Politics & Policy

Big [expletive deleted] deals, &c.

I know we’re supposed to think that happenings in Iraq are no big deal, because we would not want George W. Bush to be credited with anything. But have you read the news out of that country in the last few days? It should be eye-rubbing to anyone who has followed the Middle East for any length of time. Let me quote the opening of an Associated Press article:

Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi reached out to his rivals to form a governing coalition Saturday, staking his claim as the top vote-getter in Iraq’s elections and saying he hoped to build strong relations with neighboring countries.

Allawi’s secular Iraqiya bloc edged out chief rival Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by just two seats in the March 7 vote for a 325-member parliament. The razor-thin victory meant Allawi’s road to regaining the premiership is anything but guaranteed, and a lengthy period of political negotiations — possibly punctuated with violence — likely lies ahead.

Today, at this moment, reading about Iraq is like reading about some Western democratic country (although “punctuated with violence” is sadly, stubbornly Middle East). Longtime students of the Arab world are rubbing their eyes indeed. Iraq may yet collapse in the traditional violence and dictatorship, but this is truly, as our vice president might say, a big f***ing deal.

‐For the last many months, we have been reading about the debate over our “health-care system” and changes to that “system.” I think this is one difference between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans: They want a “system”; we don’t want any system at all. We just want . . . life. Healthy, democratic, free-market life. To my knowledge, we don’t have a housing system, or a food system, or a clothing system, or a car system (although we have some government ownership of auto manufacturing). We just have — what? An economy. An open, American economy, in which people meet other people’s needs as they arise.

As we should be beyond ideology, we should be beyond system, I think. Health-care systems are for Canada and Sweden, not for the U.S. — at least notionally. Organic development is supposed to be the American, indeed the Western, way. Somewhere along the line — and long before “Obamacare” — our way of health care got badly undermined.

Anyway, I will speak about systems and non-systems some more, at another time. Systems are for top-down, command economies — are part and parcel of central planning. Non-system-ness is a glorious way to be, to take care of human problems. When the premier of Newfoundland needs serious medical care, where does he go? To a non-system.

But, as I said, more later . . .

‐“Social justice” is something to be wary of — as a phrase and as a concept. When you hear “social justice,” watch your back, because every kind of hell has been inflicted on man in its name. (I made this point in a recent column, but I figure that a little repetition never hurts — much.) I’m beginning to weary of, and be wary of, “history,” too. Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats, as they nationalized health care, kept saying, “This is historic,” and, “This is history.” President Obama said that those who had supported his health-care bill “answered the call of history.”

This should make our blood run cold. For many generations, when some people have said “history,” they have meant some statist destination. From their point of view, as you march toward statism, you “answer the call of history,” because statism, also known as collectivism and socialism, is inevitable (or something). What is the desirable endpoint? The Khmer Rouge? For some, yes. For others — maybe Denmark. There are stricter and more relaxed forms of statism.

As my guard goes up when I hear “social justice,” it goes up when I hear “history” — and “History” is even worse. I don’t even like “the right side of history” and “the wrong side of history,” two phrases used by both Left and Right. Something may be right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, but there’s not necessarily a reason to drag history into it.

I have a certain view of health care, far different from Obama’s and the Democratic Congress’s. But I don’t call it “history,” and I hope I never will.

‐Not long ago, I talked, worriedly, about “the domestic Brezhnev Doctrine”: When a federal program or agency is established, it’s in place forever. There is no rollback (or “repeal,” to use a current word). When I was coming of age, politically, there were people who argued for a return to the gold standard. Why, they wanted a dollar “as good as gold.” Jack Kemp was one such person. They were known, slightly derisively, as “gold bugs.” I don’t think there are gold bugs anymore — at least they are pretty quiet.

Will those who want to repeal Obamacare come to resemble the gold bugs — hopeless lost causers? I certainly hope not.

The TVA is still with us, as I mentioned the other day. The Ag Department is still with us, although a minuscule portion of the American population works in agriculture. The Ed Department became a permanent fact about two seconds after it was set up, even though Reagan vowed to do away with it. And what about the Post Office! Does anyone even talk about privatizing the Post Office anymore?

