A GENIAL anarchist, S. G., whom I came to know suddenly and intimately during I95 o , has reached the…
Thousands of American mothers are in the odd position of having raised their first child under rigid schedules, and their second under conditions of absolute freedom. If they are brave enough to have a third, they will find themselves obliged once again to figure out the practical implications of the latest scientific research. Looming large among recent contributors to the study of child-rearing is Dr. Arnold Gesell, who offers a picture of the normal child at various stages of his development, and coolly invites parents to make the best of it. Since, however, the I of the mother is never quite the eye of the scientist, some interesting complications are inevitable.
A genial anarchist, S. G., whom I came to know suddenly and intimately during 1950, has reached the age of one year, and can be dimly recognized in Dr. Arnold Gesell’s profile (in his Infant and Child in the Culture of Today):
The year-old baby is already capable of finer coordination in his eating and play activities. He picks small morsels of food from his tray with deft forceps prehension, and masticates and swallows with much less spilling from his mouth . . . may seize a spoon by the handle and brush it over his tray. He can also dip it into a cup and release it; all of which shows that he is advancing in his mastery of tools and of the solid and hollow geometry of space.
But can S. G., or any other lively individual baby, be fairly described in this laboratory language? No mother could think so, though a baby, more empirical in outlook, a spontaneous admirer of tidy procedures, might. The contemporary baby will in any case have to come to terms with many a more pedantic image of himself. For his relation with his parents has lost its 19th-century privacy and become the public obsession of an imposing didactic literature.
By “Gesell” (a name handed from mother to mother as a respectable token of their common experience, just as certain dress and perfume labels are the shorthand proof that one has been in Paris) is usually meant his Infant and Child in the Culture of Today (1943) which, along with The Child From Five to Ten (1946), summarizes the results of observing children at the Yale New Haven Clinic for thirty-two years. This article considers only the first volume, covering the period during which the character of the mother qua mother becomes undisguisably apparent to everyone but herself. Dr. Gesell has called his work a cultural anthropology and, although it is popularly thought of as a guide and can ultimately be used as that, its real distinction lies in a mass of descriptive material organized into laws about the structure, environment, and behavior of the modern child.
The body of the book, the part that makes or breaks a mother’s faith in its author, consists in a factual statement of the child’s growth characteristics during the first five years of life. To demonstrate what a continuing, knitting kind of process growth is, and to point up its constant sloughings off, projections, displacements, and transmutations of the past, Dr. Gesell makes all his evaluations comparative. He selects definite moments of maturity—four, sixteen, twenty-eight weeks, and so on—and delineates at each the progress in posture, perception, prehension, language adaptation, sociability: in short, the total but unfinished baby, on one rung of his confident climb toward self-containment. He is able to predict with uncanny accuracy that a sixteen-weeks-old baby will open his fist and bring his fingers together across his chest, that twenty-eight weeks is the heyday of the manipulation of objects, that a forty-week-old learns “pat-a-cake,” “bye-bye,” and the difference between one and two; that a two-year-old is a solitary, a threeyear-old docile and delightful, and a four-yearold bossy and boastful.
That these generalizing profiles are acknowledged as the most reliable contribution to the science of child study, has not diminished the resistance of mothers to such profiles or to science. When a mother asks, “What do you think of Gesell?” she usually means: “Do you really enjoy knowing what your child will or ought to do at a certain age?” Dr. Gesell explains in the introduction to his book that the age norms are not set up as standards; the prevalence of individual variations is recognized at every turn, and it is by the norms that we become conscious of such variations. But in spite of his caution, Dr. Gesell is doomed to responsibility not only for his dispassionate formulations, but also for our own passionate vanities. And in fact we may be able partly to blame Dr. Gesell when some modern mother can say with competitive smugness, “Yes, my child is an extremely early talker”; when sophisticated women weep because their children learn to sit or walk behind schedule; when sensible parents feel defrauded of their child’s eccentric charm on reading that her cocking of her head at six months is only the routine initiation of feminine coyness.
