Advance Notice

 | 

With 150 feature films, 106 shorts, dozens of panels and live presentations, nine days, a dozen theaters, thousands of volunteers, and 72,000 attendees, Austin’s SXSW film festival, presented this year from March 13–21, has grown to one of the most important festivals of the season. Many of the best films of the year are introduced there.

It can also be the most frustrating festival of the season, with its policy of not selling advance tickets to any screenings. Attendees purchase a badge (costing several hundred dollars) for the entire festival and then line up according to the kind of badge they have chosen. Locals can purchase a wristband for $90, but their line is the last to gain entrance, just ahead of the misnomered “rush” line of stragglers hoping to find an empty seat for ten bucks after all the others have gone inside. (During the entire week I saw only two screenings where rushers were able to get in.) Badgeholders are allowed to pick up an express pass for up to two films per day, but that often means being in line by 7 a.m. and waiting for the express line to open at 9.

The Road Warrior was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular.

For some, however, that’s part of the fun at SXSW, and friendships are often made in line. I talked with one young filmmaker whose goal for the week was to meet a particular director and talk to him about a project. On the morning of the first day, there was the director he wanted to meet, sitting next to him on the floor waiting for the express line to open. They chatted for nearly two hours and shook on the deal. Who would have thought it possible?

Many films with theatrical release schedules were screening at SX, but I spent most of my time seeing documentaries and smaller films that I won’t be able to see at my local Cineplex in the next month or so. The one exception was a screening of The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2),the 1981 postapocalyptic cult classic, newly remastered for the festival and introduced by director George Miller himself. What a treat to see this film on a gigantic screen in an old-school theater holding nearly a thousand enthusiastic viewers. RW was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular. It’s a great story too, demonstrating the kinds of communities that arise under anarchy. Max is a lot like Paul Newman’s character in Hombre, just trying to make his way, barter for gas, and protect what little he has. We were hoping to see a “surprise” screening of the new sequel, Fury Road, afterwards (why else would they have brought back a 34-year-old film?) and indeed, we were treated to several chunks of the new movie. But even without that, Road Warrior was easily the most fun I had at the festival.

Here are some documentaries you might want to watch for on Netflix over the next year:

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, (directed by Alex Gibney, 127 minutes).When Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, the whole world mourned the loss of the man who brought us the personal computer and the magical triplets that reside in our pockets or under our pillows: the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.But, according to the many people who were interviewed for this doc, Jobs was not a particularly lovable man. He could be ruthless, selfish, and unfair. He was a man of complex contrasts, “a monk with Zen-like focus but no empathy” who fancied himself to be enlightened and asked to be canonized as a monk. He was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities (unlike his counterpart at Microsoft, Bill Gates); his factories polluted rivers in China; he arranged for backdating of stock options to increase the income of key employees (including himself); and he created offshore companies in Ireland to reduce the company’s tax bill (nothing illegal about that, but the filmmaker suggests it’s unethical or improper for Apple not to pay “their fair share”).

Jobs wanted to change the world, and he did. At one point the narrator asks cynically, “Is creating a product that makes buckets of money for its shareholders enough to change the world?” I would answer emphatically, “Yes!” but not because of the money. Everything we do is different now, because of the magic box we carry in our pockets, embed in our Google Glasses, and wear on our watches. Even getting around town is easier today — it was less than ten years ago that I carried a large street map in my car and had to pull over to find my way. This week, navigating around a large and unfamiliar city, I never once got lost, because Siri told me when to turn and even how to avoid traffic. Right now I’m writing this review on my iPhone. I can look up details about the films instantly. The iPhone has indeed changed my world.

Jobs was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities.

Jobs created something beautiful and useful, and he created buckets of money in the process. We love our iProducts. We caress them. We even sleep with them. We love them because they connect us to a wider world and family far away. But they also tend to isolate us from those who are near at hand. The narrator sums it up well when he acknowledges, “I love my iPhone. My hand is drawn to it in my pocket the way Frodo’s hand is drawn to the Ring.” Indeed, many folks today create “phone free zones” when they are together, in order to resist the powerful attraction of the ‘net. Jobs himself might not have been a beautiful man on the inside, but he certainly created a beautiful product.

Peace Officer (directed by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, 109 minutes) was the most powerful and important film I saw all week, and it rightly won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary. I am hoping to bring it to the Anthem Film Festival at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas in July. It chronicles the deadly results of militarizing our police agencies through SWAT teams and “1033” programs that provide new and used military equipment to local police forces.

The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong.

William “Dub” Lawrence is the central figure of the film. A likable, personable man, he was the police chief of Farmington, Utah, when he started Utah’s first SWAT team in 1975. (He also is the man who broke the Ted Bundy serial murder case.) He thought it would be an effective way to reduce the drug trade in his sleepy little community. In 2008 that same SWAT team killed Dub’s son-in-law over a domestic dispute that escalated into a standoff that involved over 80 police officers. Because of his connection to the police department, Dub had access to police cameras that revealed a scenario different from the one reported to the media (that the young man had taken his own life). He quit the police department and spent the next several years piecing together the actual timeline of events calmly, methodically, and with a megawatt smile that belies the pain he feels from the death of his daughter’s husband.

Peace Officer tells several stories of law enforcement turned aggressively non-peaceful and non-protective. “A peace officer should be a trusted friend,” Dub explains. “But today they no longer ‘serve and protect.’ Now they are trained as soldiers, and we are the enemy.” The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods, according to the film, and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong. Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, acknowledges in the film that this isn’t entirely the police officers’ fault. “Laws and programs have set up these conflicts and turned them into soldiers,” he suggests.

One of the laws that has led to the most serious invasions of privacy and safety is the “no-knock warrant,” which allows SWAT teams to barge into a home in the middle of the night, rifles drawn, screaming at anyone in the house to back off. Awakened and terrified, the homeowners try to defend themselves from what appear to be home invaders, and they are often killed rather than arrested. The father of one young man who is dead because of such a raid (and who admittedly was growing marijuana in his basement) asks angrily, “What were they protecting us from? Marijuana plants?”

Several things are wrong with our law enforcement system, and Peace Officer reveals many of them. It’s an important, timely documentary that should keep the conversation going about the growing abuse of police power.

