (Iraqi-ness) and ta’adudiyah (pluralism.) Today, one can claim that the Iraqi government is the most pluralist anywhere in the Arab world, with elected figures from all of Iraq’s 18 ethnic and religious communities. It includes representatives from 12 blocs formed by 66 parties.”

It looks like concerns over al-Qaeda wave attacks throughout Europe during the holiday season were justified. Nine men have been charged in connection to a British bomb plot today, just days after Dutch officials also arrested a dozen terrorism suspects: “In recent days, European concerns over terrorism have also seemed to mount after a suicide attack in Sweden by a British resident, a number of terrorism arrests in Spain and France, and other alarms in Germany over fears of a terrorism attack modeled on the 2008 Mumbai killings. The alerts have been given added weight by a warning in October from the State Department in Washington, cautioning of reports of a planned attack in a European city.”

Under mounting public pressure, King County officials have rejected the anti-Israel ads that were set to run on city buses. But it looks like the controversy may continue, as anti-Israel activists promise to fight the decision. [Correction: This post originally reported that Seattle officials rejected the metro bus ads, but the decision was made by King County officials. We apologize for any confusion.]

Under mounting public pressure, Seattle officials have rejected the anti-Israel ads that were set to run on city buses. But it looks like the controversy may continue, as anti-Israel activists promise to fight the decision.

Yesterday, the Iranian government halted the execution of a Kurdish student, but there are some indications that the death sentence may be imminent. Several of the student’s family members were reportedly arrested late last night, and the Internet and phone services have slowed noticeably in his home city.

A New York Times reporter gives a rare account of daily life in North Korea, where government officials are trying to boost the economy in preparation for the 2012 centennial of Kim Il-Sung’s birth.

Amir Taheri takes aim at the misguided argument that Iraq is simply a vessel state for the Iranian government. He points out that the money Iran poured into the recent Iraqi elections failed to translate into political power, and also notes that the Iraqi government refused to attend a political conference in Tehran: “The new Iraqi government represents a victory for all those who reject both Islamism and pan-Arabism as outdated ideologies. The biggest winners are those who assert Uruqua (Iraqi-ness) and ta’adudiyah (pluralism.) Today, one can claim that the Iraqi government is the most pluralist anywhere in the Arab world, with elected figures from all of Iraq’s 18 ethnic and religious communities. It includes representatives from 12 blocs formed by 66 parties.”

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Morning Commentary

New START picked up support from Republican Sens. Scott Brown, Bob Corker, Judd Gregg, and George Voinovich on Monday, making it look like the treaty may actually get ratified before the end of the week. Sens. Richard Lugar, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins had previously come out in favor of New START, which means Democrats now just need to pick up two more GOP “yes” votes to get the treaty ratified.

The latest Public Policy Polling survey of conservative voters in eight states found Sarah Palin to be the top pick for a 2012 presidential run. She’s followed closely by Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, with Mitt Romney in last place. PPP has more results and analysis from the poll on its blog.

Sadness: Melanie Phillips explains why the left is at war with itself over whether to canonize Julian Assange as a hero or convict him as a rapist without trial: “To understand why there is such an ear-splitting screeching of brakes from The Guardian, it is necessary to consider the mind-bending contradictions of what passes for thinking on the Left. For it believes certain things as articles of faith which cannot be denied. One is that America is a force for bad in the world and so can never be anything other than guilty. Another is that all men are potential rapists, and so can never be anything other than guilty.”

Steve Chapman discusses how political correctness in American schools helps turn top students into mediocre ones: “The danger in putting the brightest kids in general classes is that they will be bored by instruction geared to the middle. But their troubles don’t elicit much sympathy. Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless told The Atlantic magazine, ‘The United States does not do a good job of educating kids at the top. There’s a long-standing attitude that, “Well, smart kids can make it on their own.”’ But can they? Only 6 percent of American kids achieve advanced proficiency in math—lower than in 30 other countries. In Taiwan, the figure is 28 percent.”

Nathan Glazer reviews Kenneth Marcus’s latest book on campus anti-Semitism and the inclusion of Jews in Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An essay adapted from Marcus’s book was published in the September issue of COMMENTARY.

The nastiness of the anti-Israel fringe is now invading the morning commute. JTA reports that Seattle buses will soon be plastered with ads decrying “Israeli war-crimes.” From JTA: “The Seattle Midwest Awareness Campaign has paid $1,794 to place the advertisements on 12 buses beginning Dec. 27, the day Israel entered Gaza to stop rocket attacks on its southern communities, according to Seattle’s King 5 News. The ads feature a group of children looking at a demolished building under the heading ‘Israeli War Crimes: Your tax dollars at work.’”

New START picked up support from Republican Sens. Scott Brown, Bob Corker, Judd Gregg, and George Voinovich on Monday, making it look like the treaty may actually get ratified before the end of the week. Sens. Richard Lugar, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins had previously come out in favor of New START, which means Democrats now just need to pick up two more GOP “yes” votes to get the treaty ratified.

