If You Can Keep Your Head

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Recently I saw an article with a headline that went more or less like this: “I’m a Conservative: I Care About Character.” The thesis of the piece was: “That’s why I can’t support Trump.”

I didn’t finish the article. I didn’t need to. I felt that I could have written it myself — or a hundred articles like it. Not because I’m a conservative (I’m not) or because I habitually care about politicians’ “character” enough to vote for or against them because of it. I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils. But I understand that everyone has some particular issue that he or she cares most about, at least right now; and for the conservative gentleman or lady it’s “character.” Some people care, or think they care, about only one issue, ever. And an article written from that point of view would be simplicity itself.

I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils.

But I look at the world in a different way, and I believe that the year of the Trump presidency has taught a lot of other people to see things that way too. Here it is: there are many possible reasons why intelligent people vote or refuse to vote for someone; these reasons are pretty much apples and oranges, with economic concerns being somehow “weighed” against character concerns or constitutional concerns or the horribleness of the opposing candidate; this is an imperfect world, but somehow one makes choices on the basis of those various concerns, because one has to choose (not voting being a choice like any other). All of this seems self-evident, when you think about it, but I believe that many people have become more conscious of it because of the Trump presidency.

If you’re a libertarian, as I am, you may hail or detest Donald Trump because of his positions on taxes or immigration or trade or “infrastructure” or his lack of traditional gravitas . . . You can expand this list pretty far, and it’s unlikely that you will hail or detest him on every available front. But you get to choose which of them are most important, and you get to change your mind later on. You may, for instance, like his financial policies, and if enough of them are implemented, you may not like him so well afterwards. He gave you your way on your most important issue, so fine; but now you’re looking at his other ideas.

This messy way of thinking operates throughout life, not just in politics, although many true and upright people do not realize that it does. Others believe it is a sin to realize that, and to act upon it. These good people may be purists who cannot bring themselves to make any political choices, because all of them seem dirty. Or they may be rationalizers who make a messy decision and then suddenly discover that what they chose was entirely and uniquely moral and necessary, and if you don’t agree with it, you are a deeply flawed human being.

It’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various.

To many of these people, however, Trump has provided a memorable lesson. He has presented them with a concrete problem — the assessment of his presidency — that cries out for them to see the complexity of choice. He has given them the chance to practice thinking like, well, good economists. He didn’t intend to do that, but he did.

He also gave them practice in distinguishing sane thinking from insane thinking. When we see someone attributing every wrong characteristic to Donald Trump, ignoring any of his successes and inventing, if necessary, failures, we have identified someone who has not only made a choice of values about the world but is using it to create a world. In what other area of life do people feel impelled to say that a person whom they dislike for one reason is also unlikable for every other reason in the cosmos? The same goes for the zealots who simply cannot get enough of Trump, his tweets and rallies. In what other area of life do people wait in line for hours to hear strings of clichés, most of them meaningless, and cheer them to the rafters, imagining that now they can depart in peace, having seen all the greatness and the glory of this age?

The fact that politics turns some into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents.

I know, it’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various and difficult, and that they don’t seem likely to recover. One might imagine that their world, because it’s simpler than the real world, is also easier and therefore better to live in. Actually, the reason it’s simple is that there’s practically nothing in it, and this can be an inconvenience.

Yet these people are, like Trump, good lessons to us all — in two ways.

One is obvious: let’s not be like them. The other is not obvious, but it needs to be learned, so that we don’t end up in the same world with them. It starts with the recognition that outside the political realm, most of these people are eminently sane and well intentioned, and blessed with some practical success in life. When we recognize this, we see how important it is to refuse the temptation to make reductionist judgments on their lives, as they do on the lives of others. The fact that politics turns them into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents. It’s true, we may need to lead the conversation to something outside the realm of American party politics, but even this act may, just possibly, show them that there is a way back to the messy but vital world of actual thought, that we are taking it, and it makes us happy.




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It's Delightful, It's Delovely, It's . . .

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Imitations of Life

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In the surreal world of “news,” the funniest thing that happened during the past few weeks may have been the fake Thanksgiving episode of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” The show was prerecorded, but — and this is the thing that tickled me — Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski kept making fraudulent Thanksgiving sounds. As reported by the New York Daily News:

“Day after Thanksgiving. Woo! I’m stuffed!” host Mika Brzezinski said to open the show.

“A great Thanksgiving,” Joe Scarborough replied before they both offered a few awkward clichés.

S and B later claimed that the performance was a joke and that anyone who took it seriously (e.g., all media reporting on it) was a “moron.” Was that a joke? A joke about a joke? Much funnier was the network’s response to complaints. Its spokeswoman said:

There was no intention to trick viewers. Would it have helped if there was a disclaimer? Maybe. But that’s not typically done.

If this is correct, does it mean that news shows are typically faked? I can believe it. And I guess she’s right: a disclaimer wouldn’t help.

Or maybe it would, if the news content still made sense. I know, I know: that would mean hiring news people with the (minimal) knowledge and (minimally) balanced minds required to tell the difference between sense and nonsense. Such people would need to be paid, and that might be difficult, because the corporate vendors of news are strapped for money; they’ve got nothing left after paying such people as Matt Lauer and Megyn Kelly tens of millions, just to cause trouble.

Was that a joke? A joke about a joke?

But if the principal news media could scrape up some cash, maybe we wouldn’t see reports about “young, undocumented immigrants born in the U.S.” (NBC, November 28). That phrase (discovered by hawkeyed Liberty author Michael Christian) was later changed to “brought to the U.S.,” when somebody finally noticed the obvious mistake. But what’s the difference? The Dreamers are here, aren’t they? Who cares whether they were born or brought?

The larger question is why soi-disant journalists should want to make sense about anything, when nobody else seems to care. If the people at large really cared, why would they be getting their news from NBC or “Morning Joe” in the first place? And if the president cared . . .

Here’s a good one. When, on December 18, an Amtrak train went off the rails on a curve near Tacoma, killing several people, Trump immediately attributed the disaster to a lack of government investment in the infrastructure:

The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!

Now, one of the first things broadcast about the accident was the observation of witnesses that the train was going about 80 miles an hour. This turned out to be true. And if anyone was curious enough, as I was, to google a map, he could see at a glance that a train going anywhere near that speed would never get around that curve. Little more time was required to discover — because this too was immediately reported — that the stretch of rail in question had just been opened to passenger transportation after a vast federal investment in the infrastructure. This doesn’t mean that the president is always wrong. It does mean that his Does It Make Sense Monitor is subject to periodic deactivation.

That would mean hiring news people with the (minimal) knowledge and (minimally) balanced minds required to tell the difference between sense and nonsense.

But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: if VIPs made sense, where would Word Watch be? The answer is: out of copy. So senselessness has its benefits. That sudden, excited breath you take, that little jump your heart makes when you ask yourself, “Did the president really say that?” — you’d be missing all that fun if the VIPs (Vitally Ignorant People) limited themselves to sensible statements. As Yeats put it, “What theme had Homer but original sin?”

The sin of senselessness can brighten any subject. On December 14, ABC fired somebody named Mario Batali, who seems to be a chef, from its show “The Chew”(!). The cause was the usual sexual allegations, and Batali responded with the usual Reeducation Rag:

I have made many mistakes and I am so very sorry that I have disappointed my friends, my family, my fans and my team. My behavior was wrong . . . . I will work every day to regain your respect and trust.

That tells you a lot, doesn’t it? Now I feel that I understand exactly what happened. But he added:

In case you’re searching for a holiday-inspired breakfast, these Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls are a fan favorite.

He followed with a picture of the magic Rolls, and a button you could click to get the recipe. It’s an odd effect, isn’t it — this combination of repentance and recipes? But the senselessness is almost as savory as a plate of warm cinnamon rolls.

If you want senselessness of any kind, sex is the most dependable source, and the result is virtually guaranteed when sex is combined with politics. As John McLaughlin used to say, here’s a political potpourri.

