Every once in a while, it’s nice to get back to the fundamentals: to know the differences between a free society and an unfree one. You may recall that, after Hurricane Katrina, the federal government came in for a bit of criticism — President Bush, in particular. As this article tells us, “A Chinese court on Monday sentenced a veteran dissident to three years in prison after he criticized the government’s response to the 2008 earthquake that killed about 90,000 people.” And those aren’t three nicey-nice years in prison, either.
‐When U.S. presidents go to China, as President Obama did recently, they should recognize that they are visiting an unfree state. And they should signal to the public — especially the Chinese public — that they indeed have this recognition. Obama did not really do this. He did not give much heart or comfort to liberals, dissidents, democrats, prisoners. He did not insist on a wide television audience. Basically, he allowed the Chinese government to stage-manage his visit. He did not do any boat-rocking.
And, in my view, U.S. presidents — and all Free World leaders — have an obligation to do a little boat-rocking. To discomfort the Chinese authorities just a little.
We know that the Obama administration is not too keen to emphasize human rights — that is so yesterday, so George W. Bush. But what did Obama get for his “good behavior” in China? Did the PRC give him anything on currency, on the environment, on Iran, on North Korea? What practical benefit did our president’s non-boat-rocking bring?
Before Obama’s trip, as I remarked in a previous column, Chinese democrats begged Obama not to forget them: to pay attention to what the Chinese government was doing to them. Every president should keep an eye, or half an eye, on human rights. And he should stand for liberty in the world, a universal liberty. You recall what the Iranian protesters chanted in the streets: “Obama! Obama! Either you’re with them [the theocratic regime] or you’re with us.” We have to deal with many bad actors in the world, including in Tehran and Beijing. But woe to us if we forget our principles altogether.
I never tire of quoting Vladimir Bukovsky, who was a Soviet dissident: Western policymakers, as they go about their business, should occasionally pause to ask, “How will it look to the boys in the camps?”
Yes, yes, pragmatism has a proud place. We are all “realists,” to a degree. But what is Obama gaining for his bows in various forms around the world? He refused to meet with the Dalai Lama in Washington, in advance of his trip to Beijing. Okay. But what good did this snub of a great, important man do? What cold-eyed, Machiavellian, Kissingerian deal resulted?
In any event, it is simply perverse for a president to go to a country with a gulag — in China, it’s called “laogai” — and give no signal whatsoever that he knows it: that he knows he is in a country with a gulag. Is that a fair enough point?
‐As I write, there is talk of a prisoner exchange in the Middle East: 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for the Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit. That would be a more balanced deal than some we have seen in the past: when the Israelis gave up a mass of live prisoners — terrorists, mostly — for a few corpses. To see a little roundup of this history, go here.
‐A Russian billionaire flew into Germany on a private jet to buy a car: Hitler’s Mercedes. He paid some millions for it, then flew back, with his trophy. I am all for business, trust me. But can you read about this — story here — and be entirely without the creeps?
‐As we read in this report, Hugo Chávez has invited Fidel Castro to Venezuela, saying, “Venezuela awaits you.” I’m afraid Venezuela already has Castro, or an aspiring one: Chávez himself.
‐They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps. How about by the company he admires? Chávez has praised Carlos the Jackal, one of the most notorious terrorists in history. To Chávez, he is a “revolutionary fighter” (as this report tells us). Chávez also had kind words for Ahmadinejad, Mugabe — even the late Idi Amin. “We thought he was a cannibal. I have doubts. . . . I don’t know, maybe he was a great nationalist, a patriot.”
Yeah, maybe. Will the Hollywood Left — Sean Penn, Naomi Campbell, Kevin Spacey — continue to fly down to Caracas to kiss Chávez’s ring? Why not?
‐I’m told that the most boring people in the world are those who say, “If George W. Bush had done this, what would the media have said?” Well, let me bore you: If George W. Bush had shouted out to a group of soldiers, “You guys make a pretty good photo-op” . . .
‐I don’t know how you’ll feel, but this headline, over this article, amused me: “Hassan Nasrallah re-elected as Hezbollah leader.” Did they have to wait for the absentee ballots?
