Friday, March 17

Apologies for the gap in posts, but blogger was down for the last couple of days and wouldn't display my new posts. Frustrating, but ultimately no harm done.

Anyway, here is a bonus item, which I came across today. I've heard of the Comedy Central show "Mind of Mencia," but nothing good, so I have never bothered tuning in. Just as well, according to Joe Rogan (whose Fear Factor fame may have paid for a trailer full of plaid shirts, but is fatally compromising his Newsradio legacy).

Unbeknownst to the rest of the civilized world, Rogan and "Mencia" (more on that below) have a running fued, the latest volley in which was a short video of Mencia and Rogan published by Rogan on his website. The link below explains everything (from Rogan's perspective), but the key points are that (1) Carlos Mencia is not actually Mexican (or, as he refers to himself, a "beaner")--he's a half-German, half-Honduran called Ned Holness, and (2) Rogan (and George Lopez, on Howard Stern's show) accuses him of stealing other comics' material. For an eyeful of the backstabbing world of stand-up comedy, check out Rogan's post and follow the links. (Warning: some of the language is not exactly ready for prime time, particularly in "Mencia's" act.)

My take? I don't know what's really going on here, but my first rule of feud adjudication is always side with the former national tae kwon do champion.

My second take? What a strange, incestuous and insecure world stand up is. On the basis of Rogan's video, I'd like to see Christopher Guest turn his troop's attention to the comedy world: Fred Willard as sleazy club owner and washed-up comic; McKean and Guest as feuding headliners competing for TV pilot; Parker Posey as the funny chick who gets away with stuff no guy ever could (Sarah Silverman clone); Eugene Levy as TV talent scout; Bob Balaban as neurotic, self-loathing pre-fame-Larry-David type; Ed Begley Jr. as glad-handing network executive; Jennifer Coolidge as brassy comedy club waitress; Catherine O'Hara as something funny--maybe McKean's current, and Guest's ex-wife (cut me some slack, I'm not being paid for a full treatment here). I think there's real potential for the Spinal Tap of stand up. It could ride the coattails of soon-to-be-the-hottest-thing-on-TV Studio 60.

Nothing to lose but their minds

One of the internet's great pleasures, akin to happening upon unsought information while flipping through a reference book (Brewer's is the absolute best for this), consists in turning up a strange and hitherto unknown website while looking for something completely unrelated.

While searching for information on a think tank (not the Heritage Foundation) in Washington, I came across this strange story:

I worked at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank on Capitol Hill [in Washington DC]. It's a group of attorneys, columnists, whatever, who crank out - daily or weekly or whatever - information. It's printed downstairs, in the Xerox room, and distributed to senators, congressmen, and other influential people. In a couple of cases I delivered packages addressed to Ed Meese. That gives you an idea of what kind of people work there. My basic duties were to collect mail in the mornings from the post office, sort it, and distribute it, and so on. I pretty much did everything myself and I had a lot of responsibility.

I got the job right after high school. I had never heard of the organisation, and just found the job through the newspaper. When I was working there, I would occasionally glance at what they were putting out; the more I read, the more! Thought about it and realised they were doing fucked-up things, like defending business practices in South Africa and U.S. investments there.

They have a big fundraising deal, and when they sent out fundraising requests, people would mail in checks. Sometimes they'd be huge amounts, and sometimes they were piddling. Checks came in from individuals as well as companies. So I'd randomly take an envelope, open it, see how much it was for, and throw it in the shredder. I started doing it more and more. I could tell if it was a check by holding it to the light. If so, I'd toss it, dump it or shred it.
This is an edited extract from Sabotage in the American Workplace by Martin Sprouse taken from

Clicking on the link takes one to a tediously earnest website dedicated to the revenge of the wage worker. It almost reads like a parody of radical dissenting literature, but these groups are so close to self-parodies (probably because they are aping poses and espousing ideas so outworn that their grandparents considered them dopey cliches) that it is hard to tell sometimes.

This example, however, is ridiculous even by the typically low standards of the genre. Some quotes:

"Prole" is short for "proletarian" a word used by Karl Marx to describe the working class under capitalism. We are all the people in this society who do not own property or a business we can make money from, and therefore have to sell our time and energy to a boss--we are forced to work. Our work is the basis of this society.

By this definition, I am a prole. So are most of my friends, who comfortably earn six-figure salaries working for someone else. Not being blessed with a substantial family legacy, I too am "forced to work." Marxism never promised to abolish work; what would such a society look like? Something like an all you can eat buffet, I imagine, but without any cooks.

Work, and the society that grows out of it are alienating and miserable for us. We are constantly fighting against the conditions of our lives.

Welcome to life as a responsible adult. Do you think that workers in the Soviet Union, or Mao's China, or Castro's Cuba, or the Kims' North Korea felt, or feel, any differently?

Simply standing up for our own interests brings us into conflict with bosses, bureaucrats, landlords, police and politicians everywhere.

Yeah, especially if those "interests" include slacking off, not paying your rent, and breaking the law. Society's funny that way. Again, I'm pretty sure things aren't much better outside the capitalist West. I don't think standing up for your own interests goes over too well in the workers' paradises of China, Cuba, or North Korea. Or at least it didn't for the dissidents rotting in their prisons.

We are not just the working class; we are the working class that struggles to do away with work and class, and the society built around them. The experience of those who are forced to work, and who struggle against the society based on work, creates certain kinds of ideas.

Because a society based on not-working would be a real pleasure dome. Sort of like when parents tell their kids they can eat as much candy as they want, and the kids end up gorging themselves until they are sick. Only there wouldn't be any candy. Not wanting to work doesn't make you a political visionary, it just makes you a lazy malcontent.

When we are actively fighting for our own interests, these ideas solidify into a subversive, anti-capitalist perspective. This has at times been called "communism" or "anarchism".

Also "idiocy" and "treachery."

To that end, this site is a collection of writings from a subversive and anti-capitalist perspective on theory as well as history. Some of them use needlessly obscure language, and parts of them are definitely outdated. But they all raise important issues for the modern day prole. Hopefully they will be useful to you.

Which brings me back to the Heritage Foundation story. At no point does the author claim that he was badly treated, or underpaid, or in any way disadvantaged by working in the foundation's mail room. In fact, he seemed quite happy with his job, which he found right after high school, without any further qualifications, until he found out that the foundation promulgated policies he disagreed with. (Incidentally, how long did this take? How hard would it have been to find out what his prospective employer actually did?) His workplace sabotage had nothing to do with a proletarian revolution, and everything to do with straightforward criminality. I don't agree with the political views of some of my co-workers, but that doesn't justify my taking things from their offices. This anecdote confirms my suspicion that and similar organizations are just playing at being serious intellectual movements; their real purpose is to provide a cover for the immature and lazy to pretend that their selfish posturing is part of a noble and altruistic struggle. Most young radical ideology is just a self-sanctioning excuse for shirking responsibility and ignoring reality. It is the essence of childishness and utterly boring.

Please get in touch if you would like to translate this into another language.

No response yet to my request to have the page translated into adult English.

Thursday, March 16

Protesting Too Much

I hate to post this, because I do love France, but some of its citizens have some bizarre ideas about running an economy. Just when I think that Old Europe has come to its senses and realized that flexible labor laws are not only inevitable but desirable if they are to avoid chronic decline, and that the future under Merkel and (hopefully) Sarkozy, is looking brighter, 250,000 students and union supporters take to the streets to protest the most innocuous and reasonable compromise changes to French employment law.

For those who haven't been following this story, under the old law, employers had to provide new workers with what was effectively guaranteed lifetime employment from the moment they were hired. Chirac recently introduced an amendment to this law, which allows employers to hire young employees (under 26) for two year probationary contracts, during which they may be fired just like employees at any job in North America or Britain (i.e., two way at will employment). After these two years, the old guaranteed employment rule still applies. Hardly a radical change, but you wouldn't know that if you listened to the student protesters.

The students, who have occupied administrative offices at the Sorbonne, clashed with police, and stoned government buildings, have compared the government to the SS (which shows a poor understanding of National Socialism's employment policies) and the new law to "slave labor." Funny, but I don't think that slaves generally complain that they might be relieved of their duties. More typical student rot is described in this account of the protests from the BBC. (Best quote: "Students fear the First Employment Contract (CPE), which passed into law last week, will erode job stability in a country where more than 20% of 18- to 25-year-olds are unemployed - more than twice the national average."

I hope that this is supposed to be sarcastic.) I don't want to see one of the cradles of Western Civilization continue sliding into irreversible social and economic acedia, but the French Left makes it hard not to fear the worst. Sarkozy may be their last best hope.

Monday, March 13

Chief Justice Roberts: A mid-term report.

