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Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Rise of the Adolescent Mind

February 24th, 2011 - 9:28 am

We live in a therapeutic age, one in which the old tragic view of our ancestors has been replaced by prolonged adolescence. Adolescents hold adult notions of consumption: they understand the comfort of a pricey car; they appreciate the status conveyed by a particular sort of handbag or sunglasses; they sense how outward consumption and refined tastes can translate into popularity and envy; and they appreciate how a slogan or world view can win acceptance among peers without worry over its validity. But they have no adult sense of acquisition, themselves not paying taxes, balancing the family budget, or worrying about household insurance, maintenance, or debt. Theirs is a world view of today or tomorrow, not of next year — or even of next week.

So adolescents throw fits when denied a hip sweater or a trip to Disneyland, concluding that it is somehow “unfair” or “mean,” without concern about the funds available to grant their agendas. We see now just that adolescent mind in Wisconsin. “They” surely can come up with the money from someone (“the rich”) somehow to pay teachers and public servants what they deserve. And what they deserve is determined not by comparable rates in private enterprise, or by market value (if the DMV clerk loses a job, does another public bureau or private company inevitably seize the opportunity to hire such a valuable worker at comparable or improved wages?), or by results produced (improved test scores, more applicants processed in an office, overhead reduced, etc.), or by what the strapped state is able to provide, but by what is deemed to be necessary to ensure an upper-middle class lifestyle. That is altogether understandable and decent, but it is entirely adolescent in a globalized economy.

Why so? In a word, the United States is not producing enough real wealth to justify a particular standard of living among its public workforce far superior to counterparts in the private sector. We are borrowing massively abroad for redistributive entitlements. We fight wars with credit cards. We talk of cap-and-trade and “climate change” without prior worry about how to fuel the United States, as we sink in perpetual debt to import well over half our oil. We have open borders and pat ourselves on our backs for the ensuing “diversity,”  without worry that illegality and lack of reverence for federal laws, absence of English, no diplomas, multiculturalism instead of the melting pot, the cynicism and chauvinism of Mexico, and recessionary times are a perfect storm for a dependent, and eventually resentful, underclass extending well into a second generation, one that fumes over why things outside are not equal rather than looking within to ensure that they could be.

Who would not wish pristine 19th-century rivers to run all year long? But that same utopian rarely thinks like an adult: “I want water releases into the San Joaquin River all year long and am willing to pay more money at Whole Earth for my produce to subsidize such diversion of irrigation water; I do not wish any more derricks off Santa Barbara, so I choose to drive a Smart car rather than my Lexus SUV. And I want teachers to be able to strike, and receive $100,000 in compensation and benefits, and therefore am willing to close down a rural hospital in Wisconsin or tax the wealthy with full knowledge that many will leave the state. I insist on amnesty and open borders, and will put my children in schools where 50% do not speak English, and live in the barrios to lend my talents where needed to ensure parity for new arrivals. I want cap-and-trade and so believe that the lower middle classes should pay “skyrocketing” energy bills to subsidize such legislation.” And so on.

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But That’s What Community Organizers Do

February 20th, 2011 - 12:56 pm

During the Republican convention of 2008, Rudy Giuliani rhetorically asked: what is a community organizer? I think we always knew the answer without even referencing the guidebook of Saul Alinsky.

President Obama need not worry about budget deficits in the manner of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Unlike state officials, he can print money, and raise fees and taxes. The nation’s more affluent, unlike blue-state refugees seeking red-state low tax sanctuaries, cannot flee anywhere. That makes it easy for President Obama to weigh in on the Wisconsin unrest by suggesting an insolvent state government was more interested in destroying the public unions than meeting a $3 billion budget shortfall.

That characteristic eagerness to grandstand on extraneous issues, while ignoring federal crises, is characteristic of this administration. It will not make meaningful progress in addressing its own massive trillion-dollar debts, reexamine the looming disaster of ObamaCare, gear up to produce more gas and oil in the face of skyrocketing energy costs, or seriously explore ways to get unemployment down below 9%.

Yet in the last twenty-four months, we have learned that the president will indeed declare that: the governor of Wisconsin is using his state budget disaster largely to punish public servants; the police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, act “stupidly” and racially stereotype minorities (“typically”) as do most police departments; the state of Arizona harasses Hispanic children when they go out to eat ice cream, and thus Mexico’s efforts to sue the state should be joined by the U.S. government; much of our ills are due to “fat cat” bankers who junket to Las Vegas and the Super Bowl and cannot seem to grasp that at some point they have made enough money; the pro-democracy protestors in the streets of Tehran are not to be encouraged by our “meddling” (because of our past sins of involvement in Iran), but their counterparts in Cairo are to be encouraged by our meddling (despite our past sins of involvement in Egypt).

