Ignoring the Indefinite

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Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag
And smile, smile, smile.

I like that World War I song — the chorus, anyway; the verses are dreadful crap. Maybe it’s the tune that gets me, but there’s also some virtue in the sentiment: you can take all the bad things in your world, pack them away someplace, and forget about them. It just takes a little gumption, and a little common sense:

What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worthwhile.

So let’s see how that idea applies to the worrying problems of words this column addresses. Let’s notice them, list them, and try to pack them away. Maybe they won’t return to afflict us. And if they do, maybe we will still be inspired to smile, smile, smile. No one can list all the atrocious words that assault our ears, but we can at least make a start.

As soon as you say “atrocious,” President Obama pops up, like a genie in a bottle, responding to the magic word. He’s an encyclopedia of verbal atrocities. The one I’m thinking about right now is around. I mean around as it’s used to discuss something considered to possess some decided relationship to something else, but never a relationship that’s decided enough to be definite. As with most of Obama’s words, around is good for the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t approach.

These practices worked their way into high schools, ad agencies, HR departments, and other places where taste is not an issue.

On July 20, the president granted an interview about the Iran treaty (or whatever it is — that isn’t definite). He said: “There is broad international consensus around this issue.” If I wanted to go off on a tangent, I would observe that the lovely, broad-minded word international is an attempt to lead Obama’s listeners off on a tangent, and leave them there. Think about it. Who cares whether Albanians and Algerians are in favor of the treaty, or whether they’ve even heard of it? The question of whether they’ve reached a consensus on this point matters about as much as whether they, or the rest of the world, has reached a consensus about freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, or freedom of religion, or common decency of any sort. (Actually, the world has reached a consensus: it’s ag’in all those things.) The issue is whether America will approve the treaty. Besides, consensus isn’t the same as authority, intellectual or political; it has nothing to do with justice or truth or even the actual will and volition of the people involved.

But I refuse to be led off on such a tangent. Around does not mean about, no matter how many ex-hippies use it in that way. An intellectually responsible person talks about something; a person with cloudy, slippery ideas talks around it, or tries to picture unknown numbers of internationals forming something called a consensus somewhere in its vicinity. Typical Clinton supporters, interviewed on television (why?), confess that they “agree with her around a lot of her major issues.” Hardcore agitators define their profession as “advocating around issues of healthcare and the environment and a living wage,” and usually a lot of other things, equally without a definition. But let’s just stow all their arounds in our old kit bag, and remove them from our memory. If there’s room, we can throw in advocate, whenever it lacks a direct object. We can put up with people who advocate something, even if it’s the reintroduction of wolf packs to the New York suburbs, but we can’t put up with people who just advocate around.

But oh, there’s a clever substitute for the indefinite around. It’s surround. Recently I discussed the violent behavior of some California cops who mercilessly beat and kicked a man they were arresting. Unfortunately for them, their actions were filmed from a news copter, and they got in trouble. An embarrassed sheriff announced that “the video surrounding this arrest is disturbing and I have ordered an internal investigation be conducted immediately.”What can I say? Try to picture a video surrounding an arrest. Disturbing? Oh yes. Positively stomach-churning. Throw that in the bag too.

(But don’t forget the case itself. For further developments, go here. Although the incident happened over three months ago, and the county immediately, immediately paid the victim off, “investigations” have yet to be resolved.)

Another symptom — perhaps the ugliest symptom — of the national demand for the indefinite, is the universality of the slash. I refer to that nasty little mark that unites (or is it separates?) the words in such repulsive combinations of sounds as “economic/political,” “racist/sexist,” “dinner/lunch,” “funeral director/mortician” — need I go on? I’ve brought this up before; I’m sorry to have to bring it up again.

That’s two more expressions you can put in the old kit-bag, and leave it someplace where the cops will blow it up.

There is a social history around that little mark. The slash first took root among us when computers came in. It carried the prestige of the brilliant minds who write code and sometimes, fatally, try to explain the results. Thence it became the language of bureaucrats, who actually plumed themselves on their ability to write, or rather type, stuff that looked like computer code. Soon, with unconscious irony, it became a sign of status among those alleged deadly enemies of the bureaucrats, the professors of humanities. They were infected with French deconstructionist theory, in which the slash was used to show the reversibility of certain words (“life/death”) that, like all words, have no inherent meaning. Then the agitprop profs and their gullible students decided that they too would write slashingly. This was accomplished by putting syllables together like kindergarten blocks and treating them as if they were the commanding heights of political thought — the “deformings/transformings,” “postgenders/transgenders,” and “neoliberalisms/postcolonialisms” of the pseudo-intellectual world. These practices worked their way into high schools, ad agencies, HR departments, and other places where taste is not an issue.

Now, however, the slash may have reached its final reduction to absurdity. I’m looking at an AP report (May 25) about a bomb scare at the US Capitol. The author quotes an email sent by a police spokesman about things that might be bombs: "If we can't determine whether or not an item is safe/dangerous, we'd have to treat it as dangerous until we determine otherwise.” That’s the problem, isn’t it? So many things are safe/dangerous. And consider that phrase “whether or not.” It’s so frustrating to think of all those items that are neither safe nor dangerous.

People use slashes because they don’t know/are too lazy to decide/make up their minds about/around what expressions/words they want to say/write/use. Let’s see . . . is something “racist” or “sexist”? Who cares? Just call it racist/sexist. Let the reader decide what you mean, if anything. One might spend a minute reflecting on the distinction between economics and politics, but why bother? Just say “economic/political.” And now we have “safe/dangerous.”

You guessed it: the same police spokesman mentioned “negative results” and “an abundance of caution.” (“Tell me, lieutenant, how much caution did you use?” “We used an abundance of caution.” “Oh, I see.”) So that’s two more expressions you can put in the old kit-bag, and leave it someplace where the cops will blow it up.

It’s so frustrating to think of all those items that are neither safe nor dangerous.

Am I being insensitive? I hope so, because otherwise I might spend most of my time reaching out. Until very recently, reach out had a definite meaning. It was something you did when you were in serious trouble or you thought someone else might be. “I was desperate, and I reached out for help.” “I’m so grateful she reached out to me.” “I heard he was in trouble, so I reached out.” Now it means anything from rescuing a drowning child to sending random emails. Sensitivity has spread that far.

Here’s a Fox News report (May 19) about the quest for Mrs. Clinton’s emails:“FoxNews.com has reached out to Clinton's office asking if the emails published by The New York Times reflect a similar situation.” You can read the article yourself to see whether you can figure out what it means by “a similar situation.” I couldn’t.

I concede that it’s always been hard to say anything definite about the things the Clintons do, except to say that the Clintons are probably lying about them. Nevertheless, the notion of FoxNews.com desperately reaching out to Clinton, Inc., would be risible, if any irony were intended. But it’s not. At present, reach out means so many things that it means nothing, and the harsh rule of irony is that it cannot function without a definite meaning someplace.

It’s possible that the more fanatically people are trained in the language of sensitivity, the less sensitive, the more cynical, they become. Their emails are constantly reaching out; their lips are always full of heartfelt thoughts and prayers for everyone involved insome terrible tragedy; but their hearts are in tune with that same old song:

Smile, boys — that’s the style.

They were taught to utter meaningless phrases; they utter them. How is that any different from politicians who talk by the hour about their insistence on transparency and their passion for the political process, without the slightest attempt to define their words?

Well, why shouldn’t you and I adopt the same style? What if the professors and the news writers and the police spokesmen and the heads of departments and the president of the United States speak in a language with the expressive power of those scratches on your kitchen floor? If they won’t define their meanings, why should we be so careful to look for them? Why shouldn’t we return a cynical smile? In the words of another good song,

Don’t take it serious—
It’s too mysterious.




