People do have a lot of false ideas about Obama. Some of them think he’s a moderate.
The guiding theme of President Obama’s new budget is “more.” Compared with today’s levels, there would be more taxes, even more spending, thus more debt. He proposes to spend $3.73 trillion next year, which amounts to 23.6 percent of GDP. Tax rates would rise from 2013 onward. Judging from his rhetoric, Obama’s main worries are that deep cuts in the budget will endanger the economic recovery and shortchange “investments” in education and clean energy. The evidence that these “investments” have yielded positive returns in the past or will do so in the future is nonexistent; ditto the evidence that rising spending has stimulated the economy, unless models that assume this effect are counted as evidence. We are moving on autopilot toward European levels of governmental bloat, and this president seems determined to keep it that way.
Because the Democratic Congress never passed a budget last year, House Republicans are having to work on a budget for the seven months remaining in this fiscal year and a budget for next year at the same time. For the casual consumer of news, it can get confusing. In last fall’s “Pledge to America,” they said they would cut discretionary spending by $100 billion. Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan produced a spending limit for the remainder of the year that would achieve that goal, but only on a prorated basis. Many Republicans, especially freshmen, revolted at the adjustment, partly because they thought it would be hard to explain, and demanded the full $100 billion. Congressman Ryan and the other Republican leaders seem happy to oblige — they have produced a budget that cuts $100 billion from the president’s request for the rest of this year, and plan to offer a budget for the next decade that cuts entitlements — and even happier to have reinforcements in the battle for fiscal restraint.
A D.C. event that brings together George Will (introducing Indiana governor Mitch Daniels) and Jimmy “The Rent Is Too Damn High” McMillan (doing his own inimitable thing) is a splendid circus. But the very circus atmosphere also renders the event, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), ridiculous. For the second year in a row, the presidential straw poll was topped by Ron Paul. To boost its gate, CPAC throws its doors open to truthers, Birchers, and crackpot libertarians (not Glenn Reynolds or Nick Gillespie libertarians, but the-South-was-right libertarians). CPAC has gone from being a rally and a candidate forum to being a freak show with a fever swamp annexed. As Bessie Smith said, you’ve been a good old wagon, Daddy, but you done broke down.
Ann Coulter, in remarks at CPAC, declared herself “a friend of the gays.” She did not deny the sinfulness of same-sex sexual activity, but chided conservatives for dwelling on it so much more than on other sinful behavior, from failures of charity to premarital sex among heterosexuals. We wrongly show gays “a little extra animosity.” Coulter is surely correct to encourage heterosexual conservatives to take the beams out of their own eyes. Neither philosophy nor theology provides any basis for regarding homosexual sin as categorically worse than other kinds, and conservatives have not always kept their perspective. But this is not the end of the matter. There is a strong tendency in our culture to declare that homosexual conduct is not sinful at all, that so regarding it is a form of discrimination that must be policed by the state, and that marriage must be redefined in the name of this new moral orthodoxy. The courts are increasingly inclined to impose this orthodoxy over a resistant public. Under these circumstances, the question of homosexuality will necessarily take up more attention from conservatives than other vices and social ills. We did not choose this fight, and our only choice is to conduct it as effectively and charitably as we can.
The Democratic Leadership Council was formed after President Reagan shellacked Walter Mondale in 1984. The thinking was that the Democratic party needed to move away from McGovern-Mondale liberalism: toward respect for entrepreneurship, free trade, policing, welfare reform, and so on. The DLC is now suspending operations. Its actual purpose turned out to be to make the country safe for unbridled liberalism. Let’s hope the Democrats have declared its success prematurely.
Speaker John Boehner, asked by NBC’s David Gregory to denounce birther/Muslim fairy tales about Barack Obama, answered, “The state of Hawaii has said that he was born there. That’s good enough for me. The president says he’s a Christian. I accept him at his word.” Democrats did not have to say any more when their wilder brethren were accusing George W. Bush of colluding or somehow acquiescing in 9/11. Indeed they did not have to say anything at all, because nobody at NBC badgered Democrats to comment on such stuff. The obligation to be purer than Caesar’s wife falls disproportionately on conservative Republican officeholders. Granted all that, Boehner could be both more agreeable and more combative. “Barack Obama is a Christian American gentleman — but that isn’t enough to make you a good president, as his terrible record shows. That’s why Republicans will fight him in the House, and replace him next year.”
