This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Mitt’s Strategy

December 5, 2011

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Foreign Policy:

The great experiment has begun. In recent days, Arab publics have gone to the polls in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, and to no one’s surprise, Islamist parties have come out on top in each case. Does this mean that Islamists have “hijacked” the revolution? Or that the Arab Spring will become, as Newt Gingrich put it in the Republicans’ foreign-policy debate, an “anti-Christian spring”? The one-word answer is “no.” The three-word answer is “I hope not.”

Tunisia’s al-Nahda party, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, and Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) are not secular, but they are democratic — or at the very least, they have earned the right to have their democratic bona fides tested in the real world of political practice. They won pluralities because they were the best-organized parties in each country, but also because in the years before the populist upheaval they had come to be seen as forces for social justice in the face of autocratic rule.

They’ve earned their place; but what now? The most pressing question is not about their intentions, pious or otherwise, but about whether they will be permitted to rule at all. In Tunisia, where there is no entrenched rival force, the answer is almost certainly yes. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI promulgated a new constitution to give some authority to the feeble parliament, but he has kept virtually all real power for himself. Last week’s election aroused nothing like the enthusiasm of Tunisia’s or Egypt’s, with turnout a relatively modest 45 percent and large numbers of voters turning in intentionally spoiled ballots. In Egypt, of course, the interim military government, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has said that it plans to rule until a president is elected, apparently in mid-2012; but Egyptians are increasingly worried that the SCAF will not withdraw even then.

Still, elections have a way of changing the landscape. Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French initials), through which the country’s Islamists are organized, has already gently pushed back against the palace by asserting that if the king did not choose the party’s leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, as prime minister, they would reserve the right to review, and reject, his choice. (The king chose Benkirane.) Ahmed Benchemsi, a Moroccan journalist now at Stanford University and very much a secularist, says, “No other party leader would ever have dared say such a thing.” For the first time, he says, “the balance of power is being challenged.” The Brotherhood in Egypt has challenged the SCAF by calling for a “cabinet of national salvation,” which the group would lead. That won’t happen; but the gauntlet has, ever so carefully, been thrown down.

For this reason, some of the secular figures who led the revolution in Tahrir Square have reacted calmly to the Brotherhood’s showing. On a recent talk show, Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive who was a pivotal figure in this year’s revolution, was quoted as saying, “It makes no difference to me whether Egypt is a civil or religious state so long as it is correctly run politically and economically.” Many others, of course, fear that a Brotherhood-dominated parliament will lead Egypt deeper into obscurantism.

The big decision for the Brotherhood will be who to align with. The real surprise of the ballot so far is that the hard-liner Salafis have taken about a quarter of the vote, far outpacing both the traditional liberals who have long operated in the shadows of the military state and the more radical forces associated with Tahrir Square. The Brotherhood is a worldly force accustomed to political maneuver and compromise; the Salafis are genuine theocrats. The Salafis would probably demand clauses in the constitution limiting the rights of women or non-Muslims and would try to legislate morality, which Brotherhood parliamentarians have avoided seeking to do in the past. A Brotherhood-Salafi alliance would draw a line right through Egyptian society and might well turn Tahrir Square into a cockpit of secular-Islamist confrontation…

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City Journal:

Complex human events have no single or final explanation. The last word on the outbreak of looting and rioting that convulsed large parts of England, including London, in August will therefore never be heard. But some of the first words were foolish, or at least shallow, reflecting the typical materialistic assumptions of the intelligentsia.

An August feature story on the riots in Time offered a particularly striking example. The author suggested that to understand the riots, we should start with “something called the Gini co-efficient, a figure used by economists to indicate how equally (or unequally) income is distributed across a population.” In this traditional measure, the article notes, Britain fares worse than almost every other country in the West.

This little passage is interesting for at least two reasons. First is the unthinking assumption that more equality is better; complete equality would presumably be best. Second is that the author apparently did not think carefully about the table of Gini coefficients printed on the very same page and what it implied about his claim. Portugal headed the list as the most unequal of the countries selected, with a 0.36 coefficient. Next followed the U.K. and Italy, both with a 0.34 coefficient. Toward the bottom of the list, one found France, with a 0.29 coefficient, the same as the Netherlands. Now, it is true that journalists are not historians and that, for professional reasons, their time horizons are often limited to the period between the last edition of their publication and the next. Even so, one might have expected a Time reporter to remember that in 2005—not exactly a historical epoch ago—similar riots swept France, even though its Gini coefficient was already lower than Britain’s. (Having segregated its welfare dependents geographically, though, France saw none of its town or city centers affected by the disorder.)

As it happened, when I read the Time story, I had an old notebook with me. In it, among miscellaneous scribblings, was the following list, referring to the riots in France and made contemporaneously:

Cities affected 300
Detained 2,921
Imprisoned 590
Burned cars 9,071
Injured 126
Dead 1
Police involved 11,200
Average number of cars burned per day before riots 98And all this with a Gini coefficient of only 0.29! How, then, could it have happened? It might also be worth mentioning that the Netherlands, with its relatively virtuous Gini coefficient, is one of the most crime-ridden countries in Western Europe, as is Sweden, with an even lower Gini coefficient.

