Dear Weekend Jolter,
The year nearly passed without our noting the 500th Anniversary of the Dancing Plague of 1518, depicted above on WoodCutagram, in which many residents of Strasbourg danced (some for weeks!) to their death. The physicians and quacks of the time determined the cause was “hot blood,” and suggested even more dancing as the cure. Half a millennium later, doctors think the cause was likely a grain fungus doing a pretty good imitation of LSD.
(Speaking of dancing, my 2019 objective is to learn to dance like Jimmy Cagney. Which means a full-body cast may be in the offing.)
If only the noteworthy problems of our times were limited to odd dancing frenzies. That said, 2018 comes to its exhausting conclusion, with our 401k accounts all the more diminished, Democrats about to take over the House, and who knows what insanities the multiculturalists will demand of us. Still, all that and much more is offset by the great privilege, still very real, of being a citizen of these United States of America. Thrill to that.
By the way, Bill Buckley always said that despair is a sin. So: Do not. And outranking him was the angel (from Luke 2:9), who counseled the frightened shepherds: Do not be afraid. Sound advice that, for the shepherds who read WJ and to all others. Let us be of good cheer.
And now comes a diminished WJ, if only because Phil the Editor is travelling and I cannot torture him with the usual Copy Bomb while he is dealing with airport scrums and dragging suitcases filled with dirty laundry.
But First, I Really Need You to Help NRI
Yes, there is an NR, and yes, there is a distinct entity that is National Review Institute, the latter of which is trying to raise funds to do the things Bill Buckley intended it to do when he created NRI — now America’s premier conservative journalism think tank — in 1991: Namely, to advance (through programs from which NR Inc and the magazine and website are entirely distinct) and defend and fight for conservative principles.
NRI is engaged in its End-of-Year Fund Appeal, seeking to raise $200,000 from intelligent Americans (you!) and maybe even a handful of wise Canadians (you?) by 11:59 p.m. on Monday night (when, yeah, the year ends). It’s a goal proving elusive. We’ve raised well over half the goal, but there is still a well under that we are fighting to minimize. It feels like hand-to-hand combat this time. But I am confident that we will get there with your help, which we ask not for the sake of making some contrived dollar amount, but because every dollar given underwrites those causes and principles that are central to your beliefs.
Even if you have donated to NR in 2018, there is a sound case to be made for also donating to NRI (which, unlike NR, is a non-profit, so all contributions to it are tax-deductible).
My last spiel — which makes a case for why the goal elusiveness may have something to do with my breath — can be read here. I pray it is persuasive (and not eye-watering). God bless to all who have given to NRI, or are about to, which can be done sweetly, and securely, here.
1. It’s a shutdown to nowhere, we said, and counseled against it. From the editorial:
The first rule for winning a government-shutdown battle is not to take responsibility for the shutdown, which Trump did in his Oval Office confrontation with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer a week or so ago. Having gone on the record about how proud he’d be to shut down the government over border security, his subsequent attempts to blame the Democrats have gotten no traction (even if the Democrats are, indeed, wholly recalcitrant on the wall).
Party unity is necessary to weathering a shutdown fight and the congressional GOP leadership is unenthused, at best, over Trump’s tactics over the last few days.
Finally, Democrats know that with every day that passes, they get a little closer to having more power when Nancy Pelosi takes the speaker’s gavel on January 3, so they would have no incentive to budge even if they were feeling political pressure. (It also, by the way, makes no sense to end the Senate filibuster just when unwelcome legislation will begin coming over from the House.)
This is why the shutdown is likely a box canyon for the White House. We sympathize with the desire for more structure on the border — wall, fencing, whatever — but it has taken on an outsized symbolic significance for both sides.
An Octet of Excellence from Your Favorite Website
1. Andy McCarthy disagrees with critics of Trump’s Syria pullout. From his piece:
These latest chapters are already being folded into the Syria Hawk Fantasy Narrative. To recap, we are to believe that President Obama, by extracting forces from Iraq (inconveniently, pursuant to an agreement struck by President Bush) created a “vacuum,” in which ISIS spontaneously generated. It is supposed to be irrelevant to this story that the American people never supported Washington’s farcical sharia-democracy project, and that the Iraqis claimed to want our troops out even more than we did. What matters is that Obama’s decision “created ISIS,” dashing the dreams for a secular, pluralist democracy harbored by the moderate Muslims who predominate Iraq (at least on days when they’re not executing homosexuals and apostates), and making an unspeakable bloodbath of the heroic struggle by the same moderate Muslims to overthrow Syria’s Tehran-backed monster, Bashar al-Assad.
