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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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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Some Dare Call It Treason

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On May 17, President Trump sent forth the following idiotic tweet:

My Campaign for President was conclusively spied on. Nothing like this has ever happened in American Politics. A really bad situation. TREASON means long jail sentences, and this was TREASON!

The president’s tweet responded to the constant, equally idiotic accusations of his highly placed enemies that he himself was guilty of treason — supposedly for colluding with the Russians, actually for committing lèse majesté against the political class. But that doesn’t mean he’s right to take up their theme. “Treason” has a definition, and one of the worst things that can happen to the republic is for definitions to be widened by people in power until suddenly, anyone can be accused of anything.

It’s not a complicated matter. Anyone who can read the Constitution can understand the treason clause.

In The God of the Machine, Isabel Paterson pointed the significance of Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution:

The treason clause remains unique in all the long record of political institutions. In the first place, it declares that there is no such crime as treason in peace time. “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Nothing but armed rebellion or joining with an enemy nation — and nations are, by definition, enemies only when at war — can be treason.

That’s it. It’s not a complicated matter. Anyone who can read the Constitution can understand the treason clause. As recent years have shown, however, practically no one in power has ever read anything more challenging than slogans and donor lists.




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The Trump Cuba Chronicles

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On April 17, 2019, the 58th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, John Bolton, America’s National Security Advisor, announced what may turn out to be the death knell for Cuba’s socialist government. (By contrast, at the same time NPR recounted and gushed about the 60th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and his visit to New York and Harlem in April 1959.)

No matter the ultimate outcome of Bolton’s announcement, this policy change will create the mother of all litigation, securing full employment for lawyers throughout Europe and the Americas on multiple lawsuits of greater length and complexity than Charles Dickens’ fictional Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Truth is stranger than fiction.

This saga began in January 1996, when José Basulto, head of Brothers to the Rescue, flew into Cuban airspace — twice — and dropped half a million anti-Castro leaflets over Havana. Basulto hated the regime. He was a Bay of Pigs veteran and had spent two years in Castro’s prisons. He had founded Brothers to the Rescue, a group of volunteer pilots, to scour the Florida Straits for wayward “rafts” (crafts often no more than inner tubes cobbled together with twine) overloaded with refugees escaping Cuba — the sort on which Elián Gonzales was found.

No matter the ultimate outcome of Bolton’s announcement, this policy change will create the mother of all litigation, securing full employment for lawyers throughout Europe and the Americas.

But this time his hate got the best of him. Fidel was not amused by the leaflets caper. He ordered the next incursion of Cuban airspace neutralized. The following month, on February 24, Brothers to the Rescue flew a routine search mission. While outside Cuban territorial waters — and without warning — a Cuban Air Force Mikoyan Mig-29UB shot down two of the Brothers’ unarmed Cessna Skymasters, killing 3 pilots. The third Cessna, piloted by Basulto, escaped.

While the Cuban pilot exulted, “We blew his balls off! He won’t give us any more fucking trouble,” the US populace, Congress, and President Clinton were outraged. Two Republican Congressmen, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Representative Dan Burton of Indiana had, two years previously, introduced legislation to tighten the screws on the Castro regime. But the Helms-Burton Act, as it came to be known, was tabled following Democrat filibusters in support of President Clinton’s efforts to improve relations with the island.

Following the downing of the two private planes on a humanitarian mission, Helms and Burton immediately reintroduced their bill. It was passed by both houses of Congress on March 6, only ten days after the cold-blooded murder.

Fidel was not amused by the leaflets caper.

Helms-Burton was the latest installment on a trade embargo first declared in October 1960 by the Eisenhower administration in retaliation for the nationalization without compensation of American-owned oil refineries on the island. The Cuban regime responded with the nationalization of all remaining American businesses and most American privately owned properties. Again, no compensation was offered for the seizures. Additionally, a number of US diplomats were expelled from Cuba. The US then severed diplomatic relations with the socialist regime.

Title III of the Helms-Burton Act authorized US nationals whose property in Cuba had been confiscated to file suit in US courts against persons who might be "trafficking" in that property. However, the act granted the president the authority to suspend the lawsuit provisions if it was necessary to the national interest of the United States and would expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba.

Private European companies, which had been investing in Cuba through joint ventures with the Cuban government, raised holy hell, creating a serious European Union trade dispute with the US. In response, President Clinton exercised the suspension authority through a nonbinding declaration of intention, approved in April 1997 in order to settle the brouhaha. That suspension has been renewed by every US president since.

And then along came Donald J. Trump. In June 2017, he impetuously declared, "Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba."

The Cuban regime responded with the nationalization of all remaining American businesses and most American privately owned properties. No compensation was offered for the seizures.

But before making any changes, President Trump and Vice President Pence decided to meet with the members of the Cuban exile community in Little Havana, especially the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. According to Carlos León, the second youngest member of the invasion Brigade 2506 and later to become the Association’s historian and Interim president (he was already this author’s cousin), Trump and Pence met with a select group of the veterans for four hours — much longer than the meeting had been scheduled for.

Very few of the veterans had supported Trump during the election but, according to Carlos, they found Trump and Pence to be good listeners and receptively involved in the give-and-take of the discussions. Most of the vets had supported most of Obama’s Cuba policies. They succeeded in tempering Trump’s proposed changes down to two minor initiatives all could agree upon.

The policy changes tightened US citizens’ travel to Cuba by more closely vetting the already approved travel categories — a step that in practice meant little, especially for the independent travelers flouting US regulations by departing from Mexico, Canada, and the Bahamas. And they sought to curtail American spending on the island to prevent proceeds from benefiting the Cuban military, government, and intelligence services. The latter basically made it illegal for US citizens to stay in government hotels, a change that benefitted the island’s burgeoning private B&B industry. The litigation suspension clause was not mentioned.

Until now.

Proposed policy changes (even under the unconventional Trump administration) are usually discreetly floated, to test reaction. When Carlos heard about the change to Title III of Helms-Burton, he invited John Bolton to officially make the announcement at the Casa de la Brigada in Miami. Ambassador Bolton accepted and, on April 17, the 58th anniversary of the failed invasion, before the assembled surviving veterans of the Bay of Pigs, he opened the floodgates of litigation against entities profiting from the uncompensated stolen properties in Cuba by the Castro regime.

It’s not just today’s joint ventures that are in Helms-Burton’s crosshairs. Past joint ventures and foreign companies with management contracts are potentially liable.

I asked Carlos his impression of Bolton. “For such a giant mustache, I expected a big man. Instead, he’s surprisingly small [5’7”].”

“Coño, Carlos! I mean his character,” I groused.

“The man is a straight-up guy — listening, engaged and transparent,” he answered.

Foreign private company joint ventures with the Cuban government — which always retains a 51% interest — have roller-coastered since they were first proposed. The 1990s were their heyday, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba was desperate for cash. In the early 2000s, after Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela and began subsidizing the Cuban economy, Cuba reverted to centralizing its economy, and foreign investment dried up. About 200 foreign joint ventures folded. In 2010, some 300 Spanish firms were begging for the payments they were due. As of 2011, about 250 joint ventures remained viable.

But it’s not just today’s joint ventures that are in Helms-Burton’s crosshairs. Past joint ventures and foreign companies with management contracts — any entities profiting in any way from expropriated properties — are potentially liable.