The latest Public Policy Polling survey of conservative voters in eight states found Sarah Palin to be the top pick for a 2012 presidential run. She’s followed closely by Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, with Mitt Romney in last place. PPP has more results and analysis from the poll on its blog.

Sadness: Melanie Phillips explains why the left is at war with itself over whether to canonize Julian Assange as a hero or convict him as a rapist without trial: “To understand why there is such an ear-splitting screeching of brakes from The Guardian, it is necessary to consider the mind-bending contradictions of what passes for thinking on the Left. For it believes certain things as articles of faith which cannot be denied. One is that America is a force for bad in the world and so can never be anything other than guilty. Another is that all men are potential rapists, and so can never be anything other than guilty.”

Steve Chapman discusses how political correctness in American schools helps turn top students into mediocre ones: “The danger in putting the brightest kids in general classes is that they will be bored by instruction geared to the middle. But their troubles don’t elicit much sympathy. Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless told The Atlantic magazine, ‘The United States does not do a good job of educating kids at the top. There’s a long-standing attitude that, “Well, smart kids can make it on their own.”’ But can they? Only 6 percent of American kids achieve advanced proficiency in math—lower than in 30 other countries. In Taiwan, the figure is 28 percent.”

Nathan Glazer reviews Kenneth Marcus’s latest book on campus anti-Semitism and the inclusion of Jews in Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An essay adapted from Marcus’s book was published in the September issue of COMMENTARY.

The nastiness of the anti-Israel fringe is now invading the morning commute. JTA reports that Seattle buses will soon be plastered with ads decrying “Israeli war-crimes.” From JTA: “The Seattle Midwest Awareness Campaign has paid $1,794 to place the advertisements on 12 buses beginning Dec. 27, the day Israel entered Gaza to stop rocket attacks on its southern communities, according to Seattle’s King 5 News. The ads feature a group of children looking at a demolished building under the heading ‘Israeli War Crimes: Your tax dollars at work.’”

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E-Cigs and Marit Ayin

Recently, Examiner.com (Seattle) reported that the King County health department in Washington State wants to ban “e-cigs” — cigarette lookalikes that do not create smoke but rather “deliver a vaporized dose of flavored liquid containing nicotine to the user.” While the jury is still out over any health risks associated with the faux buds, Bud Nicola of the King County health board does not like them for other reasons. As the Examiner reports: “People smoke them in establishments, and other patrons think they’re smoking. That makes it much more likely others will think it’s okay and start smoking themselves.” The artifice of these devices is their downfall.

Surprisingly, Nicola’s reasoning is exactly that of the Jewish concept of marit ayin, in which one refrains from certain permissible behaviors for fear that an onlooker might learn the wrong lesson from what he sees. Maimonides’ famous example describes a man who is caught in the rain on the Sabbath. Once home, he would wish to lay out his clothes to dry, but by doing so another person might think he had done his laundry and reasonably think that’s OK to wash clothes on Shabbat. While a form of teaching by example, marit ayin sets up religious and social constraints on behavior for a particular group. Extending its reasoning to the American culture suggests that while smoking is dangerous, appearing to smoke is even worse! Suspicion outweighs the “crime.”

Recently, Examiner.com (Seattle) reported that the King County health department in Washington State wants to ban “e-cigs” — cigarette lookalikes that do not create smoke but rather “deliver a vaporized dose of flavored liquid containing nicotine to the user.” While the jury is still out over any health risks associated with the faux buds, Bud Nicola of the King County health board does not like them for other reasons. As the Examiner reports: “People smoke them in establishments, and other patrons think they’re smoking. That makes it much more likely others will think it’s okay and start smoking themselves.” The artifice of these devices is their downfall.

Surprisingly, Nicola’s reasoning is exactly that of the Jewish concept of marit ayin, in which one refrains from certain permissible behaviors for fear that an onlooker might learn the wrong lesson from what he sees. Maimonides’ famous example describes a man who is caught in the rain on the Sabbath. Once home, he would wish to lay out his clothes to dry, but by doing so another person might think he had done his laundry and reasonably think that’s OK to wash clothes on Shabbat. While a form of teaching by example, marit ayin sets up religious and social constraints on behavior for a particular group. Extending its reasoning to the American culture suggests that while smoking is dangerous, appearing to smoke is even worse! Suspicion outweighs the “crime.”

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Getting Obama Half-Right — and All Wrong

Newt Gingrich has created a new controversy with remarks to National Review Online: “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” As is sadly all too often the case with the former House speaker, he has said something that is half-sharp and half-politically destructive. He’s onto something by connecting Obama’s ideas to anti-colonialism, I think. The key principle in the social and political science Obama studied in the late 1970s and early 1980s was that colonialism was the great evil of the 20th century. The attacks on colonialism, which had been common on the left since the 1920s, were amplified in the 1960s by the reassertion of the Marxist-Leninist conception of “imperialism,” and for good reason — because the more general and less specific term “imperialism” was the way the left could put the United States at the center of its indictment of bourgeois Western corruption and rot.