In addition, why would the president call for “sacrifice” in lean times, advising Americans to cut out going to dinner and to “put off” a vacation — while favoring Martha’s Vineyard for vacation, as the first lady (of erstwhile “downright mean country” repute) seems especially fond of Vail ski escapes in winter and Costa del Sol Mediterranean jaunts in summer? Is not symbolism important in these hard times?

Why, why, why all this? In a word, because that is what community organizers are supposed to do, even — or rather, especially — when they become the establishment. Cannot we answer Giuliani’s question? As a general rule, the “organizer” is not indigenous to the community, but as a sort of roaming utopian he travels widely to detect supposed foci of injustice (think an Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson), even to the point of worrying about professors being locked out of their homes or the tranquility of ice cream parlors in Arizona.

Almost immediately there is an artificial divide constructed between an oppressive “them” and a victimized “us,” usually on rigid class, gender, and racial lines. Some such university study is cited to “prove” injustice based on the absence of parity in income, health care, or education. Then the community organizer rallies the “community” to “get in their face” and agitate, which can encompass anything from suing in court, holding mass rallies, conducting voter registration drives with accordant intimidation, visiting the private homes of supposedly culpable officials, bankers, and the wealthy, and threatening strikes, slow-downs and disruptions. These metaphorical “hostage takers” must be “punished” as “enemies,” relegated to a proverbial backseat, and in such a fight have their knives rhetorically trumped by our guns.

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Decline Is in the Mind

February 17th, 2011 - 8:01 am

It’s over? Really?

In the last two years, we have a heard a constant litany of “decline,” as in America is over as it once was. Fifth-century AD Rome is often evoked, as are the contemporary economic miracles in China and India to “prove” inevitable American waning. A few of the more imaginative declinists see us as Justinian’s Byzantium, a crumbling power vainly trying to hold on to a world long lost, with a Detroit no different from a half-populated failing Byzantine city in the Levant. This time around — remember our past serial crushing by the supposedly superior Soviet system of the 1950s, the Japanese, Inc. ascendancy of the 1970s, the EU soft power dominance of the 1980s, and the present Chinese supermen of the 21st century — we really, really, really are through, as if semi-literate suburban lounging American teens, with baggy pants, ears plugged with hip-hop, and sleeve tattoos will soon be slaving away to satisfy their new growling Tiger Mom People’s Republic bosses.

The gloomy prognoses come from both the anguished conservative who sees the culprit as the erosion of American individualism and self-reliance, and the new Obama coalition that thinks a sense of exceptionalism abroad is synonymous with arrogance and imperialism, and at home was symptomatic of an inherent unfairness, a downright mean country that, thank god, had to change. The one gags at the foul whiff of decline, the other sees it as an aroma of welcome reset. Both confess it is here, both unwelcomed and welcomed.

For the conservative, the depressing symptoms are staggering debt, as in the Obama administration plans to equal all the red ink of all prior administrations in nearly five or six years of planned governance (at $1.6 trillion a year that is not a hard thing to do). Surely, the president’s legacy for the next quarter-century will be ubiquitous line graphs and pie charts proving in an eye blink that the Obama administration was the mother of all borrowers. There is more, of course. We awoke one morning and suddenly General Motors was analogous to the Postal Service, its suspect, now politically incorrect competitors the far better run Fed-Ex-like Toyota or Ford. Abroad the bows, the apologies, the euphemisms for terrorism, the realignment to embrace enemies and snub friends, the deer-in-the-headlights, make-it-up-as-you-go-along diplomacy — all that was the unfortunate result of a larger desire to take the U.S. down a needed peg or two in a new multilateral fashion.

In this present age, no one in this administration in the abstract can explain why Israel is a more humane place than Syria — and why that fact deserves our preference. Or why Japan plays more by the rules than does China, or why Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic deserve our empathy and support in a way Russia does not. Or why a jail in Guantanamo is more humane than any outside the fence in Cuba. (In truth, the inmate at Gitmo has access to better food, health care, and freedom of religion than the “free” man in Castroland). In short, traditionalists are aghast at the last two years, and see it as a sort of gangrene that has spread from a long festering but heretofore treatable old wound.

