Health Care

On the Care of Small Babies

There’s a new line of “Little Snugglers Nano Preemie Diapers” for babies born extremely early. Huggies released it last year, but I read about it only today. The diapers are for the 1.4 percent of infants who are born weighing less than two pounds. As Rebecca Shapiro explains in HuffPost, “The company sought the expertise of nurses working in Neonatal Intensive Care Units and neonatal therapists to create a product that promotes growth while protecting premature babies’ fragile skin.”

Why make a diaper like this? Because babies are precious, whatever their size. Said one Huggies executive, “We’re passionate about helping all babies thrive, especially the smallest and most fragile.”

It’s for babies like Austin James, born at 25 weeks, 1 pound 14 ounces. Because babies deserve care and protection, whatever their stage of development.

American medicine is continuing to make advances in the treatment of “micro preemies.” Babies who would once have been written off are now saved. Because a civilized country will make heroic efforts to protect lives.

Godspeed, marchers.


The Upshot on Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Biden

Potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D, Mass.) speaks at an Organizing Event in Manchester, N.H., January 12, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

A couple readers have asked what’s the upshot or conclusion from those long lists of things you should know about Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Joe Biden.

It’s a free country! Draw your own conclusions! That having been said . . .

Bernie Sanders is exactly what he appears to be — a very old radical with dreams of large-scale political revolution. For a long time, he was nearly as hostile to the Democratic party for being timid as he was to the Republicans, and he made a lot of enemies among Democratic officials. He’s hard-Left but old-school Left, and not quite in rhythm with the more identity-politics-focused younger progressives of today. He’s got bold plans for sweeping changes to the entire United States economy that would require a huge political mandate that he’s not likely to ever win.

Like many second-time candidates, Sanders appears to be pursuing a strategy of offering pretty much the same thing for a second time and hoping that the voters conclude that they made a terrible mistake by passing on him the first time. He may be in for a rude awakening. Sure, Sanders was the surprise of 2016, but maybe that just reflected that a lot of Democrats were looking for a non-Hillary option, and Sanders was just better than chumps like Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee.

Elizabeth Warren could have been a much more broadly popular populist figure in American politics if she had taken just a few different turns along the way. There was a time when she and Lou Dobbs were largely aligned, denouncing greedy companies and insider politicians for taking advantage of the middle class through predatory, fraudulent, and generally unethical behavior. She offered some mild criticism for feminists and school choice opponents. She barely hid her hostility to high-ranking Democrats with deep connections to Wall Street. But as Warren rose through the ranks of the party, her deviations from orthodoxy grew rarer.

Warren became more like the rest of the Democrats, and the rest of the Democrats became more like Warren in a broad-spectrum hostility to the financial industry and business as a whole. The result is that she doesn’t stand out as much as she used to — she’s still pretty populist, a trade skeptic, an Occupy Wall Street philosophy in the schoolmarm-ish law professor package. The comparisons to Hillary Clinton are wildly off the mark. In her wonkiness, stiffness, and gobs of (disputed) research in a once-obscure policy topic that suddenly became hot, she’s much more like . . .  Al Gore.

Kamala Harris is, by most measures, the Democratic party’s dream “progressive prosecutor.” But that second word means her record’s are a little more pro-law-enforcement than ideal for the post-Ferguson era. Your average progressive activist or Democratic primary voter probably isn’t a big fan of civil asset forfeiture, criminal prosecutions for parents of truant children, or perhaps the police going through ancestry databases looking for familial DNA matches. In a Democratic primary, she’ll get grief for choosing not to prosecute Steven Mnuchin and his bank. And she’s going to try to simultaneously campaign on a “tough prosecutor” image and de facto amnesty positions, insisting that “an undocumented immigrant is not a criminal.” She’ll be the president who rigorously enforces the laws she likes and ignores the ones she doesn’t like.

Out of the four candidates I’ve written lists about, there’s been by far the most interest in Harris — suggesting to me that even a lot of people who follow politics feel like they don’t really know that much about her yet. Her public image is still being shaped right now — which is a great opportunity for her, and a window of opportunity for any of her rivals.

