22 January 2012

The State of History in 2012

(From RealClearHistory)

Editor's note: In advance of President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday, RCP is rolling out daily "state of" reports to better frame the issues facing the nation. Today: The state of American history.

Over the Christmas holiday I took my family to Pearl Harbor, shortly after the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack that plunged the United States into World War II. I figured that my daughter, now 6 and in first grade, should be old enough to get an up-close and personal experience with this key chapter in world history.

But I was soon consumed by a horrifying event.

While waiting for the boat to take us across the channel to the USS Arizona Memorial, I overheard a group of college students discussing history. Unable to help myself, I lingered to eavesdrop. And this is the gist of what I heard:

“The World War II [sic] started with a bunch of countries on one side and a bunch of countries on the other side,” a young man began, his companions listening with rapt attention as if it were a lecture, “and we didn’t know which side we wanted to be on and we had a hard time picking sides. But when the Japanese attacked us, that made it easy to go against their side.”

I didn’t know whether I should be enraged at or take pity on the young man’s ignorance. But what was most troubling was that he was the one dispensing “knowledge”! The others -- judging by the fact that no one disputed or challenged his account -- knew less than he did, even after apparently 12 years of compulsory education.

But suddenly I remembered that President Obama, born and raised in Hawaii, once mentioned that a single bomb had been dropped on Pearl Harbor (in the fashion of Hiroshima) ... then it all made sense.

We’re now a country led by a man who thought JFK talked Khrushchev out of the Cuban missile crisis (he didn’t); claimed that our country built the “Intercontinental Railroad” (must be from New York to Paris); and bragged that his uncle liberated Auschwitz (was he in the Soviet Red Army?).

And I’m not picking on just Obama. His political detractors are every bit as ignorant on history: Ask them about the American Revolution, and you’d find that Michele Bachmann thought the battles at Lexington and Concord were in New Hampshire; Rick Perry believed the war was fought in the 16th century; and Sarah Palin claimed it all began when Paul Revere warned the British.

It’s symptomatic of our times. The people who aspire to hold the highest office of our land actually know very little about the history of this nation, let alone the rest of the world.

If anything, this is a terrible indictment of our education system, from elementary schools to the institutions of higher learning, including even the most elite universities (after all, Obama attended Columbia and Harvard). It’s possible now to have 16-to-20 years’ worth of education and not come away with even a cursory grasp of history that actually matters.

But if you’re in California, where I live, your kids will get a healthy dose of history about Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, and soon, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans, as mandated by state law. By the time they’re ready for college, they’ll know far more about Cesar Chavez, Huey Newton and Harvey Milk than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

While there’s nothing wrong with learning a particular subset of history, doing so should not come before or at the expense of the core fundamentals, which are now badly neglected or perverted by political correctness. You shouldn’t try to learn about climate change if you don’t know what makes it rain.

A Marist College survey last year revealed just how clueless Americans are about history. Barely half of the respondents knew that the U.S. declared its independence in 1776 (Rick Perry sure wasn’t among them), and over a quarter thought the colonies revolted against a country other than Britain (some believed it was China). The percentage of correct answers was proportional to the respondents’ age -- which certainly is no surprise.

As our generations get more ignorant about history, it prompts the question: Does history still matter?

I hesitate to bring up George Santayana’s famous “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” warning, because “remember” implied that it was learned at one time and later forgotten. In these times, it’s rather more like “those who are ignorant of the past are destined to screw up because they think they’re doing something new.”

If you never learned a lick about the Habsburgs and the Thirty Years’ War and the Anschluss, then it would make sense to think folks in Austria speak “Austrian.” If you knew Churchill only as a caricature colonial master oppressor, of course it’d be easy to pack up his bust and send it back to the Queen. And if you believed Kennedy talked Khrushchev out of putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, then why wouldn’t you want to sit down and chat with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Sadly, things won’t be improving much even in an age of hyper-connectivity, where everything is at our fingertips. Teenagers are spending far more time Googling Lady Gaga than Lady Thatcher. Don’t look to the big screen for help, either. The recent biopics on the Iron Lady and the Tuskegee Airmen (“Red Tails”) are following the fine Hollywood tradition of “JFK” and “Pearl Harbor” -- at best, distortions and at worst, garbage.

