Bridges to Nowhere

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On March 15, a bridge collapsed in Florida, crushing several people to death. The bridge was being constructed as a joint effort of Florida International University and various government agencies, who paid for it. News reports indicated the possibility that some of those involved had rushed the project, failed to supervise it properly, or chosen the wrong firms to undertake it. I don’t know whether Mark Rosenberg, president of the university, had any of that in mind when he issued a statement about the disaster, but here’s a newspaper report on his statement:

Rosenberg [said] in a video shared on Twitter Friday [the day after the accident] that the “tragic accident of the bridge collapse stuns us, saddens us.”

“The bridge was about collaboration, about neighborliness, about doing the right thing,” he said.

“But today we are sad and all we can do is promise a very thorough investigation in getting to the bottom of this and mourn those who we have lost.”

I have four things to say about Rosenberg’s comments.

  1. On occasions like this, old-fashioned college presidents would issue dignified statements, in writing. Rosenberg leaped to tweet a video.
     
  2. Mark Rosenberg, PhD, doesn’t know the difference between “who” and “whom” — not when facing such a linguistic puzzle as an embedded clause. Just turn it around, Dr. Rosenberg. Would you say, “We have lost who?” Maybe you would.
     
  3. Whom, exactly, had Rosenberg lost and was mourning? I have enough trouble picturing public officials kneeling by their beds, rapt in thoughts and prayers for people they don’t know and never heard of. What shall I do with the claim that such people are a personal loss for whom officials are donning the black bands of mourning? Rosenberg should have stopped with the simple and incontestable “today we are sad.”
     
  4. But here’s the worst problem: “The bridge was about collaboration, about neighborliness, about doing the right thing,” Are there any situations in which PC lingo won’t come barging through the door? A bridge is not about anything except getting people to the other side. A bridge may acquire some kind of symbolism, but the taxpayers of the United States didn’t pay 10 or 15 million dollars to construct a monument to collaboration, neighborliness, or doing the right thing. They paid that money so that students could cross Tamiami Trail from FIU to their homes in Sweetwater. This was not the Golden Gate Bridge or the Rainbow Bridge in Das Rheingold. It was a simple, ugly, concrete, utilitarian structure. The university was not being neighborly; it was assisting its own students (with other people’s money, naturally). And if it was collaborating, it was doing so in order to cadge some money from the government. As for doing the right thing, nobody sets out to do the wrong thing, except perhaps in Spike Lee movies.

Rosenberg’s symbol-mongering continued in an interview with an uncritical New York Times:

“This was a good project,” Dr. Rosenberg said Friday. “This was a project that spoke to our desire to build bridges. When the board hired me, I told them, ‘If you give me a pile of rocks, I’m going to build a bridge, not a wall.’ This was about neighborliness and collaboration.”

We see, however, that if you give him a pile of rocks, you’ll end up with a pile of rocks — rhetorically as well as literally.

This was not the Golden Gate Bridge or the Rainbow Bridge in Das Rheingold. It was a simple, ugly, concrete, utilitarian structure.

From Rosenberg’s lofty musings there’s a steep descent to the Death Valley of Hillary Clinton’s latest attempts to explain why she lost the election and deserved, of course, to have won it. On her recent visit to India she took occasion to insult the 52% of American “white” women who voted against her, claiming that their menfolk told them how to vote, so they voted that way. But what especially interested me was the weird mélange of PC and plutocracy that characterized her distinction between places that voted for her and places that voted against:

I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.

One of Clinton’s ideas, if that’s the right word for them, is that diverse populations are wealthier than non-diverse ones, and that their wealth is somehow an effect of their diversity. Since she never defines her terms, one must suppose that diverse means non-“white.” She must, therefore, believe that people in East Los Angeles and South Chicago are really good at hiding their wealth: they don’t seem as prosperous as people in Beverly Hills and the Chicago Gold Coast, but they must be wealthy, because they voted for her. So much for Clinton’s grasp of the problem of income inequality, much advertised by her and her party, when it suits them. Her grasp of psychology is almost as good. Some of her most fervent support came from impoverished inner cities and from the Washington suburbs, which are chock-full of government bureaucrats. These communities supported her because they are dynamic, optimistic, and moving forward.

If you give him a pile of rocks, you’ll end up with a pile of rocks — rhetorically as well as literally.

Clinton divulged another idea, and this is one with few competitors in the realm of politically repulsive notions. I refer to the idea that the better population, the more upright and moral and truth-seeking and noble and deservedly optimistic population, is the one that has wealth. I suppose that Clinton ought to know, because she and her husband (who obviously tells her what to do) have amassed, from a lifetime of selfless public service, a fortune worthy of the Arabian Nights. No country bumpkins are these noble sophist-solons. The fabled wealth of their supporters often derives from similarly political sources: government contracts, government-assisted industries, and lucrative government employment, as in those Washington suburbs. There is barely a state capital in the country that doesn’t have higher household incomes than the rest of the state, or that failed to vote for Hillary.

But if you think that the urban plutocrats who use their votes and influence to ruin the schools, bankrupt the middle class, spread crime and welfare dependency through every promising community, and deny peaceful citizens the right to self-defense — if you think these people are wiser and nobler than a single mother waiting tables in Kansas City, you have disqualified yourself not only from public office but also from public respect. And that’s exactly what Hillary Clinton has done.

Descending still further on the trail of the self-disqualified, we arrive at Andrew (“Andy”) McCabe, former second banana at the FBI. When this gentleman got fired for leaking and lying, he released a long, turgid, thoroughly lawyered-up declaration about various things, including the offenses charged against him by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General. It’s the kind of statement that’s meant to sound childishly simple, but even a child could see that it’s written to be impenetrable. It doesn’t make you wonder how such a smart, caring person could possibly have been fired from his job; it makes you wonder (once more) how stupid one needs to be to qualify for a leadership position in government.

There is barely a state capital in the country that doesn’t have higher household incomes than the rest of the state, or that failed to vote for Hillary.

Here’s a passage; I’ll inject some comments.

