30 July 2015

Jew-on-Jew terrorism in Jerusalem

An act of terrorism took place in Jerusalem today and Muslims had nothing to do with it. An ultra-Orthodox fanatic went on a stabbing spree at a gay pride parade and injured six people before being taken into custody -- again. It turns out he did something similar ten years ago and after his release resumed what he considers his religious duty. He's reportedly on record calling on Jews, Christians and Muslims to join forces against the "desecration" of God's holy city by homosexuals. There seems to be some debate over whether this was "terrorism" or a "hate crime," but the conventional American distinction may be so much hair-splitting. The kind of hate associated with "hate crimes" presumably has a terroristic intent when it expresses itself violently, and this guy seems to have seen himself advancing an ecumenical political agenda. However you slice it, there ought to be as much investigation by the Israeli government of how someone comes to think this way and act on his thoughts as there is by any government when someone commits violence from religious or ideological motives. Many Israelis find the haredim a nuisance but today's stunt may have taken the nuisance to a new level. For the rest of us, this is a reminder that, contrary to propaganda, it isn't just one religion that acts violently on its more primitive and intolerant beliefs. One religion may do so more than others, but on the zero-tolerance principle advocated for that religion there ought to be more intense scrutiny and accountability for the sources of this man's violent hatreds -- or if you prefer to see him as an isolated nut for whom no one else is accountable, go and do likewise for all religions.

29 July 2015

Jonathan Pollard: Israel's consolation prize?

It's pretty self-evident that the convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard is getting paroled after nearly thirty years in prison as some sort of sop to Israelis and American Zionists offended over the nuclear deal with Iran. It's ironic, if not simply sad, that someone whom George W. Bush and his advisers, including Cheney and Rumsfeld, didn't think worthy of clemency is being let go by the Obama administration. If the President thinks this will mollify most of the critics of his diplomacy, he must not take their objections very seriously -- and if they are mollified, neither should we. There are, no doubt, many people out there who think it's not treason to spy for an ally, or a nation to whom Pollard's sympathizers believe the U.S. is morally obliged. But in this case we probably should trust the opinions of the powermongers and manipulators who know better than most of us the damage Pollard did. Yet if we're letting Pollard go to prove that we're still friends of Israel, doesn't that somewhat prove the point his sympathizers have been making all along, that the special relationship between the two settler democracies transcends the normal rules of security and secrecy? It will be argued that a parole, as opposed to a pardon or any form of clemency, doesn't count as any vindication of the prisoner, and that like any parolee Pollard won't be an entirely free man. The timing of the parole announcement tells a different story. If it doesn't concede Pollard's harmlessness, it definitely concedes something that makes the presumed humanitarian gesture look a little pathetic.

28 July 2015

Obama on term limits and time limits

The President boasted to his African hosts today that he could win a third term if he wanted and was allowed to run, but his real point was to tell African leaders that it's a good thing that he can't run again, while it would be a better thing for Africa if its leaders were likewise term-limited. Obama admitted that there are things he'll regret leaving undone, but he doesn't see himself, as he suspects many an African leaders sees himself, as an indispensable man. "If a leader thinks they're the only person who can hold their nation together," he said, "then that leader has failed to truly build their country." It's a noble sentiment that will probably go unappreciated in the U.S., but is it more idealistic than realistic? Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. It's well and good for Obama to praise term limits -- I don't like the idea of indispensable men, either -- but let's note that his office wasn't term-limited until approximately fifty years ago, nearly two hundred years after the Declaration of Independence. Until then, a two-term limit for presidents was merely customary, the example set by George Washington holding until Franklin Roosevelt smashed it. Washington and others most likely could have won three terms or more had they wanted to. But was Washington's retirement an act of principle or simply an understandable act for one who, in his mid-sixties, was an old man by the standards of his time? At the other end of the timeline, was the constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms an act of principle or an act of fear? Obama implies that the only alternative to term limits is rule for life, but that doesn't follow. Nor does his assertion quoted above stand scrutiny. It reflects the luxury of his own position as the President of a country with a long-established rule of law, an entrenched civil society, and only the mild form of tribalism we call partisanship. The circumstances of a revolutionary regime, or a nation newly liberated from foreign rule, are necessarily different. Let Obama pick a number of years. Would that amount of time be enough, in his judgment, for any leader in any nation to "truly build" his country? Time is one thing, of course, and personnel another. Ideally neither a revolution nor a government should be made by one man. A movement for governing a new country or new regime should itself be governed by a principle of peaceful rotation of office, but presuming an imbalance of talents must a movement surrender an advantage of leadership for the sake of an abstract principle. Obama would seem to say yes and take doing so as proof unto itself that a leader has truly built his country. Then again, he thinks himself a good president who would be re-elected if he had a chance. There may be a certain principled naivete to his perceptions that people committed to real radical change can't afford to share. They have their own naivetes to deal with, which only goes to show that there are no easy answers, no matter how much liberals like Obama wish for them.

