Archive for December, 2001

The Empty Smile

Sunday, December 30th, 2001

“The cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had VERY long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.” — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

Over a decade later, it is now difficult to recall the level of disunity and uncertainty in the United States preceding the Gulf War. After the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, President George Bush (41) declared, “this aggression shall not stand.” The country was not so sure.

It took Bush the entire six months from the invasion to the build up of forces in the Middle East to swing US public and world opinion behind him. The Democratic leadership argued strongly against armed invasion and wanted to rely only on sanctions to persuade Saddam Hussein to give up the land and oil wealth he had conquered. Then Senator Al Gore was one of the few Democratic Senators who sided with the Republican Administration. In the final Congressional vote authorizing military action, not a single member of the Congressional Democratic leadership supported George Bush.

The Democratic Party and much of the country were still in the lingering grip of the Vietnam syndrome: the extreme reluctance to employ military force and the belief that the United States could not not do so effectively. Robert McNamera, the Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, proved how it was possible to be extremely intelligent and radically wrong in two separate decades by testified before Congress that thousands of American soldiers would be lost in an armed conflict with Iraq.

It would have been possible for Senator George Mitchell, the Democratic leader in the Senate, with a 56 to 44 Democrat to Republican margin, to marshal the necessary 40 votes to prevent the authorizing legislation from ever reaching the Senate floor for an up or down vote. However, cooperation from the Democrats could not be purchased in the coin of appeals to patriotism. The Congressional leadership insisted on forcing Bush to jettison his “No New Taxes” pledge and agree to a tax increase. In exchange for acquiescence to Bush’s military effort against Iraq, the Democrats received a tax increase, the ability to rightly accuse Bush of breaking a campaign pledge, and the position to criticize Bush’s military actions if they failed. Bush won the Gulf War and then lost the election. A recession and the loss of Bush’s credibility due to the revocation of a pledge both contributed to the election defeat.

Republicans remember the smiling and soft-spoken George Mitchell who managed to politically corner a president without Democrats ever paying a political price for the lack of support for the war. They see reflections of Mitchell’s smile in the demure smirk of current Senate leader Tom Daschle and are determined to not make the same mistake the first George Bush made.

Senator Daschle thought he had President George Bush(43) in a politcal box. If there is no economic stimulus package and if the economy continues to worsen, Republicans would be blamed. The House passed a stimulus heavy in tax cuts. The Senate wants one heavier in spending and extension of unemployment benefits. Given the narrow majorities in both Congressional Houses, any stimulus package would have to be a compromise. Perhaps, over eager for a package, any package, so it would not seem that Republicans were insensitive to the economic situation, Republicans kept steadily moving toward the Democrats. This despite an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, that shows by a 50 to 43 percent margin, Americans preferred tax cut to extended benefits and increases in public works. Daschle, however, needed the issue and refused to compromise.

Bush managed to garner enough Democratic Senators to sign on to a compromise package acceptable to the House and the Senate. If Daschle permitted the package to be brought to the floor, it would pass in the Senate. In a desperate effort to keep a campaign issue, Daschle scuttled the stimulus package by not allowing a vote.

Perhaps the economy is picking up by itself. Given the rate reductions by the Federal Reserve and the drastic drop in energy prices, no stimulus will be needed. Nonetheless, Daschle is walking away from $30 billion of additional unemployment benefits and tax rebates for those who make less than $31,200 a year. But, it seems that it is more important to get Democrats elected in the 2002 Congressional elections.

The smile is still there, but the cat has disappeared.

Celsius 233

Sunday, December 23rd, 2001

It is more than a little unfair to reach back and judge a science fiction novel armed with the perspective of almost half-a-century. Tough, life is rarely fair. In 1953, Ray Bradbury published one of his most famous novels, Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s view of the future was radically wrong, except in two important ways.

The fundamental theme of the book is censorship in the not too distant future. Books are outlawed and in Bradbury’s world the role of firemen is not to prevent fires but to incinerate books. Firemen implement the censorship by rushing, sirens screeching, to houses where books are secretly hidden; piling the books up on the front lawns; igniting the piles; and watching as the pages crumble to ashes. Whole houses are sometimes burned to make sure that no books escape detection. The title refers to the temperature at which paper spontaneously bursts into flames.