The OIG investigation has focused on information I chose to share with a reporter through my public affairs officer and a legal counselor. As Deputy Director, I was one of only a few people who had the authority to do that. It was not a secret, it took place over several days, and others, including the Director, were aware of the interaction with the reporter. [McCabe never says what the information was or to whom it was given. If it wasn’t secret, what is it? But his purpose is to implicate as many other people as possible. He proves, however, that his unethical action was no accident; it was determined and systematic. He must have provided one hell of a lot of information “over several days.”] It was the type of exchange with the media that the Deputy Director oversees several times per week. [The plain word for this kind of “exchange” — and by the way, what was given in return? — is “leak.”] In fact, it was the same type of work [Work? Is leaking a job?] that I continued to do under Director Wray, at his request. [An attempt to implicate the current boss. But notice the obvious but unanswered question: What exactly were you exchanging?] The investigation subsequently focused on who [Ever hear of the word “whom”?] I talked to, when I talked to them, and so forth. During these inquiries, I answered questions truthfully and as accurately as I could amidst the chaos that surrounded me. [He had no role in generating that chaos.] And when I thought my answers were misunderstood, I contacted investigators to correct them. [Give us an example. Maybe we’ll start to imagine something other than “I lied, and then I tried to spin my lies.”]

Of course, McCabe’s statement castigated Trump for saying that he should be fired and denied the pension he had earned by his monumental “20 years of service.” I suggest that those 20 years should be regarded as their own reward, since the servant thinks so highly of their moral value.

Another person who has been unwittingly (to use a favorite term of James Clapper, former director of national intelligence) revealing that he wasn’t qualified for his job is John Brennan, former director of the CIA. Brennan has been making such revelations for quite a while. In December he flew off the handle at Trump’s odd desire to unfriend nations who voted against the US in the UN. Trump, he said, “expects blind loyalty and subservience from everyone — qualities usually found in narcissistic, vengeful autocrats.” While it’s refreshing to find that the former chief of the nation’s army of spooks is so concerned about the welfare of countries he used to spy on, his zeal betrayed him into the ridiculous error of calling blind loyalty and subservience a set of qualities usually found in autocrats. Oh, isn’t that what he meant? But that’s what he wrote. He also accused Trump’s 2016 campaign of being on “a treasonous path,” apparently for being too friendly to certain foreign nations.

Those 20 years of service should be regarded as their own reward, since the servant thinks so highly of their moral value.

If the former head of the CIA is this loose with language, it’s not surprising that he should have gone all out in denouncing Trump for the firing of McCabe, his colleague at the FBI. Brennan spat a tweet at Trump, as follows:

When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America . . . America will triumph over you.

There are arguments to be made both for and against Trump’s conduct, in many areas, but his most obvious defense will be, “Look what I had to deal with” — meaning people like Brennan, whose tin-pot j’accuse can only confirm most people’s suspicions about government spies. He is a man whose instinctive response to opposition is to indicate that he knows something that he can use to get you. If a person like that can threaten the president so automatically and transparently, what was he willing to do to people who were not president?

Yet this is precisely the quality that inspired former UN Ambassador Samantha Power to tweet, as a compliment to the former spymaster:

Not a good idea to piss off John Brennan.

Hey, ya lug. You tryin’ tuh piss off duh boss? You know what happens tuh people that piss off duh boss?

Thus encouraged, Brennan has continued to make himself look like a gangster, going on TV to say that Vladimir Putin “may have something” on Trump.

If we are going to have an FBI or a CIA or a DOJ, I presume it should be run by people of discretion and courage, people who are bold enough to denounce any crimes they uncover by people in the government, but are wise enough to know that they themselves are not the government. This is what the McCabes and Comeys and Brennans and Clappers and Strzoks and Ohrs, geniuses that they are, failed to understand. Like Hillary Clinton, they thought they were the government, having achieved that status by virtue of their superior intelligence and nobility. They then proceeded to sneak their way into higher and higher levels of power. Then it turned out that their nobility was nothing but self-righteousness, and their intelligence was nonexistent.

Trump treats truths and falsehoods in the same way, because he can’t tell the difference.

If there’s a way of being brutally disingenuous, Trump’s enemies have found it. Trump himself is an expert at being brutally ingenuous. The truths he enunciates are blurted out and kicked around, in the way a child finds a football and kicks it into the lamp. He treats falsehoods in the same way, because he can’t tell the difference. Lately he’s been touting a proposal to handle the “opioid crisis” by administering the death penalty to “high level drug traffickers.” What’s the why and how of that? Well, as reported by a prominent source of news and blather, CNN Politics,

Trump told an audience in Pennsylvania this month that "a drug dealer will kill 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 people during the course of his or her life" and not be punished as much as a murderer.

"Thousands of people are killed or their lives are destroyed, their families are destroyed. So you can kill thousands of people and go to jail for 30 days," Trump said. "They catch a drug dealer, they don't even put them in jail."

I can’t help noticing Trump’s switch from the acceptable “his or her” to the horrible “them” (referent: a — i.e., one — drug dealer), which shows that he doesn’t understand grammar. As we’ve seen, he’s not the only one. But the real atrocity is the ideas he’s conveying. Talk about fake news! First we have the glib assertion that single sellers of drugs kill thousands. “How many thousands, Mr. Trump?” “Oh, 2,000, 3,000, 5,000. Is that enough to make my argument? I’ll give you more if you want.” Later we see that drug dealers aren’t put in jail. My modest research on law enforcement (please buy my book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison, Yale University Press, and ask your library to buy it as well) has uncovered a few cases of drug dealers who are in jail — a multitude of cases, in fact.

The worst childishness is the premise that these non-facts are supposed to support, which is the idea that drug dealers are responsible for destroying the live of victims and their families. If I’m drinking myself to death, the guy on the other side of the counter in the liquor store is not my murderer. He is not destroying my family, as 19th-century prohibitionists would maintain. If I die of drink, I am the one responsible. If my family suffers, I am the one who caused the suffering. And if Trump believes so much in the death penalty (which honesty compels me to state that I do also, though without Trump’s touching faith in its pharmacological efficacy), shouldn’t he be advocating that the consumers of illegal drugs be executed? That would solve the whole problem.

