Saturday, February 28, 2015

Don’t Doubt ISIS’s Sincerity

By Jonah Goldberg
Saturday, February 28, 2015

Over 20 years ago, when I was briefly living in Czechoslovakia, I visited Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed there. Even so, as Nazi concentration camps go it was pretty nice. That was by design. The Nazis used it as a Potemkin “Jewish settlement” in an effort to persuade the International Red Cross that the Nazis weren’t mistreating the Jews. To that end, they shipped out the malnourished and spruced the place up in advance of the Red Cross’s arrival.

In the grand scheme of things, this was just a small part of the Nazis’ effort to hide the fact that they were liquidating the Jews of Europe. They couldn’t hide their anti-Semitic brutality of course, but even the SS understood that openly murdering millions of innocents amounted to bad press they didn’t need.

In this desire, the Nazis weren’t alone. Stalin tried to keep a lid on the fact that he was murdering millions through starvation in Ukraine, never mind slaughtering unknown numbers of fellow Russians. The effort to keep all of it hush-hush was aided by cadres of useful idiots in the West. And not just useful idiots. Some of the unindicted co-conspirators knew and helped cover it up. Walter Duranty’s lies about the famine in Ukraine earned him a Pulitzer for the New York Times. The Pulitzer board still refuses to revoke the prize. The Khmer Rouge slaughtered up to 3 million of their fellow Cambodians. They buried the bodies and denied the crimes, they didn’t put out press releases. North Korea, right now, is the world’s largest gulag. In the last decade it has murdered hundreds of thousands of its own people through starvation or execution. But they deny this, to the great comfort of those who would have us continue to do nothing about it.

I bring all of this up to illustrate an interesting and dismaying fact about the Islamic State. Unlike every other recent genocidal movement I can think of, they don’t deny the charge. They celebrate it. They tweet it. They produce slick videos, boasting of their role as the proud butchers in the newest abattoir of humanity.

It’s said that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. And in that sense we owe the Islamic State a singular compliment: They are not hypocrites. They are doing what they believe in.

The Challenge of Sincerity

Every now and then I run into someone. They say, “Hey, watch where you’re going!” and that’s the end of that. Other times (at a more reasonable speed), I encounter someone, invariably liberal, often in the mainstream media or working outside of politics, who asks me, “You don’t actually believe that stuff, do you?”

“That stuff” can be pretty much anything I’ve written or said of a conservative nature. The people who ask this question usually either like me, or think I’m smart, or both. And because they like me or think I’m smart, they assume that I must not actually believe what I believe. It invariably makes for an awkward conversation, particularly when it’s a relative. (It might not surprise you to know that the extended Goldberg clan is not exactly a right-wing Hebraic Tong.)

This is just a small example of a pervasive problem: the inability to believe that other people sincerely believe fundamentally different things. This is a human problem before it is an ideological problem. It afflicts people on the left and the right, perhaps not equally but close enough. Some of the sources for this confusion are actually huge advances in human civilization. The idea that we are all equal in the eyes of God is a moral triumph of the Judeo-Christian heritage. That belief often causes people to assume that we’re all fundamentally alike. And we may in fact be born that way, but we do not necessarily stay that way. It’s an understandable mistake given that the secular West is based on the deep-seated dogma of equality before the law (a dogma that rests on that Judeo-Christian heritage, FWIW).

It’s a glorious way of seeing the world in many respects, but it depends on other people seeing the world the same way for it to work. You can walk outside our world in an instant and discover that what you thought was reality was in fact a social construction. One needn’t get on a plane to the Middle East. Just put a hippie with a “Vegetable Rights & Peace” T-shirt in a maximum-security prison’s exercise yard. The last thing he’ll remember is a very large man named Tiny standing over him saying “Here endeth the lesson” as Tiny’s fist heads towards his face. By the way, this experiment works equally well with anarcho-capitalist stockbrokers, Unitarian guidance counselors, and anyone else who operates on overly rosy assumptions about the nature of man in general or Tiny’s sense of humor in particular.

This is why the “Jobs for Jihadists” thing has been so dismaying. It works on the assumption that the Islamic State doesn’t really believe what it believes — it’s just venting its frustrations with a bad job market, political corruption, and the cancellation of Firefly. As I said last week, obviously “root causes” play a role, but so does crop rotation in the 14th century. Eventually you have to take people and their movements as you find them. Now of course, maybe there’s a deeper strategy we’re all missing. Maybe Obama wants to give them all jobs so that he can move this fight into his comfort zone by declaring a global war on “workplace violence.” But I kind of doubt it.

