What Did You Know, and Why Didn’t You Know It?

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To me, the funniest part of the administration’s current travail is its entrapment between the devil of activism and the deep blue sea of ignorance.

President Obama has pursued an aggressively state-socialist policy. The belief of his church militant is that government knows best about healthcare, that government knows best about the economy, that government knows best about the environment, race relations, the nature of Islam, the legitimate leadership of Libya, the price of microchips in China. Well, a socialist government has to know these matters, because it has to plan and rule everything. But to any evidence of failure, the president’s response is, “I’m completely ignorant.”

The Benghazi affair? None of us was clear on the facts (but we made announcements, anyway). We’ll find out, after the investigation. The IRS’s persecution of Obama’s critics? I just know what I read in the papers; I’ve ordered an investigation. The secret raid on the Associated Press? I just know what I read in the papers; I can’t comment on matters under investigation.

So either the all-knowing leadership doesn’t know enough to conduct even its own political business, or it knows what it’s doing, and it’s lying about it, to preserve its own power. Take your pick. Either way, it doesn’t look good for state socialism.

Told that President McKinley was going to visit his town, Mr. Dooley, the Irish bartender who was given immortal life by Finley Peter Dunne, made this remark: “I may niver see him. I may go to me grave without gettin’ an’ eye on th’ wan man besides mesilf that don’t know what th’ furrin’ policy iv th’ United States is goin’ to be.”




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President Obama, Meet Alfred E. Neuman

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Isn’t it interesting that Barack Obama, whose presidency is intellectually and demographically a product of the antiwar, anti-imperialist, distrust-government movement of the 1960s and 1970s, has emerged as an automatic exponent of hidebound, don’t give an inch, interventionist, obscurantist, and warmaking government?

Obama couldn’t sit back and watch revolutions happen in Arab countries. He just had to intervene. Now he has to threaten and meddle in Syria, of all places. We will be fortunate if his militarism remains as feckless as it is right now.

As for domestic affairs . . . he couldn’t turn his crusading spirit against the entrenched forces of the Washington bureaucracy, as he appeared to have promised in 2008. Oh no. So far, he’s never seen a bureaucracy he didn’t want to defend. Not one of his significant officials has been invited to resign for his or her notorious failures. They’re all still there, telling transparent lies to Congress and the nation.

The latest example is Obama’s response to the gross failure of the FBI, which did nothing either to prevent the Boston bombers from doing their thing or to identify them afterward, despite the fact that the Bureau had, on its right hand, a passport picture of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and, on its left hand, videos of the same Tamerlan Tsarnaev planting bombs. In the face of this evidence, the president proclaimed that the FBI did a great job.

According to the Washington Post:

In his first news conference since the Boston attack, Obama said law enforcement agencies had performed in “exemplary fashion” in the hunt for the bombers and in investigating one of the suspects before the bombings. He accused critics of chasing headlines.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, the FBI performed its duties,” Obama said. “Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing. But this is hard stuff.”

Hard stuff? How hard is it to compare pictures? And how hard is it to devise ways of keeping creeps like the Tsarnaevs out of the country? Or their creepy friends, now arrested for covering up the Tsarnaevs’ crimes? But imagine that you’re a government bureaucrat. Then your default position will be: student visas — why check? And yes, suppose that the Tsarnaevs return to the country that is supposedly persecuting them, thereby giving them a reason to live on welfare in the United States — well, why hold that against them? They’re charged with crimes? So what? Who, me? Worry?

Ridiculous? Yes. And why should Obama defend it?

The sad explanation is that he is a part of the old “counterculture” at its silliest, and it turns out to be intellectually and emotionally indistinguishable from the political “culture” it warred against. War is wrong — except when good people (like us) are waging it. Imperialism is wrong — except when good people (like us) are pushing the foreigners around. Entrenched bureaucracies are wrong — except when they are entrenched bureaucracies run by good people (us again!).

So that’s what it all came down to. Authority is wrong whenever I’m not the authority. But whenever I am, it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Critics are just chasing headlines.

The ’60s died — not with a bang but a blowhard.




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The Carnival at Dallas

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The spectacle of five presidents — Carter, Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Obama — meeting to compliment one another at the opening of the second Bush’s presidential library reminded me irresistibly of chapter 26 of Candide, the Symposium of Monarchs. In that episode, Voltaire satirizes authority by arranging for six kings to discover that they are staying at the same inn at Venice. Their conversation reveals their inanity and (as Voltaire would have it) the inanity of human life. Whatever you think of Voltaire’s ideas, it’s a very funny chapter.

So here we have our own Symposium of Monarchs, a meeting of men who have wielded infinitely more power than any king of the Old Regime. Who are these people?

None of them had any qualification whatever for the office once assumed by Washington. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone, among all the varied occupants of the presidential chair, who was less qualified than they were. Maybe John Tyler. In fact, none of them was impelled to the position by anything other than ambition for office.

Two of them — the Bushes — are agreeable human beings, and the elder Bush was a war hero, a real war hero. Unfortunately, neither father nor son had any intellectual qualifications. The younger Bush reads history but is incapable of profiting from his studies. The elder Bush showed himself incapable of understanding even his own emphatic promise not to raise taxes. He folded as soon as the opposing party offered to sell him a bridge in Brooklyn. He bought the bridge, and lost the presidency. The younger Bush was unable to understand even the rudimentary principles of limited government. But you could say that about all of them. None of them showed even the faintest understanding of his oath of office.

Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that.

Intellectual qualifications . . . unlike virtually all former presidents, none of the five, with the possible exception of Carter, is able to speak in his own voice for even one minute without committing a gross grammatical error. None of them, including the current president, himself reputedly the author of a book, is capable of an accurate allusion to anybody else’s book. Most of them don’t even try. Listen to Obama’s speeches; notice what or whom he mentions. It’s always “a teacher in Montana” or “a little girl in New Jersey.” Acton? Madison? Webster? Whitman? Churchill? Cather? Twain? And here they are at the dedication of a library.

Experience? Carter and Clinton were goofball governors of Southern states. The Bushes were rich people. Obama was a black student who was elected, for unknown but surmisable reasons, editor of a college law review, then a hack politician employed by the Chicago political machine.

Personal qualifications? Great personalities? Commanding leadership? Eccentric and interesting insights? Inspiring examples of morality? All these people, except the elder Bush, who was a professional promiser and non-fulfiller, can properly be called professional liars. Some lied with an exuberance appropriate to men who really enjoy the sport. On Carter, see Robert Novak’s autobiography; you’ll be entertained. On Clinton, consult your memories. On Obama, just listen to the man. On the younger Bush . . . I’m not referring to his theories about Iraq, on which he appears to have been sincerely deluded. On such issues as censorship (freedom of speech is sacred, but take all this sex off the internet), big government (I’m against it, but raise high the roofbeams, carpenters!), and immigration (open the gates, but pretend to be building walls), he lied with abandon.

Which one of these people would you like to serve with on a condo board? A department committee? A working group of any kind? Chorus of “None!” Carter would automatically attack as “racist” anyone who disagreed with him. Obama, a good casting choice for Creon in Antigone, would insist on lecturing everyone like a high school principal. The Bushes would never finish a sentence. Clinton would be looking for a deal that would enrich himself and promote the career of his banshee wife. And which one of them would you like to have a beer with? Which one — to return to the Candide analogy — would you like to encounter at the Carnival of Venice?

My answer used to be, “All of them but Carter.” Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that. But I used to say that if I lived next door to Obama or one of the other recent presidents, I would enjoy talking to him. I used to say that I imagined he would be a good neighbor. A couple of years ago, I got in trouble at a libertarian conference by saying these things.

