Elizabeth Warren and the Poison of Identity Politics

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Seven months ago, I considered Harvard Law School Prof. Elizabeth Warren from a libertarian perspective. The establishment media darling and Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Massachusetts didn’t offer much to like.

Since then, she’s become considerably more entertaining. And thought-provoking, though not in a way she would have intended.

During the past few weeks, Warren has been caught in a moronic controversy that has put her campaign on the defensive, led supporters to question her political savvy, and — perhaps most damaging — confirmed the impression that she’s a charlatan. The gist of it: for about 15 years, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Warren listed herself in various academic professional directories as a member of a racial minority. Specifically, an American Indian.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Reporters from the Boston Herald asked Warren about her claims of minority status: why she’d made them, then stopped making them, and whether she’d “played the race card” when applying for teaching positions at posh law schools such as Penn and Harvard.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Then, faced with hard evidence from several directories (including the Association of American Law Schools’ annual directory of minority law teachers), she “clarified” her answer. What she’d meant to say was that she’d never made the claims while applying for teaching jobs.

But there were more rakes in the yard . . . and Warren promptly stepped on them. When reporters asked her to explain in detail her claim of Native American ancestry, she babbled:

My Aunt Bee . . . remarked that he — that her father, my papaw — had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do! Because that’s how she saw it. And she said, “And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t.” She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life. . . . I was listed [in the minority directories] because I thought I might be invited to meetings where I might meet more people who had grown up like I had grown up. And it turned out that’s — there really wasn’t any of that.

Note the passive voice of “I was listed.” By all accounts, she did the listing. Her nervous rhetoric betrayed her effort to shirk responsibility for the mendacious act of including herself among minority professors. And some pundits focused on the lazy, verging on racist, generalizations behind the dizzy professor’s words: “high cheekbones” are something “all of the Indians” have.

Not exactly Prof. Kingsfield.

Warren’s campaign rushed into damage control mode. Smoother spokespeople explained that, on a marriage license application in 1894, Warren’s great-uncle claimed that his grandmother — a woman named Neoma O.C. Sarah Smith — had been a Cherokee. The campaign then produced a Utah-based genealogist who confirmed that Neoma, Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother, was at least half Cherokee. (According to some, the initials “O.C.” meant native Cherokee; according to others, contemporary documents described Neoma as “white” which, by the practice of the time, could mean she was half Indian.)

If Neoma was a full-blooded Cherokee, Warren is 1/32; if she was half Cherokee, the professor is 1/64. A thin reed, but the campaign was determined to hang Warren’s robes on it. Staffers pointed out that Bill John Baker, the current chief of the Cherokee nation, has a similarly slight blood connection to the tribe.

Really, this is madness.

When I was in college, we read Mark Twain’s satiric short novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, which rightly ridicules racial distinctions based on 1/8, 1/32, or 1/64 ancestry. The story is often dismissed as an angry product of Twain’s bitter late period — and it is angry. But it’s also a strong perspective on the games that identity-politics practitioners such as Warren play. And have been playing for more than 100 years.

Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma.

Warren’s handlers can spin the story — but the damage is done. On the Internet, ever merciless, the dismissive nicknames have started: Pinocchio-hontas, Fauxcahontas, Sacajawhiner. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson: in some cases, the substance of a charge isn’t important; the response — however skillful — is damaging in itself.

(Actually, what LBJ said was: “I don’t care if the story [that his opponent had sex with farm animals] is true. I just want to hear the son of a bitch deny it.”)

A few days after Warren’s campaign came up with the marriage license application, the story took an ironic turn. While Neoma’s provenance remains murky, her husband — a man named Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma. About 4,000 Cherokees died on that “Trail of Tears.” So, even if she’s part Indian, Warren is also descended from an oppressor in one of the most disgraceful episodes in US history.

Here we reach the logical end of racial identity politics — a muddle of conflicting conclusions based on incomplete or contradictory government documents. Statist bureaucrats love categorizing people; but their categories are usually false, so they don’t hold up over time.

And a mediocrity like Elizabeth Warren ends up being vilified by partisans both Left and Right.

The Boston Herald’s populist grievance merchant Howie Carr put Warren’s miscues in the disgruntled right-wing frame:

The problem the elites have understanding the power of this story is simple. They’ve never been passed over for a job they were qualified for because of some allegedly disadvantaged person who wasn’t. . . . [T]he upper classes have no comprehension of the “rottenness” of this system. . . . [S]omeone in the Harvard counseling office might sadly inform a young Trustafarian that he might have a problem getting into the law school. But then Someone who knows Someone picks up the phone and young Throckmorton suddenly bumps a kid from Quincy with higher LSATs . . .

In this worldview, Warren’s shenanigans cost a “real” disadvantaged minority person a slot teaching at a first-rate law school. But the problem with right-leaning populism is that it embraces rentseeking. It settles for asking that the corruption be administered equitably.

Carr comes close to the truth when he tells the story of the smart kid from working-class Quincy — but falls just short of real insight. He gives in to emotional paranoia about the corrupt phone call. The best solution isn’t to “fix” the crooked preference system; it’s to eliminate rentseeking entirely because it always leads to corruption. The kid from Quincy doesn’t need a redistribution system that spreads spoils equitably; he just wants to be evaluated objectively.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

On the Left, partisans voice contempt for “box-checking” by free riders like Warren. Last summer, the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color passed a Resolution on Academic Ethnic Fraud. The resolution noted that “fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education ... is particularly pervasive among undergraduate and law school applicants.”

In a recent editorial, The Daily News of Newburyport wrote:

It seems clear that Warren’s “box-checking” on law reference application forms was designed to help further her career. Similarly, Harvard Law School benefited by citing Warren as a minority faculty member at a time its diversity practices were under fire.

Warren’s claim that she checked the box claiming Native American heritage in her application for inclusion in the Association of American Law Schools desk book so that she could meet people with similar backgrounds is laughable.

This touches on a critical point: identity politics corrupts institutions as well as people. In 1996, when Harvard Law School was criticized by campus groups for a lack of racial diversity among its faculty, officials touted Warren’s supposed Cherokee roots. According to a Harvard Crimson story at that time:

Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, [spokesman Michael] Chmura said professor of law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.

These days, Harvard’s press office says that the university doesn’t make official pronouncements about employees’ ethnic or racial backgrounds. Which seems a bit . . . carefully . . . timed.

Of course, the whole story beggars belief. Warren skeptics are even showing up on Daily Kos, the left-wing political opinion web site that practically launched the professor’s political aspirations. Its Native American columnist Meteor Blades recently wrote:

What’s unclear is whether Warren checked the “Native American” box solely out of pride or because it might perhaps give her a one- or two-percent edge over some other job candidate without that heritage. She says she didn’t. . . . What Warren also didn’t do was step up in 1996 when it became clear that Harvard, under pressure from students and others about the lack of diversity on its law faculty, was touting her Native heritage. . . . What Harvard did was despicable. What Warren didn’t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.

If she’s lost Daily Kos, Warren is in deep trouble.

Others on the Left are distancing themselves from Warren, frustrated that she was supposed to be a winner and now may not be. In the online magazine Salon, Edward Mason noted:

The story about Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage refuses to die. . . . Some Democrats, haunted by the infamous meltdown of Martha Coakley against Scott Brown two years ago, are wondering if it’s déjà vu all over again. “The people in Washington are saying, ‘The people in Massachusetts are a bunch of fuck-ups who couldn’t run a race for dog catcher,’” said one veteran Massachusetts Democratic insider.

