‘Decline Is a Choice’

A Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighter is seen in Tal Abyad, Syria, October 13, 2019. (Khalil Ashawi / Reuters)

“America First” is Donald Trump’s slogan, or one of them. Lindbergh and the pre-war isolationists used it first. Pat Buchanan revived it in the 1990s. And Trump picked it up in 2016.

He tweeted it just yesterday, apparently in explanation of his decision in Syria. The entirety of the tweet read, “America First!” We will see. We will see whether Trump’s policies redound to the benefit of the United States or not.

In these past few days, I’ve been thinking of Charles Krauthammer, who said, “Decline is a choice,” and explained why. For America, decline is a choice, for sure. It is not inevitable. Left or Right or both together can choose it.

A headline from the Associated Press reads, “Russia moves to fill void left by US in northern Syria.” (To read the article, go here.)

The chief foreign-affairs correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov, retweeted a Russian video. He commented, “Russians have fun exploring the hastily abandoned American military base in Syria.” And he quoted a Russian on that base — the man who made the video: “Yesterday it was them and today it is us here. Let’s see how they lived and what they ate.”

Brett McGurk is an American ex-diplomat, who has been heavily involved in counter-terrorism. He now teaches at Stanford. (Years ago, he clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist.) Recently, he has been in the Gulf, “where the split screen of Trump’s shambolic withdrawal from Syria and Putin’s state visit here and across the Middle East is searing perceptions of a new balance of power in the world.”

I have quoted one of McGurk’s tweets, and you can follow him here.

Many Americans, I know, are pleased with the new state of affairs. “Let the Russkies and others get bogged down, not us,” they say. “Bring our boys home.” This is perfectly understandable. But, though you may withdraw from the world, the world does not necessarily withdraw from you. We have learned this lesson to our sorrow, over the generations. But the lesson never sticks, of course.

It has been painful, for some of us, to read about events in Syria, particularly given the American role in these events. A green light from Washington. A Turkish invasion. A U.S. retreat. The killing of our Kurdish allies (former allies). The freeing of ISIS prisoners — “caught after years of painstaking effort,” as McGurk says.

I think of David Pryce-Jones, a senior editor of this magazine. During my years as managing editor, I asked him to write many, many pieces and editorials, and he always did so, with alacrity. Only once did he demur: when I asked him to say something about Vietnam, after the American defeat and withdrawal. It was too horrible, he said.

Years ago, I heard people say, “It is dangerous — positively dangerous — to be an ally of the United States. It can be more dangerous to be an American ally than a foe.” Bernard Lewis, the late Middle East scholar, was one of the people who said this. I have thought of him, and that, in recent days.

I have also thought of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who liked to quote, “First, do no harm.” In foreign policy as in other fields, do no harm, above all.

What has Donald Trump done? I quote David French, who tweeted the following yesterday: “Ten days ago our nation enjoyed an alliance with the Kurds and a strained but longstanding alliance with the Turks. Now, the Kurds are fleeing to Assad, and our relationship with Turkey is at a terrible low. It’s actually hard to be that bad, that fast, but Trump did it.”

Yes. Trump is apparently trying to remedy some of this by imposing economic sanctions on Turkey. It reminds me a little of his policy on agriculture — our “Great Patriot Farmers”: Sock them with tariffs, then make up for it with subsidies. It is better not to blunder in the first place.

As he was turning his back on the Kurds, Trump said that “they didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us in Normandy.” My view is this: If you’re going to betray allies, just do it. You don’t have to be cute about it. You don’t have to add insult to injury, or death.

Trump is in grandiose rhetorical mode, with capital letters, all-caps, and exclamation points: “We have become a far greater Economic Power than ever before, and we are using that power for WORLD PEACE!” That was a tweet on Sunday. Isn’t that what beauty-pageant contestants say — “world peace”?

Claire Berlinski put it succinctly, and soberingly: “The alternative to American hegemony is not peace. It is war.”

