Politics & Policy

Palin endures, &c.

Interesting about Sarah Palin: She simply refuses to go away and die. She refuses to get out of politics. She refuses to accept the view of the political establishment, or much of it, that she’s a joke, a moron, a laughingstock. I think she has a keen sense of her own worth: of her talents and abilities, which are considerable.

They are not total. But whose are? Churchill’s? Maybe.

Bear with me while I tell a little story. Some years ago, I was in Davos, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. John Ashcroft was a lunchtime speaker. He was then the attorney general, and a figure of sport and contempt. It may be hard to remember, at this remove, how vilified and demonized he was. (To have it all come back, try this piece here. I wrote it in 2002.) Remember how President Bush became thoroughly demonized? Ashcroft was in this position before him — the lightning rod of the administration. It was widely said that he was “scary,” “far-Right,” “out of control,” etc. — our own Torquemada.

Come to think of it, Vice President Cheney was saddled with this image in the second term.

#ad#In any event, Ashcroft gave this lunchtime speech — on corruption, incidentally, and the baneful effects of corruption on the poor. An excellent speech, for those willing to listen to it. When we were filing out, a New York Times reporter said, “He has some nerve showing up here, boob and clod that he is.” (I paraphrase.) The tone was: Doesn’t he realize how ridiculous he is? How everyone hates him?

I said to this reporter, “Don’t forget, he may be ridiculous to you, but he’s not ridiculous to himself. As far as he’s concerned, he’s a pretty big deal — one of the most important and successful people in America. He went to Yale College and Chicago Law School. He became his state’s attorney general. And then its governor. And then one of its U.S. senators. And now he is attorney general of the United States. Again, you may think he’s an embarrassment — but he’s not that way to himself.”

To his credit, the reporter allowed that this was a valid point.

Now, Palin doesn’t have those academic credentials or political record: but she has a lot. Mainly, that which cannot be bought or even earned, talent and charisma. And she sees how she can move or inspire or spark millions. She is not ridiculous to herself. She is not a Saturday Night Live character to herself. And critics should remember this, as they analyze both Palin and her phenomenon.

‐Interesting that John McCain has called on Palin to campaign for him in Arizona, as he is challenged by former congressman Hayworth in a Republican primary. Obviously, McCain doesn’t think she is damaged goods: certainly not in the context of the Arizona Republican primary.

And, of course, Palin is right to campaign alongside McCain (although I ask, What must Steve Schmidt and the other McCain guys think? The ones who have been dumping on Palin non-stop as basically subhuman? Does the candidate, McCain, have a word of repudiation for them?). Before the ’04 presidential primaries, Lieberman maintained that he would not run if Gore did — because Gore had done him the honor of asking him to be his running mate in 2000.

Isn’t it interesting, by the way, that Gore did not run in ’04? After he got more votes, nationwide, than did the winner, Bush? After the appearance of the bumper sticker that said “Reelect Gore”? Very curious, that he chose not to run. He “might could have won,” as they say in the South.

Some people believe that Gore never really wanted to be president, that this was just an expectation thrust on him by his family — I don’t know.

‐You know these people who demand to see Trig Palin’s birth records and all? It occurred to me: Why aren’t they called “birthers”? Maybe they are — but I haven’t seen it.

‐Friends, I hope and trust you have your new issue — getting less new all the time — of National Review. To find it in digital version, go here. My contribution is a piece on Internet freedom — an issue that seems to be percolating throughout the world right now. And, of course, Internet freedom cannot be separated from freedom in general. It seems that the whole world longs for the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment.

(Whenever you write something like that, you hear from people who say, “Oh, really? You mean, Ahmadinejad wants a First Amendment for Iran?” These are the same people who object when George W. Bush says that the desire for freedom beats in every human heart — because it doesn’t beat in, say, Kim Jong Il’s heart. I say to these objectors: Come on, get a life.)

I thought I would speak some more about Internet freedom here in this column. You don’t mind? And you don’t mind if I point out this speech by Hillary Clinton on the subject? She gave it on January 21 at the “Newseum” in Washington. (What a dorky name, “Newseum.”) And it is a superb speech, probably deserving of being known as a landmark speech. Read it, if you have the time and inclination.

And you may want to follow that up with this, an interview that Clinton gave to Bloomberg Radio: She made further remarks, specific and interesting ones, on Internet freedom.

‐I have said it in this column before: Technology is double-edged, and long has been. It is an aid to the oppressed, and an aid to their oppressors. Technology can help dissidents find one another, and communicate with one another, and communicate to the outside world. And it can help a dictatorship identify them, thwart them, and worse.

In her January 21 speech, Hillary Clinton took note of this double edge. She said,

Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaeda to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.

And she had this amazingly stirring sentence: “On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does.” Wouldn’t it be neat if that turned out to be true?

‐One government that did not react very well to Clinton’s speech was China’s. They were, in fact, quite peeved. They accused us of information imperialism, cyberhegemony, and all the rest of it.

You would be hard pressed to find someone who knows more about these issues — Internet freedom, etc. — than David A. Gross. In the two terms of Bush 43, Gross was the international-telecommunications chief in the State Department. I met him a few years ago at a conference in the Middle East — when I moderated a panel on new media.

The other day, he pointed out to me that China is trying to walk a fine line — China’s rulers, that is. They want to allow enough latitude and progress to let China grow and become a big player on the world stage. At the same time, they cannot, from their point of view, allow so much latitude and progress that people take them down. A fine line, indeed (and, as a democrat, I hope they fall).

