Trump, Obama, and the presidential response to terrorism

The media is having a conniption fit because Trump will not talk enough about “white supremacy” in the wake of last week’s mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand:

His response to the carnage in New Zealand, where 49 people died in an attack on two mosques, is also raising fresh questions about his attitude toward Islam following a long history of anti-Muslim rhetoric — and about the extent to which the President has a responsibility to moderate his language given the rise in white supremacy movements across the world.

On Twitter and in remarks in the Oval Office, Trump was clear in condemning the killings. But he did not deliver a message of empathy and support to American Muslims, who may feel scared as security is stepped up at US mosques.

There were many Americans (this one included) who thought that Barack Obama was too hesitant to say the words, “Islamic terrorism” in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting of 2015.  (Obama would never say the words “Islam” or “Islamic” in any negative context.)

Does this mean that Obama was doing somersaults of glee after the San Bernardino  ISIS-inspired mass murder? Of course not. But let’s be frank: The guy didn’t like to talk about Islamic terrorism, as such.

Even the CNN journalist, Stephen Collinson, acknowledges that Trump condemned the killings in Christchurch. Following the Obama standard, that should be sufficient.

The larger issue is  whether Muslims and non-Muslims can live peacefully side-by-side in large numbers. Examine the evidence from the Middle East, to Europe, to New Zealand, and you don’t see much to be optimistic about.

It makes one wonder if the multicultural experiment is really worth the human suffering involved. Or would we be better to acknowledge (without pointing fingers at any particular side) that societies are most peaceful and harmonious when they are also relatively homogenous?  Remember what Robert Frost wrote: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan, one of the most homogenous countries on earth, both racially and culturally. Japan is also very harmonious, and there are no hate crimes to speak of.

This is why they’re homeschooling

New Jersey public schools will now be required to teach LGTBQ  history:

“There’s less name calling. There are more instances where other students stand up and intervene in anti-LGBTQ bullying,” said Aaron Potenza, policy director of the advocacy group Garden State Equality.

The state Department of Education has agreed to set guidelines for the new curriculum. But implementation will be up to each school district, starting in the 2020-2021 school year.

The change couldn’t come soon enough for parents like Jamie Bruesehoff.

“To understand that people that have contributed to out society in really important and powerful ways were also LGBTQ changes the narrative, and shows the full scope of history,” she said.

All fine and good. But how exactly would schools teach about the transgender role in the American Revolution? And how do they do that when they aren’t teaching much about the American Revolution to begin with?

Although it isn’t a perfect solution, I do understand why more people are choosing to homeschool their kids nowadays. The public schools seem more focused on ideological indoctrination, than anything that most of us would recognize as education.


Poetry worth reading: Richard Wilbur

No one reads poetry anymore; this is more or less uncontested.

We shouldn’t be surprised. During the mid-twentieth century, a group of influential poets and academics decided that poetry, in order to be “good”, had to be inaccessible to the mass-market reader. (Read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” for an example of what I mean; and it gets worse from there.)

As a result, poetry gradually became a cloistered, onanistic activity for literary types.

I certainly would not recommend much of the poetry published in recent decades. But there is a notable exception: the poetry of Richard Wilbur (1921-2017).

Wilbur wrote in a modern style, but he didn’t go out of his way to be avant-garde or inaccessible.

He also wrote about modern subject matter. There are no odes to Grecian urns among his work.

(Consider one of his best-loved poems, “On the Eyes of an SS Officer”.)

A personal note: I met Richard Wilbur–very briefly– in 1987, when he gave a reading at Northern Kentucky University, where I was a student at the time.

He was a gracious man, and I enjoyed his reading. I still enjoy reading his poems from time-to-time.

Book break: ‘Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead’

I like historical fiction, especially if there’s some action in it. I was therefore drawn to S. Thomas Russell’s Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead (2015)

The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars, when Jacobins and royalists were fighting for the future soul of France, and “republican” referred to those who were in sympathy with the ideals of the French Revolution.

As the novel opens, Royal Navy Captain Charles Hayden is sailing the HMS Themis into the Caribbean–waters filled with hostile Frenchmen, Spaniards, and slavers.

Not long after the story opens, the crew of the Themis picks up two Spanish castaways. They seem to be harboring a secret. This secret becomes the basis for much of the story that follows.

Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead is part of a series, but I had little difficulty jumping in late in the game.

On the positive side, I liked the character of Charles Hayden. I also enjoyed the mystery embedded in the tale.

On the minus side, there was a lot of time spent on repetitive sea maneuvers and counter-maneuvers that didn’t seem to advance the plot much. I could have used more human action, less naval action. (But this novel seems to be written with maritime enthusiasts in mind.)

In defense of Clive Cussler

As if the man and his books needed any defending, Miriam Fransisco has taken up the task in an essay in the Michigan Daily:

There are many reasons not to like Cussler’s books. It’s chock-full of flat female characters (who are always thin and conveniently beautiful and single), and the few non-white characters are either villains, have very small roles or both. Still, there’s something about Cussler’s writing that draws the reader in. It’s not that I really wanted to stay up on Wednesday until 2 a.m. rereading a book about the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, but there I was.

