‐ “I had a good time governing,” said Bill Clinton at the presidential press conference he took over. You don’t say . . .
‐ President Obama has not taken the election well. First he announced his deal with congressional Republicans to extend Bush-era tax rates as if he had just treated with criminals (“It’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage-takers”). Then to sell the deal to balky Democrats he held a joint press conference with Bill Clinton. One felt a twinge of sympathy for Obama as Clinton’s answers spun into an endless monologue. But then, why did Obama give a mike to the most pathologically needy speaker in America? And why did Obama stalk off so gracelessly — and leave Clinton, symbolically at any rate, in charge? It is as though the two Democrats had arranged to give a lesson to Americans on the different ways to degrade the presidency.
‐ The Left, already upset with Obama over Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and the public option, is incandescent with rage over the tax deal. In a meeting of House Democrats, one unnamed congressman went considerably further than Joe Wilson in execrating the president. Talk is turning to a primary challenge. Obama has to be heavily favored to win the nomination if he runs. He will have enough fights with the Republican House to win back the support of progressives, and blacks are going to stay with him to the end. But there are enough implacable white liberals in Iowa and New Hampshire to give Obama a scare. Call it, borrowing from Obama, the “sanctimonious” vote.
‐ A federal judge ruled that Congress has no constitutional authority to require Americans to buy health insurance — a key feature of Obamacare. Liberals have dismissed the constitutional challenge to the law as the work of a fantasist fringe. But as Judge Henry Hudson points out, the attempt to justify the law as an exercise of the congressional power to regulate interstate commerce “lacks logical limitation”: If accepted, it would mean that Congress could do anything not explicitly prohibited elsewhere in the Constitution. Conservatives should not, however, count on Justice Anthony Kennedy to strike down Obamacare. (Come to think of it, we could have ended that sentence at “Kennedy.”) The whole scheme, not just the mandate, is worlds removed from the limited government envisioned by the Founders. Opponents must continue to mount an effective resistance to Obamacare both inside and outside Washington. The protection of the Constitution is not only, or even chiefly, the work of the courts.
‐ When Michael Steele became RNC chairman, his supporters touted him as an attractive spokesman for the Republican party. Instead his public remarks frequently became distracting controversies requiring cleanup work by the Republican officials he was supposed to help. He criticized conservative figures. He took policy positions counter to those of most of his party. In one Senate race, he both praised the Democratic candidate and expressed agreement with criticisms of the Republican. He accused his critics of having prejudice against him (he is black). He threatened to run for president. At the same time Steele failed in the traditional job of the party chairman: to raise funds. The conservative tide was strong enough in 2010 to make up for the RNC’s weakness. Republicans cannot count on 2012’s going similarly. Steele has announced that he is running for reelection as chairman. He is a well-meaning conservative who should be made to seek more suitable employment.
‐ House Republicans are debating whether their budget next spring should take on entitlements. Rep. Paul Ryan, soon to be chairman of the Budget Committee, wants the House to pass a budget that includes, in some form, an endorsement of his “roadmap” — which, among other things, reforms Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Bringing the budget to long-term, sustainable balance requires such steps. Other Republicans, notably Rep. Eric Cantor, who will be the House majority leader, raise cautions. Most Republicans did not campaign on entitlement reform, and a congressional majority cannot achieve such reform without a supportive president. Attempting reform from the House without having laid the political groundwork is precisely what got the Republican Congress that took power in 1995 into trouble — and their plan was less ambitious than the roadmap. We sympathize with Representative Ryan’s impatience, but the brute fact is that neither the public nor most of his Republican colleagues are as advanced in their understanding of the issues as he is. There is a real danger that Republicans will hand President Obama (and the media) an opportunity to demagogue while they trip over their own tongues. In addition, entitlement reform does not generate much in the way of near-term savings, since it must be implemented gradually. Under the circumstances, then, it may make sense for Republicans to prove they can reform and reduce discretionary spending first, while building the case for taking on entitlement reform after the public has had a chance in 2012 to grade their performance. Entitlement reform is extremely important: too important to risk botching.
