The Labor of Living

Founders of company towns ranged from dreamy idealists to fast-buck Freddies.

When Tennessee Ernie Ford gave the full weight of his bass-baritone to “Sixteen Tons” and boomed that he owed his soul to the company store, the phrase evoked images of stooped miners living in tar-paper shacks under what Hardy Green calls the “super-exploitative conditions of life in a coal-mining company town.” But Mr. Green shows, in “The Company Town,” that such communities have also been social experiments, alternative forms of capitalist enterprise that encompassed everything from prophet-blaring to profit-sharing.

Typically in a company town, “one business exerts a Big Brother-like grip over the population,” providing employment, domicile, entertainment and even governance. Founders of such settlements have ranged from dreamy idealists to fast-buck Freddies; the fruits of their labor stretch from Hershey, Pa., to Gary, Ind.

Taking in textile, coal, oil, lumber and appliance-manufacturing towns, Mr. Green’s survey is a useful one, though the early utopian ventures he profiles are far more interesting than his pallid examples from the postwar era. Classic company towns could not withstand automobiles and suburbanization. No one owes his soul to an industrial park or a corporate campus.

Francis Cabot Lowell, eponym of Mr. Green’s first subject, the textile mill town in Massachusetts, had been appalled by an 1811 visit to Manchester, England, which he found air-blackened and overrun with “beggars and thieves.” His mills, he resolved, would improve their workers (as well as his bottom line). So Lowell employed young women drawn from the surrounding farms, who lived in boarding houses run by stern matrons “who made sure the girls were in by 10 p.m.” With libraries, lectures by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and even a literary journal, Lowell had “a lively intellectual and cultural scene.”

Yet there was a trade-off. Once serenaded by birdsong, the mill girls now woke, worked and worried to the peal of factory bells. This was no life for young women who styled themselves “daughters of freemen,” so turnover in Lowell was high. Paternalism along the Merrimack waned once this work force of native milkmaids was replaced by Irish immigrants. The boarding houses were sold off and deteriorated into tenements, and strikes replaced strophes.

The textile industry shifted southward to places such as Kannapolis, N.C., where Charlie Cannon of Cannon Mills ran what one janitor called “a one-man town, but he’s a good man.” Cannon Mills, the “largest manufacturer of towels in the world,” built thousands of “tidy clapboard” houses for its workers in a town whose trash, police and fire departments were all under Cannon’s purview. Mr. Charlie, as he was known, hated the New Deal, though he did not object to state intervention in the form of National Guardsmen busting strikes.

The prince of “The Company Town” is Milton Hershey, the chocolatier who dreamed of a city with “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil.” Hershey, Pa., located far from the candy-craving crowd but surrounded by dairy farms, clean water and “industrious folk,” was informed by the Mennonite values of Milton’s childhood. Milton frowned on drunkenness and immorality on Chocolate Avenue. He despised the uniformity of other planned communities, so his streets, he decided, would exhibit more variety than his candy bars. Hershey provided a zoo, a library, a golf course, free schools, a model orphanage and a “cornucopia of benefits” for workers. “Employees seemed to find contentment in the well-appointed town of Hershey,” writes Mr. Green. He also singles out Maytag (Newton, Iowa), bane of appliance repairmen, and Hormel (Austin, Minn.), bane of gourmets, as companies that, in their heyday, cultivated a sense of community.

The idealistic company towns shared “an initial vision and daily existence articulated and elaborated by a capitalist father figure,” Mr. Green says, but when that figure died so, usually, did the dream. Idealism is seldom heritable. The Indiana steel city named after Elbert H. Gary—the chairman of U.S. Steel when it essentially built the city in the early 1900s—seems no longer modeled on its founder’s “Sunday school principles.” The least nurturing company towns were based on industries that relied on immigrants or the “cracker proletariat,” especially mining. Contra John Denver, West Virginia, at least for miners, was not almost Heaven.

