Magazine December 22, 2019, Issue

The Week

(Roman Genn)

• The former New York City mayor will try to use his riches to become president. Not to be confused with the former New York City mayor who tried to use his president to become rich.

• House Democrats are in a sprint to finish impeaching President Trump by the end of the year. Their public hearings were successful in demonstrating a very strong circumstantial case that Trump withheld a package of defense aid to try to get the Ukrainians to commit to investigations he sought, something he has implausibly denied. But the hearings were much less successful in moving public opinion, which remains roughly evenly divided. Impeachment is presumably less popular in Trump districts represented by vulnerable Democrats, making it potentially perilous for them. Polling shows that it’s not a top concern for any set of voters, and Democratic presidential candidates out on the trail don’t spend much or any time on it. With the beginning of 2020 just weeks away — when the question why this can’t be settled by the election becomes even more salient — Democrats want to get it over with as soon as possible. The Senate trial presumably won’t be prolonged, either. Soon enough, impeachment may feel like ancient history, eclipsed like most everything else in the Trump era by the inexorable arrival of other all-consuming controversies. 

• People are talking past one another on the issue of Ukrainian election “meddling” in 2016. It was the Russians who, as part of a government-directed operation, hacked Democratic emails, and any suggestion otherwise is foolish and wrong. But there were also Ukrainians who worked against Trump, in a much less organized and consequential effort. These two facts aren’t contradictory, and believing one doesn’t have to mean dismissing the other, although we obviously don’t live in an era of careful distinctions. 

• Rudy Giuliani has a lot to answer for in the Ukraine episode. He clearly relished his imagined role of international fixer, who knew the real score in Ukraine and would get to the bottom of corruption in the country while also keeping an eye out for his own business opportunities. His colossal poor judgment led Trump down a path that is going to get him impeached, when all Trump had to do was listen to any number of people not named Rudy Giuliani to avoid the entire mess (of course, the ultimate responsibility is Trump’s alone). On top of this, we now have the spectacle of Rudy “joking” that he has “insurance,” or compromising information, about his client, who is president of the United States. This is a sad comedown for the man who saved New York City and inspired the nation after September 11. 

• Pete Buttigieg, mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana, is the latest Democrat to surge in the polls. A Kamala Harris flash in the pan, or the real deal? In a field of oldsters, the 37-year-old stands out. He scores best with Baby Boomers, who perhaps know from experience the pitfalls of aging: If I’m starting to feel less sharp, do I want to put another septuagenarian in the White House? Aside from youth, Buttigieg shows smarts and fluency. One audience he has so far not connected with is blacks, a key Democratic base. As a group they are less sympathetic to gays, a signal failure of intersectionality. Apart from pure prejudice, blacks can resent gay efforts to depict their historic travails as comparable to racism and Jim Crow, an argument Buttigieg has tiptoed up to making. Every successful candidate has to crack a particular personal problem: Trump, outsider; Obama, inexperience; W., dynast. Mayor Pete has his work cut out for him.

• Michael Bloomberg’s authoritarian streak, which is not narrow, has been the subject of renewed attention as he enters the Democratic presidential-primary contest. Two remarks have received especial attention: In a 2018 speech (and on other occasions) Bloomberg spoke enthusiastically about raising taxes on the poor as a way of bullying them into living healthier lives: “The question is, Do you want to pander to those people, or do you want them to live longer?” he said during remarks to the International Monetary Fund in Washington. In the second controversial statement, in a September appearance on Margaret Hoover’s version of Firing Line, Bloomberg insisted: “Xi Jinping is not a dictator,” adding, “He has to satisfy his constituents or he’s not going to survive.” The usual howlers have howled in the usual way. Bloomberg may speak callously, but his underlying philosophy is orthodox progressivism. The Democrats who imposed the ACA’s individual mandate can hardly complain about taxing the poor into making good decisions, and the idea that Beijing and other undemocratic regimes might be in some fashion accountable is familiar stuff to readers of Francis Fukuyama. The outrage theater will hurt him, but the underlying questions — What are the proper limits of state paternalism toward the poor? What should be the U.S. stance toward China? — deserve a little attention, too. The defects of Bloombergism are distinct from the defects of Michael Bloomberg, which would be of some interest to Democrats if they enjoyed any power of introspection. 

