Jose Fernandez and the burdens of freedom

November 1, 2016


Jose Fernandez was a golden young man, with a golden right arm and a golden future.  At 24, he had already been selected twice to represent the Miami Marlins in the All-Star Game, and as starting pitcher he performed with talent and dominance given to very few in every baseball generation.

On the mound, he displayed an intensity that bordered on contempt for the opposition.  Bryce Harper of my Washington Nationals, a kindred spirit, placed Fernandez among those who are “making baseball fun again” because he wore his emotions so openly.  “Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist.  And if you hit a homer and pimp it?  He doesn’t care.  Because you got him,” said Harper admiringly.  The last time Fernandez pitched, he shut out the Nationals, Harper included, making a good team look like a pack of minor leaguers.

Fernandez, in brief, was a star who should have become one of the greats in the history of the game.

That was not to be.  Around midnight of Saturday, September 25, propelled by whatever restlessness drives a 24-year-old with endless supplies of money, he and two friends went out to the dark waters of Biscayne Bay on his speedboat, the “Kaught Looking.”  Two hours later the boat was found upside down on a jetty.  The three men on board had been crushed to death.  The golden youth, the golden arm, and the golden future were lost forever.

A bit over a month later, the Dade County medical examiner’s office released its report on the autopsy.  It had found cocaine and high levels of alcohol in Fernandez’s blood.


The back story of Jose Fernandez’s life is in some ways more significant than his career in professional sports.

He was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, and he determined from an early age to escape that crumbling dictatorship.  By the time he was 15, he had tried and failed three times to leave the island.  Failure cost him a prison term:  in Castro’s Cuba, you are a traitor if you aren’t happy with your life.  In this, Fernandez showed the same determination he was to display on the mound.  In 2008, along with family members, he tried a fourth time.

The boat he was in hit turbulent waters on the way to Mexico, and Fernandez’s mother was swept overboard.  He jumped in the ocean and rescued her.  “I have always been a strong swimmer, since I was a kid,” Fernandez said by way of explanation.  In fact he was a kid when this ordeal took place – barely 15 years old.

The fourth attempt succeeded.  Fernandez eventually made it to the US, attended high school in Miami, became an American citizen, and rode the golden arm to wealth and fame.  He was a ballplayer with a difference.  He had been born unfree and all possible paths were now open to him.  Fernandez often said that pitching in the major leagues never made him nervous.  He had lived through too much to worry about anything that transpired within a game.

The question that haunts the life and death of Jose Fernandez is that of the burdens of freedom.  He faced down a dictatorship with unyielding courage.  Given the freedom to do so, he succeeded, materially and professionally, beyond the dreams of the vast majority of people.  Can anything more be asked of a young man whose life, though eventful, had scarcely begun?

A number of Cuba’s baseball “defectors” – the word implies treason against the state – who have gone from nothing to freedom, appear to have had trouble working out the implications of the latter condition.  The great closer Aroldis Chapman was suspended from the game for 30 days for domestic violence.  Hector Olivera, with a $62 million contract in his pocket, served ten days in prison for misdemeanor assault of a female acquaintance.  Yasiel Puig, worth a mere $42 million, was involved in a drunken barroom brawl after a fight with his sister.  Livan Hernandez, favorite of Nationals fans, has clearly kept company with drug traffickers and has been investigated for money laundering, though he has never been prosecuted.

These men defied Castro’s decrepit tyranny, and succeeded materially and professionally beyond most people’s dreams.  But it may be that freedom, properly understood, entails something more than this.


To a man just released from a cage, all his desires will appear licit.  This is an illusion.  It is too much and not nearly enough.  Freedom, I think, is more than the buzz of cocaine, the chill of alcohol, the youthful madness of roaring over the water at 2 a.m. in a magnificent speedboat – more, too, than the right to strike at the persons who deny our desires, and who seem, by that denial, to be pushing us back in a cage.

We must make allowances for those who have escaped from darkness into the light of day, and are dazzled and blinded by the sudden brilliance.  But this isn’t freedom at all.

If you want to learn what freedom means, ask a couple in love.  Ask a parent.  Ask a soldier at war.  Freedom consists of choosing our obligations.  A tinseled despot like Fidel Castro may say, “I own your life – you belong to me.”  Freedom consists of the following response:  “No.  My loyalty is to my family.”  Or to my country.  Or to my friends and neighbors.  Or to my church.

Doing anything we desire isn’t freedom.  It’s tyranny of a different kind.  It’s playing the part of Fidel Castro in a Mini-Me sort of way.