If VIPs made sense, where would Word Watch be? The answer is: out of copy.

My first exhibit comes from Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). She is one politician who really knows how to sling the clichés. Determined to destroy, as she put it, the “toxic culture of predatory sexual behavior” (that’s two big clichés in only six words), she attacked her colleague, Congressman Ruben Kihuen (D-NV), for his alleged sexual improprieties. But she was anxious to free herself from any implication of unfairness, and this is how she did it (dateline December 1):

I support a full, fair and expedient investigation against Congressman Kihuen and any other Member of Congress who have women or men come forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior. This process must be open [and] transparent and have an appropriate investigatory timeline that delivers justice.

It’s good to know what Senator Masto supports, as opposed to what she actually believes (if anything).

It gives her utterance that special something that was lacking in Mr. Batali’s statement of personal responsibility — that flavor of political process that adds so much to moral discourse. It suggests speaking at rallies, recording your vote, and wearing your most serious face when the cameras are on. She supports — but does she think? The quality of her thinking is indicated by her reference to a fair investigation against Kihuen. Thank you, Madame Defarge.

Let’s see, let’s see . . . the next linguistic scandal is provided by the Los Angeles Times, reporting on the life of California Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, who has lately been charged with sexual impropriety:

In 2013, Dababneh narrowly won a special election for his Assembly seat in a reliably Democratic district. . . . Since then, he has handily won reelection twice, boosted by a flush campaign account and an influential perch as chairman of the Assembly’s Banking and Finance Committee.

Picture that, if you can: boosted by a flush account, the man attained an influential perch. “Perch”: what is that, a fish? No, but I can more easily imagine a fish being influential than influence being wielded by one of those things that a bird sits on. My assumption is that the Times, which was knocked off its perch by a drop in daily circulation from 1,225,000 in 1990 to 274,000 in 2017, feels a compulsion to be flashy and jazzy all the time. Or try to be.

Again, big birds (well, once-big birds) give examples of senselessness to all the little birds. Remember Nancy Pelosi, and you’ll see at once what I mean. Whenever sane persons hear her name, they automatically ask themselves, “What idiotic remark has she made now?”

The quality of her thinking is indicated by her reference to a "fair" investigation "against" Kihuen. Thank you, Madame Defarge.

Pelosi’s special characteristic has always been her senseless clichés. A cliché is often just a tired way of saying something sensible, but her clichés are tired ways of saying nothing. Pelosi is the High Priest, the Grand Mufti, the Magical Adept, the Mysterious Oracle of meaningless clichés.

When sex charges arose against Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) — a perpetual representative from Detroit, where politics is as dirty as dirt — Pelosi stepped forth to defend him, dressed in her costume as the sweet village maiden who never wants to hear any bad things. I’ll quote her, putting her clichés in italics:

We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two?

How dear that she didn’t know! Although it wasn’t just one. If it had been, she wouldn’t have been talking about it. But now comes the Yankee Doodle Dandy part of her comments (except that Yankee Doodle Dandy was created by people who understood what to do with clichés):

John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women — Violence Against Women Act, which the left — right-wing [oops!] — is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that, and he did great work on that. [Did you ever notice how similar Pelosi’s rhetoric is to that of her bête noir, Donald Trump?] But the fact is, as John reviews his case, which he knows, which I don’t, I believe he will do the right thing.

I always enjoy listening to moral lectures, especially from people who don’t know what they’re talking about:

When asked specifically whether she believes the accusations against Conyers, Pelosi said: “I do not know who they are. Do you? They have not really come forward.”

Actually, they had. So later that day (November 26) Pelosi put out a statement saying, "Zero tolerance means consequences. I have asked for an ethics investigation, and as that investigation continues, Congressman Conyers has agreed to step aside as Ranking Member."

But there was more. According to NBC,

Pelosi, meanwhile, also [being a news writer means that you don’t have to worry about whether it’s senseless to write also when you’ve already written meanwhile] said the reaction to sexual misconduct accusations against former President Bill Clinton from that era versus today represent [and you don’t have to worry about subject-verb agreement, either] “obviously a generational change.”

“The concern that we had then was that they were impeaching the president of the United States, and for something that had nothing to do with the performance of his duties, and trying to take him out for that reason," Pelosi added. "But let's go forward. Let's go forward. I think that something wonderful is happening now, very credible. It's 100 years, almost 100 years, since women got the right to vote. Here we are, almost 100 years later, and something very transformative is happening.”

What the hell? What does that mean? It’s said that the definition of “true poetry” is something that cannot be translated into any other language. So I guess that Pelosi’s words are true poetry. You can’t even summarize them in a sensible way. As Alexander Pope put it, “true no-meaning puzzles more than wit.”

Nancy Pelosi is the High Priest, the Grand Mufti, the Magical Adept, the Mysterious Oracle of meaningless clichés.

Now that I’m quoting from the 18th century, I recall that Thomas Gray called the great front of the palace of Versailles “a huge heap of littleness.” A good phrase, susceptible of many applications. “A huge heap of littleness” is what all these official people are making of our language — our means of thinking and the palace of our culture.

On December 11, Fox News described, with peasant navieté, the way in which achievement is signified in Washington. The subject was Bruce Ohr, one of the horde of hollow men that government spawns and nurtures:

Until Dec. 6, when Fox News began making inquiries about him, Bruce Ohr held two titles at DOJ [if you aren’t inside the Beltway, this means “the Department of Justice”]. He was, and remains, director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force; but his other job was far more senior. Mr. Ohr held the rank of associate deputy attorney general, a post that gave him an office four doors down from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The day before Fox News reported that Mr. Ohr held his secret meetings last year with the founder of Fusion GPS, Glenn Simpson, and with Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled the dossier [accusing Donald Trump of bad behavior in a Moscow hotel], the Justice Department stripped Ohr of his deputy title and ousted him from his fourth floor office at the building that DOJ insiders call “Main Justice.”

Associate deputy attorney general . . . four doors down . . . ousted from the fourth floor . . . good grief! What would the Buddha think? What would your grandmother think? There used to be a half-good novel (Fannie Hurst, 1933) that spawned two half-good movies; and its title was Imitation of Life. That title is appropriate to many people and many things.

But here we are, as Pelosi says, at the end of 2017 — a year of linguistic horrors. It’s fitting that she should have the last word about this year, because she has extended it. Yes she has.

Pelosi thinks that "the process" has some significance, because she said it.

She doesn’t want anyone to imagine that she and her party exploited the cloyingly denominated Dreamers by promising that their wishes would be made into law this year, only to disappoint them. Therefore, by decree of Pelosi, 2017 has acquired a 13th month.

This was all reported by The Hill on December 21:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Thursday defended her fellow Democrats for allowing the debate over “Dreamers” to carry into January, saying the delay is no indication that party leaders have abandoned demands that the issue be tackled this year.

Instead, according to Pelosi's argument, the Republicans’ decision to punt the fight over 2018 spending into next month meant the Democrats had to postpone their immigration push, as well.

“They kicked the can for the omnibus into January. It’s this year, extended, that’s what it is. It’s the process,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.

What does this mean, if anything? It means that Pelosi thinks that everyone in the country knows the significance of the omnibus, just as everyone is supposed to know the significance of the fourth floor. It means that she thinks the process has some significance, because she said it. It means that she thinks kicked the can sounds fresh and new. It means that she thinks she can lie about the calendar.

My idea is that neither the calendar nor the United States of America can be favorably transformed by nonsense words. My idea is that words ultimately depend on realities. To put this in another way, I agree with Yeats: “At stroke of midnight God shall win.”




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Crypto-Antifascists

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Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and neo-Nazis are vile, fascist thugs. They have been routinely denounced for decades by both political parties, incessantly so after the Unite the Right rally of August 12 at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally, ostensibly to protest the removal of Confederate statues, did not take place. Under lax police tactics, which have been criticized by both protestors and counter-protestors, 34 people were injured, only four people were arrested, and one woman was killed by a person, likely deranged, who supported the rightwing ralliers.

