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Libel Tourism, American Style

September 27th, 2008 - 7:48 pm

There’s been a fair amount of attention to the use of Libel tourism–that is, individuals who think they’ve been slimed in a country with freedom of the press, who then find another country more favorably inclined towards plaintiffs in defamation cases, and sue there. The most celebrated such tourist is a Saudi billionaire banker named Khalid bin Mahfouz, who has collected substantial damages in England from American book publishers.  Most recently, he’s been after Rachel Ehrenfeld, and he got a judgment that requires Ms Ehrenfeld to apologize and pay more than two hundred thousand dollars.  She’s done neither, and instead went to court in New York.  Eventually the New York State Legislature passed a law protecting American publishers and authors from such attacks.

All well and good, so far as it goes.  But people like Khalid bin Mahfouz certainly have an effect on free expression all over the Western world.  As Roger Kimball wrote nearly a year ago, even when there are no trials or judgments, the knowledge that they are possible has a chilling effect on book publishers, book dealers, librarians, and of course authors.  Roger tells of being asked by a distributor in Canada and Britain whether a book he was about to publish–Andy McCarthy’s splendid Willful Blindness–had any anti-Saudi or anti-terrorist language. Sounds incredible, to be sure, but here’s part of the letter:

Can you please let us know if there are any references to Saudis and terrorist[s] in the book. We are just concerned that this book, could potentially create libel lawsuits as it could offend Saudis living in England and this has happened with many other US publications and we do not want to be jeopardized in selling this book.

Word gets around, and very few authors or publishers have deep enough pockets to take on a Saudi banker in an overseas courtroom.

By and large, such practices haven’t been very common in this country, thanks to the 1964 Supreme Court decision, Times v. Sullivan.  The upshot of that decision was that “public figures” have very little protection from nasty articles or broadcasts, and that for such a person to win a libel case, he’d have to demonstrate either “genuine malice” (which in practice means he’d have to show that the journalist knew he was writing something false, and only did it in order to damage the “public figure”) or “reckless disregard of the truth.”  Very difficult.  Those of us who are regularly slimed are always told by smart lawyers that bringing suit is probably a losing proposition, and it’s best to ignore it, or fight it out in public fora.

I’m not a big fan of this almost impossibly high bar for libel;  I think that it should be possible to sue on the basis of “it’s false and it’s damaging,” and if judges want to go easy on the slimers, so be it.  I have been a libel tourist myself, in the sense that I have sued foreign publications in both England and Italy, and have yet to lose a case.  The awards were modest, but the satisfaction was considerable.  Priceless, you might even say.

There’s nothing new in this, by the way;  towards the end of the Cold War, many of the most outspoken critics of the Soviet Union were calumniated in the popular press all over the West, and the writers of the slimes virtually defied the likes of Bukovsky and Suvarov to sue them, knowing the high cost of legal action.  Fortunately, Britain’s finest libel lawyer, the late Peter Carter-Ruck, was willing to fight pro bono on behalf of the dissidents, and they won several cases.  Sometimes a real libel law works in favor of the innocent.

But I hold no brief for those who use the courts as a method of throttling free speech, which seems to be the intent of the Obama supporters in Missouri who threaten legal action against campaign ads they don’t like.  This is the bin Mahfouz method, with the usual consequences:  people will be intimidated, they will fear to say or write or broadcast things that the Obama crowd doesn’t like.  I was pleased to see Missouri Governor Blunt brand it for what it is:

This abuse of the law for intimidation insults the most sacred principles and ideals of Jefferson. I can think of nothing more offensive to Jefferson’s thinking than using the power of the state to deprive Americans of their civil rights. The only conceivable purpose of Messrs. McCulloch, Obama and the others is to frighten people away from expressing themselves, to chill free and open debate, to suppress support and donations to conservative organizations targeted by this anti-civil rights, to strangle criticism of Mr. Obama, to suppress ads about his support of higher taxes, and to choke out criticism on television, radio, the Internet, blogs, e-mail and daily conversation about the election.

Quite right.  If any candidate can prove that his opponent is lying about the facts, his remedy is the same as yours or mine:  fight it out in the brawl that is American politics. Their method is quite clearly one designed to favor the wealthy folks who can afford all the lawyers.  They probably don’t expect to win, they just seek to intimidate.  If they don’t like the brawl, then let them propose a different standard for libel.  But that is not what they’re doing.  Not at all.

Rush, as he does so often, put it best:  “where did these people go to school?  University of Stalin?”

I’m very concerned that if Obama wins this election, we’ll see a lot more of this sort of thing.  I’m waiting for the libertarians to wage jihad against it…

UPDATE:  Meanwhile (h/t to the Instapundit), a smart and fun lawyer goes into more detail.  

FURTHER UPDATE:  The New York State law has now gone national.  A House bill declares that foreign libel judgments are unenforceable in the United States.  And Arlen Specter, Joe Lieberman and Chuck Schumer want to go further still:

Indeed, the  ACLU, the American Library   Association, the Association of American Publishers, the PEN American   Center, the Families of the 9/11 victims, and many others support the  Free  Speech Protection Act, 2008 (S. 2977)  sponsored by Senators Arlen Specter,  Joseph  Lieberman and Chuck Schumer. Their legislation  would allow U.S. writers to bring a federal cause of action against those who bring libel suits against them, in foreign jurisdiction for writing that does not constitute defamation under U.S. law . The Specter bill, like King’s (H.R. 5814) would also bar enforcement of foreign libel judgments and provide other appropriate injunctive relief  and damages by U.S. Courts. 