• In the final days of Senator Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign — she dropped out in early December — her aides seemed to be spending more time backbiting than knocking on doors. A top Iowa aide resigned with a letter, soon published, saying that staff were being mistreated and there was no plan to win. A congresswoman who is backing Harris said on the record that her campaign manager had to go. Other aides told the New York Times that the candidate’s sister, also the campaign chairwoman, was a problem, too. The candidate herself came in for devastating though anonymous attacks from aides who complained she doesn’t know what she stands for. Younger aides were faulted for obsessing about what left-wingers were saying on Twitter. But it wasn’t just younger aides who made the mistake of thinking of the keyboard Left as representative of Democratic voters. Harris first embraced Medicare for All and then backtracked, first slammed Joe Biden over forced busing and then backtracked, first called for a conversation about letting prisoners vote and then backtracked. Clapping emojis on Twitter didn’t lift her in the polls. The Democrats’ biggest social-media problem isn’t Russians on Facebook.

• The Trump administration has published a new rule that would require medical providers to disclose more information, in the cause of price transparency. Conservative critics of the U.S. health-care system have long argued that empowering consumers can help control costs and reduce uncertainty in health care, but that the lack of transparent prices inhibits comparison shopping and hence prevents effective and functional markets from emerging. The hospital and insurance industries have objected on the grounds that the new rule would require the release of proprietary information, e.g., how big a discount cash customers enjoy vs. those relying on insurance. They plan to sue. The American Hospital Association complains that the rule would “accelerate anticompetitive behavior among health insurers and stymie innovations.” Count us among the unconvinced. The hospital operators and insurance companies did not exactly earn a great deal of trust during the fight over the so-called Affordable Care Act, in which the interested parties were very supportive of an anticompetitive rule that would have obliged every living American to buy what these guys sell and shunted trillions of dollars of new federal spending into their businesses. What the health-insurance and health-care businesses need is more competition, and the more information consumers have, the less the providers will be able to act as an effective cartel.

• President Trump imposed new steel and aluminum tariffs on Brazil and Argentina. This maneuver is about not minerals but vegetables: Trump’s trade war on China has disrupted U.S. farm exports to that country, where buyers have turned to suppliers in Brazil and Argentina for soybeans in a development that may permanently cost U.S. producers a substantial share of a vital export market. Trump says he is imposing the tariffs as a response to exploitative currency devaluation in those countries; while it is true that the Brazilian real and the Argentine peso have declined in value, that has been the result of the economic chaos inflicted on those countries by their incompetent governments (when is Argentina not on the verge of a debt crisis or in the process of emerging from one?) rather than by programmatic devaluation — which is what Trump wants from U.S. authorities: As he announced the new tariffs, he also berated Fed chairman Jerome Powell for not cutting U.S. interest rates to the point where they would weaken the dollar. (Predictably, the Treasury and Commerce departments and the U.S. trade representative learned about this on Twitter, as indeed did the governments of Argentina and Brazil.) Competitive devaluation is a fool’s game. Perhaps our friend Larry Kudlow could inform the president of the sorry history of that policy, which would be a great public service. 

• Reflecting President Trump and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s hostility to the World Trade Organization, the administration has spent two years blocking appointments to its appellate court. It will soon lack enough judges to issue rulings. It would not necessarily be a bad idea for Trump to put pressure on other countries with an interest in the WTO to compromise — if the administration had ever put forward proposed reforms on which there could be a compromise. The likely effect of eroding the WTO’s importance will be to increase the amount of protectionism practiced both by us and by our trading partners, and to encourage countries to make bilateral and regional agreements that often exclude us. Trump’s humbling of the WTO will be a Pyrrhic victory that leads to more.