27 July 2015

If you can't stand the heat, move away from the oven

Apparently the 2016 presidential campaign is going to be more about how the candidates express themselves than what they express, manners rather than issues. Now we have to be scandalized, or at least shocked, by ex-Gov. Huckabee's warning that the nuclear treaty with Iran, through its alleged lenience, brings the Jewish people closer to another genocide. Not only President Obama himself but some of Huckabee's rivals for the Republican nomination have deplored the Arkansan's hyperbole, while the former governor has stood his ground, backing it by citing menacing quotations from Iranian leaders and their associates. I'm not as pessimistic as he about the treaty, of course, but you can understand his attitude and that of all those who do not and will not trust Iran. As I noted earlier this month, the Iranians seem to have done nothing during all the negotiations to address the reasons why people mistrust them with nuclear power. Rather, their position during the negotiations has been along the lines of, "Lift the sanctions, bitch!" while Head Theocrat Khamenei has pretty much assured the world that Iran will not change its ways. It will continue to challenge "arrogance," whether on the part of Americans, Zionists or Sunnis. It will continue to indulge in "death to" rhetoric toward its antagonists. If Congress rejects the treaty by overriding Obama's expected veto of negatory legislation, Iran will have itself to blame along with Republican or Islamophobic prejudice. Huckabee may be a little hysterical on this and other issues, but the Iranians are equally hysterical in their fulminations against Zionism, which have as much justification as American bluster about regime change, and if we are to be outraged by Huckabee's fearmongering we ought to be as outraged by persistent Iranian warmongering. We needn't be outraged enough to reject any treaty with them -- nor should we act as if Huckabee has committed some sort of rhetorical atrocity.  I don't think anyone is obliged to denounce him for anything beyond being an idiot, any more than Iranian idiocy means we should give up diplomacy as the neocons and Islamophobes wish.

Have I forgotten that the Israelis are jerks, too? Forgive that omission, but among their many injustices toward the Palestinians I hadn't noticed routine explicit threats of annihilation against Iran from the nation's leaders. I don't hear Netanyahu, who is certainly full of idiocies, calling for the return of the Pahlavi dynasty or the "liberation" of Iran. But Israel isn't the problem here; we are. What Americans need to understand is that our past and present rhetoric of regime change, no matter how much we claim it's for the good of subject peoples, is morally equivalent to the routine threats against Israel from Iran's Imperial Wizards and Grand Inquisitors. Both of us claim a right to destroy nations -- and where one failed against a particular nation in the 1980s, the other succeeded in the 21st century. To a certain extent we deserve each other, and both of us need to learn to behave better. The President may think, like Nixon and Mao, that hostile public rhetoric is a domestic political necessity that diplomats needn't take seriously as they build detente. But sabre-rattling self-indulgence isn't so easily ignored in the Middle East, where everyone will need to swallow some pride before they have peace. If the U.S. is to renounce regime change, the regimes themselves need to do some renouncing. They have as much right to destroy Israel, or else Sunnis and Shiites have as much right to subjugate each other, as we have to overthrow dictatorships that displease us. However you calculate those rights, they add up to zero. We ought to have zero tolerance of such claims whenever and wherever we hear them. Huckabee can be as pessimistic as he likes about the treaty, but if his only alternative is something pointing toward regime change, then we can and should be outraged.

