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Res ipsa loquitur

September 21st, 2013 - 9:10 am

Do you want to know what is really wrong with higher education in this country? Leave aside, for a moment, the financial aspects of The Bubble. Those are important, and will be decisive, as will the advent of new avenues of learning brought to you by the internet, not to mention the revitalization of old avenues of learning such as home schooling. But what is going to make the imminent collapse of the higher education establishment pass without much public sorrow is the rottenness at the core of the system.  Evidence of this rot is patent at almost all colleges and universities, wherever terms like “post colonial,” “gender studies,” and kindred lures to menacing unintelligibility litter the public square. As a mild but still minatory instance, I reproduce in its entirety this syllabus, sent to me by a friend doing missionary work among the barbarians, from Cornell University.  How much had to go wrong in how many institutions to make this festival of minatory garbage possible?

 Radical Thought on the Margins II

Cornell Theory Reading Group Conference

Organized in collaboration with the Princeton Theory Reading Group

October 4-5, 2013

*All panels will be held in 258 Goldwin Smith Hall*

FRIDAY, Oct. 4

Panel 1 (4:30-6 p.m.)

Brandon Terry (UChicago/Harvard) “Irony and Its Politics in Civil Rights Historiography”

Jasbir Puar (Rutgers) “Affective Politics: States of Debility and Capacity”

Gabriela Nouzeilles (Princeton) “Marxian Afterimages”


Breakfast: 10-10:30 a.m.

Panel 2 (10:30 a.m.-12 p.m.)

Ana Sabau (Princeton) “History at the Margins: An Interpretation of the Mayan Caste War”

Gavin Arnall (Princeton) “Marxism and Indigenismo Reconsidered”

Susana Draper (Princeton) “Staging Change: Dual Power, Motley States, and the Turn to the Commons (from René Zavaleta Mercado to Raquel Gutiérrez)”

Lunch: 12-1:30 p.m.

Panel 3 (1:30 p.m.-2:45 p.m.)

Gerardo Muñoz (Princeton) “At a Double Margin: On Trần Đức Thảo’s Phenomenological Marxism”

Naoki Sakai (Cornell) “Dislocation of the West”

Panel 4 (3-4:15 p.m.)

Efthymia Rentzou (Princeton) “Beyond the Human: Universalism, Humanism, and the French Avant-garde of the 1930s”

Nick Nesbitt (Princeton) “Fragments of a Universal History: Capitalism, Mass Revolution, and the Idea of Equality in the Black Jacobins”

Co-sponsors: Department of Romance Studies, Department of German Studies, Department of Near Eastern Studies, Department of Comparative Literature, Department of History, Department of English, Department of Government, Department of Anthropology, Department of City and Regional Planning, Department of History of Art, the Society for the Humanities, the Institute for Comparative Modernities (ICM), the Cornell Institute for European Studies (CIES), the East Asia Program, French Studies Program, the Institute for German Cultural Studies, the Africana Studies and Research Center, the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, and the Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program.

Thank you,

Bécquer Seguín

Bécquer Seguín

Department of Romance Studies
Cornell University
423 Morrill Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853

Two things: one, note the institutional affiliations: Princeton, University of Chicago, Cornell, Harvard, i.e., the most prestigious. Two, note the diacritical marks in the names: it’s the Häagan-Dazs or Mötley Crüe of academic chic.

Chris Christie, Bully Blowhard

September 16th, 2013 - 6:19 am

Make that “incompetent bully blowhard.” Don’t get me wrong: I loved watching Christie take apart those pathetic public school teachers as much as anyone. And for about fifteen minutes I thought, “Hey, this guy is pretty cool.”  But then I noticed that he subjected everyone who disagreed with him to the same bully treatment. His only rhetorical strategy, it seems, is throwing his weight around. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.)

And then there was Christie’s love-in moment with Obama after Hurricane Sandy (The Atlantic called it “the hug seen ’round the world”). Did it cost Romney the presidency? Probably not, but it didn’t help.

