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Belmont Club

Monthly Archives: April 2010

Risk Averse

April 21st, 2010 - 6:06 am

One of the attractions of the past is the fact that it has happened. We can visit it. It almost literally a place, different to be sure, but comprehensible. LP Hartley began his famous novel by claiming “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” And yet he proceeded to demonstrate that we never knew the past at all no matter how we tried. And maybe not even then. But the illusion remains. Richard Llewelyn describes the past as a Green Valley to which we can return at will when the uncertaintaies of the present grow too burdensome. It is there, waiting for us to come back into its bosom.

There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember. So I can close my eyes on my valley as it is today, and it is gone, and I see it as it was when I was a boy. Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the Earth. In all Wales, there was none so beautiful.

If you can remember, but there’s the catch. The bane of the bureaucrat is corruptible memory and consequently feared by the only known species that actually lives in the past, because the ultimate goal of every functionary from the beginning of time has been to receive that ultimate accolade: he didn’t screw up.


The Mothers of Re-invention

April 20th, 2010 - 3:06 am

Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America wrote that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults”. De Tocqueville wrote at a time when faults, as in broken wagon wheels or barn roofs, were meant to be repaired.  But Wallis Warfield Simpson, whose occupation is listed as socialite, captured the concerns of those for whom the word ‘malfunction’ meant ‘wardrobe malfunction’. She said of a her world, which was devoted to the perfection of leisure, “you can never be too rich or too thin.” And she might have added this advice for politicians, given the fate which befell the Duke, that you can never be too publicly virtuous.

Michael Totten, writing in Commentary, contrasts the lack of controversy over President Obama’s “recent decision to green-light the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen hiding in Yemen” with recent the outrage over detaining enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay.  Why the indifference at killing after the froth over mere imprisonment? David Cole of the Nation put it another way: “In our peculiar post-9/11 world, it is apparently less controversial to kill a suspect in cold blood than to hold him in preventive detention.” There is nothing peculiar about it. It simply follows. As Sherlock Holmes once said, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.


The Washington Monument

April 18th, 2010 - 5:08 pm

Mike Allen’s account* of the grievance meeting between the White House Press Corps and Secretary Robert Gibbs feels like watching a once famous profession in a sad state of decline.  At a 75 minute meeting the White House Correspondents Association begged for crumbs. They complained the administration was going direct to the Internet on everything; as in staff photographers posting Presidential pictures while the Press Corps was denied photo opportunities; of news releases being posted after the business day was closed (“full lid”); of cutbacks in travel pools on Air Force One at a time when news organizations couldn’t afford to charter their own planes. The most pathetic demand of all was for Internet access in situations when they had to file. How important could they be if the pool reporting wasn’t worth a couple of dozen megabytes of uploads? That’s less than a few minute’s action on World of Warcraft.

Where one is on the totem is everything in Washington. The idea of hierarchy permeates every situation. Behavior is a question of knowing your place; when to say ‘thank you’ and never speaking out of turn.  If you can’t understand the rules you’re a rube. Because of the default presumption that you are at Court; it follows that beneath every courteous speech ultimately you want something from the king or the duke or the duchess. And this is where Bill Clinton has got it subtly wrong.


Out of the Box

April 16th, 2010 - 5:36 pm

After the leaders of three major British political parties concluded the UK’s first-ever televised debate before a handpicked studio audience there was some regret over how yet another vulgar American political practice had corrupted British culture. To the reality show and the “idol” contests was now added the dismal American practice of selecting leaders in a political beauty contest. But that was to miss the point.

Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Gordon Brown could vie with each other to describe how they would spend money they didn’t have because that was still the way the system operated. Within the British political consensus candidates were elected on the basis of who could best tinker at the margins.  You didn’t ask more fundamental questions. But in time and with growing economic difficulty the British might import another institution finally making headlines across the Atlantic as the Tea Parties swept across America.


Two Tracks

April 15th, 2010 - 5:48 am

The news stories over the past two weeks have been divided into two tracks.  One dealt with matters of high policy: the arms control summit,  political developments in foreign countries — the Chinese yuan, nuclear defiance in Iran — matters dignified and weighty. The second track, existing almost in a parallel universe, was the world of upheaval: instability in Kyrgyzstan, the Red Shirts in Thailand, and above all the Tea Parties in Washington.  One universe is formal, almost ritualistic. The other chaotic, dimly perceived and street-theatrical.