What of Jihadi John?

Western Civilization is the bee’s knees, but it’s a lot more fragile than we realize (a point I will be making more and more in this space as it is in the wheelhouse of my next book). Again, unlike the Nazis, the Communists, and countless other evil movements, the Islamic State doesn’t hide its barbarism and doesn’t deny its horror. It broadcasts them to the world as a recruiting tool. And it works!

Sure, terrifying your enemies with atrocities is a very, very old tactic. But it’s been rare in the civilized world for a while now. And, when combined with the digital revolution and social media, this is uncharted territory.

While beheading Christians and selling little girls into slavery turns off a majority of the world, including a majority of Muslims, it turns on a lot of people all the same. One such person is Mohammed Emwazi, a.k.a. Jihadi John. Now, ever since Mohammed Atta and his band of losers attacked us on 9/11, we’ve been talking about why relatively affluent and educated young men, many born and raised in the West (remember Johnny Taliban?), enlist in radical jihad. There’s lots of interesting things to be said about all that. But what interests me right now is a single, simple point. The appeal of modernity, democracy, and the liberal order isn’t nearly as powerful as we sometimes take for granted. Going by conventional reason and morality, it’s a no-brainer; even the oppressed and impoverished have a better deal in the West than they would with the Islamic State. And yet, the opportunity to slaughter innocent people, destroy priceless artifacts, rape little girls, set dudes on fire, crucify Christians, fight fellow Muslims and/or maybe die horribly in the effort speaks to something deep within them. The claim that these recruits are just criminals looking for an excuse is sand-poundingly stupid. If all they wanted was an excuse for criminality, they don’t need to fly to Syria for that. They can rob people outside their own homes. They want something more, something outside our extended order, something evil.

And what is dismaying to me is that they are honest about it. Normally, evil movements hide their deeds just well enough to give people who want to do nothing an excuse to do nothing. (Vladimir Putin is a master of this school of water-muddying.) The Islamic State, on the other hand, is marketing its evil. And it’s working. They may not use the word “evil,” but that really can’t be the hang-up, can it? I mean, I’m always hearing people say actions speak louder than words. When someone rapes little girls and sets people on fire, and openly brags about it, I don’t need to hear them also admit they know they’re evil. That’s asking too much of even evil people. Indeed, the fact that they don’t think it’s evil is what really puts the new-car shine on their evilness. What matters is that they do evil things and call them “good.”

And while few in the West say we should do nothing (thank goodness for small favors), we still spend a remarkable amount of time talking around the threat and its nature. I don’t think the Islamic State is an existential threat to the U.S. But I do know it wants to be. That alone is good enough reason to kill them all. Since when is posing an existential threat a minimum threshold for killing child-raping barbarian slavers?

What got me thinking about all this is a haunting letter from an Islamic State supporter in response to Graeme Wood’s phenomenal Atlantic essay “What ISIS Really Wants.” Apparently, Wood’s piece is quite popular in the radical Islamist community because it takes the terror group seriously on its own terms.

Note: In this letter the pro–Islamic State guy uses “Muslims” as synonymous with the group’s supporters. He says Wood’s essay is “grounded in realism” and:

    argues that not understanding what is happening is very dangerous, especially if fighting a war, one must fight the war that is real, not the invented one that one wishes to fight. Perhaps ironically, your [writings] . . . are most dangerous to the Muslims (not that it is necessarily meant to be so on your behalf), yet they are celebrated by Muslims who see them as pieces that speak the truth that so many try to deny, but also because [Muslims] know that deep down the idealists of the world will still ignore them.

    What stands out to me that others don’t seem to discuss much, is how the Islamic State, Osama [bin Laden] and others are operating as if they are reading from a script that was written 1,400 years ago. They not only follow these prophecies, but plan ahead based upon them. One would therefore assume that the enemies of Islam would note this and prepare adequately, but [it’s] almost as if they feel that playing along would mean that they believe in the prophecies too, and so they ignore them and go about things their own way. . . .  [The] enemies of the Muslims may be aware of what the Muslims are planning, but it won’t benefit them at all as they prefer to either keep their heads in the sand, or to fight their imaginary war based upon rational freedom-loving democrats vs. irrational evil terrorist madmen. With this in mind, maybe you can understand to some degree one of the reasons why many Muslims will share your piece. It’s not because we don’t understand what it is saying in terms of how to defeat the Muslims, rather it’s because we know that those in charge will ignore it and screw things up anyway (emphasis added).

