Herbert London is the author of Decade of Denial (Lexington Books) and most recently America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books), and publisher of American Outlook. He can be reached at: www.herblondon.org.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is quoted recently as noting that the election of Barack Obama will make the United States "an honest nation and not a hypocritical one." He went on to note that:
Even those who voted against him, like me, say "We're very thankful this has happened. This is the consolation prize. In having lost in terms of the ideology we wanted, or the person we wanted -- John McCain -- the benefit that we got was an America that can say to the world we've overcome the worst thing in our history."
If you look at America which I believe is a great nation, a beautiful nation, a nation of altruistic goals and very often great altruistic accomplishments -- one of the terrible marks against us is slavery and racism, and I think that's a great thing for America to have overcome.
And I believe that will gain us a tremendous amount in the world community. We can now be an honest nation and not a hypocritical one.
As I see it this comment is representative of a stripe of conventional opinion. Presumably the issue of race is now behind us. How can people criticize America on this score when its people elected a person of color?
While I understand the sentiment; I don't understand the logic. Michele Obama once noted she didn't have any pride in America until now, the moment her husband was nominated for president. In a sense, Mayor Giuliani is in agreement for at last we can "overcome the worst thing in our history." Remarkably this comment is devoid of historical texture.
Barack Obama may be the first black president, but he is not the first black to serve in public life. After all Virginia, the seat of the Confederacy, elected a governor who was the grandchild of slaves. The 13th and 14th Amendments were designed specifically to provide rights to blacks emancipated during the Civil War. American forces were integrated during World War II. The color barrier in major league baseball was eliminated in 1947.
While racism was not eliminated, in fact cannot be eliminated through fiat, the United States has been a remarkable racial laboratory for a century, even though these accomplishments have often been ignored, very often, of course, by those who might benefit most from pretending the accomplishments didn't exist.
It is remarkable that this society bent over backwards to address racism by emphasizing race as a source of privilege with affirmative action programs for university admission and job applications. Sure, slavery, using contemporary standards, was an abomination, but, that along with hideous Jim Crow laws was eliminated long before Barack Obama was born.
If one were to take the Giuliani argument at face value, strides against slavery and racism weren't meaningful until the Obama election as president.
This statement, perhaps inadvertently, is yet another example of reflexive American defensiveness. Americans are so inured to criticism that they accept without response the claims made against this nation. Yes, America is an imperfect nation, but with all its blemishes it has done more to establish equality among the races than any place on the globe.
Consider Africa itself, where tribal warfare, race hatred and religious intolerance are rampant. Consider Europeans, who often point fingers patronizing the United States, yet discriminating in wholesale fashion against Laplanders, Moroccans, and Turks.
Recently a French friend said, "At long last America overcame racism and elected a black man." My response: "Please let me know when the French will elect an Algerian president."
We have been cowed into submission by the continual drumbeat of guilt. And even Giuliani, who should know better, has fallen into the ideological trap. Having made mistakes doesn't mean we should feel guilty about our past. I think we should hail the Chief of State and our President-elect Obama, but he is not the messiah; he did not end racist thought, and he isn't the first example of the American spirit of fair play.
Taking from Peter to Pay Paul: International Redistribution
The long road to serfdom seems to be getting shorter with each passing day. At the recent G-20 meeting there was virtually unanimous support for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (point number 14) and a reaffirmation of the development principles agreed to at the 2002 UN Conference on Financing for Development held in Monterrey, Mexico.
Acceptance of this proposition commits the United States to an official foreign aid formula of 0.7 percent of Gross National Product, a goal envisioned in President-elect Barack Obama's Global Poverty Act. In the aggregate this will cost $845 billion of taxpayer assets. Additionally, it is anticipated that President Obama will lobby for the Jubilee Act designed to cancel as much as $75 billion of foreign debt.
Not only are we discussing bailouts of the mortgage industry, financial services, the insurance business, car manufacturers, but we are soon to be the bailout artist for the globe. Some have hailed this as the dawn of a new era in which contributions to the International Monetary Fund and the UN Development Fund will increase exponentially.
For many adversaries, the United States is being cut down to size. But this is actually a voluntary diminution. As the economy falters, it is only a matter of time before America's military dominance declines as well.
Alas, change is just over the horizon. But this is revolutionary change that not only involves the redistribution of wealth at home, but also the distribution of American wealth abroad. Where does it end? In fact, the more pertinent question is How does the United States sustain a sound economy when capital is being dispensed in an almost feverish fashion?
Presumably this capital flush will stimulate liquidity and put the global economy back on track. This, of course, is hoping for the best. But as P. T. Bauer, among other economists of development, has noted, foreign aid rarely affects those most in need and, in most instances, creates a level of dependency that militates against the development it was designed to produce.
This proposal, however, has little to do with sensible policy and a lot to do with ideology and a global equalization program. For decades Americans have been besieged with a drumbeat of have and have-not nations, Northern hemisphere vs. Southern hemisphere disparities, and those who luxuriate in wealth, and the dispossessed.
