Wednesday Wrap-Up (and Open Thread)

Victorian posy of pansiesI didn’t watch Obama’s SOTU.  Between cooking and carpooling, I had neither the time nor the inclination.  I’ve never been impressed by “Obama the Orator,” and his speech’s details had already been leaked, so the whole thing fell into the “Why Bother?” category.  I did hear one interesting thing about it, though, while I was walking the dog and listening to Rush.

A caller named Jesse found Obama’s homage to Cory Remsburg off-putting.  I too found it off-putting, but Jesse put his finger on the problem:  Obama’s focus was about Remsburg the warrior but was, instead, about Remsburg the victim.  Obama made no real mention of Remsburg’s actual service.  Instead, Obama spoke about Remsburg’s injuries and his recovery (which is laudable, of course).

Obama could have given precisely the same speech been given about someone in a bad car accident.  Jesse and Rush both noted that, in previous administrations, when the president celebrated this or that veteran, at least some of the praise focused on the veteran’s bringing war to the enemy.  Now, though, the Left finds noteworthy only the injury part of “injured vets.”

Jesse felt, and I agree, that Obama’s purpose in talking about Remsburg was to highlight his opposition to the military, to America’s wars, and to the notion of manliness itself.

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For those of you interested in a conservative take on Obama’s SOTU, Bryan Preston offers one.

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Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s resident “fact checker” seems to have soured on Obama.  Rather than doing the old “false but accurate shtick” that characterized Obama’s first term, Kessler simply points out that Obama is making up things as he goes along.

I don’t believe Kessler has actually seen the light.  As was true for all of the MSM, he knew what was going on the first time around, but wasn’t going to do anything that might derail a second term.  Members of the Left might have gotten over its love affair with Obama, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still wholeheartedly approve of his agenda.

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A new book calling for a socialist revolution features contributions by Obama’s buddy Bill Ayers, among others.  As you chew over that, think about this too:  Back in the 1930s and onward through the end of the Soviet Union, the vast majority of Americans were staunchly opposed to Communism despite the fact that they really hadn’t seen it in action.  Countries such as the Soviet Union or China were closed to them (or run through the Duranty-filter), so those Americans who hated Communism did so because they knew — without data — that Communism stifled freedom and created a tyrannical state.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of China revealed that Communism was worse even than anyone had guessed.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the kulaks that Stalin “re-educated” in the Ukraine or the Chinese who were around when Mao started his Great Leap Forward.  Oh, wait!  You can’t ask them because they’re dead.  Depending on estimates, Stalin killed roughly 7,000,000 kulaks through execution or starvation.  He was a piker compared to Mao, though, who killed 50,000,000 or more during his Great Leap forward, again through execution or starvation.  Despite knowing these facts with certainty nowadays (rather than merely guessing them, as we once did), communism and socialism are no longer considered dirty words.  This is what 40 years of Progressive education has wrought.

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Ted Cruz has written a really good Wall Street Journal opinion piece about Obama’s imperial presidency:

Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency, none is more dangerous than the president’s persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat. On Monday, Mr. Obama acted unilaterally to raise the minimum wage paid by federal contracts, the first of many executive actions the White House promised would be a theme of his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

The president’s taste for unilateral action to circumvent Congress should concern every citizen, regardless of party or ideology. The great 18th-century political philosopher Montesquieu observed: “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates.” America’s Founding Fathers took this warning to heart, and we should too.

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And speaking of Obama’s imperial presidency, Victor Davis Hanson has written one of his best works about Obama’s lawlessness.  I highly recommend it:

We are reentering Nixonian times, or perhaps worse, given that a free press at least went after Nixon’s misdeeds and misadventures. Now it has silenced itself for fear of harming a once-in-century chance for a fellow progressive’s makeover of America. We live in an age when a CNN moderator interrupts a presidential debate to help her sputtering candidate, and when a writer for the often ironic and sarcastic New Yorker sees no irony in doing a fawning interview with the president, tagging along on a shakedown jet tour from one mansion of crony capitalists to the next — as Obama preaches to the head-nodders about inequality and fairness in order to ensure that the bundled checks pour in.