‐A reader writes, “Jay, remember how Candidate Obama was embarrassed by his fellow citizens’ failure to speak French beyond ‘Merci beaucoup’?” I do. On the basis of this, I wrote a piece for National Review on Americans and foreign languages: here. Anyway, our reader continues, “Well, it’s embarrassing when our president goes to foreign countries and can’t master the simplest of protocols, bowing before dictators and emperors, calling our troops good photo-ops, insulting the Queen with an iPod . . .”
Hey, that was no insult: The iPod in question was loaded with some of Obama’s speeches, and what person, monarch or peon, could resist that?
‐I’ll never forget what a friend of mine wrote me, when she heard the news that Obama had given Queen Elizabeth an iPod uploaded (downloaded?) with his speeches: “Who is this monster?”
‐In a previous column, I mentioned Yoani Sánchez, the incredibly brave blogger in Cuba. She was recently beaten mercilessly by the usual goons. She survived and she is still making a glorious nuisance of herself — actually believing that she ought to be free.
Sánchez posed some questions for President Obama. And the president, or someone speaking for him, answered her. You can see those answers at Sánchez’s blog, here. They are pretty bland — pretty noncommittal, hardly Reaganesque, or GWB-esque — but acceptable, you may agree. Obama’s best sentence is his final one: “I look forward to visit[ing] a Cuba in which all citizens enjoy the same rights and opportunities as other citizens in the hemisphere.”
‐From a reader:
You’ve written a lot about lefties who hiss, so I thought you might be interested in the following. Last night, the commentator Kathleen Parker spoke at the University of South Carolina. The topic was civility and how horrible our congressman Joe Wilson was to shout, “You lie.” Here’s the story in the State.
What I thought was funny — funny-ironic — was that, at one point, Parker spoke about Sarah Palin: and here’s the sentence that jumped out at me: “She drew a hiss or two talking about Palin. (Last year, Parker was the first conservative columnist to write Palin was unqualified to be vice president.)”
Ah, yes. By the way, if you’re interested in my NR essay on hissing — “‘A Perpetual Hissing’: Notes on an unfavorite practice” — go here.
‐The other day, I thought of Bill Buckley, as I so often do. He once spoke of taking “infield practice” — infield practice with the BBC. Here was the situation: The BBC was asking him about his basic views, and basic American politics. And he was scooping up the questions and throwing back the answers. “Infield practice” was an interesting term for Bill to think of, because he did not much care for baseball, or other sports (aside from sailing).
Well, I was interviewed by a college student, who asked me quite basic questions — excellent questions — about what I believed, and how I arrived at those beliefs. I enjoyed the exercise very much. And thought of the expression “infield practice.”
‐You may get a kick out of this, as I did. I have a friend who works for a large Catholic organization. He is Jewish — the only Jew in the joint, I believe. Last year, the organization had a Christmas card it was thinking of sending out. It said, “Happy Holidays.” My friend saw it and said, “What are we doing? We’re a Catholic organization and can’t say ‘Merry Christmas’?” The higher-ups were very skeptical, but eventually shrugged and relented: and mailed a card saying “Merry Christmas.”
Okay, here is a follow-up: When my friend goes on an extended December break, he intends to leave an auto-reply that says, “. . . and may you have a most blessed Christmas.” Any other member of the organization could get in trouble for that — but not this one. To him, they will be able to say nothing.
Isn’t that an interesting window on contemporary America?
‐A reader points out that Michelle Obama said, “There’s nothing that the First Family loves more than a good burger.” Our reader says that something about the First Lady’s use of “First Family” bothered him. I know what he means. Remember when President Obama called Kanye West, the rapper, a “jacka**”? (Still my favorite thing about the entire Obama presidency, I think.) Obama, not wanting the remark to be reported, then said, “Cut the president some slack.”
That jarred me, just a little. And it has nothing to do with partisan politics — D’s and R’s, liberals and conservatives — believe me.
