I was particularly struck by this passage:

“The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto” wasn’t just a piece of timely wartime programming by NBC. It was the capstone of an American Jewish Committee program to combat anti-Semitism by promoting the idea that, with the world at war, anti-Jewish bigotry wasn’t just a problem for the Jews—it was also essentially un-American.

The initiative was the brainchild of Richard Rothschild, a philosopher-turned-advertising executive who was recruited in the late 1930s to craft AJC’s national strategy to combat anti-Semitism. Rothschild introduced the concept of “salting in,” whereby notable Jewish figures were folded into radio programs or print material. Their names alone, he felt, would identify them as Jews; there was to be no discussion of the character’s religion or ethnicity. The Jew was to be presented, quite simply, as a natural part of the landscape. At the same time, non-Jewish stars like James Cagney were recruited to perform AJC material. Meantime, millions of Americans saw full-page newspaper advertisements, school posters, and comic books prepared by AJC but distributed through partner organizations. [click to continue…]

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Going from Bad to Worse (Syria Edition)

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 11, 2013

I missed the president’s speech on Syria, but looking through it, I can’t find anything that makes me feel more confident in the White House’s handling of the situation. Chemical weapons are awful and horrendous things, but I don’t see any rationale for making the use of chemical weapons the trigger for a possible American intervention, especially since before the use of these weapons, we’ve known that “[o]ver a hundred thousand people have been killed,” and that “[m]illions have fled” Syria. It seems to me that we have had a monumental humanitarian catastrophe on our hands even before the use of chemical weapons. Why didn’t we intervene before that catastrophe got worse, before chemical weapons were used? Other than telling us that “we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president doesn’t explain why humanitarian catastrophes brought about without chemical weapons are somehow less deserving of international attention than are humanitarian catastrophes brought about with chemical weapons.

The president tells us that “[i]f we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons,” and that in addition, “other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them.” But what reason do they have to stop now? Will the“unbelievably small” consequences that the Assad regime might have to face somehow deter the regime, or “other tyrants”? Will the fact that a coalition of the willing that is smaller, less coalesced and certainly less willing than its predecessor coalition–along with possible Russian assistance that will help Syria replace bombed assets–help deter the Assad regime, or “other tyrants”? We are told that if we do not intervene, fighting might possibly spill “beyond Syria’s borders,” which would mean that “these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.” This raises some questions:

  1. How and why do we think that fighting might spill “beyond Syria’s borders”? I have read my Clausewitz and I know that war is difficult to control, but why do we think that a civil war might possibly spread to other countries? By what particular mechanism will spillage occur?
  2. Who exactly will “threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel”? The Assad regime? If so, they would be fools to do so; such an act would directly bring American national security interests into the picture and spell the regime’s doom. Seeing as how it is not in the regime’s interests to destroy itself with so brazen and militaristic an act, one rather doubts that they will do so. The Syrian rebels? If so, why are we potentially acting to help them?

There are, of course, no answers to these questions in the president’s speech. But the president goes on to tell us that

. . . a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.

Look, Iran wants nuclear power. We all know that. The Iranians have wanted nuclear power since the shah’s time. Given this history, how seriously can anyone take the administration’s claim that Assad’s use of chemical weapons will encourage the Iranians to get nuclear weapons, when history plainly shows that Iran has not waited for the Assad regime’s cue in order to work to obtain nuclear power?

The president goes on to promise “targeted strikes,” and swears up and down that the campaign will not be “open-ended,” or “prolonged,” which is just another way of assuring the Assad regime that if it hunkers down, it will survive any American attack and that once the attacks are finished, the regime can go ahead and continue to gas opponents. How this is expected to constitute deterrence is anyone’s guess.

Later on, we get this:

Other questions involve the dangers of retaliation. We don’t dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other — any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally Israel can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.

If this is the case, then why worry that fighting might possibly spill “beyond Syria’s borders,” which would mean that “these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel”? If “[n]either Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise,” why do we think that there may be spillage? The president plainly believes that Assad won’t encourage or bring about such spillage and if there are elements in the Syrian opposition that might encourage or bring about such spillage, then we shouldn’t be helping them, should we? And if “our ally Israel can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America,” then doesn’t that mean that spillage–while potentially a serious issue–is one that we can handle without the use of preemptive airstrikes that are too weak to accomplish anything in the first place?

I chuckled a little bit when the president said that “al-Qaida will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.” I presume that he would have no problem with the following very similar statements:

  • “Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Iraq if people see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”
  • “Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Iraq if people see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being persecuted, tortured and executed for their political beliefs.”
  • “Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Afghanistan if people see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being persecuted, tortured and executed for their political beliefs.”