“How many thousands, Mr. Trump?” “Oh, 2,000, 3,000, 5,000. Is that enough to make my argument? I’ll give you more if you want.”

Let’s go back to Dr. Rosenberg’s idea about building bridges instead of walls. Intelligent communication is a bridge. Rosenberg’s opaquely politicized language is a wall. The intransigence of virtually all government agencies about revealing, well, anything about their operations — that’s another wall. The nation’s incessant, interminable investigations — those are walls, too.

But then we have the bridge builders, the Trumps and Clintons and McCabes and Brennans, ad infinitum, busily constructing their monuments of words — things built of twaddle and government jobs, unsupported by fact or logic. These projects have been going on for a long time. Now, thanks to the rank stupidity of the architects, everyone can see that they don’t work. The bridges are down. Knowing that, maybe we can start to pick up the scattered stones of our language and build some real bridges.




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The Fake Facebook Scandal

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The Founding Fathers of the United States of America had a vision of an educated public kept informed by a vigilant, incisive press. If a crystal ball had granted them a vision of what the Fourth Estate has become nowadays, they'd have gone home, and we'd be paying taxes in pound sterling.

Case in point: the Facebook affair, a manufactured scandal that would make William Randolph Hearst and his anti-Spanish campaign look like pikers. Granted, we have seen quite a few artificial outbursts coming from a disarrayed press, but this one is rather peculiar and thus deserves a second look.

If a crystal ball had granted the Founding Fathers a vision of what the Fourth Estate has become nowadays, we'd still be paying taxes in pound sterling.

It is no mystery that Facebook painstakingly accumulates a detailed profile of every user. Their locations, habits, purchases, relationships, and opinions are carefully analyzed and stored. These data will then be sold to advertisers or marketers.

Collecting consumer data is not in itself a groundbreaking feature. Since the 1970s, such marketing data giants as Epsilon and Acxiom have made a fortune by collecting and analyzing our credit card purchases, travel habits, magazine subscriptions, and financial information. What Facebook brings is a very precise knowledge of its users, obtained by dissecting their posts, their "likes," and their friend lists. A fast, automated review of user profiles can easily establish their political leanings.

A.M.G. downloaded Facebook data on every American user — so much data that it triggered an alert in Facebook's monitoring system.

Like most companies collecting user data, Facebook exploits this information to sell ads and resell user data to third parties. In exchange for the free service, users click through a lengthy consent form and become the product that Facebook sells. Third-party companies purchasing user data are the actual Facebook customers. Facebook created and published an "API" (Application Programming Interface), a way for third-party programmers to query and receive Facebook user data — provided they pay.

From 2010 to 2015 or so, Facebook allowed customers using their API to download and keep user data. Many Facebook customers took advantage of the feature. Among these customers was the firm A.M.G., which worked for the 2012 Obama campaign to identify hesitant voters in swing states. A.M.G. downloaded Facebook data on every American user — so much data that it triggered an alert in Facebook's monitoring system. Facebook looked the other way and told the campaign it could go on until the election — which is not surprising, considering that Zuckerberg's company was, from the inception, militantly leftist.

Zuckerberg stooped to abject apologies for something that was done legally and publicly.

The 2016 Trump campaign hired a British data mining company, Cambridge Analytica, which also used Facebook user data. It remains to be seen how helpful this was. However, every anti-Trump activist can now blame Facebook for the election of Trump, who obviously — or so the "reasoning" goes — would not have been elected without the Facebook superpowers usurped by Cambridge Analytica. How did Zuckerberg, an irreproachable progressive until then, dare lend some of his divine grace to such a devil? Traitor! Have him drawn and quartered!

Thus the press suddenly turned against Facebook and its creator. The business-as-usual data sale was deemed a "breach" or a "leak," which is actually a redeeming wording, since it implies that Facebook's juicy data were not voluntarily sold to the Enemy.

In a sane world, Zuckerberg would have released an open letter to the press that would go like this:

Dear journalists,

Thank you for amply demonstrating why idiocy-uttering cannot be an Olympic discipline: the arena would simply be overcrowded by you cheap hacks vying for the gold.

The current topic of your inept blabber is the way the Trump campaign used Facebook data to produce targeted ads.

However, a simple foray into the archives of your own papers would show that not so long ago, you were swooning at the cleverness of the Obama campaign’s use of Facebook's technology to unceremoniously slurp the friend list of every American user. The campaign used these data to concoct ads and sway voters soured by Obama's first four years. Back then it was genius. Remember? Hey, I still have the message you sent to your friends recommending the raving article about A.M.G. Right above the pictures of this arugula salad you had for lunch.

Today, you pretend to blush and faint at the "revelation" that several companies, included one Cambridge Analytica, bought similar services and thus got similar info. I got news for you (I know, you aren't doing much of these anymore, nowadays — sorry for the discomfort). I didn't get filthy rich by letting Mrs. Smith upload pictures of little Timmy's pasta collage for his granny. I make money by accumulating detailed data about Timmy, his parents, his grandma, their freaking dog, and the whole entourage of this sadly ordinary family. Along with hundreds of millions of other working stiffs. Then I sold those data to anybody who happened to possess the requisite amount of cash and immorality. Talk to your publisher. See the Facebook button on the front page of your rag's web site? That's right: your employer is selling me data about your readers.

So lose the antics and get back to "reporting" about Russians and the NRA. Or I might follow the lead of my pal Bezos and buy a few of your outfits, replace you with a cheap guy on an H-1B, and make sure that the only job you'll ever find is cleaning spittoons.

Love and kisses,
Z.

Sadly, Mark Zuckerberg didn't write anything of the sort. To the contrary, he stooped to abject apologies for something that was done legally and publicly. He self-flagellated and accepted an imaginary complicity with the election of Trump, an act that makes him despised by his liberal pals grasping at straws to delegitimize the president.

Now, Zuckerberg might be a greedy sociopath and a cloying statist, but he is not an idiot. And he doesn't give off the martyr vibe, either. So what’s going on?

Like every good rentseeking statist, Zuckerberg is now turning to the force of government.

