Magazine May 4, 2009, Issue

The Week

(Ismael Roldan)

‐ Bo joins the ranks of famous White House hounds: Barney, Checkers, Bill . . .

‐ Three Somali pirates found out the hard way that the most dangerous thing in the water is a SEAL: Navy special-operations sharpshooters killed three of the four brigands who had hijacked the Maersk Alabama and held its captain hostage. A fourth pirate, who had jumped ship to seek medical attention aboard a nearby U.S. Navy vessel, will be turned over to the lawyers. The pirate episode is a War on Terror in miniature, with the same strange polarity: At one pole, savages avail themselves of the best that American medicine and law have to offer; at the other are those three head shots from U.S. snipers. Somewhere in the middle is politics.

‐ President Obama tacked a surprise trip to Iraq on the end of his foreign tour. He was mobbed by star-struck soldiers, which made for stirring images. More important, Obama forthrightly acknowledged what has been accomplished in the war, hailing the troops for what they are doing “to make sure that Iraq is stable, that it is not a safe haven for terrorists, that it is a good neighbor and a good ally.” Obama has taken too long to get out of campaign mode, and to stop slighting Iraq as “Bush’s war.” In his Iraq trip, he finally acknowledged the war as his country’s own.

‐ Obama bowed before the Saudi king Abdullah — bowed literally, and obsequiously. The Arab world took notice: Supporters of the dictatorial status quo openly applauded, while would-be reformers murmured, as loudly as was safe. Saudi Arabia is an American ally, yes; it is also a nasty dictatorship. The American president should have manners, yes; but the U.S. is a republic, and one that threw off a monarchy. Our president should not bow before a king: any king. Furthermore, the White House — any White House — should not deny that the president has bowed, when he clearly has. Our columnist Mark Steyn summed things up when he wrote, “So let me see if I understand American protocol in the age of Obama: The First Lady hugs Queen Elizabeth as if she’s some granny at a seniors’ center photo-op, but the President of this republic prostrates himself before King Abdullah as if he’s a subject of the Saudi pseudo-Crown.”

‐  Isn’t Obama a little young to be so overcome with regret? On his world tour, the president pronounced himself sorry about American “arrogance” and our national failure to consult adequately with the Danes and Finns before acting in our national interest. Obama told the world he is terribly sorry about Gitmo, the housing market, atom bombs, the securities markets, American Indians, and our national failure to behave with sufficient deference to globalist sensibilities in Brussels — or to sensibilities in Tehran, which are globalist, too. Obama’s political career is moving at warp speed: A few years ago he was an obscure state legislator in Illinois, and now he’s becoming a Carter-style elder statesman without having been a statesman first.

‐ No new president has elicited such different reactions from Republicans and Democrats. The partisan gap in presidential approval is at record levels for this stage of a term. Republicans are chortling that President Obama has failed to fulfill his campaign promise to bring Americans together. Republicans should not take too much comfort from this finding, though. It partly reflects the Republican party’s shrinkage: Obama’s overall approval numbers are respectable, but Republicans are the home of the anti-Obama minority. Polarization is also a predictable byproduct of the sharper ideological definition of the parties. (Hard as it may be for youngsters to believe, in the 1970s there were Republicans who called themselves liberals, and conservative Democrats roamed the country in large numbers.) If Obama has failed to deliver on his promise, it is because the promise was not deliverable in the first place, any more than it was for his predecessor.

‐ The Obama administration’s unattractive habit of taking frequent potshots at George W. Bush took a turn for the absurd when Vice President Joe Biden tried to portray himself as an unheeded adviser to the former president. Biden told a CNN interviewer: “I remember President Bush saying to me one time in the Oval Office, ‘Well, Joe,’ he said, ‘I’m a leader.’ And I said: ‘Mr. President, turn and around look behind you. No one’s following.’” A number of Bush officials disputed Biden’s version of events. Karl Rove’s rejoinder was typically piquant: “It didn’t happen. It’s his imagination; it’s a made-up, fictional world.” A spokesman for Biden (Jay Carney, formerly of Time magazine) said the veep stood by his statement, but declined to provide any details about when or where the alleged exchange occurred. For now, it remains Biden’s word against Rove’s; but against Biden — he of the plagiarized campaign speech, the “forced” helicopter landing in Afghanistan (due to inclement weather, it turned out), and innumerable other tall tales — we give Rove the benefit of the doubt.

