The Year in Review

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As 2013 comes to a close, we're looking back on the year that was by revisiting the best pieces by some of our favorite writers here at Liberty:

  • Steve Murphy got the year rolling with "Fatal Mistakes," a look at how the massive ongoing failures of the state normalizes incompetence;
  • Lori Heine wrote of the end result of such a process: "The Mediocre Inherit the Earth";
  • World traveler Jayant Bhandari wrote of visits to North Korea in "A Mirror unto Myself,"  as well as back to his hometown, site of the world's largest industrial accident and an equally large governmental malfeasance, in "Bhopal, 1984";
  • Liberty's adventure correspondent Robert H. Miller detailed hiking and gun-smuggling across the Canadian wilderness, as well as the staggering beauty and overwhelming friendliness encountered while biking the Taiwanese coast.
  • Meanwhile, Liberty's entertainment editor Jo Ann Skousen fulfilled a lifelong dream visiting Easter Island, detailed in "The Land Where the Statues Walked" —while also keeping up top-notch film reviews, such as on the Drug War film Snitch, and the difficult but indispensable 12 Years a Slave;
  • Robert Watts Lamon provided a great review of a collection by a titan of the written word, today nearly forgotten: Wolcott Gibbs—as well as an article on how little the self-appointed American Ruling Class cares about anything but its own power;
  • Jon Harrison continued his excellent coverage of matters domestic—such as "The Zimmerman Verdict"—and foreign: see his "Imperium Sinarum Delendum Est" on the growing challenge of an imperial China;
  • S.H. Chambers kept our homepage lively with cartoons skewering our political and economic overseers;
  • In "The Hypocrisy of High Office," Gary Jason reported on the moral character of our esteemed president;
  • And finally, a trio from our editor, Stephen Cox: "O Tempora! O Bama!" dissected our president's "soaring" rhetoric ; "Detroit" reflected on the decline of that great city; and "Words on Trial" joined the keen insight of Word Watch to the delirious fun of the year's great entertainment: the Jodi Arias murder trial.

Which were your favorites? What would you add to the list? We look forward to bringing you much more great material in 2014 and beyond—thanks for reading, and have the best of new years!



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One Film to Rule Them All

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There’s a good movie in the second Hobbit installment—in fact there are two or three good movies in there. There’s also a handful of mediocre movies, and at least one terrible one.

It’s natural that there would be some difficulties in stretching a 300-page novel written for a younger audience into eight or nine hours of PG-13 screen time. But the tonal troubles don’t break solely along the divide between J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novel, and Peter Jackson’s adaptation; it’s riddled with fault lines, and the fact that the product still ends up being for the most part watchable is a testament to Jackson’s greatest skill: the management of chaos.

All of Jackson’ Tolkien productions (as well as his King Kong, but let’s be charitable and not talk about that one) have been enormously complicated undertakings, requiring the coordination of several thousand people engaged in tasks such as scouting sites, planting gardens, forging swords, training horses, playing woodwinds, changing faces, compositing creatures, altering images, editing scenes, and running, running very long ways indeed. All this is in the service of creating immersive landscapes that must be distinguishable not only from one another but also from any obvious reference point in our own world. The best of the movies in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the story embedded within the larger film of the making of these visual environments, and all the work it took, from concept to realization, to make them come alive on screen.

But the sort of chaos that makes this possible comes at a cost, which is what makes everything else in the film such a muddle. There are at least five stories being carried on simultaneously, and no single one of them is ever tonally consistent with any other for long. Tolkien’s original book, of course, is a fairly straightforward heroic quest led by Thorin the dwarf (Richard Armitage) and Bilbo the hobbit (Martin Freeman), leavened with humor courtesy of the dwarves and hints of something darker lurking somewhere beyond the tale. The movie ramps up these elements dramatically, providing action-comedy sequences of what I can only think to call dwarf frolics—beards and axes and cartoonish goblin deaths—as well as scenes from Gandalf, P.I., in which the wizard (Ian McKellen) investigates the supposedly abandoned fortress of the Necromancer. These are generally successful, but each cut between them provokes momentary confusion as the viewer reorients himself to the new tone.

But Jackson adds on top of these still more layers: a tale of political resistance in Laketown, and an unlikely love triangle involving two elves and a dwarf. The former is intended to flesh out the character of Bard (Luke Evans), who is destined to play a major role in the final installment of the series; however, as the government he is resisting concerns itself more with controlling trade than with marshalling vast, evil armies or murdering an entire homeland’s worth of dwarves, it doesn’t register too high on the Middle Earth scale of tyranny.