Let's go back to Timmy for a second. He is now 12 and developing new friendships. But Grandma has invaded his Facebook news feed with links to her bingo tournaments, and mom's friends' comments on his potty training are still visible to all in her history. There is no way he can use this trite, embarrassing channel to communicate with his cool preteen friends. And Timmy is not alone. According to market research company eMarketer, 5 to 10% of young users — from preteens to age 25 — are dropping off Facebook every year. Just when they are becoming juicy advertising targets. Not to mention the odd libertarian outraged by the company's shoddy practices and sneaky censorship.

So Zuckerberg needs to stop the user hemorrhage. He can take a risk and change the services and features offered by Facebook. He tried a few times, but these changes either backfired or failed to retain users.

Thus, like every good rentseeking statist, Zuckerberg is now turning to the force of government. He is advocating regulation that would force social media companies to increase transparency on ads and fight hate speech. And ban offensive messages. And vet content. And more.

Interestingly, Facebook is already severely limiting free speech. To voice a non-Marxist opinion on Zuckerberg's platform is to take the risk of being suddenly banned by his anonymous, unaccountable censors. Zuckerberg employs a horde of rabid activists that roam the site, looking for popular pages that contain un-PC keywords, and will block off any user sounding vaguely conservative if he or she becomes too popular. His biased censorship, which would make the Chinese government proud, is starting to attract attention.

Facebook is actively fanning the fires of liberal hysteria over normal — if disputable — business practices and is trying to convert it into a push for regulations.

Zuckerberg is now advocating regulation mandating similar censorship and content vetting for all social media. This is a clever triple play. It would raise costs, and thus the barrier to entry, for all potential social network rivals, thereby keeping these pesky competitors at bay. It would absolve him from his anti-conservative witch hunt, since he would merely be implementing a regulation. And it would deprive banned users of a tribune where they can publish their horrid un-PC diatribes.

The latter implies that all censorship would systematically be biased toward statism. Wouldn't some regulated social media company limit its censorship? It's unlikely. Think about the type of person who would want to be hired as a "content verification specialist." Would this censor job attract the average Joe? Or the average libertarian? Or would it be a magnet for vengeful social justice warriors looking for an outlet for their resentment?

Facebook is actively fanning the fires of liberal hysteria over normal — if disputable — business practices and is trying to convert it into a push for regulations. It's the old tale of Br’er Rabbit (a charming tale probably censored by Facebook for its “racist” depiction of a dark-colored figure): "Please don't throw me into the briar patch." It turns out that Br’er Zuckerberg was born and bred in the briar patch of governmental regulations and would simply love for his clumsy critics to throw him into the thickest of it.




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In Our Guts, We Know They’re Nuts

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I’m not old enough to remember Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. But because the late senator is a hero of mine, I have read quite a bit about what happened. I am, therefore, well aware that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s people put out a TV ad implying that if the Republican challenger triumphed in the 1964 election, he would blow up the world. Reportedly the spot only aired once, but that was all it took. A nuclear bomb doesn’t need to go off twice.

“In your heart, you know he’s right” was Goldwater’s campaign slogan. This was changed, by the Democrats, to “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” The political Left has a long history of smearing those it doesn’t like with accusations of insanity.

During that tumultuous campaign, a now deservedly defunct magazine called Fact put out an article whose headline screamed, “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President!” If facts really mattered to this publication, one detail might have given it pause. Absolutely none of those 1,189 self-proclaimed experts ever actually examined the senator.

The political Left has a long history of smearing those it doesn’t like with accusations of insanity.

Goldwater sued the magazine’s editor, Ralph Ginzburg, for libel, and won $75,000 in damages. Though that was, at the time, a lavish sum — the equivalent of approximately $592,000 in today’s funds — the case exerted an influence that was larger still. It resulted in what has come to be known as the “Goldwater Rule.” Officially designated paragraph 7.3 of the Principles of Medical Ethics by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 (and still in effect today), the rule reads as follows:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

Of course the same president whose campaign accused his challenger of insanity is the one who accelerated US military involvement in Vietnam. It was outside his White House that the protestors chanted, “Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” The nation didn’t need to wonder whether President Johnson’s abuses of political power would lead to the deaths of massive numbers of people, because they undeniably did.

But like every other ethical constraint in 21st-century politics, the professional responsibility we might expect from media shrinks is probably not long for this world. Now that Donald Trump is president, his adversaries have the Goldwater Rule in their crosshairs. Some know-it-all in the psychiatric industry rises up to tell us, almost on a daily basis, that if the present occupant of the Oval Office is not a raving maniac, he is, at the very least, teetering on the brink.

The nation didn’t need to wonder whether President Johnson’s abuses of political power would lead to the deaths of massive numbers of people, because they undeniably did.

Though I think the former assessment is extreme, there are a lot of days when I agree with the latter. The Donald often strikes me as an oversized and very spoiled child, who’s been indulged with dangerous toys. Unlike Little Ralphie in A Christmas Story, he probably never had grownups in his life with the nerve to tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” But then again, I don’t regard politicians in general as the most stable or mature specimens of humanity. It could be credibly argued that no mentally healthy adult would ever run for president of the United States.

What really seems to set Donald Trump apart from the rest of the field is the undisguised, boyish glee with which he lives his presidential dream. He’s Big Ralphie, and his BB gun is apocalyptically yuge. He lacks the veneer of sophistication and glibness — an aura of helmsmanship that is probably never more than tissue-thin — that we’ve seen in almost every other aspirant to high office. I suspect, however, that far from making him more destructive than any potential rival, Trump’s weird childishness makes it easier for a majority of us to keep from trusting him overmuch.

Yet the armchair headshrinking is threatening, as well as unethical, because when such “professional” conduct is treated as legitimate, everyone who disagrees with the “experts” runs the risk of being branded as “crazy” — a term that has long been synonymous not only with “dangerous” but also with “evil.” A phony diagnosis is evil in itself. And it subjects people who actually suffer from mental problems to stigma, isolation, and, potentially, far greater dangers than the vast majority of them pose to anyone else.

It could be credibly argued that no mentally healthy adult would ever run for president of the United States.