It seems to me that these people want it both ways:  foreign libel judgments against Americans can’t be enforced here, but we can sue them here for bringing such suits against us.  That line in the Senate bill, “does not constitute defamation under U.S. law,” is mischievous, as I argue above.  We don’t really have libel here any more.  Which, to say it yet again, is wrong, and empowers libelers.

We should want two outcomes: a) libelers get punished, and b) those who use libel suits as pretexts to suppress free speech get punished as well.

REREUPDATE:  Welcome, Instapundit readers.  Glad to see your face :=)

Mullah Letters

September 24th, 2008 - 7:44 am

My “Dear Mahmoud” letter has apparently upset some folks in his world.  Here’s the latest, which wasn’t sent to Pajamas but to me personally:

>   Dear Mr Ledeen,
>   I read your most recent article in the form of a letter
> to President Nejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran , I have
> few points to  make as follows :
>  * On the  analytical side you might be right in most of
> the points you try to make, however,being secular you miss
> to grasp the religious  fervor  engulfing us Shites , and we
> know inside us that we are winning gradually and
> incrementally.Tell me the last time Israel chose to go for a
> war in the region  and ended with a dismal failure .
>  * The  Western lack of sincerity and genuine conduct  is
> clear in your invasion of Iraq .You told us it is about
> democracy, while it was about Israel and Oil, and getting
> closer to Iran.But god was on  our side : you helped to
> deliver Iraq , thanks.
>  * You are in a fix : If Israel attack Iran, it could be
> destroyed , it is just too weak and small as Rafasenjai and
> other Leaders in Iran and Lebanon  mentioned many times,
> while US is too preoccupied with the mistakes in Iraq and
> Afghanistan, and the consequences  of financial corruption,
> moreover, the Europeans are too commercially interested and
> busy with Russia,witness Austrian gas deal with Iran. What
> do you think?the Austrians will buy and pass Western
> technology to Iran at  cheaper price.Get over it.
>  * With due respect , I am sure you know that Iran will win
> , if you manage to release your hot  air by destroying few
> buildings , then your losses will mount and your media
> machine will be in reverse .Iran will win, the shite
> community will dominate the  Region , and Israel will be
> what it  deserves to be: small marginal state seeking Iran
> protection and passing Western technology to Iran until the
> we shites master  the know how  which is not far.
>  That is probably why you write comfortably from US not
> Israel.I understand that human need of yours.I challenge you
> to publish it .
>  Regards
>  MOhammed Hamza Alhassan
>  Qatif, S. Arabia

You may wonder, as I do, if Mohammed is really the guy he claims to be–a Saudi Shi’ite.  There aren’t many of them, and they are not treated well by the Royal Family, even though they sit on the oil over in the Eastern Province.

Note the alternate universe feature:  anyone who claims that the United States was defeated in Iraq has it precisely backwards.  And anyone who think that Iran is winning is, well, a useful idiot of the Tehran regime…

Meanwhile, the useful idiots are active on American media, as in the shockingly ignorant interview with Ahmadinejad on NPR.  There’s this little exchange, for example:

Ahmadinejad: You know the history, but it has to be repeated to the people who are your listeners. While America was there, we had no elections in our country. Nonetheless, when the Islamic Republic came into being, the U.S. government rose against it with all its might.

NPR: Let me ask about that.

Ahmadinejad: Several coup attempts occurred. The eight years of war between Saddam [Hussein] and our country were actually supported directly by the United States. From Day 1, our people were — sanctions were imposed on our people. So who exactly is the provocateur? Who is the one who seeks war?

Every single claim by Ahmadinejad is false.  There were plenty of elections under the shah, indeed during those years Iran was the most “progressive” country in the Islamic world, women had more power and more freedom than anywhere else in the Middle East save Israel, and I dare say that Jimmy Carter did as much as anyone to favor the revolution.  When the shah was overthrown, the United States tried desperately to kiss up to Khomeini, offering arms deals, trade deals, all kinds of goodies.  But Khomeini declared war on America right away (branding us “the great Satan”) and relations were broken, not by U.S. policy but when Iranians seized our embassy in Tehran and took our people hostage.

But the interviewer seemed not to know any of that.  If he did, he didn’t say so.  Nor, so far as I know, has any pundit in the following days.

Maybe our journalists need a short stint in a reeducation center…

Dear Mahmoud

September 22nd, 2008 - 7:33 pm

I wrote a letter to President Ahmadinejad, posted on NRO on Monday.  I thought you’d want to see it:

I’m writing to you about death, one of your favorite themes. Your adult life has revolved around it. You’re from the Revolutionary Guards, the military organization that was created in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon in the 1970s. The then-incipient Revolutionary Guards were trained there by the expert terrorists of al Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s gang of killers (Sunnis, by the way, as you well know). One day, the camp was bombed by the Israelis, and a considerable number of your men were killed. Later on, the graduates entered Iran, and killed members of the shah’s security forces. Today, Revolutionary Guardsmen crush Iranian dissent at home, and they are on the prowl all over the world, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Buenos Aires, Argentina. So you’ve been around death for 30 years or more. Training for it, training others for it, and participating in it.

