In a delicate operation, Hugo Chávez was removed from a cancerous tumor.
The 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling included an across-the-board cut to planned spending on defense and on many domestic programs. This “sequester” is an unwise policy and was understood to be so at the time: The idea was that its unwiseness would be an incentive for both parties to replace it with better cuts. We withheld our support from the deal in large part because of this cavalier treatment of defense. Now the sequester is about to take effect and Congress has of course not come up with anything better. Some defense-minded Republicans say that the first year of cuts should be undone and the federal work force should be gradually downsized over the next decade to replace the savings. We cannot endorse this idea, either. Congress would be trading one year of definite cuts for the promise of cuts at some point in the future, while creating the precedent that this future could be indefinitely deferred. Better to accept the new spending levels for each year while allowing the money to be managed intelligently, assuming that can happen in Washington.
In a hectoring, highly ideological State of the Union speech — delivered, appropriately enough, on Mardi Gras — President Obama promised to shower every liberal constituency in the country with money while not adding “a single dime” to the deficit. The White House can of course spend money, but it can also force others to spend money on its political priorities, which is part of what President Obama proposes. He is demanding that the minimum wage be raised to $9 — he offered no economic justification for that nice, round number — heedless of the effect of doing so on young and unskilled workers. Hot on the heels of having secured a sizeable tax increase, he proposed yet more tax increases, including a new tax on “the wealthiest seniors” that amounts to the garnishment of their Medicare benefits. More than a third of our national debt has been accumulated under his presidency, and there is little to show for it: Growth is stagnant, incomes are down, and our near-term economic prospects are not promising. And while he made no credible account of our financial affairs at home, he was even less persuasive when he turned his attention abroad: He boasted that a “decade of grinding war” is coming to a close, but gave no indication that he intends to secure our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is far from clear that the news of war’s end has reached Benghazi or Waziristan. The only persuasive case he made was for fortifying the Republican majority in the House — which is the only thing standing in the way of his new taxes and the rest of his irresponsible agenda — and supplementing it with senators, in 2014.
Democrats are displeased with freshman senator Ted Cruz (R., Tex.) for his robust examination of Chuck Hagel’s record. It reminded Senator Boxer of “some bad times” and Senator McCaskill of our “terrible experience with innuendo and inference when Joe McCarthy hung out in the United States Senate.” The Democrats’ living id, Chris Matthews, has come to the same conclusion. What has Cruz done to draw the Tail-Gunner Joe comparisons? He suggested that Iran was “publicly celebrating” the prospect of a Hagel-run Pentagon. Was this “innuendo”? The Iranian state-run press ran a “news” piece titled “Obama expected to nominate anti-Israel Hagel as secretary of defense,” and a spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry gave a positive answer to a question about Hagel’s confirmation. No less a McCarthyite outfit than the New York Times saw fit to run a piece on the subject under the headline “Foreign Ministry Voices Optimism in Hagel Nomination in U.S.” Cruz is also faulted for saying that unless Hagel discloses his sources of income for the last five years, we will have no way of knowing whether a hostile foreign power has been among them: a hyperbolic way of making a valid point. On such thin reeds the Democrats have hung their case for Cruz’s “McCarthyism,” and in doing so sought to not-so-subtly discredit the entire brief against Chuck Hagel. Senator Cruz has ably and aggressively executed his duty as a senator to advise on and consent to a nomination to the momentous post of civilian head of the U.S. military. He has not slandered an honorable man by cavalierly associating him with an odious and politically radioactive “ism.” But we can think of some Senate Democrats and cable-TV hosts who have.
Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) told Chris Wallace that “the country really is ready for the . . . libertarian Republican narrative.” A less aggressive foreign policy, a softer approach to drugs, and a more welcoming attitude toward illegal immigrants, he says, will make Republicans competitive on the West Coast, in New England, and around the Great Lakes. Both Senator Paul and libertarianism have much to recommend them: We favor marijuana legalization on principle, for example, and if Republicans who embrace it win additional votes, so much the better. The evidence that foreign policy has had much to do with the Democratic proclivities of voters in California or Michigan, both of which last went for Republican presidential candidates in 1988, is pretty thin. Nor does support for an amnesty seem to have tipped the balance of New Hampshire. Senator Paul says he will keep thinking about a presidential run. That would be a great way to test his theory, if wishful thinking can be called a theory.
Chris Kyle, a crack Navy SEAL sniper, was killed on a shooting range by a demented Marine with whom Kyle was trying to bond. The murder drew a tweet from peacenik libertarian Ron Paul: “Chris Kyle’s death seems to confirm that ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.’” Paul’s tweet actually confirms a different scripture: “As a dog returneth to its vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.” Let us hope the elder Paul’s pathology skips a generation.
During his campaign against Mitt Romney, President Obama repeatedly identified Ugland House, an office building in the Cayman Islands, as the seat of “the largest tax scam in the world.” And then he nominated Jack Lew, a former Citibank executive with investments domiciled at Ugland House, as his new Treasury secretary. Before his nomination to Treasury, Lew served as President Obama’s chief of staff, and like every Obama chief of staff before him, he had a Wall Street résumé. Lew received a nearly $1 million payday from Citigroup just before the bank went to Washington begging for a bailout. He then invested in a Citigroup venture-capital fund based in the Caymans, where corporate profits receive gentle treatment. Lew broke no laws and argues that “the tax code should be constructed to encourage investment in the United States.” Funny: Mitt Romney made the same argument, and President Obama’s allies labeled him — let us use the precise phrase — an “economic traitor.” Not Scrooge McDuck, but a traitor. President Obama should either explain why it is acceptable to put this traitor in the top job at Treasury or issue an apology to Mitt Romney.
Benjamin Carson is the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, and he has an inspiring life story (born poor, raised himself by his bootstraps). His remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast, with President Obama on the dais, got everyone talking. Most of Dr. Carson’s talk was inspirational — he ended with an evocation of the siege of Fort McHenry. Along the way, he touted the flat tax (based on its resemblance to tithing) and health savings accounts. He saved his sharpest words for the tyranny of political correctness, which he said chokes thought and discussion (true enough). These were all words very well said, even if we would prefer they had been said at a different venue.
There are a number of problems with this administration’s conduct of the War on Terror in general, and with its drone campaign in particular. But the elimination of Anwar al-Awlaki — an al-Qaeda militant who happened to have been born in New Mexico — is not one of them. The release of a Justice Department white paper outlining the administration’s legal case for the targeted killing of American citizens who are in cahoots with al-Qaeda has raised protest from the Left, which has leeway to criticize the president now that he has been safely reelected, and unfortunately from some on the right, who find it convenient to locate their inner civil-liberty scolds when the White House is occupied by a Democrat. But there is in fact little that is novel in the white paper or the principles on which it relies. Due process is not generally required in battlefield situations, and an American citizen engaged in hostilities against the United States, on foreign soil and in concert with a terrorist force, is surely not entitled to counsel and a hearing before being dispatched. If he were, it would paralyze our ability to fight a war. It is true that an executive’s power to make unreviewable determinations that some American citizens are to be treated as enemy combatants is subject to abuse. But then, so are all executive powers. The proper constraint on the president’s judgment on such matters is political accountability, not legal action. In this case hypocrisy is the tribute that Obama pays to national security.
In his latest State of the Union, referring to North Korea’s recent nuclear test, Obama said, “Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.” After 30 years of “strengthening” our missile defense, maybe it’s time we actually had one.