Antifa (short for Anti-Fascist) is a nationwide network of masked, left-wing agitators and anarchists who have taken it upon themselves to protect communities from right-wing fascists and racists. Their standard mode of operation is to descend upon suspicious events (e.g., rallies, marches, and speaking engagements) to shut down free, but hateful, speech, thereby preventing the violence that it will surely cause — doing so often with violence, which they openly embrace, and, preferably, without police assistance, which they openly reject. In an article in The Atlantic, “The Rise of the Violent Left,” Peter Beinart writes, “They pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet. They pressure employers to fire them and landlords to evict them. And when people they deem racists and fascists manage to assemble, antifa’s partisans try to break up their gatherings, including by force.”

Under lax police tactics, which have been criticized by both protestors and counter-protestors, 34 people were injured, only four people were arrested, and one woman was killed.

So far so good, you may be thinking. But before you run out to purchase your mask, black hoodie, and bat, before you head down to the local alt-Left recruitment office to enlist, consider that the universe of fascism extends far beyond the villainous skinhead demographic that you have always despised. That unsuspecting bigot whom you are itching to sneak up behind and cold-cock might be your neighbor, a fellow employee, a relative, perhaps. To the alt-Left, and to the sycophantic news media, academia, and Democrat party, America is awash with fascists and racists.

According to an author featured by CNN, everyone who voted for President Trump is “by default” a white supremacist. And, notes Beinart, roughly three-quarters of Democrats are convinced that he is a racist who is advancing fascist policies. During the racial and radical strife that consumed the presidential campaign of 1968, Gore Vidal famously won a political argument with William F. Buckley, by simply calling Buckley a crypto-Nazi, a Nazi sympathizer — thereby creating an intellectual foundation for modern liberal discourse. Consequently, the “progressive” argument today, that Mr. Trump and the 60 million Americans who elected him are white supremacists because liberals say they are, is thought to be unassailable. And no doubt following this logic, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded that rampant bigotry now permeates America, and felt compelled to issue a formal "early warning and urgent action procedure," said to be “a rare move often used to signal the potential of a looming civil conflict.”

To avert this second Civil War, the news media and politicians have decided against denouncing the alt-Left. Politicians, that is, except for Trump, who blamed both the alt-Right and the alt-Left for the Charlottesville violence — and has been excoriated himself, by both political parties, ever since. Republicans such as Mitt Romney and Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio have accused him of equating the acts of racists and fascists with the acts of those fighting against racism and fascism. Said Gary Cohn, Trump’s National Economic Council Director, “Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK.” Mr. Cohn went on to urge his administration to “do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities.”

That unsuspecting bigot whom you are itching to sneak up behind and cold-cock might be your neighbor, a fellow employee, a relative, perhaps.

Good luck salving up those divisions; the alt-Left exists to create them, the deeper the better. Patrisse Cullors, one of Black Lives Matters’ three cofounders, claims that Mr. Trump is prosecuting a Hitler-like genocide on our communities. Says Ms. Cullors, “Trump is literally the epitome of evil, all the evils of this country, be it racism, capitalism, sexism, homophobia and he has set out the most dangerous policies not just that impacts this country but that impacts the globe.” To Antifa’s Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement, she has barely scratched the surface of America’s unjust, illegitimate landscape. In its recruitment video (which should turn neo-Nazi leaders and their videographers green with envy) we are told that the government “has openly declared war on our communities, threatening to ethnically cleanse Latinos, criminalize Muslims, destroy indigenous land, oppress the LGBTQ community, and continues to murder and oppress black people.”

Although little may seem more virtuous than shameless affirmations of the alt-Left’s moral superiority over the alt-Right, Messrs. Romney, McCain, et al. should give “Burn Down the American Plantation” a read. It might cause them to question, possibly challenge, the Alt-Left crusade. Incidentally, the violence produced by such divisive vitriol began long before Trump’s election, in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland.

Democrats, and the media, on the other hand, not only refuse to condemn alt-Left violence; they condone, if not encourage, it; they revel in the division it creates. The alt-Left, they say, does not advocate violence, as does the deplorable alt-Right. Never mind that the alt-Left consciously seeks to stir up violence at every opportunity, and uses “self-defense” as an excuse for its own violence. As such, alt-Left thugs are referred to as counter-protestors and peace activists, sometimes as heroes. For example, former Hillary Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon, Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, and CNN anchorman Chris Cuomo all likened the alt-Left counter-protestors at the “Unite the Right” debacle to American soldiers on D-Day, who “confronted the Nazis without a permit.”

The violence produced by such divisive vitriol began long before Trump’s election, in cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore.

They are not heroes. Heroes (92% of them) don’t live with their parents, hide behind disguises, throw public tantrums, sucker-punch unsuspecting victims (even if the victims are authentic fascists), or hurl balloons filled with urine and feces at police. (By the way, I can’t imagine anything that I could hate enough to make me even touch a shit balloon, let alone fill one. And how is it done, with safety to the hurler? I bet that a terrorist, concerned about a weapon going off prematurely, would be more fearful of a shit balloon then an IED.)

And the alt-Left does not exist to fight fascism. Its violence has plagued the nation for years, and its attacks have been focused, not on avowed or even plausible fascists, but on conservatives or libertarians such as Charles Murray, Anne Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Heather Mac Donald, who were invited to speak at liberal colleges and universities; on police, on attenders of Trump rallies, and on ordinary Americans whose only sin was the ownership of homes, vehicles, and businesses in the vicinity of unchecked alt-Left destruction, burning, and looting. Its principal targets have been capitalism, liberty, tolerance, law and order, property rights, peaceful assembly, American history, and, most importantly, free speech. These so-called antifascists did not confront actual fascists until the Charlottesville tragedy — where their “peace activist” behavior was indistinguishable from that of the vicious fascist thugs that they engaged.

For the most part, alt-Right fascism exists only in the paranoid minds of the alt-Left, and in the hysterical talking points of the journalists, social science professors, and politicians who tell us, incessantly, that it is on the rise. If so, where? The Unite the Right rally was the largest white supremacist gathering in over a decade, drawing an estimated 250 to 500 racists from all over the country. One would expect a racist nation to send tens of thousands of hate-filled bigots to such an event.

The alt-Left's principal targets have been capitalism, liberty, tolerance, law and order, property rights, peaceful assembly, American history, and, most importantly, free speech.

“Alt-Right” groups such as the neo-Nazis and the KKK have been despised for decades by the American public; they hold no positions in government, academia, the news media, entertainment, or corporate America; they have no money; they wield no power. According to Anti-Defamation League estimates, there are only “3,000 Klan members and unaffiliated individuals who identify with Klan ideology” in the entire country — probably only half that number, if the ones in old age homes and prisons are deducted.

As Kevin Williamson observed in his article “Gangs of Berkeley,” “the so-called antifa and the white-nationalist clowns are two sides of the same very sad little coin.” The news media, academia, and politicians — crypto-antifascistswho tacitly endorse the alt-Left — would do well to heed the admonition of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz: “Do not glorify the violent people who are now tearing down the statues. Many of these people, not all of them, many of these people are trying to tear down America. Antifa is a radical, anti-America, anti-free market, communist, socialist, hard left censorial organization that tries to stop speakers on campuses from speaking.”

One week after the Unite the Right rally, a Free Speech rally was held in Boston (aka the Cradle of American Liberty), Massachusetts. The organizers, the Boston Free Speech Coalition, “publicly distanced themselves from the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and others who fomented violence in Charlottesville,” emphatically stating, "We are strictly about free speech . . . [W]e will not be offering our platform to racism or bigotry. We denounce the politics of supremacy and violence." The Boston Police Department, which assigned 500 police officers to the event, requested that counter-protestors not throw urine at them.

The rally drew fewer than 100 free speech advocates. No Nazis and no Klansmen attended. But 40,000 counter-protesters showed up — witless fools, in effect, protesting against free speech, in the cradle of liberty.

