Otto Warmbier, Moral Perversion, and the Social Justice Left

The precise opposite meaning of the word "justice."

Otto Warmbier passed away on Monday. He was 22. The University of Virginia student’s last days were anything but peaceful.

He was released just last week by the North Korean regime, where he was held in captivity for 17 months for the alleged “crime” of trying to bring home a propaganda poster as a souvenir from his ill-considered trip to the hermit kingdom. In captivity, Warmbier was apparently beaten. When the DPRK released him to the surprise of American authorities, it was likely because his captors had taken Warmbier’s corporal punishments too far. He was unresponsive to commands, and his family described him as appearing “uncomfortable” and “anguished.” He soon succumbed to his injuries.

Warmbier’s death at the hands of a criminal regime is perhaps the most vicious crime directed against an American citizen by DPRK authorities since two U.S. officers were murdered by an axe-wielding mob on the de-militarized zone between South and North Korea in 1976. This is an offense to American dignity and sovereignty—and it is proving a revealing moment in American politics. Warmbier’s capture and his fate have exposed again the utter moral perversion of the social justice left.

It wasn’t the extrajudicial nature of Warmbier’s capture that caught the attention of the liberal commentary class. Nor was it the triviality of his supposed “crime.” In fact, the only thing that appeared to intrigue some influential members of the identity-obsessed left was Warmbier’s background.

“It’s just tough for me to have much sympathy for this guy and his crocodile tears,” said former Comedy Central host Larry Wilmore amid what was billed as a comedic monologue on his now-cancelled show in March 2016. He noted that, according to reporting, Warmbier had committed the “international crime” of poster stealing as part of an initiation into his UVA fraternity. “You’ve got to read the fine print on your American frat bro warranty,” Wilmore noted mockingly. “It says, ‘Frat Bro Privilege not valid in totalitarian dystopias.’”

It’s not easy for an American to offer himself up to the regime in Pyongyang as a bargaining chip. It takes considerable effort to be that reckless. Wilmore’s invocation of Warmbier’s “privilege” is, in this instance, inadvertently telling. Wilmore was cautious, but the adoring write up of his remarks in Salon was less coded. “This might be America’s biggest idiot frat boy,” the post was headlined.

University of Virginia’s fraternity system is the source of much progressive angst. That angst motivated the serial fabulist Sabrina Rubin Erdely to publish a fictional account of a gang rape initiation system at the frat—a piece that subsequently cost her former publication, Rolling Stone, $1.65 million in damages.  “Privilege” is how social-justice advocates describe those who they think should be found guilty under a Rawlsian ideal of distributive justice. So what made Warmbier so deserving of his captivity and mistreatment at the hands of a famously brutal Stalinist regime? Huffington Post blogger La Sha was more direct than Wilmore in March 2016: his heritage. Specifically, his “white male privilege.”

In Sha’s estimation, the accidents of Warmbier’s birth afforded him a “shield” from justice in the United States. His heterosexuality, white skin color, and male genitalia rendered him functionally above the law. “That kind of reckless gall is an unfortunate side effect of being socialized first as a white boy, and then as a white man in this country,” she wrote. In fact, it’s not rare for North Korea to take American citizens hostage, but they are often of Korean heritage. There are three Americans of Korean origin in Pyongyang’s clutches right now, in fact. The author of this deluded, bigoted rant makes no effort to understand the conditions in North Korea. Why should she? Her appeals to identity politics and the historical grievances she invokes are enough for her baseless opinion to be taken seriously and published in a national political blog.

This horrifying zest to attack this young adult, now just another victim of a totalitarian and criminal state, has exposed social justice for what it is: the precise opposite of objective justice. There is no theory of justice, no school of thought that would justify the treatment to which Warmbier was subjected. There was nothing just about his ordeal. Those who would excuse the regime’s conduct, even going so far as to adopt its language (the grave “international crime” of poster theft) have abdicated all moral authority. And for what? The base pleasure of pleasing a mob that lusts for the blood of those with certain characteristics adopted at birth—characteristics they happen to resent. That’s not justice. It’s prejudice.

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Otto Warmbier, Moral Perversion, and the Social Justice Left

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David French: The Threat To Free Speech

From the July/August COMMENTARY symposium.

The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:

We’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.

The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.

The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.

But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.

The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.

The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.

Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.

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A Victory for Symbolism

The travel ban is saved, for now.