#page#‐ “No Labels” is the label for a new alliance of bipartisan centrists. William Galston and David Frum are the drum beaters, Michael Bloomberg is the money man, and the politicians — assuming Bloomberg means it when he denies that he is running for president in 2012 — are a handful of busted Republicans (Mike Castle, Charlie Crist) and Democratic mugwumps looking for cover (Joe Manchin, Joe Lieberman). The fantasy of nonpartisanship is an old one. The Founding Fathers briefly entertained it (until they set up the first party system, Federalists vs. Republicans). The father of the fantasy was Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, the English essayist who called for a Patriot King to rise above partisan corruption. Yet Bolingbroke himself was a shifty and disappointed politician. Parties are an inescapable consequence of clashing interests and ideas — of free action and free expression. The party of nonpartisanship is always the mask of operators with their own agenda (in this case, mostly soft liberalism). No Labels? No thanks.
‐ Nobody doubts that Pfc. Bradley Manning can and should be prosecuted for giving classified information to WikiLeaks. Debate has centered on whether WikiLeaks itself, and its creepy leader Julian Assange, can also be prosecuted. Is what it does sufficiently similar to what newspapers do to grant it free-speech protection? That is the wrong question. The Supreme Court has never held, even in the Pentagon Papers case, that journalists are immune from prosecution for breaking laws regarding national-security secrets. Under the courts’ reasonable interpretation of the Espionage Act, prosecutors must prove that the discloser of classified information had “bad faith” and an “underhanded motive.” That requirement will in almost all cases shield journalists. It should not protect Assange.
‐ There has been a dramatic uptick in the estimated number of former Gitmo detainees returning to the jihad. The intelligence community’s updated estimate is 25 percent: at least 150 either “confirmed or suspected of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities.” The true figure is surely higher. There’s no telling what nearly 600 released prisoners are up to, absent battlefield encounters with them or precise intelligence about their activities. That committed jihadists go back to the battle is not shocking. The mind reels, though, at the willingness of the Bush administration, and now the ardor of the Obama administration, to release enemy combatants during wartime. Most of the recidivists were sprung prior to 2009, when the Gitmo population was much higher, and the Left was trying harder to stigmatize the detention camp. With the population now smaller but down to the worst terrorists, the Obama administration has shamefully bribed and browbeaten tiny countries like Palau to take detainees off our hands. It becomes ever more obvious that Gitmo is our best option, yet Obama continues his campaign to shut it down. That goal should yield to, because it is in tension with, shutting down the terrorists.
‐ A survey of 100,000 doctors by the Physicians Foundation finds that 60 percent of them will serve fewer patients because of Obamacare. Fifty-nine percent say the law will cut their time with patients and 40 percent say they’ll stop practicing altogether within three years. The president’s supporters note that only 34 percent of doctors say Obamacare is the greatest threat to their practices. Yet another 36 percent list Medicare as that threat, so a full 70 percent of doctors say the government is having a large negative impact on their field. “No matter how we reform health care,” President Obama assured the American Medical Association last year, “we will keep this promise: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor.” But your doctor might not keep you.
#page#The No-Label Fable
I have been having a great deal of fun mocking the burgeoning “No Labels” movement, whose motto is “Not Left. Not Right. Forward!”
I will eschew this opportunity to make hay over the fact that this is precisely the sort of thing Mussolini shouted from his balcony. If No Labels were a right-leaning organization, that fact might get more attention.
The No Labelers feel that the Left and the Right aren’t showing self-avowed centrists enough respect, and want to create a space for centrists to express themselves. Think of No Labels as the local firehouse or police station with that “Safe Place” sign out front for kids being chased by bullies.
Getting rid of labels is an absolutely idiotic idea (if you don’t believe me, go ahead and peel off all the wrappers, stickers, and packaging on your food, cleaning products, and automotive and garden supplies and see what happens). But that is not to say that the labels we have are ideal or even satisfactory.
