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Is John Kerry a lawbreaker?

Former Secretary of State John Kerry talks with members of the House Democratic Caucus before a meeting on Feb. 13, 2018.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry talks with members of the House Democratic Caucus before a meeting on Feb. 13, 2018.AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

In the Arguable e-mail newsletter, columnist Jeff Jacoby offers his take on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day. Sign up here.

Credit cards and drug prescriptions must periodically be renewed or they expire. The same policy ought to apply to laws and regulations. I've argued in the past that every statute should automatically become null and void after a fixed period of time — 15 years, say — unless lawmakers expressly vote to reauthorize it. Gardens that aren't regularly weeded grow chaotic and ugly. So do statutory codes. That's why legislators should be obliged to review their handiwork on a regular basis, and affirmatively renew laws, agencies, and policies that are still relevant and beneficial. Those not renewed should lapse.


Mandatory sunset clauses aren't a new idea. As far back as 1789, Thomas Jefferson suggested a system under which every law "naturally expires at the end of 19 years." It should be clear "to every practical man," he wrote in a letter to James Madison, "that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal."

Which brings me to John Kerry and the Logan Act.

The Boston Globe's Matt Viser reported on Friday that the former secretary of state has been engaged in "shadow diplomacy" to preserve the Iran nuclear deal he negotiated on behalf of the Obama administration. President Trump, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, are all sharply critical of the Iran accord, and Trump may announce this week that the United States is pulling out of the deal. To prevent that from happening, Kerry and a group of lieutenants who worked with him at the State Department have been pushing aggressively in the opposite direction — meeting with high-ranking foreign officials, including Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.


What does this have to do with repealing obsolete laws? The Globe explains:

Kerry's activities could raise questions if they are perceived as a direct effort to counter current administration foreign policy.

The Trump administration got entangled with controversy when Michael Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, tried to undermine Obama policies in the administration's last few weeks. His actions appeared to some legal experts to violate the Logan Act, an obscure 18th century law meant to crack down on private citizens acting on behalf of the United States during a dispute with foreign governments.

The Logan Act prohibits US citizens from having private correspondence with a foreign government "with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government . . . in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States."

The Logan Act was passed in 1799, during the presidency of Federalist John Adams. It is named for George Logan, a Pennsylvania physician who opposed Adams's hostile policy toward France, and took it upon himself to sail to Europe and engage in some freelance diplomacy with the regime in Paris. When Logan's activity became known, Federalists in Congress enacted the law in retaliation. Still on the books as 18 U.S. Code § 953, the Logan Act makes it illegal for a US citizen to "directly or indirectly" conduct "any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof . . . to defeat the measures of the United States." Violators can be fined and imprisoned for up to three years.


Not once in 218 years has the Logan Act been used to prosecute anyone. Not since 1803 has anyone even been indicted for breaking the law. Plainly the statute is a dead letter. In an age of modern communications, instantaneous and global, it is utterly unworkable. Under modern First Amendment jurisprudence, it is likely unconstitutional as well.

Nevertheless it persists, to be regularly invoked by partisans seeking to score political points. Thus the Logan Act was invoked a few months ago after the disclosure that Trump's former adviser Michael Flynn had negotiated with Russian officials during the presidential transition. It was invoked in 2008, when former president Jimmy Carter held meetings with leaders of the Hamas terror regime in Gaza. It was invoked in 1984, after Jesse Jackson traveled to Cuba and Nicaragua to meet with officials of the Marxist regimes. It was even invoked during the last presidential campaign, when Trump smirkingly expressed the hope that Russia had hacked into Hillary Clinton's emails.

Of what value is a federal law that for more than two centuries has been used only to scold and threaten? The Logan Act should have been repealed centuries ago. It is not healthy to criminalize political differences, which is all that the Logan Act has ever amounted to. Nor is it safe to enact criminal statutes so sweeping ("any correspondence or intercourse with . . . any officer or agent") that any American mounting a campaign to affect US foreign policy could theoretically be vulnerable to prosecution.


