The Possession Fallacy

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One of America’s most enduring, and at least faintly humorous, historical images is that of Europeans landing someplace on the continent and claiming everything from there to the next ocean as the property of the high and mighty prince, King Such and Such of Somewhere.

On June 14, 1671, Francois Daumont, Sieur de St. Lusson, an agent of that most puissant monarch Louis XIV, stood at “the Soo,” the rapids of the St. Mary’s River, and took possession of the Great Lakes, Manitoulin Island, and “all other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto, as well discovered as to be discovered, which are bounden on the one side by the northern and Western seas and on the other side by the South Sea including all its length and breadth.” “This formula,” says F. Clever Bald, the historian of Michigan, “he repeated three times.”

The ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

There is a verbal equivalent. It is the act of seizing on some word or concept and using it to impose your standards of morality, history, or logic on everything that could possibly be related to it. Let’s call this the Possession Fallacy. It might also be called, colloquially, Blab It and Grab It, after an idea current in American Christianity. Some evangelical Christians have the notion that if you pray for something in the right way, if you name it in your prayers, then you are also making a legitimate claim to it, and God must give it to you. The idea is known by Christians who espouse it as Name It and Claim It; by Christians who are skeptical about it as Blab It and Grab It. In either case, the ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

Ours is the great age of self-righteousness, and therefore of the Possession Fallacy. It’s always absurd, but one of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history, simply by pretending that “Republican” and “Democrat” mean today what they meant, say, 150 years ago. Sean Hannity, who knows less about history than anyone but the inhabitants of the House of Representatives, has been doing this for years. Rather than quoting Hannity, who never says anything in less than 1,000 words, I’ll quote an essay published this month in the Aspen Times. Attacking the “hypocrisy” of present-day Democrats, it says:

It was the Dems who defended slavery against the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln; it was the Dems who were behind racial segregation in the South; it was the Dems who opposed civil rights laws; and it was the Dems who bombed government buildings and attacked policemen during civil unrest in the ’60.

It was the Dems of the Ku Klux Klan who lynched blacks and occasionally Jews, and persecuted Catholics.

Et cetera. Some of this is pure nonsense: it was communists, not Democrats, who bombed government buildings. But the deep nonsense is the idea that because some Democrats did X, Y, or Z, this means something about all Democrats — or Republicans — who have ever lived. Anyone who read a book could write endless numbers of sentences in the same form: “It was the national Republicans who advocated Prohibition, while the national Democrats resisted it. It was the Republicans who victimized working people with high tariffs and a national bank, while the Democrats insisted on low taxes, hard money, and decentralized banking. It was Republicans who represented white Southerners in opposition to Northern Democrats during the conflicts over civil rights.” Et cetera.

Slipping into my perpetual role as Mammy lecturing Miz Scarlett: I done tole you an tole you, the two American political parties are organizations designed to get votes. (See, for instance, Liberty, February 2005, pp. 19–24.) Seeking this prey, they wander across the ideological and historical landscape, vacuuming up ballots wherever they can reach them. There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

One of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history.

How preposterous it is to act as if, by saying the name of a political organization spanning generations of history, you can score points either for or against it. This is almost as preposterous as the Left’s current attempt to get its way by labeling people of the distant past as “racists,” “sexists,” “imperialists,” and what not. In today’s terms, Jefferson was a racist, as was virtually the entire population of the world. What are we to deduce from this? That he should be treated as racists are justifiably treated today? Here the assumption is that some leftist agitator, who like Hannity has never read a real book, has the right to name and claim Jefferson’s reputation, on the basis of his own moral superiority — which is quite an assumption in itself. Or is it the idea that not only Jefferson’s memory but also his principles should be treated as those of a racist? “All other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto . . .”

There’s never been a moment in my lifetime when someone wasn’t discovering that the Declaration of Independence is, in the present vocabulary, racist and sexist: racist, because Jefferson was a slaveholder, and sexist, because the document says that “all men are created equal.” If the Declaration were a cow, this would be a constant attempt to rebrand her. But words have meanings, no matter who wrote them, and these particular words, correctly understood in their obvious meaning, provided the intellectual foundation of the abolition movement. When, 81 years after the Declaration, in the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that they didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone — including slaveholders, who were happy to hear this new interpretation. As for women — if Jefferson had wanted to say “males” he would have said “males.” The default meaning of “men” in almost every period and region of the English language has been “human beings, people.” Those who assert that “men” equals “males,” unless proven innocent, are trying to snatch the common language and claim it as their own.

There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

There has lately been a competition to see who can use the Possession Fallacy in the most egregious way. The game is very aggressively played, but right now, Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke, candidate for president, appears to be ahead. O’Rourke kindly interrupted his demanding campaign schedule for some informational “speaking with immigrants and refugees,” and told them:

Here we are in Nashville, I know this from my home state of Texas, those places that formed the Confederacy, that this country was founded on white supremacy and every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects the legacy of the slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression, even in our democracy.

O’Rourke’s syntax was characteristically muddled, but there’s general agreement that by “this country” he meant the United States of America, not the Confederate States of America — although the latter actually was founded on white supremacy, and the former was not, unless you agree with Chief Justice Taney. So he was talking about the United States when he said that “every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects” racist practices, up to and including slavery.

When people use the Possession Fallacy, they’re ordinarily making a claim to the whole ranch and every cow on it, whether or not they know how many cows there are, or, indeed, have ever seen a cow. If they went the other way and tried to gather all the cows that bore their brand, they might not come up with any. To put this in a different manner: Possession can usually be identified as a fallacy when you ask the possessor to name the specifics, and he can’t come up with any. In most cases, asking that question is a waste of time; the most he’ll do is point at Ol’ Bossy and some theoretical cow on the other side of the hill, and that will be enough for him to keep claiming that he owns the whole county.

When, 81 years after the Declaration, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that its words didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone.

But you can ask yourself some questions. What do you suppose would be on O’Rourke’s list of “every single institution and structure”? Does the Presbyterian Church still reek of racism? How about “Sesame Street”? The NAACP? Planned Parenthood? The Democratic Party, USA? Is that what elected O’Rourke to Congress — a racist system? These are just the first questions that came to my own mind. I could expand the list. So could you. I think it would be fun to include all the big-government programs that Beto voted to fund. Since, by his own declaration, these are all racist, he must be a racist too, and an especially sneaky one, since most of those “institutions and structures” are purported to be anti-racist.

Sorry; I’m just taking his words seriously. And that’s the problem for users of the Possession Fallacy. If they want to possess everything, they’re making themselves responsible for everything.

Jeffrey Epstein certainly has a lot to be responsible for, but former President Clinton once tried to take on even more responsibility: he made a strenuous attempt to possess Jeffrey Epstein. Clinton stepped up to the plate, shouldered the burden, bit the bullet, and went whole hog. In 2002, on one of the four trips that Clinton says he took on Epstein’s private plane, he and some (other) people from the world of entertainment journeyed to Africa to “tour HIV/AIDS project sites.” It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them. How was it possible to explain this lavish expenditure of wealth on the egos of Epstein’s junketing celebrities? The answer seemed easy: just appropriate every concept of technocratic goodness you can think of, and deed the whole thing to Mr. Epstein, who would, by association, deed it back to Mr. Clinton and the other gawkers, making it their lawful property. “Through a spokesman” Clinton described the enormous intellectual ranch on which Epstein’s charitable cows were nurtured:

Jeffrey is both a highly successful financier and a committed philanthropist with a keen sense of global markets and an in-depth knowledge of twenty-first-century science. I especially appreciated his insights and generosity during the recent trip to Africa to work on democratization, empowering the poor, citizen service, and combating HIV/AIDS.

Clinton left out the part about raising the dead. He didn’t want to go too far.

It would have been interesting if anyone had asked Clinton to discuss some specific features of the vast mental property notionally possessed by Jeffrey Epstein, college dropout, high school math teacher, options trader, and consultant for a Ponzi scheme. He might have been asked to say what he meant by the large term citizen service. I don’t have a clue. Neither can I guess what he meant by in-depth, democratization, empowering the poor, or work on (when used of people taking a jaunt on a billionaire’s plane). Clinton, presumably, could have said what he meant, because he had made himself the owner and possessor of these phrases. But he didn’t, and I suspect he never will. He is now at pains to indicate that he barely knew Jeffrey Epstein — although he is not at pains to distance himself from the wonderful work that Epstein once helped to finance. He still wants contributions for that.

