Darwinian Selection in the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM

Big cyber-news today in Maplewood, NJ, the place one blogger once called “the center of the blogging universe.” The New York Times abruptly shuttered The Local, its New Jersey experiment in hyperlocal blogging.  I’ve chronicled the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM here, here, here and here.

Instead of just shutting down, the NYT is passing its baton to Baristanet, a venerable (since 2004) hyperlocal news site for other parts of Essex County.  Baristanet has launched new homepages for Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn, the three towns covered by The Local.

Timestamps on their respective articles indicate that Mary Mann at Maplewood Patch broke the story a full 13 minutes before the NYT posted its own announcement on The Local.  Congrats, Mary!  (Of course, I could make my timestamp read whatever I want it to read, but Mary wouldn’t do that.)  The first cryptic comment on Maplewood Online was even earlier.  And the Maplewoodian weighed in a bit later in the afternoon.

After the Web Goddess alerted me to the news via IM, I promptly lurched into action.  Stealing a few minutes away from my day job (forgive me, Mother Lauren), I promptly posted a self-serving comment on The Local’s announcement, thereby creating a small flurry of traffic to my previous coverage.  Then I worked the rest of the afternoon.  Then I came home and watered the lawn and borrowed my neighbor’s spreader to put down some Scotts® Turf Builder® With PLUS 2® Weed Control (no, this is not a paid plug… but Scotts, have your people call my people).

Eventually I connected with Mary Mann, hoping I could get some snarky, back-biting comments, but it was not to be.  “I’m very sorry to see The Local go,” she said.  (At least I think that’s what she said — we had terrible reception, despite trying four connections on different cell and land-line combinations.  I blame the Rooskie spies in Montclair for sabotaging the phones.)

So how about these Barista newcomers?  “Jolie Solomon is wonderful — very talented,” Mary said.  (Solomon is the former Patch contributor who will be anchoring Baristanet’s Maplewood coverage.)  “I’ve always thought there was enough room for everyone” in the Maplewood hyperlocal scene.

Such a nice lady.  (Disclosure: she sometimes publishes my stuff.)

Obama’s Mixed Signals on Afghanistan

The prize for elegant metaphor of the day goes to Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal:

With a wink of its left eye, the Obama administration tells its liberal base that a year from now the U.S. will be heading for a quick Afghan exit. “Everyone knows there’s a firm date,” insists White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

With a wink of its right, the administration tells Afghanistan, Pakistan, NATO allies and its own military leadership that the July 2011 date is effectively meaningless. The notion that a major drawdown will begin next year “absolutely has not been decided,” says Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The winks are simultaneous. When it comes to Barack Obama’s “war of necessity,” pretty much everyone thinks he’s blinked.

It’s no way to run a war.

The Odd Disinterest in a Real-Life Spy Thriller

The U.S. is attempting to deport Mosab Hassan Yousef based on his autobiography, Son of Hamas, and I don’t understand why it hasn’t gotten more attention.

Yousef’s father was a co-founder of Hamas, the terrorist organization that masquerades as the government of the Gaza Strip.  I just finished reading the younger Yousef’s book, published earlier this year, which describes how he spent a decade spying on Hamas on behalf of the Israeli government.  In the process he converted to Christianity, which all by itself is reason enough for the “Religion of Peace” to mark him for death.

Yousef initially started following in his father’s footsteps, but quickly soured on the violence, and began tipping off Israel’s Shin Bet security service about planned terror attacks, or when he learned of the location of wanted terrorists.  Eventually he tired of the tension and the danger, and sought asylum in the United States.

Now Homeland Security is using the book to try to deport Yousef for providing “material support” for terrorists — despite the fact that he was saving Israeli lives from those very terrorists.

Why isn’t this bigger news?

I get only 33 hits when I Google for “Mosab”, and a handful of those aren’t even about the same Mosab.  (Googling for “Yousef” unleashes a 3 million-hit deluge, mostly about other Yousefs.) The Wall Street Journal editorial page did its part, weighing in earlier this month:

The problem seems to be that, under a provision of U.S. immigration law, anyone who is shown to have provided “material support” for terrorist organizations is automatically denied asylum. In the relentless way that bureaucracy works, this is being interpreted as leaving little discretion for deserving exceptions like the case of Mr. Yousef.

Mr. Yousef is a native of the West Bank, which is where he would presumably return if he is deported and where Hamas would immediately seek to kill him. … It would dishonor the U.S. to deport a convert in the war on terror because our immigration bureaucracy is too obtuse to make even life and death distinctions.

