Herbert London is Senior Fellow of the Manhattan Institute, and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).
Schadenfreude and the Government Shutdown
Now that the dust has cleared and government services are open and available, let me engage in Monday morning quarterbacking.
Right after his 2012 election victory President Obama did something he rarely does: he tuned in to Fox News. Nothing, he noted at the time, is more satisfying than schadenfreude or what might be described as the mischievous delight in the misfortune of others. In this case, President Obama rejoiced over the defeat of his opponents.
Although a year passed since the president's triumph, he still refers to Republicans as "enemies" rather than adversaries. He refuses to engage in negotiations over Obamacare and he remains intractable over the debt limit. If there is one area in which he is prideful, it is putting Republicans in the position of seemingly responsible for the government shutdown. Schadenfreude lives.
The evidence for this claim is palpable. House conservatives have dropped all of their major demands, including defunding and delaying Obamacare, only to see President Obama reject their proposal for ending the stalemate. He was intent on total victory, a stance that vindicates his position whether or not it is good for the country, or even good for the normal give and take of politics.
At long last, members in the Senate on both sides of the aisle have finally begun to focus on the major budget issues, e.g., a broad deficit reduction deal. In the shadows stand financial markets jittery about the impasse and fearful the inability to strike a deal could lead to default.
The contours of a deal were always evident: fund the government until mid-March, raise the debt limit through January, and tighten income eligibility rules for those receiving government subsidies for insurance. What may be the key factor, however, is whether the president would blink. For him, Obamacare is the centerpiece of this presidency. Even though he has violated the rules of his own bill by allowing exemptions for unions and the Congress, he is adamantly opposed to adjustments that would influence spending. He didn't blink and, by any reasonable estimate, did win.
It should be noted that some Republicans engaged in overreaching through their effort to repeal Obamacare; yet one might assume that any president would stand above the fray by considering conditions that would allow for compromise.
There is only one person who could have cut the Gordian knot and that is President Obama. However, the president remained in his bunker, sure of this position, and vehement about its retention. This is schadenfreude in its full glory. The president appeared to be more concerned with opinion polls showing public sentiment leaning against Republicans than the welfare of the nation, alas, of global financial markets.
Yes, I do believe a deal was inevitable. There was too much at stake for this not to happen, but the president wanted this to appear as a victory for himself and a defeat for Republicans. That goal is not merely childish, it is vindictive. It also reveals a lot about this presidency after only one year through the second term.
Freedom as a Natural Condition?
It has been argued in several of the intellectual journals in the West, that the aspiration for freedom is a universal goal, that most societies admire the freedoms we enjoy and wish to emulate us. As I see it, this proposition is one of the more pernicious illusions we entertain.
Surely there are those who build monuments to freedom such as the 1989 dissidents in Tiananmen Square, but most people have never lived in free societies, nor exhibited any desire or capacity for freedom. In this era, there are many examples of those who have enjoyed freedom yet have abandoned it in the name of a passionate cause. This illusion has been happily indulged by many commentators on the Arab Spring.
There are those who assume, for example, that deep in the heart of a Muslim Brother resides a freedom fighter eager to be untethered. But this assumption is belied by the "umma," the united Muslim world that opposes individual impulses. The notion of a free Muslim is related to a person deceiving himself into believing he is free because of his religious dedication. However, this is not freedom; it is the exaltation of the faith over the self-expression of the person. Under present circumstances, those who embrace the Koran's prescriptions must assume a generalized view of fidelity that subordinates freedom.
For many, the idea of individual choice is unsettling. These people would rather have a life plan mapped out for them including when to pray, when to eat, and with whom to congregate. Freedom in this context is fear provoking; it is vulnerable to those who attempt to seduce with dreams of perfection. It is a short step from this dream of perfection (read: utopia) to an expansive government that manages most aspects of our lives and relieves the individuals of freedom's burdens.
There is a balance in our society between rules backed by legal principle and free choice we do not want to see disturbed. Establishing and maintaining that balance is not easy. Since imperfections are a function of human fallibility, there are always those who will promise that increased civil authority can remove social imperfections.
The big government engineer and the religious zealot often have much in common, especially their mutual desire to employ the instrument of coercion to eliminate perceived social imperfections or injustice. A truly free person recognizes the defects in himself and the extension of flaws in the community he inhabits. He resists the attempt to equate freedom and self-interest, and the desire to redress the wrongs of history with the palliatives of expansive authority.
For most people the signs of inequality in income and status require remediation through the stifling of choice and the superordination of other principles: e.g., justice, redemption, and salvation.
It is said that freedom is not to be trifled with. Precious as it is, freedom is not sought by everyone. In fact, freedom is not security, but opportunity: the opportunity to choose. Of course many choose unwisely. Perhaps freedom is what people should strive for; but, in the whirlpool of chaos, freedom is a forgotten muse.
