Temporization Fugit

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As speculated in a June 7 feature here, President Trump today (June 16) announced, before a packed Miami crowd, a big change in US-Cuba policy. Though tourism to the island by American-based visitors has been technically banned by the embargo for quite some time, the 2014 Obama thaw fudged the issue in a variety of ways. President Trump has just dumped the fudge.

Pre-Obama’s thaw, regulations allowed Americans to visit Cuba under a variety of categories, including a people-to-people category — once their itinerary had been vetted by the Treasury Department. Under that category, only organized tour groups with a detailed itinerary were allowed to visit, with the intent of American folks and Cuban folks getting to know each other.

Compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

On December 2014, President Obama eliminated the vetting process and allowed visitors to vet themselves on an honor system. At the same time, visitors returning from the island weren’t scrutinized, only questioned perfunctorily or not at all, about their compliance with US government regulations.

According to CNBC, “President Trump's policy restricts this form of travel to Cuba for individuals. Americans pursuing this type of travel would have to go in groups.” And their compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

But the ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company, GAESA. "The profits from investment and tourism flow directly to the military. The regime takes the money and owns the industry. The outcome of the last administration's executive action has only been more repression and a move to crush the peaceful, democratic movement," Trump said in Miami on Friday.

The ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company.

According to Fox News, The policy calls on Americans traveling to Cuba to use "private businesses and services provided by the Cuban people, rather than businesses and services provided by GAESA." In effect, government hotels and resorts are out. US-based visitors must use private B&Bs and restaurants otherwise known as casas particulares and paladares.

The new policy does not go into effect until the new regulations are issued. We await the Cuban government’s reaction . . .




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Talk Tough but Temporize

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During the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump criticized President Obama’s Cuba policy and promised to reverse it. However, after Trump’s win, during the transition, “he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately expressed support for Obama’s Cuba policy,” according to a June 2 ABC News report.

In typical Trump fashion, the candidate talked tough but the president is keeping his options open as he educates himself on the issues. And in typical government fashion, a “policy review” under the auspices of the National Security Council was set up to study the issues. It was supposed to report its recommendations on May 20, the 115th anniversary of Cuban independence, but the issues turned out to be more complex than originally envisioned, and Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on that hallowed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

Yes, that’s right: in a Wilsonian-Carterian flourish, Trump’s Cuba policy “will have important differences with respect to that of Barack Obama, especially with a ‘major emphasis’ on human rights,” according to Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America.

Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on the appointed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

It seems — to a cynic who might ignore the president’s ostensible, stated reason — that Trump’s thrust is based on two objectives. One is the aim, originating in a gut reaction, to reverse anything Obama did; the other is more nakedly political: according to the Associated Press, the Trump administration wants to maintain good relations with Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate committee investigating Trump’s relations with Russia, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — both Cuban-Americans, and the latter a not-too-distant relative of the Castros.

Meanwhile, in a Trumpian flourish just before leaving office, Obama restricted Cuban immigration by rescinding the so-called “Wet foot, Dry foot” policy whereby a Cuban caught on the waters between Cuba and the United States ("wet feet") would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore ("dry feet") can remain in the United States, and would later qualify for expedited legal permanent resident status in accordance with the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, and eventually US citizenship.

The Trump administration’s ambivalence toward Obama’s Cuba policy proceeds from the fact that its favorable aspects conflict with its unfavorable consequences. While the reduced restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba that President Obama signed as an executive order in 2014 have tripled leisure travel to nearly 300,000 last year, much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the state security (repressive) apparatus. Organized tours, especially in the “people-to-people” and “educational” categories are little better, spending all their time under direct government control, visiting such exciting venues as printing workshops, organic farmers’ cooperative markets, and other government-organized venues, while traveling in government tour buses with government guides.

Those dollars strengthen the security organs. According to ABC News, arrests and detentions climbed from 8,899 in 2014 to 9,940 in 2016.

Much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the repressive state security apparatus.

On the other hand, continues the ABC report, a significant proportion of travelers eschewed organized tours, opting instead to explore Cuba on their own and thereby “injecting hundreds of millions in US spending into privately owned businesses on the island,” businesses made possible by the 201 private enterprises (especially B&Bs and restaurants) legalized by the regime since 2010, and “supercharging the growth of an entrepreneurial middle-class.”

Still, the hype has blinded what ought to be sober players into overreach. President Obama did not change the requirements for US travelers to Cuba; he only put compliance with them on the honor system, a system that still requires registering with the US Treasury Dept. The same ABC News report I quote here incorrectly states that “Obama eliminated that requirement.”

And it’s not just ABC News. Airlines such as JetBlue, American, Silver Airways, and Frontier, anticipating tens of thousands of travelers to book their own, independent trips to Cuba, have had to cut back considerably. Silver and Frontier have both canceled all their flights, citing "costs in Havana to turn an aircraft significantly exceeded our initial assumptions." In other words, the costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines. Earlier this year, JetBlue announced it would use smaller planes for its Cuba flights, and American Airlines cut its daily flights to Cuba by 25%.

The Obama changes did increase US travel to Cuba, just not as much as some expected. NBC News reports that “according to the state-run site CubaDebate, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba spiked in January of this year at 43,200. CubaDebate said that's a 125% increase from January of last year.” In addition, it reported 31,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to the island in January.

The costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines.

Those Cuban-Americans recently became a political football for cruise lines, which also dove into the liberalized US-Cuba travel market. The Cuban government does not recognize naturalized US citizenship by any Cuban-born individual: in their eyes such people are still Cuban citizens. Many of these expatriates, although allowed to visit relatives in Cuba under one of the allowed US categories of travelers, refused to set foot on the island for any prolonged length of time, declining to give even one dollar to the regime. But the promise of a cruise with all the amenities provided by a US ship and onshore visits a matter of only hours on terra firma suddenly attracted many.

But it was not to be.

The Cuban government declared that Cuban-born Cuban-Americans would not be allowed on shore from any visiting US cruise ship, referring to an earlier Cuban law that prohibited any Cuban-born person returning from to the island by sea. This was probably meant to place a fig leaf over the prosecution of any foreign-based infiltrators.

So, initially, Carnival Corporation refused to sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans. Two lawsuits put paid to that. They were filed in federal court in Miami: a class-action suit and a civil suit, by Cuban-born Americans who attempted to book and were denied tickets on Fathom Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of Carnival. According to the Miami Herald, “the lawsuits alleged that the cruise line was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by following a policy that discriminates against a class of Americans on a place of public accommodation for transient guests — a cruise ship.”

Carnival then decided to sell tickets to Cuban-Americans but delayed its cruises until Cuba changed its policy — which it did, effective April 26, 2016. The first cruise sailed on May 1, 2016.

Cuba has not adapted well to the increase in visits. Forget booking a hotel room in Havana during the peak season of November-April on your own; rely instead on a package tour. And good luck finding a B&B, called in Cuba a casa particular. Under the Obama initiatives, both governments have struck agreements to cooperate on issues ranging from human trafficking to oil spills, and even increased internet access — a pledge extracted out of Raul Castro by President Obama. The Cuban government has “opened nearly 400 public Wi-Fi access points across the country,” according to the AP. But that reality is much less than meets expectations. The outlets are mostly in parks and plazas and only provide email connections. Full internet access, while more available than before, is beyond most Cubans’ budgets and remains frustratingly slow.

Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years.

The challenge for the Trump administration’s policy reset is to keep the good bits — full diplomatic relations, some relative freedom of travel, the benefits to Cuba’s private sector, etc. — while limiting Americans from doing business with the Cuban security organs, “according to a Trump administration official and a person involved in the ongoing policy review” (ABC report). Additionally, what with President Trump’s emphasis on jobs, Engage Cuba, a pro-détente group, released a study this May asserting “that a complete rollback of Obama’s Cuba policy would cost airlines and cruise lines $3.5 billion over the next four years and lead to the loss of 10,154 travel jobs.” (Wow, really? Such incredible specificity!)

One novel proposal that might be included in the Cuba policy reset — to ensure the support of the Cuban-Americans — is to impose a 2% export tax on US agricultural products sent to the island. “It is a politically creative, financially plausible measure and may possibly be a first step toward a comprehensive settlement of compensation to those who hold certified claims,” said Richard Feinberg, a former assistant to President Clinton and author of a Brookings Institution study on Cuban claims published in 2015. Of course, whether that 2%, factored into the price of the exports, would come out of the exporters’ profits or out of the Cuban government’s pockets is up for negotiation — if the proposal is implemented. Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years, though the majority of small claims could be settled with dispatch.

* * *

Oh, yes . . . and what about those extra 1,041 arrests and detentions in 2016? ABC News reports, “Cuban officials say many of those arrests are deliberately provoked by dissidents who are funded and backed by anti-Castro groups with the deliberate objective of driving up detention statistics.”