Decline is more recline

But in the Obama vision, decline is the wrong word for necessary readjustment — analogous to the wondrous post-Churchillian socialization of Britain after the war, in which an aging imperialist air force and navy gave way to the new people’s National Health Service. As far as the staggering debt goes, massive red ink is a necessary reset policy, a long overdue method of fair redistribution. Both the borrowing and its eventual remedy will bring a much needed reality check to a cowboyish and inherently unjust “old” America. Ponder the politics of debt: more borrowing means more government (200,000 thousand new employees during Obama’s first two years alone), which in turn means good jobs for the deserving, a growing political progressive constituency of loyal and grateful public workers, and more watchdogs (cf. to monitor everything from fatty foods to breast pumps) that can spot racial, gender, and class bias and take the appropriate and long overdue federal action — create a bureau, hire federal watch- and attack-dogs, publicize private sector immorality, and then establish new fees and regulations to justify more bureaus.

More borrowing also means that taxes must go up and that usually ensures that those who make at some point in their lives Obama’s “enough” will have to do their patriotic duty and finally pay their fair share. After all, they made such sums, if outside of government (that is, not the enlightenened sort like University of California administrators or San Jose police chiefs who take in over $500,000 a year), at someone else’s expense (the peasant idea of a limited good). They should thus fork it back over to its rightful owners, the commonwealth that was veritably robbed in the first place.

Learning to love debt

More borrowing can spell inflation and that too can be good. When more money is printed and circulates, those with accumulated piles of it have less, and those without such stashes can more easily start anew. It is a sort of reset financial diplomacy, where we all get to start over with a new sort of money. All that was the rallying cry in ancient Rome — more currency, more public spectacles, more government assistance, redistribution of property and cancellation of debt — one so terrifying to chroniclers like Horace, Livy or Sallust. If any of them were alive today, they would see Obama’s agenda as an updated, polished version of old crude Catiline’s, promising the oppressed that they might get out of their credit card debt, mortgage debt, student loan debt, and fill in the blanks debt.

All this borrowing is not foreordained, but a matter of deliberate policy, coupled with an insidious modern consumerist lifestyle that justifies expenditures with borrowed money by appeals to radical egalitarianism — “if they have x, then I too deserve y.” The desire or need for, not the means by which, is our new credo. The private counterpart of the collective borrowing of $1.6 trillion this year is the maxed-out credit card holder jockeying to somehow borrow more still on a paycheck that has not yet arrived — inasmuch as nations simply reflect the collective values of their citizens.

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Goodbye to All That — 2004-2007

February 13th, 2011 - 9:36 pm

Days of Rage

In times to come, the period between the failed campaign of John Kerry and the Democratic control of the Congress, coupled with the beginning of the successful surge, should be known as “The Insane Years.” This was the era in which Guantanamo was a gulag, renditions were the stuff of Hollywood movies, and Bush and Cheney were deemed veritable war criminals. Was it all a dream, those nightmare years of 2004-7?

I recall all that only because Oprah was just quoted as calling for more civility to be shown President Obama (“even if you’re not in support of his policies, there needs to be a certain level of respect”), echoing the president’s own post-Tucson insistence on a new amity between opponents. Bill Maher recently expressed outrage over the uncivil tone shown Barack Obama in Bill O’Reilly’s Super-Bowl Day interview. I think such concern for deference and conciliation is altogether fine and good; but, again, do we recall the crazy years of not so long ago?

This was the period in which Michael Moore called for U.S. defeat in Iraq and dubbed the Islamists who were killing our own soldiers “Minutemen.” Indeed, in April 2004, he wrote on his website: “The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not ‘insurgents’ or ‘terrorists’ or ‘The Enemy.’ They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow — and they will win….I oppose the U.N. or anyone else risking the lives of their citizens to extract us from our debacle…the majority of Americans supported this war once it began and, sadly, that majority must now sacrifice their children until enough blood has been let that maybe — just maybe — God and the Iraqi people will forgive us in the end.” I think in the old days such sentiments of calling for the deaths of one’s countrymen were called “treasonous.” Yet, such ranting in and of itself was not surprising given Moore’s ideology and crassness. But what was inexplicable was the Democratic Party’s reaction to his mythodrama, Fahrenheit 9/11, and his royal presence at the Democratic convention of 2004, when all of the above was well known.

Oprah and Bill Maher, of course, were quiet when Nicholson Baker wrote the novel Checkpoint in 2004, imagining the death of George Bush — a topic that was the theme of a docudrama by Gabriel Range that earned him a first prize at the Toronto Film Festival. Wait. In fact, Bill Maher did say something a little more outrageous than Bill O’Reilly’s apparent rudeness (“very disrespectful”) shown President Obama. In early 2007, he said of an apparent assassination attempt against Vice President Cheney: “But I have zero doubt that if Dick Cheney was not in power, people wouldn’t be dying needlessly tomorrow. … I’m just saying if he did die, other people, more people would live. That’s a fact.”