You glorify it. You think it’s beautiful. “Art reaches perfection when it portrays the best life and best death,” you’ve said. After all, art tells you how to live. That is the essence of art. Is there art that is more beautiful, more divine, and more eternal than the art of martyrdom? A nation with martyrdom knows no captivity. Those who wish to undermine this principle undermine the foundations of our independence and national security. They undermine the foundation of our eternity.

Interestingly, you talk about “independence” and “national security,” rather than the interests of Islam, or the Muslim community, or even the Shiites, your sect. I’ll come back to this odd language shortly.

You’re a veteran of one of the bloodiest wars of recent times, the Iran-Iraq conflict that probably cost your country more than a million dead and maimed. You extol that sacrifice, as any patriotic Persian would; Iran was invaded by Saddam Hussein’s armies, and the Iranian people defended their country, bravely and desperately.

But your praise of Iranian fighters isn’t limited to men shot down on the battlefield in that bloody war;  you celebrate cases of what you call — and extol — “martyrdom.” I call it the deliberate, criminal slaughter of many tens of thousands of young children. Some of those kids were only 12 years old. They were sent across the battlefields into Iraqi territory, as human mine-detectors. They walked across the minefields, and got blown up. The Iraqi soldiers were so horrified that they shouted at the children to stop, to go back. But they didn’t; you’d indoctrinated or hypnotized them, and you wanted them to die. Indeed, you were so certain they would be killed, that these little children were provided with plastic keys that were said to open the gates to paradise.

That’s not martyrdom; that’s mass murder of your own people. You indoctrinated those kids and sent them to their doom. And it didn’t stop with the war. Afterwards, you sent other children to walk across areas you suspected were mined, and many of them were sacrificed in the same way.

This barbarous campaign, of which you are so proud, and which you acclaim as a work of art, produced some particularly gruesome technical problems: according to one of your leading newspapers, many of those children were vaporized by the land mines, while others were blown to pieces, their body parts scattered over the earth. Your religious leaders insisted that everything be done to keep the bodies intact, and so at a certain point the children were sent to the mine fields wrapped tightly in blankets. Instead of charging bravely to eternity, they rolled across the ground. That way, their cadavers were more likely to hold together, and their families could be given the remains, wrapped in a bloody blanket, for burial.

Sending fighters into battles in which their leaders know many, or even most of them, are going to die is hardly new. The Russians did it in the First World War, for example, when the second ranks were not armed, but were told that there would be plenty of weapons available; they could just pry them from the hands of their dead comrades. But your massacre of the innocents is something uniquely dreadful.

Ironically, the notion that Muslims love death, thereby gaining an advantage against their life-loving adversaries, was first directed against your very own country, Iran itself, during the famous battle at Qadisiyya in 636, between the Muslim armies of Caliph Abu Bakr and the Persians. The Caliph sent a message to the Persians, calling upon them to conver t to Islam or pay onerous taxes and accept Muslim rule. Otherwise, he said, “you should know that I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life.” (The Muslims won the battle, which marked the end of the Sassanid dynasty in Persia).

Such language during war is, so to speak, normal, but your deliberate mass sacrifice of your young, along with your ode to martyrdom, is different. It’s what the great Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called “necrophilous” thinking, a pathological love of death.

Unamuno used that word in a face-to-face confrontation at the University of Salamanca, where he was the rector, with the famous Spanish general Millan Astray. The Spanish Civil War had just begun, and the general was celebrated in nationalistic circles for his motto, viva la muerte, Long Live Death. The general was a cripple, and Unamuno noted that the great Spanish writer, Cervantes, was also handicapped, and then he continued, “it pains me to think that General Milan Astray should dictate the pattern of mass psychology. A cripple who lacks the spiritual greatness of a Cervantes is wont to seek ominous relief in causing mutilation around him.” Unamuno denounced “Long Live Death” as a “necrophilous and senseless cry.”

Today, you are in the same position as General Milan Astray. Although you have not been wounded, your celebration of death is as necrophilous as the general’s. This is not a philosophical matter, despite your efforts to elevate it to the stature of aesthetics. It’s a disease, with well-known symptoms and consequences. People like you, who are fascinated by death are terribly destructive, of others and of themselves. You’re a textbook case.

Necrophilia is defined as:

The passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction… It is the passion to tear apart living structures.

That is the language you use, especially about the Jews, the Israelis, and the Americans. It’s all about the rot of death, and the stink of death, as when you said that Israel is a “rotten and stinking corpse” that is destined to disappear, and you went on to proclaim that Israel “has reached the end like a dead rat.”

As I say, you’re a textbook case of mental illness. And we’re very well acquainted with the political consequences of your diseased mind. It’s all about fascism.

Fascists like you have always loved death. Hitler’s SS had a death skull on their insignia, and celebrated a brave death. As you say you do. And, like Hitler, you don’t just love death because of its aesthetics. You think that martyrs —  suicide bombers, of whom you claim to have recruited some forty thousand, for example — have geopolitical significance. You say that “all independent nations are indebted to martyrs,” and your website modestly claims that the oppressed peoples of the world all love Iran’s leaders, particularly you and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (That doesn’t sound right at all, by the way. Have you polled the Burmese and the Chinese, or the North Koreans? I haven’t heard them singing your praises, frankly).