Although Mr. Green ignores Washington, D.C., the company town that never recedes, he shines a harsh light on Oak Ridge, Tenn., created by the feds via “arguably the United States’ most astounding and disruptive exercise of eminent domain.” Thrown up in 1943 as a laboratory for the Manhattan Project and populated by 80,000 newcomers, Oak Ridge was a case of government gone wild, as thousands of Tennesseans—including families who had farmed the land for generations—were booted out by Uncle Sam with two weeks’ notice. Oak Ridge was a monument to statism, with informants, armed guards, “federally financed schools” and cheaply made public housing. Workers ate “mediocre food served in grim cafeterias” and toiled without “any sense of participation in the larger win-the-war effort,” since the Manhattan Project was conducted in the strictest secrecy.

The sootiest coal camp sounds like paradise by contrast. As Mr. Green writes, company towns, whether run by “utopian paternalist or exploitative despot,” were constrained to some degree by the market. Oak Ridge, wholly a creature of the federal government, was beyond any such discipline.

But if Uncle Sam’s company towns were gray and regimented, the company towns overseen by Milton Hershey, Francis Cabot Lowell and even Charlie Cannon were communities enlivened by quirks and passions and idiosyncratic visions. Edens? Hardly. But they had soul, and you can neither buy nor sell that at the company store.

Mr. Kauffman’s books include the recently published “Bye Bye, Miss American Empire” (Chelsea Green).

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703649004575437642465708342.html

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Poem of the week

Pier by Vona Groarke

Filled with vitality and physical exuberance, this week’s bank holiday choice is that rare thing: a happy poem

Pier in Southwold

“Gulp cloud; / fling a jet-trail round your neck like a feather boa … “

This week’s choice, “Pier”, by one of today’s most interesting younger Irish poets, Vona Groarke, seems to be that comparatively rare thing: a happy poem. It centres on the thrill, in the author’s words, of “jumping into the sea from a high fishing pier.”

It might stir your own nostalgia for childhood and teenage derring-do, but if you’re lucky – and wise – you won’t have outgrown such experiences, nor save them only for bank holidays. “Pier” isn’t designed to deliver a message, but it nevertheless says something about the nature of the good and happy life. Our muscles, extensions of our minds, have “a need for joy”. Fascism exploits that fact, as regretted in the Auden sonnet which provides the poem’s epigraph. But the “sport” here has a different goal. It’s private and it’s fun; an act not of conformity but rebellion.

Vona Groarke was born in Edgeworthstown in the Irish Midlands, but, as she says in this too-brief interview, she thinks of the west of Ireland as her home. “Pier”, from her 2009 collection, Spindrift, is set in Spiddal in County Galway. Initially, what’s noticeable is that there’s no direct first-person narrative. This emphasis on active verbs turns out to be an excellent device, recreating how it feels to be fully absorbed in physical activity, the mind, that often unwieldy “organ”, streamlined into unity with the body. The body of the poem – its rhythms and syntax – is not a container, but a sinewy consciousness.

The poem begins with a series of signposts or instructions. The abbreviated style helps focus process and movement. The speaker seems to be doing something she’s done before – remembering, as well as reporting, a familiar sequence as she moves steadily to her goal. Each point of the landscape has its associated physical accompaniment. Past, present and future seem uncannily fused.

The noun “snout” suggests the shape of the land, and maybe the speaker’s orientation: the nose leads when you are following an instinct. It’s a nice, gristly, Germanic word, contrasting with the limitless space evoked by the latinate “America”. The diction is taut and spare: “flip-flop over/ tarmac” economises, possibly, by compressing foot-wear into verb-of-motion; “exchange the weather” wastes no time on chit-chat. Movement and purpose, are all outward-directed, a brisk negotiation with solid facts such as the “gangplank rooted barge”. The pier is seen as a workaday place, without charm or grandeur.

There’s a sense of arrival in line seven, but only a moment’s hesitation, enacted by the caesura, the full-stop, after “up to the ridge”. There’s no trembling on the brink. “And then let fly,” the poem commands. Airborne now, it opens up imaginatively with the idea of “blue nets” (not literal fishing-nets, I think, but impressions of the sky and the light-patterned water below). Altitude and vastness are conveyed by the dizzy, fantastical instructions to “gulp cloud” and “fling a jet-trail around your neck like a feather boa.”

