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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - David Warren

RealClearPolitics - Articles - David Warren

Last Build Date: Sun, 12 Apr 2009 00:20:44 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

Innocents Abroad

Sun, 12 Apr 2009 00:20:44 -0600

Special envoys were meanwhile in Pakistan to evince deep concern about the trajectory of events there. They were told that Pakistan would not cooperate with the latest proposed U.S. anti-terror efforts, notwithstanding billions in fresh U.S. aid. Those who have noticed that the U.S. hold on superpower status is loosening before our eyes should know that Clinton feels our pain. Her president, Barack Obama, is back in Washington after an apology tour to Europe, Turkey, and Iraq. He received no European commitments whatever for his proposed surge-like strategy in Afghanistan. (The word "surge" is now banned in White House parlance, along with the phrase "war on terror" and several related terms. With the help of supinely obliging media, the very ability to describe a conflict may soon be, as it were, "withdrawn.") So far as I am able to discover, President Obama's most significant accomplishment abroad was getting President Sarkozy of France to accept exactly one of the 245 Guantanamo inmates currently on offer to anyone who wants them. The strategy behind the new Obama foreign policy, so far as any can be discerned, is to disavow everything the Bush administration did in eight years, and then harvest the resulting good will. And while the product of this strategy is zero, it has been charitably observed that his term in office has hardly begun. A much bigger apology to the Muslim world is in the offing; and further apologies could be tailored to specific U.S. enemies. While not technically an apology, Pentagon cuts to a wide range of advanced weapons systems -- including one of its two next-generation fighter planes, combat vehicles, air and land-based robotic systems, new naval vessels and, most alarmingly, anti-missile defences -- could be taken as at least an expression of regret, given the huge amounts already spent in developing these systems. Robert Gates, the defence secretary carried forward from the Bush administration to provide political cover in this area, argues that the money is needed to equip the military for the smaller, low-tech battlefield engagements he anticipates in coming years. But he had to play accounting games -- such as moving past supplementary appropriations into the regular military budget -- to conceal overall cuts in defence spending. This is the clearest indication that political calculations now trump national security. The reality is that the U.S. fleet, upon which global security depends, is shrinking (to less than 300 ships), and that overall manpower will remain far below the last Cold War levels, in a world where (as Iraq and Afghanistan showed) the demand for boots on the ground keeps growing. The two sovereign states now most conspicuously accelerating military spending are Russia and China. Perhaps Clinton could voice deep concern about this, and the presidential speechwriting team could nuance that into another apology. The newly formalized, cabinet-level, "G-2" relationship with China will offer a forum to discuss the withdrawal of the U.S. monitoring fleets off China's coasts, and the discontinuation of U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan: for the Beijing regime is especially eager for "progress" on these fronts. It would also like Obama to extend his Presidential Warranty on General Motors cars to the trillion-dollar sovereign debt the U.S. has piled up with China. All they've got so far is an end to expressions of deep concern about China's human rights record. I have a list beside my laptop here of other U.S. foreign policy bleats, retreats, and "amateur hour" performances, from just the last week. There is no space for the rest, and it would anyway be almost impossible to keep up with it all in live time. People, including the deadliest enemies of America and the West, may have hated Bush, but they knew where he and America stood. That in itself promoted peace and order. President Obama and his secretary of state may sincerely think what Neville Chamberlain sincerely thought, about the value of non-confrontation. But nature does not reward such fatuity.[...]

Truth and Consequences

Fri, 10 Apr 2009 00:20:26 -0600

"Barack Obama seems determined to repeat every disastrous mistake of the 1930s, at home and abroad. He has already repeated Herbert Hoover's policy of raising taxes on high income earners, FDR's policy of trying to micro-manage the economy, and Neville Chamberlain's policy of seeking dialogues with hostile nations while downplaying the dangers they represent." Sowell is superb when apothegmatic. The value in such assertions as these -- made free of the encumbering apparatus of careful qualification on which he usually depends -- is that they light a dark landscape with lightning. They are the pure electric charge of insight. I love Sowell, because he can "do" desolation without wandering into despair. Reciprocally, he can do hope -- the real thing, not the rhetorical posture. A black man, from a fatherless home, raised by an aunt whom he thought was his mother, in rural then urban conditions that would excuse any man for failure, he saw through his circumstances. He dragged himself up, through a machine shop, through the Marines, eventually to great eminence in the academic world, at a time before he could trade on his race. And he continued rising, with the help of honest friends, and by ignoring vilifications. He is the opposite of the current U.S. president, who, despite a semi-fatherless start, lucked out at every stage, and has consistently traded on race. Which is not to say I'm against luck, per se, nor against exploiting one's natural advantages. I am instead calling attention to what can be done without luck and advantages. Obama's youthful memoirs are well-written and captivating, but narcissistic; I would recommend The Autobiography of Malcolm X for better insights into American black experience. And I would recommend Sowell's A Personal Odyssey for something that defeats both, by refusing to politicize the personal. We learn by suffering; Sowell knows that, and has learned. We advance by finding advantages in what at first sight are only limitations and oppressions; by turning the tables on fate. This is an individual, not a collective operation; it begins with that refusal to make an excuse. In moments Sowell reminds me almost of Solzhenitsyn, turning a Siberian prison camp into an elite finishing school of hard knocks, and graduating from it, magna cum laude. When I read a man's works, I do not look only at his arguments, but when I can know, at how he has lived them. One is not converted by arguments alone, one is converted by personal example, and by spiritual qualities that go beyond the purely rational. Note that construction: the spiritual requires more than the rational, not less. We do not, or rather should not, take instructions on how to live from people who do not live by them. Now, Professor Sowell is only one of many living heroes, and I mention him today because he is so often casually vilified, demonized, derided and condescended to by "progressive" people, including many fellow blacks, as if he were an Uncle Tom, when he is no such thing. Clarence Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who is another of my living heroes, recalled throwing a book by Sowell in the trash, in his young radical days. In Justice Thomas's memoir, My Grandfather's Son, a parallel story is told of wrestling with, then finally breaking through, the political myths that have provided the greatest obstacle to the genuine liberation of "African America." Another hero, though a man I did not at first appreciate, is the late Martin Luther King Jr. Read him and one finds that he is no mere politician, selling illusions to advance a career, or to promote any party agenda. His unambiguously Christian apprehension of the world is visible to all who are prepared to take seriously what he has to say, for instance against moral failure, against broken families, against the evil of abortion, against radicalism and violence. The black man must stand, not as a black, but as a man. King is accepted today as a hero, across all political classes, yet his message is often reduced to that of a "communit[...]