HLS Professor David Barron, writing on LawCulture has an interesting early analysis of Chief Justice Roberts's opinions thus far. Although I've been tracking all of the Supreme Court opinions this term for my firm's Appellate group, I hadn't noticed that the Chief's have contained "[n]o references to law review literature, treaties, casebooks, or anything else not written by one of the three branches themselves." Prof. Barron goes on (please excuse the inexcusably pervasive typos):

That got me to thinking: perhaps it's not just foreign law that the new conservative judicial philosophy thinks is illegitimate; it's everything that's not an autoritative statement of a constitutionally recognized branch of govenrment. And that got me to looking. Thus far, the new chief has written two other opinions for the court. One finds the same citation pattern in each. Now that could just be a consequence of the kinds of opinions he's decided thus far. None, for example, has called for much delving into constitutional history. And, to be sure, it's only been three opinions. But still, I have my suspicions that this citation practice is intentional. if so, is it an attractive one or is it troubling? On the one hand, it has a kind of no nonsense quality about it -- a just the facts ma'm style fully in accord with the new conservative judicial pose on display at the last two confirmation hearings. On the other hand, it might also suggest a vision of constitutional decision making that is awfully cramped and technical, in which the only guideposts are past cases, and statutory and regulatory texts stripped of their context, animating purposes or ideas. Lost in this approach is any sense of the broader legal culture that produces authoritative legal statements or the way in which such statements in turn shape the culture. It is statecraft by hornbook. It's too early to tell of course, whether there is anything to this "pattern." But it's worth watching -- and challenging if it develops into an actual theory of constitutional decision making.

Interesting observations. I'll confine myself to two comments:

Lost in this approach is any sense of the broader legal culture that produces authoritative legal statements or the way in which such statements in turn shape the culture.

What does it mean to say that "the broader legal culture . . . produces authoritative legal statements"? Surely only the Supreme Court (or the highest state court, in the case of state law) can provide "authoritative legal statements." And what is the "broader legal culture"? The A.B.A. (or perhaps its erstwhile keynote speaker, noted legal brainbox Jane Fonda)? The American Law Institute? The faculty of Prof. Barron's Harvard Law School (which has produced its share of frightening legal theories)? Foreign courts? How does one know that the "broader legal culture" has produced an "authoritative legal statement"? I can read a Supreme Court opinion (though its clarity will depend on its author), but where do I turn for what Prof. Barron regrets will be lost? Sounds like the status anxiety of an academic who fears that his faculty's work may be largely irrelevant. Honestly, I could count the number of times I consulted a law review during my clerkship on one hand and still have enough fingers to hold a teacup comfortably.

It is statecraft by hornbook.

Statecraft? The Supreme Court is now responsible for "leading a country"? And here I was thinking that the Constitution guaranteed the States a republican form of government. This must be an academic speaking.

Cheap sarcasm aside, Prof. Orin Kerr over at the Volokh Conspiracy has some interesting further comments, based on some 1997 comments by then plain ol' John Roberts. According to Prof. Kerr:

One interesting piece of evidence is a comment Roberts made in July 1997, during an appearance on the the Newshour that reviewed the October Term 1996. In discussing a recent case on the scope of Congressional power, Georgetown law prof Susan Bloch lamented that no one on the Rehnquist Court had discussed a theory that was popular in academic circles. Roberts added that this wasn't a bad thing:

SUSAN BLOCH: For example, when we were talking about the Freedom--the Restoration of Freedom Act, the--there was the theory that Justice Brennan had that the court--that Congress could enlarge the scope of constitutional protections and couldn't constrict it? And that had a--when we teach constitutional law that's--that was a valid theory. On this court, no one, not even the dissenters, even talked about or embraced that theory, so that a number of theories that were in play when Justices Brennan and Marshall were on the court aren't even mentioned anymore.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, John Roberts?

JOHN ROBERTS: Well, I think it's a moderate court but one that is very serious about the limits it sees in the Constitution, whether it's the limits on Congress, limitations on the federal government, or limitations on the court, itself. And if it's a court that doesn't seem so warm and embracing of theories that are popular on the law school campuses, I hope the other members of the panel will forgive me for not thinking that's a serious flaw.

Well excavated, Professor. A great insight.

Sunday, March 12

Farewell, Slobo

Well, Slobodan Milosevic was found dead in his cell. An ignominious end to a shabby affair. No tears will be shed for Slobo (outside Serbia, at least). In fact, the only people expressing any regret at his death are his prosecutors—those legal carnies presiding over the International Criminal Side Show. What a colossal waste of time and energy. Milosevic’s prosecutors sound particularly aggrieved by his death. U.N. prosecutor Carla del Ponte’s regretted that “It deprives the victims of the justice they need and deserve. What they are asking for is that justice be done, and now it will not be possible.” She should blame herself. This show trial has dragged on for almost seven years since Louise Arbour’s 1999 indictment. Seven years! The prosecution claims that they were mere weeks away from wrapping up the trial. Don’t believe it. They’ve frittered away years building a case against a man that every Western leader has proclaimed guilty since the 1990s.* Their failure to secure a conviction within a year was the worst prosecutorial incompetence since the O.J. fiasco—and Milosevic’s prosecutors didn’t even have to deal with a fickle jury. Even supporters of these tribunals, like Human Rights Watch, have been sharply critical of the conduct of Milosevic's trial. Ms del Ponte should be grateful—Milosevic’s too-timely end gave his victims the one thing that the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia was not empowered to offer—his death. Sic semper tyrannis.

Like all political trials since Nuremberg, this was a stitch-up job from the beginning. (The fact that several Nuremberg defendants were actually reprieved only shows how far the four powers overreached in their ad hoc prosecutions, but there was never any doubt that Goering (or Hitler, had he lived) was going to be hanged.) Even when Goering—that effete, aristocratic dope fiend—cut and thrust his way through Jackson’s cross-examinations, toying with the former Supreme Court Justice like a cruel, Bavarian moggie with a befuddled Yankee country mouse, there was no doubt that the judges, already had their black caps at the ready. There was some doubt whether the Milosevic prosecution was going to be able to prove genocide (Milosevic was not the overt racist that Mladic and Karadzic were/are), but no doubt that he would be found guilty of some high crime and sentenced to life in prison. Any other result would have been damaging to the U.N./E.U.’s goal of establishing an International Criminal Court; and what these anti-democratic organizations want, they get.

Nor is there any doubt that Saddam Hussein will be shot, hanged, or otherwise forcibly shuffled off this mortal coil. (Assuming that the court is able to conclude proceedings before all-out civil war erupts.) Such is the fatal paradox of political trials: Can a court dispense justice when it is convened to convict and not to try with the possibility of acquittal? And, if a court could possibly acquit a Hitler or Saddam, can it be tolerated? The American soldiers who captured Saddam did the world a great disservice by not shooting him in his hole. “Shot while trying to escape” was, I believe, the useful WWII euphemism.

Nuremberg has much to answer for. Churchill and Lord Simon were set on summary executions for responsible officers and party officials, with one-day military trials to establish identity, not guilt, and Stalin favored “liquidating” 50,000 German Nazis and sending several million able-bodied Germans to Russia and France to work as compensatory slave labor. Even FDR agreed that the mass-slaughter of the German command was the best course, and favored the infamous Morgenthau Plan to reduce Germany to a 19th Century agrarian society. Curiously, it was Stalin who, in the end, changed his mind and insisted that executions be preceded by judicial process (“no doubt on the Soviet model” as Lord Simon dryly observed, no doubt referring to the 1943 Kharkov show trials). After Quebec and Yalta, as the Americans also came round to the idea of formal trials with accompanying legal process, even future head-prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson objected that: “If we want to shoot Germans as a matter of policy, let it be done as such, but don’t hide the deed behind a court. If you are determined to execute a man in any case, there is no occasion for a trial; the world yields no respect to courts that are merely organized to convict.” He would later add that “if these persons were to be executed, it should as the result of military or political decisions.” Eventually, however, Jackson would take the central role in drafting the London Agreement—that act of Himalayan hubris, which vainly sought to criminalize the very act of waging war, and which has led inexorably to Slobo’s ignoble death in his cell and Saddam’s harangues to the Iraqi court (as well as his patriotic appeals to his former subjects, which threaten to inspire his loyalists much as Goering’s perorations lifted the hearts of German prisoners of war listening to the live broadcasts of his examination).

But even while Jackson was flying the American delegation to Nuremberg and engaging in those interminable meetings with the British (amiable and accommodating), French (truculent), and Russian (mercurial when not outright obstructionist) delegations, leading members of the Senate and the American Bar, including Justice (soon to be Chief Justice) Hugo Black were harsh in their condemnation of what was (rightly)* perceived to be a rigged political trial. Senator William Fulbright did not believe that there was any law of war under which the accused could be tried, and so argued that “[t]herefore they must be executed forthwith as a political decision.” Presciently, he further objected that “[a] trial means delays – and it means giving the defendants a chance to tell their stories to the world.” Would that Milosevic’s and Saddam’s prosecutors had listened to the good Senator’s counsel. Justice Black’s concerns were less about the speedy elimination of the Nazi leadership and more about the integrity of the legal process: “it would not disturb me greatly if the power of the Allies was openly and frankly used to punish the German leaders for being a bad lot, but it disturbs me some to have it dressed up in the habiliments of the common law and the Constitutional safeguards to those charged with crime.” Even the mainstream press, now so pious in their concern for military due process when it can be used to unsettle the current administration, asked “what we are waiting for to shoot Hermann Göring?” And a Gallup poll in May, 1945, showed two thirds of the American public favored executing Goering without trial.

