A Further Perspective

Farewell 2013, With Cheers

Signs of economic dynamism, and gallantry.

By 12.31.13


Why all the grouching and complaining about 2013? Was it that bad? In the perspective of the long record of human folly and perversity? In comparison with 1941 or ’42? With reference to the year our forces marched into an ambush at a place called Kasserine, or less than 10 years later, when they very nearly were over run by Chicom hordes streaming across the Yalu River? Buck up, people! There have been worse moments in the Republic’s epic history, and it would not be epic were there no occasions to fear for its success and even survival.

By any objective reckoning, the trials and disappointments of 2013 are little more than slight dips in the forward march of American civilization. We may be dismayed by the spectacle of a federal government that seems like nothing so much as an obese slob on a binge, eating and drinking and farting to such a degree he cannot even recognize what an embarrassment he is to his friends and family, but there are students of our national story who think this is not unusual. Our government rises to the occasion when the situation becomes really dire, and the rest of the time it just plods along.

As Mike Bloomberg turns over the keys of New York to Bill de Blasio, some observers fear that the promised city’s 20-year run is over, about to be shattered by a retrograde progressive — what a funny oxymoron — applying tried and false ideas for making things better.

Everything in New York has been improving since the election of Rudy Giuliani in 1993. Crime is down — lower, experts in the matter claim, than in other big cities not only in the country but in the world — property values are up. I talked to a young interior designer who was telling me about a property on Fifth Avenue for which he has the tune-up contract, the place is worth eight million and the kid figures if he does well, he will get a few jobs like this because, he said, the lady’s girl friends all have places and their husbands want to please them. How can America have a bad year when, no matter what goes on in Washington, husbands want to spend money to make their wives happy and there are boys eager to help them?

Restaurants are busy at all hours, I ate a light meal the other day at a place on Bond Street and happened to run into another young friend a few hours later to whom I mentioned that it just occurred to me this was the first time I had spaghetti in a restaurant not in Italy that actually tasted better — incomparably better — than what even my own better half, best cook there is, can make at home, not to mention the sweetbreads and the cod. How can it be a bad year when you experience such quality, and my luncheon companion, on the way out, pointed across the street and said matter of factly, “Penthouse apartments over there? I understand — he is in the building trade — they are going for $20 million per.” New York works.

A few days later I was on Broadway near Canal inspecting a building going up thanks to the energy and ambition of a trio of guys who last time I asked them were cutting rags in the rag trade, meaning buying whole lots of ready-to-wear clothes and altering them just so to meet the whims of their fashion-conscious shoppers. “Howdya get from rags to mortar?” I said. “Howdya not,” my man said. “We saw this location and made a bid.” He meant in New York, chance follows the fellow who knows a chance when he sees it and does not mind risking all for all.

Fine shops are filled with merchandise from everywhere; The Nutcracker is, as always, better than ever in this season’s run at the Lincoln Center, where audiences also can enjoy the jazz arrangements of Wynton Marsalis and the classical performances of Yo-Yo Ma. The stage and the screen are rich in new productions and creations, and like the city’s great research institutions such as the Brooklyn Polytechnic, the arts and the sciences continue to attract the brightest minds, who know this is where they must make their mark.

How can it not be a great year when our fair land and our great cities overflow with opportunity? Why anyone would want to change a winning policy, that is one of the mysteries of democratic politics. And it is one of the charms of these same politics that those who try to do that usually fall flat on their ill-conceived schemes. The shot at national health insurance is a fine lesson in policy-making 101, it helped make this year one for which we should be thankful.

Nor was it the first time we go through large scale experiments of this kind. The urge to force free people to accept direction for their own greater good is irresistible to certain breeds of politician, and we just have to let them have their shot from time to time the same way we succumb to other sinful temptations, such as checking out the pantry when we know we are not hungry. Still, it is striking that in New York, the reversal was so radical — from a regulated, somewhat authoritarian free market administration, sort of like Singapore (with all due caveats), to an overtly socialist (“progressive”) one. How do you explain such a change?

Success breeds envy, perhaps, and there are politicians who trade on this degrading and unhelpful sentiment. Nonetheless, in the spirit of Christian love and good cheer that pervades this season, I am for giving the new mayor a chance. What is there to lose? And anyway in one of his first appointments he brought William Bratton back to the city as police commissioner. And plus, should I not be grateful for a climate that let me go out on the court in December?