To the extent that Obama believes that the West and the United States bear a considerable amount of blame for the parlous economic and political condition of other parts of the world and should offer some words of apologetic explanation, he may be operating (as Gingrich sort of suggests) from an ideological base in anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist thinking. This would go a long way to explaining, for example, his bizarre conduct toward Great Britain upon assuming the presidency — the snub of then-PM Gordon Brown, the presentation of a shoddy gift of DVDs, and the banishing of a bust of Churchill from the White House. Why do any of these things to this country’s closest ally unless there is some ideological root? That root could be anti-colonialist ideas, which always held that Great Britain was the worst colonial offender even if it hadn’t been the cruelest (the Belgians were the cruelest) because it portrayed itself as being so humane and orderly.

But by adding a connection to Obama’s father’s home country, Gingrich simply makes his anti-colonial point all but inaudible in the white-noise crackle produced by aligning himself, at least philosophically, with the “birther” crowd. To make the anti-colonial point, there was no need to mention Kenya; the center of anti-colonialist thinking during Obama’s formative educational years was on the Western left, particularly on social-science faculties at major universities here and in Europe. Far more important in this context, if you’re going to mention one of his parents, is his mother Stanley Ann Dunham, who did her academic training as an anthropologist as Obama was growing up. It would seem likely that any ideas of an anti-colonialist nature that Obama might have imbibed as a child would not have come from the father, whom he saw only twice in his life, but rather from his stoutly American, Kansas-to-Seattle-to-Hawaii mother, whose remarkable life journey also included taking up permanent residence on the academic left.

Gingrich might just have been careless in the way he was talking, and through that carelessness handed his party’s enemies a big stick to beat the GOP with at a particularly inopportune moment. Or he might have been sending a cutesy, cagey signal to the birthers that he had joined their number. Hard to say which would be worse.

Newt Gingrich has created a new controversy with remarks to National Review Online: “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” As is sadly all too often the case with the former House speaker, he has said something that is half-sharp and half-politically destructive. He’s onto something by connecting Obama’s ideas to anti-colonialism, I think. The key principle in the social and political science Obama studied in the late 1970s and early 1980s was that colonialism was the great evil of the 20th century. The attacks on colonialism, which had been common on the left since the 1920s, were amplified in the 1960s by the reassertion of the Marxist-Leninist conception of “imperialism,” and for good reason — because the more general and less specific term “imperialism” was the way the left could put the United States at the center of its indictment of bourgeois Western corruption and rot.

To the extent that Obama believes that the West and the United States bear a considerable amount of blame for the parlous economic and political condition of other parts of the world and should offer some words of apologetic explanation, he may be operating (as Gingrich sort of suggests) from an ideological base in anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist thinking. This would go a long way to explaining, for example, his bizarre conduct toward Great Britain upon assuming the presidency — the snub of then-PM Gordon Brown, the presentation of a shoddy gift of DVDs, and the banishing of a bust of Churchill from the White House. Why do any of these things to this country’s closest ally unless there is some ideological root? That root could be anti-colonialist ideas, which always held that Great Britain was the worst colonial offender even if it hadn’t been the cruelest (the Belgians were the cruelest) because it portrayed itself as being so humane and orderly.

But by adding a connection to Obama’s father’s home country, Gingrich simply makes his anti-colonial point all but inaudible in the white-noise crackle produced by aligning himself, at least philosophically, with the “birther” crowd. To make the anti-colonial point, there was no need to mention Kenya; the center of anti-colonialist thinking during Obama’s formative educational years was on the Western left, particularly on social-science faculties at major universities here and in Europe. Far more important in this context, if you’re going to mention one of his parents, is his mother Stanley Ann Dunham, who did her academic training as an anthropologist as Obama was growing up. It would seem likely that any ideas of an anti-colonialist nature that Obama might have imbibed as a child would not have come from the father, whom he saw only twice in his life, but rather from his stoutly American, Kansas-to-Seattle-to-Hawaii mother, whose remarkable life journey also included taking up permanent residence on the academic left.

Gingrich might just have been careless in the way he was talking, and through that carelessness handed his party’s enemies a big stick to beat the GOP with at a particularly inopportune moment. Or he might have been sending a cutesy, cagey signal to the birthers that he had joined their number. Hard to say which would be worse.

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Obama Blew His First Important Decision

The juicy Game Change book, which landed Harry Reid in political quicksand, is even more damaging to Joe Biden and, by extension, to the president’s own image as chief executive. As Politico recounts:

The relationship between Barack Obama and Joe Biden grew so strained during the 2008 campaign, according to a new book, that the two rarely spoke and aides not only kept Biden off internal conference calls but refused to even tell him they existed. Instead, a separate campaign call was regularly scheduled between the then-Delaware senator and two of Obama’s top campaign aides — “so that they could keep a tight rein on him,” write journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. … The tensions began in September of 2008 [when] word got back to Obama’s campaign headquarters that Biden had told reporters on his campaign plane that he was more qualified than his running mate to be president.