Of course, Obama did not create the Islamic State. Sharia supremacism did. What no one in Washington pontificating on Syria and neighboring Iraq cares to acknowledge is that this region is a tinderbox of fundamentalist Islam in which, if there were no intervention by outside forces, Sunnis and Shiites would be slaughtering each other until some strongman imposed order — something that is to be expected in a culture of voluntarism (God as pure will) where submission to authority is the norm. (Voluntarism is brilliantly explained by Robert R. Reilly in The Closing of the Muslim Mind.)
It has been 17 years since 9/11 and 25 years since radical Islam declared war against the United States by bombing the World Trade Center. Yet, head firmly in the sand, we continue to discuss such catastrophes as Syria as if the most critical fact on the ground, the power and prevalence of sharia supremacism, did not exist. Consequently, we subscribe to delusional history (Obama created ISIS) and make policy around the resulting storylines.
2. More Syria: Michael Brendan Dougherty is all for vamoosing. From his take:
What would a post-war Syria that is acceptable to America look like, and how can America bring it about at a cost Americans are willing to accept? We are not told. What are the conditions we hope to achieve before the mission can end? This question is also met with silence.
It is as if the downsides of leaving are cited only because staying keeps American soldiers and matériel near the ongoing disaster in Syria, a disaster that may yet yield an international outrage that will motivate Americans to expand the mission to include regime change. Every few months, as Assad’s government reclaims more territory, media outlets dutifully relay the messages of rebels ahead of their latest evacuations. So far public opinion has refused to satisfy the foreign-policy hawks.
As for Russian prestige, is it so enhanced? As in eastern Ukraine, so in Syria: The United States placed a gamble on a people-powered movement that would have the effect of depriving Russia of an ally that hosts vital Russian naval assets, and Russia eventually scrambled to avoid this major loss. It is not so much a gift as the successful and costly prevention of a theft.
RELATED: More MBD on Syria Mission-Creep.
3. Arthur Herman warns the USA must get on the ball in Africa, where Russia and China are exerting influence. From his column:
At stake are Africa’s rich natural resources, rapidly growing markets, and political and military influence over the planet’s Southern Hemisphere — and a major portion of the world’s population. This scramble will do much to shape the 21st century, just as the earlier scramble shaped the 19th. It will also become a major epicenter for the ongoing competition between the U.S. and China for economic and strategic leadership.
Fortunately, the Trump administration understands the stakes involved. Last week National Security Adviser John Bolton gave a speech unveiling the administration’s new Africa strategy. Unfortunately for the U.S., China has a big lead in this competition, and making up the difference won’t be easy, even though it will have to be a critical part of America’s 21st-century agenda.
But America has one clear advantage going forward. Unlike the last scramble for Africa, in the 19th century, when all the participants wound up being imperialist bad actors, this scramble has two very bad actors, Russia and China, and one clearly good guy ready to ride to the rescue — namely, the U.S. While China’s efforts in Africa have been brutal and neo-colonialist in the extreme, we can, as Bolton indicated in his speech, show sub-Saharan Africa’s 49 countries how to preserve their independence and autonomy and become part of the modern economic order in ways that benefit their people and increase their prosperity and security — as well as the prosperity and security of the United States.
4. Victor Davis Hanson penned a Christmas Eve remembrance of the special day as it occurred in a homier, simpler, pre-multicultural America. (Reading it, I was reminded of the beautiful movie, Remember the Night, with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.) Read it here.
5. Elliott Abrams throws a brushback at Major League Baseball for its salary-stealing agreement with the Commies in Cuba (the non-Cincinnati Reds). From his piece:
A Trump-administration official also told the Post that “we do not condone the actions of any person or entity that contribute to the violation of human rights of Cuban citizens and the Cuban regime’s schemes to profit from the labor of its people abroad while keeping them in thrall to an oppressive political system.”