Consider “conservative” and “liberal.” “Conservatism” has many definitions and connotations. Lincoln’s famous line “What is conservatism? Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?” certainly gets at one very important meaning of the term. As for “liberalism,” it should tell you something that it is remarkably hard to find a pithy definition of the word. I think there’s good reason for that — liberals want to keep their options open for whatever it is liberals want to do next. Investing in a definition would only tie them down. Still, “liberalism” has a core connation of liberty. To liberalize is to make more free, to unburden society or the individual of tradition or regulation.
Obviously, these definitions do not line up perfectly with what they label. Conservatives champion the decidedly un-conserving forces of the free market and individualism. Liberals champion, well, if you’re reading this magazine you know what they champion.
I don’t worry overmuch about what the consultants call “branding” in politics. But it would be awfully nice if conservatives did a better job explaining to voters, particularly younger voters, that the party of change and freedom is in many respects the GOP (though perhaps not in the realm of “lifestyle”). Liberalism remains enthralled by the New Deal model that seeks to impose stability, security, and predictability on economic life at the expense of growth and innovation. That is a fundamentally small-“c”-conservative worldview. Liberals rationalize it by saying that necessitous men are not free men. What they miss is that men do not become free by becoming dependent on government for all of life’s necessities.
In a country where people describe themselves as conservative over liberal by more than a 2–1 margin, it would be silly to want to abandon the “conservative” label (though you can see the appeal for liberals in extricating themselves from the “liberal” one, which is what both the term “progressive” and this “No Labels” business are really about). But it could use a little updating.
‐ One of the better proposals to come out of the 2008 financial crisis — or so we thought — was establishing a clearinghouse for derivatives, especially for those now-infamous credit-default swaps. By ensuring that traders can cover their bets and that all bets clear, a clearinghouse could contain the sort of domino effect that led to financial catastrophe in the wake of the Lehman Brothers fiasco. In practice, establishing a new clearinghouse, a process sped up at the urging of Congress and regulators, is turning into another opportunity for major Wall Street players to use the government to protect their market share and profit margins. Washington put the big banks in charge of designing the rules, so naturally they dominate the new clearinghouse. In April, Brookings scholar Robert Litan reported that the “Dealers’ Club” — the nine powerful banks, Goldman Sachs et al., that dominate the business — were working to shape the outcome so that traders would remain in the dark about banks’ commissions. And the New York Times recently reported in depth that the Dealers’ Club is using its influence to keep out new competitors, including the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which already acts as a clearinghouse for futures contracts. That leaves the field to the entity dominated by the Dealers’ Club. It should be considered too big to police itself.
‐ In a not entirely unrelated development, the Obama administration’s first director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, is back on Wall Street, having taken a job at bailout baby Citigroup. He follows in the footsteps of his mentor, Clinton Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, who left the White House for a Citigroup job the New York Times described as combining a “$10 million a year paycheck with no management responsibility.” He went on to collect about $115 million before the bank collapsed. But the Obama administration is not without able hands: Mr. Orszag was replaced at OMB by a Citigroup executive. Remind us again: Which political party is owned by Wall Street?
‐ After 9/11, Congress launched a bevy of initiatives to address the health maladies of emergency workers affected by the World Trade Center attacks. The largest such initiative, run by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, suffers from inadequate supervision. Rather than tackle this deficiency, the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act — which passed the House in September — would put the program on steroids. It would also revive the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and dramatically loosen its eligibility guidelines. Ground Zero workers and local residents — even those deemed ineligible for compensation by the original victim fund, which closed in 2003 — would be permitted to file claims through December 2031. Thanks to various loopholes, trial lawyers would be able to garner a disproportionate share of windfall settlements. We would favor a bill narrowly tailored to assist the World Trade Center responders who developed an injury or illness while risking their lives. But the current legislation is deeply flawed, and Republicans should insist on something better.