Joe Biden may very well end up being the most “centrist”/least-leftist/old-fashioned/least-radical Democratic option in the field. This is not because he’s particularly centrist or often defies the will of his party, but he’s been around long enough that he’s got the voting record and residual attitudes from a time when Democrats supported the death penalty, stiffer penalties for drug possession, some abortion restrictions, government surveillance, and so on. He’s open about his Catholic faith and uses language that is far from politically correct. He’s also not on board with some current trendy progressive ideas like universal basic income.

In a general election, those aspects of Biden would represent a real danger for Trump. But first Biden’s got to get there, and his whole persona and worldview will be tough to sell when the Democratic party’s grassroots are feeling angry and leftist and radical. It’s also a really open question as to how the party’s primary voters feel about Biden’s inherent . . .  Joe Biden-ness, for lack of a better term. Biden got a lot of forgiveness for his gaffes from being Obama’s vice president, and today’s average online progressive is primed to go ballistic over statements that sound racist, sexist, or generally insensitive.

White House

Does the New York Times Believe BuzzFeed ’s Scoop?

Buzzfeed‘s story that President Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his dealings in Russia would appear to be textbook obstruction . . . if true.

When a big story like this breaks, there are usually two stages: the “pickup” and the “match.” The Washington Post has run a bunch of “pickup” stories: “Trump Reportedly Told Michael Cohen to Lie,” etc. Behind the scenes, it’s red-alert, all-hands-on-deck time: The WaPo desperately wants to match the story, in other words talk to its own sources and confirm that the BuzzFeed story is in fact true. At which point the WaPo can remove the “reportedly” disclaimer and run a story saying, “Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress.” Deep within the story it would then presumably acknowledge that the facts first emerged in BuzzFeed.

The New York Times‘ response has been not what I would have expected. So far, on its site, the only indication I can find that the Times even acknowledges that the BuzzFeed story exists is this Associated Press story, which doesn’t even pop up on the main page or the politics page. (Meanwhile, the last time I looked at the WaPo page, four of the top five stories were related to the BuzzFeed scoop.) The Times political reporters have of course been burning up the phone lines trying to match BuzzFeed‘s story. (And ace reporter Maggie Haberman alluded to the BuzzFeed story on Twitter last night.) But in the meantime you would expect them to at least run a big story on the homepage saying, “Report claims Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress.” They haven’t done that. To me that says the New York Times is skeptical about either this story in particular, or BuzzFeed in general, or both.

Health Care

Democratic Message on Health Could Boost GOP

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D, Mass.) during an event to introduce the “Medicare for All Act of 2017” on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., September 13, 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The promise of “Medicare for All” polls well. But if Democrats endorse the concept in large numbers, and make it or some other large-scale expansion of government health plans a centerpiece of the party’s brand going into the 2020 election cycle, Republicans will be among the prime beneficiaries.

How can a popular idea be politically damaging? Because it’s only popular in the abstract. A 2017 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, for example, found that 54 percent of Americans favored a single-payer plan for financing health care. The phrase “Medicare for All” polled even higher, at 62 percent.

Once voters heard some of the details, however, support dropped. When told that a single-payer plan would dislodge the role that employers play in sponsoring health plans, 17 percent of respondents switched sides, raising opposition to 60 percent. When told a single-payer plan would require higher taxes, 23 percent switched sides, raising the opposition to 66 percent.

Politicos who spend lots of time debating the finer points of public policy need to remember that most Americans, focused on their own private affairs most of the time, do not necessarily hear what the politicos mean to say. According to the Kaiser poll and others, significant percentages of voters believe that even if the country adopts a single-payer system, they will be able to keep their private health plans.

At the state level, politicians who favor Medicaid expansion in places where it hasn’t already occurred face a similar challenge when it comes to interpreting public opinion. If a survey question presents Medicaid as a cost-free way to extend services to the poor, you may get a favorable response.