But, to me, the most relevant material came in the reader comments that followed Mason’s cautious story. One commenter earnestly tried to make sense of the hullabaloo:

At no time on any census was OC Sarah Smith, nor any of her off-spring listed as anything other than White. . . . As a contrast, my Great Great Grandmother was listed on the Census and Marriage Certificate as White Indian (Cherokee) but even my relative may not have been full blooded. There is no actual evidence, other than family lore, that Sarah Smith was Cherokee, and zero chance she was full blooded Cherokee. At best, and there’s no evidence to support this, Warren could be 1/64 Cherokee.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

Identity politics is a poison that sickens people, intellectually and spiritually. It abandons them in a madness of paranoia, pettiness, and profanity. Ambitious statists like Elizabeth Warren believe that they can manage the poison more effectively than the little people whose support they assume they have. But they’re lying — to themselves first and to the little people eventually. And inevitably.

rsquo;t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.




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Closing Time

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The chaos in the chair’s election set off a night full of wrangling among LP power factions, with all sides attempting to broker deals that would maximize their own influence on the party’s next two years. Such a deal would save face for both sides, though also make for a potentially fraught leadership structure — though it’s an open question whether it would be more fraught than usual.

The morning dawned on a ballroom full of confused and regret-filled, yet strangely energized libertarians, who made their voices heard even before the chair’s vote was taken back up by refusing to seat a handful of new delegates who had presumably been brought aboard to shift the one-vote race. In the meantime, the Missouri LP took a more direct route, cutting loose the five of its delegates who had voted for Mark Rutherford instead of None of the Above (NOTA) on Saturday.

With Mark Hinkle recusing himself for the chair’s race, Bill Redpath had taken up the (still metaphorical) gavel throughout the previous day’s shenanigans; he started from his ruling of the previous day that the third round of voting would be between Rutherford and NOTA, just like the second ballot which Rutherford won, but failed to gain a majority. A challenge to that ruling, requiring a two-thirds vote from the floor, failed; however, a motion to open up the floor to new nominations succeeded. Because Hinkle had already been eliminated, he was ineligible for renomination, and thus retook the podium from a visibly relieved Redpath.

Reopening the floor had much the same effect as a NOTA win, except Rutherford still remained eligible for votes; likely this was the only compromise that could have forestalled full parliamentary breakdown. Among the new candidates mooted were Wes Wagner, the firebrand at the center of the ugly Oregon LP struggle (and hence much of the rest of this fooferaw); Redpath (again); Geoff Neale (also again); and Ernest Hancock, who wasn’t even there or paid up on his dues. Also nominated, but declining: Jim Lark, who many had viewed as a more-than-acceptable compromise candidate, endorsed Redpath in much the same spirit; Lee Wrights, who endorsed Neale while actively campaigning for vice chair; and Chuck Moulton, who endorsed no one. (Also, a motion came from the floor to overturn the first round of voting and put Hinkle, but he stayed well out of that potential parliamentary nightmare, ruling it out of order.)

Many delegates were scrambling to fill out their ballots and also check out of their rooms by the 11am deadline — like most other things in Vegas, late checkouts are available, but they’re going to cost you.

What the nominating speeches lacked in length — a limit of three minutes for each candidate — they made up for in fireworks. After Wagner used his few minutes to excoriate the party leadership and call for a clean sweep, Redpath tried to cool things down and take up the “compromise” mantle, appealing to his past experience in the role. Neale was having none of it: he used his time to “come clean” about his resignation as treasurer years ago, breaking the silence he had held since that time (in public, anyway) about how a previous LP chair — Bill Redpath, coincidentally enough — asked him to sign off on an unbalanced budget that effectively hid $500,000 in resources. With people still reeling from this, someone stepped up to speak for Hancock; probably would’ve been dynamite if he’d been there to deliver it, but it fizzled in his absence.

The first round of voting was especially frantic, with many delegates scrambling to fill out their ballots and also check out of their rooms by the 11am deadline — like most other things in Vegas, late checkouts are available, but they’re going to cost you. When all the delegations reported, the frontrunners were obvious: Rutherford with 153, Neale 149, Redpath 128. Wagner was low man with 9, while Hancock took 21, not quite enough to get him to the 5% safety line.

With time limits increasingly pressing upon the assembly, a motion was made (by Nick Sarwark, appropriately enough) to combine the successive officer elections into a single ballot, and then handle all at-large positions plus the Judicial Committee on a second ballot. From this point on, imagine everything running in fast forward. Put on the Benny Hill chase music if it helps.

The second round tallies were Neale 167, Rutherford 155, and Redpath eliminated with 119. While delegates were casting their ballots for a fifth round of chair voting, the floor was also opened to nominations for vice chair, secretary, and treasurer. With so much going on, delegates could almost — almost! — be excused for duplicating nominations. In the end, these were the names put forward:

Vice chair: Lee Wrights (who some speculated had been shooting for this all along), George Phillies, and Bill Redpath. Also nominated: Mark Rutherford, who declined to endorse Redpath; and Mark Hinkle, who considered it from the podium with a mighty “Ummm . . .” before declining.

Treasurer: Joe Buchman, Aaron Starr (open boos from some delegates), Tim Hagan, and George Phillies (declined).

Secretary: Ruth Bennett, Alicia Mattson (the incumbent, at the moment very busy working spreadsheet magic — even if at one point the sample VP ballot included Captain Caveman and Grape Ape), and Jeff Weston.

A further motion from the floor limited each candidate to two minutes for their nominating speeches; Bill Redpath was compelled to use his to respond to Neale’s accusations, noting that the amount in question was actually $250,000, and that the budget he asked treasurer Neale to sign off on was, in fact, balanced. Given the charges, the rebuttal was probably necessary, but it added to the unseemliness of the whole procedure. Or, if you’re a press vulture like me, it made the possibility of a Neale/Redpath LP executive pairing irresistibly juicy.

While all this was carrying on, the fifth round voting came in with Neale at 212, Rutherford at 205, and NOTA — previously hanging around 12 — resurgent with 29. As neither human candidate pulled a majority, the low man Rutherford was eliminated and Neale was left to defeat NOTA in a sixth and, gods willing, final ballot. At this point it was decided the chair vote would be combined with that for the other officers, and that during balloting nominations and speeches would proceed for LNC at-large positions.

The easiest course of action was to line them all up and move them through as if they were all speed dating the LP.

Here we entered full three-ring mode, with a show that would put Circus Circus to shame. (Although, really, anyone involved with Circus Circus in any capacity likely has more than enough shame to bear already.) Nominations flooded in. Presidential candidate Gary Johnson entered the fray to endorse both Bill Redpath and, to much wider consternation, Wayne Allen Root; Lee Wrights waded in to speak for Robert Murphy; Wes Wagner was nominated from some corner, and at least a dozen others were entered into the rolls, including stand-bys like Michael Cloud and Mark Hinkle, and wilder-cards like social-media svenghali Arvin Vohra, and the omnipresent, omnisexual Starchild, who on this day had foregone the bustiers and high heels for a rather fetching Lawrence of Arabia number. Everyone accepting an at-large nomination was granted a full minute to make their case to the remaining delegates, so that the easiest course of action was to line them all up and move them through as if they were all speed dating the LP. (Also similar to speed dating: many of the potential matches had no relevant social skills whatsoever.)

At this point, with Judicial Committee nominations in full swing — and, given the extreme pressures of time and hangover pricing for Las Vegas convention space, a motion approved to grant them no time whatsoever to address their would-be constituents — the officer results rolled in. On the sixth ballot, the party finally elected a chair, with Geoff Neale taking it 264 to NOTA’s 159. Opening with the line, “So it seems my master plan of running for national chair with no expenses worked,” Neale’s acceptance speech demonstrated a mix of humor and frankness that will stand him in good stead in the next couple of years. He made a special point of noting the surge in NOTA votes — many of them switching over to express disapproval of his decision to air his and Redpath’s dirty laundry in public — and promising that, on his watch, their voices would be heard. But the message he wanted heard was this: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. There has been a lot of rancor — we must be advocates for our viewpoints, not adversaries.”