On May 2, Miami-based Carnival Cruise Line became the first US company sued for using property confiscated six decades ago by Cuba’s revolutionary government.

"There could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims . . . and that value could very easily be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

According to the Washington Post, “The actions, in federal court in Miami, were filed by two U.S. citizens whose parents owned commercial docks in Havana and in the southeastern Cuban city of Santiago. ‘The communist government,’ the claim said, ‘nationalized, expropriated, and seized ownership and control’ of the properties when their families fled the island in 1960.”

Kimberly Breier, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters last month, “The most recent estimate we have from 1996, at the time that the law was enacted, [is] that there could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims . . . and that value could very easily be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

With Venezuela imploding and the specter of the liability of billions of dollars facing foreign investment in the island, Cuba faces a second “special period in Time of Peace” that will test the regime’s survival.




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Six Degrees of Separation

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For many years there has been an idea that everyone in the world exists in only about six degrees of separation— or fewer— from everyone else. This may be true.

I believe there are only six degrees of separation between me and the 17th-century person who brought my DNA to this continent. (In my family, generations seem to last a long time.)

I know there are three degrees of separation between me and Adolf Hitler. Ditto me and Franklin Roosevelt.

I don’t think you’re pining to learn more about my family history. But since I mentioned Hitler and Roosevelt, I assume you’d like to know whether my three degrees have enabled me to find out something interesting about them.

The artist in question wound up in Sweden, where he enjoyed his wealth and particularly enjoyed staging large parties that were free to turn into orgies.

First about Roosevelt. A brother of my friend Muriel Hall, friend and executrix of Isabel Paterson, the great libertarian author, was the priest of an Episcopal church in Virginia when Franklin Roosevelt came to worship there. At the time, Roosevelt’s physical handicap was understood by few people, even sophisticated members of an Episcopal parish across the river from Washington. Muriel’s story was that the congregation was admitted only after Roosevelt was seated, and that after the service it stayed in place to allow him to leave without interference— only to be astonished by his agonizingly slow progress up the aisle, struggling with the crippling effects of his poliomyelitis.

Now about Hitler. My connection with him is a German Marxist academic who told me, years ago, that he had met a man who had known Hitler before World War I, when they both lived in a home for down-and-outs in Vienna. This man was a painter, like Hitler, but unlike Hitler an ultimately successful one. He became wealthy by painting pictures that my Marxist friend described as “the kind of thing you can buy at a dime store.” This was a while ago, so I need to say that dime stores were early varieties of Target.

Let’s move along. The artist in question wound up in Sweden, where he enjoyed his wealth and particularly enjoyed staging large parties that were free to turn into orgies. Visiting one night, my friend chatted with him while “stepping among the Swedish bodies spread out on the floor.” The man who knew Hitler had this comment: “Hitler? I knew him. His political ideas— they did not work out. But as an artist, he had real potential.”

“My love is a red, red rose”: picture a rose; picture my love; how many steps do you need to get from one to the other?

Good stories, and I’m sure they’re true. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with the world of words, which is the subject of this column. Here’s what I want to do with “degrees of separation.”

Every time you or I make a verbal reference to something, there is a degree of separation between that something and the words we use. “My love is a red, red rose”: picture a rose; picture my love; how many steps do you need to get from one to the other? Because most people know what a rose is, I think there’s only one degree of separation. Maybe two, if recognition of something as a metaphor counts as a conceptual step.

It’s a pretty easy journey from “love” to “rose.” But in any situation, it’s the business of a good writer or speaker to provide relationships between X and Y that are distant enough to be interesting, charming, unexpected, unusual, dramatic, picturesque, or provocative, while close enough to be understood without perplexity. The business of a bad writer or speaker is to keep you guessing— to put so many stones in the stream, and to make them so distant and obscure, that you have an unduly challenging time hopping across it. Either that, or to make you jump onto some rock that you can’t get off of.

The shape of one’s neck has nothing to do with one’s political worth, and everybody knows that.

I must concede— and this is a significant concession— that chumminess between words and things isn’t always desirable. No religion would get very far if its holy book said, “You want to know who God is? No worries— he’s exactly like this.” Outside the demanding precincts of poetry and theology, however, there are vast territories that are natural habitats for plain speech. And most people seem to like plain speech. That’s one reason why so many of them like President Trump. They realize that half the things he says are false, but they knew that about President Obama, too. At least they don’t have to do a genealogical trace to find out where Trump’s meanings are coming from.

At his recent rally in Grand Rapids, Trump called a certain congressman with whom dislike is mutual “pencil-neck Adam Schiff.” It’s a low, ugly insult, and everybody knows it. The shape of one’s neck has nothing to do with one’s political worth, and everybody knows that too. Everybody also knows that Adam Schiff isn’t important to anyone except Adam Schiff. But the remark immediately caught fire. Why? I suspect it’s because Schiff has spent the past two years telling the world that Donald Trump is a traitor, or something like a traitor, and that he (Schiff) has evidence, or something just as good as evidence, that convinces him, and will convince you too, once you get a chance to see it, or hear it, or learn more about it from Adam Schiff. . . . You see the problem. There are so many steps between what Schiff says and what you’re supposed to make of it that you’d have to take out your . . . pencil . . . . and diagram it all. But you hear Trump say “pencil-neck Adam Schiff,” and with one merry jump, like the 12-year-old you used to be, and probably still are, inside, you understand him perfectly, and agree.

As for “interpretation,” that’s what you’re trying to do, if Royce would only let you.

Let me say more about the depraved art of keeping people from understanding you. If you visit the campus of UCLA you will find, carved over one of the portals of Royce Hall, a quotation from its namesake, alleged philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916): “The world is a progressively realized community of interpretation.” This is not like other remarks by alleged philosophers, such as Albert Einstein, who emitted the famous saying, “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” No difficulty with that idea. It isn’t true, but it’s perfectly clear. The oracles of Royce are not like that. If you’re trying to follow them, you’re in for something worse than a pinball’s trip from the top of the machine to the bottom. You bounce off the concept of “progress,” only to get smacked by the question of “what is ‘realized’ supposed to mean?”; then, before you know it, you’re slapped down by the lever of “community.” As for “interpretation,” that’s what you’re trying to do, if Royce would only let you.

The current political equivalent of dear old Josiah Royce is John Owen Brennan, former head of the CIA, former United States homeland security advisor, former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center— in short, one of the nation’s leading secret policemen. In this role, he was a major engineer of the attempt to remove President Trump from office by means of preposterous accusations about Trump’s supposed collusion with the Russian government. Brennan made a fourth career for himself as denouncer of Trump, tweeting such things as this in response to Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018:

Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???

Do you remember the non-event that was Helsinki? No? Then you’ll have quite a few steps to take before you’re able to connect Brennan’s idea of a treasonous performance with anything in the real and historical world. Yet some people assumed that, since Brennan had been a top cop and everything, he must have had something definite in mind; they just couldn’t quite get to it, that’s all.

Then came the Mueller report, or its summary, and it was clear that whatever Brennan had in his mind probably didn’t exist in the outside world, and never had existed. On March 25 he was asked about this, and he said, in words that should be engraved above some kind of door, maybe the door to the latrine at CIA headquarters, or to the New York Times: “I don’t know if I received bad information, but I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.”