The main arguments in favor of political trials are that summary executions look too much like victor’s justice, and that the example of the rule of law in formerly lawless societies is ameliorative in itself. The response is that such trials are also victor’s justice—there is no hope of acquittal if done right—and that such legal predetermination undermines the ideal of the rule of law. Once it is decided that enemy leaders should be killed or otherwise punished, the judicial process is inappropriate for carrying out that end. The judicial process, once infected with politics, is not easily cured; its health is better served by preventative inoculation and quarantine. Finally, such trials simply take too long. They drag on for years and the world moves on. When it comes to executions, the best rule is: “If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well It were done quickly.” The death of Mussolini, machine-gunned by partisans and hanged by his feet, is the model. The extent of any judicial involvement should be to identify the accused, read the bill of charges against him, don a black cap, and solemnly pronounce his sentence. By this rule, Saddam should have been hanged within 24 hours, and his bloodied, bearded head left to rot on a pike in central Baghdad, and not permitted to preen for the court cameras, insult his judges, and encourage his Ba’athist loyalists.

And Slobo would have been dead or exiled long before this sorry weekend.

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court has yet to hear its first case. Here's to keeping it that way.

* There is some controversy over the historical record of Milosevic's crimes. The Wall Street Journal (by the pen of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl) and The Guardian have both shown that the genocide charge, in particular, is difficult to sustain (though the definition of genocide in these ad hoc tribunals has proved quite maleable over the years). Other charges, however, should have been easy enough to prove.

** Among the (often necessary) biases in the proceedings were the court’s: disregard for the rule against ex post facto prosecutions; refusal to let the accused present a tu quoque defense (almost every charge against the Germans could have been leveled at Churchill, Truman, or Allied generals); unbalanced rules with respect to the presentation of opening and closing statements; denial of defendants’ lawyers access to potentially exculpatory documents; and close association with the prosecution (the Russian judge Nikitchenko was the chief Russian prosecutor, involved in framing the charges and selecting the accused, until he was elevated at the last minute to the role of judge).

Wednesday, March 8

Maxims, or Deep Thoughts, by Ribstone Pippin

Some observations and thoughts I've committed to paper over the years:
Do not drink wine from half-bottles; it only encourages wineries to produce more of them.

* * *

It is an abiding frustration that so many people today are so very bad at remembering names. Our names should be one of our greatest qualities.

* * *

To those who would deny the rapid decline of our civilization, I respond that, in one lifetime, Winston Churchill took part in the British Army's last cavalry charge and witnessed the dropping of the atomic bomb.

* * *

All that is necessary to put the lie to most art is the sight of a beautiful woman in the gallery.
* * *

Exceptions are made for exceptional people.

* * *

Unwavering commitment to a grudge is an indispensable tool of social sanction.

* * *
Do not let proximity to greatness obscure your self-perception. When a man mistakes an association with greatness for greatness itself, he risks overreaching his ability and finding, as Marcus Crassus found, only too late, that he is neither a Caesar nor a Pompey.
* * *

God, family, nation, friends: muster your loyalties in that order.
* * *
E.M. Forster famously said:

‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. . . . Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome.’

Forster should re-read his Dante: the lowest circle of Hell is reserved not for betrayers of friends but traitors to lieges. Brutus and Cassius, like Judas, are condemned not for betraying friendships but for betraying higher powers they were obliged to defend. A free country is our liege; the violation of that relationship is treachery.

* * *

Never forget where home is. When Diocletian retired from governing the Roman Empire, he returned to Dalmatia to raise cabbages.

* * *

It is often said that the reward for a job well done is more work; it is less often noted that the reward for a job done badly is also more work, though of a worse kind.

* * *

Do not seek glory; seek, instead, victory and glory will follow.

* * *

In all confrontations, the importance of style correlates inversely with the likelihood of victory. Danton’s rallying cry, ‘il nous faut de l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace’, is the privilege of the underdog for whom romantic defiance will garner glory equally in triumph or death. For the greater power, plodding victory is always preferable to daring defeat.

* * *

Often, the price of saving face is losing your soul, which is far, far dearer.

* * *

The marks by which we are judged are often invisible to us. It has been observed that, to many Iranians at the time of the Islamic revolution, America and The Soviet Union were almost indistinguishable. Despite the fact that an ideological chasm divided the two superpowers, to alien eyes one common trait predominated: they both wore trousers.

Tuesday, March 7

Jar Jardinho

I had a great afternoon at Lucky Bar, near my office, which is always packed for Champions League football. The featured match in the area of the bar in which my friends and I were sitting was the second leg of the Chelsea - Barcelona tie, which was being broadcast in Spanish (it was being shown in English in another part of the bar). This had surprisingly little effect on my enjoyment of the game, with one exception: the Spanish commentators kept referring to Ronaldinho as Jar Jar Binks. Despite his undeniable brilliance, Ronaldinho has long been one of the ugliest men in world sport, and the Jar Jar Binks comparison is dead on, but now that I have the comparison in my head, I can't watch him without thinking of Jar Jar. Thank you very much ESPN Deportes.

Friday, March 3

It's a wonderful night for Oscar, and the IRS.

There was an interesting article in the New York Times a few weeks ago on Hollywood indulgence at award shows, which is as good a topic as any for an Oscar weekend post. So, hop aboard the award show gravy train and prepare to be surprised and amazed.

The article begins with a short profile of Lash Fary (you can't make this kind of stuff up), who is credited with first inveigling companies to give rich celebrities free luxury items--and to pay him a hefty fee for the privilege of doing so. The White House should hire this man pronto; he'll have the media making donations to the RNC for the privilege of doing puff pieces on Cheney's huggable side by St. Paddy's Day.

The companies pay Mr. Fary $20,000 to give away their wares in back stage "interactive gifting suites" or a mere $6,000 to have them included in the gift baskets given to presenters and performers. So, let's assume the Grammy's had a dozen bling-hawkers in its "interactive gifting suite" and another dozen products in its "thank you basket." In one night, Mr. Fary pocketed an easy $312,000. And it's not like he had to pound the pavement or endure the humiliation of cold-calling Donatella Versace to procure the goods--according to the article, "companies vie for the opportunity to be included." So, for a few days of "Sorry Mr. Lauren, but we're going with Brioni ties this year," Mr. Fary makes more than the leader of the free world.

And don't let the clinical term "interactive gifting suite" fool you, these rooms are Aladdin's caves with a velvet rope. What sort of freebies can Oscar presenters and performers expect? At the Grammys, Gibson Guitars gave away, well, Gibson Guitars ($3,000 value), and gift baskets at the Golden Globes included cruises to Antarctica and Tasmania ($22,000 value). And at the Screen Actors Guild awards, Don Cheadle is described as stopping by the gifting suite "to collect a pearl, multistranded bracelet from an exclusive Los Angeles boutique and a trip for five nights to a Bora Bora resort." Thank you very much.

This year's Grammy gift baskets were worth $54,000 each, an amount topped by the Golden Globes, who doled out baskets worth $62,000. This year's Oscars will not have a gifting suite, but the gift baskets will include "a three-night stay at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, a coupon for Lasik eye surgery and a set of high-thread-count bed linens." And best-actress nominees are reportedly receiving $20,000 diamond-encrusted cameras. Attending an awards show in Hollywood is more lucrative than being in the audience on Oprah, and possibly even less work.

But all these gifts come with a catch. The article quotes Lee Sheppard, a contributing editor to the tax journal Tax Notes thus: "Queen Latifah is not getting a gift; Queen Latifah is getting income . . . [t]ax law does not recognize this as a gift." I remember this lesson from the income tax class I took at law school and to this day I can't watch a housewife from Scottsdale win a . . . BRAND . . . NEW . . . Winnebago on The Price is Right without wondering if she has the cash to pay for the extra income tax she'll owe this year. I certainly don't.

When Hollywood stars accept a $62,000 gift basket for presenting an award, the hidden surprise is a $21,700 tax liability. With the proliferation of awards shows between New Years and March, this liability could add up quickly for a popular presenter or performer. $21,700 here and $21,700 there, and, as Everett Dirksen said, pretty soon you're talking real money.*

Tax issues aside, the question I kept asking myself as I read the article was: why? Why would an exclusive L.A. boutique give away pearl bracelets? What kind of advertising do the companies think they are getting? I am not unaware of what goes on in Hollywood, but I've never seen detailed descriptions of what Don Cheadle's wife is wearing on her wrist. The article quotes another luxury goods panderer saying "Celebrities are very discerning. If they like a product, it translates to the public as trendsetting. Buzz starts building around that type of interaction." Maybe. I could see stars being photographed at the Mirage in Vegas giving the hotel a tourism boost, or an actor wearing distinctive sun glasses giving those glasses popular cachet, but a $22,000 Antarctic cruise? Or a pearl, multistrand bracelet? Even assuming they hear about the bracelet, millions of Americans aren't going to run to Rodeo Drive to pick one up for themselves. And I doubt that most of these gifts ever become public knowledge in the first place; I'd wager that the stars' sciurine instincts take over and that they all have closets of loot that never sees the light of a flashbulb.

