W can’t make everybody happy

W has authored an op-ed in the WashPost today about something for which he should be proud: the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program, which aimed to make AIDS medicine available to Africans. And W should be remembered for this accomplishment:

Early in 2003, there were perhaps 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa on AIDS treatment. Today, thanks to America, other donor nations and the tireless work of Africans themselves, nearly 4 million are. Fragile nations have been stabilized, making progress possible in other areas of development.

Even die-hard liberals like Harold Pollack are generously handing out the praise. Finally, something in which left and right can agree on with respect to W, right?

Not so fast. Here’s The Derb throwing cold water on the party:

If George W. Bush, or any other wealthy American, is moved by the plight of AIDS sufferers in Africa, he is free to discharge his feelings by acts of charity. If he were to do so, no-one — no, not even I — would begrudge him the smug self-satisfaction he displays in this op-ed.

There is, however, no virtue in a government official spending your money and mine unless for some reason demonstrably connected to our national interest. AIDS relief in Africa is not so connected, not in any way visible to me.

The subsidizing of expensive medications (the biggest part of our AIDS-relief effort, though not all of it) in fact has long-term consequences more likely to be negative than positive. The high incidence of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by customary practices there. What is needed is for people to change those customary practices. Instead, at a cost of billions to the U.S. taxpayer, we have made it possible for Africans to continue in their unhealthy, disease-spreading habits.

Perhaps the future of sub-Saharan Africa would be brighter if the people of that place changed some of their customs; but now, thanks to us, they don’t have to. (A similar point can be made about domestic AIDS-relief funding, currently around $20 billion a year.)

A couple of things:

  • If you have never read John Derbyshire before, be assured that this is very typical.  He represents his own branch of Conservatism and is even a bad fit for The National Review.  If you click the link, note that the commenters can barely stand him.
  • Derb’s branch of Conservatism is not Neo, or Paleo [he is an Atheist], or Libertarian.  No, I have come to appreciate it as Shockleyian, after Bill Shockley, the Nobel Laureate in Physics who became an infamous eugenics proponent.  Derb, like Shockley, is thoroughly grounded in science and appeals to statistics and pure reason for his opinions.  Human foibles and needs really don’t figure much in his universe.  This is sort of how Shockley worked, and they seem to me to be peas in a pod.  Their being of English extraction makes this almost quizzical. [Derb is a better family man than Shockley was, though.]
  • Derb is no dummy and has written what is, in my experience, the best layman’s intro to the Riemann Hypothesis.

That all said for Derb, he is dead wrong about a lot of things here.  Not in his observation that it is smug to be able to claim a mantle of goodness for spending other peoples’ money on a cause.  He is right in a way.   But his line that “[t]he high incidence of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by customary practices there.”  No, there are also those born with the disease, or raped, or having caught it through no fault of there own.  It is a real humanitarian issue, one in which the USA has a serious interest – and the unique ability – to make an impact.

And the impact was made, as W lays out.  So what if he is being smug and all magnanimous?  It was the right thing to do.  Derb is witty and all, but he really does live on Planet Shockley a bit too much sometimes.

The Meanie of Hanukkah

Howard Jacobson, whose terrific, Booker-prize-winning novel I just reviewed, has a great article up in the NY Times about Hanukkah, and why it sort of sucks:

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Hanukkah doesn’t draw on events described in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Maccabees, from which the story comes, is in the Apocrypha, the non-canonical, more esoteric books of sacred scripture. There’s a reason it never made it out of there: I won’t say it’s spurious, but it doesn’t quite feel authentic.

Isn’t there something a touch suspicious, for example, about our defeating the Syrian-Greek army? It lacks equivocation. Escaping from bondage in Egypt by dint of magic and smart talk is comprehensible: Exodus played to our strengths. Similarly, Esther — who had married out of the faith, remember — turning the tables on Haman. In our best stories, we lose a little to gain a little. We use our heads. Trouncing the Syrian-Greeks sounds worryingly like wish fulfillment, and the story of the oil that should have run out after one day actually lasting eight feels too much like parable.

I find myself every year explaining to Christian friends that Hanukkah is not really a major holiday in which I take days off from work. It is really a minor one. The reason it finds so much resonance in American culture is so that little Jewish boys and girls do not feel left out of the whole Xmas, gift-giving thing. So the quintessentially American Buy Gifts For Your Loved Ones Or Else The Economy Will Go Down The Tubes now includes Hanukkah. Hooray.

But in terms of religious value, it is way less important than Passover, The High Holy Days, Shavuos [i.e., Festival of Weeks], Sukkos [i.e., Tabernacles], and the Sabbath. For all but our Sabbath [which BTW is the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar], we say Yizkor [Remembrance of the Dead] and miss work or school. Hanukkah is more like Purim or Tu B’Shvat on the Scale of Importance. Sure, we have some fun, but….meh.

Still, there is an upside, an important one, to the exaggerated importance of this minor holiday. The kids really do like Hanukkah. OK, they like it because they get bribed. Whatever. They manage to sit still and listen to some accounts of their traditions and lessons on how it all fits into who they are. Believe me, I’ll take it.

