‐ Some stood, some knelt, all winced.
‐ President Trump’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly was a combination of idealism and blunt talk. Most striking was his ode to national sovereignty. The nation-state gets a bad rap, since it is a frequent (though by no means the only) agent of strife. But it is also the most effective forum of liberty and self-rule — an insight of both the Founders and Lincoln (cf. the Preamble of the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address). Trump called out regimes that abuse the nation-state’s potential: Iran (“economically depleted rogue state”), Syria (“criminal”), Cuba (“corrupt and destabilizing”), Venezuela (“The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented”). He gave North Korea a sober warning, proceeding to trash it with an infantile gibe — “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission” — reportedly over the advice of his advisers. If the president wants to make points rather than headlines, he should leave Twitter Trump home.
‐ The White House has issued a new executive order restricting travel from seven countries. The new restrictions vary by country — the order bars almost all Syrians from entering the United States, but permits Iranian students, for instance, to enter if they pass heightened scrutiny — and are no longer set to expire after 90 days. Nationals of those countries, and of Chad, North Korea, Libya, Venezuela, and Somalia, will face restrictions until the national-security threats that reside in them are “satisfactorily addressed.” The order also includes a thorough review of those threats, carves out reasonable exceptions, and sets a process by which the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department can consult to adjust its restrictions. These are welcome changes. The Supreme Court promptly canceled oral arguments on the previous incarnation of the travel ban, and given its new provisions, any challenges to this order should be on even shakier ground.
‐ Roy Moore easily beat incumbent Republican senator Luther Strange in a primary in Alabama. The circumstances that put Strange in his job — he was the attorney general investigating a governor, who appointed Strange to Jeff Sessions’s vacated Senate seat and then resigned as part of a plea deal — also made it difficult for him to keep it. Moore and his allies portrayed Strange as a compromised tool of Mitch McConnell. President Trump’s support for Strange does not appear to have done much to help him. Moore is well known for getting booted off the state supreme court when he defied federal court rulings that he considered anti-Christian. He seems more likely to be a headache than a help for conservatives. In a recent interview, he first suggested that parts of Illinois and Indiana were operating under sharia law and then said, “Well, let me just put it this way — if they are, they are; if they’re not, they’re not.” Alabama Republicans had poor choices and picked the candidate who appeared to believe in something.
‐ The 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter on sexual assault, sent to colleges by Barack Obama’s Department of Education, typified his sneaky legislation-by-bureaucracy approach. Under the guise of offering “guidance” on Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in education, the department specified how institutions must handle rape or sexual-assault claims — tilting the scales in favor of the accuser and discouraging any attempt to steer the proceedings to criminal courts, which are much better equipped to handle such cases. The letter also required institutions to hire “Title IX coordinators,” whose full-time job would be to handle complaints and seek out potential violations. Institutions that showed insufficient zeal in this pursuit would be subject to sanctions. The results of these ukases are familiar to all of us: kangaroo courts expelling students on evidence that even the accuser disavows; hair-trigger disciplinary proceedings against faculty and staff; and dissenters of all kinds afraid to express their views. Now, however, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has reinterpreted Title IX, disavowing the 2011 letter and planning to formulate new guidelines that emphasize the importance of addressing sexual assault and discrimination as well as the need for due process and free speech. Here’s hoping that DeVos’s policy sticks so that future college students will never have to puzzle out the Orwellian philosophy that impartiality is bias.
‐ President Trump claims that the United States is finally degrading ISIS, and he’s correct. A better way of putting it, however, would be that the United States government has finally begun to take ISIS as seriously as it should. Though he kept it quiet, Barack Obama spent the last two years of his time in office bombing enemy strongholds in both Iraq and Syria and, eventually, ordered the reclamation of both Mosul and Raqqa and made substantial battlefield progress toward that goal. President Trump has built on this success and sought to fix some of the problems with Obama’s approach. The consequence has been an acceleration of allied gains and the near-destruction of the ISIS caliphate. Across Mesopotamia, ISIS leaders have fled to their last strongholds, and their dreams of building a lasting Islamic State lie in ruins. Better late than never.