It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them.

This is one of the ways in which conceptual mortgages come due. There are others. Let’s return to O’Rourke’s our democracy, a sappy phrase if ever there was one. I remember it from my ninth-grade civics text. Even then, it seemed childish. Like so many other uses of our, it was an obvious attempt to make kids think that they owned something they could not possibly own: our history, our families, our ideals, our cities, our highways, and so forth. The idea seemed to be that it wasn’t enough to praise motherhood and apple pie; one had to speak of our motherhood and our apple pie.

This tactic has now been sickeningly revived by Democrats maddened by the election of Trump. For them, nearly everything in political life involves Trump’s attacks on our democracy. The popularity of our democracy now eclipses that of the equally icky in this country, which the Democrats always used to tack onto the end of their sentences: “We must fix healthcare in this country”; “We must enable everyone to vote in this country”; “We must build more affordable housing in this country.” As you can see, in this country was the kind of phrase that nags use. It was a bitchy reminder that America is not exceptional; it is a country like every other country, no better, no worse, except that it’s worse. The phrase went nicely with only country in the world: “America is the only country in the world that lacks universal healthcare.” Such statements were never likelier to be true than the pious our country phrases, but they had a critical edge. Progressives would die rather than say in our country, but in this country came readily to their lips. Eventually, even the Republicans took it up, reciting it with the zombie-like expression of people who don’t know what they’re saying — which they didn’t.

Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother.

Now our democracy is the obsessive phrase. Inevitably, Republicans have started using this one too, but in any statement made by a Democratic politician you can depend on hearing it four or five times. If you can believe US Representative Elijah Cummings (D, MD), it has spread to the general public. Cummings told ABC: “No matter where I go, what I'm hearing over and over again from my constituents is, ‘Please save our democracy.’"

This is a clear example of the Possession Fallacy. Here is a phrase with no literal meaning, a succession of sounds with as much connection to reality as the incantations of the Sieur de St. Lusson, but intended to lay claim to a continent full of ideas and attitudes. No one says what kind of “democracy” is implied, or what kind of ownership is denoted by “our.” It is merely assumed that the speaker knows the meaning, even as a carpenter knows his tools, and that he is eminently qualified, even as a master carpenter is qualified, to determine this tool’s proper use in shaping the otherwise recalcitrant materials of life. In the present crisis in our democracy, the recalcitrant material is the monster Trump. If there is one thing that is clear about our democracy, it’s that our democracy is anything other than what Trump is about. Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother. To talk of motherhood is to deny the existence of Americans who are not mothers. Let us talk instead of our democracy.

The distasteful thing — well, there are a lot of distasteful things, but one distasteful thing — about our democracy is that it’s a double trick of possession. The first is the implicit but dogmatic assertion that the speaker knows what it means and, without any pretense of defining it, can make it the basis of argument. The second is that while pointedly excluding some people from membership in the mystical social union (Trump, or whomever) it suggests that you, whoever you are, actually own the thing. “Our” means “mine and yours."

From "my" to "our" to "your," the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

Perhaps you think that Robert Francis O’Rourke isn’t smart enough to play tricks on anybody, but you must remember that he didn’t invent this little act; he’s just copying others’ performance. But there’s a third trick going on — did you notice it? It’s the owning-not owning trick. “Our” is first a way of appropriating a concept for private use; then it’s a way of coopting the audience into feeling as if it owned the thing too; and then (the third trick) it’s a way of leaving the audience holding the bag. Beto isn’t saying that he is responsible for the racism of our democracy. How could he be?

He wants you to vote for him. He’s saying that you are responsible. From my to our to your, the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

And that’s how the Possession Fallacy works. It’s a means of forcing responsibility on other people for one’s own acts of ownership. I make something up, and you’re supposed to believe it. If you do, you’ll be the one who pays.




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Despised, But Not Resisted

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After reviewing Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), I swore I had seen my last QT film. The acting was stagy, the bloody violence gratuitous, the storyline beyond unbelievable. He hadn’t just “jumped the shark”; he had catapulted the cow jumping over the moon. I was done.

But something about his latest offering, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, drew me back. The stellar cast, led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, promised committed, unexpected performances. The setting, 1960s southern California, was where and when I grew up, and I was drawn to the nostalgia I would certainly experience. And the story, leading up to the Manson murders, was not only tragic but also somehow romantic in the classical sense — a story of people who captured the interest of the nation when it occurred. Many say the ’60s died that day, along with Sharon Tate and her friends. Yes, I assumed there would be blood (and there is) but at least it wouldn’t be gratuitous this time. And in fact, it doesn’t show up until late in the film. I was willing to give QT another look.

Similar to Tarantino’s breakout Pulp Fiction (1994), Once Upon a Time presents multiple disconnected storylines while foreshadowing an explosive climax. Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a TV western star nearing the end of his TV career. Dalton is based not-so-loosely on Clint Eastwood in “Rawhide” or Steve McQueen in “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Like Eastwood, Dalton is encouraged to move to Europe to make spaghetti westerns with a director named Sergio. And like McQueen, he is a bounty hunter in his TV series. Also like McQueen, Dalton carelessly knocks a young girl onto the floor in a movie scene; McQueen is reported to have knocked an actress across the room during a “method acting” improvisation for the great Constantin Stanislavski. After the scene cuts, the little girl tells Dalton, “That’s the best piece of acting I’ve ever seen.” Stanislavski said the same to McQueen after he smacked the young starlet in acting class.

Many say the ’60s died that day, along with Sharon Tate and her friends.

McQueen shows up in the film by the way — played by Damian Lewis, who utterly nails McQueen’s piercing eyes and brooding mouth. The film is full of homages and allusions such as this, and one could enjoy it just looking for the Easter eggs. Tarantino knows his Hollywood trivia! But there is much more to this movie than homage.

Another storyline focuses on Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who works as Dalton’s stunt double and gofer. He drives Dalton around town, grabs him a beer when he’s thirsty, runs his errands, fixes his antennae, listens when he’s despondent, and does it all with that winning Brad Pitt smile. Audiences at the premier in Cannes whistled and clapped when Pitt stripped off his shirt to work on said antennae. At 55, Pitt is still plenty buff. Dalton might be the protagonist, but Booth is clearly the star. Even the way he side-clicks his tongue, signaling to his dog that it’s time for dinner, is gobsmacking.

Dalton lives next door to Roman Polanski, who he hopes will notice him and cast him in a movie. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Polanski’s pregnant wife, is luminously happy about her breakout role in a Dean Martin movie, The Wrecking Crew. Having started her career in TV shows like “Mister Ed” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” she is understandably ecstatic to see her name and image on a movie poster. Robbie plays her shy excitement just right — almost embarrassed to look at the poster in the movie theater lobby, wanting to be recognized, finally having to say who she is, then basking in the recognition she has created and positively glowing as she listens to the crowd reacting to her scenes. You can’t help feeling empathy for this pretty girl whose life was cut so gruesomely short, back in 1969.

Tarantino knows his Hollywood trivia! But there is much more to this movie than homage.

And then there’s Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman), who makes a brief appearance at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, looking for its previous resident, Terry Melcher. We see him almost as a shadow, a ghost that hovers and lingers without really touching down. His “family” — Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning, all grown up and sporting a potty mouth); Froggie (Harley Quinn Smith); Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and Tex (Austin Butler) — provide a constant simmering background to the film and an ongoing foreshadowing of the climax we know is going to come. They dive into dumpsters, thumb rides on street corners, maraud though the town like bandits, and preen like sirens. They are spooky and scary, even without blood. Take a note, QT.

As expected, the stories eventually come together, but in unexpected ways. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Despite its length and somewhat slow development, this is Tarantino’s best work since Inglourious Basterds. I will probably see it again, next time to focus more on the Hollywood allusions and Easter eggs. And, reluctantly perhaps, I will continue to see and review Tarantino’s movies. He is the most maddening and brilliant of directors. I despise him — but I can’t resist him. Ironically, I think that’s what the “family” said about Manson.