Making this easier was the vote for the other officers, a clean sweep for the so-called radical wing of the party. Wrights took vice chair with 52% of votes, 228 to Redpath’s 179 (and Phillies’ 20), thus avoiding what would have been an extremely uncomfortable partnership. On a second ballot, Bennett won secretary, defeating Mattson, who nonetheless had to work through tears to enter results for the at-large and Judicial Committee races. And the biggest cheer went up for treasurer, with Hagan beating out LP bogeyman Starr (or, as one Hagan-supporting delegate infelicitously put it, the man “with the initials A-S-S”). When asked what we could take away from this weekend’s final turn, new vice-chair Lee Wrights responded that “You want to show people something different, you got to be a little different. And something a little different happened today. Now we just gotta make sure we don’t screw it up.”

The immediate fallout of Wrights’ victory was Mary Ruwart’s withdrawal from consideration for the Judicial Committee, fearing the same sorts of conflict-of-interest charges that dogged her in the past cycle when their positions were reversed. (Would that they had thought of that before the Oregon LP deliberations began!) But even with at-large positions confirmed for Redpath and Cloud, and yes, Wayne Allen Root, the “libertarian libertarians” still had much to celebrate, not least the spots for Vohra and Starchild — the latter, especially, surprised many; from my point of view though it was a recognition well-overdue one of the most intelligent, determined libertarian activists in the fold.

The 2016 nominating convention in Los Angeles has a lot to live up to if it’s going to match its three immediate precursors.

At this point, with all ballots in and many delegates bailing out for flights or the pleasures of the Strip, I admit I joined the throng headed for the exit. It’s not that the Judicial Committee results were unimportant — in fact, as we saw throughout this convention, in some circumstances the JC is all-important — but in an ideal party cycle, they will not be invoked at all. (Also, there was sushi to be eaten.) But, regardless, the 2012–14 Judicial Committee features Bill Hall, convention MVP (Most Visible Person) Nicholas Sarwark, Brian Holtz, and Rob Latham back for another term, and Rodger Paxton, Lou Jasikoff, and Rob Power filling out the seven. And with that, the Libertarian Party officially brought its 2012 National Convention to a close.

* * *

So what do we take from all of this?

First, despite a few stutters along the way, Gary Johnson seems genuinely to have won over the party — nowhere was there general dissent against his candidacy and those few voices holding out against him were heard in distant corners of the Red Rock Resort, or isolated comments on the more radical blogs. If he maintains this level of support, he’ll have no trouble achieving his goal of being the LP standard bearer again four years from now — but, as our upcoming interview with the former governor will show, there is still some distance between the former governor’s views, and those of many within the party.

Second, and also helping Johnson among the rank-and-file, the makeup of the LP executive committee went some way towards balancing out any perception of a “conservative” takeover. Even Wes Wagner seemed to acknowledge as much, in comments following the convention on Independent Political Report: “The elections have gone a long way towards mending wounds,” he noted, and elsewhere, “I have been in communication with [Chairman] Neale about this issue and am working with him to try to ensure that Johnson/Gray are listed” on the Oregon ballot. While there are, naturally, legal issues pending, it appears the biggest storm is past, at least until the lawsuit between would-be Oregon LPs finally comes to a verdict.

Third, the 2016 nominating convention in Los Angeles has a lot to live up to if it’s going to match its three immediate precursors. Then again, if the impromptu shouting match held on the veranda balcony between members of the San Bernadino County LP is any indicator, there will be no shortage of issues to work out between then and now.

Fourth, never underestimate libertarians’ ability to create drama out of seemingly nothing. I realize, all too well, that many of the eruptions that took place over the previous 24 hours have been simmering for quite some time — but at the same time, nearly everyone I spoke with before the convention, or even up to Saturday lunchtime, expected a boring weekend in Las Vegas . . . as if that were ever going to be the case.

Ultimately, if the LP is to move forward, it must look on this past weekend in the way Sarwark suggested the night before: as the painful cleansing of a festering wound. Unlike in 2008, when the specter of schism haunted the party from the moment Bob Barr announced his candidacy, there was much more to build on in 2012 than hallway rhetoric alone. Whether the party makes use of the new foundation, or just trashes it all again, remains — as ever — in the balance.



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Think First, Talk Second

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On April 10, I published in this journal an anguished protest against indiscriminate use of the word “legendary.” The occasion was the lavish application of this term to the dead television personality Mike Wallace. If I had been more assiduous in research, I would have brought up the other 235,000,000 uses of that word, as currently indexed by Google. Few of them, I think, are related to Beowulf or The Golden Legend.

The reward for my strictures on “legendary” was a mailbox full of plaudits — all the libertarian equivalents of “right on, brutha man!” — and execrations. From the latter I learned that I was petty, hypercritical, and without respect for the dead.

My response to both parties is this: “Well, somebody’s got to do it.” But I want to salute everyone who’s willing to debate questions of language. If there were more people like my boosters and detractors, the English language might be saved. Salvation comes not from indifference but from vigorous and candid reflection.

One kind of comment puzzled me. It came from a friend I ran into on the street. This person said, “I liked your comments, but I kept wondering, what words would you use instead of ‘legendary’? I mean, there must be some reason why people keep choosing that word.”

My answer is that people keep choosing that word because they hear other people using it; in other words, because they’re too lazy to think for themselves.

But if you want a list of alternative terms (“what would you use instead?”), no problem: you can generate a list of your own in about 30 seconds — which is about how long it took me to come up with the list below. The terms proceed in rough order from the nicest ones to the ones you never expect to see in an obit, for Mike Wallace or any other media darling:

  • Idolized
  • Beloved
  • Celebrated
  • Acclaimed
  • Esteemed
  • Distinguished
  • Respected
  • Famous
  • Nationally recognized
  • Well known
  • Familiar
  • Once famous
  • Now forgotten
  • Notorious
  • Infamous

(Note the difference between “famous” and “infamous.”)

So, here’s a case in which a minimum of reflection can yield significant results. Most language problems are like that. But let’s proceed to another case — quite different — that exemplifies the same idea, by highlighting the lack of reflection.

Whenever you force yourself to read what politicians or public officeholders say, you naturally ask yourself, “What the hell was he thinking?” The answer is usually: “Nothing.” In support of that assertion, I could cite such astonishing recent instances as that of Al Armendariz, who was, until his resignation on April 30, a regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Why did this little warlord leave his perch? Well, a video from 2010 had surfaced, in which a grinning Armendariz lectured a friendly audience about the strategy he used to persecute business people. He indicated that he believed in acting as the Romans allegedly did in “Turkey,” as he called it: when they moved in, they grabbed a bunch of people and crucified them, after which the place was easier to govern.

So when Almendariz laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?

It’s hard to think of a more revolting thing to say. And it’s interesting to note that Big Al was a college professor, so he can’t claim total ignorance of words and meanings. But as if his speech weren’t bad enough, when his sickening remarks — and the even more sickening attitude that accompanied them — were finally revealed, and when he finally resigned, he said, “I regret comments I made several years ago that do not in any way reflect my work as regional administrator." So when he laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?

So much for the self-crucified Al Armendariz. But my main target isn’t the circus of stupidity he was running. It’s the steady, unobtrusive seepage of bland amorality from public officeholders into American public discourse. All without a moment of reflection — as the following case will illustrate.