‐ For a brief moment during the Bush administration, Valerie Plame attained widespread fame. She claimed that neoconservatives in the government had intentionally leaked her status as an undercover CIA agent to punish her husband, Joe Wilson, a diplomat who opposed the U.S. intervention in Iraq. The scandal eventually precipitated the appointment of a special prosecutor (and a terrible Sean Penn/Naomi Watts movie) before engulfing Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, though there was never a shred of evidence of any neoconservative revenge plot. It was an Iraq War skeptic in the administration, not a neoconservative, who exposed Plame. She came back into the news in late September when she tweeted about an article headlined “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame defended the article before furiously backtracking — we assume someone let her know how obnoxious she sounded — by claiming that she had “missed gross undercurrents” in it. It then turned out that she had made a habit of missing such “undercurrents” when sharing anti-Semitic articles. Between her willful blindness and her weakness for conspiracy theories, she’s not much of an advertisement for the intelligence services.
‐ John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made an alarming point: “America’s now losing more troops in training than in combat. This is madness.” He then said that “we must repeal sequestration” — the mechanism that has gutted defense spending — and “rebuild the military.” This is important. In 1964, Barry Goldwater had a slogan, later echoed, more famously, by Ronald Reagan: “Peace through strength.” More than a slogan, it’s a principle to live by.
‐ The word “truthers” usually applies to people who believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” — perpetrated by the U.S. government itself. There are also such things as Sandy Hook truthers — people who believe that “crisis actors” staged the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in order to discredit gun rights. Furthermore, there are Charlottesville truthers — people who believe that the Left arranged neo-Nazi protests in that city, protests that turned murderous — in order to make the Right look bad, and to “put our president on the spot.” Those last words are from Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican congressman from California. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he claimed a “set-up” and a “total hoax.” Given his support for Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, and WikiLeaks, we wish it were a hoax that Rohrabacher is a Republican elected official.
‐ The cold war between President Trump and Attorney General Sessions continues. In truth, it is more of a cold attack, with all the impetus coming from one side: Trump’s. Sessions remains quiet and gets on with his job; Trump undermines and berates him. It is a dismaying spectacle, although Sessions should have known what he was getting into with his mercurial and sometimes cruel boss. Scorpions and frogs are attracted to each other, we’re told.
‐ Sean Spicer began his brief tenure as White House press secretary by establishing a reputation for clankingly obvious dishonesty. He criticized the press corps for denying that President Trump’s inaugural address had been a box-office hit. The reporters knew that it hadn’t been, that Spicer knew it, and that he didn’t really expect them to believe him. He was just doing the president’s bidding, without regard for truthfulness or persuasiveness. Now out of the White House, Spicer has expressed regret over his criticism, made fun of it at the Emmys, and said he never lied in his job. Spicer says Trump enjoyed his Emmys performance, and why not? It’s not the president’s job to look out for Sean Spicer’s integrity.
‐ Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government named Chelsea Manning, formerly Private First Class Bradley Manning, a visiting fellow. The institution touted Manning as “the first transgender fellow,” noting, “she advocates for queer and transgender rights as @xychelsea on Twitter.” More notably, Manning is a convicted felon who stole classified information and indiscriminately released it to WikiLeaks, endangering the lives of fellow soldiers. After taking a public lashing from, among others, former CIA deputy director Mike Morrell, for choosing to elevate a traitor, the school’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, issued a semi-apology. Though protesting that “visiting fellow” is just a title that Harvard gives to many people who spend “more than a few hours at the school,” Elmendorf nevertheless rescinded it. Manning responded that he was “honored” to be disinvited. In truth, there was very little honor to be found in the whole affair.