Too Clever by Half

Sat, 21 Mar 2009 00:33:03 -0600

What the polls can't say directly, and thus perhaps the White House can't yet hear, is that the policies themselves are diminishing Mr. Obama's appeal. There are indications of this in the polls themselves, but they are subtle. On one issue after another, from bail-outs to the environment, Medicare, life issues, foreign policy, the polls now tend to confirm what this pundit and a few other incorrigible reactionaries knew from the outset: that a plurality of American voters had embraced Mr. Obama not because of, but despite the policies he was signalling. They most certainly liked the man and his "temperament," and they most certainly wanted the Republicans out. But it did not follow that they wanted their government to lurch to the left.

To my analytical mind, such as it is, they wanted Obama the man, but not Obama the agenda, except for the uplifting rhetorical bits about "hope," "change," and so forth. The idea that the man could not be separated from the agenda never fully fixed; John McCain and company actually avoided riding home on this point, once the media made clear it would be reported as "scare tactics."

Again, to my mind -- and it is the only one I have with which to write this column -- we would be wrong to think of Mr. Obama as an ideologue. I think he was perfectly sincere in denying that he was anything of the sort, and in claiming that he would be looking for bipartisan consensus. I also think he is sincere in proceeding with an agenda -- on bail-outs, the environment, Medicare, life issues, foreign policy, etc. -- that leaves most Republicans, and quite a few of the more conservative Democrats, utterly aghast.

How to explain this apparent contradiction? I'm afraid it is easy. As I mentioned during the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama was seriously unqualified for the job of president. He had no practical experience in running anything, except political campaigns; but worse, his background was one-dimensional.

All his life, from childhood through university through "community organizing" and Chicago wardheel politics, through Sunday mornings listening to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to the left side of Democrat caucuses in Springfield and Washington, he has been surrounded almost exclusively by extremely liberal people, and moreover, by people who are quick and clever but intellectually narrow.

He is a free soul, but he is also the product of environments in which even moderately conservative ideas are never considered; but where people on the further reaches of the left are automatically welcomed as "avant-garde." His whole idea of where the middle might be, is well to the left of where the average American might think it is. To a man like Obama, as he has let slip on too many occasions when away from his teleprompter, "Middle America" is not something to be compromised with, but rather, something that must be manipulated, because it is stupid. And the proof that it can be manipulated, is that he is the president today.

It is at this point that the phenomenon known as "too clever by half" sets in. Technically, it is indistinguishable from arrogance and hubris, but it is unnecessary to stress the point. Sixty days into his first term (and I begin to doubt there'll be a second), he would seem already to have dug a hole from which no rhetorical skill can lift him.

The video to Iran is the latest catastrophe. Mr. Obama simply does not understand how his "olive branch" will be received, not only by the mullahs in Iran itself, but wherever else on the surface of the planet the United States has enemies. It "reads" -- to people who do not share anything like America's aspirations -- as an unambiguous confession of weakness. He has moved the American position towards Iran from offensive to defensive, for no defensible reason.

Back to Carter

Sun, 22 Feb 2009 00:30:30 -0600

That he may well be as good as his word, on the "green" issues among others, is an appalling thought, given the present economic fragility.

The series of gestures on moral issues with which he has begun his presidency (executive orders made or impending on taxpayer funding to promote abortions, and on stem cells that require the destruction of human embryos), and the recklessness with which the "stimulus bill" was rammed through Congress (loaded with funding for various Left-Democrat causes despite Republican outrage), should help us to realize that only his promise of bipartisanship was misleading.

But while I might argue there is no moral justification for the new directions, there is certainly a democratic justification: for Obama, as he has been at pains to remind his political adversaries, won the election.

Indeed, he was fortunate to benefit when the American public was suddenly distracted by a financial crisis, from what was turning (via the Sarah Palin candidacy, and Catholic rebukes of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi) into an interesting discussion of life issues. My reader may recall that that discussion corresponded to the moment when Obama slipped behind in the polls.

Likewise, foreign affairs were suddenly thrust into the back trunk. I argued last year that it was hard to take seriously a foreign policy that seemed to consist of punishing America's friends, and encouraging her enemies; that offered, for example, threats to Pakistan but dialogue with Iran.

I did not at the time expect that it would ever come into play, however, for I assumed that even if Obama won the election, more sober influences within the Democratic Party would prevail, and in the end he would find himself with something that secretly resembled the Bush doctrines.

I have lost that confidence since watching the new White House destructively criticize Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, congratulate Venezuelans on constitutional changes that will enable Hugo Chavez to be president-for-life, deliver an entirely gratuitous apology for American behaviour towards the Islamic world, and send George Mitchell off to the Middle East to strike a more "balanced" posture between Israel and Hamas. This, after decisions on Guantanamo that signal a new "catch and release" approach to the world's most dangerous terrorists.