Thus does the quest for political power threaten to obliterate the very line between sanity and insanity. An insatiable lust for power is coming to be accepted as mentally healthy, and the belief that there are more important things in life is widely dismissed as a disease of moral irresponsibility. But to those who love liberty, tyranny is insane. If liberty is to be preserved, that line must continue to be sharply and clearly drawn.




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The Cruelty of the Self-Righteous

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I am generally favorable to President Trump, and I can give you reasons for that. But I am not favorable, at all, to his role in the current “you aren’t doing enough about this” war between political factions about the so-called opioid crisis. Trump has upped the ante by calling for the death penalty for illicit peddling of opioids. The only way you can call and raise him on that is by recommending the death penalty for users — something that, unfortunately, may already be entailed by the agitated proposals now issuing from Trump and other officials.

Look. Every 20 years there’s another drug “crisis.” This has been going on for more than a century. But seldom has it gone on about a more useful family of drugs than opioids. These drugs reduce severe and chronic pain, and pain is a good thing to reduce. Often it is something that needs to be reduced in order to prevent a suicide; very often it is something that needs to be reduced in order to give sick people a real life.

To arbitrarily limit the number of prescriptions for useful drugs is to arbitrarily increase the amount of human pain. That’s pretty much the definition of cruelty.

There is no doubt that these drugs can be falsely prescribed, over-prescribed, and abused. There is no doubt that they can cause addiction and death. I hope I am not offending you by saying that all of this is a familiar part of life on this planet. The best, and in fact the only, way of meeting this “crisis” is to exercise responsibility for your own medications. It is not to tell your neighbor to take those little pains to the nearest Zen master, or man up and bear them.

To raise the price of “illicit” drugs by raising the penalty for peddling them merely increases profits for the vast majority of dealers who always escape such penalties. To arbitrarily limit the number of prescriptions for useful drugs, which is what is now being proposed on all sides, is to arbitrarily increase the amount of human pain. That’s pretty much the definition of cruelty.

So I say, Damn your cruelty, Mr. President. And damn the cruelty of all the self-satisfied people who agree with you only about this, of all things.




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Sic Semper

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The firing of Andrew McCabe, long the number two person at the FBI and during part of 2017 its interim director, rejoiced my heart, which was even more rejoiced by the fact that his firing denies him access to the government pension, said to be worth almost $2 million, that he was on the verge of receiving. Now he can begin to deal with the legal and financial punishments that his organization has long visited upon innocent American citizens.

Of course, this person, fired for his own misdeeds, immediately issued a statement claiming that the event was an attack on “public servants” and “the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally.” I, for one, do not regard the FBI as sacred, or intelligence agents as a priestly class, or “public servants” as more than government employees. And even if they were, I would consider McCabe a very poor candidate to embody their virtues. This is a man whose wife took hundreds of thousands of dollars from a friend of Hillary Clinton to help her run for office on behalf of the party of Hillary Clinton, and still had the effrontery to supervise investigations of Hillary Clinton.

McCabe's firing is big news because we are seeing a tyrant fall.

Yet the fact that McCabe’s firing was big news, the fact that I and millions even notice the fate of Andrew McCabe, is no cause for celebration. “The FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally” are not supposed to be that important. Their professional careers are not supposed to be crucial to our system of government. The firing of one cop, justified or unjustified, should be no more important than the firing of a professor, a nurse, an engineer, or any other normal person.

McCabe’s firing is big news because he had big power; and he had big power, not because he had a big talent, which he didn’t, but because he was a ruler in an organization that investigates, controls, and often persecutes American citizens, while doggedly withholding information about itself. Under the leadership of McCabe and others, it has become a tyrannical organization. His firing is big news because we are seeing a tyrant fall. Let’s now get rid of the laws and attitudes and social customs that permit the tyranny of the Inner State.




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The Cruz Case: The State’s Kindly Cruelty

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An informative article by Paul Sperry in Real Clear Investigations shows how Nikolas Cruz, a violent lunatic who was a frequent subject of complaint at home and at school, could have maintained a record that was clean enough to allow him to buy guns and massacre 17 people at his high school in Florida.

Although he was disciplined for a string of offenses — including assault, threatening teachers and carrying bullets in his backpack — he was never taken into custody or even expelled. Instead, school authorities referred him to mandatory counseling or transferred him to alternative schools.

That did a lot of good, didn’t it?

How could Nikolas Cruz, a violent lunatic who was a frequent subject of complaint at home and at school, maintain a record that was clean enough to allow him to buy guns and massacre 17 people?

But why was he treated this way? The reason appears to be that, inspired by modern liberal educationists, officials — police honchos and the rulers of government schools — had adopted a policy of not punishing or even recording crimes committed by young people. I’m not talking about violations of some marijuana law. I mean crimes. The policy, adopted with great ceremony and self-applause, was addressed not just to “nonviolent” offenses but also to “’assault/threat’ and ‘fighting,’ as well as ‘vandalism.’”

And the district’s legally written discipline policy also lists “assault without the use of a weapon” and “battery without serious bodily injury,” as well as “disorderly conduct,” as misdemeanors that "should not be reported to Law Enforcement Agencies or Broward District Schools Police.” This document also recommends “counseling” and “restorative justice."

In other words, students and other young people could roam about, assaulting people and threatening them, with no punishment other than a silent referral to “counseling.”

The Cruz case illustrates the cruelty of modern liberal policies and tactics, which encourage crime, especially in poor and middle-class communities, and then respond to it with demands that means of self-defense (otherwise known as guns) be removed from the same communities. It illustrates the folly of conservatives’ bizarre faith in “law enforcement,” which more and more appears as highly paid but irresponsible use of force, whether manifested in “kindly” social engineering or in the brutal recklessness of assaults on unarmed civilians.

Students and other young people could roam about, assaulting people and threatening them, with no punishment other than a silent referral to “counseling.”