‐ The U.S. murder rate was 5.3 per 100,000 in 2016, the FBI got around to reporting in late September of the next year. That’s 8 percent above where it was in 2015 and 20 percent above where it was in 2014 — a worrying two-year turnaround of what had been a fairly consistent two-decade downward trend (that happens to coincide with the anti-police agitation of Black Lives Matter). It’s not time to panic; the murder rate was about the same in 2016 as it had been in 2008, which no one remembers as a time of spectacular carnage, and about half of what it was at its peaks in the early ’80s and early ’90s. There are also signs that the problem has leveled off so far in 2017. But there’s no denying the seriousness of a 20 percent increase in killings. Especially in troubled big cities such as Chicago, law enforcement needs to step up and get this trend line headed back in the right direction. Thousands of lives every year hang in the balance.
‐ In 2011, Anthony Lamar Smith was shot and killed by Jason Stockley, a police officer. The incident took place in St. Louis. Smith was black, Stockley is white. Charged with first-degree murder, the officer has now been acquitted. In St. Louis, protests broke out, and violent ones. Scores of people were injured, including about a dozen policemen. Protesters threw bricks and broke windows at the mayor’s home. They forced the cancellation of public events, such as concerts by the St. Louis Symphony and U2. From what we can tell — which is of course not everything — the judge’s decision to acquit the officer was right. Regardless, the violence in the protests was wrong.
‐ Hurricane Maria tore through the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, killing ten people, disabling the electricity grid, and leaving massive physical destruction in its wake. With cell service sparse at best, many were unable to contact their families. The normal consequences of natural disaster followed: some looting, but also acts of heroism and a fierce response from the authorities, including the Army. Rebuilding will be made difficult by the island’s history of severe financial mismanagement; it essentially declared bankruptcy earlier this year. May the good people of Puerto Rico emerge from this tragedy stronger than before.
‐ The University of California, Berkeley, spent $600,000 on security for Ben Shapiro’s September 14 speech, anticipating yet another round of violent Antifa protests. So far during its short but explosive history at Berkeley, Antifa has cost the school over $2 million in damages and security fees with its campaign to silence speakers they believe to be “fascists” — the “fa” in the portmanteau. The bill began in February, when Antifa cost the school nearly $100,000 in damage while pre-protesting a later-canceled talk by provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. In late August, the school dropped an additional $600,000 in security fees during the weeks leading up to an also-canceled Ann Coulter talk. Security for Shapiro’s event brought the total up to $1.3 million, but then, ten days later, the school spent $800,000 on security for what was supposed to be a week-long free-speech event but turned into a 15-minute meet-and-greet with Yiannopoulos. Berkeley deserves commendation for its willingness to spend top dollar for speakers its students don’t agree with, but couldn’t this all have been avoided if the school and city had taken a stronger stance against Antifa in February?
‐ It may be an urban legend that the Pentagon spent $600 on a hammer in the 1980s, but it’s no secret that the Department of Defense has at times acquired a well-deserved reputation for boondoggles and profligate spending. So it’s nice to see the services making do with off-the-shelf equipment when possible — even if that shelf happens to be in your local Best Buy. According to the website Engadget, the Navy has decided to replace its Lockheed Martin–designed periscope joysticks, which were clunky and uncomfortable and, with their associated control panels, cost $38,000 per unit, with Xbox 360 controllers, which cost about $30. Apparently, the game-console controllers are perfectly suited to the high-tech periscopes and sensor arrays on our Virginia-class attack submarines, all of which the Navy plans to retrofit. And it doesn’t hurt that the Xbox controllers turned out to be readily grasped by the submariners. It’s almost as though our young sailors grew up using them.
