¡VIVA OBAMA!

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On May 4, 2009, President Obama greeted the Mexican Ambassador and others to the White House, saying “Welcome to Cinco de Quatro . . .”

Now, Cinco de Mayo is the holiday that celebrates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Cinco de Quatro, on the other hand, means the something like “the Fifth of Four,” or maybe “Five from Four.” President Obama, with his usual aplomb, quickly corrected himself amidst friendly laughter and gave a nice speech that was very well received. Here it is.

That speech has given me the courage to write this piece. Should I make a fool of myself by stretching my limited knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history to the breaking point, it comforts me to know that I am not speaking on camera to Mexican dignitaries at the White House.

For much of the past 200 or so years, the hands of the Mexican presidents have been only loosely restrained by courts, elections, legislatures, constitutions, and laws.

This essay will begin with three colorful anecdotes that illustrate Latin American-style authoritarianism generally, and then survey the origins and history of Mexico’s presidency in particular. Next will come a biographical sketch of Jorge Ramos, the newly famous Univision news anchor. The recent decision by President Obama to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) is then examined with an emphasis on Mr. Ramos’ contribution to that decision. In conclusion, a modest proposal is made. It is hoped that this admittedly odd juxtapositioning will provide a vantage point from which we can gain a fresh perspective on the president’s historic initiative about immigration.

I

That Latin American heads of government have tended to be relatively more authoritarian than American presidents is not news. Where to start? Pinochet? Perón? Samoza? Batista? Trujillo? There are so many. I know, let’s start with Esposito.

In his 1971 film Bananas, Woody Allen imagines a revolution in San Marcos, a fictitious Central American country. Esposito, the leader of the guerillas, played by Jacobo Morales, gives a victory speech from a balcony in the capital square, saying, “All citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour! Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check!” The movie is a comedy. Here's the clip.

I read somewhere that Mr. Allen is not proud of his early work.

In February 2010, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela strode into a square in downtown Caracas with his entourage, the city’s mayor, and a TV crew. Standing in the square, he pointed to a building, asked a few questions about it, and then summarily ordered the building to be expropriated by the state. He did this over and over, with lots of buildings. He wasn’t kidding. This version is captioned in English.

Now, you tell me: Who was funnier, Esposito or Chavez?

Latin American authoritarianism is more subtly on display in the marvelous ESPN documentary, “Brothers in Exile.” It is the story of two Cuban baseball players who defected to the United States. In 1997, one of them, Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, fled the country in a small fishing boat, leaving his family behind. In 1998, John Cardinal O’Connor sent a lay emissary, Mario Paredes, to Cuban President Fidel Castro with a letter requesting that Hernández’s family be allowed to join him in the US. When Paredes entered the president’s office, Castro was watching Hernandez help the Yankees win the World Series. Upon reading the letter, Castro told the emissary that Orlando was, “a good muchacho; one of the glories of Cuba.” Castro allowed the family to fly with Paredes to New Jersey the same day. Meanwhile, Mr. Juan Hernández Nodar, a Cuban-American baseball scout, was left to languish in a hellish Cuban prison for the remaining 11 years of his 13 year sentence for the heinous crime of unsuccessfully attempting to recruit “El Duque” in Cuba two years before. Nodar's story is worth reading.

Fidel Castro is affectionately known as “El Commandante.”

II

As the focus now narrows to Mexico, the question arises: What stirs this authoritarian impulse?

The pre-Columbian empires and societies of Mexico, it has been said, did little to prepare their people for participatory democracy, as they were less interested in human rights than human sacrifices.

The Spanish monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church, some point out, weren’t fond of the notion of “the separation of powers.” They preferred the “top-down” model of governance.

It is also unlikely that the centuries-long Moorish occupation of Spain, the grueling Reconquista, and the Spanish Inquisition did much to create sympathy for the tradition of the “loyal opposition” or to enhance the practice of compromise in the governance of colonial or post-colonial Mexico.

The conquistadores and caudillos, others say, cared little for systems that included any significant “check” on their authority. The only real “balance” in the system was the usurper waiting in the wings. (The most frequent “balancer” might have been Antonio López de Santa Anna, the eleven-time President of Mexico. Yes, eleven.)

In Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto suggests that the “more or less continuous democratic development, constitutional propriety, and rule of law” in the US was possible because its revolution was fought before the Napoleonic Wars. The continuing “incapacitated political chaos” of Latin America he attributes, at least in part, to its revolutions being fought after “the French Revolution had dissolved the Enlightenment in blood and sanctified crimes committed in liberty’s name.” He may be right. It is certainly true that Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the same year that Napoleon died.

The theories that seek to explain the tendency toward authoritarianism are many, complex, and sometimes contradictory, but this much is clear: whether Left or Right, military or civilian, whether the result of a coup, an election, or a revolution, the government of Mexico has generally sported a robust executive branch and spindly and dependent legislative and judicial branches. There have been exceptions, of course, here and there, now and then, and things are changing, some say for the better, but the generalization stands: for much of the past 200 or so years, the hands of the Mexican presidents have been only loosely restrained by courts, elections, legislatures, constitutions, and laws.

While Mexican presidents may no longer have “near-monarchical powers,” the current one is still struggling to create a real constitutional democracy.

Enrique Krause’s book, Mexico, Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico 1810–1996, tells the life stories of the leaders of Mexico from the War of Independence until 1996. He conceptualizes the history of Mexico as the struggle to achieve a true democracy in a country where, as the title suggests, the presidents have wielded enormous arbitrary power and, as a result, have had disproportionate personal influence on the uneven evolution of Mexican society. Much of the book details the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990 called “the perfect dictatorship.” Krause details endemic corruption, pervasive nepotism, massive expropriations, suicides, assassinations, mass atrocities, and elections rigged with live fire. He gives praise where he thinks it due but does not pull his punches in criticizing those who have thwarted the establishment of a real constitutional democracy.

To be fair, Krause’s book was published in 1997, and thus does not include the end of the PRI’s long run in 2000, when the National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency, nor the subsequent reelection of the PRI’s candidate in 2012. Fortunately, in an opinion piece in the December 11, 2014, New York Times, Krause updated his view of the presidency of Mexico:

The long rule of the PRI became a source of corruption that led, in the final decades of the 20th century, to the enrichment of politicians with ties to major drug traffickers. Many of us believed that all this would disappear with the advent of democracy in 2000, when the PRI fell from power after 71 years. We were wrong. The sudden limitations put on the near-monarchical powers of the president had the positive effect of liberating legal local powers (governors and mayors), but it also gave new strength to illegal local powers (drug traffickers and organized crime operatives), who recognized and utilized the weakness of control within the new democratic state to expand their national influence.

So, it seems that while Mexican presidents may no longer have “near-monarchical powers,” the current one is still struggling to create a real constitutional democracy.

III

Even the most patient reader must now be asking what in the world all of this has to do with what whitehouse.gov calls “the President’s Immigration Accountability Executive Actions.” Bear with me.

Who is Jorge Ramos?

Jorge Ramos was born in Mexico City in 1958. Tim Padgett, writing in Time (Aug. 22, 2005), explains that “as a 24-year-old reporter in Mexico City, Jorge Ramos felt choked by more than just the capital's notorious smog. Tired of censorship from Mexico's then ruling party, the PRI, Ramos bolted for Los Angeles in 1983.” Ramos himself said in his Nov. 26, 2014, speech accepting the Benjamin Burton Memorial Award, “I came to the U.S. after they tried to censor me in Mexico.” Hispanic Culture Online confirms that when he was a young reporter for Televisa in Mexico City, his stories were often censored to placate the PRI. By 1984 he had found work as a cub reporter for KMEX-TV in Los Angeles, an affiliate of the Spanish-language network, Univision.

Now based in Miami, Jorge Ramos has been the anchor for Univision since 1986 and is the most influential Spanish-language journalist in the country. It could even be argued that he is the most influential journalist, period, given that his English-only competition is fragmented and preoccupied with chasing ratings. After all, 17% of Americans are of Hispanic origin.

In political matters, Ramos does not pretend to be neutral. As he said in the acceptance speech, “When we deal with the powerful, we have to take a stand. Yes, we have to take an ethical decision and side with those who have no power.” In the December 1 issue of Time, reporter Michael Scherer writes that Ramos “is not just a newscaster, but an advocate and an agitator” More specifically, he is a leader of Hispanics in the US, especially the undocumented. As Ramos told Scherer, “Now, with the new numbers, we are being seen. Our voice is being heard.”

