Politics & Policy

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.

#ad#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.)

#page#Liske had several interesting things to say about victims and victimizers. He quoted some “prison talk” — typical talk of prisoners: “I was framed,” “The police were out to get me,” “It was somebody else’s fault,” “The law was stupid anyway.” Liske said that an inmate must “embrace the fact that he injured someone.” The inmate did not merely break the law but injured a fellow human being. If he recognizes this, chances will be much lower that he will offend again.

I should mention that one of the things IFI prisoners do, in their program, is listen to the testimony of victims. These people explain how crime has affected their lives.

#ad#Toward the end of our conversation, Liske told me how he got into his current line of work. He had been a pastor for many years. He never gave much thought to life inside prisons, or inside prisoners. But then a family member of his went to prison.

That’s the way it is with many people, I believe: If you have a family member or other loved one who has gone to prison, you think about issues that had never crossed your mind.

Oh, there is so much more to say about this. But there is that piece in the magazine, after all. And let me quote a chunk of it, here and now:

Not everyone is able to embrace a prisoner. One who can, literally, is George W. Bush. He attended the prison’s opening ceremony 16 years ago [when he was governor]. The men started to sing “Amazing Grace,” and he joined in. He put his arm around one of them. As [the program director] tells me, someone muttered, “That guy will never get elected president. They’ll call him soft on crime. The headlines will read ‘Bush Hugs a Thug.’ He just put his arm around a murderer.” That murderer was George Mason, whom Bush later invited to the White House, three times. Mason would move in to hug the president; the Secret Service’s eyes would get wide.

I won’t forbear quoting a bit more:

Personally, I am not dewy-eyed about prisoners and prison reform. I feel sure I have more sympathy for prisoners than do most people; but, like most people, I have yet more sympathy for their victims. I know full well that cons are good at conning — the cleverest of them could persuade the warden to drive the getaway car. I have long harbored skepticism about prison reform. Years ago, I heard a weary criminologist say that the only thing that cured a criminal was the passage of time — old age. But the wild card of religion is a wild and fascinating card indeed . . .

People have come up with various euphemisms for prisons. We call them rehabilitation centers, but no one is ever rehabilitated. We call them correctional facilities, but no one is ever corrected. We call them penitentiaries, but no one is ever penitent. IFI is something rare and good under the sun.

Worth knowing about, this “inner change” initiative.

‐Do you want a little language? Well, I don’t have much, but I thought of, and used, a wonderful old expression the other day: “Dust off the candy, I’m comin’ over.”

‐Do you want some music? I don’t have any links for you. But I have an interesting story. It comes from Heidi Grant Murphy, the opera star. She and her husband Kevin, a pianist and conductor, teach at Indiana University. I think they started about three years ago. Just the other week, HGM sang the national anthem before an IU basketball game. And her kids were wowed.

The oldest is a freshman in college, and their youngest is about ten. (Not sure.) There are two kids in between. For years, their mom has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera, Carnegie Hall — everywhere. And they were never impressed. She was just ol’ Mom. But when she sang the anthem before an Indiana basketball game — then they were impressed. At last, she had arrived.

Talk to you soon.

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