Dear Weekend Jolter,
Nearly all of 2019 is in the rear-view mirror, and up ahead, 2020’s road conditions have that look of treacherousness. The Leap Year is gonna be a looloo, a humdinger, guaranteeing that all flabbers will be thoroughly gasted. Fer sure: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride will be catatonic in comparison. But . . .
Let’s hold off on the anxiety-anticipating for just a brief moment. Let’s linger in the Holiday glow, and when the brand-spanking-new year’s first day becomes official on Wednesday, find time to celebrate, to maybe watch a little football or a parade while you recover from the prior evening’s excesses.
(And Shraga, my dear and kind friend, you and I know what can happen on New Year’s Eve.)
This edition of the WJ will be shorter than the usual fare, and is filed early (Coming clean: Santa hasn’t descended the chimney!), thanks to the nerve of Christmas falling midweek. Which means Editor Phil is traveling hither and yon while Your Humble and Bloated Correspondent guzzles fortified eggnog and makes all the Santa cookies disappear.
Other than a reminder to reserve one of the last remaining staterooms on NR’s 2020 Rhine River Charter Cruise, let’s do what we do here . . . let’s get on with the Weekend Jolt!
Lords Will Be A-Leapin’ with Joy, Maids A-Milkin’ with Rapture, to Be A-Readin’ these Bakers-Dozen NRO Gems, One for Every Day of Christmas, and One for The Leap Year
1. First Things First: Our Esteemed Editor, Rich FalalalaLowry, pens a timely ode to the golden era of Christmas music. From the column:
Christmas songs from much earlier were dusted off and made into standards. None is more iconic than “Jingle Bells,” which has done much to define our image of Christmas. Written by James Pierpont in the mid-19th century for Thanksgiving, it became associated with Christmas despite making no references to the holiday.
Bing Crosby had another holiday sensation when he recorded it with the Andrews Sisters in 1943. Benny Goodman did a hit version in 1935, Glenn Miller in 1941 and Les Paul in 1951. Not to mention recordings by Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Perry Como, or more recently, Barry Manilow, Gwen Stefani and Barbra Streisand, among many others. The Gemini 6 astronauts performed it in space.
Not all the numbers from this time were particularly serious. A bunch of singers passed on “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” until Gene Autry recorded the instant classic in 1949. Autry also gave us “Frosty the Snowman” (1950) and “Here Comes Santa Claus” (1947).
What, besides the quality of the songs, accounts for the dominance of this era? It was a time prior to the onset of cynicism and irony. So heartfelt sentiments could be expressed unembarrassedly, and they still touch us today. Christmas loomed large in the culture, and the songs reflected it and defined it.
The Christmas of this music is less explicitly religious and more markedly American, a holiday of snowy vistas, of hearth and home, of cheerful sounds and merrymaking, of Santa and his sleigh, and of fond memories.
RELATED: Peter Tonguette praises the Great American Christmas Album. From the piece:
Perhaps the Christmas album, then, has remained a fixture on the American music scene because it can embody the contradictions of Christmas itself. Other holidays give rise to more uncomplicated emotions — say, the patriotism of the Fourth of July or the contented feasting of Thanksgiving. By contrast, Christmas can provoke a strange brew of emotions; it’s capable of inciting high spirits one minute and a sense of loneliness or loss the next. The best Christmas albums, like Crosby’s Merry Christmas, are made up of songs that illustrate both the frivolity and the melancholy, helping us enunciate the swirl of inner thoughts we have this time of year.
Indeed, Crosby’s seeming commitment to the sentiments in his songs was modeled by the artists who caught the Christmas-album bug in his wake. In the album A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra (1957), the crooner found new ways to express the forward-looking longing at the heart of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a song that had its debut courtesy of Judy Garland in the 1944 film musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The mandate to look to happier Christmases that might lie ahead was sung with a kind of girlish hopefulness by Garland, but — with the help of some revamped lyrics — it was given a fresh sheen of toughness and resoluteness by Sinatra. Coming from Ol’ Blue Eyes, the line “From now on, our troubles will be miles away” is an order, not a wish. The singer brought to mind an old pal or best buddy empathetically inclining his ear to the listener’s problems and doing his best to lift his spirits.
Modern presidents have routinely launched the United States into belligerency with other nations without congressional approval. Barack Obama had already put special forces into Syria before he asked Congress to approve of a more wide-ranging mission there. Congress refused to vote on it, given its unpopularity. The mission crept on anyway. If you want to go back much further, every American president who is connected to the Vietnam War must answer for grave lies to the American public, relating both to the cause of the war, its conclusion, and its scope.