At least Time does not go in for the theory that what caused the riots was the coalition government’s reduction in spending, which my Polish publisher tells me is the almost universally accepted view in the Polish press. This Ping-Pong theory of youthful misdemeanor, as one might call it, suggests that if only the state provided enough services for potential rioters—including such amenities as leisure centers with Ping-Pong tables and other diversions—they would behave better. (In the U.S., the theory would promote midnight basketball.) Apart from the empirical unlikelihood of the Ping-Pong tables’ exerting the hoped-for prophylactic effect, the theory suggests that it is government’s duty not merely to keep the peace but to keep the population happy and amused. It is hardly surprising, then, that when people claim that service reductions provoked the riots, they are unable to see that if this were so, the problem would be not the removal of services, but dependence on them in the first place. In any case, as Time pointed out, the effects of the proposed—and economically inevitable—spending reductions have yet to be felt (and few of the reductions have been implemented to date).

But Time also proposed, perhaps without fully realizing it, a more plausible explanation of the riots: that “some of the disaffection with Cameron and his government has more to do with who they are than what they’ve done.” And what they are is upper-class. This theory implies that the rioters’ “disaffection” was more self-consciously analytical than was probably the case; but it does capture a characteristic of the rioters and, indeed, of many British intellectuals: resentment.

Resentment is a powerful, long-lasting emotion that usually is self-serving and dishonest (I have never heard a criminal complain that his defense lawyer is upper-class, as he often is), as well as useless. Resentment is undoubtedly part of everyone’s psychology, at least potentially, and few of us have never heeded its siren song. A population’s general level of resentment, however, is not a natural phenomenon that one can analyze in purely mechanical terms, as if it increased geometrically with the Gini coefficient. Britain itself has been far more unequal in the past without widespread riots’ breaking out, so it is clear that we cannot understand people’s behavior without referring to the meanings that they attach to things.

John Maynard Keynes famously observed that “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” But why should this servitude apply only to the kind of men whom Keynes regarded as practical—businessmen, for instance? After all, for every 1,000 people who intone that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others, only one has actually read John Stuart Mill (they never seem to quote Mill’s contention that a father who abandons his children may rightfully be put to forced labor). And when Keynes goes on to say that madmen in authority are distilling their frenzy from some earlier academic scribbler, he does not explain why this should apply only to madmen in authority. Why not to madmen who loot and commit arson?

There is reason to think that it should so apply. One rioter told a journalist that his compatriots were fed up with being broke all the time and that he knew people who had absolutely nothing. It is worth pondering what lies behind these words. It is obvious that the rioter considered being broke not merely unpleasant, as we all would, but unjust and anomalous, for it was these qualities that justified the rioting in his mind and led him to suggest that the riots were restitution. Leave aside the Micawberish point that one can be broke on any income whatever if one’s desires fail to align with one’s financial possibilities; it is again obvious that the rioter believed that he had a right not to be broke and that this right was being violated. When he said that he knew people with “nothing,” he did not mean that he knew homeless, starving people left on the street without clothes to wear or shoes on their feet; none of the rioters was like this, and many looked only too fit for law-abiding citizens’ comfort. Nor did he mean people without hot and cold running water, electricity, a television, a cell phone, health care, and access to schooling. People had a right to such things, and yet they could have them all and still have “nothing,” in his meaning of the word. Somehow, people had a right to something beyond this irreducible “nothing” because this “nothing” was a justification for rioting. So people have a right to more than they have a right to; in other words, they have a right to everything.

Tangible benefits, on this view, come not as the result of work, effort, and self-discipline: they come as of right. This inflated doctrine of rights has turned into a cargo cult as primitive as that in New Guinea, where the natives thought, after a laden airplane crashed in the jungle, that consumer goods dropped from the sky. Apparently, all that is necessary for people like the rioters to live at a higher standard of living, equal to that of others, is for the government to decree it as their right—a right already inscribed in their hearts and minds.

This doctrine originated not with the rioters but with politicians, social philosophers, and journalists. You need only read Henry Mayhew’s nineteenth-century account of the laboring poor in London to realize that the notion of having rights to tangible benefits was once unknown to the population, even during severe hardship. But the politicians, social philosophers, and journalists transformed things evidently desirable in themselves—decent housing, for example—into rights that nothing, including the behavior of the rights holders, could abrogate. It clearly never occurred to the well-meaning discoverers of these “rights” that their propagation might influence the human personality, at least of that part of the population destined to become increasingly dependent on exercising them; and it required only an admixture of egalitarianism to complete the dialectic of ingratitude and resentment…

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The Walrus:

SAM GREW UP in an Alberta hamlet, a place of no consequence to anyone but those fortunate enough to have been born there. The kind of place where you raise two fingers off the steering wheel in greeting when you pass another car on the road.