Hypocrisy, Reconsidered

All that talk about the Islamic State not being hypocrites reminds me I haven’t ranted about hypocrisy in a while. I think hypocrisy is one of the great misunderstood sins of modern life. Since at least the time of Rousseau, hypocrophobia has plagued Western Civilization. For many people, it seems that it is better to be consistently wrong than to be intermittently right.

Advice columns overflow like a backed-up gas-station toilet with letters from parents fretting over the fact that they feel like hypocrites for telling their kids not to do drugs, since they themselves experimented with drugs when they were kids. The asininity of this has always amazed me. A huge part of being a parent involves applying the lessons you learned from your own life in an effort to make your child’s lot in life a little easier or more fruitful. The notion that I should tell my kid to do more of her homework on the bus ride to school — like I did — or to start going to bars in high school — like I did — or to do any of the other dubious things I did just to avoid my own internal psychological conflict isn’t just objectively absurd but disgustingly selfish. This shouldn’t be a newsflash to any halfway-decent human: Being a parent isn’t about you.

Obviously, hypocrisy is often a bad thing, but what stings in the sting of hypocrisy is the pointy end of a principle poking you in the ass. What I object to is the morally lazy and intellectually cowardly (or maybe it’s morally cowardly and intellectually lazy?) way people respond to this fact.

The capacity to feel bad about our hypocrisy is literally one of the things that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. What makes us human is our capacity to create or identify ideals. They can be man-made ideals or divinely revealed ones, I don’t really care. But I do know that wolverines have no principles and are therefore incapable of being hypocrites. Animals only have instincts. Humans are animals too, but the capacity to hold our instincts at bay, or to channel them toward productive ends, is what separates us from other animals and forms the bedrock of civilization.

Given that we are all made from the crooked timber of humanity, the only guaranteed way to avoid hypocrisy is to abandon one’s principles or to make one’s sins into principles themselves. A glutton who orders the left side of the menu at Arby’s isn’t a better person if he exhorts his neighbor to pig out like him — but he would be less of a hypocrite. There will always be whorish men and women, and the world is surely better at the margins now that we no longer paint scarlet A’s on those who society thinks fit that description. But that doesn’t suggest the world would be a better place if moral slatterns persuaded everybody else to act like porn stars. “When Hugh Hefner moved out of the Playboy mansion the better to bring up his two young sons,” Ramesh wrote almost 20 years ago, “nobody accused him of not living down to his principles.”

I don’t want more hypocrisy in the world, but I’d rather have more of it than have none at all.

Bring Back the Bush Doctrine—with One Addition

By Andrew C. McCarthy
Saturday, February 28, 2015

What should be our strategy against ISIS? We ask the question without ever considering Iran.

What concessions about centrifuges and spent fuel should we demand to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power? We ask the question never linking the mullahs’ weapons ambitions with its sponsorship of the global jihad . . . the only reason we dread a nuclear Iran.

What should be the national-defense strategy of the United States against radical Islam, the most immediate and thoroughgoing security and cultural threat we face today?

I had the good fortune to be asked to participate in a CPAC panel Friday on defending America against rogue states. With 2016 hopefuls crowding the halls, it got me to thinking: What should we hope to hear from Republicans who want to be the party’s standard-bearer?

It is often said that we lack a strategy for defeating our enemies. Actually, we have had a strategy for 14 years, ever since the fleeting moment of clarity right after the 9/11 attacks.

That strategy is called the Bush Doctrine, and it remains the only one that has any chance of working . . . at least if we add a small but crucial addendum — one that should have been obvious enough back in 2001, and that hard lessons of history have now made inescapable.

The Bush Doctrine has become the source of copious rebuke. On the left, that’s because of that four-letter word (hint: It’s not “Doctrine”). On the right, there have been plenty of catcalls, too. The reaction, however, has been against what the Bush Doctrine evolved into, not against the Bush Doctrine as it was first announced.