Let’s hope so. The White House should direct Treasury to strike down this deal as a violation of the law and a contribution to the regime.
And let’s dispense with sympathy for the billionaire owners of MLB, who cast themselves here as motivated by humanitarian concern for the Cuban players. They’ve certainly never shown such concern before.
6. Matthew Continetti has pretty high praise for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: He calls him “Japan’s Reagan.” From his essay:
Abe’s political longevity, nationalism, and evident belief in peace through strength are characteristics he shares with America’s 40th president. And they are not the only ones. Abe is a champion of free trade. His successor to the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership, ratified last March, goes into effect at the end of this year. He has pushed several privatization initiatives — a law allowing private firms to operate water supplies was passed the other week. He wants to increase options for day care to allow more women to enter the workforce.
Abe is arguably the most pro-immigration prime minister in Japanese history. An immigration bill passed two weeks ago will drastically increase the number of “temporary” foreign workers allowed into Japan. What one official described as the “economic realities” of an “aging society” with a significant “labor shortage” has overwhelmed cultural proscriptions against immigration. There already are more than a million foreign workers in Japan. Soon there will be more. Japanese note that most convenience-store clerks are from abroad. What was novel in America a generation ago, when Apu Nahasapeemapetilon debuted behind the counter on The Simpsons, is now the reality here.
Kunihiko Miyake of the Canon Institute for Global Studies says Abe has been able to control the “dark side” of nation-state populism that has been roiling international politics for the last several years. Abe’s skill at political maneuvering has made him not only a successful Japanese politician but also one of the most successful democratic statesmen in recent memory. Nor is 2021 necessarily the end of his career. There is a chance the LDP will change its rules so Abe can continue as leader and serve an unprecedented fourth term as prime minister. Another option would be to have Abe’s top lieutenant serve a term before Abe returns to office. The prime minister may have picked up a few things during those meetings with Putin.
7. We interrupt the Twelve Days for this Religious War Update: The Yoo / Phillips / Ponnuru / Muñoz debate on the Constitution and religious liberty continues, with Professor Muñoz’s rebuttal of the latest Yoo / Philllips critique. Read it here.
8. David French takes on the New York Times for urging credit card giants Visa and MasterCard to engage in corporate gun-control efforts. From his piece:
And that brings me to Andrew Ross Sorkin’s most recent reported article in the Times, a long look at how “banks unwittingly finance mass shootings.” The thesis is simple — some mass shooters have bought expensive firearms, ammunition, and military-style gear before launching their shooting sprees. In eight of the 13 mass shootings that killed ten or more people this decade, the killers “financed their attacks using credit cards.”
Yes, some of the killers’ expenditures were extreme and unusual. Sorkin singles out the Vegas shooter, the Orlando killer, and the Colorado theater murderer (I no longer use names of mass shooters in my writing) for particular scrutiny. And there is a surface appeal to the notion that modern tech can ping the police when there’s a clear warning flag for the worst forms of criminal behavior — but increasing corporate surveillance of lawful activity is not the way to stop the rarest (and most premeditated) of attacks. It is, however, yet another way to shame and stigmatize entirely normal Americans who seek to protect their homes and families.
Here’s what I mean: Unless you are abnormally wealthy, virtually every gun sale is going to be an “unusual” and expensive purchase. Sometimes (depending on the weapon), the spike on your credit card will be truly noticeable. For example, if I purchase a nice AR-style rifle, optics for the rifle, a decent amount of ammunition, and a quality rifle case, then I’m spending a considerable amount of money.
Given that I’ve likely saved up for the rifle, you might see a long gap between any gun-related purchases before I suddenly drop, say, $4,000 all at once at a gun shop. And it’s not just the hated AR-15 that’s expensive. Have you bought a good handgun lately? I spent more than $1,000 on a pistol, holster, and ammunition the last time I bought a weapon. And that was my first gun purchase in several years.
What’s the level of expense to trigger the proposed system and cause the bank to either decline the transaction or notify law enforcement? And note that this system could impact law-abiding Americans by the millions when the Times found eight mass killers in a decade financed their weapons and other gear on credit. That’s less than one per year, and many of these individuals were radiating warning signs indicating mental instability or malign purpose separate and apart from any lawful gun purchases.
