Magazine | March 21, 2011, Issue

Banzai Bureaucrats

It isn’t easy being a public-sector-union leader these days. “This is beyond insane,” said Steve Smith, president of the Providence Teachers’ Union in Rhode Island, reacting to the city’s latest outrageous provocation. “Let’s create the most chaos and the highest level of anxiety in a district where teachers are already under unbelievable stress. Now I know how the United States State Department felt on December 7, 1941.”

Critics took President Smith’s remark as the usual self-aggrandizing comparison of timeserving desk-jockeys to men of action in the thick of it. Except, of course, that Mr. Smith wasn’t comparing himself to anyone in the general vicinity of Hawaii but to a bunch of similarly desk-bound bureaucrats thousands of miles away in Washington. What does he mean? That the Japanese bombs created the chaos and the State Department had to clear it up? Or is it some sort of Pearl Harbor truther allusion? Like brave Rhode Island educators, certain State Department officials knew exactly what was coming but nobody would listen to them?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Reporting for the Providence Journal, Linda Borg, mindful of the fact that most of her readers have been educated by members of Mr. Smith’s union, felt obliged to add a more basic clarification: “That was the day the Japanese government bombed Pearl Harbor.”

December 7, 1941: a day that shall live in infamy, but not in Providence.

By the way, that’s why America’s monodailies are dying. Maybe they’d die anyway, but wouldn’t it be more fun and more dignified to go down in flames like a kamikaze pilot or Charlie Sheen than by self-anesthetizing your prose into utter unreadability? As Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise remarked apropos Ms. Borg’s namesakes, resistance is futile. You can try to read on, but the vast J-school-credentialed army of lethal parenthetics will crush you ’neath their feet: December 7, 1941, is the day the Japanese government bombed Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor is a U.S. naval base in the Pacific. The Pacific is a large body of water. Water is what your eyes are beginning to do . . .

But wait: Linda Borg’s explanation raises questions of its own: “The Japanese government” bombed Pearl Harbor? Was the Second World War an epic conflict of bureaucrats, with Tokyo civil servants in imperial morning dress bearing down on beleaguered State Department officials? Or was the Providence Journal self-correcting? Perhaps Ms. Borg originally wrote that “Japan” or “the Japanese” bombed Pearl Harbor, and a sharp-eyed editor amended it to clarify that only a few employees of “the Japanese government” participated in the bombing. Or perhaps political correctness is now so ingrained that a Providence reporter reflexively writes like that anyway. As Whoopi Goldberg put it, in response to Bill O’Reilly’s careless slur that the Japanese had attacked us at Pearl Harbor: “Some Japanese attacked us.” Doubtless atypical Japanese, from whose unrepresentative ranks no general conclusions can be drawn.

#page#The Journal’s formulation embodies one of the great delusions of our age — that there are bad governments but no bad peoples. “Not all Germans were Nazis” — but enough were and enough of the rest strung along that the qualification is irrelevant. Not all Afghans are Taliban — but the real problem in that wretched land is not “the Afghan government” but the Afghan people. A dozen pages of a Flashman yarn has a sounder grasp of the Afghan psyche than nine years of multilateral “nation-building.” Which is why we’re going round and round in circles in an almighty Groundhogistan where a man gets sentenced to death for converting to Christianity under a court system created, funded, and protected by us.

In the Middle East, likewise: There are bad governments but no bad peoples. One hopes that in his involuntary retirement the unlovely Mubarak, who sold himself to successive U.S. administrations as a restraint on the darker impulses of his citizenry, retains enough of a sense of humor to appreciate posterity’s little jest. Even as one of their own (Lara Logan of CBS) was sexually assaulted by a gang of 200 in Tahrir Square in the very hour of the tyrant’s fall, the Western media assured us that this was “the Facebook revolution.” Ninety-one percent of Egyptian women have undergone female genital mutilation. Not a lot of that on Facebook.

Under the veneer of “stability,” the Arab world’s bad governments and their peoples diverged. The U.N. declared the PLO “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” but the Palestinian people begged to differ: In the end, Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t represent anything other than his Swiss bank account. Hamas, on the other hand, represents something all too real. A secular kleptocrat ruling over a re-Islamized populace was never a good long-term bet: Even bad governments can’t get too out of sync with their peoples. A similar realignment is now under way elsewhere. Mubarak, in the old CIA formulation, may have been a sonofabitch but he was our sonofabitch. In Tunis, Ben Ali was France’s sonofabitch. The Bahraini monarchy was Britain’s sonofabitch. As one reader wrote to me, the successor regimes are more likely to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s SOBs and Iran’s SOBs. Revolutions are not always democratic but they are, broadly, demographic.

In Japan, a confident victor transformed a deeply ingrained national culture: The Japanese people beat their swords into karaoke machines — to the point where, even in a mild aside, the Providence Journal is embarrassed to suggest we ever had any quarrel with them. That’s the luxury of victory. It’s a bigger gamble when you haven’t won yet.

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist. That’s to say, his latest book, After America (2011), is a top-five bestseller in ...

In This Issue



Politics & Policy

It’s Not Just Wisconsin

The knock-down, drag-out fight in Wisconsin isn’t about how much public employees will pay toward their pensions and health-insurance premiums. As union members have loudly insisted, they are willing to ...
Politics & Policy

Real Marriage

It’s the fall of 2006. John Partilla, an Upper West Side advertising executive, meets Carol Anne Riddell, a local news anchor. Like-minded and both brimming with energy, they hit it ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

The Fischer King

Chess plays an important role in the fiction of Lewis Carroll and Vladimir Nabokov, and in the film of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the characters play chess ...
The Straggler

Recycling the Sixties

It starts! January 20, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, passed with little comment, so far as I could judge. Then the public-sector unions of Wisconsin began demonstrating ...


Politics & Policy


Constitutional Nullities Allen C. Guelzo asks “just what it is that modern nullificationists don’t understand about supreme,” referring to Article VI of the Constitution and the “supremacy clause” (“Nullification Temptation,” February 21). What ...

Statuary Sense

For some on the left, the default Republican position on art is generally assumed to be a) hatred of anything that isn’t a crucifixion scene painted by Norman Rockwell, or ...
The Long View

Presidential Daily Briefing

Good Morning, Sir.  The current temperature in Washington, D.C., is 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is roughly 4 degrees in the more universally accepted Celsius scale. The weather today will be sunny, with ...
Politics & Policy


VERISMO – Gentile Bellini, Constantinople, 1480 Perhaps this fits in some Vasari-like Apocrypha? Sultan Mehmet II, They say, presented by Bellini with An oil of John the Baptist’s severed head, Repined: the painting wasn’t true to ...
Happy Warrior

Banzai Bureaucrats

It isn’t easy being a public-sector-union leader these days. “This is beyond insane,” said Steve Smith, president of the Providence Teachers’ Union in Rhode Island, reacting to the city’s latest ...

Most Popular

White House

The Dumbest Firing

Unsurprisingly for the former host of The Apprentice, Donald Trump has given us every variety of firing. There have been necessary firings (at three weeks, the ouster of Michael Flynn was long overdue), cruel firings (Rex Tillerson, check out Twitter), and spectacularly ill-advised firings (the cashiering of ... Read More
Politics & Policy

‘We Will Reduce Abortion’

Conor Lamb’s success has revived interest in “I’m personally opposed, but.” It’s a rhetorical convention — a cliché, really — that many Catholic Democrats have resorted to ever since Mario Cuomo popularized it with his speech at Notre Dame in 1984, as Alexandra DeSanctis explained a few days ... Read More