Likewise, the absurd love triangle is meant to forge connections across to the Lord of the Rings movies by giving the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) something to do other than killing goblins and a spider or two. The results, as with so much else in the movie, are mixed: the female elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), would be a welcome addition to a male-dominated cast, if she didn’t have to take time out from kicking ass to flirt with Legolas and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) in turn. One scene where she has to heal an arrow wound in Kili’s leg is particularly absurd, and encapsulates the movie’s problems: she is ecstatic in an overtly sexual, radiant St. Teresa sort of way, and yet it’s all taking place in front of several dwarves as well as Bard’s annoying children, far away from the Lonely Mountain where the actual plot of book and film is playing out.

Even now Jackson is in post-production on the third installment, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, which will complete the saga next year; if he is to continue mining Tolkien after that, he’ll have to dig into The Silmarillion—and while he could probably do justice to something like the Fall of Gondolin, it’s probably better to give it a rest. He is already set to tread on the best joke in The Hobbit—the bump on Bilbo’s head that knocks him out and makes him (and the reader) miss the climactic Battle of the Five Armies—in order to present yet another huge war scene, bigger, badder, huger than all that has gone before.

And that’s a pity, because despite the undoubted financial and qualified critical success of the franchise, the more excess Jackson piles onto it, the less confident he seems in his own work. It remains to be seen whether he can control his impulse to excess, and marry the peerless atmospheric craft of his Tolkien films to the tonal coherence of earlier, more compact films such as Heavenly Creatures. In the meantime, viewers will just have to enjoy the Hobbits less for what they take from Tolkien than from the bigger, dumber pleasures they borrow from more contemporary sources.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2013, 161 minutes.


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Puzzles

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Several current phenomena puzzle me. Maybe some of Liberty’s readers have answers. I’ll save one puzzle about politics until the end of this Reflection.

  • BP, notorious for spilling oil in the Gulf, has been filling TV screens with ads about its concern for the region’s prosperity. According to these ads, it has installed “cutting edge” technology and a “state-of-the-art” monitoring system operating “twenty-four/seven.” How can BP and its advertising agency believe that its public image benefits from the insincerity suggested by three clichés in ten or fifteen seconds in an ad often repeated in a few minutes?
     
  • In its ads Kroger, the grocery chain, offers reduced prices if one buys at least a specific number of specified items or spends at least a specific amount on them. To take advantage of the deal, the customer has to count which of them he really wants or is willing to stock up on and how much, in dollar terms, he wants them. This additional little complication to life often makes me omit buying the one or few specified items that I do want; I don’t want to yield to the price discrimination. Sometimes I even shop at another supermarket. My reaction may be irrational in the most narrowly economic sense, but I think it is human. I wonder how common such reactions are and whether Kroger takes them into account.
     
  • Charities often send out personalized return-address stickers, presumably to put recipients on a guilt trip if they do not contribute. Almost without exception these stickers put a title before the name — in my case “Professor,” “Prof.,” “Dr.,” or “Mr.” Don’t these fund-raisers realize that it is bad form (except perhaps for a physician) to refer to oneself with a title? The name alone is better.
     
  • Expressing my next puzzle might seem to be a complaint about other people. It is not; I am genuinely curious. Why do so many people want almost continuous contact with one another, as by cellphone, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media? Myself, I do not want to send or receive hourly or daily bulletins about the trivia of everyday life, not even to or from close friends. I understand that the social media are useful in coordinating revolutions, but what accounts for their popularity in the United States?
     
  • Whatever became of the half-dollar? Why is the quarter the largest denomination of coin routinely circulating in the United States?
     
  • Why does bitcoin, the digital currency, receive the respect it does in the popular press? A full-fledged currency must maintain a reasonably stable and predictable value, at least over the time between a holder’s receiving it and paying it out in transactions. Bitcoin’s value, however, has been monstrously unstable, ranging from $13.50 in January 2013 to $782 in mid-November, then falling back. How could people confidently use such a currency for pricing and regular transactions, let alone for long-term or even short-term loans? A sound money derives a determinate value either by linkage to some commodity like gold or by regulation of its quantity with some attention for the demand to hold it. Bitcoin, however, is created in a decentralized and capricious way as the reward for solving difficult mathematical problems requiring much expensive computer time; the problems become more and more challenging so as supposedly to put a ceiling of 21 million on the total issue. The system lacks the transparency required for a sound currency of determinate value.