Trump and Trump Nation always say that American primacy has hurt the United States while helping everyone else. This is the “America as Victim” claim. In truth, we Americans have been the chief beneficiaries of U.S. primacy, not least in economic terms. But American primacy has been a boon to the world, true.

Once, I mentioned to John Bolton that people in various countries were complaining about us Americans. He said, “They’ll miss us when we’re gone.” Truer words were never spoken. When China, Russia, the Jihad, and possibly others fill the void, people in every corner will holler for Uncle Sam.

Did you see this, from the New York Times? Visual proof of how Putin’s men targeted hospitals in Syria. (By the way, this was excellent work from the failing Fake News Enemy of the People.)

Last Thursday, Senator Rand Paul tweeted, “If we can save one American soldier from losing their life or limbs in another senseless middle eastern war, it is worthwhile. @realDonaldTrump knows this. Yet the bloodlust of the neocons knows no bounds.”

I will say a word about “bloodlust.” This was a constant charge, and lie, of the Left; now I hear it more from the Right. In the bad old days, when Donald Rumsfeld was serving his second tour as secretary of defense, I said to him, “What do you say to those who say that you like war?” He said that he and his wife, Joyce, made visits to Walter Reed Hospital, where our servicemen were being treated. Some of them had their faces seared off. No, he didn’t like war. But he had views on the American interest, and this is where the debate lies.

Let me end this too-long post with Michael Reagan — who yesterday said, “Trump walking away from the Kurds could cause conservatives to walk away from Trump in 2020.” No way. Or rather, I seriously doubt it. As people often tell me, “the definition of ‘conservative’ has changed.” Many on the right don’t think of Reagan and Thatcher; they think of Trump and Orbán (or worse).

Yesterday, Orbán met with Erdogan, who thanked him for Hungary’s support of him on the world stage. Of course.

To be continued . . .

Film & TV

‘Brazen Honesty’?

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Warner Bros.)

I appreciate Kevin’s thoughtful response to my review of the new Joker movie. Much of his post highlights areas of disagreement that are, I think, a product of my occasional lack of clarity in the piece  — “to write well is to think clearly,” I’m reminded — so I’ll try to explain myself here.

What I found “brazen” about the putative “honesty” in Todd Phillips’s portrayal of mental illness was his willingness to link untreated serious mental illness to violence, in spite of oft-repeated politically correct bromides to the contrary. As I made note of later in the review, many “mental health experts” expressed their breathless concern that the Joker might — egad! — link mental illness with violence. In the words of one representative reviewer in the New York Daily News, “This plot [of the Joker film] plays to the unfortunate and false stereotype that people with mental illness are violent. As a whole, people with mental illness have no increased rate of violence compared to anybody else, and they are more likely to be victims of crimes.” The implication, of course, being that viewers cannot be trusted with a movie that depicts a mentally ill man as violent, because they might “stigmatize” the mentally ill in turn (worth acknowledging the low opinion that these reviewers have of you!)

This lie — that the connection between mental illness and violence is a “false stereotype” propagated by the media with no basis in statistical fact — is a pernicious one that has been repeated by “experts” for the better part of three decades, and has been used as a pretext to close state hospitals and programs for the most seriously mentally ill. Myself and others have tread this ground before, but it is worth repeating the empirical fact that the untreated seriously mentally ill — not speaking here of the child who can’t sit still in class, or the suburban teenager with “test anxiety,” but of serious mental illness as clinically defined — are disproportionately likely to engage in acts of violence. That Phillips does not triangulate on this fact — his refusal to soften this portrayal, or include bits meant to “refute” this politically unpopular reality about mental illness — was brave. Brazen, even.

Kevin also charges that my account of the Joker film as “honest” misses the film’s rather “deficient” and “confused” depictions of mental illness. Doesn’t my retelling of Arthur Fleck’s “moment of lucidity” before the climactic murders undercut my premise that the film “honestly” portrayed mental illness? After all, he says, “Mentally ill people who do horrible things generally do not have that kind of coherence, even when their delusions intersect with ideologies.”