Neo-Nazis and the KKK hold no positions in government, academia, the news media, entertainment, or corporate America; they have no money; they wield no power.

Included among the protesters were an estimated 2,000 members from the alt-Left. They attacked the few free speech advocates that they could find, screamed infantile chants; e.g., "Hate speech is not free speech," "Cops and Klan go hand in hand", "Oink oink, bang bang," and “George Soros, where is our Money!” And, of course, they threw urine at the police.

The news media and Boston politicians celebrated. Evidently, the police too were jubilant. Of the 40,000 protesters, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans gushed that they came to Boston "standing tall against hatred and bigotry in our city, and that's a good feeling."

Not so for national unity, peaceful assembly (33 arrests were made), or the First Amendment.

The alt-Right is vile, but powerless. The alt-Left is vile, but, through the tacit endorsement of the cowardly news media, servile academia, and spineless politicians, it has become a significantly destructive force in American culture. As such, it is immensely more worrisome than the alt-Right. I worry about the contaminating effects of the alt-Left’s hatred for America, in general, and free speech, in particular.




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The Problem of Perspective

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When libertarians (and others) get into debates, we often bewail our opponents’ lack of facts. But I suppose you’ve noticed that even when everybody has the facts, the debate continues — a situation that has become very frequent in this age of quick and plentiful access to information. Often the problem is simply the perfectly accurate perception of people on one side or the other that if the force of the facts were recognized, they would have to alter their political identity.

I recently found myself in a dispute with a person whose writing I admire. (This is not uncommon.) She said that because a certain politician had said X, therefore we must conclude that he was preaching the gospel of Y. I quoted what the man had said, which was literally and vigorously anti-Y. My friend replied, “I know that. But that’s just the cover-up. What he obviously meant was Y.” To my friend, it was so important that X meant Y that she would never be betrayed by mere facts.

People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective.

Even this, however, is not the major barrier to healthy political discourse. The deeper problem is a lack of perspective on facts. People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective. We all know people who can quote every foolish thing that President Obama or President Trump ever said (and that’s a lot), and on that basis are prepared to prove that one of them is a mere pawn of certain Interests or is the master player in a plot to destroy the republic and institute rule by force. What’s missing is common sense, and the perspective it provides. Lots of people say foolish things. In fact, we all do. Anyone can quote some remark by me, or some other libertarian you know, and say, triumphantly, “How can a person who said that pretend to be a libertarian?” Well, it’s quite possible, and it might not be a pretense. Extend the logic to people you don’t know, and it works just as well. To admit this is not to give your sanction to Obama, Trump, or anyone else. It’s to have a little bit of common sense.

A lack of commonsense perspective lies at the root of conspiracy theories generally — the false ones, of course, because people do sometimes conspire to produce certain ends, and why should we be shocked by that? The dedicated researchers who believe that Oswald was a fall guy know many more facts about Oswald than I ever will, but the overwhelming truth that 54 years have passed since Oswald and Kennedy were killed, and no one has emerged to confess that he had any kind of involvement, however peripheral, in any kind of conspiracy to make Oswald a fall guy suggests that facts can easily betray you, absent the perspective of common sense.

The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities.

But there’s another lack of perspective that is especially characteristic of the present moment, and that is sheer ignorance of historical,as opposed to immediate, facts. In 1988, virtually all the public-policy writers in the United States, from the New York Times on down (or up), preached, with the Leninists, that communism in Eastern Europe was an irreversible phenomenon. In 1989, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe crashed. “Oh, who woulda thunk it?” was the experts’ cry. The answer was: anybody who knew some history. Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not. Historical examples: France in 1789. France in 1814. Germany in 1918. The Stuarts in 1688. The Commonwealth of England in 1660. I could go on.

Between 1950 and 1990, Americans were told — and in my experience of some of those decades, Americans believed — that they were living in a unique time in human history: never before had “a civilization and a way of life been threatened with total destruction.” The reference was to the atomic bomb, which was, indeed, new; but the notion about its unique effects was so false to the facts of history as to be laughable. The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities. If your enemies conquer you, they will rape all the women, enslave all the woman and children, and kill all the men. That will be the end of your “way of life.” If one recognized that modern America was not unique in this respect, one couldn’t just go out and deduce some great truth about what should be done regarding, say, Soviet missiles in Cuba, but one might be more rational, and less hysterical, about one’s pacifism or militarism. It’s a matter of perspective.

So much for the myths of the last generation. There were lots more of them, but you get the point. My sense is that the “educated” people of 2017 know a hell of a lot less about history than the “educated” people of 1988 — and not just the history of the world but the history of their own country. I am not a fan of the Southern secessionists, or of Woodrow Wilson. I positively dislike most of what I know about them. But to assume that the only fact about their lives that could possibly be worth knowing is that they were racists is an astonishing intellectual performance. To teach this to children is to warn them against all historical curiosity, to turn history into an endless, and endlessly disgusting, game of hunting the Great Satan. Some people, thus educated, will pretend to join the hunt, out of the cynicism that ideologues are good at inspiring; others will adopt it as their own fanatical crusade; most will get the sense that nothing about history is very interesting, after all — let alone inspiring.

Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not.

Let’s look at another example in which perspective has been completely lost, by the denial of simple curiosity. Unlike many other vocal libertarians, I believe that the current struggle against Islamic terrorism is real and important and must be won. Nevertheless, terrorism results not just from religious or political ideas but from certain, very imperfectly understood, psychological and social factors. Might it not be helpful to know something about the history of terrorism in the modern world?

Well, it didn’t start with 9/11. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “socialist,” “populist,” and “anarchist” (actually communist) terrorists swarmed over Europe and North America, killing, among many others, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria; Umberto, King of Italy; Alexander, Emperor of Russia; William McKinley, President of the United States; and Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago (in an attempt to assassinate President-elect Franklin Roosevelt). They also killed or attempted to kill such private citizens as the industrialist Henry Clay Frick (see Liberty, September 2005, pp. 40–45). Then there was labor union terrorism, which peaked in 1910, with the bomb that blew apart the pressroom at the Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people. This is the case in which the unjustifiably iconic Clarence Darrow, the socialist lawyer, attempted to bribe a juror on the streets of Los Angeles. But the biggest event in “domestic terrorism” was the Bath (Michigan) School Disaster, in which a local farmer, dissatisfied for some reason with his admittedly humdrum life, killed his beloved wife, destroyed his homestead, and blew apart a wing of the schoolhouse down the road, destroying, all told, 44 people, 38 of them children.

These incidents might conceivably shed some light on why depraved men or women (usually men) suddenly decide to kill large numbers of innocent people, but since almost nobody realizes that the events even happened, almost nobody looks for that light.

Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Let’s proceed to another type of violence, the violence of words, and other symbolic deeds, that is making it virtually impossible for sane men and women to read the news without symptoms of convulsion. I, for one, do not wish to rise in the morning only to be assaulted by a vast array of establishment-media venues ravaging the current president as if he were the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Nor is it a pleasure to visit my favorite non-establishment sites and find them wholly given over to defenses of the president. Nor — to give you a third and final nor — is it gratifying to me to read the president’s own abusive messages about the media, which are sometimes amusing, but you can’t bank on that. Strange to say, the chief complaint of all these splenetic keyboard artists is that never before in history has political discourse been so hostile and abusive.

Well, that isn’t true, and I’m glad it’s not true, if only because hostility produced the following delightful letter from Former President John Adams to Former President Thomas Jefferson (April 19, 1817).

Dear Sir

My loving and beloved Friend, [Adams’ Secretary of State Timothy] Pickering, has been pleased to inform the World that I have “few Friends.” I wanted to whip the rogue, and I had it in my power, if it had been in my Will to do it, till the blood come. But all my real Friends as I thought them, with Dexter and Grey at their Head insisted “that I should not say a Word.” “That nothing that such a Person could write would do me the least Injury. That it would betray the Constitution and the Government, if a President out or in should enter a Newspaper controversy, with one of his Ministers whom he had removed from his Office, in Justification of himself for that removal or any thing else.” And they talked a great deal about “The Dignity” of the Office of President, which I do not find that any other Persons, public or private regard very much.

