Politics & Policy

Trump’s Record on Clemency

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The president’s powers of clemency are wholly discretionary: He can use them as much or as little as he likes. President Trump’s pardons have been frequently controversial, but they have not been frequent overall. As of now, he has issued fewer pardons than any president in 100 years. (He may end up issuing more than George H.W. Bush did by January 20.)

The pattern of his pardons and commutations is also unusual. Jack Goldsmith and Matthew Gluck have made some judgment calls in breaking down his record, but it’s quite clear that a very high proportion of Trump’s beneficiaries have been political allies or people with personal connections to him. A high proportion of his other beneficiaries have been convicted criminals championed by celebrities. A very low proportion of them, it appears, have been recommended for clemency by the Justice Department’s pardon office.

The president has no constitutional obligation to follow the department’s recommendations, and going beyond them may sometimes be right. (David French argued for the Blackwater pardons last year.) Ideally, though, a president would regard this power as something more than a perk of the office.

Politics & Policy

‘Christmas in a Time of COVID’

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This week on The Editors, Rich, Charlie, and Michael discuss Congress’s newly passed economic relief bill, the fight over who should be at the front of the COVID vaccine line, and their favorite Christmas memories. Listen below, or subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, or Spotify.

One More Round of Chaos for Trump

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President Trump holds a campaign rally in Winston-Salem, N.C., September 8, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Last week, Trump reportedly thought about demanding $1,200 or even $2,000 stimulus checks in the COVID-relief bill. But his aides advised him this would blow up the negotiations, so he didn’t.

Instead, he waited until after the bill passed — with $600 checks — and released this video last night. He is asking Congress to add $2,000 checks to the relief bill, extend a tax break for business meals, and remove the foreign aid and pork (most of which is actually in the omnibus appropriations bill that funds the government, not the relief bill itself, though the two were combined and

Education

Books We’d Like to Find Under the Tree

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The Martin Center has been accumulating a considerable library of books on higher education — more than 700 so far. There are always good new (and not-so-new) titles that we’d like to get, and the Center’s president, Jenna Robinson, lists ten she’d like to acquire.

  1. Mortimer Adler: How to Think about the Great Ideas
  2. Zena Hitz: Lost in Thought
  3. Richard Hofstadter: Anti-intellectualism in American Life
  4. Alasdair McIntyre: God, Philosophy, and Universities
  5. Richard Phelps: Correcting Fallacies about Educational and Psychological Testing
  6. Jeffrey Selingo: Who Gets In and Why
  7. Stuart Richie: Science Fictions
  8. Tom Wolfe: I Am Charlotte Simmons
  9. George Yancey: Compromising Scholarship
  10. Michael Young: The Rise of the Meritocracy
White House

Trump Warning Throws COVID Relief Bill into Doubt

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President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after participating in a Thanksgiving video teleconference with members of the armed forces at the White House, November 26, 2020. (File photo: Erin Scott/Reuters)

Just when it looked like a COVID relief (and catchall appropriations) package was sealed and delivered, President Trump gave a stark reminder that it’s not yet signed.

The president posted a four-minute video Tuesday evening on Twitter calling the $900 billion relief bill — the one that cleared Congress a day earlier, after months of partisan gridlock gave way to a seeming post-election compromise — a “disgrace.”

Without explicitly threatening a veto, he drew some clear lines — urging Congress to send him a “suitable bill,” which he defined as one that purges “wasteful and unnecessary items” and ups the value of stimulus checks from a “ridiculously low” $600 to $2,000 for individuals.

Trump decried funding for the Kennedy Center, foreign-aid promises, and more. Those are part of a massive appropriations package, not the COVID relief deal itself, though they were ushered through Congress together. Robert VerBruggen discussed these extras here, though noted that even the indefensible items pale in dollar-to-dollar comparison to “core COVID relief” such as small-business aid, expanded unemployment aid, and the stimulus checks that Trump wants increased. (Though, as NR wrote in its editorial on the matter, the stimulus checks are an unfocused antidote relative to targeted economic help such as unemployment aid.)

“Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists, and special interests while sending the bare minimum to the American people who need it,” Trump bemoaned.

Just in case you’d forgotten Trump hasn’t — at least publicly — given up the thought of somehow finding a way to invalidate President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory, the president then called on Congress to send him a “suitable bill, or else the next administration will have to deliver a COVID relief package, and maybe that administration will be me — and we will get it done.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to the president’s surprise video tweeting: “At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!”

Whether the parties really would scramble up a revised deal, and whether Trump would tempt a possible veto override in the event they don’t, remains to be seen. Washington has a stubborn habit of taking negotiations over must-pass spending and other legislation to the brink right around the holiday time. A government shutdown and complete freeze on promised COVID aid could be in the offing if this drags out.

Which is to say: Around Washington, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

International

Another Junk Currency, the Iraqi Dinar, Bites the Dust

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Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi delivers a speech during the vote on the new government at the parliament headquarters in Baghdad, May 7, 2020. (Iraqi Parliament Media Office/Handout via Reuters)

On October 15, 2003, Iraq began to distribute new dinar bills, graced with the likeness of an ancient Babylonian ruler and a tenth-century mathematician. By January 15, 2004, new dinars replaced the two types of notes that were in circulation. Old Saddam dinars were swapped for new dinars at a one-to-one rate, and each so-called “Swiss” dinar fetched 150 new dinars. Bank accounts and contracts were converted at the same rates, and Iraqi salaries began to be paid in crisp new notes. The new currency became convertible into foreign currencies at market rates.

Iraq’s currency swap was heralded with great fanfare in Baghdad and Washington. As President George W. Bush put it: “The new currency symbolizes Iraq’s reviving economy.”

Not so fast. Iraq has lacked law and order, let alone the rule of law. Without these, we should never have expected the new notes to ignite an Iraqi Wirtschaftswunder. They most certainly have not.

Indeed, the neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, the former Deputy Secretary of Defense and engineer of the Iraq War infamously predicted on March 27, 2003, in front of the U.S House Appropriations Committee that “There’s a lot of money to pay for this . . . the oil revenues of that country could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years . . . We’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.” Anyone who believed in this nonsense must put great faith in the Tooth Fairy.

Just look what has happened to Iraq’s junk currency, the Iraqi dinar. On Saturday, the Central Bank of Iraq announced a whopping 20 percent devaluation of the dinar.  So, next week’s “Hanke’s Currency Watchlist,” which is nothing more than a rogues’ gallery of junk currencies, will include the Iraqi dinar:

This brings me back to September 2003, when I recommended that Iraq replace the dinar with the U.S. dollar. If dollarized, Iraq would then have returned to a regime that it used from 1916-31, when the Indian rupee was its legal tender. The adoption of a stable international currency would have avoided the pitfalls of Iraqi central banking and would have immediately provide Iraqis with stable money. And, while stable money might not be everything — without it, everything is nothing.

Politics & Policy

McConnell on Biden’s Cabinet

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Some reporters and pundits have speculated that Mitch McConnell might block some Biden executive-branch nominees from making it to the Senate floor, but the Senate majority leader says in an interview with Scott Jennings that they will each get an up-or-down confirmation vote from the full Senate:

“They (Biden’s nominees) aren’t all going to pass on a voice vote, and they aren’t all going to make it, but I will put them on the floor,” McConnell said. Two Biden nominees who face a tough road are Neera Tanden, a hyper-partisan Democratic operative (with detractors on the right and left) nominated for director of the White House Office of Management and Budget; and Xavier Becerra, nominated for secretary of Health and Human Services with an extremist, pro-abortion record that most Senate GOP’ers can’t stomach.

That means that even if Republicans win both Senate seats in Georgia, any controversial Biden nominee would be confirmed in 2021 with the support of two Republican senators (such as moderates Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins), all 48 Democratic senators, and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris.

Science & Tech

Pro-Choice Luddism

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For Vice, Amarens Eggeraat, drawing on the work of political scientist Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, laments that there exists no pro-choice “image powerful enough to match the foetus as an icon of the anti-abortion movement.” Apparently she doesn’t quite equate the symbolic power of the “pussyhat” with that of human life. Credit where it’s due.