‐ U.S. and South Korean negotiators have settled on final changes to their free-trade agreement, which was originally signed by the Bush administration in 2007. While the United Auto Workers has endorsed the revised Korea pact, Big Labor continues to lobby hard against pending FTAs with Panama (2007) and Colombia (2006). Critics of the former have voiced anxiety about Panama’s status as a tax haven and about the relative opacity of its banking system. The Panamanian government took a major step toward assuaging these concerns on November 30 when it signed a “tax-information exchange agreement” with the United States. The Colombia FTA remains controversial. Democrats argue that Bogotá has not done enough to curb violence against trade unionists. Yet over the past decade, Colombia has witnessed an extraordinary decline in all types of violence, and the drop in unionist killings has been particularly steep. The country is a vital U.S. partner that houses American military personnel and sits next door to Venezuela. By allowing the Colombia deal to languish since 2006, Congress has done significant damage to Washington’s credibility. Republicans should push for speedy approval in 2011.
#page#‐ The lawyers have lined up at the trough for the poetically named Pigford case, because of which the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to pay billions of dollars in reparations to black and Native American farmers claiming to have suffered racial discrimination. Indeed there seems to have been discrimination decades ago, though the USDA has admitted to none in court, and about $1 billion already has been paid out. But there are serious questions as to whether the handling of the money is on the up-and-up: The original claimants in Pigford v. Glickman thought that 2,000 to 4,000 black farmers had suffered discrimination, but some 94,000 claims have been filed — far more claims than there are black farmers in the United States. Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government and Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa) have challenged the payouts, with Mr. Breitbart’s site reporting that one witness found that 700 claims had his name on them, and Representative King saying that most of the money has been paid to people who “never farmed.” A former USDA employee calls the handling of the situation “the largest scam against the federal taxpayer in the history of the United States.” More troubling still is the fact that Clovis Reed, believed to be an informant in a Pigford-related fraud case, was murdered. Inevitably, critics of the payout have been accused of racism by persons with a professional responsibility to make such accusations. Congress’s investigative powers are often abused, but this case cries out for the investigation that King has promised.
‐ President Obama has signed into law the Child Nutrition Act, which mandates new standards for school lunches. Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Obama praised the act as necessary for preserving “national security.” House Republicans objected to its $4.5 billion price tag, $2.3 billion of which was not offset by spending cuts. To those concerned about the legislation’s mandating certain nutritional standards for foods sold during school hours (including at bake sales), Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack argued that healthy foods can be delicious. His example was a brownie made with black beans that he’d sampled. Is national security really worth it?
‐ New Jersey governors traditionally reappoint justices of the state supreme court when their terms expire. But this spring Chris Christie refused to reappoint Justice John Wallace, a liberal stalwart of a liberal court, and nominated Anne Patterson as his replacement. Whereupon the state senate, controlled by Democrats, refused to vote on Patterson, and Chief Justice Stuart Rabner appointed his own choice for a replacement, Edwin Stern. (Chief justices may fill vacancies “when necessary,” but there is no necessity, since the seven-member court has a quorum of five.) Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto has protested the court’s contumacy, refusing to vote on any decisions in which Phantom-Justice Stern participates. Rivera-Soto’s action is all the more honorable given that he was a Democratic appointee. The state’s judicial supremacists have attacked him as they attacked Christie (the Senate president called Rivera-Soto’s protest a “temper tantrum”). Too bad no one ever passed a law saying, “Liberal judges always win.” A project for New Jersey Democrats.
‐ From November 29 to December 10, the United Nations hosted its annual Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico — chosen, no doubt, to preclude the embarrassing possibility of snowflakes. The conference was more of the ineffectual same. The only good thing to emerge from it was a “gotcha” video by CFACT Collegians, the undergraduate associates of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (a D.C.-based think tank that counters environmental radicalism and “man-made hysteria”). Bearing video cameras and clipboards, the collegians requested signatures for a petition to impose trade barriers to “decrease US GDP by 6%” and “destabilize the economy.” Signatures were granted without objection. So the CFACT upped the ante. They waited by a central water cooler and politely inquired whether “you might want to sign our petition to ban di-hydrogen monoxide?” That’s H2O — water, the elixir of life, etc. “Di-hydrogen monoxide contributes to the erosion of natural landscapes,” the CFACT pranksters told the environmental groupies. “They want to use it in nuclear power plants.” And so the water-sipping conferees moved with urgency to petition to banish Adam’s ale from the earth.