26 July 2015

The Republicans' uncivil war

You reap what you sow. In a contentious pre-campaign season, Senator Cruz arguably has topped all of Donald Trump's invective by calling the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, the leader of his own party in that body, a liar on the Senate floor itself. Some observers have noted ironically that Cruz was one of the few Republicans to refrain from criticizing Trump this summer. Maybe if Senator McConnell were running for President too Cruz would have been more courteous. But we'd be missing the point if we were to assume that Trump's rhetoric and his freedom with insults, to which some rivals have responded in kind, e.g. Senator Graham calling him a "jackass" before Trump made Graham's personal cell-phone number public, has emboldened Cruz. It's more likely that Trump and Cruz represent the same impulse, and if some Republicans find that impulse deplorable they have only themselves to blame. For the past thirty years or so Republicans have led the rhetorical charge against "political correctness" while characterizing it as the suppression of honest debate on the ground of hurt feelings. We see where such talk has led when we hear idiots complaining that the Confederate flag was lowered in South Carolina only because it hurt certain people's feelings. Right-wingers are as much believers in slippery slopes as liberals are, so a coarsening of discourse in reaction to perceived political correctness should not have surprised them. Respect for people's feelings has become virtually synonymous with political correctness to many people, so that for them straight talk proves itself by its disrespect for feelings. They know someone has made a point when it hits a nerve. As I've written before, this idea isn't entirely wrong. Sometimes the truth does hurt -- but the hurt itself doesn't prove anything. It's been easy for Republicans to assume that liberals and minorities flaunt their hurt feelings to avoid hearing hard truths. It will be less easy for individual Republicans to dodge the same assumption when their own feelings are hurt by fellow Republicans. On top of that, does anyone doubt that there are truths to be told that will hurt Republicans or their constituents generally? They may answer that they can prove those untruths, but when others have done the same to their arguments the same Republicans have sneered about hurt feelings. To the extent that people's feelings have been hurt by current political discourse, much of the time those feelings are merely a poor substitute for what we used to call honor. Our ancestors may have had thicker skins than we and could stand sharper criticism, they also made a distinction between invective and insult that is lost in our current concern about "straight talk" and indifferent to hurt feelings or political correctness. In their day McConnell might have summoned Cruz to the field of honor and, Trump's wealth notwithstanding, any number of people may have horsewhipped him in the street. Such responses remain politically incorrect today, and today's Republicans don't seem to have a problem with that limit on accountability for what they say. They're going to want to draw a line somewhere, though, but how do they do that without looking hypocritically politically correct? It should be fun watching them try to figure that out.

22 July 2015

The Republican gold rush

Republicans love to praise the market and the multitude of choices it offers us, but it's hard to find many who are really thrilled to have so many people running for the party's 2016 presidential nomination. The news that John Kasich had become the 16th declared candidate inspired little more than exasperation. It exasperates some because it means Donald Trump can be declared a front-runner with what's really a rather small base of support. Others simply can't understand why so many people are running. It's seems simple enough to me. A wide-open presidential campaign is a Republican jobs program. It brings in money and gives people work -- and unlike Democratic jobs programs, the workers are getting paid by voluntary contributions. Whether donors big or small get any more of their money's worth from the candidate of their choice than the taxpayer does from Democratic programs is a matter of chance. But donors are encouraged to think of their giving as free speech rather than gambling or investment -- hints of the latter are really to be avoided lest they create the appearance of corruption. They probably don't think of money spent on a losing candidate as money wasted -- and candidates depend on that. If you think about it, it's kind of like backing a play the way it was done in The Producers, and yet it's all perfectly legal. Who knows whether some of these candidates are simply delusional about their chances or simply see a chance to make a lot of money for their cronies? More so than in the Mel Brooks movie, the people who throw money away giving to political campaigns are suckers rather than victims. The real risk isn't that they'll get ripped off in any sense by hopeless candidates who quit early, many of whose campaigns are comparable in intellectual content to Springtime for Hitler, but that, as in the play within the play, someone will prove so outrageously bad that the show becomes a freak hit. If that happens, neither the producers nor the investors suffer -- but the rest of us might.

