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In Which I Worry about what Might Happen in Hong Kong

Recall this post. Recall in particular this little bleak statement of mine:

I’d like to think that this conflict will end peacefully, and with a diminution of the power of the Chinese government. I fear that it will end horribly, with the government asserting its authority in Tienanmenesque fashion.

Ahem:

Beijing has a harshly worded message for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Not only is Beijing unwilling to reconsider the August decision to allow only Communist Party-approved candidates to run for Hong Kong’s highest office, but Hong Kongers who continue to participate in the protests should expect dire consequences, an editorial in the People’s Daily newspaper warned today.

Some activists and analysts, including a former Tiananmen student leader, say the piece bears a marked similarity to a notorious editorial that ran the People’s Daily more than 25 years ago. That piece was later blamed for leading to the brutal crackdown on demonstrations, which killed hundreds or thousands, depending on estimates.

Today’s People’s Daily editorial (link in Chinese, our English translation here) says the Beijing stance on Hong Kong’s elections are “unshakable” and legally valid. It goes on to argue that the pro-democracy “Occupy Central” protests are illegal and are hurting Hong Kong. “If it continues, the consequences will be unimaginable,” the editorial warns.

Well . . . All of this is quite worrisome indeed. I don’t suppose that we might have some leverage with which to persuade the Chinese that cracking down on the protests in Hong Kong would be a radically bad idea, do we? And if so, will the Obama administration use that leverage at all?

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At Long Last, a Better Brad DeLong

Be sure to read this post by Brad DeLong on why we shouldn’t worry about an Ebola epidemic, and why we should be tremendously displeased by our failure to stop Ebola in its tracks when we had a chance. DeLong’s post is measured, reasoned, intelligent, informed, and exceedingly well-written. Credit where it is due; it adds a great deal to the discussion regarding what to do about Ebola.

Of course, there are others who have made points similar to those being made by DeLong. I deliberately chose, however, to highlight DeLong’s post in order to show just how valuable a blogger he can be if he takes a break from time to time from the “impeach every Republican down to George W. Bush’s auto mechanic! Do it now!” tone he has employed in the past. We’ll see if he takes my advice; I doubt that he will, but hope springs eternal.

Of Israel, the United States and Double Standards

As David Bernstein points out, the United States government is fond of insisting that Israel work extra-special super-duper hard to prevent innocent civilians from dying in Gaza (never mind that by stationing weapons near Palestinian civilians and turning them into human shields, Hamas actually bears responsibility for the deaths of civilians in Gaza). The problem, however, is that the United States fails to apply the same standard of care to its own airstrikes in Syria.

This, of course, is hypocrisy–pure and simple. And it is astonishing that the Obama administration has been allowed to get away with being hypocritical on this issue. I was led to understand that the allegedly all-powerful Israel lobby was supposed to prevent this kind of blatant double standard from being implemented. But we are where we are, which, if anything, indicates that those interested in having actual facts undergird the debate over the Israel-Hamas conflict, and Middle East policy in general, should welcome a more powerful Israel lobby than the one which we have now.

Your Absolutely Non-Shocking News of the Day

Competition in the marketplace is a good thing!

It’s like Uber, for economists.

Simply click on the website of the Economic Experts panel hosted by the Initiative on Global Markets at the University of Chicago, and it will immediately summon an easily digested summary of the insights of mainstream economics into continuing political controversies. As with Uber, the results are convenient, reliable and mobile-friendly. All of this is powered by a network not of drivers looking for riders, but of leading economists from an array of schools of thought and political persuasions willing to be surveyed about controversial public policy issues.

The latest survey asked these economic experts about ride-sharing services, like Uber and Lyft. These services are popular with customers, but are despised by their competitors. The incumbent taxi and limousine services have largely eschewed trying to compete with lower prices or better service, instead working behind the scenes to persuade regulators to banish ride sharing. Their arguments dress their naked self-interest in the guise of public policy concerns. But do the economists buy it? Should regulators restrict the prices, the number of drivers or the available routes available to Uber and its brethren?

In a word: No.

Now, if only someone would pass along the information to politicians who are in the pocket of the taxicab cartel. (Link via InstaPundit.)

From the “Most Transparent Administration Ever,” a Request that the Press Not Do Its Job

No, seriously:

First lady Michelle Obama appeared with [Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary] Burke later Monday in Milwaukee, praising her for starting a program to help students get to college, before recalling the challenges President Barack Obama faced when he took office. The crowd cheered as Mrs. Obama talked about restoring the economy and overhauling the health care system.

