Monthly Archives: April 2006

Shag But Don't Eat

Mark Steyn on Oriana Fallaci and “multiculturalism.”

Also a funny column on fake Jefferson quotes.

Media Bias: Case Closed

Max Boot and the Wall Street Journal examine the recent Pulitzer Prizes here and here for giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

"We Know What's Best For You"

Interesting column at, of all places,, by of all people, the editorial director of

Dick Meyer examines why the Democrats, in the long run, are losers:

My hunch is that Democrats will capture House and Senate seats but not the House or Senate. And if they do, the victory will be fleeting and they will do poorly in 2008.

That’s a hunch, no more, and I admit it. But I felt it as a certainty when I read a column by The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne this week. Dionne was arguing with a fellow liberal who wrote what the Democrats need to do is destroy today’s “radical individualism” and replace it with “a politics of a “common good.” That’s fine, Dionne said, but we need to hear “more about self-interest, rightly understood.”

That phrase made me cringe. It still does.

“Self-interest, rightly understood” is a fancy-pants way of saying, “I know what is in your interest better than you do.” It is, in my view, a politically stupid and morally diseased position. Democrats, by temperament, are slightly more susceptible to it than Republicans.

I do not mean to condemn Dionne for a phrase. But I will. It reminded me of something written on the very first page of a book that lots of Democrats think is absolutely brilliant, “What’s the Matter with Kansas” by Thomas Frank.

In the third paragraph of his book, Frank writes: “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about.” That, too, is a fancy-pants way of saying: “I know what is in your interest better than you do.”

Franks spends the rest of his book explaining why the people of Kansas go against their obvious self-interest and vote for Republicans and not Democrats. His explanations are fascinating and interesting. His premise is intellectually totalitarian.

That may strike you as a rather extreme denunciation. It is, so I’ll explain why, in my view, thinking that you know what is in other people’s best interests is perhaps the worst political impulse that good people commonly have.

Actually, that is an easy task because it has already been done for the ages and to perfection by the British historian and essayist Isaiah Berlin. In 1958, he delivered a talk he entitled “Two Concepts of Liberty.” It became one of the most influential essays in political philosophy written in English in the 20th century.

There are two kinds of liberty, negative and positive. Negative liberty is freedom “from” things; positive liberty is freedom “to do” certain things. Berlin describes how these notions of liberty have been put to very different uses in history and how each concept attracts a different kind of political soul.

Negative liberty means simply that one is free from interference by the state and others, that one has a zone of liberty and in that zone there can be no interference so long as another’s liberty isn’t constrained. What you do in the zone of negative liberty is your business.

Positive liberty takes a dim view of simple negative liberty, arguing that it is meaningless unless a person has a real, positive freedom – the power “to do” vital things. Being left alone, in the world view, is meaningless if you don’t have the power “to do” the important things, whatever they may be – get an education, earn a fair wage, live in an alienated society.

Negative liberty is the ethos of classic liberalism, not ‘liberalism’ in the partisan sense that the word is typically used in America today. Its essence is, “I know what’s best for me, leave me alone.”

Positive liberty, according to Berlin, is the ethos of idealism and great political dreams. Not content with “leave me alone liberalism,” the positive libertarian thinks people must have the power to do and be certain things in order to be free in “meaningful” ways.

What are those things? Well, they are not things you can know for yourself in your zone of liberty. They are things that were well-understood by great minds like Hegel, Rousseau and Marx. The great impulse of positive liberty is: “I know what is best for you.”

That impulse, in history and in personality, is elitist and, at its worst, totalitarian. It is the impulse that allows Marxists, Communists, theocrats and nationalists to curtail negative liberties and slaughter people – all in the name of their own best interests.

America, of course, is the model community of negative liberty. It’s a country explicitly founded on its principles. Arguments about the exact frontiers of liberty will be infinitely and ferociously debated.

The American political temperament, I think, has been molded over the centuries to have an uncanny ability to sniff out and reject the personality, if not the precise policies, of positive liberty – and its voice, which says: “I know what’s best for you.”

Presidential Parallels

The President “lied” us into war. Much of the pre-war intelligence was wrong. The civilian defense chief was detested as “brusque, domineering and unbearably unpleasant to work with.” Civil liberties were abridged. And many embittered Democrats, claiming the war had been an utter failure, demanded that the administration bring the troops home.