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Signs of the Times

February 9th, 2011 - 12:29 pm

Trimalchio’s Bowl

Sometime during the reign of the emperor Nero, the novelist and imperial confidant Petronius wrote a novel about life among the Roman nouveau riche in the Bay of Naples. The surviving centerpiece of the now mostly lost novel is an extended banquet scene at the zillionaire freedman Trimalchio’s house, where money, entertainment, and self-indulgence meet. Sunday’s Super Bowl’s festivities were something like Trimalchio’s dinner—which I urge you all sometime to read. It is a brilliant novel and a tragedy that most of it is lost.

Christina Aguilera did not quite sing all the national anthem. That might be considered shocking, given that Superbowl Sunday has become America’s signature cultural event. But the lapse was hardy surprising in today’s era where millions no longer lead off their school mornings, assemblies, and meetings with the pledge of allegiance or the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” The better question in these times is how in the world did Ms. Aguilera get most of her lines right?

There have been wretched halftime shows, I know, given the impossibility of staging such outdoor performances. But I don’t recall anything quite like the talentless, self-congratulatory shouting of a group called “Black Eyed Peas.” Take away the smoke, the fireworks, the light shows, the Star Wars costumes, the North Korean-like supporting dancers, the Leni Riefenstahl sets, and what was left was some off-key yelling and frenetic prancing — half Road Warrior, half high-school bleacher noise — nothing remotely akin to music, but eerily similar to the sort of shrill musical interruptions that characterize Trimalchio’s feast.

Some strange man, I think, was lowered in on a rope, and I think we were supposed to be delighted about his appearance. But he muttered almost nothing, and Elvis decades ago had crafted a far more impressive sequined outfit. The fact that Barack Obama has borrowed over $3 trillion in just two years did not register with the suddenly politically concerned Black Eyed Peas, who at one point pleaded for Obama to borrow even more money: “Obama, let’s get these kids educated / Create jobs so the country stays stimulated.” If singers can’t sing, why would we expect that they could think?” Apparently lip service to some progressive cause is supposed to do what supposed music cannot?

There were numerous commercials and previews of movies to come; but I can remember none of them. They all became a blur of car crashes, explosions, computer animated fire breathing monsters, and assorted toy dinosaur-like creatures. Blowing stuff up and postmodern mini-plots to no purpose were supposed to make us buy beer, cars, and go back to the movies.

I have nothing much to say about the super-hyped O’Reilly/Obama pre-Super Bowl interview. When the president said that he had not raised taxes, I recalled in a nanosecond various “fees” that have been hiked and, of course, all the embedded taxes in the new health care bill and his opposition to the continuance of the Bush-era tax rates — waited for the polite rebuttal to come, heard none, and turned off the television.

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Clueless on Cairo

February 6th, 2011 - 11:01 am

My three-week victory, your seven-year mess

It is difficult trying to figure out what the left’s position is on democracy and the Middle East. Here’s a brief effort.

Once upon a time, a number of prominent liberals — among them Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid — thought it was a good idea to remove Saddam Hussein and supplant his Baathist rule with democracy. I say that with confidence since one can watch the speeches of the senators in question on YouTube debating the 23-writ authorizations to use force in October 2002, in addition to reading the New York Times and Newsweek editorials between 2002-3 of prominent liberal columnists. The New Republic stable of authors was particularly in favor of the Bush-Cheney “just war” to invade Iraq. Jonathan Chait (who would go on to author an infamous essay about why “I hate George Bush”) and Peter Beinhart were especially hard on the fellow left for not joining the Bush effort.

By early 2004, almost all that liberal support had entirely dissipated, predicated on two developments. First, a presidential election was just months away and Bush’s war was no longer “mission accomplished” but turning into a campaign liability. Second, a resistance had formed under hard-core Islamists that was beginning to take a heavy toll on American forces. No WMD had been found, and it was now easy to suggest that one could withdraw support for building democracy in Iraq because two of the 23 writs for going to war were no longer operative, the effort was probably lost, and George W. Bush might well deservedly not be reelected.

No matter. Bush pressed on. His polls sunk yet he was barely reelected. His ongoing “democracy” agenda got little support from those who once had enthusiastically praised the Iraqi adventure and had proclaimed their belief in universal human rights. Few came to Sec. of State Rice’s support when in 2005 she chastised Hosni Mubarak’s regime to grant fundamental rights. Fewer saw any connection between Saddam’s fate and America’s pro-democratic stance and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the fright of Mr. Gaddafi who gave up his WMD arsenal, or the sudden willingness of Pakistan to harness Dr. Khan.