‐ The United Kingdom’s process of saying goodbye to the European Union has been getting nowhere because the Europeans are insisting that the U.K. pay tens of billions of pounds to Brussels. This is partly to honor commitments made in the past, partly to intimidate other countries that might also want to exit, and partly to punish the U.K. for its temerity. Prime Minister Theresa May has the unenviable task of squaring the circle with squabbling cabinet ministers and the Brussels official team. She chose Florence as the city in which to deliver what she hoped was a make-or-break speech, or, in plain language, a concession to demands. Brussels will get the billions of pounds, EU citizens already in the U.K. will have the right to stay, and the agreed transition period is to be extended by two years. Brexiteers suspect that her heart isn’t really in leaving, although one of her sentences does speak for them: “The EU never felt to us like an integral part of our national story.”
‐ The real winner in the recent German general election is the party that calls itself Alternative for Germany, or AfD in its German abbreviation. Founded four short years ago, it began as a grassroots protest against the European Union and the euro in particular. Without consultation and never mind public opinion, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, laid a rod on her own back by bringing in a million migrants from the Middle East and Africa while also refusing to limit future admissions. The way was therefore open for AfD to become a full-blown nationalist movement. “We will take back our country, and our people too,” said Alexander Gauland, the AfD chairman now in a position to muster 94 of the 709 seats in the Bundestag. Demonstrators in the major German cities accuse the AfD of being Nazis, the media almost unanimously pin on them the denigrating term “far right,” and the World Jewish Congress speaks of them as “a disgraceful reactionary movement.” In her public pronouncements, Mrs. Merkel asserts that the AfD will have no effect on her policy. The conventional parties have had their worst electoral results since the end of the war, losing such large percentages of their previous vote that Mrs. Merkel looks unlikely to be able to assemble a coalition to govern anytime soon. No wonder her expression is even more mournful than usual.
‐ The Village Voice gave up its print edition, and Jann Wenner, founder/editor of Rolling Stone, put that publication on the block. The Village Voice, the older of the two, began in the Fifties as an expression of downtown-Gotham feistiness and peculiarity. Rolling Stone was the Sixties rock magazine that went big-time. Each harbored notable talents — the pro-life civil libertarian Nat Hentoff at the Village Voice, Tom Wolfe at Rolling Stone — but each was filled with anti-patriotism and sheer craziness. The demographic fact behind their rise was that the modern teenager had too much disposable income. But the teenagers became adults, while the Internet destroyed the ad base of the printed Village Voice and offered the music industry other means of publicity besides Rolling Stone puff pieces. Rolling Stone was also crippled by a cover story promoting a rape hoax at UVA. Sic transit.
‐ Early on a Friday morning, September 15, NASA lost contact with the Cassini spacecraft after it was deliberately sent to burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere at high speed. It was the end of a nearly 20-year mission, the last 13 of which have been spent studying the rings and moons of the sixth planet of our solar system. Cassini traveled nearly 5 billion miles, had its mission extended twice, and witnessed almost half of a Saturn year (which is about 30 Earth years) before finally running out of fuel in early September. And, tantalizingly, through studying data collected by the probe, some researchers have come to believe that the Saturnine moons Enceladus and Titan could be habitable to life. It’s the end of an era, and a testimony to the ingenuity and perseverance of the scientists and engineers who worked on the mission. But we’ll be back. NASA’s New Frontiers competition has already called for proposals for future missions, which might include Saturn probes. Finalists will be announced at the end of the year.
‐ Chelsea Handler is a stand-up comedian, late-night talk-show host, and self-styled member of the #resistance. Her political preoccupations have not improved her comedy. In response to a statement from Kim Jong-un calling President Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” Handler tweeted: “Uhhhh. Kim Jung’s letter to @realDonaldTrump is a little bit more sane than @realDonaldTrump. Maybe we trade?” This was apparently a joke. To find it funny, one would have to be either a little deranged about Trump or more than a little ignorant about the nature of the North Korean regime. It’s probably safe to assume Handler is both.
‐ The Michigan football team is highly ranked, and the Air Force football team is not. So it goes in our service academies. But they played Michigan very, very tough, in a losing effort. Afterward, a Michigan player, Chase Winovich, had a comment to remember: “I feel bad for the terrorists those guys are eventually going to go up against.”