Lights. Cameras. Pundits.
1. Kyle Smith gets all listy, as the season and its air of retrospect demand, and lays out his Top Ten blow-me-away flicks of 2018. A sample, starting from the end:
TEN. The Mule. Directing himself in a film for the 23rd and perhaps final time, 88-year-old Clint Eastwood creates a typically thorny and abrasive character in Earl Stone, a rotten father and husband who blithely accepts an offer running drugs from Texas to the Midwest for a nasty Mexican cartel. Very much in the vein of Gran Torino, whose screenwriter Nick Schenck also wrote this film, and carrying the air of a confessional, The Mule doesn’t ask us to love Earl, but as his life nears completion, we’re rooting for him to at least own up to his many mistakes.
NINE. Free Solo. I had never heard of the rock climber Alex Honnold going in, nor did I know what free-soloing was. And I had no idea how this documentary about his adventures was going to turn out, which made the suspense otherworldly. Honnold is an oddly detached guy in his thirties who climbs hundreds of feet up sheer, vertical cliffs, with no equipment whatsoever, not even gloves. Jamming his fingers and toes into tiny crevices, he just keeps going until he either makes it to the top or he falls. There is nothing to catch him — no ropes, no nets. And thanks to unbelievably resourceful camera work by the directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, we’re right there with him as he painstakingly works his way up one face after another, building up to his quest to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a particularly unforgiving rock with only the shallowest cracks and indentations, barely big enough to press a thumb into. Meanwhile, Honnold, a lifelong loner who never saw anyone hug anyone in his chilly family, acquires a girlfriend who complicates matters: She would prefer he not fall off any mountains. As both a character portrait and one of the most nerve-jangling films I’ve ever seen, Free Solo is stellar.
2. More list-making from Kyle, this time with 2018’s ten “Most Appalling” films. Let’s jump into the middle of the debris field:
FIVE. The Oath. Comic Ike Barinholtz tries to deal with his Trump Derangement Syndrome by writing and directing a movie about fanatical liberals who spend all day on the phone excitedly clocking every twist in the Trump saga so they can keep their outrage flowing. This tends to interfere with institutions such as, say, a Thanksgiving gathering and leads the Barinholtz character to kidnap and torture government agents who stand for everything that’s supposedly gone awry in America. The film is, however, a useful blueprint to the mindset of paranoid progressives, who every time a Republican occupies the White House convince themselves that America is becoming a police state.
FOUR. A Wrinkle in Time. A would-be sci-fi blockbuster filtered through the twinkly New Age sensibility of Oprah Winfrey, Disney’s epic debacle showed that a story about two kids traveling through the universe in search of their dad can be as exciting as sitting through a filmstrip on personal hygiene. Trying to rescue their father from a supernatural force, Meg Murry and her little brother Charles plod through one dull, convoluted expository scene after another while director Ava DuVernay abandons the novel’s Christianity in favor of a gooey kumbaya porridge of self-help nonsense. Winfrey’s glam-giant look, though, is hilarious.
3. And let’s not forget this: Kyle has a field day with the Steve Carell cinematic bomb, Welcome to Marwen. Here’s how the beatdown begins:
Ordinarily I can be persuaded to issue some light mockery of a bad movie, but Welcome to Marwen is such a smushed-puppy of a film that I don’t want to make fun of it; I want to know where I can send flowers.
This theater-emptier must be one of the most bizarrely misconceived attempts at blockbuster entertainment ever released by a major studio. It’s directed by Robert Zemeckis, who, on the strength of the Back to the Future movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Cast Away, and Forrest Gump, has made more money than I’ll see in 40 lifetimes. Yet I feel sorry for him. I feel like sending a mental-health counselor around to see if he’s all right.
Those who complain that studio movies have gotten stale and formulaic, here’s your punishment: The movie begins with a cross-dressing World War II Ken doll who looks like Steve Carell getting accosted by Nazis but rescued by a squadron of gun-toting Resistance Barbies.
National Review v. Mann Update
Our appeal, filed this week.
