A Train to Nowhere

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The other day I watched Snowpiercer. I have a taste for post-apocalyptic science fiction, and also for stories that illustrate political ideas, and Snowpiercer is both of those. Co-written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, the 2013 movie also has a strong flavor of anti-capitalism. Wondering who had picked up on that, I googled “Snowpiercer, Socialism,” then “Snowpiercer, anti-capitalism.”

The socialists had picked up on it. On a web page called Socialist Action (“In Solidarity with Workers and the Oppressed Everywhere”) writer Gaetana Caldwell-Smith calls Snowpiercer “an original, inventive, futuristic work” that pictures “what might happen in the future if the outmoded and anarchistic capitalist system goes on unchecked for much longer.”

On another socialist web page, Jacobin writer Peter Frase calls Snowpiercer an “action-movie spectacle” with “a message of class struggle” that “evokes some of the thorniest dilemmas of socialism and revolution, in the twentieth century and today.”

In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet.

Your Film Professor, the highbrow lefty, praises Snowpiercer’s “incredible capacity to cuttingly capture — or ‘cognitively map’ — how our current and future dystopian milieu is informed by our (globalized) capitalism system. . . . The reason this film is just SO important is because it cuts through the fog of ideological distractions (e.g., consumerism, status quo/reformist [capitalistic] rhetoric, patriotism, nationalism, etc.) and didactically spells out the REAL of ruling class ideologies in a way that is to my mind almost miraculous.”

I don’t know about all that. It does tell you how some on the Left think (and write).

Snowpiercer is a science fiction story set on a frozen earth. In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet. But a capitalist named Wilford, who was fascinated with model trains as a kid, had put his corporate fortune into a high-speed train with an enclosed ecosystem: tanks of fish, hooches of chickens, an engine to propel the train and keep the contents warm. For 17 years, Wilford’s shinkansen has been rushing over the world’s continents, one full loop each year, pushing through the wasteland of snow and frozen machines around it. Every human alive is a passenger on this train.

After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense — but cut some slack for surrealism. The story of Snowpiercer is from a graphic novel, in other words, a comic book. A French socialist comic book. The film is quite well made, and on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) is rated 7.1. That’s not quite up to the 8.2 rating of V for Vendetta, another political tale based on a comic book, but well above the 6.2 for Waterworld (1995).

Snowpiercer’s train comes with a recognizably Marxist class structure. Wilford, the egoistic owner played by Ed Harris, is the deity at the train’s head. Next in line are train cars of sybarites with their club music, dancing, and drug-fueled orgies, then the genteel with their classical music and handmade sushi, then the obedient workers tending the orange groves, tanks of fish, and hooches of chickens, and the smiling teacher (Allison Pill) in the grade-school car of fresh-looking kids. After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end. In Marxist terms, you might think of them as “workers,” but they mostly just suffer. They live in rags and squalor and are terrorized by goons. For food they are issued “protein bars” made from pulverized cockroaches.

And they are the folks the movie is about.

Wilford’s mouthpiece to them is an unctuous woman played by Tilda Swinton, who was the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Early in Snowpiercer she instructs the rabble in a style that parodies Margaret Thatcher. “Order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death,” she declares. “We must all of us, in this train of life, remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.”

The society around us has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time.

She holds a man’s shoe and puts it on the head of one of the proles. “A hat belongs to your head,” she bellows. “A shoe belongs to your foot. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.”

And again: “I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, a sacred line is crossed. Know your place.”

Here is the message of the movie. Society — capitalist society — is a hierarchy of assigned privilege.

Well, the society around us is surely a hierarchy, just as its Canadian defender, Jordan Peterson, allows, though he calls it a hierarchy of competence. And it is mostly that, else today’s world would not work. It has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time. Margaret Thatcher was part of the political one percent, but she famously started out as a shopkeeper’s daughter, in what the Marxists call the petit bourgeoisie.

Capitalism is an economic system of private workers and owners who buy and sell in a market, making their own decisions. In Snowpiercer there is no market. Wilfred’s chickens produce eggs, and one of his men wheels them in a cart and gives them away. He doesn’t sell them. There is no buying or selling in Snowpiercer and no money. There is no property other than Wilford’s. The supposed “Wilford Industries” cannot buy or sell anything, because there is no other entity to sell to or buy from.

As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist "Anthem" or "Animal Farm," "Snowpiercer" does seem to be part of something.

Watching Snowpiercer, you can’t help but identify with the lumpen heroes (especially the characters played by John Hurt and Octavia Spencer) who disobey the faux Margaret Thatcher and refuse to remain “shoes” on the godhead’s foot.

But why care about a five-year-old movie that had only a limited release in the United States? Worldwide it did better; in its first year, Snowpiercer brought in $87 million, more than half of what V for Vendetta did. As a business venture Snowpiercer did all right. As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist Anthem or Animal Farm, it does seem to be part of something.

There has been a small upsurge of socialism in the United States. So far it is a pale image of the leftist tide of the 1930s, when private investment had collapsed and millions were out of work. Then it looked to many as if capitalism was finished. In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

Now my hometown, Seattle, has a socialist on its city council. Her supporters are raucous and young, full of resentment of the billionaire rich. Maybe they believe because they read Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty, but more likely because they have imbibed their history and politics from left-wing teachers, or maybe from graphic novels and movies like Snowpiercer.

In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

But socialism — really? Like Peterson, I want to yell at them: Did you miss the 20th century? And a lot of them did. They are that young.

I lived through the last third of that century as an adult. I saw socialism collapse in Europe, abandoned in China, and decaying in Cuba. Now it is collapsing again in Venezuela. It’s time for the socialists to give up.

All the Left’s bellowing about hierarchies and social classes makes me think of the guys I grew up with. The son of a small-town optometrist became an airline pilot. The son of an aerospace engineer became a sheet-metal worker, then lost it all when he married a crackhead. We are all of retirement age now, though some of us are still working and one, a teacher, has been retired on a fat pension for more than ten years. I have a grade-school friend who lived for years in a ruined trailer and a former colleague who lived for seven years in his truck. Both have now been put in decent housing, courtesy of the welfare state.

The kids I grew up with did not achieve equality, at least not as the Left defines it. They weren’t promised it, didn’t aim at it, and didn’t get it. They went in all different directions. None was assigned his position in life, and most of them, over time, changed what that position was. No doubt some of their paths were shaped by “power relations” under capitalism, and I know some were touched by luck. But where each one ended up depended mostly on the decisions he made, the sort of work he did and how diligently it was done, how much present satisfaction was sacrificed for the future, and, crucially, on whom he married.

Why would anyone think his world is like Snowpiercer?

A software man of the new generation predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I think back to when I was 20, and a student at the university. I used to go on long walks through a city neighborhood with big houses, many of them brick, built in the early 20th century. I was bunking in a rental house shared with other students, eating meals of hot dogs and ramen and working a part-time job for $1.75 an hour. That neighborhood of big homes was a foreign country to me. It would have been easy to think I was looking at the brick walls of an impenetrable class, and that I was doomed to a life of instant noodles. But I wasn’t.

There is another thought, which I heard recently from a software man of the new generation. Noting the divide in his fellows between those with brain work and those living in parents’ basements, he predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I do see the loss of jobs. My health clinic, which used to have a row of clerks checking in patients, has replaced them with touchscreens. The local superstore (which would have been called a department store, years ago) has replaced half of its checkers with touch screens. Several downtown parking garages that used to employ Ethiopians to collect the money have replaced them with card scanners.

Then again, three blocks from my house is a shop that concocts such fluffy desserts as Mexican chocolate pie. A pie from that shop costs $36; a slice, $6. That sort of pie was not available here two decades ago. Nor was nitrogen-infused ale. Or black sesame ice cream. My neighborhood now has artisan bread, artisan ice cream, artisan chocolate, artisan beer and, more recently, artisan spirits. Within a few miles are stores offering artisan cannabis.

A young man I know, the son of a bank vice president, has chosen to be an organic farmer. He shares in an old house on a muddy farm and produces organic vegetables and free-range, grass-fed beef. He sells his artisan hamburger for $6 a pound.

Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

A century ago, a middle-class family here might have a Swedish girl to cook, clean, tend the children, and mend the holes in socks. Now we have au pairs, housecleaning services, gardening services, and (I can hardly believe this) dog-walking services. I even know of a poop-removal service for people who keep dogs in backyards. In my neighborhood the environmentally sensitive no longer put in concrete walkways. They hire Mexican immigrants to put in brick walkways, carefully laying each brick by hand, using no mortar, so that rainwater can soak sustainably into the earth.

Back in the 1970s, my university professor of marketing predicted that the future of consumer products was Miller and Bud, two brands distinguishable only by labels and the ads on network television. All consumer markets were going to go that way, he said. I suppose it would have been the most efficient outcome. But look at the beer shelf at your grocery today. And what has happened to television? Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

The young man selling $6-a-pound hamburger makes far less money than a programmer at Amazon. Probably he officially qualifies as poor. But he is no serf. To him, the programmers working 60-hour weeks are the serfs.

Snowpiercer is, as the socialists say, “an original, inventive, futuristic work,” totally unlike the black-and-white TV westerns and World War II shows I grew up with. I enjoyed it. I cheered for the rebels at the back of the train along with everybody else. I just hope that most of those who saw the film took it as an artisan product of an affluent culture and not as any sort of wisdom on the world around them.




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Ominous Parallels?

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A congressman wrote to a friend about an argument on the floor of the House of Representatives:

I never said a word to anybody, but quietly cocked my revolver in my pocket and took my position in the midst of the mob, and as coolly as I write it to you now, I had made up my mind to sell out my blood at the highest possible price.

An historian described the atmosphere in the Capitol in this way:

Recurrently, speakers lashed out in passages that threatened to precipitate a general affray. . . . Practically all members were now armed with deadly weapons. In both chambers, Senator Hammond said, “the only persons who do not have a revolver and a knife are those who have two revolvers.” For a time a New England Representative, a former clergyman, came unarmed, but finally he too bought a pistol. A Louisiana Congressman threatened to fetch his double-barrelled shotgun into the House. Supporters of both parties in the galleries also bore lethal weapons, and were ready to use them.

I quote from Allan Nevins’ The Emergence of Lincoln (New York, 1950; 2.121, 124), the best study I know of American politics in the late 1850s. The passages I cite refer to events of early 1860. In the middle of 1861, such events and the emotions that accompanied them produced their final effect — civil war.

What produced this expansion of political and military force, much of it permanent, though unimaginable in earlier American history?

Daniel Webster (and many others) had warned that factional disputes, intensified without limit, could result only in catastrophe:

Sir, he who sees these states, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without producing the crush of the universe. (Speech in the Senate, March 7, 1850)

The warnings were heard and understood; yet, as Lincoln was to say in his second inaugural address, “the war came.”

What produced this awful effect, this war in which a million people perished, and more were dreadfully wounded? What produced this war of limbs hacked off without anesthetic, of towns put to the torch, of economic and psychological devastation on an enormous scale? What produced this expansion of political and military force, much of it permanent, though unimaginable in earlier American history? And what produced the peace that followed the war, a peace in which black people, the objects of the victors’ alleged solicitude, languished in poverty and systematic humiliation, generation after generation? And this sorry peace was inseparable from the war itself.

In the second inaugural Lincoln identified what he considered the causes of the conflict:

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.

Lincoln’s words impute to the major actors more conscious choice and final purpose than most of them felt. Jostling one another in the pursuit of immediate ends, leaders on both sides employed political methods that were not intended to produce a war, yet turned out to be the best means of doing so.

Let me put it in this way. Suppose you want to effect a violent disruption of human life. Here are some things you can do.

1. Convince yourself that you and your friends are right, entirely, and no one else is right, at all, about anything, thereby creating as many political divisions as possible. Reject any speculation that other people, though wrong, may have serious reasons for being that way.

A flood of propaganda spread the idea that no one who disagreed with the latest version of partisan orthodoxy could possibly have any but immoral reasons for doing so.

2. Try to make sure that the political field is cleared of everyone but deadly enemies.

It is often said, and this is true, that before the 1830s Southerners were in general agreement that slavery was an evil, and many Southerners were more than amenable to limiting and eventually getting rid of it. There is also general agreement that the great majority of Northerners were happy enough to endorse ideas for the gradual abolition of slavery; indeed, every Northern state that started with slavery had successfully ended it. Even in the slave states, there were large numbers of free black people — by 1860, 250,000 of them.

Yet 30 years of being labeled enemies by both the partisans of slavery and the partisans of abolition progressively immobilized the ordinary, mildly well-intentioned middle range of public opinion. A flood of propaganda, emanating from each camp of zealots, spread the idea that no one who disagreed with the latest version of partisan orthodoxy could possibly have any but immoral reasons for doing so. Of the thousands of low points in this supposed dialogue, I will mention one — the political emasculation of Webster, formerly the North’s most admired public figure, at the hands of his fellow New England intellectuals, for the crime of supporting the Compromise of 1850. Thus Whittier, the supposedly gentle Quaker poet, depicting Webster as Satan in hell and Noah in his drunkenness:

Of all we loved and honored, naught
Save power remains;
A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.

From those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!

Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame! (Whittier, “Ichabod”)

Note the instructive tone, the ecclesiastical certainty (“the soul has fled”), the moralistic comments and commands. These methods, though repulsive to almost everyone, are necessary to your purpose. You cannot be too self-confident when affixing the mark of Cain. Guard yourself: you must never become conscious of the irony involved in damning people while pretending that they are only worth ignoring.

Leaders on both sides employed political methods that were not intended to produce a war, yet turned out to be the best means of doing so.

3. Once you’ve converted potential collaborators into scorned opponents, and multiplied those opponents, do your best either to silence or to enrage them. Southerners were better at this than Northerners. In the South, the mails were censored to prevent dissemination of anti-slavery opinion, and mobs were formed to rid communities of people who gave signs of being anti-slavery; in ten Southern states, the Republican Party wasn’t even on the ballot. But in the North as well, jurists, writers, and teachers were targets of political correctness. Mobs were raised against “agents of the South,” non-abolitionists were purged from Protestant clergies, and politically active people were hounded into choosing between an official Democratic Party, directed by an incompetent president, which insisted that the Kansas-Nebraska Act be renounced and reviled, and a rising Republican Party, which insisted, for opposite reasons, that the Kansas-Nebraska Act be renounced and reviled.

