The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

                            —Robert Frost (1874 - 1963)

 

Thank you to all who made traveling "the road not taken" not only bearable, but pleasurable. I will be forever indebted to the Enquiry staff, our mentors, and our friends at the Alexander Hamilton Institute.

              —E.B.

Evaluating Trump

For the many Americans who either hate or love Donald Trump, judging the effectiveness of his White House performance—as distinct from merely reacting to it—will be a challenge. But both opponents and supporters owe it to themselves to consider the question somewhat objectively, if only so they can better understand what's going on in the next few years.

An important guideline in evaluating any president is the distinction between the two quite different sides of the office, the “two presidencies” analysis credited to political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. The president can, of course, act more freely in foreign policy, which mostly doesn't require legislation and therefore is less limited by congressional opposition. (For this reason, Wildavsky noted, presidents tend to be drawn disproportionately toward foreign policy activity, whatever that might mean concretely to a particular president.) Furthermore, foreign policy expectations among Trump's voters, and others, are not especially high. Many Americans will consider him successful enough in foreign affairs if “the world” doesn't seem to get worse.

In domestic policy, though, President Trump faces high congressional hurdles due not only to the presence of 48 Democrats (nearly all of them, so far, essentially uncooperative with him) in the Senate, but also to House Republicans' reasonable fear of losing their majority in the 2018 election. It is hard to see how Obamacare as a whole will be repealed and replaced, because of the issue's complexity and its great personal relevance to so many Americans—a situation that makes it very difficult to satisfy all congressional Republicans, whether in policy terms or in terms of their political self-interest. It also seems doubtful that Trump will succeed in enacting major tax cuts or building a wall on the border.

It isn't even safe to assume that effectiveness in the sense of getting things out of Congress will always help him politically. Tax cuts weren't at the heart of his campaign, and they wouldn't necessarily be a net political benefit to him unless key groups of voters think they have improved the economy for average Americans—which depends on the economy's unpredictable performance and especially on more jobs, which Trump conspicuously promised. A border wall, or major steps toward one, would please most of his backers but could also spark even more anger, and thus motivation, than ever among the anti-Trump base. Repeal of Obamacare, no matter what it's replaced with, might well make the president even less popular than he is.

On the other hand, a lack of legislative results in major domestic policy would leave him vulnerable to a charge from disgruntled supporters that he “hasn't done anything.” They already see Washington, not altogether wrongly, as a place where little change is made. For Trump to be coupled in many of their minds with that situation, following an insurgent campaign in which he blasted Washington and made such grandiose promises, could be fatal.

In judging Trump's domestic effectiveness—again, his ability to reshape government policy, not whether he does things we like—the most important arena may well be the bureaucracy. How much will he change the government's relationship to our society and economy by means of direct and indirect administrative action? Sophisticated friends and foes alike will watch that at least as closely as they monitor congressional developments.

It's worth remembering that even with a polarizing figure like Donald Trump, some people are of two minds, or in the middle, or persuadable in either direction. A segment of the electorate seems to end up supporting incumbent presidents who appear adequate, or slightly preferable to their challengers, even if they previously voted for the other party's candidate and aren't enthused about the president. If only for that reason, it's conceivable that Trump could win the popular vote, not just the electoral vote, if he runs again. But he will lose re-election, or perhaps not even seek it, if his popularity tanks among his base in the next couple of years and doesn't strongly rebound. Although this hasn't begun to happen yet, Trump and people close to him should remain keenly aware that many in his base like him mainly for his enemies. Anger is a powerful force in politics, but also a double-edged sword. Trump more than most presidents will need to remain visibly and audibly an outsider, even while achieving certain things by conventional standards and, if possible, getting a few more Americans to like him. That won't be easy.

* Dr. David Frisk has been a Resident Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute (theahi.org) since 2013. The author of If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement, he will teach “Modern Conservative Politics” in the Government department this fall.

           

Saudi Arabia on the Status of Women Commission?

In politics today, anything is possible. Yet sometimes events occur that are so ridiculous that you sit bemused for days, wondering how this could be.

On April 25, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women voted – nearly unanimously – to make the ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islamist nation of Saudi Arabia a member for the next four years. Although it was ranked 134th worldwide out of 145 on gender equality, Saudi Arabia will join the commission’s 45 other countries.   

It makes very little sense to include a nation in which women are so oppressed on a commission with the goals of “promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women.”   