I’ll admit this does undercut my premise, at least to a degree. Violence committed by the severely mentally ill tends to be incoherent by its nature, and Fleck’s moments of lucidity don’t testify to his having had a psychotic break in a traditional sense. It strengthens Kevin’s chief assertion — and in turn, weakens mine — that the Joker film failed to “decide whether Arthur Fleck is a lunatic or a rational actor using terrorism as a form of social criticism.” 

But madness, as such, is not always so simple. Sometimes it is — a paranoid schizophrenic suffering a psychotic break would not be able to channel a Fleck-like lucidity — but other times, mental illnesses can impose themselves onto the existing corpus of a man’s mind, creating a Frankenstein’s monster out of the tepid interplay between a man’s faculties of reason and neurosis. Kevin’s allusion to T.S. Eliot’s Hamlet critique reminded me of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and of Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s prescient remarks on how that play portrays the convoluted nature of mental illness:

First of all we have many complexes that are produced by sin without ever tracing the true cause, which is guilt. Take for example Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespeare was born in 1554 as I recall, and died in 1616, long before there was any such thing as psychiatry; and yet in this tragedy Macbeth has a psychosis and Lady Macbeth has a neurosis. Both of them contrived to murder the King in order to seize the throne. Macbeth thinks that he sees the dagger before him, the instrument of murder, with the handle toward his hand.

Lady Macbeth had the neurosis; she thought that she saw blood on her hands, spots. At last, all the water of the seven seas were not enough to wash that blood from her hands. There was no blood, there was no dagger but these were the psychological manifestations of guilt. Because there is an abnormal show of guilt, it does not prove that there is no normal guilt at the basis and foundation.

“Psychosis,” Sheen once said, “is organic,” a “constitutional” bug in a man that forces him to lose grip on reality. “Neurosis,” he said, “is acquired,” the manifestation of internal guilt and sin that one refuses to face — like squeezing a balloon, the “air” of guilt has to pop up somewhere. Maybe Arthur Fleck was suffering from a little bit of both psychosis and neurosis — or maybe I, as Kevin says of the film, am “confused.”

Politics & Policy

The ‘Mystery’ of the Six-Figure Renter

What do we want?

More homeownership!

How will we get it?

Subsidize mortgages!

What’s that actually do?

Inflate prices!

Which results in what?

Less homeownership!


Economy & Business

Watch: Kat Timpf Explains Why NYC Food Delivery Regulation Is a ‘Stupid, Tyrannical Idea’

In her latest video for National Review, reporter Kat Timpf criticizes the New York City Council’s unappetizing proposal to regulate food delivery.


Get Ready to Meet Tom Steyer, America

Tom Steyer, founder of NextGen Climate, speaks during the California Democratic Convention in San Francisco, Calif., June 1, 2019. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

The Democratic National Committee has gotten considerable grief for how it has managed and organized the party’s presidential candidate debates this cycle; some of that criticism is deserved, and some is undeserved. Many of the less compelling complaints come from candidates and their supporters who object to having any participation threshold at all. They argue that somehow declaring as a candidate and filing the right papers entitles a candidate to appear on prime-time national television — irrespective of whether that candidate has any measurable level of support in the Democratic electorate.

During this cycle, 26 Democrats of varying prominence have declared bids. There is no good debate format to spotlight 26 individual candidates. The DNC was generous by allowing 20 candidates to participate in the first two two-night debates. They’ve got to set up some threshold, and polling support and total number of donors seem as fair as any.

Having said that, when billionaire Tom Steyer is up on the debate stage tonight and several serious-minded senators and governors are not, viewers can fairly ask what the heck is going on. Other Democratic candidates have explicitly accused Steyer of buying his way onto the debate stage. Per the Sacramento Bee: “In an email to supporters, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke said Steyer has ‘succeeded in buying his way up there.’ New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker wrote to supporters in a fundraising email that Steyer’s ‘ability to spend millions of his personal wealth has helped him gain in the polls like no one else in this race.’”

Steyer has spent $20 million on television ads — boosting his name ID and poll support above that oh-so-high 2 percent threshold — and he’s collected donations from more than 165,000 individuals.