4. Turn marginal positions into moral and political tests. The great issue of the 1850s was the question of whether slavery should be permitted in the Western territories, where no one but wild fanatics had ever believed that slavery could subsist. The North nonetheless demanded that it be banned by act of Congress, and the South nonetheless demanded that it be promoted by act of Congress. Sectional moralists indignantly rejected the Kansas-Nebraska idea, once favored by the South, that the question be left up to the people of the territories. Here was an issue of no practical importance, but it became the test of political viability. Emphasizing politically marginal questions makes it certain that marginal politicians will rise to the top; and if trouble is what you want, these people will give it to you.

5. Try to win, not by debate, but by definition; this is what “principled” people do. To the South and its friends, Republicans were always Black Republicans; that’s what they were. To radical Northerners, all proposals from south of the Mason-Dixon line were by definition products of the Slave Power, which was attempting to spread chattel slavery throughout the North, and ultimately to rule the Western hemisphere. It followed that useful proposals, such as gradual emancipation, which had attracted great sympathy on both sides of the Ohio, were by definition entering wedges of the opposition’s Satanic schemes, to be rejected out of hand.

Emphasizing politically marginal questions makes it certain that marginal politicians will rise to the top; and if trouble is what you want, these people will give it to you.

6. Do your best to promote identity politics — the quest for power considered as a right derived from group membership. Southern partisans applauded the Supreme Court’s bizarre decision in the Dred Scott case, asserting that the Constitution governed everyone but protected only persons of non-African descent, while the cultural leaders of the North assumed that the Constitution was of no effect whenever it contradicted the will of God, which was effectively the will of Northern clergymen.

7. Render yourself blind to your own hypocrisy. The goal of hardcore abolitionists was (hold on to your hat) the secession of the North from the South, an act that would relieve the North of any possible association with slavery. To say that this idea expressed maximal concern for the tender consciences of abolitionists and minimal concern for the welfare of the slaves would be a pathetic understatement. As documented by such historians as Edward Renehan (The Secret Six, 1997), few abolitionists (John Brown was an exception) had any respect for actual, living African-Americans. Distinguished leaders of the abolition movement spoke of them in terms I do not wish to quote. Most hardcore abolitionists were also pacifists, advocates of “non-resistance.” Yet when secession happened, they became fervent advocates of violence as a means of crushing the other section’s suddenly illegal and immoral rupture of the union. Southern publicists cultivated a similarly gross hypocrisy — a growing emphasis on the Christianizing and civilizing effects of slavery, amid increasing attempts to criminalize the education of black people and curtail their practice of religion.

8. The fact that you can’t perceive your hypocrisy doesn’t mean that other people can’t; to prevent its public disclosure, you must therefore remove from positions of influence everyone who sees you as you are. Any pretext will do. You can follow the example of the religious proponents of slavery who removed honest preachers from the pulpit, as punishment for being divisive. Or you can take your cue from the religious opponents of slavery, who attacked all who differed with them as foes of Christian love.

Few abolitionists had any respect for actual, living African-Americans. Distinguished leaders of the abolition movement spoke of them in terms I do not wish to quote.

9. Flirt with, encourage, and finally idealize violence. In 1856, Charles Sumner, Republican of Massachusetts, delivered a speech in the Senate that was so insulting to a Southern senator, a person who had aided and befriended him, that Stephen Douglas, listening, muttered to himself, “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.” The candidate for other damned fool was Congressman Preston Brooks, Democrat of South Carolina. He didn’t try to kill Sumner, only to humiliate him, but he went to the Senate chamber and assaulted him with a cane. Once he had started, he became more enthusiastic and wounded him so badly that he might have died. The response of Southern partisans was to celebrate Brooks’ achievement, often with souvenirs of model canes, as if caning your political foes were an act of Arthurian virtue. In 1859, John Brown’s attempt to abolish slavery by inciting a servile insurrection — a campaign in which the first enemy slain was Heyward Shepherd, a free black man — sent Emerson, Thoreau, and other Best People of the North into paroxysms of idolatry. Their celebrations of Brown were immediately followed by a wave of Southern lynchings of people erroneously suspected of being in league with him. The participants seem never to have regretted their mistakes; it was all in a good cause.

When things have gone that far, what’s left but war? It’s true, few people, North or South, black or white, wanted a civil war; comparatively few people in the South actually wanted secession, and none of them would have wanted it if they’d had enough sense to visualize its consequences. But when zealots who hold political power cannot stand to be in the same room with one another, except when they are armed — physically or rhetorically — with weapons of destruction, the only choice remaining is the choice between peaceful dissolution and civil war. And few people of that kind will settle for peaceful dissolution.

Once Brooks had started, he became more enthusiastic and wounded Sumner so badly that he might have died.

So much for the events and feelings of the mid-19th century. Do they have anything to say to us, about our own time?

You can answer that question as well as I can. The idea of “ominous parallels” is basically a joke — nothing is really parallel in history, and the most ominous thing about purported parallels is probably the strength of people’s belief in them. But alleged parallels can suggest real similarities, however distant — and important dissimilarities, too.

When I compare 1860–61 with 2018–19, one dissimilarity seems especially important: the difference in intellectual culture, historical knowledge, and capacity for complex political thought between the leaders of then and the leaders of now. Seward, Lincoln, Crittenden, Davis, Benjamin, Douglas, Stephens, Houston, and immediately before them, Webster, Benton, Clay . . . We can discuss their delusions, their false perspectives, their sacrifices of long-term to short-term benefits, their strange errors of judgment. But please show me a list of equally intelligent, capable, knowledgeable, or even personally interesting political leaders in America today.

You can’t? That’s what I call ominous.




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Beer, Bikes & Brexit

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“Ride left, die right!”

Our mantra, continuously repeated to each other, often as a cheerful, running admonition but sometimes shouted in panic, was mostly repeated as a silent meditation while pedaling our bikes from the toe of Cornwall to Scotland’s sagittal crest during June and parts of May and July. The Land’s End to John O’Groats quest has become something of an obsession not only in the UK but also to a cross-section of aficionados worldwide — a British version of the Way of St. James, if you like. Like the Via de Santiago, it has many alternates, with the shortest at 874 miles. Our choice, the National Cycle Trails’ Sustrans Route, is 1,200 miles long.

One aspirant, who with his wife runs a B&B in Bodmin, Cornwall (in which we overnighted) was leaving for John O’Groats the following day to run one variant. Yes, run. Or as the placard on the back of the ungainly plastic box that contained his essentials (including a sleeping-rough kit) and was duct-taped to a tiny day-pack he’d strap to his back proclaimed:

Colin is running for ShelterBox disaster relief charity
1 man 3 Peaks
1 ShelterBox
1,000 miles marathon a day

The 3 Peaks were Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest; Scafell Pike, England’s highest, and Brown Willy, a small hill atop Bodmin Moor, Cornwall’s highest point. (and one over which Tina, my wife and I biked on our adventure). The man was 53 years of age, and this was his third British Isles end-to-end ultra-ultra-marathon, as these inconceivably long long-distance runs are called.

He wasn’t the only eccentric adventurer we encountered. Another runner, whom we met at John O’Groats just as we were finishing, was just starting out. Unlike Colin, he’d packed his gear into a two-wheeled trailer attached to his chest with a harness. As we watched him start, he jogged into the arm swing and curious gait that ultra-marathoners affect to make it look as if they were running when in fact they proceed little faster than a fast walk, or about four miles per hour. We never found out his raison de run. One tiny, 73-year-old man with a backpack the size of a manatee and a pace that rivaled varve deposition in Loch Lomond (where we encountered him) was doing the walk to commemorate the Queen’s longevity. He presented us with his card. It requested donations to cover his expenses.

The man was 53 years of age, and this was his third British Isles end-to-end ultra-ultra-marathon.

Ian Stocks was bicycling a 20-day, 1,500 mile variant that included the UK’s eastern and westernmost salients, for Alzheimer’s Research UK. At a projected 75 mile-per-day pace he ought to have been much further south than where we met him. I noticed that his gear — bike, panniers, electronics — all looked new, and my BS antenna began to quiver. The received wisdom in the classic-liberal view is that as welfare programs take over the functions of private charities, the latter tend to atrophy. Great Britain, definitely a welfare state, seems to have a surfeit of charitable initiatives. What was going on?

I’d once been solicited for a contribution to “raise awareness for breast cancer” by a group of women breast cancer survivors who were planning on skiing across the Greenland ice cap. They were all seasoned adventurers. I knew what they were up to. Contributions would pay for gear and transportation first; any money left over would go to the “raise awareness” bit.

At this point, let me clarify a popular misconception concerning folks who participate in extreme sports, objectives, deeds, adventures, and such for charity. Their shtick is to persuade the public that they are willing to undergo extreme exertion and privation for a good cause. But nothing could be further from the truth. They do what they are doing because they are addicted to adventure, unique accomplishments, firsts, personal challenges, transcendence of the quotidian, making their mark, even adrenaline or drama; in a word — they love what they do. But extreme adventures are costly, so many fund their objectives by invoking the charity label. I told Trish, the leader of the Greenland expedition (who, years before, had taught me to cross-country ski), that I needed my money to fund my own adventures and that I wished them luck. She didn’t take that well.

Great Britain, definitely a welfare state, seems to have a surfeit of charitable initiatives. What was going on?

So I checked out Ian Stocks’ website. What a surprise! All contributions go directly to the charity; nothing passes through Ian’s hands. Ian’s motivation is his father’s dementia. As of this writing, Ian is still behind schedule, mile-wise, but he has raised over 100% of his targeted contributions.

To me the more fundamental question is why this whole charade is necessary. If an individual wants to make a charitable contribution to a cause he cares for, why does he need a sideshow with no connection to the cause to spur him? Is it even entertainment? Perhaps, in a gladiatorial sort of way.

My wife Tina and I had decided to tackle the end-to-end ride for purely selfish reasons: beer — unlimited traditional cask ales (more on them later), single malt whiskies, and daily feasts of delicious UK food: the full breakfast fry — bacon, sausage, egg, baked beans, fried mushrooms and tomato, black pudding, hash browns and fried toast; the best curry restaurants in the world (Kashmiri, Bengali, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, South Indian); fish and chips to die for; carveries featuring four roasts with all the trimmings, including Yorkshire pudding and meat pastries that defy counting; steak and ale and steak and kidney pies, sausage rolls, Cornish pasties, shepherd’s and pork pies, and many local, flaky variants. And, of course, the chance to explore a country in low gear, meet the people — prone to extreme civility with a subtle but outrageous sense of humor — and get our fair share of exercise in order to continue such adventures well into our senility.

If an individual wants to make a charitable contribution to a cause he cares for, why does he need a sideshow with no connection to the cause to spur him? Is it even entertainment?

Many end-to-end bikers from a variety of countries crossed our path. Unlike motorists, long-distance bikers always stop to pass the time of day, to inquire about one another’s journey, objectives, provenance, etc. Nearly all who were heading north targeted John O’Groats. Just to add a little spice to the repetitive answers and one-up them all, I decided to tell everyone that Tina and I were headed for Scapa Flow. Only the Brits got the joke.

Two separate couples had come all the way from New Zealand. I asked them why they’d come halfway around the world for this biking adventure, when they lived in a country famous for its natural beauty and low population density, a country that would seem to offer a biking paradise. Both couples shook their heads and looked at each other. They both — separately — responded that New Zealand was a relatively new country, and so did not have a well-developed network of old or secondary roads crisscrossing the two main islands. Only primary highways, mostly two-lane, bind the country together. These have narrow shoulders (when at all), and drivers are not sensitive to bikers.

The Road Less Traveled

The Sustrans route we chose uses traffic-free paths and quiet single-lane roads, hence its 1,200 mile length. Those quiet single-lane roads have their own quirks. Nearly all are bordered by 6–9’ hedges, perfectly vertical and maintained by vertical mowers. They are so narrow that planners have installed “passing places” and “lay-bys” about every 100 yards. The occasional oncoming or passing car encountering another car — or bike — must wait for one of these to get by. However, the Sustrans route also seems to go out of its way to stitch together every hill top, traverse watersheds cross-wise instead of following drainages, and generally adhere to Mae West’s observation that “the loveliest distance between two points is a curved line.”

Just to add a little spice to the repetitive answers and one-up them all, I decided to tell everyone that Tina and I were headed for Scapa Flow.

England’s myriad roads, in plan view, mimic the pattern formed by cracked tempered glass — an intricate grid twisted and crabbed beyond any recognizably geometric shape and resembling a Voronoi tessellation. They started out that way and only got more complex as time went on. When Rome conquered England, according to Nicholas Crane in The Making of the British Landscape, “the web of footpaths and tracks serving settlements were an ill-fitting jigsaw of local and regional networks which were difficult for outsiders to navigate.” The bends and salients in England’s roads had evolved over hundreds (or even thousands) of years to link settlements, sources of raw materials, strongholds, religious sites, and so on. These evolved organically before the invention of bulldozers and certainly of modern road engineering with road cuts and fills that reduce gradients and straighten out unnecessary curves. Except for the historic nature of English roads, which sometimes subjected us to 20% grades and less-than-direct transects, they’re a biker’s paradise.

The Hills Are Afoot

Cornwall, the forgotten Celtic country, was a disheartening start to a very challenging ride. Not only does the Cornish section of the route gain little in a northerly direction — and sometimes even trends south — its ride profile resembles tightly clustered stalagmites with significant climbs over Bodmin Moor, the St. Burian and St. Columb Major summits, and a queue of lesser hills. Our old bodies required two rest days in quick succession — at Truro and Bude — if we were to have any chance of reaching Scotland pedaling.

Cornwall might seem forgotten because it’s bedeviled by an identity crisis. Although Celtic in origin, distinct in language and separate as an entity from England, with many unique cultural traits, it somehow missed Tony Blair’s devolution revolution in 1997. Rob, our host at the very modest Truro Lodge, told us that Truro, a cathedral city, was the capital of Cornwall. Since he’d been Truro’s last mayor, I asked him if that made him First Minister of Cornwall. He smiled wryly, admitting that Cornwall had had such an influx of English settlers that there wasn’t much enthusiasm for Cornish devolution, much less independence.

Except for the historic nature of English roads, which sometimes subjected us to 20% grades and less-than-direct transects, they’re a biker’s paradise.