• The Centers for Disease Control reported that the American fertility rate has declined again, to a record low. Around the same time, a study found that life expectancy has also fallen, for a third year in a row. Nearly everyone agrees that the second trend — driven by the overlapping categories of suicide, opioid abuse, and heavy drinking — is a matter of urgent public concern. The first should be considered one, too, especially since surveys have for years shown that Americans would like to have more children than they do. Policymakers will in response naturally and rightly ponder such economic questions as whether employment can be made more stable and raising a family more affordable. But it is hard to resist the conclusion that we are in the midst of a crisis that is finally spiritual. 

• To the great surprise of no one who has followed these kinds of hysterias in the past, a Minnesota study has shown that the vast majority (read: all, with a margin of error) of those who have suffered in the recent outbreak of vaping illnesses became sick after using illegal products, in this case products that delivered THC (the main kick in marijuana) from bootleg drug-lab pods containing vitamin E acetate, an ingredient that is perfectly safe in its intended use (skin-care products, mostly) but dangerous or deadly when vaporized and inhaled. You could put gasoline or insecticide in a vaping pod and inhale that, too, and the problem would not be vaping — some people are simply hell-bent on doing evolution the hard way. The question with vaping is the question with a lot of things: Compared with what? The health risks and costs associated with smoking are substantial, but they do not come from the consumption of or addiction to nicotine, which is no more harmful than caffeine or any number of regularly consumed substances. The problem with smoking is the smoke — the products of combustion known colloquially as “tar” — and vaping provides the nicotine without the smoke. Vaping’s health benefits as an alternative to smoking are substantial and well-established. But the busybodies hate it because it looks too much like smoking.

• If Trump is reelected, it may be because of conflicts like the one described in this New York Times headline: “Minority Voters Chafe as Democratic Candidates Abandon Charter Schools.” The story implicitly refutes the common accusation that charter schools are somehow racist, but more important, it exposes the limits of the Democrats’ tax-and-spend-and-regulate model of government. What the parents of children at failing schools need, and are desperately asking for, is not more money or more administrators, nor fancy technology, nor federal oversight of school discipline, but something much simpler: a choice for their children. Of course, that’s exactly what the Democrats’ union clients want desperately to avoid, and they have lots more money to spend than a scattered group of low-income parents. So for now, Cory Booker is the only Democratic candidate who endorses charter schools. The Democrats should be careful. If families are not allowed to choose another school, they may end up choosing another party.

• Donald Trump’s intervention in cases of members of the military accused of war crimes led to turmoil. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper fired Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer for going behind his back to try to cut a secret deal with Trump involving Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL whose demotion Trump had reversed. Spencer proposed that the president not mandate that Gallagher keep his status as a SEAL — and the treasured symbol of the community, the trident pin — upon retirement, in exchange for a review board letting him keep his status anyway. This bizarre offer made no sense, and Spencer had to go. But Trump, wrongly, intervened to ensure that Gallagher kept his pin. The SEALs should have been allowed to adjudicate this matter themselves. Gallagher was acquitted in July on six of seven charges, including the murder of an ISIS fighter. But he was found guilty of posing with the body, a significant breach of discipline. Part of what makes American fighting forces so exemplary is that they take such matters so seriously. 

• President Trump described this intervention and the others as sticking up for three warriors “against the deep state.” At other times, he has said that he doesn’t like to use the phrase. He should stick with his second inclination. Journalists and scholars have written for years about the ingrained biases of unelected civil servants and congressional staffers (see, e.g., “Why You Can’t Beat City Hall at Washington, D.C.,” Richard Brookhiser, NR, September 29 and October 13, 1978). But the term “deep state” comes from Turkish politics, where it refers to the military cadre organized by Kemal Ataturk, maintained by his followers, and finally dismantled by Recep Erdogan. This deep state kept Turkey on a secularist path via coups, in 1960 and 1980 (in 1971 a simple threat was enough). These coups — real coups, not metaphors — saw leading politicians arrested, some executed, and summary rewrites of the constitution. We have never suffered anything like that in our history; there is nothing like it in prospect now. Americans should unlearn this imported term.

