I just saw “Argo” last night. Not only is it a great film (who would have thunk that Ben Affleck had it in him?) but it’s also a great primer on a period of American history that, for those under 40 today, is as ancient as the Civil War.
The movie tells the story of how CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez managed to smuggle six American diplomats out of Tehran in 1980 by pretending they were part of a production crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called “Argo.” As this Slate article notes, the film takes a few liberties with the history—but only a few. It conveys what would seem to be, on the whole, an accurate picture of the period—from the bureaucratic politics of Washington to the violent and chaotic nature of the Iranian revolution. Above all it captures, as no other film I have seen does, the sad spectacle of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
I was only nine years old when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized on November 4, 1979, but I can still remember the dispiriting drama of how Iranian extremists were able to hold 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. That experience was all the more traumatic for the nation because newscasts (some of them played in “Argo”) routinely noted that this was “day 33” (or whatever) of “America held hostage.” Meanwhile yellow ribbons proliferated around the nation to keep alive the memory of the hostages. America’s humiliation was worsened when a belated rescue mission ended in a fiery crash in the Iranian desert, at a rendezvous point codenamed Desert One.
“Argo” is a thriller but it accurately evokes this crisis—one that, I now realize, helped shape my worldview. Growing up at a time when America was widely thought to be on the decline, I, like many other young people, was attracted to Ronald Reagan and his message of hope and renewal—the idea that America’s best days were still ahead of us. Reagan rescued us from the post-Vietnam malaise and restored our economic and military strength, as even his onetime critics now admit.
The lesson I take away from this history is that there is nothing inevitable about American decline and that if we permit ourselves to become weak, the results will be catastrophic. That is a point worth thinking about today as, once again, a consensus seems to be building among the chattering classes that America is in decline. The only thing that has changed is the country that is supposed to usurp our position in the world. Now it’s China. Back then it was the USSR, followed by Japan. “Argo” is a sobering reminder of the cost of a declinist mindset—and a reminder too of how even a ponderous institution like the U.S. government can pull off amazing feats if talented individuals are unleashed to be daring and creative, something that, alas, only seems to happen in a crisis.
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The Hostage Crisis and American Decline
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Government is the problem.
An enormous cultural tragedy unfolded Sunday night when Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was gutted by fire and largely destroyed. Its priceless collections ranged from paintings and ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts, to anthropological collections and mineral specimens. The gallery housed one of the oldest skeletons ever found in the Americas. It was also home to a 470,000-volume scientific library, one of the largest in Brazil. Much of it was lost.
Happily, no one was injured. It is, however, thought that no more than 10 percent of the 20 million items in the collection were spared. Fortunately, one of them is the Bendegó meteorite, a nearly six-ton iron meteorite that was found in 1784.
What could have caused this catastrophe? The answer, simply, is borderline criminal neglect by the government. To be sure, Brazil has been engulfed now for several years in both recession and a financial corruption scandal that makes Tea Pot Dome look like penny-ante. One president has been impeached and removed; another is in jail. The museum budget has been cut time and again until there was not enough to even maintain the building, which featured peeling paint, exposed electrical wiring, and plumbing leaks. But the maintenance budget of the museum was only 520,000 reals, not even a rounding error in a total federal budget that is well north of a trillion reals.
There was no fire suppression (i.e., sprinkler) system in place, nor, apparently, smoke alarms. Only four guards were on duty in the vast building. When the fire department arrived, the two nearest hydrants had no water, and it had to be trucked in from a nearby lake.
Just further proof, as if any were needed, that governments should not be allowed to run anything they do not absolutely have to run.
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A missed opportunity.
Following a punchy 15-minute talk about the ravages of online bullying on Monday, Monica Lewinsky took her place alongside star Israeli news anchor, Yonit Levy, for a chat about the issues she has turned into a life mission. The Jerusalem convention hall was packed with A-list political and media types on hand for Ms. Levy’s whopper of an opener.
“Do you still expect a personal apology from President Clinton?”
Lewinsky abruptly rose, politely stating: “Sorry. I can’t do this.” And left the stage.
The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor has been buzzing about this very American reality/ambush moment, speculating as to what really happened. Nothing, it seems, is ever as it, well, seems.
Viral video of the encounter shows Lewinsky very calmly putting down her microphone, leaving her fireside chat chair, and striding confidently offstage. Levy did her best to feign casualness and followed, very awkwardly. It made for cringe-worthy watching.