Tonight, many Americans will get their first look at Tom Steyer, and while there’s always the chance he surprises us, the odds are good that by the end of the night, viewers at home will wonder if he won his spot on the debate stage in some sort of auction or perhaps through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. If Tom Steyer did not exist, cynical conservatives would have to invent him as the embodiment of hilariously self-absorbed, hypocritical elitists who believe in wildly impractical happy-talk theories and who have only the vaguest notion of what the U.S. Constitution says.

Steyer is a billionaire hedge-fund manager who told the New York Times that he doesn’t think of himself as rich. At his hedge fund, Steyer helped “wealthy investors move their money through an offshore company to help shield their gains from U.S. taxes.” Back in 2005, he invested $34 million in Corrections Corporation of America, “which runs migrant detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” Steyer says he regrets that past investment.

He’s an ardent environmentalist and climate-change activist who made part of his fortune in coal development projects. He has spent tens of millions of dollars on political ads because he wants to “get corporate money out of politics.” It’s unclear if he has other controversial investments, because he “declined to go into detail about significant segments of his investment portfolio, citing confidentiality agreements that bar him from publicly disclosing the underlying assets in which he is invested.” (Steyer believes President Trump has violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution because “has directly profited from dealing with foreign governments through his businesses in the U.S. and around the globe.”)

In January, he declared that he would be “dedicating 100 percent of my time, money and effort to one cause: working for Mister Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. I am not running for president at this time. Instead I am strengthening my commitment to Need to Impeach in 2019.” But by July — well before House speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the beginning of impeachment proceedings — he changed his mind and decided to run.

Because he believes President Trump is such a danger to our democracy and the Constitution, Steyer wants to decide issues by national referendums, to enact congressional term limits and nationwide vote-by-mail, and to expand the size of the Supreme Court.

He believes that he can demonstrate a new alternative to traditional agriculture, utilizing “unconventional eco-theories about holistic management and nature-based grazing.” He’s spent $10 million, and so far demonstrated that the methods, while innovative, are not cost-effective for those who have to make a living at farming.

Now on the campaign trail, Steyer is prone to hyperbole such as, “If they win, literally it could be the end of the world.” Literally!

Even most Democrats who agree with Steyer’s positions exhibit a certain weariness about his candidacy, as he looks like a bored billionaire Democratic-party donor who’s dabbled in politics, doesn’t really know much about how government works, shoots from the hip, falls in love with every crazy idea he hears, and is willing to throw around about a hundred million to hold rallies and hear people cheering him. Just the change from the status quo that the country is looking for, right?


Greats We Have Known

Jessye Norman in Washington, D.C., July 31, 2013 (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Martin Bernheimer was one of the most formidable, and best, writers I have ever known. He was also an amazing, unique personality. I have written about him here. For half a century or so, he was a leading music critic. He passed away at the end of last month. You could not imagine a more sparkling or interesting colleague.

While I’m on the subject of music, sort of: The latest episode of Music for a While is here. I begin with some Bach, because a listener asked me a question: “If you could take one composer’s music with you to a desert island, whose would it be?” I go on with some Beethoven, Chopin, and other characters. One of those characters is David Allan Coe, who wrote “Take This Job and Shove It,” which Johnny Paycheck popularized when I was in junior high. (I had occasion to mention this song in a political article recently.)

Also in this episode, I remember two singers who passed away in recent days: Marcello Giordani and Jessye Norman. They were both from Augusta: Giordani, the Italian tenor, was from Augusta, Sicily, and Norman, the American soprano, was from Augusta, Georgia. Jessye, in particular, meant a lot to me.

Anyway, I get into all this, and you might find it “a break away from the everyday,” to quote an old fast-food slogan.

Film & TV

Socialized Madness

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.)

I am not sure I agree with John’s assertion that Joker is “brazenly honest” in its portrayal of mental illness. (Editorial note: “Brazen” in this sense means “shameless,” i.e. having a face made of brass and therefore incapable of blushing, so “brazenly honest” doesn’t really make sense, even in these troubled times.) I think it is a good film in many ways and appreciate its ambition, but its approach to mental illness struck me as not exactly dishonest but deficient. It is confused.