1. Acton Institute’s Religion & Liberty carries Caroline Roberts’ charming feature, “Searching for Walker Percy.” From the piece:
“Lost in the Cosmos” may be one of Percy’s strangest works and that’s saying something. In it, Percy does not shy away from criticizing Christians and unbelievers as well as people all across the political spectrum. In his parody of a self-help book, Percy cuts through the everyday-ness of life and sends readers along a frenzied path of exploration, presenting them with questions and “thought experiments” designed to shake up the reader’s assumptions and realize a purposeful life. “Lost in the Cosmos,” along with most of Percy’s library of work, is an example of the use of deeply philosophical narration to reach readers.
Percy said in an interview captured in Walker Percy: A Documentary Film: “I’m a catholic novelist in the sense that the Catholic faith, which is the Judeo-Christian background, informs me as a writer, and it has to do not so much with an explicit faith or transmitting an explicit faith in my writings, as it has to do with the view of man, the theory of man . . . man as man the wayfarer, man the pilgrim, man in transit, on a journey.” Percy didn’t set out to write specifically Catholic novels, but his worldview informs his writing. Instead of directly handing his readers the answers to life’s big questions, Percy subtly weaved them into compelling, unforgettable stories. The identification of man as a wayfarer is what festival attendees told me caused them to fall in love with Percy’s writings, what they felt they could connect with and what helped them along their search for purpose.
2. Raymond Ibrahim takes to Gatestone Institute to catalogue Christian persecution in the month of October. Read his report here.
3. Government’s love of mandated asphalt is explored in The American Conservative, whose Jonathan Coppage discusses your everyday mall on Black Friday: What’s discovered is lots of empty spaces on shopping’s “peak” day. From his essay:
In many cases, the Strong Towns monitors found lots half-empty — or worse. Any failures at peak demand only serve to emphasize how woefully disconnected our zoning and town planning often is from the real demands of good policy, however. For even if every lot were ideally full on peak days, that would leave acres of empty, nearly unusable space for the other 362 (or so) days of the year.
If the federal government was requiring bureaucratic agencies to build acres of offices that would never or almost never be used, conservatives would rightly point to that policy as being emblematic of out-of-touch government, disconnected from the discipline of the market and the needs of the people. Ted Cruz would quip about it on talk radio, and John Boehner would drone in perfunctory tones about a needless example of government waste. Because this particular government mandate is carried out by private actors acting in compliance with received zoning ordinances, however, conservatives often mistake commercial conformity for a product of free markets. And we have lived under the minimum-parking regime for so many years that we have come to be comfortable with oceans of empty lots as the seemingly natural pattern of retail life.
This comfort comes at a steep cost, however, as asphalt does not pay taxes, does not host events, does not bring communities together, save for the occasional pop-up car wash church fundraiser. Instead of more shops, spaced close enough to walk from one to the other, there are patterns of gradually degrading lines drawn on the pavement. All that empty asphalt can be seen as an imposed desert, whereby the government is intentionally yet needlessly forgoing revenues that will have to be extracted from its citizens by other means.
4. Philip Hamburger’s recent book, Liberal Suppression: Section 501(C)(3) and the Taxation of Speech, is reviewed by Bruce Frohen for The University Bookman. From the review:
Liberal Suppression: Section 501(c)(3) and the Taxation of Speech announces in its title Hamburger’s method and conclusion. In this book Hamburger shows how a once-obscure tax provision played an important role in transforming American public discourse and legal, political, and social practice. In formal terms, 501(c)(3) has roots in a 1919 provision exempting “non-profit” corporations from certain federal taxes. The provision was built on and strengthened in its restrictive power through severe limits on lobbying in 1934 and a ban on campaign activity imposed by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954. In broader terms, 501(c)(3) is the product and tool of liberal theology and liberal politics, both of which have a widely ignored and increasingly powerful dark, authoritarian side.
