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America's Next Great Pundit Contestants 2010
POSTED AT 12:00 AM ET, 11/ 1/2010

Rule of lawlessness

Editor's note: For this final challenge, we asked the contestants to craft an op-ed column that showcases their writing style, smarts and unique point of view.

Democracy is so inconvenient when you are trying to get something done -- say, win an election or bag a trophy for your administration. In their pursuit of these respective short-term goals, the Tea Party and the Obama administration have both undermined basic democratic tenets. Meaning that we, as a country, have lost something regardless of who wins Tuesday.

Last Monday, one of Senate candidate Rand Paul's goons stomped the hell out of a woman who dared to show up at a Paul rally with a satiric sign. Next Monday, President Obama, in his quest to prove his administration's war on terrorism is succeeding where the last administration failed, will go to court to defend his right to continue targeted killings outside of war zones without deference to due process or judicial review. The administration wants to keep Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen residing in Yemen, on a "kill list" without having to explain to any judicial body the criteria and procedures for putting him on the list or defend why it has the right to assassinate him without due process.

"Why" may seem self-evident to anyone tuned to the news since last Friday, when airline security found two suspicious packages originating from Yemen, bound for the United States. But it is not. The administration has brought no charges against Aulaqi, nor has it provided evidence that links him to these packages other than his residency in their country of origin.

Still, the fundamental question here concerns judicial oversight. Can a president ever claim that he is a law unto himself, accountable to no one, and make life-and-death decisions behind closed doors, with no due process? The answer in a democracy must be no, especially when fear urges us to err: executive power unchecked by any form of judicial oversight is a recipe for despotism.

Sandwiched between these events - one a paragon of mob rule, the other a bid for unchecked executive power - is an Election Day that will bring no one change we can believe in.

Tough times and election cycles intensify the desire for heroes and villains, good and evil - for simple story lines, quick resolutions and vengeance. And actors all along the political spectrum have eagerly fed that desire, at a price that once looked reasonable but is turning out to be too high. Nothing good can come to a democracy whose alleged defenders are seeing democracy's founding concepts as nuisances - mere obstacles to be overcome or sidestepped. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell ferociously defends her electorate from "government interference," which she has famously located in the First Amendment. She thinks it stinks that church-state separation forbids public school boards from giving the green light to teaching creationism: Why can't majority rule be the law of the land? For Paul's minions, free speech is the right of the mob to silence dissent by force.

Clearly what the Tea Party really wants to "Take America Back" from is silly concepts such as equal protection, or the minority's right to be free from the will of the majority.

It is no less frightening or dangerous that President Obama is undermining the balance between democracy and presidential power in the name of national security. As a constitutional law professor, he ran against his predecessor's record of preventive detention, military commissions and extraordinary rendition. As president, he has held tight to every scrap of executive power the Cheney gang claimed for President George W. Bush.

People do strange things when they are scared, want to win elections or are desperate for results. Shove past the minority. Revert to force. Set the Constitution aside - just this one time - in the name of the greater good. But when political figures, whether by exhortation or example, encourage a frightened, frustrated public to think of fundamental constitutional or governmental principles as impediments rather than the foundation of our democracy, their victories are built on earth that they have dug out from beneath our feet.

Americans vote regularly these days via reality TV shows, where viewers determine the winners and losers. Devotees enjoy watching good and evil play out - and feel as though their vote counts. But politics is too important to be run like "American Idol" or "Survivor." In the short term, politicians can motivate their base by creating scapegoats and straw men. But we, as a country, cannot in the long term live by democratic principles, or solve our problems, by voting inconvenient people and principles off the island.

Read more by Nancy Goldstein. And then cast your vote to determine who should win the title of America's Next Great Pundit.

BY Nancy Goldstein

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POSTED AT 12:00 AM ET, 11/ 1/2010

Misreading the mandate

Editor's note: For this final challenge, we asked the contestants to craft an op-ed column that showcases their writing style, smarts and unique point of view.

American voters are mysterious creatures. Often dismissed for their indifference, ignorance and shortsightedness, they are famously difficult to understand (though this hasn't stopped many an expert from trying).

After each election, analysts pore over the results in search of a unified message. Obviously "America Rejects the President" and "A Win for Change" make better headlines than "Diverse Constituencies Across the Country Continue to Support Distinct Candidates for Different Reasons." Of course, what's sexy isn't always true, even if it sells.