While I doubt Americans intentionally voted for any of that, they did sign a blank cheque for unspecified "hope" and "change," and they did endorse a candidate whose popularity was not only greater abroad than at home, but especially high among anti-Americans. They now have a President who is taking lectures from such as Desmond Tutu. He warns that Obama will squander the world's goodwill if he does not immediately apologize to the Iraqi people for the "unmitigated disaster" in which George Bush freed them from Saddam Hussein.

The western world has a new captain who must deal with such problems as the one presented to NATO forces in Afghanistan, by the Kyrgyzstan government's decision to evict the U.S. from a major forward air base, at a time when supply routes through Pakistan are increasingly endangered. We have some idea how such a problem would have been dealt with by previous administrations, behind the scenes. We have no idea how the Obama administration will deal with such things.

And we will see. Meanwhile, my most sanguine impression, in a sweeping view of the economic, social, and foreign prospects of the new American executive -- which embraces also the chaos we have seen in cabinet appointments and the like -- is that we have already returned to the Carter era. I hope it won't be worse than that.

The Doctrine of Darwin

Thu, 12 Feb 2009 00:33:00 -0600

Unlike most of the celebrated figures in the history of science, Darwin was not a fox. He was a hedgehog. I refer to the ancient epigram of Archilochus, famously misunderstood by Isaiah Berlin. Archilochus actually said that "the fox has many tricks, and the hedgehog only one, but it's a good one" (i.e. curl into a ball so the fox can't get him). Darwin was an honest, capable, plodding man. Alas, of his great hypothesis of "the origin of species, by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life," it must be said that what was true in it was not original, and what was original was not true. The basic notion of evolution -- that all living creatures are related, and that man himself descends from the primordial slime as the product of purely material forces -- is an ancient one, going back at least to Anaximander in the 6th century B.C. Likewise, the notion that creatures may be altered by selective breeding goes back as long as humans have bred animals. Darwin's contribution was the mechanism of natural (and later, sexual) selection. This mechanism was simultaneously proposed by Alfred Russel Wallace, a true genius who made many other signal observations and discoveries; but Darwin alone became obsessed with this one, and insisted that it could carry us beyond adaptation within a species, across natural barriers to the creation of entirely new forms, over eons of time. Wallace was not so sure, and to this day, Darwin's notion exists merely as a surmise. It has never been proven. Which is its great strength. For what cannot be proven can never be disproven, either. The Darwinian account is merely belied by the fossil record, which has provided none of the inter-species "missing links" that Darwin anticipated, and which instead yields only sudden radical changes. As Darwin himself realized, the fossil stratum corresponding to the beginning of the Cambrian geological period was potentially inimical to his hypothesis. In a blink of geological time, now dated by various means to 542 million years ago, all of the advanced body types of "modern" multicellular organisms suddenly and simultaneously appear. The event is now known as the "Cambrian Explosion," and Darwin hoped it would be explained away by the later discovery of gradual evolutionary developments through the eons before. Instead, the shock of the transition has been enhanced by all subsequent study. Likewise, Darwin trusted that the gradual development of such "irreducibly complex" organs as the eye, ear, and heart would be explained in due course (i.e. these organs can't work at all unless and until all their many parts are present and functioning in perfect harmony). Instead, advances in genetics, molecular biology, and biochemistry over the last half-century have revealed a vast world of irreducible complexities within the single living cell, by comparison to which the engineering of an eye would be child's play. The man himself was very much a product of his age: a bourgeois Victorian adapted to an intellectual environment in which such fatuities as Utilitarianism and Malthusianism were in the air. In retrospect, he is a redundant character, for Wallace already had the theory, and many others could have drudged out Darwin's specific points. But "Darwinism" survives, especially in the English-speaking world, not as a quaint historical theory, but rather as a cosmological doctrine. The hard-core Darwinist is a "religious atheist," whose faith in the non-existence of God is anchored in the unshakeable conviction that everything in this world that looks designed and purposeful will eventually be explained by random, gradual, purely "natural" (as opposed to supernatural) processes. And he defends himself by the method of the hedgehog: for when attacked he rolls up into an impregnably tautological ball. So, Darwin Day is tomorrow. But today, Feb. 11, is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Over the 151 years si[...]


Sun, 25 Jan 2009 00:35:25 -0600

Guantanamo was selected, by the Bush administration, to intern terrorists, because no better solution could be found. The military commissions were created, ditto. Under actual international and American law, the inmates have no certain rights whatever: they were not proper soldiers, and therefore not legitimate prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. They may thank their stars they were not shot upon capture. The worst they could face under established interrogation procedures was "waterboarding," which is not nice, but hardly rises to the condition of real torture.

I know the preceding remark will offend many delicate souls, but that is not the only reason I made it. As people understood, in the shadow of the World Trade Center, and as they still understand in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are dealing with monstrous enemies -- with people who not only kill our allied soldiers, but kill defenceless non-combatants gratuitously; who employ terror, to impose tyranny. The insistence on fine points of juridical etiquette in the heat of battle would be insane. But insisting on it later in the calm of a prison camp betrays only a failure of perspective.

It is right of the law to prohibit torture. It is right in almost every circumstance to obey the law (and accept the consequences in any other). There will, however, always be tight corners where "the law is a ass," and to pretend this were never the case is to assume a disingenuous posture. Moreover, as when Guantanamo opened, there are circumstances in which no existing law has been written or can be applied, and yet the principle of retribution remains: that the innocent will be vindicated, that the guilty will be punished.