In my view, Kerry is quite wrong about the Iran nuclear deal. The agreement he negotiated with the mullahs has not quelled Iran's nuclear ambitions. It has made the world more dangerous, not less. I think Trump should pull the plug on the deal, and hope he will do so this week.

But I certainly can't fault Kerry for seeking to generate support for the accord he midwifed. It is absurd to suggest that he ought to be prosecuted under the Logan Act for meeting with Iranian or European officials. It is absurd to suggest that anyone ought to be prosecuted under a law that has lain dormant for more than two centuries. If there was ever an illustration of the need for legislation to come with automatic sunset provisions, the Logan Act is it. Time to stop ridiculing that dumb law, and repeal it instead.

China donated this Karl Marx statue, by Chinese sculptor Wu Weishan, to the city of Trier, where the philosopher was born.
China donated this Karl Marx statue, by Chinese sculptor Wu Weishan, to the city of Trier, where the philosopher was born.RONALD WITTEK/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Trier's abominable statue

Trier, the city in far western Germany where Karl Marx was born 200 years ago this month, never suffered under communism, the tyrannical ideology grounded in Marx's economic philosophy. If it had — if Trier's residents knew first-hand what it meant to be ruled by a Marxist dictatorship — perhaps local officials would never have considered doing what they did on Saturday: unveiling an 18-foot-tall statue of Marx, a gift to Trier from Communist China, the bloodiest regime in history.


With the end of the Cold War almost 30 years ago, statues and monuments glorifying Marx and other communist idols were removed across Eastern Europe. Communist rule had been lethal, a totalitarian nightmare of cruelty, killing, repression, and lies. The defeat of what Ronald Reagan called the Evil Empire was a great triumph for liberty and human decency. It should have blackened forever the reputation of Marx and Marxism, much as the defeat of the Third Reich blackened forever the reputation of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

It didn't.

Though communists and Marxists committed mass murder and inflicted cruelty on a scale far greater than the Nazis, communism and Marxism have never evoked the universal revulsion and horror that Nazism does. To this day there are those who continue to insist that Marxism is benign and wholesome, or that it has never been properly implemented, or that with all its failings it is better than capitalism.

This continued whitewashing of communism and its ghastly record wouldn't have been possible if communists everywhere had met the fate of the Nazis: unconditional surrender, followed by an Allied occupation and war-crimes trials. Alas, the end of the Cold War brought down communist regimes only in Russia and Europe. It did nothing to end Marxist tyranny elsewhere, especially in Asia. China, the world's most populous country, remains a ruthless one-party communist dictatorship. Xi Jinping, China's ruler-for-life, extols Marx as "the greatest thinker of modern times" and proclaims his "firm belief in the scientific truth of Marxism." For Xi's government, the celebration of Marx is a national priority, one that every tool of modern communications is being deployed to support — including, as The New York Times reported over the weekend, a glitzy five-episode television show called "Marx Got It Right."

China's propaganda efforts aren't only for domestic consumption. The regime in Beijing is interested in proselytizing for Communism beyond its borders. Hence the gigantic statue of Karl Marx it presented to the city of Trier.

It isn't hard to understand why China campaigns so hard to glorify Marx. But what explains the willingness of officials in the free world to collaborate in that glorification? To anyone with even a rudimentary awareness of the misery and pain that Marx and his teachings caused, such adulation should be infuriating. "Marxism is a toxic ideology that has led to mass death, torture, and enslavement wherever it has been applied," four members of Congress — two Democrats and two Republicans — wrote in an open letter on May 1.

Marxist regimes are responsible for murdering 65 million in China; over 20 million in the Soviet Union; and over 2 million in North Korea. Communism's death toll is at least 100 million dead, making it the most destructive ideology in human history. . . .

The city council of Trier's decision to accept China's Karl Marx statue as a gift is a direct insult to the millions of Europeans who suffered for half a century under Marxist dictatorships. Many of them were unjustly imprisoned or tortured or had family and friends imprisoned, tortured, or killed in the name of Marxism — to say nothing of the hundreds of millions in China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba, who continue to suffer under Marxist dictatorships.