‐ Frank Giaccio, an eleven-year-old boy from Virginia, acquired a high-profile client for his lawn-mowing business in September: President Donald Trump. Giaccio, who charges his neighbors $8 per lawn and offers “power mower, push mower, and weed whacker” services, wrote to the White House explaining that “it would be my honor to mow the White House lawn some weekend.” “I’d like to show the nation,” he added, “what young people like me are ready for. I admire your business background and have started my own business.” The pitch was accepted, and Gregory made his way to Pennsylvania Avenue, where he went about his work. Who says the work ethic is dead in America?
‐ Some breakfast cereals aspire to be healthy while others don’t even bother to try. Then there are those such as Corn Pops (formerly Sugar Pops) that pay tribute to the idea of nutrition with cosmetic changes in their name, packaging, or appearance. A couple of years back, Trix joined the latter category: Formerly made up of defiantly fake fruit-shaped lumps in throbbing neon colors, with flavors vaguely suggesting “berry” or “citrus” (or, more often, “sugar”), the cereal switched to tiny, austere balls, naturally flavored and dyed in somber shades with vegetable extracts (though the sugar content remained unchanged). The result resembled nothing so much as a jumbo serving of artisanal heirloom quinoa. Trix fans erupted in revolt, and now General Mills has announced that it is bringing back the old-fashioned all-artificial version. Breakfast nooks nationwide will soon resound with joyous shouts from schoolchildren. Trix are for kids, but some marketing genius tried to sell them to the rabbit instead.
‐ Jake LaMotta, the man who inspired the legendary film Raging Bull, is dead. He was 95 years old. He was a symbol of America’s complicated relationship with its celebrities. He demonstrated unquestioned courage and tenacity in the ring. He was renowned for his ability to take extreme amounts of punishment, only to bounce back and take the fight to his opponent. He fought more than 110 times, won a title, and battled Sugar Ray Robinson in an epic series of bouts. LaMotta’s rage, however, wasn’t confined to the ring. He was married six times, beat his first wife, and was imprisoned for six months for encouraging a minor to be a prostitute. He admitted to fixing a fight in exchange for a title shot. That didn’t stop him from enjoying a long post-fight career as an actor and comic. He appeared in movies, television shows, and stage productions — proving time and again that America can give its sports heroes an almost endless series of second chances. LaMotta was famous for his fury. Now he rages no more. May he rest in peace.
‐ In 1957, Edgar Smith, an ex-Marine living in a New Jersey trailer park, picked up Victoria Zielinski, a 15-year-old girl, drove her to a sand pit, and beat her to death. Tried and sentenced to die, he wrote a series of jailhouse appeals, arguing that his confession had been coerced, and letters to WFB, who helped him with publicity and legal assistance. In 1971, he was released after a plea deal, for time served. Five years later, he kidnapped Lefteriya Ozbun, a 33-year-old woman, almost stabbing her to death. This time he was put away for good (he finally confessed to Miss Zielinski’s murder). Smith, it was recently announced, died earlier this year in a prison hospital, age 83. Why did WFB believe him? Desire to do justice (good); desire to run counter to type (sometimes good); seduction by style: Smith wrote well (rarely good); blindness, not to evil but to psychopathy (never good). The end of a bad man, the fault of a good one, the murder of an innocent.
Republicans have once again failed to pass a bill that rolls back Obamacare, let alone one that repeals it as they have promised for seven years.
Blame for this debacle should go in the first instance to the senators who refused to support the latest version of the bill. John McCain said that he would back a bill only if it had Democratic support. So much for his promise during his 2016 reelection campaign that he would “lead the fight” to repeal Obamacare. Rand Paul backed a bill that kept nearly all of Obamacare’s taxes and spending, then piously denounced a bill for keeping 90 percent of it. Susan Collins acted throughout this year’s debate as though her priority was to keep as much of Obamacare as possible and found new excuses for rejecting bills that stood a chance of passage.