And: that the defenceless will be protected against serial killers. To set any of the Guantanamo inmates free, on some jurisprudential technicality, is to smear one's hands with the blood of their victims when they return to their trade. This is not a hypothetical proposition: for while the numbers are disputed, a proportion of "low risk" inmates already freed from Guantanamo have returned to action.

This is why families of 9/11 victims were outraged by the executive orders. It is why Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who lost 17 of his men in the attack on the USS Cole (at Aden in 2000), said of the order, "It demeans their deaths." For among the apparent beneficiaries of President Obama's "symbolic" measure is a "suspect" in the Cole attack.

It is why American and allied soldiers, whose lives are on the line against Islamist terrorists not yet captured, must necessarily feel demoralized. Conversely, it gives them a powerful motive to overlook the niceties when another of the enemy falls into their hands.

Barack Obama is not a complete fool, and the measures he has ordered are likely to prove cosmetic. Paradoxically, many of the prisoners at Guantanamo may well now suffer worse fates than if they had remained on location untried, or been processed through the military tribunals. For they will have to be sent somewhere. No country, whose citizenship they may nominally carry, is eager to receive them. Dump them on the authorities in, say, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, and I daresay their prison conditions will not improve.

The liberal mind -- now fully restored to power in the United States -- is in love with symbolic gestures. It is not much enamoured of the hard prudential reasoning that is involved in choosing between two or more evils. The mystery, to me, is the consistency with which it chooses to ignore the greater evil, in order to address the lesser.


Fri, 23 Jan 2009 00:32:48 -0600

Both Barack Obama in the U.S., and Stephen Harper up here, are on the cusp of announcing ambitious new "climate" plans founded upon last decade's laughably "settled climate science." They may be chastened by the economic downturn, and even by the progressive disintegration of the global warming lobby, but the bureaucratic machinery to fight "global warming" is a very great ship, and it is too late to steer her off the shoals. The only new thing will be the excuses.

The current excuse is that governments are on the verge of legislating millions of new "green jobs." This imposture will work only as long as people refuse to devote the necessary four minutes to thinking the matter through.

The only way to reduce energy consumption is by penalizing it in some way; generally by driving up prices, but occasionally by ham-fisted legal action. Driving up prices does not save jobs, at least, not in that part of the economy responsive to market forces (which generates the taxes to support the rest). It can only cost jobs -- as energy itself, and energy-intensive products, are priced out of reach to those whose wealth is diminished. That wealth is diminished, like a candle burning at both ends, by inevitably higher taxes at one end, and inevitably higher prices at the other.

A great deal of theatrical flatulence has been directed against the drivers of SUVs, and other stage villains of the global warming propaganda. It is as reasonable to attribute excess CO2 generation to Al Gore's 191-megawatt mansion in Nashville, or to the footprint of Barack Obama's inauguration party (575 million pounds of carbon, according to the U.S. Institute for Liberty, equivalent to 60,000 years of fossil-fuel burning in a house like Al Gore's).

Arguments that hose the reader with a large number of de-contextualized facts are used by all sides in all contemporary debates, but especially by the side that benefits less from context.

Cars, regardless of size, and how they draw their power, are a big issue, and so is heating and air conditioning. Vladimir Putin's sick little power game with Ukraine and Europe, in which he has cut off Russia's supply of natural gas to them in the middle of a wickedly cold winter, should help bring home, at least to the Europeans, what energy is used for. It is used to cook food, and to avoid freezing to death; or to provide alternatives to walking ten miles to work. These are the job-rich activities that "government action" will restrict and curtail.

And while the penalties against energy consumption may eventually lead to technological innovations that increase efficiency, so would any kind of prospective shortage. The difference is that when the government wades in, it distorts investment in new technologies, by making the leading criterion for them, how to satisfy government regulators. It is pure coincidence when this also reduces energy use, overall. The usual effect is to transfer the burden -- from efficient gasoline engines on the spot to distant coal-fired electricity generating plants, for instance.

The myth that a government can somehow "create" jobs or wealth has been deeply inculcated, not only by governments but by the many vested interests that profit from the transfer of other people's wealth to themselves, through mixed-economy shell games. Governments take wealth that was created elsewhere and "spread it around," in the U.S. President-elect's quaint but accurate phrase. Don't be fooled: this is also what thieves do.