• When Usman Khan, a felon freed under a rehabilitation program, began stabbing people in Fishmonger’s Hall in London, he was chased down by ordinary citizens, one wielding a fire extinguisher, another a narwhal tusk grabbed from a wall mounting. That last outlandish detail spawned a joke: If you outlaw narwhal tusks, only outlaws will have narwhal tusks. But Khan’s spree was deadly serious, the ironies grotesque. The event he disrupted was a conference on rehabilitation; he stabbed two people fatally, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, both young liberal-minded criminologists; the crime for which Khan had served a truncated sentence was an al-Qaeda-backed plot to blow up the London Stock Exchange; police arriving on the scene shot Khan dead on London Bridge (good riddance). A little less rehabilitation, a lot more policing and assimilation, please.

• A headline at Foreign Policy asked, “What Just Happened in Hong Kong’s Elections?” The subheading answered, “Hong Kongers turned out in droves to defeat pro-Beijing candidates.” The article explained that “district council elections saw record turnout and an unprecedented victory for the pro-democracy camp.” The article continued, “Pro-democracy candidates took nearly 90 percent of the available seats, tripling their previous total.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which, among other things, requires the executive branch to impose sanctions on officials who are responsible for human-rights abuses in Hong Kong. The act passed both houses of Congress by veto-proof majorities. President Trump signed the legislation, saying he was doing so “out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong.” If Xi and the Communist Party that rules China want to stop democracy in Hong Kong, they will probably have to do so with violence — about which they have never been shy.

• U.S. policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank is difficult to nail down. As a political matter, the U.S. has long treated the settlements as an obstacle to an eventual peace deal. As a legal matter, the question is whether the settlements violate Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions. In 1978, Carter adviser Herbert Hansell drafted a four-page memo arguing that they did. Reagan disagreed. Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush generally remained quiet on the law. In 2016, then–secretary of state John Kerry reaffirmed the Carter position. Now the Trump administration is changing tack, with Secretary of State Pompeo announcing recently that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.” Critics have said that the decision will be yet another obstacle to the peace process, to which we’d reply — what peace process?

• Prime minister of Israel for 13 years all told, Benjamin Netanyahu is no stranger to political, economic, and military storms. What’s happening now in Israel, however, is an unprecedented paralysis of the whole national system. Eager to believe the worst of Netanyahu, a hostile media latched on to rumors that he was guilty of bribery, breach of trust, and fraud. As prime minister, he has had immunity from prosecution, and therefore been seemingly above the law. Taking his time before making a move, the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, ironically a Netanyahu appointee, dropped many a suggestive hint about his intentions to prosecute. An inconclusive general election in April, and then another in September, highlighted the accusation that parliamentary immunity is hiding scandalous abuse of office. The attorney general has now issued an indictment, a step that the angry Netanyahu challenges as a legal coup. He and his supporters maintain that he has done only what anyone in his position would have done, and this whole crisis had been trumped up for unworthy party political ends. A third general election is in the offing, but what’s really at stake is Netanyahu’s place in history.

• Power is lying in the streets of Iraq. Among those seriously engaged in the hellish process of picking it up for themselves are the 89-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Islamic State fanatics from the half-crushed caliphate, Baathists and other survivors from the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, and last but by no means least the Iranian regime currently seeing a chance to extend its empire of like-minded Muslims. Confronted by Iranians in turbans, Iraqi protesters have attacked or burnt down Iranian consulates in several cities, including holy Najaf and Karbala. “Iran out,” the crowds chant. According to the World Bank, a quarter of the Iraqi population lives on $1.90 a day. What they want is safe drinking water and no more electricity outages. The Iraq Body Count, IBC for short, is a voluntary organization whose purpose is to record the response of the Iraqi authorities. To date, security forces have shot dead at least 400 demonstrators, wounded thousands, and themselves suffered some 1,200 casualties. Adel Abdul Mahdi, hitherto a hesitant Iraqi prime minister, accepted that the mobs had “rightful demands” and his resignation passed unanimously through the parliament without a vote — evidence of hope to some, to others of despair.