The implication intended by Dr. Gesell is really patience—he means to say that all the necessary aptitudes will be developed in good time (“everything in season” ends many of the profiles). The deviations are usually only temporary imbalances or rough transitions, and what parents fearfully regard as abnormal or retarded will be straightened out when their child is neurologically and physiologically a little older. Still it does seem that Dr. Gesell’s profiles, taken at face value and out of context (and is not anxious motherhood the taker-outof-context par excellence?), place a great emphasis on the normal. He does not trouble much to account for abnormalities, or to say exactly at what point they could become ominous. His book could do with a few optimistic profiles of eccentrics. It is because of his indifference to the unusual and unexpected that Dr. Gesell often starts as a god and ends as a devil in the opinions of the worrying mother.
Benjamin Spock, on the other hand, takes every possible occasion in his by now classic Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) to mention the variety of pace and style of babies’ development, and this is only one of his levelheaded ways of ministering to the necessary confidence of the parent. In the end, Dr. Spock is always viewed more tenderly by parents than Dr. Gesell, who has made the more original if not more compassionate contribution to our knowledge of children. Of course, it is always easier to like the dependable family doctor than the impersonal laboratory researcher; and it must also be considered that Gesell is usually read in perspective by a skeptical parent trying to keep up culturally with the Joneses, while Spock is the recourse of a desperate father overwhelmed by a blotchy rash and a storm of howls at 3 A.M.
Still, if one can put aside the threatening concept of a “norm,” one can take a great deal of pleasure in the brisk exactness and persistent energetic investigation that has gone into the profiles of Dr. Gesell’s Infant and Child in the Culture of Today. He likes to make fine distinctions, to reveal the interplay of the concrete and the abstract, and to perpetuate the baby’s and the reader’s sense of discovery; and all this turns his science into a wise and vital prosaicism, if not into pure poetry. Thus the businesslike profile quoted above continues more warmly: “The year-old child likes an audience. This is one reason why he is so often the center of the household group. As such he shows a Thespian tendency to repeat performances laughed at. He enjoys applause. This must help him to sense his own self-identity, just as he learned better to sense a clothespin when he brought it banging down against his tray. He is defining a difficult psychological distinction—the difference between himself and others. . . .
“He may be a prodigious imitator. Demonstrate the ringing of a bell and he will wave it furiously by way of social reciprocity. But suddenly in the very midst of this waving he stops to poke the clapper with his inquisitive index! This poking was not part of the demonstration, but it is part of the child.”
Those generalizations that seem most vulnerable to attack turn up in the “behavior days” which accompany the profiles and rather dogmatically set down a baby’s activity from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. (no insomniac infant shows his dissipated eyelids in a Gesell-directed living room after sundown), allocating the proper time for naps, baths, and sociability. The greatest limitation of these reports is the obvious middle-class milieu they assume, with a neat, comfortably equipped household. Their regularity and serenity give no hint of the frantic and disorderly mess that a household of any class can sometimes become under the tyranny of a baby and the distraction of a mother; and can only appear ludicrous to a reader who is poor, has many children, or was brought up in Kentucky instead of Connecticut. But it should be mentioned that Dr. Gesell deliberately followed the procedure of choosing the babies to be observed from homes in the middle socio-economic range. Their fathers were policemen, ticket-sellers, machinists, foremen, printers, and American-born, while their grandparents were European. Dr. Gesell felt this was the closest he could come to an ordinary or average American home. It may be argued that he did not take the most fruitful or imaginative approach to child personality, but he can at least be depended on to see and state his own limitations.
We see the same ability to define his scope exactly in his answer to readers disappointed in his apparent lack of concern with the individual psychology of infants. He explains in The Psychology of Early Growth (1938) that since personality make-up involves something more complicated than the quantitative method he uses, his purely psychological insights are largely accidental. A general law of biology can account for a specific attitude toward the world (Dr. Gesell says that a two-and-a-half-year-old is hard to discipline because the nerve-cell organization that presides over inhibitions is poorly developed), and to the extent that neurology and behavior can represent individual personality, Dr. Gesell has formulated an infant psychology. But, of course, it is only a partial one, and the common maternal complaint is that it eschews childish feelings and the deeper sources of childish temperament. Dr. Gesell never considers the possibility that a baby may have some very personal reason for its tears, some pressing anxiety that might be discovered and dispelled. The attachments a baby forms, the jealousies and slights it suffers, are not recorded in the behavior profiles, and it might be said that Dr. Gesell has in fact overlooked the whole realm of childish sorrow.
