Herb London is president of the London Center for Policy Research and is co-author with Jed Babbin of The BDS War Against Israel.
Self-Censorship and the First Amendment
Rising from the ugly portals of dictatorship and control, is the irrevocable value of open expression. Free speech, indeed the ability to make decisions for yourself, is a gift bequeathed to citizens residing with Western traditions. At times speech is hateful and tasteless - an unappetizing feature of freedom. But this is a price willingly paid to assure free exchange.
These platitudinous comments are now being challenged by a theological view that there is only one way to live, think, and conduct oneself. That is the essence of sharia - part law and largely a way of life. Many Muslims choose this way voluntarily, some have it imposed and some ignore it completely. Nonetheless, there is an army, admittedly a minority army, comprised of many thousands or perhaps millions who wish to impose "this way" on others. For them, free speech is incompatible with sharia. In order to maintain equilibrium in the minds of the truly faithful jihadis, open expression must be squelched. There isn't any compromise, nor is there any opportunity for rational exchange. The die is cast and only force remains.
What the West observed in the murderous attack on a satirical magazine and its editorial staff in Paris [also in Garland, Texas] was not merely retaliation for cartoons depicting the Prophet unfavorably, but a religious impulse to close the channels of free expression. Freedom for jihadis is realized when everyone embraces Islam and the world is at peace.
This is a civilizational conflict, fought on the terrain of religious doctrine and often tasteless cultural actions. But whether the manifest form of expression is tasteless is less relevant than the ability to express it. It is hard to defend the purveyors of smut or Nazi marches in Jewish communities or those who throw excrement on Christian symbols, but as much as these actions should be criticized and condemned, the price of liberty is the acceptance of the disagreeable for the acceptance of Constitutional virtue.
To my surprise, there is a movement in the West that rationalizes the extremist sentiments within Islam, noting that "it is a religion of peace" or "most Muslims are peaceful." Curiously very few journalists ask the obvious question: What are the conditions in Islam that promote violent behavior? To do so, would not only be regarded as "Islamophobic," but ironically would trigger a violent response.
Many in the West have been rendered paralyzed by fear and political correctness. What one might say about a Jew or a Catholic, could never be said about a Muslim. It is inconceivable that there would be a play on Broadway about the Prophet comparable to The Book of Mormon. When a play about Prophet Mohammed was launched in Washington D.C. decades ago, the mayor was shot. That was an opening and closing.
Self-censorship is in the Zeitgeist. So many are concerned about the reaction of controversial opinion that they lose sight of the fact that by sacrificing openness, freedoms - to which we often give lip service - are being eroded. It is not merely the First Amendment that is at risk; rational discourse itself is imperiled. The absurd commentary rationalizing the murders in Paris is a case in point. Where are the probing questions, alas, the obvious questions? Where is the outrage? Why do we accord a standard for one religion that doesn't apply to others? These queries await a response but all that one hears is a whimper.
Big Questions: The Great Books Have No Simple Answers
In the January 2013 issue of First Things, Professor Patrick Deneen contends that the decline in the study of great books is to be found in the very arguments within the great books themselves.
While these arguments do exist, their role and the extent of their influence are difficult to assess. Admittedly, the reflexive use of "critical thinking" as an argument for the study of great books is absurd, since no one quite knows what it is or how to achieve it. Moreover, the essence of any thinking is related to a knowledge core and experience base. Without these conditions, "critical thinking" is merely one more clich in the armory of academic rhetoric.
John Dewey argued that the reading of great books was essential as a preparation for citizenship. But since his view of citizenship was an individual circumscribed by "the collective," the readings are designed to justify an end, not as an open-ended dialogue.
Then there is the view that great books lead inevitably to a humanitarian stance, a hallmark civilizational insight. Yet Joseph Mengele, the depraved Nazi butcher, was a scholar of classic texts. Books can make a world and can destroy the world or even be irrelevant to the world. Great books have housed within them the treasure of human wisdom, but it is not revealed by simple reading. Are there books designed to perpetuate virtue or to transform education? This bifurcated model offered by Professor Deneen is a useful concept. For if one accepts the latter stance of transformation, great books may be an encumbrance best displaced from the heart of education.
Deneen concludes by suggesting that we consider
. . . humble books, or at least great books that teach humility, in contrast to those great books that advance a version of Promethean greatness as an aspiration that has undermined the study of books.
What is ultimately called for is a
. . . liberation from the tyranny of our unconscious submission to the ideas that dominate our age by considering others that have been discarded.
Clearly this is praise, albeit modest praise, for "humble books" as a witness for where we stand at the moment. But I remain unpersuaded by his argument, in part because Deneen does not truly address the importance of great books in the total educational experience. He is right to contend that these texts do not necessarily mold citizens, or encourage critical thought, or offer civilizational insights. These are weak confirmations for great books as an educational core.
What is important, what stands as the justification for great books, is that the canon asks the appropriate questions, questions that, as Cardinal Newman noted, go to the very essence of education. Instead of being narrowly defined by disciplinary restrictions, great books cut across the human experience to ask: Why are we here? How do we leave our mark? How do we control inner desires? To whom do we owe allegiance and why? And, recognizing the inevitability of death, what gives life meaning?
These, of course, are not the only questions, but they are queries unfastened to disciplinary study. Moreover, these are questions designed to inspire thought, not simple answers, since those aren't readily available. In a university setting where vocationalism is in the ascendency, a place where students often regurgitate the expected response to professional testing, such questions, which provoke serious reflection and thought, are rarely on display.
Yet it is these questions that lie at the heart of education, and it is these questions that are evoked from the reading of great books. Professor Deneen appropriately tells us to moderate our claims about these texts. I would agree, yet I would urge him to consider the real reason why these books should remain at the very center of the curriculum. In education, the question is often more significant than the answer.