Eggeraat’s premise is a false one, though. She presupposes that the clear images of what our offspring look like before they’re born — available thanks to the incredible leaps and bounds made in medical technology over the last few decades — are misleading. It’s entirely unclear why. They show a small, growing, developing human being because that’s what it is. Eggeraat protests that most abortions occur by 13 weeks gestation. Well, this is what a human fetus looks like at 12 weeks, complete with eyes, ears, and a nose. Teeth, toes, fingers, and nails too. Their brains have been working for weeks, and their hearts have been beating for over a month.

The pro-choice position is one that starts with an assumption — that abortion is morally permissible — and works backwards from there to prove it. Any facts and advances that cut against it must therefore be undermined. Of course, the idea that an unborn child may not be human until it looks human is decidedly unscientific in and of itself (what is it before it crosses the arbitrary threshold of “looking like” us?) but Eggeraat is correct to assert that prenatal imaging is a powerful part of the pro-life argumentative arsenal. How could it not be? For that reason, abortion activists have embraced a kind of Luddism that understands such imaging not as a tool helping us to ascertain the truth of the matter, but, much more ominously, a “public window into women’s private domain.”

Capital Matters

Pork Is a Problem, but It’s Not the Problem

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The Internet is awash in outrage over various line items in the massive stimulus/omnibus blowout that Congress just settled on. More than $25 million for the Kennedy Performing Arts Center! More than $100 million to Sudan, and $25 million to gender and democracy programs in Pakistan!

Why are the stimulus checks only $600 when the government clearly has plenty of money to throw around?

I’m not going to defend all this junk; much of it is indefensible. But spending like this is not why the stimulus checks weren’t twice as big, and it’s not why the federal government has a debt problem.

The biggest thing to bear in mind with budget numbers is that America has 330 million people in it. This means that dollar amounts in the millions, as opposed to billions or trillions, are frankly not that big of a deal in the federal-budget context. Every million dollars the federal government spends amounts to about a third of a cent per person. Even a billion dollars amounts to just $3 per person.

The overall stimulus bill spends almost a trillion dollars. The omnibus bill appropriates almost a trillion and a half. That’s real money, thousands of dollars per person.

And the vast majority of that cash isn’t spent on random hand-selected projects. Two-thirds of the roughly $900 billion stimulus is dedicated to core COVID relief in the form of small-business aid ($325 billion), $600 checks for most Americans ($166 billion), and expanded unemployment ($120 billion). The rest overwhelmingly goes to things such as help for schools ($82 billion), health care ($63 billion), and transportation ($45 billion).

As for the omnibus, it’s the annual round of appropriations that keeps the government running. It funds existing agencies, programs, etc., as well as including some new pieces of legislation. You can see a breakdown of all the stuff that got money here. About half of it is just defense funding, and it’s hard to go through the whole thing and come away with the sense that money for museums and foreign aid is the real problem.

You don’t have to like these bigger forms of spending either. I’m opposed to plenty of them, including those $600 checks everyone seems to think should have been bigger. You also don’t have to like the practice of bundling tons of different provisions into an “omnibus” and passing the whole thing at once. But if you actually want to put a dent in the new bills, these are the items you need to target.

And if you’re worried about the larger deficit and debt, you should know that three-quarters of all federal spending is on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, defense, and interest on the debt we already have, with much of the rest going to things such as poverty relief, education, and vets’ benefits.

Politics & Policy

Sorry, Dr. Fauci, Travel Bans Are Not ‘Draconian’

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The United Kingdom is dealing with a new strain of COVID-19 that is reportedly 70 percent more infectious than the previous one — though there’s no evidence yet that it is any more lethal. With British infections doubling in the past two weeks, Boris Johnson has shut London and much of the southeast of England. Canada, France, Spain, Germany, Israel, and other countries have implemented travel bans from the U.K.

When asked if the United States should follow, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who I assume will continue in his role under Joe Biden, advised against implementing border restrictions: “Travel bans are really rather draconian things to do … it is entirely conceivable that it’s already here.”

It’s fascinating to hear our political and expert class talk about our seemingly arbitrary coronavirus policy. Fauci apparently believes a travel ban is more “draconian” than instructing 330 million Americans not to see their families on Thanksgiving. I mean, is imposing a temporary travel ban to slow the importation of a potential super strain of coronavirus any more “draconian” than allowing governors to unilaterally ignore the Constitution and shut down religious services? Is it more draconian than destroying entire industries in major cities on scant evidence? Or keeping kids out of schools despite there being no evidence that such policies mitigate the spread of coronavirus in any substantial way?

Back when liberal pundits were pretending Europe was outperforming the United States on the pandemic front, countries that they pointed to as policy exemplars … Germany, Spain, Italy … well, basically every one of them had implemented some form of travel ban, and no one claimed it was “draconian.” When the European Union banned Americans travelers, some pundits mentioned it to gleefully accentuate how terrible we are – “The EU ban should be a wake-up call for the US. But will it be?” — but none, as far as I can tell, claimed the EU travel ban was draconian or ineffective. Then-Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden, in fact, reversed course to support Donald Trump’s China travel ban.

There are hundreds of pieces explaining why travel bans don’t work – well, when Americans want to implement them, at least. I have no special scientific insight on the matter. Or, I should say, I have roughly the same amount of expertise as Andrew Cuomo. Still, I’m a bit skeptical. Sure, the super strain is likely already here. But surely limiting the travel of foreigners who have it offers some modest benefits in any effort to contain new outbreaks. Whatever the case, it would not be a draconian measure.

Elections

Rita Hart Asks House Democrats to Overrule Iowa’s Certified Election Results

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As our John McCormack noted, Republican House candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks defeated Democrat Rita Hart by six votes out of 394,000 ballots cast, one of the slimmest margins of victory in American political history. The election results in this congressional district were counted and re-counted and certified by all state election authorities.

But that’s not good enough for Hart. She wants the House of Representatives to refuse to seat Miller-Meeks, contending some votes for her were not counted. Today she asked the House to investigate the election and conduct a third recount of the votes, declaring in her petition, “After the House has conducted its investigation and all lawful votes are accurately counted, Contestant Hart finally will be seated as the new U.S representative from the Second Congressional District.”

Some Congress-watchers are skeptical that 218 House Democrats will vote to ignore the state’s certified election results and begin an investigation that could take weeks or months. It will be interesting to see where Iowa’s lone remaining Democrat in Congress, Cindy Axne, comes down. Axne has avoided commenting on the election dispute; Hart is asking Axne to override the same certified election results that include Axne’s own reelection to Congress.

Politics & Policy

Pelosi Got Nothing from Her COVID-Relief Maximalism

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Nancy Pelosi never took any significant flak from the media for delaying passage of the COVID-relief bill for months (and, not coincidentally, past the election), but she could have taken a version of the current deal last summer. This table sets it out (warning: some stilted, partisan language since it’s a GOP product):

U.S.

On Liberty

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President Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress)

“The fundamental things apply,” goes an old song. In a Q&A podcast, Richard Brookhiser and I talk some fundamental things — as they relate to the American project. Rick is a senior editor of National Review, as you know, and the author of many books, especially relating to the American founding. His latest book is Give Me Liberty: A History of America’s Exceptional Idea. It stretches from the Jamestown General Assembly to Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech.

In between? Well, the Declaration of Independence, of course, and the Constitution, and the Monroe Doctrine, and many other things. Some of those other things? The Seneca Falls Declaration, the Gettysburg Address, and Emma Lazarus (“Give me your tired, your poor”).

One of the most touching things I know, in all of American history, is Abraham Lincoln’s eulogy of Henry Clay. Rick quotes it: “He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country.”

There is a world of Americanism in that statement.

At the end of his book, Brookhiser tells a story about U. S. Grant and Otto von Bismarck. They met in Berlin, when Grant was on a world tour, after his presidency. “Here were two great nationalists of the modern era,” writes Brookhiser — “one who had beaten the armies of secession in the world’s largest republic, and one who had, through shrewdness and carefully chosen wars against neighbors, forged a collection of kingdoms and statelets into an empire.”

Yet they were very different. They had different conceptions of nationalism. (In his book, Rick makes no distinction between nationalism and patriotism. He treats them as the same.)

Bismarck expressed sympathy about the American civil war. They were the worst of wars, civil wars. Yes, but it had to be done, said Grant. Of course, replied Bismarck: You had to save the Union, just as we had to save Germany.

Not only that, said Grant: We had to destroy slavery.

Bismarck had to think about this for a moment. Well and good, he replied, but surely saving the Union was the main thing. At first it was, said Grant. But in due course, we saw that slavery had to be blotted out, forever.