But there’s a big difference between you and the Nazi leaders. You, and your fellow Iranian leaders, don’t actually fight. With the exception of your Revolutionary Guards forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, very few Iranians put themselves on the line (and even your foreign legions rarely fight, and when they are captured, they often give us the information we need to defeat you, as we have in Iraq and soon will in Afghanistan). You lure others to die, but you’re not willing to put your own lives on the line. You talk a lot about the “culture of martyrdom,” but in practice it’s not Iranians who blow themselves up. I don’t know of a single case of an Iranian suicide bomber in Iraq or Afghanistan. They’re all Arabs: Saudis, north Africans, and the odd Syrian tossed in for ethnic balance. But not Iranians. All of which tells me that your big talk about martyrdom is phony. Martyrdom is for others — in the current campaign, others you and most other Iranians despise, like the Arabs — but you’re not about to blow yourself up, or send your comrades to blow yourselves up.

You’ve won the status of the world’s leading antisemite, which is not easy, and you’ve lied about it a lot. Indeed, you have denied — on CBS television — hating any religion, which is manifestly false; you’ve been seen on Iranian TV spouting venom against all non-Muslims, with special contempt for Christians and Jews. But, when you are talking to the infidels, you pretend to be tolerant.  For a guy who has distinctly medieval convictions — your very literal belief in the imminent return of the Shiite messiah, your beloved Twelfth Imam, and the onset of the End of Days, for example — you’ve certainly mastered some of the nuances of contemporary Western politics. You never chant “death to the Jews!” It’s always “death to Israel!” Or “death to the Zionists!” Or “death to America!”

That’s entirely in keeping with the “new” antisemitism. It’s always about Zionists, or the Israel lobby, or the lackeys of Sharon. But every now and then you just can’t resist, and out it comes. Instead of remembering to say that you respect all monotheistic religions, you tell your followers “We are in the process of a historical war between the World of Arrogance and the Islamic world, and this war has been going on for hundreds of years.” Zionists haven’t been around that long. And your followers aren’t nearly as careful with their language as you are. The Iranian creation, Hezbollah, told us in 1992 that they were engaged in “ an open war until the elimination of Israel and until the death of the last Jew on earth.”  And ten years later, the leader of the “Party of God,” Lebanese Sheikh Nasrallah, was quoted by the Lebanon Daily Star, encouraging all the Jews to move to Israel, the better to annihilate them in one blow. “If they all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”

Your senior adviser, Mohammad Ali Ramin (said to be the man behind your infamous Holocaust Denial Conference), says the Jews have been accused of spreading deadly plagues throughout history because “they are very filthy people.”  And, almost in the same breath, he added, “So long as Israel exists in the region there will never be peace and security in the Middle East…so the resolution of the Holocaust issue will end in the destruction of Israel.”

That you are engaged in a global campaign to destroy the Jews is evident from your actions as well as your words; Hezbollah and the Iranian regime were joint partners in the bombing of the Jewish Social Center in Buenos Aires in 1994.

There’s obviously a big difference for you between dead Muslims and dead Jews; it’s only your dead that count; ours don’t count as martyrs. This is the point of your infamous diatribes against the very idea of the Holocaust. “ (The Zionists and their agents) have concocted a myth of deprivation and innocence for the Jews of Europe,” you’ve said. “They use this pretext of the innocence of Jews and the suffering of some Jews during the Second World War…” We know all about that line, “the pretext of innocence.” It’s been the trademark of antisemites for centuries.

In short, you’re not what you say you are. You’re a poseur, a fraud, a vulgar chauvinist pretending to be an inspired religious leader. You’ve proclaimed Iran “the most powerful and independent country in the world.” The implication of that silly claim is that the weaker and dependent nations — that is, everyone else in the world — must bend to your will. You’ve said this more than once and in somewhat different ways, as when you said that the Iranian people must prepare themselves to rule the world.

Those statements are very surprising, coming from one of the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Those words put you in direct conflict with the founder, Ayatollah Rohallah Khomeini. On the Air France plane carrying him to Tehran, Khomeini famously proclaimed that nationalism was paganism, that he didn’t give a hoot about Iran, and that his revolution was for all of Islam, not for one country. Indeed, if Iran perished in order to advance the global triumph of Islam, it would be fine with him.

So what’s up with your pagan statement about the glory of Iran? You constantly claim to be the heir to Khomeini, a true believer in the imminent return of the 12th Imam, but as a matter of fact you embrace an heretical doctrine. The 12th Imam is supposed to bring about the global triumph of the Muslim peoples, as Khomeini said. Not Iran. And another thing: you often talk as if global chaos and conflagration were welcome, because it would hasten the Mahdi’s arrival. But Khomeini did not say that, nor did he act as if he believed it. Quite the contrary, in fact:  When an Iranian passenger plane was accidentally shot down by an American missile, he didn’t welcome it at all; he surrendered. That American missile ended the Iran-Iraq war.

You’d do well to study the history of your own country, which so far as I know is the only one to have had a Jewish queen — Esther, of the Purim story. The Book of Esther recounts the life and death of one of your direct predecessors, the evil politician Haman, who convinced his ruler, Ahasverous, to order the massacre of the Jews of the Persian Empire. The Book of Esther nicely summarizes what happens to those, like you, who attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Haman and his sons were hanged; then, a few days later, in the fighting he had authorized, some 75,000 Persians were killed by their would-be Jewish victims, and Esther reigned.