You may dismiss all this as “whataboutism” – a recently coined term meant to name an evasive rhetorical technique. But I think Socrates was the first whataboutist philosopher, and he brought up his counterexamples in order to probe our standards for real coherence.
Would it be good for the country to impeach Trump for his Ukraine phone call, having not impeached his recent predecessors for graver offenses? If raising the standards means the standards would be kept there, perhaps yes. I believe Ramesh Ponnuru would keep the standards there. Would others? I also suspect that while Ponnuru might quibble with some of my examples of presidential abuses before, he generally agrees that modern presidents have been getting away with impeachable offenses.
My next question: Why isn’t Trump getting away with his? I suspect the reason is similar to the reason that Andrew Johnson was impeached. Clinton too. Offenses to the Constitution are routinely tolerated in presidents, but Trump’s Democratic opponents and Republican critics find themselves literally disgusted by him. I cannot prove, but I suspect, that it is this more visceral disgust — one that predated the release of the rough transcript of the Ukraine phone call — that is driving impeachment. Finding a tax-evasion charge on Al Capone may be expedient for imprisoning him. But finding a technically abusive request that was not carried out in order to effect the already desired impeachment is something less than constitutional hygiene.
3. The author of Faithless Execution — Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment, one Andrew McCarthy, revisits its theme in the light of current contentions. From the piece:
In retrospect, maybe my subtitle should have been “Why Obama Is Impeachable, But Not Impeachable” — though I doubt that would have been much better.
In any event, Faithless Execution addressed a deep flaw in modern American governance: the erosion of restraints on executive power.
The Framers decided, after some hesitation and with reluctance, to include impeachment in the Constitution because it was “indispensable” (Madison’s word). The presidency needed to be powerful, but that gave it a unique potential to damage, or even destroy, the republic and its new constitutional order. That aside, the sophisticated men who designed our system knew there would be plenty of executive overreach and error. This “maladministration” would be bad, but not bad enough to warrant removal. The Framers thus assumed that Congress’s principal check on the president would be the power of the purse: Control of funding could gut a president’s dubious initiatives and incentivize a president to behave lawfully. The Senate would also have the power to deny confirmation of officials the president would need to carry out programs.
The problem, after a century of progressive governance, is that these checks do not work anymore. The federal government and its administrative state have grown monstrously big. Federal money is now as much tied to social welfare as to traditional government functions. Budgeting is slap-dash and dysfunctional. To threaten to deny funds or leave agencies leaderless is to be seen, not as reining in executive excess, but as heartlessly harming this or that interest group. Lawmakers would rather run up tens of trillions in debt than be portrayed that way.
The only real check left is impeachment. It is rarely invoked and (until very recently) has atrophied as a credible threat. But that doesn’t make it any less indispensable.
4. It’s been a big year for movies, and Kyle Smith — who’s seen most of them — shares his Top Ten. In descending order, here are Numbers 5 and 4 from the piece:
Hustlers. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s surprising and funny movie, based on a real case, explores the culture of Manhattan strip bars, where the girls are barely scraping by and the guys are Wall Streeters with immense amounts of cultural and financial resources. Sex proves to be a great leveler, though, and the girls restage Robin Hood around stripper poles. The influence of Martin Scorsese is all over this film, in its unerring musical cues, its fluid camera work, and most of all its sly but cynical sense of humor.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1969 in Quentin Tarantino’s wonderfully detailed study of the last days of Southern California as paradise, before the Manson Family attacks. Though the movie is a bit self-indulgent and could have been tightened up in the middle, its knockout third act delivers some of the most satisfying imagery of Tarantino’s career. Along with Forrest Gump, it amounts to one of the most glorious works of anti-hippie propaganda in the history of motion pictures.
5. More Kyle: He declares anathema on the new Netflix Oscar-hunting fib-based film, The Two Popes. From the infallible review:
If you don’t write about movies for a living, you may be under the impression that filmmakers telling stories about real people make at least some vague gestures in the direction of truth. You would be wrong. The movie is about Bergoglio contemplating retirement but instead being summoned to see Pope Benedict in the Vatican. The two then spend days together becoming friends and Benedict tells Bergoglio he is going to resign and anoint Bergoglio as his successor.
None of this happened. The whole movie is fiction.
6. More Movies: Armond White catches A Hidden Life and finds moral confusion. From the beginning of the review:
Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is the wrong film for this moment in social history. The steadfast Christian goodness that Malick observes in the prelapsarian life of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a German pacifist caught between world wars, is mocked by today’s ruthless public figures who assert false righteousness, claiming to “pray” for individuals they assail, and professing religious belief even as they offend the tenets of that doctrine and support fashionable forms of sacrilege.