To some degree, it is understandable that the urge to spread the wealth around is irresistible. But taking from Peter to give to Paul may make Paul happy, but it doesn't do much for Peter. In fact, it doesn't help either of them if Paul becomes dependent on Peter for assistance and Peter grows tired of handing over his wealth. How long before Peter also asks for a handout?
This global equalization program concentrates solely on the role of government, a point made by UN officials and the proposed Obama legislation. Yet most foreign assistance is organized by churches, unions, foundations, universities. In fact, contributions coming from the private sector dwarf those from government.
That condition means very little for those who are persuaded a reallocation of world resources is necessary. What these activists overlook is that their program is essentially beggar thy neighbor. Their plan for redistributing wealth implicitly argues for a static economy, one in which growth is unlikely to occur.
Of course, economies that cannot grow ultimately fail. If taxes are used as the method for redistribution, workers will pretend to work and employers will pretend to pay wages. Envy becomes the prevalent theme and opportunity is relegated to the back burner of economic life. We are a long way from that practice, but if the legislative path we are on isn't curbed the American economy could easily become Europeanized, i.e. stagnant, static, and filled with free loaders.
Compression at the Mean: The American Way
From the founding of this nation to the present there has been an understandable tension between equality and individualism. Clearly we, as Americans, want both, assuming they are reasonably defined.
Equality presumes equal before the law, equal or roughly equal opportunity, and even equal in the eyes of God. But it does not mean or should not mean equal in the race for success and equal economic results.
Yet curiously the nation is moving from the safety net designed to assist those in peril to redistribution or the attempt to equalize economic results, i.e. "spread the wealth around."
This condition I would describe as a belief in compression at the mean, a belief that has penetrated almost every aspect of American life. It is the egalitarian project launched by John Dewey in the 1920s and embraced by President-elect Barack Obama.
Take education as an example. Almost all recent funding in this arena is designed to assist those in the bottom quartile of performance. Schools that are not performing well receive more funding than schools that meet state guidelines, based on the assumption that additional funding can influence performance. And in some cases, this has proven to be the case. The bottom moves closer to the middle of the pack. Yet totally ignored in this distribution scheme are those in the highest quartile, those who might be described as excellent. The consequence, of course, is decline at the top of the achievement pyramid, some upward movement at the bottom and a bulge in the middle.
Assume a similar set of conditions in the tax structure where those who earn over $250,000 (or is it $150,000?) are taxed at a higher rate than those who earn less. Since rebates will be given to those in the bottom quartile of the income structure paid for by those in the top quartile, it would appear that progressivity in the tax system is designed to promote compression at the mean. No one too rich and no one too poor.
The problem with this arrangement is that if you eviscerate the incentive for wealth, those who have the capacity to attain it will be disincentivized. Why earn more if the government intends to take it away and give it to others?
The same situation is emerging in the financial and industrial areas. By offering to jump-start a faltering economy, Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson has advocated assisting some financial houses, but not others. The government assisted J. P. Morgan with the purchase of Bear Stearns, but let Lehman Brothers fail. Consideration is being given to a loan for the Big Three automakers, but not to computer manufacturers. Aside from the fact that government officials can play God and determine who stays in business and who doesn't, these bailouts are predicated on the simple proposition that those companies capable of generating profits and paying taxes will be obliged to assist companies that are failing and need a handout.
The danger is that at some point every company will be asking for assistance. In fact, the egalitarian project will inevitably fail because it destroys the incentive to succeed. By homogenizing economic rewards, government is instituting mediocrity. The society is suggesting that meritorious results should not be sought or valued.
Imagine a situation in which baseball players earning the highest salaries based on performance have to subsidize those who are "200 hitters." What would baseball become? Who would bother attending games or even watching on T.V.?
Yet the movement for compression at the mean continues unabated. Where it will lead is clear. Unfortunately, its devotees don't seem to mind.
Israel's Nuclear Umbrella
Based on Vice President-elect Joseph Biden's comments to Israeli officials and back channel discussions with the Obama team, the new administration will offer Israel a "nuclear umbrella" against the threat of a nuclear attack by Iran. Presumably any attack on Israel will be followed by a devastating U.S. attack against Iran.
Needless to say, how this will actually play out is anyone's guess, but the presumption is that the guarantee makes deterrence increasingly robust. It is the Obama team's response to the alternatives of "doing nothing" or the military option.
In effect it is an admission that Iran will most likely acquire nuclear weapons and despite claims that this is unacceptable, the nuclear guarantee suggests we will do nothing to prevent this development. While this decision is less belligerent than the so-called military option, it cannot allay Israeli fears.
After all, as one Israeli official noted, "What kind of credibility would this guarantee have when Iran is nuclear capable?" If Iran will not acquiesce without this weapon of mass destruction, why should it acquiesce with this weapon?
Moreover, the chatter about this deterrent reinforces the Iranian position that the West is unprepared to thwart nuclear weapons development.