But there is some ambivalence. The Cornish language is being revived. Cornish music, nowhere near as popular as Irish or Scottish music, can still be heard. Outside Truro Cathedral, a couple of buskers with fiddle, guitar, and microphone played traditional tunes to an enthusiastic audience. And in Penzance, along the waterfront promenade, a Cornish band led by a baton-waving, tails-wearing drum major marched in front of our hotel evenings at dusk playing Cornish Morris-type music (I later found out that the all-volunteer ensemble was short on musicians and was soliciting participants).

In 2007, David Cameron promised to put Cornwall’s concerns "at the heart of Conservative thinking." However, the new coalition government established in 2010 under his leadership did not appoint a Minister for Cornwall. Although Cornwall only holds the status of a county in Great Britain, as recently as 2009 a Liberal Democrat MP presented a Cornwall devolution bill in Parliament (it got nowhere), and advocacy groups demanding greater autonomy from Westminster have been waxing and waning over the years.

On June 5 we left Cornwall and entered Devon, the heart of Thomas Hardy country, complete with irresistibly cute, white-washed thatched roof cottages. Though every bit as hilly as Cornwall (1,640’ Exmoor, the Mendip Hills and the Blackdown Hills to the fore), it welcomed us with a roadside sign declaring: Where there are flowers there is hope.

The Cornish language is being revived. Cornish music, nowhere near as popular as Irish or Scottish music, can still be heard.

“Oh, how much fun!” Tina declared — her enthusiastic response to any novelty, serendipitous triviality, unanchored excess of exuberance, or even the prospect of another 20% uphill grade. Up these our odometers would sometimes only display zero miles per hour, even though we were making progress. To pass the time on the slow pedal I recounted the libertarian themes in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, a novel she’d never read: his depiction of marriage as a crushing force, his belief that organized religion complicates and obstructs ambition, and his critique of the Victorian class system.

At Glastonbury (another rest day) our route finally turned resolutely north. The famous abbey town and final resting place of the legendary King Arthur has become a bit of a Wessex Sedona with crystal shops, goddess centers, metaphysical bookstores, vitamin, herb, and natural food shops, and a vibrant cast of street characters in a variety of stages of mendicancy, sanity, and hygiene exhibiting extremes of sartorial flourishes from total nakedness through purposeful dishevelment to natty eccentricity. Even our B&B hostess had a claim to fame. Sarah Chapman held the Guinness Book of World Records women’s record for walking five kilometers upright on her hands! But the ruins of the abbey, legendarily founded by Joseph of Arimathea in 63 AD and associated with Saints Columba, Patrick, and Bridget but sacked and burned by Henry VIII when he broke with Rome over its refusal to submit to him instead of the Pope, are the town’s saving grace.

By the time we reached Bristol we were deep in the bosom of Old England. Bristol, once England’s doorway to the world, is a thriving, lively, modern city. In its harbor, lovingly replicated, docks the Matthew, John Cabot’s ship. A plaque next to his oversize statue reads: In May 1497 John Cabot sailed from this harbour in the Matthew and discovered North America. The only drawback to being a port city is the seagulls, loud giant avian dive bombers. They are brazen and incorrigible in their quest for food. Early mornings reveal overturned trash bins throughout the city. Gulls have been reported snatching burgers out of hands and even whacking a pedestrian eating a snack on the back of the head so that he drops it and the gull steals the tidbit. One municipal mayor complained that gulls are a protected species.

On to the Midlands

Past the moors and fens, the landscape turned to rolling farm and toft landscape dotted with rhododendron copses. Through the humid and fecund West Midlands, we developed a fondness for the heady odor of pungent silage mixed with barnyard manure — definitely an acquired taste. One evening at a pub, a morris troupe, performing traditional English music and dance dating from before the 17th century, enhanced our after-ride pints. The all-male troupe wearing bells — perhaps the original source of the phrase “with bells on their toes” — and accompanied by a squeeze box, was delighted to entertain foreigners familiar with morris dancing. We stayed in an old Tudor building with buckled floors, absurdly low pass-throughs, and narrow winding stairs whose commemorative plaque read: Crown Hotel: Rebuilt in 1585 on site of a much earlier inn destroyed by the fire of 1583. A coaching stop on the London-Chester run.

By now Britain’s schizophrenic weights and measures standards were beginning to puzzle us. Road distances were in miles, temperatures in centigrade, beer and milk in pints, and folks gave their weight in “stone” with large weights measured in Imperial tons. While the metric system may be simpler in computation, the English system is ergonomic and evolved organically, thereby rendering it more intuitive. And, most curious of all to me, a northern country that in summer experiences 19 or 20 hours of daylight and invented standard time, which it measures from the Prime Meridian of the World at Greenwich, succumbs to the idiocy of Daylight Savings Time.

Refreshingly, the government has not been able — by and large — to impose metric mandates or force observance of DST throughout the realm. When the time changes, businesses readjust their opening and closing times to GMT. With barely four or five hours of total darkness, how much daylight needs to be “saved”? As to the other weights and measures, one informant told me that, except for centigrade temperatures, all new and traditional systems coexist peacefully, with only a handful of rigid requirements such as strong spirits in pubs, which must be sold in 25ml, 35ml, 50ml, and 70ml increments.

Up these hills our odometers would sometimes only display zero miles per hour, even though we were making progress.

Worcester (pronounced Wooster), is the home of Worcestershire Sauce and site of the last battle of the Civil War, in which Cromwell decisively defeated the Royalists. Even more importantly, Worcester Cathedral holds the remains of King John, he of the Magna Carta. The mausoleum was extremely moving, not just for its considerable age and all the empty space surrounding it, but also for the immense significance of Magna Carta itself. For all that a lot of it is unintelligible, Magna Carta was the first assault on the absolute power of English royalty through the separation of powers and the recognition of the rights of a portion of the populace.

In keeping with Sustran’s objective of avoiding traffic, we bypassed Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city. Not so for Manchester. Inevitably, we got lost there. Signage was poor, our map not detailed enough, and Google not up to the task. So, contrary to the clichéd stereotype of a male, I asked a passerby for directions. The lady responded, “You’re in luck, I’m a geographer. Where are you going?”

Now, asking passersby has its drawbacks — too many to detail here — but, in this instance, we weren’t going to a particular place but rather trying to find National Cycle Network Route 6 to get back on track. Never mind; an academic geographer informant — here was the gold standard! After detailing our trip to her I showed her our guidebook’s map. She was no biker and had never heard of the National Cycle Network. She wasn’t impressed by either our guidebook or our map, of which she couldn’t make sense. At once she launched into a tirade about computer generated maps and lectured us on the preeminence of British ordnance survey maps.

Through the humid and fecund West Midlands, we developed a fondness for the heady odor of pungent silage mixed with barnyard manure — definitely an acquired taste.

I responded that she was absolutely correct, except that we would have needed over 100 ordnance survey maps to cover our entire route, at a prohibitive cost in space and pounds sterling. Then she and Tina, interrupting their on-again, off-again chitchat, in between attempting to solve the riddle at hand, pulled out their smartphones — the last resort of the self-unreliant — and sought guidance from Google.

By now I was losing patience. We’d eaten up precious time getting nowhere, so I resorted to a navigator’s last resort: bracketing. I thanked our geographer for her help, gently disengaged Tina from her, and explored four separate directional salients for a mile each, starting from the roundabout we’d stopped at in order, to ensure that one of those was or wasn’t where we were headed. Through the process of elimination, a compass, a closer examination of the clues in our guide, and not a little intuition, we found our route. Lo and behold, we were nigh on it! A block further along the last salient explored, we encountered a National Cycle Network Route 6 sign.

The lessons: Never mistake a geographer for a cartographer: the former specializes in the distribution of the human population over the surface of the land; the latter makes maps. And . . . have confidence in your own abilities.

North by Northwest

The Yorkshire Dales, Cumbria, and the Lake District welcomed us with a smorgasbord of all-you-can-climb hills, appetizers to the Scottish Highlands. By now we’d talked to a lot of innkeepers, publicans, bikers, walkers, shopkeepers, and random strangers. With the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service (NHS) imminent on July 5, I sought infrequent opportunities to gather anecdotes about people’s experience with the service, especially now that Conservative governments had floated proposals to make the NHS financially more viable, most of which included increasing copays. I never brought up the subject but always managed to get folks to elaborate on offhand remarks. One lady mentioned that she’d recently broken her wrist playing cricket. So I asked her if the NHS had taken care of her (Britain has a dual — private and public — insurance and medical system).

For all that a lot of it is unintelligible, Magna Carta was the first assault on the absolute power of English royalty.

“Yes, they did,” she said. But then she backtracked, saying, “No, they didn’t.” So she explained. She went to the nearest hospital with her hand bent at an unnatural angle to her forearm. The staff said they had no room for her, to go to another hospital. So she did. The next hospital looked at her wrist and said it was broken. But they had no room for her. “Go home and wrap it up,” they said. Luckily, her husband had private insurance. The private doctor immediately took care of the fracture.

Another B&B host, an elderly lady who had recently lost her husband and ran a very modest one-woman operation told us she’d had a hip replacement. I asked how well the NHS had treated her. She responded that it had taken a while to get the procedure done, but only because she didn’t understand and had difficulty navigating the bureaucratic requirements. Once she mastered them she was put in queue, awaited her turn, and was very happy with the results.

Of course, the other hot topic of conversation was Brexit. I wasn’t shy about soliciting opinions on that. Two issues determined the close vote: immigration and EU rules (trade, a third issue, was uncontentious: everyone favored trade. However, the first two are interpreted very differently along the political continuum.

Luckily, her husband had private insurance. The private doctor immediately took care of the fracture.

In the course of our five-week traverse of the island we encountered numerous resident immigrants from a very broad array of countries working in sales, labor, and the service sector. I made a point of listing the countries they hailed from: Italy, Romania, Poland, Venezuela, Eritrea, Somalia, India, France, Pakistan, Greece, Spain, Bangladesh, Hungary, Czech Republic, Ethiopia, Thailand, Russia, Germany, Argentina, China, Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Belgium, Brazil, Philippines, Ukraine, Ireland, and the USA. These were not tourists or ethnic waiters at ethnic restaurants.

Left-leaning reportage attributes the pro-Brexit, anti-immigration vote to “racism,” or “little Englanders,” the British version of chauvinist rednecks. Right-wingers claim that immigrants are taking over jobs. Neither of these glib explanations stuck a chord with us or our informants. But all, regardless of whether they were “leavers” or “remainers,” expressed strong concern about Britain’s nearly limitless immigration. One Welsh AI entrepreneur — a remainer — averred that with an unemployment rate of 4.1% there was no employment problem in the UK. Gareth was so fixated on trade that he blithely dismissed any other concern as illusory.

As to racism, none of the immigrants we interviewed alluded to it; in fact, all expressed a great deal of affection and respect between themselves, the Brits, their neighbors, and their employers (ours was a very limited random sample). And none of the Brits expressed any — even the slightest — unfavorable sentiment about foreigners. Only when riding through Muslim enclaves did we sense any, admittedly vague, tension. So what was going on?

One waitress complained about the niggling EU rules — another erosion of British sovereignty — that even control the shape of bananas an Englishman can eat.

My sense is that the Brexit vote was a continuation of a British exceptionalism that goes back to 1066 — it’s been nearly a millennium since the last invasion. Compared to the continental countries, Britain has been uniquely stable, especially — being an island — as to its borders. In that sense, there is a nebulous perception of continental countries as entities akin to banana republics, with feuds, invasions, and shifting boundaries. To Brits, joining that club has always cost some degree of sovereignty. Margaret Thatcher personified that sentiment when she was unwilling to sacrifice the pound sterling, the world’s oldest, most stable currency (except under Callahan and Wilson) to a committee of continental bureaucrats. Britain did not join the Euro currency; but it did join the European Union, a continuation of the aspiring free-trade policies of the earlier Common Market. The Brits want to trade but don’t want others to control them.

One Scots barmaid was in favor of leaving, but voted to remain for the sake of her children. She complained about the niggling EU rules — another erosion of British sovereignty — that even control the shape of bananas an Englishman can eat. Gareth, our Welsh informant, thought this a red herring issue. But immigration rules are part of the broader EU rules: both require a surrender of sovereignty that the Brits have had enough of ceding.

Finally, there was a general concern that Britain was losing its identity — its culture, if you will — and becoming a nation of immigrants like the US. The August 11 issue of The Economist reports that “more than a third of London’s population was born abroad.”

Scotland the Heatwave

It was uncanny. As soon as we crossed the unmarked border into Scotland, the plaintive tones of a highland bagpipe filled the air. Around the corner we suddenly found ourselves in Gretna Green, once Britain’s answer to America’s Texas, where Scottish law allowed marriage between underage couples, but now a slightly pathetic tourist trap where couples with a romantic disposition to elopement still choose to tie the knot. Never mind, we were entranced and let the piper grab our souls, wrench our hearts, draw tears, and make us feel that we could transcend our limits. And, remarkably, accents turned on a penny from Yorkie to brogue.

As they say in Kentucky, “we were in pig heaven!”

On the first day of summer hordes of embarrassingly (to us, anyway) scantily clad Scots crowded along the shores of every loch, river, canal, and estuary, suntanning their albescent flesh. The unusually hot and dry weather, which had started earlier, was the cause of much comment. Tina, ever one to engage anyone in friendly conversation, asked a middle-aged lady if the unusual circumstances might be caused by global warming. The lady replied that if they were, “Bring it on!” In the 20 days we spent in Scotland it never rained. On June 29 at Pitlochry, the temperature hit 89 degrees Fahrenheit while we were there — leading to a hot muggy night with little sleep in a land where air conditioners and fans are a waste of money.

We looked forward every day to a pint or two of “real ale,” available in participating pubs everywhere but sadly lacking in Gretna Green — another disappointing aspect of the little town. I’m an avid fan of British Real Ale, a beer nearly unavailable anywhere else, and a primary reason for our trip. Real or cask ales (cask-conditioned beer) are unfiltered (they still retain yeast, though that drops to the bottom of the cask) and unpasteurized beer, conditioned (by processes including secondary fermentation) and served from a cask without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure. They require pumping by hand to serve and give good head in spite of being lightly carbonated compared to bottled beers. There is nothing quite like them in spite of their being brewed as bitters, stouts, porters, and even IPAs.