#page#‐ The British government is pushing through a measure to raise the annual cost of university education from $4,800 to $14,500. Put another way, students are no longer to be subsidized quite so generously by the taxpayer. Depending on whose figures you credit, between 15,000 and 30,000 people took to the streets in a protest march through central London. Many, perhaps most, of these were students simply out to defend privilege, like any interest group. A minority, though, were not students but anarchists and extreme socialists. They turned what would have been a normal demonstration into a running battle with the police at a level of violence rare in Britain. A young man made a spectacle of himself as he was photographed climbing up on the Cenotaph war memorial and swinging from its flag. He proved to be one Charlie Gilmour, a Cambridge undergraduate and the son of David Gilmour, the Pink Floyd guitarist whose fortune is said to be more than a hundred million dollars. As luck or bad judgment on the part of palace security would have it, Prince Charles and his Camilla were being driven in a very noticeable Rolls-Royce to a theater nearby. Demonstrators threw paint at the car, smashed a window, and struck Camilla. The media judge that such ugly behavior condemns the cause irretrievably, but students are promising more of the same.
‐ In response to the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to their political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Communists did many things: They placed Liu’s wife under house arrest; they warned governments around the world to boycott the prize ceremony in Oslo (a great many complied); they hacked the website of the Norwegian Nobel Institute. They also created their own prize, the Confucius Peace Prize. There is an ignominious tradition of this. When the Nobel committee awarded the prize for 1935 to a political prisoner of the Nazis, Carl von Ossietzky, the Nazis created their own prize — and forbade German citizens to accept a Nobel. In the late 1940s, after Soviet luminaries were repeatedly passed over for the Nobel peace prize, including himself, Stalin created his own prize: the Stalin Peace Prize, later named the Lenin Peace Prize. And now the Chinese Communists have come up with their little Confucius trinket. It is little in more than one way: They’re giving $15,000 along with it, as opposed to the Nobel prize’s $1.4 million. In this case at least, the regime has not matched its cruelty with a flair for PR.
‐ Spain’s air-traffic controllers went on strike December 3, bringing all civil air traffic to a halt and stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers. The strike came after months of wrangling between the controllers’ union and José Zapatero’s socialist government, beginning in February with government restrictions on overtime, which lowered the average annual pay of controllers from $464,000 to $265,000. There is no misprint there: An average Spanish air-traffic controller is paid more than the president of the United States — and this in a country with 20 percent unemployment and an average annual salary of $26,500. Here we see the terminus of the kind of cozy relationship between government and public-employee unions to which American eyes are beginning to open. Zapatero, up to now the unions’ best friend, has been obliged to put the controllers under martial law, with jail for the recalcitrant. U.S. states and cities, facing crises with their own public-sector unions but lacking such tools, may soon look enviously upon Spain.
#page#‐ Someone has cut the branches off the Holy Thorn, a tree at Glastonbury, England, to leave an unsightly stump. Is this random vandalism, or the work of a secularist making his point? The Holy Tree is part of a legend going back to the earliest Christianity in England. Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four gospels as the man who went to Pontius Pilate and received authority to recover the body of Christ and bury it in his own tomb. He is said then to have come to England with the Holy Grail and a staff that may have belonged to Jesus. Stuck into the ground, this staff became the Holy Thorn, and it did the faithful the favor of flowering at Christmas and Easter, and incidentally (under its proper dendrological classification as Crataegus monogyna) is of Middle Eastern origin. The land where the tree grows belongs to a businessman recently arrested in connection with a company that has collapsed, owing £16 million to creditors, so the sawing of the tree may have a rather prosaic explanation. Thankfully, experts say that grafts have renewed the tree down the centuries, and in ten years will have righted this latest damage.