So when it comes to the future of history ... you’re on your own. But thanks to that hyper-connectivity, there are ever more historical accounts and documents available to you, painstakingly written and prepared by lots of knowledgeable and dedicated people. The challenge, of course, is to sift through all that information.

That’s where we come in with our humble pitch: We launched RealClearHistory in September 2011 with the mission of delivering daily authoritative and informative history commentary and analysis.
There are also, of course, a number of established great sites, including the University of Houston’s Digital History, George Mason’s History News Network and The History Channel, just to name a few.

Of the many reasons why it’s important to develop a well-rounded understanding of history, we’ll mention just one in closing: To honor the sacrifices made in the past. In the case of Pearl Harbor, it’s so the sailors and Marines who gave their lives on Dec. 7, 1941, didn’t die in vain.

20 January 2012

The State of American Sports in 2012

(From RealClearSports)

Editor's note: In advance of President Obama's State of the Union address next week, RCP is rolling out daily "state of" reports to better frame the issues facing the nation. Today: The state of American sports.

On so many levels, most sports fans are happy to see 2011 in the rearview mirror. Both the NFL and NBA had prolonged work stoppages that threatened their seasons. Two major college programs - Ohio State and Miami - were exposed for rampant cheating involving criminal elements. And on top of all that, the alleged child rape scandal at Penn State not only obliterated its football coaching staff, but shook the entire university to its core.

So 2012 should be a stroll in the park then, with a restoration of the usual fun and games, right? While things can’t possibly be as bleak as they were last year, there are some dark clouds looming. Here’s a look ahead:


The NFL resolved its labor crisis with no loss of regular season games, and its perch as king of American sports was not threatened by the lockout - in fact, it might have become more entrenched. The $9 billion industry now is guaranteed labor peace for the next decade, and has further stuffed its coffers with a nine-year TV contract extension, worth $3 billion per year. Interest in the league is at an all-time high, buoyed in recent weeks by Tebow-mania, which just adds an embarrassment of riches to a league that hardly needs more publicity.

So the rest of the sports leagues will have to fight for the NFL’s leftover scraps. Major League Baseball managed to secure its own long-term labor peace without any rancor, though performance-enhancing drugs continue to cast a shadow on the sport, both in terms of Hall of Fame enshrinement of alleged PED users and the recent revelation that NL MVP Ryan Braun had failed a drug test.

The NBA had its own labor dispute, with the season saved by a last-minute deal that still came with a cost: the loss of about 20 percent of the games. But the sport with trouble ahead is the NHL, which already had one entire season wiped out in 2004-05. Donald Fehr, who spearheaded several of baseball’s labor wars, is now the head of the NHL players’ union. He had fired a shot across the owners’ bow last week by rejecting a realignment proposal, setting the stage for turbulent times ahead as the current deal is scheduled to expire in September.


NCAA President Mark Emmert might just have the most thankless task in sports. He has to navigate a billion-dollar industry masked as amateur athletics. The scandals at Ohio State and Miami (among others) demonstrated that the difficulties of maintaining a flawed system whose entire labor force is undercompensated 18-to-22-year-olds who can easily fall prey to nebulous outside influences.

A new proposal is on the table to pay compensation to college athletes in the form of a $2,000-per-month stipend. But that’s akin to patching up a gunshot wound with a Band-Aid. Emmert is considering more sweeping reforms that may more adequately address systemic issues facing the NCAA, which still operates an antiquated model that is no longer compatible - economically or otherwise - with the times.
(From RealClearSports)

College football, the real cash cow in college athletics, has specific problems to address that fall outside of the purview of the NCAA. The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) is universally derided, with criticism only intensifying after the most recent championship game that pitted two schools (Alabama and LSU) from the same conference. The BCS also has done its part to destroy century-long rivalries by ushering in a conference realignment frenzy. With its current TV deal scheduled to expire after the 2013 season, the BCS will be forced to contemplate a dramatic shakeup, likely as soon as this summer.


If it’s a leap year, it must be time for the Summer Olympics. The 2012 London Games are facing numerous challenges, not the least of which is measuring up to its predecessor. The 2008 Games were orchestrated nearly flawlessly by China’s communist government, which spared no expenses or manpower to make sure everything went smoothly in Beijing, including an event-best 51 gold medals for the Chinese.