I had no idea that the president is secretly a fan of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He must be, because similar logic applies to both countries. You learn something new everyday.

The latest development in the Syrian sitzkrieg is that John Kerry, our secretary of state, stepped in it recently:

This, apparently, is how diplomacy happens these days: Someone makes an off-hand remark at a press conference and triggers an international chain reaction that turns an already chaotic and complex situation completely on its head, and gives everyone a sense that, perhaps, this is the light at the end of the indecision tunnel.

Speaking in London next to British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that perhaps the military strike around which the administration has been painfully circling for weeks could be avoided if Bashar al-Assad can “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.”

The fact that Kerry immediately followed with, “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” didn’t seem to bother anyone. (Probably because they were focusing on his other slip-up: calling the promised strikes “unbelievably small.”)

The Russians immediately jumped on the impromptu proposal, calling Kerry to check if he was serious before going live with their proposal to lean on Syria. An hour later, they trotted out Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Mouallem, who said he too was down with the proposal, which was a strange way to get the Syrians to finally admit they even had chemical weapons to begin with. Before long, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the English, and the French were all on board, too.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the White House was just as surprised as anyone. Asked if this was a White House plan that Kerry had served up in London, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken was unequivocal. “No, no, no,” he said. “We literally just heard about this as you did some hours ago.”

So that’s good. At least everyone’s on the same page.

Read the whole thing. While reading, be sure to remember that John Kerry once wanted to be president. Probably still does. Anyone want to tell me how easy it will be to (a) stop a civil war; and (b) send in an international force that removes all chemical weapons before (c) announcing to civil war participants that it’s okay for them to shoot at each other again? Or will we just not bother with (a)? As Julia Ioffe notes, this proposal–and its possible embrace–mean that “Moscow and Damascus have all the time in the world, and the Kremlin, which has never met a legal norm it couldn’t waltz around, will quibble and hair-split and insist that this is all done legally—whatever that means in Moscow.” The Obama administration has officially been bamboozled out of its ability to launch “unbelievably small” strikes against the Syrian regime, which takes some doing, if you ask me.

If all of this is not bad enough for you, read Colum Lynch:

A day after President Obama expressed hope of a “breakthrough” on Syria’s chemical weapons, Britain, France, and United States clashed on Tuesday with Russia over the terms of a plan that would place Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision and require Syria to join the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dubbed a U.S.-backed French initiative threatening possible military action against Syria “unacceptable.” The plan to monitor Syria’s chemical weapons “can work only if we hear that the American side and all those who support the United States in this sense reject the use of force,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a television address.

The Russian stance left in disarray Western plans to establish a legally binding inspection regime, backed by the threat of force. The move also raised questions about whether a diplomatic breakthrough welcomed by President Obama is still in reach. Yet Security Council diplomats said that Russia’s abrupt decision on Tuesday to drop its demand for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council suggested there was still hope of diplomatic progress.

In an effort to overcome Russian opposition, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to travel to Geneva to meet on Thursday with Lavrov. American, British, and French diplomats, meanwhile, pressed ahead here at the United Nations with efforts to refine the French U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government and placing Syria’s chemical weapons program “under international control” in preparation for their destruction.

If they succeed in gaining passage of their resolution, they will give the United Nations a new reason to do business with President Assad. The senior Arab diplomat said, “This all reminds me of Iraq, when Kofi Annan said he has a partner in Saddam Hussein,” who then spent years in a cat-and-mouse game with U.N. weapons inspectors. “Do we know we have a partner in Bashar al-Assad?”

All of which means that the proper response to the question posed by the title of Lynch’s column is “yes.” But hey, let’s “trust the Russians.” What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

Finally, to close out this very long post, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Somewhere, Mitt Romney laughs.

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I May Have Lived in the Wrong Era

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 11, 2013

To wit:

Virginia’s John Tyler loved Shakespeare from an early age and would often quote or allude to him in public and private communications. Tyler had an elite background. His father had been Thomas Jefferson’s roommate at William and Mary. Tyler attended his father’s alma mater, beginning at the precocious age of twelve and graduating at seventeen. When he ran for vice president on the “hard cider and log cabins” ticket with William Henry Harrison in 1840, he tried to downplay this upper-class education. But he was well versed in music, poetry, and literature and collected an impressive library of 1,200 books.