It also is formulaic: trauma x plus trauma y multiplied by social condition z equals atrocity a.

John describes the little sociological speech leading up to the film’s climactic murder as representing the title character’s “lone moment of lucidity in the film,” and perhaps it does — which is the problem. Mentally ill people who do horrible things generally do not have that kind of coherence, even when their delusions intersect with ideologies. Consider the case of John Salvi, the abortion-clinic shooter. He obviously cared a great deal about abortion, but his crimes were precipitated by a dispute at work (he was in training to be a hairdresser) and his political obsessions ran the gamut from fiat money (that inexhaustible source of conspiracy fodder) to Freemasonry and other assorted kookery. His views were incoherent, not lucid. If you’ve never had the firsthand experience, you can go to YouTube and watch interviews with people who are suffering from mental illness such as schizophrenia to get a sense of the different affects, which are generally nothing at all like the depiction in Joker.

Compare that with, say, Timothy McVeigh, whose political views were childish and inconsistent but coherently expressed and understood. He was not a raving lunatic. He was a rational actor, in his fashion. His terrorism was considered. Anders Breivik is a similar character.

The maternal issue in Joker put me in mind of Hamlet and T. S. Eliot’s criticism of it, which is germane to this film:

The state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife’s death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him. And it must be noticed that the very nature of the données of the problem precludes objective equivalence. To have heightened the criminality of Gertrude would have been to provide the formula for a totally different emotion in Hamlet; it is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.

In Eliot’s view, Shakespeare fails to resolve the question of Hamlet’s madness (partly feigned, partly genuine) because the author simply “tackled a problem which proved too much for him.” And so: “For Shakespeare it is less than madness and more than feigned. The levity of Hamlet, his repetition of phrase, his puns, are not part of a deliberate plan of dissimulation, but a form of emotional relief. In the character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art.”

We might say much the same thing of Todd Phillips. Joker’s problem is that it cannot decide whether Arthur Fleck is a lunatic or a rational actor using terrorism as a form of social criticism. The film vacillates between those possibilities; its inability to situate Fleck in one reality or the other is its principal dramatic defect. As has been pointed out already, that’s the great difference between this Joker and Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the character, the Heath Ledger performance that mocks these sad-sack victim-of-society narratives by giving a new and different and banal account of his original trauma at every turn.

Say this for Todd Phillips: He’s made a movie about which there is a great deal to say.

Politics & Policy

Ocasio-Cortez Salutes Immigrant-Bashing Denmark

As other socialists have done, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez points to Denmark as a model country:

A problem with countries with generous social-welfare spending is that the open-checkbook state is pretty much incompatible with the open-borders state. If you have both at the same time, there will be tension. Here’s the situation in Denmark vis a vis immigration, according to Wikipedia, under the leadership of its new left-of-center prime minister Mette Frederiksen:

Under Frederiksen, the Social Democrats voted in favor of a law allowing Danish authorities to confiscate money, jewellery and other valuable items from refugees crossing the border, despite harsh condemnation from the United Nations Human Right Council and widespread comparisons between the plan and the treatment of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Similarly, [Frederiksen’s] Social Democrats voted for a law banning wearing of burqas and niqabs while abstaining during a vote on a law on mandatory handshakes irrespective of religious sentiment at citizenship ceremonies and on a plan to house criminal asylum seekers on an island used for researching contagious animal diseases. Frederiksen also backed the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party in their paradigm shift push to make repatriation rather than integration the goal of asylum policy. She has called for a cap on non-Western immigrants, expulsion of asylum seekers to a reception centre in North Africa and forced labour for immigrants in exchange for benefits . . . .

Frederiksen has referred to Islam as a barrier to integration, arguing that some Muslims “do not respect the Danish judicial system”, that some Muslim women refuse to work for religious reasons and that Muslim girls are subject to “massive social control”. In an interview with Kristeligt Dagblad, Frederiksen called for the “closure of all immigrant centres” and for the “resettlement of immigrants in North Africa”.