The unadorned Bush Doctrine had two straightforward parts. First, because violent jihadists launch attacks against the United States when they have safe havens from which to plot and train, we must hunt down those terrorists wherever on earth they operate. Second, the nations of the world must be put to a choice: You are with us or you are with the terrorists. Period — no middle ground. If you are with the terrorists, you will be regarded, as they are regarded, as an enemy of the United States.

Before we get to that aforementioned addendum, it is important to remember why the Bush Doctrine was so necessary. For the nine years before it, we were living with the Clinton Doctrine.

That is the doctrine President Obama came to office promising to move us back to — and has he ever. It is the doctrine under which the enemy strikes us with bombs and weaponized jumbo jets, and we respond with subpoenas and indictments. It is the doctrine under which our enemies say, “allahu akbar! Death to America!” and we respond, “Gee, you know America has been arrogant. We can see why you’re so upset.”

The Clinton Doctrine — the one the Democrats will be running on in 2016, perhaps with its namesake leading the way — is the one that gave us a series of ever more audacious attacks through the 1990s: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; a plot to bomb New York City landmarks such as the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels; a plot to blow American airliners out of the sky over the Pacific; the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, in which Iran and al-Qaeda teamed up to kill 19 American airmen; the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed over 200 innocent people; detonating a bomb next to our destroyer, the U.S.S. Cole, in October 2000, killing 17 members of the U.S. Navy; and finally, the 9/11 atrocities, killing nearly 3,000 of our citizens.

And what has gradually restoring the Clinton Doctrine gotten us? While President Obama pleads for a deal that will inevitably make Iran a nuclear power, the mullahs continue to back anti-American terrorists and conduct military exercises in which they practice blowing up American ships. The Iraq so many Americans gave their lives for is now an extension of Iran. Afghanistan is being returned to the Taliban, which the president empowers by releasing its commanders. Libya is now a failed state where jihadists murder Americans with impunity and frolic in the former American embassy. Al-Qaeda is expanding through northern Africa, now a bigger, more potent threat than it was on the eve of 9/11. And yet it may pale compared with its breakaway faction, the Islamic State, which now controls more territory than Great Britain, as it decapitates, incinerates, and rapes its way to a global caliphate.

But Obama tells us there’s good news: Yemen is a success . . . or at least it was until it was recently overrun by an Iran-backed militia — oops. Well, we have indicted exactly one of the scores of terrorists who attacked our embassy at Benghazi. He got his Miranda warnings, of course, and he’ll be getting his civilian trial any month now. Hopefully, we’ll do better than Obama’s civilian trial of Ahmed Ghailani, the bomber of our embassies who was acquitted on 284 out of 285 counts.

Is it any wonder we’re losing?

Largely, it is because we’re worried about the wrong things — like whether we can sweep the enemy off its feet with enough Islamophilic, blame-America-first rhetoric. In reality, our enemies could not care less whether we — the infidel West — think their literalist, scripturally based belief system is a “perversion” of Islam. Radical Islam hears only one message from America: strength or weakness. The Clinton Doctrine is weakness cubed.

The Bush Doctrine, by contrast, is the path to victory — if we get that one addendum right.

It is this: Our enemies are not driven by American foreign policy, our friendship with Israel, our detention of jihadists at Gitmo, or the supposed “arrogance” our current president likes to apologize for. Those are all pretexts for aggression.

Our enemies are driven by an ideology, Islamic supremacism, that is rooted in a classical interpretation of sharia — Islamic law. Islamic supremacism is rabidly anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Semitic. It rejects the fundamental premise of our liberty: that people are free to govern themselves, rather than be ruled by a totalitarian legal code that suffocates liberty and brutally discriminates against non-Muslims and apostates. And sharia is an actual war on women — denying them equal rights under the law, subjecting them to unthinkable abuse, and reducing them in many ways to chattel.

In the “you are with us or you are with the terrorists” view of national security, any Muslim nation, organization, or individual that adheres to Islamic supremacism is on the wrong side. Failing to come to terms with that brute fact is where the Bush Doctrine went awry.

Sharia and Western democracy cannot coexist. They are antithetical to each other. So insists Sheikh Yussuf Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood jurist who is the world’s most influential Islamic scholar. It may be the only thing we should agree with him about.

The Bush Doctrine was allowed to evolve from an American national-security strategy to an illusion that our national security would be strengthened by promoting a chimera — sharia democracy. We put the lives of our best young men and women in harm’s way in the service of a dubious experiment: that we could build stable Islamic democracies that would be reliable American allies against jihadist terror.