#page#‐ Sen. Chuck Schumer recently said: “The world has changed. The old Reagan philosophy that served them well politically from 1980 to about 2004 and 2006 is over. But the hard Right, which still believes when the federal government moves chop off its hands, still believes, you know, traditional values kind of arguments and strong foreign policy, all that is over.” Let us remind the senator that there is another election in 2010, and another in 2012, and yet another in 2014. If his party wants to run in those elections as the champion of “weak foreign policy,” well, Republicans should be happy to have that argument.

‐ On April 7, a federal judge overturned the conviction of former Republican senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, citing prosecutorial misconduct. Six Department of Justice lawyers now face a well-deserved probe into their own actions, which may have played a decisive role in last November’s elections. The 85-year-old incumbent lost to Democrat Mark Begich by a single percentage point, and he might very well have prevailed but for the conviction, handed down just days before voters cast their ballots. Yet Stevens is hardly vindicated of all wrongdoing. It is still unclear whether he inappropriately accepted more than $250,000 from Veco Corporation. That uncertainty, along with his infamous advocacy of the “Bridge to Nowhere,” had made him a national symbol for much of what ailed the Republican majority in Congress. He is not missed.

‐ Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is the skeleton at the feast. The budgetary problem for practically every other member of Obama’s cabinet is how to spend an unprecedented bonanza quickly enough. For Gates, it is how to make do with less — at a time when the nation is still embroiled in two major wars of counterinsurgency, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given his constraints, Gates has chosen wisely, putting the emphasis on capabilities important to irregular ground warfare. But not every future conflict will look like today’s wars. Gates is cheating other priorities, such as developing a sophisticated missile defense and maintaining a Navy big enough to undergird global American power. Gates has done his best dividing a disgracefully small pie. (For more details, read Mario Loyola’s article on page 27.)

‐ Is President Obama really committed to pushing for an amnesty and a guest-worker program in the middle of a recession, when resistance is likely to be at its peak, business isn’t hiring, and illegal immigrants are leaving the country on their own? Are congressional Democrats really eager to have this fight? It may be that Obama is just talking a big game to placate Hispanic groups, but opponents of amnesty had best keep their powder dry.

‐ Congress is considering whether health-care reform should include a “public option” that would allow all Americans to sign up for government-provided insurance. Proponents of this idea cite the low administrative costs of Medicare and Medicaid. But those government programs have low administrative costs in part because they do a very poor job of policing fraud, and their price tags have ballooned even though they push some of their costs to the private sector. (The government negotiates low reimbursement rates with doctors and hospitals, which then make up the difference by overcharging private insurers and their customers.) A “public option” will bring the explosive cost pressures of the existing federal programs to a larger share of the budget while shrinking the private sector they have exploited.

‐ President Obama hopes to stabilize the U.S. housing market, and thereby the broader economy, by helping struggling homeowners renegotiate their mortgages on more favorable terms. (“Helping” here means coercing the banks to go along with it.) The shortcomings of this proposal are several and acute, but the most important is that evidence suggests it will not work. Half of the mortgages that were modified in the first quarter of 2008, for example, were in default again within six months. An April 8 report from the Boston Federal Reserve supplements those findings and identifies negative equity as the main factor in mortgage defaults, which makes sense: Homeowners with equity in their homes can sell them in case of severe financial distress, but those with negative equity have no reason to sell, and so default. The government has spent years giving mortgage-lenders incentives to reduce down payments and take their chances on borrowers with thinner finances. The result: more homeownership, but less equity on the part of homeowners — with predictable consequences during a downturn. Fannie and Freddie have recently raised fees for borrowers with smaller down payments, but the realtors’ lobby is zealously against these increases. Since the mortgage giants are political enterprises rather than businesses, the realtors will probably prevail. The sorry record suggests that we need less, not more, federal micromanagement of home lending.