Maybe for the high-end products, the companies are interested in advertising within the celebrity world, one celebrity to another; Mrs. Cheadle to Mrs. Andy Garcia. Who knows? I suppose that they wouldn't play Mr. Fary's game if they didn't think it was worthwhile, though one can never underestimate the distorting effects of the herd mentality.

* Actually, there is some dispute over whether Dirksen ever said this, but I've never seen it plausibly attributed to anyone else.

UPDATE: A tax lawyer friend who read this post just forwarded me the following IRS press release. Apparently they are on the case, though I could have done without the puns (at least they didn't attempt to make a Brokeback Mountain joke, though I'm sure most taxpayers at this time of year know how Jack Twist felt after Ennis Del Mar had his way with him):

IRS Statement on Oscar Goodie Bags

WASHINGTON - The Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service today wished the Academy Award nominees the best of luck at Sunday's presentation, but he reminded celebrity recipients of the six-figure goodie bags that they qualify as taxable income and must be reported on tax returns."

As the world watches the glamour and glitz of the Academy Awards, it's important to keep in mind that movie stars face the same tax obligations asordinary Americans," said IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson. "We want to make sure the stars 'walk the line' when it comes to these goodie bags.

"Handing out of celebrity gift bags and goodie bags has become increasingly commonplace. News reports about the "official" Oscar gifts that will be given to stars place the value at more than $100,000.

"This has become big business for companies promoting their products. These things aren't given without pride and prejudice. There is a tax implication for them. We just want to make sure no one crashes into the tax code," Everson said.

Thursday, March 2

"to say it quickly--logocentric hierarchy"

John Derbyshire's top ten reasons why postmodernist theorists should be publicly flogged (actually, he proposes a worse punishment, but I prefer to lament the decline of public flogging) were an unwelcome flashback to my brief time in graduate school:

10. Whether we take the signified or the signifiers, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. (Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p.120.)

9. Knowledge ... creates a progressive enslavement to its instinctive violence. (Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, and Practice, p.163.)

8. No longer a coherent cognito, man now inhabits the interstices, "the vacant interstellar spaces," not as an object, still less as a subject... (Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method, p. 286.)

7. Understanding belongs to the being of that which is understood. (Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p.xix.)

6. Post-modernism signals the death of such "metanarratives" whose secretly terroristic function is to ground and legitimate the illusion of a "universal" human history. (Terry Eagleton, Awakening from Modernity, p.194.)

5. Does truth, then, arise out of nothing? It does indeed if by nothing is meant the mere not of that which is, and if we here think of that which is as an object present in the ordinary way, and thereafter comes to light and is challenged by the existence of the work as only presumptively a true being. (Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, p.71.)

4. The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning. (Michel Foucault, What Is An Author? p.159.)

3. It is these predicates . . . whose force of generality, generalization, and generativity find themselves liberated, grafted onto a "new" concept of writing which also corresponds to whatever always has resisted the former organization of forces, which always has constituted the remainder irreducible to the dominant force which organized the -- to say it quickly -- logocentric hierarchy. (Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, pp.329-330.)

2. Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that this is what they are. (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, p.47.)

1. In the naming, the things named are called into their thinging. Thinging, they unfold world, in which things abide and so are abiding ones. (Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, pp.199-200.

I had the great displeasure of encountering many of these statements as a literature grad student--particularly the de Saussure, Gadamer, Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault. I also bought a volume of Eagleton on a visit to Blackwells, in Oxford, when I was 16, which I read during my young radical phase, and heard Said recite his uncivilized platitudes while I was an undergrad (of course, I lapped it up then).

I am just thankful that Derbyshire didn't dare delve into the masturbatory mental ejaculations of Deleuze or Guattari. I took a course on these two intellectual Elmyr de Horys in grad school, and my only memory is of a Japanese student who gave a rambling presentation on Japanese comic books and instruments played with the anus, which sounded (the presentation, not the instrumentalisation) as though it was, at least partially, in English. I assume said student passed the course, though I have no idea why.

For a taste of Deleuze's nonsense, consider that he characterized his approach to earlier philosophers as "buggery," that is, sneaking behind an author and producing an offspring which is recognizably his, yet also monstrous and different. [Negotiations, p.9]. Charming. Typical of his own works is the following useful statement:

That identity not be first, that it exist as a principle but as a second principle, as a principle become; that it revolve around the Different: such would be the nature of a Copernican revolution which opens up the possibility of difference having its own concept, rather than being maintained under the domination of a concept in general already understood as identical. (Difference and Repitition, p. 41)

And don't even get me started on rhizomatic principles of decalcomania or "capitalism and schizophrenia."

For the best refutation of all of this confusion, I recommend the indispensible Roger Scruton's short tract "Upon Nothing." Scruton can be difficult going (translation: a bit on the dry side--particularly his Aesthetics of Music, which I have started and put down more times than I care to admit), but this is a concise and convincing piece that requires no deep philosophical knowledge to follow.

Tuesday, February 28

The Children's Hour

In 1933 the Oxford Union debated and passed the infamous motion that "This House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country." Jan Morris recounts in her delightful book "The Oxford Book of Oxford," that the next day's Times referred to this sorry result as "the children's hour."

I was reminded of this episode when I read about the students at the University of Washington who rejected the college's plan to erect a memorial to WWII flying ace and alumnus Col. Greg "Pappy" Boyington. Now no-one should admire Col. Boyington unreservedly; he was quarrelsome and boastful, but he was also one of the best dog-fighters in Marine Corps history, a Medal of Honor recipient, and an indisputable American hero. His colorful life, which was later the inspiration for the Robert Conrad television series Baa Baa Black Sheep, is summarized well here.

But the objections to recognizing Col. Boyington had nothing to do with his heavy drinking, his chronic indebtedness, his multiple divorces, or his embellishments of his war record. The following comments offered by UW student senate members opposing the memorial are taken from this official transcript of the debate preceding the 46-45-10 voted against the proposed memorial:

Jill Edwards questioned whether it was appropriate to honor a person who killed other people. She said she didn’t believe a member of the Marine Corps was an example of the sort of person UW wanted to produce.

Ashley Miller commented that many monuments at UW1 commemorate rich white men. [RP: Col. Boyington grew up poor and was part Sioux]

Karl Smith amended the first ‘whereas’ clause to strike the section “he was credited with destroying 26 enemy aircraft, tying the record for most aircraft destroyed by a pilot in American Uniform for which he was” and leaving the reference to the Navy Cross. Seconded. Objection. He said the resolution should commend Colonel Boyington’s service, not his killing of others.

Children at play, indeed. Churchill's response to the Oxford Union debate was:

We have all seen with a sense of nausea the abject, squalid, shameless avowal made in the Oxford Union. We are told that we ought not to treat it seriously. The Times talked of “the children’s hour.” I disagree. It is a very disquieting and disgusting symptom. One can almost feel the curl of contempt upon the lips of the manhood of Germany, Italy, and France when they read the message sent out by Oxford University in the name of Young England.

This quote amused me, because I found my lip curling involuntarily as I read the UW transcript. Six years later, when King and Country called, the Oxford students of 1933 took up arms and fought as bravely as their fathers had fought in WWI. I'm not as confident about the UW student senators, but here's hoping their patriotism and resolve will not have to be tested.

Monday, February 27

What do the following ex-NHL players have in common?

Jacques Richard (Nordiques)
Wayne Babych (Blues)
Gary Leeman (Maple Leafs)
Danny Grant (Red Wings)
Guy Chouinard (Flames)
Vic Hadfield (Rangers)
Rick Kehoe (Penguins)

Thanks to this article on, I now know that each of these players is a former 50-goal scorer. Live and learn.

Bush a radical conservative? I'm not so sure.

This extended piece on why President Bush is not nearly as right wing as he is commonly thought to be has been percolating for more than a year. I would find some morsel of relevant information, digest it, disgorge it onto the page (sorry for the graphic analogy, but after reading what I have to say I anticipate that many of you will agree with the comparison to expectoration) and then . . . nothing. I would forget about it until another such morsel crossed my plate. Eventually, enough time passed that what I had initially written was superseded by more recent events and I decided to shelve the project more or less permanently.

I recently found it, however, in an attachment to an email I'd sent to myself (I often do this to preserve documents when I move, as I have done so frequently in the last five years). It was (and still is) a very rough work in progress (progress might be generous), but I updated and burnished it a bit last night and here it is.

One further note: I use the term conservative in this post not as I would use it to describe myself or my idea of conservatism, but as it is generally used in popular American political discourse. One result of this usage is that much of what I say doesn't overlap neatly with the way I would describe or evalusate the substantive issues discussed. This post is not intended to be a defense of any of President Bush's policies, though I agree with many of them, or of his presidency, which only time will vindicate or condemn; it is merely a refutation of a common misconception on what I take to be its own terms. And with that said, on with the show.