Central to Hamburger’s argument is the fact that 501(c)(3) is unconstitutional. From before the Founding into the twentieth century, common law recognized that churches and other voluntary associations are not commercial, profit-making enterprises. Fraud existed and was to be punished, but non-profits’ essential character as associations meant that their incomes, like their property and activities in general, are not appropriate objects for taxation. Yet today non-profits must refrain from engaging in expressive activities central to their purposes or suffer crushing financial penalties, especially income taxes and the loss of donors’ ability to receive tax deductions for their donations. In effect, 501(c)(3) forces associations to give up their rights to speech, petition, and religious liberty in exchange for being left alone. On these terms, 501(c)(3) is a government protection racket aimed at suppressing expressive activities challenging liberal orthodoxy.
5. At City Journal, Christopher Rufo reports on the homeless boom that is turning Seattle into a tent city, and the massive amounts of taxpayer dollars being used, with little effect, to address the problem. From his report:
At the same time, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, the Seattle metro area spends more than $1 billion fighting homelessness every year. That’s nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman, and child in King County, yet the crisis seems only to have deepened, with more addiction, more crime, and more tent encampments in residential neighborhoods. By any measure, the city’s efforts are not working.
Over the past year, I’ve spent time at city council meetings, political rallies, homeless encampments, and rehabilitation facilities, trying to understand how the government can spend so much money with so little effect. While most of the debate has focused on tactical policy questions (Build more shelters? Open supervised injection sites?), the real battle isn’t being waged in the tents, under the bridges, or in the corridors of City Hall but in the realm of ideas, where, for now, four ideological power centers frame Seattle’s homelessness debate. I’ll identify them as the socialists, the compassion brigades, the homeless-industrial complex, and the addiction evangelists. Together, they have dominated the local policy discussion, diverted hundreds of millions of dollars toward favored projects, and converted many well-intentioned voters to the politics of unlimited compassion. If we want to break through the failed status quo on homelessness in places like Seattle — and in Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, too — we must first map the ideological battlefield, identify the flaws in our current policies, and rethink our assumptions.
6. A few decades back, Silicon Valley went after then-giant Microsoft by turning to Washington, D.C., lawyers and regulators. In a new Cato Policy Report, Drew Clark explains how that strategy has now backfired. From the report:
The companies that drove the engine of America’s information technology machine essentially argued as follows: We provide the good stuff that you — the American consumer — want. You go to Google to get your searches answered. You want Facebook to keep up on posts from friends, families, and trusted content providers. Access to the content in the Apple iTunes store or to Amazon Prime streaming video subscriptions doesn’t need to be regulated because we tech giants compete vigorously among ourselves. But Washington does need to step in and regulate the telecom market because of a lack of competition among ISPs. And the FCC agreed in 2015 with what was officially dubbed the Open Internet Order.
The argument for net neutrality might have served tech giants well under Obama, but it wasn’t as well received by the Trump administration. And for incumbent telecom providers, the new administration has been a time for political payback. On December 14, 2017, the Obama-era approach to net neutrality was starkly reversed by the Federal Communications Commission under Chair Ajit Pai.
For years, many of the industry’s leading lights pressed the hardest for Washington to rescue them from the always-unpopular ISPs. Now some of the same companies, like Apple, are themselves the target of a trust-busting zeal among resurgent progressives in the Democratic Party and Steve Bannon–style nationalist populists.
Major content companies like Google, Facebook, and Netflix feared that ISPs would seek to throttle their services as a way of extracting payment for prioritization. Particularly for data-intensive video- streaming services like Netflix and Google’s YouTube, this concern had a certain economic logic, even as it remained hypothetical. Having long courted Silicon Valley as a key constituency and facing a highly visible public demand with enthusiastic grassroots support on the left, Obama complied.
In the last WJ, Yours Truly expressed his fondness for the Johnny Cash version of I’ve Been Everywhere. Fair enough, says William B. from Midland, but really — oughtn’t I give credit to Hank Snow, who made it a hit in these here parts? Here it is. Y’all judge for y’allselves. But wait: Tony T from Down Under reminds us that the tune was written by Aussie country singer Geoff Mack, and then sends me his favorite version. Waddaya think, mate?
And then there is Mitt Romney’s Utah version.
Moving on . . . we can dwell on where we have been, which is a natural thing to do when Auld Lang Syne fills the airs, but say your prayers and beg for the Ancient of Days’ mercy because you also have to worry about where you are eventually going. That said, a Happy and Healthy New Year to you and all those whom you love.
See you next year, but until then, you can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.