During the address, Obama also promised to expand early-childhood education. The premier federal program in that sector is Head Start, and study after study — the most recent being from the president’s own Department of Health and Human Services — documents the fact that Head Start provides no lasting benefits to its students. It is a federal babysitting service that costs $23,000 per student per year; the main beneficiaries of the $180 billion we have spent on the program so far have been President Obama’s supporters in the teachers’ unions. Meanwhile, President Obama has all but declared war on education innovations that do work, such as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which empowers poor families to seek better schooling for their children outside the dysfunctional cartel administered by the NEA and the AFT. In the race between what works and liberal fantasy, this administration always gives the latter a head start.
The National Rifle Association recently managed to publish an internal Justice Department memo outlining the likely effects of various gun-control measures, which comes complete with one-sentence “Twitter summaries” of the findings. The report’s authors are surprisingly frank in their assessments, though they frequently suggest that the most draconian measures just might work: Assault weapons are “not a major contributor to gun crime,” gun buybacks are “ineffective unless massive and coupled with a ban,” reducing the rate at which criminals use high-capacity magazines “requires a massive reduction in supply,” and universal background checks can’t work without gun registration and a concerted effort to reduce straw purchasing. Despite the authors’ apparent envy of nations that have managed to ban and confiscate guns, it’s nice to see a federal agency concede that the measures actually on the table won’t accomplish much.
Class Is in Session
First of all: No spoilers please. My wife and I are about three episodes behind on Downton Abbey. If you haven’t seen the absurdly addictive BBC series running on PBS, you should (the third season just ended, but you can find the show in all of the usual digital haunts). Set in early-20th-century England (the first season began before World War I, the third just after it ended), Downton Abbey is a remarkably civilized soap opera, comparing quite favorably in every way with another buzz-generator: HBO’s Girls.
In Downton Abbey, there’s remarkably little sex, but quite a lot of sex appeal. In Girls there’s rutting and onanism aplenty, but in most cases it seems inadvertently choreographed to elicit revulsion and pity instead of arousal. In Girls, twentysomething New Yorkers elevate their feelings to the level of metaphysical compulsion. In Downton Abbey, feelings are kept hidden beneath starched collars and let loose from their bondage only when firmly leashed to duty, honor, and decency. It’s not that the girls of Girls don’t have their own versions of duty, honor, and decency, but they’re bent by the gravitational pull of egocentrism and entitlement. In Girls, self-absorption is normal and ambition rare; in Downton Abbey it is closer to the reverse.
What unites the two shows (and several other standouts in recent years, including Breaking Bad and Mad Men) is that they eschew the familiar formulas. You can’t watch the beginning and immediately know how the end will look. But while Girls gets all of the political buzz, thanks to the self-absorption of the youth culture the show reflects, Downton Abbey is more often written off as period-piece eye candy.
That’s a shame. Conservatives are good at complaining about shows like Girls, but we’re not so good at celebrating shows like Downton Abbey. (Though, in fairness, I’m not sure conservatives have Girls right. It seems to me that the show’s message is impressively ambiguous, insofar as many viewers will see it as a cautionary tale about the pathetic emptiness of today’s hipster culture.)
Part of the problem is that the Left is better at not taking the bait, particularly when it doesn’t even realize it is being baited. Downton Abbey should infuriate the core PBS audience it appeals to most. In America we are constantly being harangued about the evils of income inequality and the horrors of our class-based society. Well, five minutes into the show, it should be obvious that it is about a society that is thoroughly class-obsessed. To be sure, there’s room to talk about class in America in a social-sciencey kind of way. But all of the bleating and whining about class we get from the left is primarily an antiquated import.
More important, the Left should be livid that the lower classes in Downton Abbey are — wait for it — happy! Or, to be more accurate, they are as happy as any of us can reasonably expect to be, regardless of class. This, according to creator Julian Fellowes, is not the show’s subtext, but its “supertext.” Everyone is cast with a different lot in life, economic, genetic, whatever. If you can’t get over that fact, Fellowes tells the Wall Street Journal, life becomes “unlivable.” The tragedy is that many of our politicians and intellectuals seem hell-bent on making our lives unlivable by fueling exactly these obsessions.