“A chill set in between Chicago and the Biden plane,” Halperin and Heilemann write in the book, to be released Monday. “Joe and Obama barely spoke by phone, rarely campaigned together.”

And when Obama campaign manager David Plouffe was asked about having Biden dial into the nightly campaign conference call, he responded: “Nah.” Instead, Biden had his own call with Plouffe and senior campaign adviser David Axelrod.

Obama himself was growing increasingly frustrated with his running mate after Biden let loose with a string of gaffes, including a statement that paying higher taxes amounted to patriotism and criticism of one of the campaign’s own ads poking fun at John McCain.

But when Biden, at an October fund-raiser in Seattle, famously predicted that Obama would be tested with an international crisis, the then-Illinois senator had had enough.

“How many times is Biden gonna say something stupid?” he demanded of his advisers on a conference call, a moment at which most people on the call said the candidate was as angry as they had ever heard him.

Well, we knew Joe Biden was a loudmouthed buffoon. Indeed, most people knew that before he was selected as Obama’s VP. His gaffes were well known, his penchant for cringe-inducing boasts was no secret, and he was, after all, bounced from one presidential campaign for appropriating Neil Kinnock’s life account as his own. But here’s the thing: Obama selected him anyway. So what is the real message here — that Biden was a goofball, or that Obama showed atrocious judgment in making the most important personnel call, one that cannot be reversed until 2012?

If Obama was furious at his VP, he should perhaps have thought back to the vetting process. Surely, Eric Holder and Caroline Kennedy didn’t let him down by failing to take their candidate through Biden’s shortcomings chapter and verse, right? Obama nevertheless made the decision to hire someone for whom he had contempt. Nice work.

Moreover, in office Biden has not only lived up to his reputation for gaffes; his judgment, most especially on Afghanistan, has been (as it has been for 30 years) faulty. To Obama’s credit, Biden’s advice was rejected on the surge, although one suspects the process would have been less excruciating and prolonged had it not been for Biden’s efforts to override the advice of all our military commanders.

Obama hasn’t distinguished himself as an executive. His Afghanistan policy-making process was tortured, and he has outsourced much of that policy making to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid — who proceeded to junk up the stimulus and come up with the worst-of-all-worlds health-care bill. He flunked the 3 a.m. telephone-call test on the Christmas Day bombing. But it’s in his personnel selection — from the hapless and ethically challenged Tim Geithner to the decidedly unwise Sonia Sotomayor to the goofy James Jones — where he has demonstrated his utter lack of executive competence. And the prime example is the man who sits the proverbial one heartbeat away from the presidency.

The juicy Game Change book, which landed Harry Reid in political quicksand, is even more damaging to Joe Biden and, by extension, to the president’s own image as chief executive. As Politico recounts:

The relationship between Barack Obama and Joe Biden grew so strained during the 2008 campaign, according to a new book, that the two rarely spoke and aides not only kept Biden off internal conference calls but refused to even tell him they existed. Instead, a separate campaign call was regularly scheduled between the then-Delaware senator and two of Obama’s top campaign aides — “so that they could keep a tight rein on him,” write journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. … The tensions began in September of 2008 [when] word got back to Obama’s campaign headquarters that Biden had told reporters on his campaign plane that he was more qualified than his running mate to be president.

“A chill set in between Chicago and the Biden plane,” Halperin and Heilemann write in the book, to be released Monday. “Joe and Obama barely spoke by phone, rarely campaigned together.”

And when Obama campaign manager David Plouffe was asked about having Biden dial into the nightly campaign conference call, he responded: “Nah.” Instead, Biden had his own call with Plouffe and senior campaign adviser David Axelrod.

Obama himself was growing increasingly frustrated with his running mate after Biden let loose with a string of gaffes, including a statement that paying higher taxes amounted to patriotism and criticism of one of the campaign’s own ads poking fun at John McCain.

But when Biden, at an October fund-raiser in Seattle, famously predicted that Obama would be tested with an international crisis, the then-Illinois senator had had enough.

“How many times is Biden gonna say something stupid?” he demanded of his advisers on a conference call, a moment at which most people on the call said the candidate was as angry as they had ever heard him.

Well, we knew Joe Biden was a loudmouthed buffoon. Indeed, most people knew that before he was selected as Obama’s VP. His gaffes were well known, his penchant for cringe-inducing boasts was no secret, and he was, after all, bounced from one presidential campaign for appropriating Neil Kinnock’s life account as his own. But here’s the thing: Obama selected him anyway. So what is the real message here — that Biden was a goofball, or that Obama showed atrocious judgment in making the most important personnel call, one that cannot be reversed until 2012?

If Obama was furious at his VP, he should perhaps have thought back to the vetting process. Surely, Eric Holder and Caroline Kennedy didn’t let him down by failing to take their candidate through Biden’s shortcomings chapter and verse, right? Obama nevertheless made the decision to hire someone for whom he had contempt. Nice work.