No doubt those officials saw the May issue of the Cuban American National Foundation’s Boletín Informativo, displaying a photograph of a protester racing in front of Havana’s May Day parade waving an American flag in the air and wearing a Cuban flag on his chest. Daniel Llorente Miranda’s action took the security organs by surprise. After a few seconds’ chase, they threw him to the tarmac and brutally beat him.




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The Strange Case of Feelings Versus Facts

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Don’t tase me, bro, but I sometimes watch “Outnumbered” on Fox News. I do it mainly because I like the discussion leader, the always poised, always intelligent Harris Faulkner. She isn’t big on one-liners, but on December 13 she put a lot of truth into just five words. “Facts,” she said, “don’t care about feelings.”

That could provide a fitting introduction and conclusion to any discussion of political discourse in 2016, which consisted largely of lunatic ravings, followed by shrieks of joy or anguish that had virtually nothing to do with facts and almost everything to do with the writer’s or speaker’s mental condition. Particularly notable was a fleet (I was going to say “raft,” then promoted it to “ship,” then “battleship,” and so on up) of statements, based wholly on their authors’ authority, the content of which demolished that authority. These statements included Donald Trump’s continuous assurances that he would successfully perform various mostly impossible economic tricks, and Hillary Clinton’s continuous assurances that she had been vindicated by every investigation ever undertaken of her.

When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us.

Blame is not confined to those two notorious offenders. Throughout my life I’ve been bored and irritated by elder statesmen, pollsters, media commentators, religious leaders, and yes, college professors like me retailing their opinions as if everyone else were bound to believe them, in obeisance to the source. This year, I was alternately nauseated and entertained as I watched such people asserting their intellectual authority by rushing onstage, tearing off their costumes, setting fire to their toupees, and making obscene gestures at the audience. These were the people who considered themselves entitled to laugh like maniacs at the idea that Trump could ever be elected, because they understood American politics, or they had taken the pulse of the American voter, or they had high ratings among Americans in the prime demographic, or they were in touch with the spiritual longings of the American people. These were the authorities who then screamed and tore their hair at the sudden discovery that America had been — all along, and unknown to them — a nation of xenophobes and white supremacists.

The facts, of course, didn’t care about these people’s feelings, any more than they cared about Jill Stein’s feeling that somehow the election had been “hacked,” or about Hillary Clinton’s feeling that it was “Comey” who had done her in, or about her later feeling that it was the Russkies that done it (by the simple act of revealing her servants’ private correspondence), or about Donald Trump’s feeling that he, like Shakespeare’s Bottom, knows how to perform every part in the play.

Fortunately, libertarians have so far avoided this bad behavior, even when sorely tempted by the example of Stein. When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us. Years ago I attended a libertarian conference at which a resolution was presented. It said that such and such idea was contrary to reality, and that “reality always wins.” This might have been taken as a mere rhetorical flourish, but a lengthy debate followed among the many people who took that truth claim seriously. Some of them argued, passionately, that even false ideas are part of “reality,” while others retorted, with equal passion, that false ideas aren’t really real. After an hour or so of this, Bill Bradford and I walked out. We were laughing at the futility of the whole affair, which was simply a disagreement about two common understandings of a common word. But we were not laughing at the libertarian reverence for “reality,” and we certainly weren’t laughing at the egalitarian nature of the proceedings. If anybody had said, “I’m a college professor, and I know what ‘reality’ means,” or even, “I’m a libertarian, and this is how libertarians view ‘reality,’” the crowd would have gaped in wonder. What’s this guy talking about?

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock, or as Chelsea Clinton. He’s the former presidential candidate who became former when he announced during a debate that there were three federal agencies he would eliminate, one of which was the Department of Uhhhh. He meant the Department of Energy, but he couldn’t remember the name. His appointment recalls the ancient Athenian democracy, in which public offices were filled by lot. You or I could just as easily have received a call from the president-elect: “Hullo Stephen, this is Donald Trump. Oh, I’m doing incredible today, thank you. Look, Stephen, I’ve got this unbelievable job for you . . .”

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock.

Alas, I didn’t get the call. (If I had, I could have told Mr. Trump that there would, indeed, be one less federal agency.) Perry got it because he is a former governor. His appointment was an act of deference to the political class, which is known for its deep feeling and sensitivity, its tendency to brood over any apparent slight. By appointing Perry, Trump was undoubtedly trying to save him from a tailspin of grief about his apparent obsolescence, while relieving other senior politicians from similar fears.

Colin Powell may be one who needs reassurance. Like many of the rest, he feels that he deserves power, no matter what. A political general whose career was advanced by the Republican Party, he repaid the GOP by exposing its racism and disdaining its presidential candidate, not expecting him to be elected. Proven wrong about that, he still let it be known that he was “available for advice” to the winner. This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because . . . he’s an Elder Statesman.

You don’t have to be all that Elder to be accorded automatic hat-tips by the Establishment media. Any government employee — any employee likely to be a modern liberal — is an object of solicitous concern. Here are two Google News headlines from December 13: “Trump taps Exxon’s Tillerson as top US diplomat, lawmakers worried” (Reuters); “Energy Dept. rejects Trump’s request to name climate change workers, who remain worried” (Washington Post). Notice that in both instances the final emphasis falls on a status group (“lawmakers,” “climate change workers”), that the two groups enjoy their place in the sun because their members are paid by the government, and that their status is exalted enough to qualify them for euphemistic treatment. In place of the common yet arresting words one expects in a headline, Google hands us the very uncommon and unarresting “lawmakers” (a euphemism for “politicians” or at most “elected officials”) and “climate change workers” (a euphemism for “government bureaucrats concerned with, and probably advocating, the theory that the climate is changing, that human beings are responsible, that this is a bad thing, and that geniuses like themselves should be employed to stop it”). When prostitutes — literal prostitutes — start getting paid by the government, we will see headlines about “sex workers” being “worried” by requests to know their names.

This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because he’s an Elder Statesman.

The problem that supposedly justifies these solemn headlines is that the status group is worried. Well, as Scarlett O’Hara said to her worried sister: “Too bad about that!” If there’s a significant issue to be debated, sure, let’s debate it; but why should anyone worry about the mental condition of any particular group of people? Only in a status society are specific groups or individuals granted the right to sympathy.

As 2016 drew, slogged, dragged, or devolved to its end, one saw more clearly than ever that, in today’s America, this right is conferred by modern-liberal politicians and the media that serve them. Formerly, Democrats called attention to the frequent stupidity and chronic tyranny of the FBI and CIA; now they dwell upon the selfless heroism of the CIA, because a member of the Agency has whispered that Putin loves Trump and wants him to be president. About the FBI the “liberals” switch back and forth, like locomotives looking for a train, one moment extolling its “integrity,” because it allegedly exonerated Hillary Clinton, and the next moment excoriating it as “deeply broken,” because it allegedly caused her defeat.

The Electoral College has been on a sympathy rollercoaster all year long. Before the election, a lot of Democrats who couldn’t do arithmetic smugly assumed that their party had a lock on the electoral college, because it would deliver a large block of votes from such solidly Democratic states as California. The College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era, the members of which were mindless hacks, selected for a total lack of intelligence and responsibility. Then arose the movement to reverse the election by getting Electors to switch from Trump. Now the College was a great American institution and its members wise solons who needed only to be reminded of their power. When, thus reminded, they didn’t switch, they were again the objects of scorn. They were un-Americans who had no right to vote as they did. They were people who had “sold out the country,” people who “don’t deserve to be in America.” This was one of the things that protestors screamed at Electors; a protestor in Wisconsin added a monarchical “This is my America!”Not yours, you bastards.

She had a point. If facts really do respond to (my) feelings, then I really do own . . . everything. I am a divine-right monarch with the arbitrary power to say what shall be true. Monarchs themselves often start to believe the meaningless, self-serving things they feel. It is a symptom and a means of their fall. And that’s what we’re seeing now, in the spectacle of leading Democrats demanding sympathy for what they themselves did to their party, and doing so without a hint of embarrassment. On December 19, when William Jefferson Clinton was being quoted as blaming his wife’s defeat, not on her, but on angry white men, Tucker Carlson (whose new TV show is, unexpectedly, pretty amusing) asked the rhetorical question, “Does he include himself?” It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to Clinton.

The Electoral College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era.

Even more obtusely self-righteous was John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s campaign. He was the person whose computer provided many of the emails that damaged her campaign. In strict terms, those emails were probably not hacked, as people insist on saying, but were phished in the stupidest, most obvious way. But on December 18, Podesta tried to unelect Trump by saying, “It’s very much unknown whether there was collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russkies, in the matter of the emails. He called for the Electoral College to be informed about this very much unknown conspiracy.

I just can’t get my head around this. After everything Podesta did to lose the election, he wants some kind of do-over. Why? Because it’s unknown whether his opponent was involved in the revelation of his (Podesta’s) own stupidity. If you say things like that, you believe you have a natural right to boundless sympathy and respect, and even reparations, in the form of a delegitimized election.

