Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Month That Was - May 2019

Sydney M. Williams
30 Bokum Road – Apartment 314
Essex, CT 06426

The Month That Was – May 2019
June 1, 2019

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”
                                                                        Williams Shakespeare (1564-1616)
                                                                        “Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer Day?” 1609

Cultural wars are largely bloodless, but that does not render them ineffective. While not perfect, liberal western societies have done more for mankind than any other system yet devised. They have in common a neo-classical heritage, representative government, natural rights, free market economies, rule of law, an understanding of civics and an appreciation for history. These characteristics (which we in the West take for granted but should not) have lifted millions of people out of poverty and brought freedom to even more. Now, politicians and commentators from both sides see these traits under attack. It is the cause that is disputed, and which has been responsible for the social and political divisiveness here and in Europe.

Those on the right see the threat to liberalism stemming from the growing power and influence of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats, an absence of a universal moral sense and diminishing virtues, universities intolerant of conservative thought, a myopic media, a facile entertainment industry and a tolerance for the intolerant. Those on the left find blame “far-right populists,” “racists” and “white supremacists.” In an article two weeks ago, in the Wall Street Journal, Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and Stanford professor, supported their view: Citing the fact that we have seen “…twelve years of erosion…,” he dated the start of the decline to 2006. However, he laid blame on a “…new wave of populist authoritarians from Hungary to the Philippines,” but ignored the fact that Viktor Orbán was elected prime minister of Hungary in 2010 and that Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines in 2016. While slavering blame indiscriminately on conservatives, he wrote, “…America’s decay is increasingly advanced. President Donald Trump has insulted U.S. allies, befriended Vladimir Putin, excused a grim list of other dictators, embraced nativist politics and movements…” I believe Professor Diamond is wrong.

All societies most be wary of attacks, no matter from which direction they come. But, overlooked in Mr. Diamond’s diatribe is that Eastern Europe, after almost six decades of subjection, first to Nazi and then to Soviet rule, is now, understandably, defending its sovereignty. As well, he disregarded the fact President Obama cozied up to Cuba’s Castro’s and to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, that he bowed to the Saudi king, and paid hundreds of millions of dollars to Iran for a flawed nuclear deal. The pallets of dollars airlifted to Tehran went to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to help fund Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists. Mr. Obama failed to prod China into following trade rules, and never confronted Vladimir Putin on his interference in the Middle East. Also omitted was the role played by the Clintons in expediting the sale of Uranium One to Russia. Mr. Trump has imposed the toughest sanctions on Russia of any recent President; he has confronted China for their theft of technology and for their aggression in the South China Sea. He has told allies in Europe – countries which provide generous welfare payments to their citizens – that they should pay two percent of their GDP for their own defense. And that is an insult? 


Attorney General William Barr has become an anathema to the Left, as he threatens the narrative that Donald Trump is a risk to liberalism, that he is the cause of the divisions that rend our nation. Like students in Winthrop House at Harvard, the Left feels imperiled by the directive issued by President Trump to Mr. Barr, to declassify all documents and files from the CIA, the Justice Department and the National Security Agency that led to the Mueller investigation. Now, Democrats, acting like spoiled Harvard students, seek safety, and hope to find it in the diversionary tactic of bringing articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump. They take their strategy from Fifth Century BC Chinese General Sun Tzu who said the best defense is a good offense. We saw this during the past month, in words and threats from Representatives Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Adam Schiff (D-CA) and others. We saw it in the Bob Mueller interview and in Nancy Pelosi’s dancing through the raindrops, navigating the Scylla of her neurotic, far-left members and the Charybdis of what impeachment would mean in 2020. Mr. Mueller’s report made clear that no investigation was obstructed. Everyone he chose to interview was interviewed and, while Mr. Trump suggested Mr. Mueller be fired, no one acted on it. Yet, he insisted he had not exonerated the President. But as the Wall Street Journal’s Thursday editorial reminded us: “Since when do prosecutors make it their job to pronounce whether someone they investigate is exonerated? Their job is to indict, or not, and if not, then keep quiet.” Innocence is the default position in this country. As a friend, a retired British judge, recently wrote me: “The judicial process in the U.S. is really weird…If there is no evidence, surely he has actually been exonerated.” Vincent Davis Hanson, in a recent essay on this matter, likened Democrats’ relentless pursuit of Mr. Trump to Captain Ahab’s phobic quest for Moby Dick.

