Time for the UNICEF Halloween Shakedown; Security Scan Scam; Ramadan Rumsfeld

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


I wonder
how many of the kids who ring my doorbell this Halloween are going to come shaking
boxes for the United Nations Children’s Fund. Probably a shockingly large
number. I had friends who did such box-shaking decades ago, but I always assumed
that UNICEF was part of a 1970s fad-cluster (including macrame and Wacky Packages
trading cards) that my own generation
shelved as soon as it reached the age of reason. Or, at most, that UNICEF lingered
in memory only to be snickered at. In the punk era, for instance, the UNICEF
impulse survived in the occasional punk pseudonym, like Jello Biafra, and in
band names like "The Starving."

UNICEF collection faded after the 1970s because it was seen for what it really
was: not a charitable act but the self-assertion of sanctimonious and bossy
liberal parents for whom a holiday isn’t a holiday unless it has some kind
of political "purpose." Watching their children leap with delight
at the prospect of candy and companionship wasn’t enough for these lugubrious
puritans, was it? No, the holiday had to be "meaningful," and the
spectacle of seeing one’s own children giddy with joy somehow didn’t
cut it in the meaning department.

When you
consider what a nuisance these mobilized kids are, interrupting the distribution
of candy and the admiration of costumes for a cheesy financial transaction,
and when you consider that they probably collect an average of $3.26 apiece,
you have to ask why the parents send them out to shake down the neighborhood
in the first place. Why don’t the "concerned" parents write out
a check themselves? I’ll tell you why. It’s so they can preen about
their own consciences in front of their other busybody friends–not
their kids’ consciences, obviously, since the poor things haven’t
a clue what they’re shaking the box for. Maybe it’s to "educate"
them about "world hunger." Yeah. Educate them in conformism and authoritarianism,
more like.

So it has
shocked me to discover that UNICEF has made a roaring comeback in the last half-decade.
They distribute UNICEF boxes at the elementary school down the street, and lots
of my contemporaries are outfitting their own five-year-olds with shakedown
kits. Since my generation has made no discoveries that would cause it to reverse
its verdict on the stupidity of the custom, I can only assume that nostalgia
is at work.

The big
new quandary is that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, there are plenty of ways
in which we really ought to pitch in. This means that, whereas in past years,
I’d’ve given away 18 or 20 quarters to the young’uns, this year
I’m going to tell them to take a hike, and redirect my charitable giving
to worthier causes. But since nostalgia must be such a big part of parents’
motivations, this rejection has to be conveyed with some sensitivity that one
is treading on someone else’s post-Sept. 11 consolations.

So I’ve
come up with a compromise solution. I’ll count the Unicef boxes that are
dragged to my door, mentally tot up a quarter for every time I have to say sorry,
and give the total I would have given to a more deserving charity. I can see
it now: Parents waiting in the darkness down at the end of the walk, some kid
dressed as Captain Hook clanking his little box full of coins and me kneeling
down to explain, "Sorry, son. Tell your parents we’ve decided to donate
our money this year to…er, to the Pentagon."


on the same principle that I’m a bit distressed by the 216-214 vote by
which the President’s stimulus package passed in the House last week. The
vote count itself is disturbing. Only a handful of representatives broke their
party lines, and wartime is not a time when one wants to see strict party-line
votes. I’m not on principle distressed that Enron, that ulema of
Bushie campaign contributors, is getting a retroactive tax break of several
hundred million dollars, but I am adamant that they show what they’re going
to do for the war effort. "Turn profits" isn’t enough. Everyone
wants to do that.

credentials as a disinterested arbiter are not helped by his opposition to federalizing
airport security, which passed the Senate 100-0. The senators’ argument
for the bill has a very straightforward justification. John McCain went on CNN
to tout it over the weekend, and John Kerry went on Fox to do the same thing.
It’s that scanning for weapons and explosives is a national security responsibility.
If you don’t want private guards manning our customs booths, you probably
shouldn’t want them scanning our bags.

The American
public is overwhelmingly, resoundingly, on the senators’ side, and against
the President. How come? One unspoken reason is that anyone who flies a lot
will notice from the nametags that the people manning the metal detectors are,
90 percent of the time, named Ali and Abdul and Akbar. Their lack of English-language
proficiency doesn’t exactly leave the impression of U.S. citizenship.

disturbing about the debate over both bills is that they represent a lost opportunity
for national consensus. During last spring’s debate over the $1.3 trillion
Bush tax cut, a couple of renegades on the left–I’m thinking of Matt
Miller of Occidental College and Mickey Kaus of Slate magazine–descried
a silver lining. If Bush hadn’t taken all that money off the table, they
basically said, the soft left would have spent it on worthy but ultimately nickel-and-dime
projects. In a paradoxical way, Bush’s belt-tightening cleared the way
for a huge investment that could be made once the left had its act together:
National Health Service, for instance.

Well, now
we have a huge investment that begs to be made. Giving back a quarter of last
spring’s Bush tax cut would allow us to double our defense budget. (And
it’ll cost less than that if we all just redirect our Unicef contributions.)


The simple
reason we must continue to fight is: Who cares? It ain’t our holiday. Even
if it were, all but the most p.c. will remember that we didn’t stop bombing
Serbia on Orthodox Easter. To stop bombing Al Qaeda during Ramadan would be
UNICEF-level moral reasoning. If Al Qaeda didn’t want to fight during Ramadan,
they should have rescheduled their mass murder.

There has
been considerably more steeliness on the international side of this war than
there has on the domestic one. The fact that Health and Human Services Secretary
Tommy Thompson has not been fired is proof, if more were needed, that nobody
in government ever gets fired for incompetence. But even though Thompson was
kept out of the limelight last week, we’re still grotesquely underestimating
the threat of future acts of terrorism. (For one thing, we’re getting irresponsibly
comfortable with the ridiculous idea that anthrax is a threat only to the mail.)

why Rumsfeld’s statement last week that we might not ever find Osama bin
Laden–since there are so many places for him to hide–was disturbing
on many levels. First, obviously, is the la-di-dah attitude that has more in
common with our domestic war than with our foreign one. But second, and truly
troublesome, is this assertion that there are that many places for bin Laden
to hide. There sure as hell shouldn’t be. Most of us have assumed that
bin Laden would probably be able to flee Afghanistan, but that once he did,
he would wind up in either (a) a podunk, hard-to-defend place, like Somalia,
where the U.S. could easily seize him in a commando operation, (b) a friendly
"coalition" country, like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, where local authorities
would cooperate in finding him and handing him over, or (c) (the worst case)
a hostile country like Iraq, which would understand that harboring him means

statement, then, leaves us with the sneaking suspicion that the administration
is assuming the Islamic and Arab world is largely in sympathy with Al Qaeda.
If so, this does not mean that the administration is secretly fighting
a war against Islam, despite its protestations that it is fighting a war only
against terrorism. But it does mean that the decision whether this is a war
against terrorism or a war of civilizations is Islam’s, not ours, to make.