Without the media acting as a watchdog, the administration has with impunity found the IRS useful in going after political opponents. When Obama’s IRS appointees were exposed, he for the moment called their deeds outrageous; when the media did not pursue the outrage, he wrote it off as a nothing story.

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And finally, Megan McArdle points out that even Democrats are beginning to realize that there’s truth to the saying “be careful what you ask for; you might get it.”  It turns out that when they have a president desirous of fulfilling their wish list, some of the more intelligent among them are realizing that this way lies economic madness.  (Of course, that hasn’t stopped Al Franken from trying to push a constitutional amendment to forbid corporate speech, while keeping alive and well union, especially government union, speech.  Apparently it’s not enough for him that almost all of the largest donors in politics are Leftist unions.  He wants all of the largest donors to be Leftist unions.)

The wages of socialism — mass murder

Ukrainian peasants starve to death in the streets, 1933

Last year, my friend Bruce Kesler, who blogs at a wonderful conservative group blog called Maggie’s Farm, directed me to a book called Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. What makes this book different from other books about that era is that it doesn’t just examine the murderous years of WWII.  Instead, it also examines the carnage Hitler and Stalin wrought during the 1930s, in the lead-up to WWII.  It is an absolutely devastating book, describing the unimaginable scale of death that two socialist leaders — Stalin and Hitler — visited on the region between their two countries.

Although Hitler industrialized the killing machine, it was Stalin who created the model when he decided to destroy the Ukrainian kulaks (independent small farmers) who were standing in the way of his vision of a collectivized agrarian nation.  To achieve his goal, he brutally starved these farmers to death — 20 to 30 million of them.  Reading author Timothy Snyder’s description of their suffering is horrible — but it’s something that we need to read in order that we never forget how fundamentally evil socialism is.  The ones who really should read this book, of course, are American socialists, but sadly, they’re unlikely to do so.

If you can get a socialist to read Bloodlands, but he has still failed to learn his lesson about what happens when government — which lacks a conscience — decides that its job isn’t to enable individual freedom but is, instead, to control all people without regard to individualism, have him read Yang Jisheng’s book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962. Hard as it is to believe, Stalin and Hitler were just the warm-ups for Mao, the Chinese leader who, inspired by Stalin, may well hold the record for being the biggest mass murderer in human history.

Arthur Waldron, writing at The New Criterion reviews Jisheng’s book and his review shows that this is a must-read book for anyone who wants to understand why Leftists are fools when they’re frightened of corporations and, instead, want desperately to place control over every aspect of their lives in government hands.  It is impossible for a corporation to wreak the kind of havoc that socialist governments have visited upon their people.  The estimates for Mao’s killing fields during his “man-created disaster” range from 36 to 70 million.  (The higher number includes the babies that never got born to a starving population.)  As happened with Stalin’s socialist-created famine, people in dire straits did unspeakable things to survive, including cannibalism.  As Snyder said in his book (and I paraphrase), “an orphan was a child whose parents died before they ate him.”

When word of the Chinese famine got out, Mao blamed unspecified natural causes, and a credulous, Left-leaning, Walter Duranty-esque media dutifully passed this on.  It was a lie, of course.  There was nothing unusual about Chinese weather patterns from 1958-1962.  Moreover, even as the people died in the millions, food filled warehouses and party officials dined in style.

Jisheng knows firsthand about the famine:  alerted that something was wrong in his native rural area, he left the city with a rice ration, but arrived too late to save his father who, though alive, had become too starved to do anything but die.  When this happened, Jisheng accepted the party line and didn’t question the thousands of deaths in his area of rural China.  It was only during the mid-1960s Cultural Revolution, which saw many millions more die, that Jisheng began to realize that the problem wasn’t nature or farmers or people who needed re-education — it was Mao’s socialist policies, all of which officials throughout China unquestioningly accepted, either because they were true believers, because they were mindless party drones, or because they were afraid.

Although Jisheng’s book isn’t the first to tell about the famine, Waldron thinks it’s the best:

Tombstone, however, is without a doubt the definitive account—for now and probably for a long time. The Chinese original is two volumes and banned in that country. In Hong Kong it has sold out eight printings. The English version has been most skillfully shortened, edited, and rearranged by a team of Western and Chinese scholars, with an eye to making what is very much a massive compilation of statistics and reportage into a volume more accessible to the English-speaking reader.