Women in Saudi Arabia are treated as second-class citizens. The law requires them to have a male guardian, who oversees them from birth until death and makes all critical decisions. Additionally, a woman is forbidden to obtain a passport, marry, or travel abroad without the approval of her male guardian, usually a family member or spouse.

Women can even be jailed for disobeying their guardians. Last November, a Saudi woman filed a report of abuse against her brother and was arrested for disobedience. Saudi Arabia also limits women’s ability to engage in basic tasks, such as driving, that the West sees as fundamental. It is the only country in the world that will not issue driver’s licenses to women.

Why should women not drive? In 2013, a member of the Ulama, Saudi Arabia’s body of religious scholars, claimed that women’s ovaries and pelvises could be damaged by driving, thus inhibiting their reproductive abilities. He told Saudi news source sabq.org that driving “could have a reverse physiological impact. Physiological science and functional medicine … [have found] that it automatically affects ovaries and rolls up the pelvis. This is why we find, for women who continuously drive cars, their children are born with clinical disorders of varying degrees.” Two years before, the Majlis al-Ifta’ al-A’ala – Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council – published a report in conjunction with a professor from King Fahd University which claimed that allowing women to drive would “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce,” and that within ten years no virgins would be left in Saudi Arabia.

You honestly can’t make some of these things up.

At the time of Saudi Arabia’s addition, New Zealand’s prime minister said it is important for the UN commission to include countries that are beginning to make changes for women, no matter how slow the change. A Girls Council held in March in Saudi Arabia is supposed to be evidence of this “change.” The only problem – there were no girls on this council. It was composed entirely of men. Women were told to sit in a separate room.

Saudi Arabia has made small improvements by letting women have greater access to education and jobs, but they still lack many basic rights that we take for granted here in America.

Belgium’s prime minister has since stated that he regrets his country’s vote to include Saudi Arabia. (He claims that the vote came unexpectedly, forcing diplomats to choose without consulting colleagues.)

Hopefully the inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the commission will improve the situation for women there, but I doubt it will. The government’s and much of society’s policy toward women draws from Wahhabism – an extremely conservative form of Islam – and the Ulama, who play a large role in influencing governance. It is unlikely that the Ulama that enforced policies which, in 2002, forced girls back into a burning school because their heads were not covered will accept a fundamental shift in beliefs on women’s rights.

We can only hope that Saudi Arabia’s inclusion on the commission will persuade it to relax its policies against women.

Simone Weil: the Martian

Simone Weil was a 20th century French philosopher and mystic who died at age 34, in 1943, of tuberculosis. Her father was a doctor, her mother an heiress to a business fortune. Both parents overindulged their precocious child. She loved to learn and could speak ancient Greek, delighted in the study of mathematics and physics, memorized long prose passages, and taught herself Sanskrit after reading the Bhagavad Gita. But her parents were somewhat neurotic and passed on to her unhelpful habits and fears regarding health and diet. This upbringing made her transition into adulthood awkward and paved the way for clumsy social interactions. When Simone studied for what would be comparable to a master’s degree in philosophy, one of her classmates, upon getting to know her, called her “the Martian.” She graduated first in her class but was ignored by her peers.

As a young adult, despite her privileged upbringing, she was an advocate for the working class and expounded on syndicalism – the movement for transferring ownership of the factories to the workers. She had the courage of her principles, making the unusual decision to work as a drill press operator, a meat packer, and then as a machinist. That year permanently compromised her health. After her health had improved somewhat, Simone made the bold but imprudent decision to enlist in a radical brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Again her health faltered, and her parents brought her back home to France. It was during this “radical” period of her life that something happened, which she would never have anticipated given her background.

Brought up without any religious instruction, she unpredictably encountered God in three mystical experiences that changed the direction of her life. The three mystical contacts occurred in a Portuguese fishing village, in Assisi, Italy, and in a Benedictine abbey in Solesmes, France. These experiences were a revelation; she had never believed a personal encounter with God was even possible. Through them, she converted to Catholicism. She was never baptized, however. She believed with confidence that her particular vocation from God was to witness to the Church as an outsider – “at the gate,” as it were – for all those, she said, who were estranged or had lost their way.

After her mystical experiences at age 26, she continued to write. One area of focus in her writings was the idea of attentiveness, a receptive waiting. She wrote: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Attention or attentiveness was, Weil believed, the beginning of any thoughtful human engagement or interaction. She thought attentiveness countered the human default setting – selfishness and self-regard. Attentiveness was essential in order to help the suffering “other.”

