‐ Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she was not 100 percent sober during the State of the Union address. That’s okay, Madam Justice: We’re not sure the president was, either.
‐ President Obama made two telling statements recently. At the National Prayer Breakfast, in a meditation on religiously inspired terrorism, he widened the focus thus: “And lest we get on our high horse . . . remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” How many ways was this inappropriate? It was a false apology, as far as Obama is concerned: He does not consider himself among the mistaken we. It was a far-fetched comparison, equating deeds of 500 and 1,000 years ago with slaughters on today’s front page. It played into the enemies’ playbook, since the Crusades feature prominently in jihadist grievance. Then, in an interview with Vox, Obama referred in passing to the massacre at the kosher market in Paris: “You’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who . . . randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.” But the folks who died were Jews and the Islamist terrorists who killed them did so not randomly, but for that very reason. Obama says what should not be said, and will not say what should be said. Confucius said the first task of the gentleman was the rectification of names. Confusion results when leaders misuse and efface them.
‐ Thanks to an invitation from House speaker John Boehner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is set to address a joint session of Congress on March 3. Many Democrats are planning to boycott the speech. Vice President Joe Biden will not show. It is unfortunate that the occasion has become a partisan matter. (And who could have guessed, short decades ago, that the Democrats would be the boycotters and the Republicans the enthusiasts?) But chances are that Netanyahu will say important things about Iran, the Middle East, and the world. These are tense and dangerous times. Explaining why he is going ahead with the speech, Netanyahu has said, “The whole point of Zionism is that the Jewish people will no longer be spectators to the decision-making that determines our fate.” Democrats who skip the speech may think they are striking a blow against Netanyahu and Boehner, but Israel will be the collateral damage.
‐ Brian Williams, the carved lady on the prow of NBC’s nightly newscast, was placed on a six-month leave without pay when one of his oft-told tales — about coming under RPG fire while riding in a helicopter in Iraq — turned out to be false. Williams’s chopper in fact arrived on the scene well after another came under fire. Soldiers who were there flagged the error to Stars and Stripes; Williams’s apologies were tepid; his bosses finally took the matter out of his hands. Why would Williams embroider, especially since covering a war from a combat zone should be glory enough for any civilian? To emulate the soldiers he admired? To be the bride at every wedding? Other Williams stories have come under scrutiny as well. There are many professions — entertainer, motivational speaker, politician — where stretching the truth is either not fatal (see “Biden, Joe”) or positively welcome. Williams’s profession, however, professes to give just the facts. It often doesn’t, but getting caught was a direct hit to Williams’s credibility.
‐ Jon Stewart announced that he will leave The Daily Show after a 17-year run. Begin with the nuances. Stewart had a real interest in authors, especially of history. He sometimes thwacked his own side (most memorably when he challenged Kathleen Sebelius to a race — she would sign up for Obamacare while he downloaded “every movie ever made”). Stewart’s shtick was simple and predictable: edited video clips; profane reax. His audience was not great — Family Guy reruns often outdrew him — and it aged along with him. Still, he taught that audience both to think well of its received (left) ideas and not to think hard (since thinking correctly required only a freewheeling jokiness). He also, as Kyle Smith of the New York Post noted, gratified the pundit class by expressing their views without constraint; they in turn magnified his influence, by endlessly citing it. Wherever the next Stewart appears — in his Daily Show chair, or in some other incarnation — he is sure to get the same treatment.
‐ Democrats are filibustering a Senate bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, which runs out of money on February 26, because the bill also blocks a number of President Obama’s unilateral amnesties for illegal immigrants. At least six Senate Democrats have opposed some of those actions as extending beyond the president’s authority but claim this is not the time or the way to challenge them. Ideally, some of these Democrats could be persuaded to allow the bill to advance in the Senate, amended to oppose just the president’s most offensive action — the November amnesty for adult illegal immigrants. But the House may instead have to advance a bill that will put Democrats in a tougher political bind — offering to fund most of DHS in one bill, and the federal immigration bureaucracy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in another, with the latter bill blocking the November amnesty. Adding some weight to the GOP’s case is a Texas federal judge’s decision to enjoin the implementation of that amnesty, pending a suit by 26 states over its costs. The states’ case may succeed, but the legislature needs a strategy for fighting the executive branch’s abuse of the Constitution that goes beyond lawsuits. Splitting the bill is the most plausible option we’ve heard.