Jon Kyl, the Arizona Republican, is nearing the end of his third term in the Senate. Before being elected to that body, he served four terms in the House. He has now announced his retirement. For all these years, he has been one of the most solid politicians in the country: a principled Reagan conservative, and National Review conservative. He is a versatile thinker, an all-purpose senator, knowledgeable about economics, the judiciary, foreign policy, and so on. Such birds are rare. Kyl would have made, and would make, a good president. Bill Bennett once remarked that he and Kyl agreed on almost everything: and when they did not, he (Bennett) figured he was wrong. Announcing his retirement, Kyl said, “I think it is time for me to have an opportunity to do something else, an opportunity to give others a chance.” Some politicians, you wish would go, at long last. Others, you wish you could keep longer.
Sen. James Webb (D., Va.) announced he will not run for reelection in 2012. Webb cast himself as a latter-day Jacksonian, a defender of the Democratic white working class (both Webb and Old Hickory are Scots-Irish). There are problems with Webb’s template: Jackson was a great fighter, but a tempestuous and problematic politician. It is also tangential to Webb’s political career. Webb rode into office on the anti-Bush tsunami of 2006. He was an anti-war Republican (formerly secretary of the Navy under Reagan), hence prized as a defector. Obama carried his state two years later. So far from showing independence, Webb toed the Reid-Pelosi line on major issues (stimulus, health care). Now that the Iraq War is off the front page, Obama is a normal political mortal, and Virginia is returning to the GOP, Webb saw that his political future was zero. Goodbye, and good riddance.
America Online has bought The Huffington Post for $315 million and put its co-founder, Arianna Huffington, in charge of all AOL news content. Accordingly, some advertisers are squirming as they contemplate the Internet giant’s direction under a left-wing activist. But on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Huffington pooh-poohed this concern as a “red herring.” “Ninety-five percent of all the content on [the site] is about entertainment, lifestyle, and information. Not about politics,” she argued. Yes, but that pesky 5 percent is what gives the site its distinctive flavor. And Huffington showed her true colors when she asked, “What is left-wing about caring for the middle class, about caring about the fact there are 26 million people unemployed?” Right.
Less than a day after Keith Olbermann unexpectedly announced that he had anchored his final episode of Countdown, Al Gore called the sportscaster–cum–political paranoiac up and invited him to join Current TV — the media company the former vice president co-founded a few years after losing to W. in 2000. One could be forgiven for ignorance of Current TV’s existence — it enjoys small popularity with the square-glasses crowd, but is otherwise little known, and less profitable. And that’s just why Olbermann will be there — the non-compete clause of his severance contract with NBC would have excluded almost every other media outlet. Olbermann told reporters that his new show will be “an improved, amplified, and stronger version of the show that I just did at my previous network.” It’s not clear how one could amplify the tone of Countdown, or how long Olbermann will last at Current TV. He’s been fired from almost every job he’s had; in each case, the cause of the separation was that Olbermann is, to borrow a phrase from employment law, an heroic jackass, congenitally boorish even by the standards of his liberal employers. But let’s hope against experience that this marriage lasts: Olbermann and Gore deserve each other.
Taking a cue from guerrilla filmmaker James O’Keefe, who made ACORN a household name, the anti-abortion group Live Action sent a documentarian into ten Planned Parenthood facilities. Posing as a pimp, the filmmaker declared himself to be in need of Planned Parenthood’s flagship service, in order to keep the underage girls in his employ producing revenue rather than offspring. Planned Parenthood’s staffers were disturbingly eager to facilitate the sexual exploitation of children forced into prostitution. “Okay, she’s a minor — yeah, so?” the staffer says. “She’s still entitled to care without Mom knowing what the hell is going on.” The experiment was repeated in other Planned Parenthood facilities, with similar results. Planned Parenthood offered the usual protests — selective film editing, words taken out of context — but Live Action has made its unedited footage available to the public, and it does not seem to have been distorted. Planned Parenthood avers that it has done nothing wrong, but conceded the falsity of that claim by announcing a retraining program for employees dealing with minors. The most relevant context, meanwhile, is the contemporaneous trial of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell, who, along with members of his staff, is facing murder charges for scissoring newborn infants to death after botched abortions — a crime that is about six inches removed from what legally transpires in Planned Parenthood facilities every day.