The burdens of freedom are the obligations we choose.  Once chosen, they must be shouldered to the end.  To the shallow mind that may feel like a cage, but it is really integrity, wholeness, the rare and mysterious dignity of being a complete human being.  If you are truly married, you will be loyal to your spouse.  Otherwise, why bother with so many lies?  If you are a good parent, you will give up the party life, the days of rum and cocaine, the midnight races in the Bay, so you can be there to protect your children, and wipe their bottoms, and put up with their temper tantrums, and work for their happiness and success in life.  Otherwise, what do the words “father” and “mother” mean?

Jose Fernandez’s girlfriend, we are told, had just revealed that she was pregnant.  I am old-fashioned enough to worry about the notion of a pregnant girlfriend.  That seems like an obligation, too.  Fernandez, though, was nothing if not loyal, and I want to believe that, had he lived, he would have married the mother of his child.  But he never woke up to what fatherhood meant.  Maybe he needed more time, but he still acted like a restless 24-year-old with an endless supply of money, and then there was no time left.

His girlfriend, I presume, will inherit nothing.  His child will grow up never knowing his father, just as he will never know his child.


I’m not really writing this to moralize over the death of Jose Fernandez.  Even at 24, he was old enough to know better, but he paid with his life for his misjudgment.  That was much too high a price.  There can be nothing but sadness from the loss of this extraordinary young man.

I write because I believe many of us – not nearly so young, not nearly so dazzled by wealth and fame – have lost sight of what freedom means.  We have come to reject the very idea of obligation, because it feels like oppression.  We blame shadowy forces, some secretive but all-powerful Enemy, for whatever doesn’t go our way.

Everything today ends in politics, and this post, alas, will be no exception.  I don’t know how it happened that American politics became the equivalent of a cocaine high, with so many of us feeling like brazen masters of the universe, expecting as a matter of right the triumph of our opinions and the fulfillment of our every desire.  I don’t know how we came to believe that only the villainy of those who disagree with us is blocking the perfect utopia of our dreams.

But that isn’t the way of freedom at all.

Personal freedom consists of choosing our obligations.  Political freedom entails the understanding that our choices will often collide.  Only the tyranny of a single will – rule by a Fidel Castro, say – can prevent that from happening.  The frustration we feel because others disagree with our choices is the essence of political freedom.

If we embrace freedom as a political ideal, then we must shoulder certain obligations.  Chief among them is the assumption that others are as wise in their reflections and as virtuous in their intentions as we are.  On any given question, they may turn out to be right, and we may turn out to be wrong.  If we desire the power to persuade others, we must be willing to be persuaded.  Keeping an open, receptive mind is the only way to make room for all of us.

We can’t shrug off the burdens of freedom without vandalizing our own objectives and beliefs.  We can’t strike at those who block our political desires and not expect rage and rant in return.  None of this is particularly profound, but all of it, I suppose, is hard, being a question of character.  Still, every generation since the Civil War managed the trick:  and we can too, if we so wish it.  The alternative is to allow American politics to fly with reckless abandon into dark waters, stupefaction at the helm, and count off the seconds until the fatal hour.


The great moral structure of the world

March 6, 2011

I am troubled by a word President Obama kept repeating in his recent statement on the Libyan uprising:  “accountable.”  The president said he intends to “hold the Qaddafi government accountable” for its atrocities.  He said it again:  “Those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable.”  He used the word four times in all.

This is not a new rhetorical device.  In earlier remarks on Libya, the president made this sweeping generalization:

Like all governments, the Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need, and to respect the rights of its people. It must be held accountable for its failure to meet those responsibilities, and face the cost of continued violations of human rights.

“Accountable” is a deeply moral term – and, indeed, the president’s use of it is in the context of Qaddafi’s barbarities against his own people.  But I would like to know what he means by it.

Webster’s International Dictionary defines “accountable” as “Subject to giving an account:  answerable.”  Answerable to whom?  Webster’s provides a helpful example:  “every sane man is accountable to his conscience for his behavior.”  Muammar Qaddafi’s sanity is a topic of controversy these days – my take is that a lunatic rarely hangs on to power for 42 years – but his lack of a conscience is beyond dispute.

Asked about the violence in the country he rules, Qaddafi responded, “My people love me.  They would die to protect me.”  This is not a man who is going to hold himself accountable for his behavior.

Of course, there’s a simpler explanation.  When the president of the United States asserts, “Colonel Qaddafi needs to step down from power and leave,” it’s reasonable to assume American power will make it so – that Qaddafi isn’t accountable to his own forgiving conscience, but to us.

Yet nothing in the president’s statement suggests the slightest exertion on our government’s part to help see Qaddafi off.  When asked about US military intervention, the president spoke vaguely of contemplating the “full range of options” and having “full capacity to act” – but seemed to imply that any action would wait on the development of a humanitarian crisis, and on “consultation with the international community.”

President Obama does not sound like a man who will personally hold Qaddafi accountable.