On the morning of April 2, a fat 43-year-old man with the wonderfully Joycean name of One Goh walked into the offices of tiny (100 students) Oikos University, located in an industrial park near the Oakland, California airport. Goh’s original name appears to have been Su Nam Ko, but sometime after coming to the United States from his native Korea, he changed it, thinking it too girlish. This was one sign that there might be something wrong with One Goh. There were others. He was paranoid and obnoxious; he had welshed on a variety of debts; and at the moment he was intending to kill a school official against whom he had been nursing a grievance. (All right, he was allegedly intending. Please remember that everything I say about Goh is a mere allegation; it has never been proven in court.)

Arriving at Oikos University, and discovering that the official was not in her office, Goh decided to kill other people instead. He went into a classroom, told the students to line up, and shot 10 of them. Seven of them died. Then he went out to the parking lot, stole the car of one of his victims, and fled to a shopping mall, where he surrendered to police.

That is the sad, repulsive story of One Goh. Now let’s see what the head of local law enforcement, Chief of Police Howard Jordan, had to say about it, in interviews on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and other venues.

Jordan said that the police had “learned” a lot: "We've learned that this was a very chaotic, calculated and determined gentleman that came there with a very specific intent to kill people, and that's what his motive was and that's what he carried out."

Well. How interesting. Goh, a man who burst into a classroom and proceeded to shoot 10 people at random, was a gentleman. I wish that Jordan were the only “law enforcement official” who used this term. Prison guards routinely use it for the convicts they’re processing into their domains. “All right, gentlemen, you will now remove your clothing . . .” And no, that isn’t just sarcasm. The next time you hear a cop giving the news-conference version of an arrest, see if he or she doesn’t refer to the alleged suspect as the gentleman that allegedly fired the fatal shot. In the amoral vision of the well-trained public official, even being a mass murderer doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re still a gentleman like everybody else. To put this in another way: like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.

That’s bad enough. But I’m sure you’ve noticed some peculiarities about Mr. Jordan’s expert psychological analysis. Did you mark that weird movement from chaotic to calculated to determined? Of course, this makes no sense. A calculated action may be wicked, but it can hardly be chaotic. So the Chief’s account of events is no different from other expert analyses; it’s a piece of junk. Observe, however, where the sequence ends. It ends in determined. The gentleman was determined.

Like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.

Determined used to be a good word, a word reserved for people who had a purpose and courageously pursued it. No more. Now everybody gets an even break. Entering the ring on one side — Howard Roark! On the other side — One Goh! It’s a fair fight: these contenders are both determined.

One Goh surrendered to the cops without putting up a fight — an action that could be described in a number of ways. One would be to note that he was determined when he slaughtered a bunch of defenseless people, but not so determined when he confronted armed policemen. That would be the moral way of representing it. But another way would be simply to note that he surrendered without putting up a fight. And naturally, that’s the way Jordan put it: “We don't believe he intended on having a confrontation with police.”

Thank God for good intentions.

But why am I picking on a public official who doesn’t happen to have a gift for words? There are a number of ways of replying to that, too. One is to say that if you don’t have a gift for words, you shouldn’t volunteer to go on television. Another is to say that the chief has a gift for words — the wrong words.

He was eloquent in suggesting sympathy-provoking causes for One Goh’s crimes. Referring to Goh’s fellow students, Jordan said the following: "They disrespected him, laughed at him. They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students." This explanation was presumably supplied by Goh who was said by the chief to be not especially remorseful about his crimes (oops, actions).

So this is what you do, if you’re a police chief. Curious about the motives for a mass murder, you accept the mass murderer’s account, never noticing that it blames the victims. Meanwhile, you assume that someone who is crazy enough to shoot up a classroom should not be isolated or disrespected. Odd, isn’t it? By giving such significance to the currently atrocious crime of dissing someone, you end up dissing whoever does the dissing. Gosh, isn’t that a puzzler? What should we say about that? Or about the fact that these people who supposedly made Goh feel isolated were students at a college attended almost entirely by men and women whose first language is not English, a college founded by an Asian pastor to help Asian students feel comfortable in their new environment. But so what? One Goh didn’t feel comfortable. Someone must have made him feel uncomfortable.

That’s where amorality creep always goes. It doesn’t pause before such weighty matters as the good and bad; it slithers around them. At the end, it’s hard to tell the culprits from the victims.

Now consider what Dawinder Kaur, a 19-year-old Army reservist who was shot by One Goh, had to say about the student who was absent from her nursing class for months, then suddenly turned up and started shooting. Her brother reported her remarks: "She told me that a guy went crazy and she got shot. She was running. She was crying; she was bleeding, it was wrong."

Do you have anything to add to that? I don’t. It accounts for everything — including the fact that it was wrong.




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Broadway Is Back!

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Once in a decade a show comes to Broadway that redefines what we mean by "Broadway musical." Once is the show of this decade. It has choreography without dance, show-stopping music without belting, laughter without jokes, central figures without names, and a love story without a single kiss. Once you've seen Once, you will have a completely different idea of what a Broadway musical can be.

Once upon a time in Dublin, a guy met a girl. The guy was a busker, the girl was a Czech immigrant. Once upon a time his music soared, but as this show begins, he has given up on music, and given up on life as well. He is headed for the bridge over troubled waters when the girl stops him and tells him that his music has value. What she means is that his life has value. Once she comes into his life, his life changes. For once, and always.

Onceis based on an independent film of the same name whose central song, "Falling Slowly," won the Academy Award for Best Song in 2007. Those who saw the award show will remember the humble, unbridled joy of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who wrote the music and directed and starred in the film, as they accepted the Oscar. They were so overjoyed that host Jon Stewart brought Marketa back out after the commercial break to finish her speech, which had been cut off by a thoughtless timekeeper. Class act, Jon.

As good as Hansard and Irglova were in the film, however, they can't hold a candle to the performances of Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti as the guy and girl onstage in the Broadway production of Once. Milioti is particularly earnest and charming as the girl, who elicits gales of laughter from the audience even when she is simply reminding the guy, "I am serious. I'm Czech." Tiny but powerful, she seems to personify the word "hope."

The score by Hansard and Irglova is pure Irish folk, but this is no "Riverdance." The songs convey a deep, plaintive resonance that matches the plaintive, unrequited longing of the guy and the girl. Unlike typical Broadway shows in which people suddenly break into song in the middle of a conversation, the music here is an integral part of the story. Characters sing because that's what they are doing — on a street corner, in a recording studio, at a pub or a family gathering. Music is as natural to them as speaking or breathing, and as essential. In this show, music doesn't interrupt the flow of the story; it is the story.

The music is played onstage by a crew of talented "buskers" who weave seamlessly into roles as minor characters in the story and back out again as street musicians performing at a pub or on a sidewalk. The effect is mesmerizing. It's intensified by the fact that the set is an active onstage pub where audience members can buy drinks and mill around with the musicians before the show and during intermission. Everything else is created through imagination — a chair becomes a living room; two tables create a bedroom; several tables become an apartment. All of this occurs in the blink of an eye and the whirl of a table as the busker-musicians act in carefully choreographed unison to move the furnishings and props on and off stage. There is no dancing in this show, but there is some stunning choreography.

The dialogue is modern Irish too, and by that I mean it is peppered with the f-word. But the way they use it, as an adjective and an interjection, is somehow gentle and not at all offensive. It is just part of the Irish accent, as anyone knows who has spent much time in Ireland recently. They use it almost caressingly, with a soft vowel to match their soft personalities.