    Its wide fluctuations do give bitcoin an appeal for speculators. Yet for anyone interested in a nongovernmental currency that performs all the functions of a normal money and that, moreover, allows a high degree of anonymity in transactions, ideas for reform must run along other lines. Bitcoin remains a puzzling distraction.
     
  • My last puzzle centers on a fund-raising letter from Speaker John Boehner enclosing a purported survey of opinion. The questions are slanted to draw desired answers. The phoniness of the whole business is epitomized by the date on Boehner’s letter, “Monday morning” — nothing more. (I received the letter and survey on Monday afternoon, November 18.) Many such appeals — complete with the provocative phony dating — have arrived in my mailbox from Republican politicians over the years; I wonder what the Democrats send out. Anyway, how can anyone believe that such phoniness attracts rather than repels voters and contributors?



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Progress and Poverty

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I remember R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal, testing a new keyboard by typing out, “Good news — the depression is over, and the banks are filling with money.” Anyone else would have written, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” But Bill liked news, and when he could find it, good news.

So I want to begin with some good news. The year now ending witnessed significant reductions in the rates of certain linguistic crimes. And since “law enforcement agencies” (a.k.a. cops) always take credit for any accidental lowering of a crime rate, this column gladly takes credit for these reductions. Congratulations, Word Watch.

After years of pointing out that “begging the question” doesn’t mean what you might too hastily assume it means (the prompting of an inquiry) — that it means, instead, a species of logical fallacy (arguing in a circle, using a proposition to prove itself) — I am happy to find that many public speakers now realize where the trap door is hidden, and do their best to avoid it. The people on Fox News practically break their necks getting to the other side. They used to put “that begs the question” in every other sentence, and always in the wrong way. No more. Now, just when you see that they’re dying to say it, there’s a pause, a deep breath, and a slow rephrasing: “That . . . uh . . . poses the question”; “That . . . leads to the question”; “That . . . makes me want to ask you . . .” Somebody obviously told them to read Liberty.

After years of hammering away at the ridiculous idea that President Obama is a great, or even a good, writer and speaker (a hammering that could be heard as recently as last month’s Word Watch), I am gratified by some faint signs that conservatives don’t always feel obliged to begin their denunciations of an Obama utterance by saying, “Despite his soaring rhetoric,” or “The president’s actions are not as inspiring as his words.” They should be saying, “Despite his bathetic attempts at rhetoric” and “not as insipid as his words,” but that may come later, when pundits learn the existence of “bathetic” and “insipid” — in short, when they read Word Watch more often.

The great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy.

And after years of insisting that celebrity is not the same as significance, or even fame, I find curious indications that Word Watch may be exerting some influence on the crude but candid (i.e., free) media. I refer, for instance, to the reader comments that appeared on TMZ, following the death of Paul Walker. Walker was an action film star. He liked fast cars. On November 30, he was killed in a speeding car that went out of control and hit a light pole. It was a horrible accident, and the reader comments on TMZ were appropriately sympathetic. But they were more. They were self-dramatizing in a way that has become predictable after every death of anyone who might conceivably be regarded as a public figure. Hundreds of readers proclaimed themselves devastated with grief on behalf of Walker, his family, and his friends — people with whom these readers had no acquaintance whatever. Finally, someone had had enough. “Sorry,” he wrote, “RIP, our prayers are with the family, etc.....who is he?”

It’s a good thing that TMZ, like Word Watch, exists in cyberspace, or there would have been mob violence. But somebody had to point out that heartfelt feelings are often nothing but words.

Celebrity is fleeting, and even authentic feelings pass away, but some things never leave us. Word Watch can’t do anything about them. For God’s sake, even the second George Bush is back. He is daily proclaimed “more popular than President Obama.” When you think of it, this isn’t saying much. But now he is being cited as a film authority — and in the most gruesomely authoritative way. In late November, ads appeared for a movie called The Book Thief, and these ads said, “The critics are raving . . . . And President George Bush raves, ‘It’s a truly wonderful movie.’” He certainly put a lot of energy into that one. Not only wonderful but truly wonderful. But what truly conveys the feeling of the perpetual, the eternal, the Egyptian pyramidal, is that word “raves.” Raves. The expression has screamed at me from every film ad I have ever had to sit through. The critics are raving. Even a former president is raving. And as always, the New York Times raves. They’ve all gone crazy together.

Well, let them. We’re used to it. But must we get used to the steady seep of ignorance into the foundations and concrete basements of our language? I know you have your own examples; here are three of mine:

1. The effort to make “which” a universal connective: “I bought a new place in Vista Hills, which I didn’t realize the taxes were so high.”