Again: who is Jorge Ramos? Here’s a composite portrait: one part Jesse Jackson, spokesman and advocate for an aggrieved minority. One part Sam Donaldson, whose tenacious questioning style annoyed many presidents. Maybe one part Zorro, the mythological figure who championed poor Californios in their struggle against Spanish tyranny. And perhaps a dash of Emiliano Zapata, the hero of the campesinos in their quest to recover their land, and even a bit of Miguel Hidalgo, the Mexican creole priest who first raised the banner of rebellion against Spain. Oh, and more than a little bit of César Chávez. In a sense, one could say that Jorge Ramos is an archetypal Mexican hero.

A president who has the power to singlehandedly change one law has the power to singlehandedly change another law, and then another.

When he interviews, he easily can be imagined as a matador, poised gracefully, awaiting the charge of the bull, his sword concealed in his muleta, his small red cape, ready to deliver the estocada, the death blow. For example, Padgett relates how Jorge Ramos once asked Fidel Castro if he ever planned to have real elections. Castro’s bodyguard slugged Ramos. Really.

The transcript and video of his acceptance speech at the Press Freedom Awards is here.

IV

On May 28, 2008, in Denver, presidential candidate Barack Obama said this to Mr. Ramos: “What I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I’m promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible.”

On September 20, 2012, in Miami, a disappointed Mr. Ramos pressed Mr. Obama, “At the beginning of your governing, you had control of both chambers of Congress, and yet you did not introduce immigration reform. And before I continue, I want for you to acknowledge that you did not keep your promise.”

Ramos was undeterred by the president’s lengthy and somewhat unresponsive answer: “It was a promise, Mr. President. And I don't want to — because this is very important, I don’t want to get you off the explanation. You promised that. And a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”

The Congress did not change the law. The Supreme Court did not rule the existing law unconstitutional. Using the undersized fig leaf of “prosecutorial discretion,” President Obama himself changed the law.

Well. Let’s split a few hairs. Between those two interviews there was a global financial crisis and the start of what some have called the Great Recession. Dealing with those problems and the Affordable Care Act, the president had what might be called a full plate. Sure, the healthcare law was a choice but, in the end, the fact that there was no immigration bill that he could promote or support is really not so surprising.

It is the president’s answer to Ramos’ “broken promise” charge that is of greatest interest:

There’s the thinking that the President is somebody who is all powerful and can get everything done. In our branch of — in our system of government, I am the head of the executive branch. I’m not the head of the legislature; I’m not the head of the judiciary. We have to have cooperation from all these sources in order to get something done.

The quoted passages from the two interviews are in this video; the transcripts are from politifacts and whitehouse.gov.

The president’s response to the immigration question was unremarkable. There’s nothing in it that every high school Civics student isn’t taught. (But is Civics still taught?) He’d said it many times before and would say it many times more. In fact, on Nov. 19, 2014, Matt Wolking, a spokesman for John Boehner, compiled a chronological list of 22 quotations in which Barack Obama states that he does not have the power to reform the immigration laws on his own. Reading them is a bit like watching those old time-lapse photography sequences. At first, in 2008, like the constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago that he once was (OK, Senior Lecturer), he criticizes his predecessor for going outside the boundaries of the powers given to the president in the constitution. (“That’s what I intend to reverse when I’m president.”) Then, you can hear the frustration with Congress grow. (“I’m not a king.” “I’m not an emperor.”) The list is here. It’s worth the read.

And then, on Nov. 20, 2014, Obama expanded his constitutionally questionable DACA program to include parents, thereby deferring the deportation of up to 5 million illegal immigrants.

The Congress did not change the law. The Supreme Court did not rule the existing law unconstitutional. Using the undersized fig leaf of “prosecutorial discretion,” President Obama himself changed the law. And on Nov. 25, 2014, he said exactly that to a heckler urging him to stop all deportations. Watch.

It is said that the president “misspoke.”

It is possible that the president had concluded months earlier that he had the power to change laws unilaterally. Here he is walking with French President François Hollande in February 2014. If you listen carefully, you will hear Obama say, “That’s the good thing about being the President: I can do whatever I want.” Listen.

This comment is sometimes called a “quip” — you know, like the time Louis XIV quipped, “I am the state.” Or when Mel Brooks quipped, “It’s good to be the king.”

Mexico is present within the life of the United States and it will be so more and more through the years to come. By coming to know Mexico, North Americans can learn to understand an unacknowledged part of themselves.” — Octavio Paz, 1990 Nobel Laureate in Literature, from the dust jacket of Mexico: Biography of Power, by Enrique Krauze

V

A young journalist flees a land with an authoritarian presidency that censors his work to go to land that has a Constitution that actually protects his freedom of speech. He then uses that freedom to badger the president of his new home into overreaching his constitutional limits. He encourages the president to singlehandedly change a law that applies to millions of people. That the law needs changing is not the point. And it is not the fault of the now middle-aged journalist that the president succumbs to the goading. The journalist should know, however, that he has, perhaps inadvertently, even innocently, nudged the presidency of his new home in the direction of the authoritarian presidency of the land he once fled. A president who has the power to singlehandedly change one law, you see, has the power to singlehandedly change another law, and then another. Who knows? He may even change the laws governing censorship.

President Obama stood firm when public opinion and electoral results were against him to make these changes, essentially with his own two bare hands.

In 1998, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison crowned Bill Clinton “The First Black President.” It’s sadly ironic that President Obama has disappointed so many African-Americans. The hope for change that filled them has largely faded. Poverty rates, home ownership, household incomes, and net worth have not improved during his first six years. Here are the sad facts.

On the other hand, President Obama did deliver real changes for undocumented immigrants, most of whom, like Mr. Ramos, came to the US from Mexico. President Obama stood firm when public opinion and electoral results were against him to make these changes, essentially with his own two bare hands.

In recognition of the good he has done for these immigrants and because he did it in a way that approximates the “near-monarchical powers” of the presidents of the PRI party in its heyday, it is hereby proposed that Barack Obama be crowned “The First Mexican President.”

¡Viva Obama!

***

Outtake: An interesting passage from the badgering Fusion / Univision interview of Barack Obama by Jorge Ramos, Nashville, on Tuesday, December 9:

RAMOS: But if you — as you were saying, you always had the legal authority to stop deportations, then why did you deport two million people?

POTUS: Jorge, we’re not going to—

RAMOS: For six years you did it.

POTUS: No. Listen, Jorge—

RAMOS: You destroyed many families. They called you deporter-in-chief.

POTUS: You called me deporter-in-chief.

RAMOS: It was Janet Murguia from La Raza.

POTUS: Yeah, but let me say this, Jorge—

RAMOS: Well, you could have stopped deportations.

POTUS: No, no, no.

RAMOS: That’s the whole idea.

POTUS: That is not true. Listen, here’s the fact of the matter.

RAMOS: You could have stopped them.

/em




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What’s in a Cliché?

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For a long time this column has been harping on the idea, or fact, that President Obama is a terrible speaker and writer. I have suggested that his style might improve if he tried reading books.

Back when this harper started harping on this harp, as the Bible puts it (Revelation 14:2), these ideas were radically revisionist. Even Obama’s opponents said such things as “Despite the president’s soaring rhetoric,” “Despite Obama’s eloquence,” “Despite President Obama’s gift for language,” “Despite the president’s professorial yet persuasive speeches . . . his programs stink. “ When the source of the smell was sought, no one considered the possibility that this president (as his professional fans often call him, as if he had to be carefully distinguished from the common run of presidents) had little talent and less learning.

Now, however, one seldom hears compliments either to his knowledge or to his literary ability. His best friends don’t speak in those terms. Even the theory that he authored his own books and speeches has evaporated. No one refers to his books as if they were useful in figuring him out, and his statements and attitudes are frequently attributed to “the White House.” And while this evaporation presents his defenders with the opportunity to separate the literary genius in the Oval Office from the literary hacks buried somewhere else in the West Wing, no one seems to be trying that means of excusing him. It seems to have occurred to others besides myself that a literary genius should, after all, be capable of detecting literary errors and absurdities in the words he recites from his teleprompters, and then firing the imbeciles and philistines who wrote that stuff. But Obama neither detects nor dismisses.

The literary problem may, in fact, be getting worse. In an attempt to mobilize liberal Christians in support of his pro-immigration program, the president has been going about citing Scripture, or what he thinks is Scripture. He has compared Mary and Joseph to illegal aliens, crudely half-modernized a familiar gospel verse (Matthew 7:3–5, Luke 6:41–42) by saying we should "make sure we're looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks' eyes," and claimed (folksier still) that "the good book says, don't throw stones in glass houses.” Please don’t ask me what that has to do with immigration. But I do know that “the good book” (now really, who calls it that?) doesn’t mention stones in glass houses.