#page#Romancing the State

Further on in these pages I’ve offered a modest meditation on Albert Jay Nock. In the course of my research, I looked up Nock’s obituary in the New York Times. He died on Aug. 19, 1945, and the Times ran its remembrance of him the next day (which suggests that it was prepared ahead of time). After a brief squib from the Associated Press announcing his death, the article begins under the subheading “His Dislikes Were Many”:

Mr. Nock, an essayist and historian, wrote pithily and often cynically on many subjects. His last book, “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man,” an autobiographical study published in 1943, revealed his list of hates to be much longer than his loves, and to include almost everything except classical literature, beer, wine, Chinese food, and one or two other items.

I found this nasty summation of Nock oddly reassuring. Things have not changed much.

One of the least remarked but most constant assumptions of the progressive mind is that dislike for the overweening state marks you as a “hater.”

To be sure, there is something to Emerson’s observation that “there is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact.” But Emerson was making an observation about an argument, not about the people who made it. Slowly but surely, the dominant liberal culture has made opposition to the expansion of the state the hallmark of a stingy and uncharitable character. Recall Joe Biden’s explaining that supporting higher taxes is both a religious obligation and a hallmark of charity. Barack Obama said that paying higher taxes was neighborly. But Newt Gingrich endured years of “Gingrich Who Stole Christmas” puns for actually wanting to get the government’s books in order.

It’s as if Ebenezer Scrooge’s sin had been to oppose the growth of entitlement spending.

In the back of my head, I had always thought that this liberal tic began with Barry Goldwater, whom Lyndon Johnson had cast as a champion of “hate” in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination “deep in the hate of Texas” (as some in the press liked to say). But, after a moment’s reflection, it seemed obvious that this theory can’t be true. For if there is one thing that defines the broad spectrum of leftists, from the Stalinist to the progressive to the liberal and even some flavors of “compassionate conservative,” it is the idea that the state is, or can be, an instrument of love. Therefore to hate the state, or even its overextension, is somehow to hate love or what statists find loveable.

The problem is that none of this is true. Many conservatives spend too much energy trying to prove that their intellectual opponents have bad motives. Most don’t. They have good motives, or at least they are sure that they do. But they think the state can do what it cannot, because they think the state is something it isn’t and cannot be. Albert Jay Nock, a happy and contented man who believed that “for life to be fruitful, life must be felt as a joy,” understood this and said so plainly and clearly. The New York Times did not understand the man; it still doesn’t understand the philosophy.

#page#‐ In 2008, the Supreme Court manufactured a constitutional right for enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay to challenge their detention in court. Critics warned that once the Court abandoned the boundaries of the U.S. as the outer limit of judicial authority, judges would claim their reach was limitless. Now federal judge John Bates has proven the critics right by extending the same right to military prisoners held in Afghanistan. Since that nation is an active combat zone, the ruling threatens to turn acts of war into crimes and soldiers into cops. If they want to capture enemy combatants rather than kill them, our troops had better carefully rope off the crime scene, meticulously gather the physical evidence, record witness statements, administer Miranda warnings, and make certain a contingent of defense attorneys is present at interrogations. We may be about to see a war fought with due process.

‐ At an Ohio State University law symposium, liberal Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended the practice of citing foreign law in U.S. court decisions. Her argument sounded innocent enough: U.S. courts are not bound by foreign law, but judges may look to the logic and reasoning (“wisdom,” as she put it) of foreign judges for inspiration. The Supreme Court’s recent foreign citations have borne no resemblance to this description. For example, in ruling it unconstitutional to execute mentally disabled criminals, John Paul Stevens recently wrote, “Within the world community, the . . . death penalty for crimes committed by mentally retarded offenders is overwhelmingly disapproved.” And in Lawrence v. Texas, Justice Anthony Kennedy bolstered his case for treating homosexual sodomy as a constitutionally protected activity by noting that the European Court of Human Rights had treated it as a right. Citations of foreign law are, in other words, becoming just another way for the justices to ignore American voters.

‐ The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel recently released a report finding that it’s unconstitutional to give congressional representation to the District of Columbia. This conclusion is of course correct, and fairly obvious. Unfortunately, Attorney General Eric Holder didn’t want to listen. When the report came out, he “informally” turned to the deputy solicitor general with a slightly different question: Instead of inquiring whether a law granting D.C. congressional voting rights would be constitutional, he asked whether it could be defended in court. (The answer, of course, was yes.) But at least the bad old days when Republicans “politicized” the Justice Department are over.