If these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them?

But now I’m not so sure. I guess it’s still true about the good neighbor part. None of the non-Carter presidents fits the profile of a bad neighbor, if only because none of them cares very much about who waters the lawn. (Some underling will do it.) On Centre Street in San Diego, this noble disengagement would be a relief. It’s a long way, however, from qualifying someone for political power. I don’t think that Obama, Clinton, or the Bushes would start baying at the moon, or building houses for po’ folk in my back yard. But do I want to have a beer with one of these presidents? Maybe not.

True, I’d like to hear them discuss their political experiences. I wouldn’t object; I’d just listen. I’d buy a whole saloonful of beers, just to be able to do that . . . except . . . except for this vagrant thought: if these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them? Would I have thought they merited a change in my schedule?

The obvious answer is: Hell no! Are you kidding?

If Obama were a high school principal, or even a congressman, who would want to talk with him? There is nothing, nothing whatever, that is interesting about the man, except the weird political processes that elected him — on which he himself is unlikely to be an authority. Ditto Clinton — of no interest unless you’re one of those old-timey guys who liked to hang with the whores and the cops and collect their observations. The Bushes? Sorry. Life is short. As Gertrude Stein opined, “There’s no there, there.”

When, in Voltaire’s novel, Candide meets his useless monarchs, and so many of them at once, he is at first convinced that he is “witnessing a masquerade.” Then he says, “Gentlemen, this is an odd joke. Why are you all kings?”

He never gets an answer.




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The Budget Charade

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On April 10 President Obama submitted his fiscal 2014 budget to Congress. Sixty-five days late and 2,400 pages long, it calls for $3.77 trillion in spending, with a projected deficit of $744 billion. It turns off the automatic budget cuts imposed by sequestration, and thus increases federal spending by some $160 billion over fiscal 2013. Its projections assume that over $5 trillion will be added to the national debt during the next ten years.

One never quite gets used to these figures; they boggle the mind. Only 50 years ago the federal government’s annual budget was under $100 billion (about $700 billion in today’s money), and deficits were small. Then the irresponsible policies of Lyndon Johnson (guns and butter: massive domestic spending increases and a major war fought without raising taxes) and Richard Nixon (fiat money replacing gold) began America’s descent into virtual bankruptcy. Johnson opened the floodgates of deficit spending. Nixon launched the lamentable decline of the once almighty dollar.

Deficit spending and fiat money have a symbiotic relationship; they march together on the path to fiscal doom. The policies of every succeeding president have only made these problems worse. Needless to say, Congress has been equally irresponsible, whether under Democrat or Republican leadership. It is the votes of Congress, after all, that transform bad economics into law.

Only 50 years ago the federal government’s annual budget was under $100 billion (about $700 billion in today’s money), and deficits were small.

The president’s budget proposals were preceded by those of the Senate and the House. In late March the Democrat-controlled Senate passed a budget that increases taxes by almost $1 trillion over ten years, while still adding over $5 trillion to the national debt. “The only good news is that the fiscal path the Democrats laid out in their budget resolution won’t become law,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. That’s true, but on the other hand I can’t see the Congress passing a budget that will be much of an improvement over the Democrats’ plan. Certainly the Republican-led House provided nothing but faux leadership on the issue.

The Republicans in the House unveiled their budget a few days before the Senate acted. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan produced a plan based on political impossibilities. It repeals Obamacare. It turns Medicare into a voucher program. Neither of these ideas has the slightest chance of becoming law anytime soon, and Ryan knows it. Ryan’s budget reduces the top tax rate from 35 to 25%, eliminates the alternative minimum tax, and repeals the tax increases contained in Obamacare, yet assumes that revenues will remain level. It says nothing about which loopholes it will close and which deductions it will eliminate to make the revenue projection real. In other words, it is a through-and-through political document, and not a serious plan designed to bring spending and deficits under control. Even if its fantastical proposals were enacted, it would still require ten years to bring the budget into balance.

Given the Great Recession, it is practically impossible to balance the budget in ten years’ time — the risk of sending the economy into a tailspin of 1930s proportions is just too great. But no officeholder has put forward a serious proposal to balance the budget on any timetable. The one attempt to do so, flawed though it may be, is the plan offered in 2010 by the Simpson-Bowles commission. Unfortunately, the politicians, led by the president (Obama) who created the commission, have done nothing to implement its recommendations. Simpson-Bowles allows 40 years to get to a balanced budget. Yet no politician will touch it, beyond giving it mild and passing praise. The “sacrifices” it entails are apparently too great for politicians to contemplate.

In his budget Obama proposed a change in the way in which cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients are figured. This small, helpful step saves a few billion a year, but does not address the root problem, which is demographic. And while Obama claims he will cut $400 billion from Medicare over ten years, the savings are supposed to be found by cutting payments to providers, a sure recipe for reducing the number of doctors who will take Medicare patients. In any case, if this is all the Democrats are prepared to do on entitlement reform (and the left wing of the party is up in arms about even these small changes), then surely insolvency (for Medicare at least) is inevitable.

We have a spending problem. It’s a problem that cannot be resolved by simply raising taxes. Both the welfare and the warfare state require drastic reform, as does the tax code. And generational oppression — the old sucking up resources at the expense of the young — must be curbed. Yet where is the political will or wisdom to accomplish these necessary things? It is utterly lacking. What then does the future hold?

I predict that the idea of inflating our way out of debt will at some point take hold in political, academic, and media circles. Such a course would deal a death blow to the dollar, and leave wage earners, savers, and other responsible people even worse off than they are now. But it might get the politicians off the hook, at least temporarily. The pols will blame anyone and everyone but themselves for the inflation they have created, and retire on indexed pensions while the rest of us eat grass.

We seem set on this course already. In the 1980s Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker killed the inflationary dragon that had plagued the world economy for a decade and more. It has until now stayed dead; indeed, deflation is the worry of the moment. But in the wake of the Great Recession, central bankers, egged on by politicians, have been printing money like crazy. With the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England all engaged in “quantitative easing,” the return of the dragon looks inevitable at some point. A world awash in fiat money must suffer inflation eventually.

Where is the political will or wisdom to accomplish these necessary things? It is utterly lacking.

Central bankers believe that they will know when to turn off the printing presses. They envision themselves acting at just the right moment to prevent the outbreak of serious inflation. This seems about as likely as an investor timing the market correctly — that is, the chance of getting it right appears very small. The question of timing aside, turning off the presses is certain to cause a crash in the bond market and a rise in interest rates, with dire consequences not just for the arbitrageurs, but for the world economy. History provides little comfort for those who believe in the capacity of central bankers to prevent economic catastrophe. Volcker may have saved the world economy back in the early ’80s, but he stands almost alone. The behavior of central bankers today reminds one of Alan Greenspan’s abysmal performance during his last decade as Fed chairman. One may even be justified in comparing the central bankers of today to John Law.

A bargain (grand or otherwise) between Democrats and Republicans over the federal budget is unlikely to do more than put off the day of reckoning. The necessary, thoroughgoing reforms are so politically unpalatable that they will almost certainly never be enacted. The budget process in Washington is a charade. And so I ask myself, can I learn to like the taste of grass?




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The Hypocrisy of High Office

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The president’s boundless hypocrisy is always a source of wonderment to me. This is one of his most salient traits, along with narcissism, arrogance, and contempt for all who disagree with him.

His hypocrisy was apparent from the first. The moment he took office, he killed the voucher program that gave an opportunity to 2,500 poor minority children to escape the wretched school system of the District of Columbia. He did this at the very moment when he and his wife were putting their own kids in the swankiest, spendiest private school in the city.