George Bush? Well, yes – but also a President who looms far larger in American history, Abraham Lincoln. One is struck by the parallels in reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful new book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Columnist Thomas Bray explains here.

Happy Earth Day

Happy Earth Day from Mark Steyn and The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

New York Times columnist John Tierney joins in as well:

Now that we have survived another Earth Day — the annual attempt to heal the planet by making its human inhabitants feel worse — I have a short quiz to cheer you up:

1) In most places in the United States, is the air dirtier than it was two decades ago?

2) Has the amount of forest land in America been shrinking?

3) To combat global warming, which country is leading new international efforts to reduce annual emissions of greenhouse gases by a greater amount than the Kyoto Protocol?

If you correctly answered “no” to the first two questions, you’re doing better than the environmental studies class I surveyed during its recent field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. None of those high-school students — nor their teacher — got both questions right. Most got them both wrong.

Most air pollutants have declined sharply in recent decades, and the amount of forest land hasn’t been shrinking at all — it’s been fairly stable since 1920 and has actually grown in the last decade. But cheery facts like these don’t get much attention in environmental studies classes or Earth Day events.

Earth Day has traditionally been the occasion for apocalyptic predictions: global famines due to overpopulation, cancer epidemics from synthetic chemicals, cities destroyed by accidents at nuclear plants, species wiped out by deforestation, crippling shortages of energy. Humans, especially Americans with their technological hubris, were doomed to be punished unless they forsook gas-guzzlers, turned off the lights and toiled in their organic gardens — complete, of course, with compost heaps.

The current apocalypse, global warming, is a more realistic danger than the previous ones. But after all the past doomsdays that didn’t arrive, a lot of people are understandably skeptical of the ecoprophets, especially when the prophets start prescribing the same old penance.

The Kyoto Protocol appealed to environmentalists’ sense of virtue because it required big sacrifices, particularly from Americans. One reason the United States dropped out is that it couldn’t get proper credit for the new growth in its forests. While the growing trees would indeed remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, this solution lacked the requisite dose of masochism.

But even the proponents of sacrifice have a hard time keeping their promises. Europeans are having trouble cutting their emissions to meet Kyoto targets. In America, President Bush is blamed by Democrats for rejecting Kyoto, but how many of the Democrats now howling about high gasoline prices would vote for the best way to comply with it: a stiff tax on gasoline, coal and other fuels?

The most practical way to combat global warming is not through asceticism but through technology — the way we averted the famines and energy shortages forecast on past Earth Days. Air pollution has declined not because Americans drive less and turn off lights but because cars and power plants have become cleaner.

While Europeans have been reveling in their moral superiority in adopting the Kyoto Protocol, the United States has been pushing technologies that involve less pain but more gain, like new nuclear power plants and methods of sequestering carbon. America has offered to help India build nuclear plants and is working in China to generate cleaner electricity. It’s leading a 15-nation program to cut down emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, by turning it into a profitable source of energy.

Evocative Meaninglessness

The first lines of Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem “Howl” -about the “best minds of my generation”-always annoyed me because they reeked of egotism and self-absorption. It was that self-importance that Ginsberg and his fellow “beats” bequeathed to the 60’s generation who came to think of themselves as the smartest, most sensitive, and caring generation in human history.

In a Wall Street Journal review of a book titled The Poem That Changed America , James Bowman examines the effect of Ginsberg and his poem on our culture.

An excerpt:

Of Robert Browning’s notoriously incomprehensible poem “Sordello” — which begins “Who will may hear Sordello’s tale told” and ends “Who would has heard Sordello’s tale told” — Browning’s fellow Victorian, Lord Tennyson, is supposed to have said: “I only understood the first and last lines, and they were lies.”

The first lines of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its publication this year, are as famous as any bit of poetry written in the 20th century, but they are lies too.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night …

“The best minds of my generation” — by which, as the subsequent catalog of putative destructions show, he meant his friends and himself — goes way beyond mere exaggeration, as does “destroyed,” which for the most part seems to mean only “engaged in some self-destructive acts.” Yet no one seems to notice the obvious falsehood or to care about it if noticed.

