Entries from September 2007

Dogma Isn’t History

David Frum September 29th, 2007 at 12:00 am Comments Off

The Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) has been bombarding journalists and local politicians with press releases urging that October be proclaimed “Islamic History Month.” The cities of Victoria and Kingston have duly complied, in the same crowd-pleasing spirit that has inspired the U.S. Congress to proclaim the last week in May “National Pickle Week.”

As organizations go, the Canadian Islamic Congress is at once ludicrous and worrisome. When it is not trying to silence journalists, it is condoning militant Islamists. But just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, this time the CIC has got hold of an interesting idea.

We in the West do need better understanding of Islamic history and culture. For almost three-quarters of a millennium, from the early 700s until the middle 1400s, the Muslim Middle East excelled Christian Europe in science, technology and culture. Famines and plagues occurred less often in the Middle East than in Europe; and writers and thinkers enjoyed greater liberty.

After the Middle East fell into relative decline, Islam spread through Africa and Asia largely by peaceful conversion, because it offered people a more consoling and convincing belief system than they had known before.

The joyless, obscurantist, intolerant, authoritarian and often violent Islam in the ascendant today is not Islam’s only form. Islam has been other, better, things in the past. Wider understanding of Islam’s progressive past may help to create a more progressive future. When you reach a dead end, the best thing to do is retrace your steps, and return to the point at which you made your wrong turn.

If that’s what is meant by the study of Islamic history, yes, let’s have a month of it.

But is that what is meant? The story of the Islamic cultural zone–and of the many brilliant and accomplished people who worked, studied and innovated in that zone–is a very different thing from the history of Islam, the religion. Indeed, the most brilliant of those accomplishments were often achieved in defiance of–and in opposition to–the religious orthodoxy that now annexes their reputations.

Take the case of the great medieval doctor known to the English-speaking world as Rhazes, or in Arabic al-Razi. In Baghdad, more than 1,000 years ago, he wrote the first known clinical descriptions of smallpox and measles. He also collected some private thoughts on religion and philosophy. These writings found their way to the chief imam of the city, who ordered him beaten with a codex of his writings until the executioner broke either Razi’s book or Razi’s head. Razi died blind, apparently the result of the beating.

Or consider Omar Khayyam, the great Persian mathematician and astronomer. His poems, translated into English as the Rubaiyat scoff at the pretensions of religious sages:

The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,

Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep,

They told their fellows, and to Sleep return’d.

In Western historiography, we have a clear distinction between history on the one hand and myths and legends on the other.

Yet visit the Web site, IslamicHistoryMonth. com, and it immediately becomes apparent that teaching legend as history is precisely what the Canadian Islamic Congress has in mind. The fact is, much of the early history of Islam is barely more reliable than the stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s near-contemporary, the Roman military commander whom we (mis)remember as King Arthur.

When did Muhammad live and die? The first biography of Muhammad is said to have been written 120 years after Muhammad’s death. That work though has been lost. The oldest surviving biography was written almost 100 years later still. Many of the stories told in those after-the-fact accounts cannot be true: We are told for example that Mecca was an important trading city–and that Muhammad himself married a wealthy caravan merchant. And yet it has been exhaustively documented that the Arabian trade routes of Muhammad’s time went nowhere near Mecca. (See, for example, Patricia Crone’s Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam).

Likewise, the story of the Koran itself is inconsistent with historical knowledge. Far from being written in one time and place, it seems to have been compiled over a period of centuries from a variety of sources, many pre-Islamic, some non-Arabic.

If we are going to understand Islamic history, we have to understand that–precisely because it is history. The encounter between history and religious orthodoxy is never comfortable for any orthodoxy, be it Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Yet societies succeed only to the extent that they defend free inquiry against religious dogma. That was true in the golden age of Islam. It remains true today.

It’s The 1970s All Over Again–except For

David Frum September 22nd, 2007 at 12:00 am Comments Off

“Freedom costs a buck oh five,” goes the song from Team America–and soon, maybe, will a Canadian dollar.