That will change when voters learn that 1) we aren’t talking about poor children and their parents, who are already covered, but childless adults; 2) many advocates either refuse to require these childless adults to work for Medicaid benefits, or plan to subvert any work requirements that may be included in expansion; 3) emergency-room usage is likely to go up, not down, as Medicaid expands; and 4) state taxpayers will end up paying higher taxes or receiving fewer non-health services in the long run, as the extravagant promise of near-complete federal funding of Medicaid expansion gives way to fiscal reality.

Progressive Democrats reject several of these premises. They argue, for instance, that a Medicare-for-All plan can be financed merely by taxing the super-rich, so average folks won’t get taxed more. Their math is faulty and their assumptions are dubious.

Consider the recent proposal to slap a 70 percent federal tax rate on income in excess of $10 million. The Tax Foundation recently estimated that such a marginal tax rate would raise about $300 billion over 10 years under the most favorable of assumptions, and would actually cost the federal government $64 billion over 10 years if one assumes that rich people will hire smart accountants, lawyers, and advisors to restructure their capital-gains realizations and otherwise shelter investment income from confiscatory tax rates.

Even the Panglossian number, $300 billion, would fall far, far short of paying for some sweeping new health program. It would only modestly reduce the projected deficits already baked into the federal cake.

In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency despite the fact that he was deemed unqualified, unprincipled, and untrustworthy by a solid majority of Americans. Why? Because he was running against Hillary Clinton, about whom a similar share of voters had pretty much the same unflattering view. Both candidates lost support from voters who had previously voted the other way. Trump’s losses were disproportionately in places where he was going to lose anyway (e.g. California) or going to win anyway (e.g. Texas). But Clinton’s losses were disproportionately in Midwestern battlegrounds, producing a defeat in the Electoral College.

In the 2020 cycle, Trump and the GOP again face strong headwinds. But elections are comparisons, not plebiscites. If the Democratic Party makes a sharp left turn, on health care or other issues, it will lose winnable races. Republicans will gladly pocket those victories.

Film & TV

Trigger Warning with Killer Mike

If I’m being honest, I’ve never been able to get into Run the Jewels, the raunchy rap duo featuring Killer Mike. But Mr. Mike is a fascinating guy: intensely pro-gun, and also a Bernie Sanders supporter. So when I pulled up Netflix this morning for my too-brief daily treadmill walk and saw he had a new show, I decided to take a break from Friends from College.

I didn’t regret it. In the first episode he decides to “live black” for three days, patronizing only black-owned businesses and limiting himself to products made by black-owned companies up the supply chain. The idea is that, under segregation, blacks were forced to do business only with each other, which built up entire networks of black-owned companies; the end of segregation was obviously a positive development but had the negative consequence of dealing a blow to black entrepreneurship. Other minority groups have been more successful at creating businesses, patronizing them heavily, and thereby “keeping their dollars in the community.”

He profiles numerous businesspeople in his state of Georgia working to make “living black” a real possibility, but he also suffers “white-economy withdrawal,” struggling to find even the basics of food, transportation, and shelter. There are less wholesome aspects too: He can’t smoke weed because he can’t find any grown by black people; he visits a black-owned strip club but has to regretfully turn away an Asian dancer. (“No racism, but . . .”)

The free-market crowd would insist that trade between whites and blacks, like trade among countries, is almost by definition a good thing for everyone involved. Indeed, in a somewhat ironic twist, Killer Mike ends the show urging white “allies” to shop at black businesses as well. But the episode is thought-provoking and entertaining, and I plan to watch the rest of the show.

Science & Tech

Irreducible Perplexity

In response to The Ultimate Question of Life’s Origins

I enjoy a good argument from authority as much as the next guy. Contra David Klinghoffer, I wouldn’t say that I “idolize” William F. Buckley Jr., as much as I admired him. WFB got a lot of things wrong, as probably was inevitable for a man with that kind of volume of output. My understanding is that WFB’s education was in political science, economics, and history. All worthy fields, none of which is likely to give anybody any particular insight on enormously complex and specialized questions of science. Klinghoffer goes on to cite (in order) a theologian, a political polemicist, a historian, a journalist-novelist, an intellectual historian, and a literary critic — followed by a mathematician and a lawyer.