Exit Bush

Wed, 21 Jan 2009 00:38:47 -0600

Still vaguely remember: the attitudes among such of my elders as did not like or trust him, in the moments immediately before the Great Man took power, and the foreseeable catastrophe began. People think, "Nah, this isn't going to be so bad. In fact he's going to be like every other prime minister." And anyway, the whole thing happens in slow motion. Let us complete the highly unoriginal observation. The lobster hardly notices the temperature rising in his pot. Time passes. And what has changed, after all? Before he was green, afterwards orange. But it's the same lobster! Not everyone agrees that the Trudeau years were a disaster for Canada. My own view is based on a candid assessment of the before and after, and it is the view of a lobster. From the point of view of the diner, in our Nanny State, much was improved by expending the country's moral capital. But you know me, gentle reader: I tend to disregard received opinion, itself a transient product of passing history. This includes, to return briefly to the present, the view that George W. Bush was, if not the worst president the United States ever had, at least the worst in living memory. He has been demonized, in the progressive media and among the progressive classes -- to the point where even those who are inclined to defend him, instinctively flinch. Which is to say: he has been demonized by people who do not concern themselves overmuch with the question, "What would you have done in his position, instead," given each successive crisis he faced. Or, when asked that question, they reply in some rhetorical way that betrays no serious interest in the likely consequences of the alternative course. I have found that one cannot argue with history: things happened just as they did. But also, one cannot argue with people who are not anchored in prudential reasoning. After eight years of him, I would say, that of all the U.S. presidents in my life (from Eisenhower forward), Mr. Bush has been the most impressive, except Reagan. This is mostly a judgment on his foreign policy, in which -- instant history requires clichés -- he has taken various bulls by their horns, and has not been flipped by them. I think it will be seen more clearly, as hindsight develops, that the stand he took in Afghanistan, then Iraq, prevented the exponential growth of Islamism. Ditto: his refusal to be horse-whipped by international public opinion very far along the ridiculous "roadmap to peace" between Israel and her fanatic adversaries. His confrontational attitudes toward other rogue regimes held the line -- against Libya, Syria, North Korea, and even Iran. We would be in a far worse position if such regimes had been persuaded that America really was a "paper tiger." Mr. Bush, as the saying goes, "kept America safe," and in so doing, defended universal Western interests. We are all indebted not only to him, but to the American taxpayer, and American soldiers, for missions to which we did not contribute adequately. Forward positions were taken and maintained. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Obama will give all these positions away. In domestic policy, as Mr. Bush has himself been confessing in final interviews and a rather moving final press conference, he very likely sacrificed too much. His own free-market instincts, and his sense of the limitations of the U.S. federal government, were overcome in the course of various tax-and-spend responses to domestic problems over-magnified in the media. More precisely, spend alone, for he did fight taxes, and thereby left (as Reagan before him) a legacy of public indebtedness. At least this will crimp his successor. No matter how he is depicted, the man himself has been honest, thoughtful, courageous, modest -- and remarkably free of personal vindictiveness. He has done consistently what he thought right under the circumstances, from a far broader view of[...]

Gaza & Hamas

Mon, 05 Jan 2009 00:47:32 -0600

What has happened in Gaza is horrible. It is not even necessary to look at the sentimentalized atrocity pictures, which are the specialty of Gaza's freelance photographers, to understand how horrible. Of course we condemn war, and do so most effectively through literature and art. But it is trite to condemn war without qualification -- when everyone knows that war is hell. And, trite moral posturing is itself an evil. Moreover, in the case of recent Israeli operations in Gaza, it is not enough to justify them, by mentioning the (literally) thousands of rockets Hamas has been pumping into every Israeli town within their range, expressly to massacre the defenceless. This, and this alone, necessitated decisive Israeli action. A government has a solemn duty to protect its people from gratuitous acts of violence. The Israeli government is unambiguously justified in taking whatever measures are necessary to make the rocketing stop. Hamas carries the entire moral responsibility for putting the people of Gaza in harm's way. But we should not stop at justifying Israeli action. As their allies against a common enemy -- against Islamists who consider the West to be their ultimate target -- we should be offering our help and encouragement for the completion of the stated Israeli task: the complete annihilation of the Hamas organization. For by no other means can peace be obtained across the Gaza frontier. An organization that persistently declares Israel has no right to exist, and persistently acts upon this premise, cannot be negotiated with. The Israelis have the material means to destroy Hamas, and therefore the moral imperative to do so. Israel also has the misfortune to be defending herself today in a world that is lost in moral fog. The predictable, asinine resolution from the United Nations ("both sides stop shooting right away") is, alas, representative of public opinion in many Western countries. We are nearly incapable of making hard decisions, let alone sticking to them. We did not cry, "Both sides stop shooting right away," on D-Day. The correct response was, "Onward to Berlin." My particular fear is that, again, as in 2006 against Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Israelis will succumb to the pressure of international blathering. From what I can see, I cannot even be sure they were determined not to repeat the mistake of going half-prepared into battle. Such actions as avoiding the house of the Hamas "prime minister," while demolishing the surrounding compound, telegraph more pulled punches. They suggest Israel intends to negotiate, in the end. Again: it is wrong to negotiate with such an enemy. It leaves him to fight another day, and then another. It thus condemns people on both sides to additional death and destruction down the road, while depriving them of the peace and order that can come only from a definitive resolution of the conflict. Moreover, it plays into the hands of an enemy whose strategic purpose is to wear Israel down. The Western doctrine of just war, echoed in the articles of international law, moreover demands that the Israelis finish what they've started. It doesn't say "never fight," as the ignorant suppose. On the contrary, it says if you must fight, be sure to win; that victory should be achieved as promptly and humanely as possible, while observing the various formal conventions. To those who refuse to observe the conventions, it offers no quarter. Those who, for instance, fire rockets at civilian targets while themselves masquerading as non-combatants are entitled to no consideration, as prisoners of war or otherwise. Those who use civilian "shields" are responsible for their fate. These principles are humanitarian. You don't "attrit" a cancer, then await its regrowth: you root out every speck of it. In the long run, the Germans were better off for the destruction of Nazism; and t[...]