“She is smart, she is in this for the right reasons, she cares about people, she doesn’t care about politics,” Obamas aid of Burke, who has no kids and worked with the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. “She has been such a passionate champion for our kids and families here in Wisconsin.”

Meg Kissinger, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, posted on Facebook that she was told by a White House aide that she was not allowed to talk to people in the crowd.

“[A]ssigned to cover Michelle Obama’s speech today and was told by a Mary Burke aide and one for the White House that I could not speak to the people in the crowd. To say that I was creeped out is an understatement. This is what reporters do in America: we speak to people,” Kissinger posted. “At least that’s how I’ve been doing things — at all kinds of political events — since 1979.”

Kissinger wrote that reporters and photographers were cordoned off during the event.

“Reporters and photographers were cordoned off in a central area with chairs and tables. Several people in the crowd asked if they could have extra chairs reserved for the media — but reporters were initially forbidden from handing them over. Eventually, some of the Burke staff gave the extra chairs to attendees,” Kissinger reported.

The First Amendment to the Constitution contains an awful lot of pretty words, but its effectiveness depends on how serious we are about implementing and defending the ideas and ideals it espouses. Or, to put things in a Ben Franklinesque way, it’s only a republic if we can keep it.

An Intelligence Failure of Alarming Proportions

How bad were we at assessing the threat posed by ISIL? This bad:

By late last year, classified American intelligence reports painted an increasingly ominous picture of a growing threat from Sunni extremists in Syria, according to senior intelligence and military officials. Just as worrisome, they said, were reports of deteriorating readiness and morale among troops next door in Iraq.

But the reports, they said, generated little attention in a White House consumed with multiple brush fires and reluctant to be drawn back into Iraq. “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it,” said a senior American intelligence official. “They were preoccupied with other crises,” the official added. “This just wasn’t a big priority.”

The White House denies that, but the threat certainly has its attention now as American warplanes pound the extremist group calling itself the Islamic State in hopes of reversing its lightning-swift seizing of territory in Iraq and Syria. Still, even as bombs fall from the sky thousands of miles away, the question of how it failed to anticipate the rise of a militant force that in the space of a few months has redrawn the map of the Middle East resonates inside and outside the Obama administration.

President Obama fueled the debate in an interview broadcast over the weekend when he said that intelligence agencies had underestimated the peril posed by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Mr. Obama accurately quoted James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, acknowledging that he and his analysts did not foresee the stunning success of Islamic State forces or the catastrophic collapse of the Iraqi Army.

But by pointing to the agencies without mentioning any misjudgments of his own, Mr. Obama left intelligence officials bristling about being made into scapegoats and critics complaining that he was trying to avoid responsibility.

“This was not an intelligence community failure, but a failure by policy makers to confront the threat,” said Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

More from Josh Kraushaar:

In attempting to downplay the political damage from a slew of second-term controversies, President Obama has counted on the American people having a very short memory span and a healthy suspension of disbelief. The time-tested strategy for Obama: Claim he’s in the dark about his own administration’s activities, blame the mess on subordinates, and hope that with the passage of time, all will be forgotten. Harry Truman, the president isn’t. He’s more likely to pass the buck.

Yup. This Keystone Kops behavior should get underlings fired, and should get the president to assume personal responsibility for the bungling that took place on his watch. Unfortunately, as Kraushaar suggests, recent events appear to suggest that mistakes will simply be swept under the rug in the hopes that the public will forget all about them.

Well . . .

Ebola has been diagnosed for the first time in the United States, a statement that can be something of a conversation stopper. We are told–and we have been told for a while–that it was inevitable that the virus would find its way to our country, and we are given assurances (reasonably convincing assurances, at that) that the virus will be contained. Still, this is something of a watershed moment in American history. Maybe it is unreasonable to be made a bit nervous by the news that Ebola is no longer a stranger to America, but I imagine that nerves are somewhat frayed in Dallas right now. I must admit that they are a bit frayed where I am sitting as well.

I suppose that if it really is true that this virus can be contained, then about the only thing we really have to fear is, in fact, fear itself–specifically, the kind of fear that can lead to an outbreak of public panic that defeats efforts to isolate and eradicate the Ebola virus. I would like to believe that we will keep ourselves free from that fear; remaining calm and mature will not only help us contain the current outbreak, it will also help provide a model that will help us respond successfully to future public health emergencies.