In the December 22 Washington Post, Ruben Navarrette painted a suggestive portrait of Podesta and the org he managed:

Thanks to a combination of leaks and reporting, we now know just how poorly run the Clinton campaign was, how top campaign staffers dismissed the importance of working-class white voters, how Democratic leaders had contempt for their own supporters, and how the coziness between the news media and campaign officials turned to collusion and created a backlash.

And virtually all those storms have something in common: Podesta. In short, the campaign chairman was at the center of just about everything that went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House.

I wonder whether you noticed what I did: every critical comment that Navarrette makes about the Democracy can also be made about the modern state: it’s stupid, unreflective, badly managed, and sovereignly contemptuous even of its clients and supporters (with one exception: the supporters known as the mainstream media). The Clinton org was a state within a state, with its own departments of revenue, foreign affairs, enforcement, propaganda, etc. It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to William Jefferson Clinton.

In the Clinton machine one saw statism in a pure form. That’s why no one could figure out what Mrs. Clinton’s program was, or why, in the absence of any particular goals that she wanted to achieve as president, she kept running for the office. The state in its pure form is power; it desires no reason for its existence but the projection of its power. Hillary Clinton wanted that power and needed no other justification of her political life (which, horrible to say, is her whole life). Never once did she or her organization advocate an action that was not an extension of state power; never once did they propose or recognize the existence of any limitations on this power, or reflect on the fact that human knowledge would be limited even if human power were not. Identifying themselves so completely with an all-powerful, all-knowing state, she and her associates assumed that they had a right to be the state. They still do. If you think you have a natural right to unlimited power, and you somehow, in some way that you cannot understand, lose that power, your demand for sympathy will also be unlimited. It’s another rebellion of feelings against fact.

No one actually feels sorry for Hillary Clinton, but many people feel sorry for themselves, because their side lost, and they believe it had a right to win. So they try to see her as a sympathetic figure — a kind of Charles I, condemned and executed by a mob of cretins who could never grasp his greatness. In fact, Charles was an autocrat, and a stupid autocrat, and a deceitful autocrat to boot. As with Mrs. Clinton, if Charles said you had ten fingers, you would count your fingers to make sure. But when he was deposed and executed, the self-pity of the aristocrats who had despised him during his life was focused on him, and he became a Saint. I doubt that this process will go very far with the ludicrous Mrs. Clinton, but it is well underway with her former boss, President Obama. The funniest source is Fareed Zakaria of CNN, whose December 7 crockumentary about Obama suggested that America had failed its president: “It remains unclear if the country was ready for Barack Obama’s vision.”If you’re looking for a fact-free sentence, you have found it.

It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

In America, we have whiny, self-privileged classes, and whiny, self-privileged individuals. Now these have given us whiny, self-privileged issues, political positions that can get away with anything. Today, you are at least as likely to be fired for questioning inclusiveness, economic equality, public education, the environment, or the rights of undocumented workers — or even seeking definitions of these sacred concepts — as you used to be for taking the same approach to Americanism, our Judeo-Christian heritage, defeating the Reds, or the fight against illicit drugs; and before that, temperance, womanhood, our men in uniform, or purity of essence. (OK, I admit it: I took that last one from Dr. Strangelove.) One of the most privileged issues is, of course, common-sense gun control (i.e., elimination of the private ownership of firearms). So empty of fact and full of feeling is the anti-gun cause that The Federalist ran an absurd but accurate headline: “Progressives Demand Gun Control After Knife Attack at Ohio State University.” The article following the headline provided many examples of “progressives” who knew that any attack must be a gun attack, or caused by guns, or preventable by the prevention of guns, or something. Among millions of Americans, the very word “gun” (or even “knife”) is enough to cause hysteria. It makes them feel so insecure.

It has often been noted that the manners of the aristocracy are eventually transferred to the middle class and thence to the lower classes. It’s true; that often happens, and often it’s a good thing. I regret the fact that aristocratic reserve is no longer practiced in restaurants and airline terminals, or even museums and nature trails, where you can always depend on somebody showing up with a cellphone and a voice like Goebbels. But aristocracy is fully alive in another, quite unfortunate way. We are witnessing a transference of self-regard, self-privilege, and self-pity from the American political aristocracy to the issues they push and then to the pathetic voters who derive their own self-regard and their own demands for pity not from any fact but from their feelings about these mighty issues. That is how state power corrupts its holders, and how its holders corrupt everything.




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The Trash Pile

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I know it’s my duty to conduct a thorough review of language used in the 2016 presidential campaign, to assess the major features of this language, and to make appropriate recommendations for improvement. If I accepted that duty, I could answer all requests for information by saying, “I can’t comment; the review is ongoing” — until everybody forgot the whole thing. But I’m sorry: I can’t do it; I can’t conduct that review. The subject is too disgusting. Besides, it would take a book the size of Ulysses, and even more tedious, to sort this trash out.

As with most collections of garbage, however, one sees a few particularly large and unpleasant objects jutting out of the pile, and one feels one ought to notice them. A prominent feature of the current collection is that typical Donald Trump locution: “I gotta tell ya, it was definitely a catastrophe — definitely. Definitely a catastrophe, folks, one hundred percent — an unbelievable catastrophe. And we’re gonna fix it. Definitely. It will be fixed. This incredible catastrophe.” And who could fail to notice and abhor Hillary Clinton’s habitual tone (a grating noise, followed by shrieks) and facial language (the apotheosis of smug)? I was often sickened by Trump’s unbelievable ability to ignore the obvious arguments on his behalf, and Clinton’s chronic use of concept creep; e.g.: Trump makes fun of an idiot female TV personality; Clinton therefore denounces Trump as anti-woman; Trump responds to gross abuse directed at him by a Muslim father whose son was killed in the American armed services; Clinton therefore denounces Trump as opposed to all Muslims and gold-star families. It must have taken an army of Googlers just to resurrect that phrase.

Without such revelations, the Clinton machine would still be gliding across the landscape, covered both with filthy lucre and with the aura of progressive saintliness.

As with all reeking piles of trash, one tries to pass these things with averted gaze. But one knows that either Clinton or Trump will be everywhere during the next four years, emitting even more noxious fumes.

One also knows that, occasionally, something useful gets thrown in the trash. I hope that certain ways-with-words can be rescued from the catastrophe of this year’s campaign. One is Ben Carson’s warm but precise mode of speech, which is always that of a real person talking to other real persons. Another is Carly Fiorina’s way of getting rapidly to the point, and to the actual evidence, with a minimum amount of rhetorical nonsense. Yet another is Donald Trump’s (yes, Donald Trump’s) willingness to say openly what almost everybody understands privately.

My other hope is that detailed revelations of what has really been said or written in the caverns of power will continue to be made, as the result either of lawsuits or of direct action, as the communists used to call it. (By direct action I mean Wikileaks.) People now see this modern version of Laputa more or less for what it is, even if they plan to vote for it. That’s a big improvement, despite the votes. Almost no one thinks that any power Mrs. Clinton gets will be legitimate.

But shouldn’t I regret the thefts of information by which the secrets of this machine have been made known? Shouldn’t I discuss the great moral issue of prying into other people’s secrets?

I don’t think so. I suspect that few people come to this column expecting advice about morality. If they do, they had better go someplace else. I simply want to suggest that there is a difference between (A) publishing secret information that may, when exposed, subvert legitimate government or get innocent people killed, (B) publishing private information that is nobody’s business to learn, and (C) publishing the dark and immoral sayings that pass within such things as National Committees, Departments of State, Federal Bureaus of Investigation, and the armies of hacks that such grotesque entities as those employ to bamboozle the public. Revealing the dirty communications of Mrs. Clinton’s toadies (C) is very different from publishing the codes to atomic missiles (A), or hacking into the life of somebody who works the counter at the DMV (B). I don’t like the DMV. In fact, whenever I think of Hillary Clinton I think of the DMV, because that is her ideal of government. But I believe I can see a moral difference.

I grew up when the Most Respected dispenser of news was Walter Cronkite, a bubblehead with a good voice and presence.

I’m talking about the struggle for information between the people and the Establishment. The term “Establishment” became prominent in America during the agitation of the 1960s. It was in that agitation that the modern Democratic Party and its current standard-bearer acquired their remarkable hunger for power. The self-righteous, rich-kid, elitist “liberalism” of the 1960s and 1970s eventually solidified into the stone-faced statism of the 2010s. It solidified in the form not only of the Democratic Party leadership but of the immense crowd of government employees, crony capitalists, know-nothing academics, politicized “faith leaders,” do-gooders on the take, officials of teachers’ unions, college activists, professional ethnics, gender mongers, grand old men of journalism, persons interviewed on NPR, and all the other tools who get money and prestige from the modern liberal state and in return surrender their identity to its rulers. A prominent feature of our political era is the paucity of public dissent, the rarity of defection from the vast Establishment. Nobody gets fired, and nobody departs in protest. This is something very unusual, and very ominous in American history. And no one who still has a brain will deny that 90% of the media, the people whose careers are supposedly dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of truth, are violent advocates of the Establishment.