Then there has been his endless bashing of the rich — while he and his wife were collecting millions from rich donors, many of whom got prominent roles in the administration, or taxpayer-subsidized loans and grants from it.

The latest illustrations are equally . . . rich. The first is the news that Obama, even while campaigning strenuously to limit everyone else’s gun rights, has just signed into law a bill that will give him Secret Service protection for life — that is, protection by armed guards, furnished by the government. He thus reversed a law from the 1990s that put a 10-year limit on the coverage.

Yes, even while the administration is ghoulishly exploiting dead children in its calls for an assault weapons ban, making all federal buildings “gun-free” zones, and limiting the size of bullet clips, Obama himself will be protected in perpetuity by men carrying those evil guns.

In this respect, it must be noted, Obama simply joined the ranks of other famous people who oppose guns for everybody but themselves or their bodyguards. It upsets me to do so, but I think of Rosie O’Donnell, Dianne Feinstein, Michael Bloomberg, and Michael Moore, all of whom have sought or employed armed guards or have their own conceal-carry permits, while waging war against the Second Amendment.

None of them, however, can manifest hypocrisy on such a grand scale as we have seen in the Great Obama Sequester Scare. Honestly, I cannot fathom how anybody could be silly enough to think that a 2% cut in the budget — which is slated to grow by an even greater amount than that, so that net spending by the federal government will in fact go up, but by a slightly smaller amount than planned — will cause catastrophic consequences. Yet Obama, ever the demagogue, used every scare tactic in the book to arouse opposition to the plan that he himself devised, suggesting that planes would crash, thousands (or was it millions?) of teachers would lose their jobs, billions of people would die from eating uninspected food, floods of biblical proportion would ravage the landscape, and all manner of other hysterical hoohah.

For once the Republicans called his bluff. They allowed the sequester to happen. So Obama is now cutting expenditures in ways that are clearly intended to punish both Republican politicians and all taxpayers vicious enough to support any schemes of fiscal restraint. His most daring attempt to curb expenditures (so far, at least) has been to stop White House tours — right about Spring Break time. The intent is obviously to make the vacationing little ones cry out to their parents, who will then be filled with outrage against the enemies of government spending. The savings from these omitted tours? A gargantuan $18,000 a week. For larger savings, the administration released a horde of alleged lawbreakers, formerly held for deportation proceedings. Undoubtedly, these people will report to the proper authorities, whenever requested to do so. No security problems there.

But where security really matters, the administration is careful not to cut at all. For example, Department of Homeland Security chief Janet (“Big Sister”) Napolitano announced that while the Secret Service’s budget will be cut, the president’s own security team won’t be reduced a penny. And don’t worry — there are apparently no plans to cut the White House calligraphers, who (as noted by Kimberley Strassel) collectively earn $277,000 a year. They’re worth as much as four months of White House tours — and apparently cheap at the price. Otherwise, I’m sure, they would have been laid off.

It’s too bad that the president doesn’t have more time to stay at home and watch them do their work. He has golfed more than any other president, and when he isn’t golfing (with those horrid rich people, by the way), he is usually on vacation. (I’m counting his speaking tours as vacation time, because after all, listening to his own voice is one of the president’s most valued forms of recreation.) But this stuff can get pricey. As Strassel observes, cutting the White House tours created savings equal to about two hours of Air Force One flying time.

I won’t even mention Michelle Obama’s upcoming 50th birthday bash, with Adele and Beyonce performing. That should cost about a thousand weeks of White House tours.

Faced with the necessity, the grim, unnatural, and wholly unforeseen necessity of cutting any government expenditures whatever, Obama will always do his best to make the cuts hurt the ordinary people whom he purports to champion, while maintaining his own life among the rich and special, spending freely on himself and friends.

What a guy!




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The Sequester Effect

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At this writing, the Republicans have refused to cave in on sequestration. Because half the cuts will come from defense, I thought the GOP would do almost anything to prevent the sequester from happening. But I was wrong. Whether they are operating on principle (i.e., sticking to their belief that spending must be brought under control) or simply doing what they think is politically advantageous, I couldn’t say. In either case, it may provide a lesson in political economy for all Americans.

Back in 1990, Bill Weld was elected governor of Massachusetts. Upon taking office, he instituted relatively minor cuts in social services. I can still remember the street protests and wailings from advocacy groups that the cuts would cause homelessness, starvation, and other enormities. Of course, after the cuts went through, nothing of the sort happened. People suddenly discovered that they could work at a job, or call upon relatives for assistance, or rely on private charity. It was an object lesson in how bloated and dishonest the welfare state had become since LBJ put in place the “Great Society.” Recipients and advocates of government largesse in Massachusetts had for a time persuaded a majority of their fellow citizens that welfarism was just, honorable, and necessary. But when Massachusetts ran into a fiscal wall, with deficits looming and taxes just too much of a burden, a Republican (Weld) squeaked into office and — poof! — the illusion that the state alone stood between the less well-off and a Dickensian fate burst like a soap bubble.

The sequester may prove this point again, and on a national scale. The Obama administration has been ratcheting up the hyperbole as the dread date of March 1 approaches. Beware the Kalends of March! Children will be thrown off Head Start. Small business loans may be delayed, or even (gasp!) unobtainable. National defense, on which we spend about as much money as the rest of the world combined, will be compromised when civilian employees of the Pentagon are required to take a day off per week without pay. And God alone knows what else may happen.

In fact, sequestration calls for the elimination of a little over $1.1 trillion in federal spending over a period of ten years. That’s about three cents out of every dollar in a budget that has doubled under Bush II and Obama. If the American economy can’t survive that, then the country may as well pack it in and become a province of China.

Probably the Republicans will cave later in March, as defense contractors join food stamp recipients and the long-term unemployed in bleating that the trough is no longer full. But maybe not. Maybe they’ll stand firm long enough for the public and the establishment media to realize that sequestration ain’t so bad after all.

Sequestration is a lousy way to trim the federal budget. But it’s better than business as usual. And it just might teach the citizenry that it can live with a little (or even a lot) less government.




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Mencken vs. the Mountebanks

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Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.” — Jonathan Swift

Last October, a man named Wlodzimierz Umaniec (also known as Vladimir Umaniec, which is only a bit more helpful) went to the Tate Gallery in London and wrote “Vladimir Umanets’ [sic] 12 A potential piece of yellowism" on a painting by Mark Rothko called “Black on Maroon.” “Yellowism,” an artistic movement of which Umaniec is an advocate or perhaps the founder, was summarized by another advocate in this way: “Everything is equal. Everything is art. Everything is a potential piece of yellowism.” Umaniec is now in jail.

The defaced painting is fairly typical of Rothko’s work — a set of rectangles painted in various murky colors. Its restoration is expected to cost $300,000, cheap at the price, considering the fact that last May another Rothko painting, “Orange, Red, Yellow,” sold for $87 million. As for the aesthetic value of “Black on Maroon” . . . what can I say? I am not a Philistine. Whistler’s engravings make my heart leap up. I am excited by the iconographic problems of the Portland Vase. The late works of George Inness are among my favorite things, and it doesn’t matter that other people call them weirdly abstract and incomprehensible. But yeah — to me, Rothko is nothing but a man who obsessively painted dull versions of dull geometrical forms. I can scrape up a little interest in his technique. I think I am qualified to say that he has the best technique of anyone who ever set out to paint rectangles on canvas. But that is all. I suspect that when the New York Times called “Orange, Red, Yellow” “the most powerful of all his pictures,” it was taking its adjective from the wrong world of discourse. It might just as accurately call the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel the most decorative of all Michelangelo’s paintings.