House Republicans are promoting legislation to prevent the federal government from funding abortion through spending or tax credits. Nancy Pelosi calls the bill, which is partly a response to Obamacare, “extreme.” One line of argument holds that the legislation, by allowing funding only in cases of “forcible rape,” is “redefining rape.” In truth this legislative language merely aimed to codify the pre-Obamacare understanding that taxpayers would not pay for all underage girls’ abortions; Republicans say they will drop the language to avoid false attacks. Another criticism is that the bill is a type of government intrusion in the marketplace. Most Americans have access, through their employers, to insurance that covers abortion. Women who start getting insurance through the exchanges that Obamacare establishes would lose that coverage. Intruding into the marketplace to discourage the killing of unborn children strikes us as an easy call. But if liberals want to avoid this scenario, they are welcome to join with us in working to repeal Obamacare.
Commenting on this bill and another piece of legislation that would strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding, Pelosi said that her opponents on these issues “are at a different philosophical place, [that] all engagement has to result in a child.” The view she is snidely caricaturing is not the position of the Republican party, which has no moral objection to contraception, but rather the historical teaching of Christianity and the continued teaching of the Catholic Church, to which Pelosi claims to belong. Pelosi’s conceit, shared with many other supporters of abortion, is that she is an “ardent, practicing Catholic.” We are to believe that careful reflection has led her to a pained disagreement with her church. But this remark, like previous comments she has made trying to recruit St. Augustine as a pro-choicer, show that she either is consciously misrepresenting Catholic teaching or has never bothered to inform herself of it. The bishops who have let liberal Catholics get away with this act for so many years have failed their flock, including its errant members.
Score one for the radical Left. Its shock troops induced the cancellation of George W. Bush’s scheduled trip to Switzerland, where the former president was to speak to a pro-Israeli group about anti-terrorism and freedom. The plug was pulled on the event when sponsors and Geneva authorities no longer believed they could ensure safety. The agitators were led by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a cabal of American lawyers started by William Kunstler in the Sixties. CCR’s mission since 9/11 has been the defense of terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay — a crusade in which it joined forces with several attorneys now working in the Obama administration. These included now–Attorney General Eric Holder, who, as an Obama campaign adviser in 2008, promised the Left a “reckoning” against the officials who designed and implemented Bush counterterrorism policies (most of which, of course, are now Obama counterterrorism policies). The CCR claims the real reason for the cancellation is its ongoing efforts to get European prosecutors to bring about this reckoning by indicting Bush for “torture” and “war crimes.” By these perverted lights, Obama himself is a war criminal. You would think that self-preservation would move him to show some leadership, even if decency does not.
The Financial Accounting Standards Board’s name may make it sound harmless, but it deserves a significant portion of the blame for the financial crisis. The FASB promulgated the “mark to market” or “fair value” accounting standards that required financial institutions to write down the value of mortgage-based securities they owned when the housing market went bust. In itself, that would have been fine. But the write-downs put the institutions’ capital reserves below their legally required levels, forcing them to sell in the middle of a panic. The fire sale forced the value of the securities down even further. This downward spiral amounted to a subsidy to short sellers. Along with Brian Wesbury of First Trust Advisors, we suspect that it is not an accident that the stock-market recovery began in spring 2009, when FASB eased the rules. So it is a relief that FASB seems finally to have thrown in the towel on this issue, giving up on applying mark-to-market to loans. This decision is a big, if unheralded, win for the economy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that most political disputes boil down to a contest between the party of hope and the party of memory. With their $53 billion appropriation for high-speed rail, the Democrats, led by Vice President Biden, are trying to be both. The hope is that Americans will abandon their carbon-belching gas guzzlers and embrace clean, carefree mass transit; the memory is of steam whistles and Pullman cars and The Palm Beach Story. As usual, the hope is illusory and the memory is false. Even setting aside its huge cost, limited capacity, and manifold technical problems, high-speed rail can never be more than a niche market in a nation as vast and suburbanized as ours. And even in railroading’s golden age, passenger service was a money-losing nuisance for its operators, who preferred to concentrate on freight, profitable then as it is now (though high-speed passenger service would undermine this business by hogging the rails). For more than a century, starting in Emerson’s day, railroads were virtually the only way to travel long distances, but they were expensive and inconvenient, and Americans fled them as soon as there were decent alternatives. A rail-based America won’t come back simply because visionaries and sentimentalists spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars to summon its ghost.
