The Birth of a Nation

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On a clear and cool November morning, while accompanying my dog on our daily circuit of his considerable territory in this southern California suburb, I passed a house that had a flag hung above the garage door. It was at an angle, so I couldn’t see it very well, but then I got it: the Bear Flag, the official flag of California, which features a golden grizzly bear walking toward the left and, below the bear, the words “California Republic.” While it’s not unusual in this neighborhood to see the occasional American flag on display, this was the first time I’d seen the state flag being flown from a private residence, and it seemed odd.

What, I thought, is up with that?

* * *

Nestled snugly in the heart of Europe is 999 square miles of tidy, prosperous greenery called the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Surrounded by France, Belgium, and Germany, Luxembourg is a member of the European Parliament, where it enjoys the benefits of what mathematicians call degressive proportionality.

When considering the prospect of joining the EU, Luxembourgers had to face the possibility that their happy little land might just be swallowed whole.

In practical terms, this means that Luxembourg’s 540,000 or so people get six seats in the European Parliament, while the 80,000,000 or so Germans get 96. To be clear, that is roughly one seat for every 90,000 Luxembourgers and one for every 830,000 Germans. That’s right, each Luxembourger counts as more than nine Germans.

Why do the Germans put up with this? The unsurprising answer is self-interest.

When considering the prospect of joining the European Union, Luxembourgers had to face the possibility that their happy little land might just be swallowed whole. After all, any country that joins the EU, no matter how large, surrenders a hefty portion of its sovereignty and, given the Union’s immigration policies, invites substantial changes to its national culture and identity. For a small country like Luxembourg, joining up could mean disappearing down the maw of a supra-national leviathan forever, to put it colorfully.

If there were a strictly proportional European Parliament of 1,000 members, Luxembourg would get only one voice in the massive hall. This nightmarish scenario is probably what prompted the Duchy to ask for a few extra seats before they joined.

Although being in the EU is not without its costs, on balance, Germany benefits. It enjoys a tariff-free, nearly frictionless market of more than half a billion souls eager to buy German goods, a leading role in an effective collective counterweight to the power wielded by Russia, China, and the United States, and, after centuries of war and strife, relative peace and interdependent prosperity for an entire continent. A little degressive proportionality in the allotment of seats in the European Parliament must have seemed a trifle to pay for these considerable benefits.

And so, the compromise was made. Today, with something like 0.1% of the European Union population, Luxembourg gets 0.8% of the members of the European Parliament. It’s a pretty good deal, for Germans and Luxembourgers alike.

This nightmarish scenario is probably what prompted the Duchy to ask for a few extra seats before they joined.

Had the large countries not agreed to the compromise, the smaller countries probably would have stayed out, and the European Union as we know it would never have even been born.

* * *

The United States had arrived at a similar end by different means. By 1786, it was generally agreed that the Articles of Confederation, which gave equal weight to each state regardless of population, were not working well, so a federal convention was called to consider changes. The opening gavel came down in 1787 and the meeting soon morphed into the Constitutional Convention. The single most divisive issue was how to apportion power among the states. Things got a little heated.

On June 30, 1787, Gunning Bedford Jr., representing Delaware, made it clear that the less populous states were not going to be bullied into accepting strictly proportional representation in the central government, saying,

Will it be said that an inequality of power will not result from an inequality of votes. Give the opportunity, and ambition will not fail to abuse it. The whole History of mankind proves it . . . The Large States dare not dissolve the Confederation. If they do the small ones will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice.

When things cooled down a bit, Mr. Bedford clarified that he was not making a threat. In this context, the threat that he was not making might have been something like inviting, say, the redcoats to help Delaware defend itself against, say, Pennsylvania. The notes of the Convention for that day are here.

Mr. Bedford’s speech marked a turning point in the deliberations. The large states gave up the demand for strict proportionality and moved in the direction of a series of compromises that incorporated the views of the less populous states in the draft of the Constitution that was presented to the states for ratification.

* * *

Let us imagine two friends, John, from Delaware, and Paul, from Massachusetts, discussing these compromises in 1787.

John: I fear that Delaware’s interests would be brushed aside by the more populous States if it were to join this Union.

When things cooled down a bit, Mr. Gunning Bedford Jr. clarified that he was not making a threat.

Paul: There are provisions in the proposed Constitution that prevent the interests of the small States from being ignored or their powers from being unjustly encroached upon.

John: Such as?

Paul: To begin with, the legislature has been divided into two chambers: the House of Representatives, in which the States are allotted seats in proportion to their populations, and the Senate, in which each State is allotted two seats, regardless of population. Any law must be passed by a majority vote of both bodies, or, if the President refuses to sign, by a two-thirds vote of both bodies.

John: Are the two equal in other respects?

Paul: Not quite. Any proposal dealing with taxation and expenditures must originate in the House, though the Senate must still concur for it to become law. The Senate alone, however, votes to confirm the appointments that the President makes to the Supreme Court and, while the President may negotiate a treaty, two-thirds of the Senators must agree with it before it can be ratified.

John: These provisions certainly give the small States more say than their numbers alone would warrant, not only in the legislative branch, but also in the judicial branch, and in foreign affairs as well. The role of the President, however, seems crucial in this Constitution. Is the President to be elected by popular vote?

In all likelihood, if the large states had not agreed to these compromises, the small states would not have ratified the Constitution.

Paul: No. Each state is to choose Electors, equal in number to that of its Representatives and Senators combined. Those Electors will then meet in their respective States and vote for a President. The candidate who wins the majority of the Electors’ votes becomes the President.

John: So, because each state will be granted an Elector for each Senator, the less populous states will have a disproportionate say in who becomes the President?

Paul: Exactly.

John: All these provisions are reassuring, but what is to prevent the more populous States from simply changing the rules once this new government is formed?

Paul: The rules for amending the Constitution are a part of the document itself. There are two methods. Under the first, two-thirds of both the House and the Senate must agree to any proposed amendment; then, three-quarters of all the State legislatures must agree, by a majority vote in each, to that proposed amendment. Under the second method, Congress must call for an amending convention when asked to do so by two-thirds of the State legislatures. Then conventions in three-quarters of the States would have to agree to the proposed amendment for it to take effect. .

John: So, a significant number of the representatives of the less populous States would have to vote twice, using either method, to change the very rules that gave them a disproportionate say in the affairs of the country in the first place?

Paul: Just so.

John: Could the Supreme Court change these provisions and impose proportional representation?

Paul: Should Justices of the Supreme Court attempt such a direct misinterpretation of the proposed Constitution, they would certainly be impeached. The proposed Constitution stipulates that, in the event that a simple majority of the House votes for impeachment, the Senate can, with a two-thirds majority vote, remove a Supreme Court Justice from the bench. Besides, the Justices are to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, both of which would be selected under these very provisions. The likelihood that a majority of the justices so selected would share such a fundamental disagreement with these provisions is remote.

Each Wyomingite counts as more than three Californians, not only in the Congress, but in presidential elections as well.

John: I am persuaded. I shall support ratification. But I must ask: why would you want to ratify a Constitution that grants less power to Massachusetts than its relatively large population would otherwise seem to warrant?

Paul: Oh, I don’t know — to establish justice, I guess. To insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense, something like that. And being united would really promote the general welfare, don’t you think? And maybe even secure the blessings of liberty, that kind of thing.

John: All of which would benefit Delaware as well.

Paul: Indeed.

In all likelihood, if the large states had not agreed to these compromises, the small states would not have ratified the Constitution and the United States of America as we know it today would never have been born.

* * *

If you want to understand the modern consequences of the American version of degressive proportionality that Paul and John discussed, Wyoming is a good place to start. This large, landlocked rectangle perched on the arid high plains and mountains of the American West is sometimes called the Cowboy State. Its official sport is the rodeo.

Wyoming’s roughly 600,000 people have three members of Congress, one in the House and two in the Senate, while the 39,000,000 or so Californians have 55 members of Congress, 53 in the House and two in the Senate. So there is one member of Congress for every 200,000 Wyomingites, while there is one for every 700,000 Californians. Yes, each Wyomingite counts as more than three Californians, not only in the Congress, but in presidential elections as well. Remember those Electors?

Why do the Californians put up with this? Well, they may not.

* * *

It is often pointed out that in the presidential election of 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, while Donald Trump merely won the electoral vote and the presidency. While the results in overrepresented states such as Wyoming account for Trump’s electoral victory, to understand Clinton’s popular vote triumph you need only look at one state: California.

On December 8, the California Secretary of State reported that state’s votes as Clinton, 8,753,788, and Trump, 4,483,810, giving Clinton 4,269,978 more votes than Trump in California alone. Let me repeat that: alone.

If you leave California’s votes out of the tally, Trump won 1,436,758 more votes nationally than Clinton.

On December 16, 2016, CNN reported the national popular vote totals as Clinton, 65,788,583, and Trump, 62, 955,363, giving Clinton 2,833,220 more votes than Trump nationally.

According to these figures, Clinton won the popular vote in California by 1,436,758 more votes than those by which she won in the country as a whole. To put this in another way, if you leave California’s votes out of the tally, Trump won 1,436,758 more votes nationally than Clinton.

Yes, you read that right.

It may have been at the exact moment when these results were released that degressive proportionality became something up with which some Californians would no longer, to paraphrase Churchill, put. They realized for the first time that they did not really care for this Electoral College at all.

Which brings us back to the flag.

* * *

On June 14, 1846, a scruffy band of what might be called illegal American immigrants in Sonoma, California, then part of Mexico, frustrated by what they saw as unjust treatment at the hands California Governor José Castro, seized the commandante of the town, retired Mexican General Mariano Vallejo, and declared that California would henceforth be an independent country.

One of the rebels fashioned a primitive flag featuring a leftward walking bear, below which, in bold Roman letters, he wrote the name CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC. The banner was raised over the barracks in Sonoma, the makeshift headquarters of the Republic. And thus was brought forth upon this continent a new nation.

Yes California has expedited its efforts to make California independent again because the election of Mr. Trump has generated such enthusiasm for secession.

Less than a month later, the 150 or so men in the new country’s army were absorbed into the US Army, the Bear Flag was lowered, the Stars and Stripes were raised, and with that, the Bear Flag Revolt was over. Unbeknownst to the rebels, the United States had been at war with Mexico since May. At the war’s end, Mexico ceded California to the United States. A few years later, in 1850, without ever becoming a territory, California became a state.

* * *

On November 11, 2016, Marcus Evans, Vice President of the Yes California Independence Campaign, delivered a letter to the Office of the Attorney General of the State of California. The LA Times article about this is here. The letter asked that the appropriate preparations be made for an initiative that, if successful, would put before the voters a measure that, if successful, would begin the formal process of the secession of California from the United States of America. As the article makes clear, Yes California has expedited its efforts to make California independent again because the election of Mr. Trump has generated such enthusiasm for the project, which some are calling “Calexit,” after “Brexit.”

My flag-hoisting neighbor shares this enthusiasm.

If you’d like to help the Yes California Independence Campaign gather signatures to put their measure on the ballot, you can contact them here. Just remember that the last time there was a serious dispute over the prenuptial agreement called the constitution, it was South Carolina that began the divorce proceedings. It was settled out of court.

* * *

A parting thought. If we accept that our goal is not only to ensure that the “one person, one vote” rule is enforced but also to ensure that each vote is given equal weight, then we must also accept that there are more egregious violators of this rule than the European Union or the United States. Both those unions look like models of proportionality compared to the United Nations, where India is a back-bencher and France has the power to veto.

What to do?

First, propose to the General Assembly that the UN Charter be amended to ensure that representation in the UN is strictly proportional to population.

If the number is set at 10 million then Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and Norway, among others, would have to do without a seat.

There are about 7.5 billion of us now, so 750 representatives in the hall would mean one for every 10 million or so citizens. So far, so good. Let’s see: China would get 138 seats; India, 132; the US, 32; Russia, 14; Germany, 8; the UK, 7; France, 6; Canada, 4; Australia, 2; Belgium, 1; Portugal, 1; and Sweden, 0.

Wait. If the number is set at 10 million then Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and Norway, among others, would have to do without a seat. Just mill around at the back, I guess.

So, second, when the first proposal is rejected, the US Ambassador to the United Nations should submit a letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations asking him to make the necessary preparations for the United States of America to leave the United Nations, in the name of equity.

Can’t call it “Amexit” — sounds too much like a TV commercial. Mmmm. How about “Usexit?” No? What, then?




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Standing Athwart Trumpism

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For libertarians, the time for schadenfreude is past. Satisfying as it has been to watch Hillary Clinton’s fatuous hack brigade flail about trying to explain why the voting public failed to give their heroine her due, we should now be content to let her wander the woods and float through gatherings of fellow millionaires. Politically at least, she is now an ex-person.

In looking over the commentary produced since the election, I worry that many libertarians are both underestimating and misunderstanding the nature of the threat Trump poses. Make no mistake: Hillary Clinton would have been an awful president, rivaling and probably surpassing the past two administrations for overall harm to the nation. But: what we as a nation have elected instead is a very different proposition. Donald Trump has no core beliefs other than in his own all-encompassing competence, and he recognizes no authority other than the one beneath his gilded combover.

The sole hope coming out of the campaign was Trump’s sheer manic variability, which saw him contradicting himself not just from day to day, but sentence to sentence. It was possible—barely—to measure his egregiously awful statements on policing, trade, and civil liberties against others taking on bailed-out bankers and US military failures in the Middle East, and hope that there was a better side of his nature that might yet win out.

Make no mistake: Hillary Clinton would have been a horrid president, rivaling and probably surpassing the past two administrations for overall harm to the nation.

A month later, that fiction is no longer sustainable. Trump has made clear he will govern by drawing on the worst of both the establishment GOP and the fringier elements who have swarmed around his campaign: an unholy union first appearing in the naming of past RNC head Reince Preibus to be chief of staff, while placing Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon in the role of “chief counselor and White House strategist”—an equal position that is, crucially, not subject to congressional approval. In one stroke, Trump coopted the establishment, installing the empty-headed Preibus to repeat talking points at press briefings while leaving Bannon free to plot in the darkness. Further, the arrangement takes away another fleeting hope: Trump, who is fickle even by the standards of small children, is often swayed by the last person he talks to; Bannon will make sure that person is him.

In many Cabinet positions, Trump has selected nearly the worst conceivable candidate. Jeff Sessions will be a nightmare as Attorney General, instantly silencing the crucial conversation about policing, prisons, and communities that had, at long last, emerged in the past couple of years. Retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis (no, really) will be well positioned as Secretary of Defense to carry out the war with Iran that neocons have been lusting after for decades—especially with the megalomaniacal Michael Flynn as national security advisor, and John Bolton, the man more responsible than any other single person for lying us into the disastrous war in Iraq, as deputy secretary of state. Wilbur Ross and Steve Mnuchin as the secretaries of commerce and the Treasury, respectively, make sure the Wall Street welfare crowd keeps multiple seats at the table. And that’s not even to mention the grossly incompetent Rick Perry at Energy (a position generally held by, you know, an actual scientist), the ill-suited Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development, the hopelessly compromised Andrew Pudzer at Labor and Betsy DeVos at Education, and the rumored but not yet confirmed Larry Kudlow as White House economist—you remember, the guy who insisted there was no economic bubble in 2008, right at the exact moment of its popping.