Once a Broadway musical had to end with a wedding. In fact, it would often end with two or three weddings, as the oft-mismatched couples in the story finally sorted themselves out into appropriate pairings. Audiences sighed with cathartic relief and left the theater smiling. But life isn't a fairy tale, and relationships more often end in the reality of unrequited love; the mismatched couples are already matched with someone else, and those previous entanglements simply won't be sorted out. What resonates in Once is that the relationship between the guy and the girl celebrates a true love that transcends romance. It is deep, whole, and pure. Like the music.

Eleven Tony nominations. Every one of them richly deserved. If you are in New York this year, even once, don't miss the chance to see Once.

Once,directed by John Tiffany. Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, New York City. Discount tickets usually available through broadwaybox.com.




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Move Away from the Window!

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Horror has been a staple of filmmaking since the earliest days of cinema, when the Lumiere brothers (perhaps unintentionally) terrified audiences with the sight of a train seeming to rush straight toward them (1896) and when Lon Chaney made audiences shudder as the first creepy Phantom of the Opera (1925).

The best horror films of the ’50s and the ’60s — such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965) relied on psychological tension rather than blood and gore to develop an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. In fact, Hitchcock deliberately filmed Psycho in black and white to reduce the vividness of the blood one sees in the famous shower scene. Then along came Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and the bloodfest was on.

Humans seem drawn to the cathartic effect of intense fear followed by a flood of relief — especially when that fear remains within the safety of a darkened theater. Once we could go home laughing merrily, knowing that the vampire had been vanquished with a silver bullet or the devil had been destroyed. Then the unvanquishable villain was introduced — Rosemary decided not to kill her devil baby (1968); Freddy Krueger refused to stay dead. Chainsaws and meat hooks increased the gore and reduced the catharsis.

Just when it seemed that the genre had completely saturated itself with mindless gore and predictable stereotypes, Scream appeared (1996) and iconized the genre, adding a new stock character (the likeable nerd) who explained the "rules" of horror movies to his terrorized friends while they were being terrorized. Acting as the chorus in a Greek play, this character participated in the drama and simultaneously narrated it, providing a bridge between the people on-screen and the people in the seats.

Randy (the Greek chorus): "There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie! For instance, Number One: You can never have sex. (Crowd moans and cheers.) Sex equals death, OK? Number Two: You can never drink or do drugs. (Crowd moans and cheers.) No, it's the sin factor, it's a sin, it's an extension of Number One! And Number Three: Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, say 'I'll be right back,' 'cause you won't be back."

Stu: "I'm gettin' another beer, you want one?"

Randy: "Yeah, sure."

Stu: "I'll be right back!!!!"

This insider narration turned the story into a kind of film class and elevated the Scream franchise intellectually above typical slasher films. Yes, it still had buckets of blood, but it also challenged viewers to consider the film as an artform with distinct features and expectations. As audience members we were drawn into the film with a knowing nod of our heads. Yes, we too were intellectually superior to these knuckleheads who don’t know enough to stay together, look behind the door, and MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOW, IDIOT!

The Cabin in the Woodstakes this insider narration a step further, suggesting that, if there are rules, then there must be rulemakers. Rules like "the slut dies first" and "the virgin makes it out alive" aren't just the observations of classroom teachers of literary criticism; in The Cabin in the Woods the rules are positively diabolic. Two distinct storylines develop side by side, one scary and intense, the other droll and detached. Throughout the film, just when the tension seems almost unbearable, “reality” intrudes, reminding the audience that this isn't real — or is it?

It all lends the film a bizarre sense of humor and camp, as zombies with buzzsaws (and even a crazed unicorn!) terrorize the quintet of beautiful, robust teens who just want a quiet weekend of beer, weed, and sex at an idyllic cabin in the lovely woods. There are watchers in these woods, watchers who are intentionally controlling the action, for reasons that don't become apparent until late in the film.

As horror films go, this one is pretty basic, but the framing device of having a story within a story sets it apart and gives the audience something meaty to consider.Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are particularly amusing as the bland, unemotional, white-shirted IT men-behind-the-scenes in the external frame story.

Despite its campiness (and it does have moments of delicious humor) and its intimations of mythic significance, The Cabin in the Woods is still a horror film at heart. If you go, expect to see throat stabbings, arm hackings, blood spewings, and lots of eerie music to pump up your heart and curl your toes. So don’t go alone. Stay together. And MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOW!!!


Editor's Note: Review of "The Cabin in the Woods," directed by Drew Goddard. MGM/United Artists, 2011, 95 minutes.



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None of the Above

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“The party is split. It is split right down the middle.”

How did we get to this point? After three days of peaceful lovey-doveyness, the Libertarian Party this afternoon ripped itself apart, reopening a decades-old wound barely healed since the last time it tore open, in 2008. But unlike the Denver debacle, this fight wasn’t over the presidential ticket — it was over the LP chair, and the direction the party is likely to take over the next two to four years, and beyond that the next decade or more.

At the beginning of the day, such an outcome seemed unimaginable. The party started off by celebrating its past — paying tribute to David Nolan and John Hospers, and inducting Tonie Nathan, Roger MacBride, and Ed Clark into the “Hall of Liberty” — before looking towards its future, in the form of the next election. But in retrospect, even this retrospection pointed to the troubles to come: throughout its 40-year existence, the party has been anything but placid; rather, prone to deep and sudden rifts, and grudges carried for many years by people who want many of the same political ends, but have utterly incompatible ideas about the means used to get there.

But this was all well in the background when the delegations gathered to compile their votes for president. Four candidates were nominated: Gary Johnson, Lee Wrights, Jim Burns, and Carl Person, with the latter two making their token count overnight. (A motion from the floor was made to suspend normal rules and nominate Ron Paul. It failed spectularly.)

After three days of peaceful lovey-doveyness, the Libertarian Party this afternoon ripped itself apart, reopening a decades-old wound.

The nominating speaker for Wrights took a roundabout way of getting to his candidate, going via Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul and not mentioning Wrights’ name for a full ten minutes. He passed off to Mary Ruwart to second, introducing her as “the woman who should have been our 2008 nominee.” (And he’s right, they should have — but their campaign botched it.) Ruwart, finally, went on the attack: what the party needed, she said, was a “consistently libertarian candidate.” Speaking of Wrights’ ability to get “more bang for the buck”; she provided as evidence two laughable TV spots, one a half turn away from a used car ad, the next a parade of doughy, beardy white males talking about the wars they would end. Accepting the nomination, Wrights said: “I am not at war. And if we say that enough, they can’t have them any more.” Not sure that’s how that works, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

Carl Person’s speaker only used a few minutes of his time, and spent that explaining who Carl Person is. And necessarily so, since many people didn’t know or, in the bigger problem for his campaign, didn’t care. Person, in turn, presented himself to the assembled delegates first with a ramble about all the jobs he held in his youth, and then — in the most tangential of segues — explaining his jobs program, which seemed designed to produce someone that can teach him how to use the Internet, or possibly keep kids off his lawn.

Jim Burns, speaking for himself, gave Patrick Henry’s speech “Liberty or Death” speech as his own nominating statement. He did this in character, while wearing a powdered wig. Once done, he removed the hairpiece, and took a few minutes to beg for the tokens it would take to get him onto the VP ballot.

Gary Johnson’s speaker went straight to the former governor’s experience and his suitability to run against the two major-party candidates. “No one will ever confuse him for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.” His second picked up the torch, speaking of him as the “most qualified candidate we have ever had.” Johnson in accepting hammered on the resume again: mentioning once more his vetoes, but also his popularity in office: “People in New Mexico waved at me with all five fingers, not just one.”