“We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.”

Writes Brookhiser,

A union in which denial of liberty was a permanent feature, not a stain to be deplored, contained, or eradicated, was not a Union worth saving. It would not be America.

He continues,

Bismarck was half right. Nationalism, including national unity, is the organizing principle of the modern world.

But Grant was entirely right. American nationalism embodies the principle of liberty. Without that, it is nothing. Without that, we are a bigger Canada or an efficient Mexico.

Do you know my favorite statement about patriotism? It was uttered by Carl Schurz, the German immigrant who became a Union general, a U.S. senator, and other things. It was taught to me by Barbara J. Fields, the historian of the South. “My country, right or wrong — when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be set right.”

Again, my Q&A with Rick is here. Like a handful of other people I have known — Paul Johnson, George Will, David Pryce-Jones, John O’Sullivan — Rick talks as well as he writes. He speaks in substantial paragraphs, which you could plop right down into text, without emendation. Extraordinary.

Law & the Courts

Death and Democracy

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Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, takes issue with my column advising death-penalty abolitionists to change their ways. I had suggested that they ought to “accept democracy.” Dunham responds, “No one who has brought about significant social change has ever done so by passively accepting the status quo because that’s just the way it is.”

Of course, I didn’t say anything about “passively accepting the status quo.” I said that abolitionists should try to persuade people to end the death penalty through legislation — but that, where laws provide for execution, abolitionists should refrain from asking “judges to override these laws, or for the executive branch to use its discretion and its powers of clemency to set a new policy.” The latter, anti-democratic kind of activism has been so central to the movement against the death penalty that some of its leaders must have a hard time imagining how to pursue the cause without it.

Regulatory Policy

(Another) Climate Warrior Aiming to Bypass Democracy

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Sen. Jeff Merkley questions Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt during his confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., January 18, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Whether it’s through their attempts of “legislation” by regulation, litigation, or the pressure of Wall Street’s corporatists, the climate warriors have long shown an interest in bypassing the usual democratic procedures in order to get their agenda through, and there is no doubt that some of the coercive measures that have been put in place to combat the pandemic will have given them additional ideas. That’s not a good thing.

In the meantime, Senator Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) has written this in the Washington Post (my emphasis added):

Our ability to take on the climate crisis through legislation will be challenged by the realities of the Senate. If Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) emerges as the majority leader following the runoff elections in Georgia, no serious climate bill will ever get a hearing in committee, much less get to the Oval Office. And even if Democrats win the Senate, passing adequately ambitious legislation will be a struggle with such a razor-thin margin and the need for filibuster reform.

But we cannot wait. We need bold executive action that treats this crisis — quite literally — as the emergency it is.

The National Emergencies Act (NEA) and the Defense Production Act (DPA) give the president broad powers to act in the national interest during grave national emergencies. While President Barack Obama used the DPA to purchase green transportation fuels, neither of these acts has been fully used to address the climate emergency.

Declaring the climate crisis a national emergency under the NEA would not only send a powerful signal about the urgency of bold action, it would unlock powers that allow our nation to take significant, concrete actions regardless of congressional gridlock. Examples include redirecting spending to build out renewable energy systems, implementing large-scale clean transportation solutions and financing distributed energy projects to boost climate resiliency — all of which would help safeguard our communities and slash harmful pollution.

Invoking the DPA would complement a national emergency declaration and help address the national security threats posed by our climate crisis. These powers would allow the Biden administration to take essential steps toward strengthening our emergency preparedness, such as constructing resilient energy infrastructure and mobilizing domestic industry to ramp up manufacturing of clean energy technologies. These are necessary steps to protect Americans from the deluge of violent storms and extreme weather events that are on the horizon. Plus, spawning a robust clean energy industry could generate millions of high-quality American jobs vital to rejuvenating our post-covid economy.

If you believe that last sentence, you will also believe that these measures are compatible with a properly functioning democracy. Some “climate”-related spending — such as improving the resilience of low-lying coastal cities or, as Merkley suggests, toughening our energy infrastructure — can be justified regardless of one’s views about a climate “crisis,” which is supposedly either already with us or due the day after tomorrow. For the most part, however,  “spawning a robust clean energy industry”, particularly under a scenario where the costs will be front-loaded, will be an exercise in value destruction, replacing that which does not need replacing, at least any time soon. And when value is destroyed, jobs tend to be destroyed along with them.

That’s not to say that such a spawning would spawn no new jobs, or to deny that some collateral benefit may come from some of them, even if no small part of that benefit is uncomfortably reminiscent of this passage from Keynes’s General Theory:

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again… the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.

Low bar.

Politics & Policy

Experts in What, Exactly?

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Frances Gogh receives the first of two Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine injections at Guy’s Hospital in London, England, December 8, 2020. (Victoria Jones/Pool via Reuters)

You probably saw some draft language from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which suggested prioritizing essential workers over the elderly in vaccine distribution, in part because elderly people who are most at risk of dying are more likely to be white and therefore privileged.

The New York Times explored the issue of giving vaccine priority to the elderly or essential workers — a category far larger than “front line workers.” (Essential workers includes media apparently.) They quote an “expert in ethics and health policy” from UPenn:

 Harald Schmidt, an expert in ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said that it is reasonable to put essential workers ahead of older adults, given their risks, and that they are disproportionately minorities. “Older populations are whiter, ” Dr. Schmidt said. “Society is structured in a way that enables them to  live longer. Instead of giving additional health benefits to those who already had more of them, we can start to level the playing field a bit.”

Now, notably, because the elderly are so much more likely to die of coronavirus, a policy of prioritizing essential workers actually doesn’t save more black lives, it means more elderly black people will die.  Author Wesley Yang understood the logic perfectly: “kill more black people in absolute terms so as to kill more white people in relative terms.”

Twitter user Spotted Toad alerts us that according to a report in the Washington Post, Joe Biden’s advisers are pretty happy about the kind of thinking going on at the CDC:

President-elect Joe Biden’s covid-19 advisory board supports the phases set forth by the advisory group, said one of its co-chairs, Marcella Nunez-Smith,  an associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine.  She praised the panel’s experts for “taking political interference out of the process” and said she was “quite excited by their grounding in inequity,” referring to the importance given to factors such as housing and minority status in decisions about prioritization.

Now it seems like after the pushback, the recommendations are finally putting the elderly where they belong: at the front of the line for the vaccine they want.

What exactly is the expertise of the people in public health? And by “taking political interference out of the process,” I take it Marcella Nunez-Smith means taking political decisions away from the public and their representatives.

Music

An Early Beatles Christmas Gift from Peter Jackson

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Cover of Abbey Road from The Beatles.

When I learned last year that Lord of the Rings trilogy director Peter Jackson, fresh off of having created a stunningly immersive documentary about World War I, was now set to direct a documentary about The Beatles, I was so happy I was almost confused. As a lifelong fan of The Beatles and a near-lifelong fan of The Lord of the Rings, it seemed almost impossible to believe that my passions would combine so neatly. But sometimes we do get nice things, even if we don’t deserve them. Alas, I’ll have to wait until next year for The Beatles: Get Back, which will make use of hours of previously unseen footage originally filmed for the Let It Be movie, which documented the production process of what turned out to be the band’s final released album. Until then, I can tide myself over with this preview “montage” that Jackson and his team have put together:

The movie looks quite promising, and could do the one thing that listening to the band’s music and thinking about its legacy often has trouble with: humanizing the members. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, despite creating arguably the biggest phenomenon in the history of popular music, were only human. But that itself is also cause for mild concern about this enterprise. The original Let It Be film was not intended to show the band in the process of collapse, but it did end up capturing that, to a significant degree (or so I have heard; I haven’t seen it, partly for this reason). This new film, which will draw from footage used for that enterprise, is likely to do the same. Thus it could be both a fascinating experience for Beatles fans — and a painful one. Whatever it ends up being, I very much intend to find out for myself.

Politics & Policy

The End of Cherry-Pie Exceptionalism

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At Reason, Scott Shackford has more about our new cherry-pie freedoms:

While the FDA has been granted the power by Congress to regulate frozen foods and fruits, including pies, it’s very important to explain that these regulations were only implemented for cherry pies. There are no other similar regulations for other types of fruit pies. And there are no similar regulations for fresh pies to control the number and quality of the cherries in them. Just frozen pies, and only the cherry ones.