Trump, who is fickle even by the standards of small children, is often swayed by the last person he talks to; Steve Bannon will make sure that person is him.

Before even entering office, Trump has already caused an international incident, taking a call from the president of Taiwan. Though it appears he was gulled into it by, among others, Bob Dole (a paid lobbyist for Taiwan now for years), it’s of a piece with Trump’s inexplicable need to provoke China. The world economy right now is a thin layer of trade stretched over an enormous gulf of debt; Trump’s Smoot-Hawleyesque tariff plans would be just the thing to turn the coming post-Obama recession into a new Depression—and, in China, he has a perfect scapegoat for why his own economic plans (which, to judge from the whole Carrier incident, involve personally picking winners and losers) won’t do anything to fix it.

Trade war with China is only one of the many scenarios that Trump could blunder into that would lead to global conflict—there’s the entire Middle East, obviously, with special reference to either Iran or Syria; there’s Kashmir and the perpetual threat of Indian-Pakistani nuclear war; there’s Ukraine and Turkey and the limits of NATO—so many Archdukes, and all it takes is one bullet. Trump’s Twitter feed reveals a man fundamentally incapable of patience, diplomacy, or measured contemplation, a man so thin-skinned he’d be translucent if it weren’t for the fake tan. If even the tiniest of trolls can get his dander up, how will he respond when actual substantive criticism comes? To what lengths will Trump go to assert his authority?

Within the structure of the federal government as presently constituted, there are no effective checks on his power to do so. President Hillary would have broken the law, and egregiously so, but as with her emails she would have recognized that what she was doing was wrong and made an incompetent effort to cover it up. Trump’s illegal acts will occur in the open, as they have for decades; he will dare anyone to stop him, knowing that once he’s in power there really isn’t anyone who will.

The Democrats won’t: as they’ve proven time and again, they love power too much to allow it to dissipate. Obama had the chance to dismantle the post-9/11 security and surveillance state; he chose instead to ramp up both, prosecuting whistleblowers and leakers with a ferocity never before seen while wasting all his political capital on the narcissistic quest to get an already-disintegrating health plan passed. The 2020 hopefuls—be it odious busybody Elizabeth Warren, discount-store Obama knockoff Cory Booker, nepotism case-study Andrew Cuomo, or any other—will want to preserve whatever they can of the imperial presidency out of the belief, growing inexplicably stronger each time it is shown to be misguided, that they can fix everything on their next Oval Office turn.

Within the structure of the federal government as presently constituted, there are no effective checks on Trump's power to assert his authority.

The Republicans won’t either: for all the supposed “Never Trump” energy, they’ve all more or less fallen into line, accepting their ritual humiliations as the price for pushing their own agendas—just look at how Mike Pence flipped his economic views basically overnight once he saw the chance to take his social pathologies to a bigger stage. Even Paul Ryan, who remains near to power and could at least see principles on a clear day, has muted his opposition. The few exceptions, such as Sen. Rand Paul (who says he will lead the fight against Bolton) and Rep. Justin Amash, are isolated and ripe for the purge. It’s Trump’s party now.

And, of course, the establishment media won’t: as shown by their profiles of intellectual lightweights like the white nationalist Richard Spencer, all their supposed resistance will go out the door the second that fascism slicks back its hair and dons an off-the-rack suit. The media prizes respectability and access above any other principle; watch in the coming months how much attention CNN and the networks give to Trump’s lack of briefings and press conferences, versus how much they cover the deployment of the planned DHS police state, or the surveillance of Muslim communities.

Who, then? It doesn’t leave much, but it does leave us—as well as some groups that we might not be accustomed to pairing up with, but will have to if we’re going to survive this administration. Charts and statistics and lectures about sound economic theory didn’t cut it during the campaign, and they won’t cut it after the inauguration, either. We will need to remember how to protest; we will need to learn how to organize—not just in the comfort of our homes, or in the safe spaces of digital discussion, but in the streets and, if it comes to it, on the ramparts as well.

There is a tremendous opportunity here: if libertarians not only stick to their principles but demonstrate them at every turn, there is the chance to prove that libertarianism is not about protecting the powerful and the authorities, but rather providing the powerless the authority to live their own lives as they see fit. But balanced against this is an equally terrible prospect: if libertarians fail, either by cooption or purity testing or internecine squabbling, they will be subsumed—and there will be no coming back.



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Castro Agonistes

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“You know you’re speaking to a dead man.”
                                                                      —Fidel Castro talking to Cuban artist Kcho

Fidel (Hipólito Casiano) Alejandro Castro Ruz died on November 25. He was born on August 13, 1926 on his father’s sugar plantation in Biran, near Mayari, in what was then Oriente Province, Cuba.

When it came to Latin dictators, he was second to none, ruling autocratically for over 56 years (if you count the time he shadowed Raul after formally retiring); longer than Porfirio Diaz, Alfredo Stroessner, Anastasio Somoza, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Rafael Trujillo, and Francisco Franco. However, as a murderous dictator, he was definitely second-class. He eliminated nowhere near as many as the 20th century’s truly heavy hitters, Mao Tse-tung (70 million), Joseph Stalin (40 million), Adolf Hitler (depends on how they’re tallied), Pol Pot (2 million) — or a slew of other, lesser killers. He did, however, kill more people than Augusto Pinochet.

Castro’s kill tally has always been a bit uncertain and somewhat controversial. Nonetheless, the late Dr. Armando Lago, a Cuban economist, attempted to document all deaths attributed to Castro in what he called the Cuban Archive Project. In it, Dr. Lago distinguished two major categories: #1, those directly killed by the regime, and #2; those whose deaths were an indirect consequence of Castro’s power. The majority of category #2 cases are mostly collateral damage from Fidel’s foreign adventures in places such as El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, etc.

When it came to Latin dictators, he was second to none, ruling autocratically for over 56 years. However, as a murderous dictator, he was definitely second-class.

To be counted in the first category, as one directly killed by the Castro regime, each candidate victim must have a name and address and have his death corroborated by two independent sources. This category includes people executed with or without a trial, those killed in prison directly or by premeditated neglect, uncooperative campesinos summarily executed during the revolution, counter-revolutionaries killed in battle after the revolution, balseros murdered adrift while attempting to leave Cuba, and a few other unfortunate souls in various other categories.

Notably, the first category also includes Cuban soldiers — both conscripts and volunteers — killed in combat abroad, mostly in Angola and Ethiopia. Dr. Lago’s tally of deaths directly attributed to Castro tops 115,000, with the balseros alone constituting over 60% of the killed, and about 5,000 casualties of the Angolan intervention. With such stringent criteria, there are doubtless more. Bear in mind that as a percentage of Cuba’s modest population, 115,000 is a notable plus or minus 2%. Dr. Lago’s second category tally tops 500,000.

* * *

Like most absolute dictators, Castro lived his life as if the world revolved around him. He kept his own idiosyncratic hours, rising late and pursuing the business of state long after midnight and well into the dawn. He’d summon underlings peremptorily at all hours of the night for orders, consultations, or dressing-downs, and keep journalists and visitors waiting indefinitely for promised interviews.

Castro’s kill tally has always been a bit uncertain and somewhat controversial.

Though loath to admit it, he had much in common with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. At the time Fidel was born, Cuba had been independent of Spain for only 25 years. In fact, Castro’s father, Angel Castro, had been a young Spanish soldier stationed in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. After Spain’s defeat, he decided to stay and try his hand at growing sugarcane in the newly US-controlled island. Although he was illiterate, it didn’t take long for the ambitious and enterprising Castro père to acquire vast tracts of land through a combination of extreme luck — he won Cuba’s biggest lottery jackpot twice — and thrift.

In Cuba, all families retained strong atavistic links to the Old World regions from which they hailed: European descendants to their home provinces and African descendants to their tribes. These took the form of clubs or associations that met often to promote old regional ties and values. Fidel’s father hailed from Galicia, the old Celtic province on the northwest coast of Spain fronting the Bay of Biscay. Galicians still play their bagpipes. (Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s inscrutable conservative prime minister, is also Galician.)

Franco too was Galician. Both were very gallego: bull-headed and inflexible, with a dedication to idealism, whatever the stripe. Vain, reserved and austere, with strong characters and personality, neither Francisco Franco nor Angel Castro had a well-developed sense of humor.

Jose Ignacio Rasco, a classmate of many years, says, “(He’s) completely lacking in a sense of humor. [He] doesn’t know how to laugh at himself. A solemn gravity is his ordinary conversational tone. [He’s] uncomfortable with small talk during which he’s given to hyperbole and suspense . . . and lying.” What little sense of humor Castro possessed was forced out at the conclusion of the Elian Gonzales saga when Fidel hosted a public conference to reflect on the event and its meaning. On the way to the podium he stumbled and fell. The audience froze. Fortunately, little Elian saved the day. When the boy started giggling, Castro loosened up and the participants thawed. Some almost laughed.

Fidel’s vanity was a strong, albeit eccentric undercurrent of his demeanor. His own best PR man, he was obsessed with his image and, by extension, the Revolution’s. In public he was always meticulously outfitted in handmade black leather boots, impeccable olive green rebel fatigues, or, in recent years, a tailored business suit. After the Revolution, he never shaved his beard — it had become a symbol of everything he stood for. However, he had no interest in finery, jewelry, or elegance — though he ate well — or the acquisition of things; and he forbade any visible signs of a personality cult, such as statues of himself or the naming of streets or plazas after him.

On the other hand, in his private person, he was not just unshaven but usually unwashed and unkempt. Before coming to power he often insisted that close family members cut his nails and attend to his laundry. Fidel’s vanity, when coupled with his humorlessness, would become a contributing factor in his own death (as I will discuss below), and more than his own death: it cost General Arnaldo Ochoa his life.

He had no interest in finery, jewelry, elegance, or the acquisition of things; he forbade any visible signs of a personality cult, such as statues of himself or the naming of streets or plazas after him.

Ochoa was a hero of the Revolution, the African wars, and many of the Latin American interventions. An easygoing and irreverent Afro-Cuban — affectionately known as “el negro” — he rose to prominence from humble origins. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, heir apparent, head of the armed forces, and the brains behind Cuba’s economic survival after the loss of Soviet subsidies, depended on Ochoa as an uninhibited sounding board. He was Raul’s best friend and drinking buddy. At the time of his death, Ochoa was arguably the third most popular man in Cuba.

On a fishing trip with el maximo lider, Ochoa crassly joked about Fidel’s unflattering swimming trunks. It was the beginning of Ochoa’s downfall. In a severe test of his brother’s loyalty, Fidel insisted that the popular general be court-martialed on trumped-up drug charges. Convicted, he was subsequently executed before a firing squad. When Raul faced Cuba’s military elite to justify and make sense of the brutal murder, he was visibly distraught. He wore a bulletproof vest and helmet. Halfway through, he broke into tears. Many suspect he was drunk — a not uncommon condition for him.

The opposite of his brother Raul, Fidel seldom drank or socialized in groups. He had a deep-seated drive to control all situations and always be the center of attention. In some ways Fidel was much more gallego than Cuban. The suspicion lingers that he had absolutely no sense of rhythm as no one ever saw him dance, beat time to music, sing, or hum along with a tune. Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, Castro’s personal bodyguard of 17 years, says in his book, The Double Life of Fidel Castro, that Fidel couldn’t dance and had no interest in music.

Castro’s anger was cold and withdrawn. In those 17 years, Sanchez saw him lose his temper only twice. When his daughter Alina defected, “Fidel went mad with rage . . . [H]is gestures resembled those of a capricious child in the middle of a tantrum: standing up, he stamped his feet on the ground while pointing his two index fingers down to his toes and waving them around.” The second time was when his mother-in-law — a dedicated tippler, bon vivant, and accomplice to one of Fidel’s wife’s infidelities — finished off a bottle of his favorite scotch.

Like Franco, Castro was not particularly out for personal gain, nor could he be characterized as a cynic. So when Forbes magazine alleged that his Swiss bank accounts made him one of the world’s richest men, it hit a nerve like nothing else, except being called a caudillo, the Spanish term for Führer — usually reserved only for Franco. On a fairly recent visit that Castro paid to Spain, the Galician premier suggested that Fidel, when he “retired,” should consider living out his last years in Galicia. Fidel studiously ignored the suggestion. But like Franco, he admired autarky. One of his very first edicts, on Christmas of 1959, was to outlaw imported Christmas trees, suggesting that palm trees ought to grace the holiday.

The suspicion lingers that he had absolutely no sense of rhythm as no one ever saw him dance, beat time to music, sing, or hum along with a tune.

Franco, like Fidel, died after a prolonged illness of the gut. Their illnesses and deaths were clouded by much rumor and speculation, because many thought their regimes’ survival depended on their own survival. Contrary to irresponsible rumors, both men are still dead. As to Castro’s regime, it’s on life support.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s ideological journey began at La Salle, the Catholic Christian Brothers’ primary school he attended, with the inculcation of boilerplate catechism, the virtues of sacrifice, and a strong empathy for the poor. Afterward, in high school, the Jesuits added an intellectual dialectic that probably undermined his religious faith — though he still retains a soft spot for liberation theology. As a child growing up in the sugarcane plantations of Oriente, he was struck by the disparities between the US-owned sugar refineries and the kowtowing of the local producers to their sometimes arrogant whims, including arbitrary price fixing and social segregation. When he learned how the American refiners entrenched themselves — during the turmoil of the US occupation after the Cuban War of Independence and the Spanish-American War — about the shabby treatment meted out to Cuba’s independence rebels by the American expeditionary forces during and after that conflict, and about the imposition of the Platt Amendment (whereby the US Congress retained the right to veto Cuba’s foreign policy), he developed a strong anti-US and anti-imperialist streak.

At the university, attaining power for its own sake became his main focus, according to his sister Juanita and many other sources. Initially, ideology was irrelevant as long as it fitted his temperament — radical, action-centered, and decisive — so he shunned the moderate center and gravitated toward political extremes. At the time this meant gun-toting, gangsterish fringe groups — not uncommon in Cuba’s then-claustrophobic political milieu — such as the Revolutionary Insurrectional Union, which he duly joined.

He admired men of action, particularly Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Lenin. During his first years in law school, he was drawn to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera’s Spanish Falangism, the ideology behind Francisco Franco’s movement. Padre Llorente, one of Fidel’s teachers at Belen, later recalled breaking into spontaneous, rousing choruses of Cara al Sol, the Falangist anthem, with the young Castro. A bit later, he came to admire Benito Mussolini’s Fascism.