A few hours after the mishap, Lewinsky said that Levy had personally misled her alleging that they had agreed in advance on very clear parameters that were acceptable for discussion. “In fact, ” stated Lewinsky on Twitter,” the exact question the interviewer asked first, she had put to me when we met the day prior. I said that was off limits.”
She said, she said.
On behalf of Levy, Israel News Company, the conference organizer, is standing firm. In a statement, they claimed that all agreements with Lewinsky were honored and that the offending question was squarely within the scope negotiated for her appearance.
Lewinsky was thanked by Israel News Company for her insightful talk, respected for her sensitivities, and wished all the best.
Keeping up her end of public politesse, Lewinsky apologized to the audience for the unfortunate manner in which the talk ended.
“I left,” Lewinsky explained on Twitter, “because it is more important than ever for women to stand up for themselves and not allow others to control their narrative.”
Fair enough. I would have thought, however, that Lewinsky could have more than held her own in the duel with Levy. They are both strong, intelligent women. It would have had far more impact if Lewinsky cleverly and boldly exposed the chicanery to which she alleged she had been subjected.
“Yonit,” she might have asserted, “I came here to speak about and discuss internet bullying. Our written and verbal agreements are very clear that you are not to ask questions on this topic and I refuse to answer them. I’m happy to proceed with this interview on the agreed upon terms. Otherwise, I will have no choice but to cut this exchange short.”
Levy would have been loath to engage in a pedantic exchange parsing the details of legal and verbal agreements, and I expect the producer coaching in her earpiece would have instructed her to shift gears. In a flash, Lewinsky would not only have continued to control her “narrative,” but she would have demonstrated the authority, finesse and confidence that, regrettably, is required to do so.
Exactly what transpired between Lewinsky and Levy is unclear and, in many ways, irrelevant. Much more significant is the commendable work that Lewinsky has done in educating the public about the extreme perils of cyberbullying and shaming. For those who haven’t yet watched her superb Ted talk on cyber-bullying, do so.
As a veteran of decades of misogynist battles and sexual harassment in the professional and media milieux, I also urge Lewinsky to invest in some reinforced armor if she wants to ensure that her message and insights are heard and continue to influence the public discourse on these very critical issues.
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Labour needs more than a makeover.
On Tuesday, Britain’s Labour party adopted the working definition of anti-Semitism that prevails across the civilized world. But don’t break out the champagne and party blowers quite yet. A formal declaration of the kind won’t wash the stain of Jew-hatred left by leader Jeremy Corbyn and his triumphant entourage of keffiyeh-clad cranks and unreconstructed Stalinists.
At issue was the definition of anti-Semitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, and specifically the 11 examples that help clarify that definition: “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.” “Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.” “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” And so on.
Apparently these propositions are a source of great agony on the British left. The Guardian newspaper said the debate inside the party’s National Executive Committee “overran by several hours.” After two hours, “the meeting broke for tea.” You know things are tense when Britons have to break for tea mid-meeting.
In the end, the committee voted to adopt the definition and all 11 examples, but not before adding its own little addendum: “This does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel and the rights of Palestinians.” That freedom-of-expression caveat is especially hilarious in Britain, where nothing can quite boost a literary or celebrity career like bashing Israel. Just ask Roger Waters. Or Coldplay. Or Tariq Ali. Or Tilda Swinton…
Still, by the British media’s lights, the final document was an improvement over what Corbyn had in mind. He wanted to add an amendment to the effect that “it should not be considered anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies, or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact.” That, of course, would have run afoul of one of the 11 IHRA examples: “Contemporary examples of anti-Semitism … include … claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
It’s tempting to cheer Corbyn’s procedural defeat here. And no doubt sighs of relief went out from among the dwindling ranks of British Jews who can still bring themselves to vote for Labour. But the more pertinent and astonishing fact is this: Jeremy Corbyn thinks it is not anti-Semitic to view Israel’s founding as racist. He, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, would deny the right to self-determination to none but the Jewish people.
Who seriously imagines that, having adopted the IHRA definition, the Labour party will now cease to reflect Corbyn’s ideological preferences? This is the same Labour, after all, whose supporters fantasize about “rid[ding] the Jews who are cancer on us all,” whose local councilors use epithets such as “Jew boy,” according to a leaked dossier obtained by the LBC radio station and published the same day as the vote on the IHRA definition.