In his defense, one can only point out that a scientist does not resent being in the realm of the inscrutable, while a parent does. A parent is determined to find in his baby a small but exact copy of himself, and cannot imagine that before anatomy and physiology have had some time to interact, there can be no such thing as an autonomy of the mind. Eventually the quantity of nervous organization will produce a new quality, sensibility—but a parent is always rushing the transformation. This is only one more instance of that persistent adult anthropomorphism which interprets a baby’s uneasy wriggles as marks of disapproval, haphazard jerks as dancing, glances of stoical indecision as “She thinks I’m crazy,” and a burst of grunts as “I don’t care for your cooking” or “What in the world is keeping you?”
If a parent could put aside his xenophobia, he might take a special interest in the fact that his baby is located simultaneously in the apartment of its parents and in a very distinct universe of its own. For a time, its life is vegetative and it lives only as an organism in a world of things. Before it can become, in Dr. Gesell’s phrase, “a person in a world of persons,” it must absorb all the difficult concepts of time, space, number, form, texture, color, and causality. Dr. Gesell’s writing is full of passionate veneration for the gradual yet wonderfully efficient process of growing, and the contagiousness of this writing provides some of the pleasure of reading Infant and Child in the Culture of Today. But the more important pleasure is in our glimpse of science at its most modest and benevolent: not the new, gothic science that unleashes mysterious forces, but the old-fashioned variety that honors and faithfully describes the observable facts.
This book is unusual, moreover, as an account of laboratory experiment in that its writer is as interested in ideas as in statistics, and takes pains to draw from the facts a general way of comprehending and accepting those organic processes that we ordinarily notice only when they annoy us. Although Dr. Gesell spent a good deal of his time at Yale with the techniques and equipment of observation, he likes to involve his descriptions with some aspect of scientific philosophy. A relativist, he points out that no phase of a baby’s growth can be understood separately, out of context with the whole career of its growth. Thus an infant’s automatic casting of toys on the floor is the rudiment of its eventual ability to throw and count. A year-old infant is biologically a fifteen-month child in the making. Feeding, toilet-training, sleeping are all cyclical patterns in which rhythms and mastery are constantly changing as the baby develops. Watching babies has made Dr. Gesell very conscious of Heraclitus’ notion that “nothing is, everything is becoming.”
The theoretical part of this book is not entirely free from the kind of jargon that seems to characterize most formulations in the nonphysical sciences. It is full of managerial terms like developmental, mechanism, manipulation, consolidation. But this jargon, while not subtle, does not prevent the plain expression of Dr. Gesell’s morality toward children. He describes his view as a developmental philosophy, which argues that the parents’ expectations must take their cue from the natural abilities of the child. It rules out absolutism and fanaticism, stresses the ingenuity and inevitability of growth, and assures us that we need not be “so grimly determined and soberly solicitous.” Dr. Gesell speaks of a baby’s nervous structure as being an ordering force against chaos and diversity. He is always discovering in nature a system of checks and balances. He believes, for example, that a baby’s familial and racial heredity—the force that makes him a distinct individual—keeps him from becoming the pawn of his culture: “. . . he is durable as well as docile.” And in general Dr. Gesell posits a firmly anti-Hobbesian view of nature as benign, prodigious, and wise.
But the middle-class parents who are interested in Dr. Gesell have not usually read him in terms of his philosophy. Despite the fact that he is a scientist, not a counselor, his books have been seized upon as guides to the perplexed, and their danger lies in the aura of enlightened, authoritative sanctity with which they have surrounded the problems of childrearing. To this extent, at least, Dr. Gesell is responsible for the complacent and solemn tone of the popular psychiatric handbooks and for the self-effacement of the mother.
For the modern mother, especially if she lives in a city, can no longer regard her baby with equanimity unless she has some professionally created image to bolster her judgment. She has no heart for hit-and-miss procedures, and just as she will not understand her own behavior without the psychology course identified in the college bulletin, will not pick up a paint brush or join a game without the mimeographed instructions, so she will not pick up her child in comfort without a literature of guidance. She comes to this literature not so much with a hearty respect for knowledge as with an insistent devaluation of her own perceptions. David Riesman has described in The Lonely Crowd those parents who, whatever scheme of child-rearing they adopt, cannot help showing their children how little they—the adults—depend on themselves and how much on the authority of others. “Whatever they seem to be teaching the child in terms of content, they are passing on to him their own contagious, highly diffuse anxiety.”