In 1948 General Fulgencio Batista, who had ruled Cuba in one form or another from 1933 to 1944, returned from his self-imposed US exile. Castro finagled an introduction to the strongman from his new brother-in-law, Rafael Diaz-Balart, who had become a prominent member of Batista’s inner circle. Overstepping every boundary of propriety, Fidel insinuated himself into a tête-à-tête with the ex-president and tried to convince the man to launch a coup d’état. His presumption was rebuffed in the iciest of terms.

Ideology was irrelevant as long as it fitted his temperament — radical, action-centered, and decisive — so he shunned the moderate center and gravitated toward political extremes.

So Castro moved to the center, joining the progressive, reformist Orthodox Party later that same year. Unfortunately, he was constitutionally incapable of working as a member of a team and was distrusted by the party’s ruling elite, who thought him an unprincipled gangster. Still, he decided to run for the lower house of Congress in the 1952 elections.

Unwilling to subject himself to the messy business of Cuban political sausage-making, Batista did in fact launch a coup in 1952, seizing power and canceling the elections. Fidel would probably have won his seat in Congress, but by then he’d lost all confidence in the democratic process, particularly as it was practiced in Cuba.

Exactly when Castro became a Communist has been a point of contention ever since the triumph of the Revolution. The fact that he actually never joined the party before seizing power and always kept his ideological cards close to his chest so as not to imperil his chances complicates the issue. During his congressional campaign Fidel used Raul as his intermediary with Communist Party members, who backed him but whose public support would have been detrimental. In a 1975 interview, Raul Castro confirms that it was Fidel who first introduced him to Marxism, back in 1951 when Fidel had given him Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Raul read it twice and experienced something of a Pauline conversion.

In early 1953 Fidel sent Raul to a Kremlin-sponsored international youth conference in Vienna. Raul made quite an impression, particularly on Nikolai Leonov, a young KGB operative, who befriended the Cuban. Leonov later went on to become the KGB’s top Latin America specialist. After the conference, Raul was invited to spend a month in Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

Later on, while in prison after their first botched attempt to seize power, both brothers took advantage of their enforced respite to deepen their understanding of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, reading, among other works, Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. In a December 2, 1961 speech Fidel Castro declared that he was already a Marxist when he launched his coup on July 26, 1953 by attacking the Moncada army barracks: "Various people have asked me whether back during the Moncada thing I thought then the way I think now. I've told them: 'I thought then very similarly to the way I think now. On that date, my revolutionary thinking was completely formed.’ What's more, I believed absolutely in Marxism back on January first [of that year]" (emphasis Castro's). Ideologically, if not through actual party membership, Fidel Castro had been a communist for a decade before the triumph of the Revolution.

Exactly when Castro became a Communist has been a point of contention ever since the triumph of the Revolution.

President Dwight Eisenhower was well aware of Castro’s ideology and ordered the CIA to overthrow him — a project bumblingly attempted with hired Mafia hitmen, exploding cigars, and other Rube Goldberg expedients. John F. Kennedy, when he became president, continued the operation, by then codenamed Mongoose. Between 1961 and the time of Kennedy’s assassination, there were eight separate CIA attempts on Castro — if you don’t count the one by the unlikely troika of the exiled Batista, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo (whom Castro had once tried to overthrow), and Jimmy Hoffa, who may have been helping out mob friends fearful that Castro would close their Cuban operations. Instead of eliminating the problem, the attempts became high-caliber ammunition in the increasingly serious propaganda war developing between Cuba and the US.

* * *

Fidel Castro loved adulation and power and wallowed in their perks. As a leader of men, he was second to none, being able to inspire and cajole nearly anyone into anything. Though he was perceived as having the gift of gab, this was a talent he studiously developed in his years at Belen, one of Cuba’s best Jesuit high schools. There he joined the forensic society and practiced his diction, delivery, and organization of thoughts interminably — in private and before a mirror. He had to. Growing up on a sugarcane plantation in the province of Oriente, he spoke a colorful guajiro vernacular, the Cuban equivalent of the backwoods Arkansas hillbilly dialect. Later, his ability to switch back and forth between the colloquial and the educated became a potent rhetorical device that forged a deep connection with his fellow Cubans.

It is no exaggeration to say that he has spoken more words on the public record than any political leader in history. He could hold audiences rapt for hours, Führer-style. Even those who hated him would tune in for his hours-long harangues. During his first 25 years in power he delivered over 2,500 formal speeches — that’s two per week, every week. The longest on record, in January 1968, was 12 hours long — fortunately, with an intermission. He still holds the record for the longest speech — at four-and-a-half hours — ever delivered at the United Nations. “As you may well know,” he said in November 1993, “my job is to talk.”

Fidel was a “big picture” man. He could size up a man or a situation in seconds, and strategize many moves ahead in nearly any circumstance. As a political strategist and propagandist he was unequalled. But as a tactician and organizer, he was a disaster.

Between 1961 and the time of Kennedy’s assassination, there were eight separate CIA attempts on Castro's life.

When he stepped onto the pages of history on July 26, 1953 with his attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago, he tripped. Never mind that Batista had been in power for only one year and that, in Marxist terms, a “revolutionary situation” just did not exist. This first attempt to overthrow President Fulgencio Batista proved suicidal for most of the participants. Not only did they meet stiff resistance (which Castro should have expected), but all his planning had been little more than careless wishful thinking coupled with impromptu expediency (some rebels even had to ride public buses to the assault). One participant remembers Castro running around screaming hysterically, shouting orders that made no sense. Pure luck saved him. Those who weren’t killed in the strike were soon rounded up and shot in cold blood by the soldiers. A few, such as Fidel and his brother, lay low for a few days and then turned themselves in after pleas for clemency from well-connected family members made surrender a possibility.

The survivors were tried in a civil tribunal. At the trial, Castro acted as his own lawyer and summed up his defense with what would later become his most famous speech, “History will absolve me.” A sympathetic judge, Manuel Urrutia Lleo, voted for leniency. (Castro was grateful and later appointed Urrutia Provisional President after the triumph of the Revolution; he lasted only six months.) The Castro brothers were sentenced to life imprisonment on the Isle of Pines.

Fidel described his incarceration as a “necessary and welcome vacation.” In a letter home he wondered “how much longer we’re going to be in this paradise” and compared the accommodations to those of the Hotel Nacional, Cuba’s premier luxury hotel and, later, the residence of El Maximo Lider. Compared to the prison conditions his regime would impose, the Isle of Pines was a Caribbean vacation. Castro was allowed twice-monthly visits, including the conjugal sort. His cell bordered a large patio and remained open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. He was never subject to roll calls or regimentation and could rise or retire at will. The prison had a well-stocked market where Fidel, the gourmand, could buy delicacies and prepare them in his kitchen; alternatively, he could enjoy a fine meal at the small prison restaurant. He wrote home, “I take two baths a day due to the heat . . . [L]ater in the small restaurant available, I dine on calamari and pasta, Italian bonbons, fresh drip coffee and an H. Upmann #4 cigar.”

But prison wasn’t all vacation. Castro read voraciously, contributing many tomes to the Raul Gomez Garcia prison library, and ran classes for fellow inmates at the “Abel Santamaria Ideological Academy,” both of which he founded and maintained.

Two years later, again following pleas for clemency from his sympathizers — but over the strenuous objections of his ex-brother-in-law, Rafael Diaz-Balart, who knew him well and was a member of Congress — President Batista pardoned Fidel Castro. He and a handful of men left for Mexico to regroup and train to return to conquer Cuba.

Eric Shipton, the great British mountaineer, once said that if a man couldn’t organize an expedition on the back of an envelope, he wasn’t up to the task. Fidel seemed to belong to the back-of-the-envelope-expedition-planning school, but he was no Shipton. Though somewhat of a mountaineer, he was decidedly no sailor, and, as the disastrous Moncada attack had shown, he was thoroughly out of his element when faced with detailed and complex planning. When he finally set out to invade Cuba, he nearly trumped his Moncada failure.

On November 24, 1956, Fidel Castro launched from the Mexican port of Tuxpan with 82 men (many again arriving via public bus) aboard the critically overloaded 60-foot yacht Granma. They sailed with barely enough food, water, and fuel to reach Cuba; without medicine, charts, maps, or navigational aids (except for the built-in compass); and in the face of gale-force winds at the tail end of the Caribbean hurricane season. Blown off course, their landfall was a deliverance but also a total mystery — no one knew whether they’d landed in Jamaica or Cuba.

One participant remembers Castro running around screaming hysterically, shouting orders that made no sense. Pure luck saved him.

The men waded through chest-deep water and came ashore in a swamp whose tangled vegetation lacerated them. Solid ground was no reprieve. Batista’s air force and troops had been tipped off. They surrounded the men in a canefield and slaughtered all but a dozen, reporting back that Castro had been killed and his entire band wiped out.

What little equipment Fidel had brought on board was lost in the confusion of the disastrous landing. Miraculously, the surviving dozen were able to make their way deep into Oriente province’s Sierra Maestra Mountains to regroup and heal their wounds — including Guevara’s shot in the neck. In less than a month the Rebel Army was reduced to nine men. Luckily, no one was looking for them.

The disastrous voyage must have precipitated a massive depression in Castro, for it led to the realization that he was an organizational and management failure — no easy thing for Fidel to admit. So he promoted his brother Raul to captain just before landfall. This proved to be the best decision he ever made. Ironically, Fidel’s principal weaknesses as a leader were his brother’s greatest strengths. Raul would later rise to become the tactical mastermind not only of the conquest of the island but also of the remarkably successful Angolan and Ethiopian military interventions and, finally, of Cuba’s economic salvation when the Soviet Union imploded.

During the two-year-long insurrection, Fidel Castro remained in the Sierra Maestra strategizing and propagandizing, while Raul coordinated, organized, and managed the details of the revolution. Field Commanders Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos advanced, fought the battles, and won the victories. But they also had outside help.

At the time, Castro’s 26th of July Movement was not the only armed resistance to Batista, but it was the key one. Alongside it, the Students’ Revolutionary Directory organized urban hits, while the Escambray Front and Second Escambray Front both waged guerrilla war from the Escambray Mountains in Camaguey province near the center of the island.

Blown off course, their landfall was a deliverance but also a total mystery — no one knew whether they’d landed in Jamaica or Cuba.

On New Year’s Day 1959, Santa Clara, the capital of Las Villas province, fell to a rebel pincer movement coordinated with the combined forces of the Escambray Fronts. One thousand demoralized government troops surrendered. The following day, Guevara and Cienfuegos, at the head of their victorious armies, entered Havana. The capital went wild. But Batista had already fled on New Year’s Eve; and Fidel, ever the showman, delayed his triumphant entry until January 8. Then the world went wild.

The two-year war had been relatively bloodless, with only 867 casualties on both sides. But Castro soon made up for it with firing squads. As Grayston Lynch, one of two CIA operatives present in the Bay of Pigs invasion, states, “In the first three months of his regime, Castro topped the 867 figure with room to spare. More than 5,000 Cubans would meet their death at the paredon, the firing wall.”

* * *

Fidel’s family tree is messily complex. He himself was not the son of his father’s wife, Maria Luisa Argota, but rather of his father’s 19-year-old live-in lover, Lina Ruz — Angel Castro and Maria having separated years before and taken up new mates. At the time, both in Cuba and in Spain, illegitimacy was a harsh burden, branded on the offspring with the mother’s surname instead of the father’s. Castro’s father did not marry Lina Ruz until the boy turned 17, at which time he became Fidel Castro instead of Fidel Ruz. He would forevermore hold social conventions in contempt. Fidel had six full brothers and sisters — in order, Angelita, Ramon, Fidel, Raul, Juanita, Enma, and Agustina — and two siblings from his father’s first wife: Lidia and Pedro Emilio.

Initially, Angel Castro spent little time with Fidel, foisting him off on Haitian tutors in far-off Santiago at the age of four to begin his proper education. At the time, he was much too busy managing the family ranch, and he believed, as was common then, in the benefits of a boarding school experience. Fidel hated it, complaining that “these people don’t care for us, they don’t feed us, we’re always hungry, the house is very ugly, the woman is lazy and we’re just wasting time here.” Much later — perhaps out of guilt or regret — Fidel became his father’s favorite son and was spoiled rotten by him. Like many overindulged children, Fidel bullied younger playmates and threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way. He was a bad loser.

On the one hand, Angel Castro wanted, more than anything else, for at least one son — Fidel — to achieve a university education. On the other hand, Fidel lacked his family’s entrepreneurial bent and showed no inclination toward or talent for earning an honest living. The boy was a brilliant dilettante. So, Angel provided money and powerful contacts to his son well into adulthood. Nonetheless, father-son dynamics played out their strange minuet with, at best, Fidel becoming ambivalent about his father and, at worst, deploring him. Juanita Castro, in her memoirs, quotes Fidel as saying, at news of their father’s death, “There’s no time for mourning; we need to prepare for worse things,” while both Ramon and Raul wept unselfconsciously.

Promoting his brother Raul to captain proved to be the best decision Castro ever made. Fidel’s principal weaknesses as a leader were his brother’s greatest strengths.

There were many reasons for the ambivalence. Fidel and his father both shared similar, very gallego personalities, which clashed. Both had an inflexible drive to dominate, untempered by any vestige of wit. And both had a strong sense of social justice, which nonetheless led them to clash ideologically. Angel’s was more noblesse oblige, while Fidel rejected what he perceived as rightful entitlements dependent on the charitable whims of any one man. The Castro compound in Biran just wasn’t big enough for both egos. Finally, Fidel, the ultra-nationalist Cuban chauvinist who would rise to avenge all the injustices — real and imagined — that were ever imposed on the Pearl of the Antilles, couldn’t stomach the fact that his father had fought against Cuban independence, never regretted it, and didn’t become a Cuban citizen until 1941, at the ripe old age of 66.

Playing no favorites and exercising his inflexible streak of dogmatism, Fidel confiscated all the Castro family lands after the Revolution (though he warned his family to sell their herd before the Agrarian Reform edict went into effect).

Castro’s middle names are both revealing and a source of controversy. The first, Hipolito, was given by the Haitian foster family under whose care he lived while attending grammar school in Santiago de Cuba, Oriente. As more-or-less godparents, they had the privilege of conferring a middle name. No one knows the origin of Casiano. The only source for the name is a Cuban government secondary school diploma issued in September 1945. Alejandro, on the other hand, is self-endowed, a tribute to Alexander the Great, one of Fidel’s long-time heroes. It replaced Hipolito and Casiano; and became the given name for three of his sons: Alexis, Alejandro, and Alex.

Castro’s family name speaks volumes. The word comes from the Latin castrum, meaning castle. In Asturias and Galicia whence it originates as a family name, it refers to a pre-Roman fortified hill site — one that has stood its ground interminably. Fidel, of course, is from the Latin for loyal.