He had to engage in that public post-Sandy chumminess, I’m told, in order to do the right thing by New Jersey, which suffered cruelly from the hurricane.  But has Christie done the right thing by New Jersey?  I think the New Jersey Star Ledger may be right: Christie is America’s most overrated governor. Consider:

New Jersey’s economy is a mess, even compared with its neighbors. The property-tax burden is up sharply. Poverty is rising. And the state’s credit rating has dropped on Christie’s watch as the long-range outlook deteriorates. His successor will inherit a bigger mess than he did.

“His successor will inherit a bigger mess than he did.” And I thought Republicans were supposed to be the fiscal adults.

Some are. But I don’t think Christie is among their number. He talks a big game (again, sorry), but what has he actually accomplished?  The Star Ledger  has more uncomfortable stats:

Crime is spiking in several of New Jersey’s hard-pressed cities, where loss of state aid has forced massive police layoffs. The state’s home foreclosure rate is the second highest in the nation and Christie fumbled a federal aid program intended to soften the blow. Yet he tried to raid a fund earmarked for affordable housing until the courts stopped him.

The list goes on. The state’s open space program is essentially dead, with no money and no ideas from the governor on how to fix it. The transportation trust fund is broke as well, so the governor has financed projects mostly by borrowing and by scavenging money that former Gov. Jon Corzine had set aside for the Hudson River tunnel project, which Christie canceled.

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Sometimes it is worth stepping back from the fray to gain a little perspective. A shipped tossed about in a mighty gale looks one way to the passengers aboard, quite another way (as Lucretius pointed out in his great poem) to the lucky person watching from the comfortable safety of the hilltop overlooking the bay.

I suspect that, for many observers, a material change has lately stolen over the metabolism of political life in America.  A shift in the existential light illuminating events makes what is happening and, retrospectively, what has happened appear differently. The shadows are longer now, a blinding glare obscures things that used to be clearly outlined, and surprising new features of the objects populating the landscape are suddenly in sharp relief.

I believe that we are witnessing the gradual, or possibly not so gradual, decomposition of the emotional consensus that put Obama into the White House in 2008 and, not without a struggle, returned him in 2012. On every front, domestic as well as foreign, statements that seemed apposite a year or two or three ago suddenly, ominously, have acquired new and less pleasing valences.  A few days ago, I expatiated briefly on candidate Obama’s 2008 declaration that he and his followers were only “five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” At the time, Obama’s promise (or should I say, “his threat”?) was greeted with wild cheers.

Now that the transformation is well underway, there are fewer if any cheers.  The economy is moribund.  Obamacare is more unpopular than ever. Racial tensions are far worse now than when Obama came to office. Everywhere one looks, Obama’s domestic agenda is in shambles. And when it comes to international affairs — well, let’s just say that Obama must be rueing the day he drew that red line about Syria or heard the name Vladimir Putin. Has there ever been a more cringe-making presidential  speech than the incoherent bilge that oozed out of Obama’s mouth last Tuesday? Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise speech” is the only thing that even comes close, and at least Carter’s speech had the intelligence of Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism as a source.

There is a certain painful fascination about seeing an elaborately wrought structure shudder and then collapse. It always seems to take place in slow motion, but the actual destruction, once it begins, is generally quite rapid. It’s hard to say exactly where we are in the process of the great Obama dégringolade. Events of this past week, especially the masterly performances by Putin and his foreign minister, lead me to suspect we are pretty far along in the process of dissolution. But wherever you put the marker,  we are certainly far enough along in the Great Unravelling that Obama’s past statements and behavior appear in an utterly new light.

As I say, the significance of “fundamentally transforming the Untied States of America” is one example.  There are many others, and in the weeks and months to come I intend periodically to offer up some choice Obama quotations for a “before and after” consideration. “Fundamentally transforming the United States of America” appeared to mean one thing in October 2008.  It means something quite different now, in 2013. The words are the same, but the meaning has changed, changed utterly.