A “you” has entered the poem, and with it a stronger mood of self-determination. No, the poem’s not simply about “fun”. The physical commands hint at a spiritual exercise. When the poet says “Enter the tide as though it were nothing, /really nothing, to do with you” the command is to deny encroaching consciousness. The sea-leaper has to work at her prophylaxis. If you “go with the flow” the fear recedes; the danger itself is reduced.

For the poet, this may also sound a reminder to beware the tense search for epiphany. How often, if you write poetry, or even fiction, do you find yourself ultimately writing up those very aspects of an experience which you didn’t record eagerly in your mental (or actual) notebook? Writers learn to duck in and out of manipulative states of mind – athletes, too, perhaps? But this is not a poem about the virtue of being passive. It’s more about achieving the active-passive balance.

As the narrative develops, so does the willed action. There is an almost violent wrestle with the water, which has to be “slit” and “dragged” open for the jumper to surface and breathe again. “You” need to “kick back”, escape from the tide’s “coiled ropes” and then “Haul yourself up into August”. This is the joyous free-fall in reverse, an ascent that demands deliberate hard work, fighting water and gravity to make the wide sky visible again, and the next jump possible. Yes, of course, there must be another jump! And this time, the speaker will set herself a bigger challenge.

In an understated way (provided we allow that the poet is the protagonist of her own poem) “Pier” seems a feminist work. Exposed in bathing-togs as she “flip-flops” past the fishermen, the woman here is untroubled about body-image. There’s no shrinking from either visibility or danger. Next time, in fact, she’ll claim even more visibility, and take a bigger risk: she’ll dive from the pier head-first, and she’ll shout. While not as blissfully at one with the environment as her project at first suggested, the speaker embraces the growing sense of power and liberation her risk-taking gains her. We might also infer that, where Church and state attempt to control women’s bodies, rebellious leaps and shouts may be fun but are also more significant politically than they may first appear.

“Pier” is reproduced here by kind permission of the author and Gallery Press. Enjoy – but if you’re inspired to jump into the sea from a height, please do it with due care.

Pier by Vona Groarke

Speak to our muscles of a need for joy

                      • W H Auden, “Sonnets from China” (XVII)

Left at the lodge and park, snout to America.

Strip to togs, a shouldered towel, flip-flop over

the tarmac past the gangplanked rooted barge,

two upended rowboats and trawlers biding time.

Nod to a fisherman propped on a bollard,

exchange the weather, climb the final steps

up to the ridge. And then let fly. Push wide,

push up your knees so the blue nets hold you,

wide-open, that extra beat. Gulp cloud;

fling a jet-trail round your neck like a feather boa,

toss every bone and sinew to the plunge.

Enter the tide as if it were nothing,

really nothing, to do with you. Kick back.

Release your ankles from its coiled ropes;

slit water, drag it open, catch your breath.

Haul yourself up into August. Do it over,

raucously. Head first. This time, shout.

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Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/aug/30/poetry

 

Time stands still in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Say what you will about the Arab world, it’s hard to earn its gratitude. President Obama went to Egypt and not Israel. He demanded that Israel cease adding new settlements in the West Bank. He treated Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a chilling disdain. For all of that, though, Obama’s approval rating in Arab countries has sunk. Unlike almost a fifth of Americans, the Arab world clearly knows Obama is no Muslim.

The polls show some startling numbers. When this spring the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked residents of Islamic countries what they thought about Obama, he got good marks when it came to such matters as climate change. But when the question was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the numbers not only declined in Indonesia and Turkey, they nearly went through the floor in the three Arab countries polled. In Jordan, 84 percent disapproved of the way Obama was handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Egypt, the figure was 88 percent and in Lebanon it was 90 percent.