Fidel’s love life was even more Byzantine. In 1948 he married his teenage sweetheart, Mirta Diaz-Balart, a woman whose family were intimates of Fulgencio Batista and whose brother would soon become a minister in his government. Flush with a $10,000 gift from his dad, Fidel bought a blue Lincoln, shipped it to Miami and drove to New York for their honeymoon. They had one son, Fidelito. But differences — in aspirations, in politics, in families, and in fidelity (in spite of his name, Fidel was el maximo philanderer, being nicknamed El Caballo — The Stallion — by Benny Moré, the popular entertainer [by contrast, Batista was a dedicated family man]) — soon undermined the marriage. He didn’t marry again until 1980; but the number of his affairs and assignations rivaled the length of his speeches.

In his Sierra Maestra redoubt he took up with Celia Sanchez, the woman who would later become what Juanita Castro described as “the right hand, left hand, both feet and beard of Fidel.” Meanwhile, at the triumph of the Revolution, Castro wallowed in female adoration. Yanez Pelletier, a confidante who’d once saved him in prison from poisoning, became his procurer. He was known as “minister of the bedroom,” a nickname coined by Raul. When Pelletier fell from grace, Celia Sanchez became his intimate executive secretary, moving into Fidel’s quarters with him. Though now severely circumscribed, the assignations still continued. When Celia Sanchez died in 1980, Fidel was bereft.

Fidel couldn’t stomach the fact that his father had fought against Cuban independence, never regretted it, and didn’t become a Cuban citizen until the ripe old age of 66.

Still, less than a week after her death, he married Dalia Soto del Valle, the mystery woman with whom Fidel had shared his life since 1961. As if reinforcing the myth that the Revolution was his only mistress, Castro imposed such a low profile on her that Brian Lattell, a CIA analyst, says that “[she] and her sons might as well have been consigned to a witness protection program, so elaborate are the security precautions that surround them”. She never attended any of his public appearances (unless in disguise) and did not accompany him on official functions, diplomatic receptions, or foreign trips. During the latter, his mistresses included Juana Vera, “Pili” Pilar — both interpreters — and Gladys, a Cubana airline flight attendant. All told, at least five different liaisons, relationships, and marriages produced nine to twelve children. He was coy about it. Asked in 1993 how many children he had, Castro replied, “Less than a dozen . . . I think.” (Wikipedia and Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, his bodyguard, tally nine and ten, respectively.) Like their mothers and his siblings, some are with him, some are against him, and some have come to terms with the status quo.

* * *

Fidel Castro couldn’t really be characterized as a psycho- or sociopath, though he had a well-developed sense of vengefulness. And he wasn’t all-consumed by the suspicious mistrust and cruelty that absorbed Stalin and Mao. Unlike most of the other 20th-century tyrants, he was tall, athletic, and handsome. His Jesuit education and law degree inspired a thoughtful, intellectual sophistry that made him an absorbing confabulator, gifted with a glib tongue. But the world didn’t see this side during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Instead it saw an aggrieved adolescent. Fidel Castro had a streak of brinksmanship, an uncontrollable desire to “play chicken,” come what may. Jose Rasco recounts an episode of the young Fidel making a bet with a classmate, Luis Juncadella, that “he [Castro] was capable of crashing, head first, on a bicycle at full speed, against a concrete wall in full view of the entire school. And he did it, at the cost of cracking his head and ending up unconscious in the infirmary.”

Arnaldo Aguila, a recent biographer, gives this analysis:

Right here, from his youngest years, Fidel’s personality all comes together: an illegitimate social origin; an authoritarian father, brusque and of strong character, hard, without affection, indifferent; an excellent physical constitution that permits him to best others easily; a memory so outside the norm that no other student comes even close and an egoistical self-denial that impels him against every type of wall (including social impediments and Yankee Imperialism) coupled with a deep-seated passion to excel, to make bets to demonstrate that he can realize what others won’t even attempt, that he’s better than everyone else, perhaps to impress/defeat his father.

When Nikita Khrushchev provided China with nuclear weapons technology and missiles in the late 1950s, he was unaware of Mao’s absolute disdain for human life. He assumed that Mao’s long relationship with the USSR made him trustworthy. He soon learned otherwise and, by 1960, withdrew all technical nuclear assistance to China.

Two years later, when Castro requested nuclear missiles, Khrushchev jumped at the opportunity. But burned once, he didn’t fully trust Fidel (despite his name). So he complied only on condition that the Soviet Union retain absolute control over them. Though Castro agreed, it infuriated him. That fury was further aggravated when he was left out of the Kennedy-Khrushchev negotiations and subsequent missile removal that defused the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Castro had a streak of brinksmanship, an uncontrollable desire to “play chicken,” come what may.

The Missile Crisis was precipitated by the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in mid-October of that year and by President Kennedy’s ultimatum that they be removed. The crisis consisted of the threat that failure to do so would precipitate armed attack. In anticipation, the US mobilized the navy to blockade the island. On October 26 Castro informed Khrushchev that “the Soviet Union ought never to permit circumstances in which the imperialists could launch a first nuclear strike…and that if they invade Cuba that would be the moment to eliminate forever such a danger — no matter how hard and terrible that solution may seem . . .”

On October 30, Khrushchev responded to Castro: “In your cable . . . you proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear strike against the enemy. You do understand the consequences of this. This wouldn’t be a single strike, instead . . . the start of a thermonuclear world war . . . Evidently, in such a case the US would suffer great losses, but the USSR and the entire socialist camp would also suffer much. As to Cuba and the Cuban people . . . at the start of the war Cuba would burn . . .”

The next day Castro confirmed to Khrushchev that he well understood the consequences: “I knew . . . Do not presume that I ignored . . . that [the Cubans] would be exterminated . . . in case of a thermonuclear war…”

It’s good that no one was paying attention to him: he had made it quite clear that he would not have backed down whatever the consequences. Perceiving the entire event as an unpardonable breach of Cuba’s sovereignty, he soured on Khrushchev, and relations with the USSR worsened. China and Mao Tse-tung’s more uncompromising brand of communism became his new best friends.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s drive to prove that he’s better than everyone else drove him to eliminate his immediate competition — anyone whose charisma and popularity threatened to overshadow his, as in the case of General Arnaldo Ochoa. After his accession to power, Castro set his sights on Huber Matos, leader of one of the independent Escambray Fronts. By luck or design, he managed to kill two birds with one stone.

Matos had sent a letter to Fidel resigning his position because of ideological differences. Since Fidel brooked no ideological differences, he declared Matos in rebellion and sent Camilo Cienfuegos, second in popularity only to Fidel, to arrest him. After meeting with Matos, Cienfuegos advised Castro that there was really no rebellion; that in fact, Matos was simply resigning. That night, the plane carrying Camilo Cienfuegos back to Havana mysteriously crashed. The second officer dispatched to arrest Matos did not question Castro’s orders. Matos, however, got off easy. Due to his own very public and principled defense, Cienfuegos’ mysterious death, the ensuing publicity over the whole affair, and pleas from foreign governments and NGO’s, Matos kept his life but spent the next 20 years in prison, after which he emigrated to the US. Huber Matos died in 2014.

Castro took it personally (as well he might). So he sent Guevara along with about 100 Cubans into the very heart of darkness — the Congo.

Che Guevara was next. The Argentine had captured the world’s admiration and affection with his idealism and boyish good looks. He appeared as an Argentine selflessly risking his life in a foreign country for a Robin Hood morality; a slight, asthmatic waif, barely able to grow a beard, brandishing a Thompson sub-machine gun and puffing a big cigar, with a refreshing but unpredictable tendency “to call shit, shit.”

Soon after taking power Fidel had to transition his confidants from military duties to civilian appointments. During one brainstorming session, he asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up and Castro appointed him minister of industries, then finance minister, and finally president of the national bank. In September 1960, Che nationalized the banks. Then, in a quick sleight-of-hand move, he announced a new currency, convertible only in limited amounts. Most Cubans’ life savings suddenly disappeared. Che’s idealism, when coupled with Castro’s unwillingness to share the spotlight, would cost him his life.

When Guevara published an article in 1965 criticizing the disparity between the lives of the Revolution’s elites and those of the common people, Castro took it personally (as well he might). So he sent Guevara along with about 100 Cubans into the very heart of darkness — the Congo, where the remnants of Patrice Lumumba’s forces were mired in the hopeless task of trying to regain power. It wasn’t the beginning of Fidel’s foreign adventurism, a policy of exporting socialist revolution around the world. That had begun back in June 1959, with his disastrous attempt to invade, first, the Dominican Republic to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo, and then the following month his attack against Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Nearly all the men on both attempts perished.

Before leaving, Guevara, in private, wrote his will, renounced his Cuban offices and citizenship and compared Castro to Stalin. In a fit of pique, Castro made the documents public. When Mobutu Sese Seko consolidated power, the Cubans admitted defeat and returned to Cuba — all that is except Guevara. But Congo did not become El Che’s grave. Uncomfortable about returning to Cuba, he bided his time in Dar-es-Salaam and Prague until duty again beckoned.

Castro hit the mark when he then sent Guevara to Bolivia. There he was to organize the peasants and overthrow the government. Daniel Alarcon, Che’s second-in-command, recalled, “Fidel accorded with the USSR and the Bolivian Communist Party sending Che to die in the jungle,” where he was ignominiously executed on October 9, 1967.

Soon thereafter Castro decided to get serious about exporting revolution. At the end of the ’60s he established Punto Cero de Guanabo, a 64-square-kilometer training camp 15 miles east of Havana for Marxist guerillas. The list of recruits trained at Punto Cero is a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s radicals: from Colombia — the FARC, the ELN, and M19; from Peru — the Shining Path and MRTA; from Chile — the Patriotic Front of Manuel Rodriguez, from Nicaragua — the FSLN (Sandinistas); from El Salvador — the FMLN; from Spain — ETA (the Basque separatist movement); from Northern Ireland — the IRA; from Palestine — the PLO; from Western Sahara — the Polisario Front; from the US — the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Macheteros; from Venezuela — Carlos the Jackal; from Mexico — Sub-Comandante Marcos; and an unnamed group from Guatemala.

Thanks to Fidel Castro, the Cuban people have buried their dead in the most unlikely corners of the earth. Perhaps the most absurd intervention El Maximo Lider ever undertook was in the Ethiopia-Somalia war. Somalia, a Soviet client state ruled by the iron fist of Mohamed Siad Barre, coveted Ethiopia’s Ogaden region under the guise of creating a greater Somalia. Mengistu Haile Mariam, absolute ruler of Ethiopia — also a Soviet client state — would have none of it. Castro, fancying himself an honest broker, decided to mediate. He counseled peace. When Siad Barre ignored his counsel and Somalia attacked Ethiopia, Fidel intervened by sending Cuban troops and materiel to Ethiopia, effectively giving Mengistu the upper hand.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s star shone brightly in the fall of 1979. His lifelong quest for glory and power had achieved its zenith: against all odds, he won his first and only election — and on a global stage, at that — for president of the non-aligned movement, consisting of those countries that professed neutrality in the Cold War. The victory was all the more remarkable because of Cuba’s $6 billion a year Soviet subsidy. There was no denying that he was firmly embedded in the Soviet camp.

The list of recruits trained at Castro's Punto Cero Marxist guerrilla camp is a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s radicals.

The Cuban army had been active in Africa as early as 1961, with aid to Ahmed Ben Bella’s liberation movement in Algeria. It later intervened in conflicts in Congo-Brazzaville and Guinea-Bissau. By 1979 Cuban troops were four years into the 16-year Angolan intervention, which later secured the victory of the Marxist regime. Forty thousand were to remain to guarantee it. They had met the South African army on the battlefield and were besting them. The Cuban intervention involved the air and sea transport of 60,000 troops over 6,000 miles despite the obstacle of limited or nonexistent forward international bases. This resulted in long journeys aboard old aircraft with overworked pilots. While Cuban soldiers’ pay averaged only 71 US cents per month, the Angolan government reimbursed the Cuban government 40 US dollars per soldier per day — a nifty profit for Fidel. Castro himself ran strategic and tactical operations from Havana after Soviet advisors in the field proved inept.

Another ten to fifteen thousand troops were stationed in Ethiopia propping up Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Communist government. Now they were contemplating intervention in neighboring Sudan. In his own backyard, Castro had been crucial in boosting to power Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Maurice Bishop in Granada. Everywhere, the Cubans had fought with great ferocity, upholding their commander-in-chief’s uncompromising demands. It was a staggering accomplishment for a country of 10.5 million.

In contrast, the US was mired in the throes of “Vietnam syndrome” and had just survived Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. For Fidel, things couldn’t be better. In October 1979, he traveled to New York to address the United Nations demanding: “We want a new world order based on justice, equality and peace to replace the unfair and unequal system that prevails today…” Never again would the stars align so propitiously for Fidel.

And then, on Christmas Eve, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, precipitating Castro’s long descent into failure and irrelevance. The invasion proved beyond the pale even for the corrupt, authoritarian, and sycophantic left-wing governments that comprised most of the non-aligned movement. Unable to justify the invasion on non-aligned principles, Castro capitulated to the USSR: “We [are] not going to place ourselves on the side of the United States and so we [are] on the side of the Soviet Union.” For the rest of his three-year term as president of the non-aligned movement, he was a lame duck.

While Cuban soldiers’ pay averaged only 71 US cents per month, the Angolan government reimbursed the Cuban government 40 US dollars per soldier per day — a nifty profit for Fidel.

The invasion and reversal of fortune was a devastating blow whose consequences rippled throughout Cuban society and into the very bowels of the Kremlin. Economic problems had worsened considerably while Fidel had been preoccupied with his international feats. On April 1, 1980, a group of Cubans crashed the gates of the Peruvian embassy seeking political asylum. Thinking that there were only a disaffected few, Castro urged any and all who wished, to leave. To his surprise and embarrassment, 10,000 desperate Cubans from all over the island stormed the embassy, occupying every inch of space, perching on tree limbs and roofs. Even policemen deployed to maintain order joined the throngs. Humiliated, Castro decided to shift the problem to the US. He opened Mariel harbor to unlimited emigration for four months. The Dunkirk-style evacuation freed 125,000 refugees; including murderers, rapists, psychopaths, and the criminally insane, whom he’d surreptitiously thrown in for good measure.

For the Soviet Union, the Afghan war proved a burden too heavy for a bankrupt system already on the verge of collapse. In the crisis beginning in 1989, Soviet Communism capitulated to the popular will, the Union dissolved, the ruble became worthless, and Cuba’s subsidies disappeared.

* * *

Motivated by socialist values, Fidel Castro outlawed and stamped out all private economic enterprise — except whenever Cuba’s economy bottomed out. At those points, emulating Lenin’s New Economic Policy, he’d legalize small, tightly regulated — and exorbitantly taxed (sometimes at more than 100% of gross receipts) — entrepreneurial initiatives. Once Cuba’s economy was back on its bound feet, he’d outlaw them again.