In this case, Yahoo! News (of all horrible things) was more literate than the New York Times. You may think, “That’s not saying much,” but here Yahoo! wins by a mile. Its headline about the Umaniec affair was “Man Jailed for Defacing Pricey Painting.” Pricey: that’s exactly right. Not powerful, not renowned, not legendary, but pricey. Pricey says the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Something similar happened in an article by Michael Tarm and Pete Yost, published in the Huffington Post on February 16. The subject was Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s confession that he had exploited his public office (18 years in Congress!) for personal aggrandizement. There was a paragraph about Jackson’s father:

Several messages left with Jackson's father, the voluble civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, were not returned Friday. The elder Jackson has often declined to comment about his son's health and legal woes over the past several months.

Voluble says it all.

And isn’t that the goal of all good writing? I mean, a good writer doesn’t ruminate, “I’m going to state an exaggeration or approximation or vague representation of the truth as I see it, and you can sort of try to figure out what I mean.” He or she says, “I’m going to come as close as I can to hitting the target, and you can watch what I do and enjoy the sight.” When somebody hits the bullseye, people stand up and cheer — at least people who are smart enough to be interested in the game. But it’s more than a game, when truth is the target.

Lamentably, many libertarians appear to believe that to hit the target, you have to aim at the moon, or at least bay at it.

Of course, there are hundreds of ways of missing the target completely. You can undershoot; you can also overshoot. To Colin Powell, a man without a sense of proportion or a sense of humor, someone’s reference to President Obama’s evasions of truth as “shucking and jiving” is self-evidently racist, and sufficient evidence of a dark vein of intolerance in the Republican Party (to which institution, by the way, he owes every bit of his national prominence). And Powell is far from the worst archer on the range. To ordinary conservative spokesmen, everything that this administration does is the greatest invasion of American liberty since . . . since when? Since the last time the Republicans voted to jail people for smoking weed? I’m reminded of the late Sen. Sam Ervin, the genial blowhard who ran the Senate investigation of Watergate. Ervin referred to the crisis that he (with the able assistance of President Nixon) was engineering as the greatest since the Civil War. Say that while standing in a cemetery created for the military dead of the 20th century.

I.F. Stone, another darling of the Beltway, went Ervin one farther. He is said to have been queried about what should be inscribed on a plaque that astronauts could affix to the moon. He suggested that mankind be memorialized in this way: “Their Destructive Ingenuity Knows No Limits and Their Wanton Pollution No Restraint. Let the Rest of the Universe Beware.” Some people never seem to count themselves as members of Humanity. Well, draw your own conclusions.

Lamentably, many libertarians also appear to believe that to hit the target, you have to aim at the moon, or at least bay at it. They feel that any adjective that’s applicable to Hitler should also be applied to the local zoning board. It’s true, and it’s of great interest to political theory, that many officials and disciples of our mild and beneficent government (note to Colin Powell: I’m being sarcastic) would act like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Tse-Tung if they were given a decent chance. It’s also true that many of them act like that anyway, within the sphere currently allotted them. Every judge who sends kids to jail for doing drugs, every regulator who talks about “crucifying” business people who don’t get with the program, every mad mother determined to rid our veins of demon rum is a tyrant and should be called a tyrant. But a constant barrage of abusive terms does not communicate the truth, much less calibrate it. I’ll put this simply: if you do nothing but shriek in people’s ears, they may eventually get tired of you.

Isabel Paterson, who spared none of her vast vocabulary on the sins of conservatives, modern liberals, and the occasional libertarian, identified a chronic problem in the language of cultural rebellion: people kept trying to write like H.L. Mencken, but they couldn’t do it. Mencken was a genius, but they weren’t, and the result, in their own writing, was sheer and mere abuse. If you can say anything as clever as “It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull,” or “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard,” then you are entitled to rank yourself as a follower of Mencken, without fearing that his specter will appear in your room one night, cigar in hand, and cheerfully call you a mountebank. But if you can’t be that clever, you shouldn’t try.

The side of Mencken that people don’t notice is understatement, or just plain statement. Consider his review of An American Tragedy, a novel by his friend Theodore Dreiser. Mencken spends a few hundred words summarizing the plot of this long, long novel, which is about a man of no particular interest who kills a woman of no particular interest, gets caught, and gets executed. He observes Dreiser’s “spacious manner” in the “431 pages of small type” devoted to the man’s parentage, his early career, and the “disagreeable ebb” of his affair with the woman. Then he says:

So much for Volume I: 200,000 words. In Volume II we have the murder, the arrest, the trial and the execution: 185,000 more.

Obviously, there is something wrong here.

I can think of no more devastating understatement in the history of American literature.

Only after some special examples of Dreiser’s adventures in overstatement —

The “death house” in this particular prison was one of those crass erections and maintenances of human insensibility and stupidity principally for which no one primarily was really responsible.

Quite everything of all this was being published in the papers each day.

— does Mencken start piling on, but even then most of his attack consists of incremental understatement:

What is one to say of such dreadful bilge? What is one to say of a novelist who, after a quarter of a century at his trade, still writes it? What one is to say, I feel and fear, had better be engraved on the head of a pin and thrown into the ocean: there is such a thing as critical politesse. Here I can only remark that sentences of the kind I have quoted please me very little.

Now, while we are considering how to abuse without being abusive — in other words, how to have your say without boring everyone to tears — I should mention the existence of whimsy. You don’t have to denounce people all the time; you can also play with them. Gertrude Stein is, in her imaginative productions, someone who pleases me very little, but I love her for calling Ezra Pound “a village explainer — excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” This is a million times better than her crude lack of whimsy in saying to her publisher, Bennett Cerf (who was a pretty good guy, and put up with a lot), “You’re a very nice boy but you’re rather stupid.” (He was “stupid,” you understand, because he failed to comprehend her incomprehensible creative works.) Anyone can say that kind of thing about anyone she wants to criticize; it ain’t worth nothin’.

Isabel Paterson identified a chronic problem in the language of cultural rebellion: people kept trying to write like H.L. Mencken, but they couldn’t do it.

Whimsy’s next-door neighbor is self-deprecation, which can do a lot more for your street cred than belaboring your enemies could ever do. Let’s face it, most of your enemies have never heard of you. People who heave brickbats at Obama (yes, I do too) often picture him as staggering, stunned and wounded by their trenchant, caustic words; they glory in the picture. But he doesn’t care — which is fine, because you don’t need him to care. The people you need are your readers. And if they’re going to care about what you say, you may need them to care about you. To like you. To trust you. To trust your judgment about the topics you discuss. And believe it or not, readers are more likely to trust an author who recognizes, or seems to recognize, his own limitations than an author who thinks only about those of other people. That is why President Obama’s true believers have been reduced to folks who don’t even try to follow his speeches — utterances so full of credit to himself, so intent on discrediting others. Better to say with old Walt Whitman (a cunning writer, if ever there was one, and never more cunning than he was when grounding his radical perspective in a trustworthy authorial ethos), “I am as bad as the worst, but thank God I am as good as the best.” Or to say with Mencken, “The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”

How do you get to be “as good as the best”? One way is just by showing that you’re having fun, as much fun as Whitman must have had when he made that statement. Very few people care whether An American Tragedy is good or bad; but in reviewing it, Mencken communicated to his audience the wonderful fun of making up your own mind on literary matters. I’d use the same adjective for the fun of being told, easily but persuasively, that you can make up your own mind about whether famous paintings are great, or merely pricey. The fun is suggested by the word itself, that one word: pricey. And there’s fun in everything, if you have the right word for it.