Progressives are not paragons of virtue interested in righting wrongs. They want the power that political office brings. They are concerned with what Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz might find, as he looks into the justification used by the Obama Administration for secret surveillance warrants from U.S. FISA Courts, warrants used to spy on the Trump campaign. They know the probe will consider the “dossier” created by Fusion GPS and British former spy Christopher Steele. They are troubled that Mr. Barr hired John Durham, United State Attorney for the District of Connecticut, to investigate origins of the alleged “Trump-Russian collusion” or conspiracy, when no collusion was found by Robert Mueller.  Questions need be answered. Was the dossier, which was paid for by the Clinton campaign and the DNC, Russian misinformation? Why did the FBI use questionable sources to obtain the FISA warrants to spy on Carter Page, a junior member of the Trump campaign? What was the role played by James Comey, John Brennan, James Clapper and even Bob Mueller? Were the Justice Department and the CIA actually spying on the Trump campaign and, if so, who was responsible? Should anyone in the Obama Administration be held accountable? When the door to this dank cellar opens, ill-smelling odors will emerge. A liberal society cannot survive if one side uses government for its own, political purpose? The media appears uninterested in this story, as it does not conform with the tale they have been telling for the past two and a half years. Fashioning a defense is more important than a search for the truth. All of this explains the vicious attacks on the “villainous” Donald Trump, as Nancy Pelosi referred to him. But it is more than that. It is an attack on our form of government – our democratic republic. Democrats never accepted their loss in 2016; they did not accept the findings of Mr. Mueller. They have but one objective: Destroy the Presidency of Donald J. Trump. That end, in their opinion, justifies any means.


The European Parliament is the only EU political organization directly elected by the people. While it does not have much power – most of that resides in the appointed European Commission – it is reflective of sentiment. That said, last Sunday’s European Parliament election showed centrist parties holding a slim majority of the 751 seats. But the vote was really a victory for parties outside the mainstream. It showed dissatisfaction with the status quo. Nationalist parties like Brexit in England, National Rally in France, Alternative for Germany, and League in Italy garnered about twenty-five percent of the vote. Ivan Krastev wrote in the New York Times: “Of the five individual political parties with the biggest representation in the new European Parliament, four are anti-European Union.” As well, far-Left and Green parties added 60 seats, bringing their total to 176, or twenty-three percent. Europe has a problem, and… it is Europe, which has encouraged dependency and become less free. With the background of a 20thCentury bloodbath of two wars and a global depression, it is unsurprising that Europe emerged from the Second World War focused on building social welfare states, with the United States providing much of its defense.  As a consequence, they have inhibited economic growth and lost sight of the virtues of Western culture. They are not living up to their potential. With forty percent more people than the U.S., Europe generates a GDP that is thirty percent less. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Josef Joffe noted that while Russia brags of its neo-imperialism, China develops its Belt and Road Initiative and Donald Trump focuses on “America First,” Europe is underperforming, “rudderless and rent by internal divisions.” As for the influx of Muslim migrants, sanctimonious European progressives accept the conventional wisdom that Islam is a religion of peace, while ignoring the fact that it has become an instrument of war.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who has been a disaster for Britain, announced her intent to resign on June 7. Her Conservative Party finished the EU Parliamentary elections with less than ten percent of the vote – their worst showing in history. Labour did little better, with less than fifteen percent. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was the top vote-getter, with thirty-two percent. The future of Brexit, already delayed, remains in doubt. In India, the world’s largest democracy where over six hundred million people voted, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won re-election by a margin exceeding expectations. President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, won re-election, running against a hardline Muslim opponent – former army general Prabowo Subianto. Scott Morrison, of the center-right Liberal Party, came from behind to win re-election as Prime Minister of Australia. Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People’s Party called for a snap election after the country’s Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, of the Freedom Party, resigned over a secretly-filmed video that showed him promising government contracts to a woman claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch. A new vote will be held in September. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, of the African National Congress, won re-election with an absolute majority, but diminished support. Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government in Israel, leading to a new round of elections in September.