For Obama, the figures must be disheartening. They strongly suggest that his attempt to woo the Arab world, to convince it that America can be an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, has dismally failed. In fact, the extent of this failure is most stark in Lebanon. There, 100 percent of Shiite respondents — in other words, Hezbollah and others — have no faith in Obama and his good intentions. This may be a setback for Obama, but it is paradoxically a success for American values.

What the Arab world seems to appreciate is that America will never agree to what the Arab world most wants — an Islamic state where a Jewish one now exists. This entirely reasonable conclusion is based on what has long been American policy — not what the State Department wanted but what the American people supported. America has always liked the idea of Israel. The Arab world, for totally understandable reasons, has always hated it. Nothing has changed.

A fundamental document in this area — a once-secret CIA analysis from 1947 — was unearthed (to my knowledge) by Thomas W. Lippman and reported in the winter 2007 issue of the Middle East Journal. The CIA strongly argued that the creation of Israel was not in America’s interests and that therefore Washington ought to be opposed. This was no different than what later diplomats and military men (most recently, David Petraeus) have argued and it is without a doubt correct. Supporting Israel hurts America in the Islamic — particularly the Arab — world and, given the crucial importance of Middle Eastern oil, makes no practical sense.

The CIA further argued that the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict would soon widen to become an Israeli-Islamic conflict — another bull’s-eye for what was then an infant intelligence service. That process was already underway, which is why some non-Arabs (Bosnian Muslims, for instance) fought the creation of Israel, and has only intensified as radical Islam, laced with healthy doses of anti-Semitism, has gotten even stronger.

But where the CIA went wrong — and not, alas, for the last time — was in predicting that the Arabs would defeat Israel and that the state would not survive. The CIA was pretty sure of the outcome, what a later CIA figure might have called a “slam dunk.”

What neither the CIA nor, for that matter, the anti-Israel State Department recognized in the late 1940s is that America’s interests are not always measurably pragmatic — metrics, in the jargon of our day. Sometimes, our interests reflect our national ethic, an affinity for other democracies, sympathy for the underdog. These, too, are in America’s interests and they may be modified, but not abandoned, for the sake of mere metrics.

This is why Obama’s overture to the Arab world, clumsily executed, was never going to succeed. America can please some Arab governments — Egypt and Jordan, for instance — but not the Arab people. What they want, and what they have been told repeatedly they deserve, is a return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel and control over all of Jerusalem. These are both out of the question as far as Israel is concerned. It is not willing to give up its capital and, in a relatively short time, its Jewish majority.

This week, Palestinians and Israelis will once again talk peace in Washington. But until both sides, particularly the Arab peoples, give up on what they really want, the clock will remain where it has been. Those Pew polls show that’s around 1947.

Richard Cohen, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/30/AR2010083003775.html

The Paula Abdul Theory of Foreign Policy

Self-esteem does not make for good policy (or singers).

Is it better to be a sucker?

Consider three examples where conventional wisdom tells us, in effect, that it is. Tomorrow, negotiations resume in Washington between Israelis and Palestinians. A fool’s gambit? Not at all, says U.S. envoy George Mitchell, who likes to say that, in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, he had “700 days of failure and one day of success.”

Next is Iran. The Obama administration is fond of explaining that last year’s outreach to the Islamic Republic was a no-lose proposition, since it meant that either diplomacy would succeed in curbing the regime’s nuclear bids, or its failure would expose the regime’s duplicity and obstructionism, thereby facilitating tougher measures.

And then there is the Ground Zero mosque: Among its virtues, say supporters, is that it will advertise American tolerance and strengthen the hand of moderate Muslims in America and abroad.

To all this, one might say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results; that there’s no such thing as a free lunch; and that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But put the clichés aside: The deeper political idea at work here is that moral inputs are the essential ingredients to—and ultimately more important than—pragmatic outputs. Charitably speaking, this means leading by persuasion and example, always going the last mile for peace, giving others (or, “the other”) the benefit of the doubt and so on. The real-world benefits are supposed to flow naturally from there, but if they don’t, so what? Doing right is its own reward.