Mencken, an atheist or agnostic, loved traditional Christian hymns. So do I, so long as their words project the fun of choosing that one right word. An example: Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady’s (very loose) paraphrase of Psalm 130, “My soul with patience waits.” (Tate and Brady’s hymns were commonly sung in churches, c. 1700; this one is best with the tune “Franconia,” with which it is usually paired.) One of the stanzas goes like this:

My longing eyes look out
For thy enlivening ray,
More duly than the morning watch
To spy the dawning day.

Not a bad image: waiting for God’s guidance is like being a watchman, awaiting the dawn that will “enliven” everything. Watching, being a watchman, would be a dull enterprise, and it would make a dull image, were not “enlivening” provided to, well, enliven it. But look at “duly.” It’s not the first, or the thirtieth, adverb one would think of. Convenient substitutes are readily available: "As faithful as the morning watch," "More eager than the morning watch," "As hopeful as the morning watch." But “duly,” which would never occur to you if you were happy enough with ready and convenient terms, is the right, though unlikely, word. It brushes aside the emotional boilerplate and gets right to the fact: the watch is taken "duly" — daily, punctually, at the right and appointed time. Whatever you feel about waiting for the Lord, you keep on doing it, just as the shivering watchman does, every morning. That is how one becomes, eventually, enlivened. It’s all a matter of one or two words, but look at how interesting they make this song. And remember that it started with “patience.” Go write a poem about patience. See how far you get.

That little stanza shows a lot about writing, and reading too. Good writing doesn’t merely tell you something, or show you something, either; it interests you in figuring out how it told you and showed you so much.

Readers are more likely to trust an author who recognizes his own limitations. That is why President Obama’s true believers have been reduced to folks who don’t even try to follow his speeches.

Of course, I don’t mean “figuring out what the hell the author meant.” The need to do that is hardly an invitation to appreciate anyone’s literary skill, especially if you can’t tell whether the meaning you find is the right one or not. When politicians demand a “comprehensive solution to the immigration problem,” when unions demand “a living wage,” when parents confess that their kids “have issues,” when a criminal admits that he “may have made some wrong choices,” when “activists” chant (as they did in Washington the other day), “Forward on climate change!”, what is one to do? Subject their remarks to intensive literary investigation? As soon as you think you’ve found the secret significance of the words, the speakers interrupt your deliberations, asserting that you’ve “misinterpreted” them and should have put their words “in the proper context,” whatever that may be.

Garson Kanin, that prince of Hollywood wits, provided an easy exit from such difficulties. “When your work speaks for itself,” he said, “don't interrupt." A corollary is, “If you need to interrupt, then your work isn’t speaking very well for itself.” If your words need to be poked, probed, kicked, and threatened with fates worse than death before they wake up, shake their angry manes, and emit snarls of protest, then they aren’t proper words in proper places, and you have no style to bother with. So go away. We’ll have fun with someone else’s words. We’ll have fun writing our own.

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What Difference Did Benghazi Make?

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Remember the Benghazi attack, the one against our consulate in Libya, where terrorists murdered our ambassador and three other Americans? Vaguely? It was the debacle that we were told was caused by a silly anti-Islamic video — and led to a series of tedious hearings revealing almost nothing about the trans-attack activities of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Judging by media coverage, all that most people will remember of the hearings was the "What difference, at this point, does it make?” remark by Mrs. Clinton, in her January testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It was Clinton's indignant rejection of a line of inquiry into the State Department's initial insistence that the attack was a spontaneous response to the silly video. But it represented a political victory for Democrats. Theatric, petulant, at times tearful, always evasive, Mrs. Clinton rebuked her inquisitors while defending her role, and that of President Obama, in the handling of the attack. She deftly accepted responsibility, but not a whit of blame; and shed not a particle of light on anything that she or Mr. Obama might have done to save lives on the night of the attack. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had escaped Benghazi, now a fading tempest in a politicized Republican teapot.

Indeed, what difference did it make? Mr. Obama was reelected in November. Time, and a fawning media, have dissolved public interest in the Benghazi matter. And Mrs. Clinton's testimony was, in no small part, a valedictory for her State Department stint. She departs as one of the country's most popular political figures, and a likely candidate for president in 2016. During her 60 Minutes appearance with Obama, this popularity led her to put what she may have thought would be the final nail in the Benghazi coffin, saying of her critics, "They just will not live in an evidence-based world."

But, only a week later, on February 7, public memory was refreshed with the "evidence-based" testimony (before the Senate Armed Services Committee) of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. We would learn that their participation during the eight-hour tragedy was timid and parochial, that of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton negligent and ignoble; their escape from Benghazi was desertion.

At 5:00 pm on the afternoon of September 11, 2012, Leon Panetta and General Dempsey met with President Obama for a routine 30-minute weekly session. But on this day, Panetta and Dempsey brought news of the Benghazi attack: it had begun about 90 minutes earlier, the lives of more than 30 US citizens were at stake, and the whereabouts of Ambassador Stevens was unknown. They spent a whopping 20 minutes with Obama discussing the situation at the American embassy in Cairo and the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

It was at this brief meeting that Obama ordered Panetta and Dempsey to "do whatever we need to do to make sure they’re safe." Said Panetta, “He just left that up to us.” During the entire night, this was the only time Obama would communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. When Senator Lindsey Graham asked Panetta, "Did the president show any curiosity?", we found that Obama never called back to ask "are we helping these people?"

Sometime after the meeting, Obama placed a political call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to quell a perceived controversy over Obama's refusal to meet with Netanyahu two weeks later at the UN General Assembly. But he never called Panetta and Dempsey to make sure that Ambassador Stevens and associates in Libya — Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, and dozens of others — were OK. No situation room, no gutsy decisions; the 30-minute, 5 o'clock meeting and the one hour Netanyahu phone call are all we know of Obama's activities that evening. Panetta also testified that he did not communicate with a single person at the White House that night.

Nor did Clinton communicate with Panetta and Dempsey. Senator Ted Cruz asked them, "In between 9:42 p.m., Benghazi time, when the first attacks started, and 5:15 am, when Mr. Doherty and Mr. Woods lost their lives, what conversations did either of you have with Secretary Clinton?" The answer was that they had none.

Who would want to be in the shoes of Panetta and Dempsey? According to their testimony, they knew right away that the Benghazi attack was the work of terrorists. Yet, there they were, alone at the helm, ordered to keep Americans safe from what their commander-in-chief thought was an angry mob of protestors — a commander-in-chief who then left for the night.

The principal obstacle they faced was the time it would take for a military response. As Panetta testified, aircraft such as AC-130 gunships would have taken "at least nine to 12 hours if not more to deploy." Dempsey testified that a “boots on the ground” presence in Benghazi would have taken 13 to 15 hours. Our forces were unready. When Senator John McCain asked why, Dempsey said that General Ham, the commander of AFRICOM, had made him aware of Ambassador Stevens's repeated warnings, "but we never received a request for support from the State Department." After thus blaming the State Department, Dempsey added, "I'm not blaming the State Department."

Senator Graham asked, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" "No," Panetta responded, "because the attack ended before they could get off the ground." His thinking might have been that there was no point in sending military assets on a nine-hour trip to save the lives of four people who would be dead an hour before it arrived. But at the time Panetta and Dempsey were considering response options, there were over 30 lives at risk and no one knew the attack would end in eight hours. The assault against the consulate may have ended before help could get off the ground, but for all they knew, the assault on the CIA annex could have lasted much longer.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it without hesitation — right after the 5 o'clock meeting would have been good. Send it all — so what if it might arrive late. Ruling out political risk, what is the downside? And what if the attack lasted, say, 18 hours? Gunships could be there in nine, and “boots on the ground” in fifteen.