#page#‐I have written a fair amount about Google and China, and will not repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that their recent stance toward China marks a big change. For years, they were happy to censor their search engine to please, and appease, China’s rulers. But they are not so happy to be hacked. And they are threatening to pull out of China, and to stop censoring their search engine, too.

Dictatorships have long taken advantage of “the outsourcing of censorship.” You know that phrase? A shudder-making one. Companies such as Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft have taken care of the censoring; the dictatorships don’t have to lift a finger (except to wag one at the companies now and then). Yahoo! went so far as to provide the Chinese authorities with information on dissidents — information that led to their conviction in court (not that the PRC has ever needed much evidence).

Tom Lantos, the late Democratic congressman from California, and a Holocaust survivor, used to give these people almighty tongue-lashings. He used to tongue-lash the companies, I mean. You remember? At one hearing, he asked how the relevant executives could sleep at night. Another time, he said, “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.”

#ad#‐Last November, as you recall, a Chinese student had a question for a visiting President Obama: “Should we be able to use Twitter freely?” Obama began his answer, “Well, first of all, let me say that I have never used Twitter. My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone.” He eventually did better, however, getting to yes. Twitter is partially blocked in China. Facebook and YouTube are banned. The latter was banned in 2008 after videos of Chinese thuggery in Tibet were posted.

As I say in my NR piece, there is Internet restlessness in China, as there is restlessness in general. Three days after Google stood up to Beijing — this was in mid-January — a young Chinese computer whiz named Li Senhe introduced his own version of YouTube. (YouTube is a Google product, by the way.) This was brazen in several ways. Li told the Christian Science Monitor, “I did this as a public service.” He also said that he was being careful to abide by Chinese censorship rules — because you can ask for only so much trouble. (To see the Monitor story, go here.)

‐Back to Twitter, for a moment. In Davos last month, the company’s CEO, Evan Williams, said that his people were working on ways to stop governments from blocking the technology. About this blocking, he said, “The most productive way to fight that is not by trying to engage China and other governments whose very being is against what we are about”; what you do is find “technological ways” around them.

‐I put some questions to two notable dissidents: Wei Jingsheng and Jianli Yang. Both of them are in exile in the United States; both of them were political prisoners in China, and have endured unspeakable things. They also know — do they know! — that the PRC’s monitoring and harassment of dissidents does not stop once these men and women leave the country and live elsewhere.

Here is one question: “Is it better to have a censored Internet than no Internet?” Yang says, “Yes. This is not a static issue but dynamic, meaning China’s censorship will be increasingly undermined by various efforts to get around or break down the firewalls. As a matter of fact, helpful technologies exist: but we need resources to get them into the hands of netizens in censoring countries.” Wei leans the other way: saying that no Internet is probably better than a partial, distorted, or mendacious one.

Here is another question: “Whom does technology benefit more, the protesters or the government? The democrats or their persecutors?” Yang says, “This, too, is a dynamic issue. A condition of 1984 cannot last long.” Wei says that much depends on the world at large: If the world sympathizes with, and pays attention to, the democrats, they have a strong chance; if the world looks the other way — to say nothing of cooperating with the persecutors, as our most glittering tech companies have — power rests solidly with the persecutors.

What dismays and demoralizes the oppressed is the feeling that they are alone, uncared for; what dictatorships most want is that the people they oppress feel alone, and, in fact, be alone.

‐I think that’s enough Internet freedom for now (so to speak). I will return to this subject — going to other regions of the world — in my next few columns. Couple more items, before we check out?

A reader noted the name of an American soldier, in articles about the Afghan War: Cpl. Christian Martir. He’s from Northridge, Calif.

‐An article about music? Here’s a piece in the new City Arts. I discuss the Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine; the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein; and a Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera. You know Carmen, don’t you? The soundtrack to The Bad News Bears (a.k.a. the best movie in film history)?

Also, if you want more music, you may wish to muck around in my New Criterion archive, here. I write the “New York Chronicle,” which covers — chronicles, if you will — the New York scene (or a portion of it).

‐Sen. Evan Bayh is in the news — and I don’t want to knock a man when he’s down. Or on the way out. Or something. In any case, when covering the Democratic convention in August ’08, I was surprised at Bayh’s speech. He is known as a centrist, a reasonable man — not a partisan flamethrower. But his was an obnoxious speech, even by the standards of party conventions. I did a blog item about it, here, if you’re interested. The heading is “The Deplorable Evan Bayh.” And the item ends,

Finally, Bayh said that, with his candidates, Obama and Biden, “we will, once again, live up to the full meaning of our creed: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice — not just for the fortunate, not just for the few — for all.”

Yes, Bill Buckley would say, because so many of us want liberty and justice only for the few and the fortunate.

What an SOB, the nice, well-groomed Evan Bayh. 

Man, that was harsh — I must have eaten my Wheaties that morning, or jalapeños.

‐A little language, to wrap up? Had dinner with a cousin the other night — way-cool. Referring to something that happened a long while ago, he said, “used to used to.” In other words, one used to for something that happened in the relatively near past. And two used tos for something that happened in the more distant past. Sample: “I used to watch movies on VHS. I used to used to watch movies on Betamax.” Something like that.

It’s a little easier to explain by voice than with a pen — but I hope you get the gist. And I thank you for joining me. Bayh Bayh! (Yuk yuk.)


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