2. The loss or mangling of strong verbs, and the creation of dumb replacements for them. It’s bad enough to hear that “the suspect spit,” not spat, “at the arresting officer”; but must we hear “spitted at him”? And why can’t people realize that the past tense of “fit” is “fitted,” but the past tense of “shit” is “shat”?

3. The growing movement to ignore the rules about comparatives and superlatives, whenever their use requires a split second of thought. Example: a journalist on Greta van Susteren’s show, commenting (December 10) on the latest Quinnipiac poll about Obama: “It’s on healthcare that people are ranking him the most low.” Most low? The superlative of “low” is ”lowest.” Is that too hard? Yes, if you can’t figure out what to do when an adjective gets two words away from its noun.

“Most low” exemplifies a general problem — people’s increasingly evident inability to keep track of their sentences. Leland Yeager, a friend and expert advisor of this column, has collected many instances of the problem, including offerings by such respectable journals as The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Try these exhibits from the Yeager museum of unnatural history:

“A key benefit to [sic] offshore wind power is the lower rate of wind turbulence at sea vs. on land” (WSJ, June 19, 2008). As Yeager suggests, why not just write, “A key advantage of offshore wind power is less wind turbulence at sea than on land”? But here is early documentation of an illiteracy that continues to spread: the use of “versus” (“vs.”) to mean “than.” What next — “My kid is smarter vs. your kid”?

Commentators “take great pride in emphasising how much more sophisticated civilization was in Japan in the 11th century compared with Europe at that time” (Economist, Dec. 20, 2008). It doesn’t take much to compete with the medieval West. But what exactly is being “compared” — “the 11th century” and “Europe”? No, it’s supposed to be . . . let’s see . . . it must be levels of sophistication in Japanese and European civilizations in the 11th century. Commentators apparently like to emphasize the idea that in the 11th century Japan was more sophisticated than Europe.

That’s one way of reforming the sentence, and you can easily think of many others — none of which occurred to the writer. But there are sentences that just make you want to give up and head for the bar. If you have any interest in economics, you’ve seen too many sentences like this one, which Yeager recovered from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review (Sept.-Oct. 2008):

But the embedded leverage in these products meant that end-investors were often buying assets with much greater risk characteristics compared with the underlying pool of mortgages, credit card debts, or loans than they might suppose.

Do scholarly journals still have editors?

Still, the great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy: always ignorant, always talking, always striving to influence, always striving, simultaneously, to obscure the truth. The Obamacare fiasco has born teeming litter after teeming litter of repulsive words. Any example will do, but let’s look at a little missive by the irrepressible Julie Bataille, director of communications, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (November 22, 2013). Remember, as you read, that she is a director of communications.

“Today,” she begins, “Jeff Zients [the wizard that Obama appointed to clean up the mess he had made of the merry old land of Oz] offered an update on our efforts to improve HealthCare.gov; data on key metrics on site performance, the progress made this week and the view looking forward.”

Already you know you’re in trouble. You know that Bataille has no intention of rushing forward with any facts. If she did, she would say up front what’s wrong with the site, instead of tucking “site performance” into a box called “metrics,” tucking that box into one called “data,” and tucking that one into an “update” that was “offered” by somebody else. How about just giving us the data? We know that an update on “progress” assumes that progress has been made — but that’s the topic of debate, isn’t it? Could Bataille be begging the question? Clearly, she is a very bad writer. She’s going to give us nothing but happy talk, and the happy talk will consist of slick-sounding clichés, such as the progressive “view looking forward.” Turning worse into worst, she will mangle those clichés. To her, a “view” looks.

As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time?

“In late October,” she continues, “we appointed QSSI as the general contractor to deploy their expertise in technology and program management to lead this project forward.”

So. Since late October, when the nation, as distinguished from Ms. Bataille, realized that Obamacare was a hideous disaster, something called QSSI has been leading the project forward. (There’s that word again.) But how is that leading accomplished? What’s been happening? Oh, it’s all very technical. Let’s just say that the company (singular), here regarded as they (plural), deploy their expertise. Expertise, one gathers, is like an army. Division 1: Attack that defective code! Division 2: You’re in reserve; wait behind the hill. Division 3: Lift the siege of Fort Obama!

“The team from QSSI continues to work with people from CMS [can’t have enough acronyms] and other contractors around the clock [can’t have enough clichés, either] to troubleshoot the system, prioritize fixes, and provide real-time management decision making.”