A transgressor who won’t answer for himself must be held accountable by a higher authority.  It is notorious that, among sovereign nations, no such authority exists.  The UN is just a theatrical stage where nations scuffle for advantage.  As Ortega y Gasset observed, there isn’t even such a thing as international law, because true law would require a higher court of appeal, and that would require a surrender of sovereignty – something no government on earth would willingly contemplate.

President Obama is in no way a fool.  He must know all this.  If he isn’t willing to give the order to bring the Qaddafi regime to account, then in what sense does he believe the man will be held accountable?

I believe I know the answer.  It’s speculative, but I’ll stand by it.

The world, according to President Obama, is contained by a moral structure resembling a powerful gravitational field:  all human events are embedded in this force, and are driven to their inexorable conclusions by it.  The great moral structure of the world is like fate with Judgment Day attached.  It acts as the impersonal author of history, rewarding certain actions, punishing others.  Only the wisest perceive the flow of the moral structure – and they have deciphered the course of history.

That the president counts himself among the wisest should not be in doubt.  He warned Qaddafi’s henchmen to heed the “way history is moving, they should know history is moving against Col. Qaddafi” – and there followed another assertion that they will be held accountable for violence against the population.  In defending US inaction, President Obama argued:  “The region will be watching carefully to make sure we’re on the right side of history…”

“The region will be watching,” “The whole world is watching,” “violence… will be monitored” – an abiding feature of President Obama’s view of the world is fear of being caught out while on the wrong side of history.  That is what he believes has happened to Muammar Qaddafi.  Qaddafi’s goons are on YouTube killing unarmed civilians.  He thus “has lost legitimacy to lead.”  The great moral structure of the world, rather than any person or nation, will hold him accountable.  He will have no choice but to step down.  “It is the right thing to do.”

If I’m right in my interpretation, the president is about to commit a tragic error.  It’s an error because morality doesn’t pertain to the world but to human action.  And it’s tragic because, in the face of turmoil and suffering, he has found a pretext for doing nothing.

The president is like a lifeguard who sees a man drowning in the middle of the river, and walks away thinking, “The current will bring him safe to shore.”  But inactivity is an action:  if the man drowns, the lifeguard will be accountable.  Personal responsibility, not public exposure, is the engine powering morality in the real world.

Each of us is accountable for those actions within our power to do:  nothing more, but nothing less.  The Libyan people are being tormented by a moral monster, whose grip on power is slipping and who is fighting back without scruples or restraint.  Qaddafi’s defeat is not predestined.  His victory would set a grim precedent in the area.

The United States has it within its power to intervene in this bloody scene.  We aren’t duty-bound to overthrow Qaddafi – just to do our best to preserve decency and protect our interests.  To stand by brandishing words and proclamations is to play a game of chance with human life.  If that is President Obama’s policy, let’s pray that luck is on his side.

Otherwise, the Libyan people will – rightly – hold him and us accountable.

The American silence

February 26, 2011

In a few days or weeks, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, a true moral monster, will be overthrown by his own people.  His fate will then parallel that of other tyrants who suddenly find themselves unemployed.  He may go the way of Mussolini, or he may end his days in a retired totalitarian’s home in Caracas or Havana.

Whatever the future brings to Qaddafi, his regime, or Libya, one thing appears certain:  the United States will have had no influence over the outcome.

In the midst of the most astonishing global upheaval since 1989, American foreign policy can best be characterized as an embarrassed silence.  We seem to have no official opinion about these transformational events, no interests we wish to protect, no outcomes we prefer.  President Obama rarely speaks, and when he does, he says nothing.  Secretary of State Clinton makes vague pleas for an end to violence – as if a resumption of the Qaddafi regime’s control over the population were devoutly to be desired.

Never in my long life have I witnessed anything like it.  I have seen presidents with bad foreign policies and good, who succeed or fail in their endeavors.  I have never seen a president with no foreign policy, whose approach to the world imitates the mute self-righteousness of a Trappist monk.

The case of Libya exemplifies this urge to quietude.  Unlike events in Egypt and Bahrain, where pro-American authoritarians were challenged by popular uprisings, Qaddafi’s current troubles don’t represent a conflict between our interests and our ideals.  He’s a bloody-minded egotist, a plague to his own people, a bomber of commercial airliners, a murderer of innocents, including Americans.  He loves us not at all – and we owe him nothing.

So why the vow of silence?  I have heard rumors in the media about a concern that the Libyans would take Americans hostage.  If true, this is naïve on many levels.  It assumes Qaddafi would strike at American citizens only in response to US actions, and not because, at a given moment, he considers this move to be in his best interest.  It also supposes Qaddafi will respond more favorably to silence and passivity than to a show of force.  Yet we have evidence to the contrary.  After President Reagan bombed Libya in 1986, Qaddafi pulled his head into his shell and didn’t pull it out again for years.