‐ Scott Walker is famously the presidential candidate without a college degree (he left Marquette half a year shy of graduating). Some people can get very snooty about such a lack: George Washington, our first non-collegiate president, was “a man of no talents . . . who could not spell a sentence of common English,” said Aaron Burr (Princeton, 1772). There is a difference between paper credentials, whose equivalents may be earned otherwise, and attainments that are truly indispensable: political savvy, for instance, or correct views. That’s what we’ll be watching for, not news about his decisions in the mid 1980s.
‐ Asked about evolution on a recent trip to England, Walker said he would “punt.” After criticism he tweeted later the same day that “we are created by God” and that “faith & science are compatible.” The question flummoxes a lot of Republican politicians. Many Americans — 42 percent in Gallup’s latest sounding, and probably a larger share of Republicans — do not believe in evolution. Since the question is irrelevant to governance, why ask it? Refusing to answer it, though, looks weak. Answering is also good preparation for Republican candidates in dealing with unfair questions from journalists. If any reporters want to change the pattern, they can start by asking Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Pelosi, when the life of a human being begins.
‐ The sheer brazenness of President Obama’s dissembling on gay marriage — confirmed by David Axelrod in a new book — might gall even the most hard-bitten of cynics. Obama, Axelrod writes, “was in favor of same-sex marriages during the first presidential campaign, even as [he] publicly said he only supported civil unions, not full marriages,” but he felt that he could not admit as much for fear of losing black churchgoers. Thus was it confirmed that the “change” candidate had fallen back on a “sacred” religious belief that he did not possess, in order to mislead a group he claimed to be representing, in furtherance of a policy that he now openly describes as a “civil right.” There is a word for this sort of conduct. But it is not “hope.”
‐ In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a law defining marriage for the purposes of federal programs as the union of a man and a woman. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, did not bother to specify what part of the Constitution the law violated. Lower federal courts took the decision as their cue to start invalidating state marriage laws as well. A federal judge in Alabama has just done so. The chief justice of the state supreme court, Roy Moore, said that the ruling did not bind state officials handing out marriage licenses. The judge has been widely condemned for disobeying the supremacy clause of the Constitution, which puts federal law above state law; his defenders note that the Supreme Court has never said this clause makes the decisions of lower federal courts binding on state officials. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is preparing to rule on a case about the constitutionality of traditional marriage laws. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took it upon herself to pronounce that the country is ready for same-sex marriage to become the constitutional rule. Almost nobody raised an eyebrow. We already knew which way she leans on the question. We already knew that the process by which same-sex marriage is triumphing in the courts has nothing to do with the impartial application of law. Apparently it is no longer necessary even to go through the motions of pretending that it does. Spare Judge Moore, and the rest of us, any lectures about the majesty of the law.
‐ The (too) slow process of building a Republican consensus on how to replace Obamacare continues. Senators Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Richard Burr (N.C.) proposed a slightly modified version of the health-care plan they devised with former senator Tom Coburn (Okla.) last year, and this time Representative Fred Upton (Mich.) is also on board. The plan would scrap Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates, its definition of essential benefits, its federally supported exchanges, its Medicare rationing board, its medical-device tax: pretty much everything we know and don’t love about Obamacare. It would cost much less than Obamacare, coerce much less, and yet also enable more people to get insurance coverage than Obamacare does. Its key provision beyond repeal would change the tax treatment of health insurance so that it no longer favors employer-provided coverage as heavily as it does today: People without access to such coverage would have a tax credit they could use to buy the insurance plan of their choice, from sellers located anywhere in the country. Hatch runs the Senate Finance Committee and Upton the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Paul Ryan, in charge of the House Ways and Means Committee, has spoken in favor of a similar plan in the past. The rest of the party should follow their lead — and quickly, because the Supreme Court could bring this question to a head in a few months.