The war of words with Iran intensified. A missile launched by a suspected Iran-backed militia landed within a mile of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Attacks on four Saudi tankers, off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf, were attributed to Iran. A pipeline in Saudi Arabia was attacked. Iran was said to be responsible. Iran maintains a presence in Syria and Yemen and is becoming more involved in Iraq. Their purpose: destabilize the region by weakening the Sunni faction led by Saudi Arabia. The U.S. retaliated. Diplomats in Iraq were withdrawn, and the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike force moved into the Persian Gulf. The White House designated the IRGC a terrorist organization. A game of good-cop, bad-cop was played, with National Security Advisor John Bolton playing the bad cop and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acting as good cop. Sanctions, imposed by the U.S., after withdrawing from the faulty Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by then Secretary of State John Kerry, are hurting their economy. President Trump wants to tighten them further. He wants to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero, by ending all sanction waivers for countries importing Iranian crude. 


Stocks traded lower during the month. The S&P 500 was down 6.6% for the month – the first down month of the year – driven lower by slowing global economic growth, an inverted yield curve and trade wars with China and Mexico. The Michigan Consumer Confidence Index for May came in at 100.0, 2.8 points above April but below the 102.0 estimate. The first revision to first quarter U.S. GDP showed the economy grew at 3.1%, modestly below the 3.2% earlier reported. Bonds rallied, and the Ten-year Note ended the month with a yield twenty-one basis points lower than the Three-month Bill. Gold rallied 1.7 percent, while oil (West Texas Intermediate) fell 11.5 percent. Bitcoin, continuing its rally, rose 16.5% to $8525.55.


In other news, Billionaire Robert Smith, a black technology investor, announced in a graduation speech at Morehouse College that he would pay off all the student loans of graduating seniors, an amount estimated at $40 million. The New York Timeslamented that if only he had paid higher taxes, the government could have done the same thing. Jeff Koon’s “Rabbit,” a stainless-steel copy of a plastic inflatable toy, which is owned by Robert Mnuchin, art dealer and father of the U.S. Treasury Secretary, was sold at auction for $91.1 million – a record for a living artist – proving that a fool and his money are soon parted. The College Board, a non-profit company that owns and administers the SAT, announced they would include a new rating, an “adversity score,” using fifteen subjective factors, leading us further from a merit-based society. President Trump unveiled an immigration plan that would emphasize skills, eliminate the visa lottery and limit family migration to immediate family – spouses and minor children. The government filed a suit against U.S. makers of generic drugs for colluding to raise prices. North Carolina, facing rising healthcare costs, as are most states, voted to end future-retiree healthcare coverage for new workers hired in 2021. The problem is wide-spread. According to yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “…pension funds across the country are, by some estimates, $4 trillion short!” Tiger Woods received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Valerie Plame, former CIA operative and infamous for her claim she was “outed” during George W. Bush’s second term, announced she is running for Congress. Less well known are her anti-Semitic tweets, urging followers to read articles like “America’s Jews are Driving America’s Wars” and “Why I Still Dislike Israel.” On the last day of the month, twelve people were killed in a shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

Scientists from Cambridge University created a living organism from DNA that is entirely man made. The New York Timesreported, “…perhaps a new form of life, experts said, and a milestone in the field of synthetic biology.” Or, will this be the genesis of a new “master race?” A California jury awarded a California couple $2.055 billion who blamed their cancer on the weed killer Roundup, a product acquired by Bayer from Monsanto last year. There are 13,400 claims against Bayer tying cancer to the herbicide. Roundup was first introduced in 1974. While companies should be liable for faulty and dangerous products, awards of this size, along with class-action suits, threaten scientific research, medical practice and product development. Tort reform is needed. A Great White shark was spotted in Long Island Sound, off the coast of Greenwich, apparently looking for Wall Street brethren.  Jean-Jacques Savin spent 127 days inside a capsule-shaped barrel, as he drifted with currents and wind from the Canary Islands, across the Atlantic, to St. Eustatius in the Caribbean – a 3,125-nautical-mile trip. “I lived my dream,” he said upon landing. (I would have thought a nightmare!) The King of Thailand, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, age 66, was crowned, two years after ascending the throne. The delay was due to years of mourning for his father who had served as King for seven decades. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle welcomed their son, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. An albino Panda was sighted in Southwestern China. There have been at least ten deaths on Mt. Everest this year, attributed to the large numbers of paying climbers. They were guided up the mountain and then had to wait in line to make the final ascent. One climber said, “It was scary. It was like a zoo.” Julian Assange, who is now being held by British police, awaits extradition to either the U.S. for espionage or to Sweden for rape. Berlin condemned as anti-Semitic the growing international movement of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, a movement supported by a number of American universities. Ayaan Hirsi Ali described Islamist-driven anti-Semitism as “the reigning anti-Semitism of the day.” The plan to oust Venezuela’s leader Nicolas Maduro appears to have failed.