The difference here, I suppose, is that I do not think that (in order) a theologian, a political polemicist, a historian, a journalist-novelist, an intellectual historian, and a literary critic—followed by a mathematician and a lawyer—probably have a great deal to contribute to a technical debate within a specialized sub-discipline of biology. If I should be wrong about that, then I am confident that the Nobel committee or PNAS will let me know.

I know some very intelligent dentists, but I would not ask one to design a bridge. (I mean the kind that goes across a river, not the dental kind.)  That leaves Professor Behe, who is welcome to slug it out with the other biologists in the professional journals. My understanding is that the scholars in his field have not found his work persuasive. I cannot think of a good reason why I’d discount that and be persuaded instead by lawyers and theologians and journalists. We aren’t talking about questions of political preference or cultural criticism. This is not one of those cases in which there are no wrong answers.

The fact that the advocates of intelligent design have shown themselves determined to make their case in the political journals and in the popular press — relying heavily on lawyers and the like — rather than make their case to the scientific community is, I think, indicative of the character of their project. Which is not to say that I think they are acting in bad faith; it is only to say that this is a scientific dispute, and what lawyers and journalists do is not science, in the same way it isn’t professional basketball or French cooking or operating a dry-cleaners.

I like the idea of the gentleman-scholar who, working from his home library, knocks down a pillar of scientific orthodoxy, leaving the professionals agog and agape. But there isn’t a lot of science that is done that way now, in the 21st century. And even if there were — and I cannot emphasize this point enough — an intellectually serious endeavor toward that end would be presenting its findings mainly to scholars of evolution rather than, say, novelists.

UC-Berkeley is said to have an excellent doctoral program in this field. Have at it. But don’t try to tell me that the entire scientific community is engaged in a conspiracy against the world-changing scientific breakthrough that is so obvious and so persuasive to people who don’t actually have any substantial knowledge of the field in question. There is no intellectual value in that at all, at least that I can see.

Politics & Policy

Republican Senators Skip Vote on Key Pro-Life Legislation

Pro-life activists gather for the National March for Life rally in Washington. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

On Thursday evening, the night before the annual March for Life, the Senate voted on the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, a measure to prohibit taxpayer-funded abortion, which would have codified the Hyde Amendment, a rider added to federal appropriations bills to ensure that taxpayer dollars never directly underwrite abortion procedures.

The legislation needed 60 votes to pass, but it failed even to reach a majority, despite the fact that the Republican party holds a four-vote edge in the Senate. Republican senators Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) voted with Democrats against the bill, while Democratic senators Bob Casey (Pa.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) voted with the Republicans in favor.

Five Republican senators, meanwhile, were not present for the vote: Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Rand Paul (Ky.).

A spokesman for Alexander told National Review the senator “was traveling back to Tennessee to attend to a personal matter” and added that “he is pro-life and supportive of the measure.” According to a spokesman, Crapo “did not vote as he is ill” but “would have voted to invoke cloture had he been present to vote.” Crapo was a cosponsor of the legislation.

A spokesman for Graham told National Review that the South Carolina senator left for Turkey on Wednesday evening, where he is discussing the fight against ISIS. “Graham has a long history of votes in support of the pro-life cause and just introduced the 20-week bill this week in the Senate,” his spokesman added. “He would have proudly supported the Wicker amendment had he been there today.”

Burr’s press office had not responded to National Review’s request for comment by the time this piece was published.

Late Thursday afternoon, meanwhile, Paul appeared on Fox News with Neil Cavuto in New York City to discuss the partial government shutdown and the situation in Syria. A spokesman for the Kentucky senator told National Review: “Unfortunately, today was scheduled to be a day out of session and Senator Paul committed to various events outside of Washington before this last minute vote was scheduled. Had this vote been closer, he would have returned, but having voted on an identical bill just two months ago, Senator Paul decided to keep his commitments.”