So you can “troubleshoot” a “system,” can you? I suppose, then, you can “troubleshoot” almost anything. “Hey, honey, I just wanta troubleshoot ya.” OK. But I draw the line at prioritizing fixes. It just sounds so gruesome. As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time? Maybe that’s what went wrong with Obama . . .

We haven’t reached the end of Bataille’s memo — that’s a very long way off — but we have reached the climax, which she has cleverly deployed in the middle. And this is it:

“Thanks to this team effort, we have made measurable progress.”

Measurable progress.Let’s consider how such phrases might work in real time.

Automobile passenger: “Hey, what’s the speed limit, anyway? Seems like we’re going awful slow.”
Automobile driver: “No, we are making measurable progress.

Airline seat holder: “How long before we get to Cleveland?”
Airline attendant: “We are making measurable progress, sir.”

Employer: “When do you expect to get that project done?”
Employee: “I am making measurable progress.”
Employer: “You’re fired.”

Bataille’s communication, horrible as it seems, is a fair sample of the words oozing out of Washington. If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered: do people who write this kind of prose actually think the way they write? Are they just prowling across their keyboard, trying to find enough words to bamboozle everybody else, or does it all come spontaneously and sincerely to them? When their car breaks down, do they look for expertise that can be deployed? When the guy from Triple A arrives, do they reflect that measurable progress is now being made? Which alternative is more terrible to contemplate — that kind of cunning or that kind of sincerity?




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Rose Wilder Lane Takes Another Bow

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Rose Wilder Lane fans should not miss Susan Wittig Albert’s new book, A Wilder Rose (Persevero Press, 2013). The book is written as a novel but is really novelized biography. It focuses on Lane’s life in the 1930s, when she went to live with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and rewrote her mother’s manuscripts as the Little House books.

I didn’t grow up with those books and have read only the first one. I have read William Holtz’s biography, The Ghost in the Little House, (University of Missouri Press, 1993; see Liberty, Mar. 1992, p. 51), which explained how Rose transformed her mother’s oral-tradition stories into commercially valuable fiction. I can’t vouch for everything in Albert’s new book, but the Rose she presents — and this is written in the first person — sounds very much like Rose’s voice.

Albert has a chapter on Rose’s brief romance with Garet Garrett, a writer I know very well. I can vouch for the fact that the Garrett in A Wilder Rose sounds like him. Some of his statements in the book are right out of his letters to Rose.

Albert’s novel is mostly about relationships: between Rose and her mother, between Rose and her seven-year companion, Helen Boylston, between Rose and a boy she took under her wing, John Turner, between Rose and Garet, and most of all, between Rose and her writing.

The later Rose became an enemy of the state. She did this by not signing up for Social Security and not making a lot of money the state could tax.

Rose wrote for money. Despite her pinched upbringing, or maybe because of it, she was a spender, not a saver. When she had money she went on trips and enjoyed herself. She paid for the education of John Turner, and of Rexh Mehta, a boy she had known in Albania. She built her mother a stone house and brought electricity to their hardscrabble farm. The rewriting of her mother’s unpublishable drafts was partly motivated by a desire for her mother to have money so that Rose would not feel obligated to give her so much of it.

The central event of A Wilder Rose is mother and daughter agreeing, after struggle and face-saving, that Rose would rewrite the Little House manuscripts without credit or disclosure. Another theme is Rose’s incessant desire to shake free of the need to earn “cash, cash, cash,” and write about the ideas she cared about, all the while she was spending money on the people she cared about.

At the end of the 1930s Rose Wilder Lane did shake free of financial obligations and write what she cared about. Her 1943 polemic, The Discovery of Freedom, has made her a historical figure for libertarians. It is not, however, an achievement that much interests biographers, who are attracted much more to the story of the unsung ghostwriter of the famous Little House books.

The later Rose became an enemy of the state. She did this by not signing up for Social Security and not making a lot of money the state could tax. She no longer wrote novels or thousand-dollar stories for the Saturday Evening Post. She did write some things, but there was less of a market for them and her output declined. She was no longer famous.

There is not much in Albert’s book about her life after 1939.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Wilder Rose", by Susan Wittig Albert. Persevero Press, 2013, 302 pages.



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The Babble about “Gun Violence”

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When I was driving to work the other day, the only thing on the radio was a discussion of the latest crazy-high-school-student shooting. Two “newscasters” with, apparently, no news to cast were babbling about how terrified parents “across the nation” must feel about learning that someone, somewhere had used a gun in one of America’s 100,000 public schools. Of course, the babblers didn’t make the common-sense observation that such terrified parents need to calm down, the better to notice what their own kids are doing and think about whether some of them might need some mental help.