Perhaps the worst thing about this experiment is not its inevitable failure. It is the sapping of America’s will that it has caused. Defeating our jihadist enemies is going to require a will to win, because the enemy’s will is strong — the jihadists truly believe Allah has already helped them vanquish the Soviet empire, and that we are next.

The American people vigorously support military operations that are essential to our defense. They support a vigorous war to defeat violent jihadists and their support networks. They understand that we cannot cede our enemies safe havens and nuclear weapons.

They do not support the notion that promoting our national security obliges us to move into hostile Islamic countries for a decade or three to civilize them. That’s not our job. Worse, when Americans become convinced that Washington — ever more remote from the public — thinks it is our job, they will not support military action, even action that is vital to protecting our nation. They will not trust the government to defeat our enemies without becoming entangled in Islam’s endless internal strife.

Understanding Islamic supremacism so we can distinguish allies from those hostile to us will restore the Bush Doctrine. And let’s not be cowed by the critics: Nothing I’ve said means endless war, or that we have to invade or occupy every country. But it does mean we should be using all our assets — not just military but intelligence, law-enforcement, financial, and diplomatic — to undermine regimes that support sharia supremacism. Cutting off that jihadist life-line is the path to victory — just as maintaining a strong military that is allowed to show it means business, that is not hamstrung by irresponsible rules of engagement, is the best way to ensure we won’t have to use it too often.

In Iran, where sharia is the law of the land, they persecute non-Muslims and apostates just like ISIS does. In Saudi Arabia, where sharia is the law of the land, they behead their prisoners just like ISIS does.

A candidate who cannot tell liberty’s friends from liberty’s enemies is not fit to be commander-in-chief.

Why Netanyahu’s Speech Matters

By Matthew Continetti
Saturday, February 28, 2015

The emerging nuclear deal with Iran is indefensible. The White House knows it. That is why President Obama does not want to subject an agreement to congressional approval, why critics of the deal are dismissed as warmongers, and why the president, his secretary of state, and his national-security adviser have spent several weeks demonizing the prime minister of Israel for having the temerity to accept an invitation by the U.S. Congress to deliver a speech on a subject of existential import for his small country. These tactics distract public attention. They turn a subject of enormous significance to American foreign policy into a petty personal drama. They prevent us from discussing what America is about to give away.

And America is about to give away a lot. This week the AP reported on what an agreement with Iran might look like: sanctions relief in exchange for promises to slow down Iranian centrifuges for ten years. At which point the Iranians could manufacture a bomb — assuming they hadn’t produced one in secret. Iran would get international legitimacy, assurance that military intervention was not an option, and no limitations on its ICBM programs, its support for international terrorism, its enrichment of plutonium, its widespread human-rights violations, and its campaign to subvert or co-opt Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. Then it can announce itself as the first Shia nuclear power.

And America? Liberals would flatter themselves for avoiding a war. Obama wouldn’t have to worry about the Iranians testing a nuke for the duration of his presidency. And a deal would be a step toward the rapprochement with Iran that he has sought throughout his years in office. The EU representative to the talks, for example, says a nuclear agreement “could open the way for a normal diplomatic relation” between Iran and the West, and could present “the opportunity for shaping a different regional framework in the Middle East.” A regional framework, let it be said, that would leave American interests at risk, Israel one bomb away from a second Holocaust, nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, and Islamic theocrats in charge of a large part of a strategic and volatile region.

I feel safer already.

Close to a decade of negotiations meant to end the Iranian nuclear program is about to culminate in the legitimization of that program and an enriched — in both senses of the word — empowered, and no less hostile Iran. Our government and the media that so often resemble its propaganda organ will attempt to characterize this colossal failure of nerve as a personal victory for a lame-duck president and a milestone in international relations. It is important that they lose this battle, that the Iran deal is revealed to the world for the capitulation that it is, that the dangers of subletting the Middle East to the Koranic scholars of Qom and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are given expression, not only for substantive reasons of policy and security but also because the way in which the advocates of d├ętente have behaved has been reprehensible.

What the opponents of a bad deal with Iran have witnessed over the last few months is the transference of Obama’s domestic political strategies to the international stage. A senior administration official is on record likening an Iranian nuclear agreement to Obamacare, and the comparison makes sense not only in the relative importance of the two policies to this president, not only because both policies are terrible and carry within them unforeseen consequences that will not be manifest for years, but also because of the way opponents of both policies are treated by the White House. If they are not ignored or dismissed, their motives are impugned. They are attacked personally, bullied, made examples of.