It’s not a matter of the Bible’s “not exactly” saying that, as the Washington Post labored to show. It doesn’t say it at all. It couldn’t. There was no such thing as plate glass in the first century A.D. Like “cleanliness is next to godliness” and “Social Security is a great idea,” stones and glass houses are nowhere in the Bible.

Are we looking at invincible arrogance, the kind of self-pride that cannot imagine it might ever be wrong about anything? Probably.

Well, you don’t expect presidents to have a photographic memory for books, do you? No, I don’t. But I do expect them to have some memory of books, especially the books they want to quote. And if they don’t remember, they ought to know that they don’t remember, or (in this case) know that they never read those books in the first place. If you’re a literary genius, or a genius of any kind, or just a normal person, you know such things about yourself. And there’s a way of dealing with them. Should you wish to quote a passage, you look the passage up. With the Bible, this is extremely easy. Innumerable websites (try, for instance, this one) offer concordances to the Bible. And if you are a stranger to the word “concordance,” you can still search the Scriptures with some probability of finding what you want. Just google the phrase. This is another thing “the White House” seems incapable of doing.

Are we looking at invincible arrogance, the kind of self-pride that cannot imagine it might ever be wrong about anything? Probably. Try to think of an occasion on which Obama or his employees have betrayed the slightest skepticism about their own knowledge and judgment. Another, complementary, explanation is a total lack of curiosity about anything having to do with words — what words mean, where words come from, what words may suggest.

Consider Obama’s use of clichés. Now, without clichés we would not have politics. The great unwritten book is a study of the role of clichés in instigating, shaping, confusing, and sometimes destroying the political process. Alas, it is a book that may never be written, because anyone with the knowledge and taste to write it would be too disgusted to pursue the project. But if there were such a book, Obama would get one of the longest chapters. His entire career has been devoted to clichés (subspecies, buzzwords): change, community, middle class, race in this country, comprehensive reform, guilty of walking while black, transparency, facing broader challenges, people who want to shut down the government, draw a red line, draw a line in the sand, draw a red line in the sand . . . . They never stop. And without them he would have no career.

But often he can’t even get the clichés right. In the present instance, the cliché he was trying to use was, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” OK. Picture someone living in a glass house. Picture that person throwing a stone. What is the direction of the stone? Outward. He’s throwing the stone at a house inhabited by another person. The cliché implies that he should not do this, because that other person will then feel licensed to throw a stone back into the glass house.Now visualize this scene as Obama represented it when he said, “Don’t throw stones in glass houses.” What the hell does that mean? Don’t throw stones inside your own glass house? Well, no, I wouldn’t do that. But thanks for your advice — whatever it was. This kind of saying could never become a cliché. It isn’t even that good. In fact, it isn’t good for anything.

If you think none of this is significant, that’s your right. If so, however, I hope you weren’t one of those people who laughed themselves silly over the difficulties George Bush experienced with the pronunciation of “nuclear” (“newk-yoo-ler”) and thought that this kind of thing disqualified him from the presidency. Bush was, in my opinion, not a good president, at all; but he did read books. More importantly, he didn’t try to establish his intellectual credentials on the basis of stuff he had (supposedly) written.

The obvious question is: if it’s that “deeply rooted,” why should we care about it? Leave it alone. It’s a nasty, ugly thing.

But Obama’s way with a cliché becomes even more disturbing when he manages to quote a cliché correctly. In an interview released on December 7, he commented on the wave of protests over the deaths of two young black men, allegedly murdered by police, and he asserted that racism is “deeply rooted in our society.” The context made it clear that he was referring to white racism against black people. He was inviting the nation to participate in yet another spasm of soul-searching over “race in America,” with himself as priest and confessor. He was also trying to provide a rationale for people like Eric Holder to create new means of expanding the federal government’s mechanisms of control over thought and action throughout the country. From this point of view, protests are fine and useful, but only to soften up the territory for the federal police. If a problem is “deeply rooted,” then enormous power needs to be amassed to root it out, right? Obama’s cliché was an attempt to give a familiar, domestic tone, a tone of common sense, to new usurpations of power.

Very well. But when one looks at the other implications of the cliché, one soon sees meanings that were not in the president’s control. Why is white racism so “deeply rooted,” after so much effort to root it out? Perhaps because it’s in so deep that it’s hard to find the damn thing.

A story: I grew up a few miles from a small Midwestern industrial city with a sizable African-American population. I can tell you that in those times white racism was not deeply rooted — it was right on the surface. If an interracial couple dared to appear on a main street of town, everyone turned and noticed, and the mood was not friendly. There was a serious chance that violence would occur. The local paper ran wedding pictures of white brides but not of black brides. It called black preachers “reverend” and white preachers “the reverend.” But although I still spend quite a bit of time in small towns back in the Midwest, it has been years since I heard a racist comment of any kind.

A second story: a few years ago, a friend and I were eating ribs in one of those restaurants where the waitresses call you “hon.” This was in Southern California. Sitting in a booth near us was a pair of white guys. They were, I believe, construction guys, and they spoke with the volume and vocabulary appropriate to construction sites. They reviewed, in great, loud, and profane detail, the defects of their boss, their clients, and their associates, not to mention their ex-wives. No holds were barred (how’s that for a cliché?), and certainly there was no hesitation about the use of epithets. Then they turned to the behavior of a fellow worker who was African-American. They didn’t like him. They didn’t like anyone, and that included the black guy. But when they started in on him, they lowered their voices. Their noise dropped so low that my friend and I, suddenly interested, had to strain to listen. We expected to hear something really blistering. But what we heard was this. “I got nothin’ against his race,” one of them said; “I just got no respect for him.” “No,” the other one said, “not if he can’t come to work on time.” There followed a long discussion of punctuality.

You can say that “I got nothin’ against his race” is merely a clichéd cover-up for racism, but these weren’t guys who cared about covering things up. And anyone could see that at the moment there were no black people in the restaurant, so there was no need to conceal anything from them. The two guys might have worried that white people could take offense, but if so, they would just be recognizing the lack of racism among their fellow whites. Suppose, however, that these men were actually concealing something, if only from themselves. Suppose the something was their deeply rooted racism. The obvious question is: if it’s that deeply rooted, why should we care about it? Leave it alone. It’s a nasty, ugly thing. Leave it buried. Yet the president thinks that deeply rooted feelings are exactly what the government should be concerned with.

Government officials are always saying senseless things, but Hagel has the gift of perfect senselessness.

“Words are the tools of the thinker,” a wise woman said. “If you saw a man chopping wood with a hoe and mowing with a shovel, would you hire him as a foreman?” Words are the tools of thought, and there are cases in which incompetence with words reveals an incompetence to hold power. This is one of those cases.

Would you like another example of linguistic and political incompetence in high places? Yes? Then you shall have it.

As I write, the nation is saying a long good-bye to Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, whose moronic use of language has long been a dependable source of entertainment. (Hagel resigned quite a while ago, but he hasn’t yet managed to find the door.) On November 24, Reid Cherlin, who knew Hagel well, published an eloquently mordant farewell in The New Republic. It describes the author’s arduous yet futile attempt to find anything sensible in anything that Hagel ever said. Among the remarks that Cherlin quotes is Hagel’s meditation on the situation in the Middle East:

Well, I just got off the phone with the defense minister of Israel. We have to stay very engaged with all of our allies and partners, specifically in the region. You know— I’ve said, and you know from President Obama and Secretary Kerry and others— we’ve been talking all the time with our allies and partners all over the world, but specifically in the Middle East. Any action carries with it risks and consequences. And as I said, inaction does, too. And so you have to assess all that, based on this scenario, based on this option, what might be a Syrian response or Iranian response or a Hezbollah response. Sure. That’s why allies are key to this. But as I’ve said, whatever action is taken, we feel very confident about that action…

Cherlin accurately characterizes this as “ragged chains of platitudes and caveats.” The Secretary of Defense (i.e., War) talked and talked, but Cherlin found it impossible to locate, in any of this babble, “his own philosophy about the use of force.” Of the proposed US attacks on Syria, Hagel said, “This is not going to war in another country, as defined probably by most wars.”

The more I look at that sentence, the sadder I am that Hagel will be leaving us. Government officials are always saying senseless things, but Hagel has the gift of perfect senselessness.

At this point in our experience as a people (now there’s a cliché that can be used in almost any sentence) I have a sense of anticlimax. We see, at the end of 2014, an apparently endless vista of small, dumpy, incoherent yet fanatically talkative figures, men and women who have never read a book or thought that they needed to, graduates (in the main) of elite schools in which social attitudes were the sole text requiring close attention, beneficiaries of a political process in which literacy carries no premium at all. Bill Clinton, sage of the Democratic Party, who studied memos but never books. His wife, Mrs. Clinton, who hired people to write her “highly personal” accounts of her own life. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, that grossly unworthy successor of Henry Clay, James K. Polk, James G. Blaine, John Carlisle, and Thomas Reed — all highly literate men, whatever you think of their politics, and some of them masters of the English language. Jeb Bush, the intellectual lumpenproletarian, with all the lumps showing. Elizabeth Warren, the brainless social worker, straight out of Sinclair Lewis. Nancy Pelosi, the unworthy successor of Apple Annie. And there are more, many more.

