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01 — Intro. And Radio Derb is on the air. This is your flamboyantly genial host John Derbyshire, with our round-up of the week's news.
All is quiet here at Buckley Towers, I am glad to report. The spot of bother we had last week with demonstrators in the street outside was most ingeniously solved by Jonah. He diverted the water pumps that supply the grotto to discharge their contents out of the 96th floor windows, to the great discomfort of the protestors, who soon dispersed. Never let it be said that we are without resources to defend our bastion of conservatism! My own original suggestion was for boiling oil, but I regret to report that this was vetoed by the National Review suits. There is just no respect for creative thinking nowadays.
OK, on with the show. What have we got? A debate, of course. How did this one go?
02 — GOP Bloomberg debate 1. Yes: another week, another GOP candidates debate. What did we learn from the Bloomberg-sponsored event on Tuesday?
Nothing certain, of course. It's still early days, and there aren't any certainties yet. The fun of the game here is to see how the probabilities change.
There is pretty universal agreement — and you can include me in it — that the probability of Mitt Romney being at the head of next year's GOP ticket went up a few notches. I'd guess it at around 80 percent right now.
There's a Chinese idiom that comes to mind every time I see Mitt: 八面玲瓏. The literal meaning is "smooth and finished on all eight sides," with repeated "jade" elements in the written characters. So I guess it refers to a finely-worked piece of jade — an octahedron, presumably. When it's used of a person it means "deft, slick, and smooth in all kinds of social exchanges." That's how Mitt strikes me: 八面玲瓏.
And of course that's how he wants to appear: as a polished professional act, with no rough edges. He's playing to his strengths; and Mitt's undoubted strengths are as a capable, calm, effective manager. If he tried to come on as a charismatic uplifter, he'd just make a fool of himself, and he knows that. After running for president all these years, Mitt's the one in the room who best has it down to an art, and it's not the least bit surprising that this is so. That's most of his polling numbers right there: The capable, experienced executive who, even though he may not make anyone swoon, at least won't screw things up, and might even un-screw a few.
Herman Cain comes into clearer focus each time we see him on stage. Cain's positives have been generally noted, including by me: that sunny unflappable disposition, pretty good across-the-board conservatism, radical simplification of taxes. A few mild negatives have been registered: his odd position on Second Amendment rights — he seems to believe that Congress can't impose gun control but states can, which is constitutional nonsense, and there's a lack of clarity on immigration.
I've picked up a broader Cain negative — not by any means a deal-breaker, but slightly off-putting. I haven't got it into really good focus yet, but it's something like narrowness. I'm just getting the impression this is not an imaginative guy, perhaps even not a guy much interested in anything outside his own direct experience. This has come up before, in his obvious vagueness towards foreign policy. It showed again on Tuesday when he was asked to name the Fed chairman he most admired. That's a no-brainer for any conservative: you just say "Volcker."
Cain named Alan Greenspan. Asked why, he replied as follows, quote: "Because that's when I served on the board of the Federal Reserve in the early 1990s. And the way Alan Greenspan oversaw the Fed and the way he coordinated with all of the Federal Reserve banks, I think that it worked fine back in the early 1990s." End quote.
Now, maybe I'm reading too much into this, and to be sure there is some kind of a case to be made for Alan Greenspan, but it was Cain's appeal to his own experience that snagged my attention.
Sure, our own personal experiences loom especially large to all of us; but wisdom comes from getting outside your own skin and taking a wider view. The way to do that is, first, by constant reading, and second, by seeking out people who've had experiences widely different from your own, and listening attentively to what they say. I'm getting the beginning of a hint of an impression that Herman Cain hasn't done a whole lot of that.
Well, I'm told there are 13 more debates scheduled, so things will get clearer, faster. Quite possibly I'm wrong about Cain; and even if I'm not, there is some downside to every one of these candidates. Mr Flawlessly Perfect unfortunately did not register as a Republican presidential candidate; neither did Mrs Flawlessly Perfect. We'll go with what we've got.
And one thing I found myself thinking while watching Tuesday's debate is that we've got a lot. The exchanges were intelligent and civilized. You have to have lived in a nation that doesn't have open political debate to understand what a miracle this is. We'll get a presidential candidate out of this, and a vice-presidential one too, and send Barack Obama and his cronies back to Chicago.