For the first time since the middle 1970s, the value of a Canadian loonie has surpassed that of the once mighty U.S. greenback. Thirty years! Think how long ago that was!

Back then, the United States was entangled in a protracted guerilla war on the other side of the world. Inflationary pressures were gathering because the U.S. government had refused to cut back domestic spending to finance its war. Rising oil prices were emboldening Arab regimes and enriching thug rulers from Moscow to Nigeria. Mmm. I suppose it really is true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

On the other hand, some things genuinely do change.

In the 1970s, the developed world was just welcoming the baby boomers into the job market. The economy had to grow fast to accommodate all these newcomers. Governments frightened of unemployment were strongly tempted to inflate their economies: It was more politically dangerous to anger (the numerous) young job-seekers than (the relatively few) older savers.

Today, those demographic realities have reversed themselves everywhere, and especially in Europe and Japan. That’s the only way to make sense of the otherwise bizarre behaviour of the European monetary authorities. Unemployment was shockingly high to begin with everywhere from Portugal to Poland. Now, the rise of the Euro against the U.S. dollar threatens to drive European unemployment rates even higher.

With the Euro reaching an all-time high of US$1.40, everything from Spanish wines to French avionics looks radically more expensive than its U.S.-made competition. Look for Airbus, BMW, Chateaneuf-de-Pape, Dansk tableware and everything through to Zegna leisure ware to lose market share to American-made goods and services. That means still higher unemployment for Europe–and continuing robust job growth in the United States.

Under those circumstances, you might expect the European Central Bank to be cutting interest rates. You would be wrong. The ECB has raised interest rates eight times since December, 2005–and its only reaction to this week’s Euro-zoom was to muse that it might forgo an expected ninth increase.

A continent of old savers is much more concerned to squelch any possible risk of inflation than to generate jobs and employment.

Here’s another thing that has changed. Back in the 1970s, inflation seemed to be the consequence of the failure of capitalism.

Thoughtful people worried that we had reached “the limits of growth,” the point at which the world would begin running out of natural resources. Prime minister Pierre Trudeau warned Canadians, most notoriously in his Dec. 28, 1975, end of year interview: “We haven’t been able to make it work, the free enterprise system.”

Today, nobody much doubts that the free-enterprise system works very well. Once-communist China and formerly-autarchic India have rejoined the world market –and are bidding up the price of commodities from feed grain to nickel to oil.

Canada, which produces many of the things that crowded China and India most desperately need, is a beneficiary of this new demand. The U.S. dollar is indirectly a casualty.

A third change. Back in the 1970s, many people imagined that the changes that had come to the world economy were permanent. Commodity prices had risen high–and they must therefore always remain high. Oil seemed scarce, so we had better accustom ourselves to permanent shortages. The U.S. economy seemed troubled–therefore it must be Japan’s turn to become “number one” (to borrow the title of a best-seller of 1979).

Today, with the wisdom of experience, we understand: No market condition lasts forever. High commodity prices curb demand, call forth new supply, and promote substitution–thus leading to low prices. Today’s oil shortage is the prelude to tomorrow’s oil glut. The low-dollar/ high-Euro of 2007 will in time give way to the high-dollar/low-euro of . . . ? Well if I knew that, I would be calling my broker not writing newspaper columns.

It’s all a cycle–but a positive one, not a vicious one. We’re witnessing the continuous process of adaptation that responds to new challenges with new innovation and adaptation. And we’re witnessing something else too: a great opportunity for holders of Canadian assets to diversify out of their small, ice-bound marketplace into opportunities elsewhere. Pierre Trudeau was (as usual) utterly wrong: Canadians have made their free-enterprise system work splendidly. And now it is time to put that most fundamental of all free-enterprise rules to work: Sell high–buy low.