‐ “Goyim kill goyim, and they blame the Jews,” Menachem Begin famously grumbled during Lebanon’s civil war. You can update that to “Sharks bite tourists, and they blame the Jews.” The Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, has recently been plagued with shark attacks. A German woman was killed and four other tourists mauled. An “expert” interviewed on Egyptian TV claimed that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, had planted the sharks to destroy Egypt’s tourist economy. With dismal predictability, an Egyptian official offered support to the theory: Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha, governor of South Sinai, told a press conference that it was “not out of the question” that Israel had planned the attacks on tourists but that confirmation was needed. In a curious parallel to Jaws, the German woman’s death occurred after the Sharm el-Sheikh beaches had been closed because of earlier shark attacks, then reopened. Wags are suggesting an Egyptian remake of the movie, with a vowel changed in the title.
‐ Our elites aren’t as decadent as advertised, according to a new study of marriage patterns, social attitudes, and education level by Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia. The highly educated, broadly defined as those with at least a college degree, are less likely to have children out of wedlock, less likely to divorce, and less likely to commit adultery than everyone else in the country. Wilcox documents how the top is pulling away from the rest, and the moderately educated (defined as having a high-school degree or some college) are converging with the least-educated (those without a high-school diploma). Consider the illegitimacy figures: From 1982 until today, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births among moderately educated people jumped from 13 to 44 percent. That is much closer to the least educated (54 percent) than to the highly educated (6 percent). These trends represent the slow-motion social evisceration of a swath of Middle America, with profound consequences for the stratification of our society.
‐ Columnist Helen Thomas was known for decades by the Homeric epithet “doyenne of the Washington press corps.” She attended the White House briefing room from Kennedy’s administration to Obama’s. Following her resignation from United Press International in 2000 after 57 years with the organization, Ms. Thomas’s alma mater, Wayne State University, instituted a Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in Media Award. Unfortunately Ms. Thomas shortly thereafter began speaking her mind rather forcefully, in the don’t-give-a-damn-anymore spirit sometimes jokingly called “Elderly Tourette’s Syndrome.” Her parents were Arab Christians from Lebanon, and she is inclined to the Arab side in any argument. Most recently, at a diversity conference in Dearborn, Ms. Thomas unbosomed herself of the following thought: “We are owned by propagandists against the Arabs. There’s no question about that. Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists.” She got a standing ovation from the conference, but her sentiment was a diversity too far for Wayne State. It has discontinued the award.
#page#‐ Last January, after the State of the Union address, many pundits said that President Obama came off as arrogant. Our Jay Nordlinger wrote, “Obama looks arrogant, whether he’s arrogant or not. I don’t think he can help it: It’s the upturned chin.” For that, Keith Olbermann, on his MSNBC television show, named Nordlinger one of the “Worst People in the World,” along with five others. Olbermann explained that “arrogant” was a racist codeword. In early December, Brad Wilmouth of NewsBusters noticed something. Olbermann was incensed at the tax deal that Obama had cut with the Republicans. And he was hailing a union leader named Tom Buffenbarger as a prophet — because Buffenbarger had warned, during the 2008 Democratic primaries, that Obama was “a poet, not a fighter,” who wouldn’t “last a round against the Republican attack machine.” Olbermann ran a clip of him saying Obama was just a talker with his “nose in the air.” Has Olbermann lost his sensitivity to racist codewords? Or has he up and joined the Klan?
‐ The National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian recently mounted an exhibition called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” an exhibition of gay and gayish American art. One item was a video, by David Wojnarowicz, depicting the suffering of AIDS patients, which included a clip of ants crawling over a crucifix. Catholic groups protested, congressmen protested, the video was pulled, Frank Rich protested. Culture Wars MMX: The Umpire Strikes Back. Note to all parties: The National Portrait Gallery is a public institution. Its tastes, ex officio, should be consensual, even rear-guard (there is a lot of good stuff back there: John Trumbull, Mathew Brady, Walker Evans). If you want to cut with the cutting edge, go to MoMA, the Whitney Biennial, a hundred hip galleries across the Republic. Hymns to AIDS Christs may be deeply felt, even good art, but they have to take their place in the queue of time.