He slipped only once, in bringing up the Fair Tax yet again in front of an audience hostile to any taxation. But wisely he went straight from that into his promise to end our wars in foreign countries, and on drugs too — neatly appropriating Wrights’ slogan as his own. He distanced himself from Bob Barr and the 2008 fiasco, and even more so from the two major parties: citing an NPR question where interviewer asked him, if you were on the torture rack, and required to cast a vote for Romney or Obama (and what a telling construction that is, NPR using as casual metaphor the torture they have colluded in normalizing) he says he would rather die than vote for either. Oh, and in case you didn’t remember, there was also that “climbing Mount Everest” thing.

Ruwart, finally, went on the attack: what the party needed, she said, was a “consistently libertarian candidate.”

On the whole it was a great speech; according to at least one seasoned observer, his best as a Libertarian. Any damage done him by the previous night’s debate — likely minimal, if even that — was wiped away, making a first-ballot victory all the more likely. All it would take is 50% plus one vote — and as it was unlikely Burns or Person would be taking many, there was little standing in the way of Johnson’s coronation.

Little, that is, except nearly an hour of deliberation, tabulation, and state-by-state recitation of delegate votes, with each state of course tossing in their little tidbit about their libertarian past or present. In almost all cases, though, their libertarian future lay with Gary Johnson, who handily took the presidential nomination with 419 delegate votes, just over 70% of the total available. Wrights, as expected, was second best at 152; Burns and Person scraped a mere handful apiece.

In his acceptance speech, Johnson thanked his family first and foremost, even noting his daughter’s feedback on the debate: “Dad, you did great, but you got your ass kicked by Lee Wrights.” He paid tribute to Wrights’ campaign, and Wrights, graciously, said it was to come together as a party: “Let’s get this guy elected.”

Of course, R. Lee was hoping the party would come together in support of a Johnson/Wrights ticket. But Johnson moved on to endorse Judge Jim Gray from the podium, citing him as the perfect running mate. Gray announced only days before the convention, and his promotional materials had an unavoidably slapdash look to them — folders with a brief media release and a few pictures of the Judge against a blue sky, looking pensive and, presumably, vice-presidential.

In some ways Gray is a rarity. Usually the presidential losers end up contesting the VP — few come to the convention specifically speaking the second-tier nod. But as the presidential candidate’s handpicked running mate, Gray had the big guns (such as they are, in the LP) lining up behind him — including David Bergland in the role of nominating speaker. Gray himself emphasized the need, as a party, to win — “We are not a philosophical debate society. We are a political party.” — and encouraged audience to repeat the word “Win” whenever it’s said from the stage, which is not at all cultish or creepy.

In 2008, all the trouble had been about the top of the ticket; with that settled, what could go wrong?

Wrights’ nominating speaker went on a bizarre tangent about Ron Paul, and again almost ten minutes passed before the candidate’s name was actually mentioned. The seconding speaker, Nicholas Sarwark — about whom much more below — made an actually coherent case for Wrights, noting he would providing balance to the ticket, and represent the “libertarian wing of the libertarian party.” There were about 15 other uses of the word libertarian tossed in there, but then tautology is the order of the day at political conventions. The line landed, at least, which wasn't the case with his Simpsons reference — it's a pretty damning indicator about the age of this crowd that next to no one seemed to know who Kodos and Kang were.

On to the balltoing, common sense intervened for the vote and the state-by-state roll call was suspended; when the dust settled Jim Gray had a comfortable first-ballot victory, taking 357 votes to Wrights’ 229. In 2008, all the trouble had been about the top of the ticket; with that settled, what could go wrong?

The answer, of course, is plenty. The day’s business was set to conclude with the election of a new chair, a fairly straightforward affair between the present chair, Mark Hinkle, and LNC at-large member Mark Rutherford. But this discounts a serious candidate that built up a surprising amount of support heading into the convention: None of the Above, or NOTA.

Enter Nick Sarwark. He spoke in support of NOTA, laying out in brief the reasons he felt unable to support either candidate — both tied to the Oregon credentialing crisis of the first day, and the party’s overruling of a report on that matter by the Judicial Committee, on which Sarwark sits — but also reminding delegates of the power of NOTA as a political concept. As he summed up later: “It’s telling people, if you’re big enough assholes, we’re just going to go our own way, cut our own door, and go around you.”

But for Sarwark, the speech was primarily a rhetorical gesture, something he thought would get “10 or 15 votes” — not taking into account either the dissatisfaction that led to printed signs advocating “No One” for LNC Chair, or the opportunists who saw a chance to boot out both nominated candidates in favor of one not implicated in what they saw as the present board’s failings. Between the two, support for NOTA was strong enough at 101 votes to prevent either Rutherford or Hinkle from claiming a majority. Instead, with Rutherford beating out Hinkle 228–221, the latter was eliminated, and the final ballot would be between Rutherford and NOTA.

One serious candidate for chair built up a surprising amount of support heading into the convention: None of the Above, or NOTA.

Or so it seemed. Because when the votes were counted, NOTA had won 273–269, and accusations of vote tampering were immediately in the air. Acting chair Bill Redpath called for a revote, which ended Rutherford 278, NOTA 277, write-in Sam Sloan 1. Because Rutherford did not take a majority plus one, he could not be certified as victor. Usually in such circumstances the loser would concede, but NOTA was for obvious reasons unable to do so. As Rutherford also did not concede, and with time running out on the day’s session, Redpath ruled that Sloan, the write-in candidate, was eliminated, and the delegates would reconvene the next day to vote once again between Rutherford and NOTA, as well as all the other officer positions.

Tumult, chaos, anarchy — in the metaphorical, and not the medieval Icelandic sense. The ruling set up a night packed with exactly the sort of back-room meetings and opaque dealings that Sarwark had hoped to expose with his NOTA advocacy. “This was about ripping open a wound that’s been festering for a long time, getting in there and cleaning it out, and applying some Bactine to it. And that will make it heal up, but in the meantime Bactine stings like a motherfucker.”

So there was never any concerted attempt by any group — some observers even calling it the “family” wing of the party — to use NOTA as a way to force open the chair’s race? No, Sarwark said. There was no conspiracy — and the only reason those observers saw one was because, if the tables were turned, a conspiracy is how they would have handled it. “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like — well, you know.”

The greatest worry at this point was that, with the chair’s election lingering to the next morning, time would run out before any of the other party positions — officers, at-large members, Judicial committee — could be decided on the floor, leaving them all (except the Judicial Committee, which couldn’t be handled this way) to be appointed by the newly-installed LNC board.

With all the manipulations in motion, however unintentionally, by Sarwark’s NOTA gambit, there was no lack of context for Ed Clark’s banquet talk about the challenges facing the Libertarian Party. Though he spoke mostly of the challenges overcome in the 1970s and ’80s, and of the rifts that periodically tore the party apart at that time, the applications for the present moment were clear: whatever the feud, whatever the obstacle, it must be overcome so that the fight for liberty could proceed.

Not until the next day would we see how well that message sank in — or if it even did at all.

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Pulling Punches

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Friday dawned bright with the promise of everyone’s two favorite parts of any LNC: the party platform and bylaws sessions!

Actually, Friday is about candidates trying to court delegates for the precious tokens they bear. In order to enter the Friday night debate, televised live on C-SPAN, candidates must secure 10% of the available tokens; with 528 delegates registered today, the magic number this year was 53.

Two candidates cleared the bar with ease: Gary Johnson would end up with fully 267, and Lee Wrights had a comfortable 127. But none of the others could muster hardly half so much: the next closest were Carl Person with 28, and Jim Burns with 27. Though either could (and would) collect further tokens and be nominated with a mere 30, neither was close to making the debate—and they were far out in front of the other also-rans. At least nine people received at least one token, and the LP wasn’t actually sure how many candidates they had running for president because a number of those who filed failed to correspond in any other way.