Panetta testified, "Despite the uncertainty at the time, however, the Department of Defense and the rest of the United States government spared no effort to save American lives." But evidently, other than the dispatch of an unarmed drone and a six-man, Tripoli-based rescue team, all effort was in fact spared.

Nothing was done to enlist the aid of the Libyan government. In a letter to President Obama, Senator Graham asked whether he had ever called a Libyan official on September 11 to expedite the deployment of US support to Libya. According to Graham, “And he said after a two-page letter from his lawyer, no." Expedited deployment would have prevented the 90-minute delay experienced by the FAST team of Marines out of Spain, a delay caused by State Department officials who required the Marines to deplane and change out of their uniforms. It could have prevented the Tripoli team from being held up at the Benghazi Airport for three and a half hours.

In this situation, how could you not send support? Send it all, and send it without hesitation — so what if it might arrive late?

The responsible officials didn't even send the air support that was promised to be above Benghazi when the rescue team arrived. Despite Dempsey’s claims that US forces were “in motion” from the beginning, he admitted that none ever attempted to reach Benghazi; no one ever ordered them to go there. Obama, Clinton, Panetta, and Dempsey could not say, with honor, that they tried anything that had a chance of helping.

We do not know what Obama and Clinton did the tragic evening of September 11, 2012. They may have gone to sleep. Panetta and Dempsey did not sleep. Perhaps the harrowing night of monitoring an attack, an attack that could not end soon enough, kept them awake. For they knew that their timidity might result in the deaths of more than 30 people, if the attack continued. And though only four would die, Panetta and Dempsey would live with their answer to the question, "Did anybody leave any base anywhere to go to the aid of the people under attack in Benghazi, Libya, before the attack ended?" — even if Senator Graham had never asked that question.

Then there was the anxiety of waiting to see whether the president would walk in. Would he be engaged and concerned, demanding a status report on what Panetta and Dempsey were doing "to make sure they’re safe"? Or would Mrs. Clinton barge in, at a point when it would have made a difference? Although the president had left it up to them, Panetta and Dempsey had not implemented a single effective military option; they had to worry that they would not be seen doing "whatever we need to do" to help. But Obama and Clinton didn't even care to call and check — not a single phone call throughout the entire, grueling attack. By the end of that dreadful night, Panetta and Dempsey might have asked, "What difference, at this point, does it make” that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton ever showed up.




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Rational vs. Irrational in the Gun Debate

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A month after the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama launched his campaign to reverse the supposed increase in mass gun violence. With families of the victims in the audience, he ladled out a thick emotional stew of divisive rhetoric and straw man arguments. The empathetic Obama exuded sadness, anguish, frustration, contempt — but no sense of shame about his exploitation of the four prepubescent gun-control advocates who shared his stage. They were four among the reputedly numerous children who wrote touching pleas to the president.

A morsel from one read, "I am writing you to ask you to STOP gun violence. I am very sad about the children who lost their lives in Conn." Asnippet from another, read pensively by Mr. Obama, as if it were the deepest passage of Platonic philosophy, queried, "Can we stop using guns?" To the instruction "try very hard to make guns not allowed," the president promised he would.

That the sentiments of children could have such a provocative effect on politicians should inspire other budding activists. Can we look forward to national policies sanctioned exclusively by heartfelt gems from the children of global warmers and environmentalists? Think of the legislative outpouring as Obama passionately recites, "Please Mr. President, heal the planet"; "I am very sad about the children without Chevy Volts"; "Try very hard to make fossil fuels not allowed." Perhaps a juvenile letter-writing campaign lamenting the Benghazi and Fast and Furious fiascos would get to the bottom of them. Such a tactic could backfire, though. What if children from groups that are out of political favor engaged in similar campaigns: "I am writing you to ask you to STOP mommy from aborting my brothers and sisters." Would the president be forced to take action on that front?

The number of mass shootings is extremely small and stable, averaging only 20 instances and about 100 deaths annually for the past three decades.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), naturally one of the first organizations affected by Obama's diminutive pawns, swiftly voiced its support, saying, “The Academy agrees with the President that to prevent future incidence like the shooting in Newtown there must be stronger gun laws, comprehensive access to mental health care, and no restrictions on federal gun violence research and prevention efforts. . . . Pediatricians stand ready to assist." The AAP was heartened by the prospect of reducing gun violence, and by the prospect of receiving scads of that research money. “No restrictions!” Obama's effusive pleas will beckon many others to stand ready with the AAP — at the government trough.

But, as the funding flows to assuage Obama's mass gun violence crisis, legitimate researchers will readily discover that, well, there is no crisis. The number of mass shootings (those that involve four or more deaths, including that of the gunman) is extremely small and stable, averaging only 20 instances (about 100 deaths) annually for the past three decades. By comparison, there are approximately 30,000 firearm related deaths per year. About two thirds of these are suicides; one third (11,000) are homicides. About 9,000 homicides are committed with handguns. Only about 48 deaths per year are attributed to “assault weapons”; this number includes accidental shootings and homicides that are not mass murders. To me, hammers and cudgels, which kill over twelve times as many people (618 mercilessly pummeled and battered to death in 2011 alone) are much more troubling than assault weapons.

According to crime experts, mass murderers are impossible to stop. In an article called “Top 10 myths about mass shootings, “James Alan Fox points out that "mass murderers typically plan their assaults for days, weeks, or months. They are deliberate in preparing their missions and determined to follow through, no matter what impediments are placed in their path." The vast majority (96.5%) are male. Most have neither a criminal record nor a history of psychiatric hospitalization. In the absence of that, they would not be disqualified from purchasing weapons legally — not that disqualification would preclude the acquisition of weapons by alternative means.

Furthermore, the handgun, not the assault rifle, is the weapon of choice. And, since mass murderers usually kill themselves (or have police do the honors), little is known beyond a few common telltale signs, such as: they have few friends, high self-esteem, and a tendency to blame others for their misfortunes. No wonder President Obama is averse to profiling.

As a first step in dissolving his imagined crisis, the president vilified his imagined opponent: a coalition of evil pundits, politicians, and special interest groups (the NRA and other anti-children organizations) that seek only to "gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves." Relying exclusively on emotion (that wonderful evolutionary class of traits that allow humans to take immediate action without thinking), Obama resorted to the irresistible, and what progressives believe to be unassailable, "if it saves one life" argument. Intellectually lazy, shameless in his exploitation of dead children, he beseeched, “If there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.”

One of the things that could be done is the prosecution of dangerous people (convicted felons and other prohibited persons) who attempt to purchase guns. To his mournful audience, the president said that if we "keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, there would be fewer atrocities like the one in Connecticut." He should call Eric Holder. In 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available, only 77 of 71,000 such cases (0.1%) were prosecuted.

The abysmal enforcement of existing gun laws is the real, and much larger, “crisis.” In the face of this, proposing a package of 23 new laws is moronic. And, as lawmakers scramble to our rescue, the most popular nostrum under consideration, the "Universal Background Check," may be the most moronic of all.

