Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. These articles are republished from V & V, a web site of the Center for Vision & Values. Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004) and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007). His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).
Egypt and Libya: Shades of 1979-80
In the last 24 hours, beginning with the 11th anniversary of 9/11, all hell broke loose in the Middle East. Our diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya have been attacked, with the U.S. ambassador to Libya among those brutally murdered by Islamists. Much will continue to be said about this, but the similarities to Iran 33 years ago are striking. And make no mistake about it, rightly or wrongly, this is now a major political issue in our presidential election, as it was in the 1980 presidential election. Just like that, in one explosive burst, foreign policy is on the front-burner in the 2012 campaign.
Over the last four years, longtime authoritarian Arab leaders in Egypt and Libya have been deposed, supplanted - we fear - by longtime extremist Islamic movements. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak is gone. In Libya, Muammar Kaddafi is gone. Neither man was, by any stretch, a democrat. And yet, we worry that they have been replaced by something much worse.
Well, something similar unfolded in Iran 33 years ago, when a longtime authoritarian leader and close U.S. ally, the Shah, was replaced by an extremist Islamic movement headed by the Ayatollah, producing the world's worst, longest-running theocratic/terrorist state. The moment was dramatized on November 4, 1979, when the U.S. embassy was seized and over 50 American hostages were captured and held for 444 days. Like in Egypt, it all seemed to begin, at least visually, symbolically, with the burning of the American flag at our embassy.
The current chaos in Egypt was reportedly precipitated not by any sort of vile commemoration of 9/11, but by an anti-Mohammed film released in parts on the internet and broadcast inside Egypt. That said, it was also reported that the American flag outside the embassy was replaced by pro-Al Qaeda flags. What other factors may have sparked the Egyptian and Libyan outbursts? Fairly or unfairly, that's where the politics comes in.
President Obama's detractors are wasting no time looking for possible added motivations. They are noting the debate at the Democratic convention last week over Jerusalem. They are pointing to the news (released the same day, on September 11, 2012) that Obama allegedly refused an Israeli request for a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ben Netanyahu. They are stressing four years of (in their view) weakness, accommodation, amateurism, and a lack of clarity by the Obama administration in the Middle East, from Egypt and Libya to Iran and Syria. Indeed, the "clarity" factor was precisely Mitt Romney's theme in his September 12 press conference in Jacksonville, Florida, where Romney repeatedly underscored the word "lead" or "leadership," which he sees as lacking from Barack Obama.
I will not dissect those claims here (some of which I agree with), but what is clear is how this unfolding situation appears eerily like what President Jimmy Carter faced going into his reelection in 1980. Carter was blamed for the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. Republicans will be making analogies between Carter's mishandling of Iran and the Shah and Obama's handling of Egypt and Mubarak - and perhaps also of Obama's handling of Libya and Kaddafi, and still more.
Whoever is to blame, there's no question that the course of events in Egypt and Libya suddenly seem to be veering even more sharply into the catastrophic direction that Iran took 33 years ago. That is a very bad thing, a rapidly evolving foreign-policy disaster for the United States - and for its president. Will it hurt or help Barack Obama as the November vote approaches? We shall see. In the meantime, get ready for seven weeks of intense and at times nasty debate.
Remembering Gene Kelly
This August 23, 2012, marks the centennial of the birth of Gene Kelly, the great American dancer, actor, singer; a guy's guy who - along with Fred Astaire - is the only male who ever left me (momentarily) wishing I could dance.
I've always felt a kinship with Gene Kelly. It starts with Pittsburgh, the town of our birth. Kelly was born there, a hardworking Irish Catholic kid, son of Harriet Catherine and James Patrick Joseph Kelly. He attended St. Raphael Elementary and eventually sparred in fistfights and on the dance floor before opening a studio in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill section.
And then there's our connection to the University of Pittsburgh, from which we both graduated many decades apart - he in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. When I step on campus today, I walk by his star engraved outside the William Pitt Union. There are no stars chiseled on campus for the likes of, say, Thomas Starzl, who pioneered organ transplantation at Pitt's School of Medicine, or for Jonas Salk, who was developing the Polio vaccine at Pitt when Kelly was making "Brigadoon" - but, hey, such is celebrity, and I'm happy that folks get this regular reminder of Kelly's feet once gliding across campus. That star stands a few feet from where - at old Forbes Field - Bill Mazeroski beat the New York Yankees in the 1960s World Series, and where Roberto Clemente did a different kind of gliding across the base paths.