Raiders! (directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, 95 minutes). In 1982, three 11- and 12-year-old boys undertook an ambitious project: as fans of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, they would recreate the Steven Spielberg masterpiece shot-for-shot. This was before the film was available on VCR; amazingly, the boys were able to recreate the entire film from watching it in a theater and reviewing the story in a “Raider’s” comic book one of them owned. Over the next seven years, from middle school through high school, they would enlist their friends to serve as cast and crew, commandeer their parents’ houses as movie sets, and spend their summer vacations filming the project. By the time they graduated from high school, all but one scene was finished: the one in which Indie and Marion fight off a German airplane mechanic while a WWII airplane rolls around in circles with propellers running. Now, 33 years after beginning the project, they have gone back to film that missing scene.

Raiders! documents the project from start to finish, incorporating footage from 30 years ago along with the scenes of the new project. How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself. These background stories are told with unabashed glee and deadpan humor. As grownups the filmmakers faced a host of new obstacles, including funding the project, getting time off from their fulltime jobs, and dealing with days and days of rain that threatened to end the filming before it even began. Still, they were determined to finish this project. It’s an amazing story of perseverance, creativity, sacrifice, and pursuing one’s dreams. The film is funny, smart, and inspiring. I’m also hoping to bring this film to the Anthem Film Festival this summer.

How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (directed by Eric Zala, 107 minutes). After watching the documentary about the making of the greatest fan-film ever made, audiences were treated to the film itself. These kids were remarkably skillful in recreating Spielberg’s actual shots, including the dialogue, the costumes, the camera angles, and even the facial expressions. It’s fun to watch their ages change, as many of the scenes were filmed out of sequence. And of course, it’s hilarious to see them emerge from the underground temple nearly 30 years older in the newly finished scene, still wearing the same clothing! The Adaptation has developed a cult following since it premiered at Harry Knowles’ “Butt-Numb-a-Thon” at the Alamo Draft House in Austin several years ago; now, partnered with the documentary about its completion, it is going to grow in stature. You can get a copy by donating to their crowdfunding campaign at raidersguys.wix.com.

Finders Keepers (directed by Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweet, 82 minutes).If you’ve ever watched the cable TV show Storage Wars, you know that the strangest things often show up in storage units. When people don’t pay the rent on their units, the facility owners are entitled to sell the contents to the highest bidders. Most of the time they end up with household furnishings and personal effects. Occasionally they might find an expensive piece of jewelry or a cache of valuable collectibles. When Shannon Whisnant bid on the storage unit rented by John Wood, he had no idea that he would find a human leg inside Wood’s smoker grill.

The two men argued for several years over who was the rightful owner of the leg (amputated when Wood was injured in an airplane crash). Whisnant wanted to put it on display and charge people $3 to look at it. ”The cholesterol was dripping right out of it!” he says with glee as he describes discovering the leg. Wood simply wanted to keep it and have it buried with him some day. They were invited to tell their bizarre story on talk shows worldwide and even ended up on an episode of Judge Mathis. But Finders Keepers is not so much about the legal battle to determine ownership of the leg as it is a study of these two backwoods North Carolinians (you know you’re in the deep South when subtitles are required for people who are speaking English). As presented by the film, both struggle with addictions, Wood the traditional kind (drugs and alcohol) and Whisnant of a less tangible kind — he craves attention and longs to be on television making people laugh. “I’m pretty smart,” he says shortly after describing the events that “perspired” regarding the leg. “I’m pretty sure you’ve figured that out by now. “ He thought the leg would be his ticket to fame and fortune.

This colorful and engaging documentary was a favorite with the SXSW audience. It’s funny without being exploitive, and bizarre without being gross. Participating in its making was life-changing for both men, but not in the ways they expected.

Brand: The Second Coming, (directed by Ondi Timoner, 125 minutes, festival headliner). Russell Brand is another character from a poor socioeconomic background who craves attention on the world stage. Best known for his deviously charming smile, his outrageous wit, and his raunchy and irreverent stand-up routines, a few years ago Brand decided to “re-brand” himself as a serious thinker with a plan to change the world through books, op-ed pieces, impassioned speeches, and a stand-up comedy tour that focuses on his four new heroes: Gandhi, Jesus, Malcolm X, and Che Guevera. (For an example of Brand’s unscripted humor, google Russell Brand/Morning Joe to see the interview in which he completely overwhelmed three veteran MSNBC TV anchors.)

Brand’s number-one goal is to end inequality. He has no idea how to do that, however, other than to say that rich people have too much and poor people have too little and that isn’t fair. He doesn’t understand how the world works, and believes the old mercantilist philosophy that “where there is profit there is deficit.” He simply doesn’t understand that the pie can be made bigger. But he has millions of followers (mostly of the “Occupy” ilk) who think he’s right. Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

Brand’s epiphany occurred after seeing children in Africa digging through garbage dumps in search of recyclable goods to sell. To his credit, his heart was broken by the sight. But then he opines, “I live in a mansion, and these children dig around in a garbage dump. And the same system put both of us there.” Of course, he’s wrong about that. The system that put him in a mansion is based on Western values, capitalism, and free markets. Audiences chose to spend their money enjoying the entertainment that he provides, and it makes him wealthy. The system that put those children into a garbage dump is anything but market based or embracing of Western values. Moreover, selling his house and living in a tent is not going to change their plight.

Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

Brand makes a solid case for decriminalization of drugs, and if he used his celebrity to focus on that one cause, he would probably be quite successful in his goal to “change the world.” He also turned one of his building complexes into a self-sustaining rehab center, which is pretty impressive. Addiction is a topic he knows well, at least according to his own reports. “Prison isn’t working!” he proclaims, and he is right. “As long as it is illegal, they will continue to use dirty needles and back-alley doctors. . . . Drug laws penalize the people at the bottom of the scale.” He did his homework and presented a strong case at the UN meetings in Vienna. I wish he would continue to lead that charge.

Brand should stay with what he does well — unscripted, irreverent comedy — and focus on causes with which he has valid, knowledgeable experience, such as the problems of drug addiction. He is no Messiah, and his knowledge of economics is laughably shallow. But I think he is a good man at heart who sincerely wants to make a difference in the world.

Love and Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad, 119 minutes).This biopic about Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the Beach Boys, was one of only two narrative films that I caught during the festival. I was expecting to see a feel-good story about a feel-good band from my youth, but I was sadly mistaken. It is a horrifying story that left the audience in absolute silence at the end. It is true that Wilson suffered from mental illness and was away from the music industry for several decades because of it. But this film is so unrelentingly sad that I walked away convinced that I will never be able to enjoy hearing a Beach Boys song again without thinking of the nightmares Wilson experienced while creating them.

Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era.