‐ Last year, Obama indicated a willingness to approach school choice with an open mind: “Let’s see if the experiment works,” he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. On April 3, Obama’s Department of Education released new findings on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which grants vouchers to about 1,700 low-income students in Washington. The reading scores of participants improved compared with those of their peers. Moreover, parents reported a high degree of satisfaction with their children’s schools. This evidence suggests strongly that school choice works — or at least that the D.C. experiment did, and ought to continue. Yet congressional Democrats have voted to eliminate funding for the program following the 2009–10 academic year, and Obama went along with them when he signed the omnibus budget bill. In a just world, none of these characters would be able to speak in public about the nation’s poor and vulnerable again.

‐ New York governor David Paterson’s plan to raise taxes on high earners led Rush Limbaugh to declare his intention to abandon the state. (Limbaugh maintains a residence in New York City, where he occasionally works.) Paterson said he was happy to hear the news. “If I knew that would be the result,” he somewhat thuggishly said, “I would’ve thought about the taxes earlier.” Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said that Limbaugh is “not unlike other people who want to go to a place that’s got low taxes and fair regulations and a balanced legal system and a skilled work force. So if he wants to go somewhere where he works hard and keeps more of what he makes, Texas is the place to do that.” That Texas will continue to outpace New York economically is a safe bet.

‐ Which is not to say that Texas politics is free of anti-market folly. The interior designers’ lobby has been on a decades-long campaign to require licenses for their profession — i.e., to organize themselves into a state-sanctioned cartel with the power to exclude competitors from the marketplace. A bill to police the menace of unregulated decorators has been introduced into the Texas legislature, as though the southern reaches of the Lone Star State were being ravaged by unfashionable floral wallpaper rather than Mexican narcotics syndicates. This effort deserves both resistance and ridicule, but one can hardly blame the lamps-and-rugs mafia: Furniture movers, bug exterminators, credit-rating agencies, hairdressers, social workers, lawyers, and other competition-averse interests have been using licensure to discourage or eliminate competitors for decades. Absurd as it is, 23 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico already require the licensing or registration of interior designers. Do these drapes match our oligopoly?

#page#‐ Kim Jong Il, the mini-Mao of North Korea, is very pleased that his scientists and technicians “with their own wisdom and technology” have successfully developed and fired a three-stage missile. And well he might be. The missile flew over Japan and has the potential to deliver a North Korean nuclear bomb to the west coast of the United States. The alarm in Japan and of course South Korea is immense. Already three years ago, confronted by North Korea’s underground testing of its nuclear weapon, the United Nations decreed military and financial sanctions on that rogue country. These have not worked. Instead, China and Russia, the two powers protecting North Korea for realpolitik motives of their own, inveigled the United States, Japan, and South Korea into talks that have dragged the whole issue into the limbo of international diplomacy. This time, the U.N. Security Council might have passed a resolution condemning North Korea, and enlarging and then enforcing sanctions. Instead, again under pressure from China and Russia, it has merely issued a statement of condemnation. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., claims that the statement is “legally binding” and that sanctions and meaningful talks are at last for real. Prospective and eager clients for this missile include Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah, so the prevention of nuclear proliferation in reality remains a matter of wishful thinking.

‐ For years, the U.N. Human Rights Commission was dominated by the worst human-rights offenders in the world: China, Cuba, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia — everybody. They spent most of their time condemning Israel, which is probably the favorite sport of the U.N. In 2006, the Human Rights Commission changed its name: to the Human Rights Council. But it did not change its spots. In its three-year existence, the Human Rights Council has held ten regular sessions on human rights worldwide and five special sessions to condemn Israel. Israel is the only nation barred from participation in the council. The Bush administration washed its hands of the council, saying that the United States would do nothing to legitimize it, and that American taxpayers would not fund it. The Obama administration will now reverse this decision. Its argument is that we will improve the panel “from within.” But there is a time for principled shunning — as Reagan knew, when he withdrew from UNESCO. And, 20 years later, President Bush judged UNESCO sufficiently chastened and reformed to merit an American rejoining. Obama should have let the clock run at least another decade.