Congressional Republicans are again set to mount a fight for a balanced-budget amendment (BBA). One popular version would cap federal spending at 18 percent of the previous year’s GDP and require supermajorities for tax hikes and new borrowing. While each of these ends may be desirable on its own, and while they may even be desirable together, a constitutional amendment is a dubious means of achieving them. There are not 67 votes in the U.S. Senate for such a proposal — a fact that, ironically, frees politically vulnerable red-state Democrats — a score of them, potentially — to support the amendment to burnish their fiscal-conservative credentials while knowing it will not move forward. And even if it did, it is highly doubtful that there are 38 states prepared to support an amendment that would severely constrain the federal government’s ability to subsidize them. And passage of a BBA is not just implausible; it also would be unwise. Like the doomed 18th Amendment, it would enshrine partisan policy priorities in the founding document of the Republic, which was meant to structure the democratic process, not rig its outcome in advance. It would give Congress strong incentives to evade the spirit of such a law. (If you think the official scoring of budget proposals is torturously politicized now, wait until constitutionality is at stake.) It would invite a hyperactive judicial intervention in the budget-making process that would throw the separation of powers completely out of balance. And, perhaps worst of all, its very strictness in pushing for conservative priorities in 2013 could make it harder to realize conservative priorities in the future. Tax rates are lower today than they were in 1980, but could Reagan have slashed Carter-era rates under a constitutional regime that demanded such tight coordination between revenue and spending? There is no constitutional shortcut to the arduous task of reining in spending.
Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, wants to liberalize abortion law still further. The talking points for his bill stress that it would codify Roe v. Wade. That is unfortunately true: The bill would put the legislature on record supporting late-term abortions for “health” reasons, which the courts have construed broadly. But it is not the whole truth. Roe does not force states to allow non-physicians to perform abortions, but this bill would. The Supreme Court allows legislatures to require parental notification and refuse to subsidize abortion; this bill probably wouldn’t do so. The Court does not require institutions that object to abortion, such as Catholic hospitals, to cooperate with it; this bill includes some crafty language that could be used to do exactly that. Critics call it the “abortion-expansion bill.” The only thing that can be said in favor of what Cuomo is doing is that he has not gone to Notre Dame to expatiate about how “personally opposed” he is to abortion.
Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, wants his constituents to know that the gas-drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing — fracking — is safe. To that end, he drank a glass of fracking fluid produced by (cue spooky music) energy-services giant Halliburton. The fracking fluid, Governor Hickenlooper pointed out, is made entirely of FDA-approved ingredients sourced from the food industry. Governor Hickenlooper’s heart is in the right place, if not his head. The environmental complications from fracking come not from what goes down the pipe — one engineer told this magazine he could frack with peanut butter, if it were available in sufficient quantities — but with what comes up the pipe: wastewater bearing pollutants such as arsenic and naturally occurring radioactive materials. That is an entirely manageable problem; many drillers have addressed it by simply treating the wastewater and reusing it. You would not want to drink fracking wastewater, but the environmental trade-offs of natural-gas exploration are well worth it. Adults understand that everything in life involves a cost-benefit analysis, and we are glad to see that Governor Hickenlooper is one of them.
The immigration debate took a regrettable turn when The Human Life Review published a scurrilous article suggesting that conservatives should have nothing to do with restrictionist organizations — including the Center for Immigration Studies, run by frequent NR contributor Mark Krikorian — because they supposedly advocate population control. Krikorian’s group is in the dock because, for example, it published a paper arguing that more immigrants would make global warming worse. That’s not an especially compelling point. Neither is the claim that good conservatives should ignore every sensible thing CIS says because of that paper. Those conservative advocates of “comprehensive immigration reform” who are promoting the Human Life Review article are doing more to discredit themselves than to discredit their opponents.