And so under Gottlieb and by request of the American Bakers Association (ABA), a trade association and lobbying organization, the FDA began rethinking this rule. . . .

What’s amazing about all of this, and very relevant given all the horrible foot-dragging we’ve seen from the FDA in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, is that the petition from the ABA was submitted to the FDA in 2005. It has taken 15 years and an FDA head who was actually interested in deregulation to get rid of an obsolete rule that didn’t really serve any valuable role in protecting consumers.

Politics & Policy

Nancy Pelosi and ‘Science’

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Virtually everything Nancy Pelosi utters in this clip about the bipartisan relief bill is untrue.

I’m relatively certain that not one person, much less “people,” in Congress has said: Hey, “I’m faith-oriented so I don’t believe in science.” No group has a monopoly on quackery, of course, but this is just a caricature of social conservatives. I’m also quite confident that Pelosi, who believes life begins whenever a woman decides on a case-by-case basis, isn’t any more concerned about genuine “science” than her conservative colleagues. Not that “science” alone – stripped of moral, ethical, legal concerns – should drive public policy, anyway. People who throw around the word “science” in this way are typically preening or appropriating the word for some ideologically motivated cause.

But the topper is hearing Pelosi jump from asserting that Republicans have done nothing but intentionally spread the virus to reach “herd immunity” to saying, “now we have a vaccine,” as if the White House hadn’t implemented Operation Warp Speed with the intention of speeding up discovery, production, and distribution.

Granted, government gets too much credit for the COVID vaccine accomplishment. Pfizer or Moderna would have dumped billions of dollars into the development of the vaccine with or without state help. It’s a fact that the profit motive saves lives. What the government did do is loosen restrictions that allowed fast tracking of the drug, hopefully saving thousands of lives. So how about reforming an FDA that take 15 years to work out how to deregulate frozen cherry pies? For science.

Sports

The Hilarity of the NFC East

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An amusing sidelight to the NFL season has been the sheer awfulness of the NFC East. A couple of the last place teams in other NFC divisions would be in the hunt for division champ in the East. As it is, if Washington wins this weekend and the Giants lose, the Football Team (such a compelling team name) will move to 7–8, clinch the division, and be able to rest its starters, yes, rest its starters in the final week:

Politics & Policy

In Replacing Kamala Harris in the Senate, Gavin Newsom Is Going to Have to Disappoint Someone

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The New York Times updates the world on the status of the debate over who should replace Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate:

Some Latino officials point to those [demographic] numbers and argue that the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, needs to — must, without question — appoint a Latino to the U.S. Senate, the first in California’s history.

But Black political leaders contend that Ms. Harris could not be replaced by anyone other than a Black woman. Without her, they noted, the Senate would have no Black women in the chamber.

(Notice the relative lack of discussion about who would actually be the best individual to represent the state until the next statewide election.)

Elsewhere, some liberals want the state’s other senator, Dianne Feinstein, to step down, contending she’s getting too old for her duties and she’s not combative enough. Feinstein’s resignation would give Newsom the power to select both senators representing California, which some columnists contend is “too much power for one politician.” (A truly opportunistic and race-obsessed politician would prefer Feinstein to retire early, so Newsom could select one Latino senator and one black senator, and placate both constituencies.)

The appointed senator will serve until the next regularly scheduled statewide general election in 2022. California’s statewide elections always rank among the country’s most expensive; incumbents enjoy a major advantage because of higher name ID and preexisting fundraising networks. Newsom is probably picking the person who will represent California in the U.S. Senate for many years to come.

Newsom could avoid the political headache — and leave the choice in the hands of the voters — by declaring he isn’t meant to be a kingmaker and that his selection will be a respected elder statesman figure who will not run for a full term. California has no shortage of veteran liberal Democrats who would happily vote the way Chuck Schumer wants for two years.

(Because of the potential for close votes between now and Inauguration Day, Harris will probably not resign her seat in the Senate until close to January 20. But that’s not that unusual for an incoming vice president. Al Gore resigned from the Senate on January 2, 1993; Joe Biden resigned from the Senate on January 15, 2009, and Mike Pence resigned as governor of Indiana on January 9, 2017.

Then again, Newsom may not want to leave the decision in the hands of voters, and probably prefers having an appointed senator who owes his or her Senate career to him. I’m sure the governor will get together with trusted advisors at the French Laundry soon to sort it all out.

World

A Confession in the Navalny Case

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. . . secured by Navalny himself. It’s a little bit LeCarré, a little bit Borat.

Navalny was not working on behalf of any police or security service, nor was he conducting a traditional journalistic investigation — rather, he was in the unique position of investigating his own assassination attempt at a time when no law enforcement agency is willing to do so. To our knowledge, it is without precedent that a target of a political assassination is able to chat for nearly an hour with one of the men on the team that tried to kill him and later cover up the evidence. Our supplemental research into the revelations of this call — detailed further in this article — shows that the information provided by Kudryavtsev is credible, and has led to new investigative leads we had not previously discovered.

Get Flynn and Powell away from the President

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President Donald Trump leaves the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., November 4, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

It’s never a good sign when a president publicly insists he’s not considering declaring martial law in an attempt to reverse the election results, or when high-level military officials feel the need to declare, “There is no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an American election.”

For what it is worth, the president tweeted Sunday, “Martial law = Fake News. Just more knowingly bad reporting!”

What we know is that Trump has met with retired General Michael Flynn, who has publicly advocated the president declare martial law and have the military organize a re-vote of the presidential election.

World

Boris Johnson ‘Cancels Christmas’

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In the U.K., news outlets are reporting that the prime minister has “canceled Christmas.” The situation resembles something from a movie. Because of a new strain of the deadly virus — which is now 77 percent more transmissible — the government has consigned millions of people in highly infected areas (London and the southeast of England) to a sad and lonely Christmas, self-isolating away from loved ones.

Of course, if this really were a movie, we could all expect that on Christmas eve, Santa (played by Tom Hanks?) would come to the rescue, flying overhead on his sleigh, spraying a magical cure like fairy dust. Then children would hug their grandparents, couples would kiss, dogs would wag their tails, and all would be well against a backdrop of snowfall and corny music. If only real life were so sentimental. It’s not, of course. And the prime minister’s deliverance of this bad news is made all the worse by his shambolic inconsistency.

Last week, as the newspapers were reporting that Boris Johnson had “ruled out scrapping Covid freedoms in England,” leader of the opposition Keir Starmer was warning the prime minister not to make promises he was unlikely to keep. Starmer wasn’t the only politician presenting concerns. Scotland’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, had warned that Scotland would chart its own course if the prime minister pursued action that contradicted scientific advice. On December 15, the Health Service Journal and British Medical Journal said in a joint editorial that relaxing restrictions over Christmas would be “rash” and “cost many lives.”

But much like his sudden change of heart with lockdowns at the beginning of the pandemic, Johnson scoffed at calls for tighter restrictions over Christmas, calling them “inhuman,” only to adopt the very same policies his critics were calling for days later. (Because of the terms of the Coronavirus Act, Johnson is able to make decisions about restrictions without going through Parliament.)

Johnson’s sudden change of mind has been hugely disruptive and distressing, as many people who otherwise would have been able to travel home are trapped in London. Christmas 2020 will no doubt go down as yet another contributing factor of Johnson’s plummeting popularity.

Smartmatic’s Election-Conspiracy Lawsuit and What the New York Times Left Out

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A “I Voted” sticker is shown by a keyboard. July 29, 2017. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

One of the popular conspiracy theories retailed by Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, Rudy Giuliani, and the Trump legal team is that Dominion Voting Systems voting machines rigged the 2020 election, perfecting techniques pioneered by Smartmatic in rigging elections for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. There are some obvious, glaring flaws in this theory, starting with the fact that Dominion and Smartmatic are competitors, and Smartmatic had no involvement in this election outside of Los Angeles. Given that a reputation for honest election administration is central to their businesses, both companies are very properly considering defamation lawsuits against Team Trump, and possibly

Politics & Policy

There’s Nothing Identity Politics Doesn’t Touch

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Betsy McCaughey has a good column on the insane push to racialize distribution of the vaccine.

Education

Fairfax County Fixes Virtual Learning

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Last month I noted a problem in the Fairfax County, Va., schools — where my oldest son went to kindergarten this year, until officials canceled their reopening plans and we pulled him out. The problem was that failing grades were way up under virtual learning.

