The Unmentionables

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I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon. Virtually no one I know is willing to start a conversation about the current election campaign.

As an academic with many academic acquaintances, I grew used to hearing people inject George Bush into every possible conversation, always in a derisive manner. But this year, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of mentions my colleagues have made of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The same pattern holds with groups or individuals who I am certain will vote for Trump. No one wants to mention the campaign or the personalities.

This is a welcome relief, but why is it happening? I have several guesses.

  1. People are aware that this election is even more divisive than the past few elections, and they’re unwilling to start a fight.
  2. Many people who are expected by their friends to vote for Clinton will actually vote for Trump, and vice versa, and they don’t want to give themselves away.
  3. Everybody’s just sick of the damned thing.

These ideas may go far toward explaining the matter. But there’s at least one other possibility. Many people are discouraged about the presidency itself. They regard it cynically, as just one more object on a growing pile of political rubbish.

I’m not sure whether it’s good or bad that people feel that way. The imperial presidency lost almost all of its glamor with the abject failure of Obama (whom, by the way, hardly anybody ever mentions either). That’s certainly good, and maybe it’s permanent. I’m not sure, however, that complete political cynicism is a good long-run strategy for the pursuit and capture of individual freedom.




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All in the Tribe

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A clear warning was sounded by the Republican national convention of 1996. Determined to nominate Bob Dole, a Republican elder statesman of the “moderate” variety (otherwise known as a Real Pro, the Great Insider, and One of Ours), the Grand Old Party turned its national deliberative body into a television soundstage, allowing no debate on anything. Only happy talk was permitted, and when the popular hero of the conservatives, Pat Buchanan, suddenly appeared in the convention hall, his entrance was distinctly without the permission of the tribal leaders. As Liberty’s reporter observed at the time (November 1996, p. 22), the ruling council feared that real people would have their way and nominate Buchanan. Meanwhile, the big chiefs did their best, and that was a lot, to remove all evidence of testicles from Jack Kemp, the quasi-libertarian whom they nominated for the vice presidency.

I am not saying that Pat Buchanan is a libertarian. Far from it. I am commenting on the behavior of his adversaries. Since their powwow, there hasn’t been a major-party national convention that has behaved as a deliberative body. They have all been like the First Vatican Council (1870), which was devised by Pope Pius IX as a stage set on which he could declare himself infallible. Pio Nono refused to allow the attending bishops to initiate any proposals, or even to know what their agenda was supposed to be. When some tried to protest, they found that the acoustics in the meeting room were so bad that almost nobody could understand them. When a few tried harder to protest, they were threatened with the loss of their sees. And so the invincible Pope was declared infallible.

There were many strong and learned people in the church who exposed the fallacies of Pius IX’s new doctrine, but the majority of bishops were so ignorant, stupid, frightened, or greedy for power that they went right along with it. They were not a congregation; they were a tribe, subject to their tribal rulers, just as American political parties are today.

Tribalism is now a leading characteristic of our politics, and perhaps the leading one. You see it in many forms, most of which are never mentioned in the information media — another sign of the ignorance and acquiescence that are inseparable accompaniments of tribalism. Ignorance and acquiescence are fit companions for each other. Why should anyone want to know anything, if no one is prepared to act on the knowledge that he or she might acquire?

Nepotism is another salient characteristic of tribal rule. In most tribes, leadership passes almost automatically from one member of a family to another. The more frightened and ignorant people are, the more they fear diversity of character and opinion; they want to keep what they have, or something closely related to it. Hence, the ruler’s son or grandson or son-in-law will be seen as having a direct claim on power. Once the unworthy person has gained power, he will be conscious of the ability of other persons to uncover his weaknesses or wrongdoings, and he will therefore seek to govern by loyalty, not information. He will continue to trust family ties more than the ties established by a common pursuit of rational goals.

Why should anyone want to know anything, if no one is prepared to act on the knowledge that he or she might acquire?

And, of course, tribal government is intensely small-scale and personal. Where power depends on charismatic personalities, the safest and easiest method of passing it along is by an irrational association with family. The Bible tells us that Samuel, judge and prophet, tried to appoint his sons as judges — as inheritors, in his place, of the divine charisma. It is noteworthy, however, that on this occasion the people rebelled; they were aware that the sons were no good, and they acted on that knowledge, and threw them out.

