07/05/2011 - 8:08am

Michelle Bachman’s plan to return America to prosperity is simple: we must repent. Speaking to some evangelicals recently in Iowa, Ms. Bachmann said the following: “If we humble ourselves, and pray and confess our sins … [God] will heal our land. And we will have a new day.” To be fair, the crowd often determines the speaker’s message, especially when the speaker is a presidential hopeful. If, however, Ms. Bachmann wants to be taken seriously, she will have to present a practical program, which need not be at odds with her religious one. God helps those who help themselves, as the saying goes.

If all the primaries were condensed and held over the space of the month, it would be impossible, or at least extremely unlikely, for candidates to be all things to all people. Every four years we hear the religious rhetoric because of Iowa’s central role in the primaries. And then, once the primaries move on to the secular east and west coasts, this rhetoric dies down, as the audience for it dwindles.

The problem with our primary system is that it almost supposes that the states are sovereign. When commentators speak of Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina, I sometimes forget they are talking about states, not countries with their own potentates. The outsized influence of the early primary states has already received much comment, and I won’t belabor the point here. The cynical campaign politics we all decry is not so much the fault of the candidates, as it is of the itinerary they are obliged to keep.

07/01/2011 - 10:26am

I was one of those who thought DSK (I’ll pretend I’m a Frenchman for the moment) was guilty. He might still be. We know from the forensic evidence that something took place.

The analogy between this case and the Duke Lacrosse case of a few years ago has undoubtedly already been made. The story is the same. Once people conclude that a crime has occurred (and in both cases that conclusion was almost immediately reached) they are glad to find that the perpetrators are privileged, rich men.

Whether we want to admit it or not, most of us find some pleasure in seeing the mighty humbled. Now that we can watch the humbling occur before our very eyes, we immediately cast the villains, eager to let the show begin. This is not anything new, of course. I doubt, moreover, if the omnipresent media has encouraged people to rush to judgment with more celerity than they used to. We have always loved stories in which the pieces fit nicely, and no real effort is needed to determine who is virtuous and who not. The rush to judgment always comes first, for that is when passions are at their highest. Now, most people are ready to give DSK a fair shake: they are no longer invested in the narrative. But rest assured that there will be no take-away from this fiasco, human nature being what it is.

06/30/2011 - 10:18am

President Obama is telling Republicans that taxes must be raised. Republicans are saying over my dead body. We have an impasse, and now the only question is who will blink first: Boehner or Obama.

Before we consider raising taxes, it is essential that everything that can be cut is cut. There simply is no way to know how much the shortfall will be until all the cuts have been made. I suspect if the cuts are severe, then there will be little to make up. The need to raise taxes will become a moot point. The problem is this all or nothing politics: what is wrong with substantial cuts balanced with a slight tax increase? If life is not an either/or proposition, then why should politics be?            

06/28/2011 - 8:45am

The Supreme Court’s decision to allow minors to buy violent video games is a perplexing one. I just do not buy the argument that we have to protect all speech, lest the government be left with the decision of what should be protected, and what not. We celebrate free speech in this country, and rightly so, but people who say we should just blindly protect all speech are not thinking. There are some people who it is worthwhile to listen to, and some people who it is not. Now, of course, you and I will differ as to what is worthwhile, but I think all sane people can agree to what is not worthwhile: by extending the right of free speech to the most vile and reprehensible elements in our society, we cheapen free speech.

We should not value free speech, in my opinion, because it gives us the right to spout off. Anyone can spout off. The only people worth listening to are those who have a right to their opinions; most people do not. We talk every day about things we know nothing about. I could start talking to you about astrophysics, but you would be wise to leave the room.

If a country is going to have any chance at having an enlightened dialogue, we must stop with this nonsense that all speech is good. All speech is not good; most, of it, in fact is of little value. Pick up any newspaper, or turn on the television. Look at some billboard. Look at Jersey Shore. It's all free speech, but that's about all you can say about it. These things have no permanent, enduring value. Imagine, for instance, a world without advertising. Would we suffer one iota? Of course not. But then that tiresome "slippery slope" argument is dragged out, and people say if you ban this, then will you ban that? Perhaps, but I'm willing to take the risk.