When the Soviet Union fell and Cuba’s subsidies were cut, it took more than family restaurants and B&B’s to float the island. So Fidel reached for a new paradigm: he launched what may be called CASTROS (Capitalism, Apartheid, and Socialism To Restore Our Solvency). Here’s how it worked. The Cuban government, employer and investor of first and last resort (Socialism) created joint partnerships with foreign firms to create profits (Capitalism). The profits provided — and still do — the lion’s share of Cuba’s income. The joint partnerships, mostly developed as resorts for foreign tourists, employed a handful of Cubans. No other Cubans were allowed on or near the resorts or their clientele (Apartheid). The resort economy has its own currency, tightly controlled and unavailable to regular Cubans. Following an earlier Chinese model, the authority for the joint partnerships resides in the army, headed by Raul Castro. The joint partnerships are now a bigger source of foreign reserve than sugar, which, ever since nationalization, has underperformed.

Having grown up on a farm, Castro considered himself something of an agricultural expert. His first big program was island-wide agrarian reform. At first, this mostly meant the confiscation and nationalization of all the big sugar plantations and refineries. But later, every cow, pig, and chicken became state property. Not a few campesinos paid the ultimate price for slaughtering their backyard animals for a meaty meal without permission. After Soviet tractors and parts became unavailable, draft oxen replaced 90% of mechanized farm labor.

Inevitably shortages ensued and the government instituted rationing. Even sugar was rationed. Cuban cuisine suffered without olive oil, cooking sherry, capers, ham, chorizo, pimentos, and other essential ingredients. With cattle being retained from the abattoirs and trained as draft animals, beef all but disappeared. But el maximo dietician came to the rescue. Production of comestibles turned organic and “sustainable” — out of necessity, not health concerns. Salads, previously considered nothing more than “grass and water,” became a de rigueur staple, topped with eggless mayonnaise, something considered by Cubans America’s worst invention. And roadside kiosks, once a staple of innumerable meat goodies, now sell previously exotic “pizzas” of dough, tomato sauce, and cheese.

Having grown up on a farm, Castro considered himself something of an agricultural expert.

Fidel raised the intellectual level of the sugar harvest by drafting primary, high school, and university students and faculty members to “voluntarily” wield machetes to bring in each season’s cane crop. No doubt these were welcome physical sabbaticals for overworked brains. Another of his innovations was the expansion of the coffee crop from steep, well-drained mountainsides down to low, water-logged flatlands. Coffee production bottomed. But his real genius lay in tobacco cultivation. A previously dedicated cigar smoker, he left that alone.

Fidel was also, however, a medical innovator. Although back in 1953 Cuba had more doctors per capita than France, Holland, or the UK, Castro perceived a problem. Today, Cuba’s healthcare system of free universal coverage is the envy of every well-intentioned, ill-informed humanitarian. True, it’s absolutely free to the patient; the Cuban government picks up all the costs — in money, anyway. Trouble is, the government’s intentions are bigger than its pocketbook, so extreme shortages and rationing result. For expedited attention, an under-the-table gratuity is expected. In hopes of fat tips, underpaid doctors moonlight as taxi drivers for rich tourists. True also that everyone is covered — about as well as a dishcloth covers a king-size bed; only those in the center get complete coverage.

Fidel’s countless economic failures are due not just to his doctrinaire Marxism but also to a remarkable talent he was born with: a photographic memory. He discovered the trait as a student when faced with exams for which he hadn’t cracked a book and for which he was forced to cram at the last minute. The photographic memory — allowing him to memorize entire books, including the page numbers of particulars — saved him. But he always confused memory with a critical understanding of actual knowledge. This, coupled with his absolute lack of humility, prevented him from realizing that he was incapable of wisdom.

Time after time, after reading a single book on the subject du jour, Fidel would talk expertly about the marvelous economic benefits of some half-baked new scheme: how Cuba would overflow with milk once Pangola grass was planted to feed the dairy herds; how every Cuban would eat steak every day once Holsteins and Zebus were crossed (a project he pursued on the fourth floor of his downtown Havana residence with the help of a construction crane to lift and lower livestock); how the Zapata swamps would feed not only all of Cuba but much of the entire world, once they were drained and planted with a new strain of rice — how whatever new invention of his would cause manna to fall from the sky.

* * *

Fidel’s skills as an advocate were at their postmodern, post-ironic best when confronting the long-running US trade embargo. When the US first declared an embargo on the regime, it was a boilerplate, pro forma response to a worsening diplomatic situation. At the time, not only were embargoes considered rational alternatives to war (as they still are), they were actually considered effective. Today, with globalization and free trade much more in the ascendant, embargoes have become increasingly symbolic.

Castro's real genius lay in tobacco cultivation. A dedicated cigar smoker, he left that crop alone.

No one has exploited the propaganda value of the embargo better than Fidel, to the absolute embarrassment and chagrin of every US administration that prolongs it. But the truly post-ironic aspect of the embargo is the blind brinksmanship of both sides. If a US president, calling Castro’s bluff, had declared free trade with Cuba, it would have been Castro who would have invoked his own embargo against the flood of goods, traders, and tourists. After all, such an invasion would have been much more effective than any military operation. And Castro is well aware of this. Serious overtures to lift the embargo, first by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration and later by Jimmy Carter, were peremptorily rebuffed.

Relations with the United States at the end of the Fidel Castro era aren’t bad at all. The embargo, as regards trade in food and medicine has been eased. Fidel, perhaps with a little arm-twisting from his brother Raul, cooperated with the US war on terror by no longer overtly questioning the legitimacy of the Guantanamo military base and by cooperating with the enemy combatant incarceration program there. Escapees were quickly returned. And he finally cooperated with the war on drugs. Though many years ago he presided over narcotics, ivory, and tobacco smuggling operations and turned a blind eye to drug transshipments and money laundering — mostly to irritate the US and gain a tidy profit to finance his Revolution — he later purged his regime of all drug related graft. The anti-drug policy is still strictly enforced.

As an informal quid pro quo, the US refrains from any Bay of Pigs sort of enterprise and keeps close tabs on US based anti-Castro armed activity. Additionally, we’ve modified our unrestricted Cuban refugee policy; we now return any and all refugees who don’t actually make a US landing. These informal understandings, along with a desire to avoid bloodshed and maintain stability, are perceived as the basis for a post-Fidel transition.

* * *

In January of 2004, the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, after meeting with Fidel Castro while vacationing in Cuba, reported that, “he seemed very sick to me.” His condition, later diagnosed as diverticulitis and aggravated by vanity, deteriorated over the course of the following two years. Unwilling to undergo the indignity of a colostomy bag, he insisted on a proper fixing up. The operation led to septicemia, which nearly killed him then, and set the stage for his ultimate demise.

If a US president, calling Castro’s bluff, had declared free trade with Cuba, it would have been Castro who would have invoked his own embargo against the flood of goods, traders, and tourists.

On July 31, 2006 — two weeks before his 80th birthday — Fidel temporarily delegated his duties to his brother Raul while he recuperated. But his close brush with death and his slow recovery finally led him — one and a half years later, in February 2008 — to retire from all his government offices, at which time Raul assumed all official duties.

It wasn’t his first brush with death. In April of 1983 he suffered his first recorded intestinal attack, which hospitalized him for 11 days, after which he convalesced for three months with no public appearances or speeches. The second attack occurred in September 1992 and was graver than the first, precipitating the initiation of transition protocols. During both events, Castro resorted to using a double who would ride the streets of Havana in his limousine, waving to passers-by to dispel any rumors that might have been leaked.

At his retirement, Castro’s fortune was estimated at $900 million, among the world’s top ten, by Forbes magazine — a revelation that irritated him no end and which he vehemently denied, claiming that he owned nothing but his nine-hundred peso monthly salary, equivalent to about $38.

But Cuba did not change, and, contrary to all expectations, Fidel Castro remained the “conscience of the Revolution,” exercising influence through his column in Granma (Cuba’s version of Pravda), hovering and pontificating over all things large and small, exerting a censorious tempering judgment over events, and merely by being alive — a condition guaranteed to put the brakes on any radical reforms. To emphasize his resurgent vigor, he was elected Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement, serving from 2006 to 2008.

Until 2011, Fidel Castro remained Chairman of the Communist Party of Cuba, in effect the guiding light of the Revolution, and a strong tempering influence on any possibility of change by his brother in the island.

He did, however, admit to some mistakes. He’d mishandled the Cuban Missile Crisis; he’d advocated nuking the US; he’d been wrong to persecute gays. Further, the “Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” He had already given up cigars back in 1985, for health reasons. And, as befits a retired pensioner, he took to wearing colorful tracksuits even during photo opportunities. Fidel’s Granma editorials ruminated on international events, sometimes striking a loud chord, especially when he berated the US policy of subsidizing ethanol, which he correctly perceived as a cause of rising food prices in the Americas; and when he warned the US not to engage in wars with Iran or North Korea after one Afghan and two Iraqi wars.

In 2012, the master of endless words — who had already corralled his thoughts from interminable logorrhea into much shorter newspaper editorials — further truncated his opinions into the severely constrained structure of the haiku, versifying on current affairs and recent history such as bemoaning Deng Xiaoping’s invention of “socialist capitalism” in three short lines. Cubans scratched their heads.

Cuba did not change, and, contrary to all expectations, Fidel Castro remained the “conscience of the Revolution,” exerting a censorious tempering judgment over events merely by being alive.

From March to November Fidel disappeared from public involvement. Since he didn’t congratulate Hugo Chavez on his October 7 reelection victory, rumors proliferated about his demise. The Miami Herald even reported that he’d suffered a debilitating stroke that left him in a vegetative state. To counter the speculation, a very frail Castro was wheeled into the Hotel Nacional to chat with the staff and provide a photo-op for the foreign press. Two days later, in a state media article ironically titled “Fidel Castro is dying,” he wrote that he was fine but that Cubans would hear even less from him in the future (shades of Franco).

When, in December 2014, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced plans to reestablish diplomatic relations, Fidel remained silent. On the day the US Embassy was reopened, August 14, 2015 — one day after Fidel’s 89th birthday — he finally weighed in, declaring that the US owed Cuba billions of dollars in lost revenue because of the embargo. He still didn’t realize that trade is a two-way street. US Republican responses categorized the deal as a birthday present to Fidel; but judging from Fidel’s silence and petulant response, he perceived it as a slap in the face.

Castro shared one trait with former US President Richard Nixon. According to bodyguard Sanchez, Castro had a mania for recording everything. Perhaps someday the entire oeuvre of the Castro tapes will be released and the world will be able to listen to him in perpetuity.

Fidel, perhaps with a little arm-twisting from his brother Raul, cooperated with the US war on terror by no longer overtly questioning the legitimacy of the Guantanamo military base.

As of this writing, few realize that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba does not eliminate the embargo originally established by Dwight Eisenhower, strengthened by John F. Kennedy, and further fortified by Bill Clinton though the Helms-Burton Act. Only a congressional amendment or rescission of the Act can reverse the US embargo. Still, there was one dramatic change in Cuban policy: political detentions dropped to 178 in January 2015 from a monthly average of 741 in 2014.

* * *

As to Cuba, the scuttlebutt is that Raul wants to follow the China model by opening up the economy and making the peso convertible. This would allow him to retain power and, as head of the army’s joint venture programs, keep the money flowing into his coffers. Though everyone wants a peaceful transition, these “understandings” completely ignore Cubans’ — domestic and expatriate — democratic aspirations.




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The Case for Hillary Clinton

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It’s a Liberty tradition: before a presidential election we invite our authors to make the best case they can for the Democratic candidate, the Libertarian candidate, the Republican candidate, and no candidate at all. In some instances, the best case isn’t one that the authors themselves find the most convincing. C’est la guerre.

* * *

I’m taking one for the team. Somebody has to do this on behalf of Liberty, and I’m the person who has drawn the short straw. I have to make an argument for voting Democrat in 2016.

Yet this is not an impossible argument to make. The reasons may not be compelling (you decide), but they’re not difficult to find. They come in two “baskets,” as Hillary Clinton would say. First, the basket of Trump’s deficiencies; second, the basket of Clinton’s own deficiencies.

“What?” you say.

Just hold on.

The deficiencies of Donald Trump

Trump is a demagogue, on the grand scale. Like most demagogues, he sometimes blusters into the truth about particular issues. But when you look at the scale of his blustering, you see the problem. He is running on a promise to use presidential power to fix everything in America that needs to be fixed. Never mind whether it actually does. I happen to think that most of the problems he has identified are real and serious. But do you want to give anyone, especially a popular leader, the power to cure everything that ails you? Never mind whether his plans would succeed. Lyndon Johnson did not succeed in winning his War on Poverty. Nobody has, and nobody could. But look at the wreckage he left behind him.

So much for Trump. Now for:

The deficiencies of Hillary Clinton

The argument here is that Clinton’s private vices can be regarded as public virtues. After a lifetime of dishonest struggle to make herself attractive to the American people, she has succeeded in making herself loathed by most and disliked by almost all. This is a public benefit. It has taught millions of people to distrust even first ladies.

Trump is running on a promise to use presidential power to fix everything in America that needs to be fixed. Never mind whether it actually does.

Hillary and her husband discovered a way to make tons of money on intended bribes from crony capitalists and obnoxious foreign governments, but it doesn’t appear that they actually accomplished much for their would-be clients. Perhaps the Clintons simply meant to stiff their friends; more likely, they weren’t competent enough to perform any real criminality, at least on a scale that would make it necessary for James Comey to prosecute. (Admittedly, Comey is an idiot in a thousand-dollar suit, a reductio ad absurdum of the Establishment’s claims to righteousness. But this is another good thing about Hillary — the exposure of people like that.) The buffoonery of Mrs. Clinton’s attempted coverups (“Wipe? You mean with a cloth?”) has put the lie to any notion that a Sauron-like intelligence is lurking in Chappaqua, NY — and to the idea that activist politicians at least mean well for the people. They don’t, and the Clintons have contributed very materially toward dispelling that dangerous illusion.

The life of Hillary Clinton has been little more than a series of absurd scandals, punctuated by absurd attempts to do some mighty deed. Take her version of national healthcare (take it, please!). During her husband’s first administration, she proceeded in the most ridiculously complicated manner this side of Rube Goldberg to get the medical industry into her hands and “reform” it. The result was a crushing defeat for her husband in the next congressional election: another public benefit.

There is virtually no prospect of a third Clinton administration being any more successful than the first two in accomplishing the Clintons’ ostensibly progressive ends.

Mrs. Clinton’s current policy proposals would undoubtedly be scary if anybody could make sense of them. That’s what the Sanders people meant when they said she doesn’t “stand for anything.” They were right. Even when she seems to, the evidence of her private communications plainly demonstrates that she doesn’t, or that she stands for the opposite of her announced positions.

There is virtually no prospect of a third Clinton administration being any more successful than the first two in accomplishing the Clintons’ ostensibly progressive ends, and many indications that the actions of the Clinton Operation will be disastrous to itself. This is the normal fate of fanatically self-serving people, and for this we can be grateful to the divine law of retribution.