• The price of gasoline in Iran is subsidized. Without warning, the regime in Tehran raised this price by as much as half again. Spontaneous riots broke out in about a hundred cities and towns in virtually every province. The regime is merciless. According to the reported statistics, security forces shot and killed hundreds of people, and wounded and arrested thousands more. Pity and admire the men and women who have to pay with their lives for what they hope is the endgame of this regime. 

• Bowing to Moscow, Apple has edited its maps and weather app to identify Crimea as Russian territory. Your iPhone will display the doctored information only in Russia. Anywhere else, it shows the peninsula as not belonging to any nation. (Google made similar adjustments to its maps in March.) And in October, Apple removed the Taiwanese-flag emoji from its keyboard on its products in Hong Kong, presumably to placate authorities in Beijing and preserve its access to the Chinese market. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, has defended the company’s foreign policy, as it were. “When you go into a country and participate in the market, you are subject to the laws and regulations of that country,” he argued. “And so your choice is: Do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be?” Better the latter, if “participation” entails, as it does in these instances, acceptance of the depredations and threats of authoritarian regimes.

• On November 20, four days after his disastrous TV interview with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis, Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Andrew had suspended all public duties “for the foreseeable future.” Maitlis had asked him about his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein and about reports of sexual encounters with teenage girls. A woman now in her thirties says that in 2015 she reported to police that she had been trafficked for sex and that she and the prince drank and danced at a London club on the evening of March 10, 2001 before he had sex with her. That can’t be true, Andrew told Maitlis, because he was home with his daughters, having spent the afternoon with them at a pizza shop in the suburbs. That he would remember such details from so long ago is obviously implausible, and his claim that he has a medical condition that prevents him from sweating (the accuser says he sweated profusely) hasn’t stood up. Whatever the truth is, he’s persuaded us that his side of the story certainly isn’t it. 

• We won’t say that Greta Thunberg, the teenage Cassandra of climate change, enjoys sailing; she doesn’t seem like the type that enjoys anything. But she sure does sail a lot (it’s the one thing Bill Buckley would have liked about her) so that she can attend all the international conferences she is inexplicably invited to without pumping tons of carbon into the atmosphere via jets. Unfortunately, however, saving the earth from imminent and irreversible peril is not always as easy as it seems. Greta had arranged to sail from Virginia to Portugal for a U.N. meeting in December, but before she could start the trip, a yacht captain had to fly in from Britain to oversee the 48-foot catamaran’s voyage, and the captain’s flight negated all the savings in carbon emissions that sailing was meant to produce. Yeah, we hate when that happens, too.

• The New York Times’ 1619 Project is an ambitious pedagogical effort, meant to be distributed in schools, arguing that all of American history has been determined by the first unloading of black slaves in Jamestown 400 years ago. This monocausal myth was shredded by James McPherson and Gordon Wood, premier historians of the Civil War and the Revolution respectively, in two long interviews with the World Socialist Web Site. Read both in full; these highlights give the flavor. McPherson: “I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery. . . . And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view.” Wood: “I read the first essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which alleges that the Revolution occurred primarily because of the Americans’ desire to save their slaves. She claims the British were on the warpath against the slave trade and slavery and that rebellion was the only hope for American slavery. . . . I just couldn’t believe this.” Thanks for your critiques, gentlemen, but you’d better believe it. The Left is out to portray America as a centuries-old race-based Helltown. And why, BTW, is the Trotskyist World Socialist Web Site more sensible on this subject than the New York Times?

• More than half the students at Washington & Lee University’s law school have signed a petition requesting diplomas without engravings of the two men the school is named after, because they were slave owners. Fair enough, to be sure, for a document that will be hanging on your office wall for four or five decades; unfortunately, though, the names of the two generals will still be on the diplomas, in big letters across the top, so merely removing their likenesses won’t solve the problem. We’re not sure we would hire a lawyer who detests slave owners but nonetheless enrolled at a school called Washington & Lee and took three years to figure out that this might be a problem, but never mind that, because we have a modest proposal: Remove the portraits and the names. What could be more inclusive than Ampersand University?