Off the Rails
In June 2011, an Amtrak train collided with a truck on U.S. Route 95, killing at least six people. This sobering accident near Reno, Nev., contrasts with the perhaps romanticized place of railroads in the American imagination. Few events seem to embody the fulfillment of the vision of a nation stretching “from sea to shining sea” as vividly as the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad in 1869. And rare is the American western film that does not feature in some way the nation’s railroads.
Yet the reality is that American passenger railroads, dominated by Amtrak, deliver a standard of service far below that of other railroads around the world. The high-speed trains that connect urban areas in Japan and Western Europe put their counterparts in the United States to shame.
I was contemplating these facts in early February while sitting on an optimistically named “Acela” train to New York on a perfectly sunny day. At nine, the scheduled departure time, the screen at our track suddenly flashed the word “Delay.” Further information was unavailable. Nobody could tell us how long the delay would last. Then, at ten, I received an e-mail telling me the train was canceled. I dashed to the kiosk and moved myself to a later train. About 15 minutes thereafter, an Amtrak employee announced that my first train had not really been canceled. I raced to the kiosk and switched back. Eventually, I arrived in New York, about three hours late. But the slow-as-molasses trip afforded ample opportunity to research comparative train data.
While Punch-and-Judy annoyances like the one I experienced are one metric of the professionalism of a train system, the best benchmark of the quality of a nation’s railroads is safety, which is, after all, job one.
A good measure of safety is passenger miles traveled per reported passenger injury (defined here to include fatalities). A higher number is better: It means that a passenger can travel more miles before expecting to face an injury.
America’s number is low. It is so dangerous compared with rail in the more prosperous regions of Europe that it is difficult to get the data from the U.S. and Europe on the same chart. Based on data spanning the period 2004–12, for example, to expect one transit-related injury, a passenger would need to ride the French railroad for 4.9 million miles or the German railroad for 4.1 million miles. Yet he would need to ride America’s railroads for only 84,300 miles, on average, to sustain one injury. Adjusted for passenger miles traveled, Amtrak’s passengers get injured 58 times as often as those on French railroads.
Even the worst rail systems in Europe are superior to the Amtrak-dominated American railroad system. As the chart below shows, America is less safe by the end of the sample period than even the worst European systems. Countries on the periphery of the European economy, such as Greece and Romania, surpass the United States by a substantial margin. Only Lithuania appears to be comparably dangerous.
The injuries, of course, are the tip of the iceberg. It is highly likely that running on time and other aspects of customer service are correlated with these safety data. Given the high standards of rail service in the developed countries of Asia (whose systems are not represented in our data), it is safe to conclude that America’s is among the worst rail systems in the developed world.
The good news is that it would be easy to fix. Amtrak is the answer to the question “What would a railroad look like if it were run by the staff of the Department of Motor Vehicles?” If we end federal subsidies to Amtrak, and require it to liquidate, then private companies would buy up its stations and routes. These companies could then begin running our trains with a level of professionalism that Americans now experience only when traveling abroad.
‐ Staples has not beheaded any Christians or roasted any pilots to death, but the office-supply chain has finally discovered what it takes to truly raise the passion of the Obama administration: cutting employees’ hours in response to Obamacare. “When I hear large corporations that make billions of dollars in profits trying to blame our interest in providing health insurance as an excuse for cutting back workers’ wages, shame on them,” the president said. First, Staples does not make “billions of dollars in profits,” or even a measly single billion in profits — Obama, like many Democrats, doesn’t seem to know his millions from his billions. Staples had, in fact, been closing stores even as it prepared to acquire rival Office Depot: Such is life in a declining retail industry. Staples has adopted a policy that part-timers are not to be scheduled for more than 25 hours a week, which keeps them under the threshold past which it must subsidize health insurance for them under the Affordable Care Act, and at least one of its store managers published an oafish notice — publicized by Buzzfeed — threatening to fire part-timers who exceeded 25 hours. Obama and the Democrats put a tax on full-time employment, and now they are complaining as businesses respond to the disincentives they themselves created.