I think this is because to Ginsberg it felt as if they were the best minds and had been destroyed, and the intensity of this feeling was what he was conveying to his audience. Factual information, along with other kinds of truth, regularly fell away, leaving nothing but the subjective and the emotional, which were all that mattered to him.

The subjective and the emotional are not nothing, but when thus cut loose from more strictly accountable kinds of truth they take on that special Ginsbergian quality of hysteria and self-pity. Originally the word “hysterical” in the first line was “mystical,” but Ginsberg thought it not, well, hysterical enough. Anyway, for him the hysterical was the mystical.

In this sense, the premise of the essays in “The Poem That Changed America,” edited by Jason Shinder and produced to commemorate the poem’s anniversary, is surely correct. “Howl” has changed not just America but the world.

For not only has poetry since Ginsberg tended to concentrate on emotional truth to the exclusion of other kinds, so has the popular culture. “Howl” is the direct ancestor of every self-pitying rock ballad ever written. Indeed, practically every line turns up a potential rock-group name: The Angry Fix (which actually exists), The Angelheaded Hipsters, the Starry Dynamos, the Machinery of Night.

What do all these locutions have in common? Evocative meaninglessness. Their meaninglessness is their meaning. Ginsberg thought of that device — though obviously he owed a lot to Dada and the surrealists before him — when he named his poem after a cry of pain or (less likely) joy without semantic content.

Evocative meaninglessness has since become a cliché, a foundation stone of our culture. Today even ordinary people talking about ordinary things like politics expect us to understand that their words are intended to convey emotional rather than other kinds of truth, as when liberal blogger Maryscott O’Connor told the Washington Post last week that her writing was “one long, sustained scream.”

Scream or howl, the point is the same. What is supposed to interest us about the inarticulate cri de coeur is not what is said but the emotion behind it. “I’m insane with rage and grief,” Ms. O’Connor told the Post, as if this were a reason to take her seriously instead of a reason not to take her seriously.

There goes another best mind destroyed by madness — except that now the best minds seek out such madness as a way of demonstrating to others that they are the best, or at least the most authentic. That, too, we owe to Ginsberg.

“Howl” caused a sensation when it was published. Written in free verse and long lines, and using the argot of jazz musicians, it struck many then — and strikes many still — as a prophetic utterance, combining bits of Blake, Whitman and the Bible to express an agenda of radical non-cooperation with America’s official culture.

To this culture “Howl” assigns the name Moloch, after the Canaanite deity in the Bible that demanded child sacrifice. Ginsberg’s father was a socialist, his mother (who really did go insane) a communist, and at times he attempted to add a bit of political sophistication to his vision of Moloch by talk of “capitalism” or the atomic bomb.

But what he really means by the child-devouring monster is the ordinary responsibilities of adult life, from which he, like his successors in the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, remained in headlong flight all his life.

They Told You So!

Surprise, surprise! The New York Times reports that members of Congress from both parties are upset with the Office of National Intelligence. The creation of that office, if I remember correctly, was the main demand of the sainted 9/11 Commission. I remember that a few brave critics of this demand argued that the new office would make things worse by creating another “layer of bureaucracy,” much like critics warned about the proposal for a Homeland Security Department, and we now know how that turned out.

I can’t find in the Times’ story any mention of the earlier warnings about bureaucracy nor the role played by the 9/11Commission and its Democratic cheerleaders.

An excerpt:

The top Republican and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee have disagreed publicly about many things, but on one issue they have recently come together. Both are disquieted by the first-year performance of John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence.

“I’m not seeing the leadership,” said Jane Harman, a Democrat.

Peter Hoekstra, a Republican, also believes that bureaucracy has been expanded.

The fear expressed by the two lawmakers, Representatives Peter Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan, and Jane Harman, Democrat of California, is that Mr. Negroponte, the nation’s overseer of spy agencies, is creating just another blanket of bureaucracy, muffling rather than clarifying the dangers lurking in the world.

In an April 6 report, the Intelligence Committee warned that Mr. Negroponte’s office could end up not as a streamlined coordinator but as “another layer of large, unintended and unnecessary bureaucracy.” The committee went so far as to withhold part of Mr. Negroponte’s budget request until he convinced members he had a workable plan.