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On Dogs, Cats, and Carnal Knowledge

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Reading the Drudge Report just after the House of Representatives defeated a bill that would have given President Obama fast track authority (or “TPA,” for “trade-promotion authority”) to conclude free trade agreements, I remembered a line from the first Ghostbusters movie. The busters (Ray, Egon, Winston, and Peter) are explaining to the mayor that his city is headed for “a disaster of biblical proportions.” When the rather obtuse man asks what they mean by “biblical,” Ray says, “Real wrath of God type stuff.” Egon adds, “Forty years of darkness!” Winston chimes in with “the dead rising from the grave!” Whereupon the ever-arch Peter adds loudly, “Human sacrifice . . . dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria!”

What happened on June 12 was that a bill to grant Obama the same power (fast track authority) that almost every other president since World War II has been given went down to defeat in a procedural vote, primarily because Democratic members followed their leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in opposing it. The maneuver was to join Republicans who oppose spending more money on work retraining programs — which are usually just boondoggles that don’t retrain anybody — in voting down a package deal that included the TPA and also increased retraining funds that had earlier passed the Senate.

Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

Fast track authority is the power Congress can (and almost always does) give any president to negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs) in confidence and without congressional meddling. If any FTA is concluded, it of course becomes law only if the Senate votes in favor of it. Naturally, the Senate can only vote the submitted FTA up or down — it cannot amend it, since amending it is renegotiating it, which the other side of the agreement would not accept. Without such power, you have 435 members of Congress playing president, making it impossible to get any treaty — free trade or otherwise — negotiated.

Despite Obama’s last-minute personal intervention, in which he tried to convince his own party members in the House to support his plan, or perhaps because of his intervention, the bill went down by a vote of 302–126. As one unnamed Democratic congressman put it, “She screwed this president.”

But a number of Republicans opposed the measure, too. Here we get to the dogs and cats getting it on together.

After the vote, Matt Drudge ran a large banner on his website. It screamed, “Brave Pelosi Says No!” Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

I won’t rehearse all the arguments about why free trade is economically beneficial. I have done so at length in these pages (“The Case for Free Trade,” Liberty, December 2010, pp. 33–41). And the case was made again, succinctly and well, in a recent piece by Larry Kudlow, Art Laffer, and Steve Moore. To economists, 90% of whom favor free trade, it is obvious that free trade is on balance economically good for countries engaging in it. Why is it that when 85% of climate scientists agree on anthropogenic global warming, it becomes “settled science,” but when 90% of economists agree that free trade increases wealth (the theory of comparative advantage), the matter is never considered settled?

The reason for Obama’s defeat is threefold.

First to be mentioned is the decline in free trade sentiment among Democrats. Coming out of the Great Depression and the devastating war it helped to spawn, Democrats agreed with Republicans that the protectionism associated with the Smoot-Hawley tariffs was and is economically counterproductive and geopolitically dangerous — for, as Frédéric Bastiat observed a century and a half ago, when goods cannot cross borders, soldiers will. That is why fast track authority has been given to all but one president since the end of the second world war.

While Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, any free trade agreement he negotiates will likely err on the side of suffocating regulations for both sides.

But the Democrat party has moved ever more toward the extreme left — progressive liberalism, as Solzhenitsyn observed, ever evolving into socialism — and fewer and fewer Democrats are willing to support free trade. Really, Bill Clinton was the last president to push for it, when he signed NAFTA into law. One of the most important of the core Democrat constituencies, Big Labor, loathes free trade. In this most recent vote, for example, when Pelosi and her myrmidons went against fast track for the president of their own party, Big Labor Daddy Richard Trumka (King of the AFL-CIO) praised her mightily, proclaiming that “she stood up against corporate interests.”

Second, despite the best efforts of House Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s to give Obama fast track authority, a portion of the Republican Party opposed the measure. The biggest reason is their distrust of Obama. That’s why websites such as Breitbart.com and the Drudge Report were bashing the bill mightily.

Now, as any more-than-casual reader of these pages knows, I have been unwavering in my opposition to and contempt for the Obama Regime. To put this simply, I regard Obama as the worst president in modern history. (When I said this not long back, one reader chastised me for not characterizing Obama as the worst president in all history, but I confess that my weakness on the history of 19th-century presidents restrains me from agreeing.) President Obama will have done more to harm this country in both domestic and foreign policy than any other modern president, and if we are lucky enough to elect a decent Republican president in 2016, he or she will have to spend most of a first administration reversing the damage.

But as the old saw has it, even a broken clock is right twice a day. More to the point, while Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, in fact really pathetic at it, any FTA he negotiates will likely err on the side of trying to saddle the other side with what he favors for our side too: suffocating regulations. While that is economically deleterious, I doubt that it will result in a net disadvantage to us. Moreover, any final agreement he negotiates must still be approved by Congress, so any grossly unequal deal — say, one that increases Japan’s access to our markets but protects its agricultural industry — can quite easily be voted down, forcing him back to the table.

A good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false.

The third, and in my view the most important, reason for Obama’s loss is Obama himself. Let’s put aside the personality issue, which is that Obama is a patently arrogant, distant, snarky, intellectually mediocre narcissist who doesn’t work or play well with anyone except complete stooges. This doesn’t help him, but it isn’t the biggest problem about his free trade initiative. That problem is his history.

Obama has never gone on a tour, selling the need for a trade agreement with Asia and answering the obvious populist arguments against free trade. In this, ironically, he is like George Bush — who, while he negotiated and signed into law more FTAs than any other president, didn’t explain them, argue their importance, or refute the economically ignorant but passionately tribal populist objections to them. Obama doesn’t explain, you see; he merely shows contempt for differing opinions and expects everyone just to see his colossal greatness.

Worse, his history is one of buying the same populist claptrap arguments against free trade that he is being met with now. He bashed Hillary because her hubby signed NAFTA, which, he claimed (parroting the Trumka types), cost jobs; though this was obviously false, as must have been manifest even to an intellectual lightweight such as himself. When in office, he quickly started trade wars against both Mexico and Canada, wars that ceased only when those neighbors fought back and kicked his ass. He stalled the three FTAs left over from the Bush era, only signing them late into his second term, in the face of the worst economic recovery in American history. Now this guy — out of the blue — advocates free trade?

The average American, like the average person anywhere else on this planet, basically has his scientific and moral views set by history. The physics that the average person believes, for example, holds that objects are completely solid, and that they fall at different speeds; that space is completely empty and infinite in all directions, and that it has but three dimensions. Tradition doesn’t make such ideas true. The economics that the average person believes maintains that while labor deserves to be compensated, the lending of money doesn’t; that it is better if all people do all things for themselves, rather than dividing up the tasks among many people, possibly people in different countries; that saving rather than spending hurts jobs, but protecting home industries promotes jobs; and many other things. Tradition doesn’t make these notions true, either.

In short, a good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false. But Obama can’t teach anyone about fallacious ideas. Indeed, he often simply accepts them himself — unless he was just lying (something he does with amazing frequency and ease) when he campaigned against Hillary. Either way, he’s not able to teach the public why hunter-gatherer myths are wrong.

Maybe the Republicans can save him from the anti-free-trade crowd, but it is unclear that they can. If not, the biggest loser will be the American public. But I believe in the precept that people get the government they deserve.

em




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Going Vexed to the Sea

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One of this column’s persistent themes is President Obama’s unwillingness to read a book. If he read any books, he would mention them, but he almost never does. When he tries, he gets the citations wrong.