Pigford v. Glickman required the Department of Agriculture to pay over a billion dollars to 13,300 black farmers who claimed to have been discriminated against in getting government loans; another 70,000 farmers have lined up to harvest that field. In response, the USDA has hired Cultural Sensitivity trainers to lecture staff. One such, Samuel Betances, was filmed leading his charges in chants of “The Pilgrims were illegal aliens. . . . The Pilgrims never gave their passports to the Indians.” Which means they deserved a quick path to citizenship, no?
Beginning in August, the United States Postal Service will no longer deliver mail on Saturdays, an overdue development and a first step toward putting the organization on a solid financial footing. Revenue has been declining for years, and it continues to decline as the Internet handles ever more of the country’s communications — letters are a thing of the past, bills are increasingly paid online, and even Netflix subscribers are more likely to watch their movies online than to receive discs in the mail. Meanwhile, the USPS’s union contracts and its ties to the government make deeper cuts in personnel and services difficult. There are reasons to be nostalgic for the days of handwritten notes, but there is no reason to preserve a company that no longer provides a crucial national service. The government should fully privatize the USPS — ending both its monopoly on letter delivery and its obligation to serve all addresses.
A Michigan-based battery plant, LG Chem, was the recipient of $151 million in stimulus money, intended to support the production of the lithium batteries that power the Chevy Volt and to create over 400 jobs. Now, a report from the Energy Department’s inspector general reveals that plant employees spent their time playing board, card, and video games — though some of them were also volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. In fact, the report indicates that, by February 2013, “the plant had yet to manufacture battery cells that could be used in electric vehicles and sold to the public” and that “less than half of the expected number of jobs had been created to support the project.” Nonetheless, LG Chem officials managed to squander $142 million of the $151 million they were awarded. The IG report got to the root of the problem: Demand for the Chevrolet Volt “had not developed as anticipated.” This program, unfortunately, has.
During the last election, Cincinnati resident Melowese Richardson mailed in an absentee ballot, then voted in person, later explaining that she was afraid the absentee vote “wouldn’t count.” Richardson is a poll worker, so this is like a diner with an “Out to Lunch” sign on the door. Investigators have charged her and at least 18 other Hamilton County residents with illegal voting; some reports say she may have cast as many as six votes. In response, Richardson (who still has an Obama/Biden sign on her lawn) has vowed to “fight it for Mr. Obama and for Mr. Obama’s right to sit as president of the United States.” Perhaps in Miss Richardson’s multiple votes we have finally found the explanation for those long lines at the polls.
Texas governor Rick Perry has found the pluck to get back on the campaign trail, going to California to sell his state as a destination for businesses frustrated by the Golden State’s tax and regulatory climate. California governor Jerry Brown scoffed at Perry’s campaign, calling his entreaties “not even a burp, barely a fart.” Yet, as the Manhattan Institute has documented, California has already been seeing an exodus of millions of taxpayers over the past decade, many of them headed to the Lone Star State, which boasts no income tax, spare regulations, and a simple, fair litigation system. By comparison job creation in California has been not even a burp.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves office at the end of this year, and he seems determined not to go without making sure that every quotidian activity is regulated. His latest proposal is for a ban on disposable plastic-foam beverage cups, supposedly on environmental grounds. Since only a small fraction of coffee cups are separated for recycling, the law will make little difference in the waste stream, not to mention the fact that paper cups require more energy to manufacture. Bloomberg also does not seem to care that foam keeps the coffee hotter, or that paper cups cost several cents more apiece (and that’s before you include the cardboard-jacket thingy to keep it from burning your hands). Yet why should he? Like all his nanny-state enactments, this is a tribal self-love measure, meant to help Upper East Siders who sip Starbucks from recycled-paper cups feel virtuous at the expense of unmannered folks in the Bronx who drink El Pico from the bodega. No wonder Bloomberg and the New York Times like the idea so much.