"George Bush may well be the most conservative president in American history"
James Traube, New York Times.

"… the most conservative administration within living memory"
Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian (London).

“ … the most right-wing US president in living memory"
Peter Oborne, The Spectator.

It is easy to simply accept something said so often. But is it true? While almost every publication in North America, Europe, and the United Kingdom repeats this assertion like boilerplate on a gas bill, the facts are not so unequivocal. To the contrary, this has been a president who, while better than the alternatives in 2000 and 2004, has kept American conservatives on edge for five years with pronouncements like: “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.” I doubt that the platform of the Socialist Party USA goes that far!

The charges:

Unilateralism—President Bush is a cowboy, or so a favorite European criticism of him goes. Apparently, to European ears, “cowboy” is an insult, although quite which part of the cowboy’s character irks them is unclear: His strength? His self-reliance? His willingness to back up his moral code with action? Thankfully, most Americans still esteem the traits of the cowboy, but even some of his domestic critics parrot the European line that their president has left America riding alone on the range of international opinion. Hardly. As David Frum wrote in October 2004, “The ‘unilateralist’ Bush administration responded to 9/11 by requesting and winning UN resolution 1373, calling on all states to suppress terrorist financing. It requested and got a UN resolution before going into Afghanistan too … invoked NATO aid … sought Security Council approval before Iraq—twice (the first time successfully; the second time not) … [and] built a coalition that included Britain, Australia, Italy, Poland, Spain and others.” It was not America’s fault that France, Germany and Russia (three countries with traditions of unilateral warfare that should make them blush to criticize the United States’ multilateral coalition) had financial interests that were better protected by Saddam Hussein’s iron rule over his people and his country’s resources. It is easy to see why they would prefer President Bush to subordinate American foreign policy interests to the agendas of 190 other governments, most of them corrupt, tyrannical or both. Quite why so many domestic critics urge the same folly is not so clear.

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were the product of more official international due process than American intervention in the Balkans under President Clinton. (By the way, what, exactly, were we doing there? Were we attacked? Was that an act of self-defense? Did we even seek, (I know we didn’t receive) UN approval?). United Nations resolutions, Nato approval, lengthy delays, consultations and build-ups, coalition building, working multilaterally on the North Korean nuclear threat, letting the European Union take the lead on the Iranian threat (with, to be generous, mixed results): if Bush really wants be seen as a cowboy—looking out for number one, damn the consequences—he is going to have to try much harder.

Evangelical Christianity—It is common knowledge among those who believe their knowledge exceeds that of the commoners, that George W. Bush is a religious zealot who has led a theocratic march through the Constitution to end the separation of church and state. Putting aside the far-from-settled constitutional limits on state support of religion, President Bush hardly stands out as unusually religious among American presidents. Judging him on his words and actions, he is less outwardly religious than Bill Clinton, whose ostentatious piety peaked with a bible-clutching photo op on his way to church during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and much less so than Jimmy Carter, the most openly religious president of my lifetime.

Paul Kengor, author of “God and George Bush,” has reviewed the Presidential Documents, the official collection of every public presidential statement and found that President Clinton mentioned “Jesus,” “Jesus Christ” or “Christ” in 5.1 statements per year while President Bush only averaged 4.7 mentions per year through 2003. And these figures are somewhat skewed by the fact that in 2001, the year in which the World Trade Center was destroyed, Bush “mentioned Christ in seven statements.” In contrast, “in all of 2003, the Presidential Documents displayed only two statements in which Bush mentioned his Savior: the Easter and Christmas messages.” Professor Kengor also noted that President Clinton spoke in churches more than two and a half times more frequently than President Bush. (On this score, Hillary Clinton has outdone both Bush and her husband: as a senatorial candidate, she campaigned in no fewer than seven churches in seven hours on election day alone! And no-one should forget the repeated race-baiting in Southern black churches by divinity school drop-out Al Gore on his way to losing the 2000 presidential election.)

President Bush is a born-again Christian who does not hide the influence that Christ has had on his life. Before his mid-life conversion experience, he was an aimless, alcoholic, struggling businessman; after, he was elected Governor of Texas and then twice President of the United States. Reasonable observers will concede that he has much to thank his Christian faith for. “By the grace of God and your help, last year I was elected President.” It is easy to see why President Bush would say such a thing… only he didn’t. That was Bill Clinton addressing the Church of God in Christ, Memphis, in 1993. And Bush is considered the fire-breathing religious nut? Pardon me for thinking that there is a political double-standard operating here: Democrats can mount the pulpit and claim divine anointment or speak at torturous length about their faith, as the putative Roman Catholic John Kerry did in the third 2004 presidential debate, without fear of censure, but if even a whispered religious sentiment escapes Republican lips, it is denounced as a whirlwind of irrational, anti-Enlightenment demagoguery threatening the very foundations of modernism and progress.

Consider these concluding lines from a famous Presidential inaugural address:

“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.” Though these words could equally sum up the current administration’s hope for its missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush would never get away with uttering them in an official capacity, as John F. Kennedy did in 1961.

Faith-based initiatives—A true fact divorced from its context can be as misleading as an outright lie, or as unhelpful as no information at all. The Associated Press headline “U.S. Gave $1B in Faith-Based Funds in 2003” probably confirmed the worst fears of opponents of President Bush’s much-misunderstood Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives who failed to read the article that followed. The reality is much less eye-catching.

First, many of the organizations described as “faith-based” do not consider themselves to be religious. According to the Associated Press, the reaction of the executive director of Crisis Ministries, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Charleston, S.C., to finding its name on the White House’s list of “faith-based” charities was that “someone has obviously designated us a faith-based organization, but we don't recognize ourselves as that.”

Second, many of the charities now designated as “faith-based” by the White House are long-time recipients of federal money. An analysis of the allocation of federal funds conducted by the Associated Press found that “[m]any are well-established, large social service providers that have received federal money for decades” and “[m]ore than 80 percent of recipients at HHS had received federal money before. At HUD, the figure was 93 percent.” Even more significantly, “[t]wo programs account for half of the $1.17 billion total: A HUD program known as Section 202 that builds housing for low-income poor people, and Head Start, a large preschool program for poor children.”

Third, the $1.17 billion awarded to “faith-based” charities was approximately 12% of the money “spent on social programs that qualify for faith-based grants in five federal departments” (namely, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Labor and Justice), again according to the Associated Press. This money was awarded through competitive bids to provide social services that are open equally to religious and non-religious organizations. This is the heart of the White House’s program—that a charity should not be penalized by exclusion from access to federal funds solely because it has, or has had, a related religious mission. President Bush was elected on a platform that emphasized his belief that excellence in the provision of services should be the sole criteria for receiving taxpayer money. That 12% of eligible funds were awarded to “faith-based” organizations ( and that figure uses a very loose definition of “faith-based,”) in a country in which more than 80% of the population believes in a personal God and more than 40% are what is loosely termed fundamentalist Christians, is hardly a shocking statistic. If it is shocking at all, it is shockingly low.

Finally, it must be asked, is this a conservative or a right-wing policy? Only to those for whom religion, and therefore religiously-motivated actions, is automatically suspect as the tool of a right-wing agenda. President Bush’s policy is non-partisan. If taxpayers’ money is to be allocated by the government, then it should go to the best organizations irrespective of their religious affiliation; otherwise the government should let the taxpayers keep their money and allocate it to the charities of their own choice. The president’s critics should put partisan politics aside for the sake of the goal that they should all share: opening the care and support of the less-well-off to as many willing and dedicated organizations as possible, not for the good of the right or the left but for the good of those who need their help. It would be a shame if any organization with a successful record of providing social services were excluded solely because of its religious mission. After all, those crazy religious types have a pretty good record in these things, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement showed.

Abortion—Yes, like roughly half of the American electorate, President Bush is anti-abortion. That fact alone makes him mainstream or, perhaps, center-right, but hardly a radical. The simple truth is that President Bush leads a country with one of the most permissive abortion laws in the Western World.

Based on his support for a ban on partial-birth abortion he is may be considered more anti-abortion than President Clinton, who vetoed a bill banning the practice that had been passed by large majorities in the House and the Senate. But his position does not make him any more conservative than roughly 70% of the American public who, according to an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll, share his opposition to the practice.

In keeping with his anti-abortion position, Bush also issued an executive memorandum in March 2001 reinstating President Reagan’s “Mexico City Policy,” which prevents the use of American tax-dollars by international organizations that perform abortions or provide abortion services. Clinton had made the freeing of tax-dollars for abortions overseas one of his first executive acts; Bush’s order restored government policy as it was under George H.W. Bush and Reagan. This may have been a conservative act, but it was in support of a position no more conservative than that of the previous two Republican presidents.

Gay Marriage—To an observer in The Netherlands, President Bush’s opposition to expanding the definition of marriage beyond the union of one man and one woman might seem antediluvian. But then so would John Kerry’s and John Edwards’s positions and that of mainstream politicians across North America and Europe. Bush’s position is conservative in the sense that it seeks to “conserve” what was an unquestioned truth of western society long before the United States was founded. His defense of marriage, however, is no different than that of his predecessor in office. In fact, Bill Clinton supported and passed an act called, to avoid doubt, “The Defense of Marriage Act,” which says that “the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and leaves to each state to recognize or deny the marital status of persons of the same sex who have been recognized as married (or joined in a marriage-like relationship) by another state.