He did it again, on April 11, when he invoked Ralph Waldo Emerson during some self-defensive chatter about Iran. “Consistency,” he said, “is the hobgoblin of narrow minds.” What Emerson actually wrote was, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Well, who cares? At least the president quoted Emerson. Right — though he quoted without attribution, presumably because the staff kid who gave him the words didn’t know where they came from, either. Otherwise, vain spirit that Obama is, he would have displayed his professorial erudition by saying something like, “As the late Ralph Waldo Emerson so wisely advised us all . . .” But whether he knew the source or not, there’s a big difference between “consistency” and “a foolish consistency.” Reproving the latter makes sense; reproving the former does not.

More revealing, I think, although I cannot prove it, is the change from “little” — as in crass, unspiritual, incurious, imperceptive, conceptually limited — to “narrow.” Obama has spent his whole career battling “bigotry”: narrow-mindedness about race, particularly. He appears to think that everyone who criticizes him manifests this vice. But of the distinction between little minds and great ones, he has no awareness. No little-minded person does. And that’s exactly what he is: crass, unspiritual, incurious, imperceptive, just plain little.

Littleness itself can be neither limited nor confined. It is everywhere around us, even in the regions adjacent to Deep Creek Hot Springs, California. On April 9, in that locale, a mob of cops arrested a man who had stolen a horse. The man had been thrown from the horse and had cast himself on the ground in surrender, but the cops beat and kicked him. For a long time. Some cops who weren’t in the original group of beaters came over and joined the fun. Members of the law-enforcement mob have now been suspended from their jobs, pending an investigation. San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon commented on the posse’s use of force by saying, “It does not appear to be in line with our policies and procedures, at least a portion of it. . . .At the end of the day, it appears to be excessive.”

Of the distinction between little minds and great ones, he has no awareness. No little-minded person does.

Yes, it does. And from an aesthetic point of view, at the end of the day seems almost as bad. The prevalence of that pompous phrase is the measure of how greatly little minds prevail with us. At the end of the day is a small-minded attempt to seem large-minded, above the fray, calm and distanced in perspective, up in the midnight sky. . . . The phrase constantly appears in the pettiest acts of press agentry.

Small minds are, by definition, incapable of understanding how their words affect their listeners. They are also incapable of understanding that the issues of the day haven’t ended simply because they themselves have enunciated a pompous cliché. Obama, with his prattle of “hope and change,” has yet to see that the slogan was not, in itself, constitutive of hope and change.

Small minds typically try to make the surrounding world seem smaller; they fit better that way. One of their methods is the deployment of a severely limited stock of words to cover widely divergent situations. They assume that if their words don’t vary, the situations won’t either, and they will therefore be on top of them. Thus, segregation can be used to refer both to the legalized racism of the former South and to any population pattern in which one ethnic group happens to predominate. The same moral outrage can then be expressed toward both. A similar trick can be seen withincome disparity — a term that, unlike segregation, had no moral meaning to begin with. No moral lesson can be deduced merely from the fact that some people make more money than others.Yet the notion of an income gap has been used — first by outright demagogues, then by small-minded and incurious folk — as if it were prima facie evidence of a shocking wrong. The result is a morally agreeable simplification of a world that is often difficult for primitive moralists to feel at home in. They are relieved of any need to consider the obvious truth that some people with large incomes got them by crony capitalism or plain crookedness but others achieved them by benefiting large numbers of willing customers. Climate change is an even clearer example of a slogan employed to deceive, yet it evokes genuine hysteria among people whose view of science is so limited as to accept such a term as meaningful.

The present period of our political history might be called the Age of Small Minds. Its character is established by the tendency of small minds to turn, not to the cultivation of their own gardens, but to the ruin of others’. A startling example of small-mindedness appeared in the “fraternity rape” scandal at the University of Virginia. The episode, as you recall, began with Rolling Stone’s ready acceptance of allegations made by a woman pseudonymously known as “Jackie.” The story was full of holes, holes that could easily be discovered by anyone who had any perspective on human experience; but many people publicly known as intellectuals welcomed it as proof that universities need to reassert their parental powers and exterminate all forms of social life repugnant to those who think about nothing but sex and gender. That, of course, is one of the most nauseating things about both fraternities and gender fanatics, but few people noticed the parallel.

Obama, with his prattle of “hope and change,” has yet to see that the slogan was not, in itself, constitutive of hope and change.

Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone’s way of handling it, aroused so much controversy that the affair was investigated by a distinguished team of journalism teachers. Their conclusions about Rolling Stone and the credibility of Jackie’s story were headlined as scathing. They weren’t; the report was as mild as lambs. And at a press conference afterward, one of its authors refused — as did almost all media reporting on the case — to blame Jackie for anything that had happened. She remained the “victim.”

The facts suggested that the real victims were those who had accepted the Rolling Stone story. Well — to revise an old expression — you can’t cheat a large-minded man. But even after the nature of the story was fully exposed, only a few brave souls challenged the bizarrely unjustified extension of victim to anyone who claims, however, preposterously, to be a victim. To the small-minded, we are all victims — we, as opposed to they, the people we don’t like. Those people are the victimizers. So much for the complexity of this world.

The language of small minds is reductive. It is also inflationary. That isn’t a paradox. If you have nothing much to say, no clear conceptions to communicate, you can always make a big noise to cover the nothing in your mind. You can use big words, stilted words, official words. And official words (such as victim) multiply with the multiplication of official jobs, official “duties,” official powers. They grow with the growth of government and the pressure groups that use government as their weapon of choice. Indeed, they precede it. Before any expansion of the nanny state, empty phrases (sustainability, an epidemic of rape on college campuses, the obesity crisis) rain down to confuse the weak and paralyze the skeptical, while clouds of nerve-destroying gas (we are outraged!) are emitted to make a safe zone for the next enlargement of official jurisdiction. The argot of climate change, with its loud but simple-minded equation of change with evil, scientists with grant recipients, doubters with deniers, green with good, has proven especially effective as a weapon of war on independent thinking. Small minds can accommodate only a few big “ideas”; as soon as those are in place, no antagonistic notions can get in. Almost any kind of hooey will be accepted as settled science; any petty nonsense will become a moral compass.

An amusing example appears in an email created by Cylvia Hayes and recovered, with some difficulty, by a nosey newspaper. Who, you may ask, is Cylvia Hayes? You know the answer if you live in Oregon. Hayes is the romantic partner of (former) Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was forced to resign his office because of scandals attendant on their relationship. Not sexual scandals — nobody, emphatically including me, appears to care who is in bed with either of them — but scandals about the influence on state government of an un-official of the state (Cylvia Hayes). This is no place to give details about the collusion of tiny minds that enabled Hayes, a promoter of Green causes, to dominate the politics of Oregon; you can enjoy the story elsewhere. It’s enough to mention that “Kitz” pompously decreed that his girlfriend was the “First Lady” of Oregon, with the unstated but fully intended corollary that she was entitled to be obeyed in all matters, foreign and domestic. A similar pomposity emerged in my town, San Diego, when our now deposed mayor, Robert (“Bob”) Filner, decided that his girlfriend was a “First Lady,” thus adapting to new and very local uses an old piece of silly presidential jargon.

To the small-minded, we are all victims — we, as opposed to they, the people we don’t like. Those people are the victimizers. So much for the complexity of this world.

Anyway, even without the title, Hayes was pompous enough to fill almost any political role, especially when there were issues about her favorite topic, the environment. If you say that phrase in a normal tone of voice, all it means is “whatever happens to be around us.” If you say it with superstitious awe, it means God. Hayes said it with superstitious awe. Any offense to the environment was clearly sacrilege. So we come to the email I promised to discuss.

It’s a snarky missive from Hayes to someone in the government of Oregon. In it she demands, with sarcasm worthy of the confessional, “Is there a reason we have regressed to single-sided copies?” Anyone who was so unconcerned with sustainability as to use only one side of a piece of paper had obviously regressed on the evolutionary scale.