It’s your destiny, too.

I don’t know exactly how you will be destroyed. There are many possible scenarios, most of which you’ve undoubtedly contemplated in your reflections on the beauty of death. My own favorite is to turn your own hate upon yourself and your regime, and fulfill your dream of a world without Jews. You don’t want to be contaminated by us, right? Very well, then we’ll seal you off from everyone and everything Jewish. The ultimate embargo: You’ll have no Jewish doctors or lawyers, no access to Jewish hospitals, you’ll be isolated from music or art by Jews, and everything invented by Jews. It’s quite a long list, including chemotherapy, the cure for syphilis, the polio vaccine, blue jeans, oral contraceptives, azathioprine (the first immuno suppressant used in organ transplants), septicemia (treatment for bacterial infections), the Barbie doll, hand-held video cameras, various antibiotics including streptomycin and penicillin, the push-up bra, and, of course, most everything nuclear (sorry about that) including the fission reactor (as you must know, the American atomic bomb began with a letter to President Roosevelt from two Jewish physicists, and the Manhattan Project involved numerous others).

Poetic justice, don’t you think? You’ll be throttled by your own bile.

Iran and Pakistan

September 15th, 2008 - 8:37 am

I’m no great expert on Pakistan, so I don’t pretend to have any good answers to the situation there.  But it does seem odd to me that we’re apparently quite prepared to send troops, bombs and missiles into that country–nominally, at least, a friendly country–while we are not prepared to do anything of the sort with regard to Iran.

If anything, I would think that our military and political leaders would consider it more urgent to strike at Iran’s support for terrorists.  So far as I know, nobody is suggesting that the Pakistani Government per se is fully in support of the jihadis we are bombing and attacking there.  At most, Musharaff was condemned for being ineffective in controlling elements of his intelligence and military services who tolerated or supported al Qaeda.  In Iran, on the other hand, it is abundantly clear that the Supreme Leader and his minions are fully in support of a terror network that includes Hezbollah, al Qaeda, andn others who are operating in Iraq and Afghanistan against our troops.

I have long opposed military invasion of Iran, and still do.  But I do think it is legitimate self-defense, and urgent, to go after the terrorist training camps in Iran and in Syria.   And I also think we should be willing to go after the military-industrial facilities inside Iran where the latest generation of IEDs is being manufactured.

So my question is:  why are we attacking on the territory of a friendly country and not on the territory of a regime that has proclaimed its enmity to us and is actively engaged in killing Americans?  Seems odd to me.

The Age Thing

September 12th, 2008 - 8:20 pm

Obama, in his by now familiar ham-handed way, is attacking McCain for being too old, for being out of touch, for not being computer literate.  Set aside the appalling ignorance of the last point–McCain’s injuries under torture do not permit him to type, thereby reprising Biden’s gaffe of a couple of days before, when he called upon a man in a wheelchair to stand up for a round of applause–and we’re left with a campaign that says ‘vote for me because i’m the young guy.’

Paradoxically, Obama is in some ways more a victim of age than McCain, although of a different sort.  Obama is an advocate of ideas that have aged to the point of dementia.  He’s an old-fashioned radical, and the leftist ideas that inspire him are no longer relevant to our world.  As Hegel used to say, the world changes, and the ideas that once described reality, and could be used to effectively change it when necessary, no longer apply to the changed world. Obama’s political ideas have aged, which is why they have no policy saliency.  They’re just words, fossilized remnants of a civilization that no longer exists.

Once upon a time, Obama’s vision of “change”–which is based on class structure and top-down collective enterprises–was not only contemporary but exciting.  It inspired a generation of Americans to create the welfare state.  But then the welfare state aged, and now, in the wild-west world of globalization, instant communication,  the blogosphere and so forth, it is very old hat.    The ideas are still hanging around, however.

Bill Clinton understood that, and since he wasn’t really committed to any particular political agenda aside from his own success, he was able to grab many of his opponents’ ideas and use them.  I remember poor Bob Dole complaining that Clinton was stealing his ideas, and he was right.

Obama doesn’t get that, I suspect because he really believes those old, now-failed ideas.  He can’t bring himself to say that the collectivist projects of the sort he promoted in Chicago are bad for the poor, although when pressed he ootches toward more sensible positions (as when, in Saddleback, he confessed that he had probably been a bit too negative about welfare reform).  We’ve all noticed that Obama keeps moving toward McCain’s positions on many issues, even on the basic one:  the war.

If you hold ideas that no longer work (and indeed don’t even explain anything contemporary), it’s hard to conduct an inspirational political campaign, and Obama, like almost all the other Democrats, is stuck with the knowledge that he’s going to lose most of the policy debates.  But he still wants to win.  And the only way he CAN win is to destroy his opponents, which is the strategy the left is pursuing, ever more frantically.

In the past few days, the polls have suggested that the Democrats may not only fail to gain the glorious victory they’ve been confidently anticipating for the past two years, but things may actually go against them in November.  It would not surprise me.  They have become the ultimate reactionaries, they cannot explain the world or suggest sensible ways to improve it.  If the voters recognize this, they will take their chances with the mavericks.  Holding their noses, to be sure, but they’ll do it.