Looking into my crystal ball — which, as everyone knows, is a flawless oracle — I see Hillary Clinton crippled from the start by recurring scandals, by the well-earned distrust of her confederates, and, above all, by the distrust and disgust of the nation as a whole. If you can’t get a president who believes in liberty, at least you can get a president who is a feckless, bumbling, self-defeating statist. Can you deny that this is Hillary Clinton?




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The Case for Donald Trump

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It’s a Liberty tradition: before a presidential election we invite our authors to make the best case they can for the Democratic candidate, the Libertarian candidate, the Republican candidate, and no candidate at all. In some instances, the best case isn’t one that the authors themselves find the most convincing. C’est la guerre.

* * *

Donald Trump is not a libertarian. He’s not even a conservative. He’s an old-fashioned National Democrat, reminiscent in his politics of the Kennedy generation.

This is something that makes me swallow twice before recommending a vote for him. If you don’t believe in giving your support to anyone who doesn’t share all your views on the major issues, you probably won’t even vote for Gary Johnson. I’m sure you won’t see a Disney movie (think of what the Disney corporation stands for!) or use a Microsoft product. But if you see voting as one of the choices we typically make in life, a choice between the worst and something not the worst, you won’t vote for the worst. You won’t vote for Hillary Clinton. You will try to stop her.

The Clinton-Obama-Clinton dynasty has established a giant political machine, the most potent in American history. It is filled with people who salivate for power and are ruthless in using it.

If you see voting as one of the choices we typically make in life, a choice between the worst and something not the worst, you won’t vote for the worst.

These are the people who never saw a tax they didn’t like — or a crony capitalist, or a race hustler, or a PC censor, or a global-warming scammer, or a country-club Republican, or an international meddler, or a regulator of any shape or size.

These are the people who have fanatically withheld all information they could about the workings of the government, whether it related to the miserable tenure of Ms. Clinton as Secretary of State or to the dark deeds of the IRS, the FBI, the military brass, and the regulatory agencies.

These are the people whose “dream” is an America with “open borders” — as Mrs. Clinton said, and then claimed she was thinking about border-free electronic communication, not future voters for her friends.

These are the people who fight to the death against the idea that voters should have to identify themselves — I wonder why? Is it because the voters in question plan to vote Libertarian? I doubt it.

These are the people who claim that illegal immigrants receive no welfare — except, of course, for schools, roads, legal protection, affirmative action, college scholarships, and other benefits that the so-called liberals continually try to increase, to generate votes for their party. (Note to Libertarian Party members: this is exactly what all libertarian savants from Murray Rothbard to Milton Friedman meant when they said that you cannot have open immigration in a welfare state. And by supporting open immigration, you are signing your own death warrant as a party.)

These are the people who have used “free trade” to enrich their international cronies, caring nothing about an American working class that is fast becoming a chronic welfare class.

These are the people who view the deficit as an enormous slush fund, useful for rewarding their party’s friends, relying on a crony banking system to keep the scheme going by repressing interest rates.

These are the people who have used “free trade” to enrich their international cronies, caring nothing about an American working class that has lost jobs and income at a rate unmatched since the 1930s — a working class that is fast becoming a chronic welfare class.

These are the people who are prepared to stock the Supreme Court with partisan judges who will permanently institutionalize every power-grab of the political class.

These are the people who have a foreign policy as bellicose as that of the Bush Republicans, though with somewhat different targets, people who succeeded in destabilizing large areas of the Middle East and remain willing to destabilize any place to which their Messiah complex attracts them.

These are the people who take millions in Saudi money and kowtow to Iran, in the shadow of gay men swinging from Iranian gallows and women ground beneath the heel of the Clintons’ Arab donors.

These are the people who have succeeded in destabilizing large areas of the Middle East and remain willing to destabilize any place to which their Messiah complex attracts them.

These are the people who lie to you, who hold you in contempt, and who are now on the point of consolidating themselves in power.

Are you going to vote against them?

A vote for the Libertarian Party is not a vote. It is an expression of opinion, and as such, honorable. But a voteis a political, not an expressive, device. A vote is supposed to do something, or keep something from being done. The Clinton regime laughs at expressive votes. It hopes you will go ahead and express yourself by voting for anyone except a person who would check the Clintons’ power.

That person is Donald Trump.




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The Case for Gary Johnson

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It’s a Liberty tradition: before a presidential election we invite our authors to make the best case they can for the Democratic candidate, the Libertarian candidate, the Republican candidate, and no candidate at all. In some instances, the best case isn’t one that the authors themselves find the most convincing. C’est la guerre.

* * *

I’ve always associated the name Gary with a regular guy. Perhaps that’s because one of my favorite old-time movie stars is Gary Cooper — the epitome of a regular guy. My favorite among his many roles was Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Even as an extraordinary guy, Gary Cooper still managed to be regular.

Gary Johnson also manages — with breezy ease — to be both regular and extraordinary. Any man who contends for the presidency must be extraordinary in some sense. Yet Governor Johnson has always remained one of the common folks. He isn’t the type who inspires the Beatlemania that still possesses fans of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. He has a way of quietly inspiring trust.

If we still control who gets elected, then the power still resides with us. The potentates behind the scenes have not yet succeeded in stealing our country.

Young people’s devotion to Ron Paul did reach the level of Beatlemania. But Governor Johnson is certainly catching on with millennials. They’re young enough, and fresh enough, to recognize the mentality of “I can’t vote for somebody who can’t win” for the brain fungus that it really is. All — and I mean literally all — it would take for Gary Johnson to be elected would be for that delusion to end and the many millions it has infected to come to their senses and recognize that absolutely nothing stops them from voting for him, and that if they do vote for him, he will win.

We know that government can’t really change much — at least not for the better — no matter who holds office. But if we still control who gets elected, then the power still resides with us. The potentates behind the scenes have not yet succeeded in stealing our country. Gary keeps telling us that we can vote for whomever we want — and that if enough of us do that, we can foil the plans of our would-be rulers. In 21st-century America, that in itself is a revolutionary message.

The growing support for Gary Johnson’s candidacy is a sign that we’re flexing our muscles. That we recognize — however flabby we’ve gotten — that we haven’t lost them. And that if we fail to use those muscles, we will lose everything that matters to us.

In an unprecedentedly blatant way, our self-appointed betters are telling us simply to like it or lump it. We are coming to the realization that we want to do neither, that a choice between them is no real choice at all.

Johnson is helping us to see that running the country is our job — and his job is to get out of our way so that we can do it.

The American Revolution led not only to a change in who would run our lives but to a shift in our perspective. However unpleasant this election year may be, it gives us that same potential. It has existed all along, but we needed to recognize it anew. Like Rip Van Winkle, or the characters in some episode of The Twilight Zone, we are awakening to the reality of what surrounds us.

Gary Johnson’s candidacy reminds us that we do have a real choice, even in an election year as distasteful as this one. He isn’t going to lead us out of all our troubles, but he alone, of all the candidates, doesn’t claim that he will. He’s telling us, in fact, that no candidate for public office can do for us what we need to do for ourselves. He understands his role as helping us to see that running the country is our job — and as getting out of our way so that we can do it.

Some of the stuff he’s been saying doesn’t sound very libertarian. He wants the US to remain in the UN (and I think it’s imperative to our survival as a sovereign nation that we leave it). Far from making it more likely that I’ll vote for him because he thinks anti-gay bakers should be required by law to make my wedding cake, such pandering actually insults me. I vehemently disagree with him that Planned Parenthood should receive any taxpayer-funding. And disarming people with mental health issues — people who are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators — is a notion I find not only bigoted but disgusting.

Can I live with a president who says such things? As long as he is just a president, and not an emperor or a king, then the answer is yes. He alone, of all the candidates, doesn’t aspire to reign over us like medieval royalty. We don’t need to worry that every dumb notion that pops into his head will automatically be forced upon the rest of us. Given the other candidates’ statist ambitions, their stupid ideas would almost certainly end up being not only their problem, but ours.

Even libertarians can get fooled into looking at an election through a statist lens. It’s not about power: about who gets elected, or even about what he or she promises to do. It’s about us. We get fixated, along with everyone else, on how much money a candidate has in the “war chest” — as if that is what determines the outcome — but nothing has changed the fact that we are still the ones who mark our ballots for the candidate of our choice. The power is still vested in us.

Gary Johnson alone, of all the candidates, doesn’t aspire to reign over us like medieval royalty.

“Yes sir,” declared Gary Cooper in another of his movies, Meet John Doe, “we’ve been in there dodging left hooks since before History began to walk. In our struggle for freedom, we’ve hit the canvas many a time, but we always bounced back because we’re the people — and we’re tough.”

Gary Johnson is beckoning us up from the canvas once again. I, for one, fully intend to rise, take my stand, and fight.




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More Equal than Others

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One spring, just before the end of the Cold War, my wife and I visited Riga. On a walk, we stumbled upon an informal street market. The goods set out on the pavement and the appearance of the vendors told us that times were tough in Latvia. A young man with very bad teeth standing behind a rickety folding tray with a row of rusty fishhooks on it told me in a mixture of German and English how the Russians had polluted the Gulf of Riga so badly that the fish caught there were not safe to eat.

Suddenly, an olive-colored truck with a tarp stretched over the back rumbled into the market and struck a pedestrian, knocking him to the pavement. The driver of the truck stopped, jumped out, walked over to the guy, who seemed tipsy, yelled at him, smacked him around a bit, then got back into the truck and drove off. The guy sat there for a moment, wiped some blood from his face, got up slowly, and limped off. I looked around. No one offered to help. No one wrote down the license number of the truck. No one looked the least bit surprised. The fishhook seller looked at me and shrugged.

* * *

The social contract can be understood as a deal. You are obligated to act within the law. As long as you do, society is obligated to protect your rights. Should you act outside the law, your rights are subject to forfeiture, which means society can take your property, your liberty, or, sometimes, your life. Even though you didn’t sign the social contract, that’s the way it is, like it or not. (In reality, it’s not so simple, of course, but this thumbnail description will do for now.)

A crucial clause of this unwritten contract is that everyone in society is bound by its terms. Everyone is obligated to act within the law. Whoever you are, should you act illegally, your rights are subject to proportionate forfeiture. On the flip side, society is obligated to protect the rights of everyone. Whoever you are, provided you act legally, society must protect your rights. This is sometimes called equality before the law. Without this clause, the social contract can be said to be void, which means it does not exist. Put another way, this equality clause is a sine qua non of the social contract. (Again, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s close enough.)

The driver of the truck stopped, jumped out, walked over to the guy, who seemed tipsy, yelled at him, smacked him around a bit, then got back into the truck and drove off.

In a way, then, there are two kinds of inequality before the law. The first occurs when society fails to protect the rights of someone who has acted within the law. This tends to happen to people who are socially and politically powerless. The second occurs when someone acts outside the law and society fails to impose any consequence, or a proportionate one. This usually happens to the powerful. Only when such a failure on the part of society to protect or to punish happens because of the status of the person in question is it a clear example of inequality before the law. Both kinds of failure result in what is sometimes called a miscarriage of justice.

"Thirty Years on Death Row," a 60 Minutes episode first aired on October 11, 2015, provides a good example of the first kind of miscarriage of justice. Glenn Ford was convicted of murder in 1983, then spent 30 years in solitary confinement on death row in Angola prison before the real killer was identified and Ford was released, only to die a few years later of cancer. Marty Stroud, the prosecutor who sent Ford to prison, confesses that he pressed his case at the trial to get a guilty verdict when he knew that some of the evidence was dubious. He admits that the prosecution was successful only because Ford was a poor black man facing an all white jury. He knew at the trial that the defense team had never tried a criminal case, much less a capital one, and that they were hopelessly overmatched, in both experience and resources.

In 1962, the young, drunk scion of a wealthy family in Maryland angrily struck a barmaid with his cane. She died. The killer was fined $625 and served a six-month prison sentence. This is an example of the second kind of miscarriage of justice, where society fails to punish proportionately. The inadequate sentence prompted Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan to write the song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." She was the black barmaid. Society failed in its obligation under the terms of the social contract to adequately punish William Zantzinger, the rich white guy who killed Ms. Carroll.

Everyone agrees that a Romanian hacker, who says he breached the server, revealed to the world that it existed and that the secretary tried to cover her tracks.

The distinction between these two kinds of miscarriages of justice can become blurred. Some consider the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray to be examples of society’s failure to protect the rights of the powerless, while others see them primarily as examples of society’s failure to punish their empowered killers. Still others see the deaths as tragedies or simple misfortunes, but not examples of injustice. Similarly, some think that the rights of Mary Jo Kopechne were not protected by society when Edward M. Kennedy was given a two-month suspended sentence for leaving her to suffocate in a submerged car, waiting nine hours even to report the accident. It has also been said that his real punishment was that he never got the keys to the Oval Office. Did O.J. Simpson escape the consequences of his illegal actions because he was a wealthy celebrity, or was he hounded by the system because of his race? Or is the fate of his wife the greater tragedy? Each purported miscarriage of justice is different and, as has been said, these matters are complicated.

That Secretary of State Hillary Clinton installed a private, unsecured email server in the basement of her house in Chappaqua to conduct both private and government business is not disputed. Neither is the fact that through this server she exchanged emails with people both inside and outside the government, including President Obama. That these emails contained a variety of classified information, including some at the very highest level, is a matter of record. Everyone agrees that a Romanian hacker, who says he breached the server, revealed to the world that it existed and that the secretary tried to cover her tracks. Testimony shows that laptops and Blackberries were destroyed, that the server itself was digitally wiped clean, and that tens of thousands of emails were permanently erased. A few of the emails that were recovered reveal parts of this clandestine effort. (It seems that Hillary Rodham learned a valuable lesson when she helped the House Judiciary Committee prepare the case against President Nixon in 1974: when they ask for the tapes, burn them, especially the 18-and-a-half minute bit about yoga lessons in Benghazi.) A few of her underlings negotiated immunity deals with the FBI, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was invoked at least once, and the Secretary herself repeatedly said, “I can’t recall.”

I take it as a given that Secretary Clinton broke federal law. Tens of millions of Americans think so, even many of her strongest supporters. I’m pretty sure that FBI Director Comey thinks so, too. And Secretary Clinton certainly knows that she did, unless, of course, she forgot. If you don’t accept this premise, it is suggested that you read the statute in question (focus on Section [f]) and a chronology of the events surrounding the server. If, after reading these, you still think that Secretary Clinton did not act outside the law, well, bless your heart.

On July 5, 2016, Director Comey recommended that the Secretary not be indicted, saying,

“Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.”

I take it as a given that Secretary Clinton broke federal law. And Secretary Clinton certainly knows that she did, unless, of course, she forgot.

Let us do a little thought experiment. Let us say that you sent and received top-secret documents to and from people both in and out of government over your very own unsecured basement server. Let us say that a guy in Romania tipped off the FBI and you tried to destroy the evidence. Where do you think you would be right now? If you answered, “I would be tightly lodged in the slowly grinding wheels of the vast criminal justice system,” you have a firm grasp on reality.