But others share the blame as well. Mitch McConnell did nothing over seven years to forge a consensus on how to replace Obamacare. Most congressional Republicans were lightly informed and lightly engaged. President Trump campaigned on a ridiculous health plan. In office, he proved incapable of describing any of the Republican bills even in outline, let alone selling them to congressmen or the country.
It was not the job of the press, of course, to help pass a bill. It was its job to inform the public, and it failed. Thanks to it, the main thing that Americans heard about Republican legislation was that it would “take away” health insurance from millions of people. Almost none of them heard that most of those millions would voluntarily drop their insurance as soon as the government gave them the chance to do it without paying a fine. But Republicans themselves deserve some blame for the lousy media coverage, which they rarely challenged and never challenged effectively.
The temptation for Republicans will be to let the Democrats take the initiative on health care again, resisting their efforts to move farther toward a single-payer system and thus in practice defending the post-Obamacare status quo. Republicans are delighted that Senator Bernie Sanders has gotten most of the Democratic party at least nominally behind single-payer, which would require massive broad-based tax increases and a radical disruption in most people’s health care and insurance.
Incremental moves toward single-payer will, however, be hard to resist if Republicans adopt this stance. Only liberals will be offering solutions — a price control here, new subsidies there — to each dissatisfaction Americans have with their health-care system. They will win some of the time. We will slowly arrive at a situation in which we get worse health care for the money, and especially less innovation.
The Republicans’ next steps on health care are therefore important beyond their effects on morale. The Trump administration should exploit what flexibility the law legitimately grants it to reduce the burden of Obamacare. And no bipartisan effort to “stabilize” Obamacare (that is, to direct more taxpayer resources toward it) should be allowed to go forward absent real reform of the program. A better system than Obamacare — one in which people are free to choose the insurance products they want and in which those choices include cheap, renewable catastrophic coverage — should remain conservatives’ goal. Left-wingers did not give up when national health insurance failed in the 1940s. When it comes to perseverance, at least, conservatives should follow their example.
The kneel to the pre-game national anthem began with Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, in 2016. Reacting to high-profile police shootings of black suspects, he said he could not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Kaepernick turned free agent at the end of the season, but no team picked him up, either because he was being blackballed for his behavior or because his performance had fallen off (probably some combination of the two). Some players who believed the former began taking the knee during the national anthem in sympathy.
President Trump, with his hound’s nose for blood, turned the slice into a gash in an aside at a rally for Alabama senator Luther Strange. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ”
The president’s remark and follow-up tweets made the controversy about himself vs. team solidarity, resulting in veritable chorus lines of kneels and (in a less confrontational spirit) locked arms. When Alejandro Villanueva of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a Bronze Star Afghanistan vet, stood for the anthem alone of his teammates, he became a sudden hero; he subsequently apologized for making the other Steelers look bad (evidently the plan was for him to stand with a few other teammates, who botched it).
Let us run this play again.
The police of America do a generally heroic job maintaining order, in ordinary communities and deeply ravaged ones. So long as the ravaged are disproportionately black, blacks will suffer disproportionately from both legitimate and discriminatory uses of force. This is a painful reality, but it doesn’t justify disrespecting the nation’s flag.
Short of slander and threats of imminent violence, an American may say what he likes. His employers and his fans are equally free to take exception.
Sports are supposed to be a safe space for entertainment, mock battle, and amateur expertise. To inject politics into sports represents the ideological conscription of everything, which at the extreme turns us, in Yeats’s phrase, into “weasels fighting in a hole.”
The president should not be fighting down in that hole. When he must wield a weapon, let him use humor or class.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is a symbol of aspiration (the first verse ends with a question) and fulfillment. If the tackle of the Centralia Dirt Hogs doesn’t believe that, let him go to Seminary Ridge.
Culture-war battles can be as diverting as football games; they certainly make work for journalists. But politicians, athletes, and owners should take care lest they wear out their welcomes. Elections are periodic, and many American sports have waxed and waned in popularity over the years.