The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who develops a conscience. On one book burning expedition, a woman decides to sit with her books while flames consume them all. Montag wonders what could be so important about books that someone would elect to die for them. This, and conversations with an insightful teenage girl next-door, convince Montag to steal books during a book-burning episode and actually read them. This decision radically redirects Montag’s future, eventually pitting him against the forces of censorship.

The modern reader is, of course, struck by many incongruities between the Bradbury’s future and the one that we know. Smoking is popular, cars fly down the road at incredible speeds unobstructed by traffic jams, most women stay at home while their husbands go to work, and nuclear war is relatively common. These are the sorts of simple extrapolations one might have glibly made in the early 1950s. Simple extrapolations of social or even technological trends are rarely correct. There are too many feedback mechanisms.

However, Bradbury accurately foresaw two important cultural phenomena. First, even over fifty years, we would not be able to switch away from the Fahrenheit to Celsius temperature scales. People, at least in the United States, still think in terms of Fahrenheit; and given American stubbornness, this is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. One might have expected a future switch to a more rational temperature scale. The book could have been named Celsius 233.

More importantly, Bradbury accurately foresaw that many will be distracted beyond consciousness by trifling activities. Some are totally occupied, but not active; busy while accomplishing anything. The rapid increase of mind-occupying distractions keeps people from reading and serious thought. The action on Bradbury’s wall-sized televisions substitute for lived lives, much a present day video games become addictive and time consuming. People are pummeled with so much visual and audio information or useless data, that it is impossible to sort out ideas.

As Bradbury explains:

“Cram people `full of noncombustible, data,’ the fire captain explains. Chock them so damn full of `facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely brilliant with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”

Bradbury believes as people are weaned from the disciplines of attention, thought, and patience required to read, that books would first loose currency and ultimately be thought dangerous and banned. In truth, if a society grows so preoccupied that it avoids the serious questions posed by serious books, there would probably be little reason to bother outlawing books. They would fall into disuse spontaneously.

If the popularity of is any indication, despite the growth in distractions, there still seems to be enough time for reading books; well, at least for buying them.

It may have been unfair to judge Fahrenheit 451 too harshly, but unlike many novels, people still read it half-a-century later. This alone should be sufficient consolation to Bradbury.

The Road to Serfdom

Sunday, December 16th, 2001

At the end of the last century, the publishers at Random House constructed a list of the 100 best novels and 100 best non-fiction works of the twentieth century. The non-fiction list was particularly instructive. Actually, there were two lists. One list represented the consensus of a blue ribbon panel with many notables including Daniel J. Boorstin, Shelby Foote, Stephen Jay Gould, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, and. Gore Vidal. The other list was the result of a poll of 194,829 readers. Admittedly any such public poll is self-selected and likely to reflect strength of opinion rather than breath of consensus. Nonetheless, it is instructive that Ayn Rand, the laissez-faire economist and novelist, had three books of the top six books in the reader list and, yet, did not even make the top 100 selections of the blue-ribbon panel. A little further down the reader list at number 16 was Friedrich A. Hayek’s, The Road to Serfdom. The Austrian economist also did not make it in the top 100 of the blue-ribbon list. This is quite a shame since Hayek’s book ought to be required reading for any educated person.

The modern Conservative reader may miss Hayek’s originality and innovation because much of what he presented in the relatively short The Road to Serfdom is now part of the conventional wisdom of Conservatives, especially free-market Conservatives. The fact that the ideas do not seem surprising or remarkable is a measure of how thoroughly the ideas in his book have been felt. Indeed, much of his warnings against the effects of central planning were borne out by the Communist experience in the last half of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, when the book was written in 1943, memories of the Great Depression, what was then considered a massive failure of free markets, still dominated economic thought and an unplanned economy seemed dangerous. Centrally directed economies appeared to be an inevitable next step in the evolution of industrial societies.

Hayek’s argument focused less on the economic efficiency of markets, and more on the nature of freedom. Hayek is the champion of individualism over collectivism. Central planning must necessarily limit the scope of freedom. A key Hayek observation is that central planning reverses the centuries old trend toward the rule of law against arbitrary authority. Moreover, in collectivist societies the worst elements inevitably rise to the top. As political power rather than market competition decides success and failure, political power rather than economic superiority becomes the goal.

Hayek is no Ayn Rand absolutist. He freely acknowledges the need for society to act collectively to provide a minimum level of subsistence for those incapable of providing for themselves. Hayek believes in competitive markets so much that he sees the need for government to limit monopoly market power when necessary. He, however, does not want the government to become that monopoly.