Political Lives

Thu, 30 Oct 2008 00:43:33 -0600

I'd rather retract that sentence for a different reason: it did not make my point well enough. My point -- and it is one worth frequent repetition when discussing politicians, especially on the left -- is that the citizen-voter should look at a candidate's life experience. Everyone has some, by the age of four, but the question is whether the candidate has done anything as an adult besides running for and holding political office -- or, in the case of candidates farthest left, engaging in agitprop activities such as "community organizer," or boffering in the academic trenches, which amount to the same thing. There are "credentials," and then there is "cred." It is sometimes necessary to shorten or otherwise alter a word, to recover its original meaning. Here we are discussing not a job resumé, but what can be seen through it. Of the four candidates on the two U.S. presidential tickets, it strikes me that both John McCain and Sarah Palin have some credible personal background to equip them in dealing with the interface between politics and life. By comparison, neither Barack Obama nor Joe Biden has ever done anything much, except master party political machinery. Even within politics, the contrast between, say, Ms. Palin and Mr. Obama is instructive. Ms. Palin rose in Alaskan politics through a series of fights, in each of which she took on vested interests, starting with her local school board, and ending with her own party's old-boy network in Juneau. She had to fall back on her own personal resources -- and I mean psychic, not financial, for she had to raise her own money, too -- all along the way. She has grit, but with this grit, she was acquiring firsthand experience of how politics enters the lives of people who are not essentially political; who raise families, and work for their livings. Whereas, Mr. Obama was from his political beginnings the darling of a Chicago political machine, notorious for both corruption, and harbouring radicals. His very smoothness and articulacy, even his blackness, made him their golden boy, assuring him of financial patronage along his way. This has practical consequences. I am not saying that Mr. Obama is himself corrupt or even radical; only that he is smooth. Now, who can imagine him having the desire, or, should he find the desire, also finding the will, to stand up to a spendthrift and intrusive Congress? Or, making appointments that require political imagination and nerve? (Consider the Joe he chose as running mate.) Let alone, facing down America's mortal enemies abroad, when the way forward cannot possibly be along the path of least resistance? Whereas, I can easily imagine Ms. Palin digging in her formidable heels, and the only question -- a fair one, mind -- is, does she know enough about the mechanics of Washington and world affairs? (And to be even more fair: does Mr. Obama?) For that, as on the campaign trail, she has shown herself to be a very quick learner, with sound gut instincts. She is no radical, notwithstanding left media efforts to paint her that way; her outlook is mild Reaganite -- ranging from right towards centre. She wears her allegiances on her sleeve. By comparison, as a reading of his memoir-manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, will confirm, Mr. Obama's outlook does not range from left towards centre, but rather, from left into defensively impenetrable. As we have seen through the campaign, every solution he proposes involves additional government spending, and additional intrusion into private lives. It is the natural mindset of a person who has himself lived (except for the royalties from his books) entirely on taxpayer or political subsidy. "Caribou Barbie" can famously field-dress a moose; the man whom no one dares to nickname in public tells you to keep the tires on your car properly inflated, while he[...]

On Education

Tue, 28 Oct 2008 00:52:22 -0600

Now, paradoxically, the dream of going to Oxford -- specifically, to Magdalen College, to study classics and philosophy -- had been among my more vivid ambitions in later childhood. But as I learned in Georgetown, "You can't get there from here" -- sadly, but luckily, for I later learned that Magdalen College is yet another place where academic standards have subsided, and the scholars devote themselves to attitudinizing, instead. Well, OK: Oxford still knocks Lakebottom University into a cocked hat, but my point about "attitudinizing" -- an important Johnsonian term, dimly grasped when I was adolescent -- has come to apply universally. There are some areas, such as advanced engineering, in which the best post-secondary schools still have something substantial to offer. But these are not university courses, rather specialized technical courses. Across the broad horizon of the humanities -- the university's raison d'être -- a degree today has come to represent "the expense of spirit in a waste of shame." It is a paper qualification to prove that the bearer has lost his moral virginity; that he now thinks he knows more than he will ever know; that he has, in effect, been stripped of the capacity for learning, whether from experience or from books; that he is now, in nine cases of 10, a fully indoctrinated little leftwing weasel. Perhaps I exaggerate. Perhaps it is only four cases in five. And anyway, my condemnation of the post-modern university needn't extend to all the students, or even to some of the professors. Fine, very intelligent, and yet thoughtful persons are still to be found in windowless corners. As a frequent user of university libraries, I am made constantly aware of the biological fact, that a certain proportion of young people in every generation are, compared to the others, quite remarkably bright. Moreover, the late J.M. Cameron, among the greatest teachers ever to grace a college in Canada (St. Michael's at Toronto), once gave me reason to hope. I asked him what, after half a century of teaching, he could find in common among his best students over all that time -- the handful who stood out permanently in his memory. I expected him to struggle with this question, but he answered straightaway: "They were all self-taught." Later: "They all arrived in university ready to make the best use of its resources, they were all burning with zeal to learn. They looked for professors who could help and guide them, they ignored professors who could not. Most came from humble backgrounds, and also stood out for their gratitude." He assured me that students like that were untypical in the dustbowl 1930s, just as they were in the salad bowl 1960s and '70s, but confirmed that university standards had been in free fall. Still, he said, "There are students who can't be stopped, and there are students who can't be started. The latter have always been more numerous." In the 1960s and '70s, as we should all know, universities were vastly expanded, on the new "drive-through" model, so that the majority of students who did not entirely belong in a demanding intellectual environment became an overwhelming majority, and the universities themselves were reduced to immense, tax-sucking bureaucracies, focused almost exclusively on turning out graduates, the way Burger King turns out Whoppers. But while that may be a fair enough description of what happened in innumerable red-brick universities, it does not quite describe the transformation of the "elite" institutions of the Ivy League, or their equivalents overseas. In such highbrow finishing schools, we now have smug elitists turned out in the manner of Whoppers. The preceding rant is to be taken merely as a preface to something shorter and more aphoristic I wanted to say about commentary on the U.S. e[...]

Messianic Pretensions

Sat, 25 Oct 2008 10:10:43 -0600

I had doubts about John McCain -- not as a man, but as a presidential candidate -- from the beginning. I preferred George W. Bush in the Republican primaries of 2000, because he was not McCain. I preferred Rudy Giuliani at the beginning of this year's cycle, despite my considerable distaste for his views on social issues. But given a choice between McCain and Obama -- were I entitled to vote in an American election -- I would now pull the lever for the Republican slate without the slightest compunction.