In future editions of this column, their linguistic adventures will be chronicled, as thoroughly as you or I can stand it. But right now — I want to thank all readers of Word Watch for their warm and continuous interest in its attempts to turn farce into comedy. I hope that this year ends happily for you, and that the next year renews and multiplies your happiness, so that there is neither climax nor anticlimax, but only the continuous joy of free people.




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The Good Side of Jonathan Gruber

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News! News as you’ve heard it, 300 times a day, on your favorite radio or TV station: “My Pillow [a kind of, guess what? pillow] is the official pillow of the National Sleep Foundation!” http://www.mypillow.com/

Alas, I am not certain that this announcement achieves its desired effect. Nor am I certain — for similar reasons — that the information one finds in the Wikipedia entry for Jonathan Gruber achieves the effect he wanted.

Gruber, as you already knew, is the man who this month became famous for bragging about the methods by which he and other sponsors of Obamacare fooled the “stupid” American people. We’ve now heard a lot about Jonathan Gruber. In fact, there’s too much Gruber to keep up with — especially in the form of videos that keep surfacing every day, each with its own grinning image of Gruber explaining how he schemed to mislead us all.

What can you say that’s good about a man who considers “rip off” a favorable term?

(By the way, who are the people who hoarded videos of this ugly man and then decided to release them now? Who would want to record a lecture by Jonathan Gruber, a man whose personality most closely resembles a load of wet gravel smacking into your windshield? Maybe he grated so much on the people he thought were laughing along with him that a few of them decided to bide their time and pay him back.)

I could choose many examples of Gruber’s style, but I’ll limit myself to one. It’s from a CBS report (Nov. 21):

“And the only way we could take it on [by “it” he means Obamacare] was first by mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people, when we all know it’s a tax on people who hold those insurance plans,” he explained.

In 2012, Gruber described how former Sen. Ted Kennedy ripped off the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars to craft a universal health bill for Massachusetts.

“The dirty secret in Massachusetts is the feds paid for our bill, okay, in Massachusetts,” Gruber said in the recording obtained by CBS News. “Ted Kennedy and the smart people in Massachusetts basically figured out a way to rip off the feds for about $400 million a year.”

Now, what can you say that’s good about a man who considers rip off a favorable term? Well, if you’re Gruber, you can think of plenty of good things to say about yourself, and some of them have landed on Wikipedia. I assume that Gruber’s Wiki page was written mainly by him, except for the “Controversies” part at the end. That’s the usual way with hacks like Gruber. I picture him hunkering down with a list of his supposed accomplishments and checking each of them off as he feeds it into the Net. This is the result:

In 2006, Gruber received the American Society of Health Economists Inaugural Medal for the best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under. He was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine in 2005. In 2009 he was elected to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association.

In 2011 he was named “One of the Top 25 Most Innovative and Practical Thinkers of Our Time” by Slate Magazine. In both 2006 and 2012 he was rated as one of the top 100 most powerful people in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare Magazine.

It tickles me to imagine a roomful of “professionals” sitting around thinking about whom to name as the “best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under.” Were birth certificates required? Was Gruber’s “medal” supposed to stimulate the other kids in the class to work as hard as he did?

Even funnier is the idea of grown people (or was it interns?) scouring the internet to generate a list of the “most innovative and practical thinkers of our time” (“yes, she’s innovative — but is she practical?”), then devoting all their powers of analysis to knocking the list down to 25. Or did they start with five (of which one was their boss), and work like hell to bring it up to 25? Probably the latter — that’s how Gruber would have gotten in. It’s hard for me to believe that powerful is an appropriate adjective for people in health care, but maybe that’s because I think of healthcare as a field in which you help others, not push them around. An old-fashioned idea, no doubt. But coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence. And feeling proud to be on that list? It’s all rather hard to understand.

But the funniest part of Gruber’s canned biography is a sentence recording the fact that in 2006, “he was named the 19th most powerful person in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare magazine.” It’s one thing to spend your time getting 25practical thinkers or 100 powerful people into the corral; but to rank the cows in the exact order of their potency — that would truly be an absorbing occupation; that would truly be something for the hired hands to puzzle over. “Nope, Chuck — reckon yer wrong. Bossy, thar, she ain’t quite so powuhfull as ol’ Thundercud, though mebbe she’s jest a leetle more powuhfull than Fatty Pie genrully is.”

Coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence.

Must have been hard to decide. But the existence of these bizarre competitions does throw some light on the video performances that made Mr. Gruber famous. When he bragged about fooling the voters, he was behaving as the 19th most powerful person in healthcare, and evidently enjoying the role; but when he explained how to rip the voters off, he was competing strongly to be named the 18th most obnoxious person in healthcare.

Ambition is a good thing. Yet Gruber’s powers as a rhetorician will, I am afraid, never get him even to 500th place in a contest for the most eloquent person in healthcare — over, under, or around the age of 40. When the performances by which he appears to have pleased some, if not all, his fellow experts were witnessed by a more numerous but less impressionable audience, and his act was discovered to be (if I may paraphrase Irving Berlin) a turkey that you’d know would fold, he found no better way to placate outraged viewers than to murmur: “The comments in the video were made at an academic conference. I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately and I regret having made those comments.”

One secret of public speaking is not to shoot yourself in the head. If you intend to avoid doing that, you should know — especially if you are a brainy college professor — that a good way of aiming for your head is to say things that will lead almost any audience to think of devastating questions, such as:

Aren’t academics paid to engage in the objective, disinterested search for truth? So if you’re willing to go before an academic audience and brag about misleading the people, what would you say in front of a political audience? If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious? When you say you were speaking inappropriately, do you mean that what you said was wrong? If so, was it wrong in the sense of not being true, or wrong in the sense of turning out to be embarrassing? What do you mean by inappropriately — inappropriate to what?

Obvious questions, easily anticipated. And to answer most of them would probably get you in even deeper trouble than you were in before. Gruber hasn’t answered them. But he doesn’t need to, because the national audience he must have longed for all his life has already found the answers, without his help.

Such is the ignorance and illiteracy of our leaders that until now, Gruber’s sub-500th-rate rhetorical skills have not limited his political influence. According to Wikipedia,

In 2009–10 Gruber served as a technical consultant to the Obama Administration and worked with both the administration and Congress to help craft the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as the ACA or “Obamacare.” The act was signed into law in March 2010, and Gruber has been described as an “architect”, “writer”, and “consultant” of the legislation. He was widely interviewed and quoted during the roll-out of the legislation.

Both Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi expressed their respect for Gruber’s talents. Today, however, Obama is dismissing Gruber as someone who never worked for him, and Pelosi is commenting in an even more dismissive way:

Mr. Gruber's comments were a year old, and he has backtracked from most of them. You didn't have it in your narrative. That's really important. He is not even advocating the position that he was at some conference and some said. So I don't know who he is. He didn't help write our bill. With all due respect to your question, you have a person who wasn't writing our bill, commenting on what was happening when we were writing our bill, who has withdrawn some of the statements.

If you want to check that quotation, it’s from an article by David Weigel at BloombergPolitics, Nov. 14. No matter how hard it is to understand, those are the words Pelosi used. Her employment of “so” is really a puzzler. Does the House minority leader mean to say that because Gruber allegedly “backtracked,” and because “Gruber’s comments were a year old” (were also presents a difficulty: how old are they now?), and because “some said” (what did they say?), she doesn’t “know who he is”? In 1984, unsuccessful politicians became unpersons. In Pelosi’s universe of discourse, they become “Mr. Gruber,” who is “a person,” which sounds even worse than an unperson, somehow.

If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious?

Fox News sent one of its guys, David Webb, to lie in wait for Gruber and ask him if he had really backtracked on the idea that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. . . . Call it the stupidity of the American people or whatever.” This was their exchange:

David Webb: “Professor, do you think the American people are stupid?”
MIT Professor Gruber: “No comment.”

Gruber has realized that there are certain occasions on which even a genius like him should shut his mouth. If he continues this clever strategy, he has a chance of becoming the 499th most powerful rhetorician among healthcare hacks. And the rest of us will hear less of the word inappropriate.