I grew up in the days of three government-licensed television networks and a full constellation of newspapers whose major moral purpose was to keep the populace anesthetized. I grew up when the Most Respected dispenser of news was Walter Cronkite, a bubblehead with a good voice and presence. Despite the credit he took (much later) for having somehow, in some subtle way, criticized the Vietnam War, I remember my childish revulsion when I turned on the family TV and heard the perfectly bloodless way in which Cronkite reported every move of the Johnson administration to “beef up our forces in Vietnam.”

Beef up. Even as a kid, I sensed there was something vile about that kind of language, and the inhumanly elitist state of mind it represented. Even I was bright enough to notice that the Establishment media, which were the media of the time, were interested in absolutely no criticism of, or even discussion about, the rightness of such minor matters as conscription, the confiscatory income tax, government schools, labor unions, Social Security, “urban renewal” (i.e., tearing the heart from cities in order to “improve” them), the war on recreational drugs, the imprisonment of gays . . . Need I go on?

President Kennedy womanized on a vast scale, and invited members of the press to participate (which they did), and no word leaked out. Quite the contrary; the media fawned on him as the greatest living embodiment of family values. His family was continuously presented as an Example to Us All. Only its absolutely inescapable sins were reported. When one of his brothers left a young woman to drown after a drunken auto accident, doing nothing except trying to cover up his own involvement, the matter was reported, but the approved assessment was that the poor kid (a member of the US Senate, aged 37) had already suffered enough.

Even as a kid, I sensed there was something vile about that kind of language, and the inhumanly elitist state of mind it represented.

I’m saying these things because I don’t want to lapse into the common illusion that there was once a golden age of American journalism. People who think there was are ordinarily so mired in the cultural Establishment that they confuse journalistic objectivity with journalists’ occasional crusades against an enemy of the Establishment (e.g., Senator Joseph McCarthy). But despite my firsthand knowledge of this history, I am still disgusted by the violent affection of the media for Hillary Clinton. I can see, very well, why people might not like Donald Trump, but it’s literally unimaginable to me that Mrs. Clinton should be liked by anyone, much less by journalists, whose ostensible mission is to discover truth and expose lies. Nothing is more obvious than the fact that when Hillary Clinton tells the truth, it’s an accident, and that she has surrounded herself with hundreds of people whose function is to mislead the public on every possible occasion. This has apparently escaped the attention of the classy media, but it has not escaped mine, and I know it has not escaped yours either.

What fascinates me is how anyone can distort the news with such singleminded absorption as we have seen in the current campaign — while still imagining that nobody can perceive what’s going on. I’m sure you’ve collected as many examples as I have. Perhaps you’ve found some of them in the media’s coverage of Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson. At the beginning of his campaign, the LP appeared in the modern-liberal media, if it ever did appear, as a sad collection of weirdos. Then magically, in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it became a respected protest against the vileness of the Right. Or maybe you’ve been thinking about the complete lack of concern among the media, which are religiously anti-war, about Clinton’s long record of going on the warpath — against Iraq, against Syria, against Libya, against Egypt, and now against Russia — and the ecstasy she has found in killing her enemies.

Maybe you’re thinking about a lot, and so am I. But at this moment, I’m reflecting on something comparatively minor. On the morning of October 8, the day after embarrassing revelations were made about both Trump and Clinton (the revelation of Trump’s remarks about propositioning women, and the first verbatim reports of Clinton’s secret Wall Street speeches), I looked at the six Top Stories on Google News. Four of the six — Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5 — were anti-Trump. Magically, as if there were some kind of conspiracy or coordinated action or obedience to Clinton’s daily talking points, they were all advertising the Establishment or Country Club Republicans who were trying to get Trump to leave the race. No. 4 was about Hurricane Matthew, then traveling up the East Coast — a matter of actual moment for ordinary people. No. 6 returned to Trump. That one was about the dog-bites-man topic of foreign financial bigwigs not liking restrictive trade policies, such as those advocated by him. Other anti-Trump stories appeared beneath the “Top” — plenty of them. You had to go down to No. 21 before finding a story about Clinton’s latest scandal.

Nothing is more obvious than the fact that when Hillary Clinton tells the truth, it’s an accident.

But here’s a pivot, as the media like to say. Let’s consider a campaign speech that President Obama made on October 14. Trying to make fun of anti-Establishment media, Obama said, “Look, if I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me.”

This is one of the few really funny things that Obama, a man with a microscopic sense of humor, has ever said. But try it this way: “Look, if I read the New York Times, Iwould certainly vote for me.” It isn’t funny, is it? But why not?

Comedy requires surprise. It isn’t a surprise that people who read the NYT support Obama, and people who follow Fox do not. The surprise is the idea that Obama himself would be persuaded by Fox, if he ever deigned to watch it. He stipulated that he has “more diverse sources of information” (ranging, I believe, from Rolling Stone to Golf Digest), which prevent him from succumbing to the charms of Fox and similar media. But this is really a joke about Obama’s own gullibility, his willingness to be influenced — and the secondary surprise is that he appears to be too dumb to realize how his own joke works. What he thought he was joking about, as suggested by the rest of his speech, is the large proportion of the American people who are stupid enough to listen to Fox and other alternative media, instead of to himself. But if that’s his intended message, why does he think it’s funny?

As many people have noted, the Left, once rich in humor, often of an earthy kind, is now as dour and humorless as the pitchfork in “American Gothic.” Hence “political correctness” — the Left’s crusade for conformity, the crusade that everyone else has been laughing at for decades. The Establishment still can’t see the joke. That’s how stupid, how blankly stupid, it is. If you look at Google News or listen to “All Things Considered,” you know that alleged microaggressions, almost always committed against people with lawyers, will be the subject of constant and grave meditation, while the desperate condition of poor people’s lives and property in cities operated as monopolies of the modern-liberal party will rarely be mentioned — and when it is, responsibility will immediately be assigned to everyone except the modern-liberal party. For me, it’s hard to think of a contemporary rhetoric that is more inhuman — less motivated by actual human problems.

The surprise is the idea that Obama himself would be persuaded by Fox, if he ever deigned to watch it.

If the present campaign showed nothing else, it showed the true size and shape of the Establishment, from such geniuses of the GOP as John McCain, James Comey, and Mitt Romney to such guardians of one-speak as the NYT and the Washington Post. Even Geraldo Rivera, who blustered for a while about having tapes of Donald Trump saying worse things than he said to Billy Bush, finally showed that he can tell a hawk from a handsaw. On October 14, Geraldo commented: “I have never — and I’ve been around a long time — ever, ever seen the mainstream media, particularly the New York Times or the Washington Post — be so partisan in terms of their involvement.”

Ainsley Earhardt, Rivera’s collocutor on that morning’s Fox News conversation, added that “on Thursday night, ABC, NBC, and CBS all devoted a significant amount of time to the allegations [of Trump’s sexual misconduct] — up to nine minutes on ABC and NBC and five minutes on CBS, while only devoting seconds — 30 on ABC, 26 on CBS and none on NBC — to Wikileaks’ leaked Clinton emails.” Rivera continued: “Did you see the New York Times this morning? There was no mention of Wikileaks that I could find in the whole first, in the whole A section.”

When it comes to words, this is the big news: no mention. But I have a feeling that, no matter which bizarre presidential candidate wins this election, no mention will not be a permanently viable option during the next four years.




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You Can Write Whatever You Want

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Word Watch has entered its fifteenth year of operation — a good time to take up a subject that deserves to be addressed, especially on behalf of a libertarian audience. I do this from time to time, in various ways, but I haven’t done it for quite a while. So here goes.

There are two ways of discussing grammar and usage. One is descriptive: you try to describe how a language “really is,” right now. The other is prescriptive: you try to say what the language should be. Almost all academic linguists, and some academic grammarians, take the descriptive, supposedly scientific course. This column, however, is strongly prescriptive. It tries to describe what’s going on, but it also tries to state where it went wrong (or, occasionally, right). But rules and prescriptions — even advice — can be hard to sell to libertarians.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed.

“Why,” readers sometimes ask, “do I have to bother with rules? Why can’t I say and write whatever I want, so long as my audience understands me? And who has the right to make these rules, after all?”

Those are good questions, and they deserve good answers. Here they are.

It’s true; you don’t have to bother with rules. By right you are free to express yourself in whatever way you want. If you want to say, “I think everybody should, like, go ahead and, like, you know, vote for the, like, party of freedom?, I mean the, you know, Libertarian Party?” you can do so, and a normal audience will understand what you’re driving at, despite the pointless interjections and the irritating “uptalk.” But that doesn’t mean that no one should have the temerity to suggest that you sound like an idiot.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed. According to a creed that was temporarily espoused about 40 years ago (and probably 40 years before that, too), teachers should not presume to “correct” their students’ work; they should simply encourage them to abandon their fears and write. If you did enough writing, you would turn out well. Or good. Or something. Old-fashioned teachers were satirized for penning such insolent marginalia as, “I know what you’re trying to say, but it’s not quite coming through.” How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying? But of course that’s nonsense. If a young American writes, “The judge was so disinterested that she fell asleep,” you’ll know what he meant, and you’ll also know that the word he needs, whether he knows it or not, is “uninterested.” You’ll know it because you’re more competent than he is.