However, is it not peculiar how pols like Mr. de Blasio get away with an absurd slogan such as “we must reduce inequality”? What in the world is wrong with inequality? If the rich get richer, it does not follow that the poor get poorer. In a free economy, I would think the truth is just the opposite: the rich get richer and the poor get less poor. Who cares what the spread is? You have to be a public school teacher — which I am (ret.) — to believe it matters, more perniciously, to think it matters that it matters, which it does not. The observable reality is that when the rich do not get richer, the poor have less, or less well remunerated, work, and thereby get more poor.

Meanwhile, the wealthy-by-any-objective-measure-in-the- perspective-of-human-progress, such as public school teachers and federal employees, stay the same, rising in prosperity only a little instead of a lot, because the looting of the rags-to-buildings guys, on which their own comfort depends, produces diminishing returns. That makes them mad, and they draw the wrong conclusion and think their progress depends on making the rich less rich even though in fact their progress depends entirely on the success of the productive elements in society.

Anyway, New Yorkers should be grateful for getting 20 years of good government. At the national level, our democracy gave only four years to John Adams, and in recent years it gave a total of 12 to the kinds of politicians whom the new mayor takes after. In this regard, I must remember to ask Mr. Tyrrell whether he still thinks Mr. Carter is the worst on record. But for this, too, I say 2013 has much to recommend it. For it is by observing the consequences of foolish choices that free citizens recognize the imperative of making wise ones.

Admittedly these vapidities may seem to be of little comfort in the face of the perils before us. We may take heart from the example of our gallant French allies, but we better watch it. Tours 782, siege of Vienna 1683, Kitchener at Omburman 1898, but the game ain’t over till it’s over. John Adams observed even before he was president, as the Barbary threat to the young Republic became apparent, there might well never be peace with such people: “We ought not fight them at all, unless we determine to fight them forever,” he told Jefferson — I am indebted to David McCullough for this and cannot recommend too strongly his great biography of our second president — who agreed and, as we know, eventually had to fight them. The French put an end to piracy in the Mediterranean by conquering North Africa, but as we saw this past year, they are still at it. In this regard, 2013 was arguably better than 2012, when we suffered a grievous blow in that theater of the long war.

In modern democratic leadership, you can have mixed records in the foreign and domestic realms. This is more true in France than in our country. The reason for this may be due to the way foreign policy is a presidential prerogative in France, subject to little debate and oversight, certainly by comparison with our system. The boldness with which President François Hollande intervened in Mali at the beginning of the year and in the Central African Republic at year’s end demonstrated not only his gallantry in defense of black Africa but his freedom of maneuver as well. Getting the green light from the U.N., the A.U., and the Malian government (or what remained of it at the time) showed that he remembered the first axiom of French diplomacy: Language was given to men to conceal their thoughts. Who knows what he was thinking?

He was thinking, I would wager, of the permanent interests of France, but he is not insensitive to the growing number of French of black African background. In this regard, it was white of him to intervene forcefully in the vast and beleaguered Sahel. He not only showed the Africans he would help them, he reminded them that in France, they ought to pay heed to the laws and values of the République.

This was underscored when he lost no time backing up his tough Interior Minister (in non-American countries Interior means police) on such topics as illegal migrants and the free speech of Jew-haters.

There is a hateful and rather ugly stand up comic by the name of Dieudonné M’bala, of mixed French and Cameroonian background but a French citizen born and bred, who has been for several years on an anti-Semitic tear, under the cover of being not a hater of Jews but merely an anti-Zionist. There is no such thing. It is impossible not be an anti-Zionist and not be murderously anti-Jewish, for the simple reason that the logic of anti-Zionism leads to the destruction of Israel and with it the killing of several million Jews.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls wants to throw the book at this wicked man, and Hollande agrees. He had the guts to say so while passing through Riyadh, where persecution of Jews and Christians, as well as hostility toward Americans and Western Civilization men remains official policy. Hollande not only understands the threat to public order and decency that this humorless comic represents, he sees there is a larger pedagogic opportunity here. He knows there are now generations that do not identify with what this nation, if they really think of it as theirs, stands for (and fails to stand for, no one denies). He wants to send a clear message: if you think being black, or being Muslim, comes before being French even when this means denying and subverting our laws and values, we will come down on you.

Will this be policy, or just a symbolic gesture? We do not know yet. But that it got this far is another reason for calling 2013 okay if not superb, and so is the fact that the aces of the USAF Air Mobility Command and their can-do crews have supported the gallant French forces and the courageous and high-performance African rifles, largely Chadian, joining them on their recent campaigns. We can take heart, move into 2014 with confidence. And we need not lose sleep over the Grand Old Party’s prospects. If it keeps showing its mettle, as Messrs. Hollande and Valls have been showing theirs, its fortunes will rise.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.