‐ For the third year in a row, Republican senator John Cornyn of Texas has introduced a bill that would require the states to treat concealed-weapon permits as they treat driver’s licenses. This time, it has a chance of passing the Senate. In keeping with the principles of federalism, the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2015 would not create any federal standards for firearms permitting; it would not preempt states that do not currently offer such permits; and it would not nullify the local standards set by each jurisdiction. Instead, it would merely ensure that lawful licensees are not prevented from crossing state lines with their weapons. As the number of permit holders has increased of late, so have the opportunities for the innocent to fall foul of states’ gun laws. It is time, Cornyn said, to “eliminate some of the ‘gotcha moments,’ where people inadvertently cross state lines” and end up in prison. A similar bill has been introduced in the House, and has a good chance at passage. Something for the next president, we hope, to sign.
‐ It was a Portlandia love story: “Their relationship was based on a shared passion for a low-carbon energy future,” the New York Times reported, and she convinced him to trade in his SUV for a Prius. John Kitzhaber was the Democratic governor of Oregon, and Cylvia Hayes, Oregon’s first ladyfriend — they had five marriages between them, but not to each other — was an environmental consultant. She stands accused of using her relationship with the governor illegally to advance her business, and he has resigned barely a month into what would have been a fourth term. Among other things, she took $25,000 in “consulting” fees from the left-wing group Demos and began immediately holding events at the governor’s mansion promoting one of its projects: the “genuine progress indicator,” an alternative to GDP inspired by practice in Bhutan, until a few years ago an absolute monarchy under the “Dragon King.” She accepted a six-figure “fellowship” from another liberal group — in exchange for undefined work — and then the Kitzhaber administration hired the group’s head as the governor’s highest-paid aide. Other odd facts came to light in the process, including Hayes’s accepting a few thousand dollars to play the bride in a sham wedding to an Ethiopian seeking permanent U.S. residency and her involvement in an illegal marijuana-farming scheme. Federal and state criminal investigations are under way. Once again, the people who would manage our lives down to the food in our pantries and the fuel in our tanks have made a hash of their own.
‐ The beleaguered citizens of Illinois, tired of years of overspending, overtaxation, and sluggish economic performance, this past fall elected a Republican governor, Bruce Rauner. Unfortunately, they also sent more or less the same legislature, mostly Democratic, back to work in Springfield, so Rauner, a former private-equity manager, won’t get to disrupt the place in every way he might like. But he has come up with one clever way to help fix some of the state’s structural dysfunction on his own, and it could come to the rescue of a lot of other blue states, too: He issued an executive order blocking, on First Amendment grounds, unions’ ability to collect fees from state workers who have refused to join whatever union represents them. About half of Illinois’s state employees are under union contracts, which are bleeding the state dry. Rauner’s decision extends the logic of a 2014 Supreme Court case that ruled that quasi-public employees can’t be compelled to contribute to unions, because such a rule abridges their rights to free association. Whether he might have extended the logic further than five Supreme Court justices will want to, we’ll find out eventually. If his order stands, public unions in Illinois and elsewhere will see their membership rolls shrink and their coffers dry up. Taking a risk on a favorable decision might be more than just a good idea — to save a place like Illinois, it might be necessary.