Wilson is played by both Paul Dano (1960s) and John Cusack (1990s). The decision to use two actors who don’t look at all alike instead of simply aging Dano through prosthetics seems odd, but it serves to emphasize Wilson’s schizophrenia — not only does he hear voices in his head, but we see two different people inside his skin. Young Wilson is plagued by an abusive father who seems to exacerbate his illness, while the older Wilson is abused by his tyrannical psychiatrist Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti) who eventually lost his medical license for his mistreatment of Wilson.

Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era. We see him in the studio, pressuring the musicians to create the sounds he hears in his head, and while it is amazing to watch him at work, it is also devastating to see the agony he experiences while trying to get it right. This is the kind of film that could end up winning numerous awards, while earning very little at the box office. It is just too sad to endure.

I had marked dozens of other films that I wanted to see, but there wasn’t enough time and the films I wanted were often scheduled in conflict with each other. I was also distracted by multiple other features of the festival, including a four-day interactive gaming and creative technology show, live music performed at nearly every corner, and crazy good food that you can only get in Austin, and often only from a truck. It was a great experience, and I will definitely be back.




Share This


Unfinished Business

 | 

Back in the mid-1990s, Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind chronicled the struggles of a poor, black honor student named Cedric Jennings as the latter aspired to get out of an inner-city high school and into a top-notch university. Suskind’s pieces garnered him a Pulitzer Prize and led to a book-length treatment of his subject, A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League (Broadway Books, 1998, 372 pages).

Cedric, a junior at Washington DC’s Frank W. Ballou Senior High School, has to suffer the slings and arrows of a student body that largely takes a dim view of academic achievement. Part of a small group of accelerated science and math students, he dreams of being accepted into MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program, offered the summer before his senior year. Anywhere from one-third to one-half of those successfully completing the program go on to matriculate at MIT, and Cedric has his heart set on being one of them and majoring in mathematics.

The young man who wanted to major in mathematics at MIT and make mathematics a career instead bailed out of mathematics altogether with just a minor at Brown. Why?

Although he makes it into the MITES program, he quickly finds himself outclassed: most of the black students are middle-class, hailing from academically superior suburban high schools and having much higher SATs. Decidedly at a disadvantage, he nonetheless manages to complete the program. But during a meeting with academic advisor Leon Trilling, he is told that his chances of getting into MIT aren’t that good. Particularly telling are his SAT scores, 380 verbal and 530 math, for a combined total of 910 out of a possible 1600. Professor Trilling suggests that he apply instead to the University of Maryland and Howard University, even giving him the names of particular professors to contact. The distraught Cedric will have none of it though, even going so far as to accuse Trilling of being a racist.

If he can’t get into MIT, he’ll prove the critics wrong by getting into an Ivy League school. Pulling his SATs up to 960 from 910, he applies to Brown University because it has an impressive applied mathematics department. He’s accepted, and Suskind chronicles the trials and tribulations of his freshman year. The book came out during Cedric’s junior year, Suskind commenting in the Epilogue, “His major, meanwhile, is in applied math, a concentration that deals with the tangible applications of theorems, the type of high-utility area with which he has always been most comfortable” (364).

Thus concludes the summary of the book published 17 years ago. As the years went by, I wondered how Cedric had fared during the remainder of his Brown experience and after graduation. Every now and then I came across some tidbit of information. Although I was expecting to find him putting his major in applied mathematics to work in that field, I discovered instead that he had gone back to school, earning a master’s in education at Harvard and a master’s in social work at the University of Michigan; he had been involved in social work and then had gone on to become a director of government youth programs. Nothing particularly unusual about that, though; lots of folks get graduate degrees in fields other than their undergraduate major and end up veering off onto other career paths.

But I discovered that a revised and updated edition of A Hope in the Unseen had come out back in 2005, and I was surprised to come across this statement in the Afterword describing Cedric’s graduation from Brown: “Then Cedric proceeded, arm in arm with Zayd, Nicole, and a many-hued host of others, to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in education, a minor in applied math, and a 3.3 grade point average” (377). Suskind casually lets slip that Cedric didn’t end up with a major in applied mathematics after all! That he only minored in that field means he didn’t have to take the final upper-level courses required for a major.

Suskind had also made Leon Trilling out to be some kind of Prince of Darkness thwarting the Journey of the Hero, and this is a most ungenerous characterization.

Although the book does have Cedric contemplating a second major in education along with his original major in applied mathematics, doubling up in that way just didn’t make much sense. As with his MITES experience, he found himself outclassed at Brown, having to compete with students from academically superior suburban schools, students with SATs hundreds of points higher than his own. He had trouble with some of his freshman courses, even his specialty, having to drop a course in discrete mathematics. Would it not have been more prudent, under those circumstances, simply to focus on one’s original major and on required courses without having to worry about the additional academic load of a new, second major? And if one did take on a second major and then had to scale back on the total number of courses taken, would it not have made more sense to scale back on the second major, getting a minor in that field instead, while going on with the original major? Something just wasn’t adding up here.

Although Brown had been unaware that Cedric was the subject of a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal when he was admitted under Brown’s affirmative action program, the college most certainly would have found out in short order, and it would have been in its best interest that this particular admit not get in over his head. Education is a much “safer” major than applied mathematics, and it is a popular major with many African Americans.

Cedric believed that getting into a top-notch university was a reward of sorts for all that he had to put up with through high school: “I could never dream about, like going to UDC or Howard, or Maryland or wherever . . . It just wouldn’t be worth what I’ve been through” (49). But it appears he may have had to strike a bargain in order to achieve that end. The young man who wanted to major in mathematics at MIT and make mathematics a career instead bailed out of mathematics altogether with just a minor. Why was the motivation behind such a tantalizing shift of academic focus not duly chronicled by Suskind in the Afterword to the revised and updated edition? He offers no explanation whatsoever for Cedric’s stopping short of a full major in applied mathematics, furtively sneaking the fact by as if hoping the reader wouldn’t notice.

Had Cedric gone to Maryland (or Howard) instead, would he have gone on to realize his STEM aspirations?

Suskind had also made Leon Trilling out to be some kind of Prince of Darkness thwarting the Journey of the Hero, and this is a most ungenerous characterization. In 1995, the mean math SAT score of entering freshmen at MIT was 756 out of a possible 800; Cedric’s score was 530. Dr. Trilling was absolutely correct to wonder whether Cedric was a good fit for MIT at the time. Trilling’s advice to Cedric to apply to the University of Maryland and Howard University was based on the fact that those schools were involved in a project with MIT called the Engineering Coalition of Schools for Excellence in Education and Leadership (ECSEL), a program aimed at underrepresented minorities in the field of engineering. Had Cedric been accepted by either of those schools and majored in engineering, he could have had another shot at MIT as a transfer student if his grades had been good enough and if he had been able to boost his SATs. Trilling was actually trying to keep Cedric’s STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) aspirations alive. Even if Cedric still fell short of getting into MIT, he could have gone on to get an engineering degree from Maryland or Howard and contribute to a STEM field in which blacks are woefully underrepresented relative to such fields as education and social work.