Both universes are alike in that neither is predictable. Both both are important. Sometimes their importance is recognized belatedly. Journalistic observers believed until fairly recently that the Red Shirts were simply a flash in the pan. Now they are not so sure. The WSJ j writes: “Until last Saturday, the protest had a festival feel and was spectacularly nonviolent. Clearly this is a mass movement expressing a deeply felt demand for change. The government and military now face the prospect that any attempted coup or renewed violent oppression could trigger a far larger show of popular support for the protests.”  They might have been talking about the Tea Parties, though the two are very different.


At the Summit

April 13th, 2010 - 6:32 pm

Arms control is primarily a political task. As technology advances eventually there will be so many dangerous ‘whats’ that nonproliferation will become a question of ‘who’. In a few years weapons like biologicals may become more dangerous than  the original Hiroshima bomb.  September 11 showed that the modern life contained so many potentially lethal objects, like wide-body airplanes, that preventing mass mayhem must shift to finding bad guys.  Arms control is a political problem. In a technologically advanced world the best hope for preventing mayhem is to encourage the spread of responsible government and to dismantle or prevent the emergence of totalitarian or failed states.

But if the administration shares that philosophy it’s not showing it. Today the Washington Post writes “Obama’s disregard for media reaches new heights at nuclear summit”. In an article bylined Dana Milbank, the WaPo says “World leaders arriving in Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit must have felt for a moment that they had instead been transported to Soviet-era Moscow.  … In the middle of it all was Obama — occupant of an office once informally known as “leader of the free world” — putting on a clinic for some of the world’s greatest dictators in how to circumvent a free press.”


The Third Nuclear Age

April 13th, 2010 - 12:20 am

Sometimes a gun isn’t just a gun. About 740,000 assault rifles and pistols are stored in Swiss homes or in private possession.  Nobody knows the exactly how many firearms are in circulation, but there may be up to 1.3 million firearms in Switzerland. Despite this you are more likely to murdered by knife than by gun. “Police statistics for the year 2006  records 34 killings or attempted killings involving firearms, compared to 69 cases involving bladed weapons and 16 cases of unarmed assault. Cases of assault resulting in bodily harm numbered 89 (firearms) and 526 (bladed weapons)”

Sometimes a nuke isn’t just a nuke. The country with the largest known deposits of uranium, which tested 7 nuclear devices on its soil in the 50s and whose head of government isn’t even going to attend President Obama’s nonproliferation summit won’t keep statesmen up at night.  It’s Australia.  The first thing its scientists did after devising a way to enrich uranium with lasers (SILEX) was worry about keeping it out of the wrong hands.


I Want My MTV

April 12th, 2010 - 6:05 am

Two articles, one by Christopher Booker describing the impending bankruptcy of the UK and another by Victor Davis Hanson describing the catatonic walk over the financial edge by California are united by a single theme: the power of denial.

Britain is broke, says Booker, but none of its major parties want to admit it because it would force them to run on a platform of belt-tightening, welfare cutbacks and sacrifice. But since a public long conditioned to hearing comforting lies would never accept the truth, nothing will be mentioned until the final smash.  Until then the voters will be beguiled with soap opera causes, celebrity news and public-relations sleight of hand.


The Woods of Smolensk

April 10th, 2010 - 3:16 am

The Polish President and numerous top officials died aboard a TU-154 while trying to land at Smolensk airbase.He was on his way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre which took place in the woods near that city. Lech Kaczyński “was an activist in the pro-democratic anti-Communist movement in Poland … During the martial law introduced by the communists in December, 1981, he was interned as an anti-socialist element. After his release from internment, he returned to trade union activities, becoming a member of the underground Solidarity.” A BBC blog soliciting reader reactions said “Mr Kaczynski has been a controversial figure in Polish politics, advocating a right-wing Catholic agenda.”


The Ends and the Means

April 9th, 2010 - 4:49 am

Journalists and detectives typically look for three elements in a story: motive, opportunity and means. For the narrative to work, each factor must be proportionate to the other. Nobody likes a story where the perp brings a pocket knife to rob Fort Knox or uses a stick of dynamite to crack a nut. Things have to fit. The curious thing about the recent incidents between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama is that they don’t fit. The means are monstrously disproportionate to any conceivable end.