Moreover, McCain has grown in my estimation, as circumstances have changed. He has in many ways earned his maverick reputation, together with a reputation for incorruptible patriotism. He's the guy to make politically risky and potentially unpopular decisions, in face of the recessionary slide; and crucially, he's the guy to make America's most loathsome and unpredictable enemies (who are also our enemies, lest we forget) not want to test him. In his appointment of Sarah Palin, for all the sneers of the urbane and over-educated, he has suggested a way forward in which America retrieves her "core values," which include cutting through the blather of conventional "expertise," and distinguishing right from wrong. And she can articulate what McCain mumbles.

McCain is a man of action and accomplishment, Obama a man of "charisma" and pretty words, whose only real accomplishment has been his remarkable self-advancement. And Obama's policy outlook, so far as it can be discerned from the usual electoral pronouncements, consists of the same snake oil the pre-Clinton Democrats had been selling continuously since they chained the Great Society to America's ankle: that is, a constantly expanding Nanny State. I am hardly reassured by Obama's last-lap rhetorical reassurances: you don't send a man to Washington with a trillion dollars of candy-shop promises on medicare, education, government job-creation, "spreading the wealth" -- especially when the economy has just tanked.

I wish that were the worst I could say about the man, who has survived nearly two years of campaigning for President without serious cross-examination from either the media or his media-chastened opponents. A man who, should he win the election and serve one term, will have been President of the United States longer than he has held any steady job.

In my world, you don't humour a politician who presents "Change," "Unity," and especially, "Hope," as hypnotic mantras, with the power of enchantment over very large crowds. And you especially don't humour such a politician at a time when both country and world are unstable, and hard decisions will have to be made.

Deeper than this: Obama has presented himself from the start as a messianic, "transformational" leader -- and thus played deceitfully with ideas that belong to religion and not politics. That he has done this so successfully is a mark of the degree to which the U.S. itself, like the rest of the western world, has lost its purchase on the Christian religion. Powerful religious impulses have been spilt, secularized.

In this climate, people tend to be maniacally opposed to the sin to which they are not tempted: to giving Christ control over the things that are Caesar's. But they are blind to the sin to which they are hugely tempted: giving Caesar control over the things that are Christ's.

"Faith, hope, and charity" are Christ's things. They apply, properly, outside time -- to a "futurity" that is not of this world. They must not be applied to any earthly utopia. A Caesar who appropriates otherworldly virtues, is riding upon very dangerous illusions. Follow him into dreamland, and you'll be lucky to wake up.

The Longest Political Season Limps to a Close

Mon, 20 Oct 2008 00:34:42 -0600

For, with all but one seat reporting before midnight, the Tories were then elected or leading in 140-plus, and quite unchallengeable. Most of those seats were settled away, without risk of nasty overnight swings, and the ones that weren't didn't really matter. All Tories I half-way liked had been re-elected, together with a selection of backbenchers I half-liked in other parties. And overall, the best available result: all party leaders farther away from power, except Stephen Harper, who wasn't any nearer. A boring election; an unsurprising result; no serious consequences. A vindication of everything our nation stands for. A (seeming) century into the American campaign, where everything is (apparently) at stake, one comes to appreciate the pleasure in a good yawn. And although I despise Mr. Harper, for reasons I have supplied in previous columns, I can live with him as well as can any other Canadian. All the serious moral and civilizational issues having been taken off our table, by common consent of the five major political parties, we might as well have a bean-counter in a grey-striped suit, calmly minding the national accounts while the international financial crisis explodes around him. The length of the American campaign is a real evil. It is an evil made nearly inevitable by fixed terms of office -- something our political masters in Toronto and Ottawa have been trying to introduce up here, that is considerably worse than the evil it would cure (sitting governments in control of the timing), and will not in fact remove that evil (for a government can as easily adjust its electoral bribery tactics to a fixed schedule). Like almost every other electoral or legal "reform" proposed up here, the fixed term mindlessly introduces an alien U.S. convention into Westminster Parliamentary arrangements that were never designed to accommodate them. The argument for the "hundred years of solicitude" approach is that competition for the world's toughest job requires a trial by ordeal. This is an argument that is reversible on its own face, for one might equally say that the surviving candidate arrives in office already mortally wounded. But the idea is more deeply offensive to reason than that. In the classical analysis of Cyril Northcote Parkinson, "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion," and in this case, what is given a figurative century will certainly take a figurative century. At the end of that time I am still looking, and I should think most of my readers are still looking, at two deeply flawed candidates for Captain of the Free World, one of whom we fear and despise even more than the other. To be still more candid, the trial by ordeal has evidently failed, both in the direct sense (neither of the candidates has yet perished, even though one of them is 72 years of age), and in the more subtle sense (we know no more about the murky Chicago past and unfathomable outlook of the other candidate than we did when we first saw him). For the reality today is that, whether five weeks or a century is available for the discussion, political correctness makes it impossible to raise any of the more interesting and pertinent questions. We may darkly observe that, for instance, Barack Obama has had to distance himself from every named, significant patron or associate from his past -- from Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, to Tony Rezko, to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to dubious organizations such as ACORN (and throw in a few more names known only to the readers of Chicago newspapers). The question should naturally arise: Had he any significant early connections with persons who were not former Weather Underground terrorists, Chicago mobsters, corrupt party-machine fixers, race-baiting radi[...]