Quote of the Day

MARACAY, Venezuela—A string of deaths in a hospital here has sparked fears of a potent, mosquito-borne disease and led authorities to seek a doctor’s arrest for allegedly sowing panic, leaving residents wondering how to explain their symptoms.

Angel Sarmiento, president of the College of Doctors in Aragua state, told reporters on Sept. 11 that a virus or bacteria may have been responsible for the deaths of eight patients in quick succession at the Central Hospital of Maracay. A ninth patient died three days after Dr. Sarmiento’s comments.

Insisting there was no cause for general alarm, President Nicolás Maduro last week accused Dr. Sarmiento of “psychological terrorism.”

The confusion in Maracay over the deaths—and over who to believe on their cause—shows how difficult it has become to arrive at a rational approach to public health in Venezuela. Part of the problem, doctors here say, is that the silencing of independent media has squelched the flow of information.

“To dissent, to have a position different from the government, leads to a witch hunt,” Dr. Sarmiento said in a telephone interview on Friday. “I am not a terrorist. I am a doctor.” He said he was still in Venezuela but was in hiding because he worried he would face a politically motivated prosecution.

Juan Forero. And to think that some people still deny the fact that Venezuela has turned utterly dysfunctional

Our Astonishingly Incoherent Anti-ISIL Policy

So, notwithstanding the Obamaesque promises of 2008–and after–we are at war again in Iraq. And if that isn’t enough, we are also at war in Syria. Here is the stated reason for our intervention:

The U.S. launched eight airstrikes Monday night against a little-known, al-Qaida-affiliated militant group in Syria.

The United States Central Command said Tuesday morning that American forces hit the Khorasan Group near Aleppo to stop “imminent attack-planning against the United States and Western interests.” At a Pentagon press briefing shortly after, defense officials explained just how imminent such an attack may have been.

“The intelligence reports indicated that the Khorasan Group was in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland,” said Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

U.S. strikes hit the group’s “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building, and command and control facilities,” according to a Pentagon statement released Tuesday morning.

In other words, Barack Obama, having criticized his predecessor for having waged a preemptive war against terrorists and terrorist organizations . . . is waging a preemptive war against terrorists and terrorist organizations. This is the part of the blog post in which I am compelled to quote myself:

. . . I guess this means that Barack Obama is officially a neoconservative now. There is nothing about his speech that would sound strange coming out of the mouths of people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz or anyone else commonly known as a neoconservative.1 Is this what Obama voters expected when they cast their ballots in 2008 and 2012? I suspect not, so if Obama voters aren’t outraged by recent developments, they aren’t paying attention. Their man wasn’t supposed to turn into George W. Bush, after all. Please, oh please, oh please let us never again claim that this administration is filled with realists, or that this president has a healthy appreciation for the virtues of realpolitik.

Of course, when it comes to our action in Iraq, it is worth reminding ourselves–again, and again, and again, if necessary–that if we had not exited Iraq prematurely, we might not be in the mess in which we find ourselves. I trust that no one thinks of Dexter Filkins as some neoconservative warmonger; perhaps his expert analysis of the situation will convince some enthusiasts of the early Iraq pullout that leaving Iraq early has indeed led to a strategic disaster for the United States. Relatedly, I remember when George W. Bush waged war in Iraq with a broad coalition that was disparaged as consisting of “the bribed and the coerced”–as though bribery and/or coercion had never been used before or since in order to form an international alliance against a perceived threat. Boy, those were the good old days, huh?

As for our actions in Syria, let’s all remember that Team Obama accused Mitt Romney of wanting to drag us into war in that country, which I suppose looks kind of bad, given the fact that the administration has managed to wage war there without Romney so much as lifting a finger in order to help. Speaking of Syria, the New York Times editorial board is forced to come out against the Obama administration’s Syria policy. The bulk of the editorial complains that the administration failed to get the proper authorization from Congress for military action in Syria, but even if proper authorization were gotten, we are still left with the problem that there is no coherent design to be discerned in the administration’s actions regarding Syria. Kathy Gilsinan properly raises the concern that we are flying blind:

On Monday night, the United States struck targets in Syria for the first time as part of its expanded air campaign against ISIS—a campaign that had previously been limited to the Iraqi side of the terrorist group’s border-spanning domain. But the anti-ISIS mission Barack Obama outlined in an address on September 10—”We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL”—had expanded in another way, too, as the U.S. launched strikes on a separate group in Syria that many Americans hadn’t heard of until recently. The Khorasan Group, which the president introduced briefly on Tuesday morning as “seasoned al-Qaeda operatives in Syria,” appears to be part of a faction that is actively fighting ISIS, meaning America has now bombed two opposing sides of Syria’s many-sided civil war. Has the military operation announced by the president only weeks ago already outgrown its original mission?