Let me relate a tale of childish socialism versus an adult understanding of economics. When I was a kid, I thought it was neat — really neato — that it cost the same to send a letter from Maine to California as it did to send it across the street. Whether the letter was from Maine to California, or from 146 Elm St. to 147 Elm St., the stamp was the same. How wonderful!

And then when I grew up and learned something, I thought — I knew: How perverse. A stamp for the transcontinental letter should cost much more than the stamp for the Elm St. letter — but not according to our system.

‐Reagan was a small-government guy, we all know — or we all think — but what did he and his comrades accomplish? During those eight years, they succeeded in slowing the rate of growth of government — but not in halting the growth of government (to say nothing of reversing it). Are we indeed inevitably marching toward socialism, with brief bouts, or last gasps, of liberalism (classical liberalism) along the way?

Sorry for the wet-blanketness. (I’ll be more cheerful later.)

‐I was reading an AP report about the tea party out in Nevada, the “conservative Woodstock” (love that phrase, and concept). I thought this was an interesting sentence: “Conservative columnist Andrew Breitbart disputed accounts that tea party activists in Washington shouted racial epithets at black members of Congress amid the health care debate, although he didn’t provide any evidence.”

Interesting that the burden of evidence should lie there. Didn’t we learn in the cradle that you can’t prove a negative?

Additionally, I was interested to learn from the report that Sarah Palin’s husband, Todd, is not a Republican, but registers as an independent. Doesn’t the Left say we’re all blind GOP-ers?

‐I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, I learned this: Conservatives are simpleminded, and they see things in black and white. Liberals and leftists are intelligent — aware of nuance — and they see things in shades of gray. I had that with my ABCs.

And so I smiled on seeing the opening of this AP report: “Justice Antonin Scalia tends to see things as black or white. Justice Stephen Breyer sees a lot more gray.” (Look, I’m not scornful of black/white. For instance, if the Constitution says you gotta be 35 to be president — well, by golly, you gotta be 35 to be president, and if the people don’t like it, they can amend the frickin’ Constitution.)

‐I’ve been getting a lot of mail from people who are filling out their Census forms — and balking at being asked to give their race. They want to say “human” — they belong to the human race, period. I am filled with sympathy for this stance. Indeed, I once wrote a piece on just these lines, called “Take Your Boxes and . . .” You can find it in the collection advertised at the end of this column.

I see here that Abigail Thernstrom has explained why we should answer the race question on the Census form. My heart is with the rebels — the defiers, the ones who say, “Hell, no.” But my head, of course, is with Abby. Because she is always, always right.

Damn.

‐Let me give you a news snippet, after which I’d like to make a point, please:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The military’s top uniformed officer has publicly admonished a three-star Army general for urging troops to speak out against allowing gays to serve openly.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, who heads Army forces for U.S. Pacific Command, was wrong to call on troops and their families to fight a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Mullen said if uniformed officers disagree with President Barack Obama’s call for a repeal, the answer for them is “to vote with your feet.”

That is quite right, of course — you can’t argue with Mullen. But you know how the Left usually celebrates military dissent, or at least has celebrated it in the recent past? Remember the lionization of General Shinseki?

Just sayin’, just sniffin’.

‐Our old friend — National Review’s old friend — Radek Sikorski has lost a presidential primary in Poland. But he is just getting started in Polish politics. It’s interesting that the country has a presidential primary. Have a news snippet:

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s center-right governing party has chosen Parliament Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski as its candidate for president, a largely ceremonial job but one with significant symbolic weight in this proud and patriotic country.

The pro-EU Civic Platform chose Komorowski over Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski in Poland’s first primary, which was modeled somewhat along U.S. lines. In results announced Saturday, Komorowski won 68.5 percent of the votes to Sikorski’s 31.5.

I wonder if Poland has an “Iowa.” And a “New Hampshire.”