It was only after the constitutionality of Clinton’s law was challenged that the Republican party proposed a constitutional amendment to prevent the substance of the Defense of Marriage Act from being judicially disapproved. During the 2004 presidential election campaign, Bush supported a constitutional amendment while John Kerry opposed it, but their essential positions on gay marriage were indistinguishable: both opposed “gay marriage,” supported civil unions, and called for greater state control over the issue.

It might come as a surprise to the “Bushitler” crowd, but the most right-wing president in history has the same position on gay marriage as a leftist Senator from Massachusetts. It is worth stepping back and removing partisan blinkers for this point: no major presidential candidate has ever gone further on this issue—not even Al Gore, who described his position as being “for domestic partnerships having legal protections, but not the same sacrament, not the same name, because I favor protecting the institution of marriage as it has been understood between a man and a woman. But I think that a partner should have legal protection and contractual rights and health care and the rest.” In other words, for civil unions but against gay “marriage.” In other words, President Bush’s position—a position that would have been considered political suicide for any national politician a generation ago. The most conservative president ever? On this bellwether issue, President Bush is indisputably the least conservative president ever.

Stem cell research—It can’t be said enough: before Bush, embryonic stem cell research had never received a penny of federal funding. Since his election, a limited number of lines of embryonic stem cells (the 78 lines in existence in 2001) have been approved for federal funding. In 2003, research on these lines received $25m in federal money, in addition to the $191m that went to fund other stem cell research. And there are no limits on private research using any of the existing lines. Limitations on federal funding are not a “ban.” There is no real way to compare Bush's treatment of this novel issue to past administrations, but that treatement has been measured and cautious, as befits such a morally loaded subject. Such an approach may be conservative, but it is shared by many if not most politicians and by the American electorate.

AIDS/Africa—The Bush administration’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have overshadowed its other major international projects. Possibly because of Iraq, the international community, including the United Nations, has been unenthusiastic—and in some cases hostile—to Bush’s African agenda. Unlike the case of Iraq, however, this agenda has occasioned little domestic criticism. Maybe it makes them uncomfortable that this allegedly parochial and mean-spirited Republican president has committed more support to Africa and to alleviating the suffering of AIDS victims than President Clinton ever did.

In the summer of 2003, while the country was caught up in the Iraq conflict, President Bush visited Africa to mark the passage by a Republican Congress of a $15 billion AIDS bill. Though his critics largely ignored this achievement, non-partisan African aid-workers recognized its significance. Melvin Foote, the executive director of Constituency for Africa called it “unparalleled,” while noting that “Clinton offered $300 million, parking-meter money, even though he knew it was a tremendous challenge.” Bob Geldof—the onetime Boomtown Rat and founder of Live Aid known popularly as “St. Bob” in Britain and his native Ireland—admitted much the same: “You’ll think I’m off my trolley when I say this, but the Bush administration is the most radical, in a positive sense, in the approach to Africa since Kennedy,” adding, for good measure, that in contrast to President Bush’s efforts, the European Union’s record on Africa has been “pathetic and appalling” and, colorfully, that “Clinton was a good guy, but he did f-ck all.” In case the contrast between Bush and Clinton wasn’t clear, Lord Alli, the aid worker, who accompanied St. Bob on a recent UNICEF trip to Ethiopia said that “Clinton talked the talk and did diddly squat, whereas Bush doesn’t talk but does deliver.” I’m not suggesting that Bush talk more about his generous African aid program, but it wouldn’t hurt his critics to listen a little closer.

In addition to the $15 billion AIDS commitment, the Bush administration has led the international criticism of the Sudanese massacre of 50,000 and displacement of up to 1.5 million people in the Darfur region of Sudan. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate—to lead, someone has to follow, and the United Nations is still dithering over the appropriate description of the Sudanese government’s actions. Such terminological exactitudes are important to the United Nations, because if what the Sudanese have done amounts to “genocide” then it is committed by its own laws to take real steps to prevent it. If, on the other hand, the Sudanese killing fields amount only to run-of-the-mill, third-world atrocities, then the United Nations can continue to debate and issue strongly worded condemnations from the safety of Turtle Bay.

If the United Nations falters, its failure should not taint the Bush administration. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressing the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2004, said that the State Department “concluded that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed [Sudanese Arab militia] bear responsibility and genocide may still be occurring.” This came after an April meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva at which, according to a New Yorker article from August 2004, “European diplomats opposed a strong American denunciation of the atrocities, preferring a resolution so watered down that Sudan welcomed it. At a time when America had given twenty-eight million dollars to the U.N.’s Darfur relief program, Germany had given one million dollars, and France nothing.” A similar accusation of stinginess made by aid agencies “including Oxfam, Care International and Save the Children” was reported in September by the BBC. According to the BBC, they “accused three nations of failing to give enough aid to Darfur. The agencies criticised Japan, France and Italy for giving only $6m, $9.6m and $10.8m respectively. … The US contributed $206m in 2004-5, and the UK gave $94m.”

Although it has pushed for peace between the North and South in the decades old Sudanese civil war, the United Nations security council has still pointedly refused to echo Colin Powell’s proclamation of genocide in Darfur or to consider anything but limited humanitarian relief—the same policy that worked so well for the United Nations in Rwanda … and so bloodily for the Rwandans.

Judges—Bush has appointed solidly conservative judges to the U.S. Courts of Appeals, but who expected him to do otherwise? His picks are no more conservative than Reagan’s were, so there is no support on this front for claims of ultra-conservatism. He has also appointed two justices to the Supreme Court, one with broad bi-partisan support and one on a party-line vote, with several Democrats defecting to support the nominee and only one Republican (who didn’t even vote for Bush in 2004) voting against him. Both justices may turn out to be conservative influences on the Court, but such predictions are notoriously speculative. Democrats warned that Souter would be a disaster for progressive causes, but they would now take nine Souters in a heartbeat. Most courtwatchers predict that Roberts will be slightly less conservative than his predecessor Rehnquist, and that Alito will be somewhere between Roberts and the conservative wing of Scalia and Thomas. No one can know for sure, but these picks are not evidence that Bush is more conservative than Reagan, who nominated Scalia and Bork, or even his father, who nominated Thomas.

Environment—Even half-hearted environmentalists have grounds for serious complaints against the current Bush administration, beginning with the plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. In making these complaints, however, critics should be careful not to view the previous administration through green-tinted glasses. Upset at Bush for dismissing the Kyoto protocol? Under Clinton’s watch, the Senate approved an anti-Kyoto resolution 95-0 and that administration’s attitude towards the environmental lobby were subsequently summed up by Vice-President Gore, who lectured them “Losing on impracticable proposals that are completely out of tune with what is achievable does not necessarily advance your cause at all.” In eight years, the Clinton administration failed to enact a single law to reduce carbon emissions.

Clinton should be excused, however, as his record is no worse than most countries who signed the Kyoto protocol to great fanfare and then promptly ignored it domestically. Of the 161 countries that ratified the protocol, only 34 have promised to do anything to implement it, and, according to an article by Iain Murray, “of those 24 countries, the former Communist countries of the Eastern bloc have already achieved their targeted emissions reductions only by virtue of the collapse of their old, uneconomic smokestack industries. That mean that the only countries that have undertaken to take real, active measures to rein in their greenhouse-gas emissions are the EU-15, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand.” Fair enough, one might say, forget Africa, South America, and most of Asia—nobody really expected them to do anything about greenhouse gases—it is those last countries are America’s peer group, against which it should be measured. Well, the truth is their collective grade on emissions reductions is probably somewhere between an “F” and an “Incomplete-failing.” New Zealand, Canada, and Japan are seriously reconsidering their pledges as the estimated costs of compliance have ballooned, and “the European Environment Agency’s own figures demonstrate that the EU-15 are nowhere near their targets (despite them polling their individual commitments into a burden-sharing agreement that supposedly ensured poorer countries like Spain and Greece would not have to constrain their economies).” The conclusion: it is not likely that a single Kyoto signatory will actually meet its obligations. “It should therefore come as no surprise that, at the very first Meeting of the Parties . . . to the protocol in Montreal last year, the Parties voted to remove every binding element of Kyoto’s requirement for penalties for noncompliance.”

Given this record of hype without substance, America’s decision to opt out of a treaty that is designed to avert only 0.07 degrees Celsius of projected global warming by 2050 seems principled by comparison. Nor has America has not been idle on the global-warming front. According to Murray, “America has shown leadership on the global-warming issue by actually bringing India and China, together with Japan, Australia, and South Korea, into a Clean Development Partnership, which concentrates on sharing technology that will make energy production less emission-heavy.” America’s record is not impressive, but graded on the same curve as its equally recalcitrant peers, it looks pretty good.

