Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

They Said It:

A knight returns to his castle one evening.  His armor is dented, his helmet askew.  His plume is broken off.  His horse is limping.  He is listing to one side on the saddle.  The Lord of the Manor asks, “What hath befallen you, Sir Albert?” 

The knight straightens himself up and says, “Oh, Sire.  I have been striving on your behalf all day, pillaging and burning the villages of your enemies to the West.”

“But I haven’t any enemies to the West,” the astonished nobleman said.

“Well, you have now,” said the knight. 

Anonymous; old public speaker’s joke.



Barack Obama is clearly the strangest duck to ever occupy the White House.  For the better part of his presidency, we and many others have wondered whether he is a complete fool or a devilishly clever genius who is bent upon destroying the country his father hated and of which his wife could not be proud until her husband became its chief executive.

We suspect that the events of the last couple of weeks have answered that question for most us, although, needless to say, not everyone is in agreement.  The intellectually formidable Norman Podhoretz, to name just one, thinks that Obama’s plans in the Middle East are working out precisely as he had hoped.  To wit:

Yet if this is indeed the pass to which Mr. Obama has led us – and I think it is – let me suggest that it signifies not how incompetent and amateurish the president is, but how skillful.  His foreign policy, far from a dismal failure, is a brilliant success as measured by what he intended all along to accomplish.

Frankly, we’re not buying it.  No matter how passionately Podhoretz or anyone else puts lipstick on this pig, Obama’s incompetence has, we believe, been exposed once and for all.  Come on, Norm, “dazed and confused” seems woefully inadequate when talking about this guy.  Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a private sector job above the rank of bike-messenger-trainee for which he would be qualified based on his performance in his current position.

Unfortunately, some four-and-a-half years into his presidency there are still countless other conundrums about “the One” that are unanswered, one of which is whether he is completely and totally lacking in any form of self-awareness or, conversely, possesses a singularly biting wit.

Over the weekend, for example, Obama sat down with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos and uncorked this doozy in response to Comrade Putin’s op-ed piece in the New York Times.  “Oh, I don’t think that – Mr. Putin has the same – values that we do.”

Like all good comedy, this line works on many levels.  First, there’s the notion, implicit in Obama’s use of the word “we,” that there is a commonality among the values shared by all Americans, including himself.  This, of course, is an old comedic ploy, saying something that is patently false with a straight face, sort of like someone telling Nancy Pelosi that he learned a lot from her recently comments.

Surely he jests.  For the ugly truth is that “we” Americans do not share much of anything these days, especially values.  Indeed, as we have written countless times in these pages, values are precisely the one thing that Americans do not share.  And this, in turn, explains why our politics has become so polarizing.  As we put it more than 15 years ago now in “let the Big Dog Run,” a piece about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski:

This theory holds that the public controversy over whether Bill’s alleged ethical and moral transgressions “matter” can best be understood as a battle between two competing moral systems, in a war that has been going on in Western society for at least 700 years.

One side in this conflict can be described as traditional Judeo-Christian. The foundation of this belief system was established some 3,300 years ago with the receipt of the Decalogue by Moses at Mt. Sinai.  It combines Talmudic truths and the teachings of Jesus Christ, as interpreted and clarified by such revered scholars as St. Augustine, Moses Maimonides, and St. Thomas Aquinas, each of whom introduced portions of Aristotelian philosophy,

This system embraces a host of traditions, customs, and mores that developed in Western society over many centuries.  It is emblazoned with a rich repository of art and literature, and historic struggles, both religious and secular. The twin concepts of “sin” and “truth” are the glue that bind this system together.

The opposing system espouses beliefs that are often referred to today as “post-modern.” This system is roughly based on the concept that there are no ultimate, overarching truths, and that judgments about right and wrong are little more than the means by which some people control others, or as Nietzsche, an icon of the movement, put it, the outward expressions of will and power.

The only “sin” recognized by adherents to this system is making judgments about the choices of others.  The concepts of “right” and “wrong” are considered to be wholly subjective.  Individuals are encouraged to make up their own minds about such things, and neither society nor any person has a right to “judge” those decisions.

This, of course, is our “clash of moral systems” argument, which forms the foundation for our thoughts on the differences between the contemporary Right and Left in this country.  Hence, our view that the notion that Obama would presume to speak of values and specifically of the values that he shares with the American people is a joke.  Either that or it demonstrates a complete incapacity on his part to understand the country and the people over which he ostensibly governs.  Take your pick.  We would prefer to think it’s the former, if only because it makes us feel considerably less desperate about the capabilities and intelligence of the man who will be our president for the next three-plus years.