Electoral messages are always murky. If democratic politics are a game of musical chairs, then campaigns are the moments when the music stops. Self-interest and distortion dominate (even more than usual), hiding even the clearest mandates beneath a sea of rhetoric. Politicians dive for seats, toppling honesty and decency on their way. Without the benefit of hindsight, it is nearly impossible to uncover a straightforward message in these scrambles. Our public debates occur only in the intervening periods. Political leaders get up from their chairs to reposition and contribute to the tunes of American public discourse.

Two years on, the message of the 2008 elections is becoming intelligible. Many in the Obama administration believed that voters had given them a mandate for progressive policies. They accordingly emphasized health-care reform instead of changes to economic policy (or so it seemed to the public), which has hamstrung them since. Progressive Americans cheered the choice - until the compromises started arriving. Deals with the pharmaceutical lobby? For shame! Within a few weeks, the president appeared to transform from liberal lion to corporate stooge. Soon he seemed to be backing down on financial regulatory reform, climate change, the base at Guantanamo and everything else. The clamor on the left grew louder: What happened to our audacious hopes?

Other members of the Democrats' 2008 electoral coalition were disappointed for different reasons. These were independents frustrated with the Bush administration's widespread governing incompetence. They were seeking change - but primarily a change back to intelligent, functioning government (and not necessarily a more progressive one). With an economy teetering on the brink between recovery and further recession, they expected effective federal responses that never fully arrived. These voters also wanted substantial improvements in the way Washington conducts business. Now they are tired of waiting for change to believe in.

Ultimately, there was no single message in the 2008 elections. Neither a radically progressive agenda nor a moderate set of compromises would have satisfied the diverse crowd of voters who backed Barack Obama. Some supporters were bound to be disappointed.

Of course, no coalition is ever perfectly harmonious, and the compromises required for democratic governing usually leave some supporters dissatisfied. In this case, however, the Democrats egregiously misread their mandate. In Tuesday's elections, many progressives will stay home and many independents will abandon the Democrats entirely. This will mean a return to power for Republicans, who are largely committed to preventing public institutions from addressing the nation's problems. This means that it's their turn to misread their mandate. When Americans go to the polls (or don't) Tuesday, are they univocally demanding the Republican Party's brand of reduced government? Are they eager to lose their health coverage because of preexisting conditions? Are they hoping for drastic tax reductions for the wealthy and even more growth in budget deficits? Perhaps most pressing: Do Americans want continued Republican obstructionism in Congress?

Polls show precisely the opposite. Though voters are frustrated with the government, most still expect it to address the serious problems facing the United States. Very few Americans want the government to sit idly by while the country suffers. A Washington Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll last month showed that 49 percent of American adults would rather have more government services and higher taxes, while 47 percent would prefer fewer services and lower taxes. The poll also showed that majorities of Americans still want the federal government to be more involved in reforming health care and education. How skeptical are Americans about government's effectiveness after all?

While reducing government's size is a priority for some voters, this is only one strain in the national chorus. Once again, the nation won't be speaking with one voice, so the message will be mixed. Democrats still stand to lose ground Tuesday, but this is no ringing endorsement of a conservative fiscal agenda. If the economy doesn't improve, conservatives' hands-off approach to federal policy won't play well for long. Don't forget, the music starts again on Wednesday.

Read more by Conor Williams. And then cast your vote to determine who wins the title of America's Next Great Pundit.

BY Conor Williams

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POSTED AT 12:00 AM ET, 11/ 1/2010

Stop the insanity

Editor's note: For this final challenge, we asked the contestants to craft an op-ed that showcases their writing style, smarts and unique point of view.

The last time I stood here, by this chain-link fence outside the Capitol building, I was clutching a useless Purple Gate ticket, huddled around a stranger's portable radio to hear President Obama deliver his inauguration address. "On this day," he said, "we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord." People hugged and laughed and cried. I thought they understood that when Obama said we will work together, he meant it. He meant working with people who disagree; working across aisles and faiths and color lines to find common ground, listen to new viewpoints and engage in real debate.

Others thought so, too. More than 200,000 people attended the Rally to Restore Sanity on Saturday, carrying signs that said "Compromise is not a dirty word" and "My fiance is a Republican and we love reasonable discourse." No one took a stand against sanity. But there were people in the crowd, in the papers and on TV who continue to rail against sanity, understood as civic -- and civil -- debate. When Sean Hannity says that Democrats in Congress should be tortured at Guantanamo Bay, or Rachel Maddow calls Bill Clinton the best Republican president ever, they are rewarded by their respective camps.