To the pediatricians and psychologists who have more recently been drafted as cicerones, the weak cry of the parent reverberates more poignantly than the lusty howl of the baby. From the Federal Security Agency’s antiseptic recommendations for cleanliness and affection, through the intermediate writers for the women’s clubs and parent-teacher associations, to Benjamin Spock’s warm, humorous, de-sentimentalized version of Dr. Christian, the tone of the guidance literature is palliative. Parents are protected against confusing advice, accusations of authoritarianism, total responsibility for their children, and sometimes even against insight—as in the bright, flippant book In Defense of Mothers (1950), in which Dr. Leo Kanner feels obliged to burlesque Freudian theory lest it frighten suggestible readers. (There are, incidentally, no popular American books in this literature that express a strictly Freudian view of child development. Many of the widely read authors, like Spock and Sidonie Gruenberg, take for granted the kinds of childhood experience Freud drew attention to, such as rages, fears, and “erotic” curiosities. But they seem also to recognize that the instincts and the passions are not a province in which the middle-class American parent feels comfortable. The moderate tone of these writers was made easier by the earlier successes of John Dewey’s child-centered philosophy of education. In England, however, where a conservative educational philosophy dominated popular practice, no important transitional school existed, and the rebellious Freudian note sounded more distinctively in the writings of Susan Isaacs, Melanie Klein, Anna Freud, and Winifred de Kok.)
In America, from whatever publication on child-rearing you happen to look into—including the homey magazines distributed gratis by the diaper companies—you cannot fail to amass useful information on bassinets, irritable crying, mosquito netting, thumb-sucking, and the thousand other natural shocks and problems to which, as mother, you are presumable heir. It is hard to see how knowing any of these things could do any harm, and yet in many cases such literature dulls the actual experience of raising a child, and diminishes the stature of the mother.
To the literate modern, a child shapes himself from the beginning as an objective aggregate of functions, patterns, and stages of development. But in the previous generation, more primitive and stern, which might allow him to cry all night, he was accepted as a bundle of chaotic energy that demanded to be confronted as a whole. An entirely formed person, he was at once designated as a scholar, a fighter, the image of an uncle—in any case, a baby of character rather than characteristics. Today we emphasize his limitations, his helplessness; they emphasized his potential powers: then he was already fated for a role, for responsibility. The modern mother, with the baby’s biology more exactly before her, loses the vision of his possible greatness. For the previous generation, the difference of sex was at birth already tremendously important; there was an actual difference in imagined destiny, in the hopes for the future focused on this event. It was very much the spirit in which Santayana introduces his hero in The Last Puritan:
“His little organism, long before birth, had put aside the soft and drowsy temptation to be a female. It would have been so simple for the last pair of chromosomes to have doubled up like the rest and turned out every cell in the future body complete, well-balanced, serene, and feminine. Instead, one intrepid particle decided to live alone, unmated, unsatisfied, restless, and masculine; and it imposed this unstable romantic equilibrium on every item of the man-child’s flesh, and of the man-child’s sinews. . . .”
Now we democratically pretend to feel that it makes no difference what sex we beget, possibly because there is a greater social equality between male and female, but more probably because the general obligations of child-rearing seem larger and more serious to us than any particular infant. Though the change has made us more considerate—the old point of view often led to sickness, brutality, and blindness as to what children were up to—it has also made us more self-conscious. We have rather proudly forfeited our natural impulses in favor of professionally approved responses.
There is no longer conceivable a scene like the one in Joyce Cary’s To Be a Pilgrim, in which a Victorian son, whipped by his father, and a few minutes later requested to bring his father’s hat, eagerly runs for it, having affectionately accepted both punishment and forgiveness. As parents, we are still in the early and therefore boastful stages of the Enlightenment, and cannot imagine how a spark of the irrational, the “outrageous,” might minister to the well-being of our children. To prove to ourselves how very sensible we are, we turn the simplest and most pleasing acts into dull lesson plans, and spring examinations upon ourselves in affection and libertarianism. We are under a constant and grueling pressure to allow our children freedom. An old-fashioned mother who was not especially fussy with her child might nevertheless rush him into the bathroom for a fast scrub before a guest arrived. But the compulsive modern mother, even if she has been worrying about her offspring all day, will proudly present him to company with dirty knees. She lets him play with dirt, feed the dog, and investigate his excrement; but her only reward is mounting tension. Hers is an era of tactful toilet-training, precocious beefconsumption, democratic nurseries, and nervous motherhood.