Let’s try to figure this out, and consider how many steps we must take to do it.

So Brennan was in search of bad information? I don’t think he means to say that. But what does he mean to say?

First there’s the problem of whether Brennan received what he calls bad information or not. “Two roads,” says the poem by Robert Frost, “diverged in a wood.” Either Brennan’s information was bad or it wasn’t. Either we can follow the road of bad information and try to understand what that was and how it misled him so badly, or we can follow the road of good information and try to understand how that could possibly have misled him. But we can’t tell which road to take. Brennan— who is so positive about everything else— says that he doesn’t know; so how should we? And wait a minute: is bad information actually information at all? I’m not sure. Yet Brennan’s meaning seems to hinge on the idea that information may be bad or good.

At this point, however, Brennan appears to imagine that we are rushing to his meaning with heedless speed. He holds up his hand and halts us: “But I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.”

There’s a lot to ponder in that sentence. Literally he is saying that he may have suspected (though he isn’t sure; he just thinks he suspected) that there was more information— bad or good— than actually existed. Again we see the problem of the two roads. It’s easy to understand that he might have suspected there was more good information than there was, but it’s also possible that he suspected there was more bad information than there was. So Brennan was in search of bad information? I don’t think he means to say that. But what does he mean to say?

If Brennan wanted to bring us closer to his meaning, he had every means of clarifying all these things. He speaks English, doesn’t he?

I think he means to say, “So what? Who cares?” Yet I doubt that this is the meaning on which he wants his audience to land. It’s just that with all those steps we have to take . . . . We can land almost anywhere. The degrees of separation are uncountable.

Brennan, of course, is far from the only public figure to present this difficulty, or the only one to present it on purpose. After all, if he wanted to bring us closer to his meaning, he had every means of clarifying all these things. He speaks English, doesn’t he? Well, sort of. But now let’s consider something even more challenging.

There are places along the Mississippi River where, at certain seasons of certain years, one can cross by jumping from stone to stone. This is not true of the Pacific Ocean, at any time of any year. Yet politicians and bureaucrats are often seen attempting such feats. Consider Nancy Pelosi, who keeps trying to cross that great ocean of ideas, the Bible, with nothing but some fragments of concepts and pebbles of conjecture.

It’s hard to see how someone who doggedly searches the Scriptures wouldn’t eventually realize that the passage reflects neither the verbal nor the intellectual style of any book in the Bible.

For a long time, Pelosi has been looking in Scripture for something— anything— that could mandate her political program. Usually she comes up with nothing more than a claim that the golden rule constrains her to insist on enormous expenditures of tax money for her favorite projects. But sometimes she just makes the whole thing up. There’s a “biblical” adage that she’s been reciting for many years. Eleven years ago she was told that it wasn’t in the Bible, but she’s still using it.

Now consider the way she packaged it in a speech to “Christian educators” in January:

“I can’t find it in the Bible but I quote it all the time, and I keep reading and reading the Bible. I know it is there someplace," Pelosi told the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities conference last Wednesday. “It’s supposed to be in Isaiah, but I heard a bishop say to minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.”

“It’s in there somewhere in some words or another, but certainly the spirit of it is there,” Pelosi said. “And that we all have a responsibility to act upon our beliefs and the dignity and worth of every person.”

Curiously, Mrs. Pelosi, who knows everything about running the country, doesn’t know that there are such things as Bible concordances, which would in seconds relieve her of all anxieties about where that passage is located. Again, the answer is: not in the Bible. It’s hard to see how someone who doggedly searches the Scriptures wouldn’t eventually realize that the passage reflects neither the verbal nor the intellectual style of any book in the Bible, as rendered by any translation. Nevertheless, she goes skipping into the ocean on the stepping stones of:

  • I know it’s there
  • A bishop (which bishop, pray?) said it
  • It’s in some words or [an]other
  • It’s there in spirit
  • I can’t find it
  • So I quote it

If you had trouble following Finnegans Wake, try following Nancy Pelosi.

But maybe the opposite approach is better. Maybe people should invite their readers or listeners to find their own stepping stones of meaning, and see where they end up. My example here has to do with Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., better known as “Joe” Biden, and the current accusations that he has been too handsy with women. I need to state at once that there are few living persons for whom I have more contempt than Biden. He’s a liar and a fool and a credibly accused corruptionist, but one of the worst things that can be said of him is that, before becoming vice president— a good job for someone with no visible talents— he had served six terms as US senator. Further, I don’t think it’s right to sneak up behind someone and snuggle and snuffle her hair, or whatever he’s accused of doing.

On the other hand, I don’t think this peculiar conduct is anything worthy of national concern, or of plaints of victimhood, particularly when the alleged victims of his predatory actions waited years to publicize their pain and anger— waiting, it seems, until there was a political reason to show their courage as survivors. The attacks on Biden commenced when Lucy Flores, a minor-league “progressive” politician, anticipated the announcement of his (ludicrous) candidacy for president by accusing him of having done something with her hair, back in 2014.

There are few living persons for whom I have more contempt than Joe Biden.

Biden made a number of predictable replies; then he went to a union convention and made a joke about asking permission to hug one of the participants. At this, outrage swept the nation, and Ms. Flores issued a victorious tweet:

It’s clear @JoeBiden hasn’t reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable. To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have.

Reading this, one’s first reaction is bound to be, “You’re surprised? When did @JoeBiden ever reflect on anything?” But that’s not her point, nor is that the way in which such language works. It’s meant to give you a verbal rope and tell you to go hang yourself, intellectually.

Unsolicited touching can mean anything from smacking you on the face to surprising you with the unexpected embrace that first introduced you to romance. And when you reflect for a moment, you can see that most touching is and has to be unsolicited. It’s not something that, under the best of circumstances, people are ordinarily asked to do. In fact, most touching in this world is merely accidental.

Our author provides no bridge between unsolicited and inappropriate or, in plain terms, wrong. That’s something you’re supposed to build yourself, however you want to do it. If you want to spread all the horror of inappropriate onto unsolicited, well, go ahead. But what does inappropriate mean? It could mean what Donald Trump said on the Billy Bush tape. It could mean something you said about Baptists when you were drunk at a party. It could mean those personal questions that old Aunt Rosa asks when she meets your friends. Because our author is so upset and so indignant, many people will assume that the inappropriate behavior was something terminally gross and disgusting. Yet note: the author never said that; she left it to you to infer.

"Unsolicited touching" can mean anything from smacking you on the face to surprising you with the unexpected embrace that first introduced you to romance.

The second sentence is the masterpiece. Never mind the patent falsehood of “women everywhere.” Consider the conversation. Which conversation? Can you guess? Of course you can. You can fill in the missing step and conclude that the author means her conversation, the conversation she’s having right now. No, she never said that; she left it up to you, convinced that you would find the appropriate interpretation.

And what is that conversation about? It’s about the issue of consent. But again, the operative term is wholly undefined. It could mean the implicit, Lockean consent by which all societies operate. It could mean the explicit consent that is properly required to make a will, enact a law, conclude a contract, or engage in sex. This too is of fundamental importance in a decent society, and many readers will think that this is what is meant in so serious a tweet.