Well, who has the right to say that uninterested is the right word? People use uninterested and disinterested interchangeably, all the time.

Yes, that’s a description of what they do. They also say, “I seen you crossing the street,” all the time. There remains the question of what they ought to do. Anyone has the right to decide that question, and be correct or incorrect about it, just as anyone has the right to decide whether Raphael was a better artist than the four-year-old next door.

How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying?

In respect to Raphael and the preschool kid, the best qualified judges will be people who have seen lots of art, and lots of kinds of art, people who are familiar with the various effects that art tries to achieve and who are perceptive enough to notice whether those effects actually are achieved by any given work. Such judges may well say that the kid’s paintings project an immediacy that Raphael never achieved (or wanted), but they will also say that when it comes to the art museum, or the narthex of the church, Raphael is better.

These people’s judgments will carry authority, but the issue is never who shall judge but how the judgment is made. If you have a competent understanding of the resources of the English language, you know that uninterested and disinterested are traditionally considered virtual opposites of each other, and you recognize that the distinction between them continues to be valuable. It allows people to say such things as, “The judge was admirably disinterested, but she was woefully uninterested in the case before her.” No one has authority over the English language — not even Webster’s Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage — but every informed and rational judgment is authoritative.

This is no tyranny. It is a vindication of the individual mind.

Having said all this, I don’t want to sacrifice too much to the idea that, yes, we can understand you, no matter how ugly we consider your self-expression. Sometimes — not infrequently — we cannot understand you, because your ugliness gets in the way.

On August 11, a good example came into my possession. I was on a ship off the eastern coast of Canada, and my internet connection didn’t work. Actually, I was too cheap to make it work. Anyway, I picked up a copy of the news digest that the New York Times provides for the maritime trade, and there I found an article about James K. Galbraith, an economist who gives zany advice to people in Greece. Apparently the advice is to initiate the millennium by inflating the currency enough to repudiate the nation’s debts. If I’m wrong about this, I’m sorry; I’m just trying to interpret the Times account of his notions:

Galbraith . . . argued passionately that a new currency would wash away the country’s debts, solve Greece’s competitiveness problem and ultimately create what he called a “good society.” A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks, he had drawn up a contingency plan for Greece under [finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis’s direction, in case the country was forced to leave the [euro] currency zone by its creditors.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But there’s a crucial grammatical error in there. It occurs in the second sentence. It’s a dangling modifier. “A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks” is supposed to fit with or “modify” something else in the sentence, but what? The normal candidate would be the noun or pronoun immediately following the modifier. In this sentence, that candidate is “he.” Unfortunately, “he” is not a “step.” So the modifier is dangling, apparently unattached to anything else.

Many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence.

Now, the English, and especially the British, language is full of dangling modifiers. They are widespread, but they are wrong. When you, as a reader, pay the kind of attention to sentences that any author would appreciate your paying, you try to visualize the author’s meaning. But when a sentence includes a dangling modifier, the resulting image is misleading or ludicrous. Steps don’t draw up contingency plans.

And here the dangling modifier creates a problem that is worse than aesthetic. It’s a conceptual problem: what is the step that most Greeks oppose? It is not, alas, Mr. Galbraith (“he”); many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence. Well, is it the “contingency plan”? Probably not. Schemes to get rich by welshing on your debts are usually pretty popular. OK. How about “a good society”? No . . . few people are “opposed” to anything like that.

We’re still searching for the “step.” But notice that now we’re trying to figure out what the passage means by using whatever we knew about the subject before we read the passage. We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

All right, suppose that the “step” to which most Greeks are “opposed” is “a new currency”? Maybe. Probably. But how can we be sure? No matter how free you are with your lingo, “currency” is not a “step.” And we reached our identification of “step” with “currency” only through the process of eliminating every other possibility. It’s conceivable that there is no “step,” that the passage is literally meaningless.

Writing of this quality hardly inspires confidence in the New York Times. It’s a harsh saying, and sometimes wrong, but it’s basically true: if you don’t reflect on the way in which you say things, the things you say are unlikely to be taken seriously.

That’s true about words that appear in professional jargon or regional dialects or purely colloquial language as well as about words embedded in formal written English. If you’re trying to talk like a millennial and you don’t recognize the difference between dude, bro, brother, and mate, you’re not going to be treated as reliable on most of the subjects you want to address. If you’re trying to make some intellectual contribution and you show that you don’t care, or maybe don’t know, about the rules of grammar, your readers will wonder, perhaps justifiably, whether you have anything to contribute. And if you, as an intellectual, turn out writing that’s as stiff as a board, people will begin to ask themselves whether you have the understanding of human beings, their likes and dislikes and ways of interpreting the world, that is necessary to most intellectual disciplines.

We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

I’m talking about what Aristotle called ethos — the perceived character of a speaker or writer. As Aristotle observes, if you don’t have a decent ethos you’ll have lots of trouble getting other people to listen to you and agree with you. But I’m also talking about what we moderns call empathy — human beings’ ability to imagine what others are like, what others are likely to feel, how others are likely to react to what we do or say. If you can’t summon enough empathy to look at your sentences and see whether your readers will receive them as clear communications or as verbal puzzles, you should stop writing until you’re in a better mood. If you insist on writing, “All taxpayers have been now directed to submit his/her forms to the nearest IRS/tax office,” you should have enough empathy to know that while most readers will understand your sentence, sort of, their attention will be fixed not on your meaning but on your annoying slash forms, your unidiomatic placement of words (“now”), and your odd switch from plural (“taxpayers”) to singular (“his/her”). You’re free not to realize that or to care about it, but don’t think you’ll emerge from that sentence with your ethos intact.

In July, the computers at Southwest Airlines failed, and hundreds of flights were canceled. Passengers were understandably unhappy, but the icing on their cake of fury — note: I have enough empathy to realize that you will realize that this is an awful metaphor; I ask you to have enough empathy to understand that the image is supposed to be amusing — the icing on their cake of fury, I say, was Southwest’s explanation of the affair, an explanation that the airline placed on an obscure website, which nobody ever goes to, an explanation headlined by these words:

Information Regarding Operational Impact of Technology Issues

Is there a man or woman on the face of the earth who would guess that this had anything to do with a canceled flight? Empathy? We don’t need no stinkin’ empathy. And is there a person on earth who, after finally getting the point, would retain any confidence in anything that Southwest might deign to say thereafter?

Proceeding to another sample of great corporate writing — an advertisement for the Viking line of cruise ships, which makes this claim:

Designed as an upscale hotel, Viking’s chefs deliver a superb . . . experience.

Here’s another dangling modifier: “designed as an upscale hotel.” It’s presumably the ship that’s designed that way, but ship is nowhere in the sentence. What the sentence literally means is that Viking’s chefs are designed as an upscale hotel.

It’s funny; you laugh. Then you wonder: if Viking’s spokesmen are so careless with words, are they also careless with meanings? Can it be that their messages are just so many phrases thrown at the audience, to see what will stick? Can it be that a Viking ship is not actually anything like an upscale hotel? But one thing is clear: no one at Viking imagines that readers will actually think about its messages.

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy.

Ethos and empathy . . . On July 22, President Obama made a statement in which he said that Donald Trump’s speech of the night before “just doesn’t jive with the facts.” The president said that twice. Of course, what he meant was “agree with the facts.” I know that. But the word that means “agree,” in this sense, is jibe, not jive. I understand that there are millions of people who don’t know the difference. Peace to all such. There are also millions of people who don’t realize that the past tense of “see” is not “seen.”

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy. He has, for instance, never mastered the like-as distinction or the not-so-subtle rules governing pronoun case (“just between you and I”). With him, lack of ethos is related, as it often is with lesser mortals, to a lack of empathy. He has evidently never asked himself whether there may be persons on this planet, and millions of them, who know more about grammar and usage than he does, so he has never felt the need to investigate these subjects.

“Well,” I hear some truly generous libertarians saying, “we all make mistakes.” Yes, we do. Indeed we do. And that’s the most important realization we can have about this subject. We all make mistakes. The question is whether we want to notice our mistakes and do something about them.




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The Unmentionables

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The Sounds of Silence

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People make up their ideas of the world by listening to what other people say — in a speech, on a survey, to their friends. But maybe we could learn something if we reflected on what people do not say.

Here are 33 things that nobody in America says. Or, possibly, thinks.

