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.
When Chris Matthews of "Hardball" indicated that it was "our job" to get Obama elected and then to make him look good, a new chapter in national journalism emerged. By any stretch of the imagination this is cheerleading, not journalism. And in the several months since Barack Obama acceded to the presidency, Americans have witnessed the equivalent of the Adoration of the Magi.
This schoolgirl crush knows no bounds. Obama's reliance on the teleprompter is explained as a desire to assert a tightly knit and well thought through message. One might just as well argue the president cannot deliver a message extemporaneously.
His mistakes are viewed as timing issues. During a G-20 speech in London the president attempted to equate the language in the Declaration of Independence with sloganeering during the French Revolution -- a dubious analogy to begin with. However, after saying "liberte" he stopped and seemingly lost his way. This awkward pregnant pause was thwarted when his eyes found the teleprompter and the words "egalite and fraternite." Members of the press, however, described this as a pause for "emphasis."
Even the president's odd apology to the assembled nations that legitimized anti-American sentiment ("the U.S. was sorry for wrecking transatlantic relations") was greeted as the beginning of a healthy relationship with our allies.
The New York Times, caught in the Messiah syndrome, rationalizes every word from the president's lips as thoughtful and articulate. Moreover, as A.A. Gill noted (4/5/09) when the president stepped up to 10 Downing Street, he shook the hand of a police officer standing guard and as a consequence, "showed the British how to be classlessly classy." Maureen Dowd argued that Barack Obama "grew up learning how to slip in and out of different worlds -- black and white, foreign and American, rich and poor." He "knows how to manipulate." As opposed to George W. Bush who was "manipulated."
As ever, Bush is the handy stooge, the polar opposite of Obama. For the Times' columnists Bush is the exemplar of everything that went wrong, the cowboy rough around the edges. But suppose, for the sake of argument, Bush shook the hand of the bobby standing guard at the Prime Minister's residence. My guess is the headline would have read "the unclassy Bush does it again and violates diplomatic protocol."
Surely the press should point out positive things a president does, but journalism and cheerleading aren't compatible. The president has his public relations flaks who attempt to put a positive spin on everything he says and does. He doesn't need a sycophantic press corps. In fact, an honest portrayal of presidential action is what the country requires.
Instead the American public is getting a consistently worshipful tone. Writing in the Washington Post, Tom Shales describes a presidential press conference in the following way:
Most of the facets of President Obama's personality that have made him intensely popular were on display last night during his second prime-time news conference, and so he emerged from it still every inch "President Wonderful," as it were, untouched and intact.
Because of this cupidity, policies are overlooked, policies that are changing the face of America. What we have in its place is a personality cult with image replacing substance and press bias substituting for reportage. If this honeymoon continues unabated Americans may witness the most formidable policy shifts in the history of this nation without journalistic accounting.
The press love affair with Obama may make him look good, but whether this is a healthy state of affairs for the nation remains questionable. I prefer to pray for the Messiah rather than pray to the Messiah the press corps has invented.
Human Rights and Free Speech
The United Nations is at it again. Recently the human rights organization approved a proposal launched by Muslims to protect Islam from criticism. A simple plurality of 23 members of the 47-nation Human Rights Council voted in favor of the resolution. Eleven Western nations opposed it and 13 abstained.
The resolution urges states to provide:
. . . protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation, and coercion resulting from defamation of religious and incitement to religions hatred in general.
According to Terry Counier, the Canadian representative, "it is individuals who have rights and not religions," a criticism echoed by most European Union countries.
But the council is dominated by Muslim and African nations that have argued religion, in particular Islam, must be shielded from criticism in the media and other areas of public discourse. Specific reference was made to the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed as an example of "unacceptable free speech." The resolution noted: "Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism."
The United States did not cast a vote on the resolution because it is not a member of the Council. Bush administration members voiced disapproval of the Council's reflexive anti-Israel posture and its failure to act on abuses in Sudan and elsewhere.
This latest resolution will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on free speech whatever the intent of the Council. Geert Wilders' Fitna, a film depicting violence in many Muslim nations, would be treated as a crime. Even the use of terminology such as Islamo-fascism might be interpreted as incitement. Could one even condemn suicide bombers, shahadists, who believe they are acting in the Prophet's name?
Moreover, the blanket assertion that Islam is wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism is contradicted by the Koran itself and events in the news. Unless one embraces Sharia, the abuse of woman, the stoning of adulteresses and honor killings are clearly violations of human rights. And while most Muslims do not engage in acts of terror, those who do frequently justify this behavior with reference to the Koran, specifically the Verses of the Sword.
The other curious, arguably hypocritical, matter is that some Islamists use free speech provisions in the West to attack Christianity as polytheism and an unworthy religion, and attack Jews as apes and pigs. If criticism of Islam is banned, does that resolution apply to all religion?