‐ The New York Hall of Science, a popular destination for outings from city schools, is hosting an exhibition titled “1001 Inventions — Discover the Muslim Heritage in Our World.” The theme of the thing is that from the seventh century to the 17th, while Christendom slumbered in backwardness, Muslims came up with all the key ideas and techniques that inspired modern science. Did you know that Al-Jahiz wrote about evolution by natural selection in the ninth century? That the first flying machine was made by Abbas ibn Firnas around the same time? That the camera obscura was invented by Ibn Al-Haytham in the tenth? The whole silly business was critically dissected by Edward Rothstein in the December 9 New York Times. One can understand insecure cultures’ making exaggerated historical claims, but 1001 Inventions is being promoted by British and American science educators: It has already had a successful run in London. There have been tinkerers and calculators in every civilization, and it is good for school children to know that. The scientific revolution was, however, an entirely European phenomenon. It is hard not to suspect that these displays of ethnic boasting are intended mainly to prevent children from knowing that.
#page#‐ If it’s the Christmas season, there must be War on Christmas stories. Here’s one from New Jersey. Drivers crossing into New York via the Lincoln Tunnel are confronted with a large billboard at the tunnel entrance. The billboard shows the Three Wise Men on camels approaching a Nativity scene, all in silhouette. Above shines the Star of Bethlehem. Message: “You KNOW it’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON!” The billboard was placed by a group named American Atheists. Fair enough; but why is atheist propaganda always so narrowly anti-Christian? How about something targeted at Muslims for the Eid al-Fitr festival: “Mohammed — You KNOW He Was Just a Charismatic Tribal Warlord. Pig Out this Ramadan!” Just a suggestion.
‐ If every Democratic diplomat were as tough-minded and pro-American as Richard Holbrooke, the world — and especially the Foreign Service — would be a better place. In the Clinton administration, he was a strenuous advocate of NATO expansion and had a large hand in ending the war in Bosnia, first by urging President Clinton to bomb the Serbs, then by hammering out a deal among the parties at Dayton with his characteristic relentlessness. As Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he wasn’t served well by his headstrong manner — his relationship with Hamid Karzai was nearly nonexistent — but he lobbied internally for the surge and wanted to see the war through. He died suddenly, age 69. R.I.P.
‐ Elizabeth Edwards lived a life of trials, the breast cancer that killed her at age 61 being only one among them. Some, like the cancer, were visited upon her: the death in a car crash of her teenage son Wade; the infidelity of her husband John. Some trials she brought upon herself: her devotion to a selfish, untrustworthy man, for the sake of the power and prominence he won as a senator, and might have won as a two-time presidential candidate; her collusion with him in his lies about his misbehavior. A danger of politics peculiar to our tell-all/see-all era is that the failings of its actors are performed for the world to see. We, whose sins may be far worse, will not suffer that indignity. R.I.P.
‐ “Where will we have dinner now?” one New Yorker asked another after Elaine Kaufman, owner of Elaine’s, died. Came the answer: “We’ll have to go someplace good.” New Yorkers did not go to Elaine’s, an Upper East Side joint, for the food, nor for the décor. People-watching — actors, writers, top cops — was an attraction, and the watched people went to be watched. More important than these celebrity-zoo functions was Elaine Kaufman. She was a type that we realized only rather recently is dying: the gruff, gregarious Jewish lady who knows everybody’s business. Kaufman took good care of her regulars, and it didn’t take that much to become one: A small deposit of devotion would pay dividends for years. Elaine’s was not a restaurant but a credit union that dealt in attention. Dead at 81. R.I.P.