So much for Professor Gruber. Inspired by the political season of 2014, which has been coextensive with calendar year 2014, I’ve put together a list of terms that, like inappropriate, should take a long vacation from the American vocabulary:

  • Americans are tired of gridlock in Washington: I’m not tired of gridlock, and I bet you aren’t either. If Americans were offered a choice between having Congress and the president agree on new laws, or having them caught in a literal gridlock from which their chauffeured vehicles could not escape, my prediction is that 90 percent would choose the latter.
  • Bucket (“bucket of proposals,” “bucket of states that Hillary might carry in 2016,” to say nothing of “bucket list” — things you want to do before you kick the bucket): How vulgar can you get?
  • Double down: Once is enough.
  • Fighting for the middle class(“We’re going to continue fighting for the middle class” — Harry Reid): Starting with George Soros.
  • Income disparity: A term used by people who want everyone to be paid $15 an hour, and no more.
  • Pivot(“The president pivoted to foreign policy”): What do you think of people who are always changing the subject?
  • Shellacking (“The president took a real shellacking in the November election”): That is to say, the president was varnished with a purified lac dissolved in denatured alcohol. Slang should be more descriptive.
  • The people want us to work together, the people just want us to get things done, etc.: Propaganda slogans used by Democrats to get Republicans to concede to them.
  • Vote suppression: Keeping the other party’s voters from voting twice.
  • We are a nation of immigrants: Is that supposed to be an argument?
  • What this election is really about: Whatever your talking points are.

I am considering additions to this list, and I would appreciate readers’ contributions. One of my own candidates is unacceptable, a useful word but perhaps, like red states and blue states, a little too useful for its own good. This month, the people who run Obamacare discovered — actually, their critics discovered — that they had misestimated, by a mere 400,000, the number of people who signed up for the program. And guess which way they misestimated? Right! They overestimated. According to Reuters, the administration’s flack-catcher on this issue, a haggard person named Sylvia Burwell, responded as follows (on Twitter, naturally): "The mistake we made is unacceptable. I will be communicating that clearly throughout the [department]."

Well! That’s telling ‘em. They’ll never do thatagain. It’s unacceptable.




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Six Reflections in Search of an Election

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1. So many wonderful entertainers perished on the stage this Tuesday! And I will miss them all. Mark Udall, who pushed women’s issues so hard in his campaign for senator from Colorado that respectable people called him Mark Uterus. Martha Coakley, who ran for governor of Massachusetts with but one purpose — to make everybody laugh — and fulfilled it brilliantly. The two successive Democratic candidates for Senate from the state of Montana — a retired Army officer whose response to his allegedly traumatic service in Iraq was a mad career as plagiarist, and a math teacher who doubled as a far-left video blogger, specializing in inane satires of people she disliked. And is Alison Lundergan Grimes, former Democratic candidate for US Senate from the Commonwealth of Kentucky, still bound by professional ethics not to reveal how she voted? Will we be forced to guess whether she voted for herself on Tuesday, or bolted to Mitch McConnell?

2. The Clintons lost 31 of the 48 races they campaigned in.

3. When Carl DeMaio, an openly gay candidate, campaigned for Congress in a notably non-gay district, the 52nd in California, he received no national attention — because he’s a Republican. The votes are still being counted, but he will probably win. As I write, the results of this election are still in doubt, the 52% of votes that were cast with absentee ballots not having been counted. You know how efficient the government is.

What kind of role would Barack Obama play in a political system that had no effective checks and balances? What internal checks would keep him from becoming a dictator?

4. All the political commentary preceding this election emphasized the extraordinarily large number of extremely close major races. Yet in most instances, Republicans won by margins ranging from the substantial to the stupefying. Are people lying to pollsters? If so, why? Are the polls weighted against the Republicans? Or is polling (perish the thought) not yet fully predictive, or even snapshot accurate?

5. Ask yourself what kind of role Barack Obama would play in a political system that had no effective checks and balances. What internal checks would keep him from becoming a dictator? None; none at all. We know that whenever he has been able to wield dictatorial power, he has wielded it; and he has proudly promised to do even more of that after the election. You can ask yourself the same thing about many of the people who have surrounded him as advisors, and about such elected leaders as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

If nothing else, this election served the fundamental purpose of denying absolute power and apparent legitimacy to such people as that. You may feel intellectual contempt for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner — everybody does! But they notably lack the dictatorial temperament. And even if they didn’t, the victory of their party at both state and national levels means that dictatorial power has received a mighty check.

6. Albert Jay Nock, who is commonly regarded as a founder of libertarianism, wrote an autobiography entitled Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. Could today’s libertarians write similar accounts of our own lives?Certainly not. Libertarian ideas are everywhere in American society. They set much of the agenda of the two major parties, from legalization of drugs to reduction of taxes. The problem, of course, is that the ideas are inadequately distributed, that each of the parties has only half the libertarian agenda — Democrats, generally, the civil libertarian side, and Republicans, generally, the financial libertarian side — and that each of them fills the missing, nonlibertarian side with ideas so bizarre that one can only greet them with laughter (on one’s way to jail, perhaps).

Libertarians who throw elections to the more aggressively statist of the two major parties, which at the moment is the Democratic Party, are voting for that aggressive statism.

So we libertarians are no superfluous people. But if the Libertarian Party were to write its autobiography, Memoirs of a Superfluous Org might now be an appropriate title.

In this election, most LP candidates drew, as usual, very small numbers of votes. In a handful of states, however, their performance was notable. As I write, Robert Sarvis, LP candidate for Senate in Virginia, holds (with 2.5% of the counted votes) the balance between the Republican and the Democratic candidates, who are separated by 0.5%. If you believe survey results (see above), Sarvis drew more from the Republican than from the Democratic side, and may, when all votes are counted, have cost the Republicans the election. Certainly this was what the Democrats in Alaska thought, when they helped out the LP candidate in an attempt to deflect Republican voters. Yet the polling about Sarvis and about Sean Haugh, LP Senate candidate in North Carolina, indicates a grab-bag of voters, holding views on virtually every side of every issue.

As readers of these pages know, I am a dedicated proponent of voting for the lesser of the two evils. If you don’t vote for the lesser evil, you increase the chances of the greater evil. So Libertarians who throw elections to the more aggressively statist of the two major parties, which at the moment is the Democratic Party, are voting for that aggressive statism. According to me. But everyone can see the fallacy of the idea, constantly urged, that the Libertarian Party wages “educational” campaigns. Throwing an election to a party you loath is not educational, and if you don’t even get enough votes to throw an election, how educational have you been?

By the way, I am a registered Libertarian.




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Public Servants

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I’ve always liked the comedian Paul Mecurio. He’s a smart, funny, attractive guy. The other day, when I was surfing around and landed on Fox’s softnews program “Outnumbered,” I found that he was the guest, so I decided to watch.

Someone on the show said that President Obama behaves as he does because he “doesn’t like America,” and Paul got upset and said that he often doesn’t agree with Obama himself, but he didn’t like that kind of thing to be said about a man who has devoted his life to “public service.”

His statement came as a shock — not to the people of Fox, but to me. I’ve been listening to talk about “public service” all my life, but hearing Obama called a public servant made the concept seem even stranger than it had before.

Who, besides government employees, especially politicians, is associated with “service”? Who “serves” other people? Well, for instance, people in restaurants; they serve the public. They’re even called “servers.” So what, if anything, do a politician and a waiter or a waitress — a public servant and a servant of the public — have in common? That’s the question I asked myself, and one question led to others.

The last time you went to a restaurant, did you see your server punching, kicking, and biting the other servers, for the privilege of waiting on your table? Did your server claim to be the only person qualified to do so? Did you see him passing out money to the other diners, so they would choose him to wait on them? Or did he just promise them good jobs, cheap but perfect healthcare, and lavish retirement benefits? When you sat down, did he deliver an hour-long speech, saying how glad he was to see you and how much he had already done for you?

When you objected, did your server call the police and have you arrested for “hate speech”?

If you came with your children, were they ushered into a back room to be educated about how great the servers were? If you objected, were you sharply reminded that “this is the law”? After you’d been there a while, did you notice that many of the tables were filled with people who were eating and drinking but never appeared to receive a check? Did you notice that when they were rowdy and disruptive, the servers went to them and apologized for the disapproving looks that other diners cast in their direction? Did you notice that when the server brought your food, he first gave half of it to the people at neighboring tables?

When you read the menu, did you notice that many of the advertised dishes had been labeled “Unconstitutional,” and dishes with new and unfamiliar names had been penciled in? If you ordered filet mignon with the chef’s special sauce, did your server return with a cold turkey burger and an empty ketchup bottle? If you ordered a good cabernet, were you told that anything but grape juice was available only by prescription? If you complained about the food, did your server refuse to comment, because the matter was under investigation?