It would be ideal to announce that Malick’s movie transports us to a different era before these treacheries occurred — or that the period story of Franz’s travails showed his/our suffering in a clarifying light and gave hope. Franz, his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), and their towhead daughters are simple, devout people, close to the earth until the Third Reich jolts their peace and the film becomes All Quiet on the Western Front 2.0. Franz is jailed, then executed for refusing to fight another war.
But how can A Hidden Life instruct us when it shares the culture’s current confusions? (Is this ode to pacifism left over from Malick’s Vietnam-era ideas?) Malick demonstrates the same interplay of banal citizenship and banal spirituality that blurs straight thinking and stymies good faith today. No wonder secular critics love it.
7. Jesse Merriam makes the constitutional and moral case for instituting regulations and restrictions on pornography. From the analysis:
As a matter of Supreme Court doctrine, the regulation of 21st-century Internet pornography is not a constitutional issue. This is because the type of material found on American porn websites clearly constitutes obscene material, which has never been treated as constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment.
It is noteworthy that, when the Warren Court was struggling to determine the extent to which the First Amendment protects sexually explicit material, the cases involved concepts and images less scandalous than what we now find in magazines written for teenage girls. In Roth v. United States (1957), for example, the case that inaugurated the Supreme Court’s foray into abandoning the common-law view of obscenity, the Court was dealing with Samuel Roth’s distribution of this erotic book. (Read the editorial review, and the book’s selection from Dante’s Divine Comedy, for a sense of just how spicy the material was.)
Consider also Miller v. California (1973), in which the Burger Court overruled Roth and established the controlling doctrine as to what constitutes obscenity. In the Miller case the Court considered whether California could convict Marvin Miller, the Covina-based “King of Smut,” of a misdemeanor under state obscenity law for distributing unsolicited brochures featuring sexual content. What kind of sexual content was Miller distributing? The Court explained that the brochures contained “some descriptive printed material” but also — this is the naughty part — “pictures and drawings very explicitly depicting men and women in groups of two or more engaging in a variety of sexual activities, with genitals often prominently displayed.”
And what did the Court say about these naughty pictures and drawings, which would make the average American in 2019 yawn? That California had the constitutional authority to criminalize their distribution because obscenity is such a broad concept, and the disparate regions of the nation differ so much in terms of moral propriety and sexual norms, that states must have the constitutional authority to adopt their own obscenity standards. As the Court put it, “it is neither realistic nor constitutionally sound to read the First Amendment as requiring that the people of Maine or Mississippi accept public depiction of conduct found tolerable in Las Vegas, or New York City.” (Apparently, in 1973, California was more like Maine and Mississippi than like New York City.)
8. Rebeccah Heinrichs and John Lee make the case for “maximum pressure,” counseling President Trump to tell North Korean madman Kim Jong-un to pound rockets. From the piece:
Regionally, accepting North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state would squander an opportunity to work with willing allies, such as Shinzo Abe’s Japan, to maintain the pressure on North Korea. Given that North Korea views Japan as an enemy, any U.S. walk-back would create new doubts about the reliability of American resolve and its commitment to its partners and allies in Northeast Asia. Meanwhile, Beijing would be freed up to offer Pyongyang as much diplomatic, economic, and military support as it deems desirable.
Trump should instead take steps to make the “maximum pressure” campaign live up to its name.
The U.S. should first focus on instilling a real sense of strategic rationality in Seoul. President Moon Jae-in continues to focus his ire toward Japan — today, its only benign neighbor — while downplaying the threat that North Korea and China pose to its security and interests. Moon remains committed to the “Three Nos” he promised China in return for Beijing ending its informal trade boycott against South Korea: no more U.S. missile-defense systems, no South Korean integration into a regional U.S. missile-defense system, and no trilateral military alliance with the U.S. and Japan. Trump should take steps to encourage Seoul to properly identify its true friends and enemies and reverse the Three Nos.
Trump should also increase the pressure on China on as many fronts as possible: trade and economic issues; the systematic abuse of ethnic and religious minorities; its failure to respect its commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy; and the worsening repression and censorship of its own people. These are worthy issues to press in and of themselves, but the strategic logic is equally sound. Pressuring Beijing on all fronts will make it less willing to absorb further criticism for enabling North Korea’s illegal weapons programs.