Nevertheless, I fear that Mr. Pickerings Information is too true. It is impossible that any Man should run such a Gauntlet as I have been driven through, and have many Friends at last. This “all who know me know” though I cannot say “who love me tell.”

I’m reminded of the words of Addison DeWitt: “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent.” Adams’ superb wit, proud and knowing, and so characteristic of his letters, would distinguish him in any context, just as the lack of any literary quality whatever would be sufficient to identify virtually all political writing of the present age.

I’ve talked about this in Word Watch, and I’ll talk about it again in that place. What I want to emphasize here is the historical perspective offered by the presidential letter of two centuries ago. It suggests that there is nothing off-the-charts about the “abusive rhetoric” of contemporary politics.

To be fair, of course, we need to consider what exalted condition of politesse American political discourse is supposed to have declined from. That high standard, I believe, is the manner of handling news and opinion that prevailed in the days when the senior members of our current news establishment were growing up, the days of Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Edward R. Murrow. The declension from those glory days is sad, sad. Never before in American history . . .

If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one.

Well, did you ever try to read anything that Edward R. Murrow wrote? David Brinkley, who was one of the tribe, but an eccentric one, could actually write, but he was virtually the only one, and none of the present handwringers ever mentions him. His perspective on history, which was a pretty wide one, has been forgotten, and would certainly not be sought, by the preachers of auld lang syne. What they pine for is the slick modern-liberal sentiments and the passive-aggressive style of that former age, a style inveterately contemptuous of the host of people, places, ideas, and emotions whose existence it refused to recognize. What they miss is its lying veneer of “objectivity,” so-called.

That veneer wasn’t much in evidence in the first great age of American journalism, when innovations in printing, transportation, and data transmission (the telegraph) enabled everyone to read two or three papers — Democrat, Republican, and Just Plain Mean — and to spend all day, if they wanted, soaking themselves in political bile. Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict.

Reporting on the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, which Lincoln lost, though not decisively, one paper reported that “the triumph of Senator Douglas was complete”; Lincoln was “exceedingly lame throughout . . . The Illinois Giant [Douglas] at the first onset pushed his adversary to the wall, and never ceased for a moment his blows, until Abraham was taken by his friends, dispirited and overcome.” Another kind of partisan paper thought that Lincoln had “chewed [Douglas] up . . . Douglas is doomed . . . [the] contest is already practically ended.” From yet another journalistic standpoint, the campaign proved that the two candidates were nothing but “a pair of depraved, blustering, mischievous, lowdown demagogues.”

All these characterizations were false, and most people knew they were. But verbal abuse wasn’t the only oily sheen on the surface of political life. If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one. Here’s Senator Thomas Hart Benton, in his Thirty Years’ View; Or, A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850 (1856), discussing the Anti-Duelling Act of 1839:

The death of Mr. Jonathan Cilley, a representative in Congress from the State of Maine, killed in a duel with rifles, with Mr. Graves of Kentucky, led to the passage of an act with severe penalties against dueling, in the District of Columbia, or out of it upon agreement within the District.. . . Like all acts passed under a sudden excitement [there were sudden excitements in the 1830s, too], this act was defective, and more the result of good intentions than of knowledge of human nature. Passions of the mind, like diseases of the body, are liable to break out in a different form when suppressed in the one they had assumed.

Following that libertarian critique of mere good intentions, Benton notes, as if everyone in his audience already knew it, that the Act

did not suppress the homicidal intent — but gave it a new form: and now many members of Congress go into their seats with deadly weapons under their garments — ready to insult with foul language, and prepared to kill if the language is resented. (Vol. 2, pp. 148-49)

Benton, who had once shot Andrew Jackson in a fight that was something worse than a duel, later became Jackson’s friend and political ally; but in 1850, in the Senate chamber, a fellow member, Henry Foote, attempted to shoot him over a political disagreement. "I have no pistols!”, Benton shouted. “Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!" Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict that in our law-obsessed era would immobilize the capital and the courts in perpetuity.

Less pacific were many of the things that national leaders said. William Seward had cause to regret his “irrepressible conflict” speech, just as Abraham Lincoln had cause to regret his “house divided” speech; both were interpreted by the South, and not unreasonably, as an indication that if either of those gentlemen were elected president, the South must secede. John C. Calhoun had cause to regret the many speeches in which he incited the South to dissolve the union — but Calhoun, like our current politicians, never regretted anything he said, during a lifetime of self-contradiction.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric.

Now, if you look at the public utterances of the people I’ve mentioned (except for Foote), you will find that in both style and intellectual substance they are infinitely above those of anyone now in politics. To say this isn’t to fall into the trap of assuming that everything that happens in one’s own time is happening for the first time in history. If one has any historical perspective, one can distinguish things that actually are new or special from things that actually aren’t.

It is the intellectual and verbal illiteracy of American public culture that has that “never before in history” aspect — and it has that aspect because of the lack of perspective that makes contemporary Americans feel as if they can do without any knowledge of or respect for people who lived in the past. Thus, if you’re a “progressive” leftist, Thomas Jefferson was a racist who considered blacks inferior to whites, as if that were his only historical significance; and Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder who behaved with great barbarity toward Indians, as if those evil characteristics, common to hundreds of thousands of Americans of his time, including Indians who enslaved other Indians, were all we needed to know about one of the most complexly influential people in our or any history. And thus, if you’re a rightist, Ronald Reagan was the world’s greatest inspirational speaker; George Patton embodied all the strengths that make real men and women want to get up in the morning; and Theodore Roosevelt, a little man who kept exclaiming “bully!”, made life worth living for soldiers, workers, and the American bison. Meanwhile, all people worship Lincoln as the incarnation of Christ.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries seem incapable of taking any good to themselves from their acts of ferocious love and cherished hatred. They never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric when compared with that of Lincoln, or their own courage when compared with that of Jackson. They may idolize “Teddy” or spit on the memory of Jefferson or rerun Reagan’s speeches or get off on Patton, the movie, but that’s what they’re seeing, a movie playing on their own TVs, just a few feet from their self-infatuated heads. The rest of the house is empty.




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The Base vs. the Most

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The idea is abroad on conservative blogs and talk shows that President Trump’s opposition is staging much of its agitation against him simply as a means of “pandering to the base.” I refer to senatorial walkouts from confirmation votes, the constant barrage of inflammatory remarks from Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and other official leaders, the constant demands for investigation of this or that normal process of government (e.g., Trump’s firing of political appointees from the losing party), the accusation that Trump is anti-Semitic and homophobic, etc.

If the “pandering” idea is true, then the Democrats believe they are in serious trouble. You don’t keep pandering to your base unless you’re, first, unsure of its loyalty and second, unable to reach out to a broader array of potential voters. Perhaps Democrats have been traumatized by the fact that many people in their core communities failed or refused to vote in 2016.

You don’t keep pandering to your base unless you’re, first, unsure of its loyalty and second, unable to reach out to a broader array of potential voters.

But much the same thing can be said of Trump’s speeches, tweets, and continuing rallies in his own support. Anyone can tell that his remarks on these occasions, and many of the occasions themselves, are meant to keep his base energized, not to attract people outside the base. Like the Democrats, he wouldn’t mind attracting such people, but the first priority is to keep the base alive. Trump is, perhaps, just as worried as the Democrats, and if so, with good reason, because so far, it doesn’t seem that the majority of the American people is any more than superficially supportive of or even listening to either side in the great controversy.

Victory will go to whoever can win those voters, and while it seems certain that Trump is way ahead — he has a larger base of passionate supporters — he has every reason to feel insecure.