Readers familiar with my writings are probably thinking I must also feel a political kinship with Kelly. Not exactly. I'm, of course, a conservative; Kelly was anything but. In fact, it pained me to include him in my book, Dupes where I noted Kelly among the Hollywood progressives exploited by Hollywood Communists. To wit:
In October 1947, Gene Kelly joined a gaggle of Hollywood liberals who formed a group called the "Committee for the First Amendment." They launched a major public-relations trip to Washington to defend accused friends; that is, friends accused of being Communists. Their friends had been summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities for their blatantly pro-Soviet activities. The accused insisted they were neither pro-Communist nor pro-Stalin. Kelly and his fellow progressives believed them totally - hook, line, sinker.
Among the liberal stars enlisted were Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Gene Kelly.
Once they got to Washington, however, the wide-eyed progressives learned the truth. The accused, such as the likes of John Howard Lawson - known as "Hollywood's Commissar"-Dalton Trumbo, Alvah Bessie, and Albert Maltz, were guilty as charged. When the actors watched the hearings, they were stunned that Congress' Democrats and Republicans and their lawyers had done their homework and presented massive volumes of hard evidence: Communist Party card numbers, dues payments, writings for the Daily Worker and New Masses, membership in front-groups, and on and on. The actors had been lied to - big-time. Bogart flew into a rage, screaming with choice profanities that he had been "sold out." He sure had - as had Gene Kelly and the others.
In fact, it was the second time that year that Kelly had been duped. In February 1947, Hollywood's closet Communists cast Kelly, the all-American boy, to provide the introduction at the kick-off meeting of the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA), held at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles. Kelly was no doubt surprised to see (before he spoke) the large screen that splashed rolling footage of Harry Truman's and America's bloody crime at Hiroshima. This was part of Communist Party USA's anti-Truman campaign, along with other campaigns that year that served Stalin: their attacks on the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan. On the ballot that evening as board members of PCA were the likes of Lawson and Trumbo.
Kelly was hardly alone in being burned by the Reds. My political hero, Ronald Reagan, once a self-described "hemophiliac liberal," likewise was torched by Hollywood's Communists. Reagan, of course, more than redeemed himself. As a result, we remember him for his politics more than his movies.
As for Gene Kelly, though, we fortunately remember him for his movies: The blue-collar, happy-go-lucky GI performing "I Got Rhythm" to French kids in Paris post-World War II; singing with Judy Garland when she was famous before he was ("For Me and My Gal," 1942); doing the town with Frank Sinatra; and, best of all, immortalized in that wonderful scene in "Singing in the Rain." For the record, my favorite occasion watching the latter was during a rain delay one day at a Pittsburgh Pirates game. That brought it all home.
Here's to Gene Kelly, fellow Pittsburgher-and American icon. May that star continue to shine beyond Pitt campus.
Try to define progressivism. In fact, ask progressives to try to define progressivism. All we really know is that they're, well, progressing. They and their ideas and their politics are always changing, evolving. This means that what they believe and hold fast and dear today may not be what they believe and hold fast and dear tomorrow, or decades or a century from now.
For instance, when progressive heroine Margaret Sanger started her American Birth Control League a century ago, she was seeking birth control for, among other purposes, what she and fellow progressives termed "race improvement." She hoped to expunge the gene pool of what she termed "human weeds," "morons," and "imbeciles." She repudiated abortion, calling it
. . . an alternative that I cannot too strongly condemn . . . the practice of it merely for limitation of offspring is dangerous and vicious."
She clarified in no uncertain terms:
. . . some ill-informed persons have the notion that when we speak of birth control we include abortion as a method. We certainly do not.
Today, Sanger's American Birth Control League is Planned Parenthood, America's largest abortion provider. Progressives have not only progressed to that level but also to the point where they demand full taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood and birth control and abortion drugs. Most amazing, those who disagree are castigated as Neanderthals favoring a "war on women."
How did we suddenly progress to this latest stage?
That's a long answer with a lot of factors, but we cannot disregard the huge impact of the latest influence: President Obama. If you would have told me five years ago that the president of the United States, by executive fiat, would force all Americans - including all religious organizations - to fund sterilization services and abortion drugs, I would have at least taken solace in one thing: my liberal friends would surely respect my religious beliefs and insist their president was crossing the line.
Sorry, the opposite is true. With President Obama leading, millions of Democrats have willfully fallen in line. He is not bending, and neither are they. If we disagree with what they're compelling us to do - that's our fault. We have failed to progress to their understanding.
My pro-choice friends always promised they'd never force me to pay for their abortions. With Obama out front, that has changed. They simply hadn't progressed there yet.
The same is true for gay marriage, where liberals - immediately after Obama's statement on gay marriage to ABC a few months ago - are suddenly on fire for the cause, from blasting Chick-fil-A to, according to The New York Times, considering the unprecedented step of placing gay marriage in the Democratic Party platform. Consider liberals' progression on this issue:
A half century ago, the concept of "gay marriage" would have been unthinkable to any Democrat. Currently, I'm being frequently asked about parallels in thinking between Obama and his mentor, Frank Marshall Davis. There are striking similarities when it comes to their words on Wall Street, the rich, tax cuts, wealth redistribution, universal healthcare. I'm often asked if Davis' writings indicated support for gay marriage and abortion. Are you kidding? Anyone who might have voiced public support for those things back then, Democrat or Republican or radical, would have been hauled off to an asylum as a public menace.