Now I’m pleased to report that a solution is in the works and should resolve the issue in the New Year. A WTOP story has the details (hat tip to Do Better FCPS):

[Sloan Presidio, the school system’s chief academic officer] told school board members [December 10] that grading policies have been modified. The change is expected to kick in after the winter break.

Among the changes: A 50 out of 100 will become the lowest score a student can get on an assignment, turning in work for major assignments late will only come with minimum penalties and no single assignment can be worth more than 20% of a student’s final grade.

The school system will also reduce the minimum number of assignments per quarter from nine to six.

In addition, Presidio said the school system will look at being more flexible with final exams and may consider changing how final marks are done and whether pass, no pass or incomplete grades should be used.

Sounds like they’ve got it under control.

Politics & Policy

Stimulus Package Just About Finalized

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Not too much has changed about the core provisions since I wrote on the subject last week, aside from the $300 unemployment boost being extended from ten weeks to eleven. But there are a couple of smaller items worth briefly noting.

First, there’s a fix for “surprise” medical billing, which is when you go to an in-network hospital, often in an emergency, but end up having some work done by an out-of-network doctor and getting slammed with an outrageous bill. As the New York Times puts it, “instead of charging patients, health providers will now have to work with insurers to settle on a fair price. The new changes will take effect in 2022, and will apply to doctors, hospitals and air ambulances, though not ground ambulances.” When providers and insurers can’t agree, they’ll have to use an outside arbiter.

Great: Health providers shouldn’t be able to take advantage of people who didn’t have the chance to shop around and often weren’t even told a price before the work was done.

The compromise also allows businesses to fully deduct the costs of meals provided at company expense — the “three-martini-lunch” deduction. (For decades, the deduction has been limited to 50 percent of the amount spent.) This shouldn’t be too costly in the big scheme of things, but it’s not great tax policy, as Kyle Pomerleau of the American Enterprise Institute has explained:

Meals and entertainment can be an ordinary and necessary business expense. For example, it is typical for business owners to take prospective clients out to a meal or a baseball game to build relationships. However, it is hard to distinguish these expenses from the personal consumption of a business owner or their client. Business owners and their clients also like to dine out and go to baseball games on their own.

Current law deals with this ambiguity by placing limitations on the deductibility of business expenses. Under current law, only 50 percent of the cost of qualified business meals are deductible against taxable income. And since the passage of the 2017 tax act, entertainment expenses are no longer deductible. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the changes passed as part of the 2017 tax act would raise approximately $2.2 billion per year.

A more permissive rule will make it easier to pass off personal consumption as a business expense.

The bill also provides some money for schools and vaccinations and extends the eviction moratorium.

As I wrote last week, this is not a perfect compromise — I especially dislike the “$600 checks for everyone!” provision — but it’s good enough.

U.S.

Red and Blue (and Very Tense)

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Arguing about the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett outside the Supreme Court on October 12, 2020 (Erin Scott / Reuters)

On the homepage today, I write about David French’s new book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. In a podcast some weeks ago, I asked him, “Do you mean ‘secession threat’ in a hyperbolic way? Or are you serious?” His answer, in essence, was “Both.” The threat is not imminent, he said. But neither is it to be ignored.

In recent days, I have felt that the world is conspiring to promote David’s book (a superb and important one).

On December 10, Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show, “I actually think that we’re trending toward secession. I see more and more people asking, ‘What in the world do we have in common with the people who live in, say, New York?’”

The next day, the Supreme Court decided against a lawsuit filed by Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, which sought to affect the results of the presidential election. Reacting to the decision, the chairman of the Texas Republican Party, Allen West, issued a statement. It read, in part,

This decision will have far-reaching ramifications for the future of our constitutional republic. Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution.

I pause for a couple of interesting stats. Donald Trump received more votes in California than he did in Texas; Joe Biden received more votes in Texas than he did in New York.

David French — formerly of National Review, now with The Dispatch — is in an interesting boat. He is far from alone in this boat.

For the first time in my life, I’m a man without a party. I have no “tribe.” And I must confess that it has opened my eyes. I see things differently than I used to, and I understand the perspective of my political opponents better than I did before.

He is in an excellent position to write about America’s inflamed divide. His life has prepared him for the job. He is a product of “red” America who even now lives in “the heart of Trump country,” as he says. He has also journeyed deep into “blue” America.

In my piece today, I say,

French is a man of strong opinions, and strong convictions, and they are conservative ones. He argues for his positions in column after column, essay after essay. Mainly, however, he is on Team America. If I were a politician, engaging in politician’s rhetoric, I would say, “He is neither red nor blue but red, white, and blue.” Above all, French wants the “frame” to hold — the frame being the Declaration, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and maybe apple pie (plus basketball, David’s No. 1 sport).

I then tell a story — a personal story — which I’d like to retell here. I will paste:

Many years ago, I accompanied a congressional delegation to a troubled country, where elections were being held — elections that needed monitoring. There were two main parties in the country, and the parties were neck and neck. Some businessmen from America were along on the trip, and they favored one party over the other (for good reasons).

When the results came in, we were all at a dinner, where a little American flag was placed next to each plate — a little flag on a stick. One of the businessmen exulted, “We won! We won!” A congressional staffer said, “What do you mean ‘we’?” He then took his little flag and waved it, saying, “This is my ‘we.’”

I have never forgotten that: “This is my ‘we.’” The staffer probably favored a side himself — the same side that the businessmen, and I, favored. Mainly, however, he wanted the process to work. He wanted the democratic process to prevail. And, of course, he was representing the United States.

There is much more to say, and I say a fair amount of it in this piece. Again, here. David is right: Secession is not imminent, thank heaven, but it is not to be ignored. David looks at this problem with very clear eyes, and a keen mind, and a great heart.

While I’m at it, let me recommend a piece by Tim Alberta, of Politico (formerly of National Review). I podcasted with Tim last week (here). The piece is “20 Americans Who Explain the 2020 Election.” And the subheading: “We have very little in common except our fear of each other.” Arresting, and alarming.

Education

True Higher Education Should Be about Teaching

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At many colleges and universities, the emphasis is on money, perceived prestige, sports, resume-building, student amenities — but not mentoring the students. Sure, they pay lip service to liberal education, but that’s all.

In today’s Martin Center article, Shannon Watkins writes about this problem, focusing on the observations of Professor Zena Hitz, who teaches at St. John’s College in Annapolis. That is one of the remaining schools where the attention is all on teaching.

She graduated from St. John’s herself, earned her Ph.D. at Princeton, and subsequently taught at a number of institutions.

Watkins writes, “Unlike many scholars, Hitz experienced two very different models of education in her academic formation. Her experiences prompted her to think deeply about the nature of the intellectual life and how the modern-day academy often inhibits its development.”

Yes, because so few professors are really interested in teaching. There’s no reward for doing it well and no cost for doing it poorly.

Students who really want to learn can sometimes find professors willing to mentor them, but it takes a lot of effort to find them.

Hitz concludes that the perfect student/faculty relationship is two-sided: “To share with your students the questions that, to you, feel open, so that they can see that not everything is sound bites and slogans and digestible pieces—bullet-points for the Powerpoint presentation.”

World

Spain Joining Euthanasia Pandemic

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If euthanasia is a social disease, the West is in a worsening pandemic. Now, Spain is about to legalize lethal-injection euthanasia and assisted suicide. From El Congreso‘s story (Google translation):

The standard will regulate both euthanasia (the consensual administration of drugs to someone who cannot fend for himself to end his life) and assisted suicide (making these substances available for the patient to end his or her own life).

But not everyone will be able to access them. To do so, the applicant must be of legal age and Spanish nationality, or, if not, have resided in Spain for the last 12 months. And you can only get help to die if you suffer “a serious and incurable illness” or “a serious, chronic and impossible condition” that prevents you from using yourself or that entails “constant and intolerable physical or psychic suffering”.

That opens a very wide door, doesn’t it?

Euthanasia/assisted suicide is blitzkrieging Europe, with Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, and now Spain falling to the belief that killing is a splendid means for ending suffering.

Also, Canada is now expanding its already radical killing license. Victoria, Australia also permits assisted suicide and, soon, New Zealand.

We have stopped the spread of assisted suicide in the USA of late, but Massachusetts, New York, and other states are going wobbly.

The quote of Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne keeps ricocheting around my brain:

A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death. A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.