‐This is somewhat related. A reader writes, “Jay, I know you are tired of covering JC” — that would be the 39th president of the United States — “but I couldn’t resist passing this along.” What my reader had noted was Carter’s reflection, given in this article, on the Iranian hostage crisis: “My main advisers insisted that I should attack Iran. I could have destroyed Iran with my weaponry. But I felt in the process it was likely the hostages’ lives would be lost, and I didn’t want to kill 20,000 Iranians. So I didn’t attack.”
I could have destroyed Iran with my weaponry. Very interesting, that choice of words.
‐A reader from Texas sends me a winning expression: “My father was once offered a price for a piece of land he had for sale, and in responding to the low-ball offer he said, ‘That’s not enough money to wad a shotgun.’”
‐The other day, we were talking about geographical expressions, such as “upstate”: “Upstate New York” can mean about two feet out of Manhattan. A reader writes,
My wife and I lived in Alaska for a couple of years back in the ’80s. In Juneau, and I assume the rest of the state, “down south” could mean anywhere in the Lower 48, but usually it meant Washington, Oregon, or California. Anything to the right of those three states was “back east.” People would talk about going “outside” for a bit, and it took me a while to figure out that meant somewhere — anywhere — not in Alaska.
‐Care for a little music? I won’t give you reviews — those will be elsewhere. Let me give you a couple of stories. The Metropolitan Opera is now doing Il Trittico, the triple-bill by Puccini. One of the singers in Gianni Schicchi is Saimir Pirgu, an Albanian tenor. It is rare to have an Albanian in the music world. It is rare to have an Albanian in practically any sphere — for that country suffered just about the worst of totalitarianism for decades.
Pirgu is making his Met debut — but I first heard him years ago in Salzburg, where he was Ferrando in Così fan tutte (Mozart). Remember that, in the course of this opera, Ferrando and his buddy Guglielmo disguise themselves as Albanians. So here was an Albanian playing an Italian disguised as an Albanian.
I thought that was pretty funny. But, as I write it now in Impromptus, it doesn’t seem so thigh-slapping . . .
Moving on: In Il Trittico, one of the sisters (nuns) in Suor Angelica is Monica Yunus, the young American soprano. She is the daughter of Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi micro-banker who was the 2006 Nobel peace laureate. At the Nobel concert, Monica sang “O mio babbino caro,” or “Oh, daddy dearest,” which is from Gianni Schicchi.
Sweet but not gag-making sweet, don’t you think?
‐Now and then, I talk about the inscriptions that people request when they order my collection (advertised below). Last week, a man wanted me to say, in my inscription, whether I think that we — we America — will “make it.” I could only say: Yes, of course — and we will.
‐In early 2008, I chronicled a trip to India — “Notes on India,” that series was called. (Find it in my archive, here.) I spoke of a man who was a relative of the dear friends with whom I was traveling. I stayed at his home for a few nights. This was in Baruch, Gujarat. I sat in his garden with him, looking at the peacocks — wonderful creatures — and talking over the world. He was a distinguished intellectual: an education professor and a novelist. He was extraordinarily dignified, concerned with the highest things in life. He also had a streak of mirth — another high thing in life, you could say.
He had studied at Washington University in St. Louis, in the late ’50s and early ’60s. As I explained in my chronicle, “He ran out of money, and would have had to leave school. But an American family — just middle class, in his description — took him in. They expected nothing in return.” My friend marveled at their generosity and their egalitarian spirit. “Here they were,” he said, “sharing a bathroom and a kitchen and everything with an Indian boy — just as though it was nothing.”
He had been a Communist — “All Indians are born Communists,” he said — but he shook that while in America. I asked him whether he would have left Communism without the experience in America. He said he could not be sure.
I wrote in my chronicle, “Do you know what he especially loves? Oklahoma! (Along with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor.)” He quoted a favorite song: “Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a beautiful day. I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s goin’ my way.” For him, that expressed the spirit of America, open and optimistic.
Anyway, I have been thinking about him a bit, because he passed on recently. His name was Prafulbhai Dave, and I’m so glad to have met him, and his entire family. I know that my notes about him, in early ’08, pleased a number of readers, so I thought I would recall all that now.
Happy Thanksgiving! I’m grateful to NRO readers — in addition to “in the bird” stuffing, or “dressing,” as they call it in some parts of the country — and I’ll see you later.