Putting asylum seekers on “an island used for researching contagious animal diseases” is, I’m guessing, a policy that AOC would call the most savage and heartless idea she’d ever heard if Donald Trump had proposed it.

Economy & Business

Don’t Subsidize Neighborhoods Because They Were Redlined in the 1930s

Since Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Case for Reparations,” redlining has loomed large in the debate over race in America — larger than you might expect for a real-estate practice that has been illegal for half a century. Three different presidential candidates have proposed plans to help neighborhoods today on the basis of their having been redlined in the past, such as by subsidizing down payments there.

Andre M. Perry and David Harshbarger of the Brookings Institution now point out a rather salient fact: When they cross-referenced old redlining maps with modern demographics, they found that these neighborhoods are only 28 percent black today. They are disproportionately black relative to the country as a whole — and disproportionately disadvantaged in other ways as well — but only 8 percent of American blacks live there.

They add:

Redlined neighborhoods are generally located near the center of urban areas, where Black people were concentrated when the government generated the maps used today for the Harris, Warren, and Buttigieg proposals. But since then, transformational demographic shifts have spread different populations throughout metropolitan areas and increased the size of those areas overall.


Obviously, this says little about how big of an impact redlining had on the broad racial gaps we see today. If redlining harmed the finances and social capital of black families, those disadvantages could have been passed down to new generations even if those generations moved to different neighborhoods. It pretty definitively shows, however, that if you want to counteract the legacy of redlining or close black-white gaps more generally, you shouldn’t start with maps from the 1930s.


Tonight’s Democratic Debate May Be Even Less Consequential Than Usual

From left: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro at the Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Texas, September 12, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Sorry, Democratic presidential candidates, but heading into tonight’s debate, the news cycle is full, between Turkey smashing the Kurds in Syria, LeBron James staking out an anti-anti-China position, and House Democrats continuing to hold hearings on impeachment that are closed to the public and to the press.

Tonight’s Democratic debate may be particularly anti-climactic, even compared to the others. The Democratic National Committee, in its infinite wisdom, chose to have twelve candidates on stage for one night, instead of two nights of six candidates. Expect even more grumbling about too little time for substantive answers, and more complaining that lesser known candidates didn’t get enough questions.

Depending upon whose analysis you prefer, this is now either Elizabeth Warren’s race to lose or a two-candidate race between her and Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders remains in a respectable third place both nationally and in many early states, but he’s a 78-year-old man who is recovering from a heart attack. Every other candidate will be nice to him to tonight, in part because they no longer see him as a threat. Democrats will be reluctant to send Sanders out into the high-stakes, relentless-pressure of a general election campaign knowing he’s one more bad heart incident away from being unable to finish the race. If he was your grandfather, you would want him to take it easy, not recommit to “a very vigorous campaign.”

Maybe Biden will go after Warren, Warren will go after Biden, or Tulsi Gabbard will go after someone. But the leading candidates may prefer to save their ammunition for closer to the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. On paper, no one needs to go after someone, and when Julian Castro went after Biden’s mental capacities in the last debate, it did him no good. Before the exchange, Castro was not well known; now he’s pretty unpopular for a guy who’s so little-known.

There’s a school of thought that says that the top three septuagenarian candidates are all pretty flawed and risky against Trump, and that some of the also-rans might give the Democrats a better matchup in November 2020 — perhaps Cory Booker’s sunny optimism (and likely boost to African-American turnout), or Amy Klobuchar’s ability to compete in the upper Midwest. Most Democrats hated how Castro attacked Biden, but they would love to see that kind of aggressiveness against Trump.

But these guys are at or just above asterisk territory. They need some sort of enormously dramatic breakthrough moment to get Democratic voters to rethink their current preferences.

Energy & Environment

The Environmentalist Case for Roundup

Ted Williams makes it over at Slate.