Editor's Note: Review of "Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood," directed by Quentin Tarantino. Sony Pictures, 2019, 161 minutes.



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Ah Wilderness!

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Known and Unknown

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Current political controversies and “debates” have allowed me to discover that I know a lot of things. Really know them. I’ll bet you know them too.

  • I know that a nation doesn’t create prosperity by increasing taxes.
  • I know that no industry can be “fixed” by having it operate by force — that is, government.
  • I know that you don’t help “the homeless” by giving them more and more free stuff. You don’t help their neighbors, either.
  • I know that the world is not being destroyed by “climate change,” and that no one who takes out a 30-year mortgage and schemes to get his little daughter into Stanford really believes it is, no matter what he says.

“Income inequality” is neither immoral nor harmful in itself, despite the fact that holders of great wealth are generally harmful in themselves.

  • I know that Thoreau was right: that government is best which governs least.
  • I know that “income inequality” is neither immoral nor harmful in itself, despite the fact that holders of great wealth are generally harmful in themselves.
  • I know that the United States is not to blame for the political systems of other countries.
  • I know that the United States should stop trying to make itself to blame for the political systems of other countries.
  • I know that you can’t trust people just because they’re cops, soldiers, teachers, judges, or workers in “intelligence agencies.” (My, what a lot of scare quotes I use, and need!)
  • I know that a managed economy is a sick economy.
  • I know that it’s not a good idea to open any country’s borders to everyone who wants to cross them, especially when you guarantee the entrants free education, free healthcare, free housing, free lawyers, and applause.

A managed economy is a sick economy.

  • I know that guns don’t kill; people do.
  • I know that wars on drugs aren’t good for anyone but gangsters.
  • I know that wars on poverty aren’t good for anyone but bureaucrats.
  • I know that hanging around an Ivy League school doesn’t make you smart, but it’s very likely to get you a government job.
  • If people asked themselves, “Is that really true?”, and spent a few minutes finding out, there would be a revolution in this country.
  • I know that the great majority of America’s “leaders,” and “opinion leaders,” haven’t read a real book in the past 20 years, if ever.
  • I know that if people asked themselves, “Is that really true?”, and spent a few minutes finding out, there would be a revolution in this country that would dwarf all the upheavals in our history.

As you see, I could go on. But that’s a sample of the things I know — and again, that you know too. These things aren’t even debatable. We know them. It’s a waste of time to argue about them, unless you want a laugh; and it’s hard to laugh at irrationalities you’re expected to pay for, either with money or with something more important, which is sanity.

You can’t trust people just because they’re cops, soldiers, teachers, judges, or workers in “intelligence agencies.”

With that thought in mind, I’ve stopped listing the things I know and started listing the things I don’t know. This list is much longer — in fact, it’s endless — and it’s a thousand times more interesting.

Here are a few things that I don’t know, and would like to know.

  • I would like to know what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
  • I would like to know how far south the Vikings got in North America.
  • I would like to know where Jesus got the money that financed his ministry. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus?
  • I would like to know whether Lizzie Borden really did kill her father and stepmother, and if so, how she managed to do it without leaving any traces of evidence on herself. Recall that the parental units were butchered with an axe in a small frame house, just before noon on a warm day, when there were windows open all over the neighborhood, and people were walking by in the street, just a few feet away, and that one of the victims faced her assailant and might be expected to have made some protest, loudly.

Why are alligators native to the southern United States and to China, and to no place in between?

  • I would like to know what happened to Judge Joseph Force Crater, who disappeared from the streets of New York on August 6, 1930, and was never seen again. Though a ladies’ man, he had bought only one ticket for a show called Dancing Partners, which he did not attend, at least literally. (One thing I do know is that Judge Crater is the best of all possible names for a public official who suddenly disappears, and that Dancing Partners is a pretty good name for whatever it was that happened to him.)
  • I would like to know the explanation for the Crouch family affair, https://www.mlive.com/news/jackson/2010/11/peek_through_time_crouch_murde.html a series of mysterious deaths that began on November 22, 1883, in my home county in Michigan.
  • I would like to know why very few of the big infectious diseases were found among the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas, since those people had not only originated in the Old World but had many contacts with the Vikings. And by the way, didn’t anyone ever just get blown in a boat from Africa to Brazil, carrying his diseases with him?
  • I would like to know what happened to the Mound Builders and the Anasazi.
  • I would like to know why alligators are native to the southern United States and to China, and to no place in between.
  • I would like to know why Sequoyah gave his people a syllabary rather than an alphabet. Come to think of it, I would like to know why Saints Cyril and Methodius gave the Slavs a new alphabet, instead of adopting either the Latin or the Greek, which would have made more sense.
  • I would like to know what became of Wallace Fard Muhammad.

How salty did St. Peter and St. Paul’s conversations get while they were arguing theology?

  • I would like to know exactly what Aaron Burr had in mind, or if he had anything in mind, when he did those strange things that got him indicted for treason.
  • I would like to know exactly what happened to Louis XVII and to the little princes in the Tower.
  • I would like to know why insects preserved in amber for tens of millions of years appear to be the same insects that live with us today.
  • Having had kidney cancer, I would like to know what causes it. In fact, I would like to know what causes a lot of forms of cancer. And other diseases. Many.
  • I would like to know how salty St. Peter and St. Paul’s conversations got while they were arguing theology. (See Galatians 1 and 2.)
  • I would like to know why — really, why — Richard Nixon didn’t demand a recount in the election of 1960.
  • I would like to know why, after some of the greatest lines of poetry ever written (“Look! Look! He is climbing . . .”) Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk” https://poets.org/poem/evening-hawk concludes with “a leaking pipe in the cellar.”
  • I would like to know why Eleazer Williams, an American who translated the Book of Common Prayer into Iroquois, suddenly decided that he was the king of France.
  • I would like to know where the rest of the Satyricon is.

Why — really, why — didn't Richard Nixon demand a recount in the election of 1960?

  • I would like to know, out of all the Viking ships that set out for Iceland, Greenland, or Vinland, and all the Polynesian vessels that set out for Hawaii, once those places were known, what proportion got lost and were never heard from again.
  • I would like to know what happened on board the Mary Celeste.
  • I would like to know where the Griffon went down.
  • I would like to know what happened to Peking Man.
  • I would like to know who wrote the book of Job, and when, and where.
  • I would like to know, for sure, how the pyramids were built, and what all those big rooms inside the Great Pyramid were used for.

And, not least, I would like to know what readers of Liberty would like to know. What’s on your list?




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“I Actually Believe This”

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In politics, if you can’t get attention by saying something sober and judicious, say something bold, even fanciful. I give as an example Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s statement on July 13 that if elected president he would ask soccer player Megan Rapinoe to be his secretary of state.

When some at the Netroots Nation conference laughed, Inslee said, “I actually believe this.”

Really? Secretary of state is a post that has been held by Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, and George Shultz, and before that by John Foster Dulles, Elihu Root, James Madison, and even Thomas Jefferson. All of these folks had some qualifications for the job. Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had been first lady and a senator from New York.

This got Inslee noticed, but I don’t think it’s going to do him much good.

But a soccer player? What’s next — Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson as secretary of defense?

Poor Jay Inslee. He’s stuck at 1% in the polls, and he’s trying to get noticed. This got him noticed, but I don’t think it’s going to do him much good. It merely confirms that he does not have the judgment necessary to be president of the United States.




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Then They Came for the TP

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A few days ago I was thinking about all the pleasures and conveniences of life that alleged environmentalists attempt to deny us, from plastic straws to the ever-useful Styrofoam. There’s even a California legislator who has been agitating to banish paper receipts for retail goods. I said “alleged” environmentalists because the purported danger is usually microscopic compared to the environmentalists’ constant quest for power.

As I mentioned, I was reflecting on these things, and, having just purchased a supply of toilet paper, I was feeling happy that there was no attack on that. In the event of blizzard, flood, or civil disturbance, I might run out of food, but I would not run out of TP.

The next day, my eye fell on one of the most depressing news stories I have seen this year — the Guardian’s alarmed account of how much TP, and unrecycled TP, is being used, and of the voices raised against the practice. Seems that toilet paper is actually made out of trees, which have to be cut down to make it! So something, obviously, has to be done.

