State of the Union

Should the U.S. Intervene or End Syrian War?

Whether saber rattling or not, word is out that the White House is “rethinking its options” on intervening in the Syrian war. The collapse of John Kerry’s Geneva II talks between the rebels and regime, the lengthening casualty lists from barrel-bomb attacks, and a death toll approaching 150,000, are apparently causing second thoughts. All the usual suspects are prodding Obama to plunge in, if not with troops, at least with a no-fly zone to prevent Bashar al-Assad from using his air power.

Our frustration is understandable. Yet it does not change the reality. This is not America’s war. Never was. As Obama said, it is “somebody else’s civil war.”

Still, the case against intervention needs to be restated. First and foremost, Obama has no authority to go to war in Syria, for Congress has never voted to authorize such a war. An unprovoked attack on Syria would be an impeachable act. Last August, the American people were almost unanimously opposed to intervention. The firestorm they created was why Congress ran away from the Obama-Kerry plan for missile strikes. So if Obama has no authority to attack Syria, and America does not want a war, why, after Iraq and Afghanistan, would Obama divide his nation and plunge his country into that civil war?

What are the arguments for intervention? Same old, same old. America has a moral obligation to end the barbarism. At the time of Rwanda we said, “Never again!” Yet it is happening again. And we have a “Responsibility to Protect” Syrians from a dictator slaughtering his own people. But while what is happening in Syria is horrible, all Middle East ethnic-civil-sectarian wars tend to unfold this way. And if there is a “moral” obligation to intervene, why does it not apply to Israel and Turkey, Syria’s nearest neighbors? Why does that moral duty not apply to the European Union, upon whose doorstep Syria sits? Why is it America’s moral obligation, 5,000 miles away? It is not. The Turks, Israelis, EU and Gulf Arabs who hate Assad would simply like for us to come and fight their war for them. 

The Washington Post says we must address not only the moral “nightmare,” but also the “growing threat … to vital U.S. interests.” Exactly what “vital interests” is the Post talking about? Syria has been ruled by the Assads for 40 years. And how have our vital interests been imperiled? And if our vital interests are imperiled, how much more so are those of Israel and Turkey? Yet neither has chosen to invest the blood of their sons in bringing Assad down.

If we have an enemy in this fight, it is al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, all of which are terrorist and implacably anti-American. And who is keeping these enemies of ours out of Damascus? Assad, Hezbollah, Iran and our old friend Vladimir Putin. And who has been supplying the terrorists? Our friends in the Gulf, with weapons funneled through Turkey, our NATO ally. Read More…

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Ukraine’s Cautious Hope in the Mornings After Maidan

It will be difficult returning to the daily grind of American partisan politics, after observing Ukrainians give everything just so that one day their country’s system of government would be mature enough for the only fights to be petty partisan games akin to the charade between Democrats and Republicans.

The collapse of the despotic regime of President Viktor Yanukovych—some are calling this the Maidan Revolution, named after where it started in Independence Square—should cause everyone to pause and appreciate the fundamental freedoms and liberties that enable the partisan bluster and, at times, extreme ideological rhetoric that plague America’s body politic today.

The very idea that Ukrainians would give their life for something that most Americans take for granted was inspiring to say the least.

I will never forget watching a husband console his weeping wife as they learned their son had become a martyr for freedom. The image of her wrapped in the arms of her husband—his eyes revealing his true emotion despite attempting to maintain composure.

Then there is the Greek Catholic priest, who confessed to me that his own faith was challenged as he performed last rites for 15 freedom fighters murdered by regime snipers.

“Seeing the eyes of these fathers and kids was the hardest,” the Rev. Theodos Iveshkiv told me before he prayed at a vigil in the scorched and bloodied no man’s land between the opposition and government barricades during a ceasefire early Friday.

I was embedded for three days with Self-Defense, a volunteer force that is part militia and part constabulary.