So why did Director Comey conclude that no reasonable prosecutor would indict Secretary Clinton? What factors was he weighing when he decided not to bring charges against her? The evidence of her wrongdoing is certainly strong, there are mountains of evidence, much of it relating to her use of classified documents. It couldn’t be that. The intent to communicate classified government information outside secure, authorized channels is clear. Couldn’t be that. The intent to destroy evidence and obstruct justice is clear. Not that, either. While she probably didn’t intend to share her emails with foreign governments, we know that her negligence makes it entirely likely that she inadvertently did. And since the intent to commit espionage is not required for the statute to be violated, what factors was the director, in fact, weighing?

Now, I don’t know James Comey and harbor no ill will toward him. I do, however, wish to explore the possible motives behind his surprising July 15 decision. In doing so, I may give the impression that I am bringing into question his character. I’m not. I’m simply trying to answer this question: why did he do it?

Could it be that Director Comey realized that Secretary Clinton is not some television cooking show host like Martha Stewart, whom he threw the book at for being less than candid with the FBI about a stock tip a friend had given her? He sent Martha to the big house for her fib, but this is different. After all, Hillary Clinton is the former first lady, the former senator from New York, the former secretary of state, and the current Democratic Party nominee for the presidency of the United States. It makes perfect sense. What reasonable prosecuting attorney would bring charges against someone with such power? That would be an obvious consideration. Why, the wrong choice could end careers: hers, her underlings’, or the prosecuting attorney’s, or, even worse, the career of the director of the FBI.

Is it possible that Director Comey was gazing at the organizational chart of the US government when he made his responsible decision to let her slide?

Or was he thinking back to his time as special deputy counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee, when he and his colleagues concluded, after thousands of hours of exhausting legal work, that despite the fact that Hillary Clinton had engaged in a “highly improper pattern of deliberate misconduct,” the evidence uncovered just wasn’t enough to ensure a conviction, and it was reluctantly decided not to indict? He probably knew she was guilty, but even then she managed to slip the net (“I can’t recall”). Who’d want to go through that again? Or could it be that he was thinking of how a similar situation was handled in the past, when the secretary’s husband was investigated and charged by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who was lampooned on every late-night talk and comedy show, who was targeted by mocking books and bawdy stage productions, who was keelhauled by every major media outlet in the country? Could it be that the director glimpsed a Kim Philby-like future, living in exile in some god-forsaken red state, scribbling self-justifying memoirs that the New York Review of Books would never deign to crack?

Or could it be that he had to consider the hierarchical context of the actions in question? Let’s see. Comey’s boss is Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Lynch’s former boss was President Clinton. Her present boss is President Obama. The president appointed the former secretary of state. The former president is the husband of the former secretary of state. Is it possible that Director Comey was gazing at the organizational chart of the USG when he made his responsible decision to let her slide?

Or maybe Director Comey’s considerations were loftier. Perhaps he was looking at a wider context, his gaze fixed upon some greater good. Maybe he realized that if he were to recommend the indictment of the Democratic nominee, he would be increasing the probability that the successor to President Obama would be Donald J. Trump. And maybe, just maybe, he considered that outcome to be less than desirable. If so, consider his dilemma: his clear duty as the director of the FBI was to recommend indictment (ask any FBI agent), but he may have decided that his higher duty as a loyal American was quietly to induce a miscarriage of justice — to abort justice, so to speak, just this once, to prevent a much greater evil from being born. Many would sympathize with this dark impulse.

Could he really have thought that preventing this electoral end would justify these extralegal means? If it is unbelievable that Director Comey consciously considered this, is it just possible that these #nevertrump prejudices could have given his other rationalizations for letting the secretary skate that last little, but necessary, subconscious nudge? The NPR radio piece, “How the Concept of Implicit Bias Came Into Being,”broadcast on Morning Edition, October 17, 2016, lays out the latest science that explains how the director’s decision could have been guided by forces of which he was not even aware. Seriously. You can listen to it here.

When people feel that there is no longer equality before the law, and the social contract has been broken, the result might be a demonstration, a riot, or even a revolution.

But no, to assign these motives to Director Comey would put him on the ethical level of John Wilkes Booth, who was sure that Providence had sent him to smite the tyrant with his own hand. To suggest that the country’s top cop adopted the ethics of the assassin, putting himself above and outside the law, might be unfair. And if his sole motive was to stop Trump, it wouldn’t be a very good example of inequality before the law, would it? Sure, failure to punish would still make him a bit of a weasel, but it wouldn’t, strictly speaking, be because Secretary Clinton’s power was shielding her from the law so much as because Director Comey feared Donald J. Trump more than he feared her. In any case, motives are often mixed and hard to discern, as Director Comey can, and perhaps will, testify. But I rant.

What now? In a more perfect world, Secretary Clinton would call a presser, preferably before Election Day, and say, “I did it.” This would be the right and proper thing to do. But while Secretary Clinton may surprise us all and be a very late bloomer in the personal integrity department, it is unlikely. So it falls to Director Comey to man up and say, “She did it.” You are not advised to hold your breath.

Here is the way the cookie will crumble. Come January, Hillary Clinton will look the compliant Chief Justice Roberts squarely in the eye and swear to him, under oath, mind you, that she will defend the Constitution of the United States. At that moment, tens of millions of Americans gazing at their gigantic flat screens will blink. And in that instant, the world will change, for they will realize that, in this country at least, there is no longer equality before the law. There will be a loud crack, as the social contract is broken. And there will be a loud pop as that contract ceases to exist. The mutual obligations it stipulated will disappear like so many emails in a vat of BleachBit. And what will happen then?

Let us hit pause here and reflect that no one has to die for a miscarriage of justice to occur. In 1992, the policemen who had beaten Rodney King were acquitted. Many thought that this was a miscarriage of justice that violated the terms of the social contract, rendering it void. They believed that their obligation to act within the law had ceased to exist. The riots that followed resulted in 55 deaths. The 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement was fueled by the perceived injustice of banking executives, the people who were thought to have caused the financial crisis, successfully slipping the net. Tens of thousands demonstrated in various ways all around the country. Thousands were arrested. It was felt that the powerless had lost their homes and fortunes while the government busied itself bailing out the powerful who had caused those losses. We are the 99%.

When people feel that there is no longer equality before the law, and the social contract has been broken, the result might be a demonstration, a riot, or even a revolution. The March on Washington and the Los Angeles Riot of 1992 were about equality before the law. The American Revolution itself was in large part about the British subjects in North America being treated differently from those in England. The grievances in the Declaration of Independence are a litany of this unfair and unequal treatment. On a personal note, I was in Beijing in 1989, and in Tiananmen Square a few days before the massacre. It is underreported today that one of the key grievances of the students who started the demonstrations was that the children of powerful Communist Party leaders were afforded wealth, privileges, and opportunities that no one else could even dream of. As those children were also often lazy, overweight, and incompetent, they were mockingly called “rice bags,” as they were only good at consuming, not producing. The problem with these “princelings” continues to be a sore point in China today. There is one law for them and another law for the powerless masses. And where there is no justice, there often is no peace. Hit pause again.

What will happen when Hillary Clinton says, “so help me God”? I don’t think that there will be a revolution, do you? I mean, are you going to man the barricades? No riots, either. There may be a demonstration or two, but it won’t amount to much. No, what will happen is that tens of millions of people will see the law as less important than they did the day before. The small voice that says not to break the law will be harder to hear. The pang of guilt that is felt when the law is broken will be less sharp. On a scale of one to ten, that pain will fall from an 8 to a 2, give or take.

There is one law for the princely and another law for the powerless masses. And where there is no justice, there often is no peace.

Then, when the law comes between one of these millions of people and something he wants, whether it’s a little illegal protection against Freedom of Information Act requests or a charitable donation from a foreign potentate buying a favor, or even a simple fraudulent tax deduction, he will be more likely to follow the example of his leader and break that law. Taking his cues from his president, he will weigh not the legality of the act but the probability that charges will be brought. Then, if he is caught breaking the law, he will do everything he can to destroy and conceal the evidence, and, if questioned about the alleged violation, he will lie as necessary. And should this citizen be placed under oath, he will follow the example of the leader of the free world and say, “I can’t recall.” That is what will happen.

* * *

Looking out from the top floor restaurant of the Intourist Hotel in Riga, my wife and I spotted a church spire less than a mile east. It looked like it had been plucked out of Chicago. We set out on foot. It turned out to be a late 19th-century Lutheran brick church ringed by a cobblestone traffic oval, surrounded by six-story Germanic townhouses of about the same age that had fallen into disrepair. Across the street from the front of the church, occupying one of the old townhouses, was some sort of military headquarters, with olive-colored Russian jeeps in front. Disappointed to find the arched doors of the church boarded up, we decided to walk around it.

On the side of the church, under another arch protruding from the basement, was a small door that was ajar. Pushing the door open, we stepped into a dark, vaulted hallway that turned immediately to the right. There was a dim bare bulb 20 or so feet ahead, with a poster behind it in Latvian that showed a fist, if I remember it right. It might have shown manacles being broken. I’m not sure. Hearing muffled voices, we turned left and found ourselves at a counter, behind which were 20 or so people working at poorly lit tables under a low groin-vaulted brick ceiling. A young man with an emerging mustache approached us, asked something in Latvian, quickly gave up and left, only to return with a young woman who spoke some English.

Here, they are daring to bring back to life a country that has been smothered by decades of injustice.

She explained that they were preparing for the election of a shadow government that would be ready to step up if the Russians were to grant independence. I think she said that it would oversee the drafting of a new constitution and the creation of a new democratic government, as opposed to a democratic people’s republic. She gave us a roster of the candidates, with names, photos, nationalities, and other information. I remember that some were Russian. There were two collection boxes on the counter. One was to help pay for the election, the other to help restore and reopen the church. I asked if she really thought that the Soviet Union was going to leave and allow the Latvians to be free. Her eyes teared up as she said, “We have to believe this.”

I remember thinking: here, in the dimly-lit basement of a boarded-up church under the shadow of a foreign regime whose bizarre idea of a social contract is based on fear, power, and obedience, with no rights worth mentioning, a regime whose historical resume is long on serfdom and autocracy and short on democracy and freedom, these people are attempting to forge an authentic social contract. Here, they are daring to bring back to life a country that has been smothered by decades of injustice, and occupied by foreign powers for centuries before that. They want to create a country where the people make the laws and the people act within the laws, knowing that society will protect their rights and enforce those laws, knowing that when someone, anyone, no matter how powerful, acts outside the law, society, in the name of the people, will fulfill its obligation to punish that person proportionately. I thought: they are sick and tired of living in a country where miscarriages of justice are so commonplace that when they occur people simply shrug.

I had not been so moved since Old Yeller died. I broke my long-standing policy of not donating to religious or political causes and put some money in both boxes. Not much, but some.

* * *

Today, I had to go to Google Earth to find the church, because I couldn’t remember its name. It is St. Gertrude’s Old Church. Here are some photos. Have a look. Go ahead.




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Just End It Already

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A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind — if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else — then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease. — C.S. Lewis, “Membership”

As Liberty’s unofficial correspondent on all things Facebook, I submit a report on two funny memes that are making the rounds. One shows a bumper sticker that says: “Giant Meteor 2016 — Just End it Already.” The other is a scary merging of the faces of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, combining the power rivals into “Clump.” We could easily conclude, from these and similar expressions of opinion we hear daily, that this election season has made America tired and disgusted. And we would be right.

It is also making America mean. We’ve been goaded to such a high pitch of tension, resentment, and fear that nefarious “activists” can stir up a riot almost anywhere. If Mayberry actually existed, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to hear that Andy, Barney, Goober, and Gomer were shooting it out with a mob protesting the beloved old TV program’s racism.

What is now erupting, all over this country, is nothing less than the violence we Americans have visited upon one another, to an ever-accelerating degree, for decades.

This whole mess was hatched in academia. Since the 1960s, pointy-headed know-it-alls have gloried in stirring up trouble. They used to rally students to throw off the chains of oppression and question everything — especially authority. Now they have become agents of authority. They agitate for free education, but their real aim is easy indoctrination.

The agitators and indoctrinators are not only on one side. For years the political Right has been warning about the dangers of the Left’s influence in these areas, but their outrage is strictly selective. When the Right gets its hands on the controls, it’s shown itself to be no less manipulative.

It is astonishing that right-wingers can decry race-baiting against white people, then cheer for politicians who trade on the fear of blacks. It is no less strange that leftists can condemn violence when it’s committed by the police, yet laud as heroes activists who incite violence — even when people in their own communities are hurt or killed because of it. And the loopy binary that either sees cops as always blameless and black men as responsible for every violent crime, or the other way around, makes no sense whatsoever. Rolling back the now-paramilitary powers of the police would actually save lives on both sides. If the police do the jobs taxpayers are paying them to do, and make our streets safer, police will benefit from the improvement as much as anyone else; but they can hardly keep the streets safer and make them even more dangerous at the same time.

While some posts on Facebook complain about these problems, a precious few others actually propose intelligent solutions. On the day I write this, Dr. Mary Ruwart, a fine contemporary libertarian thinker, notes the following: “The fewer things politicians control, the less it matters who controls the politicians.” I wonder if that simple sentence might actually hold the key.

It makes no sense to expect government to do everything that needs to be done, and not expect a rise in violence. The War on Drugs continues to visit an incalculable amount of aggression against us, all in the name of alleviating our misery, but has done little except make us more miserable than ever. It is a major reason black families are locked in inner-city poverty,while the families themselves are torn apart. Government is force, and nothing else. Americans keep saying that “Violence begets violence” but excusing it when it’s instigated by their ownside. Polls show that they’re increasingly distrustful of government’s ability to solve problems, yet they go on looking to government for every solution.

Know-it-all academics used to rally students to throw off the chains of oppression and question everything — especially authority. Now they have become agents of authority.

It’s obvious that our culture is obsessed with politics. It’s also becoming increasingly obvious that our culture is deathly sick. How can libertarians begin to help enough people make the connection between these two observations and take our country back from the power-brokers?

We are a nation of individual human beings. There are differences between us, and whenever enough of us share the same difference, we are gathered into a gripe-group. As tensions with rival groups increase, our groups become armies in a sort of civil war. Not that life ever gets much better for any of us. In fact, as we’ve become more disunited, our circumstances have grown steadily worse.

It shouldn’t matter so much who is elected president. Nor would it, if the office functioned as our founders designed it. We are so obsessed with politics today because the president has become an emperor. Now we face the decision of whether to have an emperor or an empress. History will be made!

We’ve undertaken violence against one another for the supposed sake of health, but it has turned against us. Government and the struggle for its control — politics — have become a deadly disease. The question we can ask those obsessed with government control is, “Who benefits from the use of force?” The answer is that emperors do. Empires are held together and expanded by violence, both internally and externally. It does nothing for the people except subjugate them. That is, when it doesn’t kill them.