A Qualified Victory on Taxes
Once President Bush and a Republican Congress cut taxes in 2001, Democrats had to make their peace with the middle-class portions of the legislation. But for nearly a decade they have pledged to undo the tax cuts on capital gains, dividends, estates, and high incomes. Since all the tax cuts were scheduled to expire at the end of 2010, they thought they had a strong hand.
Yet President Obama felt compelled to make a deal with Republicans to block almost all tax rates from going up. The middle-class tax cuts will stay in place for two more years under the agreement. But so will the top income-tax rate, the tax on dividends, and the tax on capital gains. Estate taxes, which gradually fell under the 2001 legislation from 55 percent to 0, will go back up to 35 percent — which is still lower than the tax rate on estates in any year of the Bush administration, and of course lower than the 55 percent rate that would have gone back on the books if no deal had been passed.
It would have been preferable to make Bush’s tax rates normal law, with no expiration date, so that taxes could stay at their current levels until Congress affirmatively votes to raise them. But the deal allows Republicans to keep fighting for that goal, or at least a longer extension. And those next fights are likely to be on better ground for the Republicans: The new expiration date is 2012, when both the president and many vulnerable Senate Democrats will be on the ballot.
It is in the nature of political compromises that not all of their elements are equally praiseworthy. Extending federal support for unemployment benefits — a requirement for Democratic sign-off on the deal — may keep the unemployment rate from falling over the next year. Extended tax credits for ethanol, a bipartisan demand from corn-state senators, should be removed if a deal without them can be enacted.
Some Republicans worry that the deal increases Obama’s chances of reelection in 2012. But a marginal reduction in those chances is not worth higher tax rates and the economic damage that would accompany them. The political struggle over our fiscal future is going to be protracted. This deal makes its outcome a bit more likely to tilt toward the lower-taxing, lower-spending side of the argument. That’s reason enough to support it.
The debate between liberals and conservatives has become, ever more explicitly, a debate about American exceptionalism — precisely as a National Review cover story predicted last spring. Conservatives seek to defend that exceptionalism from what they regard as the threat posed to it by the Obama administration’s agenda. Liberals have not yet hit on a unified response to this charge, but their commentary bears out our contention that these days their attitude toward American exceptionalism ranges from discomfort to hostility.
This liberal commentary has had three themes: that American exceptionalism is a ridiculous or dangerous idea; that President Obama is just as supportive of it as conservatives are (in which case, shouldn’t liberals who make the first argument be denouncing him?); and that conservatives are using exceptionalism to insinuate that Obama is a foreigner.
The liberal case begins by confusing exceptionalism for jingoism. Thus Michael Kinsley calls exceptionalism “the theory that Americans are better than everybody else” and that “the rules don’t apply to us.” Peter Beinart says that Republicans are in thrall to “an anti-government ideology premised on the lunatic notion that America is the only truly free and successful country in the world.”
It is true that most Americans, and a disproportionate number of conservative Americans, consider this country to be the greatest nation in history. But what believers in American exceptionalism affirm is a different proposition: that there are distinctive features of American society and governance — of our creed and our culture — that have contributed to our success. That view does not entail any obligation on the part of our leaders to believe in our country’s superiority to other nations, let alone to proclaim it constantly, as the liberal caricature of our view would have it.
Nor do we deny that President Obama wishes the best, as he sees it, for the American people and seeks to bring it about. Our claim is that his agenda will undermine distinctive and valuable national traits. So, for example, further socializing health care will foster a culture of dependency, entitlement, and centralization.
The claim that Obama, too, is an exceptionalist rests on a different (and incompatible) misunderstanding of the concept. The fact that he has from time to time suggested that America has “core values” that are “exceptional” and spoken warmly of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence does not come close to demonstrating that he has any appreciation for what separates us from a social democracy. What matters is that his agenda would shrink that gap significantly.
Kinsley ended his column by defending liberals against a mostly imagined slur. “If you think your country is in danger,” he asks, “how is it unpatriotic to say so?” It isn’t unpatriotic. It isn’t sinister. And it’s what we have done.