‐ On the matter of “net neutrality,” the Federal Communications Commission is offering up a mess of new regulations — shoehorning items from a 2015 political agenda into a New Deal–era law, to provide a non-solution to a non-problem that it has no congressional mandate to address. Net neutrality is an ideological insistence that Internet service providers (ISPs) treat every bit of data the same way. They would be forbidden, for example, to give streaming video priority over e-mail traffic. The FCC rules contain the usual raft of special-interest corporate carve-outs — for voice-over-IP services, for television services coming from Apple and Sony — enacted with the usual cynicism, in this case the insistence that this is a question of free expression rather than self-interest and ideology. The free-speech angle is particularly silly: Net-neutrality advocates insist that unless these rules are adopted, ISPs could block or hamper access to news and information sites that are unpopular with political authorities or certain business interests. As it happens, we here at National Review operate one of those sites, and we trust that competition for ISP subscribers is sufficient to keep providers from simply blocking sites — something that could, theoretically, happen under current law, but doesn’t. The Internet is a font of innovation and creativity not crying out for the subtle ministrations of federal regulators; in the event of truly destructive collusion between ISPs and third parties, targeted intervention by the Federal Trade Commission would be far preferable to preemptive regulation by the FCC.
‐ Deah Barakat and Yusor Mohammed abu-Salah, newlyweds, and the bride’s sister, Razan Mohammed abu-Salah, were shot to death in their Chapel Hill apartment complex by a neighbor, Craig Hicks. Police say the crime arose out of a parking dispute: Hicks was a bullying stickler for rules. His Facebook page revealed that he was also a fan of atheists (the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Richard Dawkins) and liberals (the Southern Poverty Law Center). Does that mean that atheists and the SPLC are waging an anti-Muslim campaign? Of course not: Men and movements are not responsible for isolated, unbalanced followers. Muslim groups want to make the murders a badge of persecution. The Palestinian Authority has asked for its officials to be part of the investigation. N.B.: Is that to solve the crime, or to get tips on how to polish their own skills?
‐ Omar al-Hussein, a Danish-born Arab, shot up a café in Copenhagen as it hosted a discussion of freedom of expression. His intended target, Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks — on Islamist death lists for drawing Mohammed’s head on a dog — was not hit, but he killed Finn Norgaard, a documentarian. Hours later, he attacked a synagogue, killing Dan Uzan, a member of the community who was acting as a security guard. The next day, he opened fire on Danish police who had tracked him down, and was killed. The mix of placating and surveillance that European police have used to contain the many bad actors in their Muslim populations is clearly not working. They must drop the first and greatly step up the second. If they do not, more of the continent will be under the sway of freelance sharia enforcers. Can Europe’s Muslims ever leave their ghettos? That would take a Europe confident of its principles, and willing to enforce them on all, even as it extends their benefits to all.
‐ Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, president of Egypt, is extremely angry. Hundreds of his opponents, the Muslim Brothers, are in prison, a good few under sentence of death, and still his soldiers are ambushed and killed in the name of the Brothers. In a major speech to assembled clerics in Cairo, he exhorted Muslims to modernize and reform. Copts are the country’s Christian minority, numbering at least 10 million, and last Christmas Sisi took his own advice and became the first Egyptian president ever to step into their cathedral. Almost all poor and underprivileged, Copts had been seeking work in Libya. The overthrow of Moammar Qaddafi left such itinerants at the mercy of groups such as the Islamic State, or ISIS, self-described as a caliphate. Sinister in black, a line of ISIS members marched 21 Coptic laborers down to the shore and had themselves filmed beheading these unfortunate men in a scene of bloody murder. Sisi called on the anti-ISIS coalition to broaden its scope, and Italy cautiously discussed the possibility of eventually sending a force of 5,000. It’s a start.
‐ Peace in our time was the objective of German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande when they flew into Moscow to beseech Russian president Vladimir Putin to be nice to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. The truce they agreed (for the second time of asking) lasted all of 40 minutes in Debaltseve, a town with the strategic key to eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government registers 129 Russian infringements. Satellite images capture equipment moving in from Russia, or, in plain language, invading. The State Department is — wait for it — “greatly concerned,” so greatly that “we call on Russia and the separatists it backs to halt all attacks immediately.” This is supposed to cause sleepless nights and a change of heart in the Kremlin. There’s a special and hard-to-translate term in Russian — vranyo — that means to get your way by putting on a show of lying and boasting. Putin hints at further land grabs and cold war if not world war, and he is certain to go as far as vranyo takes him. Given the necessary arms, which we have so far shamefully withheld, Ukrainians are able and willing to defend themselves and their nation.