Armed mostly with baseball bats and homemade wooden clubs, and wearing everything from surplus military garb to motorcycle and snowmobile helmets with flak jackets, the volunteers of Self-Defense were often little older than high school or college age. Some in the press portrayed Self-Defense and the other activists, who spent much of the last three months in Independence Square, as militant and nationalistic, as if that’s a bad thing. Predictably, Moscow and its surrogates called them fascists leading a “brown revolution,” a not-so-vague reference to Adolf Hitler.

In reality, I found those on the front lines to be the complete opposite.

Sure, there were hard-right elements, but there were also leftists as well as an assortment of liberals (in the classical sense), conservatives and non-ideological everyday Ukrainians. I met management consultants with firms such as Bain & Company, doctors, university graduates and others. Together, they wanted the freedoms and liberties they thought they were promised first with the demise of the Soviet Union and then with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.

Simply put: This was no Marxist revolution. Rather, it was probably something closer to the Glorious Revolution in Britain, which was the fuel for the Founding Fathers of our own American Revolution. Read More…

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Lee Smith Anoints the New Kennan

Writing in Tablet, Weekly Standard editor and neoconservative Lee Smith sounds an alarm about the rising influence of realism in Obama’s foreign policy. He goes about this rather creatively. He claims, with  literary-historical license but no grounding in actual fact, that Harvard Professor Stephen Walt has become this generation’s Mr. X, the George Kennan figure who can produce a strategy that makes sense of the chaos of international events and provides a guide for how the United States should act. Many have aspired to be the new Kennan—Richard Haas, Fareed Zakaria, Anne Marie Slaughter he mentions—but Walt  has somehow succeeded.

One must note here that Walt, along with his co-author John Mearsheimer, plays a  unique role in neoconservative demonology. They are the top professors who produced a beautifully researched and written argument claiming that the United States’ Mideast policy was tilted askew by the Israel lobby, to the detriment of  American  interests.  When I wrote an essay praising The Israel Lobby, one neoconservative intellectual—an author who had been a friend for 20 years (and who was relatively tolerant of my opposition to the Iraq War) asked me how I could “praise such filth.” For this man who had fought every ideological battle imaginable both as a communist and an anti-communist, America’s special relationship with Israel merited its own special pedestal, beyond the politics of Right and Left. It couldn’t be questioned.

So perhaps by invoking Walt, Lee Smith may be using a kind of code, warning a pro-Israel Jewish audience—Tablet, I’m sure, has readers of many faiths and tendencies who find it interesting, as I do, but it is a Jewish interest webzine—that Obama may sound pro-Israel but his real views are tinged by hostility. (During the 2008 campaign, Obama took pains to denounce the argument  of The Israel Lobby, while making clear he had not and would not read the scary book.)

What is the evidence, if any, for Smith’s claim about Walt’s influence? First he summarizes some of Walt’s ideas, mainly that the United States would do better to be an offshore balancer in the Mideast (rather as it was during the Cold War) than to maintain an visible and intrusive presence tied to its “special relationship” with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Walt also favors diplomacy to ramp down the hostility with Iran. And lo and behold, Smith discovers, citing an interview Obama gave to David Remnick in the New Yorker, Obama believes the same thing! Obama tells Remnick he favors a kind of equilibrium in the Persian Gulf, where the Sunni and Shi’ite countries balance each other out. Surely, Smith reasons, that’s more than a coincidence.

My reactions to Lee Smith’s claim are twofold: “Would that it were true!” and then, “Maybe, there’s something to this.” Steve Walt has no connection to the Obama White House, but he does have a blog at Foreign Policy and writes fairly incisive pieces about foreign policy on at least a weekly basis. I doubt the gap  between Walt’s clarity of thought and persuasiveness of prose and that of his peers is as marked as that between George Kennan’s voice in 1946 and ’47 and others trying to make sense of American foreign policy at that time. But Walt is pretty compelling. Perhaps people in the White House read him. I hope so. Read More…

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When Schools Appropriate Religious Education

In one region of Germany, Muslim students can now be taught their faith in state-run schools, just as Catholic and Protestant students are. Germany has a tradition of teaching religion not just as history, but as a system of ethics, starting as early as first grade.