  1. The tax rates are just about right, except for people like me. My taxes should be higher.
  2. I am a member of the 1%.
  3. The policeman is your friend.
  4. I hate all people of other races, but I keep quiet about it, to avoid being criticized.
  5. I got my job from affirmative action.
  6. No one is qualified to teach kids their ABCs unless certified by the government.
  7. I know someone who died from climate change.
  8. The Constitution was written to abolish capital punishment, preserve the lives of endangered fish, and ensure a living wage for all Americans.
  9. When the government provides a service, it usually does a better job than private business.
  10. Some Americans are so poor that they have to steal from other people.
  11. Some Americans are so poor that they have to murder other people.
  12. Open borders would increase Americans’ pay rates while improving Americans’ security.
  13. American public schools are very good.
  14. American public schools are good.
  15. American public schools are acceptable.
  16. American literature, music, and art are better than they were in the past.
  17. I have a perfect right to tell my neighbor what opinions she may express.
  18. The government is better at handling my money than I am.
  19. The American government has a good plan for dealing with terrorism.
  20. I believe in everything my pastor says.
  21. If you don’t like this country, stay right here.
  22. If you graduated from an elite university, you must be smart.
  23. Few people actually get important jobs just because they come from wealthy families.
  24. It makes good sense that people can vote before they are trusted to drink a legal beer.
  25. It makes good sense that people can serve three years as Special Forces operatives before they are trusted to drink a legal beer.
  26. At least one Muslim country recognizes equal rights for Christians, gays, and women.
  27. America’s Middle Eastern wars succeeded.
  28. The War on Drugs succeeded.
  29. The War on Poverty succeeded.
  30. The Libertarian Party will eventually take power.
  31. President Obama has improved race relations.
  32. Donald Trump is a deeply spiritual man.
  33. When I have an important decision to make, I ask myself, “What would Hillary Clinton do?”



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They Couldn’t Have Said That!

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On May 27, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that his city had received a grant of $9 million dollars to employ people from Los Angeles who have recently gotten out of prison and train them in “life skills.” I’ve published a book about prisons, and I still do research in that area. I’ve usually liked the convicts and ex-convicts I’ve met. I’m very much in favor of giving them the clichéd second chance, and I don’t think I’d have any more worries about employing one of them than about employing an otherwise similar person who had never been in prison. People who land in prison tend to be fairly young, and they are much less likely to commit crimes when they get older. Also, as a prison warden remarked to me, many convicts committed their crimes when they were drunk or high, and they’re different people when they’re not that way. So if they don’t go crazy with substances again, why not employ them?

Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

Nevertheless, I did have some problems with Garcetti’s glee over his $9 million grant, because the money came from CalTrans, the California state agency that is supposed to be maintaining our roads and is not, despite the fact that it constantly demands more money. The fact that the money came from CalTrans was obscured by news “reporting” that spoke about an “agreement” or “pact” between CalTrans and the city, or simply said that “between” them they would spend $9 million. I don’t think the source of the money was intentionally obscured; it was represented in that way because the news writers just didn’t care. What’s another $9 million of the taxpayers’ money? And who cares whether everyone in the state should pay for services to Angelenos, or just the Angelenos themselves?

More upsetting was the fact that nobody paid any attention to the strange things that Garcetti actually said in making his announcement — nobody, that is, except the “John and Ken Show,” an afternoon radio program that raucously exposes the misdeeds of California politicians. John and Ken ran and reran the audio of Garcetti’s remarks:

When we invest in people we don’t know where things will turn out. But when people have paid their debt to society, our debt of gratitude should be not just thanking them for serving that time, but allowing them a pathway back in. They will also have access to services from life skills training to cognitive behavior therapy. You can’t just give folks a job; you have to give services with the job.[emphasis added]

Who would say such a thing? And who would neglect to mention it, if they were reporting on a politician — the mayor of the nation’s second largest city — who said it? The answer: people who have spoken and listened to the language of political correctness for so long that they no longer recognize its most ridiculous extremes as . . . well, ridiculous — abnormal, absurd, insulting to the intelligence. The episode provides an index of how low the American “elite” has sunk. Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

A few days after the “John and Ken Show” — which happens to be the most popular public affairs show in Southern California — started making fun of Garcetti, he grabbed an interview with a “John and Ken” reporter and said, pleasantly, that he (the mayor) had been confused. His remarks had been delivered on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and they had gotten mixed up with thoughts about members of the military for whose service we should be thankful. To my mind, this just made things worse. Garcetti’s excuse was that he had, sort of naturally, confused the idea of “service” when it applies to fighting for one’s country with the idea “service” when it applies to being sent to prison.

Oh well. From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same. Should I bring up the “workplace violence” at Ft. Hood?

Let’s follow the path from the ridiculous to the truly degraded. The man who shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando was a Muslim fanatic who repeatedly claimed religion as his motivation. Is there any mystery here? No. This was a religious crime, by now familiar to the whole world. For the editorial board of the New York Times, there’s no mystery either — except that it is somehow plain to the Times that Republican politicians were to blame for the atrocity:

While the precise motivation for the rampage remains unclear, it is evident that Mr. Mateen was driven by hatred toward gays and lesbians. Hate crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. They occur where bigotry is allowed to fester, where minorities are vilified and where people are scapegoated for political gain. Tragically, this is the state of American politics, driven too often by Republican politicians who see prejudice as something to exploit, not extinguish.

This sort of thing is beneath contempt, and almost beneath comment. The solemn denunciation of hate is itself an obvious product of hate. But hate is nothing compared to the cheap rhetorical tricks by which the writers try to develop reasons for their gross and obvious lie. The tricks are clear evidence that the authors know they are lying and are proud of their ability to continue lying without, as they imagine, getting caught.

From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same.

Do atrocious crimes happen in a vacuum? No. Do they tend to happen where bigotry is allowed to fester, minorities are vilified, etc.? Yes. And are there politicians in America who exploit prejudices (besides the prejudices that sway the New York Times)? Why, yes. Therefore, it was American politicians, specifically Republican politicians, who incited Mateen’s murders. A clever arrangement of thoughts!

Well, the authors must think so. It must never occur to these brilliant people that readers, even their readers (the numbers of whom are diminishing every hour), could possibly respond by saying, “Stop! Wait a minute! Wasn’t the atmosphere for this kind of slaughter the bigotry, vilification, and scapegoating practiced without let or shame by the radical Islamists whom Mateen claimed as his inspiration?” Which of course it was. Which of course it continues to be, not just in America but in Islamist regimes throughout the world, many of them the friends of the Times’ good friends. Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing. This is a vacuum that the Times can’t imagine anyone noticing.

Another view of the vacuum was provided by the Times’ idol and oracle, President Obama, in his recent discourse on the demands by people on the right, and people with sense, that he call Islamic terrorism “Islamic terrorism,” instead of “terror,” “hate,” and other unmodified, meaningless terms. These demands, alas, were not prompted by Word Watch, which has always wanted people to talk so that other people can understand what they’re saying. But the demands made sense. They were prompted by a realization that the president, like any other head of a vast bureaucracy, commands the apparatus as much by what he does not say as by what he actually does say. There are many indications that by refusing to make radical Islam a concern of law enforcement, by in fact saying that terrorism has nothing to do with Islamand that ISIS itself is not Islamic. Obama sends government agencies out on a futile search for “hate” instead of a search for certain specific fanatics who want to kill other people.

Finally, on June 14, faced with a catastrophic example of what he must have wanted to call nightclub violence, Obama meditated upon the weighty problem of nomenclature. Since he is a constant public speaker and an alleged author, his ideas about words would surely be worthy of consideration. And they are. “Calling a threat by a different name,” he pronounced, “does not make it go away.”

Reading that, one remembers the old chestnut about whether Senator McCarthy had any sense of decency. “Have you no logic, sir,” one wants to say. “At long last, have you no logic?” If calling a threat by a different name doesn’t make it go away, why do you insist on calling Islamic terrorism by so many different names?

The truth, I’m afraid, is that somehow such people as the president and the editors of the New York Times worry more about the tender feelings of radical Muslims — who violently oppose every value that the modern liberals profess — than about safeguarding the lives of normal Americans, gay or straight, white or black, Muslim or non-Muslim. This ruthlessness of sentiment is something I cannot explain.

Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing.

We saw it again, in a particularly ridiculous way, on June 20, when the FBI, under orders from the Department of Justice, issued a “transcript” of the Orlando assassin’s electronic conversations during the atrocity. The transcript was “redacted.” For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, redacted means censored. The conversations were long, but practically none of the words appeared in the transcript. All possible references to radical Islamic contacts and inspirations were removed. The alleged reason was that the government didn’t want to “propagandize” for the radicals, and that it did not want the surviving victims to be “retraumatized.”

Either the Attorney General and her employees believe this or not. If not, they’re lying. If so, they have a very strange idea of the effects of public discourse. If someone goes into a nightclub and starts slaughtering people, and in the process claims you as his inspiration, is that a good notice for you? Doubtful. More doubtful is the notion that translating the assassin’s “Allah” as “God” will save the feelings of his victims. (Yes, “Allah” is a word for the more or less shared god of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but in English it is always and everywhere rendered as “Allah.”)