It shouldn’t matter so much who is elected president. Nor would it, if the office functioned as our founders designed it.

Deep down in our unconscious minds — those dark cellars into which we shove the unpleasant truths we don’t want to face — we know that all violence is alike. There are no different sorts — one for “us” and another for “them.” No sort that is good, while only another is bad. When we resort to violence against one another by means of the state, in this high-stakes game we call politics, we are ingesting murder, larceny, and mayhem in our hearts. We have no reason to be astonished when that violence erupts fromus in more primitive and less sophisticated ways.

What is now erupting, all over this country, is nothing less than the violence we Americans have visited upon one another, to an ever-accelerating degree, for decades. We’ve voted ourselves each other’s money, seized each other’s land, forced our neighbors’ children to be taught things of which the neighbors heartily disapprove. Now we’re withholding healthcare from one another for the Orwellian purpose of “making healthcare affordable.” Next, we’ll render ourselves defenseless for the sake of keeping ourselves safe. We can’t say just where it all will end, but the destruction that’s ravaging our cities gives us a likely preview.

Our culture is indeed sick unto death, and it may not survive. The peace and harmony that come as the result of mutual respect are the only possible cure. We libertarians know this. Let’s spread the message far and wide, before it is too late.




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The 2016 Election by the Numbers

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In a previous essay I predicted the electoral demise of Donald Trump. Election Day is more than three months away, and a lot can happen in that amount of time. All human activity is fraught with uncertainty; no one can predict with absolute assurance what will happen tomorrow, much less who will be elected president in November. That said, I offer the reader my analysis of the Trump-Clinton race, with a state-by-state breakdown that I strongly believe reflects what will happen in November.

States that are almost certain to vote Republican

Any Republican, even Trump, should carry the following 23 states:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

These 23 states have 191 electoral votes, 79 short of the 270 needed for victory.

States that are almost certain to vote Democrat

The Democratic nominee will definitely carry the District of Columbia with its 3 electoral votes. She is all but certain to carry the following 20 states as well:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

These 20 states, plus DC, have 246 electoral votes, only 24 short of the total needed for victory. It’s possible but not likely that Michigan and Wisconsin will be competitive, given Trump’s appeal to blue-collar whites in the Rust Belt. Virginia could well have been a tossup state but for the selection of Tim Kaine as Hillary’s running mate. The popular senator and former governor has never lost an election in Virginia, and he’s not going to start this year.

The Tossup States (with electoral votes in parentheses)

  • Colorado (9)
  • Florida (29)
  • Iowa (6)
  • New Hampshire (4)
  • North Carolina (15)
  • Ohio (18)
  • Pennsylvania (20)

It really does come down to these seven states. Let’s leave the big three — Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida — for last.

COLORADO. A purple state that’s been trending Democratic. As in most other states, Democrats do well in the urban centers, and Republicans in rural areas. The Hispanic vote is significant, and it will tip the state to Clinton. Victory in Colorado brings her up to 255 electoral votes.

IOWA. Appears to be leaning toward Trump. Had Hillary picked former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, the current Secretary of Agriculture, for VP, she probably would’ve gotten Iowa’s six electoral votes in November. Vilsack appears to have been the runner-up to Senator Kaine in the Veepstakes. Virginia has 13 electoral votes, so Clinton’s choice was perhaps foreordained. Put Iowa’s six electoral votes in the Trump column. That gives him 197.

NEW HAMPSHIRE. Many mavens are calling the Granite State a tossup, but this New Englander believes it will go for Hillary. Almost any Republican but Trump would carry the state. Add four electoral votes to Hillary’s total, giving her 259.

NORTH CAROLINA. Barack Obama barely carried North Carolina in 2008; he lost the state to Romney in 2012. It’s a tossup state, but I think conservative white enthusiasm (yes, that’s something of a euphemism) will carry Trump to victory here. Give him NC’s 15 electoral votes, bringing him up to 212.

There will be voters who get off the couch on their own because they love the Donald, but perhaps as many (more?) who will do so because they loathe him.

OHIO. No Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio. Polls show the two candidates neck and neck, with Trump perhaps having a slight edge, thanks to his fulminations against free trade. At this point the state is simply too close to call.

PENNSYLVANIA. As in Ohio, polls show the two candidates separated within the margin of error. It’s a battle of the urban areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh versus everything in between — the in-between being, politically and socially, something like North Carolina. Turnout will be crucial. Most experts give the state to Hillary (it’s voted Democratic in the last six presidential elections), but this analyst, at this point, can only say it’s too close to call.

And so we come to the big enchilada — or grapefruit, I should say: Florida.

FLORIDA. The fourth largest prize with 29 electoral votes. A purple state which Obama won in both 2008 and 2012. But have the Democrats worn out their welcome here? This analyst sees the Hispanic vote as key to predicting who will carry the state.

Florida has about 12.3 million registered voters. About 1.8 million of them are Hispanics. Of these Hispanic voters approximately 30% are Cuban, and they traditionally vote Republican. But current polling shows Trump only up by about nine points among Cuban voters, while he’s very unpopular with other segments of the Hispanic community. Trump will win the non-Hispanic white vote, lose big among African-Americans, and do less well than a Republican should with Florida’s Hispanics. The Hispanic vote will give Hillary a narrow margin of victory in the state, making her the next president with a total of at least 288 electoral votes. Release the balloons.

It seems pretty certain that 288 electoral votes is the minimum number Hillary will get. I just wrote that Ohio and Pennsylvania are too close to call, and in a normal campaign that would be true, for the numbers in both states are within the margin of error. But one of the grave weaknesses of the Trump campaign is its lack of organization, of a “ground game” that can identify its voters and turn them out on Election Day. This weakness may be obviated, to an extent, by the passion the Trump candidacy has aroused; but passion in this election is a double-edged sword. There will be voters who get off the couch on their own because they love the Donald, but perhaps as many (more?) who will do so because they loathe him. At the same time, the less motivated part of the electorate will turn out in greater numbers for Hillary, simply because of her superior organization. In theory, Hillary should lose at least Ohio, but in practice both the Buckeye State and the Keystone State are likely to enter her column. That would give her 326 electoral votes, a victory comparable to Obama’s in 2012.

Two states, Nebraska and Maine, assign electoral votes on the basis of who wins in each congressional district, rather than following the winner-take-all rule. Trump could conceivably win an electoral vote in Maine, and Clinton one in Nebraska. But I don't believe the election will be close enough for these possibilities to matter.

Any major swing in the vote outside the numbers I’ve predicted here will almost certainly go against Trump. The potential always exists for Trump to say or do something so outrageous as to cause a backlash that would give the Democrat victory in some otherwise solid Republican states. Trump could turn a loss into a landslide defeat with his mouth alone. Should the Donald implode, Clinton could win 360 or more electoral votes.

If the Libertarian Party defies expectations and maintains its high single-digit support right through Election Day, Trump would suffer as a result. The LP would take considerably more votes away from Trump than Clinton. On the other hand, a strong LP vote would help the Republicans hold the Senate, since most Libertarian voters would support downballot Republican candidates. But my expectation is that the LP vote will dwindle to about 2% on Election Day.

The Green Party will take votes away from Clinton exclusively, but I doubt its candidate will receive more than 1% of the vote. Voters on the left remember 2000, and they certainly fear Trump more than they did George W. Bush. With Bernie on her side Clinton will be able to prevent any mass defection by the earthy-crunchy crowd.

If the Libertarian Party defies expectations and maintains its high single-digit support right through Election Day, Trump would suffer as a result.

The real wild card in this election may be the health and wellbeing of the two candidates. Trump is 70 years old; Clinton is 69. Although perhaps not likely, it would not be terribly surprising if one of them dropped dead or developed a disabling health problem during the campaign. In such an event the party national committee would select a new presidential candidate according to its own particular rules and procedures. However, if a candidate died or became disabled very late in the campaign — too late to print new ballots, for example — confusion and uncertainty would reign. What might happen then is anybody’s guess. At the very least Congress would have to pass special legislation delaying the election by weeks or even longer.

We also have to face the fact that in this election year passions have been aroused to an extent rarely seen in recent history. Many Americans not only perceive the nation as being in crisis, but literally hate one or the other of the presidential candidates, or both. We tend to avoid thinking about how violence has affected our politics since 1963. But in addition to the assassinations of the 1960s, George Wallace was shot and almost killed while campaigning in 1972, potshots were twice taken at President Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan was of course nearly killed by John Hinckley in 1981. The White House came under attack during both the Clinton and the Obama presidencies. It would not surprise me at all if some person or group tried to kill one of the candidates. And if would-be assassins try to kill a candidate, there’s always the chance they will succeed.

Let’s hope it’s a peaceful election. If it is, then Hillary’s your next president. What that may bring is cause enough for disquiet.




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The Bible’s Standard of Liberty

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As the Constitutional Convention drew to a close, newly minted Americans waited anxiously outside Independence Hall to see what kind of government would emerge. Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia approached Benjamin Franklin and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded forcefully, “A republic — if you can keep it.”

“If you can keep it.” There’s the rub. We’ve managed to maintain our republic for 240 years, but it seems to be standing on the brink of a new kind of monarchy, tainted with overbearing mandates and burdened with no compunctions about invasions of individual liberty. It has ever been thus. The lure of power, pomp, and largess has always stood in the shadows of monarchy, ready to trade a false promise of security and ease for hard-won liberty.

The Bible provides one of the most concise and accurate warnings ever written about the corrupting power of monarchy. In just nine short verses, the first book of Samuel describes what happens when a king comes to power. I’ve thought about those verses a good deal during the Fourth of July, and indeed throughout this election season.

We’ve managed to maintain our republic for 240 years, but it seems to be standing on the brink of a new kind of monarchy.

Here’s the biblical narrative: after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, the Israelites finally crossed the Jordan River into the land that had been promised to their tribal founder, Abraham. In the wilderness they had been given Ten Commandments — coincidentally, the same number as the Constitution’s Bill of Rights — and these rules, like the Bill of Rights and Magna Carta after it, protected life, liberty, and property. Moses set up a system of judges to hear and adjudicate complaints, and Joshua continued the judicial system after Moses died. It worked for a while. But soon the Israelites started looking around at the kingdoms that surrounded them. They were drawn to the regality of it, the pomp and pride.

The crisis began when Samuel was judge in Israel but his sons were found unfit to succeed him. They had “turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment.” But instead of simply replacing the corrupt judges with honest ones, as had happened a generation earlier when Judge Eli’s sons proved unfit, the people said to Samuel, “make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” They wanted to be like everyone else.

As a prophet, Samuel consulted with God, and God warned them about the consequences of having a king. The regime of the judges had been decentralized, and more concerned with fairness and simple means of self-protection than with power or glory. Monarchy, as God explained through Samuel, is a much more costly affair.

First, he said, the king “will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.” In other words, he will conscript an army.

Soon the Israelites started looking around at the kingdoms that surrounded them. They were drawn to the regality of it, the pomp and pride.

Next, “he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties, and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of chariots.” I’m not sure whether we would call this bureaucracy, fascism, or slavery, but forced labor by any other name is still as bleak.

Then “he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.” Ever an equal-opportunity enslaver, the king will conscript the daughters too — not unlike our own Senate, which recently voted to require women as well as men to register for the draft in the interest of “fairness to women.”

In addition, the king “will take the tenth of your seed [an income tax] and of your menservants, and your maidservants, and … your asses … and sheep [a wealth tax].”

And here’s the kicker about consequences: God concludes by saying, “And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day” (1 Samuel 8:10–18).

Notice the reason God gave for leaving the people to suffer when they inevitably cry out for help: “the king which ye shall have chosen.” God respects choice, and he insists on accountability. Why do bad things happen? Because so many people make bad choices.

It is interesting that the warning did no good. “Nay, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations [a kind of globalism],” the people said. The fact that ideas and choices have consequences is unpleasant to consider. Much easier to follow one’s desires and find someone to help them — or to blame — later.

From that moment Saul viewed David as a threat and usurper, and vowed to kill him. One of the costs of centralized power is the grim desire to get and keep it.

If a king was what they wanted, God was willing to help Samuel select a good man for the job. Saul was a humble man who responded to the call by saying, “Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? And my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin?” (1 Samuel 9:21). On the day of his coronation Saul was found “hiding among the stuff,” so overwhelmed was he by the thought of becoming king.

Nevertheless, as Lord Acton observed, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As king, Saul became reckless, paranoid, and churlish. God selected another young man to become Saul’s successor — David, the youngest son of the shepherd Jesse. After David volunteered to face the giant Philistine Goliath, and killed him, the Israelites shouted, “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands!” From that moment Saul viewed David as a threat and usurper, and vowed to kill him. One of the costs of centralized power is the grim desire to get and keep it.

When Saul died in battle, David became king, and it happened to him too, just as God had predicted; soon the once-humble shepherd boy began to change. He conscripted armies and demanded food and supplies. When a “churlish” local landowner, Nabal, refused to give his army food and wine, David flew into a rage and threatened to kill all of Nabal’s servants and their families. Only the quick thinking of Abigail, Nabal’s wife, prevented the slaughter as she reminded David of how such a vile act would affect his reputation as king. Abigail’s wise argument brought David to his senses, and he thanked her. “Blessed be thy advice . . . which hast kept me from coming to shed blood, and from avenging myself with mine own hand” (I Samuel 25).

But David’s humility was short-lived. Soon he was standing on his palace balcony, filled with lust as he watched a woman, Bathsheba. With the power given to a king, he sent for her, slept with her, and when she became pregnant arranged for her husband Uriah’s death by sending him to the battlefront and ordering his captain to leave him unprotected. This is what happens, often, when a man gets unchecked power; his sense of entitlement overpowers his sense of rightness. David would struggle for the rest of his life with the demands of war, and civil war with people who craved his power. He also struggled, often unsuccessfully, with his own impulses. Power did not corrupt David absolutely, however, and he tried to escape its withering grasp.

As we celebrate the 240th year of our nation’s independence, we have reason to be proud. The founders began a process of separation from monarchy that would provide an example for other nations around the world. Our constitution became a model for other nations that would throw off the power of monarchy and turn monarchs into figureheads. The founders were not able to make all wrongs right — there were other civil rights still to be won. But they blazed a trail to freedom that others would follow in their own time.

When bad choices are made, the continued existence of choice provides a path back.

Yet we must ever be vigilant against the corruption of power. The description of monarchy provided in 1 Samuel 8:10–18 is still timely today, and it can describe presidents and dictators as well as kings. Indeed, many of us would be delighted if our income and wealth taxes stood only at the biblical 10%!

But there is another feature of those verses in 1 Samuel that should be emphasized. They picture God granting the people a choice. He warns of the natural consequences of certain actions, but then allows us to choose which path we will take. When bad choices are made, the continued existence of choice provides a path back. Let us hope that we, too, can find a path back to the liberties vouchsafed by our founding documents, as well as the respect for the rights of others encompassed within the Ten Commandments.




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