Another explanation whispered by the media is that we have no influence to bear on Qaddafi or Libya.  This is both hypocritical and false.  Hypocritical because where we did have influence – in Egypt, for example – we refused to apply it, and chose to wait on events instead.  False because, absent this administration’s reflexive twitch to look away and bite its tongue, a great power always has options.

After all, Peru – not a great power – broke relations with Libya three days ago.  Switzerland – tiny and neutral – froze Qaddafi’s assets two days ago.  These countries didn’t ask anyone’s permission, didn’t make excuses:  they acted.  Surely our own government can do as much.

We can state aloud our preferred outcome:  a democratic and peace-loving Libya.  We can say what we won’t tolerate:  the slaughter of the Libyan people by Qaddafi’s forces.  And we can warn, clearly and specifically, of the measures we will take if the intolerable occurs:  impose economic sanctions, say, or a no-fly zone with the Sixth Fleet – or take out Qaddafi’s armor and air force.  None of this will guarantee that events will flow in our direction.  What it will do is ensure that US interests and values are in play, and must be reckoned with by friends and foes in the region.

President Obama doesn’t confide his motives to me, but I doubt the explanations in the media account for the strange American silence.  The recipe for the president’s quiescent slouch in the Middle East, I’d guess, is one part perplexity, one part belief in the nefarious effect of US power, and eight parts indifference to the fate of the world.  He found the time and energy to chastise his political opponents in Madison, Wisconsin, but for days, while Qaddafi’s goons murdered protesters by the score, he looked the other way and kept mum.

Silence is a form of action.  It has consequences.  In Libya, as in Egypt, America’s unwillingness to defend its interests and values will be noted by all political forces currently contending for ascendancy.  Those who hate us and despise our way of life will feel emboldened.  Those who might have advocated liberal democracy will feel forsaken and betrayed.  The vast majority, fence-sitters all, will embrace with various degrees of sincerity whatever ideology fills the void left by our withdrawal.

This is unlikely to be kind or gentle.  It is, in my opinion, a fact of history that when America grows silent, freedom loses its voice.

When dictators fall

February 12, 2011

On New Year’s Day, 1959, the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista packed his family and his gold into an airplane, and took off for Spain.  A week later, when the charismatic hero of the revolution addressed an adoring public in Havana, he seemed curiously unwilling to celebrate, and instead aimed his considerable rhetorical arsenal against political groups not directly under his control.

That was the beginning of a half-century of horror – a suffocating nightmare from which the Cuban people have yet to awaken.

Similar dismal scripts followed the overthrow of the shah in Iran, and of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua.  Celebrations of freedom gave way to a more savage and lasting oppression than the old regime’s.

There are no iron laws in history, however.  The fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Phillipines restored democracy to that country.  The same transpired in Argentina when the military junta ceded power after its defeat at the hands of the British.  More surprisingly, the collapse of the Suharto regime began a democratic experiment in Indonesia, a country with no history or tradition of political freedom.

With the fall of tyrants, nothing is fated, nothing is promised.  The problem is that these great upheavals of power are also reversals in the flow of time.  They appear, to the rejoicing crowds, like a happy ending, but are in reality the start of an uncertain tale.

Those who have never endured life under a dictator can’t imagine the nauseating hopelessness everyday life can achieve.  Fear sucks the air from the atmosphere.  The sight of a policeman, a sycophant, a censored news report poisons the happiest moment with feelings of shame and disgust.  Hypocrisy becomes the highest virtue – the ability to smile outwardly, and weep and rage in one’s soul.

Without freedom, the day is long.  Time is the ally of tyranny, an oppressive force which, by sheer dreariness and repetition, breaks down the strongest will.  Tomorrow will be like yesterday:  and the dictator, in his heroic pose, will cast a sickly shadow over both.

So when history miraculously resumes, when the clock begins to tick again, and the regime of lies crumbles before something very like the truth, it’s understandable for the long-suffering population to wish to celebrate an ending.

But consider the task ahead.  Political life, and many social and economic arrangements, have been hollowed out by the dictator.  Corruption like a contagious disease has spread from the palace to the marketplace to the home.  With the despot’s departure, distrust will replace fear as the overwhelming emotion of the public square.

People have little experience in self-rule or civic-mindedness, but own vast stores of knowledge in how to lie and cheat to feather one’s own nest.  The government which follows the dictator’s will be composed of his creatures or of neophytes, will preserve his system or trample on it, will be called “provisional” or “popular”:  regardless, it won’t last.  Citizens will learn that, beyond hatred of the old regime, they share little in common.  Some will advocate democracy.  Others, the triumph of some messianic ideology.  Others still crave economic betterment, or revenge for past humiliations.

At some point, a powerful and attractive voice will cry above the turmoil, “I can restore order” or “I can purify society” or “I can find work and dignity for all.”  And that will be the hinge of history, with freedom and tyranny in the balance.