Here it was again, this religious aversion to using any kind of resource, and it was asserting itself in a much less polite, much more dangerous way.

I remembered a complaint that a student made to me, several years ago, on the first day of class. I had passed out my syllabus — a paper syllabus — and she politely protested the lack of sustainability in my conduct. When I mentioned to her that trees are renewable resources, she looked at me with glassy eyes. So I clarified my statement: “They grow back.” “What do you mean?” she said. I then explained that people who own the trees make sure that their valuable resource does not run out, that they replant the trees they cut, and that this has been going on for generations, quite successfully. It was clear she did not wish to believe my good news. She said she would check it out.

But here it was again, this religious aversion to using any kind of resource, and it was asserting itself in a much less polite, much more dangerous way. The Guardian cited as an authority a spokesman for the environment, who claimed, among other things:

Only around 30% of the world’s population uses toilet roll, so [emphasis added — dig that crazy logic] we know that there are lots of perfectly hygienic alternatives to using paper-based products. It’s important we consider what we’re using to wipe our behinds with, because at the moment our precious planet is getting a bum deal.

Ha, ha. What a funny pun. I can just imagine what the purported 70% of the world uses instead of toilet paper. I’m sure it’s perfectly hygienic. I’m sure their standards of public health are even higher than our own.

Maybe you’ve noticed: two of the leading signs that a social regime is entering its death throes are a decline in public health and a lack of toilet paper.




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Stories, Good and Bad

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Steve Almond’s latest book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, is the author’s attempt to sort through America’s flaws, as he perceives them, in order to explain the ascendency of President Donald Trump. The rock that gave credibility to his account — the Trump-Putin collusion — has now eroded to mere talus, and Almond’s book stands before the world as just another silly piece of business from the academic left.

Almond is enough of a socialist to recommend the nationalization of the football industry (and that’s going pretty far). In an interview in The Sun (September 2015) he was questioned about his recently published book, Against Football. At one point, the interviewer, David Cook, asks: “Is there anything that would make football worth watching again for you?” In his reply, Almond describes his “dream” of public ownership of the “football industry.” Thus: “The football industry could benefit our communities rather than billionaire owners and sponsors. What would it be like if the teams were publicly owned and the profits were funneled into the public coffers?” And he asks, “Is that such a crazy idea: that this game might help the people who need help the most?”

Almond’s book stands before the world as just another silly piece of business from the academic left.

Bad Stories is premised on the determinist idea that individual minds develop according to the stories to which they’re exposed. Furthermore, bad stories, the ones he sees as flawed or distorted, function to keep the good stories out of circulation. All this comes very close to the traditional socialist preference for a deterministic theory of human character and conduct. As Robert Owen put it, “A man’s character is created for him.” Owenite socialist experiments in America collapsed, one by one, and yet he kept on preaching the socialist faith, and many others have since joined him in resisting reality.

The Great Enlightenment of the 18th century, with its discovery that man, through reason and experiment, could identify chemical elements and synthesize molecules, led some thinkers to believe that they could, through reason, design an ideal society. Breathing this atmosphere, Owen concluded that the social order was all wrong, as did Fourier and such other extremists as Marx and Sorel. The main obstacle between them and the realization of their collectivist dreams was human experience, which included 35,000 years of trial and error. One product of the centuries of ebb and flow was the rise of Western civilization and its slow and costly march toward personal and economic freedom. And thus emerged free-market capitalism with its built-in pricing system, a wondrous instrument that adjusts production and distribution, according to demand. Under socialism, the free-moving pricing system is replaced by a governing bureaucracy — a nonaccountable realm, as James Q. Wilson described it. However much the socialist may rant about a just distribution of wealth, the pricing system carries with it a justice that sensible humans can truly understand — rewards based on the satisfaction of consumer demand.

It’s this form of justice that the socialist cannot abide, for he cannot control it — cannot channel its rewards to those that he, by heaven, believes are the most deserving. Hayek has warned us that personal freedom has never existed without economic freedom. “Fear not,” the socialist might say, “human nature is malleable. People will adjust to the imposed system.” But have they ever done so? And one might ask — if people are all that malleable, how did the socialists dream up socialism?

Owenite socialist experiments in America collapsed, one by one, and yet he kept on preaching the socialist faith, and many others have since joined him in resisting reality.

But here we have Steve Almond, feeling impelled to explain the rise of Donald Trump. He reveals the many reasons he divines, foremost among them being those “bad stories” that “distort our belief system.” Why does he neglect the individual’s reasoning process and the skepticism it can produce — especially in reflecting on political issues? Are individual Americans mere bots, driven now here, now there, by media prompts? The reasons he deduces for victorious Trumpism often involve a mass response to external influences, and these often trace back to capitalism. Consider this partial list: voter suppression, elections held on Tuesday, a disaffected electorate, hostile feelings for the other party, passions of a small minority, white privilege and the petty bourgeoisie, dehumanization, conservative paranoia, lying Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, thirst for entertainment, the sports brain, racism, opposition to social change, Trump’s unbridled aggression, television, the internet, Russian bots, lack of a Fairness Doctrine, the media’s right-wing conspiracy (a laugher), Vladimir Putin, Albanian hackers, and, of course, the Electoral College.

Almond criticizes the right and the alt-right for their paranoia, never showing, through example, how they demonstrate that quality. But his own apocalyptic predictions evince the paranoia he attributes to Trump supporters. One of his preferred literary works when seeking an analogy for Trumpism is Moby-Dick. The novel reeks with Significance. So great is the reek that I’ve wondered whether Melville was only kidding. One of my teachers in college, Professor E.H. Rosenberry, had similar thoughts — consider his book, Melville and the Comic Spirit.

But to Almond, Captain Ahab is “a parable about our national destiny in which the only bulwark against self-inflicted tyranny is the telling of a story.” (A bulwark? — how about the Constitution?) But Trump is more than an inchoate Ahab — he also resembles Kurtz, the antihero in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad himself was a conservative, loyal to his adopted country, and, according to biographer Jeffrey Meyer, congenitally pessimistic. In Kurtz, we discover a smooth-talking reformer, who seeks to civilize a primitive African tribe. He dreams of a heroic reputation, but is drawn into the very culture he hopes to uplift. “The horror! The horror!” are his last words. Is it Almond, not Trump, who resembles Kurtz? But Almond ventures onward — Trump is also the golden calf prayed to by the Israelites. Indeed, he sees Trump as a packhorse for all the tyrannical vices — a bully, a bullshitter, a hollow entertainer who avoids the issues.

Why does he neglect the individual’s reasoning process and the skepticism it can produce — especially in reflecting on political issues?

What issues? Almond hardly mentions intellectual issues. He never details those Russian-hacker smears he complains of, though he spends a great deal of space on Hillary’s emails. When he does address policy issues, he bases his judgments on the immediate interests of his close acquaintances and a woman he found on Vox.com. He mentions the benefits they derived from Obamacare, for example, or from the Obama “stimulus package.” He overlooks the long-term effects of these “benefits” on the country. He believes the voters should worry more about their personal vulnerabilities than about their grievances. Were this a sound principle, the Pilgrims might have stayed home, along with others who sailed the seas to America. Aggrieved by oppression, they risked a long period of vulnerability at sea — for the promise of freedom.

As Almond sees it, Vladimir Putin is still fighting the Cold War. That we won that war is, to Almond, a bad story, even though the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire is an established fact, and America can rightly claim to have carried the day. The author disparages Ronald Reagan as “the star of Bedtime for Bonzo napping in the Oval Office.” And yet, crucial steps toward Cold War victory were taken during the Reagan presidency. The Reagan-inspired arms race, Reagan’s frankly anti-Soviet stance, and his close alliance with the Thatcher government, all contributed to the economic failure of the Soviets and the eventual decision by Gorbachev to release the captive nations. At the time, George Kennan and his containment policy got much of the credit, though the policy had led to the squandering of blood and treasure in winless wars. But Reagan’s contribution was enormous. What was his approach to the Cold War? “We win, they lose,” he said — and we won.