Perhaps the most curious feature of this policy is attempting to convince a resident of Pierre, South Dakota, that he should be embroiled in a nuclear war if Haifa is attacked. The obvious point is that an unthinkable act might not lead to an unthinkable retaliation.
Suppose you can't be sure where the bomb came from. Suppose as well, it is a suitcase bomb assembled and set off by a terrorist organization without a home. And suppose further that China and Russia oppose any retaliation at the UN Security Council. What would President Obama risk? Would he be willing to kill millions of innocent people to stand behind his pledge?
From the Israeli standpoint, the assurance is meaningless. If deterrence works at all with a theological state intent on Armageddon, it is the independent Israeli nuclear force that might make a difference, not a pledge from the United States. Moreover, to the extent the Obama administration insinuates itself directly into Israeli security matters is the extent to which independent Israeli action is diminished.
Ultimately policy options are limited, as the Bush administration realized. If a regime change is not in the offing or a very tough embargo defying Russian and Chinese sentiments is not enacted, the military option is the only real policy alternative that is left. And every signal from the Obama team is that this option will not be entertained.
Hence an American nuclear umbrella is nothing more than a ploy to appear tough and discourage the mullahs intent on weapons acquisition. However, it is so shallow in scope that even the most gullible Persian will see right through it. This is less a policy and more a public relations gambit.
Should this be the Obama foreign policy perspective, "the tests" will come fast and furiously. Deterrence works when claims are credible. When they enter the realm of the imaginary, they are laughable and undermine future options. A nuclear umbrella as a strategy to forestall an Iranian preemptive strike belongs right next to the Maginot Line in the annals of misguided defensive strategies.
The Censorship Justification
In what can only be described as a perplexing review Lorraine Adams, (New York Times Book Review 12/14/08), examines The Jewel of Medina, the Sherry Jones novel about the Prophet Mohammed and his marriage to the nine-year-old A'isha. Employing a sneering tone, Ms. Adams skewers the book as "historical romance," a swipe recognizable to the cognoscenti.
What makes the review notable is that Random House, the original publisher refused to issue the book on the grounds it would offend the Muslim community and might result in a violent reaction. As a consequence, this decision planted the novel squarely in a free speech controversy.
Ms. Adams seems to suggest that since the novel doesn't have literary merit, the Random House decision was appropriate, notwithstanding the fact officials at the publishing house did not use merit or lack thereof as a reason to suspend publication.
Ms. Adams employs a form of moral equivalence in her review suggesting that both Satanic Verses and Martin Scorsese's film, Last Temptation of Christ resulted in violent reaction from Muslim and Christian communities. Presumably when religious groups are offended by an unflattering presentation of doctrine or prophets, violence results.
However, this judgment is skewed in an unrecognizable direction. While there was an incident that resulted from the showing of the Last Temptation of Christ, it is difficult, alas implausible, to contend that Christians engage in violent behavior when Jesus is besmirched or Church doctrine is violated. In fact, Dan Brown's DaVinci Code also promoted the blasphemous idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, but I could not find any evidence of violence against the book or the film. Criticism, yes; violence, no.
Contrast that stand with the consistent pattern of violence when Muslims are offended. In fact, to suggest that the two religious responses to offense are comparable enters the realm of the absurd. Quoting a professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas, Ms. Adams notes:
I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography.
Well, yes, you can as Dan Brown demonstrated. Moreover, even well-meaning professors of Islamic studies do not know the full story of the Prophet Mohammed and A'isha. Why isn't Ms. Jones entitled to poetic license in a novel?
Since Lorraine Adams cannot defend Random House's imposition on free speech, she contends "Jones' prose is lamentable." And "An inexperienced, untalented author has naively stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument." But when did it become unacceptable for an author to step into a sensitive intellectual argument?
One doesn't have to applaud Ms. Jones' effort to approve of the publication of her book. Nor does one have to regard it as art in order to countenance publication. I am often astonished at the trash that makes the New York Times bestseller list.
As a final fillip Ms. Adams notes that:
It is telling that PEN, the international association of writers that works to advance literature and defend free expression has remained silent on the subject of the novel.
Could it be that PEN is also intimidated by the prospect of violence? Or might PEN be so inured to political correctness, it only defends free expression when it happens to be consonant with prevailing sentiments at this august body?
Ms. Adams has delivered another in a long line of patronizing reviews in the book review section. But this one, in my opinion, crosses the line of fair play. Whether Jones has written a masterpiece or an historical romance is of little consequence. After all, historical romances do get published. What is noteworthy is that a writer at the Times has attempted to justify censorship using a qualitative standard of her preferences and relegating violence to an incidental concern of the Random House officials. No wonder many of us think free speech is imperiled. *
". . . [W]hat folks claim is right is always just a couple of jumps short of what they need to do business. Now an individual, one fellow, he will stop doing business because he's got a notion of what is right, and he is a hero. But folks in general, which is society, Doc, is never going to stop doing business. Society is just going to cook up a new notion of what is right. Society is sure not ever going to commit suicide. At least, not that way and of a purpose." --Robert Penn Warren: All the King's Men