Calling it a legislative "sweet spot," Senator Chuck Schumer tells us that it "is the best chance of getting something done." The problem is that criminals are smarter than Schumer. They (drug dealers, gang members, convicted felons, terrorists, etc.) won't subject themselves to enhanced checks, even at gun shows. Anticipating disqualification, they will simply obtain their guns elsewhere and, no doubt to the surprise of Obama and Schumer et alia, probably by illegal means — and at lower prices, when they simply steal the guns from people who purchased them legally. Why not?

Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens, who presumably would pass the enhanced check, will experience enhanced delays and fees, and the scorn of a national gun tracking registry. Gun control proponents mock Second Amendment supporters as paranoid about the use of such a database to facilitate an ultimate gun confiscation. But precedents for confiscation (Canada, Great Britain, Australia, California, and New York City) make their fears seem less irrational. Owners of so-called assault weapons are similarly mocked, as crazed and, apparently, clumsy killers using AR-15's with 100-round drums to mow down herds of deer. Banning such weapons, it is said, will not reduce hunters' rights, but will reduce mass murders — apparently, in direct proportion to the number of mass murderers who, in their lengthy, deliberate preparation, wouldn't think to bring along extra handguns and ammo clips to complete their missions.

Without once mentioning the glaring, abysmal failure of our immense law enforcement system to enforce 9,000 existing federal gun laws, President Obama proposed 23 more.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, leader of the assault weapon ban movement, indignantly asserts, "These weapons are not for hunting deer — they're for hunting people." And there is little doubt that looters and other criminals will have such weapons, since such people show up in the aftermath of riots, hurricanes, and other disasters, long before the government gets there. Sen. Feinstein's indignation notwithstanding, there will be little support among thinking people for an assault-weapon ban that forces gun owners to greet them with seven-shot handguns and deer rifles — judging, at least, by the current demand for assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines, which has caused almost every gun shop and distributor in the country to be sold out.

Any serious attempt to reduce gun violence must focus on the 11,000 firearm related homicides committed each year, or at least the proportion of them committed by violent criminals. Exploiting children to drum up hysteria over mass murderers who kill 100 people annually is not serious. Nor is ridiculing “assault weapon” owners as ignorant and morally deficient individuals whose adherence to the Second Amendment threatens the safety of our children. As heinous as mass murders are, and whether assault weapons are involved or not, there is almost nothing that can be done to stop dedicated mass murderers. They are America's suicide bombers.

Unfortunately, rational policies are now blurred by the tears of emotion, tears that are being shamelessly used to advance an agenda that is a moral and political charade. In 2008, President-elect Obama shed no tears when 512 people were murdered in Chicago — his hometown where, as a community organizer, he supposedly worked closely with the very people being slaughtered. In 2012, President Obama remained tearless, when 516 were killed and Chicago ended the year as America's murder capital. Yet Mr. Obama brought himself to shed a tear for the 26 killed by an assault weapon in Newton, Connecticut. Then, pandering to fears he helped create, he immediately began a relentless attack on assault weapons, gun owners, the NRA, and politicians (that is, politicians who have the misfortune to disagree with him). He implored us to ask congressional leaders "why an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby is more important than keeping kids safe in a first grade classroom.” And without once mentioning the glaring, abysmal failure of our immense law enforcement system to enforce 9,000 existing federal gun laws, he proposed 23 more.

If more gun laws would reduce gun violence, then cities like Chicago would be safe. Obama, Schumer, Feinstein, and their many surrogates and supporters could announce, with pious tears of joy, "We saved the children." But Chicago, which has the toughest gun laws (in effect, all guns, even handguns, are banned), is among the least safe. Its citizens, restricted by gun laws, are prey to its criminals, unrestricted by law enforcement.

Outrage over “gun violence” should be directed at the law enforcement community, which blatantly shirks its duty. Conscientious and resolute enforcement of existing gun laws against violent criminals would significantly shrink the 11,000 annual firearms-related homicides.Instead, we must endure incessant outrage over assault weapons and mass murder (100 victims annually, some children, some killed with assault weapons).

This is feigned outrage. It is the wagging tail of an enormous untamed dog. It is immoral. And who but morons would think that 9,023 laws will work, when 9,000 didn't.




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The Anatomy of Drivel

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“How long does this drivel go on?”

That’s what Edward Everett Horton, impersonating an angel, says about the romantic conversation between Robert Montgomery and Evelyn Keyes that he is forced to overhear in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). It’s a good way of letting at least half the audience know that the moviemakers share their feelings, and won’t let the drivel go on much longer.

During the past year, as I dutifully followed the linguistic adventures of my fellow Americans, that line kept coming back to me: “How long does this drivel go on?” Unfortunately, no angels appeared to keep the story moving. The drivel never stopped.

“Drivel” isn’t a random term of abuse. It is almost scientifically accurate. A dictionary defines it as “(1) saliva flowing from the mouth, or mucus from the nose; slaver; (2) childish, silly, or meaningless talk or thinking; nonsense; twaddle.” Drivel is language that flows out naturally, no matter how ugly and stupid it is. The difference between verbal drivel and biological drivel is that people usually wipe the second kind off; the first kind they publish to the world, without a hint of self-criticism — and sometimes with more than a hint of pride.

If Jackson had any sense, wouldn’t she know that “make a difference” includes the possibility of “make things worse”?

We saw this in the president’s second inaugural speech. What can you say about “affirm the promise of our democracy,” “bridge the meaning of [old] words with the realities of our time,” “never-ending journey,” “America's possibilities are limitless,” “the love we commit to one another must be equal,” and “awesome joy”? That’s all drivel. Drivel on stilts, perhaps — although “awesome” is nothing more than surfer babble — but drivel nonetheless.

Now what can you say about EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who resigned her post, saying that she was leaving for "new challenges, time with my family, and new opportunities to make a difference"? You can say:

  1. It appears that she was fired. If she wasn’t fired, and she left for new challenges and opportunities, why wouldn’t she give us even a hint about what they were?
  2. Whether she was or wasn’t fired, shouldn’t she know that officials who claim they are quitting to spend time with their families have been the butt of jokes for the past 20 years?
  3. If she had any sense, wouldn’t she know that “make a difference” includes the possibility of “make things worse”?

Clearly, these thoughts, though obvious, are too much to expect from high-placed government officials. Jackson’s statement was drivel, pure drivel.

But drivel isn’t confined to government. What can you say about an ad for a concert that promises “a legendary night of music”? Many such pre-legendary ads appeared during 2012 — and this despite the fact that Americans already possessed, by their own account, the largest legendary in the world. By 2012, every celebrity, past celebrity, and would-be celebrity whom anybody could remember (admittedly, American historical thought has its limits) had been proclaimed a “legend.” Every second banana from a ’60s sitcom had become Hercules or Hiawatha, or at least Elvis Presley. That was bad enough. But to treat a one-night show, a show that hadn’t even occurred, as if it were a living legend in its own time — that’s drivel. As I write, news arrives of John Travolta’s receiving an award at the 10th Annual Living Legends of Aviation festivities in Beverly Hills, California. Congratulations, John! I’m sure you deserve every bit of it.

Anyone who uses such terms is either a fool or a political swindler.

More drivel — but perhaps not really important drivel. More serious is the drivel that is used to “argue” for political positions and public expenditures. Notice: I’m not referring to wrong ideas — that’s a whole ’nother category. I’m referring to childish, silly, or meaningless talk. One example is the sounds we hear about “the environment.”

First there was “global warming.” This “warming” may or may not be happening; if it’s happening, it may or may not be bad; and if it’s bad, it may or may not be caused by human beings. I suspect that it isn’t happening, and if it is, it isn’t caused by us. But whether I’m right or wrong, “global warming” isn’t exactly drivel. It means something. Something vague and maybe silly, but you can still detect a meaning.