During the drafting of this review, I discussed its content with a friend who urged me to check out chapter three of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Allen Lane, 2013, 305 pages). That chapter was titled, “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in science.” Caroline Sacks — a pseudonym — is a straight-A “science girl” all the way up through high school in Washington, DC. Applying to Brown University as first choice, with the University of Maryland as her backup choice, she’s accepted by both and of course chooses Brown. But she has to drop freshman chemistry at Brown and take it over again as a sophomore. Then she has trouble with organic chemistry, finally having to leave her STEM track altogether and switch to another major. She achieves an Ivy League degree from Brown, but at the expense of her passion for science. Had she gone to Maryland instead, she believes, she’d still be in science. Had Cedric gone to Maryland (or Howard) instead, would he have gone on to realize his STEM aspirations?

A Hope in the Unseen has become widely assigned classroom reading, even spawning a number of accompanying classroom study guides. Although it is indeed an inspiring story, it’s simply not all that it’s cracked up to be. Legions of readers have assumed as a matter of course that Cedric proved the naysayers wrong by earning a major in applied mathematics at Brown when his dream of earning a major in mathematics at MIT was derailed by his low SATs. In reality, Cedric had to leave applied mathematics at Brown — and had he instead been admitted to MIT and attempted a major in mathematics there, he probably would have had to leave much earlier, perhaps even having to forgo the consolation prize of a minor.

Although many consider Cedric’s experience at Brown an affirmative action success story, his experience actually highlights the problems inherent in affirmative action policies that lower academic standards for minorities.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League," by Ron Suskind. Revised and updated edition. Broadway Books, 2005, 390 pages.



Share This


The Cult of Cynicism

 | 

From time to time, this column has good news to report.

From time to time. Occasionally. All right — rarely. We’re not living in the golden age of literacy, you know.

But there is, occasionally, news that’s not so bad. If it’s true. The current version of buenas noticias comes to us, possibly, from the father of Mohammed Emwazi, allegedly the real person behind the mask of Jihadi John. JJ is the British subject who runs about the Middle East butchering people who don’t accept his religious notions. That’s the bad news. The good news is that his father may not have adopted the old, hackneyed ways of responding to the reported misdemeanors of family members.

There are at least two versions of this story. One is that the father is defending his son, saying there’s no proof that he did those things. The otheris the one I want to believe.

It goes like this. Confronted by questions about young Mohammed’s alleged crimes, he didn’t say, “My son is a good boy.” He didn’t say, “My son was an honor student who was planning to attend a community college.” He didn’t say, “This is all a plot of the Zionist Christian infidel crusaders.” He didn’t accuse anyone of racism. He said, “My son is a dog, he is an animal, a terrorist.” He said, “To hell with my son."

Mohammed called his father and said “I'm going to Syria to fight jihad, please release me and forgive me for everything." [His father] said, "F*** you. I hope you die before you arrive in Syria."

While other parents of miscreants initiate lawsuits, shriek into microphones, and solicit contributions for their pain and suffering, Emwazi’s father (in this version of the story) showed what the Declaration of Independence calls “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”:

"He said he cannot come back to work because he felt so shy of other people," said [his friend] Mr. Meshaal. "He is sitting home and cannot even go to the mosque to pray because he is ashamed of his son. He doesn't want people to see him, so he is praying at home."

Dignity and truth are so closely related that one seldom appears without the other. It is a sign of our world’s cheapness and cynicism that the reported remarks of Emwazi père, so honest, so worthy of respect, should also be so unusual as to shock the headline writers into noticing them. If the story isn’t true, our world is the poorer for it.

But what shocks me is the cult of cynicism that has swept our own country like a thousand gangs of jihadis. It’s a cult in which the central ritual is lying. The faithful gather; the priest tells a blatant, whopping lie; then the congregation breathes “Amen!”, congratulating itself on being clever enough to know that the words are lies, and that the speaker knows they’re lies, and that the speaker knows that the faithful know that the speaker knows they’re lies. I could go further with that sentence, but you get the point. The grand lie, the most pious of all lies, is that nobody knows any of this.

Dignity and truth are so closely related that one seldom appears without the other.

Our era’s most fitting representation of a priest is President Barack Obama. He has all the stereotypical qualities: he’s pompous, he’s unctuous, he’s obscurantist, he’s self-righteous — and he lies all the time. That’s not hyperbole. Given a choice between truth and lie, he chooses the lie. Lying is his religion.

This month, Obama’s former secretary of state, an ambitious under-priest named Hillary Clinton, carried the lying ritual far enough to disgust everyone. She called a press conference to claim, on the authority of nothing but her own word (a word that during the past two decades has been repeatedly exposed as worthless), that she is not concealing information from the American people regarding her communications while secretary of state.

Brazenness comes naturally to Hillary Clinton; she is well qualified to be a priestess in the house of Baal. What she lied about this time was her use of a private email account to cover her deeds as a public servant, including misdeeds that no person of normal intelligence, even among her fervent supporters, doubts that she committed. But in the cult of cynicism, a lie means nothing if it isn’t so obvious that partisans say to themselves, “Christ, what a flumpin’ lie! But she’ll get away with it.”

Nevertheless, Mrs. Clinton’s obvious lies about her weirdly obvious coverups were nothing when compared to the reaction of Obama, her former boss. During her long, long years as secretary of state, she undoubtedly corresponded with Obama many, many times, and in her correspondence undoubtedly analyzed many state secrets (“classified information”) that it is death and hell to harbor on one’s private email. Which of course she did. So. Whenever Obama got a message from Clinton, he had an opportunity to observe the address from which she sent it, which was a private address, not a government address. He must have noticed that. He certainly noticed that. So what does he have to say about it? He says that he learned about her putting government emails on her private server at “the same time everybody else learned it, through news reports.”

A cult of cynicism has swept our own country like a thousand gangs of jihadis. It’s a cult in which the central ritual is lying.

Again, it’s a religious duty: given a fair choice between truth and lie, you lie. And if you don’t have a choice, you make one. Witness Mrs. Clinton’s out of the blue stories about being shot at in the Balkans and being named after Sir Edmund Hillary. Nobody cared where her name came from, but it represented an abstract chance to lie, and she tried to cash in on it. The fact that a lie is preposterous — as preposterous as Mrs. Clinton’s claim that she used a private email system instead of the government’s system because she didn’t want to carry both a private phone and a public phone — just adds to the priest’s perception that she or he is showing bold leadership. Boldness seems still bolder and, indeed, more truly presidential, the more closely it is linked to an obvious lie.

