Politics & Policy

An awful specter, &c.

For decades, many Americans didn’t like it much when you brought up Munich — the Munich Agreement of 1938, that disastrous attempt at appeasement. “No fair brandishing Munich!” they said. I remember a specific complaint by Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential campaign.

In the same way, a lot of Americans don’t like it when you bring up Vietnam — “the specter of Vietnam.” I can well understand that. Vietnam is a subject that many Americans, and others, just want to turn away from. It’s all too awful.

But I could not help thinking of Vietnam after President Obama’s latest address on Afghanistan, in which he announced the “drawdown.” We Americans were in Vietnam for about twelve years, in order to prevent a Communist takeover of the entire peninsula. When Congress cut off the South in April 1975, the Communists duly took over the entire peninsula.

So what was the point of our being there? How can you say that all our casualties were not in vain? Isn’t that a terrible, cruel thing to say? But is it an untrue one?

Why did we go into Afghanistan? We went into Afghanistan to rout al-Qaeda and topple its sponsor and protector, the Taliban. If we leave too soon — before winning, if you’re allowed to say “winning” — won’t the Taliban come back? Won’t we be at the status quo ante? Will our years there, and deaths there, have been worth it?

We have given al-Qaeda a tremendous beating, it’s true. But it will be easier for these people to reconstitute with the Taliban in the saddle.

Say this for Obama: He kept his promise. When he announced the Afghan surge, he said we would begin to withdraw in July 2011, come hell or high water. And so we are. Since when do politicians keep promises — especially ones of political convenience? Why this promise, of all promises?

Above, I mentioned that controversial word “winning.” This is a word that seems to be absent from the president’s vocabulary, when it comes to Afghanistan and Iraq. He said, “These long wars will come to a responsible end.” “Let us responsibly end these wars . . .”

To me, these words aren’t greatly reassuring.

One man to follow on the Afghan War is Con Coughlin, a senior foreign-affairs correspondent and analyst with the Daily Telegraph. He had a blogpost titled “Obama’s withdrawal plan is tantamount to surrender.” I hope that’s wrong.

‐A reader sent me an article from the Kansas City Star, saying he thought I would like it. He was right. The article is about a catcher with the Royals, Brayan Peña. It tells the story of his life, particularly his escape from Cuba. It is a typical story — the kind I have read or heard many times. But it’s stirring and moving all the same. They always are, in my experience.

When Peña was eleven, he went with a Cuban national team to Mexico. They would not allow the team to do anything or see anything. (You know whom I mean by “they”: the Communist authorities.) The kids could only go from the hotel to the ballpark and back again. But, oh, that was enough. They looked out the window. They could see a different, freer kind of life.

Later, at 17, Peña played in another tournament, in Caracas. And he took his chance. He had so many things to decide, so many things to agonize about: If he defected, what would the Communists do to his family? What would they do to his friends? Would they blame and punish his teammates? Take it out on his family?

That’s a lot for a 17-year-old to think about. Anyway, Peña took his chance. And he is so very grateful for life in America — touchingly, almost amusingly grateful. He has the kind of gratitude that may be possible only to someone who grew up under a totalitarian dictatorship.

Again, that article is here. See what you think. I don’t mean to give you more to read, we all have plenty. But I think this article would repay your time. Hats off to the author, J. Brady McCollough.

‐A reader writes,


Here’s something that will get your dander up. [Uh-oh.] On the way to work this morning, I was listening to the local all-sports station. They were interviewing Peter Gammons, a nationally known sports reporter (appears on ESPN) who specializes in baseball . . . The Texas Rangers had just signed a Cuban defector, and Gammons was asked if he thought the player would make it to the majors this year. He responded that Cuban players assimilate socially much faster than other Latin players because of the wonderful educational system in Cuba. He then stated that Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the world, and that two things Castro really cares about are education and health care. I nearly drove off the road. . . .

Yes. I’ve written about this so much, I’m afraid I can’t make my fingers move anymore. Warm feelings in the Free World for the Communist dictatorship in Cuba rest on three myths, essentially. 1) The dictatorship has been good for “Afro-Cubans” (i.e., black people). 2) The dictatorship has done wonders for literacy. 3) The dictatorship has done wonders for people’s health, with a crackerjack health-care system.

All of this is nonsense, disproven many, many times. But the myths endure, and will endure forever, I’m afraid. They are deeply ingrained. They are taught in our schools, by our culture. It is not merely sad, but an outrage. “Live not by lies,” Solzhenitsyn said. But we do.

Feel like a little reading? For a piece I did on the Cuba-and-blacks thing, go here. For a piece I did on the health-care thing, go here. I don’t think I have an entire article on the literacy thing. But many others have written it.

Longtime readers of Impromptus may have heard this story before. Years ago, Armando Valladares came to Harvard. He had been in the Cuban gulag for 22 years, and had written his memoir, Against All Hope. Harvard administration would not let him speak alone, of course. They “balanced” him with a pro-Castro professor.