This is a book whose importance must be compared with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973) in that it documents beyond the possibility of refutation ghastly horrors that were first rumored, then denied, then written about a bit, but only with Solzhenitsyn and Yang were so thoroughly documented and analyzed as to place them beyond question.

You should read Waldron’s review and then, if you have the heart and stomach for it, read Jisheng’s book.

When socialism fails, as it invariably does, the American Left equally invariably claims that the failure isn’t because the plan was fundamentally flawed.  To socialists, the problem is always implementation and the culprit is always the Republicans who made it impossible for the Democrats fully to implement their plans.  Books such as Bloodlands and Tombstone remind us precisely what happens when the Left has unfettered access to a helpless population.  Every person in America should be thanking God for Republican foot-dragging, and should hope that they drag their feet ever harder and faster.

Personalities matter

At Cal, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand that I was being taught the Marxist version of history.  All I knew is that my love for history was predicated on the power of personalities, while the history they taught at Cal ignored individuals and focused on mass movements that were described in terms of a Marxist economic narrative.

Would England have had a schism from the Catholic Church without Henry VIII’s lust for Anne Boleyn and his belief that she would give him a son?  I doubt it.  Anne Boleyn’s personality played a part in it too.  Things would have turned out differently if she’d just yielded, as her sister had, and become his mistress.

And how about Elizabeth I’s refusal to marry?  Whether she just didn’t want to share power or had a deeper psychological fear of marriage (death by beheading or childbirth), the fact remains that her single status made for an interesting balance of power during her reign — and handed the monarchy over to the Stuart line.  The Stuart line, of course, led to a stubborn Charles I who refused to yield on his royal prerogatives, triggering a revolution — which could be said to have paved the way for our own Revolution.

My examples are from the era of absolute monarchs.  Modern times are no different, though.  Germany was not a totalitarian dictatorship when Hitler entered politics.  His personality and beliefs transformed it into one, and his paranoia and sheer evil made it one of the worst places on earth.

Speaking of paranoia and evil, would a tyrant other than Stalin have murdered 20 million of his own people?  Do mass movements and Marxist economics create killers (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot), or is there a horrible alchemy that brings such individuals to the fore?  I don’t know.  But I do know that different tyrants would have resulted in different tyrannies, with different targets, and different MOs.

I mention all of this because of the Petraeus affair.  Up until six weeks ago, most of the nation, Left and Right, viewed him as a military visionary and a strong, noble hand at the helm of the CIA.  Now, it turns out that his personal failings, his libido and his arrogance, may have contributed to a web of deceit, as well as systemic corruption and antagonism.  Had he been less egotistical, events before, during, and after the Benghazi affair might have played out quite differently.  That is, if he hadn’t had a Sword of Damocles hanging over his head — one he placed there himself through his unethical conduct — and if he’d had better relations with his own people, he might have had more flexibility in dealing with Benghazi, and more incentive to be honest.

Christmas thoughts from a Jewish blogger

I’m about to wade into theology here, so feel free to beat me around the head (politely, of course), if I’ve committed some egregious doctrinal sin.  Before you do, though, please follow my argument to its conclusion, to see whether I’m on the right track.

I got to thinking about evil today. In my earlier post, I took it upon myself to define what I believe constitutes good (as opposed to evil) at a societal level:  Maximum individual freedom within a framework of stable laws.  What I want to discuss in this post is the evil of the individual, whether it’s just a handful of individuals committing acts of great evil, or evil on the vast scale of Stalin, Hitler, Mao or Kim Jung-Il (as well as their minions, who kept the leaders’ hands free of actual blood).

As I contemplate evil men, what always strikes me is that they are distinguished from “merely” bad people by the way in which they view their fellow man.  Your ordinary bad guy is motivated by greed, fear, anger, jealously, etc.  His own feelings drive him.  He’s not thinking about the relative worth of the people against whom he acts.  He’s simply thinking about his own needs.