03 — GOP Bloomberg debate 2. Tuesday's debate was restricted to economic issues. That idea is a little fuzzy around the edges, though. Everything the federal government does is an economic issue to some degree in that it either costs or raises public money. But OK, let's rule out gay marriage, Supreme Court nominations, space exploration, and the Middle East peace process as being only very indirectly related to the national economy. That still leaves a fringe of issues you could plausibly argue in.
Immigration, for example, both legal and illegal. It's annoying, but seems to be necessary, to add those words "both legal and illegal" every time I say "immigration," because the word "immigration" seems to have become wellnigh a synonym for "illegal immigration," leaving us no way to discuss the large and important topic of legal immigration. Indeed, on the political left it's even worse than that. Over there, the word "immigration" is a synonym for "illegal immigration of Spanish-speaking people from south of our southern border."
OK, immigration. It's as close to an economic issue as an issue can be without being one. For example, there's the question I've been asking for the last few months, but which hasn't yet come up in any of the debates. To quote from myself, posting on The Corner June 6th, quote: "Why, with unemployment stuck at close to ten percent, are we bringing in well over a million foreigners a year for settlement, around 80 percent of them of working age? Why do you not send to Congress a request for a moratorium on further immigration until the unemployment rate drops below five percent?" End quote.
OK, that's actually two questions. They're two good questions, though, and pretty intimately related to economic issues. So why didn't we hear them, or anything like them, on Tuesday? Especially with Rick Perry on stage — Rick Perry who, you'll no doubt remember, suffered the most serious wound so far inflicted in these debates on this very topic, back on September 22nd.
So why didn't the topic come up? A pretty good guess would be that Tuesday's debate was sponsored by Michael Bloomberg's organization. Bloomberg is an open-borders fanatic. He's even something more extreme than that: an open-borders hysteric, really. He flushes and sputters if anyone suggests any kind of restriction on people settling in the U.S.A. In his mind, making a foreigner apply for a visa to enter our country is tantamount to tattooing a number on the foreigner's arm and throwing him in a cattle wagon. I'll bet some kind of word went down that immigration was totally off the table for Tuesday's debate.
If so, it cost Michele Bachmann a good debating point. Mitt Romney asked Mrs Bachmann, quote: "You've got young people coming out of college, maybe not here at Dartmouth, but a lot of colleges across the country wondering where they can get a job. What would you do — beyond the tax policies you describe — to get people back to work?" End Mitt quote.
Now back in August, in the presidential debate in Ames, Iowa, Mitt Romney said this, quote: "If someone comes here and gets a Ph.D in — in physics, that's the person I'd like to staple a green card to their — to their diploma, rather than saying to them to go home." End August Mitt quote.
So: according to October Mitt, we have young people coming out of college wondering where they can get a job. According to August Mitt, we should staple green cards — that's permanent residency — to the diplomas of foreign physics graduates. Michele should have jumped all over that. But I guess if she had, a flushed, crazed, sputtering Michael Bloomberg would have barged into the power closet and thrown all the circuit breakers.
04 — Religions and cults. Rick Perry made a speech last Friday to Christian conservatives in Washington, D.C. He was introduced by the Reverend Robert Jeffress, who is the senior minister at First Baptist Church in Dallas. Perry's not himself a Baptist. He was raised a Methodist, but lately he's been attending a nondenominational megachurch in Austin. Pastor Jeffress is a big Perry supporter, though, and that's why he was in D.C. introducing Perry.
Perry's speech was basic campaign stuff, with some extra family-values affirmations added to make the speech apt to the occasion — it was actually the Values Voter Summit. It wasn't the substance of Perry's speech that got everyone's attention, though. What got our attention was Pastor Jeffress' remarks before and after the speech.
Introducing Perry, the pastor said, referring to the struggle for poll numbers between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, the pastor told the audience that they would be able to choose between, quote, "a conservative out of convenience" and a candidate of true conviction. Talking to reporters later, Pastor Jeffress amplified his opinions, calling Mitt Romney's Mormon church a "cult." He did allow that Romney had some good qualities, quote: "He's a fine family person. But being a fine person with a great family and great values does not get you to heaven." End quote.