The alternative to a bad deal is not a better deal or tougher sanctions, Obama says, but war: “Congress should be aware that if this diplomatic solution fails, then the risks and likelihood that this ends up being at some point a military confrontation is heightened, and Congress will have to own that as well, and that will have to be debated by the American people.” The opponents of a nuclear Iran aren’t sincere, Obama explained to Senate Democrats last month, but are merely acting at the behest of their (Jewish) donors. Congress has no role to play in either approving of or enforcing a deal with Iran, John Kerry says, because any attempt to strengthen America’s hand or verify that Iran is in compliance would be like “throwing a grenade” into the meeting room.

As for Netanyahu, he is called “chickens***” by anonymous sources, the national security adviser says his decision to address Congress is “destructive” of the U.S.–Israel alliance, Kerry tells Congress it shouldn’t listen to Bibi because he voiced wan support for regime change in Iraq (a war that Kerry voted to authorize), the congressional liaison rallies the Congressional Black Caucus to boycott the speech, and the administration leaks to the AP its strategy “to undercut” his speech and “blunt his message that a potential nuclear deal with Iran is bad for Israel and the world.” The strategy includes media appearances and the threat of a “pointed snub” of AIPAC, which has done everything it can over the last several years to ignore or acquiesce to President Obama’s anti-Israel foreign policy.

This sort of contempt for one’s opponents has become so commonplace in American politics since the 2010 “bipartisan health-care summit,” where the president snidely told John McCain “the election’s over,” that I suppose it was only a matter of time before it influenced the administration’s relationships with foreign powers. But it says something about this president that the only country in the world that he treats seriously as an opponent is the state of Israel — that he holds the Israeli government to a standard he applies to no other government, that he is openly hostile to the elected prime minister of Israel and not so secretly hopes for the prime minister to be replaced in the upcoming election, and that he threatens reprisal against a domestic interest group with predominantly Jewish leadership and membership for a disagreement he has with a foreign prime minister — as though Jews were interchangeable when they are not, as in the case of the “deli” where they were “randomly” gunned down, invisible.

Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday matters precisely because it is a rebuke to the Obama mode of politics, to which America has become numb. Netanyahu’s refusal to back down in the face of political and media pressure, his insistence in making his case directly and emphatically, is as much a statement as any of the technical and strategic and moral claims he will make in his speech. And by going to war against Bibi, the White House has inadvertently raised the stature of his address from a diplomatic courtesy to a global event.

Netanyahu’s commitment to warning America about a nuclear Iran has given him the opportunity to explain just how devoid of merit the prospective deal is. His speech is proof that Congress is a co-equal branch of government where substantive argument can triumph over vicious personal attacks and executive overreach and utopian aspirations. Of course Barack Obama can’t stand it.

Trigonometry Is Racist!

By Kevin D. Williamson
Friday, February 27, 2015

Earlier today on Sirius XM Urban View, an African-American talk station, the guest was Daryl Scott, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The conversation turned to STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — education, and the origins of the ongoing push to encourage institutions and students to focus on those subjects.

Can you guess what happened?

In 1983, the guest explained, a commission empaneled by the secretary of education issued a report titled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform.” In a memorable phrase, it warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity” in the nation’s public schools. That phrase, he said, was a “euphemism.” A euphemism for what? “For us — for African Americans.”

There is nothing that happens in these United States that will not be impugned as secret racism. Nothing.

“A Nation at Risk” is in fact full of memorable phrases — “unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament” is redolent of the Cold War concerns of the day — any of which might be read as racist code by a 21st-century progressive, because a 21st-century progressive can read the ingredients on a pack of Bazooka bubble gum as racist code. There is, unhappily, an entire cottage industry (is “cottage industry” racist? or just another example of serf privilege?) dedicated to that sort of enterprise.

If you should find yourself with some time to kill, by all means scrutinize “A Nation at Risk” for a hidden racial agenda. The most I can find is periodic acknowledgement that educational-achievement indicators in “minority” communities generally lag those in “majority” communities (such was the circumspect terminology of the times), which surely was apparent to members of the commission such as Emeral A. Crosby, who was at the time the principal of Northern High School in Detroit. The report’s frequent focus is on predictions that technology (“computers and computer-controlled equipment”) will come to play a greater role in economic affairs, notably in “health care, medical science, energy production, food processing, construction, and the building, repair, and maintenance of sophisticated scientific, educational, military, and industrial equipment.” As government reports go, its predictions were reasonably prescient, though by 1983 most of those developments were readily apparent to those paying attention. “Learning is the indispensable investment required for success in the ‘information age’ we are entering,” it insists.