To say yes to the charismatic voice is to open the door to an Ayatollah Khomeini, a Fidel Castro:  to slip from bad to worse.  The crowd, weary of celebrating liberation, will acquiesce in silence to a resurrected oppression.

The starting-point of these reflections is the fall from power in Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, after 30 years of rule.

Nobody knows what the future will bring for Egypt.  I mean that quite literally:  nobody, on principle, can know, because complex systems are inherently unpredictable and every human being is a complex system.  In the matter of prophecy, President Obama and CIA are off the hook.

But we know that the path to freedom will be long and difficult, and will require the intelligent assistance of friends of freedom everywhere, but most particularly in the United States.  The sanest message the Obama administration can send at the moment is that this is a beginning, not an end.

Egypt has some traditions of self-rule, though few Egyptians alive today will remember.  The country also spawned the Muslim Brotherhood, which the US should make every effort to marginalize:  not because it is anti-American, but because it is anti-democratic.  Although, unlike Al Qaeda, the Brotherhood is happy to play the electoral game, its political objective is identical to Osama bin Laden’s:  the restoration of a powerful caliphate.

As part of their long march to freedom, Egyptians must decide whether democracy is a suicide pact.

A more immediate concern is the Egyptian military, who have inherited power in an opaque arrangement that is unlikely to endure.  Apparently the military enjoy some popularity among the people.  They possess most of the guns and much of the wealth – Mubarak, we would do well to remember, was a fighter pilot.  There will be a temptation for the officer class to divvy up the pot now the boss is gone, as happened in Paraguay after Generalissimo Stroessner was pushed out.

The US should have some influence over the Egyptian military, since we pay them big money.  But we should cherish no illusions on this score.  The rules of the game are now broken:  anything goes.  The military will cut its own deal with Egyptian society, and with the world.  From one of its officers, I suspect, will come the siren song of restoration of order and final solution of problems.  The new riddle of the sphinx will be a choice between faux Napoleonic glory and real democratic drudgery.

On the answer given by the Egyptian people will hang their fate and the possibility of freedom in the land of Pharaoh.

President Obama against the world

February 8, 2011

I have been trying to make sense of our government’s approach to the uprising in Egypt.  Not just the statements and policies, but the inner logic, the deep structure:  the vision of the world from which the statements and policies flow.

And I keep coming back to the idea that President Obama is uninterested in the world, and would – if the world allowed him – turn his back on it.

Much has been made of the administration’s inability to keep up with events on the ground in Egypt.  This is a fair indictment.  White House and State Department statements seem to shift according to the images on that day’s Al Jazeera feed.

I’ll cite one example.  On 28 January, with demonstrators brushing aside the police in many Egyptian cities while Hosni Mubarak, the country’s “president” of 30 years, maintained a sphinx-like silence, the White House made emphatic noises about cutting US aid.  Three days later, after Mubarak offered to leave office in September, Secretary of State Clinton stated, “There is no discussion of cutting off aid.”

US positions appear tactical, improvised, and often contradictory.  Egypt is pronounced “stable” by the secretary of state, but a few days later the president finds the country to be suffering a “moment of volatility.”  We deny any wish to “dictate” an outcome to the crisis, but this is how White House press secretary addresses the Egyptian government:  “Violence in any form should stop immediately, and the grievances should be addressed.”

This obsession with tactical positioning is a symptom of a much graver malady.  Toward a country like Egypt, ruled by a sickly 82-year-old despot and key to the frail US-sponsored arrangements in the Middle East, the administration had failed to articulate a vision of how American interests and ideals must evolve into the future.  Tactics were necessary because no strategy existed.

The omission can only be described as attention deficit disorder on a world historical scale.  I’m not privy to the motives of the president or his advisors, but they seem to me strangely uninterested in shaping events, in directing outcomes – in making history.  They seem to me like they wish to be left alone by a turbulent world.

Our official declarations have tended to strike an angelic pose, as if the United States lacked any selfish interests.  Of the Tunisian uprising, prime mover to the current Arab upheaval, Secretary Clinton said:  “We are not taking sides.”  For days after a human tide, like the Red Sea, overwhelmed the security forces of Mubarak’s pharaonic regime, US statements worried mainly about the possibility of violence.  “We urge all parties to refrain from violence”:  another way of saying, “We are not taking sides.”

Even when, in the press of events, the administration at length abandoned Mubarak for some sort of transitional process, the appeal was to airy “universal” principles rather than to American interests or ideals.  “We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people,” read a White House statement.  “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal,” said the president, somewhat later, on TV.  To the Egyptian government, Vice President Biden “restated President Obama’s support for universal rights.”  In a statement condemning regime violence against journalists, Secretary Clinton first spoke of “international norms” but soon reverted to “universal values.”