Uncharitably speaking, this is what might be called the Paula Abdul theory of foreign policy, after the famously forgiving former judge on American Idol. Never mind that you can’t sing, or that you’re letting yourself be played for a sucker: What counts is that you feel good about yourself, presumably because you’re doing something good. Another name for this kind of thinking is moral narcissism.

No wonder there’s something slightly frantic about all the testimonials—more often asserted than demonstrated—to the “moderation” of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the would-be imam of the Ground Zero mosque. In fact, the imam’s record of political and theological pronouncements is mixed, often slippery and sometimes disturbing, as when he urged last year that President Obama endorse the theocratic foundations of Iran’s government.

Paula Abdul

But none of that really matters much to Mr. Rauf’s supporters, not because they are his fellow travellers politically, but because supporting the mosque is an opportunity to flaunt their virtue by the simple means of making a political declaration. Question to mosque supporters: Has your check to Mr. Rauf’s Cordoba Initiative been mailed already? Or would you rather the Saudi government pick up the tab?

The Obama administration’s approach to Iran is another instance of moral narcissism in action. It took a peculiar political conceit to imagine that the Islamic Republic was a misunderstood creature, offended by Bush administration arrogance, that would yield to President Obama’s charm offensive.

Then again, President Obama’s approach wasn’t dictated by a long train of examples of the Islamic Republic rebuffing every diplomatic overture made to it, or by a sober assessment about the drift of its politics in recent years. Nor did the president seem much concerned about the consequences of Iran playing the U.S. for a fool while it again played for time for its nuclear programs.

But, again, none of this really matters, because the real point of the diplomatic outreach wasn’t pragmatic; it was about the administration and its supporters demonstrating that they were the good guys vis-a-vis Iran. I doubt even Glenn Beck needed proof of this.

Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian talks, whose chances of success may be safely predicted at nil. Yesterday, I spoke with Aaron David Miller, the former U.S. Middle East negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center, to ask him what was wrong with the view that it is better to try and fail than not to try at all.

“That’s what Bill Clinton said to us,” he replied. “I was inspired; it’s quintessentially American. But it’s not a substitute for a serious foreign policy on the part of the world’s most consequential power.” The risk, he added, “is that when the small power says no to the great one without cost or consequence, whether that’s Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arabs or the Israelis, we lose street cred. Right now, we are neither feared nor respected nor admired to the extent we need to be consistent with our interests in the region.”

Mr. Miller is a liberal, but he’s also what Irving Kristol would have called a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. Part of that reality is that foreign policy is blood sport not beauty contest, and that those who suppose the latter will be defenseless when they discover it’s the former. Which is all to say, it sucks to be a sucker.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703369704575461283206035848.html

Defining the Afghan Deadline Down

The president’s advisers agree: We’re not leaving next July.

If you are among those who think Barack Obama gives too many speeches, you may not be tuning in this evening when the president takes to the airwaves to speak to the American people about the end of the combat mission in Iraq.

If you do tune in, and you are hoping for some encouragement about the ongoing fight in Afghanistan, you may go away more alarmed than reassured. For when it comes to war speeches, President Obama likes to combine his firm statements of purpose with even firmer statements about heading for the exits. In other words, expect the usual quotient of wince-inducing moments.

Here’s the good news: The Obama policy is better than the Obama rhetoric.

Only three months ago, President Obama told us that Afghanistan today is “no less important than it was in those days after 9/11.” As a candidate who became a Democratic contender largely because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, however, Mr. Obama has used his speeches to shore up his left flank. He knows that the left doesn’t want to hear anything about Afghanistan unless it has to do with deadlines and departure dates.

That’s probably one reason he simply doesn’t talk about the war unless he absolutely has to. If you want an eye-opening sign of administration priorities, go to the White House website and search in “speeches and remarks” for “health care.” You’ll find 400 items since he took office. Now plug in “Afghanistan” and you’ll find just 202.