People who commit evil on a grand scale, whether their victims are small in number or large, may fall prey to these passions, but these all too human emotions are not what drive them.  Instead, they commit their evil acts because they feel separate from and above ordinary humanity.  In their own minds, they are a superior species, a pleasant fact that entitles them to starve the kulaks, kill the Jews and gypsies, or turn their own nation into a giant prison camp.  The root cause of evil isn’t an unloving mother or a bourgeois upbringing or a racist society.  Instead, it is the evildoer’s fundamental lack of humanity.

Which gets me to the birthday the Christian world celebrates on December 25.  Christ was not like other gods.  The Greek and Roman panoply of gods was filled with beings who, while they suffered from more than their fare share of human foibles, nevertheless were always aware of their separation from mankind, and treated mankind as pawns in the godly games.  Christ, however, embraced human-kind.  His passion was the human passion.  Rather than rejecting human-kind, he took upon himself human pain and, in return, gave grace.  By giving himself over to humanity, rather than holding himself above it, Jesus was the antithesis of evil.

(To those of you who are hoping I’ve converted, I haven’t.  If there is any religion in me, my allegiance is to the Jewish God, an abstract, overarching figure that created human-kind, embraces His creation, and judges human-kind with a creator’s loving objectivity.  To my mind, both good and evil are concepts too small to describe the enormity of the Jewish God.)

So, while I am not now, and probably never will be, a Christian, I join with all of you in celebrating Christmas — a holiday that truly celebrates the good in all of us.

Merry Christmas!

Is Barack Obama evil?

While we were having lunch today, my dear friend Don Quixote asked “Do you think Barack Obama is evil?”

I hedged.  “That’s an interesting question.  Why do you ask?”

“I’m getting the feeling,” he answered, “that conservatives are starting to define Obama as being evil.  At least, that’s the impression I get from the emails my father sends me.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m not comfortable with the word evil.  However, if you define evil as someone who has a personality disorder, who is a malignant narcissist, or even a sociopath, then I guess I would say he’s evil.  However, to me, evil is a very fraught word, with a lot of . . . um . . . theological connotations.”

DQ picked up from there and said he thought the word “evil” was being overused and devalued.  “For one thing,” he said, “contrary to the grinning Hollywood maniac, the type who delights in his own malevolence, most evil people in real life are driven by good intentions.  They think they’re doing the right thing.”

“Careful,” I said.  “What you’re saying sounds a lot like moral relativity.”

“No,” he replied.  “I’m not excusing what they’re doing by saying that one man’s evil is another man’s good.  Their acts are still evil.  But their motives may be ordinary or even, in their own minds, good.”

You can tell, can’t you, why I love having lunch with DQ?  There is no one else with whom I can have deep philosophical questions about the nature of good and evil.

Even when lunch ended, my thoughts about evil kept going and going.  (Indeed, I warned DQ that I’d almost certainly write a post on the subject.)

The big question, of course, is “what is evil?”  Go check out the word in the dictionary and you get what amount to a series of synonyms.  Evil is immoral, wrong, bad, wicked, etc.  All true, but that really doesn’t take you anywhere.  When I think about evil, I have two mental definitions.  The first is a theological one, where evil represents the absence of God’s goodness or justice.  Simplistically, evil is the anti-God.  In that sense, I’ve never imagined the Devil as some personified being, with or without a tail and horns.  Instead, evil is the absence of everything that is moral as defined by the Judeo-Christian tradition.  But that’s still an abstract.  What is evil in practice?

And now I get to my second definition.  I think evil is the furthest end of the scale of “bad.”  If you imagine a line with neutral acts at one end, and the worst kind of acts at the other end, that furthest end would bear the label evil.  That’s why not all war time leaders are evil, but Hitler is.

War is a human condition (whether the peaceniks like it or not).  During war, people, even ordinary, normally good people, do bad acts.  When war ends, most people resume their normal lives, and put behind them the barbarity, the cruelty, that war brings out.  I come by this belief honestly.  Although she spent four years suffering terribly in Japanese concentration camps in Java, my mother never bore a grudge against the Japanese.  “It was war,” she said.  “Bad things happened.  Even though they were cruel to us, and didn’t care if we lived or died, they weren’t committing genocide against us, the way the Germans did.”