‐ Canada’s supreme court in February unanimously ruled that physician-assisted suicide is a constitutional right under the country’s charter. The longstanding prohibition of the practice in the federal criminal code, wrote the justices, “infringes the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” The court ruled that any adult with an “illness, disease, or disability” that causes him suffering has the right to procure medical aid in killing himself. It instructed the legislature that it would have a year to craft laws along those lines. In the court’s view, its decision does not “compel physicians to provide” such assistance. At least two provincial medical groups, however, are already drawing up regulations that would do so. Canada’s charter ostensibly protects the right to freedom of conscience and religion. Physicians who object to killing their patients may soon find that their high court has as elastic an interpretation of this principle as it has of the right to life.
‐ When President Obama made his deal with the Castros, a sweetener, for the democratic side, was the release of 53 political prisoners. In recent days, the regime has arrested 65 Cubans who attempted to attend Mass at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity. Some of them had been among the 53 released. Will the Obama administration keep an eye on Cuba and its political prisoners? Or are they to be forgotten, now that the Cold War mentality has been banished and harmony ushered in?
‐ At 90, Priscilla Sitienei attends Leaders Vision Preparatory School in Ndalat, Kenya, with seven of her great-great-grandchildren. The school turned down her application at first, but she persisted. A midwife, she wants to write down for posterity her knowledge of the practice, including herbal preparations. “I’d like to be able to read the Bible,” she adds. “I also want to inspire children to get an education,” which she describes as “their wealth.” She wears the school uniform and lives in a dormitory with her classmates, who call her, affectionately, “Gogo,” which means “Grandmother” in the local Kalenjin language. “We love Gogo because when we make noise she tells us to keep quiet,” a ten-year-old boy told the BBC. Youth and maturity need each other. Gogo aims to set an example for children, but the green old age that she exemplifies speaks just as loudly to adults, for whom the excuse that they’re too old to do this or that has just been made a little more implausible.
‐Fifty Shades of Grey, the brain disease that has sold 100 million books worldwide, begins its march through the multiplexes, playing, like the books, to hordes of auto-infectious women. The underlying fantasy is a very old one, which not all the blessings of liberty nor the naggings of feminism can eradicate: Bad man woos good girl, man becomes good (and girl has some fun along the way, maybe). It appears in ballads, with their handsome strangers and demon lovers, and in ostensibly respectable fiction (Jane Eyre). What our age has added to the formula is prose concentrate (add water, read) and assorted sex toys.
‐ Harper Lee never published a second novel after To Kill a Mockingbird. Its release in 1960 was enough to give her fame and fortune, with its initial runaway success cemented by Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch and its status as an enduring and beloved staple in high-school curricula. Lee has spent the last five decades ducking the fame, living modestly despite the fortune, and declining to speak to the press or publish again. So the news in February that she would be releasing a new novel, at 88, caused quite a stir. Controversy over the book’s provenance — it turns out to be a first-draft attempt at Mockingbird long ago set aside and now rediscovered by Lee’s lawyer — has not dampened enthusiasm for its upcoming release (pre-orders for Go Set a Watchman have made it an Amazon bestseller). It would be unfortunate if Ms. Lee were being unduly pressured to publish it, and it may very well disappoint as literature. But however this surprising second act unfolds, it won’t detract from the first.
‐ A federal panel is ready to scrap a decades-old recommendation that Americans restrict their cholesterol consumption. Cholesterol has long been associated with heart disease, and the American Heart Association warned against it as early as 1961. But over the years the story got more complicated: A distinction between “good” and “bad” cholesterol was established, and it became increasingly apparent that since the body manufactures its own cholesterol at a rate determined genetically, the amount consumed in one’s diet has little effect on overall levels. Now a draft report from the government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee suggests that cholesterol should no longer be considered a “nutrient of concern,” and that saturated fats are the main coronary culprit. To be sure, few areas of science have seen greater advances in recent decades than medicine, but the cholesterol story shows that when dealing with highly complex systems, even the best-informed scientists, using the best available data with the best of intentions, can draw conclusions that turn out to be incorrect. Science deserves all the love we can give it, but that love should not be blind.