Often, a politician will find himself supporting a position that he knows to be wrong. Such are the expediencies of the business. But sometimes an expedient politician can go too far, offending moral reason and losing his credibility. Which brings us to Rahm Emanuel. The former congressman, and former Obama chief of staff, is running for mayor of Chicago. In a debate, he embraced reparations to today’s black Americans for the enslavement of blacks before the 1860s. He had a caveat, though: Chicago, like most of America, labors under a budget deficit, and there may be other budgetary priorities at the moment. Reparations, as Emanuel and others conceive them, are morally indefensible: Those who were wronged cannot be paid back; all that remains is hustling, to be resisted. Maybe someone should ask President Obama what he thinks of his former chief of staff’s position.
Chris Lee had represented the 26th congressional district of New York for one term plus change when he sent a photo of himself, en déshabille, to a woman he had met on Craigslist, describing himself as a divorced lobbyist. The woman checked his name online, found that he was in fact a married Republican congressman, and forwarded their exchange to the website Gawker. The news here is that Lee resigned in a matter of hours, with only a feeble attempt to avoid his fate. John Boehner, then minority leader, had reportedly given Lee a warning last year when the freshman was partying with comely lobbyists. Either Boehner, now speaker, told him he had used up his chances, or Lee knew that he would be so told. It is sad that pols succumb to folly, good that it be gotten off the table briskly.
Wisconsin has long been a citadel of organized labor, and is paying the price with a wobbly state economy and a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. Republicans won control of the legislature and the governorship in November’s elections, so the problem belongs to the new governor, Scott Walker, and the new Republican majority in the legislature. Republicans have brought forward a sensible proposal that would see government workers contributing more toward their own health-care and retirement costs — which is to say, it would treat government workers more like workers and less like entitled gentry collecting lifelong revenue from the peasantry. To get a feel for Governor Walker’s radicalism, note that his proposal calls for government workers to pay a grand total of 12.6 percent of their own insurance premiums. In exchange, he promises no furloughs or layoffs. Republicans have also proposed curtailing the collective-bargaining power of government unions other than those representing law enforcement and firefighters, limiting their bargaining authority to the issue of base pay and excluding the corollary issues of benefits and pensions, which threaten to bankrupt states across the fruited plain. Led by the AFL-CIO, the same unions protesting that their members cannot afford to contribute one penny more toward their own retirements are rallying to raise millions of dollars to fight these changes in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
New York City is a place where people visit their old neighborhood and complain that it has improved. Laments of this type over today’s “sterile” Times Square ring false for anyone who actually experienced the old, endlessly fermenting one; yet if you expunge every bit of raffishness from an urban environment, the result is Singapore. New York’s municipal busybodies have taken another step toward this goal by banning smoking in city-owned parks, beaches, and plazas — including Times Square. (A similar measure has been proposed in Boston, which, ever since it stopped banning racy books and plays, needs new ways to feed its addiction to Comstockery.) None of the usual arguments for smoking bans apply here; any amount a passer-by inhales will be trivial, and if someone is smoking near you, it’s easy to walk away. So let the tourists and hustlers light up! New York is a happy city when the biggest problem in Times Square is smoking, but an unhappy one when the government decides it must solve it.
Is Europe’s governing class tired of multiculturalism? Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, called it a “total failure,” and France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, told an interviewer that immigrants should “melt into a single community.” The most elaborate critique was delivered by Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, in a speech in Munich, in which he traced the problem of homegrown Islamist alienation and terrorism to “a question of identity.” “A passively tolerant society,” Cameron said, “stands neutral between different values.” But “a genuinely liberal country . . . says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things.” The things Cameron went on to cite were freedom of speech and worship, democracy, the rule of law, and equal rights. What Cameron will do to uphold them remains to be seen, but his contrast of passive tolerance and what he called “muscular liberalism” recalls Abraham Lincoln’s critique of Stephen Douglas for not caring whether slavery was “voted up or down.” Could Europe be catching up intellectually with Lincoln c. 1858? And: Will the other Illinois president make a similar discovery?