Will Trump initiate a period of American decline? Putin hopes so, according to Almond. So far, Trump’s tax cuts have brought a period of prosperity to America and provided a clear lesson: as an economic stimulus, a tax-cut beats the federal printing press every time. Creating inflation to stimulate the economy is the equivalent of a lie — an economic falsehood. But Almond, the socialist, may well see prosperity as decline — as “late-model capitalism.” And consider this claim by the author: “When our president fumes about NFL player protests, or Confederate monuments, or gun rights, he isn’t just ‘shoring up his base.’ He’s doing Putin’s bidding.” This is fanciful nonsense.

Almond, the socialist, may well see prosperity as decline — as “late-model capitalism.”

Donald Trump is proving of little danger to America. And he will likely alert our people to a true danger — the swing among Democrats toward socialism, a system that has created a procession of disasters, especially during the 20th century. Its popularity on campuses is a monument to the corruption bred by left-academics, and the ignorance they cultivate. An extensive literature of liberty exists in the archives of America and the Western world. But one would hardly suspect its existence, if judged by the state of knowledge of the average college student of today. When colleges and universities accept an enormous tuition, yet keep students in ignorance to preserve their leftist sympathies, they perpetrate a fraud.

Almond’s political ideas are accompanied by a fashionable anti-patriotism. That America is a representative democracy is, to him, a “bad story.” But members of both houses of Congress are elected by the populations of entire states, or of districts within each state — hence we have representative democracy in the legislative branch. The president of the United States is, at present, chosen by electors in each state, the number of each state’s electors being the same as the number of members in its Congressional delegation. The Constitution doesn’t require a direct popular vote for these electors. The system was meant to protect the interests of the less populated states and to produce a careful choice for an office of great potential power. George Washington recognized this power and, after his second term in office, established a precedent by bidding it farewell.

There is something malodorous in the words, something that smacks of mere namecalling.

And yet, Almond views America as “borne [sic] of high ideals and low behaviors, the land of all men are created equal and slave labor. We’ve been engaged in a pitched battle ever since, between greed and generosity, between the comforts of ignorance and the burden of moral knowledge.” This quotation is taken from the final chapter of Bad Stories, one that particularly reveals Almond’s affliction with Trump Derangement. Here, anti-Trumpism reaches the brink of hysteria — environmental protection, civil rights, free trade, public education, health care, are “all heading for bankruptcy.” On the other hand, “the markets for white supremacy, mass shootings, corporate profiteering, and nuclear cataclysm are booming.” And worse, “[Trump’s] aides and allies are mortified by his cognitive deterioration, his inability to read, or concentrate. It becomes more and more obvious that he’s unfit for the office. And yet, the office belongs to him.”

Do Almond’s own words represent a bad story as he defines it — one flawed and distorted? There is something malodorous in the words, something that smacks of mere namecalling. He subjects the man who is now president to an incompetent psychological evaluation. Trump, it seems, “never experienced a sense of being unconditionally loved, what psychologists call attachment. The best he could hope for within his family of origin was to please his domineering father through aggression. Because he never developed an intrinsic sense of self-worth, he can’t protect himself from feelings of inadequacy.” Thus Trump “proved especially captivating to disaffected Americans.” Does this last follow? Or was his appeal simply his departure from the Republican nice-guy-loser pattern — the one pioneered by Tom Dewey and emulated by Messrs. Goldwater, Bush, Dole, McCain, and Romney?

Experience clearly indicates that free-market capitalism is a far more effective system than its rivals. It’s no contest.

Chapter 15 in Bad Stories is entitled “Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses.” This fragment Almond sees as a “bad story.” It’s taken from a sonnet, “The New Colossus,” by the poet Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), a gifted woman. Her poem has been used and abused in debates over immigration, in particular those involving the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. Mencken wrote that the poet doesn’t deal in truth, but rather “conjures up entrancing impossibilities.” Perhaps the Lazarus poem conjures up a beautiful dream, the kind that guides and inspires the living. It bears a touch of early feminism, which ought to fascinate the present-day advocates. But it also contains, not only an invitation to our shores, but the inspiration to seek freedom wherever it’s dreamed of.

Alas, Almond is an apostle of equal outcomes, rather than freedom. I’m amazed that socialism ended up, not as one of Almond’s bad stories, but as a resuscitated grand scheme, or better, a secular faith. The fall of the Soviets after decades of blood and slave labor — despite the cheerleading from Western intellectuals — the rejection of British socialism with its Control of Engagements Order, the move of Scandinavian countries toward a free-market economy, and, much earlier, the failure of virtually all socialist communities in America, all taken together, suggest that maybe socialism isn’t such a good idea. The mass murders in Cuba, the desperate exits of its citizens, and the impoverishment of Venezuela offer more evidence of its futility.

Have you ever seen a more hysterical sentence?

Still, Almond sees capitalism, personified by Donald Trump, as the great evil. It stands in the way of our solving “crises that are beyond empirical doubt.” In his view, these include “climate change, resource depletion, and inequalities of wealth and opportunity, all of which are triggering mass immigrations, political unrest, and violent extremism.” It follows — to him — that we must reject bad stories (which ones?) and place our faith in “reason and empiricism.” Empiricism? But empiricism is the doctrine that the source of all knowledge is experience. And experience clearly indicates that free-market capitalism is a far more effective system than its rivals. It’s no contest.

Resistance to Almond’s collectivist agenda is reflected not only in “a ruthless free market theology” but also in other reactionary attitudes — a “make believe retreat from globalism, a nostalgia for white hegemony.” Worse yet, “our culture lurches about within the shadow of its own extinction, yet lacks the moral imagination to change its moral destiny.” Still worse, “our style of capitalism has acted as a financial centrifuge, perhaps the most brutal aggregator of wealth in human history, built on a foundation of slave labor and fortified by plunder, imperial warfare, the decimation of the labor movement, the predation of Wall Street, [and] the steady subjugation of oversight to private gain.” Have you ever seen a more hysterical sentence? Or one requiring more determined efforts to trace empirical facts about the world’s greatest multiethnic middle-class society back to its supposed causes in plunder and brutality?All this “resistance,” Almond conjures up with little regard for the reason and empiricism he urges on the rest of us.

It seems fair to remind Almond and his admirers that in its two-and-a-half centuries of existence, the United States of America has freed more people from slavery than any country in history. It has taken in tens of millions of immigrants seeking a better life and, through trade and the simple giving of gifts, has spread its bounty around the world. It has lost hundreds of thousands of its bravest sons in battles against the forces of tyranny — and often restored the war-damaged lands.

It’s the very risks, the adventure, involved in living in a free society that fascinate those whose heroic qualities remain unsuppressed.

Perhaps a touch of the sportsmanship in a “sports-brain” would make Almond a better, more reflective writer, as would a closer look at that “ruthless free-market theology.” A “brutal aggregator of wealth” must operate in a system of voluntary exchange. He doesn’t hide his money in the bathtub. He adds it to the river of capital that flows into financing and investments — creating new businesses, new products, new homes, more jobs, and more opportunities for improving the human condition. Is everyone happy in a free-market economy? No, of course not. Would there be greater happiness under any other economic regime? No again. A system that rewards the takers by plundering the producers will only spread misery in the long term. Frédéric Bastiat understood this, and his plain words might well be put in the hands of college students everywhere. He spoke of the “instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty.” Yes, and the struggle reflects those heroic qualities, which, taken together, represent a wonder of this earth — it’s called the human spirit.

It’s the very risks, the adventure, involved in living in a free society that fascinate those whose heroic qualities remain unsuppressed. But will their spirit roam free, or will it suffocate under a system that forces them to abide by a bureaucratic plan? An enforced equality can only be achieved at the expense of the best — the most creative, the most productive, the most in need of liberty. I see nothing in this that shows “moral imagination,” or that will lead to an improved “moral destiny.” And it may place all of us nearer to extinction.

With the exception of Almond’s personal experiences, which might make a decent book, Bad Stories is of little value as a source of truth. But as an example of the fashionable nonsense that passes for truth among the academic Left, it may be very useful indeed — it may lead some heroic individuals to educate young minds properly.

Useful Reading


Editor's Note: Review of "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," by Steve Almond. Red Hen Press, 2018, 257 pages.