According to the New York Times, the courses are intended to salve concerns about exclusion and to try to influence their assimilation in the style of Henry Ford’s English School:

By offering young Muslims a basic introduction to Islam as early as first grade, emphasizing its teachings on tolerance and acceptance, the authorities hope to inoculate young people against more extreme religious views while also signaling state acceptance of their faith.

After another holiday season filled with lawsuits and news stories about the place of Christmas in public schools and in government business, Germany’s Islam classes might be a cautionary tale for religious conservatives who want to see their faith more closely woven into state education.

When running classes in Islam, generally, the German schools run into the same conflicts that must come up when they give students classes in generic Protestantism. Already, in one community, a group of Sunni parents are trying to keep members of the Ahmadiyya reformist sect from influencing the curriculum. When schools teach religion as a matter of ethics, not history, school administrators must either run ecumenical councils or, more likely, just set a curriculum more in line with the school’s goals than the faith’s.

What would a Christian ethics course in this mode look like? Perhaps the story of the loaves and fishes would be retold, as has become popular, as a miracle of sharing. After all, that’s a salutary lesson for first graders!

The separation between church and state is there for the protection of both institutions. The state has enormous power to shape culture, and it’s natural for religious communities to want that power deployed molding the culture in their own image.

But the state’s power will serve the state’s ends. So state-sponsored religious education will still, ultimately, be designed to raise good citizens, not good Christians. The two categories aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but if muddled together in an attempt to gain advantage in the culture war, it will be a lot harder for a religious tradition to untangle its identity should another Becket moment ever arrive.

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Could Internships Confront Social Inequality?

Social inequality is not just a problem in America. Income gap weaves cultural divides throughout nations across the globe—but how we deal with such problems reveals much about our national character. In a Wednesday Atlantic story, Michelle Sutherland shares insights from Moroccan private college L’Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie, where students undertake an internship that confronts this social divide:

The summer after the first year, students undergo a month-long internship that endeavors to introduce them to people who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. This is supposed to teach students about the needs of others as well as give them a fundamental understanding of how leadership is structured in companies. Internships such as this are not unique to L’Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie, and are common among economics students.

Student Sawsene Nejjar spent her internship at NIKEA (“think French IKEA”), and told Sutherland she felt “foreign” and distant from the other workers. Their religious and cultural tastes were almost completely different. But when writing her mandatory 10-page reflection paper after the internship, Nejjar “said she realized how much she learned.”

In America, the wealthy of prior generations (think Rockefeller) often became a sort of patron class to local communities (Robert Nisbet wrote about this in Quest for Community, an excellent book). Bill Gates often attempts to fulfill this patronage role, albeit on a more global scale. In my home state of Idaho, J.R. Simplot and his family, whose wealth grew from their potato business, supplied money to local arts and philanthropic foundations.

But as income inequality grows more common and schismatic, today’s younger generations do not always share such empathy for outside classes. The children of the elite are implanted with lofty aspirations from a young age—aspirations often fixated on personal advancement and a successful career. Money and attention goes toward such enterprises—an Ivy League education, law degree, Ph.D., and all the material trappings that ought to accompany such titles. These individuals nestle in bubbles of elite culture and community—within the power-driven enclaves of D.C., the career-fixated streets of New York City, the intellectual selectivity of university towns. They mingle with a specific group of friends who share similar taste in philosophy, culture, music, and books.

This picture may be somewhat extreme. But it reflects a large portion of today’s university students. After graduation, young people often procure jobs in the city. Many work in executive, law, and political offices—even while interning. Their interactions with those of a lower class or education grow increasingly rare. This lack of integration results in a sad lack of empathy for the pleasures and pains of other social classes.

Youth who grew up in rural America rarely return home after leaving for college—resulting in a “brain drain” that has greatly affected commerce and culture in Middle America. When rising up the social ladder, few youth continue to mingle with the class they grew up around.

Sutherland’s story strongly illustrates this. “Wealthy college kids” have increasingly become a class of their own. She points to Charles Murray’s recent book, Coming Apart: the State of White America, to illustrate the divide further:

[Murray’s] research, based on the General Social Survey, shows that the upper class has become culturally sealed off from the rest of the country. They buy different kinds of cars, care about the environment and body weight, raise their children differently, want different vacations, and don’t care about professional sports like many other Americans do.