Was Hayes making a mountain out of a molehill, a Hindenburg out of a toy balloon? Oh yes. And aren’t trees the most sustainable of our natural resources? Don’t they grow again? And isn’t Oregon, of all places, the land of trees? But that’s the thing about little minds: they see neither the forests nor the trees. More important: they are outraged when other people fail to share their view.

I am not arguing that to be large-minded, you have to possess the right ideas about politics, or economics, or the environment, or photocopying, or the state of Oregon. Or that you have to read books and continually cite them. Probably Cylvia Hayes has read some books, maybe more than President Obama. But there are other considerations. I doubt that John Bunyan read a lot of books, besides the Bible. I suppose he read a lot of bad sermons too. But he had an enormous vision of the world, and of the human soul, and he had the literary integrity that comes from large-mindedness. There isn’t an expression in Pilgrim’s Progress that is cheap or tawdry or inflated or pompously self-defensive. The same can be said of those works of art that are still technically known as Negro spirituals. No book learning there — but no petty concerns or petty expressions, either.

I am no political partisan of either Abraham Lincoln or my namesake, Stephen Douglas. In their works you see a great deal of logic-chopping, prevarication, false charges, faulty extrapolation, and other tricks of the professional political wrestler. It’s the same with Webster, Clay, Calhoun, and the other famous orators of that age — and also, I am sorry to say, with Jefferson, Madison, and other great men of an earlier generation. I am not an admirer of William Jennings Bryan, the late-19th-century purveyor of crackpot Progressivism. But you would need a heart of stone to say that the public utterances of these men, even of Bryan, consisted of big words composed by little minds. No; all the world, the world of great America, is in their words, together with that large and vital and often crazy thing, a notion of how it fits together. Like them or not, their thoughts were big, and their bigness wasn’t the bigness of grandiosity and condescension (“I want to be a champion of the middle class”). It was the bigness of real people, people with intellectual curiosity, with an actual interest in ideas and in the crown of ideas, which is language.

There isn’t an expression in Pilgrim’s Progress that is cheap or tawdry or inflated or pompously self-defensive.

In July 1863, President Lincoln greeted the conquest of Confederate fortresses on the Mississippi by writing, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” It’s a magnificent saying, a saying like the voice of a distant planet, yet the voice of someone who knows what the Father of Waters looks and feels and sounds like, who knows his laziness and his dislike of vexation and yet his need to reach the encircling sea. It’s the saying of a person who knows and cares what a river is, and what its history and its associations have been (“Father of Waters”); a person who thinks it worthy of his job as politician to try to express such things.

What would President Obama have said on that occasion? What would John Boehner’s response have been? What words would Hillary Clinton have found? I could never have invented Lincoln’s words, but I can easily invent the words of his successors on the political stage: “First, I want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the brave men and women who have been engaged in this conflict with which all of us as Americans have been struggling. We are committed, as a nation, to providing all Americans with the means to live rich, full lives in this great country of ours. The opening of the Mississippi River makes us think and reflect about everything that is truly great about America, which is family and freedom and the hope of a better life for all. I welcome this new opportunity to sit down with the folks in Alabama, and in Georgia, and in South Carolina, and in all the other places where events have happened, recently, that have caused pain to so many of us, and restart our long national dialogue about the values that we share. Together, I think we can work on the root causes of violence, and hunger, and sickness, and disease, and bigotry, and prejudice, and find ways to provide meaningful work, at a living wage, for all Americans. God bless the United States of America.”

Isn’t that right? Isn’t it? And do you ever expect to hear anything better from these people?

/emem




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Playing the Odds

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In the old days, the mob and similar outfits ran the numbers racket in most of your larger American cities. The numbers racket was simple: you pick a three-digit number, give the guy your money, and, if your number comes up, you get a payoff about 600 times as big as the bet. As the overall payout was around 60%, the mob was sure to get a very respectable return on their end.

I think it was in the ’60s that the government started muscling in. Now it’s called the lottery, but it’s the same racket, except the odds were better when it was the mob running it because they did not feel it was incumbent upon them to withhold income tax.

Oh yeah, and now it’s legal. There is a new game now.

Here’s how it works. You pick a federal law. Any law will do. Then you violate that law. That’s right: you break it. Next, you wait to see whether the government decides that the violation entitles you to a cash payout. If so, you go to the government and provide proof that you violated the law. Then you just fill out the usual numerous forms and, eventually, the government hands you the cash.

A guy I know who likes to crack wise calls it “statutory roulette.” The odds that you will choose the right law to break aren’t particularly good, but it could happen.

Here’s an example.

Let us say it is 2009 and Victor, a guy in Juarez, Mexico, chooses to violate US immigration law by sneaking across the border to Texas. So he sneaks. He finds work, gets married, and, in the fullness of time, has a few kids. He files income taxes, but not with a Social Security Number (SSN), because, as he is what is sometimes called an “illegal alien,” he can’t have one. Instead, he has to use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). All this time, he stays in Texas. His children, having been born in the US, are automatically US citizens, which is only right. Victor keeps his nose relatively clean. He is not convicted of any felonies or even serious misdemeanors. Things are going pretty good for Victor.

Now it’s called the lottery, but it’s the same racket, except the odds were better when it was the mob running it.

So, as of November 14, 2014, Victor is still “unlawfully present” in the United States when, out of the blue, President Barack Obama approves an executive action that changes everything. The action is called Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). And, just like that, Victor is eligible for a three-year deferral of deportation, a work permit, and an SSN.

It is hard to believe, I know, but you can look it up right here.

Here’s the good part. With the SSN, Victor can now refile his taxes for the past three years. And since he has that SSN, he is also retroactively eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is a cash grant given to working people with kids. It is available only for people who are not in one of your higher income brackets. Which Victor is definitely not.

So. It seems that Victor is now eligible for a cash payment from the feds of somewhere around six to nine thousand American dollars.

At a Finance Committee hearing, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa asked John Koskinen, the IRS Commissioner, whether this EITC thing for people who are in the country illegally is on the level. The IRS guy gave a long-winded answer that somewhat conspicuously did not include the word “no.” The exchange was on the TV. You can watch it here.

Just make sure you keep all the evidence that proves you actually did the crime, or the feds won’t pay up.

The senator couldn’t believe what he was hearing, so he said he wanted an answer in writing. The letter the IRS guy sent the senator is here.

Get the picture? That’s right, straight from the horse’s mouth: Victor is entitled to the dough.

Victor entered the country illegally. He lived in the country illegally. I mean, it wasn’t even legal for him to work here. And now, the federal government is going to give him a many-grand payoff for the time when he was “unlawfully present.” What can I say, Victor? Your number came up.

It is widely known that a reliable way to increase your chance of winning when you play the numbers or the lottery is to bet on more than one number. The more numbers you bet on, the better the odds are that one of your numbers will come up. In much the same way, it stands to reason that to improve your chances of winning in “statutory roulette,” it would be highly advisable for you to violate lots and lots of federal laws. The more of them you break, the better the odds that you’ll break one that ultimately entitles you to a wad of c-notes. Just make sure you keep all the evidence that proves you actually did the crime, or the feds won’t pay up.

Which is only fair.




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The Cult of Cynicism

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From time to time, this column has good news to report.

From time to time. Occasionally. All right — rarely. We’re not living in the golden age of literacy, you know.

But there is, occasionally, news that’s not so bad. If it’s true. The current version of buenas noticias comes to us, possibly, from the father of Mohammed Emwazi, allegedly the real person behind the mask of Jihadi John. JJ is the British subject who runs about the Middle East butchering people who don’t accept his religious notions. That’s the bad news. The good news is that his father may not have adopted the old, hackneyed ways of responding to the reported misdemeanors of family members.