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Putin’s Horrifying Mirror

September 14th, 2013 - 5:11 am

What was it about Vladimir Putin’s extraordinary op-ed in The New York Times last week that so infuriated the Washington establishment? Oh, how they hated it!  The whole lot of them: the White House stammered that it was “irrelevant.” Intermittent conservative John Boehner said he was “insulted” by it. Speaking from the other side of the aisle, Robert Menendez told CNN that it made him “almost want to vomit.” And the great Nowhere Man, Col. Gaddafi’s good buddy, the Madcap Maverick himself, John McCain said that the op-ed was “an insult to the intelligence of every American.”

Well, John, that’s certainly something you know about.

By the way, have you noticed the streak of masochism in John McCain?  It’s not enough that he repeatedly makes a fool of himself  in public. He must actively court ridicule by announcing to the world that he is going to write a “rebuttal” to Putin’s op-Ed for Pravda. I’ve always suspected that the editors of Pravda had a cruel streak.  Now I know it.  Imagine, inviting John McCain to write (or at least sign) a column responding to Putin’s masterly dance around the liberal pieties that inform “debate” in Washington. It’s like leaving Anthony Weiner alone with his internet-connected cell phone: you can count on excruciating embarrassment for the protagonist.

But I digress. What was it about Putin’s op-ed that so inflamed establishment opinion? In a word, it is the fact that it was a perfectly accurate mirror.  The Washington nomenklatura  and their liberal enablers looked into Putin’s op-ed and they saw a most hideous sight: their own rancid clichés repeated back to them in mocking, church-like tones.  “A Plea for Caution From Russia” — how dare he say to us what we have been saying to troglodytic conservatives for decades? And in our paper,  the New York Times. (That was Putin’s final act of genius, to publish  his column in the liberals’ own Bible, where his high-horse moralistic tones — right down to his concluding invocation of God and equality — would be sure to echo most forcefully.) That pulpit had been hitherto reserved for liberal demagogues: how dare a renegade like Putin don the cassock and deliver our own sermon to us?  What gall! What effrontery!

For that was his sin: saying to liberals what liberals for years have been saying to anyone who would listen.  As James Piereson pointed out in a stellar column yesterday, “what President Putin said in his column is pretty much what American liberals and leftists have been saying about the United States since the 1960s.” Go back and take a look at what he wrote. If you feel your palms getting slightly moist, if there is some clutching at the back of your throat, if, like Senator Menendez, you “almost want to vomit,” it’s because your own emetic pieties are particularly noxious when they are first regurgitated by someone else.  Those are those hardest to swallow. Piereson is right: “there is nothing the least bit new or controversial in anything Mr. Putin wrote in his column.” It’s just what leftists from Obama on down have been saying for years, only now someone else is saying it to them.

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Millions of Americans — doctors and employers as well as us ordinary “consumers” — are living in trepidation of the onset of ObamaCare. Many doctors are retiring early, many employers are scrambling to devise ways of of opting out of the system, and individuals are writing their Congressmen and worry about the future of their medical care.

These are not irrational actions. ObamaCare will make health care more cumbersome, more expensive, and guarantee a lower standard of medical care. It’s the Democrat way: take something that works, inject a huge amount of government regulation and control, stand back and admire the resulting monstrosity and christen it “progress.”

As long as enough money can be funneled into the process, there will be people who will applaud the result — alternating the clapping of their hands with the extension of that same appendage to latch on the some of the circulating lucre.

Bad though ObamaCare is, however  — and for anyone who needs a refresher course, let me recommend my friend Sally Pipes’s Broadside on the subject, The Cure for Obamacare — it is well to remember that ObamaCare is not the only thing wrong with American medicine.  Alas, it was possible to shove ObamaCare down the throats of the American people only because the delivery of medical care in this country had already been so heavily bureaucratized. The ordeal recounted by a friend illustrates the problem.

This friend, who is himself an eminent physician, had a battery of medical problems this past year.  Among other things, he had knee replacement surgery. He also developed a melanoma, a particularly dangerous form of skin cancer, on the back of one of his legs. He had the cancer removed, and, though he took a nasty fall at one point,  all seemed well.

But then he developed a severe pain in his groin. Had the melanoma returned or spread? Five doctors and as many MRIs later, the answer seemed to be No. No cancer. Yet the pain persisted. It ruined his summer vacation.  Finally, he went to a pain clinic and had a nerve block injection. That provided some relief, but it soon wore off.  What to do?