Marx died long before the ideas he sowed germinated in the 20th century's first communist upheavals. The oceans of blood spilled to implement those ideas were spilled by others, by brutal sociopaths like Lenin and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, Kim and Castro. Marx wasn't a murderer. Rather, he was the apostle of a murderous idea — and he knew it. The rule of the proletariat would be achieved through violence, he wrote in 1848: "There is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified, and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror."

He was dead by the time the terror began, but that terror is his legacy. What should have gone up in Trier to mark the anniversary of his birth was not the abomination of a towering monument to Karl Marx, but a memorial to the 100 million victims of Marxism, whose blood still cries for justice.

Appropriate my culture. Please.

Have you read about Keziah Daum? She's the Utah teenager who went to her high school prom last week wearing a red qipao, a type of traditional Chinese dress. When Daum tweeted a picture of herself in the dress posing with her prom date, she was hit with hostile responses berating her for engaging in "cultural appropriation." Since Daum isn't Chinese, the harpies shrieked, for her to wear a Chinese-inspired dress was outrageous and insensitive. "My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress," snapped one Twitter user. His rebuke was retweeted more than 41,000 times.

This is such a moronic grievance that I have trouble believing anyone takes it seriously. But in the High Church of Perpetual Dudgeon, the complaints come fast and furious. It is cultural appropriation, say the scolds, when white women wear hooped earrings or fix their hair in cornrows or sport fingernails that are long and glittery. It was cultural appropriation for the University of Ottawa to offer free yoga classes for disabled students. Cultural appropriation when two women in Oregon sold burritos from a food cart. Cultural appropriation when Selena Gomez performed with a bindi. Cultural appropriation for a 5-year-old to wear a Moana costume for Halloween. Cultural appropriation to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

To her credit, Daum wasn't deterred by the PC yelps.

In a response addressed "to everyone causing so much negativity," she tweeted: "I mean no disrespect to the Chinese culture. I'm simply showing my appreciation to their culture. I'm not deleting my post because I've done nothing but show my love for the culture. It's a [bleeping] dress. And it's beautiful."

Happily, Daum got plenty of support, including from social-media users in China.

"It is not cultural appropriation, it's cultural appreciation," a user named Wuyiya posted on Weibo, a leading Chinese microblogging site. "Can anyone living in the US let the girl know that many Chinese people think she looks stunning in this beautiful dress?"

Another Chinese user made a related point: "We all very proud and delighted to share our cultural fashions with anyone around the world. We all support her."

Delighted to share. Isn't that how anyone with pride in the traditions, styles, and beauty of their culture should feel? And isn't every culture enriched by borrowing and blending appealing elements from other cultures? The history of apparel is nothing if not a history of mixing, matching, and making use of ideas about clothing and fashion from lands near and far. The same is true of food and drink, of music and dance, of philosophy and religion.

"Everything great and iconic about this country comes when seemingly disparate parts are blended in revelatory ways," wrote Bari Weiss in a New York Times column last August.

More than half of the countries in the world now have some form of democracy — a system of government we enjoy and have evangelized, but was invented by ancient Greeks. Britain beat us to the abolition of slavery; the Isle of Man, New Zealand and Finland all decided to give women the vote well before the United States. Eventually, we got smart and borrowed these egalitarian innovations. In 1989, when the Tiananmen Square protesters wanted to express their yearning for freedom, they erected a homemade Statue of Liberty. But even Lady Liberty isn't purely American: We have France to thank for the statue.

These days our mongrel culture is at risk of being erased by an increasingly strident left, which is careering us toward a wan existence in which we are all forced to remain in the ethnic and racial lanes assigned to us by accident of our birth.