The rhetorical detachment is provoking second thoughts among many who otherwise support the president’s surge in Afghanistan. Their logic is unassailable. If the president is not fully committed to victory, does it not become absurd, even immoral, to continue to send Americans there to die?

One answer is that his actions may be a better indicator than his words. Notwithstanding his uncertain oratorical trumpet, President Obama’s Afghanistan policy began with more troops. He has escalated the drone strikes against the enemy hiding in neighboring Pakistan. When the McChrystal flap put him in the position of relieving his top general in Afghanistan, he replaced him with an even stronger one: David Petraeus. As if to underscore the point, he put Gen. Jim Mattis—a Marine’s Marine—at Centcom. It’s hard to think of a better team.

It’s true that these good decisions have been undermined by his rhetorical aloofness, as well as by his announcement that we would begin withdrawing troops next July. Indeed, only a few days ago, Gen. James Conway, the Marine commandant, said that the July 2011 date is “probably giving our enemy sustenance.” Though this president is not likely ever to admit that setting this date was a mistake, he and his team have done the next best thing: defined the deadline down.

It’s not only Gen. Petraeus. Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs (“conditions on the ground will determine the slope of that withdrawal”), Vice President Joe Biden (“conditions-based transition to Afghan security leadership”), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (“it’s a conditions-based withdrawal”), and Defense Secretary Bob Gates (“the pace and the number are going to depend on the conditions on the ground”) have all made similar comments walking back the deadline.

The point is that there are withdrawals, and there are withdrawals. Back in 2007, when Gen. Petraeus famously testified before Congress about the progress in Iraq, we forget that the first, post-surge withdrawal of troops—2,200 Marines from Anbar—had already begun. Likewise next July marks only a beginning, and the administration can define that drawdown however it wants.

Gen. Petraeus says we can prevail in Afghanistan. Surely he has earned the chance to try, as well as the trust that he will speak up if he finds himself shortchanged on time or resources. Even Gen. Conway, who was so blunt about how talk of a withdrawal has emboldened the enemy, was quick to add that the Taliban is likely to be extremely disheartened when the date comes and goes and most of our forces are still there.

When it comes to war rhetoric, manifestly Barack Obama is no Winston Churchill. Yet having arrived at the Oval Office, he appears to have discerned a truth that continues to elude other members of his administration: However weary Americans may be of long wars, they don’t like losing them. In the same vein, whether this president goes down as a new FDR or a new LBJ will likely be determined by how the U.S. leaves Afghanistan.

On issue after issue, President Obama stands accused of a huge gap between word and deed. In the long run, this contradiction is not sustainable, especially for a war president. At least for the short term in Afghanistan, however, it’s our best case for hope.

William McGurn, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703369704575461932257722978.html

Social Security Bait and Switch

‘Harry, am I making this up?’ Yes, Mr. President, you are.

Democrats are trying to keep control of Congress by scaring the wig off grandma with a phantom GOP plot against Social Security. That is not news. Social Security scare tactics have been regular campaign themes since FDR. President Obama’s unique contribution is to do this even as he’s begging Republicans to help him reduce the deficit and reform entitlement spending.

***

On the one hand, Mr. Obama has charged his deficit commission with crafting a bipartisan plan to restrain entitlements. “Everything’s on the table. That’s how this thing’s going to work,” he said when he created the commission in February. “We now have to, in a gradual way, reduce spending, particularly on those big ticket items” like Social Security, he later added in Racine, Wisconsin. “That’s going to be our project for the next couple years.”

Yet even as Mr. Obama beseeches Republicans, he and his political allies are playing the Social Security card for all it’s worth in this campaign season. This has all the earmarks of a political bait and switch designed to ambush Republicans if they’re gullible enough to believe his bipartisan pleas.

Mr. Obama personally teed up the campaign theme earlier this month when he celebrated Social Security’s 75th anniversary by claiming that “privatizing Social Security” is “a key part” of the Republican “legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall.” He went on to say that this plan, which does not in fact exist, is “wrong for America” and “I’ll fight with everything I’ve got to stop those who would gamble your Social Security on Wall Street. Because you shouldn’t be worried that a sudden downturn in the stock market will put all you’ve worked so hard for—all you’ve earned—at risk.”