Undoubtedly there's a politically significant issue here. Polls regularly show a big lump of the electorate unwilling to vote for Romney just because he's a Mormon; though what doesn't get mentioned often enough is that some large portion of that lump is religion-hating leftists who wouldn't vote for a Republican anyway.
Then there's the whole issue of Evangelicals and conservatism, which has more wrinkles in it than Joan Rivers' neck. Like many other conservatives, I regard Evangelicals as fair-weather friends. I remember how hot they were for Jimmy Carter in '76; and Evangelical superstar pastor Rick Warren back in '08 seemed to me to be smiling on Barack Obama a tad more benignly than the requirements of simple patriotic non-partisanship required.
To me, an unbeliever, an ex-Christian who 'fessed up to myself rather late in life that I don't have a religious bone in my body, these issues are all a bit abstract and remote. As my colleague Jonah remarked in a column last week, to an unbeliever it looks like cults all the way down. Religion is about supernatural agents, and we get off the bus right there. (And if you think Theravada Buddhism is an exception, I refer you to Chapter 4 of Jason Slone's fine book Theological Incorrectness. Whatever your hippie pal over in Sausalito told you, nearly all the world's practicing Buddhists regard Lord Buddha as a supernatural agent. California Buddhism is the Unitarian version.)
So from the unbeliever's point of view there's an element of preposterosity in all religion. Since the great majority of human beings claim some religious belief, we heathens just have to come to terms with the fact that perfectly healthy, useful, admirable, happy, socially-responsible, and often brilliant people believe preposterous things in one corner of their minds.
It even sometimes seems that the more preposterous the belief, the better socialized are the believers. I've met a lot of Mormons, and they all seemed to me exceptionally well-adjusted. The statistics of Mormons in the U.S.A. are very good: High levels of education, health, family cohesion and social involvement, low levels of crime, divorce, illegitimacy, and lifestyle diseases. Yet this is a religion based on stuff a farmer in upstate New York claims to have read off golden tablets given to him by an angel, using magic spectacles the angel — who apparently had training as an optometrist — gave him for the purpose. Mark Twain described the Book of Mormon as, quote, "chloroform in print," and having looked into that scripture, I wouldn't disagree. So go figure: wacky beliefs, great social outcomes.
In Romney's case, I'll go with those great social outcomes. He's not my candidate — right just now I'm pondering a Cain-Bachmann ticket, with Ron Paul as Treasury Secretary — but I can't see any downside to his being a Mormon. Conservatism, in Pastor Jeffress' mind, is inseparable from mainstream Christian belief. Conservatism, in my mind, is about diminishing the power of the state, maximizing the liberty of the individual, looking skeptically at social revolutions (including demographic ones), respecting accumulated wisdom, and safeguarding national sovereignty. You can wish for those things and work for those things with almost any religious belief, or none at all.
05 — Iranian plot? Or not? I really don't know what to make of this Iranian terror plot story.
The key figure here is Manssor Arbabsiar, 56 years old, born in Iran, a naturalized U.S. citizen, been living for 25 years in and around Corpus Christi, Texas. Arbabsiar is a businessman, though a mighty unimpressive one. He's run convenience stores, kebab houses, and used-car lots; never seems to have made much money, has a record of not paying bills or keeping proper accounts. He has a string of petty misdemeanors: drug possession, driving with a suspended license, suspicion of theft, that sort of thing.
Lately this rather seedy loser has been spending time in Tehran. Now the story is that he offered a million and a half dollars, presumably supplied by Iran, to a Mexican drug gang to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. The "Mexicans" were in fact American G-men, and the whole thing was a sting.
It's not implausible, but there's a funny smell about the whole business. Not a real knock-out open-sewer-type smell; more like last week's Kung Pao chicken doggie bag your wife left at the back of the fridge and forgot about.
First, an operation of this significance, if it was an Iranian government operation, would have been given to the Quds Force, an elite arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards charged with overseas operations. And in fact the Department of Justice claims that Gholam Shakuri, Arbabsiar's partner in the plot, is a Quds operative. Yet the Quds force is experienced, professional, swift, and lethal. If Quds wants you dead, you're dead before anyone knows anything about it, you're dead before you can finish saying the word "dead." These guys are the Mossad of the Moslem world. They wouldn't touch a bumbling loser like Arbabsiar with a ten-foot pole.