Thomas Paine noted that: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it." That fatigue can surrender to slavishness, even for unsuspecting avatars of freedom who have diminished will to defend it. That is the question of the moment: Does mankind have the will to strive for freedom where it doesn't exist and have the will to defend it where it still exists? It was once easier to answer this question than it is now.
UN Week in New York
Diplomats gravitate from all over the globe to New York City for United Nations week. Traffic is snarled and barriers block midtown streets so the panjandrums of the globe can determine the fate of Syria, nuclear weapons in Iran, and a Palestinian state. But this is only part of the reality.
These so-called diplomats representing every form of tyrannical regime are in New York to indulge themselves. Strip joints are filled to capacity. African "statesmen" in Brioni suits are preoccupied with jiggling strippers. And prostitutes are booked solid. New York is Gomorrah and the UN officials love it.
Moreover, so do their wives and significant others. Bergdorf Goodman has a queue in front of its Fifth Avenue store as women line up for baubles and beads, threads and make-up, aggregating to impressive five figure numbers. Even Arab women in black burkas buy Prada gear to keep under their make-shift effort at phony modesty.
The veneer of respectability is accepted by most New Yorkers because the cash registers are on overtime, but there is a perverse dimension to this decadence. Most of these national representatives wouldn't be able to recognize a human rights issue if it bit them in the rear end.
When they do speak in the UN forum, they mouth the words that were assigned to them. In more instances than one might guess, the representatives are recovering from stupor-inducing revelry. There aren't any issues in the UN, only interests. Most of the states are dictatorships placed in the ironic position of deciding the political liberty of others. At the General Assembly every state has the same influence whether it be Micronesia or China. To call it a farce, does not do justice to the words "farce" or "fairness" or even common sense.
Yet this debating society for no ostensible principle continues. Who would give it up? The U.S. pays approximately 25 percent of the bill, so most nations can beat up on America and not have to spend a dime for their frivolity. Diplomats look forward to their once-a-year bacchanalia. Significant others can shop till they drop in Fifth Avenue stores all at the expense of peasants who eke out a living wage in their homeland. And diplomats can get lap dances to feed their sexual fantasies instead of tap dances on the brain that may one day await them at home.
Of course, all of the debating during the day occurs with faux seriousness. National leaders understand that the Security Council is all that counts, and even there, one veto can call into question any initiative. If truth be known, the General Assembly is comparable to a meeting of Mafia dons. Many are present, but only primus inter pares counts, i.e., the U.S., China, and Russia.
This charade results in overtime payments for New York's Finest, frustration for truckers, and a city caught in gridlock. Mayor Bloomberg says this is a great week for New York. It may be a great week for the mayor since his escort brushes traffic away like dandruff, but for the rest of us UN week is hell.
Three so-called diplomats from Mogadishu bought an apartment on the upper eastside near Park Avenue. The price tag was equivalent to half the GDP of Somalia, which is only a slight exaggeration. Not only is this a pad for fun and games, it is a probable exit habitat when the government changes hands. This kind of transaction takes place in plain sight with the cognoscenti aware that the money for this transaction comes off the backs of unwary Somalians. Yes, it's good to be king or, at least, a diplomat at the UN.
At long last, UN week is almost over. But already, plans are being made for next year. Perhaps as a change of pace, UN Week in 2014 should be held in Mogadishu. There might even be a special session on piracy. Talk about rebellion; it will never happen. UN Week must be held in New York and I think you know why this is the case.
Who Are We?
Here is a question that haunts America today. The distinguished historian Samuel Huntington has an answer based on founding documents and a national creed. But the answer of a decade ago seems weak, almost feckless, in a nation transformed by demography, educational inadequacy, and historical amnesia. I readily admit this "new nation" is a new nation I don't understand and am at a loss to describe. But try I will in any case.
Culturally, America has been degraded. Even Rhythm and Blues seems like Mozart compared to dissonant Rap and its vile lyrics. Television programming has evolved, or is it devolved, from "Omnibus" to "Dexter" as the envelope of taste is pushed to ever new boundaries. Should anyone decry this development, he is put in the "prison" of First Amendment violator.
Schools have been converted into playpens and nurseries rather than centers of learning. Whatever deficiencies the Little Red Schoolhouse had, its students learned to read. How is it that with advanced technology and lavish expenditures, contemporary schools still produce illiterates? When did self-esteem replace effort and rigor? I have encountered many students who tell me what they are capable of doing, but rarely do the work to accomplish their goals. There is the expectation that success is a function of willing it.
When did charity become an entitlement? The expansion of rights has come at the price of responsibility. Whatever happened to the aphorism, "God helps those who help themselves?" During a smallpox scare in the early 1940s my mother took me to a local hospital for the inoculation. As we were about to leave my mom asked the nurse, "How much is the fee?" The nurse replied that since your son sleeps in the same bedroom as his parents - the standard for poverty in that time - no fee is required. Rather than leave, my mom said "We do not take charity. I insist on paying." After a meeting with the hospital attendant, she did. There was simply too much pride for her to accept a handout.