Having said these things, I need to notice the fact that politicians are often members of their own base, virtually indistinguishable from it, and unable to look beyond it. In national politics, however, these people are almost always failures — and politicians who want to be nationally influential often try not to be that way. Many Washington honchos are embarrassed by the rhetoric that now issues from the commanding heights of their parties, seeing it as mere rhetoric; they just go along with it, hoping that after the base is secure they can start counting votes outside the base. But such people as Elizabeth Warren are at one with their core supporters. She isn’t fooling anybody; she actually believes the strange things she says, and she is very unlikely to see the value of saying anything else. The more important question is the degree to which Trump is a member of his own base.




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2016 — Reaching Out to an Iconic Year

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Isabel Paterson said, “What this country needs is a lot less of all sorts of things” (see our October 1993 issue, p. 39). She was mainly concerned about political agencies and political schemes, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind her observation being applied to words as well. This country needs a lot less of all sorts of words — most of them politically inspired, but bad words in any case.

Here are a few of 2016’s worst and most prominent verbal offences. I am indebted for some of them to the advice of readers, but I won’t credit these friends by name. I don’t want them to be criticized — or, to use the vernacular of 2016, I don’t want them to get death threats from haters and Nazis.

On haters and Nazis, see below. My list is alphabetical, and it starts with:

An abundance of caution. Before 9/11, this phrase — once shy, legalistic, recherché — was willing to appear in public only about once a decade. Now it is in the mouth of every hack official who decides, for no reason at all, to inconvenience or endanger his fellow citizens. On January 6, an insane person shot up the baggage lobby at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. He was immediately arrested. But passengers who had already cleared security were still held captive, without baggage, without food, without restrooms, for at least five hours. From time to time, medics showed up to cart one of these caution-damaged passengers away. There was no abundance of caution about heart attacks or ruptured bladders. Half of the airport didn’t reopen until 24 hours later, at which time it was discovered that innocent people had lost 20,000 items of luggage, pieces of identification, and so on. This shows what an abundance of caution can do. I suggest alternative and more accurate expressions: an abundance of stupidity or an abundance of arrogance.

Artists. This term should be retained for people who actually create art, as opposed to people who just decide to call themselves artists. Such artists are, almost invariably, people who screech or bellow popular music or do visual art that resembles, in the late Nikita Khrushchev’s words, “something that’s left behind after a child has — pardon the expression — done its business.” Real artists call themselves painters or singers or sculptors or writers or composers, not generic artists. They are concerned with what they create, not with the kind of titles they can procure from agents, marketers, or peers — a peer being someone who gives you an award or serves as a peer reviewer when you’re trying to get a grant. Such awards, such artists, and such peers have multiplied greatly since tax money started being used to fund almost anyone and anything capable of irritating old-fashioned (i.e., sensible) minds with the latest revival of Dada and other remains of the Great War avant-garde.

Is uniting any better than dividing? If you answered Yes to that, you are being an idiot: it’s a meaningless question.

Death threats. For the past year or so, everyone who makes a public fool of himself — by, for instance, harassing other people about their political beliefs — has responded by demanding sympathy because of the death threats he has therefore received. Hard evidence is seldom offered for the existence of these threats, partly because no one in the media asks for evidence and also, probably, because the threats either don’t exist or exist in some such form as “I don’t like you” or “You are an imbecile” or the still more heinous “Why don’t you just grow up?” We must remember that for some people, growing up would be worse than death. But it isn’t just individual idiots that receive death threats. It’s idiot institutions, too. If some 14-year-old phones a death threat to P.S. 38, a superintendent with the aforementioned abundance of caution will lock down every school in the district, thus justifying the three press conferences he and the police chief and the mayor have been dying to hold. It’s one small step for safety, one giant leap for self-congratulation. But what else are schools for?

Divisive, used of persons whom one dislikes, and when so used pronounced di-VISS-ive, with a facial expression suggesting unanimous condemnation by the faculty of Harvard College. Americans supposedly do not want to be di-VISS-ive. But is uniting any better than dividing? If you answered Yes to that, you are being an idiot: it’s a meaningless question. Yet people who rant against divisiveness are not precisely idiots. They are aspiring social strategists. Their strategy is to infuriate people who disagree with them and then to remark that these people are responding divisively, thus tricking them into surrendering.They may also lecture them about the importance of reaching out to one’s opponents, building bridges, healing wounds — in short, doing the opposite of what they themselves are doing. Clearly, this is a strategy adopted by cynics who realize that there is nothing to be said for their own positions and are trying to win by sapping their opponents’ self-respect. If my comments on this issue are divisive, make the most of it.

Get and got, as in “I get it,“ used as the introduction of a counterargument, or “You got this,” used as a means of encouragement. The next time someone tries to inspirit you by claiming that you got this, you should reply, “I get it: you’re illiterate.”

Give back, as in “It’s Christmas, and many people are taking this occasion to give back to the community.” At Christmas, 2016, I received precisely that message from an organization to which I routinely give — combined with the suggestion that I engage in the national orgy of giving back by sending some more of my money. I replied, in part: “I have nothing to give back. I have earned what I own. No one — least of all you — has given it to me. I give because I want to give, not because I think I have some obligation to do so. I don't like the implication, and I suggest that you will get more money, from me and others, by abandoning it.” I received no reply; nobody gave back to me.

The next time someone tries to inspirit you by claiming that you got this, you should reply, “I get it: you’re illiterate.”

Going forward, moving forward, as in, “What is our plan, going forward?” These expressions appear to have originated among government bureaucrats and to have been spread by political speeches. They now appear wherever people wax pompous about implementing their agendas. The phrases in question are usually plunked into a sentence with as little regard for grammar as you see in the example I quoted. According to that sentence, what exactly is going forward? We are, surely; yet “we” is not in the sentence, although “our” is. But no matter who or what is going on its merry way, I’m sitting this one out.

Hate speech, haters, etc. I assume you’ve noticed that people who habitually employ these terms tend strongly to be the biggest haters you know. The observation is substantiated by the violent response that some of them are making to the fall election. Of course, there is never any reason to punish people — verbally or legally — for not liking others. When haters become physical harmers, there are plenty of means to punish them; but does anybody, not a moral fanatic, care whether the guy who assaulted him and stole his money hates him, or whether a guy spewing political obscenities also feels hatred? The hate vocabulary is just a way of insulting the people you hate, because they haven’t done anything that merits any other kind of punishment.

Icon, as in conservative icon, icon of the Civil Rights Movement, Hollywood icon, pop music icon, and the like.Icon does have some useful meanings. It means a religious picture. It means those little blibs and blobs you see on a computer screen. It can refer to passages in a work of literature that, like pictures in a church, symbolize a set of values and make them memorable. All these things can be called icons. But what does that have to do with Madonna? Icon has become a word that means “famous” and “good.” Often it just means “good.” The wordis always an honorific; headlines never say, “Joe Blow, Icon of Crime, Dead at 96.” Indeed, icon is most useful for what can be called merit-smuggling — the awarding of unearned value. (See legendary, below.) When you encounter an obit for some iconic figure of whom you never heard, it’s probable that this is nothing more than a posthumous attempt to manufacture greatness. Such is commonly the case with recently deceased activists for discredited, usually communist, causes.

Issues, as in the ad that advises you to “help defend against those digestive issues,” meaning “use our brand of laxative”; or in the frequently heard complaint “my son has issues,” meaning unspecified psychological problems; or in the cry of the chronically outraged, “I have issues with that.” Issues seems to have arisen in the politicization of feeling that was the legacy of 1960s radicalism, whence it spread to political discourse generally and now to every phrase that gestures at a difficulty, problem, illness, or complaint.Look: if you need a laxative, take it; if somebody has a problem, say what it is; if you ‘re angry, say what you’re angry about. But if you have a real issue, meaning something you seriously want to discuss (“I’m concerned about the issue of Medicare”), call that an issue and we’ll talk about it, not just fake some empty sympathy.

People who habitually employ "hate" and "hate speech" tend strongly to be the biggest haters you know.