The second clearly comedic element in Obama’s crack to Stephanopoulos is the idea that he and Putin have manifestly different values.  Now, this is certainly true.  But it also contains a strong element of farce.  For Putin has no “values” whatsoever in the Western Judeo-Christian sense of the word.  He is a thug.  A mobster.  A murderous tyrant who has no regard for any human life other than his own.   Obama does have values, but they are post-modern values as described above, which is to say that are little more than expressions of preference, attitude, or feeling.  One thinks of Bouvard and Pécuchet discussing the size of the men on Mars and Venus.

Of course, a great deal has been made over the last week about Putin’s op-ed piece for the New York Times.  Peggy Noonan thought the Russian “president” was “twisting the knife” and “gloating.”  Likewise, the humorist and blogger David Burge, aka “Iowahawk,” wrote that “Putin [is] now just basically doing donuts in Obama’s front yard.”

Others, notably our fearless leaders in Washington, reacted with outrage.  New Jersey’s ever eloquent Senator Bob “I-did-not-have-sexual-relations-with-that-16-year-old-Dominican-prostitute” Menendez declared that the piece (Putin’s, not the “piece” in the Dominican Republic) made him “want to vomit.”  Menendez’s fellow member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John McCain, called Putin’s essay an “insult to the intelligence of every American.”  And then, as if to prove that his intelligence was above being insulted, McCain offered to respond to the Russian by writing his own op-ed to be published in Pravda.  The best part of McCain’s response, naturally, is the fact that Pravda isn’t a real Russian newspaper anymore.  The print version of Pravda is a little-read mouthpiece for the Russian Communist party.  And the online Pravda.ru is a tabloid, described by Slate’s Joshua Keating as “a kind of cross between WorldNetDaily and the National Enquirer,” featuring such classic political tomes as “Nostradamus predictionsalien skulls found on Mars, and ‘thirteen terribly weird facts about women.’”  Makes you kinda wonder how this guy didn’t manage to get himself elected president.

We are not entirely sure we understand the hubbub over Putin’s article.  He praises the United Nations.  He denounces the “language of force” and promotes a “return” to diplomacy.  He blathers on endlessly about the need to work together and be one, big, happy global family.  And he doesn’t believe a word of it.  One sanctimonious, lying jackass tweaking the nose of another.

Of course, if the purpose of the article was to goad a bunch of dumb American politicians, the highpoint was Putin’s knock on Obama’s use of the phrase American exceptionalism.   “It is extremely dangerous,” the pathetically narcissistic autocrat wrote, “to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.  There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.  Their policies differ, too.  We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

This is galling, we are told.  And indeed it is, especially the bit about God.  But then, it is also a line that certainly could have been delivered by the current American president and likely by at least a couple others since Watergate. Over the weekend, the Manhattan Institute’s James Pierson made a similar point as follows:

[W]hat President Putin said in his column is pretty much what American liberals and leftists have been saying about the United States since the 1960s.  From the standpoint of American liberals, there is nothing the least bit new or controversial in anything Mr. Putin wrote in his column.  He is merely hoisting President Obama and his liberal friends by their own ideological petard . . .

Where have we heard Mr. Putin’s principles before?  They are in fact basic articles of faith among American liberals who have been saying for decades that the U.S. should not use military force without United Nations authorization, we should not intervene in civil wars abroad, and the idea of American exceptionalism is a myth used to cover up crimes against women and minorities at home and the poor and oppressed abroad.

Barack Obama at one time or another has expressed support for all three of Mr. Putin’s principles.

Now, Pierson is correct about Obama’s disdain for American exceptionalism.  He has no truck with it.  And thus, on one level, we are back to farce.  A godless thug and a disingenuous naif arguing about morality.

On a more serious level, however, we are witnessing the world’s “sole remaining super power” struggling to maintain its leadership position in the world under the command of a man who would only be enthusiastic about winning this fight if he could totally alter the moral, social, economic, and demographic fundamentals of the country he leads.

And therein lies the problem behind the entire mess, namely that America’s emergence as the world’s sole remaining super power after the downfall of the Soviet Union has led to an intense, seemingly endless, and highly heated debate over the use it should make of this admirable and unique position.