In the middle of your meal, did the servers suddenly head for the windows and start shooting at the restaurant next door? Did they grab all the young males in the place and use them as human shields? When the firing mysteriously ceased, did they demand a loan to cover the unexpected cost of ammunition?

When you studied the bill, did you notice that after your waiter added up the surcharges, special surcharges, seat rental fees, menu licensing fees, and other sources of revenue not previously mentioned, you were paying 15 times more than the amount listed next to the items you ordered — which, again, your server never brought you? When you objected, did your server call the police and have you arrested for “hate speech”?

Did those things happen to you? No? They didn’t? The people serving you never did any of those things? Then perhaps there is a difference between public servants and people who actually perform a service to the public. And perhaps it’s time we clarified our vocabulary.




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Yum

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This election year has been full of odd little funny things. It’s like a buffet loaded with wilted salads and overcooked chicken — but down near the end of the table they’ve laid out some tiny, tasty desserts.

One of these delicious offerings was the response of someone named Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic nominee for Senate from Kentucky, when she was asked, in an editorial conference at the Louisville Courier-Journal, whether she had voted for the much-detested-in-Kentucky Barack Obama. Over and over, she refused to provide an answer, blathering instead about what the election is really about, slamming her opponent, and saying that she “respect[s] the sanctity of the ballot box” (an odd way of indicating that although you want to go to the Senate and vote all the time, you won’t say how you voted for president). In this case, the hardcore partisan decided (and it was a decision, because her response was immediate and well-rehearsed) that hiding from her own party allegiance was worth the price of looking like a clown. Either that, or she’s so stupid she didn’t realize that she’d look like a clown. Anyway, it was a hilarious performance.

A few days before, Republican activists had secretly recorded conversations with activists in the Grimes campaign, including a major donor. They then shared these conversations with the national audience — chiefly comments about how Grimes was lying all the time about her support for the state’s leading industry, coal. Her reason? Otherwise, you dope, she would never get elected!

Who can withstand the force of arguments like that? Who can resist the comedy of people working in a moralistic cause while espousing a philosophy of amoralism?

Even funnier was an editorial statement that appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal, in which the paper’s politics writer explains why it wouldn’t publish anything about the Republicans’ conversational adventures. You can read the statement for yourself and assess the reasons. But the first thing you’ll notice is that in explaining why the paper won’t run the story, the writer goes ahead and recites the whole thing!

As the waiters say: here’s your dessert — enjoy!




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Whatever Happened to His Nobel Prize?

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I’ve been asking my friends a question. It’s a question that should have occurred to me before, but it hit me rather suddenly a few days ago, during President Obama’s fulminations about what he was going to do to ISIS (“ISIL,” in his chronic though unexplained vocabulary). I couldn’t answer the question, so I began asking other people.

The question is: whatever happened to Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize? I mean, when was the last time you heard anybody mention it?

I can only speculate about the last occasion when I heard of it. I imagine it was mentioned when Obama was destroying the government of Libya and replacing it with another one (and that turned out well, didn’t it?). But I don’t actually remember anybody bringing it up. I would also imagine that someone mentioned it when Obama was campaigning for reelection on the claim that he had killed Osama bin Laden. Again, however, I can’t specifically recall anyone drawing attention to the Nobel Prize. The Prize for Peace, remember.

I hope this means that the Nobel Prize has become irrelevant. I mean, Al Gore got one.

Then came the Drone Wars, with more brags from Obama about liquidating his enemies. Then his first attempt at invading Syria, with all those statements about drawing lines in the sand. I can’t remember any discussion, at the time, of the peculiar moral and intellectual evolution experienced by the Nobel laureate. Then came . . .

You get the picture. I can’t identify anyone who discussed that issue, ever. Of course, there must have been someone who did. I can’t read everything.

So when we got to Obama’s ISIS bombing campaign, I started asking other people. Nobody could remember any references, printed or televised, to a Nobel Prize for Peace. A few said they hoped that meant it was all a bad dream — Obama, the prize, everything. A few wanted to debate what Obama should have done about the prize in the first place. Some thought he should have refused it, saying he wanted to do something to deserve the honor, which he hadn’t had the opportunity to do as yet; or saying that as the president of a country that often needs to protect itself by engaging in military force, he would be hypocritical if he accepted a prize for Peace. I’d favor the first option, myself. I think it would have been the best public relations move a president ever made. But what’s obvious to me isn’t obvious to Obama.

Anyway, since my friends couldn’t remember any references to the irony of Obama the peace-prize man, I started monitoring my TV more closely. I have yet to encounter the faintest allusion to Obama’s Nobel Prize. Indeed, everyone seems to be studiously avoiding it. To specify just one example: Peter Baker, a big guy at the New York Times, prattling to CNN on Sept. 29. The subject was promising for a Peace Prize mention: Baker had been invited to discuss the president’s inability to describe his actions regarding ISIS as warfare, not just “being in a war environment” and so on. So now, I thought, Baker will certainly mention the Prize. Now he’ll have to mention the Prize. But no. He dished out the usual statements about Obama’s wanting to be “a peace president,” as his interviewer said, but he never even got close to a Nobel Prize.

I hope this means that the Nobel Prize has become irrelevant. I mean, Al Gore got one. I also hope that Obama is becoming irrelevant. But I’m afraid that what is now irrelevant is the human memory.

For memory’s sake, therefore, I wish to specify, for the record, that according to the Nobel Prize website, “the Nobel Peace Prize 2009 was awarded to Barack H. Obama ‘for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.’"

Well, that’s all right. They gave him the prize about one second after he became president. How did they know what would happen afterward?




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Their Gamble, Our Win

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A recent news piece in the Wall Street Journal caught my attention. Entitled “Germany’s Expensive Energy Gamble,” it reports on that country’s new grand energy plan, the “Energiewende” (“Energy Revolution”). This is now at the top of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s domestic agenda.

Under this plan, Germany will spend a projected trillion euros — and we all know how government projections tend greatly to understate final costs — laying out a massive new network of high-tension lines to carry power from wind plants in the North Sea to the country’s heavily industrialized southern region. Merkel’s government is gambling that this titanic investment will pay off with cheap, inexhaustible energy.

So far, the dream of renewables replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power has delivered only nightmarish results.

While the EU has a set of rules requiring its member states to achieve a goal of 35% of their electricity from so-called renewables by 2025, Germany has set its goal to hit 40–45% by then and to exceed 80% by 2050. Again, this is without using nuclear power.

If achieving this does cost the German economy a trillion euros (about $1.4 trillion), that would equal about half the country’s annual GDP.

So far, the dream of renewables replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power has delivered only nightmarish results. Despite Germany’s history of no major problems with nuclear power, Merkel virtually shut down the nation’s nuclear industry after the Fukushima disaster. Today, only nine nukes remain open, and they are due to be shut down in about seven years.

The result is that over the past five years, electricity prices in Germany have skyrocketed 60%, because the subsidies for the highly inefficient wind farms are passed on to the consumer. German electricity is now over twice as expensive as America’s.

Even riskier for the German economy is the strain this is placing on the manufacturing sector, one of its key components.

As Kurt Bock, CEO of BASF — the world’s biggest chemical company and one of Germany’s biggest companies of any kind — put it, “German industry is going to gradually lose its competitiveness if this [energy revolution] isn’t reversed soon.

BASF, by the way, has every right to be frightened by Merkel’s energy scheme. The company’s main plant employs 50,000 people in Germany, and consumes as much power as all of Denmark. And Bock is not alone in his concerns. A recent survey by the Federation of German Industry and PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that three-fourths of executives at small- and medium-sized industries feel that the rising energy costs threaten German productivity. A survey by the US Chamber of Commerce showed that a similar percentage of American company executives with operations in Germany felt that the Energiewende made Germany less attractive as a place to do business.

While the unfavorable opinions of the manufacturers, either German-based or with German operations, should worry the German government, even more worrisome are the attendant industry actions.

BASF has announced plans to cut investment in Germany by 8.3% of its world total, shifting it elsewhere. SGL Carbon, another German manufacturer, has decided to triple its $100 million investment in its Washington state plant rather than expand its domestic operations, for the reason that electricity costs only one-third as much in Washington state as it does in Germany. And basi Schöberl GmbH will turn to France rather than Germany as the site of its new plant. (France, note well, has kept its nuclear power plants at full strength.)

As Daniel Yergin has put it, the Germans enthusiastically embraced so-called renewable power, viewing themselves as trailblazers, “But now the Germans look back and see there aren’t many people behind them.”

Meanwhile, as another WSJ piece documents, our own energy revolution continues to flourish — even in the face of an administration downright hostile to it — because ours is based on fossil fuels.