Legendary. Ulysses is a legendary figure. Odin is a legendary figure. Cary Grant, as much as I like him, is not a legendary figure. For one thing, he really existed. For another, there are no legends about him. I don’t mean lies or little stories about things that probably never happened. I mean there is no legend of Cary Grant and the Golden Fleece. Cary Grant did not discover the Seven Cities of Cíbola, nor is he a figure in the Götterdämmerung. Debbie Reynolds was a good actress and a great dancer, but she was not the face that launched a thousand ships; pace the media, her death did not make her a legend. Real people do, sometimes, have whole cycles of false but romantic stories associated with them. In that sense, it is possible to discuss the legend of John F. Kennedy, although myth, a more neutral term, would be more appropriate. (Just in case you’re wondering, I explored this matter in an article called “The Titanic and the Art of Myth”: Critical Review [January 2003] 403-434.) One can also talk about the legend of Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman, 1774–1845), a great man about whom many doubtful — not necessarily untrue — stories cluster. But Mick Jagger, Meryl Streep, and Mad Dog Mattis are not legends, even in their own time.

Nazi, fascist, KKK, and all their ideological and linguistic cousins. On January 11, President-Elect Trump likened the practices of US intelligence agencies to those of the Nazis. That did it for me — it was one Nazi too many. If you’re going to redefine your enemies so that everyone turns out that way, you’re showing a pathetic lack of imagination. Can’t you think of anything else to call people you don’t like? There’s another problem. If you use these words, you’ll soon have a pathetic lack of listeners. Almost everyone knows that Hitler is dead.

Parse, as in “parsing the press secretary’s statement, one finds . . .” What one finds is that the press secretary intentionally suggested (without literally stating) a meaning that the audience might swallow but that could be denied if the audience finally choked on it. That is clearly objectionable, but what is the objection to using the word parse for the game of creating or interpreting such a statement? It is the same objection I would lodge to calling calf testicles prairie oysters. Parse is a term of grammatical art; it comes from a much more refined environment than that of its currently popular use, which is understanding and appreciating doubletalk. People who parse politicians’ statements are ordinarily changing the subject from the politicians’ tricks to their own equally cynical, and equally cheap, cleverness. Parse is a flower that grows on dung heaps.

Passed (a euphemism for died). The original of this expression was passed away, itself a euphemism for deceased, which was a euphemism for died, but at least potentially meaningful in the context of an assumed belief in the afterlife. Passed is, perhaps, like season’s greetings, an attempt to escape from any offensive expression of religious convictions. But the residue makes even less sense than the original. If you passed, where did you pass to? These days, people don’t even pass away. And like many other bad children, this expression is trying to kill its parent. In 2016 I started hearing passed ten times more frequently than passed away.

Passion. In an omnipresent television advertisement, a man speaks of his wish for a shirt that you don’t have to tuck in. “This to me became my passion,” he says. Well, enough said.

Reach[ed] out to. Until approximately November 15, 2015, this was a moderately expressive phrase for moderately unusual acts of communication, accompanied by unusually strong emotions: “My sister and I had a fight, but later she reached out to me, and now I think it’s OK”; “The priest reached out personally to the homeless people in the neighborhood.” Then, suddenly, and for no reason at all, the phrase became equivalent to sent a routine request, called in an idle moment, asked how late the cafeteria was open, bothered me with pictures from his summer vacation. The confusion between the first kind of meanings and the second says a lot about the pompous way in which Americans are learning to treat their ordinary affairs (see passion, above).

If you’re going to redefine your enemies so that everyone turns out to be a Nazi, you’re showing a pathetic lack of imagination.

The slash, as in hopes/fears, requests/complaints, liberty/democracy, and so forth. I want you to look at this little article from January 4 of the present year. You won’t get through it, because it’s the most boring thing ever written, except for any of Hillary Clinton’s speeches. It’s a farewell letter written by the British ambassador to the European Union. Yeah, you’re asleep already. And it gets worse. The reason I’m bringing this up is that the man starts his almost incredibly prolix message, in which every sentiment is repeated at least five times, with a prominent slash:

Dear All,

Happy New Year! I hope that you have all had/are still having, a great break.

Probably he thought it would be good to allow for every possibility. He wanted to be inclusive. Maybe some people were still having a good time; maybe, for some other people, the good times had passed. He couldn’t decide. Yet he was addressing “All.” What to do? And there is also the possibility that he didn’t know what day it was. Whatever. When in doubt, use a slash.

Poor Sir Ivan Rogers. But this is the problem of all who slash: they can’t decide whether it’s yesterday or today, good or bad. They can’t decide whether they’re talking about politics or economics, or politics and economics. So they write yesterday/today, political/economic, good/evil. In the same way, Daniel Webster cried, in the peroration of his second reply to Hayne:

When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken/dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered/discordant/belligerent. . . . Let their last feeble/lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the Republic, now known/honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms/trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased/polluted, nor a single star obscured . . . but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea/land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart: Liberty/Union, now/forever, one/inseparable!

Inspiring, isn’t it, what you can do with a slash?

In fact, I’m too inspired to continue. I’ve had enough for now.

Just one more thing: have you noticed how many of the atrocities I’ve been examining in this column have emerged from the field of politics, or have flourished best in that environment?

You may think that this is simply because I’m not hip to all the cool new lingo, in which I could have discovered many strange expressions that have nothing to do with politics. If you think that, you have a point — but how much harm is done by saying that somebody you admire is chill, or that it’s been a long time since you hung with him? Not much. I’m reluctant to add such small, merely recreational linguistic experiments to my repudiation list. And it’s true that passed has practically nothing to do with politics, although it easily made the list. But take a look at the other items, and I think you’ll see fresh evidence for my conviction that the American political establishment, which is the world’s biggest supplier of words, is also the world’s biggest supplier of idiotic words.




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Manna from Heaven

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When we talk of economics, we often do it by means of labels and mantras. Discussing economic subjects in this way means that we do not fully discuss them; we just use words and phrases that suggest preconceived notions. I think this is because economics is predominantly political, and “political” is another way of saying “snake oil sales.”

One mantra that I often hear is people’s invocation of a Robin Hood morality, the morality of robbing Peter to pay Paul: Robin Hood cared for the poor downtrodden (Paul) with the wealth he stole from the fat cats (Peter). What is ignored about this fairy tale is that Peter is the lord of the land who uses his governmental authority to confiscate the property of Paul, the peasants. Robin is a hero because he fights the totalitarian government of Peter to return confiscated wealth to oppressed taxpayers.

What got me thinking about the labels that political commentators use in discussing economics was Hillary Clinton’s assertion that Donald Trump’s plan to cut taxes in order to revive the economy was just “Trumped up trickle-down.” “Trickle-down” is the label often used by the political enemies of leaving wealth in the hands of CEOs and others of corporate administrative rank. The “trickle-down” label comes from the idea that these people spend the wealth hiring workers to construct whatever their companies’ products may be. Thus, wealth “trickles down” from the wealthy administrators to the needy workers.

Robin Hood is a hero because he fights the totalitarian government to return confiscated wealth to oppressed taxpayers.

But what is the government’s economic system of high taxes and “wealth redistribution”? In its intention, the wealth redistribution system is also trickle-down. In this system, government takes the place of corporate administration. It accumulates wealth — by taxation. This wealth is then supposed to trickle down to the subjects of the government, by means of redistribution programs. So, why is trickle-down bad when wealth trickles down from company administration, but good when it trickles down from government?

The feudal system that I mentioned when talking about Robin Hood was actually a wealth redistribution system. But in such systems, does wealth really trickle down? “Trickle-down” is appropriate to the sales pitch used by politicians when they claim that they intend to do such things as pay for infrastructure, education, and retirement. However, the wealth redistribution system is, in fact, trickle-out. “Trickle-out” means that the government takes wealth from its subjects and distributes it to its preferred lobbyists. Think military contractors, Elon Musk, and Planned Parenthood. Those are a few examples. Does the wealth ever get back to the subjects? Well, some does, but the amount that the subjects get is inversely proportional to the number of lobbyists who get some of the wealth before it makes its way back.