There are at least two versions of this story. One is that the father is defending his son, saying there’s no proof that he did those things. The otheris the one I want to believe.

It goes like this. Confronted by questions about young Mohammed’s alleged crimes, he didn’t say, “My son is a good boy.” He didn’t say, “My son was an honor student who was planning to attend a community college.” He didn’t say, “This is all a plot of the Zionist Christian infidel crusaders.” He didn’t accuse anyone of racism. He said, “My son is a dog, he is an animal, a terrorist.” He said, “To hell with my son."

Mohammed called his father and said “I'm going to Syria to fight jihad, please release me and forgive me for everything." [His father] said, "F*** you. I hope you die before you arrive in Syria."

While other parents of miscreants initiate lawsuits, shriek into microphones, and solicit contributions for their pain and suffering, Emwazi’s father (in this version of the story) showed what the Declaration of Independence calls “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”:

"He said he cannot come back to work because he felt so shy of other people," said [his friend] Mr. Meshaal. "He is sitting home and cannot even go to the mosque to pray because he is ashamed of his son. He doesn't want people to see him, so he is praying at home."

Dignity and truth are so closely related that one seldom appears without the other. It is a sign of our world’s cheapness and cynicism that the reported remarks of Emwazi père, so honest, so worthy of respect, should also be so unusual as to shock the headline writers into noticing them. If the story isn’t true, our world is the poorer for it.

But what shocks me is the cult of cynicism that has swept our own country like a thousand gangs of jihadis. It’s a cult in which the central ritual is lying. The faithful gather; the priest tells a blatant, whopping lie; then the congregation breathes “Amen!”, congratulating itself on being clever enough to know that the words are lies, and that the speaker knows they’re lies, and that the speaker knows that the faithful know that the speaker knows they’re lies. I could go further with that sentence, but you get the point. The grand lie, the most pious of all lies, is that nobody knows any of this.

Dignity and truth are so closely related that one seldom appears without the other.

Our era’s most fitting representation of a priest is President Barack Obama. He has all the stereotypical qualities: he’s pompous, he’s unctuous, he’s obscurantist, he’s self-righteous — and he lies all the time. That’s not hyperbole. Given a choice between truth and lie, he chooses the lie. Lying is his religion.

This month, Obama’s former secretary of state, an ambitious under-priest named Hillary Clinton, carried the lying ritual far enough to disgust everyone. She called a press conference to claim, on the authority of nothing but her own word (a word that during the past two decades has been repeatedly exposed as worthless), that she is not concealing information from the American people regarding her communications while secretary of state.

Brazenness comes naturally to Hillary Clinton; she is well qualified to be a priestess in the house of Baal. What she lied about this time was her use of a private email account to cover her deeds as a public servant, including misdeeds that no person of normal intelligence, even among her fervent supporters, doubts that she committed. But in the cult of cynicism, a lie means nothing if it isn’t so obvious that partisans say to themselves, “Christ, what a flumpin’ lie! But she’ll get away with it.”

Nevertheless, Mrs. Clinton’s obvious lies about her weirdly obvious coverups were nothing when compared to the reaction of Obama, her former boss. During her long, long years as secretary of state, she undoubtedly corresponded with Obama many, many times, and in her correspondence undoubtedly analyzed many state secrets (“classified information”) that it is death and hell to harbor on one’s private email. Which of course she did. So. Whenever Obama got a message from Clinton, he had an opportunity to observe the address from which she sent it, which was a private address, not a government address. He must have noticed that. He certainly noticed that. So what does he have to say about it? He says that he learned about her putting government emails on her private server at “the same time everybody else learned it, through news reports.”

A cult of cynicism has swept our own country like a thousand gangs of jihadis. It’s a cult in which the central ritual is lying.

Again, it’s a religious duty: given a fair choice between truth and lie, you lie. And if you don’t have a choice, you make one. Witness Mrs. Clinton’s out of the blue stories about being shot at in the Balkans and being named after Sir Edmund Hillary. Nobody cared where her name came from, but it represented an abstract chance to lie, and she tried to cash in on it. The fact that a lie is preposterous — as preposterous as Mrs. Clinton’s claim that she used a private email system instead of the government’s system because she didn’t want to carry both a private phone and a public phone — just adds to the priest’s perception that she or he is showing bold leadership. Boldness seems still bolder and, indeed, more truly presidential, the more closely it is linked to an obvious lie.

Acolytes, such as presidential press secretary Joshua Ryan Henry (“Josh”) Earnest, naturally compete to emulate the bold adventures of their saints. For them, shamelessness is next to godliness, and their bosses graciously give them the open shot at shamelessness. Even President Obama must have realized that no one could possibly believe his lie about learning of Mrs. Clinton’s nongovernmental email “through news reports.” Not only is “learned it from the news” preposterous, but he’s used that line about virtually every scandal in his administration. On a charitable interpretation, he must have known that he was being ridiculous, and he was being that way to give Josh his chance to tell a landmark lie of his own.

The chance came when the media hacks had finally scratched their heads and stared at their cellphones long enough to say to themselves, “Well, golly. If I know where my emails are coming from, why wouldn’t the president know where his were coming from?”

So out came Josh, to explain it all. Which he did, in this way:

Earnest said that while Obama likely recognized the e-mail address that he was responding to was not a government account, the president was referring to the fact that he didn’t know Clinton was using a personal e-mail server that was kept at her house or that she was using that exclusively for government business.

In private life, such statements would send you flying out the door. In public life, they beget learned analyses of how cleverly your camp has distanced itselffrom the offender. That’s another dimension of cynicism — the cynicism of the media, the cynicism of the learned experts.

Brazenness comes naturally to Hillary Clinton; she is well qualified to be a priestess in the house of Baal.

But for those of us who value religious faith, it’s sad to observe that President Obama doesn’t always adhere to his. I’m not referring to his flagging relationship to Christianity; I’m referring to his vital faith in cynicism. Even from this faith he is capable of backsliding. The high priest of cynicism sometimes blathers nonsense that he actually believes. At those dark moments, climate change (formerly known as global warming) is piously considered the biggest threat to civilization. Hiphop is welcomed as a form of art. The Islamic State is denied to be Islamic. Taxes and regulations are prescribed as cure-alls for the middle class.

Most recently, the president has taken to prattling about the idea that if voting were mandatory, it would become a kind of religious experience:

It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract [campaign] money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country.

Well, of course it would. No one would have to pay a dime to guide political illiterates to the polls. They would find the polls themselves! And no one would need to show them how to vote. They would do it by inspiration! It would be a miracle.

One of Obama’s weirdest intervals of devout belief occurred this month, when he prompted a State Department minion to announce that the religious fanaticism of, say, Jihadi John is prompted, not of course by religion, but by the need for economic development. I mean, if you wonder why some people treat women as slaves, hang gay men for being gay, hack off the heads of hostages, and burn fellow Muslims in iron cages, it’s because there aren’t enough jobs for young jihadis.

The high priest of cynicism sometimes blathers nonsense that he actually believes.

Obama never runs out of temple servants, but the one bearing these revelations happened to be Marie Harf, a State Department spokesman and reputed expert on something, who delivered — or rather, like her boss, intoned — a series of remarks that made even progressive Democrats convulse with laughter. Harf maintained that if we are to win the war against terrorism, its “root causes” must be addressed — not such causes as morbid religiosity, abusive ideas of sex, or opportunities to practice sadism in real life, but such causes as a “lack of opportunity for jobs.”

P.J. O’Rourke once defined a modern liberal as a person who believes there are some people who are just too poor to clean up their front yards. Now there are people who are just too poor to keep from burning other people alive.