06/27/2011 - 7:45am

If you have ever tried to find a parking space in Boston, or any other major city in the US, you have probably had the experience of circling for what seem like hours before finding one. It’s strange: people drive into the city knowing there will be no parking spots, and so end up having to throw their cars into garages for outrageous fees. We set ourselves up for misery time and time again. Or at least I do: you might be more intelligent than I. 

An article  in the New York Times this morning says that European countries are going purposefully out of their way to make life miserable for drivers. Parking is disappearing, as is access to roads. Gas, of course, is astronomically expensive, and if you drive into the heart of a city like London you have to pay congestion fees.

I think it’s time for America to go the way of Europe in this regard. Why should we keep trying to accommodate more and more and more cars? We have to admit, at some point, that we do not have room for them all. I cannot say, however, I’m enthused about public transportation. There are few things worse than being stuffed inside a subway on a sweltering hot day, standing centimeters away from a person you have never met and probably do not want to meet. It’s at such moments I’m grateful we are not going the way of Europe, despite my admission that we should.

06/24/2011 - 9:23am

Mitt Romney is going to have a fundraiser in London. Does this means his boosters in the US are tapped out? The international visit, of course, will do more than raise money for him. It will make him look presidential, and looking presidential comes before being presidential. I commend Mitt—he has had to look presidential for a considerable number of years now. Of course, it’s hard to look presidential visiting Walmarts and diners—something Mitt hates to do—but to be seen in one of the world’s great cities, surrounded by great captains of industry…well, that is presidential.

Apparently, there are a lot of American expatriates who want to contribute to Mitt’s campaign. If I was rich and living and London, I would use my money to influence politics in the UK. I suppose if I was superrich I might also throw some money at a US presidential candidate, but only out of boredom. A wise man would look to influence elections in Asia.  

06/22/2011 - 7:07am

I normally do not buy the books of politicians and I never buy the offerings of their children. However, Bristol Palin’s debut Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far seems juicy indeed. In it, she has some choice words for the McCain family. Her comment about Cindy is a classic. Here it is: “I'd never seen people with so much Louis Vuitton luggage, so many cell phones, and so many constant helpers to do hair and makeup.” After taking care of her, she moves on to Meghan, the blond blondshell. At this point I started to cheer her on; is there any more unqualified pundit now in Washington? There are some people whose success you can account for even without the intercession of their powerful parents. Ms. McCain is not one of them. Here is what Bristol wrote about her: "Every time we saw Meghan, she seemed to be constantly checking us out, comparing my family to hers and complaining. Oh the complaining." The McCain’s, she made clear, couldn’t have been more condescending. One can almost see big John McCain trying to broker a peace between the warring families. “My friends,” he would begin.

This is excellent stuff. I must say if these excerpts are indicative of the rest of the book, I’ll probably spend an hour at Barnes & Nobles—alas Borders is closed—reading it. I expect that Ms. McCain will issue her response to Bristol on Fox and then perhaps her blog. Cindy, of course, that most well preserved of woman, will keep her silence, and so her dignity.

06/20/2011 - 9:55am

After a long break, Keith Olbermann is returning to television, and has his sights set on his former employer MSNBC.  I wonder if Mr. Olbermann will use his first few days on his new show, as Conan used his: to insult his former employer and complain about his meager settlement.  Of course, we must expect that Mr. Olbermann will begin throwing barbs from the very beginning;  he has not, you see, been able to publicly discharge his venom for some time now.

I used to be entertained by Mr. Olbermann and his counterpart Mr. O’Reilly. I found their constant screaming a riot. The blowout between Geraldo and O’Reilly over illegals was a classic. Now, like many of you, I find these men insufferable. They grate, they wear, they infuriate. We should all boycott their programs.  The fact that Mr. O’Reilly is always surrounded by a few beautiful blonds should, theoretically at least, make him easier to watch than the MSNBC anchors, who, for some reason, never interview the same caliber of babes Fox hosts do. Well, Mr. Ailes, I’m not going to let you trick me any longer. I recently resolved never to watch Fox again, except of course when its female anchors are on, unaccompanied by their boorish male colleagues.  