How many wealthy young Americans have ever held a minimum-wage job, or had an internship that placed them amongst America’s poorer classes? Would such involvement change their attitudes toward lower-class families? Would their discrepant cultural tastes rub off on each other, perhaps: the upper class obtaining a greater appreciation for pro sports, the blue-collar worker deciding to give classic literature a try?

L’Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie’s internship model, if instituted in the United States, would present interesting opportunities for bridging class divides. The Yale student could work at Chik-fil-A, the Harvard student in a local Wal-Mart. One wonders what application their education might have in daily interactions with customers, fellow employees, and supervisors. One wonders what they might learn of a class people that they’ve rarely encountered—at least not for a long time.

Education is not meant to isolate: rather, knowledge is meant to help us bridge divides of every kind. How should we put our educations to use? Do we use them to distance ourselves from the “unwashed masses,” or do we use them to connect with people unable or unwilling to obtain higher education?

Perhaps the greatest lesson learned through such interactions is how little we really know. Like Nejjar, we are forced to confront biases and stereotypes we weren’t even aware existed. Through everyday conversations, work done alongside each other, we begin to see life through wider eyes.

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Rand and Hillary, Profiles in Discretion

Steve Walt wonders when Hillary is going to let us in on her opinion on Iran diplomacy:

Amazing, isn’t it? The former chief diplomat of the United States is supposedly an expert on foreign policy and may still harbor a desire to be leader of the free world. Yet she’s been completely silent on the whole question of the negotiations with Iran, even though I’ll bet the Obama administration would love to get her to endorse its efforts. Does she support it? Damned if I know. Does she think it’s naïve, foolish, or not bold enough? Your guess is as good as mine. No doubt we will find out HRC’s true convictions just as soon as her focus groups report in or her major donors tell her what to think. -

Another leading prospective candidate whom we’ve yet to hear from is Rand Paul. I’m slightly more sympathetic to Paul than Clinton, in part because he’s already gotten slammed by the neocons on Iran without having really said anything. For him to endorse the administration’s efforts at Iran diplomacy, when the grassroots of his party would learn to hate ice cream if Obama were associated with it, might qualify him for a chapter in the next edition of Profiles in Courage. I don’t really expect it, but if it happened it would be pretty impressive.

On second thought, doesn’t that set the bar kind of low? Is it too much to expect that a leading Republican senator would remind people of Reagan and his “trust but verify,” and that Richard Nixon started talking to China, while noting that we actually have serious national interests in ramping down the blind hostility with Teheran? You know, actually lead, instead of arguing that he is well qualified to do so.

Let’s have a contest: which would-be leader of the Free World will be the first to tell us what they actually think about Iran diplomacy, including of course the deal inked in Geneva in late November? Who will be the first to break silence, Rand or Hillary?

(For those wondering, I am well aware that even this preliminary Geneva deal is running into difficulties with a new Iranian insistence on modernizing centrifuges, as well as the Iranian Parliament proposing legislation that would bar Rouhani from negotiating. This group should caucus with Schumer, Menendez, and Kirk. None of this will be easy.)

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Is the Politics of the Future Chauvinism vs. Multiculturalism?

By their heroes shall you know them.

In his eulogy, President Obama put Nelson Mandela in the company of three other heroes: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln.

What did these men have in common? Three were assassinated, and all four are icons of resistance to white rule over peoples of color.

Lincoln waged the bloodiest war in American history that ended slavery. Gandhi advanced the end of British rule in India. King led the civil rights struggle that buried Jim Crow. Mandela was the leader of the revolution that overthrew apartheid.

Obama’s heroes testify to his belief that the great moral struggle of the age is the struggle for racial equality.

For the neocons, the greatest man was Winston Churchill, because he stood up, almost alone, to the great evil of the age—Nazism.