But the reflective reader will see that these meanings cannot be the right ones. Biden is not accused of having engaged in sex without his partner’s consent. Nor do “progressive” politicians consider consent a matter of much significance when it comes to the enforcement of their political program, the whole of which depends on doing things to people without the consent of anyone except politicians like Ms. Flores. Yet if you, as a reflective reader, notice these things, you are not the intended audience. The intended audience will make tracks directly to the unexpressed concept of sex, equating whatever stupid old Joe may have done with all the nonconsensual erotic and otherwise evil things he could possibly be imagined to have done. Indeed, there will be no “tracks”; there will be only a single jump.

Which conversation? Can you guess? Of course you can.

You can say pretty much the same thing about virtually the entire politically correct vocabulary, which consists of words thrown in front of you so you can jump on them with whatever personal, presumably fanatical, meanings you happen to be carrying with you. It’s an attempt to annul all restraining and reflective degrees of separation between words and emotions.

From emotions thus produced I, for one, would like some separation, although the alternative extreme— that of many weird and murky degrees of conceptual distance— is equally unattractive. Today’s political discourse reminds me of one of those parties where most of the guests appear to be friends of a former coworker’s sister-in-law by her first marriage, or something else that’s too tiresome to figure out, and the rest are people you know very well, because they keep yelling in your face. I just hope there’s another party, and that someone will invite me there.




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Flying Down to Rio?

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While I am no President Trump fan — indeed, I regard The Boss as a deeply flawed president — intellectual honesty dictates that I should give him credit when credit is due. And I think that a recent meeting he had yielded some results that are worth reflecting upon. I refer to Trump's meeting on March 19 with Brazil's newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro. The two populist presidents appeared to get along well, as is perhaps to be expected from birds of a feather.

What was quite interesting was that The Boss announced he will designate Brazil a "major non-NATO ally" — interesting because the heralding of closer military ties, which is probably insignificant in itself, could lead to increased trade. Brazil is Latin America's geographically largest country, and its most populous (at well over 200 million people). Moreover, despite some poor performance during recent years, it is Latin America's largest economy, and the world's eighth largest, with a GDP of over $3.5 trillion.

Trump and Bolsonaro appeared to get along well, as is perhaps to be expected from birds of a feather.

The Boss even suggested that he would favor giving Brazil full NATO membership — totally bizarre, given his past skeptical remarks about the value of NATO and his seeming indifference to its cohesion and continued existence. In any event, NATO membership seems an unrealistic suggestion.

First, all the other 29 members of the alliance would have to agree, and clearly some of the current members — Germany and Turkey, to name but two — are run by leaders who hold Trump in deep disdain.

Second, Brazil currently spends only about 1.3% of its GDP on defense, and the requirement for a country being in NATO — albeit so far lightly enforced — is to commit to 2% of GDP to defense.

Trump has been good at raising tariffs and slowing free trade. The markets have not liked this.

Third, while Brazil's own erratic President Bolsonaro has expressed admiration for The Boss — no doubt a factor in the sudden warming of relations between the two countries — he has the Brazilian population to contend with. He is the first rightwing president the nation has elected in the 30 years since the military surrendered power. Since the US backed the military regime, many Brazilians are of course wary of American motives.

Still, this meeting and its results are a good first step toward a closer relationship with what is already an important international player with the potential to become a major power. The joke has been that Brazil has been and always will be a potential major power, but never an actual one. But perhaps the nation will finally eschew the sweet promises of socialism, settle into a centrist government with liberal economics, and thereby realize its true potential.

The real opportunity here, I would urge, lies not in the military but in the economic realm. We used to be Brazil's major trading partner. But China took that position a few decades ago, and still holds it. This is unsurprising, because China negotiated a free trade agreement with Brazil — something neither George Bush (who was quite good on free trade) nor Barack Obama (who opposed free trade until toward the end of his second term) even tried to do. This suggests an opening for The Boss, who half the time claims to favor free trade — although in the other half he bashes it, in gales of creative protectionism. He could at least open exploratory talks on the issue. Actually, there is probably a quick way to land a deal: ask for the same deal China got!

Perhaps Trump's ultimate desire to get a second term may lead him to not just talk about free trade, but to do something to actually advance it.

Brazil and America are a good fit for trading partners: we produce a lot of high-tech goods that Brazil needs, such as high-tech tractors and farm machinery. The Boss has been good at raising tariffs and slowing free trade. The markets have not liked this, and if the promised trade agreement with China falls through, the market will likely drop dramatically. And China, in retaliation to his tariffs, has switched buying soybeans and other agricultural goods from us to Brazil. This has made Brazil the world's largest exporter of soybeans, now eclipsing the US. The result — depressed prices for soybeans and other products, resulting in steep declines in many farm incomes — may well cost Trump crucial votes for his reelection. This — if it were combined with a stock market dramatically below what it is now — would likely cost him reelection.

So perhaps Trump's ultimate desire to get a second term may lead him to not just talk about free trade, but to do something to actually advance it. Who knows? Stranger things have happened, and The Boss is after all surpassing strange.




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The Eclipse of Empathy

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Before you write, check your empathy. Even if you’re writing primarily to express yourself, you are also writing to inform other people, to persuade other people, to impress other people in the way you want to impress them. Empathy lets you do that. Empathy is the art of figuring out how your readers will respond to your words.

Like any other art, empathy has its tools and techniques. One of them, believe it or not, is a knowledge of standard grammar, diction, and syntax, because that’s what your readers use to understand what you mean.

Here’s a passage from an article in the March issue of The New Criterion — a good journal, but the copy editing is off and on. Adrian Goldsworthy is discussing the politics of the Roman empire: “Aristocrats remained nostalgic for the centuries when they had real power and political independence without ever really doing anything to revive the system.” Never mind what the difference might be between “doing anything” and “really doing anything”; think about when the aristocrats didn’t do it. Did they fail to revive the system while they had some real power (there’s that real again), or did they wait to fail to revive it until, to quote The Wizard of Oz, it was not only merely dead, but really, most sincerely dead? I vote for the second alternative, but why should I have to vote? Why couldn’t the author have foreseen my plight and worded his thought in this way: “Aristocrats remained nostalgic for the centuries when they had real power and political independence; nevertheless, they did nothing to regain them”?

Trudeau has never shown much empathy toward people who care about the meanings of words.

That was easy, wasn’t it? Still easier is the act of remembering that some of your readers are in touch with a dictionary, and that this technology is available to you, too. If you remember the dictionary, you won’t say such things as a Breitbart author said on March 19, while writing about Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke. “Beto” is a rich person who must be very bored with everything but himself and has spent his life looking for something to do — such as being president, or (wait for it) eating dirt. Yes, Breitbart reported, after O’Rourke lost his Senate race to Ted Cruz, he traveled to some mystic location in the Southwest where you can get some kind of dirt with “regenerative powers.” He got the dirt, and ate it. He also took some home, for other people to eat. Well, that’s odd. But what does our Breitbart author say? He says, “The strange antidote is one of several unflattering details to have emerged regarding O’Rourke’s past.” Empathy can teach us that there are some readers who know the difference between an antidote and an anecdote. Even politicians should know that some people — many people — are pedants like that.