‐ Black American political figures have long had a romance with Fidel Castro and the Communist dictatorship on Cuba. There are reasons for this, but no excuses. In 1960, when Castro visited the U.N. in New York, he showily decamped from a plush midtown hotel and went to the Hotel Theresa, up in Harlem. And he has always talked a good game about race. When prominent black Americans travel to Havana, he delights in showing them his MLK Center. And they always ooh and ah. Recently, three congressmen met with Castro. Rep. Laura Richardson (D., Calif.) said, “He looked right into my eyes, and he said, ‘How can we help you? How can we help President Obama?’” Rep. Bobby Rush (D., Ill.) reported, “In my household, I told Castro, he is known as the ultimate survivor.” But how many of his prisoners survive the hell that is inflicted on them? Many of those prisoners — the leading dissidents, actually — are black. One of them, Oscar Elías Biscet, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush. But that is a caring for black people that the likes of Bobby Rush will never understand.

‐ Pakistan has its own version of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and it is all too successful. In the Swat Valley, only a couple of hours by car from the capital, these Islamists have been taking power, beheading local officials, and closing girls’ schools. Tens of thousands of intimidated people have fled. The Pakistani army has proved unwilling to fight. So the last resort of the central government under Pres. Asif Ali Zardari is to buy the Taliban off. Not necessarily a bad idea: All sorts of factions in the Taliban and al-Qaeda have all sorts of leaders, and their personalities determine shifts of power and betrayal of loyalties. Some months ago a deal was struck whereby the Taliban would impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley and in return stop fighting the army, though not disarm. But far from causing splits among the extremists, the concession of sharia has only strengthened them at the expense of moderates. The public flogging of a 17-year-old girl in Swat is an example of sharia horrible enough to have caused a national scandal. Zardari is therefore delaying ratification of the agreement that would in effect hand Swat over to the Taliban. It may be his last chance to save his presidency, and also to avoid a territorial breakup.

#page#‐ A crackdown on tax havens was on the agenda of the recent G20 meeting. French president Nicolas Sarkozy believes that the financial crisis justifies action on this front, even though tax havens have had zilch to do with the present financial distress. German leader Angela Merkel is also on the attack. But the campaign against tax havens is worse than a distraction from our real economic woes. The existence of low-tax jurisdictions is a blessing, a check on the rapacity of welfare states. It is a mistake to assume these jurisdictions’ privacy protections are responsible for a lot of crime. Australian political scientist Jason Sharman tried to set up fake accounts and had an easier time of it in places such as Britain and the U.S. than in Switzerland or Bermuda. Daniel Mitchell of the Cato Institute points out that we have a national interest in protecting tax havens: From the point of view of most of Europe, we are one.

‐ What do you give to the person who has everything — really everything, including several palaces, a large stable of racehorses, an art collection worth billions, and a jewelry collection no one has even attempted to value? This is Her Britannic Majesty Elizabeth II we are talking about, any gift giver’s ultimate nightmare. Nothing deterred, our president, on his recent London visit, gave the Queen an iPod. For the monarch’s listening pleasure, the contraption came pre-loaded with two of Obama’s speeches — the inaugural address and the 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention — and a selection of Broadway tunes from My Fair Lady (which takes place in London, you see?) and Camelot (about a British royal court — get it?). Nice to know that the little unpleasantnesses of 1775–83 and 1812–15 have been amicably papered over. Good to see Elizabeth — well-nigh an ideal monarch, if you must have a monarch — looking so well at 82. Given that the first political briefings she ever had were from Winston Churchill, though, Her Majesty might be forgiven for wondering whether there has not been some falling-off in the imaginative powers of Western leaders these past few decades.