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Only Yesterday

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On July 6, 1957, John Lennon and his skiffle band, the Quarrymen, performed at the Crowning of the Rose Queen parade at Woolton Parish Church in Liverpool. Paul McCartney met Lennon backstage between sets and played a few songs, including a medley of Little Richard songs, on his own guitar. Two weeks later John invited Paul to join his band, and in 1960 they changed their name to the Beatles. Ten years after that the band dissolved. It had been the most prolific and profound decade of music writing, producing over 200 original songs on 13 albums and covering nearly 100 songs written by other artists.

I bring this up because today, as I write, is July 6, the anniversary of Paul’s meeting John, and today I happened to see Yesterday, a whimsical film based on their music.

What if Paul hadn’t attended that Rose Queen parade? What if John had become an artist instead of a musician? What if the Beatles had never existed as a musical group? Would the music still exist somehow? Was it their music, or does it belong to the universe?

Ten years after that the band dissolved. It had been the most prolific and profound decade of music writing.

That’s the theme of Yesterday, Danny Boyle’s delightful story of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) a mediocre singer-songwriter who wakes up one day after an unexplained global power outage to discover that no one has heard of the Beatles, and none of their songs exist — except in his own memory. A Google search of Beatles produces nothing but a big black stinkbug. A search for John, Paul, George, and Ringo brings up a wiki article on Pope John Paul. Coca-Cola doesn’t exist either, along with several other modern products we take for granted. Jack’s reactions to the loss of these products, and his friends’ reactions to his requests for them, lead to several delightful moments in the movie.

So what would you do if you discovered you were the only repository of some of the greatest music of the 20th century? Jack is like Guy Montag and the educated tramps at the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — he becomes a living songbook, trying to remember and recreate every song in the Beatles lexicon.

Well, OK — he also performs the songs and accepts the accolades for having written them. He isn’t completely motivated by altruism. Or even a little bit. It’s somewhat galling to hear that these new songs are the best he’s ever written, but he gets over it easily enough. Soon he abandons his lifelong manager and almost girlfriend Ellie (Lily James) for a high-powered LA agent played by a deliciously wicked Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live’s Hillary Clinton), who openly admits to Jack that he will do all the work while she takes all the money — a clear but subtle reference to “Taxman.”

A Google search for John, Paul, George, and Ringo brings up a wiki article on Pope John Paul.

As familiar as he is with the music, Jack struggles to remember the lyrics. “Yesterday” is easy enough. But what about more complex works, such as “Eleanor Rigby” or “Back in the USSR”? We struggle along with him, wryly learning that we can sing along, but we can’t really sing alone. “When does she do that knitting?” he murmurs to himself as he works on recreating “Eleanor Rigby.” “And where does the rice come in?”

Eventually he pulls it together. (Father McKenzie, not Eleanor, does the darning, not knitting. And it’s “a” wedding, not “her” wedding — a significant difference for a song about loneliness. Such is the weakness of memory.)

So while Jack doesn’t actually write the songs he claims as his own, he does exert tremendous effort and labor to recreate the songs. And even then, he doesn’t quite get it right. As he accompanies himself on guitar or keyboard, some of the melodies and harmonies are a little off — intentionally so, I’m sure, to remind us how memory works — or doesn’t. Jack performs the songs as a solo act, and while I liked some of his modernized arrangements, especially his passionate version of “Help,” I missed the harmonies. All of this emphasizes how complex the Beatles’ recordings were, how deceptively simple their harmonies seemed, and how tight they really were, often trading off the melody as they sang.

It’s somewhat galling to hear that these new songs are the best he’s ever written, but he gets over it easily enough.

Boyle’s admiration for the music is apparent in subtle ways — a familiar flute riff in the background in one scene, a whimsical tuba in another, the tornadic crescendo rising to a climax from A Day in the Life as Jack flies into the air during an accident that occurs when the lights go out. Jack is “the lucky man who made the grade” — the chosen one who will “fill the holes” in the music.

So here are the questions I came away with after watching this well-written and solidly acted film:

  • Were the Beatles great because of their music, or was their music great because of the Beatles?
  • Would the Beatles have been so profoundly influential if their later, more experimental works had come first, the way Jack presents them, before their bouncy love songs had cemented their popularity?
  • In short, was the phenomenon of the Beatles as important to their lasting influence as the music itself, or does the music stand on its own?

Another question is whether the Beatles would have been as successful today. The music industry is profoundly different today from what it was 50 years ago. Music is sold (or stolen) piecemeal on iTunes or YouTube and other sites. Musicians make their money on concert tickets and merchandise sales, not music royalties.

Could the Beatles have written more than 200 songs and produced 13 albums if they had been on the road month in and month out? How would the piecemeal nature of today’s music sales have affected their creativity?

The ’60s were a magical time for music, and Boyle suggests through this film that there was something mystical about it as well.

There really wasn’t a “B side” to a Beatles record; nearly all their songs were hits. Their albums were carefully curated so that each track complemented the others. Rubber Soul has a personality distinct from Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s was organized and performed as though it were an actual concert. Fans waited months for the next album to emerge and bought all of them eagerly, listening to each track in the order that was intended. By contrast, Jack feeds his audience all the songs at once, as he remembers them, almost the way we binge on Netflix series, glutting ourselves greedily and then looking around for more, sad that we didn’t savor what we had. As a viewer I couldn’t help but wonder what was going to happen when Jack ran out of songs. By contrast, the ’60s were a magical time for music, and Boyle suggests through this film that there was something mystical about it as well.

Yesterday asks us to consider these questions, but only in passing. The story stands on its own, with a delightful cast of main and supporting characters (Jack’s parents are a hoot!), a sweet love story, and a nostalgic soundtrack. Skip Spider-man’s Homecoming this week and enjoy a little homecoming of your own, reminiscing with the music of Yesterday.


Editor's Note: Review of "Yesterday," directed by Danny Boyle. Universal Pictures, 2019, 116 minutes.



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We're All Turning Into Trust-fund Babies

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No cause is so noble that it won't attract fuggheads (Niven’s Law #17). Which, naturally, brings me to Peter Buttigieg.

Now I don’t want to refer to anybody who holds such an august position as mayor of a middle-sized city in Indiana as a fugghead, but it’s hard to take seriously a man who calls himself “Mayor Pete,” not if he aspires to any position requiring more gravitas than community organizer of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. Still, I think Hizzonor is onto something with his talk about national service.

I know the arguments in opposition; they’ve been well made right here at Liberty — that universal service, whether mandatory or just customary, is a form of slavery. And I yield to no one in my admiration for Lori Heine and Stephen Cox, both as to their talents as writers and the acuity of the thinking that illuminates their writing, but I believe they’re missing an important point about slavery. And citizenship, for that matter. To start with, I don’t think universal service has anything to do with slavery.

It’s hard to take seriously a man who calls himself “Mayor Pete,” not if he aspires to any position requiring more gravitas than community organizer of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Nobody would accuse the citizens of ancient Athens of being slaves. That’s what they had slaves for. The citizens ran the place and elected their leaders and debated in the agora. Some headed up schools of philosophy during business hours, and spent their spare time embarrassing people in the street by asking questions the people couldn’t answer. Socrates was famous for that. He also put in a lot of time in national service. In his case, the infantry. Heavy infantry hoplites fitted out with up to 30 kilos of armor, greaves, shield, spear, sword, helmet. Socrates served in the military, when Athens needed infantry, from his early twenties straight through to his late forties. Close to 30 years: two in training, others disputing against Potidaeans, then Boeotians, and then Spartans.

Here’s why we Americans should care: it was the philosophers who did the fighting, not the slaves, because slaves weren’t citizens, philosophers were, and military service was a badge of citizenship. Even a philosopher who questioned pretty much everything else never asked whether his talents were best suited to the infantry. I don’t know what reasons a middle-aged Socrates would have given for picking up all that gear and heading off to battle time after time, other than that it was his duty as a citizen, but here’s a list of reasons why I think Americans should do national service.

1. The Islam Principle (also applies to academics who can’t get it out of their heads that somewhere, someplace, communism will actually work, members of Kool-Aid cults, people who’ve spent 30 years in psychotherapy, and those who think Hillary Clinton should have another go at the presidency).

Socrates served in the military, when Athens needed infantry, from his early twenties straight through to his late forties.