Now, you wouldn’t know it from the American news media, but (I could follow that but with almost anything) for many days now, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, has been the subject of a terrific scandal. The issue in mid-March was whether he would let significant details about his alleged attempt to influence a prosecution come to light. The Conservative opposition used parliamentary tactics to force the information out, but failed to break through Trudeau’s apparent stonewalling. According to a March 21 article, “Trudeau said there has already been a ‘fulsome’ accounting of the scandal.” There is a big difference between full and fulsome, but Trudeau has never shown much empathy toward people who care about the meanings of words.

Some people have too much empathy with their audience, too ready an understanding of how people will react to their falsehoods, prevarications, stupidities, or inanities.

I need to add that CTV, which published the passage just quoted, apparently doesn’t empathize with word-carers either. Its report includes such elegancies as: “attempts over the several weeks to have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take further steps to allow [MP Jody] Wilson-Raybould speak further and in more detail about the scandal, [further steps to further speaking!]” “there’s since been two federal cabinet shuffles [ah! shuffles there has been],” and “Conservatives voted against every line item, which Liberals used to try to score political points on social media [using their own line items to score points, eh?], pointing out some of the government programs and services the Tories opposed. Though [look out, here’s a sentence fragment!], from the Conservative’s perspective [just one Conservative, I guess], their ‘no’ votes were to signal they do not have confidence in the government.” The CTV report was updated without correction of those remarkable phrases.

It must be admitted that some people have too much empathy with their audience, too ready an understanding of how people will react to their falsehoods, prevarications, stupidities, or inanities. Like good authors and speakers, they know how others are likely to feel, and they shape their words accordingly. As you know, Christopher Steele is the author of what is called, both by people who know the meaning of the word infamous and by people who don’t, the infamous Trump dossier, the document accusing Donald Trump of doing various weird things in and about Russia. Steele has been deposed in a lawsuit brought by a Russian whom the dossier accused of employing electronic means to disrupt the Democratic Party. Questioned about whether he verified the allegations in the dossier, Steele said, “We did,” and referred to “an article I have got here,” an article that was posted on a CNN website. He understands that many readers will think, “Well! There’s a CNN news report, and he’s got it right there! That’s good enough for me.”

But there’s a problem. The CNN webpage was just a bulletin board on which anyone was allowed to post anything. CNN itself posted signs on it saying that its contents were “not edited, fact-checked or screened.” So what did Steele have to say to that?

“Do you understand that CNN iReports are or were nothing more than any random individuals’ assertions on the Internet?” an examiner asked [him].

He replied: “No, I obviously presume that if it is on a CNN site that it may has [sic] some kind of CNN status. Albeit that it may be an independent person posting on the site.”

At that moment, Steele triumphantly reestablished his mind meld with the credulous reader. Such readers are impressed by apparent forthrightness — “No!” — and by the assumption that they themselves are too sophisticated not to know the ways of the world. Steele obviously presumed . . . Why, of course he did. We all would, wouldn’t we?

But there’s a problem. The CNN webpage was just a bulletin board on which anyone was allowed to post anything.

Who among us has time in our busy lives to fuss over the CNN status of something that is, after all, a CNN site? Not Steele! Not the reader! The reader, being a sophisticated man or woman, also understands what “albeit” means and, if not, can still pass directly on to a concept of which all forthright, independent readers approve, that of an independent person posting on a website. Of course he posted something! The reader probably posts things too! And why not? The problem with this world is that forthright, independent people post their brains out, without ever being recognized or believed. But Steele saw the truth in the independent person’s post — saw it, and believed it!

I wonder how many politicians, newspaper editors, television commentators, and news junkies have read the infamous dossier and actually believed it. Many of them cynically claimed to believe it, or part of it, or some deduction that might be made from it; but lots of them probably swallowed it whole. It was the right thing for them, and Steele had enough empathy to know that.

There is such a thing as selective empathy, the ability to put yourself in the minds of some people, though not of others. President Trump has made a career out of selective empathy. He doesn’t know or care how lots of people will receive his sayings, but he knows very well and cares very much how lots of other people will react. Whether that kind of empathy will win him the next election, as it won him the last, I cannot predict. But I can say that Hillary Clinton’s entire political life — and she has had no other life — demonstrates what happens when your empathy is too selective. Even among people who were certain to vote Democratic she aroused constant antagonism, and it wasn’t because of her “program” or even her personal history; it was because of her words, her tone, her manner of delivering her thoughts. This antagonism remained mysterious to her; she lacked the empathy to perceive its source. The only people with whom she empathized were those who thought her “deplorables” remark was, in the words of a Stephen Sondheim song, “another brilliant zinger.” Her circle of empathy included only people exactly like herself — uptight snobs who never talk to anyone except other uptight snobs.

Many of them cynically claimed to believe it, or part of it, or some deduction that might be made from it; but lots of them probably swallowed it whole.

Elizabeth Warren has the same problem, except that her circle of empathy is even more contracted. It was originally limited to the staff of the Boston Globe and some people in Cambridge who regard themselves as an intellectual aristocracy. But her long, insistently repeated series of “Indian” gaffes finally proved surprising even to them. They couldn’t empathize with the mind that could proclaim it was right all along about being Native American, because a DNA test purportedly showed a possible one-six-hundredth admixture of the appropriate “blood.”

Dimly sensing that something was wrong, Warren sallied forth in quest of the real America. She first tried to establish herself as a regular person by releasing a video that showed her drinking beer. Somehow that didn’t instill warm feelings in the breasts of average Americans. Then she took up the idea of ethnic reparations, announcing that she “loved” the idea of a congressional commission to study the matter. “I believe,” she added, “it’s time to start the national, full-blown conversation about reparations.” Another amazing failure: it was as if her words were designed to prove her lack of empathy. In a nation largely populated by people whose ancestors were nowhere near America in slavery days, or were here and fought to end slavery, the idea of reparations hardly evokes “love.” Maybe duty. Maybe fear. Maybe disgust. Maybe boredom. Not love. Warren had no clue about that. She also didn’t realize that the words national conversation have been used so much by people like her that to everyone else they now mean “orders from on high.” To refer to the national conversation, as if it were inevitable, merely confirms that reading. Nor did she realize that to most people “full-blown” sounds like something that happens when a gas line explodes.

Nothing can save the Elizabeth Warrens of America from their assumption that politics is a matter of policies and constituencies and one-sided conversations, bereft of the (to them) mysterious quality of empathy. And not only are they lacking in empathy; they are lacking in a knowledge of history. The American political landscape is littered with the wreckage of political careers, blown up when the pipe line of empathy failed.

The words "national conversation" have been used so much by people like Warren that to everyone else they now mean “orders from on high.”

In 1884, James G. Blaine (to his friends the Plumed Knight, to his enemies Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine) was running for president when he was done in by the lack of empathy of a prominent supporter, who described Blaine’s Democratic opponents as the party of “rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” — in other words by anti-prohibitionists, Catholics, and former Confederates. Those three groups proceeded to vote enthusiastically against him.

In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt, campaigning for a third term, proclaimed that “we [he and his followers] stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” The statement earned him a predictable derision, both from secularists, who were irritated by his sanctimony, and by religious persons, who knew what Armageddon was supposed to be (and it wasn’t the election of 1912). In 1967, George Romney, father of Mitt Romney and every bit as empathetic as his son, unintentionally terminated his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination by claiming that he had formerly supported the war in Vietnam because he was “brainwashed” by the military: "When I came back from Viet Nam [in November 1965], I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." The comment grated on everyone, including Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was even more distant from normal people than Romney was. For Romney, he said, “a light rinse would have been sufficient.”