‐ The Pet Shop Boys, a British pop-music duo, were recently approached by PETA, the animal-rights organization. Pet shops, whined the activists, represent the commercialization of animal suffering. Pop-music fans should rather be encouraged to adopt unwanted critters from shelters. The Pet Shop Boys should therefore change their name to the Rescue Shelter Boys. While expressing some sympathy for PETA’s point of view, the Pet Shop Boys declined the name change. It occurs to us that if that fine 1960s pop group the Animals could be revivified, and a partnership formed, the matter might be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

‐ Automobile license plates in Saudi Arabia carry three letters of the Arabic alphabet and three numbers. There has been a recent fashion for adding the Latin-alphabet equivalent of the Arabic letters. Some bold spirits have gotten themselves customized plates whose letters, in Latin form, spell out amusing or risqué English words. Now the Saudi authorities are clamping down on this regrettable departure from strict Islamic morality. They have published a list of forbidden three-letter words: BUT, BAD, and BAR, for example, are now proscribed, as of course is SEX. First on the list of Abominable Words, though, for reasons so far not explained, is USA.

‐ The Poznan Zoo, in western Poland, has a problem. A local parliamentarian, Michael Grzes, complains: “We didn’t pay 37 million zlotys [$11.4 million] for the largest elephant house in Europe to have a gay elephant live there.” Zookeepers had been counting on Ninio, an African bush elephant, to help fill the enclosure with the galumphing of little feet, but unfortunately, as Grzes says, “He only liked his buddies and hit the cows with his trunk, and was very disrespectful. . . . We were supposed to have a herd, but as Ninio prefers male friends over females how will he produce offspring?” Poor Ninio may just be suffering from adolescent confusion; he is only 10, and elephants reach sexual maturity at 14. Still, if the Polish pachyderm remains unequal to his appointed task, we have the perfect job for him: official mascot of the Log Cabin Republicans.

‐ The New York Times editorial board is a great champion of organized labor. Lately, the board has forcefully advocated the Employee Free Choice Act, a law that would achieve the opposite of its name by allowing union organizers to dispense with secret-ballot elections. By contrast, the New York Times management lives in the real world of labor disputes. Faced with serious money problems at the Times-owned Boston Globe, the Times management threatened to shut down the Globe in order to make its recalcitrant unions show some flexibility and give up lifetime job guarantees, among other unrealistic benefits. The decline of newspapers is a good example of how hypertrophied unionism can impede an industry from adapting to changing economic realities. The Times editorial board’s obdurate support for unionism is a good example of how impervious its ideology is to the facts.

#page#‐ A Colorado jury recently found that Ward Churchill, a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, had been improperly fired. Churchill sparked a nationwide controversy with his remarks after 9/11: specifically those in an essay, “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” that blamed America for the attacks and called those working at the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns.” This caused Churchill’s work to receive sudden scrutiny, which unearthed instances of plagiarism and led to accusations that Churchill had lied in claiming to be an American Indian. Even though the jury found that Churchill was improperly fired, it awarded him only a dollar in damages. At issue in the case was whether he was fired due to his shoddy scholarship or due to the political controversy. Academics of all stripes, conservatives among them, said correctly that political controversy is no grounds to fire a tenured professor. A statement by the National Association of Scholars pointed out the real problem, which is that Churchill’s professionalism wasn’t questioned anytime before the controversy: “The outcome of the Churchill trial is unfortunate, but it was a trial that in a better academic world would never have occurred. The best point at which to protect professionalism is not career exit, but career entrance and stage-by-stage thereafter.”

‐ “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” Thus the opening sentence of a new bestseller by Los Angeles novelist Seth Grahame-Smith. With blithe disrespect for a great literary classic, Mr. Grahame-Smith has rewritten Pride and Prejudice to include zombies. The Bennet sisters, armed with martial-arts skills, struggle to free their country district from a plague of the undead. The author is no mere opportunist: He has literary theory to support his project. “The people in Austen’s books are kind of like zombies,” he explains. “They live in this bubble of privilege.” Yes, yes, and no doubt they feed on the brains of the poor while adding up their investment profits from the slave trade. The past, you know, was a continuous vista of oppression and injustice — this needs to be exposed! Come to think of it, weren’t the March sisters of Little Women kind of like malevolent space aliens? Don’t the townsfolk in Tom Sawyer remind you of a pack of werewolves? No? Then plainly you need a refresher course in literary theory. Next up: Moby Dick with vampires. Opening sentence: “Call me Ishmael as I sink my fangs into your throat.”