With us, all such processes of rational choice ended with the Kennedys. The Kennedy clan always did and always will act on tribal principles. And their tribe was originally embedded in a larger tribe, the Irish New England Catholics who would vote for anyone so long as he was not “English” or “Protestant.” The real problem arose when the whole country began acting in this way, accepting Ted Kennedy and even greater idiots, such as Patrick Kennedy, as natural successors to the bright and charismatic JFK. Robert Kennedy was a more competent bearer of charisma, but his position in the Kennedy clan was the only thing that really mattered to his success. Here was a man who had made himself stink in the nostrils of organized labor and the FDR liberals, a man who enjoyed a relationship with Joseph McCarthy, a man who was noted for his nastiness and ruthlessness — do you think his political career could possibly have gone anywhere if he had not happened to be a president’s brother?

Since the 1960s, no revelations of the gross immorality and stupidity that have abounded in the Kennedy family have proved capable of destroying the tribal loyalty felt for it by large segments of the American populace. Even more disturbing is the fact that the original tribe, the Irish Catholics, and the larger tribe, Americans in general, neither cared nor noticed that the ideology of the Kennedys — the thing about their political leadership that was subject to rational debate, pro or con — evolved into something almost directly opposite to what the voters had originally found attractive. Jack Kennedy was mildly-to-very “rightwing” in most of his public positions; his successors have ranged from very leftwing to crazy leftwing. This made no difference to the tribe.

The Clintons and the Bushes have built their political lives on Americans’ new susceptibility to tribalism. No objective judge of personal merit and fitness to attain the presidency would ever come close to regarding such people as Bill and Hillary Clinton, or the two Presidents Bush, as fit for any office of public trust, above, say, the level of notary public — and any notary whose standards of truth were similar to theirs would soon lose his seal. The Bushes are basically nice people; the Clintons are basically not; but that doesn’t mean that the Bushes had an inflexible habit of telling the truth. They didn’t. As for the Clintons, it’s hard to see that they have ever given the truth much value. Hillary has lied enthusiastically, even when there was no reason or occasion to lie. The revelations of the Clintons’ misconduct (has there been any other kind of conduct with them?) have never shaken their hold on an enormous tribe of voters, donors, and subject officials.

It’s not just my 12-year-old-kid ideal of America that leads me to see inheritance of political office as a bad omen for the republic. If there were something intellectually or morally distinguished about the nepotists, I would not object to one Bush or Clinton following the other. But neither morality nor intelligence has anything to do with it. There are millions of Americans who are smarter than the Bushes, the Clintons, and the Kennedys (yes, even the Kennedys). As for morals: the moral character of the Bushes was about par for American presidential politics, but the character of the Kennedys and Clintons came from another universe — the universe, perhaps, of the old Germanic tribes. At the presidential level, the notion that personal morality is politically irrelevant, the notion that “they all do it” and therefore I should do it too, is an innovation, and a most unhappy one. Say what you will about the hypocrisy of old-fashioned moral standards, I would rather have a pretense of morality than the assumption that it is meaningless.

In what society other than that of a warlike band of hunters and gatherers would Kathleen Sebelius still have a job?

What, you might say, about earlier instances of presidencies passed from one member of a family to another? Well, what about it? John Quincy Adams was the son of the great John Adams, and he benefited from the connection, but his intellectual attainments and his enormous experience as a diplomat would have made him an important political figure even without his relationship to his father — who was, by the way, not much liked in the early 19th century, if ever. Quincy Adams wasn’t a good president, but his father wasn’t to blame for that. Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, who died a month after his inauguration; the family connection appears to have had no significance in his career. The same might be said of Franklin Roosevelt, in respect to his distant relative, Theodore Roosevelt. Tribalism had nothing to do with FDR’s popularity; it has everything to do with Mrs. Clinton’s.

But tribes do not consist merely of biological families; there are also the allies and subordinate chiefs, the official families and political families of the rulers. The Kennedys and Clintons maintained (and maintain) vast numbers of flacks, fixers, hangers-on, speechwriters, ghostwriters, media allies, and just plain dumb-loyal employees of government whose real job is to maintain the power of the tribe. Their loyalty is their most important asset, and it is repaid in kind. The tribe takes care of its own.