The fact that a largish asteroid swept unsettlingly close to the Earth — just some 17,000 miles away — on the same day that the Russian city of Chelyabinsk was battered by a meteor is a coincidence rather than evidence of alien attack. But it’s also a reminder that our planet is forever traveling through the dangerous neighborhood that we call space. We have the science to keep an eye on some of what is coming our way, and we also — fingers crossed — may have technologies that could, even without the help of Bruce Willis, in some cases help us to do something about a looming impact. For the moment, however, this is not a threat that we are taking very seriously (NASA spends less than 1 percent of its annual budget on asteroid research) despite odds that suggest that we should be paying more attention. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, an astronaut and the U.K.’s Astronomer Royal rated the chance of an impact this century the size of the one that devastated hundreds of square miles of Siberia in 1908 at 30 percent. Anthropogenic climate change could, perhaps, pose a real challenge to humanity, but not overnight; we will have time to adapt. The same cannot be said for the impact of a large asteroid. It’s time to rearrange some spending priorities.
Kim Jong Un, the heir to the strange Communist dynasty that holds absolute power in North Korea, celebrated his 30th birthday by attending another nuclear test, the third since 2006. It’s another step in the program of building an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead aimed at all points of the compass. For years, the U.S., Russia, and China have participated with other interested parties in talks to devise sticks and carrots that might persuade North Korea to be less hostile. China always protects North Korea as a buffer state, fearing that otherwise there might, one day, be South Korean or American troops right on the Chinese border. In the usual international theater, everyone has thrown up his hands at the latest nuclear test. President Obama called the test “a highly provocative act” and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe spoke of “a grave threat.” Speakers of such anodyne words evidently haven’t the slightest idea what to do. The Chinese hold the whip hand, and show it by doing nothing except suggesting more talks.
For almost 35 years, there has been a great difference between Egypt and Iran, two Middle Eastern behemoths. That difference has been extremely important. Iran was in the hands of the Khomeinist dictatorship that has menaced and inflamed the region; Egypt was in the hands of a “presidential dictatorship,” far less wicked than Iran’s regime, and allied to the U.S. and the West. Since 1979, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has been a bulwark of peace (such as it is) in the Middle East. And now that treaty is in question, with the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. There is a new friendship, too, between Egypt and Iran. Ahmadinejad made the first visit to Egypt of any Iranian leader since 1979, when the shah fell and Khomeini rose. The Islamist Egyptian president, Morsi, was there to greet him on the tarmac, red carpet underfoot, with a kiss on each cheek for the Iranian. A military honor guard stood at attention. This seems like the start of a not-at-all-beautiful friendship.
Public discourse in Saudi Arabia holds that Jews are descendants of apes and pigs, who, nonetheless, are conspiring to take over the whole world. So the view taken of Israel is, let us say with a sigh, unrealistic. Quite suddenly, not one but two Saudis have published articles that break through the ignorance and prejudice normally on offer. Abdulatif al-Mulhim, described as a retired naval officer, observes that the destruction and atrocities all around him are what Arabs have done to themselves: Israel is not the real enemy. Arabs in Israel, he is willing to admit, enjoy far more political and social freedom than Arabs in their own countries. Amal al-Hazzani, meanwhile, an assistant professor of molecular genetics at King Saud University in Riyadh with a long list of research publications to her credit, admires the diversity of Israeli politics, praising the young for their vision and pursuit of decent living standards. She contrasts Israeli understanding of Arab culture with Arab refusal to learn anything about Israel. In a follow-up article, she describes the massive hate mail she has received for breaching the taboo about Jews, but, as she puts it, outrage doesn’t change the fact that Israel is “a small state but stronger than the rest of the Arab world,” and that there are rational explanations for this. If we are ever to have a true Arab Spring, it will start with a trickle of things like this.