9 Heroes Today. No, Make it Ten

September 10th, 2008 - 2:09 pm

Tomorrow is 9/11, and we will be going to the Pentagon to mourn Barbara Olson, who was murdered in the American Airlines plane that crashed into the building.  In her final moments Barbara managed to get on a telephone and talk to her husband, who went on to serve as one of the most distinguished legal officials in American history.  I do not know exactly what they said to each other, but I do know that Barbara was trying to get enough information to be able to fight against her assassins.  And I know that her spirit motivates our fighting men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

If you want a sense of how tough our guys our, read this account of a recent fight in Afghanistan.  It will make you proud (and it will reinforce your understanding of just how badly this war is reported by the big papers, networks, and “news” agencies.

Barbara Olson was a fantastic force of nature, and as luck would have it she was one of three Barbaras–Olson, Ledeen, Comstock–whose only real difference was the color of their hair.  They were so close that they always knew what they were all thinking, and most of their conversations had to do with “how do we get it done?”  Their husbands all knew–know still–that the Lord had blessed them with women of real virtue, the rarest women of all.

As Judge Bork said at her funeral, Barbara Olson will always be young, and so she is.  The rest of us are aging, but Barbara, our Barbara, is always laughing and smiling at us from her pictures and her books, and she will not let us stop fighting our common enemies.

We are blessed with two children who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a third enroute.  He will be commissioned next May 10, in Houston, Texas.  All our kids are inspired by Barbara;  the two older ones made their commitments within days of her murder.  And boy, have they avenged her.

She’s smiling still.

The Women, Continued

September 6th, 2008 - 1:47 pm

Friday morning, courtesy of Senator Rick Santorum, I attended a private screening of a new Iranian movie produced and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh entitled “The Stoning of Sorayah M.”  It’s a very fine movie–which will premiere in Toronto next week–but a very unpleasant way to start the day.  As the title tell you, it’s about a woman (falsely) accused of adultery by her scheming husband, and, in keeping with Shari’a practice, she is stoned to death by her friends, relatives, and neighbors.  Not nice.  But very powerful.  It shows the worst, most misogynistic side of Iran, and by extension all those other Islamic countries where men hold life and death power over the women, and are rarely called to account themselves.

It is therefore even more impressive to see Iranian women fighting back against the male chauvinist pigs who rule their country.  They know their vulnerabilities full well, as they know the horrors the mullahs have prepared for them, but they are fighting nonetheless.  Have a look at this recent report from the BBC, an organization that bends over backwards to avoid publishing incendiary accounts of life in Iran.  It’s pretty tough language from the Beeb:

Women in Iran have severely restricted freedom of choice, and no equality with men.

A married woman must obtain her husband’s permission before taking a job outside their home.

A man may have up to four wives. A woman may not have up to four husbands.

Women must observe the Islamic dress code – showing as little hair as possible, and their arms, their legs and their feet must be covered.

There is no protection against so-called honour killings  or women who are raped; a husband – or a father – who kills the rape victim cannot be prosecuted and sent to jail for murder.

“This is inhuman,” a law professor at Tehran University, Rosa Gharachorloo, told me.

Yes it is, as was the stoning of Sorayah M., brutally murdered because her husband coveted another woman, and couldn’t afford two wives.

We celebrate strong women, but men throughout the Middle East fear them, and oppress them in ways the West has not seen for a long time.  I am no expert on the treatment of black female slaves in the West, but I rather suspect that contemporary oppression of Middle Eastern women is even worse than it was on the plantations, which was plenty horrible.

If you read the BBC story to its conclusion, you will find that the Iranian women are making a bit of headway;  they have recently received some limited support from the speaker of Parliament and a leading ayatollah.  Good news, you will say, and so do I.  But six of the leading Iranian suffragettes have been sent to the torture chambers, which is business as usual, and is greeted with the usual shamefaced silence in our corridors of power.  It is beyond my ability to tolerate the failure of Condoleezza Rice to condemn these outrages with her considerable energy.  It’s bad enough that the men don’t do anything.

An Outstanding Man of the Left

September 3rd, 2008 - 6:37 pm

Somewhere out there in dialectical heaven, Paul Piccone is smiling at the spectacle of an Alaskan frontierswoman seizing the American political spotlight.

Paul was for many years the editor of a little-known, highly intellectual, and often invaluable magazine of “critical thought” called “Telos,” which was known as the conscience of the New Left.  Unlike many Marxists, he never fell for the utopian lies of the Soviets, rejected the fanciful, romantic idea that the events of 1968 constituted a “revolution,” either here or abroad, and fought fiercely against the centralizing, oppressive welfare state that he saw squeezing freedom, and thus spontaneity, out of Americans.

He created the magazine in 1968, and ran it until his death four years ago.  Telos Press has now published a collection of his essays, “Confronting the Crisis[1],” and while it’s hard going for readers who have no comfort level with the language of dialectics, and with the work of the Frankfurt School, it’s well worth it.  Few American intellectuals worked as hard as Paul to figure out what is going on inside our society, the ways in which America is unique among the countries of the West, and what, if anything, can be done to restore serious thinking, productive debate, and philosophical and political creativity.  His pursuit of understanding and real solution was admirable, anchored, as Gary Ulmen puts it in his Introduction, in a search for a genuine humanity.