Perhaps Hayek’s most enlightening contribution is his analysis of the rise of the Nazi political movement in Germany. To many, Socialism and Fascism represent opposite poles in the political spectrum. Since Socialism has typically had an internationalist sympathy and Fascism emphasizes nationalism, they were thought to be radically different.

However, the National Socialists of Germany did not self-identify themselves as Socialists merely to borrow the cachet of an intellectually popular political movement. Hayek, who personally experienced the rise of National Socialism between the wars, traces the intellectual history of Fascism in Germany from Marxists Werner Sombart and Johann Plenge. They saw the necessity for economic organization and planning rather than markets as necessary for German resurgence after the humiliation of World War I. Indeed, the “patron saint of National Socialism,” Moeller van den Bruck, considered National Socialism as the vanguard in the “fight against capitalism.” According to Hayek, “van den Bruck’s Third Reich was intended to give Germans a socialism adapted to their nature and undefiled by Western liberal [read libertarian – FMM] ideals.”

Read by a modern reader, the most important contribution of The Road to Serfdom is its identification of Fascism as Super-Socialism. At their core, Socialism and Fascism are the two Rottweilers from the same litter, regardless of their superficial differences. To the extent that it is necessary to recognize the threats to individual liberty to defend against them, The Road to Serfdom is required reading. Perhaps if some on the Left were to recognize the intellectual affinity between Socialism and Fascism they might be a little more sympathetic to Conservative concerns about collectivism. When individual rights are subordinated to collective goals, tyranny is the danger.

Renewed Empathy for Israel

Sunday, December 9th, 2001

Israel is an unlikely state. It was formed by the return of the Jewish people into an inhospitable land after centuries of the Jewish Diaspora. The Ottoman Empire had ruled Palestine from the sixteenth century. After World War I, the League of Nations made the area a protected mandate under British control. Improvidently, the British had made conflicting commitments about the future of Palestine. In return for help against the Ottomans in World War I, the British promised statehood to the Arabs. In return for Jewish support, the British in the Balfour Declaration promised at national Jewish homeland. After World War II, the weary British gave up and tossed the problem into the lap of the United Nations. Attempting to forge a compromise, the United Nations in 1947 divided Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas, essentially present-day Israel and Jordan. On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence and the formal creation of the Israeli state. The surrounding Arab nations attacked, but were rebuffed in the Israeli War for Independence.

That was more than 50 years ago and the problems have lingered largely because of a persistent refugee problem. There are conflicting estimates as to the number of Arabs who fled Israel after the country declared independence. The numbers are less than 1 million, but certainly more than 500,000. A roughly corresponding number of Jews in Arab nations fled to Israel and Israel’s Jewish population swelled as European and other Jews from the West migrated to Israel.

The popular mythology of the Palestinian Arabs is that Arabs fled because they feared persecution by the Israelis. Israelis claim that Arab leaders urged fellow Arabs to leave to make it easier to exterminate the Jewish state. Whether or not the Palestinians should have believed the promises made by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, that Arabs in Israel would be granted full citizenship if they remained in Israel, the fact is they did not and fled Israel.

Jewish refugees that fled to Israel from other nations were welcomed as brothers and sisters and assimilated into the fledging state. Indeed, they have become the backbone of modern Israel. By contrast, surrounding Arab nations did not accommodate Palestinian Arab refugees. They were, instead, deliberatedly concentrated into refugee camps where their anger was allowed to fester.

In yet another attempt to seize the land of Israel, the Arabs initiated a new war in 1967. The war lasted six days, after which the Israel controlled the West Bank of the Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Through years of negotiation, Israel has gradually relinquished land back to the Arabs in the hopes of purchasing peace with land. Of course, the tragic irony is that if there had been no 1967 War, if the Arabs had accepted their half of the Palestine mandate, Israel never would have controlled the land occupied after the Six-Day War (or Jerusalem) and the Arab Palestinians would be negotiating with Jordan for the creation of a separate Palestinian state.

The price of independence and freedom for Jews in Israel has been to live in constant fear of war and suffering under scourge of deliberate terrorism. The Palestinian Authority encourages in its Arabic broadcasts and publications anti-Semitism and argues not for accommodation with Israel, but the destruction of the Jewish state. The real question is not whether Israel can accept an independent Palestinian state, but whether Palestinians are prepared accept the Jewish state.