So when the lights came on and the C-SPAN cameras started rolling, the stage looked not totally dissimilar to any other American presidential debate: two speakers, both in suits, one wearing a blue tie, one wearing a red—though the latter, Wrights’ tie, had a bit of patterning mixed in that marked him as marginally the more casual. He would be far more so by debate’s end.

After a 12-year-old sang a histrionic version of the national anthem, the format was explained by moderator David Bergland. About halfway through it became clear that he’d been a poor choice; though both eminent and highly respectable, his questions never strayed from traditional libertarian talking points, and certainly never went into current events such as the student loan debt uprising, or the European Union crackup. What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Johnson went first, and delivered an opening statement heavy on constitutional rhetoric, applause lines. He made three promises about what he would carry out in his first year as president: first, submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013; second, veto any expenditures that outstripped revenue—the first chance of many to bring up his veto record as governor—and finally, throw out entire tax system, abolish the IRS, and establish a national consumption tax. He presented this last point, the much derided Fair Tax, as a means of moving toward zero tax—but many in the room only heard this as a plan to introduce a new tax, period. So any time he brought up the Fair Tax—and he did it seemingly every question, really ramming it down the throats of the audience—it got about the same response as a fart in an elevator.

What do you expect candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination to say when asked about gun rights, or welfare?

Wrights played up his history in the Party: “It feels like I’m at a family reunion.” His first act as president would be to “declare peace” in wars on drugs, poverty, other nations. As he got excited, he got louder and drops deeper into his North Carolina accent, so that at times he is almost incoherent. But when not bellowing, he projected a genial, folksy image, well suited to delivering libertarian one-liners, if not substantive analysis. It was an approach better suited to this crowd than Johnson’s, which aimed beyond the immediate crowd and out to the C-SPAN viewing audience.

The early questions all concerned the candidates’ relationships with libertarianism. Wrights takes us back to family again, “born a libertarian from a libertarian father.” Johnson talks of his journey from Republican governor to Libertarian candidate as his “coming out of the closet.”

What is libertarianism? Wrights: “A life decision. A way of life. Making decisions for yourself rather than allowing them to be made for you by people hundreds or thousands of miles away.” Johnson: “Don’t tell me what to do.” He followed this up with the first and only Ayn Rand quote of the debate.

As Garrett Quinn of Reason noted, this “seems more like an infomercial for libertarianism than a debate between two candidates” for the nomination. Much policy discussion, little back and forth between the candidates even when there’s a chance to engage. On a question about immigration, Johnson adocated “easy as possible work visas,” and expressed a belief that the Fair Tax would solve taxation problems. Wrights could have attacked that, but settled for more talk about visas and the need to open borders.

Social security, bank bailouts, Medicare: meat and potatoes libertarian issues, but hardly ways to distinguish between candidates. The first even veiled attack was in a question on foreign policy, where Johnson nearly went off the rails by saying he wouldn’t be above pre-emptive strikes—back on a little bit by saying that even those would have to go to Congress for approval. Wrights insisted he would never deploy anyone, ever, but didn’t press his advantage much further.

Johnson’s constant mentions of the Fair Tax were impossible for Wrights to ignore forever, though, and finally, an hour and a half into the debate, he took his chance: asked about tax policy, he said, “There is no such thing as a fair tax. We need to abolish the IRS and have no tax at all.” The follow-up, for once, was the right one: how then would we pay for the essential functions of government? Wrights replied that if we got rid of whatever’s not essential—“which is nearly everything”—there wouldn’t be any problems. Johnson, meanwhile, went back to his 43% solution for a balanced budget—a cut that would be unimaginably radical for much of the American public, but wasn’t nearly radical enough for the sort of crowd that shows up at a Libertarian National Convention.

He was on stronger ground whenever he could move his answer toward his experiences as an actually elected executive official in New Mexico. A number of times he came back to his extensive veto record—“possibly more than the other 49 state governors combined”—though it was a bit odd to hear him talk proudly about vetoing a bill solely for being too long, and not having the time to read it. Not as weird, though, as when Wrights stated that the first executive order he would sign as president would be one invalidating all prior executive orders.

In closing, Johnson promised to stay a libertarian “for life”—“I really want this job.” Wrights, for about the hundredth time that evening, found himself once again in agreement with his opponent: “I really want this job too!”

On the whole it seemed a measured win for Wrights. Johnson didn’t entirely adjust to his audience—case in point, the unnecessary forcing of the Fair Tax, which was never going to play to the room. But it wasn’t a total loss for him: at no point did he go beyond the pale, and usually he succeeded in talking himself back to an applause line. And he certainly nailed home his experience in executive office.

Wrights though played the audience much better. Which, of course, makes sense: he’s been in the party and around these people for many more years than Johnson has; if nominees were selected solely for their skills at preaching to the choir, Wrights would take the race going away. But moving beyond the insular and, sad to say, rather small world of the libertarian hardcore, there are many other situations a candidate must navigate successfully. Wrights won tonight’s debate, but in doing so paradoxically showed himself a less rounded candidate than Johnson.

The nighttime brought events hosted by several states, including the justly famous Texas shindig, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Indiana affair, and a small but spirited crossover by Washington and Mississippi. But, conscious of the early start tomorrow, most called it in early tonight, postponing the true revelry for after the election Saturday night.



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Squabbles and Sorcerors

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As the official business of the 2012 Libertarian Party National Presidential Nominating Convention got underway, there was but one question on everyone’s mind: which group of people will be credentialed and seated as the official delegation from Oregon?

Actually, no, very few people cared about that, especially if you count out those with either a direct stake in the matter, or a fetish for obscurities of parliamentiary procedure. But the LP cannot do without drama, so lacking any at the top of the ballot it was left to the individual delegations to come up with some. Oregon came through in spades.

It’s never a good sign when there’s more than one “central committee” of anything, and Oregon brought two, the Reeves group and the Wagner group. The latter is the one recognized by the Oregon Secretary of State; the former is suing to contest this recognition. It’s of those thoroughly Byzantine LP procedural matters that simmers for months before exploding into floor debate that even Robert’s Rules is hard pressed to contain.

So once the proverbial gavel fell (only proverbial because the actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSA, no joke, would not permit it to be taken on a plane), things got ugly real quick. Between conflicts of interest, backroom (even bedroom) deals, and worst of all violations of parliamentary procedure, there were accusations aplenty. As one of the speakers, himself an involved party, noted when addressing the floor: there are “unclean hands on both sides of the dispute.”

Others settled for the fatal passive — “Mistakes have been made, things could have been handled better.” — before appealing to the LP’s “brand distinction” as the soc-called “party of principle.” “If we can’t follow our own rules,” one asked, “then how can we ask the American people for their votes?” Because of course the fight over who is seated as the Oregon delegation is going to be a campaign killer with the American people in the coming election cycle.

The actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSAwould not permit it to be taken on a plane

Hilariously low stakes aside, this dispute is not one that’s going away. The delegates’ decision to approve the credentials report and seat the Reeves faction, though pragmatically ending a fight that was already holding up the keynote address, leaves the status of the Oregon LP uncertain. Even party insiders cannot yet say which side will win out, or even whether the party’s nominee will be able to appear on the Oregon ballot. But it leaves a bad taste in the mouth — as one Oregon delegate, new to the party and unknowingly swept up in this pissing match, said when addressing the floor: “It seems like the Libertarian Party is more concerned with preserving their own personal power than with promoting liberty in the United States.”