Moreover, in office Biden has not only lived up to his reputation for gaffes; his judgment, most especially on Afghanistan, has been (as it has been for 30 years) faulty. To Obama’s credit, Biden’s advice was rejected on the surge, although one suspects the process would have been less excruciating and prolonged had it not been for Biden’s efforts to override the advice of all our military commanders.

Obama hasn’t distinguished himself as an executive. His Afghanistan policy-making process was tortured, and he has outsourced much of that policy making to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid — who proceeded to junk up the stimulus and come up with the worst-of-all-worlds health-care bill. He flunked the 3 a.m. telephone-call test on the Christmas Day bombing. But it’s in his personnel selection — from the hapless and ethically challenged Tim Geithner to the decidedly unwise Sonia Sotomayor to the goofy James Jones — where he has demonstrated his utter lack of executive competence. And the prime example is the man who sits the proverbial one heartbeat away from the presidency.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Democratic governors are in trouble, too — in states like Oregon, Ohio, and Washington. It seems the recession and Obamaism have not been kind to incumbent Democrats.

Keith Hennessey on ObamaCare: “If you’re concerned about long-run budget deficits, you should not make a massive new entitlement spending commitment, exclude a multi-hundred billion spending item that is almost certain to be enacted elsewhere, bet on speculative offsets, all to achieve the unimpressive goal of reducing deficits by “a small share of the total deficits that would be likely to arise in that decade under current policies. We need massive future spending reductions to address exploding future deficits, not to redistribute resources to a new entitlement program.”

Meanwhile, the latest Rasmussen survey reports that 60 percent of voters think ObamaCare will increase the deficit. Only 9 percent say it won’t have any impact.

Charles Krauthammer observes that “all Iran sees is an obsequious president, the most accommodating and appeasement-minded since the Carter administration vis-a-vis Iran, on bended knee, begging for a yes — and all [he] gets is no. At some point, and it should be today, it should have been a year ago, three years ago in the Bush administration, accept the fact that a no is a no. … [The Obama administration] actually took the side of the dictatorship against the people in the streets, hoping that it would create an opening and an overture to the regime — and [in response] the regime has spat in our face.”

Well, yes, we imagine that this is what everyone striving to establish himself as a 2012 contender will say: “Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty became the first likely GOP presidential candidate to criticize Mike Huckabee’s pardon of a suspected killer during his time as Arkansas’s governor. Pawlenty said that he would not have granted clemency to Maurice Clemmons, who was suspected of fatally shooting four police officers in Washington state on Sunday before being shot and killed by police in Seattle Tuesday morning.”

Pawlenty, perhaps explaining why he seems to be trying so hard, confesses: “Nobody knows who I am.”

A pre-speech Gallup survey: “Americans are far less approving of President Obama’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan than they have been in recent months, with 35% currently approving, down from 49% in September and 56% in July.” And more voters disapprove than approve of his performance on terrorism, the economy, health care, and creating jobs.

This is pathetic: the White House goes to war with Politico?! Next up: CNN and Vanity Fair. It seems the “purity” test — brook no heresy – is not a GOP thing but an Obami thin-skinned media thing.

Democratic governors are in trouble, too — in states like Oregon, Ohio, and Washington. It seems the recession and Obamaism have not been kind to incumbent Democrats.

Keith Hennessey on ObamaCare: “If you’re concerned about long-run budget deficits, you should not make a massive new entitlement spending commitment, exclude a multi-hundred billion spending item that is almost certain to be enacted elsewhere, bet on speculative offsets, all to achieve the unimpressive goal of reducing deficits by “a small share of the total deficits that would be likely to arise in that decade under current policies. We need massive future spending reductions to address exploding future deficits, not to redistribute resources to a new entitlement program.”

Meanwhile, the latest Rasmussen survey reports that 60 percent of voters think ObamaCare will increase the deficit. Only 9 percent say it won’t have any impact.

Charles Krauthammer observes that “all Iran sees is an obsequious president, the most accommodating and appeasement-minded since the Carter administration vis-a-vis Iran, on bended knee, begging for a yes — and all [he] gets is no. At some point, and it should be today, it should have been a year ago, three years ago in the Bush administration, accept the fact that a no is a no. … [The Obama administration] actually took the side of the dictatorship against the people in the streets, hoping that it would create an opening and an overture to the regime — and [in response] the regime has spat in our face.”

Well, yes, we imagine that this is what everyone striving to establish himself as a 2012 contender will say: “Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty became the first likely GOP presidential candidate to criticize Mike Huckabee’s pardon of a suspected killer during his time as Arkansas’s governor. Pawlenty said that he would not have granted clemency to Maurice Clemmons, who was suspected of fatally shooting four police officers in Washington state on Sunday before being shot and killed by police in Seattle Tuesday morning.”

Pawlenty, perhaps explaining why he seems to be trying so hard, confesses: “Nobody knows who I am.”