The American response after years of duplicity on the part of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership, is to pressure Israel to be accommodating, to not respond to terrorist acts against civilians, and to stop “the cycle of violence.” All this, despite the fact that last year, Israel offered the Palestinian authority as much as it could hope for: control of the area outside of Israel proper and even partial control of Jerusalem. The Palestinian response was not a counter offer but increased civil unrest and terrorist attacks directed at civilians.

The attacks on the United States on September 11 made Americans victims of the same terrorist extremism and may have changed American attitudes and created empathy on the part of Americans to the predicament of the Israelis. In recent weeks, the Palestinian terrorist groups have initiated a number of devastating suicide bombings in Israel. In proportion to their relative populations, it would be as if the United State had lost 2000 civilians in terrorist attacks.

The United States has recognized the moral imperative of dealing with terrorism and states that protect and sponsor them. The United States could not very well initiate military operations to topple the Taliban government that sponsors anti-American attacks and not grant Israel the same right of self-defense. Rather than continual pleas for restraint to Israel not to respond, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “Israel is a sovereign government. Israel has a right to live in security.” It is amazing how such an obvious statement has come to seem remarkable.


Frank Monaldo — Please e-mail comments to

This page last updated on: 11/04/2002 21:04:22

Excessive Solicitousness

Sunday, December 2nd, 2001

Montgomery County, MD abuts the northwest corner of Washington, DC and it is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. The county resembles Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” The county has no transit troubles and the average commute is a five-minute stroll from the front porch. There are no drug problems, no spousal abuse, no homelessness, and no poverty. Indeed the problems that plague other jurisdictions do not exist and the poor county council struggles to find problems to address. What else can explain the recent events in the county?

A couple of weeks ago, the county council passed legislation that drew national attention. The county would make it punishable by a fine if a person smoking in his own home annoyed a neighbor. There were no quantitative restrictions on the level of particulates that could permissibly escape from one property to another. Annoyance was the criteria.

After national ridicule, the county executive, after initially supporting the legislation, vetoed it. It became clear that the law would just become one more tool that squabbling neighbors could brandish against one another. Perhaps the clincher was the argument that since minorities smoke at higher rates, they would be disproportionately affected by the new regulation.

Just when that commotion started to die down, Kensington, MD, a town in Montgomery County, dispensed with the services of Santa Claus in lighting a holiday tree. A couple of people had perennially claimed that Santa was a religious symbol that should not appear at a publicly sponsored event. They finally had their way. The First Amendment argument against Santa had no merit. Even the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Arthur Spitzer, conceded that he doubts that “a court would tell Kensington they could not have Santa Claus.”

Fear not, Kensington, there will be a Santa Claus. Santa will be there, as Francis Church would say “as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist [1].” Whether or not Kensington will have an official Santa, throngs of locals have vowed to show up dressed in Santa costumes, demonstrating that common sense has not entirely fled the county. Indeed, the whole commotion has guaranteed that even more attention will be devoted to Santa at this year’s celebration.

These two events are bound by the common thread of excessive solicitousness to vocal minorities intent on bullying the majority. In the case of Montgomery County, the issues were relatively minor and squelched by the ridicule they deserved.

What happened recently a country away was far worse. At Orange Coast College in California, Political Science Professor Kenneth Hearlson was suspended without a hearing and told not to return to campus, after several Muslim students complained Hearlson had called them personally “terrorists,” “Nazis,” and “murderers.”

The knee-jerk reaction of the college again was excessive solicitousness. Hearlson was punished summarily and the validity of the complaints was accepted without question. Fortunately for Hearlson, a couple of students taped the September-18 class. The transcript clearly shows that Hearlson criticized some Muslim leaders for not speaking out against the September 11 attack on the US, but he went out of his way to point out that not all Muslims are responsible for the events of September 11.

Despite the transcript, Orange Coast College President Margaret Gratton, as of the end of November, had not reinstated Hearlson or issued a formal apology to him. The students who made the demonstrably false and malicious allegations have not been punished. Mooath Saidi, one of Hearlson’s accusers, when confronted with the transcript, argued, “…if some of the allegations I made were not maybe right, if my memory was shady, this is not the first time anybody brought anything against this teacher… [Hearlson] has a history, and he obviously hasn’t learned and he needs to be taught a lesson. [2]”


  1. Church, Francis P., “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” Editorial Page, New York Sun, 1897.
  2. Schemo, Diana Jean, “New Battle in Old War Over Freedom of Speech,” N.Y. Times, November 25, 2001.