Breweries are small and local, and mostly supply only a handful of establishments — until recently. We visited one brewery in Pitlochry, the Moulin Traditional Ale Brewery, that brews only 120 liters per day of four different ales and supplies only one pub and one hotel. In the latter half of the last century corporate brewers began buying up pubs, pushing their beers and sidelining — or even eliminating — cask ales. Brits were not amused. In response, the Campaign for Real Ale was founded in 1971, and managed to convince the corporates not to eliminate cask ales. Some, such as Adnams, Greene King, and Marston’s, now even brew their own cask ales.

Although this anecdote is either false — Hume died in 1776 — or was altered in the retelling, it well captures Hume’s thinking.

While in Glasgow we managed to hit the Fifth Glasgow Real Ale Festival, offering over 150 different real ales from all over the realm. As they say in Kentucky, “we were in pig heaven!” We’d barely finished our first pint when the 18-piece Caledonian Brewery Edinburgh Pipe Band marched in playing “Scotland the Brave,” forcing us to freeze in place and raising the hairs on the nape of our necks. We imbibed 105 different real ales during our ride. Only space prevents me from listing them all and their creative names. As of 2014 there were 738 real ale brewers or pubs in the US. There might even be one near you.

In Killin we took a rest day and visited the Clan McNab burial grounds on Inchbuie Island in the River Dochart, along with the associated Iron Age fort and even earlier stone circle. Here in Prescott, Arizona, my hometown, David McNab books Celtic musicians who come on tour to the US. Married to a Scots lassie, he treasures his heritage. We’d be a culturally poorer town without his concerts.

As we passed Loch Tay, the Scottish Crannog Centre, an outdoor museum with a restored lake dwelling dating from about 800 BC, beckoned. The crannogs were built on stilts or artificial rock islands on the water. Villages, consisting of three crannogs, each with about 90 inhabitants, were common in Scotland and Ireland as early as 5,000 years ago and as late as the early 18th century. While Scotland has only 350–500 crannog villages, Ireland — on a much larger land mass — boasts about 1,200. Doubtless, both countries have many more crannog villages, underwater archaeology presenting considerably more obstacles (in survey and excavation) than terrestrial.

This odd dwelling pattern was first glibly explained as being of a defensive nature (most 19th century archaeologists being retired military men), but few weapons or evidence of warfare associated with the crannogs exists. The new explanation is that the dense vegetation of the Celtic countries favored cleared land for agriculture, not for mere habitation, while the riparian location facilitated extensive trade networks, evidence for which — including networks all the way to mainland Europe — is abundant.

The Loch Tay Crannog Centre, near Kenmore, Perth, and Kinross, isn’t just one reconstructed crannog with three dugouts. The staff has recreated the entire lifestyle of the inhabitants: foot-operated lathes; grain-grinding stones; wool spinning, dyeing, and weaving; and fire-starting by “rubbing two sticks together,” a practice often mentioned but seldom seen. It means using a fire drill. With the proper knowledge, preparation and materials, all things are possible. The demonstrator (even his shoes and clothing were authentic) started a fire in less than a minute.

The Braw Hielands

Somewhere beyond the Crannog Centre we crossed into the political subdivision known as the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Trees and settlements became scarcer, midges and cleggs more numerous. Heather (purple), gorse (yellow), and bracken (green) gilded the landscape. Long-haired Highland cattle and Scottish Blackface, Wensleydale, Cheviot, and Shetland sheep predominated. It is here — not in Gretna Green — that the romance of Scotland kicks in: Rabbie Burns; Bonnie Prince Charlie; Nessie; Capercaillie and Old Blind Dogs; kilts, sporrans, and claymores; haggis; the Outlander miniseries; and even Mel Gibson berserking over the moors as William Wallace come to mind.

However, my own mind gravitated to those two giants of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith. I’d not run across any memorials, statues, or even streets named for either in their homeland. That’s more understandable for Hume, whose somewhat counterintuitive, esoteric — albeit undogmatic — thinking isn’t readily accessible. But Adam Smith, the father of economics, the Charles Darwin (or Albert Einstein) of the dismal science, is a household name. His insights are readily accessible and intuitive.

In three separate trips to Scotland, I have been struck by the lack of Adam Smith memorials.

Smith and Hume were drinking buddies (which is saying a lot in 18th century Scotland, where getting plastered to oblivion was a national pastime). One bit of Hume’s thought that was accessible — though still counterintuitive — is encapsulated in an exchange he had with Smith. The United States had failed to agree on an official religion for the new country: a first for its time. Smith, a man of indeterminate religious beliefs, bemoaned the fact, opining that the lack of an official faith would doom the country into irreligiosity. Hume, an agnostic, disagreed. He predicted that countries without official faiths would experience a flowering of religions, while the official religions of countries that had them would wither into irrelevance. Although this anecdote is either false — Hume died in 1776 — or was altered in the retelling, it well captures Hume’s thinking.

The anecdotal Hume was right. America soon experienced the Second Great Awakening, the birth of a multiplicity of religious sects in the 1800s. Today, according to The Guardian (September 4, 2017), more than half the UK population has no religion; while nearly 76% of Americans identify as religious.

In three separate trips to Scotland (one where I walked across the country) I was struck by the lack of Adam Smith memorials. One informant said the Scots had little affection for Smith. Public opinion inside Scotland holds Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, responsible for the Highland Clearances. And public opinion outside Scotland perceives the Scots as socialist. It’s not so simple.

In the 2017 UK elections, the Conservative Party received 28.6% of the vote and overtook the Labour Party, the real far-left socialists, who received 27.1%, as the main opposition party to the majority Scottish National Party, which got 36.9%. The Scots are nationalistic, thrifty, good businessmen who hate taxes — traits not often associated with socialism (though they abhor class and status pretensions).

But back to Smith and the Highland Clearances. Smith was a strong advocate of both private property and efficiency in production. When The Wealth of Nations came out, Scottish clan chiefs decided to reinterpret their position as not just clan heads, but also fee simple owners of clan lands, according to how they interpreted Smith’s concept of private property. They became lairds, owners of the clan lands instead of feudal lords. As feudal lords they’d had a complex set of rights and duties with their crofters. However, as lairds, they suddenly became absolute owners of what was now their private property. Since Scottish law had not formalized feudal rights and duties, the transition from a feudal system to a modern market economy was — to say the least — awkward.

The crofters were subsistence farmers. Their part of the deal was to give a percentage of their harvest to the clan chief in return for protection, leadership, dispute resolution, and so on. Advances in agronomy and a booming market for wool indicated to the new self-declared lairds that sheep grazing would enrich them much more than a few bushels of oats. Most chose sheep over oats and evicted the crofters, hence the Clearances. (This is a simplified version.) Not all lairds ignored the crofters’ feudal rights. Lairds’ responses ran the gamut from keeping the crofters as tenant farmers, to buying them out, to cruel dispossession and eviction. There was no uniform formula; the greediest landlords made the headlines. Adam Smith got the blame. Finally, however, in 2008, an elegant ten-foot bronze Adam Smith statue on a massive stone plinth and financed by private donations was unveiled in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile within sight of a rare statue of his friend David Hume.

Outside Inverness, capital of the Highlands, the Culloden battlefield, site of the last battle (1746) fought on British soil, cast its spell. Supporters of the Stuart (Jacobite) dynasty fought the by-then established Hanoverian dynasty army of George II. The German Hanoverians had been installed as monarchs of the United Kingdom after Parliament tired of both Stuarts and civil wars. A common misconception holds that Jacobitism was a Scottish cause because the Stuarts, before being invited to rule over England had been kings of Scotland, and most of the Jacobites were Scots. Again, not so simple.

Since Scottish law had not formalized feudal rights and duties, the transition from a feudal system to a modern market economy was — to say the least — awkward.

Monarchy has its own rules of succession. Under those rules, Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) ought to have become king of the United Kingdom. The problem was that the Stuarts were Catholics and a Catholic, according to the Act of Settlement passed by Parliament in 1701 — the expedient to finally dump the Stuarts — could not rule over a Church of England realm, much less head that church. Adherents to the monarchy’s rules of succession did not accept Parliament’s power to overturn those rules, hence the Jacobite uprising. Scots, English, and Irish participated. The presumptive heir to the Jacobite crown today is Franz Bonaventura Adalbert Maria von Wittelsbach who, if he were on the throne, would be known as King Francis II.

We took a rest day in Inverness and got a dose of fire-and-brimstone Scottish Calvinism and attended a couple of ceilidhs — once both at the same time. A determined preacher in white shirt and tie stood on the Crown Road, Inverness’s high street, reading the Bible in thunderous and orotund sonority to the passersby while fiercely gesticulating with his free hand. We were entranced. Particularly when a young fellow in a t-shirt and a newsboy cap took a stance across the street, pulled a bagpipe out of its case, laid out the case to collect donations, and hit the chords of “MacPherson’s Lament.” He completely drowned out the homilist, who nonetheless persevered, impervious to all external distractions. As to the other ceilidhs, one particular impromptu session at a pub included two fiddles, a guitar, uilleann pipes, and a saxophone — the last two instruments a particularly innovative and sonorous combination.

North of Inverness nearly all the trees disappeared, as did fences, buildings, and power poles; even the livestock thinned. It was a magical, surreal landscape with the odd abandoned stone sheep enclosure. At Tongue, the North Sea finally came into view. When the Orkneys appeared on the horizon, our hearts skipped a beat: we knew we were nearly done. Stroma, the nearest Orkney, presented a spectral appearance. It had been abandoned in 1962. A scattering of old stone cottages, unconnected by roads, eerily dotted its landscape. Soon John O’Groats, little more than an inn and tourist shops, materialized out of the grassy plain. We’d covered 1,291 miles — according to our bike odometers — in 29 days, with an additional eight rest days.

The piper completely drowned out the homilist, who nonetheless persevered, impervious to all external distractions.

After a shuttle to Inverness and an overnight ride on the Caledonian Sleeper we arrived at Euston Station, London. During the ride — both of them — we reflected on Britain’s virtues. It’s a country with no earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, or mudslides; having an ideal climate with no extremes of heat or cold, aridity or rain; a varied and undulating topography of grasslands, moorland, woodland, glades, estuaries, highlands, and lowlands; hamlets, villages, towns, and cities with a minimum of sprawl; little crime, few slums or homelessness; a cultured people with a generally sensible disposition (and oodles of book stores); and enjoying separation of head of state from head of government. Finally, it’s always been Great, and, best of all — has unsurpassed beer and whisky. What more can you ask for? Lower taxes?




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Los Pollos Coming Home to Roost

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When President Trump — El Jefe, as he is known to his precious few Mexican devotees — started his jihad against the NAFTA treaty two years ago, some of us predicted trouble. NAFTA — conceived by President Reagan, negotiated by President Bush the Elder, and signed in 1994 by President Clinton, never was a “bad deal” for the US. It dramatically increased North American trade, and while we ran trade deficits with other North American countries, they were small in comparison to our major deficits (with Germany, Japan, and China — none with which we ever bothered to do free trade agreements), and were matched by counterflows of investment.

But the protectionist populist Trump believed his own propaganda that free trade “costs” Americans their jobs. He still maintains this, as our unemployment rate approaches a miniscule 3%. And his method of negotiation was as crude as it was thuggish. He repeatedly attacked Canada and Mexico, both their leaders and — in the case of Mexico — their citizens.

There were two results.

First, he was able to get a new deal. But it is worse than the original, at least from the view of the classical liberal. In exchange for a few tariff reductions, Trump’s new NAFTA forces regulations on Mexico to pay its autoworkers more — so they won’t be so competitive against US autoworkers. But while that satisfies Trump’s union supporters, it screws the rest of us, who will now have to pay more for cars.

NAFTA was never a “bad deal” for the United States.

In other words, the man who claims we need fewer regulations just jacked them up. Yes, the Boss is the Master of the Deal — the Raw Deal.

But the other effect of the Boss’s infantile bullying is to have driven anti-American sentiment through the roof in both Canada and Mexico. This sentiment helped elect the extreme leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — aka “AMLO” — to the presidency of Mexico. AMLO took office on December 1, and a few recent reports in the Wall Street Journal indicate that the chickens — los pollos! — are coming home to roost with their afterburners on.

One report is a sketch by the Journal’s Latin America expert — the estimable Mary Anastasia O’Grady — on just what this inaugural is inaugurating. For one thing, AMLO had as special guests Venezuela’s Marxist dictator Nicolas Maduro and Bolivia’s caudillo Evo Morales, both Fidel Castro wannabes.

For another thing, AMLO is reverting to his demagogic character (he was known for his fierce leftist philippics and for summoning forth his myrmidons to march in the streets). And he has already shown an inclination to disregard existing contracts and rule by diktat. For example, he opposes the new Mexico City International Airport, $6 billion in bonds for the construction of which have already been sold. He prefers to expand the existing location, which just by chance is located in the district where he has traditionally held power, thus funneling the funding to his supporters.

The new deal is worse than the original, at least from the view of the classical liberal.

As a consequence, bond investors appear to be getting ready to sue, in case of default. For this reason, three of the five worst performing quasi-sovereign bonds in the world this quarter are Mexican. These include bonds for the airport, the Mexican Federal Electricity Commission, and Pemex, the Mexican national oil company. The drop in Pemex bonds especially indicates a fear among investors that AMLO will undercut or even repeal the game-changing 2013 revision of the Mexican constitution that allows outside — read “gringo” — investment. AMLO’s energy advisors are all long-standing opponents of the reform; they are all Mexico-first protectionists. In other words, they are all Trumps-in-Pancho-Villa costumes.

Add to this two other AMLO policies, and investors have every right to revolt. First, he wants to spend money freely to “create” jobs — rather like Trump’s own advocacy of infrastructure spending. AMLO would start by spending nearly $20 billion on a new refinery (in his home state, of course), a new thousand-mile train in the Yucatan, and a jobs bill for the youth. Like Trump, AMLO has no fear of deficits.

Second, AMLO proposes to fight the high crime rate in his country by creating a new “National Guard” combining regular army soldiers, marines, and federal police to fight the cartels. Of course, this standing AMLO army would be a perfect SS, should he decide to go into full Hugo Chavez mode.

Lopez-Obrador's energy advisors are all long-standing opponents of free-market reform; they are all Mexico-first protectionists.

Just the thought of a toto-AMLO government has sent the Mexican IPC stock index and the peso itself down into the tank with the bonds.

The death of Bush the Elder came at an ironic time. Bush 41 was a masterful conciliator and international diplomat. He maintained our alliances while overseeing the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union. By contrast, Trump the Infantile has managed to alienate our former allies, and so antagonize the Mexican people that they elected a populist leftist radical.