A pre-speech Gallup survey: “Americans are far less approving of President Obama’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan than they have been in recent months, with 35% currently approving, down from 49% in September and 56% in July.” And more voters disapprove than approve of his performance on terrorism, the economy, health care, and creating jobs.

This is pathetic: the White House goes to war with Politico?! Next up: CNN and Vanity Fair. It seems the “purity” test — brook no heresy – is not a GOP thing but an Obami thin-skinned media thing.

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Architectural Kudzu

It was only a matter of time before someone picked up the cudgels on behalf of the “starchitects”—that new but already tired term for our celebrity architects—but it is surprising that it would be the New York Times’s architecture critic. Last Sunday, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote with great urgency in praise of starchitects, touting them not only for the audacity of their imagination but for their ability to work with gargantuan real estate developers. Why the Times would cheer the rise of the international starchitect, which is an aspect of globalization, is not entirely obvious. It may be a sufficient explanation that the phenomenon has been criticized by certain critics on the right, such as John Silber and me.

For Ouroussoff, the starchitect is not a shallow and ambitious showman but a seasoned master—someone who is likely to have paid his dues, often in academia, toiling for decades in obscurity to refine and distill his visionary ideas:

Today these architects, many of them in their 60s and 70s, are finally getting to test those visions in everyday life, often on a grand scale. What followed has been one of the most exhilarating periods in recent architectural history. For every superficial expression of a culture obsessed with novelty, you can point to a work of blazing originality.

Ouroussoff dismisses the notion that the starchitect is a new phenomenon. After all, was not Bernini “a tireless self-promoter,” and should not our own “greatest architectural talents also be celebrated for their accomplishments?”

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It was only a matter of time before someone picked up the cudgels on behalf of the “starchitects”—that new but already tired term for our celebrity architects—but it is surprising that it would be the New York Times’s architecture critic. Last Sunday, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote with great urgency in praise of starchitects, touting them not only for the audacity of their imagination but for their ability to work with gargantuan real estate developers. Why the Times would cheer the rise of the international starchitect, which is an aspect of globalization, is not entirely obvious. It may be a sufficient explanation that the phenomenon has been criticized by certain critics on the right, such as John Silber and me.

For Ouroussoff, the starchitect is not a shallow and ambitious showman but a seasoned master—someone who is likely to have paid his dues, often in academia, toiling for decades in obscurity to refine and distill his visionary ideas:

Today these architects, many of them in their 60s and 70s, are finally getting to test those visions in everyday life, often on a grand scale. What followed has been one of the most exhilarating periods in recent architectural history. For every superficial expression of a culture obsessed with novelty, you can point to a work of blazing originality.

Ouroussoff dismisses the notion that the starchitect is a new phenomenon. After all, was not Bernini “a tireless self-promoter,” and should not our own “greatest architectural talents also be celebrated for their accomplishments?”

The problem of starchitects, however, is not the shallowness of celebrity, as Ouroussoff’s schematic model suggests, but the danger of monoculture. We rightly lament the loss of ecological diversity in nature, as local ecosystems, overwhelmed by invasive species from outside, lose their fragile equilibrium. One thinks of Japanese kudzu, inundating the American southeast and driving out native species, or the way that American cactus has come to dominate the Mediterranean basin. But one can lose cultural diversity just as one loses ecological diversity, and already we see the warning signs of the emergence of an international architectural monoculture.

The city I know best, Philadelphia, once had a thriving and unusually vibrant local culture, and the very fact of its parochial oddness perversely made it intensely interesting to outsiders (giving the world such extraordinary figures as Frank Furness, Robert Venturi, and Louis Kahn). And until quite recently, its tallest and most important buildings were by Philadelphia architects. But now every item on the skyline is the work of one of the handful of prestigious national firms. They are not bad—Robert A. M. Stern’s forthcoming Comcast Tower looks as if it might be amusing—so much as generic; they might stand as easily in Houston or Seattle (and perhaps they do). I suspect this will prove to be the case in other cities as well.

In fact, Ouroussoff’s own roster of our “greatest architectural talents, ” Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Jean Nouvel—an American, a Dutch, and a French architect—inadvertently makes the same point. None is rooted in a specific city or even country, with distinctive local traditions and practices, instilling in each the strong sense of physical place that is the power of much of our greatest architecture. This is perhaps the first generation of architects since the late middle ages to practice with no sense of linguistic or national borders.

In the end, one can concede to Ouroussoff that some of our starchitects have produced works of “blazing originality,” even while wishing he were able to take a step backwards and see the phenomenon in its most spacious sense, as the rise of a lush but rather barren monoculture, the architectural equivalent of kudzu.

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Is Max Boot Wrong, or Very Wrong?

Over at contentions, Max Boot has written skeptically about the fact that I have written skeptically about a new Defense Science Board study, which raises alarms about the Department of Defense’s vulnerability to cyber-attacks.
 