The U.S. team finished a distant second with 36 golds, though it did garner a Games-high 110 total medals. The Americans are favored to top both standings this year in England, with high hopes for a number of athletes, particularly swimmer Michael Phelps, who is expected to add to his record 14 gold medals in his final Olympics.


For the first time since 1988, the Olympics broadcast will not have Dick Ebersol at the helm, and that’s a good thing, as his insistence on tape-delaying live events had caused a steady decline of TV ratings on NBC, for both Summer and Winter Games.

NBC’s new owner Comcast will instead use the Olympics to increase viewership and visibility for its family of networks - especially the NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) - and Web properties by making nearly every event available live, either on TV or via live-streaming.

NBC, as well as Fox and CBS, are trying to maintain their influence in a sports media landscape increasingly dominated by ESPN, which raked in $8.5 billion in revenue in 2010 for parent company Disney. ESPN has been able to dramatically increase its cash flow by extracting ever more subscriber fees from cable and satellite operators to supplement its advertising revenue.

As a result, bidding wars for sports programming have caused rights fees to skyrocket. In just the last year, NBC paid $4.3 billion to the International Olympic Committee (for four Olympics through 2020); Fox, CBS and NBC paid $28 billion to the NFL while ESPN paid $15.2 billion for its own separate “Monday Night Football” deal (through 2022); ESPN also paid $500 million to the NCAA for non-football and non-basketball championships (through 2024); and CBS and NBC paid an undisclosed amount to the PGA Tour (through 2021).

All that cost of doing business will eventually be passed on to the average sports fan, even if he or she decides to forego paying escalating ticket prices and instead watches everything from home.

But the good news is that - other than, potentially, the NHL - there will be plenty to watch in 2012. And if we’re lucky, we won’t have to deal with learning a new household name, as we did in 2011 with Jerry Sandusky.

16 January 2012

The State of the World in 2012

(From RealClearWorld)

By Samuel Chi, Kevin Sullivan and Greg Scoblete

In advance of President Obama's State of the Union address next week, RCP is rolling out daily "state of" reports to better frame the issues Obama will likely address.

As the United States heads into a crucial presidential election in November, it must keep a wary eye beyond its borders. Will there be a conflagration - of either an economic or military kind - that might consume the world?

China, the United States’ chief rival as a superpower in the coming decades, is also facing a potential leadership change this year. Though the U.S. has pulled out of Iraq, embers of conflict continue to burn brightly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the Middle East, with Iran’s unceasing bellicose posturing and the Arab Spring’s unsettled affairs, will continue to be a flashpoint.

But the world might be plunged into more disorder by not just guns and missiles. The Eurozone crisis could cause the disintegration of the common currency - if not the European dream itself - before infecting the rest of the global economy.

With so much troubling news abounding, we now offer a sweeping look at looms ahead in 2012:


There is one bit of genuine good news: Incumbent Ma Ying-jeou just won re-election as Taiwan’s president, thus likely ensuring peace and stability in the Strait for the next few years. It was an election that was nervously observed in both the U.S. and China, and its result was greeted with a collective sigh of relief.

But later this year the People’s Republic of China will have its own leadership contest, with Xi Jinping widely expected to succeed Hu Jintao as the nation’s next president. While not a great deal is known about Xi, there’s genuine concern that the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army has been gaining clout within the political apparatus of the ruling Communist Party. Xi’s ability to handle the PLA would have a profound impact on how China deals with its neighbors in the coming years.

As an emerging superpower, China also has growing troubles and responsibilities. While its economy is expected to pass that of the U.S. this decade, there are systemic pressures that may cause it to unravel. For one, there is mounting unrest among the nation’s poor and in the minority-inhabited hinterlands.
And North Korea, with its own recent leadership change, will continue to test China’s diplomatic acumen.


Looming large over a Middle East in flux is the Islamic Republic of Iran and its controversial nuclear enrichment program. As sanctions begin to take a greater toll on the country, many believe the regime will look, in desperation, toward provocative maneuvers -- such as closing the vital Strait of Hormuz -- to disrupt regional stability and inflate global oil prices.

Last week’s assassination of yet another Iranian nuclear scientist appeared to be just the latest strike in a growing cold war between Tehran and the West over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. Iranian influence through proxy organizations in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, in addition to a friendlier government in Baghdad, only make the potential consequences of a preemptive strike against Iran that much worse.