A direct comparison with Clinton’s record is useful. 1996 article entitled “’The Greatest Environmental President.’ Really?”, co-authored by Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn damned the Clinton administration in these blunt terms:

“To cite Clinton as a committed environmentalist is, by any objective standard, a sick joke. … The 1993-94 Congress, with Democrats controlling both houses and the White House, produced fewer pro-environment laws than any Congress since Eisenhower’s time. … By the end of that congressional session, before the Gingrich take-over, the Clinton team had engineered the resumption of logging in ancient forests, sold out the Everglades and forced through the North American Free Trade Agreement, without doubt the most destructive environmental legislation since the Green Revolution began in the Nixon era.”

In his first term, President Bush rejected the Kyoto protocol, but he also proposed an alternative plan for reducing carbon admissions. It is a tepid compromise, opposed by environmentalists as a betrayal of the commitments to lowering absolute levels of carbon emissions that his father made at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, but, if it were accepted, it alone would be more than Clinton ever achieved to reduce so-called ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions. And while Clinton signed the Kyoto protocol, as was the case with so many (probably most) of the signatories, he had no intention of actually putting it into effect. His administration never made a serious proposal to Congress to have the treaty ratified and, in 1998, his “green” vice-president Al Gore rebuffed environmental groups’ requests to mount a fight in Congress to reduce emissions from electric utilities, which account for approximately 40% of US greenhouse gas emissions. Union votes in Michigan and Pennsylvania were more important than serious environmental reform.

Politicians of all stripes echo the American people’s demand for “energy independence” and greater investment in domestic oil supplies and refineries, but the only solid proposal on either front has been Bush’s plan to produce oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), by drilling an area the size of Dulles Airport in a refuge the size of South Carolina (to use an analogy from Jonah Goldberg). This proposal has been roundly criticized by the environmental lobby, and by mainstream Democrats and some Republicans. The howls of protest can be heard as far away as the Persian Gulf, where the Emirs would no doubt have a good chuckle about it. The American people want more and cheaper oil, but they hate the oil companies who can produce it. Because of the gross caricature of companies like Halliburton that the left has propagated, any attempt by Bush to appease the cries for affordable fuel is immediately denounced as a “sop” to his “oil buddies.” On oil, Bush can’t win.

Some other Bush initiatives that have received little or no environmental support are described in this article from the Center for a Constructive Tomorrow:

It wasn't that long ago that many environmentalists were unqualified advocates of hydrogen fuel. Their support for the technology was well founded and based on the desire to both safeguard the environment and lessen our nation's dependence on foreign sources of energy. But that all changed when President Bush announced in his 2003 State of the Union his administration's commitment to fund hydrogen fuel cell research at the level of $1.2 billion. Suddenly it wasn't so "hip" to heartily support hydrogen fuel anymore, or at least not the President's plan for implementing it.

The Bush plan, said the Sierra Club's Daniel Becker, ‘serves as a shield’ to ‘protect automakers from improving fuel economy, a step that would reduce the nation's dependence on foreign energy faster than Bush's plan would.’ O.K., perhaps it might. But it's still a good proposal as far as it goes. One wonders if such nitpicking would have occurred under the previous administration which was more to the Sierra Club's liking.

Other Bush initiatives have also been given the cold shoulder. The Clear Skies Initiative is an extremely ambitious proposal to reduce the major air pollutants of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and (for the first time) mercury by 70 percent over the next 15 years. Nevertheless, environmentalists such as Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Trust still finds room to complain: ‘The reality is that what they are proposing will still allow industry to pollute too much for too long.’ This glum assessment of the President's initiative was also shared by Michael Shore, an air policy specialist at the advocacy group Environmental Defense, who similarly grumbled that the ‘reductions ought to be deeper than being proposed.’

The Healthy Forests Initiative to thin out and remove brush and limbs which can contribute to the spread of catastrophic wildfires was another ambitious legislative effort by the President. Even though this bill received overwhelming support from many Democrats, it was considered a ‘sellout’ to timber interests and opposed by most environmental groups. This hostility perplexed even liberal Senator Diane Feinstein who quipped ‘This legislation is not a logging bill, as some [environmentalists] would typify it - I think falsely. This legislation would provide the first statutory protection for old-growth stands and large trees ever in the history of this Nation.’

There are, of course, some other Bush initiatives that are also worthy of praise: The strategy to restore and create at least one million acres of wetlands, the Administration's effort to increase the number of bobwhite quail by 750,000 birds annually, and the more than $600 million that will be spent to recover Columbia River Salmon are just some that come to mind. But it's unlikely any environmental initiative by this President will be able to prevent noses from being turned upward. Even the Administration's willingness to increase funding to environmental groups from $72 million to over $143 million annually hasn't bought it any friends.

One suspects the angst against Bush has little to do with his policies and much to do with his conservative beliefs. In any event, the depths of these hard feelings seem to lack any common sense or reason, and appear to run deeper than the roots of any old-growth Sequoia.

Taxes—It is a truism of President Bush’s critics that his tax cuts were irresponsible and benefited only the rich. But those same tax cuts took millions of the poorest Americans off the tax rolls and lowered the lowest tax bracket to 10%. And top earners now pay greater share of total tax revenue.

Bush implemented a slight tax cut, but so have many countries in recent years, including Canada and Germany. On this issue, President Bush is actually in step with the worldwide trend. In addition to the European countries that have reduced taxes, some—particularly former Eastern Bloc countries—have actually implemented low flat taxes. Russia has a flat tax of 13%. Connoisseurs of historical irony should appreciate the fact that America’s erstwhile communist nemesis now has far less burdensome and socially intrusive income tax laws than America. To add insult to injury, Russian President Putin has slashed the corporate tax rate from 35% to 24% while American corporations are stuck with the second highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world, trailing only Japan.

And Bush’s tax cuts are piddling in comparison to those implemented by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. Granted, they started with much higher income tax brackets, but even after Bush’s tax cuts, the top bracket is higher than it was under Reagan. Not exactly the most conservative tax policy in recent memory.

Civil Rights—A regional politician and a foreign diplomat are kidnapped by a fringe terrorist group demanding the release of twenty-three “political prisoners,” $500,000 in gold, the dissemination of their manifesto and the publication of the names of police informants for terrorist activities. The leader of the country orders in the army: 7,500 troops and tanks patrol the streets of three cities. In an impromptu interview, the leader declares that “there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed.” He is asked how far he is willing to go to restore order. His grim response as he mounts the steps of the legislature: “Just watch me.” Two days later, martial law is declared and almost 500 people, including labor leaders, entertainers and writers, are rounded up and detained without notice or charge.

All this happened in Canada in 1970. During the so-called FLQ Crisis, leftist Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau suspended civil liberties and brought the weight of the nation’s army down on a small but murderous band of domestic terrorists. Although I am only half-hearted in my condemnation of this display of brute authoritarianism, the acts that provoked it were a trifle compared to the Oklahoma City bombing or the IRA campaign in London in the 1980s, let alone the attacks on the World Trade Centre. President Bush’s response to the far greater threat posed by radical Islamist terrorism has been … to legislate and to monitor conversations between foreign terrorists and some people located in the United States under an authority recognized by the FISA Court of Review and claimed by every president since Carter signed FISA but reserved the right to conduct national security surveillance.

Anti-Bush activists would like Americans to believe that they are living in a police state, but their claims are risible. Without any real impositions on civil liberties to point to, they resort to inflating minor changes to laws affecting anti-terrorism investigations that were, for the most part, passed during the Clinton administration.

These laws, including the much criticized Patriot Act, were bi-partisan congressional efforts, and authorize measures that are much less intrusive or expansive than those used by Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Nixon.

But to hear the Hollywood left howl, you would think that they were living in Nazi Germany. Actually, some of them have said exactly that. That they have done so as multimillionaires speaking to an audience of millions on national television does not seem to strike them as in the least incongruous. Nor does it prevent many of them from flocking to support real tyrants, like Fidel Castro, the subject of an Oliver Stone hagiography and the honored host of Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford and others. The true nature of free speech is obviously not something they completely understand; some of Castro’s political prisoners could probably enlighten them.

Meanwhile in the “civilized” West, citizens are required to carry identity papers (France, Belgium, Germany, Spain), political parties are banned (Belgium), criticism of religion is criminalized (England, France), possession of offensive historical artifacts is illegal (Germany), quoting the Bible in opposition to homosexuality is fined (Canada) and the European Union’s authoritarian and anti-democratic project rumbles on. Whatever one thinks of George W. Bush’s administration, America remains the freest country in the world, with greater freedom of speech, movement and religion than any other country in history.

The charges from the right:

Not to be outdone by criticism from the left, and somewhat undermining their concerns, American conservatives have been increasingly critical of Bush’s lack of conservative policies. In the middle of last year, there was a spate of articles in the conservative press asking if Bush could properly be called a conservative at all. Some of their grounds for complaint were:

Spending—Only four years after President Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over,” presidential candidate Bush ran on platform of increasing the size of federal government and increasing federal spending. The era of Democratic big government may have ended, but their discarded project of utopian centralization has been picked up by President Bush who, in his first term, failed to veto a single spending bill (or any bill of any kind, for that matter) and oversaw growth in federal spending of almost 20% in real dollars—higher than in any presidential term since the early 1970s.