It's more fun to be an extremist. It's easier to preach to the choir. And it's better for ratings. When CNN tried to be middle-of-the-road, it fell to third place, behind Fox News and MSNBC, whose own ratings improved when it moved to the left. Last week, someone told me that liberals should never go on Fox News and that conservatives have no place at NPR. But I'm not less of a liberal if I talk to Republicans. I'm not less Jewish because I married someone Catholic. We don't give up who we are when we reach out to someone else. There have been many calls in the past week for the president to demonstrate renewed leadership. Many of them have been for compromise, bipartisanship and, yes, sanity. But some have been from Democrats who believe that compromise is the same as caving in. These are, of course, the same people who screamed about George W. Bush's sycophants, mock Republican purity tests and vilify Republicans for refusing to come to the table.

Republicans deserve blame for this -- they've made it clear that they intend to use obstructionism as a solution to the nation's problems. As John Boehner said last week about health care (though it may as well have been the Republican rallying cry): "We're going to do everything -- and I mean everything -- we can do, to kill it, stop it, slow it down."

But Democrats, if they refuse to come to the table, will deserve blame as well. If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them. This is not to say that everything is up for debate -- civil rights, for example, shouldn't be subject to compromise or depend on the whim of the majority. Yet most of our real, hard problems won't be solved unilaterally. As I stood shivering outside on Jan. 20, 2009, Obama said of earlier generations: "They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please." People may wish that Obama had done as he pleased over the past two years, knowing that 2010 would bring a transition away from Democratic congressional control. But he set an example that lived up to his own rhetoric. He wanted to work together, to create buy-in through bipartisanship. Politically, Obama shouldn't have reached out to Republicans last summer on health care, but the effort was principled and consistent, and I respect him for trying.

Now, trying won't be enough. After Tuesday, we can do one of two things. We can retreat into the safety of our own echo chambers, as Stephen Colbert did on Saturday, hiding half-naked in his "fear bunker," and assuring ourselves that nothing will get done. Or we can come out into the open, like Colbert clothed in the cape of Captain America, to talk to one another and try to solve some problems. Each party can make its own choice -- I hope they choose the one that makes the country just a little more sane.

Read more by Lauren Hogan. And then cast your vote to determine who should win the title of America's Next Great Pundit 2010.

BY Lauren Hogan

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POSTED AT 5:56 PM ET, 10/21/2010

Blackwater redux

Editor's note: The contestants could write on a topic of their choice for this last post. You can read Nancy Goldstein's Thursday morning post here.

Here's one more dubious prize for the winners of this year's race for Congressional control: having to contend with the ongoing mess regarding the U.S.'s extensive use of private military contractors (PMCs) in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Both parties have taken their turn being less than forthcoming with the public about the degree to which the U.S. "success" in Iraq and Afghanistan has relied upon mercenaries. They have been used extensively in the wake of the U.S. failure ever to train Iraqis to provide security, and account mightily in claims of a lessened U.S. presence. And the current administration has certainly not bandied about the fact that PMCs currently comprise 60 percent of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, where it appears that they are causing far more problems than they're resolving.

The dangers and difficulties of U.S. reliance on PMCs should be evident having been in the news all this week. Sunday Afghan President Hamid Karzai reiterated his demand that most PMCs leave his country by the end of 2010. Monday the Department of Justice announced that it would not seek murder charges against a Blackwater armorer accused of killing a guard to the Iraqi vice president. In this particular case, the defendant was smart enough to give officials investigating the case a statement only after having been granted immunity from prosecution for anything he said, but immunity of some kind for their actions while serving the U.S. government is standard practice for PMCs. Tuesday the UN Working Group on Mercenaries called for stronger U.S. oversight of PMCs.

The UN's request was based on a report released by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee late last month that found PMCs responsible for an impressive swath of the very kinds of transgressions that they are hired to prevent. The list includes funneling U.S. taxpayers dollars to Afghan warlords and strongmen linked to murder, kidnapping, bribery as well as Taliban and other anti-Coalition activities and providing ineffective security in the form of untrained guards, insufficient and unserviceable weapons, and unmanned posts. The Committee also identified serious gaps in government oversight that allowed such failures to persist.