Thus, to neocons, Munich was the great betrayal because it was there that Neville Chamberlain, rather than defy Hitler, agreed to the return of the Sudeten Germans to German rule. (To the Old Right, Yalta, where Churchill and FDR ceded Eastern Europe to Stalin, a monster as evil and more menacing than Hitler, was the greatest betrayal.)

But what did Churchill think of Obama’s hero Gandhi?

“It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace … to parlay on equal terms with the representative of the Emperor-King.”

What did Churchill think of ending Western white rule of peoples of color? Here he is in 1937: “I do not admit … that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia … by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race … has come in and taken its place.” Read More…

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America’s Asian Alliances Have Outlived Their Purpose

“The U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty of 1960 obligates the United States to treat any armed attack against any territories under the administration of Japan as dangerous to [America's] own peace and safety. This would cover such islets as the Senkakus also claimed by Beijing.”

So this author wrote 15 years ago in A Republic Not an Empire.

And so it has come to pass. The United States, because of this 53-year-old treaty, is today in the middle of a quarrel between Japan and China over these very rocks in the East China Sea.

This Senkakus dispute, which has warships and planes of both nations circling each other around and above the islands, could bring on a shooting war. And if it does, America would be in it.

Yet why should this be America’s quarrel?

The USSR of Nikita Khrushchev and the China of Mao Zedong, the totalitarian Communist states against whom we were committed to defend Japan, are dead and gone.

Why, then, are we still obligated to defend not only Japan, but all of its island possessions?

Why were the treaties that committed us to go to war for scores of nations in the Truman-Eisenhower era not dissolved, when the threat that gave rise to those treaties disappeared?

“The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies,” said Lord Salisbury. Of no nation is that truer than 21st-century America.

For some reason, we cannot let go. We seem so taken with our heroic role in the late Cold War that we cannot give it up, though the world has moved on.

Read More…

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Washington and Mandela: Trusting Generations to Come

What if you were to strive after something your entire life, only to meet abuse, mistreatment, and punishment? What if, then, you achieved your great goal in the final chapter of your life–indeed, achieved it on a scale so great, the world swooned at your Cinderella story? Invigorated with fresh victory, perhaps you would leap at every chance to accomplish long-cherished dreams, strive to conquer injustices that had plagued and goaded your history for so long. This is, in many ways, the story of Nelson Mandela.

Unfortunately, as Sondheim taught us, Cinderella stories don’t really end with a simple “happily every after.” Even after experiencing victory for a time, most real-life characters must also stomach the pains of defeat.

One wonders if George Washington felt this way. He wrote his name in the rebels’ declaration, risking life and limb for independence. He dodged bullets in battle, braved winter’s deadness and starvation with weary troops, and bore the pain of multiple defeats. John Richard Green wrote of Washington in his History of the English People,

It was only as the weary fight went on that the colonists learned, little by little, the greatness of their leader—his clear judgment, his calmness in the hour of danger or defeat; the patience with which he waited, the quickness and hardness with which he struck, the lofty and serene sense of duty that never swerved from its task through resentment or jealousy, that never, through war or peace, felt the touch of a meaner ambition; that knew no aim save that of guarding the freedom of his fellow-countrymen; and no personal longing save that of returning to his own fireside when their freedom was secured.

Slowly but finally, victory came. The colonists experienced the sweet taste of victory–but then what? There were still constitutional battles in Congress. Revolt and Jacobin controversy in France spurred similar unrest in the young nation. The War of 1812 loomed on the horizon, and slavery remained a stain on the country’s conscience. The battle was not yet won.

I wouldn’t presume to make an extensive comparison of Mandela and Washington, the two men’s historic and personal contexts differ significantly. But in this sense, that of surrendering the victor’s chair and dealing with a post-Cinderella world, I wonder whether Mandela and Washington could have sympathized with each other.

Rod’s post yesterday on the “Mandela Myth” points out,

…Mandela’s status as a moral icon conceals the terrible realities of post-apartheid South Africa, and how so many of its problems have to do with its culture, and cultural attitudes. The Mandela hagiographies we’re seeing now—did you watch TV news last night?—make it seem that after Mandela left Robben Island prison, South Africa lived happily ever after. This is not true, Ruden says.