But aside from the Journal, most of the scant interest in Yousef has come from Jewish and Christian media outlets.  Here’s a well-done report from the Christian Broadcasting Network:

Yousef’s deportation hearing in San Diego is next Wednesday — presumably we’ll all be reading more about him then.  In the meantime you can buy Yousef’s book from my Amazon widget at right.

“Barack Obama Better Be All In” on Afghanistan

At Contentions, the Commentary magazine blog, Peter Wehner assesses the prospects of success for David Petraeus, whom he calls one of the best generals “in our history”:

What Petraeus also needs, apart from time, is the full support of the president and his team. Petraeus had that in Iraq with President Bush. There were no efforts by then-Chief of Staff Josh Bolten to go on Sunday-morning talk shows to interpret troop-withdrawal timelines one way while Petraeus interpreted them another. The Vice President was not actively attempting to undermine what Petraeus was doing in Iraq. Late in the day, the Bush administration, after costly mistakes, decided on the surge strategy and united behind it. Despite enormous political pressure to pull back, Bush gave Petraeus the time and the tools he needed. It was a remarkable demonstration of presidential courage and wisdom. …

On the day Bush met with Petraeus privately in the Oval Office, after the Senate confirmed his selection for a mission that seemed unachievable, Bush said we were doubling down in Iraq. Petraeus said, “Mr. President, this isn’t double-down. … This is all-in.”

Barack Obama better be all in. If he is, he has the right man at the helm. If given the tools, David Petraeus — one more time — can finish the job.

Obama’s Announcement on McChrystal Makes the Best of a Very Bad Situation

President Obama clearly had little choice but to accept Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s resignation, and he did a good job explaining why when he made the announcement:

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan. …

It is also true that our democracy depends upon institutions that are stronger than individuals. That includes strict adherence to the military chain of command, and respect for civilian control over that chain of command. And that’s why, as Commander-in-Chief, I believe this decision is necessary to hold ourselves accountable to standards that are at the core of our democracy.

Having been a corporate speechwriter, I tend to look at events through the prism of prepared remarks, and I was particularly impressed by Obama’s Rose Garden announcement.  His praise of McChrystal’s past service went far beyond the usual perfunctory reference to “a long and distinguished career”:

Over the last nine years, with America fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has earned a reputation as one of our nation’s finest soldiers. That reputation is founded upon his extraordinary dedication, his deep intelligence, and his love of country. I relied on his service, particularly in helping to design and lead our new strategy in Afghanistan. So all Americans should be grateful for General McChrystal’s remarkable career in uniform. … Indeed, it saddens me to lose the service of a soldier who I’ve come to respect and admire.

He emphasized that his nomination of  General David Petraeus represents a change in leadership, but not in strategy:

We will not tolerate a safe haven for terrorists who want to destroy Afghan security from within, and launch attacks against innocent men, women, and children in our country and around the world.

So make no mistake: We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same…. this mission is fundamental to the ability of free people to live in peace and security in the 21st century.

(I’d give that section about a B-plus — I’d prefer to have had more explicit acknowledgment that the enemy we face is broader than just the Taliban and al Qaeda.  But he’s never acknowledged that before, and he certainly wasn’t going to break new ground in the context of firing a top general.  The last sentence above at least hints at a global struggle.)

Leave it to Victor Davis Hanson to nail the meaning of the Petraeus nomination:

A final note: It is one of ironies of our present warped climate that Petraeus will face far less criticism from the media and politicians than during 2007–8 (there will be no more “General Betray Us” ads or “suspension of disbelief” ridicule), because his success this time will reflect well on Obama rather than George Bush. It is a further irony that Obama is surging with Petraeus despite not long ago declaring that such a strategy and such a commander were failures in Iraq. And it is an even further irony that he is now rightly calling for “common purpose” when — again not long ago, at a critical juncture in Iraq — Obama himself, for partisan purposes on the campaign trail, had no interest in the common purpose of military success in Iraq.

I share the gratitude Obama described for General McChrystal’s service.  But what the hell was he thinking giving access to a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine?  The threshold decision to participate in a story for an anti-establishment icon was an even bigger lapse of judgment than anything McChrystal or his aides said.

Zakaria Lays the Right Oily Blame at the Foot of the Wrong Target

Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek International and CNN is a bright man and an insightful commentator.  In this 2:26 video, he does as good a job as I’ve seen of describing the ridiculous spectacle that the gulf oil disaster has become — from President Obama’s demeaning efforts to appear sufficiently angry, to the temporary neglect  of other pressing issues where the president’s personal involvement might actually be helpful.  (Hat tip: Glen Gill)

But Zakaria blames this on the news media, and I think that gets it backwards.  Yes, the media has been milking the drama for everything it’s worth (Day 60!) — but that’s what the media does.  It’s up to Obama to keep the media tail from wagging the presidential dog.  I would much rather see Obama leave the oil crisis in the hands of the experts and stick to his scheduled visit with Asian allies — instead of blowing them off for the second time.