Acolytes, such as presidential press secretary Joshua Ryan Henry (“Josh”) Earnest, naturally compete to emulate the bold adventures of their saints. For them, shamelessness is next to godliness, and their bosses graciously give them the open shot at shamelessness. Even President Obama must have realized that no one could possibly believe his lie about learning of Mrs. Clinton’s nongovernmental email “through news reports.” Not only is “learned it from the news” preposterous, but he’s used that line about virtually every scandal in his administration. On a charitable interpretation, he must have known that he was being ridiculous, and he was being that way to give Josh his chance to tell a landmark lie of his own.

The chance came when the media hacks had finally scratched their heads and stared at their cellphones long enough to say to themselves, “Well, golly. If I know where my emails are coming from, why wouldn’t the president know where his were coming from?”

So out came Josh, to explain it all. Which he did, in this way:

Earnest said that while Obama likely recognized the e-mail address that he was responding to was not a government account, the president was referring to the fact that he didn’t know Clinton was using a personal e-mail server that was kept at her house or that she was using that exclusively for government business.

In private life, such statements would send you flying out the door. In public life, they beget learned analyses of how cleverly your camp has distanced itselffrom the offender. That’s another dimension of cynicism — the cynicism of the media, the cynicism of the learned experts.

Brazenness comes naturally to Hillary Clinton; she is well qualified to be a priestess in the house of Baal.

But for those of us who value religious faith, it’s sad to observe that President Obama doesn’t always adhere to his. I’m not referring to his flagging relationship to Christianity; I’m referring to his vital faith in cynicism. Even from this faith he is capable of backsliding. The high priest of cynicism sometimes blathers nonsense that he actually believes. At those dark moments, climate change (formerly known as global warming) is piously considered the biggest threat to civilization. Hiphop is welcomed as a form of art. The Islamic State is denied to be Islamic. Taxes and regulations are prescribed as cure-alls for the middle class.

Most recently, the president has taken to prattling about the idea that if voting were mandatory, it would become a kind of religious experience:

It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract [campaign] money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country.

Well, of course it would. No one would have to pay a dime to guide political illiterates to the polls. They would find the polls themselves! And no one would need to show them how to vote. They would do it by inspiration! It would be a miracle.

One of Obama’s weirdest intervals of devout belief occurred this month, when he prompted a State Department minion to announce that the religious fanaticism of, say, Jihadi John is prompted, not of course by religion, but by the need for economic development. I mean, if you wonder why some people treat women as slaves, hang gay men for being gay, hack off the heads of hostages, and burn fellow Muslims in iron cages, it’s because there aren’t enough jobs for young jihadis.

The high priest of cynicism sometimes blathers nonsense that he actually believes.

Obama never runs out of temple servants, but the one bearing these revelations happened to be Marie Harf, a State Department spokesman and reputed expert on something, who delivered — or rather, like her boss, intoned — a series of remarks that made even progressive Democrats convulse with laughter. Harf maintained that if we are to win the war against terrorism, its “root causes” must be addressed — not such causes as morbid religiosity, abusive ideas of sex, or opportunities to practice sadism in real life, but such causes as a “lack of opportunity for jobs.”

P.J. O’Rourke once defined a modern liberal as a person who believes there are some people who are just too poor to clean up their front yards. Now there are people who are just too poor to keep from burning other people alive.

When she realized that the nation was laughing at her, Harf went back on television to insist on the “root causes” cliché, and add lack of “good governance” to the list of reasons — never, apparently, including religion — why people spend thousands of dollars traveling across the globe to torture and kill other people. She then blamed her audience for failing to appreciate her “nuanced” argument.

Nuanced raised even more laughs. It became clear to all, even to John Kerry, the reductio ad absurdum of Ivy League elitism, that to everyone this side of Harvard Yard, nuanced is a funny word, not a deeply seriousone. He told congressmen not to laugh at the miserable Ms. Harf. But they did. Everybody did.

But what had she done? She had given honest (though ridiculous) voice to the honest (though ridiculous) ideas of her boss.

It’s better to stick to cynicism.




Share This


Pulp

 | 

When I was in grade school, a neighbor had an unfinished basement room, all studs and drywall, filled with paperback science fiction books and magazines. I was given free rein to browse and borrow. It was a treasure trove.

Among the things I read was the 1951 short story, The Marching Morons, by Cyril M. Kornbluth. It takes place in a distant future where, because of adverse genetic selection, the average IQ has fallen to 45.

A detail of the story that has stayed with me was the marketing of cars in that imaginary distant future. The cars weren’t very fast or powerful, so they were fitted out with electronic sound effects that made them sound like rolling thunder.

Here's the short story.

Reading the Washington Post the other day, I stumbled upon this:

For the 2015 Mustang EcoBoost, Ford sound engineers and developers worked on an “Active Noise Control” system that amplifies the engine’s purr through the car speakers . . .

Ford said in a statement that the vintage V-8 engine boom “has long been considered the mating call of Mustang,” but added that the newly processed pony-car sound is “athletic and youthful,” “a more refined growl” with “a low-frequency sense of powerfulness.”

Here's the link to the piece.

Welcome to the future.




Share This


Right-to-Work Nation?

 | 

The mainstream media has more or less ignored some interesting news out of Wisconsin. It is that the governor, the unflappable Scott Walker, has signed into law a right-to-work bill that covers private sector unions.

This makes Wisconsin the 25th state in the country to adopt right-to-work legislation, that is, legislation that stops any union from forcing workers to support it.

Wisconsin’s action is notable for a variety of reasons. First, it is a traditionally blue state. Second, it is an upper-Midwest industrial state. Third, it has a history of heavy unionization — about one-fifth higher than the national average (8.2%, compared to 6.7%). Back in the mid-1980s, over 20% of Wisconsin private sector workers were in unions.

Also, like Michigan, Wisconsin passed the bill even though its governor was initially reluctant to support it. Walker had originally called it a “distraction,” but after the state senate majority leader pushed the billed through the legislature, Walker quickly signed it into law.

The law did not have bipartisan support. In the state assembly, all 35 Democrats voted against it while all 62 Republicans voted for it. In the senate, 14 Democrats (joined by one turncoat Republican) voted against it, while the remaining 17 Republicans voted for it.

The vitriol reached its peak when a union supporter threatened to gut Walker’s wife “like a deer.”