Year Of The Spouse

David Frum September 15th, 2007 at 12:00 am Comments Off

The first time I heard it, I laughed. “Oh, come on, I thought. He didn’t just say that.” We were at a restaurant in southern Ohio, where a hundred or so Democrats and a handful of young campaign workers had gathered to hear my husband, Sherrod Brown, announce for the seventh time in two days why he was running for the United States Senate.

“The party chairman of the county stood up at the lectern and in a loud, booming voice, introduced ‘Congressman Sherrod Brown–and his lovely wife.’

“By Week 40 of the campaign, I had been introduced that way nearly a hundred times.”

So opens a new memoir by Connie Schultz, who is (as she says) the wife of now Senator Sherrod Brown. Schultz, a divorced left-leaning columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, married then-Congressman Brown in 2004. When Brown ran for the Senate, Schultz reluctantly took leave from her column and instead produced a diary of the campaign, chronicling the indignities of the life of the political wife.

Actually, as indignities go, Connie Schultz does not have much to complain about–nothing, for example to compare to Mrs. Larry Craig, Mrs. David Vitter or Mrs. Jim McGreevey (the last of whom has just published a book of her own).

Still, condescending compliments must eventually rankle. Especially when–as is often the case–it is the wife who is the more energetic, engaged and effective politician of the two.

One way to think of the 2008 U.S. political cycle is as “the year of the spouse.”

Hillary Clinton is the most obvious example, but by no means the only one.

The real manager of Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign is his tough, smart wife Jeri. It was Jeri who persuaded Thompson to run in the first place, Jeri who hired most of the campaign’s staff, Jeri who pushed for the campaign’s best success to date: Thompson’s Internet-released video response to Michael Moore. The caption underneath Thompson’s high school yearbook photo read: “The lazier a man seems, the more he plans to do tomorrow.” Few doubt that but for Jeri, Thompson’s presidential campaign would have remained a plan, not a reality.

Likewise, Elizabeth Edwards is the motive force behind her husband John’s campaign–and even more, behind his shift from the vague sunny cheerfulness of his 2004 campaign to a much sharper message for 2008. Friends describe Elizabeth Edwards as more ideological than her husband. If so, she deserves much of the credit for her husband’s improved showing in the 2008 cycle over his performance in 2004.

Political commentators are increasingly fascinated with the darker undercurrents in the Obama marriage. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd (who normally likes nothing better than reporting marital discord) chided Michelle in an April column for “emasculating” Barack with her unending series of disparaging quips.

“The TV version of Barack sounds really exciting,” she reportedly told a Beverly Hills fundraiser. “I’d like to meet him sometime.” She told a reporter after he won his Senate race in 2004: “Maybe someday he’ll deserve all this attention.”

What does the stream of negative remarks signify? Is Michelle Obama angry at her husband for something? If so, what? It seems hard to imagine that reporters will allow that question to go unanswered for long. The Obama campaign will resent the probing–but it will be Mrs. Obama who set the probers in motion.

Again and again, candidates stress how important their spouse’s advice is to them. Rudy Giuliani told Barbara Walters in a TV interview that he would consider inviting his wife to attend Cabinet meetings. (As Rosalynn Carter often did.)

It’s all a far cry from Bess Truman’s dictum: “A woman’s place in public is to sit beside her husband, be silent and be sure her hat is on straight.”

Or is it so far a cry? After all, there is one campaign that works overtime to minimize the role of the candidate’s spouse: the Clinton campaign. Hillary Clinton’s aides tell reporters that Bill Clinton has no role in the management of the campaign and they go awfully silent when asked about what role he might have in a Hillary administration.

Apparently, just as 19th-century voters thought it demeaning for a male president to admit to being influenced by his wife, so 21st-century feminists seem to think it would be demeaning for a woman president to be influenced by her husband–even when (or maybe especially when!) the husband’s political skills are so vastly greater than the wife’s. In the struggle between the sexes, that oldest of all political rules still holds true: What goes around, comes around.