Sometimes a president has to rise above public opinion and do what’s right.  George Bush showed how to do that by insisting on the surge in Iraq in the face of intense public pressure — and it worked so well that his successor, who campaigned on a platform of surrender at all costs, had little choice but to stay the course.

I guess you could argue that Obama showed similar fortitude by sticking with the immensely unpopular health care “reform” legislation.  But I’d call that rising above public opinion to do what’s wrong.

Reaction to Obama’s Speech Reflects the Limits of Government Power

The President and the Left wing of his party believe that government is the answer to every problem.  Obama now is being savaged from the Left over an environmental disaster that government is powerless to stop.  I didn’t know what the issue would be, but I’m on record from before the inauguration predicting eventual disillusionment.

On January 15, 2009, I wrote the following:

There’s already plenty of opposition to Obama in the right-wing fever swamps of the Internets, of course….  But eventually, even mainstream media outlets will turn their guns on the man who, in the eternal formulation of insider Washington, will become known as “this President.” No matter how much the media was in the tank for Obama during the campaign, no matter how enthusiastic they were in celebrating the coming of BAM-A-LOT, eventually Obama and his Administration will make missteps that even the most liberal papers cannot ignore.

Ironically, Obama has lost the Left over an issue where I think he’s been getting a bad rap.  But make no mistake — he’s lost the Left, based on reactions to yesterday’s Oval Office speech.  Daniel Foster has a good roundup in The Corner, including:

Olberman: “It was a great speech if you were on another planet for the last 57 days.”

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones: “This gives pablum a bad name.”

Jonathan Chait said the part of Obama’s speech concerning Obama’s energy and climate bill “revealed just how much Obama is operating from a position of weakness.”

In a savage report taped before the President’s speech, Jon Stewart relentlessly matches the pious promises of Candidate Obama with the news reports about the breaking of those promises by President Obama.  The clip is well worth watching, but the screen grab below telegraphs the final punch line.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Respect My Authoritah
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Back to my pre-Inaugural post for a moment:

The honeymoon isn’t over yet, and it certainly won’t end before the Inaugural. But starting next Tuesday (ok maybe Wednesday), when President Obama doesn’t bring the troops home, doesn’t close Guantanamo, doesn’t end the recession, doesn’t deliver national health insurance, doesn’t roll back global warming and make the oceans recede — or at least doesn’t do any of these things as fast as the Left would like — then things like the peccadillos of Tim Geithner will start to get more coverage.

I guess he did “deliver national health insurance,” sort of, but it’s appallingly bad legislation that will only grow more unpopular as the costs become more clear.  On the other issues he’s either run up against the limits of government power or discovered the pragmatic imperatives of leadership.

The biggest mistake of the Oval Office speech was the decision to deliver it at all.  I don’t understand what the Administration thought the speech could possibly accomplish.

(Photo from an Alabama beach at top by Dave Martin/AP, published by the Guardian of London)

Some Contrarian Thoughts on the Gulf Oil Disaster

I think my credentials as a critic of President Obama are fairly well established, but it’s absurd to blame him for the oil spill, or for the failure (so far) to stop it.  And calls for Obama to show more anger have led only to the demeaning spectacles of Obama saying he wants to know “whose ass to kick,” and his press secretary saying “I’ve seen rage” from the President.

Usually I come down on the Bush side of Bush-Obama comparisons, but in this case, blaming Obama for the oil spill is even more absurd than blaming Bush for Hurricane Katrina.  The primary blame for the Katrina debacle goes to inept and corrupt state and local first responders (remember the cops looting stores and the scores of flooded buses that the city was supposed to have used for evacuations?)  But Bush has to answer for having appointed an executive of a show-horse association to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  A FEMA director with actual emergency-management experience might have realized earlier on that it was amateur hour in Louisiana.

The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico makes it more appropriate, not less, to open up limited areas of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil production.  If the oil rig explosion had occurred on land, rather than over a mile of deep water, the oil gusher would have been stopped weeks ago.

Tanker spills are a more serious problem than oil-rig accidents. As Steven F. Hayward writes in The Weekly Standard:

Despite post-Exxon Valdez safety measures, tanker oil spills occur more frequently and release more oil than offshore drilling accidents, by a wide margin. Over the last 50 years, offshore drilling spills, including the Deepwater Horizon, have unleashed a little more than 1 million tons of oil; tanker accidents have spilled 4 million. For every offshore drilling spill, there have been seven tanker spills, many much larger than the Exxon Valdez, only the 40th largest tanker spill on record.