Proponents of Big Labor hegemony were predictably outraged at Walker’s signing the bill. One union supporter lamented, “It’s going to take 25 to 40 years to correct problems Scott Walker’s done in 4 ½ years.” Phil Neuefeldt, head of Wisconsin’s AFL-CIO, threatened, “We’re not going to forget about it.” And of course our unifying President Barack Obama had to chime in, calling the Wisconsin law “a sustained, coordinated assault in unions, led by powerful interests and their allies in government.”

As if Obama’s whole tenure weren’t a result of the machinations of powerful interests — not least of which is Big Labor.

But then, Walker has made a career of facing down unions. In his first term, he pushed through restrictions on public employee unions’ collective bargaining powers, forced public employees to contribute more to their pension and health care benefits, and gave government employees the right to opt out of the obligation to pay dues to the public employee unions.

These modest reforms appear to have saved local governments in Wisconsin $3 billion in taxpayer dollars and kept property taxes from rising while keeping the number of teachers from being cut. But the teachers’ unions are singing the blues: the National Education Association saw its Wisconsin membership drop from 100,000 to 66,000, the American Federation of Teachers (representing the college teachers) saw a drop of 50%, and the state employees union dropped from 70,000 to 21,000.

For all this, Walker faced near-riotous demonstrations and a recall election, with Big Labor money flowing in from across the nation, to remove him. The public employee unions even tried to remove a Wisconsin state Supreme Court judge who had upheld Walker’s earlier law.

The vitriol reached its peak when a union supporter threatened to gut Walker’s wife “like a deer.” I am always moved by the boundless compassion offered by progressive liberals.

The rhetoric of the Walker-haters aroused by the current law — which, please note, merely gives private-sector workers the freedom given to public sector workers, years ago — has been amazing. But what is to come will almost surely be worse. GOP legislators are now indicating that they will take on Wisconsin’s nearly century-old “prevailing wage law,” which forces governments to pay union-dictated wages on all public works projects.

In the end, what is driving the push for worker freedom is popular opinion, supported by unarguable logic. One recent poll put public support for the right of workers not to support a union at 62%. And the reasons have been the same for decades. First, unions force workers to support candidates and causes they abhor. Second, unions often destroy the businesses that employ the workers. Third, unions violate the human right of free association.

With the action in Wisconsin, half the states in the union now give liberty to workers to belong or refuse to belong to unions. In many of the remaining states, such as California, the stranglehold of Big Labor is too strong to break. Yet there is hope. Should Scott Walker ever become president, with a Congress controlled by Republicans, it is possible that a federal right-to-work law would be enacted.

Should that ever happen, there would be a cry of freedom from American workers that would rock the gates of Heaven itself.

And it could happen.




Share This


The Battle of the Resumes

 | 

Maureen Dowd’s new column about Hillary Clinton convinces me that I am not the only one who smells something peculiarly sick and rotten in presidential politics.

On one side, we have Hillary Clinton, who presents a resume for high office with these major bullet points:

  1. Partnership in a radically dysfunctional marriage with a discredited former president, specializing in cheating and sleazing.
  2. Female gender.
  3. A long string of jobs — partner in a provincial law firm, power behind a throne, United States senator, secretary of state — which she survived, innocent of credit for any specific accomplishment.
  4. Proven ability to cadge money from Near Eastern religious fanatics, one-dimensional feminists, crony capitalists, and other people with hands out for favors.
  5. Proven ability, acquired from her husband (see 1, above), to operate (with the help of 4, above) a political mafia.
  6. Proven ability to tell nothing but lies.
  7. Proven ability to deliver any desired quantity of self-righteous statements about other people’s duties.

On the opposite side, we have John Ellis (“Jeb”) Bush, whose resume emphasizes these points:

  1. Membership in a family that includes two abjectly unsuccessful presidents.
  2. Modest success as governor of Florida.
  3. Proven ability to cadge money from “moderate” (i.e., non) Republicans and crony capitalists devoted to cheap labor, open immigration, and votes for Dems.
  4. Proven ability to lose votes from anyone to the right of Anderson Cooper.
  5. Proven ability to look stupid on any public occasion.
  6. Proven ability to deliver any desired quantity of self-righteous statements about other people’s duties.

It’s remarkable that everyone who has any knowledge of politics has read these resumes, understands them, and talks about them as if they were plastic disks in a checkers game.

Well, almost everyone. Dowd, for all her leftist craziness, is a respectable person.

But let’s see . . . Who has the longer resume? Jeb or Hillary?

It’s Hillary! She wins!

Can it be that in today’s America, or any other country, this is how things happen?




Share This


You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man

 | 

Focus is an entertaining con man caper with enough plot twists and charismatic characters to keep its audience pleasantly engaged and outsmarted. When the charming and handsome Nicky (Will Smith) meets the beautiful and flirtatious Jess (Margot Robbie) he introduces her into his world of the well-planned pocket heist. To quote Liam Neeson in the highly successful Taken franchise, Nicky “has a very particular set of skills,” and he wants to impart those skills to his gorgeous new protégée.

The scenes in which Nicky teaches Jess his craft are the most fascinating of the film. We watch as a team of thieves work gracefully and collaboratively to distract, steal, and conceal in one nearly seamless action. Nicky is kind of a modern day Fagin who oversees a team of confidence men (and women) as they work in sync to lift watches, wallets, credit cards, and jewelry from unsuspecting “marks.” But these thieves aren’t homeless, starving young waifs forced by circumstances into a life of crime; they are intelligent, skilled, well-dressed adults who could earn an honest living but choose instead to steal from others. Moreover, the “marks” in most confidence capers are slightly shady themselves, so the audience feels that they deserve to be bilked. As W. C. Fields famously opined, “You can’t cheat an honest man.”

In many ways a confidence man is like a magician, skillfully using misdirection, charm, and sleight of hand to trick the audience into looking the wrong way.

But in these scenes where Nicky and his team teach Jess the tricks of the trade, they are indeed cheating honest men and women — they are stealing from people who are simply withdrawing money from an ATM, paying a restaurant bill, making their way through a crowd, or apologizing for seeming to have bumped into someone. It’s hard for the audience to laugh at the poor schmucks getting fleeced on the screen when they are doing what we all do, every day. We are amazed and unsettled at the same time — and we might even reach for our wallets to make sure they haven’t been lifted while our focus was on Focus.