At stake with this Human Rights Council resolution is the essence of Western civilization that rests on a foundation of open expression of different and even unpopular opinion. If the nations of the world concede this point, Islamic religion would be provided a free speech sanctuary, and opinion of any kind that might violate the sensibility of mullahs would be relegated to a criminal offense.
While this may appear to be an innocuous development, its implications are profound. Europe, already in an accommodationist mood, would slide even further into the Eurabia scenario described by Bernard Lewis, among others. Muslims would be treated as a separate, and to some degree, privileged category and the Christian civilization, as Winston Churchill argued we must defend, will have engaged in a form of preemptive surrender.
At this point, the Europeans have opposed the resolution that passed. Does that mean they must acquiesce in the resolution's provisions? Is the intent of this action to impose Islamic will on the world? And if this is to be the standard, how will violators be punished? Can a critic of Islam travel to Pakistan?
The questions pose a dilemma for anyone who believes in free and untrammeled expression. Is the metaphorical door closing on Western freedom? The signs at this Geneva-based Human Rights meeting are not hopeful.
What's Good for the Goose Isn't Good for the Gander
One might assume that standards that prevail on one part of the globe might be applied equally to another part of the world. One might assume as well that what is good for the goose might be good for the gander. Well you might assume that, but in contemporary life you would be wrong. Some behavior tacitly and vehemently accepted by radicals within the Islamic community is rejected when applied by others.
According to erstwhile president Jimmy Carter, Israeli checkpoints on the Gaza border designed to forestall terrorism are an example of "apartheid." However, the former president has not said a word about Saudi Arabian policy that bars non-Muslims from Mecca and from holding Saudi citizenship.
Any criticism of the Koran such as the Geert Wilders' film Fitna is greeted with a fatwa and a variety of death threats. But Muslim claims that Christians are polytheists and infidels and Jews are the progeny of apes and pigs -- comments routinely made in many mosques -- are presumably protected by free speech provisions.
American universities (Georgetown, Columbia, Harvard) have been encouraged to promote programs that encourage toleration and understanding of Islam. Yet not one major university in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan has a Western studies program that engenders toleration and understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Geert Wilders was denied entry into England, after receiving an invitation to speak at the House of Commons, for fear that his speech might incite a Muslim protest. Yet a grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood who routinely provides an apologia for terrorism has an appointment at Cambridge University.
When officials in the state of Florida asked a Muslim woman to remove her hijab for an ID photo, they were accused of Islamophobia. However, Muslim nations demand that even the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and the First Lady cover their hair when visiting their countries.
After the revelations of Abu Ghraib -- horrible as they were -- the United States was excoriated in the Muslim world as "the vilest of nations." Yet when Muslim men hang and flog women for adultery, we are told -- using a standard of cultural relativism -- that we have no right to judge these actions.
It has been noted at Gitmo that a Koran in the toilet is a hate crime. However, burning the contents of the Library of Alexandria is legitimate because it is an expression of Muslim views of non-Muslim literature.
A Christian who becomes a Muslim is honored by the members of his adopted faith. A Muslim who wants to convert to Christianity is an apostate who faces the death penalty.
Prejudice against Muslims is deemed unacceptable in every major news outlet in the Western world. Yet Muslim prejudice against Jews, women, Christians, homosexuals, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists elicits scarcely a word of condemnation.
Clearly hypocrisy reigns, but the real problem is that these illustrations -- which only touch the tip of the proverbial iceberg -- suggest that Muslims want a free pass to treat negative commentary as Islamophobia. On the other hand, these same people feel free to use the institutions in the West to express hatred of others and support for terrorism. Remarkably the avatars of political correctness often agree with them.
If a Danish cartoonist cannot draw pictures of Mohammed, then Muslim protestors should be restrained from calling for his murder. Tolerance cannot be a one-way street. If Arab protestors can stand in front of the Israeli Knesset carrying Hamas flags, then Israeli protestors should be free to carry banners in behalf of the IDF in Ramallah.
As I see it, Muslims have grown too comfortable in raising the specter of Islamophobia. Unless there is mutual respect -- a claim President Obama is making -- there cannot be any respect. Unless there is genuine reciprocity, tolerance is an empty word. It is time for the West to not only assert the foundational traditions of its history, it is also time to argue that our institutions cannot be employed to destroy our civilization.
Atlas Ready to Shrug
In a little over two months since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the United States has become a different nation. It is not merely the transfer of trillions of taxpayer dollars from the government to designated industries. It is not only the de-leveraging in the private sector and the re-leveraging in the public sector. It is not solely the dramatic increase in aggregate debt. The primary issue, as I see it, is the method employed to achieve these goals and the disregard for personal liberty and the Constitution. Atlas is getting ready to shrug.
Let me cite an example. On March 24th, 2009, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Rep. Barney Frank's committee passed a bill giving Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner extensive control over the salaries of employees working at companies receiving bailout funds. This bill goes well beyond the removal of Richard Wagoner as President of General Motors. The "Pay for Performance Act of 2009" would impose government control on the salary of all employees -- not just senior executives -- of every company receiving a capital investment from the government.