Still, Shakespeare was Tyler’s favorite, and he felt comfortable citing the bard, knowing that his audience would understand him. In 1855, after he had moved on from the presidency to the role of “well-read elder statesman,” he gave an important speech on slavery and secessionism to the Maryland Institute. The speech was filled with literary allusions. He struck a note of optimism by making an apparent reference to Edgar Allan Poe, who had been a household name since the publication of “The Raven” in 1845: “I listen to no raven-like croakings foretelling ‘disastrous twilight’ to this confederacy …” He also made an adamant stand against secession, doubting that “a people so favored by heaven” would “throw away a pearl richer than all the tribe.” (His views on this subject would change after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and he was a member of the Confederate Congress when he died in 1862.) His reference to Othello in the central point of his argument reflects his confidence that his listeners would share an appreciation for Shakespeare.

Tyler could quote Othello in a political speech because even his most simply educated countrymen were taught Shakespeare and because so many people went to the theater. Average Americans attended plays far more often than we might imagine. One nineteenth-century Massachusetts man managed to see 102 shows in 122 days. Not only must he have been a very determined theater-goer, but he must have had many opportunities. As Heather Nathans observes, “[t]hat he could find 102 opportunities in 122 days to be part of an audience underscores the importance of performance culture in America during this period.” The shows themselves were varied, including not just Shakespeare, but also singers, musicals, minstrels, and orators, both professionals and amateurs. Presidents, as well as regular citizens, both followed and attended.

Okay, so I wouldn’t really want to live back in John Tyler’s time, without all of the modern conveniences that are part and parcel of my life and which I completely take for granted. But wouldn’t it be nice if modern-day “listeners” of political speeches  “would share an appreciation for Shakespeare” that is worth writing about and commenting on? After all, elevated literary preferences might well indicate elevated preferences and expectations for other kinds of discourse, writing, speeches, and rhetoric–including political rhetoric. And the greater one’s expectations for political rhetoric, the less patient one will be when politicians try to inundate one with taurine fertilizer as a substitute for elevated, meaningful and truthful rhetoric.

I don’t expect politicians to ever fully stop trying to spread taurine fertilizer. But I do want it to be more difficult for them to do so. And in order to make it more difficult, we need a smarter, better educated citizenry; one that is willing to call politicians out when they are less than honest or exemplary with their words and their deeds. Until we get one, we can’t expect politicians to live up to what is best in us.

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The Rush to Feel-Good Belligerency

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 7, 2013

Some more useful links analyzing our seeming willingness to get involved in a completely unnecessary war:

  • Once upon a time, Barack Obama inveighed against unilateralism and thought that getting United Nations approval for American military actions overseas would be a good idea. Nowadays? Not so much.
  • Even if we bomb Syria, Russia might “replace any military assets the U.S. destroys in a strike.” Assuming no Russian interference whatsoever, our strikes would be of limited value. But if the Russians work to help the Syrians replace bombed assets, our ability to change the situation on the ground for the better might be even further reduced. And are we really willing to get into a proxy war with the Russians in a conflict where no American national security interests whatsoever are at stake?
  • Seriously? I mean, who actually thought that this enterprise would bear fruit?
  • Once again, it is worth noting that the new coalition of the willing is less coalesced and less willing than its predecessor coalition.
  • Searching for fourteen missing people is going to require some big milk cartons.

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“Libertarians Are the New Communists”?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 7, 2013

I think not. Far more accurate to say that Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu are the new Joseph McCarthy:

Hanauer and Liu’s mode of argument consists of repeating negative statements (“Radical libertarians would be great at destroying,” they are “fanatically rigid,” they are “economic royalists” who are “mirror images” of communists, etc.) and writing opponents out of serious discussion (libertarians are not “reasonable people,” so there is no reason to actually represent their viewpoint even while attacking it).

If this sort of ultra-crude and unconvincing style of argument (communists=bad; libertarians=bad; thereore, communists=libertarians) is the best that opponents of libertarian influence and policy can do, our future is indeed bright.

More here. The following is properly scathing:

The idea that the libertarian tendency is identical to the sophomoric cult of egotism found in Ayn Rand novels is more than outdated — it was never true in the first place. Miss Rand’s fiction is part of the libertarian intellectual universe, to be sure, but so are Henry David Thoreau and Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson and Jesus. Citing as examples of libertarian extremism Ted Cruz, the Koch brothers, Grover Norquist, and Rand Paul, they argue: “It assumes that societies are efficient mechanisms requiring no rules or enforcers, when, in fact, they are fragile ecosystems prone to collapse and easily overwhelmed by free-riders.” Of course societies are complex — that is one reason why you want multiple, competing centers of power and influence rather than a single overgrown Leviathan blundering around your fragile ecosystem. As for the claim of “no rules or enforcers,” I have spent a fair amount of time around Senators Cruz and Paul, have debated Mr. Norquist, and have observed the elusive Koch in its natural habitat, and I have not yet heard one of them make the case for anarchism, which is what is meant by “no rules or enforcers.” Senator Cruz, like most of those with a Tea Party orientation, is intellectually devoted to the Constitution, which is many things but is not a covenant of anarchy. Senator Paul is an admirer of Grover Cleveland. Mr. Norquist believes that our taxes should be reduced. Anarchy should be made of more disorderly stuff.