In many ways a confidence man is like a magician, skillfully using misdirection, charm, and sleight of hand to trick the audience into looking the wrong way. One of the reasons we are attracted to this genre is that we want to know how they do it, and that contributes to the enjoyment of this film. Good film directors are also adept at using misdirection to create an “aha” moment for the audience, and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have the requisite skills to set us up for a satisfying romp. Just be sure to hold onto your wallet if someone happens to tap you on the shoulder.


Editor's Note: Review of "Focus," directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Warner Brothers, 2015, 105 minutes.



Share This


Having Fun with Hillary

 | 

There were a lot of laughs in Mrs. Clinton’s press conference on Tuesday.

I enjoyed her holding the conference at the United Nations, as if that would increase Americans’ respect for her. I enjoyed her starting the conference by accusing 47 Republican senators of consorting with America’s foreign enemies. I enjoyed her taut, contemptuous grin. I enjoyed hearing an average of three or four “uhs” per sentence, surpassing even President Obama’s remarkable off-script performances. I enjoyed the first questioner, a gentleman from Turkey, who was recognized to ask the bold and challenging question, Do you think you’re being treated differently about this matter than a man would have been? I enjoyed her steady refusal to concede that she could have made a mistake, preferring to allow that, looking back on it, it might have been better to have done something different, although everything was perfectly all right anyway. New and interesting light was shed on Mr. and Mrs. Clinton’s odd, very odd relationship when she claimed that she didn’t want to let anyone else see emails between her and her husband, just after said husband revealed that he had sent only two emails in his life, neither of them to her.

I was even more impressed by her repeated assertion that she didn’t want to be inconvenienced by having to use two email accounts, one private and one governmental, and therefore two phones. We’ve always known that the Clintons have utter contempt for everyone but themselves, but what takes the cake is Mrs. Clinton’s lunatic idea that she is smarter than everyone else. Look, we all have cellphones! Lots of us have more than one email account! Accessible from the very same phone! Most of us do! Are you telling me that the secretary of state couldn’t find someone who could enable her to read government email on the same phone on which she read her Yahoo mail?

She claimed that she didn’t want to let anyone else see emails between her and her husband, just after said husband revealed that he had sent only two emails in his life, neither of them to her.

But the best thing was her contention that she could be sure that all her job-related emails were preserved, because the US government officials to whom she sent them were using their own government email service. She actually expects us to believe that as secretary of state she didn’t send emails to (1) the private accounts of US government officials, (2) the accounts of American constituents, experts, and so on, (3) officials of NGOs, (4) officials of the United Nations, (5) officials of foreign governments. Or does she expect US archives to go looking for accurate copies of her emails in the files of, say, the government of Iraq? Afghanistan? Syria? Russia? China?

Oh, I forgot. China probably got her emails, several years ago. All of them.




Share This


Enemy of My Enemy

 | 




Share This


Infrastructure

 | 

Somewhere I saw a quip about all roads running downhill. It is worth elaborating into a proposal for America’s crumbling infrastructure. We should rebuild our roads and bridges to run downhill — in both directions.

Although the earth’s surface is marked by hills and valleys, it is a sphere in the big picture, possibly allowing a downslope on balance. If America could harness the atom and put a man on the moon, we should be able to harness gravity to move our cars and trucks.

This program would dramatically increase gasoline mileage, guaranteeing our energy independence. It would reduce carbon emissions and stop the menace of global warming. It would make nationwide highway travel and transport faster and cheaper than ever. The very scale of the program, together with decisive benefits still to be mentioned, will create new prospects of national purpose and greatness, which to many citizens will be worth some sacrifice of their own narrow interests.

Rebuilding roads and bridges to slope downwards will be expensive, but that itself is an advantage. The great increase in federal spending (the rich paying their fair share) will stimulate the economy through multiplier effects and create jobs. More directly, very many scientists, engineers, and lawyers will be employed, at high salaries, to work out the program’s scientific, technical, and environmental details (such as the conservation of energy). Universities will find more grants and consulting work available for professors and more fellowships for graduate students. Many executives and bureaucrats will administer the program, and workers in many specialties will do the actual construction.

That is the clinching argument: jobs!




Share This


Obama's ISIS Strategy: Death by Flatulence

 | 

The more the Obama administration talks about the war on terrorism, the less we know. What are we fighting? Is it violent extremism or radical Islam? OK, it's actually radical Islam (we only need to kill jihadists, not all Muslims); the term "violent extremism" is less offensive to violent Islamists and no one cares about its repugnance to non-Muslim violent extremists — a subset in the Venn diagram of terrorism that is imperceptible to all but a handful of White House officials.

But is it Sunni radical Muslims or Shiite radical Muslims that are the problem? Or both? (And who are we to make such judgments — after the Crusades and all?) Do we need to worry about Iran, with its expanding regional hegemony, soon to be bolstered by nuclear weapons? Or Iraq, which, having been abandoned by the US in 2010, has descended into barbaric chaos with the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) running amok throughout its north, and equally vicious Iranian militia groups running amok everywhere else? Or both?

And what about the original Syrian rebels, valiantly fighting Bashar Assad? When, in 2011, the civilian death toll from Assad's brutal regime had reached 2,000, a horrified Mr. Obama declared that Assad must step aside. Yet, after drawing his famous red line, it was Obama who stepped aside, allowing both ISIS and Iranian thugs to trespass into Syria. What are we to make of Obama's silence today, when the Syrian death toll exceeds 200,000? And, as Hezbollah fighters and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) creep into the Golan Heights and Hamas wages war in Gaza, why has Mr. Obama become displeased with Israeli president, Nethenyahu? Is it time to abandon Israel?

When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Some experts believe that if we (Western infidels) knew what radical Muslims wanted, then a reasonably peaceful coexistence agreement could be reached. But, as President Obama is discovering in his negotiations with Iran, even when we know what radical Muslims want, compromise is a charade, with reason playing, at best, a bit part to concession.

Despite his Herculean appeasement efforts, Obama has been unable to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. His support for President Nouri al-Maliki (a puppet of Iran ) and his (Maliki's) violent purge of Sunni participation in Iraqi government affairs; his hasty withdrawal of American military forces — just when the Bush-Petraeus surge had stabilized the country and Vice President Biden was gleefully declaring that Iraq was "going to be one of the great achievements of this administration"; his refusal to help the Kurds fight ISIS militants; his blind eye to the spread of Shiite terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Lebenon, Yemen, and Gaza — all has been for naught.