But the Cruz case also has a lesson for libertarians. Our genial, live-and-let-live philosophy and our well justified fear of government sometimes lead us to ignore the fact that government’s legitimate purpose (or, if you’re an anarchist, the legitimate purpose of a contractual defense agency) is to prevent or punish the initiation of force — by anyone. Gangs on the streets and lunatics in the corridors are the principal dangers to liberty that many people, especially young and vulnerable people, have to face. To ignore private dangers to liberty is to adopt the irresponsible elitism so much in evidence among the blind conservative proponents of “law and order” and the smug liberal advocates of “social justice.”




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Butterfly Police

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The iconic orange- and black-winged monarch butterfly, one of North America’s insect wonders, is on the path to extinction. Its population has collapsed by 90% since the 1990s.

Each fall, the butterflies travel up to 3,000 miles from their breeding grounds in the US and Canada to their winter sanctuaries in the oyamel fir forests of central Mexico. In late winter, they mate, and begin the return trip to the US and Canada, where they lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and die. The eggs hatch into caterpillars, who feed exclusively on these host plants, until they fly back to Mexico.

Freezing temperatures in March! In central Mexico! Blamed on global warming!

The reported population decline is based on annual estimates of the number of butterflies overwintering in Mexico. That number is, in turn, based on the number of acres occupied by the monarchs. In 2016, ten acres were occupied, compared with 44 acres 20 years ago. The cause of the decline has been attributed to habitat shrinkage, both in Mexico (trees, because of illegal logging) and in the US (milkweed acreage, because of urban sprawl and agriculture). The problem, of course, is anthropogenic: global warming and pesticide use. So says the Center for Biological Diversity, and the solution, of course, is “immediate action to rein in pesticide use and curb global climate change.”

And, of course, there is no real-world connection to either. Regarding devastation of the monarch’s Mexican habitat, environmentalist Homero Aridjis wrote, in 2016, "The Mexican government should be taking measures to mitigate the probable effects of climate change on the [monarch butterfly] reserve.” The operative word is “probable.” In March of that year, Mexico experienced the destruction of 133 acres of forest, in a storm that froze or killed an estimated 6.2 million monarch butterflies. Said monarch expert Lincoln Brower, "Never had we observed such a combination of high winds, rain and freezing temperatures.” According to Weather.com, “this storm was unexpectedly intense, fueled by shifting temperatures due to climate change.” Freezing temperatures in March! In central Mexico! Blamed on global warming!

As to the habitat effects of illegal logging, most of the land occupied by overwintering butterflies is owned by indigenous Mexicans, who must cut the forest to survive. To stave off such habitat devastation, conservationists have tried to convince impoverished landowners that “the forest is worth more to them in terms of tourism when left standing instead of being cut down.” The thinking apparently is that if the conservation pitch is successful, then future tourists will joyously snap memorable pictures of a soaring monarch migration, as it descends onto oyamel fir forests — whose then-dense canopy will hide the waning, forgotten indigenous farm and mountain communities, as they descend into deeper poverty.

No announcements have been made as to how the butterfly police will handle the environmental crimes of bark beetles.

But in case destitute locals cannot be persuaded to give up their supplemental logging incomes, “Mexico's government announced it would create a special national police squad to patrol nature reserves and fight environmental crimes.” No announcements have been made as to how the butterfly police will handle the environmental crimes of bark beetles, whose infestations of the monarch sanctuary have no doubt destroyed at least as many trees as has illegal logging.

Not to be outdone by Mexico, the US has concocted measures of equal inanity. For example, the Obama administration proposed a “fly-way” program in which milkweed refuges for the butterflies would be created along highways that follow monarch migration routes. “According to the national strategy plan released by the White House, the fly-way is intended to increase the population to 225 million butterflies by 2020.” Another plan calls for placing the monarch on the Endangered Species List. “Our government must do what the law and science demands, and protect monarchs under the Endangered Species Act, before it’s too late,” scowled George Kimbrell, legal director at the Center for Food Safety. As a resident of Alabama, I pledge that as soon as the insect appears on the list, never to stomp on a monarch that lands in my yard, and to encourage my fellow Alabamians to demonstrate similar restraint. Good God, it’s our state insect.

"Monarch Watch" counted milkweed instead of monarchs?

Unfortunately, what science demands is evidence. And the scientific evidence does not support the climate change or pesticide propaganda. According to an exhaustive study of World Wildlife Fund and citizen scientist butterfly migration data, it is most likely that neither milkweed nor herbicides limit monarch population. “Monarch numbers begin declining at the end of the summer, when the butterflies begin their long migration to Mexico, and the numbers continue to decline as they travel. During this southern migration, adult monarchs do not feed on milkweed,” wrote lead author Anurag Agrawal. “By the time they get to Mexico their numbers are plummeting, but at the end of the summer when they start their migration, their numbers are not down . . . Herbicides are not likely to be the problem, and genetically modified crops that are herbicide resistant are not likely to be the problem for the monarch.”

In their incurious haste to blame the plight of monarchs on the climate change and pesticide boogeymen that they so vividly, and obsessively, imagine, crack US scientists relied on the overwintering counts estimated by crack Mexican scientists. They didn’t think to estimate the number of butterflies that depart the US in the fall. They counted the milkweed loss (up to 6,000 acres of potential habitat a day, because of US land development, says Monarch Watch), but not the monarchs. Monarch Watch counted milkweed instead of monarchs?

Had that storm not occurred, the headline story might have been the miraculous resurgence of our cherished monarchs.

Who knows what is happening to the monarch butterfly? Most of its population decline — as any non-environmentalist would guess — seems to be occurring during its arduous 3,000-mile journey to Mexico. Some of the decline in Mexico may be caused by illegal logging, and some by the bark beetle. But even this possibility is suspect. It’s extremely difficult to believe that tenacious monarchs could not find 44 acres of sufficiently dense and healthy fir trees, unassaulted by loggers and bark beetles, somewhere in their 138,379-acre biosphere reserve. And none is caused by the shrinkage of milkweed acreage in the US.

The monarch population had been rebounding in the few years prior to the March 2016 storm. Had that storm not occurred, the headline story might have been the miraculous resurgence of our cherished monarchs. Instead, the storm was used to blame climate change and pesticides for their demise. One can only hope that this silly, condescending, ideological attribution — that millions of monarchs were frozen to death, in the spring of the year, in central Mexico, by global warming — causes a similar decline in the population of braying environmentalists, and the rapid extinction of moronic, politically motivated scientists who come up with ideas such as butterfly highways and butterfly police.