All of this will surely come to a head sooner rather than later. It's not just that Karzai may get his wish, which will leave the U.S. short over half its workforce in Afghanistan by year's end. It's also that U.S. reliance on PMCs in Iraq is set to increase--despite the risks and surely long before any genuine oversight, per the UN, can be established. The administration has requested Congressional funding for 6,000 to 7,000 additional security contractors whose duties on the ground will expand as U.S. troops leave, thereby perpetuating the illusion of genuine U.S. withdrawal.

Read more posts from this round. See what the judges are saying. And cast your vote on Friday.  

BY Nancy Goldstein

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POSTED AT 5:41 PM ET, 10/21/2010

'I love you back!'

Editor's note: The contestants were given free rein for their second post of the day. You can read Robert Lehrman's earlier post here.


Someone in crowd: "We love you!"


Obama, pretending surprise, grinning: "I love you back!"


If I hear that one more time, I swear.  I'm gonna plotz.


Today, someone asked me: why does he have to do that? Was this the product of our rockstar culture?  Shouldn't the president be at home reading CIA briefings instead of striding onstage, doing the finger point, and draping arms around his reluctant wife and nervous kids?


Well, no.  He has to do the rallies. That's how you win.  They're the display windows that bring us inside the store. He screams "I love you!" in California and we see it instantly in Washington. We get excited. More likely to think Dems will win. More likely to send a check. More likely to vote.  


This pundit contest is also a kind of display.  Instead of a band we have catchy ledes and headlines, and maybe a funny story because we want you to pay attention - and vote on Election Day, which for us is tomorrow.


But here's my guess.  It's a guess since I don't know the other nine finalists.  I'd bet none of us like the voting.  How in the world could the Post say, as one editor has, that personal network is not "essential"?


It is. I'll bet that of the 8000 or so votes of the top five, maybe a few hundred were people we didn't know, who clicked in, read through what we wrote, and made a decision.  The others were favors.  Next year the Post should find a test that's relevant.


And what's relevant? The posts.  We do the rally part - the flurry of e-mails, the Facebook notes, the moral decisions ("Do I do friends? Or friends of friends?") to get to the other.


Supposedly, when Bobby Knight, that feisty and kind of crazy basketball coach got hired at Indiana, the alumni association sent him a telegram.  "Congratulations!  We're with you win--or tie."


Whether it's basketball, politics, or this contest, you try to win. But in basketball winning is the only point. Here, and in politics, it's what winning lets you do.  Which is why it's worth thinking about. Why a cerebral Harvard law school grad should set about learning how to roll up sleeves, drop his g's, do the fingerpoint, and scream, "I love you back!" at perfect strangers.  


And why ten people will set aside some time, conquer their uneasiness, ask a favor of hundreds of friends--and maybe even friends of friends. 


But "I love you?" Not in a blog. Not yet.   


Read more posts from this round. See what the judges are saying. And cast your vote on Friday.     

BY Robert Lehrman

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POSTED AT 5:22 PM ET, 10/21/2010

Literacy and learning on the Metro

Editor's note: The contestants could write on a topic of their choice for this final blog post. You can read Lauren Hogan's Thursday morning blog post here.

People say a lot of strange things to each other in public.  But what worries me more is the conversations that don't happen, especially those between parents and their babies.  In one of the most renowned early childhood studies, children whose parents were on welfare heard, on average, 616 words per hour, while children whose parents were professionals heard 2,153 words per hour.  This translates to a 30 million word gap by age 3, and since vocabulary is an essential part of comprehension and learning how to read, this difference is putting poor kids way behind, before they even enter school. 

Happily, more and more people are recognizing the importance of early childhood education, and a recently released set of guidelines supporting increased quality in Head Start and Early Head Start is another step in the right direction. However, despite the increased focus on early education, it still trails the billions of dollars we spend to close the achievement gap in elementary, middle and high school. 

There is, however, a cost-effective way to start closing the achievement gap early: parents and caregivers talking more to our kids.  It sounds easy, but how many of us grew up in homes where children should be seen and not heard?  Or where "talking" is easily seen as "talking back?"  We all need to engage in conversations, measure while cooking, ask and answer lots of questions, use new words, read books every day, count the stairs as we walk, and tell stories about our day.  If we don't do it, then we may catch our kids up, but they'll always start behind.