• Andrei Serban had tenure, but he left Columbia University anyway. He could not stand the political correctness — the directives from the top — saying it reminded him of the country in which he had grown up. At Columbia, Serban was the head of a hiring committee in the theater program. He felt great pressure concerning “diversity.” Also, he did not want to admit a student applicant who had auditioned as Juliet. The applicant is transgendered — and Serban was admonished for insensitivity. He is a celebrated theater director, born in Romania in 1943. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1969, becoming an American citizen. He was named a professor at Columbia in 1992. Serban was a feather in the university’s cap, but now he has flown the coop. Columbia should think hard about this, as should higher ed in general.

• Most campuses of the University of California require every job applicant to submit a “contribution to diversity” statement: a description of what the applicant has done, or can do, to promote the interests of peers and others in their professional orbit who belong to underrepresented racial, ethnic, and gender categories. Abigail Thompson, the chair of the mathematics department at UC Davis, has taken to the pages of a scholarly journal to explain, in 700 words of sweet reason, that the effect of the requirement of diversity statements is to enforce intellectual and political conformity. She compares diversity statements to loyalty oaths during the McCarthy era. “Politics are a reflection of how you believe society should be organized,” she writes. “Classical liberals aspire to treat every person as a unique individual, not as a representative of their gender or their ethnic group. . . . Requiring candidates to believe that people should be treated differently according to their identity is indeed a political test.” Well said.

• Which type of person would you rather be hit on by — an attractive one or an unattractive one? Surprisingly, most people say “attractive” — we say “surprisingly” because researchers at Germany’s Wuppertal University who have discovered this preference through controlled scientific trials seem to consider it a great revelation. Their methodology was certainly innovative: Instead of sending actual people to make “sexual advances” to other people (which admittedly might have led to misunderstandings, not to mention lawsuits), they distributed written scenarios of how pickup artists of various descriptions might make their moves and asked more than 1,500 experimental subjects how they would respond. Using these data, the researchers further determined that “men perceived sexual advances as less negative than women, especially when the advances arise from a (physically) attractive actor,” and that “the same behavior from [a] physically attractive actor is perceived as less harmful than from an unattractive actor.” Science marches on.

• There are no lost causes, T. S. Eliot said, because there are no won causes — but the struggle to make people stop misusing apostrophes comes close. In 2001 John Richards, a retired British journalist who had grown weary of seeing “it’s” used for “its” and the indiscriminate insertion of an apostrophe before any final -s, formed the Apostrophe Protection Society in a quixotic attempt to promote the proper use of his favorite punctuation mark. Over the ensuing 18 years Richards sent hundreds of polite letters to punctuation scofflaws and sat patiently through scores of interviews to promote the cause, but to little or no effect. Now, at the age of 96, he has shut down the society, discouraged by the ineradicable persistence of such errors as “Ladie’s” (on a lavatory) or the use of “you’re” for “your.” We salute Mr. Richards and will do our futile best to continue standing athwart illiteracy — though some of us might balk at his strict-constructionist opposition to using apostrophes to pluralize letters of the alphabet, a policy that leads to such absurdities as “Oakland As.” If that makes us syntactical squishes, so be it. 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a new feature film about Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and it has elicited both praise and a fair amount of criticism. In the midst of all this, though, it’s worth recalling that Rogers’s goal was not to be an entertainer or to be perceived as a “nice” guy. He was admirably devoted to expanding children’s knowledge of beauty in an engaging and informative way. Rather than “nice,” he was kind, demonstrating his sincerity in each personal encounter both on and off the show. While his faith was important to him, he used his show to illustrate Christian teaching without speaking about God. He might not have been as hip, fast-paced, or heavy-handed as some think he ought to have been, but we should remember him fondly for the simple joy he brought to viewers.