Even if the Deepwater Horizon spill lasts into the fall, it will still not even be the largest offshore spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That dubious achievement belongs to the Ixtoc 1, a Mexican platform near Yucatán that blew out in 1979 in circumstances similar to the Deepwater Horizon (the blowout preventer failed after a gas surge from the well). It took Mexico’s famously inept Pemex almost 10 months to stop the leak, by which time 460,000 tons of oil had leaked—still the largest accidental spill in world history (Saddam Hussein deliberately fouled the Persian Gulf at the end of the first Gulf War with 1.2 million tons).

Finally, I can understand anger and frustration at BP, but certain expressions of that anger are ridiculous.  There’s no point in vandalizing BP stations — all that does is damage a local franchisee who has no say whatsoever in anything the corporation does.  And please spare me any further histrionics about keeping “a boot on BP’s neck” or pressuring the company to try harder.  The company’s stock price dropped more than 50% from the day of the accident to last week, wiping out $90 billion in market value.  Nobody on the planet wants the damage to end more than BP.

Brush With “Greatness”: Following in Helen Thomas’s Footsteps

(Home News photo by Dick Costello)

I have the (pick an adjective) distinction of being only the second journalist to interview Jimmy Carter after he left office in early 1981.  The first, Carter told me, was Helen Thomas, the long-time White House correspondent who resigned under pressure today after making astonishingly offensive comments to the effect that “the Jews” should get the hell out of “Palestine” and go “home” to Germany and Poland.

But enough about Helen Thomas. That handsome young fellow on the right in the photo is me, nearly 30 years (and 40 pounds) ago.  You’ll recognize Jimmy, and of course the other two guys are Secret Service.  I was frankly surprised that I got as close to the former President as I did without being frisked, or at least asked to open my coat.  This was before Reagan was shot, but after the unsuccessful attempts on President Ford.

I was a recently minted Princeton graduate working as a cub reporter at The Home News, a small (but high-quality!) daily newspaper in New Brunswick, NJ.  Carter was visiting Princeton to check out potential colleges for his daughter Amy, and we had heard that his habit was to go out for a run in the early morning hours.  Princeton bordered on towns in our circulation area — close enough to authorize mileage reimbursement for a long-shot assignment.  The assignment editor said he picked me because I knew the campus, but I suspect it had more to do with the 6 a.m. start time and my lack of seniority.

Carter stayed at one of the gated mansions the university owns just off campus (for Princeton buffs, it was either Palmer House or Lowrie House, I forget which).  There were two gates to the property, and I walked back and forth from one to the other, sometimes stamping my feet to stay warm.  I’m pretty sure it was in March.  Between my Princeton loans and my unprincely salary, generic white sneakers were the best I could do for footwear.

All of a sudden the gate swung open — the gate I wasn’t at, of course — and Carter walked out with his bodyguards.  I trotted over, told him my name and affiliation, and said I had recently graduated from Princeton.  He said something like, “good, you can give me a tour, then.” Turns out he had forgotten his running shoes, so we walked.  Much better for note-taking.

About that time Dick Costello arrived.  He was the paper’s senior photographer, and he took the photo.  These days he would upload it wirelessly to the paper’s FTP site, but on that day he grinned and waved and dashed for his car, hoping he had something in focus as he raced up Route 1 to swish smelly chemicals in a darkened room.

We crossed Nassau Street… strike that.

The former President and I crossed Nassau Street — probably at the light, although I certainly would have jaywalked if I were alone — and walked through the FitzRandolph Gates in front of Nassau Hall.  I can’t remember whether I had the presence of mind to tell him that Nassau Hall briefly was the seat of the fledgling United States government during the Revolutionary War.  I do remember telling him, in my role as tour guide, that “these are mostly dormitories” around us.  I think I said that twice.  (Holy crap, this guy was President just a few months ago!)

Despite the passage of time, I’m kind of astonished at how little I remember of our walk.  I had voted against the man twice (John Anderson in 1980 and… um… Eugene McCarthy in 1976).  The previous spring, after shedding the objectivity shackles of my work for the student newspaper, I had marched in demonstrations protesting Carter’s decision to reinstate registration for the draft.

All that was as if it had never been.  I was star-struck.  I was 22.

The Home News was one of the last afternoon papers in the country, and the front-page deadlines were in the early morning.  I found a pay phone and called in a few factoids in time for the One-Star Edition, then I headed for my own car.