Some may be tempted to think that the anti-anti-Semitic vote in the executive committee means that body can check the Cobynite fanatics. Except, no. The Daily Mail reported:
The candidate who won the most votes for the Labour party’s ruling National Executive Committee celebrated the Iranian revolution when hardline Ayatollahs took over the country, repressing freedom and human rights…
Yasmine Dar, who was elected top with 88,176 votes, has given speeches at an Islamist celebration of the Iranian revolution in Manchester for three years in a row.
In the most recent, in 2017, she said: ‘We are here for a celebration, a happy time. Thirty-years of the Iranian Islamic revolution. So I’m absolutely happy, it’s the third year I’ve been coming.’
The rot seeps from top to bottom. It’s structural. No self-respecting Briton, Jewish or otherwise, should support this party.
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A duty to posterity, not Twitter.
Despite all the brooding among the anti-Trump left and the pro-Trump right over the existence of the small band of Republicans who continue to criticize the president when he’s wrong, few seem any closer to understanding these conservatives’ motivations. The simplicity of the philosophy that animates these rare types could not possibly elude the cliquish sectarians who act as though it is incomprehensible. More likely, they just find it annoying.
This weekend, the nation was again treated to some familiar pageantry. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to savage his own Justice Department for acting like a Justice Department and not an arm of the Republican National Committee. By indicting two of Trump’s earliest supporters in Congress, Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter, the president implied, Jeff Sessions had failed to do his job.
With that, the most fascinating dynamic in American politics today was again set into motion as members of Donald Trump’s party in Congress attacked their leader for seeming to subordinate the rule of law to his own insecurities. In an age of intense partisanship in Congress, these acts of defiance are a marvel deserving of intense study. Instead, they’re used as a springboard to launch into rote appeals to conformity.
For example, frequent Trump critics and Republican senators Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse attacked the president for talking about the conduct of justice in America as if he were a criminal. These displays of conscience are, however, dismissed as dishonest by Trump’s malleable defenders and derided as insufficient by his most committed opponents. A more powerful display of hostility toward this president would be, the threadbare logic goes, to oppose Trump’s works—all of them, heedlessly and without consideration for their merit. Anything else is just talk.
At the moment, the most urgent concern among those engaging in this kind of trite emotional manipulation is Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s pending nomination to the Supreme Court. Even some Republicans have joined in with those who insist that the legal cloud hanging over this president robs him of his legitimacy, and his obvious contempt for the rule of law should compel the legislature to limit his authority to shape the judiciary until voters have had a chance to register their satisfaction with the course this White House has taken. This is a political argument, not a point of constitutional order. And as such, lawmakers are obliged to approach the matter as they would any other political consideration.
To take the course urged by Trump’s most unwavering opponents would not only fail to advance the conservative principles to which these senators are devoted, but it would also sacrifice their capacity to influence the direction in which the Republican Party will evolve after Trump’s time in office is over.
Brett Kavanaugh is Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, but he is also George W. Bush’s nominee to sit on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and a former White House staff secretary. He was vouched for by Senator Jon Kyl, whose conservative credentials are disputed by none. The Federalist Society, a grassroots conservative movement dedicated to promoting originalist judges, vetted him, and he was selected for a high court appointment by members of that organization, including outgoing White House Counsel Don McGahn. Contrary to a short-lived conspiracy theory, there is no evidence to suggest that Kavanaugh is prepared to abandon jurisprudence to shield Donald Trump from the legal or political consequences of his actions as president.
If conservatives were to oppose this nominee not on his merits but to communicate some ancillary message to the White House, they would be guilty of betraying principle and shunning their constitutional prerogatives. In the process, they would sacrifice their scant influence within the Republican Party.
This gets to a pervasive misapprehension about what Trump-skeptical Republicans see as their role at this moment in history. Their conduct suggests that they value consistency over raw power, and that consistency is what irritates those whose politics is entirely situational.
How is conservatism advanced if conservatives decide to communicate their frustrations with the president’s antagonistic trade policies by opposing Trump’s decision to locate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or to pull out of the entirely symbolic Paris climate accords? Likewise, the Trump administration struck two blows last week for what conservatives would call justice, though not of the “social” variety. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s extension of the rights of due process to students who are accused of violent sexual crimes and the Justice Department’s decision to join a lawsuit alleging Harvard University engaged in systematic negative racial discrimination against Asian-Americans affirm longstanding conservative principles.
What message would it convey to voters if these conservatives suddenly opposed in practice that which they have long supported in principle only to demonstrate their anxiety over Trump’s Twitter habits? Not one of coherence, that’s for sure. Indeed, it would only impart to observers the inconsistent and even trivial nature of reflexive opposition to all things Trump.