And then there's the timing of the announcement. Arbabsiar was arrested September 29th, and is said to have confessed immediately, even waiving his Miranda rights. The announcement from the Department of Justice came on Tuesday, which was October 11. That's twelve days; not an unreasonable gap, but you'd actually expect something longer, with so much digging to do, and especially with Gholam Shakuri, Arbabsiar's co-conspirator, still at large. Ah, but the announcement came just one day before another announcement: House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa declaring on Wednesday that he has subpoenaed Attorney General Eric Holder on the "Fast and Furious" gun-running fiasco.
All of that is circumstantial, of course, but if I were POTUS at this point, I'd be deeply hesitant to take any major action based on what we so far know.
The whole Middle East in in a highly unstable condition right now. The Saudis and the Iranians are playing chess for regional hegemony. Iran is struggling to shore up its Syrian client state and keep the lid on its Lebanon client state. The Saudis have their own clients in Yemen and Bahrain to support. Egypt, a natural ally of the Saudis, is a total mess, headed towards no-one knows where. With the world financial system stuck in permanent crisis, nobody wants to risk an oil price spike.
Iran itself has major internal problems. Li'l Squinty Ahmedinejad seems not to be on speaking terms with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and the position of the Revolutionary Guard, who run the Quds force, is unclear in the dispute. The urban population is unhappy over stagnant living standards and unemployment. There are endless possibilities for ethnic unrest: a third of the population is not Persian.
In these circumstances, restraint is the only thing that makes sense. Some angry talk is appropriate, and swipes like the one we've just taken against the Iranian airline, but for once I have to agree with the Pentagon spokesman: this should be handled as a judicial and diplomatic issue. I see John Bolton and Bill Kristol are lacing up their combat boots, but the administration would be fools to follow them. There are plenty of fools in this administration, but none are such big fools as that.
06 — Hispanic Heritage Month. We are in the closing days of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs September 15 to October 15. It was originally Hispanic Heritage Week, proclaimed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968; then Ronald Reagan extended it to a whole month twenty years later.
I'm not going to beat about the bush here: I'm against the whole thing. If private citizens want to hold private celebrations of their ancestry, I'm fine with it, so long as government doesn't interfere. I'm totally against state and federal governments getting into the ethnicity business, though. It sows discord and division, and creates lobbies for ethnic favoritism.
I'm especially against government recognition of a Hispanic identity. I believe, in fact, that Hispanic identity is an utterly bogus concept. Florida Cubans, California Mexicans, and New York Puerto Ricans have nothing in common, other than their grandmothers all spoke Spanish. And all three of those groups have as much in common with Lithuanians and Lapps as they have with Spaniards from Spain.
When Sonia Sotomayor was picked for the Supreme Court, the administration seems to have thought that Hispanics nationwide would cheer. Professional activists of course did cheer; that's probably all that this administration, made up as it is largely of professional ethnic activists, noticed. The average Mexican or Guatemalan immigrant, however, couldn't see what it had to do with him. Sotomayor's people were Puerto Rican. To a Mexican in Escondido or a Salvadorean in East Hampton, Puerto Rico might as well be one of the moons of Uranus.
And what is up with affirmative action for Hispanics? When did the U.S.A. ever enslave Hispanics? In fact, since the only unifying feature of Hispanics is that they or their ancestors spoke Spanish, which is to say the language of the Conquistadors, we are giving affirmative action to people on the grounds they speak the language of colonizers and ethnic cleansers. Now, you could of course argue for separating out by race the aborigines whose enslaved ancestors had Spanish forced on them, from the white-European descendants of the enslavers … But somehow I don't think you'd get very far with that.
In terms of social outcomes, too, Hispanics are all over the place. Cuban immigrants do very well in the U.S.A., as do immigrants from Spain, like Charlie Sheen's grandad. Mexicans, though of course there are some success stories, overall do badly, and Puerto Ricans and Central Americans even worse. So even a simple question like, "Is mass Hispanic immigration good for the U.S.A.?" can't be answered until you specify which Hispanics you're talking about.
In short: I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it. "Hispanic" is a bogus and meaningless ethnic category; but even if it were as precise as "Amish" or "Norwegian," the federal government would have no business telling us to celebrate it, or awarding it preferences and favoritism. Hispanic Heritage Month? Bah, humbug.