Presumably the legislation is designed to prohibit "excessive compensation" -- a somewhat obscure standard to say the least, but one to be adjudicated by Mr. Geithner. This legislation will soon be coming before the full House of Representatives for a vote at a time when the populist tocsin of anti-elitism is in the air we breathe.
Yet it is interesting that Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution -- that enumerates the powers of Congress -- does not mention the power to determine salaries in the private sector, nor does it mention bailouts and the extra-Constitutional authority these bailouts confer. It is remarkable that the Democratic-led Congress and the Obama administration consider it appropriate to assume such power and equally remarkable that no one, to my knowledge, has pointed out the unconstitutional nature of this decision.
This, of course, is not the only example. The Obama administration, through TARP allocations, permitted bonuses at AIG in those divisions that generated a profit. In fact, contracts were signed to this effect. However, when the story leaked that $150 million would be allocated to AIG executives in the company that had received billions in bailout funds, an outcry arose from the public so shrill the White House was obliged to respond.
Rather than note that our Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws and bills of attainder (the so-called "bonus tax" being one of the latter) and that the bonuses were given with forethought from the administration, President Obama joined the chorus of angry citizens and demanded a return of the money. Surely this president, who has taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago, must know that such bills of attainder provisions are illegal. If our Constitution means anything, contracts that are conducted legally and in good faith require an obligation by both parties to meet the terms of the agreement. The Fifth Amendment states clearly:
No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty or property without the due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.
Yet here is America in Constitutional denial as the Obama administration marches blithely into a Brave New World of expansive government control over the private sector. Whether socialism has come to this land of the free or whether this is an invasion of European leveling is too early to say. But it is already clear that the change Mr. Obama discussed during the course of his presidential campaign is here and it is transformative.
Moreover, despite the claim that this is a temporary shift of priorities in order to ameliorate the meltdown in the credit markets, it is instructive to recall Milton Friedman's admonition that there is nothing more permanent than a temporary government decision. My great grandchildren will be dealing with the changes initiated today a century from now. And even though I hope my prediction is wrong, these actions taken in haste by the President and the Congress are altering the foundational principles of our nation into the indefinite future. No wonder I see tears flowing down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty. She doesn't recognize her country.
There is little doubt that the French are enthralled with President Obama. The presumption is that a new era in French/American relations has been launched. Since it is too early to assess the president's policies, I have asked my French friends what accounts for their enthusiasm. Although the comments vary, there is a central theme: a man of color will lead us forward.
Despite the sincerity of this claim, I find it curious. On the one hand, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic argue Obama has ushered in a post-racial period in which racial attitudes are irrelevant. Yet they also suggest that the color of his skin is critical in the assessment of his presidency.
Needless to say, hypocrisy is not restricted to the Obama presidency. However, black celebrities who have been interviewed invariably say that at long last they can believe in a president and now they "have come to love America." Presumably a black American or for that matter an Algerian residing in France couldn't admire an American president or the nation until a man of color became president.
It is one thing to identify racial pride, but the attitude on display suggests that many Americans deriving all the benefit and privileges the United States confers did not appreciate or understand these conditions until a black man was elected president.
Either this suggests remarkable ignorance or a willful disregard for the unique qualities America possesses. American liberty wasn't born with Obama. Moreover, despite errors in the past and the mistreatment of blacks through a substantial portion of the national history, politicians in both parties have attempted to redress the wrong of the past over the last half century.
History did not begin with Bill Clinton, did not cease with George W. Bush, and was not resuscitated with Barack Obama. Remarkably that is not the way the Obama era is being treated.
Every French bookstore has books on Obama prominently displayed. His picture is far more prominent in France than President Sarkozy. In fact, every breath the new American president takes is recorded for posterity. This fascination with Obama has reached ridiculous proportions especially when one considers that his presidency is about a fortnight in duration.
Some French commentators rather patronizingly say it is about time Americans had a black president. I usually greet this comment with a question: When will France have an Algerian president or perhaps one from Cote d'Ivoire? My question is usually met with silence accompanied by a frown.
As I see it, the Obama election demonstrates how far we've progressed and how little we've progressed. On one level, Americans can elect a president notwithstanding his race. On another level, race was an overarching factor in his election and in his international standing.
Suppose for the sake of argument, Obama serves two terms and is succeeded by Eric Holder, the Attorney General designate who is also black. In sixteen years a teenager at the moment will have known only black presidents during this formative period in his political life. Would he in the middle of 2024 suggest that its time we had a white president? Or would he note that he couldn't appreciate the quality of American liberty until a white man were elected to the highest office in the land? On any level these questions are absurd, but are they any more absurd than the chant echoing through contemporary life that America can finally be appreciated because a black man has been elected? Is race -- either as a positive or negative -- a national obsession? And from my point of view, isn't it time we gave it a rest and truly got beyond the racial question completely. *
"He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others." --Samuel Johnson