I had wondered, “if our adversaries are as good as we are saying they are at exploiting vulnerabilities in our technology, why are their brilliant programmers not going off on freelance missions to tap in, say, to the electronic systems of a Goldman Sachs and transferring its assets to themselves?

Max says that “the short answer is they are doing precisely that. It’s just that the public doesn’t hear much about it because the targeted institutions want to keep as quiet as possible for obvious reasons, so as not to encourage copycats and not to endanger the confidence of their clients, investors, and counterparties.”

This I very much doubt. Major financial institutions operate in a highly regulated environment and are simply not permitted to conceal massive thefts. The big investment houses that do business in the United States are required to turn over immense reams of data every quarter to the Fed; they are also under intense scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Most of them are publicly held. It is inconceivable that some hackers could siphon a couple of hundred millions bucks from, say, Lehman Brothers, without shareholders learning of it. Even if the banks had the legal right to conceal massive thefts, I doubt they could. These kinds of institutions may not be quite as colander-like as the CIA, but if millions have been stolen from their coffers via a hacker’s keystroke, such juicy information would surely leak.

Like Max, I believe in protecting ourselves from all sorts of emerging threats, from nano-robots armed with lethal bacteria to Iranian ICBMs tipped with ayatollahs. But I don’t believe in developing a military policy based upon gropes in the dark.

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Over at contentions, Max Boot has written skeptically about the fact that I have written skeptically about a new Defense Science Board study, which raises alarms about the Department of Defense’s vulnerability to cyber-attacks.
 
I had wondered, “if our adversaries are as good as we are saying they are at exploiting vulnerabilities in our technology, why are their brilliant programmers not going off on freelance missions to tap in, say, to the electronic systems of a Goldman Sachs and transferring its assets to themselves?

Max says that “the short answer is they are doing precisely that. It’s just that the public doesn’t hear much about it because the targeted institutions want to keep as quiet as possible for obvious reasons, so as not to encourage copycats and not to endanger the confidence of their clients, investors, and counterparties.”

This I very much doubt. Major financial institutions operate in a highly regulated environment and are simply not permitted to conceal massive thefts. The big investment houses that do business in the United States are required to turn over immense reams of data every quarter to the Fed; they are also under intense scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Most of them are publicly held. It is inconceivable that some hackers could siphon a couple of hundred millions bucks from, say, Lehman Brothers, without shareholders learning of it. Even if the banks had the legal right to conceal massive thefts, I doubt they could. These kinds of institutions may not be quite as colander-like as the CIA, but if millions have been stolen from their coffers via a hacker’s keystroke, such juicy information would surely leak.

Like Max, I believe in protecting ourselves from all sorts of emerging threats, from nano-robots armed with lethal bacteria to Iranian ICBMs tipped with ayatollahs. But I don’t believe in developing a military policy based upon gropes in the dark.

One such grope is Max’s reference to a Financial Times story about a 2005 attack against the London offices of the Japanese bank, Sumitomo. That episode lends support to my view and casts skepticism on Max’s skepticism about my skepticism. A key phrase in Max’s telling of that story is that the thieves “almost managed” to carry out their plot. A somewhat different way of describing that same outcome is that they didn’t manage to carry it out.

How did Scotland Yard get wise to the cyber-thieves? They were uncovered when bells and whistles sounded after they tried to transfer funds electronically to an account in Israel. In other words, Sumitomo’s cyber-security kicked in. Perhaps Sumitomo subscribes to McAfee’s “Total Protection, 12-in-1″ anti-virus and firewall software available for only $59.95 a year. Perhaps they paid much more to some smart programmers to build far fancier and more effective programs to guard against intrusion and theft. Whatever they have in place, the Pentagon needs to buy a version of it as well, and make sure that that it is kept regularly updated. It worked for Sumitomo.

Yes, there are manifold dangers in the cyber-realm. One problem flows from the fact that approximately half of the U.S. population is of below average intelligence. This helps to explain why some 1.78 million Americans have fallen victim to fake emails encouraging them to disclose personal banking information. The ensuing losses total more than $1 billion to date. But bankers and the programmers they hire are decidely not of below average intelligence. That is a major reason why electronic robberies of corporate coffers remain exceedingly rare.

This is not to say that the Pentagon should not be on guard. It should certainly be wary of purchasing software applications written by starving North Korean programmers toiling in front of Soviet-era workstations with Kalashnikovs pointed at their heads. And it also should be on guard against denial-of-service attacks of the kind Russia launched against Estonia earlier this year. But when Max cites that episode and concludes that “the U.S. is just as vulnerable to such an attack,” for the first time since I met Max a decade ago, I suddenly began to doubt his command of Estonian.

Silicon Valley is located in California not in Tallinn. Microsoft is located in Seattle not in Tartu. The GDP of Estonia last year was $26.8 billion. The market value of Lehman Brothers last year—one Fortune 500 corporation alone—was $38 billion. Is the mighty U.S. truly just as vulnerable to cyber-attack as mouse-sized Estonia? The U.S. may face dangers in the realm of malicious software and from hacking, but we also clearly face dangers from those who would exaggerate those dangers.