I was on the Metro the other day while a little girl, about three years old, talked through eight straight stops.  Her mother was exhausted, and holding another baby, but she calmly pointed out her daughter's reflection in the train window and answered her questions about where they were going.  Before long, the person in the seat ahead of and behind her were all talking with the girl and cooing with the baby. This was a community, embracing literacy and learning, right there on the Metro, saying the strangest things.  

Read more entries from this round. See what the judges think. And cast your vote on Friday.  

BY Lauren Hogan

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POSTED AT 5:02 PM ET, 10/21/2010

Guns: the invisible issue

Editor's note: The contestants were given free rein for their second post of the day. You can read Ted Reinstein's earlier post here.


Given the state of the economy, it's little surprise that it, and jobs, are the most resonant political issues right now.  Those clamoring loudest for a change in Washington--Tea Partiers, for example--wisely limit their engagement at present with social issues like abortion, gay marriage, and prayers in school, just to name a few.


After all, why shrink the big tent when the party's just getting started?


But the issue of gun control has also largely disappeared from the political radar-- even for Democrats, who as a party, have traditionally been disproportionately in favor of various forms of gun control.  Actually, perhaps I should say, especially for Democrats.


Ever since Al Gore's politically-damaging experience with the issue in 2000, few Democratic candidates have gone near it.  Indeed, President Obama, no less, has signed a bill permitting firearms in national parks.  In June, the Supreme Court voted to extend local gun rights provisions.  You didn't have to tell 'em twice in some states: In Louisiana, a bill was signed allowing guns in houses of worship, and in Arizona legislators voted to allow handguns in bars.


Fact is, the NRA's new slogan could be, "Our work here is done."


But handgun violence is one social issue that is not simply disengaged from.


On September 28 in Boston, a multiple homicide occurred that had even hardened cops shaken and staring off blankly into the middle distance: Five people shot, execution-style, including a mother and her toddler.


Blogging about the killings, John Rosenthal, Founder and Chairman of Stop Handgun Violence, wrote:


"The Mattapan/Boston killings this week looked more like third world death squad assassinations than your typical gang and turf-related and everyday there are an average of 80-90 gun deaths (30-40,000 gun deaths annually) in the US and approximately 80 percent are people of color, living and dying in a few poor urban neighborhoods in America where there are few jobs or economic opportunities. Yet, thanks to Congress and the lack of even a criminal background check requirement for all gun sales in the US, the one thing these communities have in abundance is easy and unrestricted access to guns."

What there's still no easy and unrestricted access to is gun control.  And what we have in abundance in Washington is relentless cowardice on a social issue that kills Americans like a plague, but never gets dealt with.

There are reasonable, even small and incremental solutions.  Won't happen. 

In the election year of 2010, as it will be in 2012, gun control is the political issue that dare not speak its name.  The two words themselves may as well go back to being what the bumper sticker always said: "GUN CONTROL IS USING BOTH HANDS."

Because it sure isn't using our heads.

Read more posts from this round. See what the judges are saying. And cast your vote on Friday.

BY Ted Reinstein

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POSTED AT 4:21 PM ET, 10/21/2010

An NAACP punch in the nose

Editor's note: The contestants were given free rein for their second post of the day. You can read Amina Luqman's earlier post here.


Maybe the resurgence of old-fashioned racism awakened something in them. Maybe they just said enough is enough! But the NAACP is back and showing some youthful spunk. Not a moment too soon. 


Since this summer and now with their recent report release, the NAACP has been giving the Tea Party a well-deserved political punch in the nose.  Today the Post's Dana Milbank asks, "Is the NAACP picking a fight with the Tea Party?" Heck yeah! It's about time someone did.


With the election of the nation's first Black president, the Tea Party suddenly appears professing total disgust for government. The Joker-painted face of Obama, the racist signs, the racist remarks from Tea Party leadership and members, the constant drumbeat about white oppression.  There are times in history when silence in the face of ugliness is complicity. This is one of those times. We're watching what happens when a nation doesn't clearly and consistently denounce resurgent racism. It spreads. It's now unabashed anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-poor rhetoric that's beginning to make our nation's lofty ideals sound like a joke.


The pressure from the NAACP has filled some of this void. The sincerity may be paper-thin, but at least now the Tea Party is compelled to answer for the blatant racist nonsense in its ranks. At least they have to pretend to disagree with it. They have to profess that they have Black friends. Maybe, find a person of color or two to sprinkle in their white rallies. This is far from ideal, but it's a start.