That spirit has evanesced as the government buys, supports, and induces dependency with dozens of government programs that offer handouts. This is certainly not what the Founders meant by "the Land of the Free." But from cell phones to food, from housing to computers, Uncle Sam is on the ready with "gifts."
Without seeking phantoms to slay across the globe, presidents in the past recognized America's moral and political role in world affairs. Sacrifices were made with blood and treasure to preserve world order. Now we have President Obama, a man who does not believe in the national missions of the past and, despite his denunciation of poison gas in Syria, has encouraged our once enemy - Russia - to dictate the terms of adjudication in the region. From hegemon to captive in merely five years.
Despite a racial divide in the nation's history, extraordinary steps have been taken over the last half-century to integrate blacks into every aspect of American life. To a degree unfathomable a generation ago, this effort has been successful. Surely it is not perfect, but what is?
Nonetheless, a cadre of race extortionists has emerged that foment racial antagonism for its own benefit. Rather than rely on the progress of racial programs, these "hustlers" seek out examples and often exaggerate events in order to enhance positions in their own community and play on the guilt of the white population eager for expiation. But can a nation riven by hatred find union? As long as the Reverend Sharpton, among others, can enlarge his bank account, the question is irrelevant. Unity is not good for his business.
Although political scandal is not new to American history with Harding, Cleveland, and Kennedy coming to mind, it is hard to believe that admitted perverts would shamelessly run for two of the highest offices in New York City. It wasn't long ago when perversity would foreclose on electability. In fact, those accused of such matters wouldn't consider running. Of course, the two candidates lost in the primary. But the fact they received more than one percent of the vote suggests taboos are in retreat.
Whether it is dumbing down, decadence, excessive pride, dependency or the lack of leadership, the United States is undergoing profound change. I can't say who we are, but I am sure it is not who we were. America, once the model of emulation, is a nation seen differently abroad and acting differently at home.
The World I've Known Has Come to an End
There was a time not so long ago when I could select my own doctor. There was a time when I could choose my health insurance company. There was a time when everyone believed Marxism was a failure, an idea relegated to the ash heap of history. There was a time when class warfare occurred in other places far away, but Americans believed in opportunity, not sponging from others.
Was that really not so long ago? It is true President Obama said he would transform America. He has lived up to his promise. Our Constitution has been twisted into an unrecognizable document. Washington has become a lawless town where criminals are heroes and heroes are ignored. Peace through strength - the bipartisan belief that military preparedness preserves order - has been converted into peace through prayer. If you hope for the best, it just might occur.
Although racial profiling has been lambasted, its opponents base racial fairness on a race-based test, i.e.,the number of arrests must be equal to the number of a racial group in a given community. If crime is committed by a racial group that is disproportionate to its number in the population, that's too bad.
Common sense is on vacation. People who have violated the law and sing misogynistic lyrics are rewarded as millionaires in the rap world. Teachers who engage youthful students in sexual escapades cannot be fired. The aggregate pension liability for retired police officers and firefighters in New York City is more than the salaries of active employees. Laws that Congress passes for the rest of America do not necessarily apply to it. And a congressman tells us that the Tea Party, based on a grassroots effort to limit the expansion of government, is equivalent to the KKK, and if you have the temerity to disagree with him, you are a racist.
Four Americans killed in Benghazi (including the ambassador) defending the embassy are ignored by the Secretary of State who said, "What difference does it make?" American students are more likely to know the winner on "American Idol" than the authors of the Federalist Papers.
Sophistry is the language of politics and television news. "Fairness" is taking from some and giving to others. Taxes are referred to as "investments." Adversaries are enemies and enemies are friends. Islam is a religion of peace. The use of poison gas is a red line - oh, I meant a dotted line. The IRS is an "independent agency." A deadline was established for the introduction of Obamacare, but it wasn't meant as a "deadline." The president asserted and reasserted that: "If you like your doctor or healthcare plan, you can keep it." Lies are merely "misinterpretations."
When there is so little to rely on, the basis for civilized stability is undone. I observe tweeters on the street who communicate in 140 characters and cannot express a thoughtful opinion. Is it any wonder? Technology has given us many new opportunities, but these opportunities are saddled with toxins. So what if I can find out what you are having for dinner or who you are dating. Does it make a difference? All we have are distractions from what really matters.
What does matter are the interests of the nation. To my astonishment, the president has given Russia a veto over American foreign policy and the State Department has channeled foreign policy decisions through the United Nations, an organization reflexively opposed to American interests.
In surveying this landscape I realize that I am an alien in a foreign land. I don't speak the language of puerile adolescents that dominate the media. I remain a patriot, albeit patriotism itself is an antediluvian idea. And I regard government's coercive effort to redistribute wealth as theft. My world is at an end. There won't be a funeral for the deceased nation, but there will be a lamentation. This is it. *