The thing that struck me most was the lead babbler’s constantly repeated query, “Why are Americans so violent?” If this query prompts you to ask, “So violent, compared with whom?”, he had an answer. Compared with the Europeans. “When you talk to Europeans, they all wonder why Americans are so violent, when in Europe, they don’t have this violence at all.” Presumably, murdering hundreds of millions of your fellow Europeans, until the Americans come in and teach you better manners, doesn’t count as “violence.” Presumably, soccer riots don’t count as violence. Presumably, the Europeans’ until-1989 addiction to the institutionalized violence of communism doesn’t count as violence.

But there was another example. “I’ve talked to Pakistanis who ask why America is such a violent country.” Oh you have, have you? Isn’t Pakistan one of those countries that has trouble turning terrorists away? And the Pakistanis think we’re violent.

In fact, the murder rate in the United States (4.7 per 100,000 population) is very far beneath the world murder rate (6.9), beneath the murder rate of a number of countries in Europe, beneath the murder rate of dear old Pakistan (7.8), and beneath the murder rate of scores of other countries and “countries” — virtually none of which, so far as I know, are habitually or even occasionally criticized for their violent dispositions. But as usual, America loses the game of cultural comparison, the function of which is never to make any society look bad except ours.

Here is Wikipedia on the recent execution of the uncle of the current dictator of North Korea:

On 12 December 2013 state media announced he had been executed, claiming that "despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him." The 2700 word statement detailing the accusations also included other charges such as placing a granite monument carved with the supreme leader's words "in a shaded corner," "let[ting] the decadent capitalist lifestyle find its way to our society by distributing all sorts of pornographic pictures among his confidants," and "half-heartedly clapping, touching off towering resentment of our service personnel and people" when one of Kim Jong-Un's promotions was announced.

Reading this kind of thing, almost everybody laughs and says something equivalent to “there they go again.” That’s just how the North Koreans are, isn’t it? The high-class babblers then take to their computers to consider whether such events increase or decrease the possibility that North Korea will attack its neighbors with nuclear bombs, or simply continue starving its own people. There is no analysis of why the North Koreans are so violent, any more than there is any analysis of why the Pakistanis, the Mexicans (23.7 murder rate), the Hondurans (91.6), or any other people are violent — not to mention the South Africans (31.8), among whom even a man accused of helping to burn two other men to death with a necklace of burning tires can rise to the exalted position of fake sign-language interpreter at the funeral of the national hero. But there is always plenty of analysis of what is psychologically, socially, and spiritually wrong with “American exceptionalism,” the idea that the United States is in some way better than other countries. America is allowed to be exceptional in only one way — its amazing level of “violence.”




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One Flapper Escapes the Trap

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America’s glorious War on Drugs is viewed with increasing skepticism. Because people keep proposing different variations of it, we never stop talking about it. But we keep talking about it in the same way. Public debate almost always dwells on the superficial aspects, rarely touching upon those closest to the heart.

The argument that addiction to, or abuse of, certain substances is of greater concern to “society” than it is to us as individuals is the basis of every form of prohibition. It claims that we belong to others more than we do to ourselves. But to prohibit certain substances because people might abuse them is a violation of human dignity. If our lives are “society’s” more than they are our own, then we are something less than entirely human.

I’ve never used illegal drugs. Even though I was a teenager during the seventies, when supposedly “everybody did it.” Was that because drugs were against the law? I don’t think so.

I didn’t hang around with people who had access to anything stronger than marijuana. And I had plenty of opportunity to see how that affected them. It made them stupid, and it made them stink. I didn’t want to be stupid, and I didn’t want to stink.

As an adult, I became addicted to an entirely legal substance: alcohol. Would I have used it if it had been illegal? As illegality wasn’t what deterred me from smoking weed, it probably would have had little to do with keeping me from drinking. I liked the taste of booze, and it made me feel powerful and utterly brilliant. It was fetishized (by the “society” to which I supposedly belong) as a rite of passage to all things grown-up and glamorous, and those were exactly the things I wanted to be.

Had I been a flapper in the speakeasy days, I’d have been swilling gin and dancing the Charleston right along with the rest of them.

Perhaps sensing the utilitarian coldness of the “society owns us” line, many prohibitionists appeal to our Inner Five-Year-Old. They simply care about us — more than we may care about ourselves. But why does their concern for us take precedence over our own? It comes around, no less than the other argument, to claiming that somebody else is more important than we are.