The values in question were “freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.”  These are truly noble ideals, but I’d like the chance to question Secretary Clinton about their universality.  Neither she nor anyone else in the administration, I feel certain, would take up the debate.  Their talk of universal values is a dodge, a way of pretending liberal democracy isn’t an American ideal.

In fact the US has an existential stake in the outcome in Egypt.  We wish to prevent an Islamist takeover.  We don’t wish to see the most populous and prestigious Arab nation – but also the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood – become, like Iran, a zealous promoter of terrorism.  We wish to see the peace with Israel hold, or else the “moment of volatility” will give way to far more dreadful times.

And because America is an ideological country, and Americans are an ideological people, we wish to have peaceful relations with an Egyptian government which embraces liberal democracy – personal and political freedom – in all its aspects.

President Obama is shy in pressing these peculiarly American interests and ideals.  He prefers the angelic pose.  In a WaPo article, David Ignatius calls him the first “post-colonial” president – which I translate to mean, the first president who believes US influence brings more harm than good to the world.  Maybe so.  This would explain the president’s shyness, and would agree with observations I have made on this blog.

Yet a sincere post-colonialist would possess the theoretical framework to prefer a specific outcome in Egypt – the overthrow of the corrupt NDP clique – and the motivation to seek this outcome by the application of American power.  Instead the president has dithered.  At present he seems to favor a transition managed by the newly appointed Egyptian vice president, a man fully implicated in the crimes of the regime.

If, as Ignatius claims, the president is in his mind a disciple of Frantz Fanon, in his actions he appears to be a servant of the status quo.

Because of his exotic personal background, Barack Obama has been portrayed as uniquely at home outside our borders:  a citizen of the world.  The reality is that, like the typical Joe Sixpack, he is deeply uninterested in, and suspicious of, the sound and fury emanating from the world – the noise of history.  His secretary of state is an invisible woman.  His State of the Union speech scarcely took notice of the existence of contending nations and restless populations, any of which can erupt, as Egypt has, without a moment’s warning, to bring grief to American lives.

On the stage of history, President Obama so far has been, by orders of magnitude, the most passive and conservative chief executive in my lifetime.  He seeks to freeze human affairs in a Faustian moment, with America’s clients distant enough that they won’t entangle us in their troubles, and America’s antagonists flattered enough that they won’t scheme our ruin.  He can then turn inward, and achieve at home his parochial transformations.

But history won’t go away.  The world is too much with us, and the United States is too large a force in the world.  For peculiarly American reasons, that force has been exerted on behalf of freedom.  From Hitler to Saddam Hussein, would-be Caesars have had to contend with the American fighting man, while totalitarians have had to reckon with a fierce American defense of liberal democracy.

American power and influence are identified in history with a way of life.  It will be hard for President Obama to tiptoe away from America’s historical commitments, without wreaking havoc on the status quo he so desperately wishes to preserve.

UPDATE:  Jackson Diehl at WaPo records another instance of the president’s obdurate loyalty to the status quo.

The moral implications of the Constitution

January 11, 2011

Almost exactly one year ago I wrote on this blog:

I believe the US stands in need of a return to its founding principles.

It turns out I wasn’t alone.  Voters in large numbers worried that the administration had abandoned the first principles of American governance in favor of an elite-managed social democratic model, Europe-style.  The November elections turned on this question, and the result – an epochal disaster for the president’s party – was a clear answer.  The people want their federal government back in the box.

For obvious reasons, the political insurgents of 2010 make much of the Constitution.  To curry favor with them, the politicians they just elected began the new session of the House with a reading of that document.  Liberals reacted with anger.  Strangely, the Constitution of the United States has now become controversial.

Liberal politicos and writers feel wounded by the election results.  They wish to strike back at their opponents, which is understandable.  But they often sound like the Constitution, to them, is some sort of antiquarian irrelevance, to be dismissed with contempt.

Some of their mockery is childish, and probably harmless.  Others seem disgusted because the Constitution once embraced slavery and banned the sale of liquor.  Such outlandish positions, they imply, remove all legitimacy from the document.  Loftier liberal critics describe the Constitution as an ancient parchment full of strange-sounding words, open to infinite interpretation.  An emotional attachment to this museum piece becomes a symptom of know-nothingism, and of a futile revolt, not against President Obama or social democracy, but the inexorable changes of the modern world.

I’d like to focus on the question whether the Constitution offers a specific moral and political perspective, so I’ll deal with the critics very briefly.

First, slavery.  If the Framers had insisted on abolition, they would have failed in their task.  It’s that simple.  There would be no Constitution, because there would be no United States.  Instead, the Framers behaved like grownups, and accepted an unpleasant tradeoff.  They chose some freedom over none.  Those who condemn this decision must explain which alternative would be morally preferable.