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Profound and Destructive

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President Trump’s destructiveness requires few words here. Consider how world stock and currency markets have been shaken by the resignation on March 6 of Gary Cohn, regarded until then as Trump’s chief economic adviser. Although not a trained economist, Cohn apparently had some sound instincts derived from years of financial experience. His departure apparently and ominously leaves more influence, or echo, to Peter Navarro — look him up with Google.

This latest example of destructiveness follows the one touched off by Trump’s March 2 tweet bewailing America’s loss of “many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with” and heralding trade wars as “good, and easy to win.”

Trump views international trade as a game, a zero-sum game in which one player’s gain is another’s loss.

I’ll spend more words on how profound Trump’s ignorance is. He considers a country’s excess of imports over exports a measure of loss. This measure applies even to trade with each foreign country separately. He counts China and Mexico among the worst offenders, deserving punishment. He does not understand the multilateral aspect of beneficial trade.

Nor does he understand how we gain in buying goods cheap from abroad. What difference does it make if steel and aluminum are cheap because of low foreign prices or because they grow cheaply on bushes at home? Money cost is a measure of opportunity cost, which means the loss of other goods when resources go instead to make the particular good in question. Opportunity cost reflects scarcity. Scarcity applies even to prosperous America, where we could enjoy still higher standards of living if food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, and other goods and services came costlessly and miraculously from heaven. Scarcity and how gains from domestic and foreign trade alleviate it are fundamentals of economics. The principle of comparative advantage goes far in explaining how.

The profundity of Trump’s ignorance goes beyond economics, extending even to the behavior of a decent human being.

Without understanding the academic presentation of the “absorption approach to the balance of payments,” everyone should be able to grasp its central idea, which is sheer arithmetic. If we as a country use more output for consumption and real investment than we produce, then the difference must come from somewhere — from abroad in the form of more imports than exports. A big item in this excess absorption, alias national undersaving, is government deficits. Yet Trump and Congress are complacent about increasing the deficit and debt by taxing less and spending more.

All too many politicians say that they are in favor of free trade if it is “fair trade” played on a “level playing field.” These slogans express Trump’s view of international trade as a game, a zero-sum game in which one player’s gain is another’s loss.

Trump does not understand how the price system coordinates economic activity, making most government planning about jobs and industries unnecessary and harmful.

The profundity of Trump’s ignorance goes beyond economics. It extends to diplomacy in domestic and foreign relations and even to the behavior of a decent human being. Yet his destructive economic ignorance remains prominent.




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Caesars Non-August

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I should have known. The first time I saw Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel on TV, he was wearing four gold stars on each side of his collar. The highest rank that anyone can hope to achieve in the US Army is the rank of four-star general. It is difficult — no, ridiculous — to equate a four-star general with an elected cop in a county in Florida. I should have known that a person who would parade around that way would have lots more blustering incompetence to show us.

And he did. Not caring — or perhaps not even caring to know — that his guys had scores of contacts with the lunatic who killed 17 students in a Broward County school, and yet did nothing about those contacts, thereby allowing said lunatic to purchase guns and pursue whatever evil purpose he might find, Sheriff Israel leapt onto the TV screen to insist that more power be given to governmental agencies such as his own, to deal with citizens who want to own guns.

It is difficult — no, ridiculous — to equate a four-star general with an elected cop in a county in Florida.

When it became known that, during the massacre, one of Israel’s armed minions had declined to attack the lunatic, allowing him not only to continue killing people but to walk away from the scene and refresh himself at two fast-food joints, the sheriff self-righteously denounced the cop — while deflecting accusations that three or more other cops had done the same. Israel highhandedly refused to release the videotapes of the event — because the release “would expose the district’s security-system plan.” There was a plan?

Sheriff Israel responded to criticism by modestly observing that he had “given amazing leadership” as sheriff and by reciting nonsensical rhymes:

Listen, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, O.J. Simpson would still be in the record books.

Two years ago, Israel responded to accusations of political corruption by saying, “Lions don’t care about the opinions of sheep.” He’s the lion, you understand.

I should have known that a person who would parade around that way would have lots more blustering incompetence to show us.

The Florida State Attorney’s office had already started more than 40 investigations of Israel’s little troupe of Scouts. Then there is the case of Jermaine McBean. Sarah Carter summarizes it in this way:

While Israel is battling allegations that his office failed to appropriately respond to the Cruz shooting, he is also fighting a civil court case brought by the family of Jermaine McBean, an African-American information technology engineer. McBean was killed in 2013 by Israel’s deputies after they responded to a call that McBean was walking in his neighborhood with what appeared to be a weapon. It was an unloaded air rifle.

McBean was shot by one of the three cops who accosted him, a man who “feared for his life” because of the “gun” that McBean was carrying on his shoulder.

You can see the history of the case in Carter’s article. You can make your own judgment. But here’s the most sickening part, to me:

Three months after the shooting, Israel awarded two of the deputies [involved in the McBean affair] the BSO’s prestigious “Gold Cross Award.” But under mounting criticism he later told reporters the deputies should not have received the awards, adding that he didn’t award the deputies but couldn’t investigate the matter because someone accidentally destroyed the paperwork.

If you want to see how people look when they’re giving and getting awards of this kind, go here. It’s not a pretty picture. The 2015 report just cited notes that “while the investigation has dragged on for more than two years, the decision to give the officers awards was swift.”

He’s the lion, you understand.

I am not at all sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, and I happen to think that many anti-police accusations are phony, transparently phony, and villainous. Others turn out to be mistaken. But there are plenty that don’t turn out that way, and if the 17 deaths in Broward County — make it 18, counting Jermaine McBean — can possibly result in any good, it will be the continuing exposure of the preening little dictators who stand at the heads of so many well-funded agencies of the police state that is the enforcement arm of the welfare state.