In that pursuit, Paul managed to think himself out of the conventional box of Left and Right, which he correctly saw as at least meaningless and at worst confusing.  “Left and Right mean very little,” he wrote, and nowadays “political conflicts have been reduced to administrative squabbles concerning the scope and extent of redistributive policies…”

He was especially tough on his own former comrades:

the Left has long since ceased to be radical, does not have even the faintest idea of a meaningful alternative to the existing order, and, in the frantic effort to come up with immediately applicable tactics, has overlooked that its strategy has long since become conformist and uncritical.

The essays cover about twenty years, from the early seventies to the early nineties, and much of it is as contemporary as tomorrow.  Few have understood as well as Paul the often sinister way that political and intellectual language is used to mislead the people.   Piccone saw that concepts like law, democracy, people, nation and community had been used by politicians and intellectuals in order to reconcile them “at all costs with current political practices in order to legitimate existing relations of domination—relations today defended by obsessive official calls for “change…”

Those calls for “change,” in the eighties as today, were phony, in Piccone’s view, because they were really calls for empowering one group of bureaucrats over another;  they had nothing to do with addressing the ongoing problems of freedom and oppression, or poverty and wealth, that remain the real challenge to America.  He saw through the bogus “changes” of the Johnson era, as for example “equal opportunity.”  Calling it “a bureaucratic penetration into the black community,” he delivered a tirade that many would call arch-conservative (thereby reinforcing his point about the deceptive effect of language on contemporary politics):

(It) meant not only the effective disintegration of organic social bonds, but also the development of a deadly relation of dependence upon the welfare state, which condemns the black community to the permanent status of de facto second-rate citizenry.

And he saw the Women’s Movement was even worse.  Whereas women, by dint of their roots in family structure, had previously been able to resist the onslaught of the bureaucratic state, the Women’s Movement “immediately rendered problematic any relation not based on the exchange principle, and indicted any lingering family function that presupposed an organic division of labor.”  In short, they became alienated men.

As for the heroes of the contemporary Left, he despised them.  He saw that political correctness was nothing more than political indoctrination that would preserve, rather than transform, both the society and independent thought.  With the hilarious result that “all this makes FDR, Kennedy and Johnson, even Bernstein and Kautsky, appear to be flaming revolutionaries.  It is light years away from the old dreams of a new society, a sense of the future as possibility,, redemption, and well-being…”  It’s had to say it much better than that.  Unexpectedly, he has plenty of sympathy for Reagan’s good intentions to shrink the federal government and give more authority to local entities, although he rightly says nothing of the sort ever happened.

In his later years, Paul argued in favor of a form of federal populism that would diminish the power of the central government and enable Americans to freely organize themselves in accordance with local traditions rather than conform to the dictates flowing from Washington.  He knew it would be difficult;  he saw clearly that the enormous power of bureaucracy could only be effectively challenged by a determined and politically secure executive:  “Only within…a context of national or international urgency can a political administration summon sufficient popular consensus to checkmate administrative/congressional interference and act decisively.”

He calls his vision of a new populism a “vindication of the ideals of the original American colonial model,” which is an odd thing for an Hegelian revolutionary to embrace.  Earlier in his life, he would have been tempted to call such a notion arch-reactionary, but Paul was honest enough to recognize that many of the ideas commonly termed “conservative” are actually revolutionary.  So far as I know, he was the first English-language writer to recognize that the Italian League of the North was something altogether new in contemporary Western politics, and, despite the near-unanimity of the fashionable press to brand it as racist, vulgar and chauvinistic, it was (and is) a sign of vitality.  He earned his family name, after all.

That is why I am sure that Paul is enjoying the Palin candidacy, for she represents many of the qualities he was searching for in his vision of a federal populism:  her willingness to tell Washington to go to hell, her unrelenting morality, even against leaders of her Party, her easy embrace of Alaska’s uniqueness, her relaxed religiosity, and her full participation in life on America’s last frontier.  That’s just the sort of thing Paul wanted, and he would have been delighted that it came from the mother of five.

So there’s a lot to admire in Paul Piccone, and we are diminished by his passing.  To be sure, his work suffers from the usual defects of the excessively structural analysis that afflict so many who come from a Marxist background.  One rarely hears about great personalities, and their effect on history (with the exception of great thinkers, of course).  He is entirely right to say that we cannot really confront our crises unless there is a real sense of crisis;  under the terms of business as usual, the bureaucrats will always prevail.  But that political consensus he talks about so hopefully can only be forged by political leaders.  Without them, the crisis will only produce further degeneration, and possibly even collapse and the turn of the ancient wheel:  the collapse of democracy ushers in the tyrants.

[1] Gary Ulmen, ed., Confronting the Crisis;  Writings of Paul Piccone (New York:  Telos Press Publishing, 2008.

The Frontierswoman

September 3rd, 2008 - 6:30 pm

Yes, I’m waiting for her to speak in an hour.  But meanwhile, in case you missed it on NRO, here’s the way I think about Sarah Palin:

The Frontierswoman

In Tocqueville on American Character, I recounted a fascinating trip that the great Frenchman took in 1831 to the then-frontier, a bit north of Buffalo.  He walked across the border with Canada, reminded himself that the settlers on both sides were culturally and ethnically identical, and then remarked on the dramatic difference in character between the Americans and the Canadians.  You couldn’t miss it.  On the Canadian side, the roads were good, the streets were laid out in an orderly fashion, and the houses were built to last.  On the American side, everything was temporary;  the houses were thrown together just to survive the winter, because everyone was going to move on once the spring arrived.  They were going West.  The Canadians were going to stay put and make a nice life for themselves and their families.