Their concern purportedly trumps ours. But I’ve known many alcoholics and other addicts who are valiantly battling their addiction. And not one of us got clean or sober because anybody else wanted us to. Any recovery program will tell you that is never enough. If we live and recover instead of giving up and dying, it can only be because we value ourselves enough to believe that our lives are worthwhile.

No one else can make you value yourself. Nor is it likely to add to your estimation of yourself to be told that somebody else’s interest in you is more important than your own. None of the people who have overcome an addiction to illegal drugs did so because of such an appeal. That wouldn’t appeal to anybody. Which is probably why — since it is the argument so often used — so many people are hooked on illegal drugs.

The drive to illegalize booze got traction during the industrial revolution. The saloon became the place to be counted, herded, and manipulated into voting as the powerful desired. Might this not have been because people had already begun to feel more like sheep than like human beings? Could not the desire to intoxicate oneself into oblivion have something to do with the abuse of alcohol (and drugs) in the first place?

How, then, will playing upon the sense that somebody else owns us — that we are not people in our own right in any meaningful sense — make us want to drink or use drugs any less?

Within every individual is that spark of humanity that gives us our identity. That recognition of our own worth. It goes beyond the mere survival instinct found in animals, driving each of us not only to exist, but to live. To strive for wisdom and achievement. To be free not simply from some trap (the highest aspiration of an animal), but to pursue a higher purpose.

I got sober — and stay sober — because I want to live the fullest life possible. The more “society” permits the liberty for human beings to reach their potential, the less attractive an escape into intoxication will be. Then prohibition schemes of every sort will be as dead as the flappers and bootleggers of our past.




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The Gloves Are Off

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Last week’s bipartisan budget deal was more than a ceasefire in the fiscal war between Republicans and Democrats. It also led to the first shot being fired in the long-awaited, long-postponed civil war within the Republican Party.

Emboldened by recent Tea Party defeats in special elections held in Alabama and Louisiana, and by polling data showing that the October shutdown of the federal government was deeply unpopular with voters, House Speaker John Boehner used the budget agreement as a pretext to come out swinging against the Tea Party wing of his party.

According to sources who spoke to The New York Times and other media outlets, in a meeting of House Republicans held on Dec. 11 Boehner castigated advocacy groups like Heritage Action for America and the Senate Conservatives Fund: “They are not fighting for conservative principles. They are not fighting for conservative policy. They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations.” These accusations in private were followed by Boehner’s public denunciation of the same groups for opposing the deal worked out between House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and his Democrat counterpart in the Senate, Patty Murray of Washington. “I just think they’ve lost all credibility,” he said of the groups at a press briefing on Dec. 12. Implicitly of course Boehner was also criticizing the Tea Party supporters in his own caucus, as well as Ted Cruz and Co. over in the Senate. The smell of blood is in the air; the establishment’s fight to take back the GOP has begun in earnest.

At the same time the Speaker was attacking the far right, the executive director of the House Republican Study Committee, Paul Teller, was fired for leaking the content of private conversations to conservatives opposed to the party establishment. The dismissal amounts to a first step to wrest control of the Republican agenda from those sympathetic to the Tea Party and place it firmly in establishment hands.

So far the Tea Party and affiliated groups have responded with rhetoric only. It is difficult to see what they can actually do to hurt the establishment without damaging their own cause. They remain a minority — albeit an important one — within a minority, and as such can only go so far without committing political seppuku. It may very well be, however, that they will prefer to die “honorably” rather than compromise with the establishment. True believers rarely yield. How fanatical the Tea Partiers truly are will become clear over the next year or two.

The establishment is seeking to control the agenda and put forward candidates who will enable the Republicans to hold the House and win the Senate in 2014. It also wants to smooth the path for an establishment candidate (Scott Walker, or Jeb Bush, or perhaps Paul Ryan, who declared himself for the establishment when he put his name on last week’s budget deal) to gain their party’s nomination for president in 2016.

At the moment the tide is running with Boehner and the establishment. But the establishment’s ability to impose its vision upon the GOP is yet to be demonstrated. November’s special election in Louisiana, for example, was by no means a clear-cut establishment victory. And it is far from certain that the establishment, even if it triumphs in the intramural battle with the Tea Party, can win a majority of the electorate for its agenda. Demographic trends will continue to shrink the Republican vote, despite efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to suppress Democrat turnout. The recent decline in the Democratic brand has been caused by the disastrous rollout of Obamacare; there is no indication that it represents a secular trend.

In any case, the battle between Republicans has been truly joined, and it should be fun to watch. Pass the popcorn, please.