Documents made available by the British government deepen and darken the scandal surrounding the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber sentenced to life imprisonment in Scotland. Moammar Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, let it be known that if his agent Megrahi died in prison, severe commercial and political reprisals would follow. The British government, then led by Gordon Brown, panicked. An attempt to return Megrahi under an agreement about the transfer of prisoners between the countries proved unworkable. Conveniently diagnosed with cancer, Megrahi was given three months to live. Whereupon a Foreign Office official by the name of Bill Rammell entered into correspondence with his Libyan opposite number, advising him of the right procedure for obtaining Megrahi’s release on compassionate grounds. In other words, a British official conspired with foreigners to thwart British justice. David Cameron, Brown’s successor as prime minister, told the House of Commons that the fixing of Megrahi’s release was “profoundly wrong.” Far from dying, since his release Megrahi has lived happily in a villa in Libya for a year and a half. The publication in the near future of more official documents promises to reveal the extraordinary extent of connivance and cover-up at the top of Britain.
Since 2004, Afghanistan has had a constitution guaranteeing freedom to exercise religious faith, and much blood and treasure has been expended in the effort to make a reality of such rights. But the country also practices sharia — traditional Islamic law — which dictates the death penalty for any Muslim who converts to another religion. This contradiction has caught the unfortunate Sayed Mussa, born a Shiite Muslim. He’s 46. At the time of the Soviet invasion, he lost a leg, and for the last 16 years he’s worked for the Red Cross fitting prosthetics on amputee children. Inspired by the example of some selfless foreign Christians, he adopted Christianity. For this he has been imprisoned, abused, and humiliated; and officials and the Taliban alike are calling to have him hanged for his Christian faith. In a precedent five years ago, Abdul Rahman, another Afghan who faced death for converting to Christianity, was allowed to leave for Italy. A Canadian bishop, the secretary general of NATO, two Republican members of Congress, and a few scattered Christian organizations are at last bringing pressure to bear to save Sayed Mussa. His horrific story is a reminder that even success in the Afghan War will not mean the vanquishing of barbarism.
Authorities in Britain want state schools to teach kids about homosexuality in math, geography, language, and science lessons. This new homo-friendly curriculum will begin at age four. Suggestions include “teaching statistics through census findings about the number of homosexuals in the population,” and “studying animal species where the male takes a leading role in raising young, such as emperor penguins and sea horses,” and “using gay characters in role play scenarios, and teaching ‘LGBT vocabulary.’” Look for our president to take up this theme in next year’s State of the Union speech. Sputnik Moment — out; Stonewall Moment — in.
Repeal the ban on gays in the military, elite universities demanded, and we will recognize the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Of course, repeal passed in December, and the ivied dons have yet to crown our cadets with laurels. That’s because some liberals have discovered a new moral outrage against ROTC: the military’s ban on transgender individuals. The Stanford Students for Queer Liberation is circulating a petition — which has garnered over 120 signatures so far — to keep the group off campus, and the Harvard Trans Task Force is waging a similar campaign. True, Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, has pledged to recognize ROTC, but Stanford remains noncommittal, having appointed a committee to consider recognition. We will make the committee’s job easier: Any further opposition to ROTC would show our elite universities’ true motive: hatred of the military.
The bizarre comments of Gen. George Casey following the 2009 Fort Hood shootings (“as horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse”) were the first inkling most Americans had that of all the institutions of our society, hardly any is busier in promoting the ethnic/gender preferences and cultural masochism of the “diversity” cult than the U.S. armed forces. An even more astonishing instance of this multiculturalist toadying has just emerged from the Virginia Military Institute, one of our oldest military academies. VMI announced a conference this March under the title “711–2011: East Meets West,” in which: “We celebrate the 1300th anniversary of Tariq ibn Ziyad’s crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar, setting into motion the fusion between two worlds.” The Internet, and presumably VMI’s mailbox, were soon aflame with protests. VMI has now revised the event’s webpage to remove the word “celebrate.” It has also issued an aggrieved, whiny response to the protests, but the conference will apparently proceed anyway. Comments blogger Patrick Poole: “No word if VMI’s World War II commemoration will be entitled ‘Germany meets Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Belgium, France, Norway, The Netherlands and Russia.’”