Meet Mr. Generic Republican

David Frum September 8th, 2007 at 12:00 am Comments Off

The comedian Howie Mandel used to perform an improv sketch that went something like this. “Improv is the test of a comedian. So let me work off the audience tonight. Give me a character.” A voice from the back: “You’re an old lady!” “Good, good. Now give me a situation.” “You’re refilling your prescription at the drug store!” “OK, got it. Now give me some funny things to say.” Badda-bing.

I keep thinking of that Howie Mandel sketch as I watch the unfolding Fred Thompson campaign for president.

Thompson’s announcement speech, Web-cast this week at Fred08.com, touches every conservative and Republican theme: lower taxes, sanctity of life, the war on terror, the men and women in uniform. His words flow smoothly, all delivered with that rich courtroom voice:

“On the next president’s watch, our country will be making decisions that will affect our lives and our families far into the future. We cannot allow ourselves to become a weaker, less prosperous and more divided nation. Today as in past generations, the fate of millions across the world depends on the unity and resolve of the American people.” All true! But also sort of empty.

Fred Thompson’s candidacy invites comparisons to Ronald Reagan’s. Both actors, both older men, both easy and natural presences. But Reagan had a clear vision of what he wanted to do as president. If Thompson has it, he is not sharing it.

Thompson has excellent reasons for his studied vagueness.

He is positioning himself as the most generic Republican in the race, the candidate acceptable to all factions of the party. Rudy Giuliani has defied party orthodoxy on abortion, guns and other social issues. Mitt Romney’s health care reforms in Massachusetts have been sharply condemned by the Wall Street Journal editorial page and employer organizations. John McCain has more enemies inside the GOP than he does outside. Thompson by contrast has alienated no important party constituency — and as often as not, avoiding enemies is the safest and surest route to the top.

But if Thompson is the candidate best able to unite the Republican party, he is also the candidate least able to reach beyond it. If no Republican has any strong reason to vote against him, no non-Republican has any strong reason to vote for him.

Rudy Giuliani can accurately claim that of all the candidates in all the parties, he is the man who has proven that he can make government work effectively: a powerful message for Americans, Republican or Democrat, frustrated by the poor performance of the U.S. government in Iraq and during Hurricane Katrina.

Mitt Romney can say that he delivered successful health care reforms — unlike Hillary Clinton’s botched attempt in 1994. And with almost 80% of Americans clamoring for fundamental changes to the health system, Romney’s too is a powerful message.

With America mired in an intractable war often compared to Vietnam, who better than a hero of Vietnam to lead the country out of the mess? That’s John McCain’s message, and it made him the most popular politician in the whole country until he mismanaged his campaign this year.

By contrast, Thompson can please the anti-tax people, and the gun people, and the pro-life people, and all the other Republican primary voters but that GOP coalition has shrivelled badly since 1994. Under George W. Bush, the Republican party has shrunk to the point where Reagan-style conservatism is no longer enough to elect a president –and Thompson so far offers nothing else.

In the late 1970s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan — the most intellectual man in American politics –observed, “of a sudden, the GOP has become a party of ideas.” Moynihan, no Republican, was paying a very backhanded compliment: Republican ideas were noteworthy precisely because the party had been such a brain-dead dinosaur for the previous half-century.

Then, in the 1970s, ideas began to percolate on the right: ideas about how to stop inflation, how to stop crime, how to accelerate economic growth, how to compete with the Soviet Union. Politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher staked their careers to those new ideas –and won.

Three decades have elapsed. The problems are new, but the ideas of American conservatives increasingly feel old. No organization likes to hear that it has fallen behind the times. Republicans will, as long as they can, try to repeat the glorious successes of the past. Fred Thompson’s nostalgic campaign is one last attempt to win one for the Gipper. But it won’t work. 2004 closed that chapter of American politics. Republicans must become the party of ideas again — and if they do not do so in time for 2008, they will find themselves with lots of unwelcome thinking time on their hands until 2012.