Second, antiquity.  The right to property goes back to Roman times.  Habeas corpus was formulated in the Middle Ages.  Representative government evolved in England during the Stuart and Hanoverian periods.  Funny-sounding words, many of them foreign, were used to express these principles of American self-rule.  It is bizarre, not to say ignorant, to equate antiquity with negation.

But is the Constitution so sketchy and obscure as to be open to any and all interpretations?  Here, at last, we come to the heart of the matter.

I don’t believe the Constitution can be considered a political platform in the contemporary sense of the phrase.  It advocates no policies or laws.  Nor do I believe it’s a particularly conservative document.  It smiles on progress and perfectibility.  Nor do I find in it a rejection of big government:  the size of the budget is left for the people and their representatives to decide.

But it places sharp limits on the scope of government, and this limitation flows from a specific moral ideal about the relation of the citizen to political power.

The Framers, to a man, believed in the necessity of “virtue in the people” – Madison’s words – to the preservation of freedom.  This entailed personal responsibility and accountability.  The individual thus was sheathed in constitutional rights and protections, which no government may abrogate.  The American citizen, by the law of the land, is a moral agent.  He does right or wrong on his own account – not that of his lord, or his president, or his government.

Sovereignty arises from moral agency, and from the first three words of the preamble the Constitution imparts both to the individual citizen, who in the aggregate become “we the people.”  Power belongs to the people:  it is never bestowed.

Yet the Framers also believed in human corruptibility, particularly when it came to the abuse of power and wealth.  They read history, and knew their Suetonius.  The trick, for them, was to find a way to balance the need for personal virtue with the requirements of a functional government.

They achieved this balance in two ways.  The Constitution, on principle, places many activities beyond the writ of government:  for example, suspending habeas corpus, criminalizing an action after the fact, and awarding titles of nobility.  Much is forbidden to political actors.  The number of constitutional barriers erected against government intrusion far outnumber the handful of positive powers we the people hand off to our public servants.

And if we look to the explicit powers of the president, we find he’s to be commander in chief, negotiate treaties, and make appointments to various offices – and that’s it.  Most enumerated powers are listed under the authority of Congress, which was expected to retain a closer bond with the people.

Principle, of course, works only for the principled.  Corrupt politicians can always uncover loopholes to trample on the document’s intent.  Being politicians themselves, the Framers knew this, and devised a practical and unprecedented approach to principled politics.  They invented a dynamic geometry of power.

In a New Yorker article which finds it necessary to observe that the sheets of the original Constitution were “made not from the pulp of plants but from the hide of an animal,” Jill Lepore concludes that the document “doesn’t exactly explain itself.”  That’s true only if one is blind to the mathematics.  Everywhere in the text there is division and subdivision, weight and counterweight, authority pared to ever thinner slices.

Power is fractured among president and Congress.  But there are two houses in Congress.  There are two senators from each state.  The president makes treaties but they must be ratified by the Senate.  The same applies to his power to appoint.  The House can impeach a president, but only the Senate can evict him.  One can almost hear the music – a Bach counterpoint – emanating from the most elaborate and baffling system in the history of politics.

The American model of government is ponderous and often gridlocked.  That was intended.  “Ambition,” Madison wrote, “must be made to counteract ambition.”  The great physical and economic might of the state must be dispersed, so that the citizen can retain his moral agency, sovereignty, and dignity.

It is this arrangement which infuriates top-down reformers:  people who think they know best.  In the geometry of power, they see a broken machine.  In the moral agency of the citizen, they find an obstacle to change.  I have no doubt this is how President Obama and the chief people in his administration feel.  They wish to improve us by absorbing moral agency and sovereignty unto themselves.  They think they have the answers, and they don’t want to tap-dance around a bunch of eighteenth-century clutter.

Social democracy, the goal of these reformers, is the political equivalent of a nursery school.  Only a few are allowed to behave like adults.

I’m also reasonably sure that those who oppose the president do so because they wish to keep agency and sovereignty in their own hands.  If, to make their point, they choose to engage in a “cult” of the Constitution, I think they will find justification in the spirit and the letter of the document.

North Korea kills, NYT chill

November 25, 2010

The actions of the shadowy rulers of North Korea are rarely transparent, but the general outlines of Monday’s violence in Yeongpyeong island are clear enough.  North Korean artillery lobbed over 200 shells into the island, which hosts a military base and a population of fishermen and their families.  Two South Korean marines died in the attack.  Many homes burned to the ground, and the charred bodies of two civilian victims were discovered Tuesday.  Eighteen people suffered injuries.

The South Koreans, who had been conducting a military exercise on the island, returned fire.  There’s no indication of any casualties by the North.

For all its antic reputation, the North Korean regime is quite adept at murder and blackmail.  It represses, imprisons, and starves its own population into submission.  In March, it torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors on board.  Earlier this month, it revealed to an American scientist a sophisticated and hitherto unsuspected capability for enriching uranium – threatening nuclear Gotterdammerung to an appalled world.