The Society for Personality and Social Psychology held its annual conference in San Antonio. Attendee Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, began a presentation optimistically titled “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology” by asking how many of the 1,000 present in the auditorium considered themselves politically liberal. About 80 percent raised their hands. Centrists and libertarians? Fewer than three dozen hands went up. Conservatives? Just three. As Haidt pointed out, this was somewhat at odds with the commitment to diversity advertised on the society’s website. He proposed an affirmative-action goal: a membership that’s 10 percent conservative by 2020. He also suggested that members broaden their outlooks by subscribing to National Review and reading Thomas Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions. We have alerted our staff to brace themselves for a flood of new subscriptions.
One aspect of American exceptionalism in which conservatives take pride is our insistence on retaining traditional units of measure — pounds, gallons, yards — when all other significant nations have fallen to the loathsome metric system. However, this pride rests on an illusion, as pride too often does. Our customary units have in fact been defined in terms of metric units since the second Grover Cleveland administration. The official definition of our treasured pound, for example, is 0.45359237 kg. What is a kilogram, though? It is the mass of a platinum-iridium cylinder kept in a vault in Sèvres, France. Now we hear that this standard kilogram seems to be losing mass. Physicists are struggling to come up with a new standard by counting atoms. Good luck to them, so long as we can be left with our pride, however illusory, and with our familiar pounds and ounces, grains and scruples, pennyweights and hundredweights, and tons both short and long. Oh, and keep your hands off our bushels and acres, too.
From the endless reedy marshes of the Danube delta to the haunted forests of Transylvania, Romania is a place where the spirits of the air never seem far away. It is not surprising that the nation has a large population of witches — large enough to form a political lobby. That lobby has been roused to action recently. The Romanian government, like many another, is strapped for cash. Earlier this year witches became liable to the same flat-rate tax on their income as other citizens. Now, by the pricking of their thumbs, something regulatory their way comes: The government is attempting to make soothsaying witches responsible for the accuracy of their predictions, with fines for false prophecy. Queen Witch Bratara Buzea, who previously threatened to strike down Romania’s rulers with a spell involving cat excrement and a dead dog, quite reasonably suggests that instead of penalizing witches for faulty predictions, “they should condemn the cards” instead.
Swedish actress Lena Nyman died, age 66, after a long career in her home country. Her mark on this country was made in 1968 when the U.S. Customs Service seized I Am Curious (Yellow), a low-budget mockumentary in which she interviewed fellow Swedes and had sex with her boyfriend. A federal appeals court ruled that Ms. Nyman was covered by the First Amendment, if by little else, and her vehicle made $5 million once it was released. The movie was dull and arid — left-wing polemic with a dash of copulation, a formula that had already swept college campuses. Copulation has had a great 40 years (item: Lindsay Lohan, before her recent legal troubles, was trying to revive her career by playing Linda Lovelace, the late porn star). R.I.P.
Joshua Goldberg was related to National Review: the brother of Jonah, the son of Lucianne and her late husband Sidney. Josh has died after a fall, at the age of 43. Two years ago, he ran for city council on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — in the neighborhood where he and Jonah grew up. He didn’t win. The Upper West Side is not friendly territory to conservative Republicans. But he gave it a spirited try. National Review in general feels some fraction of the Goldbergs’ agony. R.I.P.
In George Shearing’s later years, avant-garde jazz buffs viewed him as the type of pianist that wealthy bankers liked to hear in the background while chatting over cocktails. But in On the Road, Neal Cassady announced Shearing’s late-1940s drop-in at a Chicago club with “God has arrived,” and here’s how Jack Kerouac described the ensuing impromptu performance: “He blew innumerable choruses replete with amazing chords that mounted higher and higher till the sweat splashed all over the piano and everybody listened in awe and fright. They led him off the stand after an hour.” In the 1980s his career enjoyed a renaissance due to a series of collaborations with Mel Tormé; their version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is a masterly melding of Shearing’s controlled but sparkling explorations and Tormé’s scat-inflected bravado. Dead at 91. R.I.P.