9. In a year of lunacies, we are blessed to have the great Kat Timpf compile a list highlighting what may be the most looney. From the article, two made-the-cuts:
A self-described “Fat Sex Therapist” compared fitness instructors to Nazis during a speech at St. Olaf College.
She also called any science suggesting that obesity is bad for you “fatphobic science,” and compared putting children on diets to rape.
The word “but” was declared a “trigger” at a Michigan State University training.
Apparently, the word “but” should be replaced with “and” — even though, you know, that’s a different word with a different meaning
10. Victor Davis Hanson explains why America’s foreign policy requires a transition and recalibration. From the piece, here’s one reason:
Three, U.S. strategy will focus on economic growth, full employment, and an all-powerful military that is used sparingly and thus far more lethally. If, in the past, asymmetrical trade and non-reciprocal commercial treaties were considered necessary to subsidize our allies, now they will be redefined as weakening the U.S. and thus in no one’s interests. The fairer the trade, the stronger the U.S., and the more America is able to help its small circle of friends. It was George H. W. Bush, not Donald Trump, who most prominently calibrated American interventions in terms of shared costs and the need for burden sharing among allies and beneficiaries, most notably during the first Gulf War.
If we were once to be the “arsenal of democracy,” we are apparently now the “arsenal of American democracy.” That is, the U.S. will seek to become so powerful economically and militarily that our enemies would likely be foolish to prompt an attack, which would manifest as focused, narrowly defined, and overwhelmingly lethal. The less we use our military, the more powerfully it can be used.
It is hard to envision where, when, how, or why the U.S. would intervene on the ground with hundreds of thousands of troops. Retaliation for Iranian or North Korean aggression would largely consist of air power and naval blockades. In the post–Middle East period, it is also difficult to believe that any U.S. president would enter a Middle Eastern country with sizable ground forces to change governments and rebuild the nation along liberal auspices.
Nothing is static in war and diplomacy other than human nature. But we are entering a period in which U.S. strength is calibrated by both economic and military power, a rough match between ends and means, and predicated on using force for U.S., rather than supposed international, interests.
11. Impeachment, Imshmeachment: Matthew Continetti finds Trump’s 2019 to be not all that bad. The economy is booming, and POTUS has weathered numerous failed and contrived attacks. From the piece:
For one thing, impeachment has focused Trump’s attention. In between the end of the Mueller investigation and the beginning of the impeachment inquiry, President Trump engaged in a series of incendiary battles with left-wing Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and the late Elijah Cummings. While Ocasio-Cortez and Omar are unpopular, the controversies nevertheless stirred up issues of race and gender that make suburbanites extremely uncomfortable.
Absent impeachment, these last few months might have been spent in endless social media flame wars with celebrities, progressives, wayward Republicans, and whoever else wandered into the crossfire. Instead, President Trump and the GOP have been “on message” against the whistleblower, Adam Schiff, and Nancy Pelosi to a degree that is nothing short of remarkable. Think about what they might accomplish if Republicans were similarly focused on the state of the economy.
Impeachment crowded out all else. This made freshmen Democrats from districts Trump won in 2016 anxious. Pelosi had to give them something in return for impeachment that they could take back to their districts. That something was the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — which just happens to be a top priority of the president’s. At the end of this process, Trump will have kept his job through at least January 2021 and pocketed a significant diplomatic accomplishment and campaign promise. No small feat.
Impeachment also distracted from the Democratic primary. There are six weeks until the Iowa caucuses and hardly anybody besides the candidates and their immediate families seem to care. The Ukraine scandal involves the Democratic frontrunner but in an unusual way. Trump’s desire that President Zelensky look into the energy company Burisma, where Hunter Biden sat on the board, confirmed Joe Biden’s status as the preeminent threat to Trump. But it also reminded people that over the years members of the Biden family have benefited from Joe’s high office. And Biden’s clumsy response to allegations of unseemly profit-seeking was another reminder of his weaknesses as a candidate. This flawed frontrunner, already defined by his son’s influence peddling, maintains his lead in the polls because Democratic primary voters see his 14 rivals as too radical or unelectable.
12. Jack Crowe and Tobias Hoonhout tag-team to provide the smarmiest of the Left’s racism-charging attack on West Point cadets. From the beginning of the report:
A collection of conspiratorial cable pundits, news outlets, progressive activists, and a celebrity actress spent last weekend accusing cadets and midshipmen of flashing white nationalist symbols during the Army-Navy game while live on television.
Their evidence for the charge? The young men were seen making the “OK” sign with their hands in a manner that has become associated with online racists who construe the gesture as signifying the first initials of “white power.”