In the presidential debates of 1976, Gerald Ford, intending to flatter Polish Americans by saying that their European relatives would not passively concede to communist rule, pressed boldly into the realm of idiocy by claiming that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration." The Poles were not flattered. Ford lost the close election — to Jimmy Carter, who was soon to lecture Americans on the malaise that, he believed, had overcome their values. Although his “malaise” speech is supposed to have impressed people on the night it was given, it was one of those things that just don’t sit well with ordinary folks. Carter lost his own next election.

Blaine, Romney, Ford, Carter, Clinton, Warren, Theodore Roosevelt in his crazy years — all zeroed out by lack of empathy. And if you’re running a list, you can add Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, Richard Nixon . . . When you think about it, I guess you could say that empathy is good for writing, but lack of empathy is good for weeding.




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Trump and His Antagonists

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Republicans who have experienced Citizen Kane may remember the scene in which candidate Kane gives his big pre-election speech. It’s all about how much he hates the opposition political boss, Jim W. Gettys:

Here's one promise I'll make and Boss Jim Gettys knows I'll keep it. My first official act as Governor of this state will be to appoint a special District Attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W. Gettys!

Kane’s wife and small son are watching from the balcony. The son asks, “Mother, is Pop governor yet?” “Not yet, Junior,” she replies. And that very night, she destroys Kane’s political career. You can take Kane’s promise as tragic overreach or comic overreach, but it’s overreach of some kind, and it earns the ordinary reward of overreach, which is failure.

Trump is open to severe criticism in many respects, but the “evidence” that launched this investigation was always laughable.

That is what occurred with the attempt to indict, prosecute, and convict Boss Donald J. Trump, and Republicans (at least those of the non-RINO type) have every reason to celebrate. But this isn’t just a story about a Republican president who is now better “positioned” for the next election. It’s a story about the power of the modern liberal state.

Obama-era officials of the FBI and the Justice Department joined with RINOs such as John McCain and with employees of the Hillary Clinton campaign to accuse Trump of subverting the American electoral process. With remarkably few exceptions, Democratic lawmakers, journalists, and academics expressed a fanatical belief in Trump’s guilt. An investigation was demanded, with the obvious purpose of having Trump thrown out of office and, if possible, sent to jail. The investigation was undertaken, and staffed with Democrats and “pit bulls.” During it, people who were alleged to have committed crimes unrelated to the investigators’ charge were apprehended with police state tactics and prosecuted in an inquisitorial fashion. For almost two years, Trump’s dealings were zealously explored, with the apparent goal of discovering something, anything, on which a charge could be based. Nothing was found.

This outcome should not be surprising to reasonable people of any party. Trump is open to severe criticism in many respects, but the “evidence” that launched the investigation was always laughable. The accusations in the Salem witch trials were a good deal more persuasive. Yet for two years, respected lawyers and journalists, leading members of “the intelligence community,” and the most powerful officials of the Democratic Party insisted that Trump was certainly and obviously guilty. When the investigation turned up nothing, most of them immediately began inventing new ways of investigating and convicting him, making no secret of their intention to get something on him.

Gettys’ riposte to Kane summarizes the affair to date: “You’re makin’ a bigger fool of yourself than I thought you would. . . . Anybody else, I'd say what's gonna happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you're gonna need more than one lesson. And you're gonna get more than one lesson.” The presence of opponents who keep making fools of themselves should gladden the Republicans’ hearts, and it does. The problem is . . . well, I’ll speak for myself. I don’t want to live in an America in which even the president can be subjected to relentless judicial and legislative persecution, replete with accusations of “treason,” a charge that carries the death penalty. I take this personally. I don’t want it to happen to me. It makes me sick to see that it’s not just about Trump; it’s part of a deadly pattern.

With remarkably few exceptions, Democratic lawmakers, journalists, and academics expressed a fanatical belief in Trump’s guilt.

During the McCarthy era, people were harried for being “un-American.” Then there was something of a national repentance over insubstantial but fanatical accusations. A few years ago, it all started again, only worse. The “liberals” revived the term and have used it constantly ever since. Of course it is used of Trump. But it is also used of people who are, frankly, just like you and me.

If you are a libertarian, you spend a lot of your time entertaining or even pushing ideas that are un-American according to “liberal” or “progressive” activists and their endorsers in political office — ideas about guns, ideas about freedom of speech, ideas about equal treatment of races and genders, ideas about historical objectivity, ideas about welfare and social security, ideas even about the climate. If you reveal these views, you are unlikely to get a job as a teacher, or to be able to speak on a college campus without disruption or violence. Should you somehow become influential, you have a good chance of being harassed by mobs or boycotts. Whether you are influential or not, you have a good chance of being banned from social media. If you are a student in most parts of the country, you will have next to no chance of learning the views in question, except as they are scorned and ridiculed by teachers or professors. If you are merely an American citizen wearing a red hat, you face the significant possibility of violence if you enter a “liberal” neighborhood. If you are a person trying to run a business, or just trying to get to work in a neighborhood targeted by environmentalists, you find your life increasingly restricted — though not as restricted as the life of an inner-city mother trying to raise her kids under the increasingly heavy weight of the “progressive” state, killing jobs, killing her children’s education, killing her ability to defend her children and herself from the institutionalized violence of the War on Drugs.

Some Republicans are too preoccupied with worship of cops and soldiers, or with their own opportunities to engage in crony capitalism, to care about any of this. Others are coming to accept it as a fact of life. But it is not a fact of life, and it is no minor development. It is an attempt to change America into a place where the “progressive” state has a monopoly of wealth, power, and influence. Trump is not the issue. This is the issue.




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Maybe We’re Not Paranoid Enough

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Andrew McCabe, former deputy director of the FBI and former interim director of the FBI, has produced a book about his bitter experiences with Donald Trump and is now puffing that book in interviews. In an interview with CBS he recalled his (hysterical) reaction to the firing of the egregious James Comey, director of the FBI, whose career of government-enabled arrogance Trump finally ended.

McCabe said that he, McCabe, immediately decided to instigate a high-profile probe of the president’s alleged obstruction of justice in firing Comey and of Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia. He decided, in addition, to institutionalize these probes so firmly that they could never be stopped without additional charges of obstructing justice.

McCabe also said that he discussed with his boss, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, the latter’s plan to enlist cabinet members to consider taking Trump out by means of the 25th Amendment, and that this project was seriously considered.

From McCabe’s point of view, Trump’s offenses, besides firing the FBI director, included daring to criticize the FBI’s activities (imagine that!):

The president had been speaking in a derogatory way about our investigative efforts for weeks, describing it as a witch hunt, publicly undermining the effort of the investigation.

Intolerable, is it not, that Trump should have spoken in such a way about investigations of himself?