Tunku Varadarajan did a fine job of laying out the case for one approach in a recent piece for Newsweek/The Daily Beast.  He put it this way:

Has anyone noticed how diminished, how very Lilliputian, America has become?  Great tragic events in the world beyond our borders are parsed here as accountants would parse the finer points of a creative tax deduction.  Hundreds of innocent Syrians have been gassed to death by their despot — hell, even my ninth grader is horrified, and not just because he is aware that many of the dead were close to his age — and yet . . . our spontaneous revulsion, our reflexive anguish, is smothered in political slurry.  There is no nobility in the politicians’ debate about what we should do for the Syrian people, about what we should do to the Syrian regime, just a fevered trading of caveats and escape clauses.  America’s leaders are like those hideous baby voles in wildlife documentaries: naked, blind, and shrinking from the light, trapped in burrows that appear to lead nowhere but deeper into darkness.

This was once a great land that asked not what oppressed people could do for themselves; it asked, instead, what we could do for them.  Today, every urge to rescue others, to intervene on the side of the murdered underdogs, is met by many in this country with accusations of imperialism . . .

Syria suffers from the cancer of sectarianism.  It is a brutal cancer.  Some places (like Syria) are prone to this malady, and others (like America) are not.  And yet, I think our own increasingly “sectarian” divisions have instilled in us a horror of other people’s (admittedly more murderous) clefts — and shaken to the core our faith in ourselves, and in our ability to keep order beyond our borders.

Now, these are beautiful and beautifully expressed sentiments that are presumably shared by a plurality of Americans who, like Varadarjan, think of this country as the world’s avenging angel, a noble nation that has served mankind and fought for righteousness.  And why, frankly, shouldn’t Americans believe that?  They have been told such things by their political leaders for decades.  Bush the Elder saved the Kuwaitis from Saddam.  Reagan saved the world from Marxism. Clinton saved the oppressed of the Balkans.  Bush the Younger made the Middle East safe for democracy.  And who can possibly forget the man who delivered what is universally recognized as one of the greatest political speeches of all time, our very own Arthur of Camelot:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge – and more.

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends.  United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures.  Divided, there is little we can do – for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny.  We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view.  But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom – and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.  If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

Again, beautiful sentiments beautifully expressed.  The only problem with them, of course, is that they were also hopelessly impractical, cynically contrived, and painfully jingoistic.  The fact of the matter is that the uber-altruistic United States that Kennedy describes here never existed.  And nor, for that matter, did the United States that Tunku Varadarajan “remembers.”  As any public choice theorist will tell you, altruism is a myth.  All people at all times behave rationally in the pursuit of their own best interests, as they see them.  And so it is with countries.  Kennedy and his speechwriters put on one helluva show.  But that’s what it was, a show.  The United States was then and is now pursuing its own interests, once again as they were and are seen by its leaders.  It just so happens that in that early Cold-War era, the leaders of the United States believed that its best interests involved “beating” the Soviets in order to amass the amity necessary to govern the globe.

When President Eisenhower first publicly discussed the potential for war in Indochina (i.e. Vietnam), he tried desperately to frame the question as one of U.S. national interest.  “If Indochina goes,” Ike told the Governors’ Conference, August 4, 1953, “several things happen right away.  The Malayan peninsula, the last little bit of the end hanging on down there, would be scarcely defensible — and tin and tungsten that we so greatly value from that area would cease coming.”  Ah . . . yes, tin and tungsten.  Little did you know. . .

Of course, by the time Kennedy got around to talking about Vietnam, tin and tungsten had vanished, replaced by the universal call to help hut-dwellers break their bonds.  And for Johnson, the point of it all was to “prevent the success of aggression.”  All of which is to say that Vietnam was about everything and nothing, just as the rest of the Cold War posturing was.  All that mattered in the end was coming out on top, beating the Soviets, and thus controlling the levers of global governance.

Now much water has passed under the bridge since those simple days.  But from our perspective this week, the most important thing that has happened in the meantime has been the emergence of a small but powerful force led by Barack Obama that has lost interest in the dream that has been the foundation of the Democratic Party since Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States had a divine calling to “make the world safe for democracy.”

And this loss of interest was not motivated by the realization that the task of reforming the whole world is a chimera, but by the belief that American society is not just enough to serve as a model for the world, and thus, should stop attempting to force its sick system on the others.

Hence the confusion.  No one seems to have recognized this yet gentle reader, except us.  And now thee.


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