Hillary's Foreign Policy "Achievements"
Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for president and the Earth did not move. This wasn't exactly a surprise since the bench in the Democratic Party isn't deep. Her brief for doing so is based on the claim she is a woman who cares about the middle class. Of course, this is an odd construction since she had little experience as a member of this class.
Many journalists have commented on her various dissimulations from her opposition to the "surge" in Iraq to her Benghazi testimony to being fired upon in Serbia to her private emails to her financial bonanza on a $1,000 investment in the commodities market. What remains unanalyzed, though, is her foreign policy record.
After all, this subject is the basis for her professional experience. As secretary of state, she did have experience on an international scale. But what, if anything, did she accomplish?
Mrs. Clinton argues that she put together the sanctions regimen that culminated in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. Since she cannot cite one example of a nation that went from instability to stability on her watch, the sanctions regime is her claim to success. Curiously, this assertion hasn't received very much attention, but it should.
During her years at State her peregrinations around the globe were unprecedented. She was a master, excuse me - a mistress, of shuttle diplomacy. Many nations agreed with her positions and some did not. Turkey, for example, engaged in a gold-for-oil deal with Iran in defiance of sanctions. China received a dispensation of 20 percent so that it could continue to buy Iranian oil. Russia sent centrifuges to Iran for hard currency. What might be said is that sanctions worked to some degree. They certainly had an adverse effect on the Iranian economy, but did they force or encourage Iran's leaders to a negotiating posture on nuclear weapons?
On this point, the evidence is ambiguous. Iran's leaders want sanctions lifted. The point that remains unclear is whether Iran would abandon its nuclear weapons ambition for the removal of sanctions. In every public comment Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said there isn't any action or gesture that will deter Iran from the pursuit of nuclear "energy." Needless to say, he will not use the word "weapon." However, the primary goal of enriched uranium for weapons production will not be deterred by the threat of sanctions.
This posture raises a curious issue about Mrs. Clinton's "accomplishment." If the partial sanctions regime could not sway Iranian leadership, what conditions accounted for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's presence at the Geneva and Lausanne negotiating table?
While no one in the Obama administration will say it, and Hillary Clinton will not admit it, Iran's leaders were eager for the P5+1 discussions. They know President Obama and other world leaders are so eager for a deal that they would be able to secure approval of nuclear weapons and sanctions relief at the same time. Should one rely on the framework - before the details are ironed out - it is no longer a question of whether Iran will have nuclear weapons, but when they will have them.
As a consequence, the one Hillary achievement, the one that is highlighted on her resum, is questionable at best. She traveled a great deal; she met world leaders. But her deeds are remarkably shallow. During a campaign, resumes are blown up like helium balloons. Mrs. Clinton will need all the false air she can get. Yet in the one area she considers most noteworthy, the evidence doesn't justify the claims.
President Obama's Nuclear Weapons Vision
When President Obama was a student at Columbia College he wrote a paper calling for the "end of nuclear weapons." It was a time when there were similar calls for the elimination of these weapons of mass destruction; this was ostensibly an idealistic cri de coeur. Unilateral disarmament of the kind this movement demanded was seen as playing directly into the hands of a Soviet rival expanding its nuclear weapons capability.
The emergence of a multi-polar nuclear world has made the once idealistic claim seem Pollyannaish. A unilateral reduction in U.S. nuclear forces, without a reciprocal response from other nuclear powers, only weakens the deterrent effect of our arsenal.
Yet remarkably, in comments made before the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York City, Secretary of State John Kerry stated U.S. "willingness" and "readiness" to engage and negotiate further reductions of deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third below the level set by New Start.
While there has been suspicion of Russian cheating on the Start accord and threatening gestures about the use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine, President Obama is raising the specter of further dramatic retrenchment. Senator McCain, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee said "further strategic nuclear reductions with Russia would be a dangerously nave non-starter with the U.S. Senate." In fact, nuclear weapons have grown increasingly prominent in Russian military doctrine as the growth in its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons would suggest.
At the Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, the five announced nuclear weapon states recognized by the treaty - U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China - will discuss current approaches to nuclear arms control. It is instructive that North Korea, Pakistan, Israel, India and arguably Iran - all nuclear powers, possible nuclear powers, or about to be nuclear powers - are omitted from the discussion.
In President Obama's Nobel Prize speech, he reiterated his long-standing belief in a world free of nuclear weapons. But despite these heartfelt sentiments the world is moving ever closer to proliferation, even among those nations that signed the non-proliferation treaty. While the president asserts a "broad international consensus on the need to secure nuclear materials," it is obvious that within the framework on Iran's nuclear materials there isn't any requirement that this state sponsor of terrorism accept international protocols.
Visionaries relying on their own illusions assume that cooperation is possible. But reality intrudes. For Russia, its bristling nuclear arsenal affords comfort in any escalation scenario in Eastern Europe. Should NATO forces confront Russia, the threat of tactical nuclear weapons looms.
Rather than begin the upcoming nuclear security summit by stating our position, Secretary Kerry would be wise to put an emphasis on reinforcing the national deterrent. No sensible person wants nuclear exchanges. Unfortunately not everyone is sensible. A world without nuclear weapons is and should be a goal, but suppose you disarm and your enemies do not? Russia, for example, has already said it will not participate in the preparatory process for the 2016 security summit.
An agreement of the willing is meaningless if the unwilling do not participate. In the nuclear age it is far better to be safe - behind the wall of defensive weapons - than sorry after a failed effort at a freeze. The utopian vision, in this case, can easily emerge as a dystopian saga. President Obama leaves the impression that he is still a nave Columbia student captivated by illusions. However, there isn't anyone like him in Russia, China or Iran. *