The result is shaping up with astounding rapidity. Mexico has elected an extremist leftist, who will likely turn Mexico into a veritable Venezuela. The result of that will be a wave of Mexican immigration that will dwarf any prior waves. Consider this. So far, three million Venezuelans have fled their country to avoid the economic disaster. Mexico has four times the population of Venezuela, so if a like number flee Mexico we can expect about 12 million more immigrants. The irony is breathtaking: Trump’s policies creating a massive wave of his least favorite people moving in.

A further irony inheres in Trump’s attempt to protect American autoworkers.GM has just announced that it will be getting rid of 15% of its salaried workforce in North America, and will be shuttering five plants. The total loss will be almost 15,000 jobs. GM will focus on its more profitable cars, especially pickup trucks and SUVs.

Mexico has four times the population of Venezuela, so if a like number flee Mexico we can expect about 12 million more immigrants.

The news cheered investors but enraged Trump, who immediately blasted the company and threatened to remove GM’s continuing subsidies — which immediately lowered the value of GM’s share by 2.6%. The anger was shared by other politicians, who remember the nearly $50 billion the taxpayers gave the company to rescue it from bankruptcy less than a decade ago — not to mention the continuing tax credit of $7,500 for each of its electric vehicles sold. The bad publicity resulted in GM’s announcing, a few days later, that it will be adding about 2,700 jobs at some plants in other states, and that some laid-off employees could apply for those jobs. But it still means a major drop in high-paying jobs.

I am not merely saying that Trump’s protectionism didn’t help GM enough to stop its layoffs, though that’s bad enough. I am saying that his actions are going to make it harder to prevent future layoffs. To avoid them, GM would have to sell more cars, but there is a limit to how many expensive SUVs and pickups it can sell. So it would need to increase sales of lower-end cars. But given the high US labor costs, this would require moving more of the supply chain to lower-cost venues, such as Mexico. By blocking that, therefore, Trump won’t protect highly paid American workers making low-end cars, using components manufactured in low-cost Mexico) he will force the automakers simply to stop making low-end cars, thus eliminating jobs.

Clearly, we cannot say whether the Trump renegotiation of NAFTA played any role in GM’s recent decision. After all, we cannot read minds. But just as clearly, the USMCA will make it hard for American automakers to save on labor costs.

I am not merely saying that Trump’s protectionism didn’t help GM enough to stop its layoffs, though that’s bad enough. I am saying that his actions are going to make it harder to prevent future layoffs.

So there you have Trump’s magisterial strongman running of the economy. He bullies two of our closest allies to get only trivial benefits in tariff concessions, but at the cost of electing an anti-American in our southern neighbor. The main thing he got was a regulation placed on plants in another country to pay inflated prices with the intention of protecting highly paid American union jobs. But the result isn’t likely to be a gain in American jobs; it’s likely to be a loss, as the heavily regulated US automakers struggle to make a reliable profit. The only probable gain will be a massive new wave of immigration, as lower wage Mexicans get priced out of their jobs.

Why anyone would suppose that Trump or anyone else can run American industry by divine fiat is beyond me. But people crave the Strong Man who will guide the economy like a god. And that, dear readers, is in my view goddamned stupid.




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Not to Praise, But to Bury

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As another elder statesman dies and the nation is caught in the grip of another bout of panegyrics, it’s worth stepping back to concentrate on the individual lives that they touched during their time in the halls of power. For George Herbert Walker Bush, specifically, that means considering also the plight of Keith Jackson.

In 1989, Jackson was a high school senior in Anacostia, southeast DC, living in one of the worst zip codes in the country. Like many of his peers, Jackson was a low-level drug dealer, one of the smallest cogs in a larger machine, like the Baltimore towers in The Wire. Crucially, he had reached his 18th birthday when the federal government started setting him up for a presidential publicity stunt.

See, George Bush, seemingly desperate to prove he was man enough to live up to his successor, wanted a set piece to kick off his own extension of Reagan’s War on Drugs. So his staff came up with the idea of busting someone for selling crack cocaine—still the drug warrior’s enemy of choice—in the shadow of the White House.

Bush demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts.

DEA agents offered up Jackson as a patsy. He’d been on their radar for months—so if selling drugs in and of itself was really such a big deal, they could have grabbed him at any point (and then he’d be replaced by another young slinger with no other prospects, and then another, ad infinitum). No, he was only worth it if he could be sacrificed for a higher purpose, like making a weedy, “wimpy” Massachusetts desk-occupier look like a tough guy. That purpose in hand, the undercover DEA agent on Jackson’s case asked him to meet at Lafayette Park, promising an extra premium to lure Jackson to Northwest DC, where black residents of the city almost never went. (As a measure of how stratified and segregated DC society was at the time — not to mention how complete the failure of the educational system — when the undercover DEA agent asked Jackson to meet him in the park across from the White House, Jackson didn’t know where that was until piecing together that it was “where Reagan lives,” and he was hesitant to make the trip because one thing he did know is how much greater the police presence would be in Official DC.)

The purchase took place on September 1, and on September 5 Bush was holding up a plastic baggie of crack cocaine during a White House address, noting that it had been “seized” (not bought) just across the street. He demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts. He got all of those things, often in connection with mandatory minimum laws that eliminated judicial discretion in sentencing (and which perpetuated a nonsensical divide in sentencing between powdered and crack cocaine, the burden of which fell almost entirely on the black community).

If George Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it.

Keith Jackson was one of those who fell prey to a mandatory minimum. The DEA arrested him, not at the sale for whatever reason, but immediately after Bush’s speech. After his first two trials ended in hung juries, a third trial saw him convicted and sentenced to a legally-mandated decade in prison without parole. The judge in the case, uncomfortable with the mode of Jackson’s entrapment, urged him to ask the president for a commutation. But Bush had almost immediately washed his hands of the matter: facing criticism from a variety of sources including even those had a stake in the Drug War’s continuance (like the head of the city’s police union), Bush said, “I cannot feel sorry for [Jackson]. I’m sorry, they ought not to be peddling these insidious drugs that ruin the children of this country.” And so, for the crime of selling 2.4 grams of crack cocaine to another consenting adult in a place where there had been no recorded drug busts in the past, Keith Jackson served almost eight years in prison.

What happened to him after that point is not known. One doubts that Bush ever dwelt on Jackson or any other of the thousands affected by yet another surge in the War on Drugs—young men and occasionally women losing their futures to ruthless sentencing guidelines and the economic incentives of incarceration, or often just their lives to police enforcement or to the criminal turf wars that invariably follow the artificial limiting of a highly in-demand substance. Add in the families and communities that depended on this suddenly absent and incarcerated generation, and it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions.

But if Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it, as the Iraqi people had ample opportunity to learn. In the rush to war with one-time American ally (indeed, almost appointee) Saddam Hussein over the invasion of Kuwait, Bush infamously allowed himself to be swayed by the testimony of a supposed refugee of the conflict, known only as Nayirah, who spoke of Iraqi soldiers raiding Kuwaiti hospitals, pulling prematurely born infants out of incubators and tossing them aside to die. By the time it was discovered that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., and the entire thing had been organized by an American PR firm in the employ of the Kuwaiti government, the war was already over — though its repercussions will persist long after our lifetimes.

Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair.

An estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and an unknown number of civilians were killed in that first Gulf War, with the particular highlight of the Highway of Death, in which American forces blockaded and massacred retreating Iraqi forces, as well as any civilians unfortunate enough to be within cluster bomb range. Content with this level of slaughter, Bush called off hostilities the next day—a point in his favor, perhaps, when compared to those overseeing the unceasing carnage of today’s forever wars. But Bush hardly had clean hands before this, having already orchestrated an illegal invasion of Panama. Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair; it will be decades though, if ever, before we learn just how deeply he was implicated.

There’s much else to dislike about the elder Bush and the legacy he is leaving behind, in particular his enablement of many awful people. You can draw a direct line from his campaign manager Lee Atwater and his infamous Willie Horton ad to the race-baiting scare tactics used by Donald Trump. A look at Bush’s administrative appointees reveals many of the big names—Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld — who would go on to botch the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, all the while pushing for ever more wars on ever more fronts. (Which is not even to mention his son who, in signing off on Gulf War Redux, committed what is thus far the greatest geopolitical blunder of the century.) You could talk also about his surrender to the tax-and-spenders on budget issues, or to the Religious Right about gay rights. You could also give him credit where it’s due: for handling the end of the Cold War with flexibility and grace, for committing himself to promoting volunteerism and community service, for not following in the footsteps of his father, Prescott Bush, and signing on to any half-baked fascist coups against the US government.

All this, at least the good stuff, or the bad stuff that various media figures want to recast as good, will be gone over ad infinitum. But when you see the footage of his funerals, when you take in the official outpouring of grief that is increasingly mandatory on such occasions, when above all you hear anyone talking about how George H.W. Bush advocated for a “kinder, gentler conservatism,” spare a thought for Keith Jackson. It’s more than Bush ever did.



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The Great Anti-Climax

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I do not believe in the saying that “all politics is local.” If that’s true, why are we always getting into wars in other countries? But during this election cycle I was very interested in California, which is my own locale.

As predicted, California elected as its next governor one Gavin Newsom, a wealthy former mayor of San Francisco and currently lieutenant governor of the state, who is about as smart as the average doorknob. This was a year in which handsome men were thought to have an enormous advantage; they seemed to remind people of John F. Kennedy, who when you think about it was handsome only when compared with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Newsom is handsome-for-a-politician, but that’s not why he won. He won because the Republican Party in this state dissolved about a decade ago, giving place to a fairly well-oiled Democracy run by the state employees’ unions. The surprise is that Newsom’s opponent, a small-government tax hawk named John Cox, received 41% of the vote and was considered a remote possibility to win. Cox was an excellent campaigner and got his votes by himself, with little help from a rumored “Republican Party.”

The same amount of help was rendered by that party to the biggest ballot initiative, Prop 6, which would have rolled back a large tax increase imposed in 2017 by the Democratic legislature, supposedly to “fix the roads.” When people list the core items that they expect to see in any state budget, roads usually rank first or second. But not in California. The money that should go for roads — even money granted by the voters in previous ballot propositions — goes instead for bike lanes, parks, and other “environmental” matters, and for astronomical employee salaries. (I don’t mean that the employees are astronomers; if they were, they might actually do some work. California is a place where people often have to wait seven hours to do their business at the DMV.) Before the latest tax increase, California already had the highest gas taxes in the nation; now they are higher. The new gas tax is one of the most regressive imaginable. It means that breadwinners have to pay the government about $400 a year, extra, or not be allowed to drive to work.

This was a year in which handsome men were thought to have an enormous advantage.

Prop 6 was designed to end this tax and not let it happen again. It was the brainchild, not of the Republican Party, but of a gay, hyper-energetic San Diego talk show host, Carl DeMaio, who is very good at pushing a cause. Pre-election surveys indicated, predictably, that two-thirds of voters were in favor of a proposition rolling back the gas tax. But Prop 6 went down, 45 to 55. Why? Because the Democratic secretary of state entitled and summarized it as an attack on road repair:

ELIMINATES CERTAIN ROAD REPAIR AND TRANSPORTATION FUNDING. REQUIRES CERTAIN FUEL TAXES AND VEHICLE FEES BE APPROVED BY THE ELECTORATE. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT.

SUMMARY

Repeals a 2017 transportation law's taxes and fees designated for road repairs and public transportation. Fiscal Impact: Reduced ongoing revenues of $5.1 billion from state fuel and vehicle taxes that mainly would have paid for highway and road maintenance and repairs, as well as transit programs.

Note that telltale “as well as transit programs,” which clearly indicated, to anyone who read that far, that the money, as usual, would be spent on other things than fixin’ the roads. California voters didn’t read that far.

Yet while naïve voters were killing Prop 6, they were also killing Prop 10, which would have permitted and encouraged more than 500 local governments to impose rent control on the helpless population. They voted this one down by 62 to 38.

Large majorities on each side. Why? How? I don’t know. You tell me.

Note that telltale “as well as transit programs,” which clearly indicated, to anyone who read that far, that the money, as usual, would be spent on other things than fixin’ the roads.

Turning now to the nation at large: we’ll see whether there was a blue wave or a red wave when we see some kind of sophisticated, non-axe-grinding study of voters. We may wait a long time for that. In the meantime, we can say that if there was a blue wave, there was a red wave to meet it.

But remember: most congressional races in this country were decided on the yaller-dog principle: “Some people will vote for a yaller dog as long as he’s on the Democratic [or Republican] ticket.” That’s how New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert (“Bob”) Menendez got reelected, 53 to 42, despite his public repute as a crook and not a smart or likable one, either. And that’s how California House District 50 (eastern San Diego County) got decided. The Republican incumbent, Duncan Hunter, to whom nobody ever gave much credit for brains, is under federal indictment for using about $250,000 of campaign money for vacations, eating and drinking, “personal relationships,” and other fun, though basically penny-ante, stuff. His Democratic opponent was Ammar Campa-Najjar, age 29, another one of this year’s handsome young men. Until Hunter’s indictment, Campa-Najjar, a former Obama organizer and scion of a family of Palestinian enragés, was a purely sacrificial candidate for the Republican 50th. Hunter’s indictment united almost everyone in the county, Republican and Democrat, in scorning and deriding Hunter; it dried up his campaign money and unleashed a deluge of funds for Campa-Najjar, who is said to have spent ten times more money than Hunter. But it was all for nothing. Hunter’s district was safe Republican, and remained such. He was reelected 54 to 46.

Nationwide, a lot of electoral activity consisted simply of voters returning to their natural allegiance. Missouri, North Dakota, Indiana, Tennessee — these are Republican states, and it was strange that they should have Democratic senators to begin with, or (in the case of Tennessee) that they should consider having one now. In other states, where there were real contests, the vote could usually have gone either way; the outcome therefore didn’t mean much on the philosophical plane. I’m thinking of the Florida Senate and governor race, the Wisconsin governor race, the Arizona and Nevada Senate races, and even the Montana Senate race. I’m not thinking of the Texas race, where the Republican governor won overwhelmingly, while the Republican senator, Ted Cruz, won merely respectably. Cruz, who was up against another “handsome,” “Kennedyesque,” but also overbearing “young” man, is virtually the only politician in the country who is less likable than Hillary Clinton. His Democratic foe had so much out-of-state money that he couldn’t think of ways to spend it all. But Cruz won — because Texas is Texas and Robert (“Beto”) O’Rourke is not.