‐ For carrying her mattress around Columbia’s campus in symbolic protest of an Ivy League administration’s acquiescence to “rape culture,” Emma Sulkowicz received awards from the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women and from the Feminist Majority Foundation, appeared on the cover of New York magazine, and found herself at this year’s State of the Union address as a guest of New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D.). All of which might be a just reward for true courage — if Emma Sulkowicz had been raped. But the student she accused, Paul Nungesser, a full-scholarship student from Germany, was cleared by the university on three separate occasions of charges leveled against him by Sulkowicz and two other accusers. One would not know this from reading mainstream news reports, hardly any of which sought Nungesser’s side of the story, and all of which ensured that he was convicted in the court of public opinion. In early February, the Daily Beast published a long, thorough article about the accusations, including in it an extensive interview with Nungesser and several facts — including long text-message conversations — that throw serious doubt on Sulkowicz’s claims. But the Daily Beast’s due diligence is small consolation for an apparently innocent man unjustly branded a “serial rapist.” In the wake of Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia rape hoax, Paul Nungesser’s show-trial-by-media, and other false accusations, it increasingly seems that men, too, have cause for fear on campus.
‐ The University of California, Berkeley, recently hosted a lecture called “Queering Agriculture,” and it was a fine example of the stream-of-social-consciousness school of academic writing. From the website description: “Queering and trans-ing ideas and practices of agriculture are necessary for more sustainable, sovereign, and equitable food systems for the creatures and systems involved in systemic reproductions that feed humans and other creatures. Since agriculture is literally [i.e., not literally] the backbone of economics, politics, and ‘civilized’ life as we know it, and the manipulation of reproduction and sexuality are a foundation of agriculture, it is absolutely crucial queer and transgender studies begin to deal more seriously with the subject of agriculture.” Translation: No one has written about this topic before because sexual preference has nothing to do with agriculture. But that’s no obstacle to a hard-core academic, and soon we can presumably expect “Queering Dentistry,” “Queering Transmission Repair,” and perhaps “Straighting Interior Design.”
‐ In 1884, near the end of the Washington Monument’s decades-long construction, its pyramidal capstone was placed on display at Tiffany’s, where visitors could jump across it and say they had “leapt over the top of the Washington Monument.” That boast just got a shade less impressive, as a new survey has shown the tower to be 554 feet 7 11⁄32 inches tall, about ten inches less than its previous official height. (In typical Washington, D.C., fashion, the National Park Service will pretend that the revision didn’t happen and continue to list the height as 555 feet 51⁄8 inches.) The change may be partly due to settling after a 2011 earthquake, and about a quarter-inch is attributable to melting of the aluminum cap in numerous lightning strikes; but mostly it’s just the result of a more accurate determination: The new survey achieved unparalleled precision by using GPS readings and a special sensor installed at the monument’s tip. George Washington might well have been embarrassed by such a towering monument to him, but — having started out as a surveyor, and having been a lifelong seeker of technological improvements — he would no doubt be impressed at the ingenuity that went into the new measurement.
‐ Martin Gilbert never met Winston Churchill, but he devoted much of his life to a study of the British statesman, serving as his official biographer. Churchill’s son Randolph had begun the massive project in the 1960s, but Gilbert completed it over the next couple of decades, composing most of the 8 million words in what is commonly called the longest biography ever written. A condensed one-volume version runs more than 1,000 pages. For most historians, this mammoth effort would have taken up a lifetime, but Gilbert never rested, publishing a total of 88 books on a range of subjects. He was famous for his meticulous archival research: “You must get everything,” he told one of his assistants. “We must have it all here.” Jewish history was a special passion, and he wrote books on the plight of the Jews under the Nazis, behind the Iron Curtain, and in Muslim lands. In the future, historians who want to understand the major figures and events of the 20th century will rely on Gilbert as a reference and guide. Dead at 78. R.I.P.