He begins by dispelling the notion that the product causes cancer: Numerous scientific bodies have found there to be no good evidence that it does, and one prominent exception — the International Agency for Research on Cancer — was widely condemned for its methods. The man who led the review later “signed on as a litigation consultant for counsel suing Monsanto on behalf of alleged glyphosate cancer victims. He reportedly received $450 per hour.”

Williams goes on to note that he’s not a fan of the more aggressive uses of the substance, such as creating crops that are resistant to the stuff and dousing them in it. (This allows farmers to kill weeds but not crops with minimal effort; Williams says it can breed stronger weeds.) But he still opposes an outright ban, because it has important uses for conservation efforts:

A total ban on all glyphosate use would be an unmitigated disaster for fish and wildlife. Glyphosate is the most effective tool, often the only tool, wildland and aquatic managers have for restoring fish and wildlife habitats destroyed by alien plants. Even when they spray glyphosate, they use minuscule amounts and frequently they merely inject it into individual plants or paint it onto cut stems.

“Sure, it’s always better to use no-toxic alternatives, if they’re practicable,” says Dan Ashe, who directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Barack Obama. “Often, however, they’re simply not. For instance, it would have been possible to hand-pull the head-high invasive verbesina from the ground at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, but it would have taken time and personnel that were simply not available. Use of herbicides like Roundup can accelerate the work, creating urgently needed nesting space for thousands of albatrosses.”

I hope policymakers listen, because Roundup nicely knocked out a poison-ivy infestation that — thanks to my ignorance of all things green — had all four of my appendages covered in rashes a couple years back. With that experience firmly in my memory, I do about 95 percent of my “weeding” via spray bottle these days.


Steel Tariffs on Turkey?

Late last week, Donald Trump announced that some American troops would vacate a portion of Northern Syria. While doing so, and acknowledging that Turkey would likely move in to the vacuum, Trump warned, “[I]f Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”

It was bizarre. Naturally, Turkey has rolled in to Syria and tried to make fast work of the Kurdish PKK, who were crucially important as U.S.  battlefield allies in the fight against ISIS. Much of the public commentary on this has been to utterly deplore Trump for his betrayal of the Kurds. Though, given our commitments to Turkey and the nature of the PKK, this was always going to be a fraught and unstable alliance.

Now Trump seems to be responding to the criticism and news reports of Turkish heavy-handedness. And he’s responding with… steel tariffs? Turkey does have a serious steel industry. And the U.S. imports some of it. But Turkey exports mainly to more local destinations like Italy.

It just feels random. Trump has been adverting that the United States was getting out of wasteful wars in the Middle East, but the mix of signals sent to Turkey — praise as a NATO ally, criticism as a power acting in Syria, and likely-ineffectual tariffs — seems to contain all the contradictions of Trump’s campaign rhetoric.  In other words, I think what we’ve seen in the last week is Trump unleashed from his own advisors.


Ten Things that Caught My Eye Today (October 14, 2019)

If you’re reading this on Columbus Day, A Year with the Mystics is 40 percent off from the publisher today. (Other books, too.) Use this link and plug in the title.

1. A beautiful reflection from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput on living



4. Marlo Safi: Syria’s Christians are Suffering in Silence


6. (New York Times): Baby Antonio: 5 Pounds, 12 Ounces and Homeless From Birth


8. Bill de Blasio is reconsidering the decision to overlook the popularity of Mother Cabrini for a project to put statues of women around NYC – but apparently because of actor Chazz Palminteri. (Listen here about 13 minutes in, if you’re interested.) More about the controversy here.

9. Pope Francis on Sunday:

To cry out. To walk. To give thanks. Today we give thanks to the Lord for our new Saints. They walked by faith and now we invoke their intercession. Three of them were religious women; they show us that the consecrated life is a journey of love at the existential peripheries of the world. Saint Marguerite Bays, on the other hand, was a seamstress; she speaks to us of the power of simple prayer, enduring patience and silent self-giving. That is how the Lord made the splendour of Easter radiate in her life, in her humbleness. Such is the holiness of daily life, which Saint John Henry Newman described in these words: “The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not… The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming; has no pretence… with so little that is unusual or striking in his bearing, that he may easily be taken at first sight for an ordinary man” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, V, 5).