Sam was a good kid, though a hurting one. He had journals filled with dark confessions. He had legs covered with scars from the time a pot of boiling water had spilled onto his three-year-old body. He was also gay and needed to get to a city. By his twenty-eighth birthday, having rolled through a few towns already, he found himself in Vancouver and searching for love. One night in October 2001, he let a man inside him for ten seconds before muttering, “Hey, you should probably put on a condom.”

Symptoms showed up almost immediately. Sam’s hands and feet became swollen. His tongue got itchy. His glands ballooned. There was dandruff in his golden brown eyebrows. He flipped through a book called The New Joy of Gay Sex and learned that after HIV enters your body, there are seven typical symptoms. He had all seven. For the next eight months, he sat with his self-diagnosis, unwilling to get tested. When he finally went to the clinic on Davie Street, a nurse gave him his results and said, “Do you need a hug? ”

“Yes,” said Sam. Then he walked out into the afternoon, found a park and lay down in the grass. He stayed there for a few minutes and just thought, “Huh.”

He cried only once, the following day, when he thought about telling his parents. But he knew by the time he had wiped his eyes dry that he couldn’t. At a certain point, he said to himself, you have to become a caretaker to your mom and dad, and this would hurt them too much. (Several names have been changed in this story, all because of mothers who don’t know their children are HIV positive.)

Sam didn’t think of his diagnosis as a death sentence the way he would have just a decade earlier. Thanks to the miraculous drug cocktails that appeared in 1996, HIV-positive people now live only slightly shortened lives; the disease is more a chronic condition than a plague. For years, though, he felt like a sexual leper, as if poison ran through his veins. (Which, in a sense, it did; like many others, Sam chose not to start a drug regimen until it became necessary.) His doctor monitored his weakening immune system by counting down a type of white blood cells called T cells. Sam adjusted to being one of the estimated 65,000 people in Canada who live with HIV.

And then something in his body swung wildly off course. Though his T cell count was still high enough that his doctors didn’t feel he needed drugs, Sam’s body wasn’t in agreement. He lost weight and couldn’t stay on his feet for the eight hours necessary to hold down his job in retail. Finally, baffled, the doctors admitted him to Ward 10-C (the HIV ward) at St. Paul’s Hospital, where he would languish in bed for the next month. But the meds the doctors prescribed didn’t cure the mystery ailment, so they started testing. While he lay there, Sam kept a score sheet, a page in his journal full of ticks like the ones cartoon inmates scratch into prison walls. He was counting the number of doctors that had inspected him (twenty-one) and the number of times they had taken his blood (seventy-two).

While the search stalled, Sam learned that, back in Alberta, his cancer-ridden father was in hospital, too. “My dad’s on his deathbed,” he told his friends when they came by with armloads of comic books. “Mom wants me to come home.”

“You have to tell them why you can’t come,” they said.

Before he could decide whether to inform his parents about his status, the doctors gave him more bad news. His weakened immune system had left him vulnerable to an extremely rare (and often incurable) disorder called Castleman’s disease. He was developing lymphoma and throat cancer. A doctor gave him the same prognosis that thousands of gay men in the HIVward have received: “You’ve got six months to a year.”

Sam called his mother and told her he couldn’t make it home, but refused to tell her why. He didn’t want his dad to die knowing that his son was dying, too. So in a final, desperate act of familial protection, he kept the unhappy truth to himself and left his parents wondering.

He didn’t cry into his pillow or rage against God. He wrote a makeshift will and, with a friend, planned his own funeral.

WHEN I FIRST HEARD Sam’s story, I was shocked. It seemed a tale out of step, out of time. I knew, or had a sense anyway, that tens of thousands of Canadians were living with HIV. But with all the talk of “undetectable” viral loads (thanks to brilliant drug regimens) and advertisements on bus shelters for one-pill-a-day lifestyles, it hadn’t occurred to me that people still suffered, and even died, from this virus. In South Africa, sure. But, like so many of the millennial generation, I preferred to think of my urbane North American self as “post-AIDS.”

HIV, once a curse, is now a casual aspect of many people’s lives. If you have ever clicked through the “men seeking men” zones of a dating website, for instance, you will have discovered that a good portion of users self-identify as “poz,” meaning “HIV positive.” This comes out in the About Me paragraphs, along with hobbies and tastes in music. If a potential dater is unwilling to date a “poz” person, he might declare himself interested in “clean guys.”

Earlier in this thirty-year-old epidemic, there were no “poz” guys. It wasn’t a lifestyle, or a mode of being. It was death. Friends of mine who are old enough to remember the plague years tell me the shift in attitudes toward HIV among gay guys has been tectonic. My friend Bryan will turn forty this coming Valentine’s Day, which makes him old enough to remember what came before, and young enough to bristle when I ask him about then versus now. He’s a bristly man in general, quick-witted and constitutionally unable to suffer fools. His age cohort was hardened and defined by AIDS in a severe way that my generation (I’m thirty-one) never was…

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Santa Said No

December 5, 2011

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Newt’s Latest Interview

December 5, 2011

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