President Trump got a much-needed win today when the Supreme Court allowed part of his executive order on immigration to take effect, vacating stays issued by lower courts. The justices will decide the fate of the executive order in the fall. Judging by today’s ruling, it’s possible that Trump will triumph, at least in part, if only because the president has broad authority to restrict entry into the United States by anyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident. But even if Trump’s executive order proves to be legal, that doesn’t mean that it’s wise or necessary from a security standpoint.

The Department of Homeland Security can now keep out nationals of six Muslim countries—Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen—as long as those nationals cannot “credibly claim a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” Prepare for more litigation to figure out what constitutes a “bona fide relationship,” a new, arbitrary standard invented by the justices to modify the arbitrary standard invented by President Trump. What does any of this have to do with the dictates of counter-terrorism—the ostensible justification for the travel ban? Not much.

There is no history in the United States of terrorist acts committed by nationals of the six countries in question. As a Cato analyst noted, back when the ban still applied to Iraq as well as the six other countries: “Nationals of the seven countries singled out by Trump have killed zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015.”

In justifying the travel ban, Trump’s original executive order on January 27 made its main argument the 9/11 attacks, “when State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the 19 foreign nationals who went on to murder nearly 3,000 American.” But the 9/11 attacks were committed by 15 Saudis, 2 Emiratis, 1 Egyptian, and 1 Lebanese—none of whom would be covered under the Trump travel ban. That’s not an argument for enlarging the ban but merely a commentary on the fact that the executive order as crafted is utterly disconnected from any actual security threat.

This reality is further underlined by the fact that when the original executive order was issued on January 27, the Trump administration claimed that it had to suspend all entry for nationals of seven Muslim countries for 90 days—and of all refugees from all over the world for 120 days. The stated intent of that order was to “ensure the proper review and maximum utilization of available resources for the screening of foreign nationals, and to ensure that adequate standards are established to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists or criminals.”

Well, it’s now been 150 days since that executive order was issued—and we have not experienced any attacks by the hordes of terrorists that Trump claimed were waiting to rush into the United States when his executive order was suspended. And yet the administration is now arguing that it needs at least 90 more days to come up with vetting procedures for the entry of nationals of the six Muslim countries in question. Why haven’t the previous 150 days sufficed to make entry requirements as stringent as they need to be? In reality, there is no evidence that Homeland Security has had to strengthen already rigorous admission standards significantly.

President Trump gave away his real motives for pursuing the travel ban, in spite of the original justification lapsing, when he tweeted in favor of it on June 3 just minutes after a terrorist attack in London. “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough,” he wrote. “We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” When Trump sent that tweet, the nationality of the attackers was not known. (They would subsequently be identified as a British citizen born in Pakistan, an Italian citizen born in Morocco, and a Moroccan who had been granted residency in the European Union because of his marriage to an Irish woman.)

All that anyone knew at that point is that the attackers were Muslims. So Trump was clearly signaling that his real worry is not about the six countries in question—none of which had anything to do with the London attack—but with Muslims in general. In keeping with his campaign rhetoric, which catered to anti-Muslim bigotry, Trump evidently wants to keep as many Muslims out of the country as possible.

It will be up to the Supreme Court to rule on whether Trump can do so under the Constitution. From a security standpoint, this blanket animus against Muslims is highly counterproductive. It would make no sense, even if it were legally possible, to keep out all Muslims—including citizens of American allies from Britain to Saudi Arabia. It’s not even clear that this is possible to do: How would immigration agents know that someone is a Muslim or not? Passports don’t ordinarily list religion.

The U.S. needs the cooperation of moderate Muslims, both at home and abroad, to fight the scourge of terrorism, which has claimed far more Muslim lives than those of Christians or Jews. That means we shouldn’t alienate Muslims by trying to ban them from the United States. The U.S. should be trying to gather as much intelligence as possible on terrorist designs from within Muslim communities, both domestically and abroad, while at the same time carefully screening anyone, Muslim or not, who seeks entry to the United States.

But that’s not very sexy. It’s, in fact, the status quo. Trump seems intent on some big, showy, symbolic act, no matter how counterproductive, to demonstrate that he is doing more to combat terrorism than Obama. The Supreme Court may just let him get away with it.

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No Way to Run a Railroad

The cult of the businessman implodes.

If there is one salutary development that should come from the Trump administration, it is to explode for all time the conceit that business leaders with no experience in politics are best qualified to run the government.

