Herbert London is author of Decade of Denial (Lexington Books) and the soon-to-be-released America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books), and publisher of American Outlook. He can be reached at: www.herblondon.org.
Obama As President (?)
Based on everything we now know, what would America look like four years from now if Barack Obama were elected president in 2008? Clearly this involves conjecture on my part, always a dangerous thing to do. But based on campaign rhetoric, there are clues about an Obama presidency.
At the outset, there will be a collective sigh of relief. Race as a campaign issue will be permanently inserted into history's trash heap where it belongs. In that sense, there will be justifiable rejoicing over what will be described as a new chapter in the national story.
But as is the case with all presidents, once the applause ends, action is supposed to begin. And it will. In order to deal with the deficit, Obama will raise taxes -- a conventional Democratic response to revenue shortfall.
He will also propose to Congress the Universal Health Care program based on the proposition that everyone in the nation must be covered by health insurance and, for those who for one valid reason or another are not, the government will insure them.
But most significantly, Mr. Obama will focus on foreign policy with two overarching conditions in his telescopic lens: a timetable for withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and direct negotiations with Iranian leaders over nuclear weapons.
If the Obama campaign is to be believed, troop draw down would be completed within 18 months with the likelihood President Obama will establish a timetable for Iraqi withdrawal sometime after assuming office.
As I see it, this year and half period would be a time for the Shia militias, Iran and al Qaeda, to reinforce their troops on the ground and plan a strategy for filling the military void left by the precipitous American troop withdrawal. This action will most likely embolden the extremists who will describe America's departure from the battlefield as an ignominious defeat that affirms the rise and traction of radical Islam.
It will also send a message to moderate nations in the Middle East neighborhood, namely Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, that they had better make a deal with Iran, the acknowledged hegemon in the region, or face a military challenge.
Mr. Obama has also indicated that he would engage in direct negotiations with Ahmadinejad about nuclear weapons and Iran's regional role. In fact, he noted these negotiations should occur without preconditions -- an unprecedented development.
The question, of course, is what can President Obama say. Is he prepared to accept Iran as the area's most influential player with nuclear weapons? Can he offer blandishments that persuade Iran to forgo the nuclear option? And if he is not persuasive, what precisely would he be prepared to do? These questions suggest that negotiations between leaders without preconditions are unprecedented for a good reason: they cannot work and could put protagonists in a position where compromise is impossible. Needless to say, time is on the side of the party being asked to make concessions.
As I see it, an Obama presidency (based on campaign promises) will be obliged to: raise taxes across the board, make commitments for universal health care that will put enormous pressure on the budget, orchestrate a rapid troop withdrawal from Iraq which emboldens our enemies and invites further divisions in this beleaguered nation,and negotiate directly with Iran which most probably results in a Persian empire with nuclear weapons.
Of course, this is mere speculation that Obama supporters would deny or, at least, attempt to refute. But as I listen to the campaign comments, I'm persuaded the conditions I've outlined are plausible, even as I pray that they don't occur.
This thought exercise, however, should be entertained for those who oppose and those who support the senator from Illinois. As I see it, the times in which we live, and the election before us, demand nothing less.
The Politics of Fear
There is a blanket of fear that has been cast over all debate and political action on the world stage. It is the fear of reprisals used as a strategic device by Islamists everywhere.
Here is how it works. If you are critical of Islam in any way, a mullah might say: "You are free to express your opinion, I respect your freedom of expression, but there are those in our community who may respond differently." The upshot, of course, is that if violent acts cannot be controlled, one had better be careful about what one says, since blasphemy is regarded as a capital offense.
Rather than protect the critics, authorities in many nations claim they wish to reduce the prospect of violence by chastising the critic. Accommodation is the word employed as the tactic; encouraging self-censorship is the strategy. And it works.
Geert Wilders, the producer of Fitna, a film about the violent dimensions of Islam, is forced into hiding in his native home of Holland. Rather than suggest the West promotes the free exchange of opinion, leaders in Holland have censured Wilders for what is described as his incitement to violence.