Two Solitudes

Tue, 14 Oct 2008 00:26:19 -0600

The phenomenon we call "Red Toryism" -- that is, the strange combination of snooty, upper-class paternalism with whacky socialist proposals for "reform" -- is ultimately a product of that distant age and of that early Victorian reality, largely misrepresented at the time, and now at least a century-and-a-half beyond its stale-date. To my mind, as a source of intellectual debilitation it ranks with the communism to which it was presented as an alternative. "Red Toryism" is our Canadian term; there are parallels in every other Western country. The creation of the modern welfare or Nanny State was not achieved by communists, but by men who feared communism so much that they would not directly confront its assumptions. (Don't forget that long before the Russian Revolution, communism in Marxist and several other forms was a living force in European politics and society, and widely accepted as a threat to the established civil order.) "Tory" is an English word; there are many Continental variants, and the actual policy prescriptions that led to Big Government were pioneered mostly in the Kaiser's Germany before the First World War. My historical brush already sweeps too wide, but I want to add that the phenomena described today in, for instance, Jonah Goldberg's excellent book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning -- are themselves of older provenance. Over a very long time, the "liberal" mind has been captured by dreams of "equality," by mechanical notions of "human rights" and "social justice" and has gradually abandoned hard thinking on individual liberty. (Here again a parenthesis is required, for my reader must remember that "liberalism," in the old, libertarian sense, is the common property of both Whig and Tory traditions, both Liberal and Conservative, both Democrat and Republican, in the English-speaking world.) It is questionable whether the notion of "two solitudes" was ever of any value, anywhere, at any time, for any purpose beyond spreading mischief through the body politic. And it is with this hesitation that I mention something I've observed about current American politics that would equally apply to Canada except that our political divisions are slurred through many parties, all of them unthinkingly committed to the preservation and expansion of the Nanny State. But in the United States, especially in the present election, we get glimpses of two political solitudes that have been created not by any plausible socio-economic division within society, nor by any deep division between different ethnic tribes, but tautologically by the notion of "two solitudes" itself. The nation is divided, roughly half-and-half, between people who instinctively resent the Nanny State, and those who instinctively long for its ministrations. And every kind of specious racial, economic, cultural and class division has been thrown into the mix to add to its toxicity. McCain/Palin briefly stole ahead in the polls after the Republican convention, Obama/Biden have since recovered their ground, and various epiphenomena of the present banking crisis may yet swing the race this way or that. The two sides are, typically, in fundamental disagreement about the very cause of that banking crisis, now gripping not only America, but the world. To one side, it goes without saying that the crisis was caused by greed and conspiracy, in the absence of sufficient government regulation. To the other, it is self-evidently the accomplishment of a U.S. government that set the accounting rules and created the subprime monsters (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) to deliver mortgages to people who would never qualify under common-sense rules of ban[...]

Failure of Nerve in Canada

Thu, 09 Oct 2008 00:34:17 -0600

Stephen Harper, all parties, and all mainstream media agree, that this was a fait accompli. It was nothing of the kind. The alternative was to mount a crash program to expand our military capabilities, not only to meet our solemn commitments in Afghanistan, but to make us ready for any other role we might be called upon to play in this volatile world. Each of these issues is a potential vote-loser, if tossed out on its own. Each is a potential vote-winner, in the hands of a politician with real dignity and force, capable of explaining to us what the consequences may be of not acting. We need politicians with the starch to tell us that the "easiest way out" is the time-honoured path to disaster; that most if not all of the intractable public problems we face today were created by past politicians who took the easy way out, putting their own immediate political standing ahead of the permanent interests of our country. Still, in a democracy, it is our job as "the people" to punish politicians for doing this -- for playing cheaply to the gallery, for throwing our own money in the air. Instead we squall for our share of handouts. In the deeper sense, we have failed our politicians. Mr Harper wins by avoiding controversy: by abjectly and cravenly betraying each genuine conservative cause, while skirting the hard arguments. I shouldn't be surprised if that's what costs him a majority, for there are several million electors of genuine conservative tendency, who feel disenfranchised, and hesitate to vote for him even when the alternatives look worse. His best pitch to us would be: "Better vote Conservative, for we will do little or nothing to advance the social-engineering agenda of the anti-Christian Left. Vote any other way, and you are pushing that activist agenda." But even that would require a candour of which Mr Harper is professionally incapable. His stage presentation, in debates and at campaign appearances, is calculated boring. He promises, both explicitly and implicitly, a "steady hand at the tiller," and therefore appeals to people sick with worry about the international banking crisis, and the Depression that could follow from it. For after the U.S. bailout, and the even messier arrangements in Europe, markets everywhere remain crazy, and the TSX index like every other has been whiplashing down, up, down. As we should be more than vaguely aware, the Canadian economy, which heavily depends on good commodity prices, is ripe for the dunking. People may not yet appreciate that a steady hand at the tiller is quite useless, once the rudder has broken off; that a sufficiently powerful hurricane swamps all boats. The same prime minister who pretends to be powerless, on issues he could in fact do something about, is actually powerless in the face of the gathering storm. Good luck, sailor. Canadians who congratulate themselves for the comparative "niceness" of our election campaign, after glimpsing the nastiness of the presidential race to the south, are peculiarly out of touch with current realities. As Americans better realize -- because they have no choice but to take their election seriously -- this is no time for "nice." There is far too much at stake. With neither the McCain/Palin nor the Obama/Biden ticket, can Americans opt for "more of the same." Touching everything from tax-and-spending, to core moral values, they have real issues before them. They know it; whereas, up here, what is there to know? Alas, in the United States as here, the advance of "political correctness" has made a number of key issues undiscussable, except by the brave. But after years of prelude, the battle of the brave has now begun. It is a trial by ordeal for[...]