It’s not just the overall struggles of President Trump himself, coping with record-low approval ratings. For further confirmation that business experience does not necessarily translate into government success, look no further than the State Department, which is being run by ExxonMobil’s longtime CEO, Rex Tillerson.

By all accounts, Tillerson was very successful as an oil-company executive. He is proving less successful as secretary of state, a job he gives no signs of having mastered.

He ignores the press—one of the most potent instruments that any secretary of state has to spread his message, shape public perceptions, and enhance his own standing with the administration and Congress.

He acquiesces in a White House budget that calls for cutting State Department funding and foreign aid by almost 30 percent—a budget that Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Trump supporter, called so Draconian that it would be a “total waste of time” to even review it.

He does little to motivate his own personnel or explain his vision to them and, when he did, he gave a talk widely seen as denigrating the importance of “values” in U.S. foreign policy.

He seems to be losing out in a battle for influence over Middle Eastern policy with White House aides such as Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt. He often seems tripped up by the president’s own tweets and pronouncements. For example, in the current crisis in Qatar, Tillerson is trying to play the role of honest broker while the president appears to be offering 110 percent backing to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states blockading Qatar.

Granted, not all of these snafus are entirely Tillerson’s fault. Like many administration officials, he is struggling to keep up with the policy being set, willy-nilly, by Trump’s Twitter feed. He did try to appoint a well-qualified deputy—my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams—but had that request rejected by the president, apparently at Steve Bannon’s instigation, because Abrams wrote one mildly critical article about Trump last year. But Tillerson can’t blame the White House for his failure to fill most of the critical policy jobs at the State Department. That’s on him.

Tillerson is treating the State Department as if it were a poorly run conglomerate that is in need of an urgent overhaul by a new CEO who is waiting for the management consultants to tell him which lines of business to keep and which to sell. According to the Washington Post, Tillerson has “sketched a lengthy timeline for his internal review that would include a period of study and planning through 2017 and changes to the department’s structure and staffing next year. In some cases, senior jobs will remain vacant until then, if they are filled at all.”

This is bonkers. By refusing to fill senior State Department jobs for a year or more, Tillerson is not just hindering the process of policy formation. He is also reducing his own influence in both the administration and the world as a whole.

The New York Times reported: “Three foreign ambassadors — one from Asia and two from Europe — said they had taken to contacting the National Security Council because the State Department does not return their calls or does not offer substantive answers when it does.”

The Times offered some examples of just how dangerous this policy vacuum can be:

Mr. Tillerson, for example, recently shut down the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan — whose role had been diminished since Richard Holbrooke had the job during President Barack Obama’s first term — and has yet to appoint an assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, at a time when the Taliban’s return and Pakistan’s instability are major concerns.

When he attended a series of recent meetings on Afghanistan, Mr. Tillerson was accompanied by only his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, who is a former United States Patent and Trademark official and technology executive with no diplomatic experience.

There is also no one in line for the Asia policy job, just when there is talk about whether the North Korea crisis will be defused by negotiation or steam toward conflict.

This is, quite simply, no way to run a foreign policy. Tillerson’s struggles stand in stark contrast to the surer hand at the Defense Department—Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Mattis has no business background, but he does have a lifetime of military service that has exposed him to the ins and outs of government and how it operates. That is something Tillerson utterly lacks—and it shows.

Business experience can be valuable if combined with government experience. A good example is George Shultz, one of the most respected secretaries of state, who ran the engineering giant Bechtel in between service in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. But Tillerson, along with Trump, is proving that it’s a lot harder to translate private-sector experience into the government than it may appear from a distance. That is something that voters should keep in mind when, inevitably, the next crop of business leaders seek high office.

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Is Trump Turning It Around?

Podcast: Did the Supreme Court and Congress rescue the Trump presidency?

On the first podcast of the week, we (that is, Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I) look at the Supreme Court’s decision to allow parts of the Trump travel ban to go through and the possibility of the passage of the health care bill in the Senate. And we ask: Does this mean that next week we’ll be saying the Trump administration has scored victories and is now far more formidable than it has thus far appeared? Also, I quote a medieval English song to the mystification of Noah and Abe. Give a listen.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.

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A Moment of Truth for Trump Defenders on Health Care

Trump puts the commentary class in an uncomfortable position.

Conservative opinion-makers are struggling to strike the right tone in the effort to defend the specifics in the latest iteration of ObamaCare’s replacement bill.