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Barbara Branden, RIP

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Two weeks ago I received a message from Barbara Branden expressing joy that her book, The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986), was now available as an ebook, with a new introduction by her. Nice going! I thought, to have a book in print for 27 years, and to be reintroducing it today, in a form of publication unknown when the book was written.

In her 84 years, Barbara herself passed through many forms and editions, without ever losing her essential being, or her essential spunk. When very young, she and her former husband Nathaniel Branden became acquainted with Ayn Rand — first as inquirers into the philosophic and literary work of an author who was not, at the time, particularly well known; then as virtual family members, the innermost of Rand’s inner circle; then as Rand’s chief publicists; then as her first biographers (Who Is Ayn Rand? [1962]); then as disillusioned former disciples (1968).

Now here is the very unusual thing: both Barbara and Nathaniel repudiated their absurdly flattering and credulous biography and many of the fanatical conclusions that their mentor had derived from her libertarian and Objectivist premises, but they didn’t throw the accomplishments out with the failures. They kept investigating and publicizing the best parts of Rand, her true intellectual accomplishments. And in 1986, Barbara produced the first real biography of her former friend, a work that demonstrated she could not only admire but also distinguish what was worthy of admiration. She showed where her earlier biography had gone wrong, and she had a lot to say about where she herself had gone wrong during the time when she wrote it. No maudlin emotions, no spite was expressed — but a great deal of gratitude for the true things Rand taught.

Very few authors ever repudiate anything they’ve written; even fewer repudiate their writings in a candid and discriminating manner. And very few libertarians or Objectivists have ever possessed the charm, the personal persuasiveness of Barbara Branden. I sometimes think that there would be millions more libertarians if there were only a few more people able to speak like Barbara. She was never interested in rhetorical victories or smart remarks (though she did have a taste for ironic epigram); she was interested in stating a case clearly and smoothly (no “ums” allowed). She succeeded, both in private and in public.

Barbara was a prize speaker at libertarian events, but I can tell you that she was also an excellent listener, one of the best listeners I have ever known among ideologically inclined people. She didn’t debate; she didn’t spar for intellectual advantage; she didn’t pretend to know what she didn’t know; she asked questions, acknowledged contrasting ideas, made suggestions, said things like “I hope you’re right,” and smiled with joy over the human fellowship that real conversation brings.

Very few libertarians or Objectivists have ever possessed the charm, the personal persuasiveness of Barbara Branden.

Memories. I remember sitting on the big couch in Barbara’s apartment in Los Angeles, while she took a day to help me with the research I was doing for The Woman and the Dynamo, my biography of Isabel Paterson. Rand was Paterson’s disciple, and Barbara was Rand’s disciple, and now Barbara was helping me, the latter-day disciple of Paterson. She was completing one of the many circles that libertarians needed to complete. When my book came out, Barbara received it with pleasure, despite the different interpretations it presented of some important things in her own book. Another author would have resented them; she assuredly did not.

I remember attending the party that preceded the auction of some of Rand’s papers, at Los Angeles in 1998, talking with Barbara, and watching her pose for pictures with Nathaniel. She didn’t pretend not to cry; not all the cycles of her life had been pleasant for her, although she was happy to see this particular cycle returning on an upward curve. She did not cry when I talked with her on the phone while she was recovering — oh, this was many years ago — from a cancer that could have claimed her life. I called, fearing to find her at death’s door. Not at all! Her voice was a little weak, but her spirit was confident. “I am learning,” she said, “not to be a cancer-prone person.”

I remember Barbara telling me about the time when she (and Nathaniel, I believe) were arguing with Bennett Cerf, Rand’s publisher, a man known as a modern liberal. “I don’t think that went very deep,” Barbara said. “When we pressed him about the liberal idea that people should sacrifice to help ‘those less fortunate than themselves,’ he finally said, ‘We have to do it, because otherwise they’ll destroy us.’”

I remember looking forward to visiting Los Angeles so I could go with Barbara to her favorite restaurant (a place with “Hamburger” in the name) and hear more of her stories. I remember Barbara’s healthy appreciation for handsome, hunky men. I remember her humor. And I remember her good humor. Some people are born bitter; others have bitterness thrust upon them; Barbara always refused that gift. She was interested in more vital matters.

I remember so many other things about Barbara . . . but how strange it seems to say “remember,” as if she were actually gone. True, she died on December 11, 2013 — in her sleep, after leaving a hospital where she had been treated, apparently with at least temporary success, for a lung ailment. But no one who knew Barbara Branden will believe she is actually gone.




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Electoral Politics

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