And my mother is absolutely right.  Hitler expanded to realms hitherto unknown the scope of ordinary wartime cruelty and death dealing.  Under his aegis, and in response to his desires and imagination, a nation embarked on a concerted, mechanized killing spree the likes of which had never before been seen.  The scope of his enterprise was so large that it no longer could possibly fall within DQ’s theory that many evil people actually think they’re acting appropriately or for the best, or under my Mom’s theory that war is always Hell.  Hitler and his minions deviated so far from the scale of human behavior — even human behavior in the worst of times — that they clearly qualified as “evil.”

The same holds true for Stalin and Mao.  Their defenders can argue that they were simply doing what was necessary to advance their political ideologies, hold their countries together, bring their citizens into the future (or, at minimum, into the present), update their economies, or whatever other apologetics these followers’ fertile minds can devise.  But none of that excuses the scope what Stalin and Mao did.  As Dennis Prager explains, we in the West may be forgiving because they visited their excesses on their own people, but the fact remains that they committed their abuses on an unimaginable scale.  Best guesses for Russian deaths under Stalin are about 20-30 million; for Mao, up to 70 million.  No good intentions can explain away that road to Hell.  That is evil.

Evil can also exist with smaller numbers, but heinous acts that are outside the pale of even the worst kind of behavior humans ordinarily commit.  Although the major papers gave it scant coverage, decent people were aware of the unbearable acts of cruelty that four men and one woman committed in connection with the murders of Hugh Christopher Newsom, age 23, and Channon Gail Christian, age 21:

While Channon was forced to watch, her boyfriend was raped prison style and then his penis was cut off. He was later driven to nearby railroad tracks where he was shot and set afire. But Channon’s hell was just beginning. She was beaten; gang raped repeatedly in many ways, had one of her breasts cut off and bleach poured down her throat to destroy DNA evidence-all while she was still alive. To add to Channon’s degradation the suspects took turns urinating on her. They too set her body afire, apparently inside the residence, but for some reason left her body there-in five separate trash bags.

That may not be 70, 20 or 6 million dead, but that is two people dead in a way that is an utter repudiation of all humanity.  Heck, even animals are more humane when they kill.  Although the murders of Newsom and Christian were small in number, in scope they established the actors as irredeemably, absolutely evil.  Those four people (and the word people has to be used lightly in connection with those hideous life forms) broke even the most tenuous bonds they might have had with basic civilization.

With those thoughts in mind — with a definition of evil as the committing of ordinary bad acts on a scale that should be unimaginable (i.e., the stuff only of nightmares) — I cannot say that Obama is evil.  I can apply all sorts of negative descriptions to him (arrogant, ill-informed, thoughtless, unkind, selfish, willful, morally obtuse), but he is not evil.

To say that he Obama is not evil does not mean that I don’t fear the acts he is committing.  I do not know whether he deliberately intends to provoke America’s downfall or whether his arrogance and commitment to his ideology prevent him from recognizing that his acts will lead to that downfall.  Nevertheless, whatever is currently motivating him, he has not left the pale of humanity.  Currently, he’s still just a politico with some damn bad ideas — but ideas that have defined Europe (which is quite a functional, and often a very civil, society) for decades.  Obama may in future commit acts that are genuinely evil because they go beyond the pale of ordinary humanity, but he has not yet done so.

This is an important point.  Conservatives devalue their arguments against Obama’s policy if they start throwing the word “evil” around.  While that may work with the converted, it frightens the vast middle.  Rather than looking like wise men (and women) with a better plan, conservatives start looking like wild-eyed street corner prophets.  We may be right, but no one will listen.

One of the most important things young lawyers learn (or, at least, should learn), is not to use ad hominem attacks against opposing counsel.  If your opposing counsel is indeed dishonest (which is usually the direction ad attacks take), you get much further with the Court if you provide proof of that dishonesty, and then let the Court draw the obvious conclusion itself.  Calling opposing counsel names denies the Court the necessary proof and merely makes you look bad.

In our discussions about Obama and the Democrats, we should make sure that we lead our readers to the truth.  Let them draw the ultimate negative conclusions.  As Socrates knew, a lesson is always learned better if the student has his own epiphany, rather than having a point, no matter how good it is, forced down his throat.

Cross-posted at Right Wing News