[. . .]

. . . with the mission of Obama’s September 10th speech so vaguely defined—“We will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. … If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven”—it’s hard to tell what the U.S. mission is creeping from, or what it might be creeping to.

The Obama administration has noticed that it’s not exactly doing a great job at convincing the American people that it knows what it is doing in Iraq and Syria. As a consequence, the president decided to give an interview to 60 Minutes to explain his actions. The result was . . . well . . . this:

President Obama acknowledged in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States had underestimated the rise of the Islamic State militant group, which has seized control of a broad swath of territory in the Middle East, and had placed too much trust in the Iraqi military, allowing the region to become “ground zero for jihadists around the world.”

Reflecting on how a president who wanted to disentangle the United States from wars in the Middle East ended up redeploying to Iraq and last week expanding air operations into Syria, Mr. Obama pointed to assessments by the intelligence agencies that said they were surprised by the rapid advances made in both countries by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“Our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” Mr. Obama said on “60 Minutes,” the CBS News program, referring to James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence. Mr. Obama added that the agencies had overestimated the ability and will of the Iraqi Army to fight such Sunni extremists. “That’s true. That’s absolutely true,” he said.

In citing Mr. Clapper, Mr. Obama made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself. Critics have repeatedly pointed to his comment last winter characterizing groups like the Islamic State as a “JV team” compared with the original Al Qaeda.

We usually don’t see eye to eye on the political issues of the day, but for the second time in this blog post, I am going to cite favorably to Kevin Drum:

I can’t find a full transcript to verify that this was the complete context surrounding Obama’s remark, but I wonder what possesses him to do stuff like this? It’s Management 101 that you don’t throw folks under the bus (on national TV!) unless you have pretty convincing reasons for doing so. I mean, all he had to do was say that “we underestimated” what was happening in Syria.

This is really tone deaf. Even if the whole debacle really was Clapper’s fault, it would still sound terrible to say so. Was this just a real-time flub? Or, after six years, does Obama still not understand how petty it sounds to try to deflect blame this way?

More from Eli Lake:

Nearly eight months ago, some of President Obama’s senior intelligence officials were already warning that ISIS was on the move. In the beginning of 2014, ISIS fighters had defeated Iraqi forces in Fallujah, leading much of the U.S. intelligence community to assess they would try to take more of Iraq.

But in an interview that aired Sunday evening, the president told 60 Minutes that the rise of the group now proclaiming itself a caliphate in territory between Syria and Iraq caught the U.S. intelligence community off guard. Obama specifically blamed James Clapper, the current director of national intelligence: “Our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” he said.

Reached by The Daily Beast after Obama’s interview aired, one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” the former official said.

Clapper did tell The Washington Post’s David Ignatius this month that he underestimated the will of the ISIS fighters in Iraq and overestimated the ability of Iraq’s security forces in northern Iraq to counter ISIS. (He also said his analysts warned about the “prowess and capability” of the group.)

Still, other senior intelligence officials have been warning about ISIS for months. In prepared testimony before the annual House and Senate intelligence committees’ threat hearings in January and February, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the recently departed director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the group would likely make a grab for land before the end of the year. ISIS “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014.” Of course, the prediction wasn’t exactly hard to make. By then, Flynn noted, ISIS had taken the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, and the demonstrated an “ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria.”

The 60 Minutes interview was supposed to make us believe that the Obama administration has a handle on things. If anything, it has only succeeded in increasing doubts about our anti-ISIL policy, not to mention the intellectual honesty of the president of the United States.

Something Interesting Is Happening in Hong Kong

Link:

A wave of protest in Hong Kong that engulfed the city could continue into the week as thousands of residents defied a government call on Monday to abandon street blockades, students boycotted classes and the city’s influential bar association added its condemnation of a police crackdown on protesters.

The public resistance underscored the difficulties that the Hong Kong government faces in defusing widespread anger that erupted on Sunday after the police used tear gas, pepper spray and batons to break up a sit-in by students and other residents demanding democratic elections in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.