Is he wrong?

Culture

The Chef Who Dared Post a Food Pic without ‘Cultural Context’

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Chef Stephanie Izard (via Instagram)

Once in a great while, we encounter a “controversy” whose catalyst is so inscrutable, it takes several passes through several articles to start to understand what all the fuss is about.

So, in such a case, you’d be forgiven for wondering why Stephanie Izard — a James Beard Award–winning Chicago chef — was cornered into apologizing this past week for posting on Instagram a photo of “bibimbap.”

Eater Chicago helps explain:

A photo posted Thursday using Izard’s social media handle showed a bowl with beef and topped with cilantro and mint. The post — which has since been edited — was sponsored content created for New Zealand Beef & Lamb. Izard issued an apology Friday morning.

The dish, full of green herbs, looked more like a Thai or Vietnamese dish; at best, it’s Pan Asian, Korean-American chef Won Kim (Kimski) tells Eater Chicago. But it was not originally described as fusion — the post only called it “bibimbap” without any cultural context or sign of the dish’s hallmarks like crispy, charred rice from a stone pot.

Still confused?

The article’s title, “Stephanie Izard Apologizes For a Poorly Received Representation of a Korean Dish,” is the stuff of time capsules. Hopefully it’s placed as a bookend to a packet of headlines starting with ‘ALLIES INVADE FRANCE’ and ending here, to capture the full arc of history that led to this point. Future generations curious how a society’s celebrated strength in heterogeneity was corroded by the rigid guarding of identity need only scroll through this social-media saga.

First, for the uninitiated (i.e., you haven’t been hungover and found yourself coveting this dish), bibimbap is a Korean staple — a rice bowl topped with neatly arranged vegetables and meat and other fixings, often gochujang (chili paste) and, if you’ve been good, a fried egg.

The photo Izard included on her now-denounced Instagram post was . . . not exactly that. It looked more like a bowl of pho that had been left out in the sun, with strips of desiccated beef and torn mint all that remain.

A butchered version of a classic, no doubt. But cultural appropriation?

It is curious that the aforementioned chef Won Kim, who aired his complaints in detail on Facebook, did not specifically allege cultural appropriation. That was left to others. Instead, he wrote about the racism he encountered growing up and the taunts he faced for having Korean food at school, while accusing Izard of mislabeling the dish and, in turn, marginalizing immigrants and their challenges.

It’s a lot to pin on an Instagram pic. Still, Won Kim’s story is surely genuine and abundantly relatable for Asian chefs. The problem here is those who would adopt such frustration as their own outrage, and treat him as their latest gladiator in the woke arena.

Angry readers piled into her Instagram page, and Izard posted a clarification:

UPDATE! I want to make sure my language is more clear on this dish.** I see and hear your comments. So I want to clarify: This is my take on a tasty rice dish using flavors from a Japanese Beef Bowl and Korean Bibimbap! It’s not intended to be an authentic interpretation of either dish. This is my interpretation/homage.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Stephanie Izard (@stephanieizard)

Duly clarified, right? Perhaps, but not good enough for the Chicago Tribune:

Unfortunately the update did not address the accusations that the interpretive recipe remained so dissimilar to the original dishes yet invoked their names. One of the most liked of the new round of comments read in part, “The only tenuous similarity is that they are meat over rice and you show that racist tendency to conflate all Asian cultures …”

You know how this ends. The Top Chef winner issued a full-blown apology, provided to Eater Chicago:

This was a misstep on my part that spun out of control and I am sorry. When I was originally brainstorming recipe ideas for this project, I thought of Bibimbap as an inspiration and jotted the recipe idea down as that – from there the recipe went through many variations and channels and ended up very far from traditional [Bibimbap]. I should have made sure the name was changed before it went out to the public and I apologize that it wasn’t. It has since been changed to “Strip Steak Rice Bowl.” …

A few points here: Izard has built a brand offering eclectic menus across several Chicago restaurants. Moreover, she approaches these foods with care (notwithstanding the parched pho pic) and is recognized for her excellence. America continues to be in a transitional phase with its culinary tastes, but consider the conundrum posed here, as explained by Eater:

BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of color] chefs … often struggle to find opportunities in the industry and risk being labeled as lazy for cooking their own food. Meanwhile, white chefs are hailed as explorers for “discovering” that same food. As Kim and others struggle for acceptance, Izard is held up as a tastemaker by her fans. If she approves a dish, then it’s safe for consumption and hailed as a trend.

It is a point grounded in the experience of many minority chefs. But the implicit question is raised: Should white chefs be circumscribed to only cooking, and marketing, food deemed part of their culture?

The answer is obvious. That we are not consigned to such an insipid fate is why my household does not do gefilte-fish Fridays, for instance. Chefs regularly borrow and pay tribute. José Andrés, the renowned Spanish-born restaurateur, grew an empire cooking the cuisines of not only his home country, but Lebanon, Turkey, and China.

Where’s the outrage? Well, since we’re quoting anybody who tweets a thing, I’ll do so here: One “Twitter user” indeed reacted to the Izard contretemps asking, “Where are all these men who are calling her out when it’s other men appropriating?” The most underpaid hype man on the Internet — the “hmmm” emoji — punctuated this comment.

Meanwhile, it should be noted that Western diners do not as a rule depend on Anglo interpreters to approach Eastern, or any other, cuisine. David Chang, the Korean-American Momofuku mastermind and ubiquitous food-porn presence, is far more famous and followed than Izard. D.C. alone, where Andrés put down roots, features growing success stories of chefs cooking the food of their heritage. An increasingly urban and increasingly diverse country is increasingly exposed to more foods, meaning diners are not waiting to “see what Stephanie thinks” before taking a bite.

Izard’s crime, in short, was to shorthand the labeling of what was clearly a loose riff on a classic dish from another culture. As even Won Kim noted, she should not be “canceled” for this. And despite the amplification of this dust-up, her post was liked by over 2,000 people and the comments lately have turned to words of support and appeals not to cave to the “mob.”

You want to shame a white chef for sloppily interpreting another culture’s cuisine? This video of Jamie Oliver being savaged by a comedian for his sorry take on fried rice ought to offer sweet catharsis. But — to culturally appropriate the words of Hunter S. Thompson, not in service of memorializing the ’60s but of challenging a different kind of madness in every direction — let’s hope that with every such nonsensical nontroversy, we are getting closer and closer to that high-water mark of woke, “where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Music

The Greatest Year in Pop Music?

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(kot63/Getty Images)

When I saw that Mark Hemingway was calling 1984 the greatest year ever in pop music, my first thought was: “Is he talking about ‘Sunglasses at Night’?” Turns out, he was! Mark mentions that Corey Hart track and many others (mistakenly labeling Hart a “one-hit wonder”: have we all forgotten “Never Surrender” already?). By the way, Frankie Goes to Hollywood were not only not one-hit wonders, but their lesser hit, “Two Tribes,” was far superior to their bigger smash, “Relax.” Moreover, John Waite can hardly be called a one-hit wonder: “Missing You” was his big solo hit but he also had hits with his band The Babys.

Okay, okay, 1984 was also the year of Prince’s Purple Rain. And Van Halen’s 1984 and U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, which wasn’t as good as the albums before and after it, though it contains the classic track “(Pride) In the Name of Love.” And Born in the USA — which is far inferior to Bruce Springsteen’s best albums (Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born to Run). And the Cars’ Heartbreak City, which gave us two of the worst hits of the era, “Magic” and the unspeakable crime against human nature “You Might Think,” and is not fit to shine the hubcaps on the band’s legendary eponymous debut album of 1978, upon which seven of nine tracks are stone-cold classics. Mark also cites Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (error: no such album, the song of that name was on She’s So Unusual, from 1983) and Madonna’s Like a Virgin, two albums that were big hits but aren’t especially good, plus the Footloose soundtrack (ditto).

All in all, a lot of okay albums and a couple of classics. Now, 1983 — that was a spectacular year for pop. Synchronicity, Let’s Dance, Van Halen’s “Jump” (released in December, a month before the album 1984), “Come on Eileen,” “She’s a Beauty,” the Kinks’ “Come Dancing,” “True,” “Our House,” “The Safety Dance,” “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Always Something There to Remind Me,” Men at Work’s “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake,” Human League’s “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” Duran Duran at its best, Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It” and “Uptown Girl,” “Hold Me Now,” “Talkin’ in Your Sleep,” “Promises, Promises,” “Break My Stride,” “Pink Houses,” and on and on.