The test of the West is whether it will defend its own principles or whether it will acquiesce in a concession to intimidation. Thus far, the record is discouraging. It is not simply the Archbishop of Canterbury's foolish claim that the United Kingdom will have to accept some form of Sharia; it is the subtle concessions, such as not showing pictures of a pig. Is Miss Piggy banned on the BBC? That may not be as laughable as it first seems.
Even in the United States the fear factor is palpable. Other than the Weekly Standard, not one newspaper or magazine would publish the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Were these news outlets as vigilant in pursuit of religious integrity with "Piss Christ" or The Da Vinci Code? Why isn't what is good for the goose, good for the gander?
Although most journalists won't admit it, the answer is fear, an unwillingness to challenge the Islamic bullies. While there is a facile belief in the First Amendment, it is easily abrogated through the power of intimidation. Who wants to live with a fatwa against him? Wasn't Salman Rushdie's life thrown into disarray after a fatwa was directed against him?
But if journalists do not react to the threat, either tacit or implicit, who will? And if we do not protect the critics acting on the basis of freedom of speech, how long will we be able to count on the First Amendment?
It is one thing to glibly assert we are engaged in a battle of ideas. In fact, our armor against attack is courage, and from what I have observed, it is in short supply. At the very least, sensible people should demand a standard of reciprocity. If we cannot criticize Islam, Islamists should not be permitted any criticism of the Judeo-Christian world.
Of course, that standard won't fly since the Koran refers to Jews as pigs and monkeys and Christians as polytheists. What we must do is change the language by challenging every claim of Islamophobia. This banner automatically restricts speech, just as the word "racist" dims frank discussion about race relations.
Religion of every kind should be put under the bright light of critical examination, including Islam. It is to be seen as no different from any other religion. Its adherents should be permitted open discourse and its critics must be offered the full protection of the law. To see it in any other way is to give Islam a privileged status in the Judeo-Christian world it does not deserve.
First, we must overcome the fear factor: that is more easily said than done. And second, we must defend the critics, even those with whom we may disagree. For what is at stake is nothing less than our freedom. It would be a startling development to see us give up our freedom without a fight, a condition -- based on what I've described -- that is already in our sight.
Spreading Islam in the Academy
Prince AlWaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, the world's 19th richest man with a net worth of $21 billion, recently gave a 16 million donation to the University of Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh to launch two research centers for Islamic studies. The signing ceremony was attended by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the chancellors of both universities.
The universities rank among the foremost institutions in the world offering research on Islamic and Middle Eastern studies.
Two years ago Prince AlWaleed donated $40 million to America's Georgetown and Harvard Universities for the expansion of their Islamic studies programs. In each instance AlWaleed has indicated that the centers are designed for constructive and critical awareness of the role Islam plays across the globe. As he noted: "It is paramount for both Islam and the West to reach mutual ground for pro-active dialogue, respect, acceptance and tolerance."
Presumably deeper understanding will emerge from these programs with their emphasis on "mutual understanding and cross-cultural dialogue between Islam and the West."
But here is the rub. In all of these programs critical awareness is a one-way street. The West is supposed to understand Islam, but what remains unsaid is that Islam is not obliged to understand the West. "Mutual understanding" is a high-sounding phrase that is exercised only in the breach. If tolerance is mutual as the Saudi benefactor contends, then he should put money into Muslim universities in the Middle East for an appreciation of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
It is already clear that British universities tolerate and promote Islamic studies. But where is there evidence of the reverse? Without reciprocity this emphasis on cross-cultural dialogue is a sham. Western students are supposed to understand and appreciate Islamic traditions, while the Judeo-Christian tradition is trashed as polytheistic or misguided or worse. In fact, tolerance and Islam are largely incompatible.
It therefore seems most likely that Prince AlWaleed is donating his money to proselytize, to encourage students to gravitate to his faith. While the study of Islam is and can certainly be a serious source of scholarship, one wonders whether that will be the case in these two recent instances or whether the British universities are merely the equivalents of Middle East Studies programs compromised by Saudi money and influence.
It is also worth asking once Prince AlWaleed has left his footprint on the major British and American universities, whether he will turn to the less well-known institutions that he can buy off for a mere pittance. He has already left his mark at Griffith College in Australia.