One of the most ominous signs of tribalism in our political life is the paucity of expulsions from the central hearth. The Bushes were very loath to fire anyone, and Obama is still more loath. In what society other than that of a warlike band of hunters and gatherers would Kathleen Sebelius still have a job? It may be that Obama is afraid of releasing people because they know too much (although the example of Sebelius argues otherwise, because she obviously knows nothing about anything). Fears of untoward revelations were a strong factor with Bill Clinton’s administration, as they will be with any administration conducted by his wife; the Clintonistas, like the Kennedyphiles, have always behaved like a mob bound by blood oaths. In any case, recent administrations have placed the chief virtue of tribal society, which is loyalty, above every other virtue. The example has been imitated by every political group subsidiary to them. No spokesman for feminism, environmentalism, veterans’ assistance, ethnic causes, or even non-drunken driving can be driven from the podium by anything less than video proof of heinous crimes; at the first sign of trouble, the protective ring of loyalists shuts tight around them.

The result is that loyalists increase and prosper, and independent and critical minds are driven from politics. Tribes can be conquered (usually by other tribes) or they can starve themselves out of existence, but they cannot be reformed. The barbarian tribes that destroyed the Roman Empire either wiped one another out or were reduced to poverty and impotence by the devastation they had caused. It is sad but all too plausible: the American republic will perish in the tribal wars of Kennedys and Bushes, Clinton clones and Obama clones, pressure groups of elephants and pressure groups of donkeys.




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Pigs R Us

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Responding to President Obama’s January 17 speech about intelligence gathering (i.e., spying on people), some anti-NSA activists opined: "Rather than dismantling the NSA's unconstitutional mass surveillance programs, or even substantially restraining them, President Obama today has issued his endorsement of them. . . . The speech today was 'historic' in the worst sense. It represents a historic failure by a president to rein in mass government illegality and violations of fundamental rights." The madcap Julian Assange commented: "I think it's embarrassing for a head of state like that to go on for almost 45 minutes and say almost nothing.”

For once I agree with the supposed progressives (although Assange could have made the same remark about any of Obama’s speeches). The president has no interest in restraining any aspect of government. In this he resembles his immediate predecessor, and the resemblance is becoming uncanny. From government stimulus of “the economy” (i.e., state employees, welfare recipients, and phony capitalists) to government interference with education to government intervention in foreign wars, Obama has been enthusiastically devoted to Bush’s causes and Bush’s ways of working. The difference is that he has been less “transparent” about how he carries on his work.

While listening to Obama’s monotonous, empty speeches, one often feels one’s mind wandering, just as one felt one’s mind wandering while one tried to listen to Bush. You find yourself doing things you seldom do. You dust that odd place behind the DVDs. You inspect the carpet to see if the edges need repair. You see if you’ve got enough cards to send next Christmas. Sometimes you lapse into fantasy. In recent weeks, I’ve been picturing myself on the last page of Animal Farm, where Clover wonders why everything seems “to be melting and changing.” How is it that when you look at the purported animals and the purported men, it’s impossible to say which is which?




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The Carnival at Dallas

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The spectacle of five presidents — Carter, Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Obama — meeting to compliment one another at the opening of the second Bush’s presidential library reminded me irresistibly of chapter 26 of Candide, the Symposium of Monarchs. In that episode, Voltaire satirizes authority by arranging for six kings to discover that they are staying at the same inn at Venice. Their conversation reveals their inanity and (as Voltaire would have it) the inanity of human life. Whatever you think of Voltaire’s ideas, it’s a very funny chapter.

So here we have our own Symposium of Monarchs, a meeting of men who have wielded infinitely more power than any king of the Old Regime. Who are these people?

None of them had any qualification whatever for the office once assumed by Washington. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone, among all the varied occupants of the presidential chair, who was less qualified than they were. Maybe John Tyler. In fact, none of them was impelled to the position by anything other than ambition for office.

Two of them — the Bushes — are agreeable human beings, and the elder Bush was a war hero, a real war hero. Unfortunately, neither father nor son had any intellectual qualifications. The younger Bush reads history but is incapable of profiting from his studies. The elder Bush showed himself incapable of understanding even his own emphatic promise not to raise taxes. He folded as soon as the opposing party offered to sell him a bridge in Brooklyn. He bought the bridge, and lost the presidency. The younger Bush was unable to understand even the rudimentary principles of limited government. But you could say that about all of them. None of them showed even the faintest understanding of his oath of office.

Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that.

Intellectual qualifications . . . unlike virtually all former presidents, none of the five, with the possible exception of Carter, is able to speak in his own voice for even one minute without committing a gross grammatical error. None of them, including the current president, himself reputedly the author of a book, is capable of an accurate allusion to anybody else’s book. Most of them don’t even try. Listen to Obama’s speeches; notice what or whom he mentions. It’s always “a teacher in Montana” or “a little girl in New Jersey.” Acton? Madison? Webster? Whitman? Churchill? Cather? Twain? And here they are at the dedication of a library.

Experience? Carter and Clinton were goofball governors of Southern states. The Bushes were rich people. Obama was a black student who was elected, for unknown but surmisable reasons, editor of a college law review, then a hack politician employed by the Chicago political machine.

Personal qualifications? Great personalities? Commanding leadership? Eccentric and interesting insights? Inspiring examples of morality? All these people, except the elder Bush, who was a professional promiser and non-fulfiller, can properly be called professional liars. Some lied with an exuberance appropriate to men who really enjoy the sport. On Carter, see Robert Novak’s autobiography; you’ll be entertained. On Clinton, consult your memories. On Obama, just listen to the man. On the younger Bush . . . I’m not referring to his theories about Iraq, on which he appears to have been sincerely deluded. On such issues as censorship (freedom of speech is sacred, but take all this sex off the internet), big government (I’m against it, but raise high the roofbeams, carpenters!), and immigration (open the gates, but pretend to be building walls), he lied with abandon.

Which one of these people would you like to serve with on a condo board? A department committee? A working group of any kind? Chorus of “None!” Carter would automatically attack as “racist” anyone who disagreed with him. Obama, a good casting choice for Creon in Antigone, would insist on lecturing everyone like a high school principal. The Bushes would never finish a sentence. Clinton would be looking for a deal that would enrich himself and promote the career of his banshee wife. And which one of them would you like to have a beer with? Which one — to return to the Candide analogy — would you like to encounter at the Carnival of Venice?

My answer used to be, “All of them but Carter.” Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that. But I used to say that if I lived next door to Obama or one of the other recent presidents, I would enjoy talking to him. I used to say that I imagined he would be a good neighbor. A couple of years ago, I got in trouble at a libertarian conference by saying these things.

If these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them?

But now I’m not so sure. I guess it’s still true about the good neighbor part. None of the non-Carter presidents fits the profile of a bad neighbor, if only because none of them cares very much about who waters the lawn. (Some underling will do it.) On Centre Street in San Diego, this noble disengagement would be a relief. It’s a long way, however, from qualifying someone for political power. I don’t think that Obama, Clinton, or the Bushes would start baying at the moon, or building houses for po’ folk in my back yard. But do I want to have a beer with one of these presidents? Maybe not.

True, I’d like to hear them discuss their political experiences. I wouldn’t object; I’d just listen. I’d buy a whole saloonful of beers, just to be able to do that . . . except . . . except for this vagrant thought: if these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them? Would I have thought they merited a change in my schedule?

The obvious answer is: Hell no! Are you kidding?

If Obama were a high school principal, or even a congressman, who would want to talk with him? There is nothing, nothing whatever, that is interesting about the man, except the weird political processes that elected him — on which he himself is unlikely to be an authority. Ditto Clinton — of no interest unless you’re one of those old-timey guys who liked to hang with the whores and the cops and collect their observations. The Bushes? Sorry. Life is short. As Gertrude Stein opined, “There’s no there, there.”

When, in Voltaire’s novel, Candide meets his useless monarchs, and so many of them at once, he is at first convinced that he is “witnessing a masquerade.” Then he says, “Gentlemen, this is an odd joke. Why are you all kings?”

He never gets an answer.




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Killing Them Sophomorically

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Killing Them Softly is a film about the ugly underworld of organized crime but tries to be a whole lot more. Set against the 2008 financial meltdown and presidential election, it suggests metaphorically the connection between government and organized crime, implying that the executive branch is an organization that gets rich off the vices of others, controls public opinion by casting blame on someone known to be innocent, and assassinates anyone who gets in its way. The movie suggests that America is nothing but a floating poker game.