On Monday the Hong Kong government canceled the city’s annual fireworks show to mark China’s National Day, which falls on Wednesday, and government censors in Beijing ordered websites in mainland China to delete any mention of the unrest.

By evening, the crowds had swollen to greater numbers than the night before, when a police crackdown failed to dislodge protesters from a major thoroughfare in the heart of Hong Kong and appeared to have motivated more people to join the student-led protests. A government announcement that the riot police had been withdrawn from the protest centers also seemed to open the door to growing demonstrations.

“This morning I was happy to see that they stayed and insisted on continuing the protest,” said Cindy Sun, a 30-year-old bank worker who joined protesters during her lunch hour.

Ms. Sun said she thought the police response, especially the use of tear gas, was excessive. “The students were completely peaceful,” she said.

Many of the protesters were wearing surgical masks and goggles in anticipation of police trying again to disperse them with tear gas or pepper spray.

“Yesterday, it was like a war. There were tear gas grenades everywhere,” said Eric Yeung, a geologist who marked his 28th birthday on Monday by joining the protests. “There’s another feeling tonight. It’s like a party. Emotions are high.”

Of course, it ought to go without saying that I support the protests–not only because supporting the protests is the decent thing to do, but also because from a realpolitik perspective, the delegitimization of the Chinese regime is a remarkably effective way to put China on the defensive geopolitically, thus curbing China’s ambitions to assert itself as a regional hegemon in Asia and to threaten the projection of American power (particularly naval power) in the region.

I’d like to think that this conflict will end peacefully, and with a diminution of the power of the Chinese government. I fear that it will end horribly, with the government asserting its authority in Tienanmenesque fashion.

More IRS Abuses to Keep You Up and Fretting at Night

Did you know that if you are involved in educating people about the Constitution, you might end up in the sights of the Internal Revenue Service? It’s true. I am sure that the “be on the lookout” criteria that Nicholas Rosenkranz references are based on keywords and key phrases that are meant to indicate certain types of political activity, but that doesn’t make the following any less chilling:

What is most corrosive about this IRS tripwire is that it is triggered by a particular point of view; it is not, as First Amendment scholars say, viewpoint-neutral. It does not include obfuscating or denigrating the Constitution; only those “involved in … educating on the Constitution” are captured by this criterion. This viewpoint targeting potentially skews every national debate about politics or government. And the skew is not strictly liberal; indeed, it should trouble liberals as much as conservatives. The ultimate checks on executive power are to be found in the United States Constitution. Insidiously, then, suppressing those “involved in … educating on the Constitution” actually skews national debate in favor of unchecked executive power.

For example, this IRS tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the NSA should collect the phone records of every American citizen. But it would be triggered by teaching that the Fourth Amendment forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the president should unilaterally suspend politically inconvenient provisions of federal law, like ObamaCare. But it would be triggered by teaching that, under Article II, section 3, the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” This tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the president should appoint NLRB members unilaterally. But it would be triggered by teaching that, under Article II, section 2, such appointments require “the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” This tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the president should target and kill U.S. citizens abroad. But it would be triggered by teaching that, per the Fifth Amendment, no person shall “be deprived of life … without due process of law.” This tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the president should declare war unilaterally. But it would be triggered by teaching that, under Article I, section 8, “Congress shall have Power … To declare War.” In short, the IRS was “on the lookout,” not for those who preach unlimited executive power, but for those who would teach about constitutional constraints.

Even more to the point, perhaps, this IRS tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the IRS should discriminate against the tea party. But it would be triggered by teaching that such discrimination constitutes unfaithful execution of the tax laws. And thus, alas, there is a perverse logic to targeting constitutional educators alongside tea party organizations. Political discrimination in the administration of the tax laws is not merely “outrageous,” as Obama has said; it is an assault on our constitutional structure itself. For an official who has chosen to go down this road and target the tea party, there is an Orwellian logic to targeting constitutional educators as well. After all, they are the ones who might shed light on this very point.

It is difficult to contemplate any possible justification for this brand of viewpoint discrimination–probably because there isn’t any justification for this brand of viewpoint discrimination. As Professor Rosenkranz mentions, not even the Nixon administration stooped this low when it came to implementing and allowing IRS abuses. I am entirely prepared to believe that no one in the Oval Office dreamed up this latest attempt to degrade the First Amendment, and to bring the power of the United States government to bear on those who have committed the thoughtcrime of being on the starboard side of the political divide. But it will be utterly outrageous if no one in the Oval Office does anything to stop this brand of IRS abuses from taking place.