McCabe himself was subsequently fired for lying and leaking, and his accounts of other people’s actions have been denied by some of them. He has tried to soften the impact of a few of his statements. That having been said, we can assume that his first account of his own doings, which he delivered with self-righteous braggadocio, can be given credence. He bragged about trying to stage a coup d’etat — exactly the kind of thing that supposedly paranoid libertarians have always suspected that “intelligence” agencies are able and willing to do. This is something even worse than the soft coups that such agencies have chronically staged, leaking or merely letting it be known that they possessed damaging information against public figures whom they distrust. A good example is J. Edgar Hoover’s stranglehold on Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and his threats against Martin Luther King.

Whatever libertarians think of President Trump — and there is a wide range of opinion — they should receive McCabe’s revelations as a sign that their paranoia was fully justified, and as a warning about what will happen if libertarians ever do predominate, or look as if they may soon predominate, in government.

Picture it. Murray Rothbard Jones, senator from Idaho, is thought to be the likely nominee of the Republican Party. Jones is an antagonist of government surveillance and of what he calls “our institutionalized system of prying, snitching, and intimidation.” He has attacked and ridiculed the “process violations” that the FBI uses to send people it dislikes — such as Martha Stewart(!) — to jail. He has vowed that if he becomes president, one of his first objectives will be a “full house cleaning at the FBI.”

What do you think will happen to Murray Rothbard Jones?

Here’s what. As soon as Jones shows any chance of winning, the FBI will covertly investigate him for collusion with corporations that seek the repeal of antitrust and other trade-restrictive legislation. Is he not in favor of such repeal? And has he not taken contributions from corporate executives? So investigate; you’re likely to find something — on anybody. And of course you can leak it.

Meanwhile, the CIA will covertly investigate Jones for collusion with foreign countries. Is he not in favor of reducing tariffs? And has he not traveled to foreign countries and conferred with their leaders?

Information will be stockpiled, doctored, invented, and divulged. The FBI and CIA will collaborate in sponsoring stories about Jones’s nights in a Beijing luxury hotel, where he paid prostitutes to piss on him in a bed where Huma Abedin once slept. This purported information will be assiduously leaked by the same people who will proceed to vouch for its value. Investigation will follow investigation, paralyzing the Jones regime — as mobs roam the country, denouncing all Jones supporters as racists and sexists (after all, doesn’t Jones want to end racial and gender preferences?).

Well, this is more or less what happened to Trump. Now comes the part about the 25th Amendment.

What more proof do you want that Jones is unfit to discharge the duties of his office than his insane ideas about reducing military expenditures, ending American interference in foreign countries, and (gasp!) stopping the government’s subsidies to schools? The one thing lacking might be skepticism about the usefulness of the FBI and CIA, but now we know he’s crazy in that way too. If Jones survives, it will be a miracle. If he accomplishes any part of his program, it will be an apocalypse.

So, speaking of apocalyptic thought: libertarians should not imagine that their only enemies are demagogic pols, social scientists with incomplete educations, and the people standing behind the counter at the DMV. They’re just some of the hosts arrayed against us. The others are the guys in expensive suits whom St. Paul pictured as “powers” in “high places,” and “the rulers of the darkness of this world.”




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L’Amour, L’Amour!

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I’m sure that at some time in your life you’ve had a friend who made you his confidant about the details of a troubled romance. He claimed to want your advice, but advice was hard to give, because he kept painting different pictures of his special person. One day she was an angel; the next day, a devil; the third day, some woman he could barely remember — a minor mistake from which he was moving forward. But the cycle began all over again, and you wondered whether he was talking about the same person, or any person, or just a strange projection of himself.

I thought of this when I watched the behavior of the alleged news media on the weekend of January 18, when they fell in love with a story provided by an oft-discredited reporter for the oft-discredited BuzzFeed. The story, which involved “evidence” that Donald Trump had told one of his attorneys, the oft-discredited Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a hotel deal in Russia, was unlikely on the face of it. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the media took to it like trout to Acme’s Amazing Fly. Then it was proven false, and became, like a discarded love affair, a sad betrayal of ardent feelings, closely followed by, “Oh, that! Do you still care about that?”

I’m doubtless being too judgmental, but ye who have watched a friend go through this cycle again and again, whisper now to me: after a while, don’t you begin to wonder whether your lovelorn buddy is actually very bright? You don’t care whether he’s a college professor or an expert on something scientific, or even a talking head on TV. You wonder: maybe this guy’s just not very smart.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the media took to it like trout to Acme’s Amazing Fly.

I say that, because the media have gone through all this many times before, and we know they’ll go through it many times again. Curiously unable to make a cogent argument against the Trump regime, the $300K-per-year hacks of big media are always dying to romance another story with flashy makeup and fishnet stockings, protecting themselves from consequences not with a condom but with a magic incantation: “If this is true . . . .”

On January 18, the phrase, “If this is true, then President Trump will be impeached” was repeated so often that, a couple of days later, during the wake-up-with-a-hangover-but-without- your-wallet period of the news cycle, I heard a pundit on MSM-TV (don’t ask me which; they all look alike to me) exclaim: “‘If true’ — the most important words in Washington today!”

Here’s the game, and any fanatic, or newsroom partisan, or idiot with an axe to grind, knows how to play it: in a well-wired nation of hundreds of millions of people, you can source any kind of story you want to run. If you want to suggest that plants can talk, or microwaves cause cancer, or marijuana has no medical value, or minimum wage laws create jobs, or immigration increases average household income, or crime is out of control, you can refer to a study or report that makes that claim, broadcast it, and add, “If true, this calls for . . .” some kind of action.

After a while, don’t you begin to wonder whether your lovelorn buddy is actually very bright?

You can do the same with any well-known person. You can find someone who accuses him or her of something, present some version of testimony or senior officials’ anonymous comments or the cleaning staff’s careful review of discarded notes, add the “If true,” and make your own suggestions about impeachment, hanging, drawing and quartering, or merely (because you are full of mercy) firing, shaming, and reeducating.

Intelligent people can usually see through this. Unintelligent people assume that nobody will. It is with this in mind that I present the comment of Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC) regarding the “if true” debacle of the weekend of January 18: “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front [by saying], 'If this is true.' When you preface your statement with 'If this is true,' that, to me, gives you all the cover you need."

So if some rightwing screed should claim, with no evidence except its say-so, that Jim Clyburn told an election official in his district to pack the ballot box, the whole establishment media as well as House Republicans would be justified in saying to the nation, in tones of solemn righteousness, “If this is true, Clyburn will be thrown out of Congress”? Well, if you say so. People have been hanged on less evidence.

Intelligent people can usually see through this. Unintelligent people assume that nobody will.

But let’s return to the wording of Representative Clyburn’s statement, the part about “if this is true” giving “you all the cover you need.” Cover, used in this sense, has interesting connotations. It originated in the argot of criminals — “Yeah, I’m a bank teller; that’s my cover, till we git through with lootin’ the joint” — and it has never shed its associations with shady dealing. To cover yourself means to obscure a wrongful or equivocal deed. No one says cover myself without meaning cover up. If Clyburn doesn’t know this, he’s illiterate. If he does know it, he’s bragging about his colleagues’ shadiness.