Religion

2020 Considerations: You Are Made By Love, Loved By God

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Have you felt like your heart was breaking this year? Have you felt overwhelmed with the loss? Have you wondered if you can handle much else? Do you feel crushed by this year? It’s the pandemic, it’s the anger, it’s the confusion. All of it. If it’s not you, surely you’ve noticed this is in the air. A tremendous number of people are struggling with this year. Unless we address this, 2021 is going to get harder to take. 

On Wednesday, Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., will join me in talking about all of this. One of his many books is Made by Love, Loved by God, which I found such a balm to my soul when I first read it. It’s about real love, the kind that is the reason for Christmas in the first place. 

With so much loneliness and uncertainty and sickness and death, I keep thinking of a quote he near begins with from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on hope:

The human being lives on truth and on being loved: on being loved by the truth. He needs God, the God who draws close to him, interprets for him the meaning of life, and thus points him toward the path of life.” That drive in us is inescapable. 

Because nothing can deceive the human heart. No matter how hard we try to deliver it, douse it, deny it, or divide it, the heart keeps after us, beleaguering us, pestering us as would a little kid to surrender to the Only Thing that would suffice. The heart knows what its needs. 

When I’m stuck in the hamster wheel of futile pursuing possessions, pleasure, power, and prestige, the resulting disappointment points me toward my desire–my destiny. I foolishly presume those four p things are not answers….but so often I enlist them as drugs to distract me from The Question: When shall I behold the face of God? 

So much of this year, I fear, has been about distractions. Getting crazy about politics. Putting the right sign on the lawn. And not confronting our fear of death and suffering. The best of this year has been people making sacrifices for others. But with places of worship closed, are we growing closer to God, or just the opposite while binge-watching Netflix? 

Those are my thoughts toward the end of the year, and since I’m always more hopeful after hearing from Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., I thought you might want to share in our Christmas discussion — as close to Christmas as we could get it before the Masses start. Goodness do we need Christmas — where the Love Who made us starts to become so clear.

Here’s the official write-up:

Making Sense of 2020: Made for Love, Loved by God

Coronavirus has quite obviously exacerbated the human misery that was already widespread before the pandemic. It’s on display on the streets. It sure is on social media. Then there are the suicides. So many young people say they considered taking their own lives this year. There must be a better way. Have we fully tried the Gospel way in the world today? Some, perhaps. But if more of us were, wouldn’t it look differently? How can we receive the gift of Christmas in transformational ways this year?

Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., is author of Made for Love, Loved by God. He’s a Dominican priest, currently prior at St. Patrick’s in Columbus, Ohio. He’s also a writer, editor, and frequent teacher of homiletics and speaker, formerly editor of the monthly Magnificat, and author of many other books, including Mysteries of the Virgin Mary: Living Our Lady’s Graces.

He’ll join the National Review Institute’s senior fellow Kathryn Jean Lopez, director of the Center for Religion, Culture, and Civil Society, in conversation.

Dec 23, 2020 02:00 PM in Eastern Time (US and Canada)

You can register for Zoom here. You can also watch it on the National Review Institute’s YouTube or Facebook page.

 

Culture

A New Era . . .

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. . . of cherry-pie freedom has dawned. The words of Burke come to mind: “The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints.”

Religion

Ten Things That Caught My Eye Today: Iraq, Books, Beethoven & More

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1. Iraq: Christmas to be annually recognized as a public holiday

On 17 October, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, had made a proposal to Iraqi President Barham Salih to present in Parliament a bill to recognize Christmas as a public holiday throughout Iraq. On that occasion, receiving the Chaldean Patriarch at his residence, President Salih had emphasized the role of Christian communities in the reconstruction of the country, after the years of jihadist occupation of Mosul and large regions of northern Iraq.

After learning of the news of the amendment’s passage, Cardinal  Sako, released a message in which he thanked President Salih; the Speaker of Parliament, Muhammad al Halbousi; and all the parliamentarians “for the vote cast for the good of their fellow Christians,” invoking for all of them God’s blessing and reward.

2. Catholic News Agency: Catholic archbishop: papal visit could ‘change trajectory’ of Christian presence in Iraq

Upon Pope Francis’ arrival in Baghdad in March, he will likely address Iraq’s government leaders. Archbishop Warda told CNA that he was confident that the pope would speak to these economic issues out of his concern for the poor.

“The Holy Father has always made it clear that he and the Church are first with the poor and the marginalized, with the working families, and the importance of their ability to live in peace and dignity,” he said.

3. Peggy Noonan: The Monday When America Came Back

It seems a funny thing to say of public policy, but so much of what doesn’t work in life has to do with an absence of love.

4. W. Bradford Wilcox and Alysse ElHage: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

When it comes to US family life in the time of Covid, media reports are mixed – perhaps the pandemic has made families stronger. Or weaker. Divorce is either falling or soaring. As for parents, especially those juggling jobs, child care, and online education, a recent American Enterprise Institute report concluded they are “not all right.”

5. 8 nuns die of COVID-19 last week at Wisconsin convent

The first death happened last week, and the death announcements kept coming. Four of the eight nuns died on Monday alone, a difficult situation for other sisters in the home and members of the broader congregation, who consider each other family.

“Even though they’re older and most of the sisters that did go to God are in their late 80s, 90s … we didn’t expect them to go so, so quickly,” Sciano said. “So it was just very difficult for us.”

6. 

7. Aleteia: Vandalized Our Lady of Guadalupe statue replaced by Knights of Columbus

The Knights of Columbus soon announced that they would contribute the money to pay for the replacement of the statue. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson pointed out in a letter to the pastor, Fr. Javier Flores, that 20 years ago when he became Supreme Knight, he dedicated the Knights of Columbus to Our Lady of Guadalupe.  He announced a grant of  $10,000 for a new statue.

“The desecration of our Catholic statues and churches is a grievous crime against all people who value religious freedom,” said Anderson.

“Together with Pope Francis, our bishops and faithful everywhere, we stand against violence, hatred and bigotry.”

8.

9. Damian Thompson: Beethoven’s spirituality: a conversation with Sir James MacMillan

10. 

Culture

Twenty-Three Foster-Care, Adoption, Child-Welfare Things That Caught My Eye Today

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(ThitareeSarmkasat/Getty Images)

I had a great conversation with Malka Groden and Naomi Schaefer Riley this week about adoption and foster care — please consider listening, even if it’s not a topic you’ve thought a lot about or feel called to.

1.  Wall Street Journal: Nigerian Boys Taken in Kidnapping Claimed by Boko Haram Are Freed

The release comes six days after the students were seized from their dormitories at the Kankara Government Science Secondary School in Katsina and driven into the nearby forest, marking one of the largest mass school kidnappings in history. President Muhammadu Buhari praised the military and security agencies in a statement that offered prayers for the full recovery of the victims. They “endured significant hardships in the course of their ordeal,” the statement said.

Local newspaper The Katsina Post tweeted images of dozens of schoolboys jammed onto the back of trucks, some looking dazed, but others sporting wide smiles for the camera as they headed toward home. Government officials said the boys would be given new clothes before an audience with the president on Friday.

2. Another baby killed in DC: another set of unanswered questions

3. Oregon teens reported missing from foster care

4. Swiss regret failure to stop illegal adoptions from Lanka

A fresh government report has acknowledged the failures of Swiss authorities, at both the federal and cantonal level, to react to information starting in the 1970s indicating illegal and exploitative adoptions of Sri Lankan children were taking place.

A study by Zurich University of Applied Sciences in February found that nearly 11,000 Sri Lankan children had for decades been provided for adoption across Europe through organised and often illegal means.

The study described how babies and young children were produced for adoptions through ‘baby farms’, with Swiss parents willing to pay between 5,000 and 15,000 Swiss francs for a child.

The birth-mothers meanwhile often received no more than a few dollars or even just a thermos in compensation, the study said.

5. NBC News: A profitable ‘death trap’: Sequel youth facilities raked in millions while accused of abusing children

The advocacy organization’s monitors interviewed about 100 children, some as young as 12, and documented their findings in a report this summer. The report included photographic proof of the Dickensian conditions that the state’s most vulnerable children were forced to live in: broken doors, missing floor tiles, blood smeared on the walls and thin mattresses laid on top of concrete platforms.