When she realized that the nation was laughing at her, Harf went back on television to insist on the “root causes” cliché, and add lack of “good governance” to the list of reasons — never, apparently, including religion — why people spend thousands of dollars traveling across the globe to torture and kill other people. She then blamed her audience for failing to appreciate her “nuanced” argument.

Nuanced raised even more laughs. It became clear to all, even to John Kerry, the reductio ad absurdum of Ivy League elitism, that to everyone this side of Harvard Yard, nuanced is a funny word, not a deeply seriousone. He told congressmen not to laugh at the miserable Ms. Harf. But they did. Everybody did.

But what had she done? She had given honest (though ridiculous) voice to the honest (though ridiculous) ideas of her boss.

It’s better to stick to cynicism.




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Obama's ISIS Strategy: Death by Flatulence

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The more the Obama administration talks about the war on terrorism, the less we know. What are we fighting? Is it violent extremism or radical Islam? OK, it's actually radical Islam (we only need to kill jihadists, not all Muslims); the term "violent extremism" is less offensive to violent Islamists and no one cares about its repugnance to non-Muslim violent extremists — a subset in the Venn diagram of terrorism that is imperceptible to all but a handful of White House officials.

But is it Sunni radical Muslims or Shiite radical Muslims that are the problem? Or both? (And who are we to make such judgments — after the Crusades and all?) Do we need to worry about Iran, with its expanding regional hegemony, soon to be bolstered by nuclear weapons? Or Iraq, which, having been abandoned by the US in 2010, has descended into barbaric chaos with the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) running amok throughout its north, and equally vicious Iranian militia groups running amok everywhere else? Or both?

And what about the original Syrian rebels, valiantly fighting Bashar Assad? When, in 2011, the civilian death toll from Assad's brutal regime had reached 2,000, a horrified Mr. Obama declared that Assad must step aside. Yet, after drawing his famous red line, it was Obama who stepped aside, allowing both ISIS and Iranian thugs to trespass into Syria. What are we to make of Obama's silence today, when the Syrian death toll exceeds 200,000? And, as Hezbollah fighters and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) creep into the Golan Heights and Hamas wages war in Gaza, why has Mr. Obama become displeased with Israeli president, Nethenyahu? Is it time to abandon Israel?

When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Some experts believe that if we (Western infidels) knew what radical Muslims wanted, then a reasonably peaceful coexistence agreement could be reached. But, as President Obama is discovering in his negotiations with Iran, even when we know what radical Muslims want, compromise is a charade, with reason playing, at best, a bit part to concession.

Despite his Herculean appeasement efforts, Obama has been unable to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. His support for President Nouri al-Maliki (a puppet of Iran ) and his (Maliki's) violent purge of Sunni participation in Iraqi government affairs; his hasty withdrawal of American military forces — just when the Bush-Petraeus surge had stabilized the country and Vice President Biden was gleefully declaring that Iraq was "going to be one of the great achievements of this administration"; his refusal to help the Kurds fight ISIS militants; his blind eye to the spread of Shiite terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Lebenon, Yemen, and Gaza — all has been for naught.

In 2012, Obama issued a crystal clear promise to "do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from producing an atomic bomb." That promise became nebulous with a November 2013 agreement to forge, within six months, a treaty to freeze or reverse progress at all of Iran’s major nuclear facilities. Today, as the delays (and the relaxation of economic sanctions against Iran) continue, Obama's promise is idle. The mullahs, who have been playing him for a sucker all along, will get their bomb. Obama can only hope for a toothless treaty that postpones Iran's acquisition of a functioning ICBM system — until after he leaves office, when nuclear proliferation in the Middle East will become his successor's problem.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK.

We also know what Sunni Muslim radical organizations such as ISIS want. They tell us, loudly and unequivocally: 7th-century Islam, a caliphate, with sharia law, and remorseless death to all who interfere. That they are pathologically indifferent to diplomacy, negotiation, or compromise is demonstrated in a relentless parade of choreographed atrocities: decapitation, crucifixion, immolation, torture, rape, slavery, and mass murder, to name a few. In his brilliant and disturbing exposé, What ISIS Really Wants, Graeme Wood elucidates,

We can gather that their state [ISIS] rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of — and headline player in — the imminent end of the world.

Wood suspects that, in the past year, president Obama's confusion over the nature of ISIS "may have contributed to significant strategic errors." The confusion extends much further back. As ISIS marauded into Iraq in late 2013, Obama may have believed that he could reason with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of what Obama perceived to be the al Qaeda JV team. However, already embroiled in the war against terrorism and fully aware of ISIS's fanatical designs on Iraq, he might have followed the advice of Benjamin Franklin, arguably the finest diplomat in US history, who knew that sometimes "force shites on the back of reason." Had Obama chosen this path, any time before January 3, 2014, the day when Fallujah fell to al-Baghdadi's brutal thugs, would have been a fine time for overwhelming military force to shit on the back of ISIS.

It did not. Unchallenged, ISIS continued its rapid expansion, conquering most of northern Iraq by early June, when it captured the city of Mosul. It wasn't until August, when American journalist James Foley was beheaded, that Obama sprang into action — in a press briefing, where the president announced, to the dismay of our allies in the Middle East and Europe, that he had no strategy.

By the following week, however, he had hastily cobbled together a plan to "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS. Enlisting the aid of allies (nine, initially), it would involve air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and not involve American "boots on the ground" anywhere. With Syria but a tattered impression in his entangled memory, Secretary of State John Kerry spouted, “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here.” ISIS poses no existential threat to the US, yet. The immediate threat is to Iraq, the oil producing monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, and, to a lesser extent, Europe. When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint.

Only the Kurds have been willing to face ISIS. Apart from Israel, they are our only true ally in the region. They struggle alone, except for sporadic US air support. Their weapons are obsolete. The ISIS attackers wield vastly superior American weapons, stolen from the Iraqi military. Kurdish pleas for such weapons have found nothing but Obama's shameless denial.

Our other Middle East allies meekly stand by, partly because of their reluctance to face any grueling warfare, but also, perhaps more significantly, because of their suspicions about Obama. They are Sunnis, who, while appreciating Obama's dilemma in Syria (where he can't bomb ISIS without helping Assad), are deeply troubled by his concessions to Iran — a Shiite juggernaut feared more than ISIS. Why should they follow a leader whose ultimate sympathies lie with their ultimate enemy?

President Obama entered office vowing to deliver on his campaign pledge to improve America's image in the Middle East. Apologizing for America's arrogance (including the War in Iraq, torture, Gitmo, and more), he did his best to ingratiate himself to the Muslim world. He did, however, warn that "al Qaeda is still a threat and that we cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president suddenly everything's going to be OK."

But ending the Iraq War did not win the favor of Islam. Indeed, Obama's hasty withdrawal from Iraq (against the wishes of his military advisors) thrust that country into a violent chaos that destroyed what he himself called “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq" and touted as "an extraordinary achievement." It allowed ISIS to be created — reconstituted from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that had been defeated by the Bush-Petraeus surge. With his pre-announced 2016 exit, Afghanistan is likely to follow the same trajectory. And we were kicked out of Libya, Yemen, and Syria by Sunni Muslim terrorists, Shiite Muslim terrorists, and Vladimir Putin, respectively. So much for America's image.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK. In his recent Vox interview, he asserted that the media exaggerates terrorism and that climate change and epidemic disease may be more important issues. He concedes that it is legitimate for Americans to be concerned "when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris," fastidiously avoiding, of course, any association with radical Islam. We should not be alarmed by the organization that he once dismissed as a JV team, and now dismisses as a caliphate, believing that it will collapse under its own weight. Says Obama, "It [ISIS] can talk about setting up the new caliphate but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually, you know, sustain or feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work."