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Remember when candidate Barack Obama promised his acolytes that they were only “five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America”? That was back in October 2008, when the hectic flush of Obamamania was at its peak.  To be fair, it’s taken a bit longer than five days, but here we are, five years into the most destructive presidency in the country’s history, and we can see that fundamental transformation at work just about everywhere.

The economy: During Obama’s first term, the credit rating of the United States was downgraded by S&P for the first time in history. That might seem pretty abstract: who cares about a country’s credit rating?  But then there’s news like this: According to a report released in 2012 by the Federal Reserve, Americans have seen their wealth plummet by 40 percent over the past few years. Hope & Change!

Race relations: They are in a rawer state than I can remember thanks to a president who played the race card at every opportunity. The Cambridge police were “stupid,” according to the president, in the way they handled the case of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., famous Harvard huckster, back in 2009.  If he had had a son, said the president, he would “look like” the thug Trayvon Martin, who jumped George Zimmerman and was shot dead by Zimmerman while pounding his head into the concrete sidewalk.

And then there’s the position of the United States on the world stage.  Obama was supposed to hit the “reset” button not only with respect to our relations with Russia (how’s that working out?), but also with respect to our position in the world more generally. The bad old days of unilateral action under George W. Bush were to be banished in favor of a kinder, gentler America that was no more “exceptional” than was Britain or Greece. He’s certainly done a lot to make that true.

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The Single Best Article I Have Read on Syria

September 7th, 2013 - 8:52 am

Where by “Syria” I mean our response to the civil war in Syria, i.e., efforts by terrorist thugs (the “rebels,” freedom fighters, etc.) to topple an establishment thug (the rogue ophthalmologist, B. al-Assad).  That article is Andy McCarthy’s “Drawing an Al-Qaeda Red Line” over at NRO. What’s so good about it? Several things.

Item: Andy calls attention to the enormous hypocrisy on the part of the Obama administration about Assad.

Or maybe it’s not “hypocrisy,” but bumbling inconsistently, which when translated to the stage of world diplomacy equals stunning incompetence. Remember, this is an administration that just a few short years ago

– reopened diplomatic ties with Syria.

– Hillary Clinton called Assad a “reformer” (no where near as dangerous as that hapless chap who made the anti-Muslim internet video and who was sent to federal prison for . . . for what? Jay-walking? Failing to abate a smoking chimney? Violating the terms of his parole?  Something that for people who do not attract the ire of the president merits a stern talking-to?)

– John “reporting for duty” Kerry and his wife were photographed having an intimate dinner with Dr. & Mrs. Assad, the “wildly democratic” couple Vogue  celebrated in a puff piece just a couple of years ago.

It was all part of Obama’s love-thy-Muslim-brother initiative. Bang! Burka Burka Mohammed Jihad blows up another church, mows down 13 fellow soldiers, wounding another 30, at a Texas army base, detonates homemade IEDs at a road race in Boston, murders a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans at a U.S. diplomatic mission in some African hellhole, etcetera, very much etcetera. Who’s to blame? “Violent extremists,” the president’s favorite bad guys. Not “Muslim violent extremists,” just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill extremist — please  let it be a white, male, Christian, gun-toting, tea-party extremist.

Bottom line: what’s happening in Syria is the latest assault — the salt in the fields, as it were — on the establishment narrative about the Muslim world.

Here’s the thing: from a certain distance and in a certain light Obama looks like an Important Person, the president of the United States, leader of the free (or at least formerly free) world, just as John Kerry looks (well, sort of looks) like something more than an insufferable prig and blowhard.

