The pale, ghastly silver lining to a second President Clinton

In a commentary for Mercatornet I argue that if Hillary Clinton wins the election she may be so bad she’ll actually have a beneficial purgative effect on American politics by forcing voters to reexamine themselves.


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Why history matters… and how

Here’s a wonderful talk by historian David McCullough from 2003, just sent to me by Nick Zahn. I strongly recommend it for such insights as “When the world is storm-driven and the bad that happens and the worse that threatens are so urgent as to shut out everything else from view, then we need to know all the strong fortresses of the spirit which men have built through the ages.” Now that’s history as it should be done. And as we need it in these characteristically troubled times.

McCullough draws together all kinds of things in this talk including the famous 1819 painting Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull which has been on display in the U.S. Capitol since 1826. It’s not an accurate depiction of an actual historical event, yet somehow it embodies the meaning of the Declaration in a way that continues to compel and attract attention almost 200 years later.

McCullough also describes George Washington’s fascination with architecture and interior design, expressed particularly in his renovation of his Mount Vernon home in the midst of the pressing public concerns that led to the Revolutionary War. “He cared about every detail — wall paper, paint color, hardware, ceiling ornaments — and hated to be away from the project even for a day.”

Which makes this a good moment to remind people of Brigitte’s new C2C Journal piece The Political Power of Art. Such matters are not only a fitting concern for conservatives, they are an indispensable one, because as McCullough says, “it is in their [the American Founders’] ideas about happiness, I believe, that we come close to the heart of their being, and to their large view of the possibilities in their Glorious Cause.”

Their ideas about happiness were not narrow and cramped. But nor were these men without flaws. McCullough’s talk is the 2003 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, a series created by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1972 and described by the NEH as “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” And of course McCullough is not blind to the various Founders’ failings including that Jefferson was “evasive, at times duplicitous” and like many others a “stunning” hypocrite in championing liberty while holding slaves.

These men were human, all too human. As are we. History is our story. For as McCullough also wisely notes, “One might also say that history is not about the past. If you think about it, no one ever lived in the past. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, and their contemporaries didn’t walk about saying, ‘Isn’t this fascinating living in the past! Aren’t we picturesque in our funny clothes!’ They lived in the present. The difference is it was their present, not ours. They were caught up in the living moment exactly as we are, and with no more certainty of how things would turn out than we have.”

I won’t reprint the whole thing here; I hope I have excerpted enough to send you to read it. It is wise and thoughtful and full of fascinating details about these real human beings including Washington’s preoccupation with design of which I confess I was not aware. But I will conclude with one more crucial quotation from it: “Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, has wisely said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.”

This lecture shows how history should be done. And why it matters.


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Bathing suit brouhaha

So there’s this story out of France where the “top court”, the Council of State, has suspended various bans on the burkini, an arguably excessively modest form of swimwear popular among some Muslims. In a characteristic leading paragraph, NBC said “France’s top court on Friday suspended a controversial ban on full-body burkini swimsuits that has sparked heated debate both inside the country and abroad.” And I wonder: Why so much attention to this one?

Now I could write at some length about the way “controversial” is used in the press to mean “thing you should disapprove of”. Or the logic of the ban itself. Or the extraordinary French way of doing things, including that freedom of association is a largely foreign concept as opposed, in the English-speaking world, to a core right that is fast disappearing. (To give another remarkable example, this “top court” of which stories speak, the Conseil d’État, is at once the supreme court for administrative law, that is, for settling disputes about the behaviour of executive agencies, and the legal advisor to the executive branch. In the Anglosphere such an arrangement would be an unthinkable conflict of interest; in France it is seen as commendably efficient in empowering the state to run people’s lives for them.) But for now I want to ask a different question.

Why all this hoo-hah about the French ban, and not a peep about the legal and social restrictions on “immodest” swimwear and indeed clothing generally in much of the Muslim world, including extralegal violence to enforce it? Why are so many people calling the French intolerant on this issue and saying nothing about what goes on elsewhere? Where’s the “heated debate” on bans on infidel attire?

To ask this question is not to suggest that the French ban should not be debated, or that there are not reasonable arguments on both sides. Quite the reverse. And for what it’s worth, as I’ve written elsewhere, I favour considerable freedom of dress provided it isn’t obscene or likely to cause justified public alarm. But I also favour, and indeed regard as inseparable from the former, freedom of association; if I do not like how you are dressed I should be free to shun you personally and, yes, professionally. Especially if you cover your face on the grounds that if I see you, one or both of us will be soiled, which I find deeply offensive. But again, that’s not really the point here.