Nevertheless, with the gruesome ISIS murders, in early February, of a Japanese journalist (beheaded), a Jordanian pilot (burned alive in a cage), and 21 Egyptian Christians (beheaded), Obama was spurred to action. He convened a global summit, in Washington DC, where leaders from 60 countries came to combat "violent extremism” — by the surprising method of "empowering local communities" that can provide "economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity." Said the president, "We can help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the Internet." To that end, the State Department promptly opened 350 twitter accounts (designed, apparently, to deluge the violent extremists with clever anti-barbarism tweets) and a new web site: "The Solution to Violent Extremism Begins in your Community."

Strangely, they are serious. Violent extremism, says John Kerry, is "the defining fight of our generation." Back in the real world, however, it is quite astonishing that Obama has been unable to convince countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states to join the fight against ISIS. These Sunni Muslim nations, having the most to lose, should be the most willing to put their own boots on the ground against ISIS. Nothing would please America more than to see Arab Muslim soldiers at the forefront of Obama's "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS’ campaign. Should this happen, I am sure that Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths would march together with Muslim Americans through the streets of America cheering for our president and praising his inspired leadership.

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president.

But it's not likely. Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint: can't bomb Syria, can't cross Kerry's redline, can't jeopardize negotiations with Iran, can't offend Islam, can't capture terrorists, and so forth. Such a strategy, together with his indecisiveness and distaste for military force, crowds out the possibility of victory. Besides, even if ISIS is defeated, al Qaeda and numerous other radical Muslim organizations remain — not to mention Iran, an immensely virulent, existing terrorist organization, on the fast track to obtain nuclear weapons.

President Obama, therefore, has retreated to his community organizer roots, where he finds, as chief weapons against Islamic terrorism: political rhetoric, social media, and hope — hope that ISIS self-destructs, that budding terrorists find jobs, that Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions, that pithy tweets will curb terrorist atrocities and stymie terrorist recruitment, and that the media stops exaggerating the barbarous acts committed, as Obama is careful to insist, by "individuals from various religions."

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president. On the other hand, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin also warned, "He that lives upon Hope, dies farting."




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If Ever, Oh Ever, a Wiz There Was

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Entering his capital in triumph after a desperately hard campaign, Frederick the Great rode with his eyes forward, refusing to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. An aide said, “Sire, the people are applauding you.” Frederick, eyes still resolutely on the road, replied, “If you put a monkey on this horse, the people would applaud him.”

That is my idea about news “anchors” such as Brian Williams.

It’s not everybody’s idea. On Feb. 8, in one of the last columns he wrote before his untimely death, David Carr said:

For some time now, there have been two versions of Brian Williams. One is an Emmy-winning, sober, talented anchor on the “NBC Nightly News” and the other is a funny, urbane celebrity who hosts “Saturday Night Live,” slow-jams the news with Jimmy Fallon and crushes it in every speech and public appearance he makes.

Each of those personas benefited the other, and his fame and appeal grew accordingly, past the anchor chair he occupied every weeknight and into a realm of celebrity that reaches all demographics and platforms. Even young people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching the evening news know who Mr. Williams is.

I’m citing this as a good example of the strange idea that there was a before and after to the Williams story — a before in which Williams was not just a celebrity but a funny, urbane, talented, appealing celebrity, and an after in which he was a dope and a blowhard, always telling ridiculous stories about himself.

As witnessed by the add-on adjectives, one can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time, but it’s still interesting to know. Unfortunately, it’s also evident that one doesn’t need to do much in order to be regarded as funny, urbane, talented, and appealing. To me, and to hundreds of millions of other people, there was never anything remarkable about Brian Williams. I don’t regard slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon as something that requires a lot of talent. Williams never crushed it with me.

Williams’ talent, such as it was, consisted merely of being a news anchor who did things that are usually not associated with being a news anchor. Lots of people are celebrities for reasons like that. Preachers and politicians get loud laughs when they tell a joke, but only because people think it’s amusing that someone with such a dull job can tell any joke at all. The animals on YouTube are considered amusing for doing things that any dull, ordinary person does every day; their talent is merely being animals that are trying to do those things. But if you found out that the dog wasn’t really a dog, or the cat wasn’t really a cat, or the news anchor wasn’t anchoring much of anything, no one would want to watch any of the supposedly amusing antics. And being a news anchor requires a lot less than being a dog or cat.

One can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time.

I am old enough to have been a victim of the Age of Cronkite, an age now deeply venerated by a lot of people who believe that at some time in the past there really was a Wizard of Oz. I say “victim” because in those days there was no national electronic news except the offerings of the three government-licensed networks. Cable TV — always called, suspiciously, “pay TV” — did not exist. Basically, it was illegal. So, for lack of competition, a complacent man of modern-liberal ideas who was capable of reading a few minutes of typecript, crying when Democrats were hurt or killed, and, essentially, reprocessing news releases from the White House (or, in times of Republican administrations, from opponents of the White House) was worshiped as a god. At the time, however, he was worshiped by nobody except people whose own intellectual equipment was so faulty that their fondest hope was to be like him.

I know of one “news anchor” who was smart and knowledgeable and a good writer of his own books. That was David Brinkley. There used to be a cable anchor who was even better than Brinkley, Brit Hume of Fox News. But Brinkley is dead, and Hume is retired. Compared with these respectable figures, Walter Cronkite was the little mouse you see in the diorama of North American mammals, nibbling seeds at a fearful distance from the lordly elk. Brian Williams is down the hall, in the insect diorama.

This kind of comparison is actually too good to waste on such a lowly subject as Williams. It would be more appropriate for creatures with real significance — dictators, kings, and presidents. In the presidential diorama, the elk herd would feature such important fauna as Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Cleveland (who commanded his aides to “tell the truth,” and meant it); the mice would be Monroe, Benjamin Harrison, Hoover, and so on; and the insects would be Tyler, Carter, Clinton, Bush (the second), and Obama. Yes, I know, we may need to bring more animals into the metaphor. But the curious — or curiously predictable — thing is that Williams actually aspired to be one of the celebrity insects, who in our times are happiest scurrying about in their hard little bodies, irritating everybody else into noticing them.

Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

In a documentary filmed in 2006 about Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 flooded low-lying parts of New Orleans, and which with a lot of help from Williams enraged the nation at the inability of Republican administrations to overrule acts of God, Williams boasted: “People say we found our voice on this story, after some long, cold years of one Bush term and some change.” What? What did he mean by that?

He provided part of an explanation in a speech at Temple University last October. He was there, as Tim Graham put it in News Busters on Feb. 10, to pick up “an award for ‘excellence.’” They give each other awards, these excellent people. And if they have to lie, well what the hell? "I have seen thousands of dead people in different places," Williams claimed, erroneously. Then he demanded the reward of sympathy for his own imaginary suffering. Speaking of himself, he said, "You have to find a place to put that [his erroneous memories] or else you can't get up in the morning." Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

After that outburst, he turned to his reason for hearing a mighty significance in the “voice” he “found” in New Orleans — in the tale he told (with suitable adjustments, over the years, such as seeing dead bodies floating around the streets, or nearly dying, himself, of dysentery, or being threatened by gangs that busted into his hotel) about the New Orleans hurricane. I apologize for the syntax of the following quotation from Williams. You have to realize that this is how talented network news anchors (pay rate: $10 million a year) talk when they’re off-script:

For what it meant to our society. For what it still means. The issues. Race. The environment. Energy. Justice. The lack of it. It's all still there.