She would have been dismayed by the current Western fixation on digital technology: iPad, iPhone, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Netflix. Her writings strongly suggest that she would say the heavy use of these technologies ensures that people don’t pay the slightest attention to the other, even to one’s neighbor, but instead looked constantly at glowing screens. People, she would lament, are focused on reading text messages, listening to iTunes, scrolling down their newsfeeds, taking a selfie for Snapchat or streaming a movie. Technology holds people in its sway. It is so much easier to avert one’s gaze than to engage face-to-face.

Simone Weil never meant for her writing to be published. But her few friends, including Gustave Thibon, a Catholic theologian and philosopher, and a Dominican priest and her spiritual director, Father Jean-Marie Perrin, realized the depth, beauty, and perceptivity of her writing – essays, journals, letters. They had some of her papers published posthumously in a book titled Gravity and Grace. Other anthologies followed, including Waiting for God. Her books have been translated into several languages.

Thousands of readers have treasured her incredible spiritual insights. She wrote with clarity and conviction on various topics such as God, man, suffering, sin, the Church, materialism, grace, prayer, her role as an outsider, alienation, love, and attentiveness. Through her writing, she influenced people ranging from agnostics to the devout. Albert Camus, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, and Pope Paul VI – to name but a few – considered her spiritual writings luminous and persuasive.  

Sometimes God calls the outsider, the accidental mystic, the socially awkward, the clown, or the “Martian.” Was Simone Weil a saint? She certainly seemed a blessed fool; she had occasions of profound insight coupled with eccentric and erratic behavior. Maybe that is as God intended. He calls all to him – the lost, the pious, the estranged, the strange, and the broken. Blessed are the exasperating, for they will make God laugh.   

Populism’s Ineffectiveness at Governing

The first round of France’s presidential election, which took place on April 23, received much international attention. The four leading candidates were so close in the polls that the winners could not be predicted. The issues at stake – France’s continued involvement in the European Union and its immigration and business policies – could have negative global repercussions depending on what changes the new president makes. In light of some recent elections elsewhere, an additional concern is the protest candidate.

After the United States presidential election, there is no need to point out the significance of the protest vote. Many American voters chose Donald Trump as their president because of all the things he was not. He was not a member of the Washington elite or a reflection of the establishment politician. He actively campaigned against the “Washington establishment,” and in his inaugural speech promised to transfer power from Washington back to the American people.

This anti-establishment attitude is obvious in America’s current political culture and is emerging in Europe as well. Citizens have sometimes elected candidates based on their distrust of conventional politicians or because they simply resent the government. This misguided way of electing politicians, however, must be addressed, especially in France. As French citizens choose their next president in the second round of the election, institutions like the EU are on the line.

One needs to look no further than France’s neighbor, Italy, to see why voting for candidates simply because they are not politicians is a horrible way to maintain a functioning government. In 2013, the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle) received more seats than any other party in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and two of its members have since been elected the mayors of Rome and Turin.

The Five Star Movement runs on the issues of public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, the right to Internet access, and environmentalism. While these are all acceptable causes for a political entity to back, the Movement – which was started by popular Italian comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo – does not have enough credentials or policy specifics to run an effective government.

This populist, anti-establishment party is so irresponsible in governing Rome and Turin that, according to the Guardian, Italian health officials are now blaming an alarming rise in measles on its anti-vaccination stance. Many Italians who voted last December to reject Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s reforms – and his role as prime minister more generally – are supporters of the Five Star Movement. Populist movements like the Five Star Movement do not offer solutions to establishment politics. They do not create new, fairer systems of governance or wipe out corruption, as Rome’s “anti-corruption” mayor should now be able to attest after the arrest of her top aide for alleged corruption.

Furthermore, protest candidates simply do not know how to govern. Germany’s populist and pro-nativist party, Alternative for Germany (Alternativ für Deutschland) is facing internal problems for this very reason, especially in light of protests against the AfD in Köln, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on April 23. The AfD exists as a populist alternative to Angela Merkel, her politics, and her refugee policies. When it comes to actually running a government, the AfD, like most other populist parties, deals only with certain specific issues – in this case, promoting anti-Euro policies and attempting to restrict immigration.