But take a closer look. You see that they are both completely out of their depth. Obama jets around on Air Force One. He spends tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money on an African adventure for himself and his family while closing the White House to school tours because of the sequester. He swaggers just like he’s a big deal, but here’s the rub: the least-experienced president in the the history of the republic, the man whom nobody knew, the guy whose college transcripts we can’t see,  whose legislative record was one long evasive “Present,” whose repellent racialist pandering has set race relations back decades in this country, whose Alinskyite demonize-your-opponents radicalism has further poisoned the character of American politics: this mountebank has succeeded mightily in fulling his promise of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” making us poorer, less secure, less free, and less influential than we were when he came to office.  He was the man who was supposed to repair the damage done to U.S. prestige by that evil cowboy George W. Bush=Hitler (that’s just fine, calling Bush Hitler, but just try wearing an Obama mask if you’re a clown and see what happens). How’s that working out? Obama was also the fellow who, when not making the oceans recede and healing the plant, was going to work miracles in the U.S. economy, take care of Julia cradle-to-grave, and help enact a 2000-page monstrosity that will go down in infamy, before it goes down to repeal, as ObamaCare.  It’s all in shambles now, isn’t it? You can tell how serious the damage is by this first: Obama actually cancelled a fund-raising event the other day — yes, really. Why? Because his support in Congress for an attack on Syria had gone wobbly.  When Ambassador Chris Stevens and three men from his security detail were murdered last September 11 (September 11, mind you), the first thing Obama did was fly to Las Vegas for a fund-raiser. That’s what he means by “leading  from behind.” It’s what you or I call “abdicating responsibility.”  One of the great things about Andy’s column is that it highlights the discrepancy between the confused reality of the Obama administration and its well-oiled public face.

Here’s an interesting question: if Obama does not bomb Syria, will John Kerry survive as secretary of State? As Andy points out, in his congressional testimony, “Kerry was desperately trying to portray the ‘rebels’ as predominantly ‘moderate.’” What’s his definition of “moderate”? He didn’t actually say, but here’s the reality:

[T]he Obama Left and the GOP’s McCain wing are applying Washington’s lunatic definition of “moderate.” By this thinking, the Islamic ummah is divided into two camps: an al-Qaeda fringe in one, and in the other the teeming millions of “moderate,” tolerant, peace-loving “democracy” activists. In this fantasy, the Muslim Brotherhood — whose name the Beltway strains to avoid uttering in discussions of Syria — is moderate . . . and never you mind the bloody catastrophe the Brothers have wrought in nearby Egypt over the last few weeks and months.

In truth, the Brotherhood is an implacably Islamic-supremacist organization that is “moderate” only by comparison with al-Qaeda, and, even then, only if we are talking about al-Qaeda’s methodology of full-time savagery — the Brothers are part-timers who, unlike al-Qaeda, think violent jihad is just one item on the sharia-installation menu. As far as ideology goes — i.e., the imperative that sharia be installed — the two are on exactly the same page. If anything, the Brotherhood’s influence over the “oppositionists” is even greater than al-Qaeda’s. The Brothers are the antithesis of moderate. They are anti-American (though they’ll happily take our help before using it against us), anti-democratic (though they’ll happily hold popular elections in Muslim-majority countries), and rabidly anti-Semitic.

So here’s the question: just whom are we fighting for?

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Years ago (many years ago, alas), a business mogul gave a friend of mine who was thinking about quitting his job a piece of advice: “Don’t give up your wet towel until you have a dry one.” Don’t chuck the job you have until you have another lined up. A homely enough piece of wisdom, but pretty good for all that.

The peacock-like display of moral posturing about Syria reminded me of that apothegm. Are you, as my friend Ron Radosh suggested, an “isolationist,” a “Taft Republican” (is that such a bad thing?), as irrelevant as the dodo bird if you doubt the wisdom of Obama’s plan to attack Syria? And are the divisions over this issue, as Ron says, “eerily reminiscent of those at the beginning of the Cold War,” or even the controversy over America’s entry into World War II, with all the good guys on one side and the rancid, dodo-like characters on the other?

I doubt it. If you want a pertinent analogy to the situation that faces us now in Syria, rather than look to World War II or the beginning of the Cold War, you’d do far better to look to the situation that faced us just a year or so back in Libya. John McCain’s and Lindsey Graham’s very good friend Muammar Gaddafi was, no doubt, a very bad guy. So we helped the “freedom fighters” who opposed him, thus (or so we thought) watering the tender shoots of the “Arab Spring.”