Aaron Blake, senior political reporter for the Washington Post (what titles they have!), reviewed the issues about BuzzFeed’s fake news and its, ahem, coverage in a long series of tweets, going back and forth over the ethical problems like a cow searching helplessly for that last blade of grass (“I honestly don’t know what the answer is here”), and munching such deep thoughts as: “Each piece that’s written about something that may turn out to be untrue is counter-productive, at best. Even with extensive caveating (which I included), it furthers a story the [sic] erodes trust in the media.” He preceded this observation with a muddled commentary on the supposed responsibility of you and me, his audience (if any): “Media consumers aren’t as savvy as we’d like them to be, and just because something is technically accurate and qualified doesn’t make it good. People skip right over those caveats, and if they want to believe these reports, they treat them like gospel.”

Well, isn’t that smart! It’s almost as smart as thinking that caveating is a word, and very hip and cool, indeed. It’s almost as smart as telling your audience (media consumers) how dumb you think they are. But wait! Maybe that means that you yourself aren’t very smart. If that is true . . .

If Clyburn doesn’t know this, he’s illiterate. If he does know it, he’s bragging about his colleagues’ shadiness.

It’s hard to think about Washington, the place where words and phrases go to die, without thinking of that great eviscerator of meanings, the Washington Post, which recognized and continues to encourage the talent of Mr. Blake. On the night of January 18, the Post ran a story, as it had to do, about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s contemptuous dismissal of the BuzzFeed report. At the end of that story appeared the words, in bold type: “Reporting the facts for over 140 years” — a bizarre reference to the Post itself. This claim was followed by a list of articles that “The Post Recommends.” The first two ridiculed President Trump. The third was headlined in this way:

Five big takeaways from the stunning report that Trump told Cohen to lie

If Trump told Michael Cohen to commit perjury, this could break the dam.

For God’s sake, couldn’t they drop the “recommends” at the moment when they themselves were debunking the stunning report?

Intelligent? No.

But as if to verify a lack of intelligence, the liberal media, and some noteworthy conservative media, immediately fell head over heels in love with a new story — a story about the supposed attack on an “ancient,” “frail,” American Indian “elder” and “Vietnam War veteran” who was “surrounded” and “harassed” and “threatened” by teenagers from a Catholic school in Covington, Kentucky who had come to Washington to participate in a church-sponsored anti-abortion rally.

It’s almost as smart as telling your audience how dumb you think they are.

By this time, I don’t need to tell you what happened on January 18 at the Lincoln Memorial. My own version, which I believe is now the generally accepted one, is that the teenagers were waiting for a bus when they were attacked with violent words by a nutball group of “black Israelites” who called them crackers, faggots, and incest children, and called their black members a word that sounds like Negro, but is not. Rather than respond with violence, the students continued to wait, with placid, dopey high-school expressions on their faces. Then, out of nowhere, an American Indian from Ypsilanti, Michigan came forward to beat a drum in their faces. I mean in their faces. Through all these things, the students responded with goofy good humor, chanting inane school cheers, jumping along with the rhythm of the drum, etc. That’s it. Here is Robby Soave’s account of the story, from Reason. And here are videos, of various political tendency. You are welcome to disagree with Soave’s interpretation, or mine.

In any event, the “elder’s” entourage bore cameras, and by means of a Twitter source that even Twitter has now banished for misrepresenting itself, an invidiously edited video of the proceedings was made available to established “news” organizations, which immediately, without waiting a second, retailed the incident as a prize example of white racism.

This new spasm of national outrage included, in short order and with no pretense of investigation, fervent denunciations of the students not only by the usual suspects but also by the March for Life, the students’ Catholic diocese, the neighboring Catholic diocese, their school, and that august conservative journal, supporter of the right to life, and scourge of political correctness, National Review. NR published an article alleging of the students that “they might as well have just spit on the cross and got it over with.”

I’m not a Catholic, but I’m willing to confess: when I see “spit” being used instead of the real form of the verb in question, which is “spat,” my thought goes to, “You’re pretty dumb, aren’t you?” Especially if you’re a religious person, supposedly steeped in Scripture, and think that the Kentucky students are like the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross. That’s the comparison that NR’s author made. My liveliest feeling was disgust at this combination of ignorance (why can’t you bother to investigate, at least, before you accuse people of being Christ-killers?), lack of perspective (even if the kids had been guilty of something, they’re effing kids, man), and inquisitorial thinking (by this point in history, I don’t need to explain what I mean by that). National Review — is that the journal William F. Buckley once edited?

When I see “spit” being used instead of the real form of the verb in question, which is “spat,” my thought goes to, “You’re pretty dumb, aren’t you?”

Eventually NR apologized for the frantic article by its deputy managing editor, but with some curious excuses. The author, it said, was “operating off the best version of events he had” — an excuse that can be made for any failure to exercise a modicum of skepticism — and he was “writing as a faithful Catholic and pro-lifer who has the highest expectations of his compatriots, not as a social-justice activist.” Wait a minute — did I get that right? Are readers of NR supposed to be reassured that a writer of trash is one of their own?

Within a few days, and after a few threats of lawsuits, many prominent people who had said literally thoughtless things about the Kentucky high-school students — such as the suggestion that there were never more punchable faces than theirs (a desire for physical brutality is ordinarily a sign of intelligence, correct?) — were deleting their posts and tweets and declarations and journal articles (such as the NR article), sometimes in coward silence, but sometimes with sickeningly stupid attempts at explanation.

Example: one Jack Morrissey, a figure in Hollywood, has a Twitter account, on which he said, “#MAGAkids go screaming, hats first, into the woodchipper.” He followed that evocative phrase with a famous image from the movie Fargo, in which a dead body is fed into a woodchipper. Be it noted that the Kentucky kids were, some of them, wearing MAGA hats, which seems to have been the real reason why they were harassed, first in person, and then in the media, it being fair to attack kids as faggots and incest children and words that sounds like Negro but are not and people who have stolen your land, so long as they appear to be supporters of the opposite political party. Very well. Mr. Morrissey dumped his tweet, and apologized. He said, “Yesterday I tweeted an image based on FARGO that was meant to be satirical — as always — but I see now that it was in bad taste.”

Are readers of National Review supposed to be reassured that a writer of trash is one of their own?

Well, good. But wait a minute. Morrissey also said, “I have no issue whatsoever with taking responsibility, but also completely apologizing that I clearly intended it to be seen as satire. That was clearly not recorded that way by many who saw it.”

Oh, I see. It’s we the readers who were dumb enough to miss the point that Morrissey clearly intended to be seen as satire. I’m very sorry! I completely apologize (as opposed to partially apologizing). But tell me, what was it a satire of? If Morrissey would give me a clue, even in his afterthoughts, that it might conceivably be a satire of people who rush to judgement and persecute other people and, in effect, feed kids into a woodchipper, alive and screaming, hats first, then perhaps I will understand. Otherwise, I will conclude that it was a satire of the students, and it was a kind of satire suggesting that something atrociously bad should happen to its objects.

I don’t think that smart people join mobs.

And I don’t think that smart people, apologizing for writing something that appears to be a vile attack on others, will abdicate their responsibility to discover, at long last, the relevant facts of the situation they wrote about. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Morrissey is as smart as he’s paid to be. Maybe it isn’t dumb for him to have added: “I have seen tweets from both sides feeling disappointed that the mainstream media went his [sic] way or that way. But I haven’t had the headspace to take the time to watch all the videos.”

Isn’t that precious? He doesn’t have the headspace. And I’ll bet he’s right. He doesn’t.




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