The “identical bill” the spokesman referenced was in fact an amendment Paul sponsored last August to defund abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood, as part of the Labor–Health and Human Services appropriations process. Not only did that vote take place last Congress, but it was an entirely separate issue from the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which did not have to do with defunding Planned Parenthood and which the Senate has never voted on before.

What’s more, January 17 was scheduled to be an in-session day as early as December 12, although the 2019 Senate GOP retreat also had been announced in mid December for yesterday. The week of the March for Life is typically a time for Republican leadership to schedule a number of votes on key pro-life legislation.

Four out of the five Republican senators who missed the vote signed on to a letter to President Trump earlier this week, emphasizing the existence of a pro-life majority in the Senate. “Public support for pro-life policies will send a strong signal that attempts by Democrats to alter decades of established, bipartisan policies will be met with resistance and failure,” the letter read in part.

“With pro-life ‘champions’ like these, who needs Planned Parenthood?” a senior Republican aide told National Review. “This is embarrassing. You can’t call yourself pro-life if you can’t even show up for the vote designed to show that we’ve got a pro-life majority.”

In 2016, the Democratic party altered its platform to officially oppose the Hyde Amendment, and earlier this week, Democrats in the House of Representatives announced their intention to overturn Hyde and obtain direct federal funding of abortion procedures. Thursday night’s Senate vote was meant to be a rebuke of that Democratic effort, illustrating that a strong Republican majority will continue to support conscience protections for American taxpayers.

It is disappointing not to see that majority in action.

White House

A New Report Accuses Trump of Suborning Perjury, the Gravest Allegation Yet

(Leah Millis/Reuters)

BuzzFeed News has tonight printed perhaps the most damaging claim against Donald Trump yet, a claim that, if true (a very big “if”), produces evidence against the president that is remarkably similar to evidence used to support articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. And while there are numerous news reports regarding Trump’s activities that either remain unproven or have been debunked, this report is rendered especially plausible by documents the special counsel’s office filed just last month.

Let’s break this down, step-by-step:

First, the BuzzFeed report claims that Trump “directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.” BuzzFeed relies on “two [anonymous] federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.”

[T]he two sources have told BuzzFeed News that Cohen also told the special counsel that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie — by claiming that negotiations ended months earlier than they actually did — in order to obscure Trump’s involvement.

The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.

Recall that in December Robert Mueller’s office filed a sentencing memo describing the extent of Cohen’s cooperation with the special counsel. A close read of the document shows that the special counsel dropped hints of some very interesting additional evidence in the case. Here’s how I analyzed the memo:

the special counsel takes pains to note that Cohen’s false statements to investigators were “deliberate and premeditated” and “did not spring spontaneously from a line of examination or a heated colloquy during a congressional hearing.” His lies were in a “written submission” and a “prepared opening statement.” These lies were allegedly told to “minimize the links” between the Moscow Trump Tower project and Trump himself.

Also — and this is crucial — the memo notes that Cohen has been cooperating in describing the “circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries” [emphasis added].

In plain English, this means that it is highly likely that senior Trump officials reviewed Cohen’s prepared, false testimony before he lied to Congress. This raises two important questions. Was Trump aware of the substance of Cohen’s testimony? If so, was Trump aware that Cohen’s testimony was false?

Now, why are these particular claims so important? First, because they go a long way towards meeting the elements of the crime of subornation of perjury. Here’s how the DOJ describes the crime:

To establish a case of subornation of perjury, a prosecutor must demonstrate that perjury was committed; that the defendant procured the perjury corruptly, knowing, believing or having reason to believe it to be false testimony; and that the defendant knew, believed or had reason to believe that the perjurer had knowledge of the falsity of his or her testimony.

If Trump “directed” Cohen — his own attorney — to lie, he faces very real legal jeopardy. In fact, Trump’s alleged misconduct now tracks the alleged misconduct of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. In his articles of impeachment (Nixon resigned before he could be impeached), Nixon was accused of, among other things:

approving, condoning, acquiescing in, and counselling witnesses with respect to the giving of false or misleading statements to lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States and false or misleading testimony in duly instituted judicial and congressional proceedings.