From the “Most Transparent Administration Ever” (A Continuing Series)

I presume that we would hear a lot more outraged commentary about this if a Republican were in the White House:

White House press-pool reports are supposed to be the news media’s eyes and ears on the president, an independent chronicle of his public activities. They are written by reporters for other reporters, who incorporate them into news articles about President Obama almost every day.

Sometimes, however, the White House plays an unseen role in shaping the story.

Journalists who cover the White House say Obama’s press aides have demanded — and received — changes in press-pool reports before the reports have been disseminated to other journalists. They say the White House has used its unusual role as the distributor of the reports as leverage to steer coverage in a more favorable direction.

The disputed episodes involve mostly trivial issues and minor matters of fact. But that the White House has become involved at all represents a troubling trend for journalists and has prompted their main representative, the White House Correspondents’ Association, to consider revising its approach to pool reporting.

[. . .]

While the overwhelming majority of pool reports pass through the White House without delay or amendment, some have been flagged by the administration’s press staff, which has demanded changes as a condition of distributing them.

When Anita Kumar of the McClatchy newspaper chain covered Obama’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” for the press pool last year, she wrote a detailed account of the taped program. Kumar thought her story would be sent to pool recipients hours before the show aired. Instead, White House press staffers objected to the length of her file, saying it violated an agreement with the program’s producers to limit advance publicity. They told Kumar to pare down her account before they would distribute it.

Kumar reluctantly complied, but the request made her uneasy. “The worry is that when you send in a pool report, the White House is reading it and approving it,” she said.

Other journalists tell similar tales about White House objections.

As the pool reporter on a presidential trip to California in mid-2012, Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News included a colorful scene in his pool file: Obama walking back to the press section of Air Force One bearing a dessert with a lighted candle to honor a veteran reporter who was making her final presidential trip. Gillman added the seemingly innocuous detail that Obama asked the honoree to blow out the candle and make a wish, “preferably one that had something to do with the number 270,” the minimum number of electoral college votes the president needed to win reelection.

A press aide, whom Gillman declined to identify, asserted that the details of this scene were off the record and refused to distribute Gillman’s account. Only after Gillman appealed to then-press secretary Jay Carney was the report finally sent — a day after the fact and long after reporters’ deadlines had passed.

These aren’t the workings of an independent media. These are the workings of publicity agents for the Obama administration. Obviously, the press pool arrangement needs changing; the current amount of White House editorial control over the press pool doesn’t allow news consumers to get their news unbiased and unvarnished. I’d like to think that the media itself will bring pressure to bear on the Obama administration to amend pool reporting arrangements, but I am not holding my breath.

Good News and Bad News in the Fight Against Anti-Semitism

First, the good news:

Over 600 academics thus far have signed a new letter opposing an academic boycott of Israel. The signatories include at least one Nobel Prize winner, law school deans, and leading scholars in several fields (that is just based on the some of the signatories I personally know; I have not looked over the whole list).

The statement takes no position on the Israeli-Arab conflict, and tries to to be as neutral as possible about everything other than BDS itself. The key parts of the letter are below; it is open for signature by any college or university faculty faculty or academic staff, including librarians, researchers, post doctorates, etc.

The following comment by Eugene Kontorovich serves as an excellent justification for the opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement:

I have signed the letter, and would do so for any such statement about academic boycotts of any country, including those whose policies I particularly detest. I would not want an Iranian leader speaking at my campus, but cannot imagine extending that objection to an Iranian professor. While government control and intimidation in authoritarian countries may make scholarship less reliable or interesting, I cannot see a justification for any non-merit-based boycott. Indeed, I have had some useful correspondence on maritime piracy with Iranian academics.

Well said.

And now, the bad news:

The Lancet is a venerable and well-respected British medical journal.  In August, it published an “open letter for the people of Gaza,” which harshly condemned Israel.  Nothing terribly novel there, as both The Lancet and its rival, the British Medical Journal, have over the years published a series of tendentious attacks on Israel thinly disguised as reports on Palestinian health–judging from British medical journals, Palestinians’ health status is more important than everyone else in the world’s, combined. (UPDATE: I should note, though, that this particular letter barely even pretends to be on a medical subject, it’s almost pure political rant.)