There’s a history here.  Yeongpyeong is the latest in a long list of atrocities perpetrated by the North Koreans for reasons best known to themselves.

Unless one looks at the world through the eyes of the New York Times.

The NYT’s tendentious “coverage” of the incident, committed by Mark McDonald, stands out as an atrocity of the journalistic kind.  In his initial report, McDonald seems perplexed about who fired first – although a literal reading might indicate it was the South Koreans.

The North blamed the South for starting the exchange; the South acknowledged firing test shots in the area but denied that any had fallen in the North’s territory.

One side says this, the other that, who’s to tell what happened?  Only the South, suspiciously, is forced to “acknowledge” anything.

The same approach is used when referencing the torpedoing of the South Korean warship.  The North’s responsibility for the attack has been established by a panel of independent experts, and accepted by most of the world.  But this is how the Solomonic McDonald comes to judgment:  “Seoul blamed a North Korean torpedo attack; the North has denied any role.”  How can an honest reporter decide?

Later in the report, McDonald rambles on at length about how “analysts” believe the artillery attack was really a desperate North Korean plea for food aid, which has been “strangled” by US sanctions.  One “analyst” gets more space than any other voice in the report:

“It’s a sign of North Korea’s increasing frustration,” Mr. Choi said.

“Washington has turned a deaf ear to Pyongyang and North Korea is saying, ‘Look here. We’re still alive. We can cause trouble. You can’t ignore us.’ ” [. . .]

“They’re in a desperate situation, and they want food immediately, not next year,” he said.

Here at last we are told who is to blame:  we are.  The North Koreans, led by their “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, feel frustrated, ignored, and finally driven to desperate acts by America’s indifference and strangling power.

McDonald’s report on the following day is even more egregious.  Once again he appears to wash his hands in the matter of blame:  “The Koreas blame each other for instigating the artillery barrages on Tuesday afternoon,” is his coy starting proposition.  But it soon becomes clear, from listening to McDonald’s “analysts,” that in fact the South bears the brunt of responsibility for being attacked.

“What has been missing in all the analysis is that we’re not listening to what North Korea says,” said Michael Breen, the author of a book about the two Koreas and a biography of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader. “Because of the blustering language the North Koreans always use, you tend to dismiss it.

“But if the North was holding live-fire exercises five miles offshore from South Korea, it wouldn’t just be business as usual. These waters, they consider theirs. What’s the point, anyway, of doing these live-fire drills so close to North Korea?”

The point of the live-fire drills, of course, might be to defend the island against just such an attack as took place – but this isn’t the kind of logic “analysts” indulge in.  Anyway, a South Korean Defense Ministry official “acknowledged Tuesday night that the South had fired artillery close to North Korea,” and all that acknowledging probably adds up to a guilty verdict.

McDonald fairly sputters over news that, in a gesture of support, the US will be sending an aircraft carrier group to South Korea.  Yet another “analyst” gets trotted out to do the NYT’s vicarious opinionating:

Mr. Breen called it “foolishness.”

“The whole idea is just to give them the bird,” he said.

North Korea scholars in Seoul said the arrival of the aircraft carrier, as a potent symbol of gunboat diplomacy, would likely bolster the hardliners inside the North Korean regime.

“These guys want aircraft carriers,” Mr. Delury said. “This is exactly the response they want.”

Beyond boilerplate statements by the US military, no contrary voice is heard anywhere in the report.

Nor is consideration given to the difference in character of the two governments, North and South.  One is a brutal and aggressive despotism, the other a democracy lately inclined to appeasement:  no matter.  The only discussion of character McDonald engages in is a vigorous defense of Kim Jong Il’s.

“He’s not a foolish man at all,” Mr. Breen said. “He’s not crazy, not at all. He’s not nuts. That’s a very shallow analysis.

“If he was here on a conference call with us, he’d say, “Look, if there’s a war, my country will be finished within a week. I know that. I’m not trying to start a war, I just don’t like enemy states holding live-fire exercises within stone-throwing distance of my coast.”

So there we have it.  The US is foolish for giving North Korea the middle finger.  Kim Jong Il, however, is not foolish – he’s a reasonable guy, concerned about those live-fire drills.  Killing four people and destroying a fishing village is just his personal communications style, the Dear Leader equivalent of a conference call.

A Manichean vision seems to inspire the NYT approach:  self-loathing and self-abuse on one side, generosity if not admiration for moral monsters on the other.  Those who recall the work of Walter Duranty while “covering” Stalin’s purges will understand that the vision long ago conquered the soul of the newspaper, and like a cognitive affliction controls the facts its staff can process and regurgitate.

Print all the news which fit the mold.