The President’s speechwriters missed an opportunity to invoke boll weevils and Tom Joad, though they did find room for a paean to partisan comity. In an echt-Obama touch, he added that “I’m committed to working with anyone, Democrat or Republican, who wants to strengthen Social Security.”

Democratic House campaign chief Chris Van Hollen did it again last week at the National Press Club, discovering “a plan that would steer, by the way, billions and billions of dollars of American Social Security retirement savings to Wall Street.” Also by the way, this plan would “abolish Medicare in its current form” and “throw seniors to the whims of the uncontrolled costs of the private-insurance market.”

This Obama-Van Hollen line of attack is figuring in races across the country, and union groups are spending heavily to give it a political impact, the facts notwithstanding. Earlier this summer the Strengthen Social Security Coalition magically emerged, its backers a roll-call of the progressive left: the AFL-CIO, SEIU, American Federation of Teachers, MoveOn.org, Campaign for America’s Future, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

In Nevada, Harry Reid & Co. are inundating the airwaves with claims that Republican challenger Sharon Angle favors cutting off Social Security checks. Mr. Obama showed up at a Las Vegas fund-raiser to chime in that “she wants to phase out and privatize Social Security and Medicare. Phase out and privatize them. . . . I’m not making this up. Harry, am I making this up?”

Cognitive dissonance evidently does not afflict this President. Not long after this Socratic dialogue with Harry, at a recent event in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Obama explained that “what we’ve done is we’ve created a fiscal commission of Democrats and Republicans to come up with what would be the best combination to help stabilize Social Security for not just this generation, but the next generation. I’m absolutely convinced it can be done.”

This campaign strategy won’t stop huge Democratic losses in a year when the economy is the dominant issue, but it surely will reinforce Republican fears that the deficit commission is nothing but a political trap. Mr. Obama wants the GOP to support entitlement reforms in exchange for tax increases, but when they do he’ll pocket the revenue and slam the GOP for the entitlement “cuts.”

The irony is that the fiscal condition of Social Security could be substantially improved simply by readjusting its actuarial formulas to slow the growth rate of benefits. But Republicans are unlikely to sign on even to that if they’re going to be demonized for such a modest “cut” anyway, much less endorse a reform like raising the future retirement age. Mr. Obama says he wants to cut a deal, but encouraging Democrats this year to box themselves in against any change will make serious reforms that much harder next year.

***

The President’s bad faith is all the more notable because Social Security is less a GOP reform priority than it should be. Republicans never even brought President Bush’s private account plan to the floor in 2005. To the extent these attacks have any basis in reality, they’re targeting Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan’s “roadmap”—even as Mr. Obama praises him for being serious about the fiscal crisis and knows he’s a member of the deficit commission.

This Social Security ploy perfectly illustrates the Obama political method: Bipolar rhetoric that lurches between partisan distortion and bipartisan entreaties—all the while governing hard to the left with Democrats in Congress running the show.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703369704575461601764263106.html

The World Trade Center Mosque and the Constitution

The plan to erect a mosque of major proportions in what would have been the shadow of the World Trade Center involves not just the indisputable constitutional rights that sanction it, but, providentially, others that may frustrate it.

Mosques have commemoratively been established upon the ruins or in the shells of the sacred buildings of other religions—most notably but not exclusively in Cordoba, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and India. When sited in this fashion they are monuments to victory, and the chief objection to this one is not to its existence but that it would be near the site of atrocities—not just one—closely associated with mosques because they were planned and at times celebrated in them.

Building close to Ground Zero disregards the passions, grief and preferences not only of most of the families of September 11th but, because we are all the families of September 11th, those of the American people as well, even if not the whole of the American people. If the project is to promote moderate Islam, why have its sponsors so relentlessly, without the slightest compromise, insisted upon such a sensitive and inflammatory setting? That is not moderate. It is aggressively militant.