Thank you, NAACP. Oh, and if you have a moment there's gubernatorial candidate in New York with an email problem and a Nazi re-enacting Congressional candidate in Ohio who could both use some of your anti-racist cheer J


Read more posts from this round. See what the judges are saying. And cast your vote on Friday.


BY Amina Luqman

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POSTED AT 4:17 PM ET, 10/21/2010

What Matters

Editor's note: The contestants were given free rein for their second post of the day. You can read William Cunion's earlier post here.


Today is my 40th birthday. No gifts please -- your rapt attention all week has been more than enough. I mention it only because it presents a perfect occasion for me to reflect on what really matters in life. Turns out, it isn't politics.


I teach at the University of Mount Union, a smaller liberal arts school of about two thousand students in Alliance, Ohio. We are pretty well known for our football team, which has won ten Division III national championships in the past fifteen years. But a quick scan of our roster of speakers suggests that a boxing metaphor might be more appropriate, because we are punching way above our weight class. In just the past five years, we've hosted Newt Gingrich, James Carville, Madeleine Albright, David Gergen, Fareed Zakaria, and many others. But none left me the impression on me like last week's guest, Bill Strickland.


Strickland lacks the name recognition of some of our other speakers, but he quickly made up for that as he told his story. Growing up in one of the roughest sections of Pittsburgh, he was on his way to becoming another urban statistic in one way or another, when he happened to catch a glimpse of an art class. He was immediately transfixed by ceramics, and in his own words, "It saved my life."


Strickland has gone on to create his own schools, including at least one in the very neighborhood where he grew up - and still lives. Befitting an arts school, the building is palatial, inside and out. "If your buildings look like prisons, you'll get students who act like prisoners; give them beauty and they will act beautifully." In more than thirty years, Strickland claims, there has never been so much as a fight. Graduation rates exceed 90%. In 1996, the MacArthur Fonudation awarded him a prestigious "genius award," and it is easy to see why.


He shared pictures of his students' artwork, some of which was, um, not great. I'm no art critic, but one flowerpot leaned noticeably to one side. All part of his plan: "Few of our students actually become artists, as you can tell. Art is the bridge to life. You can't teach a kid algebra if he doesn't care whether he lives." Instantly, he won the room, and every person there understood the value of arts education.


By itself, that moment would have made Strickland's speech memorable, but it wasn't even the highlight. For me, what stood out was his recollection of the late Republican Senator John Heinz, who had been one of Strickland's earliest benefactors before being killed in a plane crash in 1991. Strickland spoke of Heinz with a sincere affection, at one point calling Heinz, "one of the greatest men I ever knew." This was not mere gratitude for financial support, but a level of genuine admiration. Had Heinz lived, Strickland said, "he would have been handing the keys to the White House over to Barack Obama." Strickland continued, "Some people...just get it." Some really do.


Right after the speech, one of my colleagues said to me, "A lot of people talk about it, but this guy is living it." And he'll continue to "live it" no matter what happens in the midterm elections. Some people can see beyond politics, in more ways than one. How remarkable that Strickland made no presumption about John Heinz based on his party affiliation. Perhaps a successful social entrepreneur does not have the luxury of deciding in advance whether one is friend or foe. I left wondering whether that might be the key to being a successful human being, as well.


Strickland's foundation continues to expand, with schools in San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Grand Rapids. Next month, Strickland will be back in Ohio for the grand opening of the Cleveland Center for Arts and Technology. November elections are important, but not that important. Trust me. I'm an old man.


Read more posts from this round. See what the judges are saying. And cast your vote on Friday.

BY William Cunion

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POSTED AT 3:12 PM ET, 10/21/2010

Tolerance is precarious

Editor's note: The contestants were given free rein for their second post of the day. You can read Conor Williams's earlier post here.


The last few months have been hard times for multiculturalists in the United States.  Arizona set about dismantling decades (perhaps centuries) of American immigration policy, and the Tea Party demanded their country back from, well, a number of usurpers.  The Park 51 Cultural Center debate was just as dispiriting.  Robert Slayton over at HuffPo suggests,

There's something weird in the air...I'm forced to move to a cultural explanation. It seems like the country is changing, in so many ways--big and small--and some folks are awfully put out about it...Some people are overwhelmed by all these changes; it's just too much to deal with, all at one time. A lot of Americans today seem to be feeling like the right wing spokespersons who boldly and loudly declare, "I Want My Country Back!"