Twenty years after conservatives almost succeeded in abolishing the federal Department of Education, which would have returned educational policy to the State and local level, Bush made increasing federal spending and intervention in education a priority of his presidential campaign. If only this had turned out to be another politician’s broken campaign promise! In his first three years in office, Bush increased federal spending on education by a belt-loosening 60.8%. A Bush-Cheney ’04 website even boasted about these “record levels of Federal spending now going to K-12 public education.”

And it’s not just for education that Bush has abandoned Reagan’s Republican legacy of trim, efficient government. According to the free-market think tank Cato Institute, federal spending has increased in almost every department, with the most eye-watering increases being for the State Department (32.5%), Veteran Affairs (29.4%), Defense (27.6%), the Interior (23.4%), Energy (22.4%) and Health and Human Services (21.4%). It is enough to make conservatives nostalgic for the days when Clinton promised (and largely succeeded in his promise) to “end welfare as we know it.” Of course, if Bush proposed such a plan, it would be “the most right-wing welfare policy in history.” Sigh. A conservative can dream.

On top of all this current spending, Bush found time to enact the largest federal entitlement program in a generation, one that was, for purposes of selling the plan, budgeted to cost $400 billion over its first ten years. Soon after it was enacted, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the potential cost at closer to $1 trillion and as much as $2 trillion, if Democratic bull-elephant Senator Ted Kennedy wins his fight to fill current gaps in coverage. This decisive left turn of the socialist ratchet alone should earn the president a place in the left-liberal pantheon. Instead, a president who has inflated public spending, locked taxpayers into a profligate new social entitlement, increased the number of people working for the federal government to a thirteen-year high, created a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security with 170,000 employees at a cost of $40 billion, and vowed to spare no expense to ensure that “every child [is] educated to his or her full potential” is caricatured as a right-wing radical.

Immigration-- Amnesty. You won’t hear that word from the White House, but Bush’s “guest worker” plan by any other name still smells as bitterly unconservative. Waiving the rules that are patiently followed by legal immigrants for millions of who are living here illegally is a pet project of the president, who made an amnesty one of his first post-re-election priorities, “a move” the Washington Times noted “bound to anger conservatives just days after they helped re-elect him.” Thank you very much, Mr. President.

Free trade--No act by this president has caused free-market conservatives as much embarrassment as the decision to levy import tariffs on steel. European trade ministers, who know a thing or two about protectionism, were spitting mad and most Republicans were speechless in defense. What could they say? Bush was, in principle, wrong. Wrong to repudiate the Republican preference for open markets and wrong to adopt the Democratic and trade unionist policy of economic insularity to appeal to voters in swing states. I say wrong “in principle,” but the illegal tariffs also seem to have failed as a political strategy. Despite selling-out his free-market principles, Bush still lost the steel-producing state of Pennsylvania in the 2004 election.

War--War is not of itself conservative. The Soviet Union used warfare and the threat of armed force to occupy and influence Eastern Europe and neighboring states, such as Afghanistan; armies of the left have left scars across the bodies of Africa, Asia and South and Central America; and totalitarian socialists came close to conquering Europe only two generations ago. In fact war, particularly revolutionary and pre-emptive war is a radical tool of social change antithetical to traditional conservative principles. It is not surprising that many public conservatives from across the range of conservative opinion either opposed the war in Iraq or have come to conclude that it was a mistake. These critics include Pat Buchanan, Tucker Carlson, and, most recently and most cautiously, William F. Buckley, Jr. Bellicosity knows no partisan banner.

Affirmative Action--To conservatives who consider affirmative action a disastrously wrongheaded policy, this administration's tepid and limited opposition to the University of Michigan admissions plans in the Supreme Court was disheartening and, to some, a betrayal of bedrock conservative principle.

On the filp side, it doesn’t seem to (and shouldn’t) matter to the president that he has appointed the most racially diverse team of senior advisors in American political history, but it is surprising that it also doesn’t seem to matter to the Left, whose habit it is to fetishize such superficially diversity. Maybe this is progress on their part.


When the actual record is scrutinized, the white-washing of President Bush as a radical conservative can’t obscure the reality: despite the press’s univocal assertions to the contrary, on virtually every issue, the president is in step with a sizeable portion of the American electorate and no more conservative than most of the presidents that have preceded him. A commonly held misconception is not the same as the truth.

Monday, February 20

The Islamic Question - good and bad news.

One alarming and one hopeful article from the Sunday Telegraph (I'm a bit late on my weekend reading).

First the ">bad news: 40% of British Muslims favor introducing sharia law into some areas of Britain. And I thought that it was bad enough that Blair has consistently worked to undermine the centuries old protections of the common law--by trying to curtail the prohibition on double jeopardy and the right to trial by jury, and by importing foreign (literally) concepts of abstract rights into English law.

And now the good. Actually, you have to search pretty hard for any good news when a leading ex-Muslim (how rare is that?) predicts that "in a decade, you will see parts of English cities which are controlled by Muslim clerics and which follow, not the common law, but aspects of Muslim sharia law." The good news is the clear-eyed thinking and brave (the punishment for conversion from Islam is death under sharia law) speech of an astute British commentator who understands the problems that Islam, and the Blair government's ham-handed (probably not the most sensitive adverb) rapprochement with the most vocal and hard-line imams.

The entire article is worth reading, and I had a difficult time selecting the best excerpts, but here is a taste of Dr. Sookhdeo's stark warnings and advice:

The Government, and Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, are fundamentally deluded about the nature of Islam," he insists. . . .

The Prime Minister's ignorance of Islam, Dr Sookhdeo contends, is of a piece with his unsuccessful attempts to conciliate it. And it does indeed seem as if the Government's policy towards radical Islam is based on the hope that if it makes concessions to its leaders, they will reciprocate and relations between fundamentalist Muslims and Tony Blair's Government will then turn into something resembling an ecumenical prayer meeting.

Dr Sookhdeo nods in vigorous agreement with that. "Yes - and it is a very big mistake. Look at what happened in the 1990s. The security services knew about Abu Hamza and the preachers like him. They knew that London was becoming the centre for Islamic terrorists. The police knew. The Government knew. Yet nothing was done.

"The whole approach towards Muslim militants was based on appeasement. 7/7 proved that that approach does not work - yet it is still being followed. . . .

"The trouble is that Tony Blair and other ministers see Islam through the prism of their own secular outlook. They simply do not realise how seriously Muslims take their religion. Islamic clerics regard themselves as locked in mortal combat with secularism. . . .

'Islamic clerics do not believe in a society in which Islam is one religion among others in a society ruled by basically non-religious laws. They believe it must be the dominant religion - and it is their aim to achieve this.

"That is why they do not believe in integration. In 1980, the Islamic Council of Europe laid out their strategy for the future - and the fundamental rule was never dilute your presence. That is to say, do not integrate. "Rather, concentrate Muslim presence in a particular area until you are a majority in that area, so that the institutions of the local community come to reflect Islamic structures. The education system will be Islamic, the shops will serve only halal food, there will be no advertisements showing naked or semi-naked women, and so on."

That plan, says Dr Sookhdeo, is being followed in Britain. "That is why you are seeing areas which are now almost totally Muslim. The next step will be pushing the Government to recognise sharia law for Muslim communities - which will be backed up by the claim that it is "racist" or "Islamophobic" or "violating the rights of Muslims" to deny them sharia law.

". . . The Government has already started making concessions: it has changed the law so that there are sharia-compliant mortgages and sharia pensions.

"The more fundamentalist clerics think that it is only a matter of time before they will persuade the Government to concede on the issue of sharia law. Given the Government's record of capitulating, you can see why they believe that."

"You have to distinguish between ordinary Muslims and their self-appointed leaders," explains Dr Sookhdeo. . . .

"Take, for example, Tariq Ramadan, whom the Government has appointed as an adviser because ministers think he is a 'community leader'. Ramadan sounds, in public, very moderate. But in reality, he has some very extreme views. He attacks liberal Muslims as 'Muslims without Islam'. He is affiliated to the violent and uncompromising Muslim Brotherhood. . . .

. . . What should the Government be doing? "First, it should try to engage with the real Muslim majority, not with the self-appointed 'community leaders' who don't actually represent anyone . . .

"Second, the Government should say no to faith-based schools, because they are a block to integration. There should be no compromise over education, or over English as the language of education. The policy of political multiculturalism should be reversed. . . .

"Finally, the Government should make it absolutely clear: we welcome diversity, we welcome different religions - but all of them have to accept the secular basis of British law and society. That is a non-negotiable condition of being here.

It is hard to miss the similarity between Blair's courting of self-appointed "community leaders," whose gift for bombast and self-promotion usually exceeds their desire actually to improve the lot of their communities, and American politicians' (particularly Democrats') ritual kow-towing before the Brobdingnagian egos of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and the NAACP leadership. In fact, the comparison is so obvious that I can't be bothered to write any more on the subject. It's all too depressing.