Cussler has a formula, and it works: Charismatic scientist, plus witty sidekick, plus vintage cars, plus beautiful women, plus shipwrecks, plus nefarious criminals plotting something big. It’s like James Bond, but better (I should be honest: I’ve never seen a James Bond movie).  It’s got car chases! It’s got nonpartisan political intrigue! The historic and factual foundations are thin at best and often nonexistent! It also has very few explicit sex scenes (Cussler co-authored many of his books with his son), little social resonance and boatloads (get it?) of dramatic tension.

Clive Cussler is not trying to change the world with his fiction. Nor is he concerned about making political points (for either the social justice warriors on the left, or the MAGA folks on the right).

Cussler is trying to write stories that are fun…which is why he has found a consistently enthusiastic audience since the 1970s, despite all of the political and social changes that have occurred in the intervening years.


Elizabeth Warren vs the tech giants

Warren has declared war on big tech:

The Democratic presidential candidate unveiled her latest war against corporate titans last week — a proposal to break up tech companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google by forcing them to separate or sell off parts of their businesses and reverse major mergers. Over the weekend, Facebook handed Warren a prime example of its power: the removal of the Warren presidential campaign’s ads placed on Facebook touting her new policy.

One can’t help wondering if this will make the Silicon Valley elites rethink their lockstep support for the Democratic Party in 2020.

The case for breaking up Facebook

From an essay in Technology Review:

Monopoly power is problematic even for companies that just make a lot of money selling widgets: it allows them to exert undue influence on regulators and to rip off consumers. But it’s particularly worrisome for a company like Facebook, whose product is information.

This is why it should be broken up. This wouldn’t answer every difficult question that Facebook’s existence raises. It isn’t easy to figure out how to protect free speech while limiting hate speech and deliberate misinformation campaigns, for example. But breaking up Facebook would provide space to come up with solutions that make sense to society as a whole, rather than to Zuckerberg and Facebook’s other shareholders.

The problem, of course, is that Facebook’s management (which reflects the biases and politics of Mark Zuckerberg), gets to decide which speech should be “free”, and which should be classified as “hate speech”.

The problem isn’t the true hate speech, but the speech that exists at the margins of polite conversation.

Facebook is not apolitical. Facebook is a projection of Mark Zuckerberg’s politics.

And that’s why it’s a cause for serious concern, given its near monopoly power.

Christianity growing in the U.S., as mainline churches decline

According to recent research from Harvard University, the state of American Christianity is a complex one:

Mainline churches are tanking as if they have super-sized millstones around their necks. Yes, these churches are hemorrhaging members in startling numbers, but many of those folks are not leaving Christianity. They are simply going elsewhere. Because of this shifting, other very different kinds of churches are holding strong in crowds and have been for as long as such data has been collected. In some ways, they are even growing. This is what this new research has found.
The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today. These authors describe this continuity as “patently persistent.”

As a Roman Catholic, I’ve seen evidence of this firsthand.

The Catholic Church, with its handling of everything from child abuse scandals to doctrine, has disappointed many lifelong believers in recent years.

(Read one of Ross Douthat’s two books on this matter for a detailed look at the problem.)

Many Catholics are now “lapsed”. (I would put myself into this category.) Others are leaving the Catholic Church for evangelical churches.

I probably won’t be attending an evangelical church anytime soon, by the way. While I acknowledge the problems with the Roman hierarchy, I am equally skeptical of small, “entrepreneurial” modes of religion. (I’m old enough to remember the Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker scandals of the 1980s!)

Book break: ‘1215: the Year of Magna Carta’

If you’re interested in the history of England during the Middle Ages (and if you already have some grounding in the subject), then you might enjoy this short volume by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham.

This is less a systematic history of the Magna Carta, than it is a series of historical anecdotes about the state of England in the early 13th century. (The chapters are broken down by topic: “School”, “Town”, “Education”, etc.)

I recommend this book to readers who already have some background in the subject matter because it is not a systematic, linear history.

This is, nevertheless, a very interesting book. You’ll pick up lots of tidbits about English life, religion, and politics around the time when the Magna Carta was signed. (The book also includes the full text of the Magna Carta.)

Beto O’Rourke for president?

Beto O’Rourke has announced that he’s running for president in 2020.

O’Rourke failed to beat Ted Cruz in 2018 for a seat in the Senate.

Last year was not a good year for Republicans; and it’s no secret that Ted Cruz has plenty of detractors. The election, therefore, should have been O’Rourke’s to lose. Yet O’Rourke somehow managed to snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory.

O’Rourke’s resume is singularly unimpressive. He’s served a single term in the House of Representatives.

Oh…and a stint on the El Paso City Council. He did found a small web design company…which he no longer seems to be affiliated with.

Oh, and he kicked around on the indie music scene for a while.

In short, at the age of 46, Beto O’Rourke has very little to recommend him for the White House.  Even if you’re a leftwing Democrat, this one must be a tough sell.

The Democrats have at long last found a candidate who makes Kamala Harris seem eminently qualified.