Slayton's definitely right about how Tea Party activists feel, but it's not just an American issue.  Here's the problem: pluralism is under siege the world over -- and not only recently.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently branded multiculturalism "a failure."  Like Slayton, Lauren Hogan thinks it might be cultural: "Germany isn't exactly known as a bastion of tolerance."  

But this can't be it, since France and Italy are targeting and deporting Roma (also known as gypsies) within their borders, while ethnic conflict continues to plague Sri Lanka.  There are countless other examples of the difficulty of achieving public tolerance in every region of the world.  If humans everywhere struggle with diversity, the problem isn't cultural -- it's buried much deeper in human behavior.  We all band together in search of a familiar, accepting, comfortable community of other humans.

Think of it like this: Tea Party activists aren't really concerned with "freedom" when they demand their country back.  After all, if they were concerned with small-government, libertarian freedom, they wouldn't support a variety of government invasions of privacy in the realm of national security or immigration (let alone massive military spending).  No, when they talk about freedom, they're actually showing their solidarity with others in their group.  This is why both conservatives and liberals have recently hosted "Take Back America" conferences.  Each wants a government that feels familiar to them, and unfriendly to their opponents. 

The point is that all of us want government recognition of our positions on matters.  If we look to our public institutions and find them comfortable with beliefs (or certain ethnic groups) we oppose, we feel politically marooned.  This is why it's so hard to push for a government that remains neutral on cultural positions...including our own.  Pluralist tolerance is precarious everywhere, all the time.  Political thinker (and political refugee) Judith Shklar was obviously right when she claimed, "Tolerance consistently applied is more difficult and morally demanding than repression."  It should go without saying (but any good blogger never stops there) that this means it's worth the effort.

Read more posts from this round. See what the judges are saying. And cast your vote on Friday.  

BY Conor Williams

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POSTED AT 2:25 PM ET, 10/21/2010

Europe is from Venus ...

Editor's note: The contestants were given free rein for their second post of the day. You can read Paul Rosenzweig's earlier post here.


Wesam al-Deleama is a Dutch citizen who was born in Iraq.  When the war in Iraq started, he returned home and joined the insurgency to fight against the US.  The evidence that he did so is pretty convincing: there is, for example, a video that shows al-Deleama planting roadside IEDs as a means of waging war against American soldiers.

Eventually al-Deleama was captured.  He was charged criminally and extradited from Holland to the United States to face charges.  Last year he pled guilty to conspiring to kill Americans in Iraq as part of the insurgency.  He was sentenced to 25 years in prison and then, as part of an agreement with the Dutch, he was returned home to serve out his sentence.

Last week a Dutch court intervened (as it was entitled to do) and reduced his sentence from 25 years to 8 years, which with credit under Dutch law, amounts to a sentence of "time served" - effectively a 5 ½ year sentence for trying to kill American soldiers.  The Dutch prosecutors, to their credit, had requested the court to impose a 16-year sentence. But the court disagreed (and one reason it gave was that conditions in American prisons are overly harsh).

Many who work in the counter-terrorism field have sometimes wondered whether or not our friends and allies in Europe actually "get it."  To be sure, most of the government officials responsible for protecting the European public against terrorism understand what the stakes are.  But frequently we see a public reaction to terrorism and war that seems ... well, jarring to American sensibilities.  The Al-Deleama is one of those times.

And please, don't misunderstand the point.  This is not to say that the European view is "wrong" or "less valid" or anything like that.  But a lot of our counter-terrorism policy in America is premised on the sense of shared purpose that we think suffuses Western opposition to a radicalized and violent Islamic minority.  That shared sense of purpose is what undergirds the NATO expedition to Afghanistan and it also undergirds our intelligence-sharing programs with European colleagues.   We think that our close working relationships are founded on our mutual understanding of the problem of terrorism and our shared interest in self-protection.

But what if the underlying premise is wrong?  What if Europe and America really =don't= share the same perspective on the nature of the current threat, or the appropriateness of the response?  If that's the case - if European views are "different" from American ones - then how tenable is a strategy that relies on close trans-Atlantic cooperation?

Europe is entitled to its own views on the salience of the terrorist threat.  So is America.  But our strategy founders if we start from the mistaken premise that our views are the same.   They aren't.

Read more posts from this round. See what the judges are saying. And cast your vote on Friday.

BY Paul Rosenzweig

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