The article notes that while naysayers wrote off our fracking revolution under the theory that shale wells don’t produce for long and must be replaced with ever more wells, the fracking revolution enters its tenth year in fine shape. Shale wells have become far more productive.

For example, in 2013 the most fecund shale well produced, at its peak, 5.9 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. But last year — a mere decade later — the best shale well delivered an amazing 30.3 million cubic feet a day — a fivefold increase! And fracking oil wells have seen similar productivity increases over the last decade.

We have a grotesquely obtuse president, so we will no doubt squander this opportunity to get our manufacturing base to the heights it could reach.

In fact, the focus of the American oil and natural gas industry — which has become the world’s largest energy producer — is now on finding ways to get more from existing wells, as opposed to looking for new shale fields. So while the number of wells has remained roughly constant, the production has jumped.

All this has kept American natural gas prices at historic lows.

This would suggest to a shrewd president — if we only had one! — a national strategy for renewing our industrial sector.

The strategy would be to embrace the American energy renaissance. Take back the regulatory agencies, as well as the Department of the Interior, from the environmentalist activists. Return to issuing leases to develop resources, both offshore and on land, leases dramatically curtailed by the Obama administration. Return to selling public lands — the federal government still owns 28% of the 2.27 billion acres that comprise our national territory. And allow our oil and gas to be exported freely. At the same time, reinvigorate our nuclear energy power industry.

In other words, aim explicitly at allowing the market to drive our energy prices, both the price of fuel and the price of electricity. This would create a cornucopia of benefits.

It would add a massive number of new jobs, first in the energy sector, then, as that wealth spread, in every other sector as well. It would drive down the amount of money that vicious dictators such as Putin and terrorists such as ISIS use to maim and murder free people around the world. That would lessen the probability that young Americans will die to protect our interests.

But we have a grotesquely obtuse president, so we will no doubt squander this opportunity to get our manufacturing base to the heights it could reach.

Elections have consequences — alas! But people get the government they deserve.




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Moving Forward, Clichés Remain

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On August 8, Fox News reported on the Obamacare-avoidance strategy of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Since Shaheen is running for reelection, she never mentions the great legislative achievement of the supreme leader of her party; Obamacare is just too unpopular to be named. Accordingly, in an interview played by Fox, Shaheen answered questions about the program by noting that she didn’t write the Obamacare law. She didn’t say whether this was because she opposed its provisions (although she voted for them) or because she can’t write. She did observe that “hindsight is always 20/20.”

She said this with great satisfaction, as if she were proud of her creative use of words.

Odd. But come to think of it, everyone who uses this cliché projects the same morbid pride. A similar cock-eyed vanity accompanies the use of “wake-up call,” “deck chairs on the Titanic,” “it’s a case of he said, she said,” “last time I checked,” “abundance of caution,” “shocks the conscience,” “got your back,” and, of course, “tone-deaf.” I don’t know why people who obviously care so deeply about the words they choose can’t see that their prize expressions have been in everyone’s mouth (ugly thought, isn’t it?) for many, many years. Maybe that’s a lack of hindsight.

It’s funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge.

But what about foresight? On the same day on which Fox was ventilating Sen. Shaheen’s inanities, the network’s B-list anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle said this about Iraq: “Questions remain about President Obama’s strategy, moving forward.” She said this as if it meant something. Well, I have some questions too, as I move forward in my own life. Don’t questions always remain, about anything? Then why bother to say so? If, however, she meant “doubt” or “skepticism,” why didn’t she say that? And isn’t strategy always about what you’re going to do in the future? If so, what is moving forward doing in that sentence? And what’s the grammar of the sentence, anyway? What is it that’s “moving”? Is it “strategy”? Is the president’s strategy moving? Or is it “questions” that are executing a peculiar forward motion? Yet the questions are supposed to remain. Tell me, Ms. Guilfoyle. But maybe someone else can tell me why moving forward has become such a popular cliché? Is it, like many other redundant expressions, just a way for insecure speakers to nail down their meaning — in this instance, to nail down the idea that, yes, I am talking about the future, OK, not the past? Y’know?

There are clichés, and then there are mistakes — continually repeated mistakes. The mistake of writing whacko when you mean wacko. The mistake of calling in the calvary. The mistake of using disinterested to mean uninterested. And, as I’ve told you before, there is the rising tide of squash.

I mean the confusion of that word, which normally evokes absurd images of fat things being flattened, with quash, which is naturally attached to no particular image but does mean something specific: to stop or repress. The judge quashed the indictment. The teacher quashed the question. The dictator quashed all debate. Try to picture indictments, questions, and debates being squashed. You can’t, and the harder you try, the sillier the incipient images become.

I would expect conservatives to conserve the quash-squash distinction. But they have become almost as good at moving forward as the progressives. In the conservative Daily Caller, July 21, we find this headline: “Top Kerry Aide Tries to Squash Claim of Anti-Fox News Bias by Lying to the Daily Caller.” The story is interesting, but the headline is bad by any standard except that of “Dog Bites Man.” One is supposed to picture a “Kerry aide” — an aide of the secretary of state, John Kerry — rushing over to a claim of bias, stomping on it, jumping on it, sitting on it, and finally lying about it, in a futile attempt to squash the thing. Yet the Daily Caller did not intend to be satirical. Or self-satirical.

Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase.

Neither did Attorney General Holder, in solemn remarks (he is always solemn) that announced his insertion of the federal government into the matter of a young man shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Evidently this is the kind of thing that can be handled only by the intrepid intellect of the attorney general, and of the 40 FBI agents he dispatched to a little Midwestern town. But here is the LA Times report (August 11) on the terms in which Holder announced his intervention:

U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement that he believed the shooting in Ferguson “deserves fulsome review,” and he wanted the federal inquiry to “supplement, not supplant” the investigation by police in Missouri.

“Supplement, not supplant”: nothing wrong with that verbiage. “Review” is a little funky — funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge. Citizens were meant to understand that what Holder had in mind wasn’t an investigation, a legal proceeding, a crackdown, an inquisition, a Court of Star Chamber. No, it was merely a review, albeit a “fulsome” one. We’re used to this kind of guff. But where did fulsome come from? The only possible source is the attorney general’s feeling that a full review would be lacking somehow in fullness. Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase. So, as pompous people extend use into utilize, road into roadway, and famous into infamous, Holder put a new deck on the back of the house, and full was transformed into fulsome.

The problem is that fulsome does not mean full (any more than infamous means famous). Fulsome sometimes means “large” (as opposed to “full”), but its ordinary meaning is less predictable by people who want to use big words they don’t understand. One dictionary lists the synonyms of fulsome as “excessive, extravagant, overdone, immoderate, inordinate, unctuous, cloying . . . ” Granted, we can expect an investigation commissioned by the attorney general to be worthy of all these adjectives, because he himself is worthy. But that’s not what he meant to say. Critical self-examination is not his forte.

Nobody thought it was. Yet there is always a rumor that modern liberals, such as the people who write speeches for Holder and checks for Obama campaigns, are highly educated. From Plato’s Republic to this day, specialized education has been considered the qualification and justification for rulers in dirigiste systems of government — all of them instituted, of course, by allegedly intelligent and well-educated (as opposed to actually intelligent and well educated) people. The linguistic spoors left by President Obama and his crew make the credentials of the ruling class look less genuine than ever before.

Almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Moral fulsomeness is sometimes hard to distinguish from mere demagoguery. I don’t think I can make that distinction in the case of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. He it was who followed Holder’s lead by making a television address in which he repeatedly demanded vigorous “prosecution” of the cop involved in the Ferguson affair, a cop who hasn’t been charged with any offense. Nixon’s office later explained that by “prosecution” he really meant “investigation” (a distinction without a difference, from the demagogue or the tyrant’s point of view) but maintained that Nixon had no reason to retract anything in his statements.

I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,
Said cunning old Fury:
I’ll try the whole cause
And condemn you to death.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But speaking of public morals: I’m not one of those people who are addicted to the notion that “our country’s moral fabric is being eroded” — if only because that’s a mixed metaphor as well as a cliché. But I did get a kick out of the videos of Travis County Texas District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg (and that’s a mouthful right there) experiencing the aftermath of an arrest for driving with her blood alcohol considerably over the legal limit. . . If nothing else, the videos give new life to the old expression “drunk as the lord.” (Drunk as the lord of the manor, you understand, not drunk as the Lord God, despite the fact that Judges 9:13 refers to wine as something that “cheereth God and man.”) All right, all right: I admit it: I’m not in favor of laws against drunk driving, unless it results in damage. And I know I’m in a small minority on that. But almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Even Gov. Rick Perry — he of the slack jaw and wandery eye — was acute enough to reflect on the fact that Lehmberg was the person charged with administering an agency concerned with ethics. So Perry threatened to veto the agency’s appropriation unless she resigned; when she didn’t, he carried out his threat and vetoed the bill. His reward was to be indicted by a grand jury for “abuse of office.” Believe me, I hate to defend Rick Perry, but the prosecutor seems challenged by the rudimentary distinction between use of office and abuse of office.