That sounds odd now, doesn’t it, the phrase “Arab Spring”? You don’t hear it much anymore, and with good reason. Libya, for example, has descended into “lawlessness and ruins,” thanks in no small part to our meddling. It turned out to be a bad case of Spring Fever, not the beneficent outbreak of freedom and democracy we were all promised.

Actually, that’s a promise — or perhaps “fantasy” is a better word — that we made to ourselves. Any candid look at those “freedom fighters” would have discerned not budding James Madisons, but embryo Osama bin Ladens.

And so it is in Syria. I am deeply hesitant about Obama’s plan — or half-plan, or swaggering non-red line in the sand that he never drew anyway. I am deeply hesitant about the spasmodic lurch Obama is threatening partly because I believe he is a bumbling incompetent who is vastly more likely to make things worse, not better, but also partly because I don’t trust the administration’s narrative about what happened in Syria.

Last month, someone used poison gas outside Damascus. Many people, including many children, died. Question: who used the poison gas?  That great statesman John Kerry says it was Assad. But what if Raymond Ibrahim is right and it wasn’t Assad but the “rebels” who were using chemical weapons? What then?

As Andrew McCarthy has pointed out, al-Qaeda has a long and grisly history of attempting to acquire chemical weapons.

That’s one question: who actually used the poison gas?

And here’s another, which goes back to my friend’s advice about the towel: suppose we depose, or sufficiently weaken so others can depose, John Kerry’s dinner partner Bashar al-Assad. What then? Assad is a thug. No doubt about that. But what about the people who might replace him? What do we think of them?

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Aristotle Gives Obama a Lesson about Syria

August 29th, 2013 - 6:21 am

Click here to see the symposium of PJ columnists analyzing the pros and cons of an intervention in Syria.


What is the right thing to do about Syria? On the one hand you have the thuggish Assad regime, which has murdered thousands in the past year. I doubt whether Vogue will be running more pieces like “A Rose In the Desert” any time soon. That now-notorious interview with Mrs. Assad from February 2011 — talk about bad timing! — treated the magazine’s 11 million readers to a gushing portrait of the “wildly democratic” Assads, a power couple who combined the fashion sense of Anna Wintour herself with the do-gooder instincts of a latter day Mother Teresa. The preposterous puff piece won Wintour and her writer, Joan Juliet Buck, last year’s Walter Duranty Award for Journalistic Mendacity.

On the other hand, you have the opposition to the Assad regime. What manner of beast is that? Not all that dissimilar to the Libyan opposition. You remember those freedom fighters: two parts al-Qaeda energized by Salafist radicals and tempered by the wise beards of the “largely secular” (or so says our director of national intelligence) from the Muslim Brotherhood. Doubtless there was also a sprig or two of genuine secular protest, but that element was like the lemon peel on the Martini glass: a fleeting aroma of spring freshness backed up by an 80-proof cocktail of radicalism.

The trace fragrance of lemons in a properly made Martini has approximately as much to do with spring time as the ochlocratic uprisings that are currently tearing apart Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other places of fun and frolic in the Muslim world. It isn’t an “Arab Spring,” as sentimentalists in the press and the Obama administration insisted, but a bad case of what Andrew McCarthy calls Spring Fever.

So what’s a panicked Alinskyite narcissist to do? So far, Obama’s Middle East policy — if a pattern of blundering confusion can rightly be called a “policy” — has borne an eerie similarity to his voting record as a state and later a U.S. Senator: cagey attestations of “Present” whenever a vote is taken, combined with a canny and ruthless talent for somehow taking the credit for eventualities that might redound to one’s credit. The demise of Osama bin Laden is a case in point.