With that kerfuffle momentarily sorted, it was back to the same old, same old with Michael Cloud’s keynote speech. If there’s any libertarian idea you care particularly about, chances are he brought it up — but because he spent his time speaking to every possible issue, there was little focus on any single one of them. “Big government is the disease, and libertarians have the cure” is bumper-sticker stuff, practically defining boilerplate.

The list of the day’s speeches proved hardly more inspirational, showing, if nothing else, that the party is in urgent need of fresh blood. And to be fair, two of the speakers late in the day addressed that in particular: Alexander McCobin, president of Students for Liberty, which gathers college students to talk about liberty; and Andy McKean, founder of Liberty Day, a group that tries to raise constitutional literacy, especially in elementary schools. While neither speech exactly concealed its fundraising aim, it’s encouraging nonetheless to see a block of speech aimed at reaching a generation that, by my own admittedly anecdotal experience, they’re doing none too well with to date.

All of this, though, is a sideshow to the real business of the convention: nominating a presidential candidate. But unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march: Gary Johnson announced his intent early and entered the convention as overwhelming favorite to take the nomination; the only real drama in the process by now is whether the vote will go to a second ballot.

But there are other candidates: enough of them, in fact, that the LP itself isn’t actually sure how many of those who have filed to run for president will actually bother to show up and do so. But what is clear is that the field is nowhere near as packed as in 2008, where nine candidates made the debate stage. Reaching that point requires 30 delegate “tokens” (actually slips of paper); but it’s uncertain whether anyone other than Johnson and Wrights will reach even that total.

So why even bother? I asked Jim Libertarian Burns, a perennial candidate (and yes, that is his legal middle name). For him, it’s about making contacts — even friends — and getting the message out that the Libertarian Party is the best hope that the American people (and by proxy people worldwide) have for true political change. At the same time, the LP as presently constructed is “a pile of crap.” Burns has the hope of at least making the debate stage, which — if it did happen — would be far more as a reward to him for decades within the party, than for any particular strength of his campaign. But rest assured: if by some fluke he were to take the party nomination, he would not accept it, but would instead turn it over to Gary Johnson.

Unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march.

The same would certainly not be true of Lee Wrights, Johnson’s main competitor. Another longtime presence in the LP, Wrights has held a number of roles in past years, including vice chair; without Johnson around, Wrights’ campaign would be something like Andre Marrou’s: essentially, a lifetime service award, and one for which Wrights’ slogan “End All War” (e.g., foreign, Drug, On Poverty) would be adequate

With Johnson, however, Wrights has to focus much more on the issues where he and the ex-governor differ — difficult since they’re both anti-war, anti-drug prohibition, anti-entitlements, etc. So what does he have to offer? First and foremost, many more years of experience in libertarian politics, specifically — indisputable since Johnson just joined six months ago, albeit as a life member. Second, an economic plan that isn’t the Flat Tax. Third, a foreign policy farther in the direction of isolationism than Johnson’s non-interventionism. What would a Wrights campaign look like? A grassroots affair, reaching out to local libertarian candidates in a bid to make use of preestablished media relationships — relationships I’m not sure actually exist, or at least haven’t proven terrifically useful in the past. But the talking points are in place for the debate, and Wrights will at least be on the stage with a chance to make them.

But at this point it would take getting caught in flagrante delicto with half a dozen hookers, several farmyard animals, and a choir of castrati for Gary Johnson to lose the nomination. And while some of the above might be on the menu for other libertarian operatives once they get over to the Strip, there’s precious little vice (other than the obvious one) at the resort itself, even in the room parties that fill the convention’s nighttime hours.

The peculiar pleasure to be found in these hospitality suites is instead that of truly bizarre conversation — something like a perpetual Philip K. Dick story, where one comes to realize, again and again, that there is no firm ground to stand on, no intersection between a particular person’s mind and whatever passes for objective reality in the world around us. For instance, last night I spoke with a younger attendee who was absolutely convinced that the greatest problem facing American politics — nay, politics worldwide — was the workings of sorcerers wielding unimaginable arcane power. He supported a blanket ban on all sorcery, speaking approvingly of nations where such laws were already on the books, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. More specifically, any presidential candidate worth his salt must be willing to take on the leading nest of sorcerers in America, Yale’s Skull & Bones society, which has been responsible for many assassinations over the past half-century or so, most recently Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.

After a few drinks and a swing across the dancefloor at Gary Johnson’s bumping election party (LMFAO soundtrack included), I called it a night. Tomorrow: candidates court delegate tokens and try to get on the stage for the C-SPAN televised debate. More anon.



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Arrival at Red Rock

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In some ways it’s all so familiar — traveling westward to cover a Libertarian National Convention where a (relatively) high-profile former Republican office-holder is expected to sweep away a field of Libertarian sidelights and gain the party’s presidential nomination.

And yet, it is also all so different. For starters, Gary Johnson is no Bob Barr. In his time as governor of New Mexico, Johnson never postured as a drug warrior or tried to “defend” marriage by legislation or other means — in fact, legalization of marijuana and support for gay marriage are probably the two positions of his most likely to attract any voters hesitating between the Romney rock and the Obama hard place.

Thus far his approach has been about as different from Barr’s as can be; where the latter marched through the convention areas with a flock of operatives keeping away the riffraff, Johnson has been approachable, and his staffers friendly and accommodating, within reason (and the ability to make that last distinction is vital for anyone attempting to navigate any large gatherings of libertarians). Johnson’s team has clearly also learned another lesson Barr failed to: recruiting a VP long before the ballots get filled out. Hence he can welcome onto his prospective ticket the highly respected Judge Jim Gray, and not risk the baggage of an intolerably chipper huckster or other, even less sane second.

All of which means precisely zero, at this point. No matter the outcome of the convention or the general election though, it’s hard to imagine Johnson ever saying that libertarians ought to vote for Newt Gingrich for anything. And if nothing else, that is already a change worth celebrating.

* * *

One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is airport security. It's far past cliché by now, and yet the TSA keeps finding ways to top themselves: this time it wasn’t just ludicrously inefficient layout or mufull-body scanners, not just the removal of belts and shoes and the ritual offering of the clear plastic bag of fluids—no, this time they added, at the end of it all, a sign that read “RECOMBOBULATION AREA.” Ostensibly this is the place where you put your clothes back on, reassemble your luggage, get everything back together, but it’s also as close we'll ever get to a direct admission that the goal of the checkpoint is not to stop terrorists, but to discombobulate everyone coming through.



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From Russia, with Oil

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While the Obama administration continues to stifle fossil fuel production in the hope — the delusional dream, actually — of replacing it by wind, solar and biofuel, other nations continue to act rationally. In particular, Russia is working assiduously to become the world’s major energy supplier. A recent WSJ article illustrates this.

The story reports that Russia’s state oil company Rosneft (rhymes with “raw theft”) has cut a huge deal with Italian energy firm Eni to exploit oil fields in the Arctic. In exchange for access to the huge Russian Arctic fields, Eni will give Rosneft stakes in Eni’s projects in Africa, the Americas, and Europe.

Eni is getting a third share of a big pie, or more exactly, pies. The Fedynsky field (northwest of Murmansk) alone contains 19 billion barrels of oil. The total estimated recoverable reserves are about 36 billion barrels.

This deal is on top of an agreement that Russia signed last week with Exxon Mobil, which gives Rosneft a 30% share in development of fields in Canada, the Gulf of Mexico, and West Texas.

So Russia is wasting no time in developing the Arctic, while we block oil and gas drilling and funnel our state resources into solar projects that go bust. Thank God we have such enlightened leadership.




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