In countries that tend to have coalition-run governments, many voters are choosing parties, like the Five Star Movement and the AfD, that cannot and should not form coalitions. As Reuters reported,  no mainstream parties will consider working with the AfD. Should they, too, successfully (and miraculously) win the German federal election in September and oust Merkel from her fourth term, the German government would come to a standstill.

Donald Trump illustrates the problem with populist parties and candidates as well. Although the Republican Party has control of both houses of Congress, his credentials as a reality TV host and businessman and his “America First” foreign policies have contributed nothing to a viable domestic program. The utter failure of Trump’s and Paul Ryan’s health care plan, involving an issue central to Republican campaigns in recent years, to pass Congress is strong evidence of the point.

As France chose among four candidates this past Sunday – the leader of the far-right National Front, a business-friendly, independent centrist, a mainstream candidate mired in corruption and nepotism scandals, and the far-left “Bernie Sanders of French politics” – it was voters’ responsibility to leave their hatred of establishment politics (and politicians in general) outside the polling place. When the economic, political, and humanitarian stakes are as high as they are now, it is irresponsible to choose a president based on who sticks it to the government the most.

Voters must keep this in mind as they make their choice in the upcoming presidential run-off between the “far-right” candidate, Marine Le Pen, and the young “centrist,” Emmanuel Macron.

Erdogan and the State of Turkey

On April 16, the Turkish government underwent a seismic constitutional shift. With the referendum results uncertain till late into the night, Turkey voted to centralize power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The referendum, which won with 51.3 percent of the vote, abolishes the post of prime minister and transfers executive power to the president. This allows him to appoint the judges and officials responsible for scrutinizing his decisions. This not only violates many Turks’ sense of proper constitutional order, but also sets the stage for Erdogan to assume a more dictatorial role in the long run. (Additionally, however, the referendum limits the president to two five-year terms.)

The supporting campaign argued that a stronger centralized government would better enable Turkey to take on its challenges: a struggling economy, the world’s largest Syrian refugee population, a war against Kurdish insurgents, and the Syrian war on Turkey’s southern border.

The opposition worried that the new presidential powers will, according to the New York Times, “threaten the separation of powers on which liberal democracies have traditionally depended.” Judicial independence in Turkey was already weak before the change, and now it is in more peril. President Erdogan will now have unilateral authority in selecting the judges, as well as other administrators, who will review his actions to decide their constitutionality. This tightens his grip on the Turkish bureaucracy even further, a process that began after the attempted military coup last summer.”

Since the failed coup, Erdogan has constantly monitored the media, and journalists themselves, for anti-government opinions. One journalist, Kadri Grusel, has been imprisoned since October. His work at Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s last major independent media outlet, was questioned due to his alleged connections to the Islamist Gulenist movement and the Kurdish Independence Movement. Mr. Grusel and at least 81 other journalists are held in detention at Silivri prison, just south of Istanbul, where shuttle services are provided so families can visit the large number of imprisoned newspaper employees. Turkey has now surpassed China as the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. Furthermore, Erdogan’s actions concerning the press have garnered attention from several international human rights organizations.

In addition to silencing the press, Erdogan immediately imprisoned more than 45,000 of the 130,000 state employees he fired after the coup attempt. These imprisonments include punishment for alleged anti-Erdogan sentiments, insulting Erdogan directly over social media, or being suspected of participating in the coup. A former Miss Turkey, Merve Buyuksarac, posted on Instagram a satirical rewording of the country’s national anthem: I am like a wild flood, I smash over the law and beyond / I follow state bids, take my bribe and live. She was sentenced to fourteen months.  

Moreover, the legitimacy of the vote is already under scrutiny. The results will take time to confirm, but the opposition Republican People’s Party is already calling for a recount of more than one-third of the ballots – around 2.5 million votes. The opposition claims the president’s campaign on behalf of the referendum was corrupt in that it supposedly threatened people who intended to vote “no.” Many Turks either voted “yes” or stayed away from the polls in fear of their safety. Additionally, a last-minute raising of the standard for proving allegations of ballot stuffing made it easier to tamper with the election results. As of the day after the referendum, there was only one case of voter fraud caught on camera.

The result of the vote, if it holds up, cannot bode well for Turkey. Erdogan has been exceptionally power-hungry and on guard after last year’s coup attempt. All the evidence we can see points to the likelihood that given the opportunity, he will continue to limit the media and centralize more power to himself. This constitutional change will not benefit Turkey in the long run, particularly if Erdogan is elected for a second term.