Instead, “spreading democracy” was seen by the left as a wounded George Bush’s quirky tic. His talk about “universal” freedom was ridiculed more as a manifestation of a sort of evangelical Christianity than genuine political idealism. Bush’s zeal for democracy, then, was orphaned: the right was now realist again (“they are either incapable of democracy or not worth the effort to implant it”) and the left multicultural (“who are we of all people to say what sort of government others should employ?”).

Then and now

Note especially that Barack Obama, both as senator and presidential candidate, derided the war, declared the surge as failed, and wanted all troops out of Iraq by March 2008, regardless of the effect on the struggling Maliki government. That Bush also confronted Putin over the putdown of Georgia, allowed a plebiscite in Gaza, and warned of the anti-democratic tendencies of a Chavez or Ahmadinejad was drowned out by Iraq. Remember that these were the days of Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore calling for a right-wing fundamentalist insurgent victory in Iraq, and novels and films envisioning the assassination of George Bush.

Fast forward to the presidency of Barack Obama. I think it is fair to suggest that all talk about promoting democracy was dropped entirely, and for three reasons: anything Bush had promoted was de facto tainted (“reset”); Obama’s multiculturalism accepted that all indigenous governments were more authentic than an imported Western democracy (cf. his silence over the brutal putdown of the Iranian dissidents); Obama was busy courting China and Russia, two authoritarian and powerful governments that could complicate any pro-democracy pressure on lesser states.

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Obama’s Multiculturalism vs. Bush’s Freedom

Let us be honest. Most of George Bush’s admirable support — as voiced in his 2005 inaugural address — for freedom abroad was de facto abandoned by 2006-7. Condoleeza Rice had championed Egyptian dissidents, but within a year that advocacy was dropped and we were back to the Mubarak paradigm as usual.

Why? Apparently even talking about a move to consensual government in the Middle East, here and abroad, had raised the specter of another bloody Iraq. “Neocon” was tantamount to child molester in the American parlance. Although the effort to depose Saddam and stay on to help implement democracy — that, in fact, had triggered the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the sudden arrest of Dr. Khan in Pakistan, and the surrender of a massive WMD program in Libya — was still alive, it was now mired in the Iraq insurgency of 2006. As domestic opposition grew, as the Republicans lost the House, and as moderate Arab authoritarian regimes sighed relief at the U.S. stasis, realists gained the upper hand. So in the waning days of the Bush presidency, pressuring our friends to evolve was dropped in favor of begging them not to actively oppose our one-time efforts in Iraq.

And whereas Bushites accepted that the liberal opposition at home had demagogued Iraq, they still dreamed on that Democrats would at least support the Bush idea of voicing solidarity elsewhere for dissidents abroad. That too was mistaken. The left saw the end of Bush politically as far more important than expressing any shared support for the president’s liberal agenda overseas. How odd that the right wing was tired of the old Middle East authoritarian shakedown (e.g. “pay up since only I stand between you and the Muslim Brotherhood”) while the left wing was apparently not.

But that said, for five years Bush at least dropped the adage “at least he is our SOB,” and instead almost 24/7 declared that freedom was a transcendent value that all humans aspired to, even in oppressive political and religious climates. Mark him as naïve; remind us that he was in thrall to the dreaded “neocons”; say what you will, but his legacy may still be the end of a murderous Saddam and a constitutional state in the most unlikely place in the heart of the ancient caliphate — a stunning seven-year-long survival of consensual government that continues to ripple out, as we see today.

“I’m not Bush”

Obama was Bush’s antithesis and defined himself as resetting everything that Bush had envisioned, clueless that that meant in Pavlovian fashion opposing all the good that Bush had done as well. He canceled support for Egyptian dissidents. He all but gave a green light for the theocrats to crush the Iranian dissidents. He was harder on Israel than on Syria. He was far more interested in either apologizing for the United States, trashing the Iraq war, or offering fairy stories about the Islamic roots of Western civilization than simply expressing support for consensual government in the Middle East. So again, why?

Obama is not a classical liberal, but rather an illiberal multicultural relativist. In his way of thinking, all cultures are equal, and so are not to be judged by transcendent, timeless abstract values like freedom and liberty. These proclamations instead are “constructed” narratives offered up by Western chauvinists and do not take into consideration past imperialism, colonialism, and racism. Instead, equality of result — an enforced egalitarianism in the Marxist sense — is the multiculturalist creed. In such a warped world view, a Chavez or Castro who stifles freedom is not per se anti-democratic, because he does so to redistribute income, his beneficiaries being the “people,” his prey “them.”

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