As soon as I walked in to the newsroom I started hearing murmurs.  He didn’t ask this, he didn’t ask that.  He got nothing.  What a wasted opportunity.  My self-esteem meter was perpetually frozen in the “I suck” position, and it didn’t take much to deflate me.

I was asked to write a second-day, “I-interviewed-Jimmy-Carter” article, and I turned in a draft that focused on how much I suck.  I can still remember Tom Hester, the City Editor, holding the delete button while a couple of self-rebuking paragraphs scrolled off the screen.  “Listen, these guys didn’t get the story.  YOU got the story.”

I think the clips are up in the attic somewhere, but I’m not up for confronting whatever else lurks in those boxes.  (The photo has been hanging on my dining room wall since I rediscovered it a decade ago.)  I remember I asked Carter if he ever planned to run for office again, and I solemnly reported (for the first time!) that he said he would not.  If I’d thought about it, I could have fleshed out the story by saying that he also had no plans to join the Apollo space program or try out for the Mets.

Jimmy Carter went on to become either the best ex-president in history or the worst, depending on whom you ask.  Amy went to Brown University.  The Home News merged first with The News Tribune of Woodbridge and then with the Courier News of Somerville.  The combined operation sells fewer papers than The Home News alone sold in 1981 — although it still dwarfs my blog readership.  “Cos” retired a few years ago, and I got to catch up with old friends at his retirement party.  Hester graduated to the Star-Ledger of Newark, where he won a piece of a Pulitzer covering Gov. Jim McGreevey’s resignation in 2005.  I’ve made some progress with my self-esteem issues.

And Helen Thomas, whom Taranto has consistently described as “American journalism’s crazy old aunt in the attic,” is approximately four times as old as I was that day in 1981, although less than twice as old as I am now.  I have no idea what that signifies, but it seemed to make sense to close with something about her.

Islam May Not Be the Enemy, But the Enemy Is Islamic

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has earned the right to be critical of Islam.

She was raised as a devout Muslim in Somalia and Kenya.  At the age of five, her genitals were cut in a barbaric Somali ritual at the insistence of her Islamic grandmother.  In her twenties, her Islamic father gave her in marriage to a distant cousin she barely knew.  After she fled to Holland and built a life for herself as a politician and filmmaker, a Muslim killed her filmmaking partner, Theo Van Gogh, and left a note stabbed into his chest indicating she would be next.  All this and more is recounted in her 2007 memoir, Infidel.

This remarkable woman, who now self-identifies as an atheist, has published a second memoir, Nomad: From Islam to America, which I’ve just finished reading.  She’s well aware that Islamic scripture prescribes death for apostasy, and she is accompanied by armed guards wherever she goes.  But the constant threat has not blunted her views or the clarity with which she declares them.  She’s not a fan of multiculturalism:

Here is something I have learned the hard way, but which a lot of well-meaning people in the West have a hard time accepting:  All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not.  A culture that celebrates femininity and considers women to be the masters of their own lives is better than a culture that mutilates girls’ genitals and confines them behind walls and veils or flogs or stones them for falling in love.  A culture that protects women’s rights by law is better than a culture in which a man can lawfully have four wives at once and women are denied alimony and half their inheritance.  A culture that appoints women to its supreme court is better than a culture that declares that the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man.  It is part of Muslim culture to oppress women and part of all tribal cultures to institutionalized patronage,  nepotism and corruption.  The culture of the Western Enlightenment is better.

She calls for an Islamic Enlightenment:

The Muslim mind needs to be opened.  Above all, the uncritical Muslim attitude toward the Quran urgently needs to change, for it is a direct threat to world peace… The Muslim mind today seems to be in the grip of jihad.  A nebula of movements with al Qaeda-like approaches to Islamic precepts has enmeshed itself in small and large ways into many parts of Muslim community life, including in the West.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a brave voice in a fight for the soul of Islam.  Another such voice is M. Zuhdi Jasser,  head of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.  Unlike Ali, Jasser continues to be a devout Muslim — but like her, he understands the threat posed by some of his co-religionists.

As devout Muslims who are anti-Islamist we feel that Muslims have to lead the war of ideas against political Islam (Islamism) from within devotional Islam. Islamists have a well-established transnational global network of entities hatched from Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots. Whether we care to admit it or not, Islamists are at war intellectually and kinetically with western liberal democracies.

Today comes the news that: “Two New Jersey men arrested at a New York airport planned to travel to Somalia to ‘wage violent jihad,’ and also had expressed a willingness to commit violent acts in the United States.”  The two had been under surveillance for more than three years.

The scary reality is that our enemy lives among us. Thank God for Muslims (and ex-Muslims) like Jasser and Ali who are brave enough to help us understand what we face.