Donald Trump will not be the last American president. Conservatives who bravely irritate the leader of their party and incur the ire of his voters would only undermine their position by being indiscrete. If conservatives were to broaden their opposition toward the president to include the policies they once eagerly supported, what kind of restoration could they possibly hope to lead? By abandoning precision, Trump’s few remaining conservative opponents would only dilute the potency of their criticisms and deaden the nation’s sense of shock when the president engages in truly dangerous behaviors.
If Trump-skeptical conservatives listened to the hectoring of their most aggressive detractors, they’d end up sacrificing their credibility and moral authority. That would suit many of those detractors just fine.
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A worthy candidate.
It’s hard to believe, but the American Political Science Association (APSA) is honoring a figure who defended a war most political scientists consider immoral and disastrous. I don’t know much about it, but I think I read somewhere that this same person once opposed the war. He reversed himself and even became an all-in cheerleader for it, possibly just to escape from the political wilderness. How dare the APSA honor him?
I refer, of course, not to Condoleezza Rice, this year’s recipient of the Hubert H. Humphrey Award. Rather, I refer to Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president Hubert Humphrey, who went from supporting withdrawal from Vietnam in 1965 to defending the Vietnam War as “a necessary fight against Communism that provided jobs, hope and prosperity to suffering Vietnamese” just one year later. Michael Brenes, who is at work on a book on Humphrey, noted that Humphrey’s own advisers believe their man came around on the war because it was “his only way back into his boss’s good graces.”
Over 130 political scientists, some of them prominent, signed a letter protesting the decision to honor Rice. I don’t begrudge political scientists their right to raise the question of who does and does not deserve to be honored. When students at Princeton questioned how Princeton honors Woodrow Wilson, some conservatives welcomed revisiting what they consider his unmerited good reputation. Any sensible person asked to decide whether Condoleeza Rice deserves an award for “notable public service” would consider whether she has served honorably and well.
Defenders of the Iraq War do not deny that its prosecution included big miscalculations. Many defenders of the war on terror concede that waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” are torture. A person who did not think about these things in adjudicating a question of honor might be accused of being frivolous about serious things.
The committee who chose Rice reportedly said that, of course, they considered Rice’s work as National Security Adviser from 2001-2005. But they also considered that “her action and that of her fellow members of the administration was taken in the heat of war, with incomplete information, and with urgent responses needed.” They argue that, to the extent she made mistakes, they are “overmatched by her other services to the country, especially [concerning] the reunification of Germany while serving in the first Bush administration and her promotion of policies of development aid under the second.” The committee also pointed out, as I noted at the outset, that the man after whom the award is named is not without blemish. The protesters have no complaint about honoring him.
If we take honor seriously, we should be judicious about dispensing honors. So, one need not accept the committee’s decision. It is possible to argue that some things, including torture, are indefensible. At the same time, if there is a duty to be judicious about the question of honor, there should be no special dispensation awarded.
During the Wilson controversy, political scientist Corey Robin proposed that Princeton rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy after W.E.B. DuBois., a renowned social scientist and a co-founder of the N.A.A.C.P. Yet, as Robin knew but chose not to discuss, DuBois hung on to his support for Josef Stalin after Stalin’s crimes were evident and after most on the left had abandoned him. I wrote that, if we want to take honor seriously we must not “substitute for one set of criteria for honoring public figures, perhaps not very thoughtful, another, about equally thoughtless, set of criteria.”
I doubt that very many of the signatories of the protest letter have examined Rice’s record as closely as the committee did. Some of them presumably read about her record somewhere, as I did about Humphrey’s. Their denunciation of “the deliberate and systematic lies that were told to the American public to encourage their support for the invasion of Iraq,” as well as their dismissal of the committee’s recognition of the circumstances under which decision makers operate, suggest that they subscribe to a bumper sticker “Bush lied. People died” view of the war. Moreover, they dismiss all discussions of Humphrey’s own record as “what-about-ism.”
But they’re wrong. The protesters do not just demand the rescinding of Condoleezza Rice’s award. They themselves concede that they are asserting a general principle to guide future committees and “screen out those who have participated in policies that have had the consequence of the systematic violation of the human rights of others.” To ask whether Humphrey and others, like George Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton could survive such a screen is not “what-about-ism.” It’s a test of the principle.
Those who declare that such a test is beside the point run the risk of seeming to be motivated by zealotry, rather than by thoughtfulness about honor.