Tantalized, but not yet liberated, by the dribbles of leisure and education that are available to her, the insecure, progressively oriented woman tries desperately to understand her child. She keeps a sharp eye on the neighbor who is retarding her baby by withholding affection; she goes out Saturday afternoons to assure herself that she is still an individual as well as a mother; she affects a marvelous nonchalance about her child’s clothing; and rather than indulge herself in an irritable outburst or a slap, will go about endlessly pinched in the face by polite repressions. The worst of her plight is that her child will be the first to sense and dislike her deception, like the boy of four whose mother asked if he wanted some delicious cheese, juicy applesauce, or lovely spinach, only to have him look critically at her artificially arranged features and peevishly order something she hadn’t mentioned. A unique and disheartening situation, when these green little nursery tenants can already condescend to their parents.
The real trouble of the book-guided mother is that she cannot and will not go backward to intuitive and improvised “parent-child relationships,” and can only go timidly forward toward sociology and medicine. She has lost the dangerous simplicity of the instincts and has not yet gained the patience or reasonableness of scientific discipline. She still hovers in that middle position which is the most arduous to sustain, whether in politics or child-rearing. As often happens, the extremists—in this case, the old-fashioned grandmother and the scientists like Dr. Gesell—really feel the power of their own opinions and glow with satisfaction in their point of view; and also, incidentally, they seem to monopolize the resources of verbal expression. Those caught in between are at best borrowers, suspicious of themselves and competitive with others.
The instinctive, primitive, uneducated parents had their own rough grace; the scientists have their touch of godliness. But the midway “progressive” parents tend to be tense in their casualness, cloddish in their glibness. A whole jargon of solicitous abstractions has sprung up that expresses their uneasy position. Having a child is an “experience” that helps you to “mature.” Children are endangered by “over-protection,” over-tiredqess, or rejection. A mother can believe she has given psychology its due when she says to her noisy boy: “Why, I know what’s the matter with you, dear, you’re feeling neglected, aren’t you?” And a colorful, personable baby can be referred to by his own mother in these “other-directed” terms: “J. is a very good child. Sometimes he has temper tantrums, which are of course upsetting. But in general he is a perfectly normal, healthy, happy, sociable boy.”
Since it is difficult for the modern mother to escape her in-between position, she must exploit it and borrow shrewdly from both extremes. The wisdom of grannies is legendary and needs no elaboration, but scientists are commonly thought to be cold and mechanical. In fact, however, scientists like Dr. Gesell have often proved themselves (at least on the conscious, articulate level) the true appreciators of children. They are forced to think and speak precisely, and in this sense they become poets, sensitive to distinctions, exact, dispassionate, and yet full of the wonder of childish growth and childish eccentricity.
One can find in Infant and Child in the Culture of Today, if one needs them, a number of practical recommendations, such as indexes of play materials and books suitable to various ages. But a parent ought not to read Dr. Gesell mainly for these or, in fact, ,for any sort of literal instruction. As Dr. Abraham Meyerson says in speaking of changes of style in childrearing: “The ancient Jewish scholars had a name for it; they called it ‘tatnar verkehrt’ which means that turning things upside down may bring as satisfactory results in the seeking of truth as logic itself.” Dr. Gesell should be read either for his sensible and encouraging philosophy, which is full of reason for pleasure rather than anxiety, or out of pure curiosity for facts that are sufficiently entertaining in themselves.
The most damaging accusation against Dr. Gesell is that he has created the image of an anonymous, factory-produced baby, an identical twin to every one of its own age group. But the accusers forget that, although it is immensely satisfying to identify and differentiate the personality of your own baby, its singularity can be revealed only in the interstices of scrubs and mouthfuls, in sudden glances, dazzling ducks of the head, guttural laughs, weak joyful giggles, and puzzled worshipful eyes. If I had to say what makes S. G. different from all other babies, I would submit her passion for all things sour—pot cheese, grapefruit rind, and entire lemons; her contempt for formal toys; her instantaneous appreciation of belts; her reverence for the dark abysses of bathing caps and oatmeal boxes; her expression of critical condescension; and her persistent intimate peering at preoccupied adults. But these are not the province of the scientist; they are the shocks of recognition of mothers. After all, there is a limit to the amount of poetry a pedant can discover in a nursery.
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The Study of Man: The Human Infant According to Gesell
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The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
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And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
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The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
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We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?