Mr. Hanauer and Mr. Liu run the gamut from the ignorant to the dishonest. Consider this: “A Koch domestic policy would obliterate environmental standards for clean air and water, so that polluters could externalize all their costs onto other people.” Among the many enterprises that the Koch foundations have supported (though that support is more modest than their fevered critics imagine) is the Property and Environment Research Center, which is explicitly dedicated to the cause of aligning property rights with environmental interests, i.e. precisely the opposite of externalizing environmental costs onto other people.

If these gentlemen would like to have a discussion about libertarian thinking, then they should discover what it is that libertarians think. There are anarchists and near-anarchists among them, as well as constitutionalists, conservatives, and even a few Eisenhower Republicans. Perhaps we could organize some kind of emergency book airlift for the people at Bloomberg.

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The Dangers of Political Activity

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 7, 2013

We are regularly told that we, as citizens, should become more active in public affairs. We are told that this would make us more informed about the issues of the day, and that being more informed, we could make better decisions as citizens, and force our elected officials to make better decisions as well.

By and large, all of this is true. And of course, with blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media, we can be more involved in public life. As individual citizens, we are empowered as never before to impact what goes on in our communities, in our cities, in our states, and in our country.

But any advice to get more involved in public affairs–and to do so with the help of social media–should come with a warning: If you do get involved, be prepared to pay lots of money to be regulated by your state in flagrant violation of past Supreme Court rulings. Be prepared, in short, to have your First Amendment rights ignored and trampled upon by the state.

The Supreme Court has the opportunity to put a stop to this latest example of overregulation and liberty infringement. The question is, will they? Or will the First Amendment become more and more of a dead letter?

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Why @SkeptInquiry can’t have nice things.

by Moe Lane on September 7, 2013

If the Skeptical Inquirer is seriously publishing articles like this winner, well, you may want to reconsider that. “This winner” being a remarkably obtuse review of Ken Hite’s The Nazi Occult; apparently the fellow is worried that people might take this book seriously.

IMG_1342IMG_1343

Yeah, I know. It’s the Internet: you must expect somebody to miss the point, I suppose.

[click to continue…]

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This is not a headline that the Obama administration particularly wanted to see.

Congressional Black Caucus Instructed to Hold Tongue on Syria

As an increasing number of African-American lawmakers voice dissent over the Obama administration’s war plans in Syria, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) [Martha Fudge, OH-11] has asked members to “limit public comment” on the issue until they are briefed by senior administration officials.

A congressional aide to a CBC member called the request “eyebrow-raising,” in an interview with The Cable, and said the request was designed to quiet dissent while shoring up support for President Obama’s Syria strategy.

…particularly since it’s coming from The Cable. That it is showing up there is pretty telling, not least because it means that – oh, rarest of cases! – the Beltway Establishment is as leery of intervening in Syria as the rest of the country is. [click to continue…]

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…this (via Hot Air) sounds pretty [expletive deleted] much like the US government was pretty [expletive deleted] explicitly offered a mercenary contract by the [expletive deleted] oil oligarchies.

KERRY: Well, we don’t know what action we are engaged in right now, but they have been quite significant. I mean, very significant. In fact, some of them have said that if the U.S. is prepared to go do the whole thing, the way we’ve done it previously in other places, they’ll carry that cost. That’s how dedicated they are to this. Obviously, that is not in the cards and nobody is talking about it, but they are talking about taking seriously getting this job done.

…YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT IT RIGHT NOW, SECRETARY KERRY. [click to continue…]

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Summing Up Obamacare

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 4, 2013

This story tells us that we can look forward to the following:

  • If you are a small nonprofit and you don’t pay taxes, you might be able to look forward to a tax credit.
  • If you currently provide health care insurance as an employer, you may have to stop.
  • It may cost more to cover part-time workers than it does to cover full-time workers.
  • If you have to provide coverage as an employer, and can’t because of higher premiums, you’ll wind up paying penalties and your employees will go without insurance unless they individually seek insurance on the exchanges.
  • If you forego providing health insurance as an employer because of higher premiums, and have to pay penalties, you will also lose out on the ability to claim tax deductions for providing health care coverage.
  • If you are a large nonprofit, you may have to forego health care insurance for your employees, even though promoting health and health care may be part of your nonprofit’s mission statement.
  • You won’t be able to keep your health care coverage, even if you like it, because of higher premiums.

If you don’t like this arrangement, you are not alone.

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