Max Boot is a good friend but I am afraid that there are only two ways that this bitter dispute can be settled. The first is that he and I face off in a duel. The second is that just before sundown on Sunday he should admit that he has been doing some groping in the dark. I will simultaneously make the same admission.

Before either of us reaches any firm conclusions about the Pentagon’s software problems, it would behoove us both to hear from computer experts in the financial industry—not just from those who are captives of our military-industrial-computer complex—about our real vulnerabilities and about the most cost-efficient way to address them.

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Bravo Adam Schiff!

Fans of television’s Law & Order have waited in vain for any commemoration of the 85th birthday of Steven Hill, the actor who played New York District Attorney Adam Schiff from 1990 to 2000. Hill retired at age 78 from the role, which is based on New York’s own Robert Morgenthau, now 88, who shows no signs of retiring, although he is three years older than Hill. Born Solomon Krakovsky in Seattle, Washington in 1922, Hill is one of the rare Orthodox Jews to pursue a mainstream acting career in television and film. From early on, his religious beliefs inspired (and sometimes interfered with) his career; his 1946 Broadway debut, alongside Paul Muni and Marlon Brando, was in Ben Hecht’s A Flag Is Born, which advocated a new Jewish State.

After an early stage career, mentored by Lee Strasberg at The Actors’ Studio, Hill began to work widely in television and film. Much of his best work (as a weary veteran in Paddy Chayevsky’s 1958 The Goddess and as the tormented father of a learning disabled child in John Cassavetes’s A Child Is Waiting must be hunted down on VHS tapes, still unavailable on DVD. It’s worth the effort, since Hill is the epitome of a “thinking actor,” who ruminates over roles until he drives some colleagues wild. Martin Landau, who appeared with Hill in the first year of television’s Mission Impossible (1966), called him “nuts, volatile, mad, and his work was exciting.” Hill was soon fired from Mission Impossible, for intransigence about a number of things, including an extremely strict observance of the Sabbath. Hill retired to an Orthodox community in Rockland County, where he worked in real estate from 1967 to 1977; by not acting during this decade, he avoiding being made into a plastic television star (his role in Mission Impossible was filled by the suave but mechanical Peter Graves).

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Fans of television’s Law & Order have waited in vain for any commemoration of the 85th birthday of Steven Hill, the actor who played New York District Attorney Adam Schiff from 1990 to 2000. Hill retired at age 78 from the role, which is based on New York’s own Robert Morgenthau, now 88, who shows no signs of retiring, although he is three years older than Hill. Born Solomon Krakovsky in Seattle, Washington in 1922, Hill is one of the rare Orthodox Jews to pursue a mainstream acting career in television and film. From early on, his religious beliefs inspired (and sometimes interfered with) his career; his 1946 Broadway debut, alongside Paul Muni and Marlon Brando, was in Ben Hecht’s A Flag Is Born, which advocated a new Jewish State.

After an early stage career, mentored by Lee Strasberg at The Actors’ Studio, Hill began to work widely in television and film. Much of his best work (as a weary veteran in Paddy Chayevsky’s 1958 The Goddess and as the tormented father of a learning disabled child in John Cassavetes’s A Child Is Waiting must be hunted down on VHS tapes, still unavailable on DVD. It’s worth the effort, since Hill is the epitome of a “thinking actor,” who ruminates over roles until he drives some colleagues wild. Martin Landau, who appeared with Hill in the first year of television’s Mission Impossible (1966), called him “nuts, volatile, mad, and his work was exciting.” Hill was soon fired from Mission Impossible, for intransigence about a number of things, including an extremely strict observance of the Sabbath. Hill retired to an Orthodox community in Rockland County, where he worked in real estate from 1967 to 1977; by not acting during this decade, he avoiding being made into a plastic television star (his role in Mission Impossible was filled by the suave but mechanical Peter Graves).

Returning to acting, Hill landed minor roles in mostly forgettable films, with the exception of two charming if stagy filmed plays by Horton Foote, On Valentine’s Day (1986 ) and Courtship (1987). In 1990, when Law & Order debuted, Hill was seen at full force. He self-deprecatingly speaks of his role in Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion, saying: “I get a kick out of that curmudgeon business. I used to love to see actors like that, like Monty Woolley. You love those older people who do that deliberately.”

Yet, in many episodes, Hill far transcended the Monty Woolley shtick of comic disgruntlement. One that comes immediately to mind is “Terminal,” from Law & Order’s seventh season, so far unavailable on DVD. In it, Schiff has authorized his hospitalized, terminally ill wife to be unplugged from life support. As she flatlines, he watches, giving out an agonized whimper of animal-like intensity at the moment of her death. This is great acting by any definition; without dialogue and very succinctly, Hill manages to portray the physical and emotional effect of losing a life partner. Happy 85th, Mr. Hill!

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