21 July 2015

The Trump Card

It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump's comments about John McCain's military career and the Vietnam War in general will prove to be the "jump the shark" moment of Trump's presidential campaign. Last weekend Trump dismissed McCain's credibility on military and veterans' issues, remarking that the Senator was considered a hero "because he was captured" and implicitly only because he'd been captured. Yet again the self-styled billionaire was dogpiled by the media and most of his Republican rivals, with Hillary Clinton jumping on top of the pile to defend McCain's honor. Trump has since tried to clarify his position without apologizing to McCain, while continuing to feud with McCain's protege, Sen. Graham. As I understand it, Trump feels that the soldiers who weren't captured were as much heroes as McCain, but don't get the attention they deserve from either the Department of Veterans Affairs or Sen. McCain. Interestingly, his negative comments about the entire war have been virtually overlooked in comparison with the firestorm over his seemingly more personal comments about McCain. Now 69, Trump was of fighting age during the war but won deferments and had some problem with one of his feet -- he doesn't remember which one. On top of that, he says he "wasn't a big fan" of the war, which he considers a "disaster." I can't recall whether Bill Clinton expressed his opinion of the war as starkly while he was running for or serving as President. Many people hope this controversy will be the beginning of Trump's end, but I wouldn't be too sure.

It's very possible that Trump's target constituencies share his opinion of McCain, if not of the Vietnam War. After all, right-wing Republicans themselves have said ever since McCain lost to Sen. Obama in 2008 that much of their imagined hidden majority stayed home on Election Day because they found McCain uninspiring as a politician and unconvincing as a true conservative. Doubts about McCain's heroism as a prisoner were aired openly, and not only by Democrats, and reported on this blog. If Trump is after the Tea Party vote, it should be recalled that, however Islamophobic they are, they are also, at least reportedly, more ambivalent about military adventurism than many in the GOP establishment, particularly the neocons identified with McCain. These potential Trump voters may not have the Rambo view of Vietnam many might expect of them, even if those old enough to remember still hate hippies. Whether Trump's record on Vietnam will hurt him with these voters is questionable, and for younger voters it will hardly matter. In any event, Trump owes his current prominence in opinion polls partly to his position on illegal immigration and partly to a personal style that appeals to many who may have little clue where he stands on any other issue. People who like Donald Trump say they like him because he "speaks his mind" and/or "tells it like it is" and doesn't care who he offends by doing so. He appeals to people who think tough talk and action are necessary to save the country, and their measure of tough talk, at least, is the expressions of offense felt by those thought to need at least a rhetorical slap in the face. The potential Trump voter is likely to feel that someone who offends so many people must be doing something right, since their gut feeling seems to be that effective solutions will offend many of us. Even if they think John McCain was a hero in captivity, or that Vietnam was a noble cause worth the effort, they may forgive Trump for not backing down or apologizing if his refusal to do so reveals a character they deem necessary in the next President. If I read them right, I doubt that this week's furor will hurt Trump much. But I won't assume that Trump is invulnerable just yet, if only because the other candidates have not yet really begun to fight. Trump's real test -- and the test for his fans -- will come when his rivals start running ads about him.