Most congressional races in this country were decided on the yaller-dog principle: “Some people will vote for a yaller dog as long as he’s on the Democratic [or Republican] ticket.”

In Massachusetts, voters went overwhelmingly for a politician even less likable than Cruz, Elizabeth Warren; they also went overwhelmingly for the Republican gubernatorial incumbent. Maryland also voted Democrat for almost everything except its governor. The expression “the bland leading the bland” may apply; remember that Mitt Romney is a former governor of the People’s Republic of Massachusetts as well as a former Republican nominee for president. Romney was born in Michigan, has lived mainly in California, was governor of Massachusetts, and has now been elected a senator from Utah — a remarkable career of disaffiliation. Anywhere he hangs his hat is home, for now.

I don’t know enough about the folkways of Massachusetts and Maryland to guess why they elect conservatives to the statehouse and liberals to other offices; maybe the conservatives and the liberals are both members of the Faux Party, and the electorate loves and cherishes them for that reason. I do know that there isn’t any basis for another piece of folk wisdom, just now being uttered ad nauseam — the idea that the American people split their tickets between parties because they want balanced and limited government. Chris Stirewalt, a person who masquerades for Fox News as a political analyst, said on election night that there is “a preference among Americans for divided government.” Stirewalt instanced the coming Democratic House and Republican Senate.

This is so fatuous, it’s hard to find words for it. The completely safe districts that elect 80% of Congress are not populated by people who vote for a Democratic congressman and a Republican senator in order to preserve balanced government. When it comes to Congress — and usually every other office — they vote a straight party line. We have divided government only because other people vote an opposing straight party line. There are exceptions, as in the Republicans elected to the governorships of Massachusetts and Maryland, but they are just that — exceptions. Californians did not vote for big government when they turned down Prop 6 and then vote for little government when they welcomed Prop 10 because they wanted to balance big and little government. They did it because they didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t read beyond the title of Prop 6 but for some unknown reason sensed that Prop 10 was a danger. We don’t have sheep and wolves because someone decides that sheep and wolves need to balance each other; we have sheep and wolves because sheep engender sheep and wolves engender wolves.

Mitt Romney was born in Michigan, has lived mainly in California, was governor of Massachusetts, and has now been elected a senator from Utah — a remarkable career of disaffiliation.

It seems that Trump did marginally better than most other presidents at limiting his midterm losses in Congress; he lost fewer House seats than the average, and he picked up at least one valuable Senate seat. But we can’t assume that “he” was the crucial factor. He had an effect, surely; he “energized” many voters for and against him. It’s my bet that the energized Democrats were going to show up and vote anyway, but many of the energized Republicans would have stayed home, had not Trump inspired them. Yet in some cases, “he” probably “won” races despite himself. Ron DeSantis, the Florida senatorial candidate whom Trump endorsed, probably had a harder time in the general election than his primary opponent would have had. DeSantis seems to have won the general election by only four-tenths of 1%. I doubt, however, that the (failed) Republican senatorial candidate in Montana would have gotten within three percentage points of his incumbent rival without Trump’s efforts.

But speaking of the Montana election, it came within perhaps 1000 votes of being swung by the finally unwilling candidacy of a big-L Libertarian, Rick Breckenridge, who got 2.8% of the vote despite having dropped out, late in the game, in favor of the Republican. The LP guy had been polling at about 4%, but when he left, many votes had already been cast. No one knows for sure, but I assume that LP votes in Montana come mainly out of the Republicans. Some Democrats in Montana assume that too, because they sent out mailers urging “true conservatives” to vote for Breckenridge instead of the Republican — tactics that led Breckenridge to endorse the Republican.

Contrary to constant press reports about the remarkable popularity of the Democratic incumbent, Jon Tester — “a rural Democrat who still connects with the people,” etc. — the Libertarian Party appears to have been responsible for electing him in both 2006 and 2012, years in which Tester’s margin of victory over his Republican opponent was .87 and 3.72%, respectively, and the LP candidate’s vote was 2.6 and 6.56. It is painful to ask this question, but is it the LP’s job to elect members of other parties?

When it comes to Congress — and usually every other office — most people vote a straight party line. We have divided government only because other people vote an opposing straight party line.

Donald Trump may be enjoying the prospect of the next two years. In the Senate, he has achieved a significantly more Trumpian majority — no more Flake, no more McCain (although Mitt Romney will be glad to obstruct any non-RINO programs). In the House, he has gone from a slim Republican majority, out of which he got nothing except the tax cut, to a slimmer Democratic majority. God’s gift to him is the Democrats’ custom of automatically awarding committee chairmanships by seniority, which means that most of the key positions will go to elderly and loquacious men and women elected from extremely safe districts — a recipe for disaster if the election of 2020 is nationalized, which it surely will be. Maxine Waters does not play well on the national stage. She plays a little bit better than Nancy Pelosi.

But certain it is that this election was God’s gift to people who write about politics and enjoy laughing at politicians. The cast is irresistible . . . Trump . . . Waters . . . Pelosi . . . Schiff . . Nadler . . . Warren . . . To paraphrase yet another old saw, “politics is a tragedy for those who think and a comedy for those who feel — that a lot of good jokes are coming.”




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Courting Disaster

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Even before the allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, even before his prissy, petulant meltdown on live TV, even before he repeatedly perjured himself in response to fairly innocuous questions about juvenile sexual terms and the extent of his youthful drinking, Brett Kavanaugh was unfit to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court. The fact that he will shortly be confirmed to that post anyway says a great deal about the values of both parties at the present moment.

In a number of ways, Kavanaugh might look the part of a Supreme Court justice. He graduated from Yale Law, one of two, maybe three permissible schools for a justice to attend; he clerked for a Supreme Court justice (Anthony Kennedy, whose seat he is attempting to fill); and he did time in the US Circuit Court of Appeals in DC, widely regarded as the second-most powerful court in America. Yet compared to any of his peers with similar attainments, Kavanaugh does not stand out: both Merrick Garland and Neil Gorsuch, to name only the two most recent nominations, had more distinguished careers on the DC Circuit, and there are plenty of other appellate judges on other circuits who are both smarter and younger. So why was he appointed, and why did the GOP stand by him long after it became clear that his nomination was in danger?

The answer to both questions is that, as a party hack, Kavanaugh is without peer. His introduction to public life was as Ken Starr’s sidekick, chasing after feverish conspiracies like the supposed murder of Vince Foster, and writing much of the Starr Report urging impeachment of Bill Clinton as well as aggressive and explicit questioning of the president in the actual trial. (Note that Bill Clinton, like every other American president going back quite a ways, should have been impeached and imprisoned for war crimes, at the very least. But that’s another matter entirely.)

Why was Kavanaugh appointed, and why did the GOP stand by him long after it became clear that his nomination was in danger?

Kavanaugh then joined George W. Bush’s legal team in time to argue against the ballot recount in Florida; eventually he would be made White House Staff Secretary, responsible for all documents going to and returning from President Bush’s desk, as well as for coordinating policy makers and speechwriters. In this capacity, he would have had immense latitude to shape the legal doctrines that made the Bush presidency such a disaster: the prosecution of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the internment of prisoners without due process in Guantanamo Bay and their torture in Abu Ghraib and a variety of other black sites around the world, the invocation of “national security” to justify warrantless surveillance and a vast expansion of domestic spying operations, the use of signing statements to exempt the president and the Homeland Security apparatus from actually being bound by any laws, et very much cetera.

It is difficult to know exactly how influential he was in his three years on the job because the Republicans controlling the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to request or review more than a tiny fraction of the relevant records; it seems unavoidable though that he was one of the central figures in the development and prosecution of the War on Terror, not to mention such culture-war efforts as those to ban gay marriage and restrict abortion. His service to the party earned him many friends, as well as his appointment to the DC appellate circuit, where he would continue his work to expand the power of the imperial presidency.

However, it took three years for Kavanaugh to get confirmed, because Democrats worried that someone so near the heart of the Bush administration might not aspire to impartiality when it came to questions of executive power or national security. And he set about proving them right, in opinions supporting the government’s vast warrantless surveillance program, defending the use of military tribunals and the removal of what few legal protections were left for Gitmo detainees, and giving the FBI and military free rein to torture even American citizens swept up in terror operations.

As a party hack, Kavanaugh is without peer.

Worse, Kavanaugh established himself quickly as perhaps the most hardline circuit judge with respect to criminal justice. In a speech last year to the American Enterprise Institute, Kavanaugh said he admired William H. Rehnquist’s attempts to eliminate Fourth Amendment protections, in particular the exclusionary rule preventing unlawfully obtained evidence from being admitted in trial, and the established Miranda rights requiring police to inform arrestees of rights including representation. From the bench, Kavanaugh has made his own contributions to this cause, among them a denial that attaching a GPS to a suspect’s vehicle constituted a search, a refusal to consider the lack of probable cause as any barrier to a random search, and a rejection of any limit on the qualified immunity granted to police. Kavanaugh’s preferred world, like Rehnquist’s (and unlike Kennedy’s), is one in which the police would be even more empowered than they are today, where the painfully slow pushback of the last few years against police and prosecutor misconduct, as well as against the wider United States prison gulag system, would effectively be wiped out.

There’s plenty more, but I won’t labor the analysis here; you can read his record as well as I can. The point to be gathered is Kavanaugh’s devotion to Republican Party policy, and in particular to the validation of his work on the greatest blunder in contemporary geopolitical history, the US War on Terror. And that rehabilitation campaign is one in which the Democrats are fully complicit—not just in the reliable bipartisan support for treasury-wrecking outlays on defense, but also in more personally galling ways such as the media airbrushing of George W. Bush, making him a kindly grandfather figure who pals around with Michelle Obama, rather than a war criminal whose conscience obviously isn’t burdened by the hundreds of thousands of people who died and the millions more who continue to suffer because of his decisions.

This is a big part of why the Republicans are so desperate to have Kavanaugh rather than any other nominee: his confirmation will mark another stage in the normalization of our nightmare of endless war. But it’s also why the institutional Democrats, this time around, refused to go after him on policy issues: their future lobbying prospects depend on cozy relations with weapons manufacturers and the thinktanks authoring white papers in support of ever more, and ever more expensive, conflict.

Kavanaugh’s preferred world is one in which the police would be even more empowered than they are today.

(It’s likely also why they refused to inquire further into any sources of funding underlying Kavanaugh; it’d be hard to find a figure in Washington without some source of dark-money funds underwriting them. The mystery of how Kavanaugh had hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt mysteriously wiped out, or how he afforded his country club fees or bought a house beyond his means, is probably attributable to wealthy family members writing him checks. But there’s much larger-scale questions to be asked about the dark money pouring into groups like the Judicial Crisis Network, which banked $28.5 million from one undisclosed donor alone and backed Kavanaugh, like Gorsuch before him, to the hilt. Obviously Kavanaugh wasn’t going to betray any knowledge of the identity of his benefactors, but it would have been good to get him on the record, under oath, denying it.)

So the Dems were left with his boorish high school and college behavior, which isn’t disqualifying; the accusations of assault, which would be, but which would be near impossible to demonstrate to the point of changing anyone’s mind; and his lies under oath, which should rule him out entirely but clearly won’t. Not many people, certainly not those with congressional voting privileges, were really concerned about him growing up an entitled brat or being generally a dick in his early years; many of them are dicks themselves, and certainly all of them are familiar with the awful DC-suburb prep schools that incubate Kavanaugh’s ilk. If he owned to that, he could even spin it into a narrative that in Catholic circles dates back to Augustine at least: the dissolute youth made good. But he insisted on presenting himself as some kind of goody-two-shoes, too busy studying and playing wholesome team sports to do much partying, and too uncool to be invited to too many parties even if he wasn’t hitting the books. His bizarre insistence on declaring himself a longtime virgin—as if that had any bearing on the commission of sexual assault!—typified the overcorrection; plenty of other people regret who they were in high school, it’s relatable, but he refused to relate it.

The institutional Democrats refused to go after him on policy issues: their future lobbying prospects depend on cozy relations with weapons manufacturers and the support of ever more, and ever more expensive, conflict.

The odder outbursts of his testimony—the ones that lost him the support of former Justice John Paul Stevens, Lawfare blogger Benjamin Wittes, and a few thousand members of the America Bar Association, among others—seemed attached to questions about his drinking, especially his nasty retort to Amy Klobuchar when she asked about him about blacking out. It’s a relevant question: if you drink to blackout point, you might do something and truly believe you didn’t, because you would have no memory of that action. But Kavanaugh, who by the accounts of many had the reputation of a heavy drinker even at a heavy-drinking prep school and college, thought it better to turn around that question, a move recognizable to anyone who’s ever confronted a friend or family member on similar grounds.

Kavanaugh’s performance was so bad—and maybe worse, weird—that it suddenly looked like the 51-seat Republican majority might crack. In play now were Susan Collins (R-ME), who had previously agreed to support any candidate from a list provided by the Federalist Society; Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), whose support usually could be secured by federal monies heading to her state; and above all Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who exemplified the so-called “never Trump” Republican by loudly declaiming against the president’s bearing before voting for almost every one of his policies. Several of the conservative Democrats who crossed party lines for Gorsuch after the Republicans nuked the filibuster rule for the consideration of Supreme Court justices—Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN)—would declare themselves as “No” votes, leaving only Joe Manchin (D-WV) to keep it from the rarity of a purely party-line vote for a Supreme Court nominee.

Flake, for the merest of moments touched by something approaching a conscience (or perhaps just aware of how footage of him callously shutting an elevator door on sexual-assault survivors might play in the 2024 presidential primaries), called for an FBI investigation into the claims. What followed was a brilliant, extremely cynical tactical move by the GOP: after Flake in his original statement called for a week-long span, the White House placed additional restrictions on the investigation (even as the president tweeted lies about there being no restrictions).

What followed may be perhaps most cursory, slapdash FBI investigation ever—not the most unethical, Lord knows, but usually the feds have some sort of standards even when they set out to destroy someone’s life. After three days, the FBI announced they were wrapping up; they had interviewed only 11 people, including neither of the principals—Christine Blasey Ford being set to one side as seemingly irrelevant, and Kavanaugh himself being placed firmly off limits, as were any questions relating to his consumption of alcohol now or decades back. I’m pretty sure I interview more people, and ask harder hitting questions, on an average afternoon at a Libertarian National Convention.

His performance was so bad—and maybe worse, weird—that it suddenly looked like the 51-seat Republican majority might crack.