Who Wants To Be Canada’s Gray Davis?

David Frum September 1st, 2007 at 12:00 am Comments Off

“Yes sir,” goes an old cartoon about bureaucracy, “we’ll steer a moderate middle course between sensible policy and total nonsense.”

That same spirit has guided Canada’s energy policy–and not only Canada’s–for years. This week, Ontario’s power generation monopoly has released a new report calling for further doses of sense mixed with nonsense.

“Sense” in this case is nuclear power. “Nonsense” is the fantasy that we can conserve our way out of our energy and environmental problems. Almost nobody who has studied the issue seriously believes this fantasy. But almost everybody feels obliged to pretend to believe it.

Modern economies use energy ever more efficiently. To produce an additional dollar of output, Canada today uses only three-quarters as much energy as it did as recently as 1990.

But because modern economies also grow very fast–adjusting for inflation, Canada produces 50% more output than it did in 1990–total energy consumption continues to rise even as per-dollar energy use declines. As industry produces indispensable new goods and services, the electrical industry must generate more power.

Historically, Canada relied first and foremost on hydroelectricity to provide that power. But Canadians are running out of rivers to dam.

Additional power has come from coal, the cheapest of all energy sources. But Canadian governments are deciding that coal inflicts unacceptable environmental damage: all those greenhouse gases. So alternatives are needed.

Nuclear is the most obvious alternative: more expensive than coal or hydro, but cheaper than anything else, nuclear produces electricity on a very large scale without emitting greenhouse gases. Yes, it presents problems of its own, principally waste storage. What doesn’t present problems? But at least it also presents answers.

All other alternatives, by contrast, present only fantasies. Take wind power for example. Wind power costs almost twice as much as coal. (The true cost is concealed from consumers by large government subsidies.) More worryingly still, wind power is unreliable: Electricity cannot be stored, and winds cannot be summoned up on demand when consumers want them.

Solar is even more costly and (in a country like Canada) even more unreliable.

Most fantastic of all is the idea that the problem need not even be addressed: that by switching off lights, investing in efficiency technologies, that we can somehow cap total electricity usage at current levels or even reduce them.

We hear a lot nowadays about conserving resources. It’s important to remember that capital and labour are resources too– really the ultimate resources.

“Labour” is econo-speak for human life. An electric washer and drier that shorten dishwashing by half an hour a day, 180 hours a year, 9,000 hours over an adult lifetime, perform exactly the same function as a medical treatment that extends average life expectancies by a year.

“Capital” is likewise a fancy term for money–and money can be used for anything. When we spend more than needed to produce electricity, we waste it. Money that could be invested in new technology–that could aid the poor–that could research new medicines goes instead to operate windmills to do the job that a nuclear power plant could do at a far lower price.

To call this “conservation” is to spend dollars to save dimes.

So why do we do it? We do it because we are making our energy decisions politically rather than economically. If all we wanted to do was control greenhouse emissions, we’d impose a tax on them, and then let firms and individuals figure out for themselves the cheapest way to reduce them.

But that would lead to nuclear power–and governments know that voters, with only a very hazy idea of how nuclear power works, fear a technology they associate with nuclear weapons.

And so in order to make progress toward the only solution that makes sense, governments defer to ignorant fears and make reverent genuflections to nonsense, like Roman emperors performing cynical sacrifices to gods in whom they did not believe.

Perhaps governments feel it would be too politically dangerous to acknowledge the truth. It will be even more politically dangerous, however, when the utility bills soar and the lights do not come on. Gray Davis, the governor of California during the electricity crisis of 2001-2002, flinched from action before it was too late. He inflicted a major economic crisis on his state–and then lost his job in a recall election, only the second governor ever to be recalled in all of American history.

Canadian leaders should remember Gray Davis–and realize that as scary as it can be to act to prevent a crisis, it’s always much worse when the crisis arrives.