Let us ask to be like that, “kindly lights” amid the encircling gloom. Jesus, “stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as Thou shinest: so to shine as to be a light to others” (Meditations on Christian Doctrine, VII, 3). Amen.

10. Prince Charles on Saint John Henry Newman

Film & TV

Should Sesame Street Be Scaring Kids?

Sesame Street muppets Ernie and Bert at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Sesame Street is rightly beloved, but I’m not sure moving into the area of opioid addiction is a good idea. A new green Muppet, Karli, is a foster child whose mother is an opioid addict. A real girl named Salia, who is ten, walks us through a similar real-life story. She was separated from her family for 60 days “but it felt like 60 years,” she says on the show, according to a Karol Markowicz column in the New York Post.

This kind of thing sounds like an error. Sesame Street should be all about overcoming things — fears, hurdles to learning. But the thing about small children is that they are very easily scared, and if you introduce fears in the course of teaching a lesson they may well miss the lesson entirely and simply absorb the fears. The fear of losing one’s parent due to opioid abuse, or of being shunted off to foster care, is one that the average viewer of the show perhaps would not even have considered. Sesame Street has a long, proud history of nurturing tolerance and understanding, but if this storyline is making kids more anxious it’s counterproductive. As Karol points out, one survey shows a 20 percent rise in children’s anxiety over the last 15 years. We don’t want to bubble-wrap kids, but we also don’t want to introduce new fears into their psyches.


It Was Your Turn, Sandusky

I’ve probably mentioned before here that I am a big fan of the newspaper comedy The Paper. Part of the story involves a feckless New York City parking official named Sandusky, who is tormented by one of the columnists at the titular institution. He eventually has a violent breakdown, waving a gun in the columnist’s face and demanding: “Why me? Why you have to pick on me?” To which the columnist gives an answer with a great deal of political and journalistic wisdom in it: “You work for the city, Sandusky. It was your turn.”

Here I am in the Sandusky Register talking about The Smallest Minority, my new book on how social media poisons political discourse:

If the 100 most important American novelists, poets, and playwrights were to suddenly be raptured up to Heaven tomorrow, the event would be of much more actuarial and religious than literary interest. The Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2018 was awarded to a gay novelist about to turn 50 who wrote a novel about a gay novelist about to turn 50. The intelligence and creativity of our time mostly are being consumed by business enterprises, technology, and science. And that isn’t the worst use of human ability, I suppose.

That being said, if you put me at the switch in some grand trolley-car dilemma, I’d probably spare the writers and crash the train into the Capitol.

It was your turn, Sandusky.

Most Popular

White House

The Trivialization of Impeachment

We have a serious governance problem. Our system is based on separation of powers, because liberty depends on preventing any component of the state from accumulating too much authority -- that’s how tyrants are born. For the system to work, the components have to be able to check each other: The federal and ... Read More

‘Texodus’ Bodes Badly for Republicans

‘I am a classically trained engineer," says Representative Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, "and I firmly believe in regression to the mean." Applying a concept from statistics to the randomness of today's politics is problematic. In any case, Hurd, 42, is not waiting for the regression of our politics from the ... Read More

Put Up or Shut Up on These Accusations, Hillary

Look, one 2016 candidate being prone to wild and baseless accusations is enough. Appearing on Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s podcast, Hillary Clinton suggested that 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein was a “Russian asset,” that Republicans and Russians were promoting the Green Party, and ... Read More

Feminists Have Turned on Pornography

Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the feminist movement has sought to condemn traditional sexual ethics as repressive, misogynistic, and intolerant. As the 2010s come to a close, it might be fair to say that mainstream culture has reached the logical endpoint of this philosophy. Whereas older Americans ... Read More
PC Culture

Defiant Dave Chappelle

When Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special Sticks & Stones came out in August, the overwhelming response from critics was that it was offensive, unacceptable garbage. Inkoo Kang of Slate declared that Chappelle’s “jokes make you wince.” Garrett Martin, in the online magazine Paste, maintained that the ... Read More