Mons, Belgium, was the site of the first major engagement of the British Expeditionary Force in World War I. Mons Hall, at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst outside London, was named in honor of the 1,600 British soldiers who fell in battle. As if to dishonor them so close to the centenary of their ultimate sacrifice in the late summer of 1914, Sandhurst is now stripping from the stately Mons Hall the name of the place where they fought for their king and country and substituting the name of King Hamad, in honor of Bahrain’s head of state and the £3 million he donated for the building’s refurbishment. In deciding to disassociate itself from those to whom Britain can never fully repay its debt, Sandhurst compounds the offense by embracing a state with a reputation for human-rights abuses that violate the ideal of civility that Britain is seen as representing throughout much of the world. Donors do often demand naming rights, but in this case decency demanded of King Hamad that he forgo them and of Sandhurst that it refuse to grant them.
Lars Hedegaard opened the front door of his house in Copenhagen, and there stood a young man pretending to deliver a parcel. Instead, he drew a revolver and fired. The bullet missed, whereupon Hedegaard, a 70-year-old historian, attacked the assassin, punching him in the face so that he dropped the gun and ran away. The police say he looks foreign and has a beard. Hedegaard is head of the Danish Free Press Society, and one of the publishers of a newsletter about Islamism. The authorities had accused him of hate speech, brought him to trial, and fined him 5,000 kroner ($1,000). After an ordeal lasting three years, he was finally acquitted. In the course of obtaining justice, he quoted a famous and indispensable sentence, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” Hedegaard has shown himself a valiant successor of John Milton.
The Chinese government has tightened its rules concerning foreign singers and others who come to China to perform. This is in the wake of what Elton John did last November: He dedicated a concert in Beijing to Ai Weiwei, the artist and dissenter. What Sir Elton did was reminiscent of what his fellow singer, Björk, did in 2008: At the end of a concert in Shanghai, she sang a song called “Declare Independence,” and shouted “Tibet” several times. Sir Elton has a habit of dissidence, or, let’s say, nonconformity. He went ahead with a concert in Israel, despite pressure to boycott the country, as other performers were doing. He even sang at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding. He has — to borrow Björk’s words — declared independence.
Fugitive ex-cop Christopher Dorner died in a cabin in the mountains northwest of Los Angeles after a nine-day spree that left a police officer, a sheriff’s deputy, and a young couple murdered. He left a turgid manifesto, excoriating the Los Angeles police for firing him (he said he had protested police abuse of a suspect; the LAPD ruled that he had filed a false charge to deflect a poor performance review). Dorner’s J’accuse was weirdly encyclopedic, praising gun control, Jon Huntsman, and Piers Morgan, denouncing Cardinal Mahony and Fareed Zakaria. His hatred of the police and their bungled pursuit gave him, creepily enough, the status of a folk hero. “It’s almost like watching Django Unchained in real life,” said Marc Lamont Hill, an associate prof at Columbia Teachers College (Hill acknowledged that killing innocent people “is bad”). Maybe make that faux hero. Dorner was a crazy bad man; he died too late.
Hercules wrestled with Death and won, and Ulysses and Ajax wrestled to a draw. Jacob wrestled with God Himself, who deigned to bless no other athletic competition by jumping in and going at it like that. Unimpressed, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee voted on February 12 to cut wrestling from the 2020 Games. In May, the IOC will entertain presentations from the international governing bodies of eight sports, including wakeboarding and wushu. FILA, the international federation for wrestling, will make its case at the meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, and try to beat out its seven competitors for a place in the program. The full membership of the IOC will vote in September. A charter member of the modern Olympics and the first non-running event to be introduced into the ancient Olympics, in the eighth century b.c., wrestling — together with track and field — forms the spine of the pure athleticism that the Olympics are supposed to embody. In putting a full nelson on wrestling, the IOC has harmed not just that sport but the whole Olympic movement, and the referee that is public opinion has correctly blown the whistle.
Beam, Inc., producer of Maker’s Mark bourbon, recently announced that it would be watering down its whiskey, reducing the alcohol content from 45 percent by volume to 42 percent — a 6.7 percent reduction. The company explained that sales outside the U.S. are rapidly rising, and — because it ages the whiskey for five to six years — it simply did not have enough product to meet demand. The other logical economic solution would have been to raise prices to clear the market, but doing so would have risked pushing the product into a more premium category, making it a less popular choice for bars. Yet, several weeks later, after much outcry from customers, the Kentucky distillery reversed its decision, promising to keep the product the same. Whiskey drinkers can rejoice that they will still receive their full 90-proof helping of what Walker Percy called “the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx.”