Disregarding pleas to build it at a sufficient remove so as not to be linked to an abomination committed, widely praised, and throughout the world seldom condemned in the name of Islam, the militant proponents of the World Trade Center mosque are guilty of a poorly concealed provocation. They dare Americans to appear anti-Islamic and intolerant or just to roll over.

But the opposition to what they propose is no more anti-Islamic or intolerant than to protest a Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor or Nanjing would be anti-Shinto or even anti-Japanese. How about a statue of Wagner at Auschwitz, a Russian war memorial in the Katyn Forest, or a monument to British and American air power at Dresden? The indecency of such things would be neither camouflaged nor burned away by the freedoms of expression and religion. And that is what the controversy is about, decency and indecency, not the freedom to worship, which no one denies.

Although there is of course no question of reciprocity—no question whatever of a church in Mecca or anything even vaguely like it—constitutionally and if local codes applied without bias allow, there is unquestionably a right to build. Reciprocity or not, we have principles that we value highly and will not abandon. The difficulty is that the principles of equal treatment and freedom of religion have, so to speak, been taken hostage by the provocation. As in many hostage situations, the choice seems to be between injuring what we hold dear or accepting defeat. This, anyway, is how it has played out so far.

The proponents of the mosque know that Americans will not and cannot betray our constitutional liberties. Knowing that we would not rip the foundation from the more than 200 years of our history that it underpins, they may imagine that they have achieved a kind of checkmate.

Their knowledge of the Constitution, however, does not penetrate very far, and perhaps they are not as clever as they think. The Constitution is a marvelous document, and a reasonable interpretation of it means as well that no American can be forced to pour concrete. No American can be forced to deliver materials. No American can be forced to bid on a contract, to run conduit, dig a foundation, or join steel.

And a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution means that the firemen’s, police, and restaurant workers’ unions, among others, and the families of the September 11th dead, and anyone who would protect, sympathize with and honor them, are free to assemble, protest and picket at the site of the mosque that under the Constitution is free to be built.

A reasonable interpretation of the Constitution means that no American can be forced to cross a picket line in violation of conscience or even of mere preference. Who, in all decency, would cross a picket line manned by those whose kin were slaughtered—by the thousands—so terribly nearby? And who in all decency would cross such a line manned by the firemen, police and other emergency personnel who know every day that they may be called upon to give their lives in a second act?

Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, says of those who with heartbreaking bravery went into the towers: “We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting.”

Mr. Mayor, the firemen, the police, the EMTs and the paramedics who rushed into those buildings, many of them knowing that they would die there, did not do so to protect constitutional rights. They went often knowingly to their deaths to protect what the Constitution itself protects: people, flesh and blood, men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. Although you yourself may not know this, they did.

The choice is not between abandoning them or abandoning the Constitution, for although the liberties the Constitution guarantees sometimes put us at a disadvantage even of self-preservation, they also make it possible for 300 million Americans to prevail—reasonably, peacefully, and within the limits of the law—against provocations such as this.

They make it possible to prevent the construction of the mosque at this general location—with no objection whatsoever to, but rather warm encouragement of, its construction elsewhere—not by force or decree but by argument, persuasion, and peaceable assembly. These are rights that the Constitution guarantees as well, and clearly it is one’s constitutional right to oppose the mosque, not to participate in the building of it, and to convince others of the same.

This small and symbolic crisis is not a test of constitutional liberties, for in regard to the question at hand the Constitution allows discretion. It is rather a test of how far America can be pushed, and America is not at all as powerless as it has been portrayed.

That is because the street in front of the mosque that the Constitution says can be built can be filled with people who can effectively protest it because the Constitution says that they are free. Those who do not fear to do so need only go there and stand upon their convictions, their beliefs, their reason, their laws, their history, and what is in their hearts.

Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, is the author of, among other works, “Winter’s Tale” (Harcourt), “A Soldier of the Great War” (Harcourt) and, most recently, “Digital Barbarism” (HarperCollins).

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