On Wikileaks

There is such a massive amount to go through and I won’t have time to do it for a while. In the meantime, from what I have seen so far, this piece by James Rubin seems to resonate:

The hard left, so quick to demand that America accept other countries’ political systems, now seems blind to the fact that other governments want to have the right to say one thing in public and a different thing in private. By respecting that difference, American diplomats are doing their job. Surely the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, would prefer for Arab leaders to be as honest and open and transparent as we are in our country. Until such democratic values come to the Arab world, however, we have to work with what we’ve got. U.S. diplomacy has been damaged, not destroyed; it will recover after a time. But for now, Wikileaks is making diplomacy’s task a whole lot harder.

Some of the findings are, while not surprising, downright radical: Arab worry over an Iran nuke is even more prominent than Israeli worry. Good to see that. Further, I agree that the Americans involved in funneling these documents to Assange should be arrested for exposing state secrets and convicted like a spy of years past.

More on “Educated Jews” for Palin

Sorry to keep beating on this, but I have to admit, this one drives me to distraction. Here’s Carl In Jerusalem on his hyperactive blog Israel Matsav in response to the [deservingly] nasty comments in The Jewish Week about that idiotic JewsforSarah thingamabob:

Let’s be blunt: Any Jew to whom Israel matters more than abortion rights and gay marriage would be intellectually dishonest if they supported Barack Obama over Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee or just about any other conservative candidate for the Presidency (with the exception of Ron Paul – I’d stay run away from home if the choice was Ron Paul or Barack Obama).

These people may be Jewish and they may be intellectual but they’re not Jewish intellectuals because they don’t give primacy to Jewish concerns. They should drop ‘Jewish’ from their titles.

This, I have to admit, is a bit nuanced and deserves a similar reply. It is nuanced because he is not advocating specifically for Palin, but for someone who holds Palin’s idea of Zionism and what CIJ deems is good for The Jews.

First of all, CIJ, who is an American-born Orthodox Jew who made Aliyah and now lives in Jerusalem, sees things explicitly in terms of What Is Good For Israel = What Is Good For America. This is what I will denote as the Axiom of CIJ. Further, What Is Good For Israel = What Is Good For Israel Right Now, meaning that CIJ takes the view that all the settlements should be kept, forever. Further, Arab Muslim subjects of Israel in the West Bank are not Israel’s problem, but rather are Jordanian citizens and should go back there. Further, these Arab Muslims are solely interested in destroying Israel rather than taking the opportunity to build their own state.

CIJ will not stand for any American politician who deviates from these lines. And, clearly, Barack Obama is The Enemy.

In CIJ’s defense, he is not unlike many Israeli citizens. One of Obama’s failings has been to properly engage Israeli citizens as President. Not necessarily to go there, but at least to make his intentions better understood. Thus, the Fox News Narrative has defined him there. As Obama tends to take the long view of things and is trying to succeed where others have failed miserably, he is going to ruffle feathers. Thus, the speech in Cairo and the subsequent [and unfair] view that he is on Islam’s Side.

CIJ advocates very strongly from an Israeli point of view. And this is fine. I actually quite enjoy his blog and am amazed at his output, as he carries quite valuable news from around Israel which even now can be difficult to get over here.

That said, CIJ is no longer in America and clearly does not have the best interests of the USA at heart. That is, the Axiom of CIJ is false. Israel and America have interests which sometimes do not align. And these interests are mostly more complicated than the few spying affairs or military accidents which have colored the Special relationship. So, consider again the musings of CIJ:

Any Jew to whom Israel matters more than abortion rights and gay marriage…

OK, that’s enough. CIJ has clear right-wing views on social issues and that’s fine. But what exactly does this blurb mean? Israel means different things to different American Jews, but even so, let’s assume that I am a typical American Jew [sure, why not?]. I am an unapologetic Zionist right now, have been since I understood the concept. But is this The Most Important Issue In America for me? For me, the most important thing is that the USA remains a place where you can be who you want to be and say what you want to say. I want this to be a place where I can be a Jew and a Zionist and publish a blog saying so. I also want this to be a place where I can be a Jew and an anti-Zionist and scream it to the heavens. In both cases, so long as I do not interfere with the rights of anyone else to do similar things.

So what does this have to do with Israel? Pretty close to nothing, which is my point. But what I hope for the USA is a pretty fuzzy wuzzy vision thing and requires attention to certain issues. For example, I believe that this country has some serious defects whilst gays cannot marry or openly serve in the armed forces.  So, as CIJ puts it rather unfairly, this means that, yeah, gay marriage is more important to me than propping up a bunch of Jewish outlaws who would in any case hate my guts if I lived near them.  [Read this devastating article from Jeffrey Goldberg back in 2004 to understand why.]

But what of Israel’s survival and Iran policy and the such?  Of course it is important to me!  But I also pray for avoidance of war, as our two previous adventures in The East have been foolhardy and ultimately pointless.  I cannot follow this line of “Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran.”  The short and long-term damage to world Jewry will be incalculable, something else CIJ tends to ignore.

I want Israel to be there, free and Jewish.  But America is my home and that of my children and family.  I have to vote in its interests and when they clash with those of Israel, then America comes first.

The politicians that CIJ supports – the “Pro-Israel” ones – have a fantastic sense of what is Good For America.  Their policy toward Israel which CIJ just loves is in fact Good For Neither.  [As for Ron Paul, while he has guts, I distrust him because of his antisemitic and bigoted associations.]  I hate to inform CIJ, but Barack Obama still, as much as he is disliked, has the best long term view for both the USA and Israel.

I doubt CIJ will ever see eye-to-eye with me, but he must understand that American Jews are going to vote for whom they view as best for America.  And yes, those that do not do as they told realize that they will not always make CIJ happy.