All this was so exceedingly ridiculous that the government relented and published another redaction, which it called unredacted. The government relented — but it did not repent. This version apparently still lacked much of the original, and it still rendered “Allah” as “God.” I have no questions to ask the government about God, but I would like to know what all those expurgated words may have been. I would also like to know — really know — what these strange officials have in mind. Unfortunately, all you get from thinking about this is the craving for a good stiff drink.

I don’t have a drink to offer you, but here’s some good news. Fox’s late-night comedy show, “Red Eye,” which rose to greatness under the wonderful Greg Gutfeld, is under new management (Greg got a one-man show), and it seems to be working out. Tom Shillue, the new host, maintains Greg’s style of humor, one element of which is a constant stream of clichés deployed in solemnly hilarious ways. When Greg wanted to refer to Obama, he used to say, in an ominous tone, “President Obama, if that’s his real name.” Now Tom is discussing “the reclusive billionaire, Donald Trump.” This kind of stuff goes by too fast for you to wonder, “Why am I laughing?” But it’s great and you don’t forget it.

Greg Gutfeld is a libertarian, and probably Tom Shillue is also, though I haven’t heard him say so. I wish there were more libertarians with a sense of humor. For a single, delicious moment I thought that Gary Johnson, Libertarian nominee for president, had one of those things. In a television interview on May 23, I heard him say, “Most people are libertarians; it’s just that they don’t know it.”

I thought that was hilarious. Imagine: a nation full of libertarians, almost none of whom ever manage to vote for the Libertarian Party! What are they thinking? Are they drunk? Stoned? Are they as illiterate as the thousands of Californians, some of them celebrities, who recently discovered that when they registered to vote as partisans of the American Independent Party, they weren’t actually registering as “independents”? Or are they playing their own massive joke on the politicians — consistently voting for principles they detest? The zany adventures of a wacky electorate!

But Johnson didn’t smile; he just kept talking as if this absurdity were true! I’ve heard him say it several times since, and I’ve been forced to conclude that he is only being funny in the way that politicians usually are funny — unconsciously.

For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, "redacted" means "censored."

The sad truth is that most Americans are not libertarians. They are the beneficiaries of a great libertarian tradition, inseparable from this noble nation, but they are not libertarians. They are libertarian about gun laws but not about drug laws. Or they are libertarian about taxes but not about gun laws or drug laws. Or they are libertarian about the internet but not about taxes or gun laws or drug laws or anything else. They are libertarian about X but not about Y through Z or A through W.

These proclamations of Mr. Johnson are either pious lies or self-deception. He’s a nice guy, so I strongly suspect the latter. But they are uncomfortably close to the perpetual declarations of the mainline politicians, who are always assuring us that “what the American people really care about” or “what the American people really want” is miraculously identical with what the politicians themselves want or care about. That’s one reason why there’s so little real argument in American politics. The strategy is not to say anything new, anything you might have to argue for, but simply to compliment the audience as fulsomely as you can, then slip offstage, bearing away as many votes as you’ve managed to collect. I can’t see any reason to vote for someone like that, except to keep someone worse from winning.

I’m sorry if I done Mr. Johnson wrong. If he’s got any amusing remarks lying around, I hope he’ll come out with them. We can use them right now.




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Just Keep Talking

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In case you think that United Statesians are the only people who are losing command of their language, and American politicians are the permanent world champions in the Oaf and Malaprop contest, consider what happened in the Canadian Parliament on May 18.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, known on the street as Li’l Obama, got upset about his colleagues’ slowness in voting on, of all things to get hot about, an assisted-suicide bill. So he stomped across the chamber toward Opposition Whip Gord Brown and some other people, including opposition member Ruth Ellen Brosseau. In the language of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is so nicey-nice that you can hardly understand it, “in video from the House, Trudeau is seen walking toward Brown in a crowd of MPs in the Commons aisle, taking his arm in an apparent effort to move Brown toward his seat. While doing so, he encountered Brosseau, who was also standing in the aisle and was seen physically reacting after the contact.” In the language of a more alert reporter, Trudeau “strode across the floor with an anger fierce in his face and eyes, towards a group of individuals. What took place was the prime minister physically grabbing people, elbowing people, hauling them down the way.” Brosseau said she had been “elbowed in the chest [i.e. breast] by the prime minister.” Others reported the PM’s deploying “the f-word” and continuing the confrontation in dialogue with the New Democratic Party Leader, who characterized him, aptly enough, as “pathetic!”

Later, amid loud cries of scorn and derision, Trudeau “apologized.” This is what he said:

I want to take the opportunity . . . to be able to express directly to [Brosseau] my apologies for my behavior and my actions, unreservedly. The fact is, in this situation, where I saw . . . I noticed that the member, the opposite member whip, was being impeded in his progress, I took it upon myself to go and assist him forward, which was I now see unadvisable as a course of actions and resulted in physical contact in this House that we can all accept was un, un, unacceptable. I apologize for that unreservedly and I look for opportunities to make amends directly to the member and to any members who feel negatively impacted by this, by this exchange and intervention because I take responsibility.

Here, in the comments of the lordly Canuck, are the same four and twenty blackbirds that American politicians are always baking into their own verbal pies:

A. The “apology” — but for what? For trying to “assist” someone. Some crime, eh?

B. The misleading description. Trudeau, it seems, took “a course of actions that resulted in physical contact.” Gosh, we all do that every day. I guess he’s no guiltier than the rest of us, eh?

This is a society in which tens of millions of people spend all day on their cellphones, and far too many people are paid to start talking and never stop.

C. The total disregard, or ignorance, of common idioms. English speakers never talk about “a course of actions.” It’s action, for God’s sake. Can’t you listen when other people talk? But when you’re a politician or other prominent personality, you don’t have to. So you don’t.

D. The reduction of a dramatic offense to something merely “unadvisable.” By the way, no one says unadvisable if he’s ever heard of inadvisable.

E. “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” — or at least of ignorance. You’re getting close to illiteracy when, within a very few words, you say, “We can all accept [that something] was unacceptable”; when you join accept with a clause, as in such current clichés as “you need to accept that your husband is a drunk”; and when you utter that virtually meaningless cliché “negative impact.”

F. The shifting of blame from actions to feelings, and hence from self to others — those others who “feel negatively impacted” by what you did. I am so sorry that you feel that way — now get over it.

G. The stilt stumble. Instead of saying that someone had trouble getting through the crowd, you climb on your stilts and say he was “being impeded in his progress.” My, Justin, what a big boy you are!

So much for Mr. Trudeau’s “unreserved” apology — and its ilk, whose name is legion, on both sides of the border.

Modern society is verbal to a degree that often makes me feel like Norma Desmond, longing for the days of silent movies. This is a society in which tens of millions of people spend all day on their cellphones, and far too many people — from talk show hosts and alleged teachers to political “consultants” and “activists” — are paid to start talking and never stop. But there appears to be an inverse relationship between quantity and quality.

Take Hillary Clinton. (Please!) She does nothing but talk. That’s been her sole occupation for the past 50 years. But somehow, the more she talks, the worse she gets. The more she talks about anything, the worse she gets about whatever that is. If you haven’t seen the YouTube video, “Hillary Clinton Lying for 13 Minutes Straight,” take a look at it, especially at the parts where she denies ever having changed her mind — or her essential values, or her basic concerns, or what she fights for, or whatever phrase she wants to substitute for mind. More hilarious still are the parts that show her lying — needlessly, endlessly, pathologically — about the nonexistent attack on her at that airport in the Balkans.

Now consider her attempts to jimmy her husband into her campaign. She and the liberal media (at present, her only friends and audience) still believe that Bill Clinton is the most popular person in the world. On May 20, Mr. Clinton appeared in my county, speaking in a high school to what was termed “a good crowd.” At the same time, the cops were blocking off streets for a Sanders rally. Who’s popular?

More hilarious still are the parts that show Clinton lying — needlessly, endlessly, pathologically — about the nonexistent attack on her at that airport in the Balkans.

It must seem strange to Mrs. Clinton that every time she brings up her husband, she loses more supporters. Insanely, she keeps on trying. On May 15, desperately attempting to get the workers of Kentucky to vote for her, despite her promise to put coal miners out of their jobs, she actually called the guy her “husband” — something she had hitherto avoided at all costs. (Understandable — she got where she is because of her own accomplishments, right?) She screamed about “my husband, who I’m gonna put in charge of revitalizing the economy, cause, you know, he knows how to do it.” At the mention of “my husband,” she waved her hand nonchalantly, as if already enjoying absolute power.

Note the phony folksiness of “gonna” and “cause,” and the real lack of grammar embodied in “who.” In view of her syntax, and her total absence of reference — what do we know that Bill Clinton knows about doing it? — Democrats should no longer complain about these qualities in Donald Trump. She’s right down there with him. Incidentally, if Bill knows how to revitalize the economy, why isn’t he doing it? What’s standing in his way? Has Hillary never anticipated these questions?