What is new is that the Telegraph reports that two of the five authors of the open letter, Dr Swee Ang, an orthopedic surgeon, and Dr Manduca, a professor of genetics at the University of Genoa in Italy, sent emails to their contacts endorsing a raving anti-Semitic video from David Duke entitled “CNN, Goldman Sachs & the Zio Matrix.” Dr Ang wrote: “This is a shocking video please watch. This is not about Palestine – it is about all of us!” Dr. Manduca, meanwhile, also “forwarded a message alleging that the Boston marathon bombings were in fact carried out by Jews.”

When contacted by the Telegraph, Dr. Ang said: “I didn’t know who David Duke was, or that he was connected to the Ku Klux Klan. I am concerned that if there is any truth in the video, that Jews control the media, politics and banking, what on earth is going on? I was worried.”

That’s more than Dr. Manduca could muster. She issued a statement denying being anti-Semitic, but apparently not distancing herself from the content of the video, instead stating that she was exercising her “right of freedom of opinion,” and to reiterate that she “does not agree or value the politics of the government of Israel, nor of many others, including Jews in and out of Israel.”

Is the Lancet the least bit embarrassed to have published the letter? Nope. “It’s utterly irrelevant. It’s a smear campaign,” the editor of the Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, told the Daily Telegraph. “I don’t honestly see what all this has to do with the Gaza letter. I have no plans to retract the letter, and I would not retract the letter even if it was found to be substantiated.”

This portion of the blog post is dedicated to those who believe–against all of the evidence to the contrary–that “anti-Semitism scarcely exists in the West.”

How to Be Utterly Unreasonable (Corey Robin Edition)

Those who are closely tracking the Steven Salaita affair know that Corey Robin–who is a “political theorist” at Brooklyn College–has perhaps been Salaita’s most ardent defender and champion. This article profiles Robin. Note the following:

In the Salaita case, Todd Gitlin faults Mr. Robin for failing to engage with the substance of Mr. Salaita’s tweets, at least as far as Mr. Gitlin has seen. Mr. Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, points to this Salaita tweet from July: “There’s something profoundly sexual to the Zionist pleasure w/#Israel’s aggression. Sublimation through bloodletting, a common perversion.” As Mr. Gitlin views it, “Salaita crossed the line from incivility to rank hatred.”

Mr. Robin has actually blogged about one of the most potentially offensive tweets. More broadly, though, he acknowledges “deliberately not engaging in the content.”

As he explains why, he seems on the verge of exploding.

“Todd Gitlin and I could go back and forth for days,” he says. “Parsing tweets! Like, tweets! Tweets!”

For those keeping score, Todd Gitlin is not exactly the type of person to strike one as a right-wing academic, so it is probably safe to say that Gitlin has no ideological axe to grind when it comes to dealing with Robin. (It is probably also safe to say that Gitlin has no ideological axe to grind when it comes to dealing with Salaita.) As I read the excerpt above–and I certainly do believe that this is a fair reading–Gitlin was/is intellectually offended by Salaita’s substance-free, tasteless, unqualified pronouncement regarding “Zionist” sexual “pleasure[s],” and is less than pleased that Salaita would debase himself and the rhetoric concerning Israel in such a manner. Additionally, Gitlin appears to be less than pleased that Robin won’t acknowledge that the tweet in question is, at best, juvenile.

And you know what? Gitlin is right to be less than pleased. After all, when it comes to commenting on juvenile tweets by Salaita, how hard would it be for Robin and other Salaita-defenders to say something along the lines of “yes, some of these tweets are tasteless, offensive, and over the line. Yes, some of them betray a lack of maturity. But that doesn’t change the fact that Salaita’s speech is protected by the First Amendment, and that he likely has a valid breach of contract claim against the University of Illinois for suddenly deciding to revoke a job offer”?

But Robin can’t even say that. He can’t even make a small concession in favor of decency, tact, common sense, and civility–not even when doing so will cost him and his side nothing in terms of the legal claims they make in Salaita’s defense.

It’s a wonder to behold this kind of obtuseness in action. And I for one can do without such wonders.

Quote of the Day

Food has become a battleground, and one of the fiercest fights involves genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. With the aid of genetic engineering, we have created corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops with specific genes that help them resist pests, diseases and herbicides. Supporters trumpet the reduced costs and increased yields, especially in the developing world. They also point to the ability of GMOs to prevent diseases from ruining entire industries, such as Hawaiian papayas and Florida oranges.