06/17/2011 - 7:49am

Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher, has brought his classroom to China. Chinese students recently showed up to his lectures in droves, eager to discuss the big topics of life: justice, morality, duty, etc. They are tired, apparently, of just studying practical subjects, subjects that may qualify one for a place but not the business of life. Of course, we here in the West often see the Asian model of education, with its emphasis on memorization and logic, as something we need more of. Critics of American education are always pointing to Asia, where students attend school for many more days and many more hours than their American counterparts.

It’s impossible to prove the superiority of one model to another, but one need not be pursued to the exclusion of the other. An American student can study Economics at college and still get his dose of philosophy and literature. At the moment, this possibility does not exist at Chinese universities, or at least not to the degree it should. Chinese students’ reception of Prof. Sandel shows how eager they are to begin filling this void.

06/16/2011 - 7:42am

I’ve been out of work for over two years. Well, that’s not quite accurate. I’ve waited tables, but I’m reluctant, you see, to tell people I’m a waiter. I attribute this reluctance to the fact that I have a degree from a fairly prestigious university. I tell myself repeatedly that there is no job I’m above, and that my degree entitles me to nothing, least of all a job. Degree, no degree, the world owes me nothing. There are no free lunches. Survival of the fittest, I say. I’ve embraced the indifference of the world to my plight, or so I flatter myself.

During my time as a waiter, I’ve waited on former classmates, former professors, and my high school geometry teacher. I made a mistake, apparently, in choosing a restaurant so close to my alma mater and hometown. For my first table, I waited on a mother and a daughter. The daughter was a classmate of mine in high school. I recognized her immediately, and even remembered her name. Their meal progressed, and each time I approached the table, I debated whether I should reintroduce myself to my former classmate. At last I did. She remembered me, or at least said she did. Her mother left a very nice tip, one of my best to date.

            When I was 18, I did not find waiting tables humiliating. Twelve years later I do. At some point in our lives, we all become disillusioned, often because we have failed to keep pace with our fellows. Our ascent stops; we begin to plateau, or even descend. Sometimes we fall right out of the sky. The world seems too stupid, too arbitrary, too utterly absurd, principally because it cannot find a place for us, or rather we object to the place that it has found. And, of course, it helps that there exists piles and piles of evidence to back up this conviction to the gills. I look at politicians, I look at corrupt hedge fund managers, and I ask wherein their superiority lies. It’s a pointless question, but one you tend to ask when you feel the world has overlooked you. My belief in a meritocracy goes out the window during these episodes.

            The temptation is to get cynical, to get bitter, and I’ve not been without my moments of bitterness, my moments of cynicism. There’s never a complete triumph over these feelings, but when they go—and I do my best to send them on their way—nobler ones replace them. It so happened recently.

            A former professor of mine came to dinner with two of his friends. I was not his waiter. In fact, he was on the other side of the restaurant; I saw him only by chance. The Professor, I should mention, had been my one of my favorites—he had introduced me, in the most wonderful way, to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Even though I was indebted to him for this, I still hesitated. I did not want to have to explain my current position or worse yet justify it by saying, most apologetically, that it was only “temporary” and that I was biding my time till something better came along.

            I took my chance, and after dropping a few drinks off to a table on my side of the restaurant I came over to his. He did not recognize me, though with a little prodding he placed me. It turns out it was his last night in Boston; he had taken a position at some university in Chicago. He did not ask me to account for myself, bless his soul, and I, thank god, resisted the urge—it came suddenly— to justify myself, for I might have become quite defensive. If he had been unaccompanied, I almost believe we could have had a profound conversation, so quickly did he dispense with the pleasantries, but I was content recollecting my time in his class. I eventually excused myself, not wanting to impose. I was glad to have participated, albeit peripherally, in his “sendoff.”

            Perhaps the next time I see him—if I’m so lucky—I’ll be laden with titles and honors. Perhaps, dream of dreams, I’ll be a known entity, and it won’t be necessary to tell him what I’ve been doing, this being common knowledge to all decently informed people. But then I think the reason I admire him so much is that he’d be singularly unimpressed. In any case, he never had any kind words for Napoleon.  

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