Bill Clinton faced similar claims. For example:

(1) On or about December 17, 1997, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly encouraged a witness in a Federal civil rights action brought against him to execute a sworn affidavit in that proceeding that he knew to be perjurious, false and misleading.

(2) On or about December 17, 1997, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly encouraged a witness in a Federal civil rights action brought against him to give perjurious, false and misleading testimony if and when called to testify personally in that proceeding.

There is more to the BuzzFeed report, including claims that Trump family members received “regular, detailed” briefings about the project and claims that Trump supported a plan to meet Putin during the campaign in part to “jump-start the tower negotiations,” but the allegation that Trump suborned perjury is easily the most significant.

Again, we don’t have confirmation of these claims, but they are very troubling indeed. And let’s recall, the alleged order to lie was about the immensely important matter of a presidential candidate’s reported desire to secure an extremely lucrative business deal from arguably our nation’s chief geopolitical foe — a foe that was even then attempting to interfere with an American presidential election. This is a serious matter. It’s vital that we learn promptly whether this report is supported by meaningful evidence. If Robert Mueller has the goods, we need to see them. Soon.

Politics & Policy

Fifth Circuit Ruling Dismantles Planned Parenthood Talking Points

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

A ruling issued tonight by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has torpedoed several of the abortion-rights movement’s key talking points in defense of Planned Parenthood.

The case dealt with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s decision to terminate the state’s Medicaid provider agreements with Planned Parenthood affiliates across the state. The state based its decision to remove Planned Parenthood from the list of eligible Medicaid providers in large part on a series of undercover videos released in the summer of 2015 showing footage of Planned Parenthood executives and doctors admitting to illegally profiting from the sale of the fetal tissue of aborted babies.

At the time the videos were released, Planned Parenthood and its many defenders in the pro-choice movement repeated ad nauseam that the videos had been “heavily [and] deceptively edited.” This same line was often parroted uncritically by media outlets in their coverage of the videos.

In its ruling tonight, the Fifth Circuit not only affirmed the state’s right to terminate its agreement with Planned Parenthood affiliates, but also confirmed that the videos were undoctored. The court noted that an independent forensic firm’s review of the undercover footage found “that the video was authentic and not deceptively edited.” This directly refutes Planned Parenthood’s own false claim.

The ruling also mentioned parts of the video footage in which Planned Parenthood executives had admitted to illegally altering abortion procedures to obtain intact fetuses whose organs could then be sold to medical research firms for greater profit. This included finding ways to circumvent the federal ban on partial-birth abortion, whether by changing the way they performed late-term procedures or by signing a form saying they had not “intended” to retrieve an intact fetus.

Tonight’s decision is a win for the pro-life effort to remove Planned Parenthood’s Medicaid funding at the state level, but it also affirms evidence showing that Planned Parenthood doctors and affiliates did indeed break federal law.


The Changing Campus Climate

That left-wing intolerance for speech on campus has been rising is probably obvious to most Corner readers, but there has been a concerted effort to deny the phenomenon. It ought to be a little harder to sustain that effort after looking at this research on what Smith College students believed in 2000 and what they believed in 2016.

White House

Trump’s Response to Nancy Pelosi Could Fuel a Historic Battle

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, Calif.) holds a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 10, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

If you can get beyond the partisan angles, the White House’s response to Nancy Pelosi’s quasi disinvitation to give the State of the Union address could be the beginning of a historic battle between the two branches of government. President Trump informed Nancy Pelosi that her trip to Europe and the Middle East will have to be “postponed” because of the shutdown. And it might not end there:

I’m not taking Pelosi’s side in this as a political or policy matter, but I would love to see it dawn on Congress that the executive branch is not in fact the boss of the legislative branch and that, over the long term, Congress actually has a lot more power over the executive than the other way around. Given the politics of the moment, I think things would have to get a lot worse before GOP congressmen see themselves more as defenders of their institution than their party. But it seems this is the way such a long-overdue awakening could start.