The border divided those who wanted to stay put from those who wanted the maximum freedom to own their own land, create their own communities, and worship in their own faiths.  The new lands to the West, the Virgin Land, as it was often called, provided all those possibilities, and generation after generation of Americans filled them with all manner of courage, foolhardiness, religious vision, and entrepreneurialship, all those things that make up the American Dream.  Nowadays their adventures are often demeaned and scorned as colonialism or imperialism, and Native Americans were conquered by the frontiersmen and their successors.  But if you read–as you should–the magisterial history of those people written by Bernard de Voto, you will see that American democracy owes a lot to them, and indeed in many ways they defined nineteenth-century America.  From the mountain men to the Mormons, they carried the American vision across the plains, the deserts, and the mountain ranges all the way to the Pacific.

The frontier–the possibility of packing up and moving on to make your own life as you wish to live it–was enormously important, and generations of American historians have recognized its significance.  Indeed, the great Frederick Jackson Turner pondered with profound alarm the significance of the closing of the frontier in the 1890s.  He feared American democracy would not survive the results of the most recent census, that showed there was no longer a vast expanse of virgin land.  The continent was “full,” and henceforth we would have to live with one another and come to terms with our fractious character.

Over the course of the next century, and with increasing speed starting with the world wars, the federal system became more and more centralized, and many of the old traditions of fierce independence dissolved in what we now call the welfare state.  From time to time—sometimes from the left, sometimes from the right—there have been spasms of romantic rebellion against “big government,” but they have largely failed, and are most commonly encountered in the arts, as in “Star Trek” (the last frontier, etc.) or the Clint Eastwood movies, whether set in the West or on the streets of San Francisco.  But all along, the values of the frontier have survived, hidden in fly-over country, or, in the state that rightly calls itself the last frontier, Alaska.  Which brings us to Sarah Palin.

For the first time in memory, we have a major candidate who comes from the frontier, and it’s not surprising that the pundits are having a hard time coming to grips with this phenomenon.  For Sarah Palin’s world is not defined by the major media or by the glossy magazines;  she hunts and fishes, she’s unabashedly patriotic, her son is in the Army, her husband races across the snow.  Unlike the other three candidates, she is not a member of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.  When she talks about shattering the glass ceiling, she actually means it;  it is not a mask for yet another ideological program.   Some of her supporters sense this when they call her “authentic.”  It’s the wrong word, however;  Barack Obama is an authentic radical, for example.  Palin is a frontierswoman.  Her state capital, Juneau, cannot be reached on the highways of Alaska.  If you want to get there, you must either fly or sail.  And for much of the year, sailing isn’t smart.  No subways in Juneau, but lots of bars.  The main bookstore caters mostly to the tourist trade, with a small selection of used paperbacks and a few recent best sellers. 

It’s not so much authenticity as independence, and self-reliance, which have always been the basic characteristics of frontier people.  They think for themselves.  They have to think outside the box, because there’s no available box for them to think in.  If they accepted the conventional wisdom they wouldn’t be on the frontier, they’d be in some city and they’d brag about their degrees from the failed institutions of higher education.  They’re not big on “conflict resolution,” they prefer zero-sum games.  If you go up against a grizzly, you’re poorly advised to look for a win-win solution.

She comes from a world that’s almost totally unknown to the pundits, which is why so much of the commentary has been unhelpful.  Most of the intellectuals I know have never driven across this continent.  They have little appreciation of the life of the Great Plains and the Klondike, and I suspect that, as time passes, they will have increasing difficulty defining Sarah Palin in the outmoded terms of left and right, liberal and conservative.  As McCain said when he introduced her, she’s very serious about changing government, as her record shows.  She knows that means purging corrupt people, a dangerous notion among the inhabitants of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.  Is it a conservative notion?  Wrong question, I’d say.

The real question is whether there is any hope for a basic transformation of government in this country.  We all know that government is broken;  every citizen who has to deal with the bureaucracy will confirm that.  If there is hope, it can only come from people who are outside the box, and Sarah Palin is decidedly that.  We’ll soon see whether she’s coherent enough, tough enough and charming enough to build a national consensus for the tough work that needs to be done. 

I’m hoping she does, and that,  paradoxically, we can have a revolutionary leader who espouses our oldest ideas.  She’s got the right DNA.  Facing the border Tocqueville visited in 1831, she’d have stayed in America, and moved West when the snow melted.

Darfur in the Iraqi Desert

September 3rd, 2008 - 6:28 pm

Who knew that refugees from Darfur went to Baghdad twenty years ago?  Not I, surely, until I heard about it from a Marine officer of my acquaintance.  His unit has recently spent time with these unfortunate people, who for the past several years have lived in tents in the desert.

There are few stereotypes in American public life more misleading than the caricature of our fighting men and women.  They are often described as losers, people who joined the armed forces in desperation.  Hardly anyone knows that you MUST have a college degree to become a commissioned officer in our ranks.  Hardly anyone knows that our fighters look a lot better than the population at large when you run the numbers on smarts, and success.

It would not occur to most folks, even to experts, that the Marines have been tending to refugees from Darfur.  But there you have it.  It’s a great story.