The resulting report will not be available for any of us to read, not for decades, at least unless some future president declassifies it. In a process demonstrating the weird, cultish protocols that accrue in a cursed place like Congress, any senator wishing to read the report had to descend to the Capitol basement and view it in a room on complete lockdown, no cellphones or recording devices allowed, not even so much as a notebook. The process is a holdover from Obama’s early days, and is yet another example of how that regime’s lack of transparency enables the unapologetic opacity of this one, such that everyone entering the room was enjoined against discussing the contents of the report in any but the most general sense. But since it was merely a theatrical gesture to begin with, it was never going to change any minds. Certainly Flake felt like he now had the cover to do what he had wanted to do all along: vote yet again to support the agenda and nominee of the president he has said is “ruining our country” through “tribalism.” Once Collins was aboard—the supposedly pro-choice, “pro-woman” senator basking in the spotlight, taking almost an hour to justify supporting a candidate who will snap at the chance to restrict abortion in any way that presents itself—the scam was complete.

Throughout all this, at precisely the time (well after it, actually) when he should have been shutting up, Kavanaugh wrote a jaw-droppingly self-serving op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he apologized vaguely for “a few things I should not have said.” He didn’t say exactly what those things were, presumably among them the idea that this whole ordeal was “revenge on behalf of the Clintons” or the threatening statement that in US politics “what goes around comes around”—i.e., the precise sort of partisan motivation that the institution of the Supreme Court was designed to avoid. He tried to present these statements as “very emotional” moments—despite the fact that they were part of a prepared statement he had drilled on for days. As genres of apologies go, his fell in the “I’m sorry you made me do that, I won’t do it again (unless I have to)” camp familiar to many unhappy homes across the nation.  But any apology, however vaporous, was beside the point: the column was ultimately a presentation of Brett Kavanaugh’s personal mythology, the way he clearly sees himself and wishes to be seen.

In this statement, you can see why the Republicans are bound to Kavanaugh, why they can’t just jettison him and tap someone like Amy Coney Barrett, who would comparatively breeze through hearings and rule almost exactly the same way on the bench. Kavanaugh, more fully than any other contemporary figure, represents all sides of the Republican Party as presently constituted. He’s the Fox News side that spouts whatever conspiracy theories align with his personal grievances, and he’s the Wall Street Journal side who clings to the shreds of intellectual respectability by publishing in the house organ of the neoconservative thinktank Right. But the thing is, those sides have never really been at odds; they might dislike how the other goes about its business, but that business is one and the same: the expansion of unaccountable executive power, the tacit encouragement for government agents to abuse that power, the removal of any consequences when that power is inevitably abused, and the personal enrichment of everyone making possible all of the above.

As genres of apologies go, his fell in the “I’m sorry you made me do that, I won’t do it again (unless I have to)” camp familiar to many unhappy homes across the nation.

The Democrats share much of this central goal, and what they don’t share they’re too ineffective to actually counter; Chuck Schumer will surely go down as one of the most laughably weak opposition leaders in the congressional annals. Some Dems seem content to vote a tepid “No” and just let Kavanaugh be confirmed, possibly out of a belief it will help their election prospects in the midterms. But the Supreme Court is a lifetime appointment, and we can expect Kavanaugh, at 53, to be bolstering the powerful and blocking reform for two, maybe three decades to come, far beyond any temporary and likely illusory electoral advantage.

Expect to see a lot of handwringing about process in the days and weeks to come, much of it from the Republican side. Ignore the bad-faith invocations of “sexual McCarthyism,” especially from those who have had to pay a lot of money to make accounts of their own abusive behavior disappear. Know that the process they followed was to take a bad candidate, hide most of the documentation of his past, bumble through a crisis that would have sunk almost any previous nominee, put him through (or allow him to put himself through) a series of increasingly embarrassing media moments—any of which could have demonstrated his unfitness for a job requiring gravity and personal reserve—stage the most transparently flimsy of investigations, then ram his nomination home regardless.

This is nothing more than a demonstration of pure power politics, a statement of intent from a group of people who intend to get theirs without any recourse to process, or norms, or any of the other words that politicians use when they’re trying to disguise what they’re actually doing. The Republicans apparently don’t think they have to hide behind that anymore. They are comfortable in showing that this—cruel, cynical, conspiracy-minded operators, united behind a party hack who will do immense and lasting harm to the cause of liberty—is who they are. And, as the saying goes, when people show you who they are, believe them.



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The Kavanaugh Conflict

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Many years ago I was attending a conference where I knew most of the speakers socially. One morning I arrived for breakfast — or perhaps it was lunch or dinner; I remember distinctly that it was a circular booth, and I was the last to arrive. One of my friends asked what I thought about the space station on the moon. I scoffed. “There’s no space station on the moon,” I said.

The others reacted with derision. “Of course there is.” “How do you not know about it? It was a cover story in Time magazine!” Even my husband laughed incredulously at my ignorance. “Don’t you read the news?”

I remember feeling very stressed and very humiliated. I wracked my brain, trying to remember the story. And then I did. It clicked. I said, “Oh yeah, the biosphere experiment. They’ve been there for six months, right?”

The two stories mingled, and the memory felt real. I was certain I had read about a space station on the moon.

And they all began to laugh. “See, everyone lies when they think they’re the only one who doesn’t know something,” one of my friends said to the group.

But I hadn’t lied. Not if a lie is defined as deliberate deception. I thought I was telling the truth. My brain had mixed two stories: the one my friends were telling me now about a space station on the moon, and the articles I had read about a similar event, the biosphere experiment in Arizona. The two stories mingled, and the memory felt real. I was certain I had read about a space station on the moon. I could have passed a polygraph at that moment; that’s how sure I was. Moreover, my “memory” was being confirmed by people I trusted — including my husband, the person I should be able to trust above all others. Yes, I was wrong. But I wasn’t lying.

To them it was just a practical joke in the form of a psychological experiment. And they laughed it off. Maybe, if you asked them today, they wouldn’t remember. But I’ve never forgotten it. How could I have been so certain of something I hadn’t experienced?

In the past week I have been reminded of this repeatedly, as friends, newscasters, and political pundits have used Christine Blasey-Ford’s polygraph as evidence that she is telling the truth.

It is very possible that CBF was pawed and assaulted in the way she described. It’s even possible that it happened more than once.

I recently read of a psychological study demonstrating that under stressful or traumatic circumstances, the brain will scan its memory banks trying to make sense of the unsensible. It might be a protective measure, searching for a way to account for the traumatic event, or find a solution to the problem. In the process, memories can become mixed and details altered.

It is very possible that CBF was pawed and assaulted in the way she described. Based on the culture of partying boasted about in her high school yearbooks (which have been conveniently scrubbed from the school’s website in recent weeks), and confirmed by the fact that two men have come forward to say it might have been them, it’s even possible that it happened more than once, which would intensify her traumatic reaction.

However, there is no corroborating evidence to confirm that Brett Kavanaugh had anything to do with it. Yes, he was a drinker in high school, and yes, he attended parties. But every witness CBF has named has denied seeing any such incident. In fact, more than a hundred women who knew him in high school and college and in their professional lives have said that such an action would be completely out of character for him. No one who has known him since he became an adult has accused him of improprieties, and no one except Senate Democrats has accused him of being an alcoholic — including FBI agents who have conducted extensive background checks.

Now I’m going to say something that can (and probably will) be misconstrued as the “boys will be boys defense.” But that is not what I am about to argue.

No one who has known him since he became an adult has accused him of improprieties, and no one except Senate Democrats has accused him of being an alcoholic.

Events that happened when a person was a minor should expire after the statute of limitations has been reached. (And the assault that CBF described would not have been charged as a felony, even if she had reported it at the time, so yes, the statute has indeed run out on this incident.) There is a reason that minors are not tried as adults. As minors, we’re still malleable, still learning right from wrong and what kind of person we want to be. We’re still heavily influenced by those around us, whether it be teachers, parents, friends, teammates, or siblings. We might be taught to accept and act on values and customs about religion, politics, or gender expectations that, in later years, we will find abhorrent. It’s only in adulthood that we begin to examine the various influences and decide for sure which path we want to follow, which character traits we want to emulate and which values we want to eschew.

No 52-year-old man should be judged by what made him laugh when he was a schoolboy. And that’s what’s happening now. Many people still insist on believing that Judge Kavanaugh did everything he’s been charged with, despite the lack of evidence, despite his vehement denials, despite the emergence of two men who say they did what CBF says Kavanaugh did. Many others who initially opposed him now grudgingly acknowledge the lack of evidence, but still refuse to vindicate him. Instead, I’m hearing and reading that they don’t think someone who could be so “immature” and “emotional” and even “unhinged” should serve on the Supreme Court.

Well of course he was immature. He was 17 years old when the yearbook photos and jokes about flatulence and vomiting were written. He was not yet the 52-year-old man who has been nominated for the court. He is no longer that immature boy against whom so many people are expressing indignation.

As minors, we might be taught to accept and act on values and customs about religion, politics, or gender expectations that, in later years, we will find abhorrent.

And “unhinged”? “Emotional”? Who wouldn’t be emotional in this situation?

Imagine being accused of something heinous — something you are certain you did not do. At least if you’re guilty you can experience remorse and regret, show contrition, and beg for forgiveness. You can be angry at yourself as you watch your world crumble, knowing it was your own fault. But when you’re innocent? How do you express remorse for something you did not do? And how do you find forgiveness and understanding for those who falsely accuse you, and continue to accuse you even when all the evidence is refuted?

Now imagine bringing this attack into your home as your wife and sweet daughters and the girls you coach in basketball and your church family all have to bear the effects of those accusations. Imagine the pain of watching them suffer. It would take a veritable saint not to exhibit some anger and emotion over this situation. Even Jesus lost his temper during his ministry, when his “home” (the temple) was defiled.

The hypocrisy is obvious: if he had not shown emotion, those same people would now accuse him of being cold and uncaring. Why is it that Dr. Ford is deemed “believable” because she cried during her testimony, but Judge Kavanaugh is considered unhinged because he choked up? Is it because he’s a man? Or is it because they’re so set on not having Brett Kavanaugh seated as a Supreme Court Justice that they will grab at any excuse to discredit him?

Assault does matter. And it’s possible that Ford did experience what she described, although I don’t think Judge Kavanaugh is the one who did it. But there are two kinds of assault in this story: the physical assault CBF described, and the accusation Kavanaugh has endured. Each has its own traumatic consequences. A person who has been physically assaulted bears no blame in the incident; she can hold her head up as a victim or survivor or whatever she wants to call herself and go forward. But a person who has been falsely accused receives no such sympathy or support. Judge Kavanaugh will bear the consequences of this accusation for the rest of his life. Even if he is exonerated, it will stay with him. So in that sense, bearing false witness is a more serious crime than groping a girl at a party. It has ruined his reputation, his family, and his career. It will forever taint him, even if it isn’t true, because so many people will continue to believe he did it.

There are two kinds of assault in this story: the physical assault Ford described, and the accusation Kavanaugh has endured.

It didn’t have to be this way. Senator Feinstein could have brought it up in the private questioning and the other senators could have asked their questions without the public circus. The accusation is so flimsy, the accuser’s memory so hazy, that it should never have become the main issue in Kavanaugh’s nomination. I’m convinced that the Democratic senators expected, once the first accusation was made, that several other women would say “Me too” with more recent stories and stronger evidence. Ford would not even have had to testify, because Kavanaugh would have been forced to withdraw in shame. That, I believe, was the game plan. And it might have worked if Judge Kavanaugh weren’t such an honorable gentleman regarding women.

Because CBF is the “aggrieved plaintiff” in this case, we can’t impugn her character. We can’t examine her own drinking and partying habits, or her high school yearbook’s glorification of drinking and sex, as they did with Kavanaugh. We can’t wonder about her “fear of flying,” which never seems to have kept her from flying, or the fortune she has accrued in her GoFundMe account as a result of her claim. } We can’t bring up her political activism or other possible motivations. We have to treat her with kid gloves, because she is considered the victim.

This is a very unusual case in that the accused is adamant that it never happened. He is one of the few men recently accused of sexual misconduct not to use the excuse that “I thought it was consensual” or “she misunderstood my actions” or “it was a long time ago.” He said it never happened. And then doubled down with “I was a virgin.” That took a lot of confidence, because it meant that even consensual sex with a willing girlfriend would have made him guilty of perjury. I believe him.

None of what I have said here has any bearing on whether Kavanaugh would be a good Supreme Court justice. I like some of what I’ve heard, and I have reservations about other things. But at this point, I don’t care about the reservations. If the minority party — or either party — can get away with this kind of smutty tactic, then no man of character who cares about his reputation will ever be willing to run for office or serve on the court. And that would be a great loss to the goal of freedom and honor in this nation.




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A Visit to Noah’s Ark

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The tourist season is almost over, but I’m making plans. I’m also thinking about last year’s acts of tourism. I’m remembering the sunny day in September when I visited Noah’s Ark.

The Ark is the central feature of a sort-of-theme-park called Ark Encounter, in Grant County, Kentucky. It’s a wooden structure — possibly the largest wooden structure on earth — built to the dimensions prescribed in the sixth chapter of Genesis. There aren’t any live animals inside (at least I can’t remember any); they’re in the zoo next door. But there are full-scale models of animals in various kinds of enclosures. There are also models of Noah and his family, going about their lives on the Ark: caring for the animals, fixing meals for themselves, relaxing in their comfortable onboard cabins. Ramps lead from level to level, where one finds “scientific” exhibits, restrooms, and two theaters with continuous showings of movies. In the first theater, Noah is interviewed by a skeptical antediluvian reporter and explains how and why you would build an ark. In the second theater, a 21st-century ark advocate is interviewed by a reporter who is (I think) played by the same actress who played the ancient one. She also is skeptical and needs to be converted to the idea that the biblical account is literally true. I assume the conversion happens, although I left before the movie was over. Her snarky postmodern attitude was less congenial to me than the religious credulity of the rest of the Ark.

But “credulity” isn’t exactly the right word. For me, a charming aspect of the place was the scores of exhibits providing ingenious answers both to obvious questions and to questions that, I’m embarrassed to say, had never occurred to me.