“When we put a gene in a plant, we know exactly where it goes, we know what it does and we actually can measure on a whole genome basis if it affects any other gene,” argues Robert Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Detractors argue that GMOs raise a number of thorny issues, from medical safety to environmental protection to lax regulations and corporate control of the food supply. As the debate rages on, it’s estimated that 70 percent of processed foods already contain some modified products. Syrup from GM corn and sugar from GM sugar beets are used as sweeteners, while GM canola and cottonseed provide cooking oil. Now about 25 states across the U.S. are considering laws that would require labeling for all GM foods, so that consumers can decide for themselves.

For the health-conscious, the prevailing wisdom is that natural food is the best food. But no matter what studies of GMOs say, one scientific fact is inescapable: basically none of our dietary staples are natural. Some 10,000 years ago, our ancestors picked tiny berries, collected bitter plants and hunted sinewy game, because these are the foods that occurred naturally in the wild. Then came agriculture, and with it the eventual realization that farmers could selectively breed animals and plants to be bigger, hardier and easier to manage.

David Newland, who probably burst a lot of bubbles with his piece. As I have written before, being against genetically modified organisms means being anti-science, and being willing to let people die of starvation.

Quote of the Day

I know that parents worry about whether vaccines are safe for their children. But they should also consider the dangers of not vaccinating, which is why I’m telling my family’s story.

In 1970, on a Fulbright cultural exchange, my husband and I moved to the Midlands of England with our 5-year-old daughter and 10-month-old son. Our daughter had received all her vaccinations, but our son was too young for his measles shot when we left home. Our pediatrician wasn’t worried. “Just get it there in a few months,” he said.

But when we asked about the inoculation after our arrival, the English pediatrician said, “We don’t do those.”

A few months into our stay, when our son was 13 months old, he and his sister were playing at a friend’s house. Mothers and kids were talking and laughing when the host boy, Ian, gave an enormous sneeze, and our toddler marched right through the cloud.

Three days later, Ian’s mother called. “He has the measles.”

An epidemic was sweeping England. Our son soon developed a fever so high that his torso was too hot to touch even to comfort him, while his extremities were cold, and he had purple fingernails and toenails. Light hurt his eyes, so we blocked the window with cardboard. The doctor came to see him and said words we will never forget: “If he lives through the night.”

He did live through the night. I kept a log of his temperature, the changing color of his face and nails and how long he slept. I noted every drop of liquid or nourishment he took. And slowly our strong, brave boy recovered.

Two months later, he was still tired, but he was able to walk and talk and smile again. He finally seemed OK. And then he didn’t. One day, excited to see his Daddy’s car pull into the driveway after work, he had a convulsion.

Wonderful neighbors saw us carrying a limp toddler to our car. One took our daughter home with her; another drove us from hospital to hospital, to find a pediatric ER. In the back seat, our son lay on my lap. Quietly, he stopped breathing and turned blue. “He’s died,” I told my husband and the driver. But as we were figuring out what to do, he started breathing again and gradually regained his color.

At the pediatric hospital, he was put in the encephalitis ward, with children in a vegetative state, being fed by stomach tube. No one would give us a diagnosis. But the meds were specific. Our son was the only child in the ward able to talk. He kept checking what everything was. He’d point and ask, “Dat’s a?” We’d say, “That’s your bed. ” “That’s a clock.” “That’s your foot.” We went home at night to sleep, rushed back each morning.

It was months before we got a diagnosis: He had measles encephalitis, a complication that affects about 1 in 1,000 children who get measles. I was familiar with the condition. Growing up, I had dear family friends whose son had contracted it at age 3 and grown into a tall, handsome boy with the mind of a preschooler afraid of strangers. He’s still alive, in a group home in Oregon.

When our son came home from the hospital, he’d lost the ability to regulate his body temperature, and if he got too hot, he’d convulse. I checked him every 20 minutes all day and even at night. He couldn’t take a nap without a convulsion unless I lifted his sheet and fanned him when his cheeks got pink. He couldn’t ride in the back seat in our car because the air circulation wasn’t good enough.

It took a year of hyper-vigilance.

Margaret Harmon. Is the anti-vaccination crowd aware of the horrible threat its policies pose to public health? And if so, how is it that anyone in that crowd is able to sleep at night?

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