Conan O’Brien Reminds Us to Remember Our Deaths

Comedian Conan O’Brien speaks in Beverly Hills, Calif., October 8, 2014. (Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS)

Americans don’t like thinking about their deaths. Growing up in a Syrian-American household, death and the afterlife were frequently discussed topics. The threshold for morbidity was extremely high: Many Arabic-media editorial boards and independent journalists do not grant their consumers the luxury of sanitized images of mangled bodies from war, and the imagery of death is inculcated in Arabs from a young age. The Arabic language is saturated with religious references to destiny and the afterlife; my non–Arab American friend who studied abroad in Kuwait said that the first term he learned in Arabic was “inshallah,” meaning “If God wills it,” just by the sheer frequency of its usage by Arabs — the language itself reduces humanity to its mortal, destructible flesh, dependent on a maker to grant our broken world the mercy it doesn’t deserve.

I was once told by a Coptic Egyptian that following a bombing of their churches by Islamists, Egyptian Christians will pack the church the following week, because they don’t fear martyrdom: They remember eternity. They remember their deaths.

In the social-media age, when only the most seemingly carefree, whimsical renderings of our lives make the Instagram cut, and most of our lives are not in limbo because of war, death isn’t a prospect Americans often meditate on, and it’s one that’s actively avoided. We often act as though the finite material world is our opportunity to establish a paradise by any means necessary; American politics is a perfect representation of this. William F. Buckley Jr. popularized Eric Voegelin’s phrase that he coined in 1952 in The New Science of Politics, and that, with the growing presence of politics in the lives of Americans, I wish would be resurrected: “Don’t immanentize the eschaton.” Don’t try to make what is reserved for the afterlife happen here and now. Because it’s impossible. We should instead remember our deaths: Memento Mori.

In the 1500s, when Europe was blooming with art, politics, and science, Memento Mori art that was considered a morbid relic of the Middle Ages that Europe was transitioning out of made a comeback. Memento Mori art typically depicted images of skulls, or ticking clocks, or lit candles that suggested time was fleeting and death is an inevitability. People were comfortable during the Renaissance, but they also began to contemplate the role of the divine and superstition in their lives with the rise of humanism. Whether through a religious or secular lens, the imagery of death was present in popular society.

Today, we are comfortable in our decadence, but we don’t interact with the imagery of death on a regular basis; in fact, we’re often shielded from it.

In a New York Times interview with Conan O’Brien from January 14, O’Brien tells the reporter of the return of his late-night show “Conan” after a three-month hiatus, and I found his last answer to be a refreshing (as refreshing as death can be) one:

Is this how you want to go out, with a show that gets smaller and smaller until it’s gone?

Maybe that’s O.K. I think you have more of a problem with that than I do. [Laughs.] At this point in my career, I could go out with a grand, 21-gun salute, and climb into a rocket and the entire Supreme Court walks out and they jointly press a button, I’m shot up into the air and there’s an explosion and it’s orange and it spells, “Good night and God love.” In this culture? Two years later, it’s going to be, who’s Conan? This is going to sound grim, but eventually, all our graves go unattended.

You’re right, that does sound grim.

Sorry. Calvin Coolidge was a pretty popular president. I’ve been to his grave in Vermont. It has the presidential seal on it. Nobody was there. And by the way, I’m the only late-night host that has been to Calvin Coolidge’s grave. I think’s that what separates me from the other hosts.

I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that. 

Death is grim. But O’Brien, an American-household name, standardizes life, erases the earthly concept of fame and luxury, and reduces humans to the dust we’ll all one day become. He’s the skull with worms crawling in between the eye sockets that was crafted from ivory, and he’s the painting depicting skeletons holding up a mirror to a human to remind them of their fragility. Like Coolidge and Conan, the Reaper comes for us all.

Art may not speak to Americans like it did to Renaissance-era Europeans, but celebrities do. On a last note, some more Latin to remind us of our ephemerality: Carpe Diem.