Nor is grotesque abuse of words simply a Texas problem. No one in the national administration appears capable of finding the right phrase. Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (“Chuck”) Hagel has been reprimanded by this column before, but he has not learned his lesson. This month, he babbled about the attempt to rescue martyred journalist Jim Foley from his crazed jihadi captors, calling it a “flawless operation” that had only one problem: it failed. When the rescuers came, Foley was in some other place. Hagel’s exact words were: “This operation, by the way, was a flawless operation but the hostages were not there. We will do everything we need to do, that the American people would expect from their leaders, to continue to do everything we can to get our hostages back.”

But “everything” must not mean everything — in light of the administration’s stout refusal, in respect to the Foley case, to negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom to terrorists. That is what unanimous administration spokesmen declined to endorse. But tell me, if you can, where is Bowe Bergdahl today, and where are the five jihadis with whose freedom Bergdahl was not-ransomed on May 31? And tell me, while you’re at it, is Hagel still conducting an investigation about whether Bergdahl left his post or deserted it? Once more, there’s a problem of words, the distinctions between words, the meanings of words . . . Perhaps it’s a conceptual problem. Perhaps it’s important!

Oh, here’s an item. Bergdahl’s attorney has now told Reuters that Bergdahl “is ready to move on to the next chapter of his life.” Maybe the president should make another speech congratulating Bergdahl on moving forward. Certainly it’s nice to hear that the young man is making plans for his life, not merely wandering around battle zones in Afghanistan. Somehow, though, I just can’t repress my feeling that it should be Jim Foley who’s moving on to the next chapter of his life. He was entitled to, if anyone was.

It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around.

But perhaps Mr. Hagel was having trouble coming to grips, linguistically, with his own emotions. Many people at the apex of power suffer in this way. There is, for example, the president’s confusion of the word heartbroken with such words as having fun figuring out how to bat little white balls into little tin cups. “We are all heartbroken,” Obama said on August 20, in a tense little speech about Foley’s murder. But those words must not have been quite right. Eight minutes later the broken hearted chief executive was giggling with his buddies on the golf course. You have to admire his powers of recuperation. I would giggle myself, at the absurdity of it all, if I could get the scene of Foley’s beheading out of my mind. The president must have greater strength of character than I have.

The most absurd episode of the month — again, linguistically — was a series of events in Montana, in which sitting Senator John Walsh (Dem.) was found to have plagiarized a 14-page so-called paper submitted as part of a credentialing process in a two-bit graduate program. Walsh and his friends justified his stupidity in many ways: by claiming that he had done nothing wrong (he had used 96 footnotes!); by noting that he wasn’t, by nature, an academic; by claiming that his “mistake” was “unintentional”; by saying that he had served in Iraq, that one of his colleagues in Iraq had killed himself, that he (Walsh) had not killed himself but had been the victim of hundreds of enemy attacks (later reduced to one attack); by suggesting that he had post-traumatic stress disorder, though whatever he had was never diagnosed in exactly that way . . . While at school, Walsh, like his president, was known for his devotion to golf.

Finally the senator surrendered his candidacy, and the Democrats came up with another nominee, one Amanda Curtis, probably their worst possible choice. I felt comfortable analyzing Walsh, a lantern-jawed jock who drifted from one official position to another. His mishaps with words practically analyzed themselves. Curtis is different. It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around. Walsh’s supposed thesis paper was a tissue of mild, mainstream clichés, many of them plagiarized. Curtis’s genuine video blog is an exhibit of left-“liberal” thought, unfiltered and unembarrassed. But what is its cause or referent in the real world? That remains unknown. She might as well be reacting to the climate on Mars.

To return to the subject of the educated classes: Can you guess this candidate’s occupation? You’ve got it: she’s a teacher.




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Sugar Daddies, Sky Fairies, and Flying Spaghetti Monsters

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America’s self-appointed sophisticates like to ridicule religious believers as devotees of the “Sky Fairy,” or of an entity of cartoon-superheroic magnificence they call “the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Those too enlightened for such foolishness assure us that they are the grownups in the country, and therefore above silly superstitions. Yet curiously, many of them retain absolute, childlike faith in big government as the solver of every problem and the savior from all evil.

Statists on both sides of the spectrum tend to a blind trust of information they get from their official propagandists. To borrow a wonderful phrase from our editor, Stephen Cox, they gobble it up like fish food. Many of the same people look down their noses at those silly Christians, whose core beliefs come from the Bible. But Fox, MSNBC, and NPR have only been around for a few decades. The Bible has endured for thousands of years.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing.

This is not to say that, in my opinion, people don’t get some odd ideas from Holy Writ. We see these notions floating around in the cultural atmosphere, like leftover bubbles from The Lawrence Welk Show. I get as much pleasure in pointing, laughing, and popping bubbles as anybody else. But to suggest that the basic ideas are less credible than this week’s talking points by the rah-rah media strikes me as nothing short of absurd.

The big story last month was the donnybrook between Hobby Lobby and the Obamacare cops. The Green family, who own majority interest in the Hobby Lobby corporation, caused widespread sophisticate outrage. In their fidelity to the dictates of their “Imaginary Friend,” the Greens sought an exemption from providing certain forms of birth control in employees’ health plans. Our president meanwhile seeks to bestow healthcare on the huddled masses, but certain people’s benighted religious views keep getting in the way!

The concept of a Supreme Being who created the cosmos and has abided since the beginning of time strikes the enlightened ones as laughable. But the competence of an elected official not born until 1961, and only elected in 2008, cannot — dare not — be questioned. The Obama Administration and its minions Know Best. How can we be sure of this? Because they care about the right things.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing. But surely I am deluded. The Sky Fairy has blinded me with sparkle-dust.

My general impression of those who seek political power, particularly high office, is that they aren’t very nice people. They appear, to me, to be concerned with little more than self-promotion and blind ambition. They have an amazing propensity to say exactly what they think their “base” wants to hear. But no matter what they say, they always end up doing what serves themselves and their own glorious careers. I don’t know why that makes me gullible, or any sillier than those who “ooh” and “aah” over the Great Enlighteneds’ every utterance as if it thundered down from Mount Olympus.

The god of the so-called sophisticates is something even loftier than our exalted leaders. It is Sugar Daddy, the all-knowing, all-seeing, infinitely powerful bringer of all that is right, good, and utterly unquestionable. “We’re not worrrrthy! Pray forgive us if we ever — for a millisecond — questioned your wisdom. In your divine awesomeness, call down no drones to smite us!”

Now, that sounds pretty out-there to me. But then again, I’m no sophisticate. Clearly I’m incapable of understanding.

Trusting the government to fix its own messes seems, to me, a prospect considerably more dubious than relying on Gomer Pyle to fix the family car. Goofy as he was, Gomer usually knew how to get that vehicle humming again. Too bad he isn’t running for president. With his cousin Goober as a running-mate, he’d be at least as credible as the geniuses we’ll undoubtedly have to choose from in 2016.

Yet all will be presumed, by their legions of fans, to know what they’re doing. In fact, to know better than everybody else. The Rube Goldberg contraption of the state grows to ever more monstrous proportions, but the gruesome sitcom of power piled upon power continues to entrance many Americans. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is dismissed as hoary, tired, and in need of retirement; but Sugar Daddy is ever young and virile. In his present incarnation, he even wears cool sunglasses and shoots hoops with NBA stars.

Our politicians are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

I believe I’ll sit out this enthusiasm. I can’t get worked up about the controversy over whether the First Lady has buff arms or a big butt. Nor do I get teary-eyed thinking about the First Daughter’s high school prom, or outraged because she and her sister attend private school. They are just human beings like the rest of us. When the Presidential Family became our version of the Windsors, they were not elevated to the Heavens, but merely added to the cast of the sitcom.

When I was in high school, the Student Council candidates divided themselves into two parties: Kiss and P-Nut. At the time I found it absurd. Us kids, pretending to be real politicians! Now I see the Democrats and the Republicans morphing, more and more, into Kiss and P-Nut. They are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, I think that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

Too bad, however, that they’re not wrangling over whether ice cream should be served in the cafeteria, instead of waging wars, jeopardizing our future, and taking our money to pay for their grand schemes. At least on the Student Council, they wouldn’t be out of their league. Nor would we be expected to pay them endless tribute and trust them with our lives.

The Sky Fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are looking better all the time.




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