Fair enough.

Educational reforms filtered through the machinery of politics are generally defective, for two reasons. The first is that two different things are meant by “education.” We have education in the true, Arnoldian sense of the word, the improvement of one’s mind (and possibly even one’s soul) through the study of “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” which is the goal of a classical liberal education; we also have the Bismarckian sense of education, the conception that commands the attentions of politicians, which understands the schools as factories producing the human widgets that the state requires for its own purposes, economic competitiveness and military preparedness at the top of the list. (A deep problem with state-run systems of education is that they almost always mistake their customers for their products.)

This leads to interest-group jockeying within the ranks of educators, with those whose personal interests are attached to the humanities feeling forever shortchanged. (That is one of the reasons for opposition to the current STEM push.) The second reason that political education reforms fail is that whether we are talking about education in the Arnoldian sense or the Bismarckian sense, political institutions are rarely very good at knowing what is needed in even the most general sense, which means knowing what is needed in any individual case — and real education happens only at the individual level — is an effective impossibility. Even when government focuses on the purely economic, factory model of education, it really has no way of knowing what is needed in the economy at any given moment, much less what is going to be needed 20 years hence, and still less how any given eight-year-old might fit into that equation.

“If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets,” the report says, “we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all — old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority.” A fine sentiment, but unconvincing as a program.

Education is a complicated business, and politics is a blunt instrument. Political management of education requires a great deal of aggregation and simplification, which is one of the reasons why there is so much emphasis on standardization and testing. In government as in any enterprise, managers focus on measuring what can be measured. Standardized tests play an important role in evaluating students and institutions both, and there is no reliably useful replacement for them, but they only tell us so much.

One of the things they do tell us, though, is that our current government-dominated model of education has been a catastrophe for African-American students. They are not the only social catastrophe for African Americans, and the effects of those catastrophes are difficult to disaggregate. But the data are reasonably clear.

Contra the gentleman on the radio, that “rising tide of mediocrity” was not intended in the main as a description of African-American educational outcomes. But it easily could have been — indeed, in many of our government-run school systems, mediocrity would be an improvement. Remedying these situations is difficult because in American life every instance of racial disparity or racial distinction is a miniature political fiefdom occupied by parochial interests with a strong preference for inertia.

That is not going to be improved by the cultural tendency that sees math-and-science education and African-American history as rivals. It matters a great deal what we mean by those things. If by math-and-science education we mean actual math and science (this is, sadly, not always the case), and if by the study of African-American history and culture we mean actually obliging students to sit down and read the works of Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison, then each contributes to a meaningful education. But such concerns often play a secondary role, at best, in our government schools. There is of course a great deal of ideological indoctrination and education-as-group-therapy (these are not always easily distinguishable), and a great deal of simple time-filling, the main purpose of which is to justify ever-swelling employee rosters in the public sector.

All of these are problems inherent to having a system of education that is organized not around the interests of students but around the interests of the employees of the education bureaucracy.

There is, finally, the unspoken matter that seems to me to be at the heart of such concerns as voiced by Scott and others: prestige. Policymakers are not alone in the very high esteem in which they hold the American technological and scientific establishments, and by extension the educational programs associated with them. That is the estimate of much of the general public, too. Is this evidence of latent racism? That is one possible explanation, but the more likely one has been that the achievements of the American technological and educational establishments have been, and continue to be, extraordinary, a source not only of great wealth but also of national pride. The achievements of the racial-grievance establishment ensconced in the schools? So far as I can tell, there aren’t any to speak of.

If you want to know why our educational establishment is so dysfunctional — especially in the matter of reforming the institutions that give such grievous disservice to the poor and the black — you have to understand the attitude that regards calls for an emphasis on science and technology as some sort of subtly racist reflex, and how that line of thinking is rooted in a self-interested resource competition in which specialists in African-American studies, among others, are likely to lose out. “A Nation at Risk” may not have produced an actionable agenda for education reform. But what is being offered as an alternative?