In the film, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) — clearly designed to represent Bush — runs a literal floating poker game. He has figured out a way to set up a robbery of the game, pocket the money, and make his cronies — clearly designed to represent corporate America — believe that someone else has stolen the cash. Later he brags about what he did, but since the game is back in play and the money is flowing again, everyone laughs and Trattman gets a bye — this time.

But this isn't an ordinary poker game. Everyone at the table is making money, and it's controlled by bosses who are represented by a button-up businessman (Richard Jenkins) who is so straight that he cringes when someone lights up a cigarette in his car.

A few months later Squirrel (Vincent Curatola), a dry cleaning magnate and low-level criminal, figures that if he sends in some of his own flunkies to steal the cash this time, everyone will assume that Trattman did it again, and Trattman will get the blame. Squirrel knows that Trattman will get killed for it this time, but he figures that's OK because, after all, Trattman did it before; it's just a delayed punishment.

Trattman does indeed get the blame, even though he tries to prevent the robbery. Hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to "interrogate" Trattman, get the names of everyone involved, and eventually dispatch the punishment. It is a graphic, brutal interrogation, and in the end Jackie is convinced that Trattman is innocent this time. But truth isn't important; consumer confidence is. "It doesn't matter whether he did it," the messenger (Richard Jenkins) explains. "He's responsible for it. We need a fall guy for the public angle."

I love to recognize and contemplate metaphors and allusion in film, but this one simply is not worth the effort. It's a sad, ugly movie about sad, ugly people.

President Bush's words echo this criminal's perspective. "America's financial problem is complex," he explains on TV. “Confidence in our financial system is essential." In fact, throughout the film, TVs and radios are strategically placed to play snippets of Bush discussing the financial meltdown of 2008. We hear the voice of a Bush official saying, "This isn't what we want to do, but it's what we must do to restore confidence in the US economy." And lest we fail to realize that Bush is the culprit, references are made to "the rush into Iraq on election eve" and "There must be consequences."

Killing Them Softly tries to be artistically and philosophically important. Ever since the artistically dense Tree of Life was given an Oscar nomination last year, Hollywood filmmakers have felt the mandate to make metaphorically rich films. I love to recognize and contemplate metaphors and allusion in film, but this one simply is not worth the effort. It's a sad, ugly movie about sad, ugly people. And it is getting great reviews. I guess the mainstream critics will praise anything that blames Bush.

The title is an allusion to the Roberta Flack song Killing Them Softly, in which a young girl is moved to tears by the lyrics of a song that seem to tell her own story, just as this movie purports to tell Bush's story. But in the film, the phrase has its own meaning. Jackie tells the messenger, "I like to kill them from a distance. Up close they cry and beg and piss themselves. It gets emotional and messy."

And he's right. The violence in this film is close up and brutal, and the victims do cry and beg. It's ugly. There is nothing soft about the hitman. Moreover, there is nothing redeeming about any of the characters, and there are virtually no women, except for one quick scene with a prostitute. All the characters care about or talk about is getting physical pleasure from drinking, heavy smoking, drugs, and prostitutes.

As much as it tries to be an artsy message movie, Killing Them Softly is little more than a garden-variety hitman movie, long on blood and short on character. Despite its heavy-handed metaphors, arty special effects, jazzy music, and stellar acting, the story is barely interesting and entirely predictable.

It's also overwhelmingly cynical. When Jackie observes Obama's 2008 acceptance speech on one of the ubiquitous television screens, he hears Obama's optimistic "no more red states or blue states but United States" and his reference to "the enduring power of our ideals. " Jackie responds, "In America you're on your own. America isn't a country; it's a business. Now pay me."

That may be true for misfits like those who populate this movie — people who have no genuine friendships or family relationships, who spend time in and out of prison, who live only to get high on drugs or sex, and who interact only with women who are prostitutes. But I'm not willing to buy the idea that America is nothing but a business, or that being a business is a bad thing. This is just a sad, ugly, brutal movie with an idea that doesn't quite work.


Editor's Note: Review of "Killing Them Softly," directed by Andrew Dominik. Weinstein Brothers, 2012, 97 minutes.



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