Ronald Dworkin was the most eminent liberal legal theorist of his age. In books such as Taking Rights Seriously and A Matter of Principle, he attempted to provide an intellectual foundation after the fact for the activism of the Warren Court. That project continued in many more books and in polemics — always forceful and stylish — for the New York Review of Books. He was not above the cheap shot. Writing in the aftermath of Watergate, for example, he used the device of associating anyone favoring judicial restraint with “Nixon”: “There was, fortunately, only one real Nixon, but there are, in the special sense which I use the name, many Nixons.” (“Yes,” replied the conservative legal thinker Robert Nagel, “and some were named Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.”) Dworkin’s basic argument was remarkably consistent: The most important constitutional provisions are highly abstract; it is up to judges to fill in their meaning since they are arbiters of principle, while legislators contend with interest; liberal political philosophy supplies the best, most compelling meaning possible for those abstractions; judges should therefore impose liberalism as much as possible. To see his legacy, look at the ruins of legal order all around us. Dead at 81. R.I.P.
James DePreist was a man worth knowing. He was a very good musician, a conductor. But he set a good example in other ways too. He was black, and, when he was starting out, there were very few black conductors. (That is still the case.) A Philadelphian, he was the nephew of “The Lady from Philadelphia,” the great contralto Marian Anderson. In 1962, when he was in his mid 20s, he contracted polio in the Far East. He was confined to a wheelchair ever after. He soldiered on, strongly. He was an oasis of good sense about race. At one time, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra approached him about being its music director. He sensed that they were keenly interested in his race. He said, “It is impossible for me to go to Detroit because of the atmosphere. People mean well, but you fight for years to make race irrelevant, and now they are making race an issue.” James DePreist has died at 76. Bravo, maestro, for the entire life. R.I.P.
Shepherd at Rest
Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by announcing his resignation. It had not been done since the 15th century. In retrospect, though, the signs were always there: He had several times tried to leave the Vatican for the academic life but been dissuaded by John Paul II, and almost as soon as he became pope he started saying that it might be permissible and even obligatory for a pope to step down if he could no longer handle the role. Whatever else may be said of his decision — and faithful Catholics will disagree among themselves about its wisdom — it cannot be said that this was a man who clung to position.
When Joseph Ratzinger was elected the 264th successor to St. Peter in 2005, he was taking the place of a man who was quite possibly the most popular pope in history, Blessed John Paul II. To his credit, Pope Benedict has never tried to be a man he is not. Where his predecessor exuded charisma and warmth, Benedict has always been retiring and soft-spoken. He has nonetheless also been firm where required, as in dealing with what he long called the “filth” in the Church exposed by the sex-abuse scandals.
Behind the mild-mannered demeanor is, indeed, one of the most incisive and courageous intellects of our time. The greatest legacy of this papacy, and the thing for which we hope it is most remembered, has been the clarity with which Pope Benedict has diagnosed the deep spiritual and cultural malaise of the West, what he calls “the dictatorship of relativism.” It is a phrase that seems paradoxical only because it is a description of an incoherence. This pope has argued, repeatedly and convincingly, that human beings are capable of knowing, however imperfectly, certain unchanging truths about human existence. His defense of both faith and reason against the cynicism and skepticism of postmodernity reinforces truths without which a free society such as ours — which is dedicated to just such truths — cannot flourish. The Catholic Church is, for example, the chief institutional carrier of the great truth that all human beings, whatever their station or age or abilities or condition of dependence, have inherent dignity and a right to life. That is one of many reasons that even non-Catholics have an interest in the continuing health of the Church, and can wish a peaceful retirement for Benedict and success for the next occupant of his chair.