In 2012, Obama issued a crystal clear promise to "do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from producing an atomic bomb." That promise became nebulous with a November 2013 agreement to forge, within six months, a treaty to freeze or reverse progress at all of Iran’s major nuclear facilities. Today, as the delays (and the relaxation of economic sanctions against Iran) continue, Obama's promise is idle. The mullahs, who have been playing him for a sucker all along, will get their bomb. Obama can only hope for a toothless treaty that postpones Iran's acquisition of a functioning ICBM system — until after he leaves office, when nuclear proliferation in the Middle East will become his successor's problem.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK.

We also know what Sunni Muslim radical organizations such as ISIS want. They tell us, loudly and unequivocally: 7th-century Islam, a caliphate, with sharia law, and remorseless death to all who interfere. That they are pathologically indifferent to diplomacy, negotiation, or compromise is demonstrated in a relentless parade of choreographed atrocities: decapitation, crucifixion, immolation, torture, rape, slavery, and mass murder, to name a few. In his brilliant and disturbing exposé, What ISIS Really Wants, Graeme Wood elucidates,

We can gather that their state [ISIS] rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of — and headline player in — the imminent end of the world.

Wood suspects that, in the past year, president Obama's confusion over the nature of ISIS "may have contributed to significant strategic errors." The confusion extends much further back. As ISIS marauded into Iraq in late 2013, Obama may have believed that he could reason with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of what Obama perceived to be the al Qaeda JV team. However, already embroiled in the war against terrorism and fully aware of ISIS's fanatical designs on Iraq, he might have followed the advice of Benjamin Franklin, arguably the finest diplomat in US history, who knew that sometimes "force shites on the back of reason." Had Obama chosen this path, any time before January 3, 2014, the day when Fallujah fell to al-Baghdadi's brutal thugs, would have been a fine time for overwhelming military force to shit on the back of ISIS.

It did not. Unchallenged, ISIS continued its rapid expansion, conquering most of northern Iraq by early June, when it captured the city of Mosul. It wasn't until August, when American journalist James Foley was beheaded, that Obama sprang into action — in a press briefing, where the president announced, to the dismay of our allies in the Middle East and Europe, that he had no strategy.

By the following week, however, he had hastily cobbled together a plan to "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS. Enlisting the aid of allies (nine, initially), it would involve air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and not involve American "boots on the ground" anywhere. With Syria but a tattered impression in his entangled memory, Secretary of State John Kerry spouted, “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here.” ISIS poses no existential threat to the US, yet. The immediate threat is to Iraq, the oil producing monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, and, to a lesser extent, Europe. When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint.

Only the Kurds have been willing to face ISIS. Apart from Israel, they are our only true ally in the region. They struggle alone, except for sporadic US air support. Their weapons are obsolete. The ISIS attackers wield vastly superior American weapons, stolen from the Iraqi military. Kurdish pleas for such weapons have found nothing but Obama's shameless denial.

Our other Middle East allies meekly stand by, partly because of their reluctance to face any grueling warfare, but also, perhaps more significantly, because of their suspicions about Obama. They are Sunnis, who, while appreciating Obama's dilemma in Syria (where he can't bomb ISIS without helping Assad), are deeply troubled by his concessions to Iran — a Shiite juggernaut feared more than ISIS. Why should they follow a leader whose ultimate sympathies lie with their ultimate enemy?

President Obama entered office vowing to deliver on his campaign pledge to improve America's image in the Middle East. Apologizing for America's arrogance (including the War in Iraq, torture, Gitmo, and more), he did his best to ingratiate himself to the Muslim world. He did, however, warn that "al Qaeda is still a threat and that we cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president suddenly everything's going to be OK."

But ending the Iraq War did not win the favor of Islam. Indeed, Obama's hasty withdrawal from Iraq (against the wishes of his military advisors) thrust that country into a violent chaos that destroyed what he himself called “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq" and touted as "an extraordinary achievement." It allowed ISIS to be created — reconstituted from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that had been defeated by the Bush-Petraeus surge. With his pre-announced 2016 exit, Afghanistan is likely to follow the same trajectory. And we were kicked out of Libya, Yemen, and Syria by Sunni Muslim terrorists, Shiite Muslim terrorists, and Vladimir Putin, respectively. So much for America's image.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK. In his recent Vox interview, he asserted that the media exaggerates terrorism and that climate change and epidemic disease may be more important issues. He concedes that it is legitimate for Americans to be concerned "when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris," fastidiously avoiding, of course, any association with radical Islam. We should not be alarmed by the organization that he once dismissed as a JV team, and now dismisses as a caliphate, believing that it will collapse under its own weight. Says Obama, "It [ISIS] can talk about setting up the new caliphate but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually, you know, sustain or feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work."

Nevertheless, with the gruesome ISIS murders, in early February, of a Japanese journalist (beheaded), a Jordanian pilot (burned alive in a cage), and 21 Egyptian Christians (beheaded), Obama was spurred to action. He convened a global summit, in Washington DC, where leaders from 60 countries came to combat "violent extremism” — by the surprising method of "empowering local communities" that can provide "economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity." Said the president, "We can help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the Internet." To that end, the State Department promptly opened 350 twitter accounts (designed, apparently, to deluge the violent extremists with clever anti-barbarism tweets) and a new web site: "The Solution to Violent Extremism Begins in your Community."

Strangely, they are serious. Violent extremism, says John Kerry, is "the defining fight of our generation." Back in the real world, however, it is quite astonishing that Obama has been unable to convince countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states to join the fight against ISIS. These Sunni Muslim nations, having the most to lose, should be the most willing to put their own boots on the ground against ISIS. Nothing would please America more than to see Arab Muslim soldiers at the forefront of Obama's "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS’ campaign. Should this happen, I am sure that Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths would march together with Muslim Americans through the streets of America cheering for our president and praising his inspired leadership.

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president.

But it's not likely. Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint: can't bomb Syria, can't cross Kerry's redline, can't jeopardize negotiations with Iran, can't offend Islam, can't capture terrorists, and so forth. Such a strategy, together with his indecisiveness and distaste for military force, crowds out the possibility of victory. Besides, even if ISIS is defeated, al Qaeda and numerous other radical Muslim organizations remain — not to mention Iran, an immensely virulent, existing terrorist organization, on the fast track to obtain nuclear weapons.

President Obama, therefore, has retreated to his community organizer roots, where he finds, as chief weapons against Islamic terrorism: political rhetoric, social media, and hope — hope that ISIS self-destructs, that budding terrorists find jobs, that Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions, that pithy tweets will curb terrorist atrocities and stymie terrorist recruitment, and that the media stops exaggerating the barbarous acts committed, as Obama is careful to insist, by "individuals from various religions."

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president. On the other hand, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin also warned, "He that lives upon Hope, dies farting."




Share This

© Copyright 2016 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.