The “13 Minutes” video shows how dumb politicians can look when they’re trying to be clever. But here’s where the Dumber Principle comes into play. That’s what R.W. Bradford called the idea — useful to politicians, salesmen, conmen, evangelists, and people who are anxious to unload the house that they paid too much for — that “there’s always somebody dumber than you are.” On May 20, after the crash of the Egyptian airplane, I saw a Democratic spokesman castigating Trump for immediately suggesting that the cause was terrorism. The Fox News interviewer was apparently too dumb to mention that Mrs. Clinton had done exactly the same thing. He was also too dumb to deal with the contention that “there’s no evidence it was terrorism.” He looked puzzled, as if there was something he was missing, or something he had forgotten . . . But he never found it.

At the mention of “my husband,” she waved her hand nonchalantly, as if already enjoying absolute power.

The missing concept was the distinction between evidence and proof. Of course there was no proof of terrorism, or anything else, a few hours after the plane fell from a clear sky into the sea. But there was certainly evidence. The plane, which was on its way from Paris to Cairo, two top targets of terrorism, fell from a clear sky, into the sea, and without any cry of distress.

Confusing evidence with proof is a common dodge, a dumb looking for a dumber, and ordinarily finding it. President Obama used it on May 12 to debunk the FBI director’s contention that police are making fewer arrests because of the bad publicity they got from real and alleged abuses in black neighborhoods. “We have not seen any evidence of that,” the president said; it was all “anecdotes.” I’m not debating the substantive issue — I don’t know enough about it — and I don’t know whether there’s proof, one way or the other. But if you’re looking for proof, you need to start with evidence, and since when aren’t anecdotes evidence? Obama’s use of “evidence” to mean “proof” was simply a way of deferring the inspection of whatever evidence exists, until everyone forgets the matter. He did the same thing with the evidence of IRS harassment of rightwing nonprofits. But don’t let the blame stop with him. Where is the interviewer, or even commentator, who says on such occasions: “Excuse me. We’re talking about this because there is evidence. We’re trying to find out whether it’s proof or not.”

Let’s see. What else can I pick on this month? Here are two other instances of people emitting words long after they’ve run out of anything that makes sense to say.

My use of the first example demonstrates my integrity, because I’m bringing up a flaw in one of my favorite things in the world, Turner Classic Movies. TCM has given me so many hours of knowledge and pleasure that I am willing to forgive even the dumb things its announcers say about Hollywood people “accused” of communist sympathies; actual communists are unknown to TCM. But in the land of TCM, unlike a communist dictatorship, all kinds of movies are shown, and no movies are cut or censored. In our era of censorship and self-censorship, this is a shining accomplishment. So I am also willing to forgive the offense I am about to mention — although to forgive is not to forget.

So here it is: TCM keeps advertising its annual film festival as “the intersection of emotion and excitement.” This leaves me speechless, and not with admiration. An advertisement has to say something, but not that. No, not that. In a purely linguistic sense, President Obama’s failure to distinguish “evidence” from “proof” is of no importance, compared with TCM’s demand that we picture an intersection where emotion and excitement, which is a type of emotion . . . intersect. I may be too smart, or I may be too dumb, but I cannot picture that.

Confusing evidence with proof is a common dodge, a "dumb" looking for a "dumber," and ordinarily finding it.

Passing quickly, and finally, to someone who is not as likable as TCM, to someone who is not likable at all, I come to “Pastor” Jordan Brown, the idiot who tried to shake down Whole Foods in Austin by falsely alleging that when he ordered a cake that said “Love Wins” the store handed him a cake that said “Love Wins — Fag.” Linguistically, this event was important only because many of the media refused to state the offensive word, making up for their self-censorship by joyously presenting a picture of the cake itself, with the word on it.

But the bone I want to pick with the “pastor” has to do, not with the cake, but with one of the inspirational statements he tweeted to advertise his “church,” which if it existed was in the self-help, love-yourself business. The statement, sent out on April 14, just before the affair of the icing, was: “You cannot become what you will not confront.” If anything can be less than nonsense, that’s it. But it isn’t a peculiarly Jordan Brown statement. It’s the kind of idiocy exuded from every organ of the self-help monster that continues growing, 30 years after it ran out of the clear, simple, and actually helpful advice with which it began. Its brain is dead, but its words go on.

I like to remember what the actual pastor of an actual gay church once told me, in defense of other people’s right to say nasty things about gays: “Freedom of speech means being able to talk long enough to prove you’re a fool.”




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Cuba, Obama, and Change

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Although Republicans and, no doubt, the Castro brothers perceive President Obama’s visit to Cuba on March 20 as American kowtowing, the perception on the Cuban street is entirely different.

To Cubans, the visit is an honor ranking right up there with the Pope’s visit, and one not vouchsafed to the island since President Coolidge’s visit in 1928. El mulato, as he’s informally referred to in the Cuban fashion of conferring nicknames on everyone, and his historic visit, bring the promise of hope and change to the island more concretely than any pronouncement ever made by the Castros.

I know. Three days ago I returned from a 30-day bike journey across the island, from Baracoa in the east to Havana. American flags were everywhere — in cars, taxis, horse- and pedal-drawn taxis, even clothing — even before the visit was announced. Warned by guidebooks and savants to minimize exchanges with uniformed personnel, and never to photograph any, I found the admonition accurate. These were all serious, unfriendly, incorruptible, suspicious, and averse to any sign of curiosity. But once the visit was announced, I decided to test the premises. Passing soldiers, policemen and God-knows-what functionaries, I’d yell, “We’re not enemies anymore!” and I’d add some typical Cuban sassy wordplay non-sequitur as a true native would. I managed to get a few smiles and even some playful responses. Things are changing.

The hustle, bustle, entrepreneurship, and raw energy that permeated every person was a far cry from the typical listless socialist citizen.

Back in March 2012, in a Liberty article entitled “The Metamorphosis,” I outlined the changes to the Cuban economy legislated by the Castro government (see also “Cuba: Change We Can Count On?”, Liberty, December 2010). The changes attempted to drop one-fifth of the workers from government jobs and make them self-employed — this in a country where everyone is employed by the government at pay scales of $1–2 per day. But the fine print indicated internal ideological conflicts. While dozens of job categories were authorized — from transportation to food, to lodging, to construction, to personal grooming (and many more) — permits, taxes, limits on employees and much red tape don’t make the goal easy to achieve.

Nonetheless, the hustle, bustle, entrepreneurship, and raw energy that permeated every person pursuing his hopes and dreams along miles of city streets and rural roads was a far cry from the typical listless socialist citizen. Ironically, even the poorest — those whom socialism is touted to help the most — were selling homemade sweets, cucuruchos, in the Sierra Maestra Mountains without permits! One told me he’d be fined $3,000 if caught. To a poor guajiro unable to pay such a fine, jail would await.

Seemingly everyone is trying to become independent of the government and develop self-employed income. One university economics grad student whose psychologist wife still works for the state now runs a B&B in Las Tunas, where I overnighted between Bayamo and Camagüey. Next year he plans on studying Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek. I asked whether that was possible; he said definitely, in advanced academia. His study plan had already been approved.

Three blocks from the capitolio in Havana, along the Prado, I spotted a sandwich board advertising real estate. A university economics professor tended the spot. He had no office other than his board, his clipboard, and the built-in bench on the promenade. Though we’d seen many “For Sale” signs on many buildings, including the humblest of abodes, we saw no real estate offices. I excitedly elbowed my wife Tina, a realtor in Arizona, to engage her interest.

Bad move.

A middleman agent of finance — the epitome of freewheeling capitalism — just didn’t fit into her perception of a socialist economy. Either the man was deluded or he was a scammer (an unlikely scenario: the police are ruthless with physical and financial crimes). I insisted on us engaging the man. Immediately she blurted out, “How can you own property in Cuba when there are no property rights and the state can confiscate your property at any time for any reason?”

Seemingly everyone is trying to become independent of the government and develop self-employed income.

The poor man, without a vestige of the ingeniousness of an American used-car-salesman, took on a pained and thoughtful look. He didn’t know where to start, but he understood that Tina had zeroed in on the heart of the matter. Translating his response was an exercise in empathy. He told us of a building across the street from the capitolio whose residents had just been told by the government to move out: the government needed the space. He didn’t know whether compensation, alternative housing, or even a grace period had been granted. He was the first to admit that Cuba has no property rights and no judicial system to enforce them. Nonetheless, what was he to do? New laws, albeit extremely constricted, allowed for the buying and selling of cars and property. No mortgages are available; only cash transactions. Interest is still illegal. But someone was paying him four times the salary he’d made at the university. He had nothing but hope and an optimistic outlook: “This time the people will not let the changes be reversed.”

I reminded him of the roadside billboards that read, “The changes in progress are for MORE SOCIALISM” — a sure sign, he counterintuitively agreed, along with Obama’s visit, that the changes now have a better chance of sticking than any previous promises. Or as one informant put it, “Castro educated us; now we know what he’s up to.”




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