Just 20 years ago, the previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, supported the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as strictly between a man and a woman.
While support for gay marriage has increased since then, what the progressive movement needed was a front man to light the fuse and take the lead. They got it big-time from President Obama. Just like that, the entire public debate has changed, with gay-marriage advocates on the offensive and opponents on the defensive. Those opposing the unwavering norm since the dawn of humanity, following the billions before us - what Chesterton called the "Democracy of the Dead" - are suddenly framed as extremists who must explain ourselves. And CEOs of companies who voice a mere opinion to the contrary - e.g., Chick-fil-A - are picketed, protested, banned, and attacked by the nation's mayors for manufacturing everything from "hate thoughts" to "hate chicken."
Progressivism. No one can see where it will end up, but we can see how it unfolds. In this latest manifestation - call it President Obama's progress - it compels all of us to acquiesce on gay marriage and abortion. Obama didn't begin the push, but, in only four years, he has advanced the progressive project by leaps and bounds, a stunning surge that doesn't happen without him.
In 2008, Barack Obama promised fundamental, transformational change - and now, thanks to the American electorate, we're getting it.
Gay Marriage: Killing the Democracy of the Dead
President Obama's position on gay marriage has won some converts, from (perhaps) the entirety of the Democratic Party to (especially) young people. As to the latter, one of them emailed me recently. A good-hearted, thoughtful young man, who this fall will be a freshman at a very liberal college in the Northeast, I'll leave him unnamed. His story, however, is instructive, and sheds light on an ancient morality tale worth considering right now.
The young man comes from a conservative evangelical family. He has progressively edged in a liberal direction. He read an article I had written on President Obama's gay-marriage advocacy. Though he disagreed with me, he was respectful. I appreciated that, and responded.
He objected to my point that legalizing gay marriage would represent a radical rupture not just of the definition of "marriage" but of "family." "How would that happen?" he asked.
I support gay marriage and think that if two people are in love, then they should have the right to be together with full benefits under the title of being MARRIED.
I really don't want to hear any religious arguments. Marriage is a secular act that can also be religious.
The young man was open to hearing my viewpoint. As he said, he didn't want to merely yell at me, "Oh my god! You're against gay marriage? Then you're stupid!" That's what he's sure to hear at the liberal college where his parents will be sending their life savings.
Though there were many ways I could have replied to this young man's email, my response focused not on his youth but, rather, the youth of all of us, of this entire generation, of the whole culture. Here was the thrust of my response:
Whether a society or people are religious or not, the most fundamental basis of society and peoples - literally since the dawn of humanity- has been marriage between a man and a woman. That bond is the cornerstone. To suddenly sever that bond is not only a radical rupture, but remarkably arrogant; it assumes that our current generation is wiser than the multiple millennia of civilizations heretofore. Google the word "matrimony." "Marriage" has always meant the marriage of a man and a woman.
We shouldn't mess with these things. Once we begin redefining and reshaping these things in each of our own images, we're in trouble. I ask progressives: Do you truly want the government to take unto itself the right to remold such ancient terms? (Answer: Yes, they do, but only when the government agrees with them.)
That question ought to give pause to libertarians who support gay marriage. Do they want to allow government this unprecedented, enormous moral power and authority, from which will flow all sorts of new, massive government redistributive power and authority? As Jennifer Roback Morse asks, do libertarians really want the federal government regulating (let alone defining) marriage? If they do, then they're favoring not small government but big government - actually, huge government.
Even most liberal Democrats (prior to President Obama) had voted to preserve marriage between a man and a woman. Witness the Clintons and congressional Democrats passing the Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s.
Those against gay marriage need to know that not only are they in the majority today, but over the course of centuries and millennia. Our position is based not on the latest societal/cultural whim at the ballot box but on the inherited wisdom of billions of ancestors and thinkers preceding us. It is rooted in what G. K. Chesterton called "the democracy of the dead."
In his book, Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote:
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father.
There is deep, accumulated wisdom in our long line of ancestors. To suddenly assume we know better, compliments of recent enlightened understanding, is self-righteous and short-sighted. Don't our ancestors - our dead - have any say? There were a lot more of them than us. Are we to judge they were mere brutes lacking our magnificent reasoning abilities?
There's something to be said about, oh, multiple millennia of consensus belief. It seems unwise to not give our ancestors any serious consideration, and to not at least consider whether we might be wrong on this particular issue.
Should the dead not have a vote, a say, in this? *