Egypt had as close to a Velvet Revolution as could be imagined in a major Middle Eastern country. The protesters who thronged the streets seeking Hosni Mubarak’s ouster were largely peaceful, and even self-policing. The only instance of sustained violence was when Mubarak’s rent-a-thugs attacked the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, some wielding sticks from atop camels, incredibly enough. After the protesters prevailed and Mubarak left office, they returned to the square to tidy it up, in a heartening gesture of civic-mindedness.
The uprising validates George W. Bush’s insistence that there isn’t an Arab exception to people’s desire to have their voices heard and to be treated with respect. The Egyptian revolt put paid to the idea — a staple of establishment foreign-policy thinking for decades — that the Israeli–Palestinian dispute fuels Arab discontents. In Egypt, people weren’t protesting Israeli settlements, but the high-handedness, corruption, and incompetence of their own government. It is a measure of Bush’s vindication that the Obama administration has now adopted the rhetoric of democratization it initially eschewed because it was so associated with its predecessor. One is tempted to say, “We’re all advocates of the Freedom Agenda now.” Yet the lessons of the failures of the Bush years still apply.
Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections and took over Gaza; in Lebanon, the Cedar Revolution was hijacked by another armed political party, Hezbollah; in Iraq, elections may yet create a sustainable pluralistic politics, but they were no substitute for the imposition of order by our military after ethnic hatreds spun out of control. The creation of a democracy worth having depends on much more than mere voting. It requires order, a culture of compromise, the rule of law, the protection of minority rights, and genuinely democratic political parties, just for starters. It depends, in short, on what age-old conservative wisdom tells us are so crucial to the fate of nations — habits and customs on one hand, and institutions on the other.
In Egypt, the foremost institution of the state is the military, which carefully husbanded its public support by striking a neutral role between the protesters and Mubarak before finally shoving him out of office. The hope now is that it can hold things together during a careful, deliberate transition to a democratic government worthy of the name. During this process, the interest of the United States is in preventing the worst case, which is either chaos or a takeover of Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood. Preventing the latter requires the creation of a system with the strongest possible safeguards against the depredations of a determined minority, and the allotment of enough time prior to elections for parties besides the Brotherhood to organize. Even if the Egyptians aren’t going to exclude the Brotherhood from elections, that doesn’t mean we have to — as the Obama administration has done — welcome it or tell ourselves bedtime stories about its “largely secular” nature.
The administration muddled its way through the crisis and ended up where any U.S. government probably would have: On the side of the protesters, demanding that Mubarak must go. The Egyptian dictator had served his purpose for 30 years, maintaining a cold peace with Israel and keeping a lid on Islamism (albeit brutally). But you can rule by decree, steal from your country, and torture your opponents for only so long. By the end, Mubarak was a destabilizing force, making it more likely the protests would turn violent and the army split in the face of them.
The protests have now spread throughout the Middle East, including Iran. Vice President Biden directly challenged the regime in Tehran to allow its people to march in the streets, lending the moral support to the Green Movement that the administration shamefully withheld in 2009. The Iranian government will be more determined and vicious in response to the unrest than Egypt’s was, and more difficult to unseat. The danger to the United States is that only its allies will be susceptible to revolution, and the wave of protests will eventually issue in regimes less liberal and less friendly to the United States than those currently on offer.
The protest leaders in Cairo were tech-savvy, young, and — judging by their rhetoric — secular. But they sit upon a sea of backwardness, hinted at by the horrific assault on CBS News correspondent Lara Logan. A Pew survey last year found attitudes prevalent in Egypt that one would expect of Afghanistan: widespread support for the execution of apostates, the stoning of adulterers, and the like. This is why, for all the hope of the last two weeks, we’re still cautious pessimists.
If Egypt had slowly built up a democratic culture, it would be better suited for the transition it’s about to undertake all at once. The policy of the United States going forward should be to support the growth of civil society and the development of opposition groups in authoritarian societies. This is what the Bush administration intended to do, but it got distracted by other, more pressing concerns. Then the Obama administration abandoned the effort altogether. This would be a democracy-promotion policy focused on the preconditions of true democracy.