The cadets and midshipmen pictured during the broadcast were actually engaged in the so-called “circle game,” according to a statement released Friday by the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy, which includes a description of the game that anyone with a brother will recognize.
“The evidence strongly supports a finding that the cadets were playing the ‘circle game,’ an internationally recognized game in which people attempt to trick someone else into looking at an okay-like hand gesture below the waist,” the service academies said in a report released Friday. “Sworn statements from all three cadets convey that their intention was to play the ‘circle game’ in order to garner attention from a national audience as well as surrounding cadets.”
“We are confident the hand gestures used were not intended to be racist in any way,” Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Sean Buck said in a statement.
13. God as . . . meat. Mom’s drunken boyfriend. Happy holidays . . . this Kevin Williamson reflection on Christmases past and the child who endured them and the Other Child whose birth we celebrate makes for an epic reflection. From the essay:
Children who have not been taught any better think only of themselves. But we can be taught. As it turns out, we can learn to think, and learn to be human. As it turns out, you can get there from here, here being Bethlehem, its filth and its indifference.
He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Happiness, like much else, is learned. For a long time, I thought that this time of year would always be for me a time of bitterness and regret, mourning for things that were not lost because they were never in my possession to begin with. But there is not any reason for that. No good one, anyway. I have a different kind of family now and blessings beyond counting. I know that my Redeemer liveth. The effort necessary to be happy does not always produce exactly the desired results, and so I spend the last part of the year vacillating between my Clark Griswold mode and my bargain-basement Henry Miller imitation: “We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things.” Treacly, sentimental Christmas stuff sometimes makes me angry, and it is hard to explain to people who care about me why that is. Children who have not been taught any better think only of themselves. But we do not have to remain in that state. We can, eventually, put away childish things. It is never too late for that. It certainly is not too early here in the waning days of Anno Domini 2019.
A people prepared — for what? Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for a dead man. Nails, in time. The cross. Thomas Harris, the culinary-minded horror novelist, once described the Uffizi museum in Florence as a “great meathouse of hanging Christs.” We derive “incarnation” from the Latin caro, meaning “flesh,” as in the English “carnal” and the Latin carnifex, which means both “butcher” and “executioner.”
(“You Christians must find your faith so comforting!” Oh, Sunshine, have you read the Bible?)
A bit of the frivolity in this seasonal quickie of a WJ: We wonder / daydream as to what great ballplayers were born on Christmas Day. Here are two: Hall of Famers Nellie Fox and Ricky Henderson. (There was also Hall-of-Famer Pud Galvin, but he last threw a ball in 1892). Fox was a mainstay of the 1950s, the 15-time All-Star second baseman who anchored an always-solid White Sox squad that finally broke the Yankees’ pennant lock in 1959, the year the “Mighty Mite” was vote the AL’s MVP and led Chicago to its first pennant in three decades. His career spanned from 1947 (he broke in with the Athletics) to 1965 with the Houston Colt 45s, where he lost his starting second-base gig to future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. As for Ricky H, he was a gift to nine teams over a 25-year career (his career-total four separate terms with the Oakland As was just shy of Bobo Newsom’s five distinct forays with the Washington Senators), which ended with him as MLB’s all-time leader in runs scored (2,295) and bases stolen (1,406). He had 79 lead-off home runs too.
One MLBer who died on Christmas was permanent bad boy Billy Martin, the victim of a car accident (icy roads and a night of drinking conspired) in upstate New York. Also a second baseman, Martin was a contemporary of Fox (both played for the AL in the 1956 All Star game) and in his later years he managed Henderson — who was exceptional at playing “Billy Ball” — on both the As and Yankees.
As for baseball’s primo New Year’s Day birthday boy — that distinction has got to go to Bronx slugger Hank Greenberg.
Please resolve to remember that the left lane is for passing. Because you are “going the speed limit” confers no entitlement to plant your jalopy there. Or does it thrill you to instruct the rest of us on the naughtiness of speeding? Just stop it. If you do, 2020 will be a great year for all!
What else? OK: Pray for the dead — some of them can be sprung from Purgatory courtesy of your charity.
Before this thing concludes: We thank those who read WJ faithfully, or unfaithfully, for doing so, for clicking the links, for writing to say thanks, or even to mock the ever-present poor prose. The author of this weekly weekend weakmindedness thanks Editor Phil for ruining his Friday nights and Saturday mornings to work his magic. Editor Phil is a good man. Lucky the woman who claims him!
God’s blessings on You and Yours,
Jack Fowler, who will provide you with a shipping address if you want to send any leftover baccala.