Now surely, Mandela was aware of this truth. Even as he took in freedom, political accolades, rugby victory, etc., he knew the battle raged on. His nation still wrestled with historical demons and violence. Though victorious, he and his country had not yet won.

Mandela, like Washington, left his office and (to some extent) the spotlight. These two men, who loved their countries and fought bravely for them, must have felt some weariness in seeing the work left to be done—work that others must accomplish. They were willing to surrender their power, even when political victory and compliments still swirled around them. It is difficult to know when to embrace victory and use it for political advancement—even more difficult to know when one should let it go, when one should humble oneself before the reality of human fallibility and mortality.

Neither Mandela nor Washington acted perfectly. But we can learn from them the politics and prudence required in defeat and victory. In these two men, we see life hopes tied up in a whole nation’s joys and pains. They sacrificed and bled for freedom, sinned and failed but strived for the greater good. They finished their lives without full victory, their work incomplete but left in trust for the coming generations to continue.

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The Problem With Gender Quotas

Nearly every day, an article pops up on Twitter stating, “We need more women to become [fill in the blank].” From engineers to CEOs, writers to philosophers, women are told there is such-and-such a position they must fill in order to bring balance to the galaxy. To further this goal, Germany has created a new plan:

According to a new agreement between the parties negotiating to form Germany’s next governing coalition, supervisory boards for companies registered on the German stock exchange will need to be at least 30 percent female starting in 2016 … From the U.S., where women held only 16.1 percent of board seats by last count, it’s an intriguing experiment to watch for several reasons. Government-directed quotas are potentially unconstitutional, and even private companies seeking to set quotas have been told affirmative action plans need to meet pretty strict requirements to survive an equal protection or Civil Rights Act-based challenge. But many of the folks following women’s lack of progress on Wall Street would like to see the U.S. be, well, a little more Teutonic.

It’s an interesting proposition, and seems to promote a sort of necessary balance. But there are some problems with this idea of “egalitarianism” that Micah Mattix identified well in a Tuesday TAC post:

On the one hand, it is asserted that there are no differences between men and women; therefore, every vocation, every position type, should reflect the country’s gender ratio. If the ratio is not reflected, it is the result of some injustice, again because there is no reason other than discrimination for fewer women in this or that vocation. On the other hand, is asserted that having more women in a certain profession or vocation would make it better because it would add something that was missing. But if there is no difference between men and women, what could possibly be missing?

To put it simply: these articles argue that there are no differences between men and women as such. They believe men and women only differentiate on an individual basis. But if this is true, one shouldn’t need gender quotas to help promote a “missing” element.

Now, if women are truly being discriminated against, then this is a problem. If women were failing the bar exam because of a discriminatory system, or if a company refused to hire women CEO’s simply because of their gender, it would be a serious problem. But this seems better remedied on a case-by-case basis than through a statewide quota.

Germany is a democratic country. If women aren’t vying for certain company positions, might it be because some don’t actually want those positions? According to Katrin Bennhold, that’s the problem: in a 2011 New York Times story, she said gender stereotypes (specifically, “the mother myth”) perpetuated throughout Germany’s history have deceived the female populace. She quotes Angelika Dammann, the “first and only female board member at software giant SAP”: “We are still very far from a situation where it’s as normal for women as for men to want both a career and family—even among young women. When you have children, you’re expected to stay home for a significant period; otherwise you are considered a bad mother.”

Perhaps this is a backward question; but must all women want both a career and family? If women deserve the right to pursue whatever vocation they want, then shouldn’t they be allowed to choose family over career? Should the girl who dreams of becoming a “homemaker” be forced onto the supervisory board of a company simply to fulfill some gender quota? No one seems to suggest such a thing. Yet the mothers who choose family over career are treated with a sort of disdain, as if they’ve been brainwashed by an ancient “mother myth.”

It seems only fair that women should be able to choose any vocation, whether engineering or motherhood—not in order to fulfill some gender quota or to appease the feminists of their age, but purely out of love for the vocation they pursue.

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