07 — Miscellany. And now, ladies and gentlemen, our closing miscellany of brief items.
Item: A listener emailed in last week to wonder why I hadn't given a mention to Steve Jobs. I didn't give him a very coherent answer, so I'll have another go at it here.
The death last weekend of Dennis Ritchie, who devised the C programming language and was instrumental in developing the UNIX operating system, that clarified things for me a bit. I spent much of my working life in corporate IT. From that perspective, Dennis Ritchie and others like him were the boys in the backroom, building the weapon systems that we corporate IT grunts could use in our daily battles to deliver projects on time and in budget.
To us — and it's very unfair, and I mean no disrespect to the dead, I'm just trying to paint a picture for you here — to us, Steve Jobs was a guy who made pretty, stylish toys for depilated metrosexual yuppie types to play with while sipping their Chai Crême Frappuccinos through designer straws.
As I said, it's unfair: Jobs was a great entrepreneur, and we can never have enough of those. Furthermore, as Kevin Drum explained on the Mother Jones website last week, the triumph of PCs in the corporate world was to some degree a matter of luck.
And of course, as I'm sure you're thinking right now, this attitude of mine is a case of over-privileging my own experience — the very thing that a few minutes ago I was chiding Herman Cain for. I mention it only to explain what is, to judge from commentary I've been seeing, quite a widespread attitude among veterans of corporate IT.
I shall now strive to broaden my horizons. I'll go to the Apple store and buy something. A USB cable, perhaps, or maybe an adapter plug …
Item: What can one say about these Occupy Wall Street protestors? Can't we lease some South Korean riot squads?
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly raised my hopes Thursday when he ordered the lefties to vacate a park they'd occupied so it could be cleaned up. I should think that with power hoses and dumps of ammonia or carbolic acid from helicopters, the job could be done with the protestors in situ, but Kelly said he wanted them out. The fun confrontation has been postponed somehow, though. Pity.
Meanwhile, George Will extracted the main political point. The last time middle-class lefties were out demonstrating on this scale, Will pointed out, was in the run-up to the 1968 election. Result of that election: Richard Nixon took 32 states and George Wallace another five: the Democrat got 13. The GOP picked up five seats in the Senate and five in the House. So … go to it, kids.
Item: Listeners are constantly clamoring for more news from Turkmenistan. How are things going over there, under the wise, benign rule of our good friend President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov?
Things are going so well that there is in fact no news to report. However, Turkmenistan's neighbor to the north, Uzbekistan, did get a passing mention this week.
GOP presidential contender Herman Cain was asked by an interviewer on the Christian Broadcasting Network whether he could name the president of Uzbekistan. Cain came back with an endearingly — well, it endeared him to me — politically incorrect response: [Clip of Cain: "… when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say, you know, I don't know. Do you know?"]
I guess Herb lost the Uzbek-American vote right there. It was the right response, though. We're electing a president here, not the Columbia Desk Encyclopedia. Cain's response was directly in the spirit of Winston Churchill, who once said, quote, "I have lived 78 years without hearing of bloody places like Cambodia."
A chief executive needs to clear his mind of irrelevant junk and concentrate on what's significant. In foreign policy, that means fixing your attention on big, important nations, like China, Russia, India, Germany, and Turkmenistan. [Clip: Turkmenistan national anthem.]
Item: And speaking of utterly insignificant nations, here is I believe Radio Derb's first ever news item from Bhutan, a teeny little kingdom up there in the Himalayas somewhere.
Bhutan's current monarch rejoices in the name Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, age 31. Well, King Wangchuck got married Thursday. In the Dzong. That's the monastery where they got married, the Dzong. In Bhutan.
All joy to the happy couple, King Wangchuck and his bride Queen Jetsun (Jetson?) Pema.
If it's not an act of lèse majesté on my part — and I very much hope it's not, I don't want the Bhutanese equivalent of the Quds force showing up in my driveway — if it's not disrespectful, I must say, looking at pictures of the wedding, Queen Jetsun is a fox.
(Note to self: Have staffers look at possibility of RD franchises in Bhutan …)
08 — Signoff. There you have it, listeners: another week of sliding down History's razor blade. Things look bad all over; but are we downhearted? Well, some of us are. Not Gracie, though.
[Music clip: Gracie Fields "Sing As We Go"]