Obviously, the kids were affronted by what Valladares had to say. In the Q&A, one told him that Cuba was a shining example in health care, literacy, etc. The same old garbage we had all been fed for years. Valladares answered beautifully.

He said — I’m paraphrasing — “What you say is mistaken. It’s just not true. But let’s pretend it were. Let’s say that Communist Cuba were a paragon in health care and all that. Can’t a society have those things without dictatorship? Don’t you in free societies have literacy and health care too? Can’t a country have freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, the right to vote — as well as those things you mention? You don’t have to have a totalitarian dictatorship to have health care and literacy, do you?”

I’ll never forget it. And here’s one more article (as though you didn’t have enough): For a recent interview I did with Dr. Oscar Biscet, one of the leaders of the Cuban democracy movement, and a man recently released from years in prison, go here. Dr. Biscet is an Afro-Cuban physician. The myths don’t work on him. Wonder why.

‐Okay, a little good news. Several readers have written me about the U2 concert in Miami. Bono gave a shout-out to Dr. Biscet. He said — to the Cuban authorities, I suppose — “We are watching. We are watching.”

Thank you, Bono.

‐More in this line? A reader writes,

Mr. Nordlinger,

. . . I saw the U2 concert last night in Baltimore, and near the end of the evening Bono made a point of thanking the United States for our efforts in providing vaccinations and AIDS medications to Africa. He then actually thanked George W. Bush specifically, and notably did not thank the current administration . . . Deep-blue Baltimore responded with an almost deafening silence, as the vast majority of M&T Stadium halted their applause at the naming of GWB. Just thought you’d be interested.

Oh, yes. Thank you again, Bono. What a stud. An hombre. A pop star takes time out of a concert to thank George W. Bush by name? (Not that I think concerts should include politics.) Stud. Hombre. (Are life-saving measures in Africa “politics”? We could argue.)

‐Want to give you a little bulletin from America. The other day, I was in Earlysville, Va., outside Charlottesville. Friends took me to the post office. There are two mail slots. One says, “Earlysville Only — 22936.” The other says, “Out of Town.”

So, for the rest of Virginia, the rest of the United States, the rest of the world, from Barbados to Argentina to Japan — “Out of Town.” You gotta love it.

‐Last week, we had Sen. Jim DeMint at National Review. He is known as the right-most senator, a hard-liner, a flame-thrower. I was interested to discover that he was a very mild-mannered, reflective, thoughtful man. Gentle, I would even say. You don’t see this type in politics all that often.

Rock-solid conservative views, a moderate temperament (at least on the evidence of this one encounter). That’s not a bad combo.

And it must vex his enemies to find that he’s not a knuckle-dragging, fulminating nut. (If you want knuckle-dragging fulminations — just come to me, baby.)

‐Feel like some music? For a piece on an evening involving Rufus Wainwright and New York City Opera, go here. (This is one of my pieces in City Arts, a New York publication.)

‐Feel like some language? For a piece that appeared in the June 20 NR, go here. It’s called “War of Words: Notes on a language cop and her struggle.” The “language cop” in question is the late Kate Swift. Her mission in life was to make language “gender-neutral.” She wanted you to say “humankind,” not “mankind,” etc. (Of course, there was that pesky word “man,” within “humankind.”) She even had her own pronouns. They sounded like extraterrestrial burbles. They never caught on.

This piece occasioned some mail, and I wanted to share some with you. Let’s have two letters. The first is from my friend Marilyn Minden — brainy, erudite — who lives right here in Manhattan:


Your “War of Words” sparked a memory in me. One of my earliest encounters with the PC assault on language came during a conversation with Carl Sagan. I was editing something he had written for Discover magazine, in which he used the word “humankind.” It was the first time I had heard it, and I fully expected it would be the last. (Little did I know . . .) I explained to him kindly that there was no such word as “humankind” and that I would be changing it to “mankind.” Much to my surprise, he dug in, instead of being embarrassed. We had a little set-to. I don’t remember why, but I eventually gave in.

In your article, you say, “Win some, lose some.” But what have we won lately? It seems to me that all these language questions are going in the wrong direction.

And the second letter is from Carol Romanowski, up in Buffalo:

Dear Mr. Nordlinger,

My oldest daughter attended an all-girls (all-womyn?) high school. At the open house for parents, the principal very proudly told us that 9th graders were referred to, not as freshmen, but as freshwomen. My husband and I laughed, and not completely silently — so we received a rather stern look.

Then, at the end of the evening, we were all given forms to fill out, officially registering our “freshwomen” in the school. The form had a checkbox list of titles: “Mr. & Mrs.,” “Dr. & Mrs.,” and “Dr. & Dr.” I asked, “Where’s the checkbox for ‘Mr. & Dr.’?” That earned another stern look. Needless to say, it all went downhill from there . . .

Needless to say! (As it happens, the letter-writer and her husband are Dr. & Mr., or Mr. & Dr. Mainly, they’re just people, wouldn’t you say?) Bless you and see you.




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