The handshake, &c.

President Obama with Raúl Castro


People are talking about the handshake that President Obama gave Raúl Castro. I could talk for hours about it myself. But let me do a little quoting, from an essay of mine published in a recent National Review. The essay was called “Entitled: The tricky business of addressing or referring to an unsavory foreign leader.”

When Obama and Hugo Chávez met in 2009,

Obama was all warmth to him. He gave Chávez a soul-brother handshake and called him “mi amigo,” his friend. Afterward, Chávez was complimentary, saying of Obama, “He is a very intelligent man, young, and he is black.”

And one more passage, please:

As a rule, dictators crave the legitimacy that democratic statesmen can confer. They crave the mere rubbing of shoulders. At the U.N. in 2002, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat wanted to be up close and personal with President Bush. Elliott Abrams captures the moment in his recent memoir, Tested by Zion: The secretary of state, Colin Powell, “served as defensive tackle, literally pushing Arafat back when he tried to get into a photo with Bush as the president moved down a General Assembly corridor.”

One could say a whole lot more, of course — but that’s enough for now, isn’t it?

Many days, I walk by the U.N. on my way to work. Many days, there are protesters outside. Often they are Chinese. Yesterday they were Vietnamese. They were talking about political prisoners, democrats, in Vietnam. “They have no voice,” these protesters said. “We have to use our voices instead, for them.”

They won’t likely find a sympathetic ear at the U.N. The government of Vietnam is on the Human Rights Council. So is the government of China. So is the government of the Castros. As usual, monstrous human-rights violators sit on the world’s Human Rights Council.

As I continued on my way to work, after gazing for a minute at the Vietnamese, I had an unhappy thought: We are in a strange time in the United States, when it comes to concern for human rights. The Left seems allergic to the subject: They associate it with “neoconservatism,” George W. Bush, and bad wars. With Israel too, probably. Much of the Right seems allergic as well. And for the same exact reasons.

Someday soon, I hope, Americans will recover a proper awareness. Concern for human rights is not a Zionist plot — no matter what you read in publications respectable and un-.

I went to prison the other week. That is, I visited a prisoner-reform program outside Houston. I have written about it for the current NR. The program is a “faith-based initiative,” and it has “initiative” in its name: the InnerChange Freedom Initiative. (These days, we tend to scrunch up words.) IFI is a branch of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the organization started by Chuck Colson in the 1970s.

Why should people care about prisoners? Why should people want to help them? Isn’t it more important to care about, and help, their victims? I touch on these questions in my piece.

One of the volunteers at IFI is Dru Bennett, a financial officer in a Houston company. She got involved in prison work when she pondered the Biblical admonition to visit those in prison — in addition to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and so on.

Jim Liske, the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship Ministries, told me something interesting. I had a conversation with him after I finished my piece, actually. I wanted to talk to him about some general matters. He said there is a pragmatic reason to desire prisoner reform: Almost all of the inmates in America are “coming home.” They are being released back into their communities, or into the world at large. What kind of people are coming home? The same old criminals? Or men (and women) who are reformed?

(Dru Bennett made a wry but serious point to me: We speak of “rehabilitation.” Some of these guys have never been “habilitated” in the first place.)


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