“These are places that are supposed to provide a safe, homelike, therapeutic environment,” Johnson said. “That’s not what we saw.”

. . .

In Iowa, licensing inspectors found on multiple visits over the past two years that the Woodward Academy staff had put residents in inappropriate restraints without justification. They also found the facility in disrepair, documenting missing sink handles, showers that had no hot water, moldy food, chairs with arms ripped off and nails exposed from torn upholstery on several couches. Sequel disputes the findings and the facility remains open.

6. BBC News: Kenya’s black market baby trade: A mother’s choice

Many women will know the anxiety of preparing to bring a child into the world without enough money to feed one person, let alone two. Most will never contemplate selling a child to a stranger. But for some expectant mothers in poverty in Kenya, selling a baby to traffickers has become the last in a limited number of options for survival.

The traffickers pay shockingly low sums. Sarah was 17 when she fell pregnant with her second child, with no means to support the baby, she said. She sold him to a woman who offered her 3,000 Kenyan shillings – about £20.

. . .

“Women and girls with unwanted pregnancies do not have support from the government,” said Ibrahim Ali, Kenya programme manager for the charity Health Poverty Action. “These women have often been victimised and stigmatised, especially in rural areas, and they tend to run away, and that puts them in vulnerable situations in cities.”

7. Attorney General charges Bronx man for sex trafficking children

Law enforcement source revealed that Alexander was listed as the CEO of private aircraft charter company called Central Jet Charter. The investigation into the case was aptly named, “Operation Mile High” and found that he was trafficking children across county lines for sex. Law enforcement gained evident by using covert recording devices, social media and undercover operations.

Back in March, a female minor reported Alexander to NYPD and alleged that the suspect had sexually abused her and other underage girls. She also said Alexander promoted the young girls for prostitution to other men.

8. New York City Foster Care Agency Cuts Ties With Columbia Professor After Pedophilia Studies Resurface

9. ‘Predators go where the prey is’: Lawsuits describe abuse in foster care

10. The Guardian: Children face Christmas ‘cooped up’ with abusers amid rise in helpline calls

Analysis of police-recorded offences earlier this year found four times as many adolescents were physically abused compared with younger children in England, with incidents against 11- to 18-year-olds soaring during the coronavirus lockdown.

11. The Blaze: CDC says child abuse hospitalizations ‘increased significantly’ during pandemic, despite emergency room visits plunging

“Although the increased proportion of ED visits related to child abuse and neglect might be associated with a decrease in the overall number of ED visits, these findings also suggest that health care–seeking patterns have shifted during the pandemic,” the report stated.

Regarding the increased hospitalizations, the CDC hypothesized, “Heightened stress, school closures, loss of income, and social isolation resulting from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic have increased the risk for child abuse and neglect.”

. . .

“There has been another cost that we’ve seen, particularly in high schools,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in July. “We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID. We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose that are above excess that we had as background than we are seeing the deaths from COVID.”

Continue reading “Twenty-Three Foster-Care, Adoption, Child-Welfare Things That Caught My Eye Today”

Religion

End 2020 with Hope, Humor, and Help for the Soul

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(Tim Mossholder/Unsplash)

On Tuesday, I’ll be at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture virtually with the new bishop of Springfield, Mass. Bishop William Byrne is a priest of Washington, D.C., whom I used to serve with on the board of the Catholic Information Center. If you’re a D.C. Catholic, you may know that he is just about the funniest man you’re going to meet, with some real wisdom rooted in faith. He comes from a big family which includes the remarkable Sister Deirdre Byrne, whom you may have encountered over the summer. Just after Loyola Press published his 5 Things with Father Bill: Hope, Humor, and Help for the Soul, Pope Francis tapped him to be a successor to the apostles. It will be such a joy to talk with him, and you’re invited to join us as we talk about life in these times.

“Christmas Joy for the New Year: Bishop Bill Byrne Helps with Living the Christian Life with Hope and Humor, Too”

Here’s the little official write-up: “‘Discipleship leads to joy,’ Touched by an Angel star Roma Downey, producer, actress, and best-selling author, writes in the foreword to Bishop Bill Byrne’s new book, 5 Things with Father Bill: Hope, Humor, and Help for the Soul. ‘Hope, humor, and help for the soul is the gift that Jesus gives us in return. Sometimes we can forget this,’ she continues. The book, published just before Pope Francis named Fr. Byrne the bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts, can be a great practical help at the end of this trying year, with lessons from real life and the beautiful treasury of the Catholic faith. For those curious about the faith, wanting to grow in it, or wanting to share it with others, the book — and the interview — might be a great Christmas gift.”

You can join us — and with your questions — on the Sheen Center’s YouTube page.

And if you haven’t seen it yet, earlier this month, I had an inspiring conversation with Father Roger Landry — who is a priest in Fall River, Mass., currently working at the Holy See’s United Nations in New York — to mark the 41st anniversary of the death of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Again, it’s the type of thing that helps with hope. I think you’ll be glad you listened.

Health Care

Exceptional Asininity

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(Photo illustration: Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

If you feel like you haven’t been exposed to enough stupidity today and would like to remedy that, the New York Times is here to deliver.

“Big pharma is fooling us,” reads the New York Times headline. “Heroic work went into the development of the coronavirus vaccines. But that doesn’t mean this industry deserves your affection.” The essay is by Stephen Buranyi, and it contains some absolute gems:

The turpitude of the pharmaceutical industry is so commonplace that it has become part of the cultural wallpaper. The screenwriters of the 1993 movie “The Fugitive” knew they could find a perfectly plausible villain to menace Harrison Ford in a faceless drug company out to cover up its malfeasance. (The film was a hit.) In John le Carré’s 2001 novel “The Constant Gardner,” [sic] a British diplomat uncovering a pharma giant testing dangerous drugs on poor Africans is similarly easily to swallow: Its plotline echoes a real case involving Pfizer in Nigeria. (The company has denied any wrongdoing and settled out of court the suit brought by the families of children who died during the testing.)

And yet, since the pharmaceutical industry stepped in with the vaccines, generations worth of ill will appears to be melting away. Last year, Gallup polling had the pharmaceutical industry ranked the most disliked in America, below both big oil and big government. By this September — even before the vaccines arrived — the industry’s approval rating was already improving.

So, the worry here is that people may be responding more strongly to a real-world vaccine against a real-world plague than they are to . . . fictitious events in movies and novels.

Okey-dokey.

Amitabh Chandra of the Harvard Business School raises one obvious multiple-choice question in response: “Let’s think about the argument in this article: A virus causes over $16 trillion to damage to the U.S., through lost lives and lost economic activity. The government pays $10 billion and we get two vaccines with 95 percent effectiveness in nine months. This was: 1.) a really good deal; 2.) a handout to big pharma.”

The issue of “affection” raised in the headline is interesting. One of the things that is genuinely great — and, ultimately, humane — about the free-market system is that it doesn’t matter very much how buyers and sellers feel about one another. If I need to fill up the car and the price is right, does it really matter if I feel any “affection” for 7-Eleven, or do I just give them the money and get my gasoline and go? (I do feel some affection for 7-Eleven, a former employer of mine, many years ago. I also kind of hate 7-Eleven, because they are a very bad neighbor.) Even the companies people tend to have affectionate feelings about — Apple, Porsche, Armani, whatever — mostly work for money, not love. That’s how it should be. Adam Smith had that one right.

We need not be under any illusions about the pharmaceutical business to believe, as many of us do, that Pfizer et al. are much more likely to be of some use in an epidemic than are op-ed moralists at the New York Times.

Media

Mark Shields Steps Back

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Today will be Mark Shields’s last time as a regular commentator on The PBS NewsHour. David Brooks has written a nice appreciation of Shields for the New York Times. I don’t know Shields half as well as Brooks does, but I can confirm that he is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. I’ve occasionally been a substitute panelist on shows with him over the years: on CNN’s Capital Gang in the old days, and the NewsHour more recently. He always made me feel right at home, and was kind even when sharply disagreeing (which, as I recall, we did a fair amount during the live coverage of Justice Alito’s confirmation hearings).

Shields was a hit on the lecture circuit because he is such a pro at mixing jokes, anecdotes, and insights. Once I was with some other pundit types who were marveling at how audiences loved him. One mentioned speaking at a conference where Shields had maneuvered to go last. It was only while watching him that the other speaker realized Shields had done it out of mercy.