‐ This side of WFB, there was no one in conservatism more worldly, informed, or interesting than Arnaud de Borchgrave. He was one of the most consequential journalists of the Cold War. Born in 1926, he was the son of a Belgian count and his wife, Audrey, who was the daughter of a British general. Arnaud escaped Belgium just ahead of the Germans. Lying about his age, he joined the Royal Navy at 15 or 16. He was wounded on D-Day. Working for Newsweek, he became the very image of the swashbuckling foreign correspondent. He covered 18 wars and interviewed everybody: from de Gaulle to Nasser to Saddam to Reagan. Newsweek’s editor, Osborn Elliott, wrote that “de Borchgrave has played a role in world affairs known to no other journalist.” With Robert Moss, de Borchgrave wrote two best-selling thrillers, The Spike and Monimbó. He became editor of the Washington Times, making that newspaper a force to be reckoned with. He was James Bond–like, yes, endlessly suave and debonair. But he also had an extreme moral seriousness, especially where geopolitics was concerned. He has now died at 88. He once told a colleague, “All I need when I go on assignment is a tuxedo and a safari suit.” We can see him in them now. R.I.P.
War Powering Down
President Obama has sent Congress a proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State. It’s not immediately clear why. His administration says it already has such authority via at least three different channels. Indeed, although the president’s proposal contains limits, he would still have ample legal authority to do whatever he wanted against the Islamic State.
So why is he proposing this legislation at all? Because it would constrain our politically realistic options in the war against the Islamic State and Islamism in general, and he wants a congressional imprimatur for waging a constrained war.
An instructive example of his motivations is the bill’s repeal of the 2002 authorization for the use of force in Iraq. The president’s declaration of the end of our war there did not, obviously, mark the end of that conflict. There is no obvious reason, besides putting an artificial coda on our war in Iraq, to repeal the authorization. Should the now-Iran-friendly Iraqi government begin violating U.N. Security Council resolutions or become a threat to the U.S., or should some new terror threat arise within Iraq’s borders, the 2002 AUMF would give the president clear power to act. This president prefers the power to boast of putting a legal end to George W. Bush’s Iraq War.
Worse, the president also would like the resolution to prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operations” against ISIS, and to expire three years hence. These two restrictions are dangerous limits on the war powers of the executive, the most expansive prerogatives the Constitution gives him. In the Korean War, some American troops planned to be home by Christmas 1950, but it wasn’t because President Truman was going to lose his authority to keep them there on Boxing Day. Restrictions on the conduct of a war are a generally inappropriate directive for Congress to give to the commander-in-chief. The only kind of president who would ask for them is one set on diminishing his own accountability.
The ground-troops stricture, while theoretically meaningless, could still as a political matter limit our commander-in-chief’s and military’s ability to do their job properly. The war on Islamic terror is not like many of America’s past wars, and requires more flexibility, not less.
The 2001 resolution that authorized actions against al-Qaeda and affiliated entities does authorize any actions necessary against ISIS, because of the connection between those two groups. But as ISIS acquires affiliates and allies around the world — the horrific execution of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya was one example of its growing reach — it would make sense to have an authorization specifically targeting it and its affiliates, or even the global forces of Islamist terror.
Of course, such a declaration should not be passed only to ring hollow. This president’s conduct of all three wars in which he has been engaged — in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and against ISIS — suggests that it would. We need a serious reassessment of American strategy against Islamic terror and a commensurate restoration of the defense budget, but these almost surely will have to come from a new president.
Until then, we hope President Obama will conduct the war against ISIS vigorously and responsibly. News that our best allies in the region, the Kurds, are pleading in vain for American arms and matériel is just one indication that the president is not interested in winning this war. His inadequate request for new authority to fight it is another.