Rand Paul’s Distortion of History

Senator Rand Paul, R., Ky., speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., December 4, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS)

I agree with Senator Paul on a great many issues, including his view that the unconstitutional U.S. involvement in the war in Syria needs to end. But the wildly false historical claim he has used to justify his position calls for a correction.

On Twitter yesterday, he proclaimed, “Sunnis have been killing Shia since the massacre at Karbala in 680 AD. If we wait until they stop killing each other, we will stay for a thousand years or more.”

Shi’ism as a religious doctrine had not been established by 680. The victims of the massacres at Karbala were the Ahl-ul-Bayt (the family of the Prophet), who are venerated by Sunnis and Shi’is alike. The murderers have been reviled throughout Sunni history. Indeed, many of the most important figures in the Sunni tradition, particularly the great mystics such as ‘Abdul-Qadir Jilani or ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Alawi al-Haddad (and into the present day), are descendants of the victims of Karbala. Senator Paul’s categorization does not hold, by any stretch.

The senator’s implicit claim that Sunni-Shi’i massacres are a regular occurrence of history is also false. While tensions exist between the religious sects, communal violence has been the exception, not the rule, throughout the centuries since they came into being. And where violence did occur, it was generally in the context of geopolitics between Sunni and Shi’i polities, such as that between Saladin and the Fatimids of Egypt.

Ironically, Senator Paul’s (incorrect) suggestion of an ongoing thousand-plus year armed conflict probably gives ammunition to his purported opponents, the interventionists who claim that any U.S. withdrawal must result in mass violence. Rand Paul is not only dealing in bad history here, but bad politics as well.

Film & TV

A New Cinematic Masterpiece

Tom Schilling in Never Look Away (2019) (Sony Pictures Classics)

I was about 15 minutes in when I thought,“This is probably a great film.” An hour and a half later I found myself checking my watch frequently, because though I knew the movie was going to run over three hours, I was dreading the ending. I spent the third hour thinking about what makes a masterpiece and why this one, gloriously, qualifies. It’s about the biggest themes (art, war, love, death), it’s emotionally overwhelming, its dialogue is lapidary, its musical score transporting. It’s one of the best films of the decade.

The German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck already has one of the best films of the century to his credit: 2007’s The Lives of Others. His new one is, I think, even better. It may be the best German film I’ve ever seen. Never Look Away is the title. It comes out January 25 in New York City, February 8 in Los Angeles. Through the eyes of a young Dresden boy who grows up to be a famous artist modeled on Gerhard Richter (described in a New Yorker profile of Donnersmarck as the greatest painter living), Never Look Away considers Germany from the 1930s into the sixties, when the Dusseldorf avant-garde art scene heralded a postwar rebirth of youthful dynamism in which artists began fully to reckon with the Nazi period of the previous generation.

The film opens in a public museum which turns out to be hosting the infamous “Degenerate Art” show. A guide explains the Nazis stance toward this in harsh terms. Yet later in the film we’ll hear almost exactly the same critique made by a Communist in East Germany. In one of many spellbinding sequences, an art teacher holds up posters advertising the main postwar parties of the Right and Left (the CDU and the SPD) and sets fire to both of them, telling his students that a true artist must be of no party. Kurt, the central figure of the film, who is a little boy when he visits the Degenerate Art exhibition, then after the war is an art student in both East and West Germany, absorbs this and creates an exciting new style of painting that combines astonishing craft with what one observer calls “genuine force in some mysterious way.”

Through Kurt (played as an adult by Tom Schilling), Donnersmarck  considers the balances and opposites of the German twentieth century: Life and death are both present in the persona of an SS doctor (Sebastian Koch, the star of The Lives of Others) who for good measure is both an obstetrician and an abortionist, a Nazi and Communist, a German speaker who masters Russian, an Ossi and a Wessi. Kurt’s work is painting but it’s photography, it’s new yet backward-looking, it’s tabloid yet it’s profound. His bildung is a deeply moving tale in its own right as a sensitive little boy surmounts one handicap after another on his way to greatness but it’s a much more expansive cinematic metaphor for German history as well.

I’ll have more to say about this mammoth achievement later.

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