  • How did all those animals fit into the Ark? Well, they didn’t represent species; they represented “kinds,” which are fewer and are capable of developing (not evolving) into more than one species.
  • How did all those really big animals fit inside? Well, Noah probably took the young, small ones. I hadn’t thought of that.
  • How could you carry food to all those animals? You could use lots of pulleys and dumbwaiters.
  • How could you remove all the dung from those animals? You could use lots of pulleys and dumbwaiters.
  • How could a family of eight take care of thousands of animals? It’s not too hard, when you figure how much work a normal man or woman can do in X number of hours . . . .

The continuous display of cleverness delighted me. It went a long way toward illustrating Chesterton’s observation that the last thing a crazy person has left is his logic. But the builders of the Ark aren’t crazy; their ideas are just naïve and innocuous, and the Ark lets you see how far naiveté and innocuousness can get you in America, and how much charm you can gather along the way.

The reporter's snarky postmodern attitude was less congenial to me than the religious credulity of the rest of the Ark.

The Arkists optimistically predicted that they would be visited by 2.4 million people during their first full season, which was 2017. When I visited, they’d gotten only about 1.5 million, maybe, and it was late in the season. I was concerned that their great enterprise might have a short life, despite a (to me) very regrettable but somewhat shaky subsidy from a neighboring town. But there’s a wall inside the Ark that shows the names of people who have contributed various amounts for its construction, and it’s a very long wall. The Ark came to rest within easy driving distance of Louisville, Lexington, Dayton, and Cincinnati, and that’s a church belt. Visitors to the Ark whom I saw were very “diverse” — whites, blacks, Asians, beards, bikers, families of nine. The only solo visitor was me. So the audience is large, and just when I was thinking that a lot more people could be packed into the Ark, I went to the restaurant outside, and there were hundreds more of them in there. More than in the Ark itself. They may not be museumgoers, but they are sure as hell good eaters.

I hope they eat their way to heaven. Their idea of Christianity isn’t mine, but their spirit of voluntarism enchants me. You want to build a giant ark? You want to make it pay? I’m with you — see if you can. And this is an American thing; you can’t imagine it happening in France. Maybe I’ll visit again this year.

The visitors may not be museumgoers, but they are sure as hell good eaters.

My pilgrimage to the Ark last year began with a visit to my ancestral homeland, a county in Southern Illinois where my family has lived since 1816. I myself have never lived there; my parents left before I was born. But I’m related to all the old families, and I like to see what’s going on. In the early 1890s my father’s father built a house on the main street of one of the county’s little towns. That house passed out of the family a few years ago, after the death of my beloved aunt, the last of my grandparents’ eight children. Next to her house are (going south on Main Street) two other big old houses and then the Methodist church, where my grandparents taught Sunday school. The church seems to be doing all right, despite its fluctuating congregation, but much of the rest of Main Street has been torn down, hideously altered, or left derelict. The town’s population has been declining since 1910, and the working population has been declining still more disastrously. The old families, who were poor, by the world’s standards (my grandparents never owned a car), are being replaced by people on welfare, many of whom have no standards. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true. If you want to see used up sofas stashed in the yard, I can show you where to go.

Whenever I visit, I brace ourselves for some more sad social and architectural news, especially about those two houses next to my grandparents’ place. They’ve been empty for years, and before that they were subjected to destructive attempts to “modernize.” If you’re brave enough to step onto the sagging wooden porches and look in the windows, what you see is broken glass, naked lath, once-friendly rooms returning to a state of unfriendly nature.

Their idea of Christianity isn’t mine, but their spirit of voluntarism enchants me. You want to build a giant ark? You want to make it pay? I’m with you — see if you can.

But this time, I saw a truck out back, and a man walking toward me: “Can I help you?” I explained myself, we shook hands, and I learned that this man was there to help the houses. A 50ish gentleman from an even smaller town about ten miles up the road, he had purchased both properties from the bank (or some other entity on which possession had devolved), because he liked them and wanted to restore them. More important, he had the skills to restore them. He had learned those skills decades ago, when the local high school actually taught students how to do things. It offered courses — excellent courses — in all the construction trades. Every year, students built a house from scratch, and sold it. If anybody can do something for old family homes, a graduate of those courses can do it.

I don’t know whether this man will succeed. I don’t know whether the Ark Encounter will succeed. Both seem romantic and quixotic to me. Nothing could be more different from America’s Towers of Tech or its Mordor of urban “housing” than these vernacular architectural enterprises. They are the creations of individuals, not of the state or the lackeys of the state.

I live in coastal California, and I’m often surprised to discover that no one here ever goes to the Midwest, the real Midwest, or any portion of California that isn’t built of concrete and steel. I know I could say something similar about the travel habits of people from New York or Boston or Washington, or even Chicago. But the Midwest I’m thinking about has nothing to do with physical geography. It has to do with the geography of the mind. There are places in the mind where everything that is done has to be done by some enormous, statelike thing. And there are places in the mind where individual people still do things, because they want to. Those places I call America.




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The Return of Malthusian Equilibrium

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After the departure of Europeans from their colonies following the end of World War II, the Third World rapidly became tyrannical, and their economies began a long decline. The institutional collapse of the Third World has continued over all these years, except that in the past two decades, from an extremely low base, its economies have improved. This economic growth did not happen because the Third World liberalized its economies or adopted any fundamental cultural change in its societies. What enabled synchronous economic progress over the past two decades in the Third World was the internet and the emergence of China.

Cheap telephony and the internet came into existence in the late ’80s. The internet provided pipelines for the transfer of technology and enabled wage-arbitrage to be exploited. Also, many countries — particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Arica — benefited from the export of resources to gluttonous-for-resources China, the only emerging market I know of, and to the developed world, which contrary to propaganda is economically still by far the fastest growing part of the world.

Cherry-picking countries of subsistence farmers and cattle-herders for propaganda purposes tells you nothing about the sustainability of their growth.

It is hard to believe, but many countries in the Middle East and North Africa peaked economically in the 1970s. Their competitive advantage was oil, not human resources. The per capita real GDPs of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite the fact that they have had a relatively peaceful existence, are about half as large as they were in the ’70s. The situation is similar in Venezuela and to a large extent in Nigeria. Except for the personal use of cellphones, the information technology revolution has simply bypassed these and many other countries.

According to the propaganda — steeped in political correctness — of the international organizations, all the fastest growing economies are in the Third World. But simple primary school mathematics helps cut through this propaganda. Ethiopia is claimed to be among the fastest growing large economies. This is quite a lie. An 8.5% growth rate of Ethiopia on GDP per capita of US$846 translates into growth of a mere US$72 per capita per year. The US economy, with GDP per capita of US$62,152, is 73 times larger, and despite its growth at a seemingly low rate of 2.2%, it currently adds US$1,367 to its per capita GDP — 19 times more than Ethiopia. The situation looks even more unfavorable for Ethiopia if its population explosion of 2.5% per year is considered.

Cherry-picking countries of subsistence farmers and cattle-herders for propaganda purposes tells you nothing about the sustainability of their growth, and certainly does not in any way enable comparison with the developed world.

The developed world is growing much, much faster than the Third World. The only exception is China.

Over the past two decades, the low hanging fruit of economic growth has been plucked in the Third World. South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Africa, and Latin America are now starting to stagnate. As the tide of the economic growth rate recedes, institutional collapse will become more visible. It will be seen on the streets as civic strife. What is happening in Venezuela, Syria, Turkey, Nicaragua, Honduras, Pakistan, Congo, and South Africa — where institutions are collapsing, social fabric is falling apart, and tyranny is raising its ugly head — are not isolated events but part of the evolving Third World pattern. Once its institutions have been destroyed, there will be no going back. They simply cannot be rebuilt.

When one looks at the world map, one realizes that all colonized countries were created in European boardrooms.

On a simplistic organizational chart, institutions in the Third World may look the same as they looked when European colonizers departed, but without reliance on the rule of law, respect for individual rights, and a rational approach to problem solving — all foundational concepts propagated by the West. They have been swamped by tribalism, magical thinking, and arbitrary dogmas and rituals.

Without the foundation of rational, critical thinking, formal education merely burdens the mind. The result is that stress among the so-called educated people in the Third World is growing, and no wonder: formal education, unassimilated, can work only in narrow areas, where all you want is cogs that can do repetitive jobs in corner cubicles, without encouragement or reward for creativity. This is not a future-oriented environment; it is a merely pleasure-centric one, in which people become easy victims of cultural Marxism. Democratic politics devolved into the politics of anti-meritocratic mass rule, destroying any institutions of true self-government.

During my recent visit to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, a young Western girl working for a Western embassy told me that she once went out without her security force. The police stopped her car, and she was fortunate that her security arrived before the police could take her away. The negotiation between police and security was about how much it would take not to rape her. Rape is common in Papua New Guinea, as it is in the rest of the Third World; but because this was a girl working for the embassy, rapists would have had their bones broken the day after. But their bones would have been broken the day after, “too far in the future” to be of much concern.

Without institutions of liberty and protection of private property, financial and intellectual capital does not accumulate.

When one looks at the world map, one realizes that all colonized countries were created in European boardrooms. There was no country of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Congo, or even India before the arrival of Europeans. The people who now run these countries simply do not have the ability or impetus to manage such large societies. They have tribal mentalities, unable to process information outside the visible space. The rulers of modern tribes continuously increase the size of their bureaucracies, but this merely creates overcentralization, the ossification of institutions, and massive, though unseen, systemic risks. Of course, tribalism is irrational, and internecine rivalry a fact of existence that is experienced only on a moment-to-moment basis.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, most of sub-Saharan Africa had no written language and few tools, contrary to popular perception of a pre-colonial utopia. Warfare was the order of the day. Eating flesh and brains of an enemy killed in conflict was practiced from Papua New Guinea, to Africa, to the Americas. Cannibalism is not unknown even today. Contrary to politically correct versions of history, 19th-century colonization was a massive, sudden improvement for many colonized peoples, and a paradigm shifting event for the Third World.

Europeans of the 1940s clearly knew that if they left the Third World, entropy would rapidly ensue, the locals would fail to run their countries, and those countries would implode into tribal units. These wouldn’t be self-managed societies that libertarians dream of, but tribal ones afflicted with internecine warfare. That is indeed where the Third World is heading, and much of it has arrived.

Africa’s population is growing at a faster rate now than it was in 1950.

Without institutions of liberty and protection of private property, financial and intellectual capital does not accumulate. Indeed, the Third World actively destroys or dissipates any material benefit that accrue to it. This happens through war, overconsumption, expansion of the exploiting (ordinarily the governing) class, and the active destruction of capital that one sees in the crime, vandalism, riot, and other means of destroying property that characterize the Third World. Despite their extreme possessiveness, people who destroy the capital of other people fail to maintain their own. In many Third World cities, when there is a day of celebration it is easy to assume that it is the day when employees got their salaries — which disappear by the next morning, drunk away. Capital fails to be protected or accumulated; the rational structure of a productive, thrifty, and prudent culture is not there.

While people in the West are blamed for being materialistic, Third World people are often much more focused on their possessions. The great fleet of servants in India, who are destined to forever remain servants, may earn a mere $100 dollars or less a month, but must have the latest smartphone. For me it is impossible to comprehend how they pay their rent, buy food, and still have some money left to buy a phone; but I remind myself that actually they take loans to buy smartphones and are forever in debt.

And now — the population problem is becoming worse.

Consider Africa alone. Africa’s population in 1950 represented a mere 10% of the world population. By the end of this century Africa, the poorest continent, is predicted to have at least 40% of the world’s people. Africa’s population is growing at a faster rate now than it was in 1950. Given that this rate begins from a much higher base, Africa adds six times more people today than it did in 1950.

More important: in the Third World countries, population control has mostly happened within the relatively more educated, intellectually sophisticated part of society. In Northern India, to cite another example, the unstable, uneducated, chaotic, and backward part of the population is exploding in size. Southern India, which is relatively stable and better off, is falling in population.

With ease of mobility, segregation is picking up its pace. The economically best people of the Third World find it much easier to emigrate than to stay home and fight to make society better, or maintain it in its current state. In 2017 alone, 12% of Turkish millionaires and 16% of Venezuelan millionaires emigrated. So great has been the emigration from India that it is virtually impossible to find a decent plumber or electrician. Forget about finding a good doctor. In a survey, only 30% of Indian doctors could diagnose a simple ailment. Everywhere educated people move to cities, while the rest stay on in rural places. Segregation is real, leaving the underclass with a huge deficit in leaders.

There is also segregation by sector of the economy. As the private sector has evolved in the Third World, government institutions have increasingly become brain-dead, for the best brains now want to work for high salaries in the private sector, leaving state power in the hands of the worst brains. Naturally, people have become very stressed and unsure. As an emotional escape, superstitious rituals and religious-nationalism are increasing exponentially, contributing to the elevation of exploitive, sociopathic elements to positions of power.

Perhaps, payments made to people for having children must stop; instead people should get money not to have children.

It is possible that some parts of the Third World simply cannot be “governed.” A couple of years back I undertook what I consider the most dangerous trip of my life. I went to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on my own. Even for DRC, Goma is a lawless part. The Swedish police I was staying with told me one day that a pregnant woman had been raped, her fetus removed, cooked, and fed to other women of the tribe, who had all been raped. Listening to the stories of celebration of such brutalities in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa, I couldn’t but imagine what I would do if I were forced to run the DRC. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to bring it back to relative sanity without imposing the tyranny — for fear is the only restraint available in the absence of reason — for which Leopold II of Belgium is infamous.

This brings us to the terrible predicament of the Third World. Except for China, the countries of the Third World have failed to develop inner competencies and hence internal reasons to accumulate financial and intellectual capital. They have failed to maintain their institutions, which have continued to decay after the departure of European colonizers. The crumbs of economic benefits — the gifts of western technology — have been dissipated. What can be done? How would you deal with the predicament?

There is no hope unless the vast size of the underclass, who are statistically unable to participate economically, particularly in the age of AI, is reduced. Perhaps, payments made to people for having children must stop; instead people should get money not to have children. Even this first step can only happen if the Third World institutions are changed and rational leaders are imposed. But who will impose them?

The end result is obvious. With time — slowly and then rapidly — the Third World will continue to fall apart institutionally. The Third World will implode. This two-thirds of the world population will fall into tribes that, being irrational, will have no way to resolve disputes. They will enter a phase of neverending warfare, with other tribes and within their own tribes. If there is any surplus left, it will be dissipated through population growth and overconsumption. Ahead there is only entropy and a Malthusian future, mimicking the sad Malthusian equilibrium that existed before the colonizers came.




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