Cross-pollination among societies is how civilization spreads and deepens. English is among the richest of all languages because it has borrowed so readily from other tongues. Asian concert pianists amass great popularity through performances of European classical music. Christianity, once a small Jewish sect, became a globe-spanning force as it assimilated pagan practices and holidays. Italian cuisine is the world's most influential, but pasta originated in Asia, not the Mediterranean.

"We are living through the greatest period of poverty alleviation in all of human history," columnist Jonah Goldberg writes, "because countries in Asia and Africa have appropriated many economic policies and practices — free markets, property rights, etc. — that began as quirky artifacts of English and Dutch culture."

Cultural appropriation has been taking place since time immemorial. It's not a dynamic to regret, but to relish. It makes it possible for humanity to progress and be enriched, to perceive more than their own local experience, to be enlarged by the insights and innovations and tastes of others. It adds variety and savor to life's pleasures. It broadens literature and art. It improves medicine and science. It knits together dissimilar peoples, and advances mutual understanding.

Last November, preparing to fly home from a trip abroad, I stopped into a Starbucks at the Taipei airport. As I drank an espresso made from Sumatra coffee beans, I listened to "Feliz Navidad" playing on the sound system, while everyone within earshot was speaking Mandarin. I was delighted by the thought of all the cultures that had to intersect to make the moment possible: American business, Taiwanese territory, Italian beverage, Indonesian ingredients, Spanish and English lyrics, Puerto Rican singer, Chinese language.

"Happy globalization!" I tweeted. "Isn't cultural appropriation great?"

Site to see

Amid the internet's vast ocean of drivel, some websites are alluring islands of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in "Site to See," I call attention to one of these online treasures.

This week's site is the official website of the Nobel Prize[URL: https://www.nobelprize.org/], a comprehensive source of information for every Nobel laureate since the prize was created in 1901. The site contains formal biographies of prize recipients and the lectures they delivered on accepting the honor. There are interviews with Nobel laureates, detailed descriptions of their work, videos of the awards ceremonies and banquets, and a wealth of information about Alfred Nobel, including the full text of his will.

The site makes it easy to search for Nobel laureates by year, by field, by nationality, by name, or by age. It details the dress code for those attending the Nobel banquet. There are even online games based on the work of different Nobel laureates.

To date, there have been 585 Nobel laureates. Here is a sampling from the charming banquet speech of one of them — Milton Friedman, recipient of the Nobel prize for economics in 1976:

Delighted as I am with the award, I must confess that the past eight weeks have impressed on me that not only is there no free lunch, there is no free prize. It is a tribute to the world-wide repute of the Nobel awards that the announcement of an award converts its recipient into an instant expert on all and sundry, and unleashes hordes of ravenous newsmen and photographers from journals and TV stations around the world. I myself have been asked my opinion on everything from a cure for the common cold to the market value of a letter signed by John F. Kennedy.

Needless to say, the attention is flattering, but also corrupting. Somehow, we badly need an antidote for both the inflated attention granted a Nobel laureate in areas outside his competence and the inflated ego each of us is in so much danger of acquiring. My own field suggests one obvious antidote: competition through the establishment of many more such awards. But a product that has been so successful is not easy to displace. Hence, I suspect that our inflated egos are safe for a good long time to come.

Recommend a website for this feature! Send me the link and a short description (jeff.jacoby@globe.com), and put "Site to See" in the subject line.


My most recent column was prompted by the release of "Ten Thousand Commandments," a Washington think tank's annual report on the federal regulatory behemoth. During President Trump's first year in office, the executive branch made a real start at curbing the output of government rules and regulations, which were generated at a record-busting rate in the Obama administration. But even under Trump, federal agencies approved nearly 3,300 new federal rules in 2017, and another 1,800 were in the pipeline at year's end. If Trump truly intends to be the deregulator-in-chief, I wrote, his work is just beginning.

The last line

"So they rode on, old friends from the Senate together carrying their country's hopes, while below America sped away, the kindly, pleasant, greening land about to learn whether history still had a place for a nation so strangely composed of great ideals and uneasy compromise as she." — Allen Drury, "Advise and Consent" (1959)

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.