It doesn’t cost anything to be an American, and it should. There’s a principle in psychology that the more it takes to obtain something the more valuable that something is. Also in economics. You can see this in what people give up to become Muslims: alcohol; bacon; companionable relations with the other sex; the right of women not to be dehumanized by having to wear special costumes when they step out of the house; the right not to dissipate one’s wealth on overpriced trips to Mecca . . . I could go on. It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to know it’s the sense of community that Muslims derive from mutually suffering through this nonsense that gives Islam the strength to resist the otherwise universal solvent of Enlightenment values.

2. Everybody needs a little skin in the game. Not only are Americans not required to serve in our military; 44% of us don’t even pay federal taxes. But we all expect the military to protect us. We expect air-traffic controllers to keep our planes from bumping into things. We expect the FDA to keep our food from killing us. We expect interstate highway bridges not to collapse beneath us. We expect our harbors not to silt up. We expect . . . oh, you get the point. The 44% of us who don’t pay for any of this, and the 93% who never serve in the military, expect it as much as everybody else.

It’s moral hazard. It’s easy come easy go. It’s welfare queens, rentseekers, and trust-fund babies.

3. The Eisenhower Principle. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of the military as an institution. One of the things you learn from having served is how wasteful, how bloated, how bureaucratic, how just plain stupid the military can be, and that’s not a bad thing for our civilian leaders to know from personal experience.

It doesn’t cost anything to be an American, and it should.

Ike didn’t drop the bomb in Korea, and he didn’t drop it all over again when the Red Chinese were threatening Quemoy and Matsu, even though just about every general he talked with was hounding him to do just that. He knew enough about the military, he knew enough about strategic thinking and, especially, he knew enough about military leaders not to be bullied into doing the wrong thing. I’m not saying every candidate for president should be a five-star general, but I am saying that having leaders who’ve spent enough time in the military to know not to take military people too seriously might save a lot of us from some serious incineration down the road.

4. To know, know, know them is to . . . well, if you don’t love all of them, at least the ones you dislike you dislike because they’re jerks. Here’s another principle in psychology: You’re scared of people you don’t know.

In the military you do know them. You know them because you live in a big room with them. I was a white boy from the suburbs of Atlanta bunking with tough, rural whites; a guy who claimed to be connected to one of the New York crime families and might well have been; a guy from Mississippi who said his family were Druids who’d immigrated to America in the 1700s; sharecroppers; northern whites with hideous, aggressive accents who looked like they stole things; a lawyer; a cowboy who called everybody “partner”; a campus cop from the University of Colorado who’d let himself into the room containing photos from Project Bluebook and came away convinced that flying saucers were real; an African-American chemist who went AWOL and never came back; Chicanos who didn’t want us to eat grapes; ghetto blacks who called each other “nigger” and probably had knives to back it up; and an Eskimo. It all seemed very strange.

One of the things you learn from having served is how wasteful, how bloated, how bureaucratic, how just plain stupid the military can be.

It’s remarkable how that changed. By the time I got out of the army we’d become relaxed around each other and funny. We were loud and raucous and sang along with the Righteous Brothers or Creedence or Waylon and worried about what our girlfriends were up to but, mostly, we just wanted to go home . . . all except the chemist, who may have already been home for all anybody knew. I came to admire some, I never liked all of them, but I liked most of them, and I liked some of them a lot. And the ones I didn’t like, I didn’t like because I didn’t like them personally, not as representativesof something or other I’d never met. It’s not just our leaders who need experience in the military; it’s our people who need experience of America.

5. It makes one hell of a gap year (or two). I’m not going to say that I enjoyed every moment I was in the army. There were times, and plenty of them, I would gladly have been almost anywhere else. But that doesn’t mean I’m not glad I did it. I wasn’t even sorry at the time.

For a young man who’d done nothing more exciting than sit in school and keep his mouth shut while people talked at him, the army scratched a primordial itch. Instead of telling me to sit still and listen, the army told me to run around and yell, and the faster I ran and the louder I yelled, the better they liked it. The army gave me a gun to shoot and things to throw that blew up. It sent me to a strange foreign place and gave me a boat to drive. That was fun and interesting and exotic. There were strange foreign people along the river banks and in sampans, and they were interesting and exotic, too. Sometimes, I got to throw things in their direction that blew up and, other times, they tried to blow me up. I can’t say all that was fun, but I sure wasn’t the same person when I came home. And I was glad of that. I especially wasn’t anything like the people who never went, and I’m even gladder about that. I was stronger and more mature, and had seen some of the world and had a pretty good sense of how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, and it didn’t have much to do with what the people who wanted me to sit at desks and be quiet thought I should do. And I’m most glad about that.

6. It would put a stop to store clerks thanking you for your service. Not that this annoys me, exactly, but these thank yous never seem to reek of sincerity. Now, I’m the last one to argue that Home Depot should discontinue its discount for veterans. Ten percent off goes a long way on big-ticket items. It’s just that the store clerks who thank me don’t know whether I ran a typewriter at Fort Dix or a patrol boat on the Saigon River, which doesn’t make me feel like I’m being thanked for anything I specifically did. Mostly the thankyous come across as smarmy, and hints at some kind of psychiatric sugar-coating for people who either feel smug about not having been in the army or secretly wish they’d had a bit more adventure when they were young. At bottom, I’m just not persuaded that anybody should be thanked for serving in the military. Nobody thanks you for paying taxes. Or sitting on a jury. Or voting. Those are duties that come with citizenship.

Instead of telling me to sit still and listen, the army told me to run around and yell.

I’ve been running on about the military, as if that were the only way to accomplish any of this; but, of course, it’s not. For one thing, the military couldn’t accommodate that many people, and God save the republic if it tried. There are plenty of other things our nation needs doing, not the least of which is just doing things together.

7. Life is better when you’re the landowner. Fifteen, twenty years ago I was at an overlook at Bryce when this old guy got out of his car and walked over and admired the trail leading down into the canyon. The trail was wet and sloppy and stuck so thoroughly to your boots from late-season snow that it was like trying to walk in glue, and boy did that old guy love that trail. When he was a teenager he’d been in the Civilian Conservation Corps and he’d built it. “That trail, right there.”

Sixty or so years later he still came to visit it sometimes. His trail, the one we were looking at. That trail, right there. His wife stayed in the car and harrumphed. She’d been through this before. And she’d never been in the CCC.

There are plenty of things our nation needs doing, not the least of which is just doing things together.

OK, I can hear what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Bill? Bill? The CCC? Really? Enough with this collectivist talk.

But I don’t see it that way. It seems to me I’m talking about responsibility, which is as far from collectivism as you can get because collectivists don’t take responsibility for anything, least of all the country they live in. Collectivists expect the country to take responsibility for them. We’re the libertarians. We’re the ones who take responsibility. We take responsibility for ourselves. We take responsibility for the people we care about. And, at least if you’re me, we’re the ones who should take responsibility for our country as a whole . . . because if we leave it up to the collectivists we’re not going to have a country. At least not a country any of us would want to live in.




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Democrats, Debating

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First Day

I did my duty and watched the Democrats’ “debate” on June 26. It was chaos. Two hours of ten candidates, each interrupting the others to delivering rehearsed lines to elicit cheers from the friendly audience. All the while, I’m thinking, “Is it going to be one of these? Please, no.”

Look, I admit that Donald Trump was a ridiculous candidate, unqualified to be president of the United States, and that Barack Obama, two years out of the Illinois legislature, was not fully qualified either. But does that mean qualifications are off the table? Would the Democratic Party really nominate a 44-year-old former secretary of HUD? Or a 46-year-old former member of the House of Representatives who ran for Senate and lost? Three of the candidates in the debate were current House members, but America has not elected a congressman president since the 19th century.

All the while, I’m thinking, “Is it going to be one of these? Please, no.”

We do occasionally elect senators, and I knew of Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. The debate began with Warren declaring that America was a great country for the oil companies, the drug companies, and the insurance companies, but that the game was rigged against the rest of us. The badness of life in America was a common theme. “The economy is not working for the average American,” Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey boomed. “There’s plenty of money in this country,” said New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, whose city includes Wall Street. “It’s just in the wrong hands.”