Death appeared. Edmund Morris, presidential biographer, died at 78. Former Republican Senator Todd Cochran of Mississippi died at 81. George Kelling, who with James Q. Wilson developed the “broken-window” method of law enforcement, died at 83. Bart Starr, the most valuable player in Super Bowls I and II, died at 85. Richard Lugar, former Republican Senator from Indiana who was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama, died at 87. Murray Gell-Mann, the physicist behind the concept of the ‘Quark’ and once married to a neighbor’s (in Old Lyme) daughter, died at 89. Warren Phillips, long-time newsman and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, died at 92. John Lukacs, historian and biographer and who once wrote “knowledge of the past is the very opposite of a burden,” died at 95. Doris Day, a perennial favorite and of whom Oscar Levant once said, “I knew her before she was a virgin,” died at 97. Robert Maxwell, a World War II Medal of Honor recipient, died at 98. I.M. Pei, whose “graceful grids of glass” graced buildings and skylines around the world, died at 102. Herman Wouk, author of “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Winds of War,” died at 103. And I lost three friends: Charles Rinaldi, 76 and Jim Dwyer, 77, both of Darien, CT, and Milt Allen, 92, a friend from Old Lyme and neighbor in Essex.


It is easy to despair for today’s culture’s negative effect on our political systems. It is easy to fear that democracies and free-market capitalist markets are headed for decline. Moral relativism has replaced a sense of universal virtue embedded in our generations-old Judeo-Christian heritage. Political correctness and identity politics have divided us. The concept of service, especially as it applies to national politics, has disappeared. Harry Truman once said about the Presidency: “It belongs to the American people and it is not for sale.” President Clinton showed that it was for sale, taking in millions of dollars for himself and his foundation. George W. Bush, more modest, adhered to the Truman standard. Now, Barack Obama looks to better Bill Clinton, with a multi-million-dollar deal with Netflix, estimated at $125 million, and a $65 million book deal with Penguin Random House. Deals like these attract the wrong people to politics, not driven by a sense of public duty, but as a means to become rich. As well, we have become more dependent, as an editorial during the month in London’s Financial Timesmade clear:The headline: “Jobs are no longer a route out of poverty in the UK.” They cited a report from the United Nations human rights council – a group that includes Venezuela and China, that regularly condemns Israel and from which the U.S., thankfully, withdrew in 2018. The report, endorsed by the FT, condemned the UK for emphasizing individual responsibility instead of compassion:“..relying on employment alone is not enough...precarious employment, low wage growth and expensive housing costs mean a job is not the route out of poverty it once was.”One can only conclude, corruption is rampant in politics and global governmental bodies are moving toward administrative states. An emphasis on equality of outcomes, rather than opportunities, means sidelining the more important goal of encouraging social and economic mobility. In the U.S., the Left caters to teachers’ unions in preventing the spread of charter schools, the competitive alternative to failing public schools in inner cities.  A cynic would conclude that hypocritical progressives want to keep people ignorant and easier to control. Perhaps? We should keep open the gates of mobility and not maintain a status quo where the rich stay rich and the poor remain poor. 

But I go on too long. June is upon us, a month of flowers and sunshine, a month of graduations, reunions and anniversaries. In three weeks, it will be summer. Enjoy the month.

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