‐Care for a Bill Buckley tidbit? I thought you might. I thought of something when receiving a flier in the mail. It advertised courses in the Henry George School of Social Science, here in New York. When we first moved to New York, in the late ’90s, Bill asked me how apartment-hunting was going. I said not very well. He said, “I’m a closet Georgist, you know.” For the Wikipedia entry on George — which seems to me good, and mentions Bill, by the way — go here.

‐Care for some music? I should rephrase that: You want an article — a newspaper column — about music? In yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, I had a column about Samuel Barber, the American composer whose centenary is this year — this month, in fact. What was the Inquirer’s interest in Barber? He was a local boy, pretty much: born and raised in West Chester (not Westchester, but West Chester — I’ve always loved that distinction).

Barber, as I noted in the column, composed against the grain of his time. That grain was modernist. Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, and their like ruled the roost, as they do now, more or less. (More more than less.) Ned Rorem, a “tonal” composer, coined a phrase: He referred to the serialists — the practitioners of compositional serialism — as the “serial killers.” Barber, like Rorem and some others, could never turn his back on melody, harmony, and other such “old-fashioned” notions. And how the modernists scorned and hated him! But they could not shove him out of the arena: His music was too popular for that. They might be able to kill or dampen Vincent Persichetti, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, and the others: but they could not deep-six Barber. You can sooner keep people from bread than you can keep them from the Adagio for Strings.

NRO readers might remember that Elliott Carter turned 100 in December 2008 — and that I interviewed him on that occasion. I wrote it up for this site here. And let me provide an excerpt:

What about the so-called Neo-Romantics such as Barber — can Carter respect them, even as he diverges from them? “Well, some of us felt that the kind of music Sam wrote had already been done, only done better than anybody could do it now. Therefore there was no reason to do it now.” Grinning, Carter says, “What Sam did was deplorable,” but his music, nonetheless, “is rather good.”

Well, that’s a kind of admission, or concession. And there is nothing deplorable about writing the music that is in you. Let the public take their choice, you know?

One more thing, before I leave the subject of Barber, please: He was the nephew of Louise Homer, the famous American contralto, as many people know. But he was also the nephew of her husband: Sidney Homer, a composer now pretty much forgotten, who specialized in art songs. (Barber would become one of the finest composers of art songs ever.) What has always touched me about Homer — about his biography — is this: He was the son of two deaf parents. And devoted his life to composing music. I don’t mean to get shrinky or maudlin, but sound must have meant a lot to him.

‐An article in City Arts? Go here. This one covers the Artemis Quartet, which played an all-Beethoven concert, and Thomas’s Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera.

‐Just one more item about music? Okay, a short one: I thought of something when Vice President Biden called the passage of Obamacare “a big f***ing deal.” Sometimes, that is shortened to BFD. And I once wanted to title an appreciation of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the great German baritone, “DF-D, BFD.” I demurred, however, on grounds of vulgarity, but also on grounds that too few would get it.

‐A little language: Rep. Patrick Kennedy used the word “fit” in a way that I am unfamiliar with. He said, “You want to know why the American public is fit? They’re fit because they’re not seeing their Congress do the work that they’re sent to do.”

Short for “fit to be tied,” I guess — but I had never seen or heard it. New England thing? Kennedy-family thing?

Here is an article about a new weapon in India — and I will excerpt the opening sentences:

The Indian military has a new weapon against terrorism: the world’s hottest chili.

After conducting tests, the military has decided to use the thumb-sized “bhut jolokia,” or “ghost chili,” to make tear gas-like hand grenades to immobilize suspects, defense officials said Tuesday.

I forwarded the article to my colleague Kevin Williamson, who is an old South Asia hand. He responded, “Nice. Unless they’re invaded by Cajuns . . .”

‐A few days ago, I found myself in a part of New York that I have not been in very often. And I was moved to see a memorial — a World War II memorial. The memorial is nothing to look at. But I was moved by the wording, which is drawn from Milton:

“Brave Men, Women and Worthy Patriots, Dear to God and Famous to All Ages.”

Thanks for joining me, friends, and I’ll be seeing you (and no, I’m not quoting a song, deliberately).

#JAYBOOK#

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