Those on the right invested in policy outcomes, like The Federalist’s David Harsanyi and Forbes contributor Avik Roy, have observed that the bill does not repeal the ACA but it makes great strides in annulling its most onerous elements, devolves power to the states, and reforms Medicaid. Conservative pundits disinclined to tether themselves to the Senate’s ephemeral health-care sketch have argued that to vote against this bill is to scuttle the Republican agenda and sacrifice the party’s majorities to the fury of their betrayed base voters.

This is a complicated endeavor, and the stakes are high. Its participants are engaging in it in good faith. Notably absent from the barricades is the man in whose name they are ostensibly acting. President Donald Trump has not been absent from the fight to shape the public’s perception on the health-care bill; he’s been actively undermining the Republican position. In the effort to avoid tough choices at the likely expense of his political allies, Trump has put a test to his phalanx of fans in the commentary class.

Will pro-Trump voices note honestly that their party’s leader is exacerbating the headwinds the GOP faces in making good on a campaign-trail pledge to repeal and replace ObamaCare? So far, the answer to that question is “no.”

Last week, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer showed no compunction about confirming anonymously sourced reports that alleged the president told Senate Republicans that the House’s compromise version of the American Health Care Act was “mean” and that it needed “more heart.” When asked what the president meant by “heart,” Spicer let forth a word typhoon designed to distract from the fact that he had no idea.

Conservatives know exactly what Democrats mean when they say legislation lacks “heart.” It means, unfailingly, that the draft in question doesn’t include enough tax dollar-funded spending proposals. A day later, the president confirmed conservatives’ worst suspicions about what he meant by “heart.”

At a campaign-style rally before supporters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last Wednesday, President Trump confirmed other anonymous reports indicating that he only wanted to see “more money” in a new health-care bill.

“I hope we are going to surprise you with a really good plan,” Trump told Hawkeye State rally-goers. “I’ve been talking about a plan with heart. I said, ‘Add some money to it!’” How much and to what, you might ask?

Not only did the president fail to back off his private contention that the GOP’s work was “mean” and “lacked heart,” he appeared annoyed when Barack Obama used the same language to describe the repeal of his namesake legislative reform. “Well he used my term: mean,” Trump boasted the hosts of Fox & Friends for an interview broadcast on Sunday.

On Monday, frustrated by the lack of acquiescence from Senate Democrats, Trump floated the prospect of not holding a vote at all. “Perhaps just let OCare crash [and] burn,” read a petulant presidential tweet.

None of this helps the Senate GOP get on the same page when it comes to health-care reform. In fact, it’s actively counterproductive.

The Trump White House has made it plain that the president has no intention of absorbing any criticism over the version of health-care reform that emerges from Congress until he’s aware of how dangerous that could be for his political brand. Trump spent the 2016 campaign promising to extend insurance to all, regardless of the unfeasibility of that prospect. Even ObamaCare failed in that charge despite the mandate on all citizens to purchase insurance.

“The government’s gonna pay for it,” Trump further declared while promising to avoid reforming imperiled entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Trump took pride in taking what he called “un-Republican” positions on the expansion of federal entitlement programs. Today, Trump is both deferring to the Republican-led legislature on the specifics and heckling from the stands when those specifics don’t meet his impossible standards.

Perhaps unable to reconcile the contradictions or fearful of the conclusion that would result from an honest appraisal of Trump’s actions, his defenders in media have taken to filing dispatches from an alternate universe.

“Are Republican senators doing enough to have your back to get that health care bill through?” the president was asked by Fox & Friends host Pete Hegseth. Laura Ingraham’s online magazine Lifezette published a takedown of Democrats for calling the health-care bill “mean,” while making no mention of the fact that President Trump apparently agrees.  Ann Coulter attacked the Republican Congress for abandoning the principles of market capitalism in writing their “disaster” of a health-care bill. A psychologist might call all this projection.

The congressional Republican effort to get their party’s various factions on board to repeal and replace ObamaCare is hopelessly complicated by the fact that the President of the United States does not fully share their objectives. Donald Trump wants to minimize his political risk and maximize political benefit, and he has no qualms about throwing his party overboard in the process. It is terribly revealing of conservatives in the pro-Trump commentary class that they would rather wrap themselves in cozy and familiar security blankets than grapple with a discomfiting reality: Their leader isn’t always on their side.

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