Oh, you’ll be happy to know that the FBI (remember them, and their record of efficiency and impartial justice) is investigating the McBean case — at least as reported a mere two and a half years ago.




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Why I Won’t Be Watching the Oscars This Year

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I used to love the glitz of Oscar night. I saw all the movies, reviewed them for Liberty, rooted for my favorites, and predicted the winners. I looked forward to Billy Crystal’s opening monologue, the mashup of Best Picture nominees, the performances of the nominees for Best Songs, Barbara Walters' pre-show interviews, the schmaltzy in memoriam list, and even the acceptance speeches. My friends gave fancy black-tie viewing parties and held contests to see who would correctly forecast the most winners. I wouldn’t miss Oscar night.

But I’m not watching the Oscars this year. I’m writing this before the ceremonies, so you can compare what I say with what actually happened; but I’m not changing my mind. It’s not that I’m boycotting the ceremony; frankly, it isn’t important enough to boycott. I just don’t care anymore. The awards shows have made themselves obnoxiously political and tediously irrelevant. Last year it was “Not my President.” At the Golden Globes it was black dresses and #MeToo. Now it’s “Boycott the NRA.” Do we really need Meryl Streep lecturing us about gun control this week? How do they even find time to make movies with all the activism they’re involved in?

It’s not that I’m boycotting the ceremony; frankly, it isn’t important enough to boycott.

For some actors, the answer is: they don’t. Four-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner Jennifer Lawrence recently announced that she’s taking a year off from making movies to teach kids about the importance of “getting big money out of government.” (Not sure if she means “from government” or “away from government,” but there you have it. She’s involved.) The 27-year-old middle-school dropout explained to Stephen Colbert, “When Trump got elected, my head spun off. And I read all these books and I have really learned myself good about our government.” (Yes, that’s how she said it. She learned herself good.) She went on to admit that she didn’t know how to answer any of the students’ questions during her first high school visit. “They were so smart!” she said incredulously. Nevertheless, she will spend the next year visiting schools to teach children about corruption in politics because, you know, she plays a spy in Red Sparrow.

And then there’s the Harvey Weinstein scandal, with everyone in the entertainment field expressing outrage as though they had been learning about his sexual aggressions and manipulations for the first time. I have to admit I miss Harvey a little bit: how can we get excited about the Oscars or even know which movies are “The Best Film of the Year!” without Weinstein out there promoting his entries with full-page ads in all the papers for the past two months? The stardust is gone. I just don’t know what to do or what to think without his help.

Nevertheless, Lawrence will spend the next year visiting schools to teach children about corruption in politics because, you know, she plays a spy in Red Sparrow.

Oscar is responding to the scandal by protecting its ingénues with items in the famous swag bags given to each attendee. In a press release the security systems company Sabre said that it planned to “help others by inspiring self-empowerment,” and therefore would be handing out items including a keychain pepper spray, gel pepper spray, and personal body alarms, as well as a testing kit that determines whether a drink has been drugged.

The irony of all this “pepper spray” is that it wouldn’t have done a bit of good in the Weinstein scandal, since all these women had to do to protect themselves was to get up and walk out the door. Or how about not going through the door in the first place? Who “takes a meeting” in a hotel room at 2 a.m.? On the other hand, being able to tell whether your drink was spiked with roofies is probably a good tool to have when you’re partying with Hollywood bigwigs. So thank you, Sabre, for inspiring our ingénues with empowerment. And for handing them a weapon.

Kimmel argues that entertainers have an obligation to use their platform for politics. I don’t find that particularly entertaining. Or pleasant.

In an interview with Good Morning America, Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel (who loaded last year’s monologue with digs at the newly elected President Trump) said he wants to be kinder this year. “This show is not about reliving people’s sexual assaults,” he said. “It’s an awards show for people who have been dreaming about maybe winning an Oscar for their whole lives. And the last thing I want to do is ruin that for someone who is nominated for, you know, best leading actress or best supporting or best director or cinematographer or whatever, by making it unpleasant.”

Unless you happen to be a nominee whose politics don’t mix with Kimmel’s. Then he’ll be as unpleasant as he likes. In that same interview he hinted that he will be delving into politics and voicing his opposition to President Trump, arguing that entertainers have an obligation to use their platform for politics. I don’t find that particularly entertaining. Or pleasant.

And what about the movies the Academy has chosen lately as Best Picture? Yes, there are some good nominees this year. I like the new policy of nominating up to 10 films for Best Picture. It allows unexpected little gems such as last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road and this year’s Get Out to have a moment of glory. My favorites this year are The Shape of Water, Dunkirk, Get Out, and Darkest Hour. Each is artistically stunning and each has an engaging storyline with strong character development. But they won’t win.

There ought to be some connection between the films people like and the films that are considered best picture.

And that’s why the Oscars have become irrelevant. The audience-pleasers don’t have a chance any more. In the past ten years, only one of the Best Picture winners (Argo) has earned more than half a million dollars on opening weekend, and most have earned under $300 thousand. Only three of them have broken through the $100 million barrier in lifetime worldwide box office receipts. I mean come on — The Hurt Locker ($50 million) beating out Inglourious Basterds ($300 million) and Avatar ($2 billion) in 2009? Even the animated film Up ($780 million — also nominated in 2009) would have been a better choice than The Hurt Locker with the viewing audience that year. I’m not suggesting that box office should determine the award, but there ought to be some connection between the films people like and the films that are considered best picture.

In short, middle America doesn’t have a dog in the race any more. The Academy insists on awarding the coveted statue to “important” films rather than the best film of the year, and most movie goers simply don’t care enough to sit through three-plus hours of self-adulation and snide remarks about their president to cheer for a film they haven’t seen. Neither do I. Sure, I’ll check out the results on Monday morning, and I might catch some of the speeches on YouTube if I learn that something outrageous has happened — like last year’s erroneous announcement that La La Land won instead of Moonlight, while the man whose sole purpose is to stand in the wings with the list of winners and quickly step in to make the correction if someone ever makes such a mistake was distracted backstage taking a selfie with the beautiful Emma Stone, who had just won the Oscar for Best Actress. Now that was worth watching. Almost.




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