However, while the threat of war in Iran weighs heavy on the Mideast, Tehran’s allies in Damascus may in fact be the next domino to fall. As confrontations between loyalists to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and army defectors increase, other Arab powers are beginning to fear a full-blown civil war in the Levant.


The U.S. war in Afghanistan is now in its 11th year in 2012 with an outcome that remains hazy and uncertain. For its part, the Obama administration has quietly but unmistakably engaged the Taliban in the hopes of finding a negotiated settlement. The Taliban now has offices in Qatar where officials claim they will attempt to "reach an understanding with the international community." The chances the two sides will find common ground remain remote, as previous negotiations have collapsed.

Support for the war in allied capitals is likewise collapsing. As the U.S. enters its election season and as Europe enters into a prolonged period of budgetary austerity, sustaining a large-scale deployment and aid mission in Afghanistan is proving to be a difficult sell. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Anthony Cordesman has observed, neither President Obama nor his GOP challengers have bothered to address the Afghan war even though monumental decisions about the long-term U.S. footprint are looming.

Meanwhile, U.S. relations with Pakistan have reached a post-9/11 low at a moment when Pakistan is reeling from another domestic political crisis. The so-called "Memogate" controversy is splitting Pakistan's political elite along familiar civilian/military lines and risks triggering further domestic instability at a time when U.S. leverage in the country is at its lowest ebb.


At this time in 2011, the Arab world was just embarking on what would prove to be a year of revolution and reform that has altered the face of the region. Few knew that the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia would quickly grow into widespread unrest and leap-frog from country to country, empowering frustrated Arabs and resulting in the end of once impervious monarchies and dictatorships. Regional stalwarts such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi are now, respectively, either deposed or dead, and for perhaps the first time in history, Arabs appear ready to empower, rather than oppress, their own people.

But though the status quo has been upended, many questions remain for the region. In the absence of secular dictators and despots there is now the powerful electoral force of political Islam. Whether these movements -- which often push for stringent social regulations and Koranic interpretations of the law -- foreshadow an era of liberal democracy or religious theocracy is still unclear.

Such geopolitical shifts and uncertainty have left Western powers, not least of all the United States, in a rather precarious spot. The old formula of buying off despots for regional stability and easy access to energy resources, while still prevalent, might not remain viable in the years to come. Early indicators suggest that the U.S. is adapting to the new realities on the ground, as just last week it was reported that “high-level” meetings between the State Department and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have been ongoing. Similarly, in the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain, a once routine U.S. arms sale has been put on hold due to concerns over human rights violations against the kingdom’s disgruntled Shia majority.


Perhaps Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, had the pithiest summation of the state of the global economy on the eve of the new year: "quite gloomy."

That is, if anything, an understatement. Lagarde herself has warned of the dangers of a second Great Depression if coordinated action was not taken to stem the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone. In 2011, Eurozone leaders managed to avoid key existential questions surrounding the future of the Euro currency -- whether the Eurozone would be a true union that would involve cash transfers from the rich core to the profligate periphery or whether nations like Greece should break off from (or be kicked out of) the group. They would undoubtedly like to delay such a fateful call, but the bond market is already signaling its displeasure. The European project may be facing its reckoning in 2012.

The state of affairs looks brighter across the Atlantic, as the U.S. enters a new year with economic indicators generally positive. Yet America's economic fortunes are bound up in a global economy, and beyond the Eurozone, China's own blistering economy is showing signs of cooling off. Analysts have begun raising the alarm about a potential "hard landing" for the Chinese economy, but even a soft one, coupled with a recession in the Eurozone, could be sufficient to tip the U.S. back into its own recession. A gloomy prospect, indeed. 


Several key questions hang over the world in 2012. Will the Eurozone collapse? Will the Arab Spring yield a new and generally more stable and benign Middle East or something worse? Will the U.S. and NATO find a satisfying off-ramp in Afghanistan? Will Iran's nuclear program trigger an arms race, or worse? Will China avoid a political or economic crisis?

Most of these questions may not find a satisfactory answer in the year ahead, and there remains the ever-present possibility of "unknown unknowns" that could rear up to dominate the global discussion. In any event, the course ahead looks rocky and uncertain.

Buckle up.