Money talks to academics in a most alluring way and Saudis have the money. The extent to which Middle East Studies programs have been compromised across the United States has prompted Bernard Lewis, the doyen of Islamic studies, and Fouad Ajami to launch their own Middle East Studies Association.
The Saudi plan to use universities as a launching pad to promote religious fervor is transparent. Obviously many scholars simply want to engage in and encourage Islamic scholarship, but that isn't the motive of all scholars nor is it always the motive of Saudi benefactors.
The New and Old View of Paternalism
Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 9, 2008) devoted four full pages to a new book by two professors at the University of Chicago, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunshine, one a professor of economics and behavioral science and the other a professor of law. The book, entitled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, is intended to approach policies that encourage, but do not insist on, socially desirable directions.
Presumably cognitive limitations stand in the way of appropriate choices. Since people are basically inert, impulsive and often irrational they would be best off nudged into acceptable behavior, claim the authors. What they call for is "libertarian paternalism" which they argue is not an oxymoron.
A "nudge," according to them, is a noncoercive alteration in the decision-making process, e.g., innocuous details such as the pattern of lines on a road. Professor Sunshine explains that:
For too long, the United States has been trapped in a debate between laissez faire types who believe markets will solve all our problems and the command and control types who believe that if there is a market failure then you need a mandate.
He and his colleague stand astride these views, arguing that an understanding of human irrationality can improve how public and private institutions shape policy. The presumption is that a nudge does not limit free choice; it merely provides a desirable direction.
One example used by the authors is the reluctance of employees to sign up for 401k plans even though it is in their best interest to do so. They suggest that companies adopt automatic enrollment, while retaining an opt-out provision. That would be seen as the right kind of nudge that still allows for free choice.
Professor Thaler has spent a career thinking about decision making and, in his judgment, people often opt for irrational or overly optimistic positions. For example, he notes they are more fearful of unlikely threats like a nuclear power accident then they are something more probable like a car accident.
As I see it, this book is yet another academic argument for the "third way," a path between the free market and the command economy that has failed so many times before. The problem is that the "nudge" will come from the same government and the same bureaucrats often responsible for failures in the public sector. Surely it is fair to say that people sometimes make irrational and undesirable choices in life, but isn't that often true of bureaucrats who have the same temptations? Or are Thaler and Sunshine merely indicating that there are intelligent social engineers who can tell us how to behave?
It seems to me that if you are paternalistic in subliminally nudging someone in the "right direction" you cannot be a libertarian, even if the nudge is intended to be noncoercive. Moreover, even when there are rewards for certain behavior that are well-established and well-understood, some people choose to ignore them. For example, there is an unquestionable correlation between education and a standard of living. A college degree is worth more than a high school diploma, and a PhD is worth more than a college degree. Is there anyone who doesn't know this? Yet many cannot be nudged into higher education.
Professor Thaler argues that many people are more fearful of unlikely threats than probable threats, using nuclear power accidents as an example. Surely Thaler must realize that threats are related to perceptions. As a result of the China Syndrome there is the fear that a nuclear explosion could have widespread and catastrophic consequences, however limited the probability; while a traffic accident -- while more probable -- has limited consequences and is something already integrated into one's consciousness.
Clearly the market mechanism isn't perfect. But it does account for irrational choices, and it assumes as well the ultimate prevalence of what the public wants. As I see it, anyway you cut it, I would prefer the "invisible hand" to the manipulated hand of social engineers. How long would it take for the subtle nudge to become, as the estimable Roger Kimball put it, the big push? Is it enough to say, as Thaler and Sunshine do, that transparency is sufficient to offset the nudging of social engineers? After all, what makes a free economy work is its freedom which includes the freedom to know. And yet, as the authors note, people still make irrational decisions.
It is an illusion to think that there are appropriate alternatives to the free market despite the clever conflation of words in the Thaler-Sunshine thesis. In the end, of course, paternalism is not liberty and liberty cannot be paternalism. *
"Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. Of such is wisdom." --William Butler Yates