‐ The greatest service President Obama has rendered the nation thus far came when he hired the actor Kal Penn as associate director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. No more Harold and Kumar movies! Let joy be unconfined. Penn, who is of Gujarati descent, has long decried the typecasting of brown-skinned actors in a handful of narrowly defined, stereotypically “Asian” roles. He must be relieved to join the diverse and egalitarian Obama administration — where his job will be to “reach out to Asian-American audiences.”

‐ Madonna is the pop star known as “the Material Girl.” But she has other values than materialism. She has two biological children and one son adopted from Malawi. She has sought to adopt a second child from Malawi — not a spanking-new infant but a four-year-old girl who lives in an orphanage. The older the child, the less attractive it is to would-be adoptive parents, usually. A Malawian court has denied Madonna’s second adoption. It said that Madonna did not meet some requirement. Much of the world applauded — the same part of the world that had jeered Madonna’s attempt to adopt the girl, whose name is Mercy James. Many of Madonna’s critics raised the usual cries of “colonialism,” “imperialism,” “racism,” and the other isms they could think of. They also said that Madonna had tried to use her fame to “circumvent” the Malawian adoption process. Well, what’s wrong with that? Plenty of orphans could use the circumvention of bureaucracy.


Marriage and Civilization

One of the great coups of the movement for same-sex marriage has been to plant the premise that it represents the inevitable future. This sense has inhibited even some who accept that marriage is by nature the union of a man and a woman. They fear that throwing themselves into the cause of opposing it is futile — worse, that it will call down the judgment of history that they were bigots.

Yet a majority of Americans continue to oppose same-sex marriage. Support for it has certainly increased over the last 15 years, but the assumption that we can predict the future in which same-sex marriage is uncontroversial by drawing a straight line from this trend is unwarranted. Even among young voters, a majority of whom support same-sex marriage, that majority is hardly overwhelming.

Our guess is that if the federal judiciary does not intervene to impose same-sex marriage on the entire country, we are not going to see it triumph from coast to coast. Rather, we will for some time have a patchwork of laws. The division will not be so much between socially liberal and socially conservative states as between those states where voters can amend their state constitutions easily and those where they cannot. Thus same-sex marriage is likely to stay the law of the land in Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, and Connecticut, and perhaps also in New Hampshire.

In two of those states, at least, democratic procedure is now being respected. Vermont has chosen to recognize same-sex marriages legislatively, and New Hampshire may do so. While free from the taint of lawlessness, these decisions seem to us unwise. Few social goods will come from recognizing same-sex couples as married. Some practical benefits may accrue to the couples, but most of them could easily be realized without changing marriage laws. One still sometimes hears people make the allegedly “conservative” case that same-sex marriage will reduce promiscuity and encourage commitment among homosexuals. This prospect seems improbable: Where governments have recognized same-sex marriages and civil unions, this recognition does not appear to have had any noticeable effect in this respect. In any case, the encouragement of commitment among homosexuals is simply not as important a goal as the encouragement of lasting heterosexual bonds.

Which brings us to the question of equality. Same-sex couples want their unions recognized by governments in large part as a symbolic affirmation of their equivalence, at least for public purposes, with traditional married couples. As individuals, of course, homosexuals are the equal of any other citizens in their rights to vote, own guns, speak freely, and so forth. But making them (or anyone else) feel valued is not a legitimate task of public policy; and their sexual relationships do not further the purposes for which governments should recognize marriage.

Both as a social institution and as a public policy, marriage exists to foster connections between heterosexual sex and the rearing of children within stable households. It is a non-coercive way to channel sexual desire into civilized patterns of living — and not just any sexual desire, but desire of the type that regularly produces children. State recognition of the marital relationship does not imply devaluation of any other type of relationship, whether friendship or brotherhood or even same-sex romantic attachments. Governments can rightly take all kinds of steps that enable people to form, and prosper in, any of these relationships. They can make it possible for them to go about their lives in peace, and make it easier for them to establish the contractual arrangements that help with running a household. In none of those cases, however, is it necessary for the government to recognize the friendship or sexual relationship as such.