Now really, what can you make of that? Beneath the total incoherence appears to lurk some claim that by reporting (falsely) on a flood, Williams was somehow addressing issues of race (granted, most of the people who were flooded out by Katrina were African-Americans), energy (huh?), justice (it’s unjust to be flooded by a hurricane?), and “the environment.” The only way in which that last phrase makes sense is to assume that Williams is indicting Mother Nature for being, as Tennyson called her, “red in tooth and claw.” But I’m sure that’s not what he meant.

Whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap.

When something is really bad, it’s impossible to parody. Its literary effect cannot be enhanced, no matter what you do. But the political and social interest of Williams’ bizarre statements has not been fully developed. The big question is, why didn’t somebody at NBC stop him from saying all this crap? Everybody knew he was saying it, over and over again, for years. And I’m not just depending on anonymous sources to make that allegation. Given the nature of television broadcasting, it has to be true.

To me, one of the most amazing things in the world is that people give some kind of credence to the word “reality” in connection with what they see on television. Consider the term “reality TV.” Twenty feet away from those morons who face the camera and pour out their hearts about how lonely and helpless they’re feeling is a crowd of photographers, directors, producers, make-up artists, best boys, gophers, and people whose jobs cannot be described. In the same way, whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap. When he dribbled out his life story to interviewers on other media, hundreds of people back at NBC were following the publicity it gave him, and them. They knew, all right. The social and political question is, why did they let it go on, for more than a decade?

One answer is that they were lazy. But that’s the wrong answer. People who have responsible positions with TV networks aren’t sleepy little puppies; they’re sleepless sharks, required to compete with other sleepless sharks. OK, try this: nothing was done about Williams because he was being paid ten million dollars a year, and you don’t mess with that kind of investment. If you do, the investment will make like a shark and mess with you. That’s a better answer. And maybe it’s a sufficient one, although it doesn’t account for the behavior of the top predators, the ones who were doling out the money and should have been more risk-averse.

A third answer, which may be true, or partially true, is that Williams was protected by his dopey, inarticulate, yet constant political correctness. Here is the guy who interviewed the last President Bush, long after he had left office, and expressed astonishment that his recent reading matter could actually have included a Camus novel and three of Shakespeare’s plays. Astonishment. To the man’s face. Anyone not a dopey leftist would have said, “Oh, Mr. President, what impressed you most about those works?” But Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda. He believed that Bush was dumb, and he didn’t know how to deal with the counter-evidence. (Or, probably, with the literary conversation that might have ensued.)

I hope you won’t write in to accuse me of being a partisan of George Bush, either one of them. Don’t worry about that. But everybody with the least curiosity has always known that Bush (regnal years 2001–2009) is a huge reader of books. Whether they do him any good — that’s another question. But what books has Williams ever read? Certainly none that would reveal to him the individuality of human life, its constant war with social stereotypes (e.g., “Republicans have no culture”). So naturally he aspired to become a stereotype — in just the best and brightest way. He cast himself as a thoughtful advocate for such stereotyped issues as, oh, “the environment,” “justice,” and the like. No one could possibly fear that he would ever harbor a critical thought about such things.

Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda.

And that, I believe, is why “liberal” commentators have been so anxious to defend him, regretting that he quit, being confident that his offenses didn’t rise to the level of lying, bringing in psychiatry to remind us that people easily and innocently confuse their memories, and doing all the other stuff they’re paid big bucks to do. I guess they don’t want to lose their own license to lie.

NBC’s official approach is different. Network pooh-bahs are taking the line that presidential spokesman Josh Earnest recently took, in response to questions about Obama’s decision not to join the Charlie Hebdo protest against terrorism, or to send anyone important to sub for him. The basic policy is that responsible officialsaccept responsibility only for successes. Failures are no one’s responsibility. They happened. Well, sort of. But now we can move on.

As Julie Pace of the AP informed her readers, Earnest explained his boss’s absence from the Paris demonstration in this way:

Earnest said the White House took the blame but that Obama himself was not personally involved in the decision. Earnest would not say who was responsible for deciding the administration's participation in the event.

In other words, it is now possible to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, or not to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, and still have nothing whatever to do with the decision, personally. It wasn’t the decision of anyone who lives in the White House; the White House itself made the decision, or at least took the blame. Personal now means impersonal, and responsibility means freedom from responsibility.

Good. Very good.




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Executive's Orders

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They Shoot Cartoonists, Don’t They?

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On the morning of January 7, following the terrorist attack on the Paris office of the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, CNN was continuously occupied with discussions of the event by various purported experts. On the screen below the talking heads appeared these words: “Is Paris shooting an attack on free speech?”

I believe the answer to that question may just possibly be Yes.

Invading a newspaper office and slaughtering the people who work there, in response to its satires of your religious heroes, does appear, at least on the surface, to be an attack on free speech. Even President Obama, who has been reluctant to say anything that could possibly be considered critical of Islamists, and whose administration tried mightily to blame the Benghazi disaster on an idiot whose so-called movie had supposedly hurt Islamic feelings, immediately stood up and said that what happened in Paris was “an attack on free speech.”

Now, what are the greatest dangers to free speech in the world today?

One is political Islam, in most of its forms. A prominent CNN commentator, a twit named Bobby Ghosh, took care to emphasize the idea that “everyone across the Muslim world agrees that this [the terrorist attack] is not an appropriate response” to critiques of Muhammed and his faith. This idiotic remark went unchallenged by the network’s other twits. But while some Muslim governments have criticized the Paris terrorists, their objection boils down to an attempt to exclude interlopers from their own campaign against freedom. What would have happened to the staff of Charlie Hebdo if they had performed even one satire of Islam within the territory of an Islamic state? They would have been lucky, very lucky, to escape with their lives. There is one successful secular state in the Islamic world, and that is Turkey; and the Turkish government just granted its first permission since 1923 for a Christian church to be built in its domain.

But don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech. For centuries England has been noted for government pre-censorship of the press and for weird libel laws that allow anyone with hurt feelings to take the nearest free speaker to court. England is the place where the star of an American TV crime show (Telly Savalas) successfully sued a paper for saying that his singing was no good. The other Western European countries have a panoply of hate-speech laws that allow people to be sent to jail simply for what they say or write.

And don’t just blame the Europeans. How long, O Lord, has political correctness been surging in America? It probably started in the 1960s, when leftists sold the idea that it was vicious persecution to call someone a Communist simply because he was a Communist. Senator McCarthy is dead, but anti-McCarthyism still has long teeth. Then came the idea that no one’s feelings should be hurt, and that anyone represented by a pressure group got to decide what is meant by “hurt.” Almost everyone knows, regrets, and laughs at political correctness — but it grows upon us daily. Even the New York cops, a tough bunch if ever there was one, now complain that Mayor De Blasio (admittedly a complete jackass) didn’t simply endanger their lives but went so far as to hurt their feelings.

Don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech.

We can’t do much about religious fanatics in other lands, but we can do something to clarify our own attitudes. The next time somebody talks about how he’s in favor of “responsible free speech” or “protected free speech” or “speech that is free in the political arena” — all of which means that free speech is not a right but just something you may be allowed if you have a good purpose and don’t “hurt” other people — repeat what Isabel Paterson said: “When we say free speech, we mean free speech, even if you don't know what we mean.”




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A Year In Review: 2014

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In many ways — continued warfare (declared or otherwise), the bleeding of the treasury, the erosion of civil rights — 2014 was a terrible year for liberty, at home and abroad. But it was a great year for Liberty Online! Check out some of our favorites from the year past, and let us know any we missed in the comments.

Thanks everybody for reading! We’ll be back with much more in 2015. And if you feel up to it, you can even donate to the Liberty Foundation—and your tax-deductible donation will go toward server costs, platform upgrades, and everything else that will help keep us going through the new year and beyond.



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