Really? Is that the reason to reject Donald Trump — that life here is fundamentally unfair? Didn’t life offer about the same measure of fairness under Barack Obama? Has Trump transformed America that much in two and a half years? Apparently so; the debate among Democrats has shifted hugely left, and is now revolving around “social justice.” I use the term in quotation marks — but then, I’m not a Democrat.

Of the ten politicians on the first day, the most articulate, zealous, and dangerous was Elizabeth Warren. When the moderator asked, “Who among you would abolish private health insurance,” her hand shot up immediately, and it was the only one. Warren had no hesitation on any subject except for guns, which she uncharacteristically said needed to be “researched” and was “not an across-the-board problem.” For her, everything else was an across-the-board problem. She knew the solutions she wanted and promised to bite down like a pit bull in order to get them.

Three of the candidates in the debate were current House members, but America has not elected a congressman president since the 19th century.

The closest to Warren that first night was Booker. When it came to “health care for all,” Booker was positively pushy. If Congress wasn’t ready to act when he took office, he said, “I’m not going to wait.” I waited for somebody to ask, “And do what?” but nobody did.

I noted that when the subject came to war, Bill DeBlasio objected that America has “gone to war without Congressional authorization.” I liked that he referred to the Constitution — hardly anyone did — though I recall Barack Obama saying something similar. When politicians get power they like to use it.

The contestants did the usual dodging of questions. The champion evader was the former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who was asked whether he favored a 70% top rate of income tax. He switched to Spanish, and when he returned to English, he had changed the subject. He dodged a question from the former HUD secretary, Julian Castro, who tried to get him on the record about Title 1325 of the US Code. I didn’t know what that was, and I don’t think O’Rourke did, either. When O’Rourke was pitched a question about climate change, he dodged it by talking about his visit to Pacific Junction, Iowa, which had had a flood. O’Rourke was the “I-feel-your-pain” candidate. Some of the others tried it, but he was the master of it. He irritated me more than any of them.

Warren knew the solutions she wanted and promised to bite down like a pit bull in order to get them.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has been cheered by libertarians for her stance against war, was calm and controlled. Not that this is an asset; “fire in the belly” is what wins elections, and she didn’t have much. Maybe it was her military training. Still, when Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio was cornered into saying that America has “to stay engaged” in Afghanistan, Gabbard replied, “We have to bring our troops home.” That was good.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, the climate-change man, bragged about the Evergreen State’s wind turbines and its progress toward “clean” electricity. Washington is my home state, so his bragging doesn’t impress me. Because of our mountains and rivers, we have been able to produce 70% of our electricity from dams, but most of them were in place before Inslee was born, and not one has been built since he was elected. Wind turbines produce 6% of our electricity, but they are federally subsidized and require the dams to ramp up when the wind dies down. Washington does have a strong economy as Inslee said, but it had that before he was elected.

At one point a moderator asked Inslee if his “plan” could save Miami from being flooded by the rising seas. He began a long-winded answer, checked himself and said, “Yes.” It was the most ridiculous promise of the night: Jay Inslee, the man who would hold back the sea.

O’Rourke was the “I-feel-your-pain” candidate, more irritating than any of the rest of them.

Not all the comments among the no-hopers were as goofy as his. After Elizabeth Warren had come out for abolishing private health insurance, Representative John Delaney of Maryland allowed that many people like their private health insurance. “Why,” he asked, “should we be the party of taking things away from people?” Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota made the same point. It was a reasonable one; there is no way any of them, if elected, would be able to do away with private health insurance. It was a night, however, when reasonableness was in short supply and offered mainly by candidates who weren’t going to win.

Second Day

More of the same. I tuned in just as Joe Biden was bloviating about Donald Trump’s “tax cut for the wealthy,” which was followed by Senator Kamala Harris of California going on about the “tax bill that benefited the 1%.” “No,” I thought, “not two hours of this.”

A few minutes later the moderator asked Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont if it wouldn’t be politically wiser to define the Democratic Party as nonsocialist. Sanders dodged the question and declared that Trump is “a pathetic liar and a racist.” Sanders was the only candidate to name Wall Street as the enemy. Regarding the health insurers, he said, elect him and “their day is done.”

It was the most ridiculous promise of the night: Jay Inslee, the man who would hold back the sea.

Sanders promised to cut prescription drug prices in half. This was the outrageous promise of Day Two, though it doesn’t quite match Jay Inslee’s promise to hold back the seas.

Kamala Harris, California’s former chief prosecutor, promised to fight. On immigration, she said that if Congress didn’t offer her a bill granting residence to illegal immigrants who came in as children, and their parents who came in as adults, she would declare it by executive order. Harris also said she would “ban by executive order the importation of assault weapons.”

The other candidate promising executive orders was Sanders, who said he would reverse by executive order every one of Trump’s executive orders.

Later in the debate the moderators asked for a yes-no reply on the question of whether noncitizens who had no papers allowing them to be in the United States should be deported. It was stated that under Barack Obama, three million such people were deported. Not one of the candidates said they supported this. All of them were for letting everyone who made it over the wall stay here, and for giving them free medical care and all the other goods and services to which every American had a “right.”

Sanders was the only candidate to name Wall Street as the enemy.

Harris, whose ancestry is part African, played the race card on white Joe Biden, saying, “I do not believe you are racist,” and then accused him of excusing racism. Clearly this was a prepared missile launched at the principal enemy. Part of it was that Biden had opposed mandatory racial busing sometime in the distant past — opposition to busing apparently being an indisputable mark of Cain. Biden didn’t defend his opposition to busing as such; his reply was that he had favored busing imposed by local authorities but not by the Department of Education.

As the frontrunner — and a guy with a long political record — Joe Biden made a fat target. Sanders lit into him for voting for the Iraq War (which Hillary Clinton had done as well). But that vote was in 2002, 17 years ago, when the Woke Generation was still in Pampers. Biden didn’t bother to defend it, but said, “I don’t think we should have combat troops in Afghanistan.”

Trump said that, too, as I recall.

Among the no-hopers, John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, said the Democratic Party should not label itself socialist, and that it just wouldn’t work to be “guaranteeing everybody a government job.” I liked that, but nobody cared what John Hickenlooper said. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was for taxpayer-funded election campaigns, which would save the nation by “getting money out of politics.” Representative Eric Swalwell of California advocated a federal buyback of assault guns, whether you wanted to sell yours or not. Andrew Yang, the Pie in the Sky candidate, wanted to give every American $1,000 a month, which he said would make people so physically and mentally healthy that it would increase Gross Domestic Product by $700 billion a year. (He really did say this!) And then there was Marianne Williamson, an author of some self-help books that I’d never heard of, but which made the New York Times bestseller list. She wanted to “harness love” to beat Donald Trump in November 2020.

As the frontrunner — and a guy with a long political record — Joe Biden made a fat target.

Finally, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. He also said some things, but I can’t find anything in my notes that makes actual sense.

The one candidate I was eager to hear was Pete Buttigieg. I admit to a certain prejudice against the man, not because he is gay but because the idea of elevating a 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to the office of president of the United States strikes me as a jump too far. South Bend is not much bigger than Yakima, Washington, and for the presidency, age 37 is barely legal. But what the hell . . . Buttigieg did say more sensible things than any of the rest of them.

My first note on Buttigieg was that his version of “Medicare for All” was not forcing everyone to have government insurance — the Sanders-Warren idea — but allowing people without private insurance to buy into a Medicare-like plan. Buttigieg said, “Even in countries that have full socialized medicine like England, they still have a private sector.”

And then there was Marianne Williamson, who wanted to “harness love” to beat Donald Trump in November 2020.

On guns, Buttigieg said he was for universal background checks. That’s all. Noting that he was the only candidate on stage who had trained in military weapons — he served in Afghanistan — he said, “There are weapons that have absolutely no place on America’s streets.” He didn’t say which ones, but it was a reasonable statement.

On the topic of China, Buttigieg, who is from a part of the country not too favorable to world trade, made it clear he did not favor a trade war. “Tariffs are taxes,” he said. His answer to the economic challenge of China was to “invest in our own competitiveness.” I agreed with that, too, though a warning flag goes up when I hear a politician say “invest.”

Still, if I had to vote Democrat, I’d vote for Buttigieg — if I had to vote Democrat.




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