State recognition of same-sex sexual relationships singles out one kind of non-marital relationship and treats it as though it were marital, and it does this for no good reason. No, we do not expect marriage rates to plummet and illegitimacy rates to skyrocket in these jurisdictions over the next decade. But to the extent same-sex marriage is normalized here, it will be harder for American culture and law to connect marriage and parenthood. That it has already gotten harder over the last few decades is no answer to this concern. In foisting same-sex marriage on Iowa, the state’s supreme court opined in a footnote that the idea that it is best for children to have mothers and fathers married to each other is based merely on “stereotype.”

If worse comes to worst, and the federal courts sweep aside the marriage laws that most Americans still want, then decades from now traditionalists should be ready to brandish that footnote and explain to generations yet unborn: That is why we resisted.


The Innocent Abroad

During a busy week overseas, President Obama attended three major summits — of the G20 industrial countries, NATO, and the European Union — and met with the leaders of Russia, China, India, Turkey, and the main European nations. On a personal level, the trip was a triumph. Everywhere Obama went, he was greeted by diverse crowds of cheering people: eager young Europeans, curious Turks, and proud American soldiers. He received rock-star treatment even from his fellow leaders; one admitted off the record that “we all want to be photographed with him.” The traveling Washington press corps was adulatory as usual, even though it had to report the president’s missed political opportunities.

Obama’s European tour came at a time when the relatively stable, American-dominated post–Cold War international order is being undermined by many problems: the international financial crisis, the rise of China and India, the aggressive ambitions of a nationalist Russia, and the continuing impact of jihadism. Each summit dealt with different aspects of these interrelated problems: The G20 hoped to respond to the financial crisis and its accompanying economic recession, NATO to craft a military response to Islamist jihad and Russian adventurism, and the EU to find common diplomatic ground among the Western nations on all these issues.

Of the G20 summit, in London, Obama said mildly: “I think it went okay.” In fact the G20 rejected his main policy proposal, for a collective international stimulus. We think the summit went okay for precisely that reason — and because it also rejected French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for an unaccountable global financial regulator. But although the G20’s dismissal of both proposals lifted markets temporarily, it left the financial-cum-economic crisis still rumbling ominously along under the surface. More needs to be done to restore confidence.

As summit succeeded summit, the president did progressively less okay. The central issue at the Strasbourg summit of NATO was Afghanistan. All 28 NATO countries have signed on to the Afghan mission as vital, but only Canada, Britain, and the U.S. have sent significant numbers of fighting troops. The president had to mime gratitude for a European promise of an extra 5,000 troops, all of them non-combat. With European defense spending averaging just 1 percent of GDP, what Obama encountered in Strasbourg was a mixture of pacifism and free-riding. If this continues unabated, it will inevitably weaken military and diplomatic ties across the Atlantic — adding strategic fears to economic nervousness. That will be very much less than okay.

Obama’s presence at the EU-U.S. summit in Prague was meant to show that America wants a strong, integrated Europe as a partner in global affairs. That wish depends, however, on Europe’s reaching agreement within itself, and it soon became clear that no such agreement exists on the two central issues that determine all other matters — Turkey and Russia. On Russia, Europe’s western half is mainly interested in an uninterrupted supply of Russian energy, while the post-Soviet east wants a secure independence for countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. On whether to grant Turkey full EU membership, Europe is divided between (a) France and Germany, which fear “free movement of labor” for 70 million Turkish Muslims, and (b) Britain and the EU Commission, which fear that rejection would drive Turkey away from the West and into Islamist adventures.

Obama leans towards France and Germany on the Russia question; he wants to reset Russo-American relations. He supports Britain on Turkish EU membership; in Prague he called for Turkey’s admittance in order to “anchor” it in Europe (and, sotto voce, to halt any potential drift to Islamism). The suggestion was immediately rejected by Sarkozy.

Because Obama is uncomfortable with the frank exercise of American leadership, he can do little about these growing problems except make somewhat pleading speeches. Yet the blunt truth — which America’s liberal foreign-policy establishment cannot face — is that Europe is incapable of solving them on its own. The EU, which prizes consensus above all, is too evenly and bitterly divided on Russia and Turkey. So if President Obama can realize that leadership does not imply bossiness, and that cooperation does not require self-abasement, he can help Europe recover while restoring America to its traditional guiding role.


Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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