When Obama took office, Egypt was ruled by an authoritarian but basically pro-Western and pro-Israel autocrat. Now the country is teetering on the edge of anarchy, its economy in shambles, its people mere weeks away from starvation. When Obama took office, Libya was ruled by a preposterous transvestite thug who had been brought to heel by Western suasion. Now Libya is a toxic breeding ground of Islamic triumphalism, aptly epitomized by the obscene murder of Muammar Gaddafi by a mob of radical Islamists as well as the attack on our installation in Benghazi last September 11. What happened in Benghazi was a coordinated assault that left a U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans dead. Obama’s spokesmen blamed it all on a rancid anti-Muslim internet video. We know now that it was carried out by al-Qaeda offshoots to celebrate the anniversary of 9/11. “Present” didn’t save the day for Ambassador Chris Stevens and the brave men in his security detail and it hasn’t been working out too well with respect to Syria, either, where someone —was it Assad’s minions? (Was it?)  — unleashed poison gas near Damascus, killing hundreds.

So, should Obama bomb Syria, even if it is illegal? Careful. There’s a reason why Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister — speaking, of course, for Putin himself — said that the West was behaving about Syria like “a monkey with a grenade.” The vertiginous spectacle of blundering incompetence is painful to behold.

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Annals of Intolerance, Tulane Edition

August 27th, 2013 - 8:27 am

When it comes to Hobbits and the rest of J.R.R. Tolkein’s bestiary, I am pretty much at one with the critic Edmund Wilson. In “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!,” Wilson expressed astonishment, and not a little distaste, at the wild popularity of Tolkien’s kiddie books. “Juvenile trash,” I recall, was one phrase he employed about the whole Lord of the Rings cycle.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I, too, recoil at the cloying and airless tweeness of the Tolkien universe. Still, it would never occur to me to employ “Hobbit” as a term of abuse.  I had to wait for Jim Letten, a former U.S. attorney, now an assistant dean at Tulane University, for that rhetorical innovation.

Perhaps “Hobbit” is prosecutors’ code for “low life” in Louisiana. That’s  where Letten plied his trade for nearly three decades, until forced to resign last year because some of his top assistants were revealed to have been making anonymous “provocative, even pugnacious comments about active criminal matters” on a public web site. Or maybe it is just part of Letten’s personal lexicon of imprecation, which also, for reasons that baffle me, includes the word “spud,” a term I’d always regarded with affection as a familiar diminutive for “potato,” a tuber I hold in high regard.

These are deep semantic waters.

What is not at all mysterious, however, is the fact that Jim Letten believes that in calling someone a “Hobbit” or a “Spud” he is saying something deeply opprobrious. You can tell this partly by the tone he adopts when uttering the words, partly by the close proximity of other, more familiar terms of abuse — “scum,” for instance, or the ever popular “asshole” — in a video (embedded at the end of the article) of Jim Letten excoriating some reporters. As I say, I happen to like spuds. But there is no denying that when someone calls you “a nasty, little, cowardly spud,” he is not troweling on the praise.

Among the recipients of Jim Letten’s ire was James O’Keefe, the brash young journalist who shot to fame when, posing as a pimp, he and an accomplice exposed various ACORN employees colluding in tax evasion, underage prostitution, drug dealing, and other torts. It was a delicious moment, at least I thought so, but there is no caviling with the fact that James O’Keefe is not popular with establishment politicians. Left or Right, it doesn’t matter: in a corrupt system, as ours has become, the establishment itself is the problem. And James O’Keefe has made a gigantic nuisance of himself by doing battle with the establishment. He is fearless. He is clever. He is relentless and indefatigable. Through the activities of his organization Project Veritas, he asks embarrassing questions. He finds things out.  He exposes wrongdoing and corruption to public scrutiny. He speaks truth to power. The wielders of that power hate him for it.

The back story: In 2010, O’Keefe and three accomplices were arrested in Senator Mary Landrieu’s office for entering the building under false pretenses. They pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. Jim Letten was initially involved in prosecuting O’Keefe and his accomplices but recused himself when it was revealed that the father of one of the men involved was a federal prosecutor whom Letten knew.

Here’s what happened at Tulane.  O’Keefe went to Jim Letten’s house with his film crew. He rang the doorbell. Letten’s wife answered and O’Keefe politely asked if her husband was at home. She said no. He asked, again politely, if he could leave a copy of his book Breakthrough: Our Guerilla War to Expose Fraud and Save Democracy, which describes the Landrieu case.  She said no and closed the door. End of encounter.

This was what Jim Letten described as “terrorizing” his wife.

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