The creation of Mr. Negroponte’s post was Congress’s answer to the failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks and to the bungled prewar reports on Iraqi weapons. The overhaul, the most sweeping reorganization of intelligence in a half-century, was intended to establish a primary intelligence adviser to the president, to ensure that 16 turf-conscious agencies share information and to see that dissenting views are not squelched.

It's the Likudniks, Stupid!

Juan Cole, Yale’s next tenured radical.

The Arabs and the Media

New York Sun editorial wonders here what the Arabs need to do to get some bad press coverage.

The New York Sun:

Talk about timing. The suicide bombing that killed nine Israelis in an attack on a Tel Aviv felafel restaurant was preceded only a day by a full-page advertisement that was rolled out in the New York Times, claiming “Hamas has held a unilateral ceasefire for a year, while Israel has ignored it and continues its attacks.” The “ceasefire” must come as news to the families of the nine killed and nearly 70 wounded, as well as to those who read on the Web site of the Jerusalem Post that this particular felafel restaurant “was hit in a similar suicide attack three months ago, injuring 20 people.” And the “ceasefire” claim could have been checked by the Times quality control people with a few keystrokes.

According to Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, seven suicide bombing attacks were made in 2005. They killed 23 persons and injured 160. It reports that another 15 suicide attacks were thwarted in progress. The Israeli foreign ministry says, “Hamas was responsible for the suicide bombing at the Beersheba bus station on 28 August 2005 in which two security guards were seriously wounded. In September 2005, Hamas terrorists abducted and murdered Jerusalem businessman Sasson Nuriel.” Lest it be said that the other suicide bombings took place over the objections of Hamas, a spokesman for the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority Interior Ministry, Khaled Abu Helal, yesterday blamed Israel for the terrorist attack, saying, “We think that this operation … is a direct result of the policy of the occupation and the brutal aggression and siege committed against our people.

Mark Steyn contemplates the same thing:

If I were a Palestinian, I’d occasionally wonder what I had to do to get a bad press.

Elect a terrorist government explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel? No, no, no, don’t jump to conclusions, explains Bill Clinton. It’s just a vote for better municipal services.

Send my daughter to explode in an Israeli restaurant? Oh, well, shrug the experts, it’s an act born of “desperation” and “frustration”. You have to remember Palestinians don’t have any tanks so they have to make do with what the Mayor of London’s favorite imam calls “the children bomb”.

The full Steyn column here.

The Old Immigrant Politesse

Peggy Noonan loves immigrants and the law:

Does my feeling for immigrants, and my afternoon at the march, leave me supporting open borders, or illegal immigration? No. Why should it? To love immigrants is not to believe America has no right to decide who can come to America and become a citizen. America has always decided who comes here. That’s why it all worked.

While the marchers seemed to be good people, and were very likable, the march itself, I think, violated the old immigrant politesse–the general understanding that you’re not supposed to get here and immediately start making demands. It would never have occurred to my grandparents to demand respect. They thought they had to earn it. It would never have occurred to them to air mass grievances, assert rights, issue a list of legislative demands. Especially if they were here unlawfully.

I happen to think America in general has deep affection for immigrants, knows they are part of the dynamic, a part of our growth and our endless coming-into-being. But when your heart is soft, and America’s is, your head must be hard.

We are a sovereign nation operating under the rule of law. That, in fact, is why many immigrants come here. They come from places where the law, such as it is, is corrupt, malleable, limiting. Does it make sense to subvert our own laws to facilitate the entrance of those in pursuit of government by law? Whatever our sentiments and sympathies as individuals, America has the right, and the responsibility, to protect the integrity of its borders, to make the laws by which immigrants are granted entrance, and to enforce those laws.

I think open-borders proponents are, simply, wrong. I think those who call good people like members of the voluntary border patrols “yahoos” are snobs. I think those whose primary concern is preserving the Hispanic vote for the Democratic Party, or not losing the Hispanic vote for the Republican Party, are being cynical, selfish, and stupid, too. It’s not all about who gets what vote, it’s about continuing a system of laws that has allowed America to become, among many other things, a place immigrants want to come to. And it’s about admitting immigrants in a coherent, orderly, legal manner, with an eye first to what America needs. That’s how you continue a good thing, which is what we’ve had. That’s how you leave Americans who’ve been here for a while grateful for immigration, and immigrants, and loving them, and even wanting, sometimes, to kiss their hands.