Politicians claim the place of God: they sell themselves as all-powerful beings that you need to take care of you.

The lobbyists and their clients reward the government by giving back some of the loot they received, prompting politicians to increase their take by selling more and more “economic stimuli” to the public, as if they were actually providing some kind of free food.

In the book of Exodus, God gives the children of Israel a miraculous food called manna, which is meant to sustain them on their journey out of servitude to the king of Egypt. In the modern form of this story, politicians claim the place of God: they sell themselves as all-powerful beings that you need to take care of you. They prefer this story about themselves to the reality of “trickle-down,” which is how we truly get our bread from heaven. In every light rain, water trickles down from above; this water is the food for plants, and thus the origin of our daily bread. And I think this is why politicians hate trickle-down economics: our food comes from sources beyond their control. This kind of economics dethrones them from their delusion of almighty power; and it exempts us — if we reflect on it — from our dependency on them.




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The Hamilton Duel

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Experiencing the unexpected is one of the things I love about live theater, so I would love to have been in the audience when the cast of Hamilton decided to explain their position to vice-president-elect Mike Pence the weekend before Thanksgiving. (Although I would not have been happy if it had been my first experience with the play.) I support the right of the cast to exercise their free speech, and I agree with those who say they were respectful and sincere. They even silenced the booing. Sort of.

However, I wish the cast had trusted their art more. Everything they said in their speech was heartfelt and important. But it had already been said in the play. Storytelling is a powerful art form, perhaps the most powerful way of expressing a message, because it touches the heart as well as the mind. It’s the reason I’m so passionate about film. And when you add music, the power increases exponentially. The lecture simply wasn’t necessary.

I remember the night I saw Hamiltonshortly after it opened, before I had heard the music or the hype. It was a transformative experience, and I’m glad it wasn’t marred by a post-performance lecture. I stayed at my seat until the last chord of the postlude and applauded one more time. The music stayed with me as I left the theater. The play ends with an epilogue focusing on the women in Hamilton’s life and what they did to preserve his legacy and his writings after his death, and I thought about their contribution to the cause of liberty during the Revolution.

Everything they said in their speech was heartfelt and important. But it had already been said in the play.

As I walked to the train station, I contemplated the rich heritage portrayed in the play, particularly as demonstrated in the casting of ethnic minorities in all the major roles and most of the ensemble. It made me think more deeply about those revolutionaries we usually see depicted in brocade finery and speaking the king’s English, men who were actually more like the Occupy movement of our day. It made me wonder whether I would have been a royalist or a revolutionary, something I never questioned before. It also helped me understand the royalists’ position better, and how hard it must have been to give up a way of life that had been comfortable and familiar to them. Would I have been willing to sacrifice all that I have for the ideal of freedom?

In short, I got it, in my mind and in my heart, through the storytelling and the music. The audience who saw the play with Mike Pence also had an unforgettable experience, but I doubt that it was focused on the music or the story.

It made me wonder whether I would have been a royalist or a revolutionary, something I never questioned before.

Like the characters they play onstage, the actors took a risk Friday night. It wasn’t a risk to their lives but to their livelihoods. I admire their courage and their sincerity. But they weren’t the only ones at risk that night. I can only imagine the consternation of the Secret Service agents as they tried to move their charge from the crowded theater before the curtain calls were ended, as they are instructed to do. Transitions are always the most dangerous time for a Secret Service agent, so it must have been a nightmare for them when the cast invited the audience to take out their cellphones to record the speech, and everyone reached into their purses and pockets! They put everyone at risk at that moment. Fortunately Secret Service agents have better training than cops, and no one was trigger-happy. I’m sure they surrounded Mr. Pence with their bodies, ready to take a bullet rather than use one. But there could have been a tragic outcome as everyone reached for those phones.

So yes, the cast of Hamilton had every right to say what they said, just as those who argued both sides of the issue that weekend had every right to express their opinions. I just wish the cast had trusted their art to tell the story and convey the message by itself. Perhaps they could have invited Mr. Pence backstage to talk to them about his experience and their hopes in a meaningful way. They knew he was coming, so they could have arranged it ahead of time. Then the news story might have been about Mr. Pence’s response to the play, instead of everyone else’s response to the lecture.




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What if I “Identify” as Me?

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There’s been plenty of talk, lately, about how people “identify.” You identify as male; I identify as female. You’re straight; I’m gay. You like Pepsi; I like Coke. You say “tomato,” and I say “to-mah-to.”

This can very quickly get silly. You might identify as a tomato. I think it might be loads of fun to identify as Wonder Woman. But if I start skipping around my neighborhood in a tiara, star-spangly bra, and go-go boots and proclaiming that I’m a superheroine, they’ll come and take me away. No “ha-ha” about it.

The problem with all this identifying is that none of the people so adamant about doing it seem to identify as individual selves. They’re all picking a team. I could wear a lot of different labels if I chose, but I identify simply as me. These days, that makes me a weirdo.

If we can be whipped into a frenzy by the exhortations of any politician, we’ve got identity-mania. And bad.

Of course there are a few genuine weirdos busy at that game. A young woman in Norway has publicly declared that she identifies as a cat. Occasionally we run across a story about some adult who’s chosen to identify as an infant and crawl around the house in a diaper, gnawing on a pacifier. We shake our heads, and maybe we very sadly laugh. Cases like these are so extreme that we might be tempted to forget just how common identify-mania really is.

Many people fail to realize that they’ve caught the disease. But here’s a handy diagnostic tool. If we can be whipped into a frenzy by the exhortations of any politician, we’ve got it. And bad.

Conservative pundits have coined their own term for it. They call it “identity politics.” Of course those they accuse of this failing all land neatly on the other side of the political divide. But as the runaway-train presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump clearly illustrates, the contagion has spread to the right.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with advocating our own best interests. Nor do I mean to imply that everyone who votes for Trump is an angry white male of middle age or older, or will necessarily be driven by pure emotion. But as a libertarian, I can find nothing to like about his authoritarian, big-government-is-magic positions. It would be irresponsible for me to cast my ballot for him just because I think he’s been ill-treated by the media, or because I detest the people who detest him.

My attitude toward my fellow Americans is that they’re OK with me as long as they don’t push me around or steal from me.

It certainly is tempting, however, to root for a candidate as obsessively vilified as Donald Trump. I’m tired of being told how outraged I’m supposed to be every time he opens his mouth. His critics in the media are a ghastly gallery of horror-movie clowns. Their instructions to us about our civic duties are a sick joke. And their fawning over Hillary Clinton makes me want to vomit.

My attitude toward my fellow Americans — regardless of the demographic group to which they belong — is that they’re OK with me as long as they don’t push me around or steal from me. I don’t believe that my best interests are at odds with other people’s nearly as often as the demagogues claim. I think that claim is a divide-and-conquer tactic, designed to keep us at odds with one another. I also believe that the political hustlers who commonly make it are the scum of the earth. No matter what party they happen to represent, they’re unworthy of my vote.

The only time when they want to make us feel (as opposed to think) is when they are trying to put something over on us — which, in my opinion, is nearly all the time. Whenever politicians attempt to manipulate my emotions, I assume they’re trying to bamboozle me. Experience has shown me that I am seldom wrong.

The notion that because I can be lumped into a particular demographic group, I owe my vote to a candidate who transparently tries to play me like a fiddle, is just plain weird. It’s as strange as a young woman who’s decided she’s a cat, or a middle-aged man who spends all day in a giant crib. It’s pathetic weird. It’s deranged weird. It is, very frankly, unworthy-of-being-an-American weird.

If we are peace-loving people, and habitually mind our own business, we need be at odds with no one except those who would push us around or steal from us. They are the enemies of anyone who wants to live a happy life. If we think Donald Trump is the best candidate, then by all means we should vote for him. My thinking has led me to support Gary Johnson. Though if she were running, I’d certainly go for Wonder Woman.




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