The point is that we seem to be holding France and the French to a much higher standard than, say, Jordan and Jordanians, let alone Iran and Iranians. For instance, a recent Daily Telegraph Travel/Advice piece said that in Jordan generally, “Women should wear loose fitting clothes, covering the arms, legs and chest area, while T-shirts are best avoided for both sexes. Women’s hair should be dry, as wet hair is said to suggest sexual availability…” What? Are you kidding me?

Obviously I would not want to be judged by that standard. I think we can do better. And the French, for all their foibles and fondness for state direction, generally do better. But for the sake of perspective about such things I also think we should be clear, in going after the French for responding to the menace of radical Islam in their own characteristic way and sometimes getting it wrong, that we are holding them to a higher standard. We might even want to fumble toward an explanation of why.

See, they’re a Western country. And while it’s politically correct to despise Western arrogance, cultural imperialism and so forth, just about everybody knows deep down that… that… that public policy in Western countries is broadly rational and tolerant whereas elsewhere it too often isn’t.

If that’s a “controversial” thing to say, well, I said it anyway.


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Can you kick in?


Hi folks,

With 10 days to go, Brigitte and I are asking for your help to get her “Not Just for Kicks” project across the finish line. I know a lot of you have supported our bigger projects, for which we’re very grateful. And we’ll have another one in the spring that I hope you’ll think is worthwhile. And a number of you are supporting us with monthly donations that are also much appreciated.

So now I’m asking people who enjoy our work but haven’t yet backed it to put something into Brigitte’s project. She’s over 2/3 of the way to her $1,500 target to help her make a book and video about her and our daughter’s journey to the WKC world karate championships in Dublin, Ireland, about the hard work, the sense of achievement and the victories over fatigue and fear. But we still need $400.

Can 80 people kick in $5 each in the next week and a half and make it happen?



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The end of the world news

While politicians are gassing on, here’s the sort of thing that really matters: the Washington Post reports on a superbug resistant to last-resort antibiotics, and liable to share its genes with other more sinister bacteria, that has reached the United States.

People tell me, oh, I wouldn’t want to live in the Middle Ages because they didn’t have antibiotics. Well, we did and we squandered them.

Three cheers for modernity.


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Where’s the compassion?

In today’s Mercatornet Newsletter, Editor Michael Cook cites a noteworthy observation by his colleague Carolyn Moynihan:

A great deal of ink has been spilt over the rather dreary topic of the state of public bathrooms in the United States. Transgenders, it is argued, clearly have a civil right to access the bathroom of their choice. This is an issue which affects, at most 0.3% of the population. For my money, Carolyn Moynihan, our deputy editor, has penned the most sensible contribution to this debate. She asks why Americans are working themselves into a frenzy over bathrooms when nearly 1 in 6 young men between 18 and 34 is either out of work or in jail.

In principle it’s possible, even logical, to be compassionate to everyone. But her observation underlines how selective, and ostentatious, some people’s concern seems to be.


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The Invictus

There he goes again, you may be tempted to say. Our PM posed with the Canadian Invictus Games team and did their pushup-then-lock-one-arm-and-extend-other-hand gesture while issuing a thinly veiled challenge to Prince Harry and President Obama to do the same or something similar for the British and American teams for the upcoming games in Orlando. NBC headlined it “Watch Justin Trudeau’s Macho Challenge to Obama, Prince Harry” and indeed my first thought was “Showing off again, huh?” But on reflection I’m going to praise him instead.

First, the Invictus Games created by Prince Harry “for wounded, injured and sick Service personnel” are an excellent cause. Second, fitness is an excellent cause. Third, and crucially, the two leaders he implicitly challenges are both themselves healthy and physically active. It would be unfair and in bad taste to call out a political leader who through age or misfortune couldn’t do such a thing. But in this case I appreciate his doing the… well, it sure is a clumsy thing to describe.

So I was thinking of dubbing it “the Trudeau” so we can do it at the dojo without spending five minutes naming it. But I decided “the Invictus” was a better name. Because this time I don’t think he was calling attention to himself but to two worthy causes: rehabilitating wounded members of our Armed Forces and those of our allies, and staying fit.

Yes, it’s a challenge, to other leaders and to the rest of us. But it’s a worthy challenge because most of us should be able to do at least one “Invictus”. If Trudeau happens to look good doing it, it’s because he keeps himself in shape. And that’s a good thing.


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Keynote address to the Real Estate Institute of Canada

Next month, I’m delighted to say, I’ll be taking part in the REIC annual meeting and conference in Ottawa. The topic of my address will be “Without Ethics, None of This Works”.

Institutions are vitally important. But even more fundamental is a political and commercial culture that values honesty and shuns and punishes deceit. Without honesty, formal rules mean nothing, in government, in real estate and commerce generally, and in our private lives.

Without ethics, none of this works.


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