“Warming,” however, wasn’t the end of the line. Far from it. Its successor was “climate change.” Whether this phrase originated as drivel is a subject for debate. It didn’t flow spontaneously out of somebody’s mouth or nose; it originated as a conscious cover-up of perceived flaws in the “warming” theory. You may not be able to show that the whole planet is heating up, but you know that climate is always changing, locally, in one way or another. But whatever its origin, the phrase itself is drivel. It is “meaningless talk,” in the sense that the words have no specific meaning. They are used as a synonym for “global warming, with bad effects, caused by man,” but that is a long, long way from “climate change,” which could just as easily signify “temporary changes in the weather of Boston, with good effects, and attributable to the sunspot cycle.”

One interesting thing about “climate change,” which is used to imply the necessity of resisting change, is that it is a platitudinous reversal of other platitudes. I refer to those nasty stews of syllables that authority figures start dishing up whenever they decide to do something you don’t like. “Life is change,” they tell us; “change is a constant,” “we all [i.e., you all] must adapt to change,” et cetera. But whether it’s feel-good drivel or feel-bad drivel, pro-change drivel or anti-change drivel, it’s drivel, that’s for sure. You can bet that anyone who uses such terms is either a fool or a political swindler. “We have always understood that when times change, so must we” (Barack Obama, second inaugural address). Question: How is it that our understanding is “always” the same, despite the fact that “times” are always changing? Has there never been a “change” that convinced us not to change?

But to return. During 2012, we witnessed the third float in the grand parade of environmental claptrap. Just as “global warming” once engendered “climate change,” so “climate change” now engendered “sustainability.” The word had appeared long before 2012, of course, and for all I know it once possessed a meaning. In 2012, however, it started flowing from every public orifice, on every possible occasion; and its meaning, if any, could no longer be established. Yet billions were expended in its name. Buildings became sustainable. Foods became sustainable. Septic tanks became sustainable. Any absence of plastic qualified for admission to the Sustainability Hall of Fame. Energy itself became sustainable — or was denounced as wicked, abominable, and subject to outlawry.

I can see, in a way, why fossil fuels might be regarded as nonsustainable. Someday, under some circumstances, those fossils may run out. I’m sorry to say, however, that by this standard our lives are much less sustainable than fossil fuels. In one hundred years, we will all be dead, unless we die even sooner, perhaps from attempting to eat only sustainable foods. Yet enormous resources of coal and oil will still exist. They will long survive us. Depressing, isn’t it?

But you see the true idiocy of “sustainability” when you notice that wood products have become “nonsustainable.” Wood products. Now, what is more sustainable, renewable, all those things, than trees? Trees, unlike coal or oil, grow back. And they grow back right away, unless you spend a lot of money keeping them off the property. Thinking in this way, however, is not ultimately sustainable.

It’s true that children are often exploited for emotional effect, but when else have you seen children’s funerals exploited in this way?

Are you still with me? I think you are. Now will you follow me into the world of “gun control” (that is, abolition of all guns not owned by government)? This, I believe, was the number 1 source of drivel during 2012, and in December of that year this drivel nearly drowned the nation.

By December 17, three days after what it called the “unthinkable massacre” at Newtown, Connecticut, USA Today was already proclaiming in a banner headline: “Gun Debate at Tipping Point.” In case the people who were allegedly “tipping” the debate didn’t know which way to tip it, the paper told them, in a subtitle: “Newtown Victims’ Age May Be Key.” “Victims’ age”: cool! That will whip up the mob. Meanwhile, “may” will establish journalistic fairness.

Next day, the big headline was “Calls for Change; NRA Mum.” We know that change is good, unless it’s climate change; but “mum” is such an old, oldword, so that must be bad. Above the headline: a picture of “young mourners” going to “the funeral of their friend”; above that, a headline reading, “Tiny Coffin Rendered Me Speechless.’” Do you detect a political bias here?

Would that USA Today had rendered itself speechless. It’s true that children are often exploited for emotional effect, but when else have you seen children’s funerals exploited in this way? When an airplane crashes, when a schoolbus goes off the road, when 500 people, many of them children, are murdered in Chicago in a single year, do tiny coffins appear above a banner headline? No, they don’t; because there is no political purpose for the exploitation. And in the absence of a design to manipulate, normal manners, normal standards of respect prevail, even in the media.

But for USA Today (and many other media outlets) normal standards aren’t moral enough. The paper was morally disappointed, morally frustrated, morally aggrieved, morally enraged that four whole days after the Newtown maniac used his gun, guns had still not been outlawed. Perversely, the debate refused to tip. Clearly, more talking points had to be provided. And they were. The banner headline on December 19 read: “Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Sandy Hook . . . Names Only Hint at Mass Killing Crisis. One Every Two Weeks.”

This isn’t pure and refined drivel — it’s still too calculated — but it’s an outline for drivel. It’s the passage from which drivel is supposed to flow. “Mass Killing Crisis?” Might this be a crisis even larger than the “crisis of obesity” — another gift of 2012? But “Mass Killing Crisis” isn’t just another hysterical politicization of a chronic human problem. Falsehoods about dead people aren’t the same as falsehoods about the overuse of French fries. They’re a hundred times more disgusting. In this case, they’re also more flagrant. Anybody who stopped to think would realize that if “mass killings” took place that often, they wouldn’t be news. But that’s not the point; it was never the point. The anti-gun propaganda wasn’t news; it was intellectual, or at least verbal, marching orders for people who never stop to think or realize.

The stuff provided almost irresistible. One knew, as surely as one knows that someone at an open-casket funeral will have to say “Doesn’t he look natural?”, that the emerging “debate” would involve a constant outflow of the question, “If it could save only one life, wouldn’t you be for gun control?” This is literal nonsense. More than one life would be saved by banning red meat, chocolates, staircases, swimming pools, snow shovels, films about sex, and automobiles of any kind. Yet this was the mighty question insistently posed by the egregious David Gregory in his famous interview with Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association. Gregory ordered LaPierre to answer the question, answer the question, just answer my question: if it could save only one life, wouldn’t you be for gun control? To his shame, LaPierre didn’t mention the fact that the question was drivel. Nobody ever does. But every thinking person should.

When I watch Fox News, regarded by the White House and my academic friends as an outlet for insane rightwing propaganda, I am startled by its ability to emit the same drivel as the modern liberal outlets If it weren’t for John Stossel and Greg Gutfeld, Fox would be in serious intellectual trouble. Here’s Karl Rove, commenting about the Newtown disaster on Fox News’ “Special Report” (Christmas Eve): “This is a horrific event. It has torn at the soul of America, that so many innocent lives were snuffed out.”

Public and effusive “mourning” is the pastime of politicians, newsmongers, and sadists, who have no real feelings about death at all.

Define “torn at.” Define “soul of America.” One would think that Nazis had invaded the country. I don’t demand that Rove say the simple truth, which is that many, many innocent lives are snuffed out every day, and that every innocent death merits mourning and reflection. And I certainly don’t demand that Rove, or anyone else on TV, say the more complicated truth, that whether we should or not, we ordinarily do not care about deaths that do not personally involve us; that the deaths at Newtown are truly mourned only by some extraordinarily empathic people; that public and effusive “mourning” is the pastime of politicians, newsmongers, and sadists, who have no real feelings about death at all; and that if these “mourners” were sincere, they would give the murders of the 500 people in Chicago (median family income $52,000) at least as much thought as the 26 victims at the school in Newtown, Connecticut (median family income $120,000).

As I say, no one should be required to enunciate these truths. But why go out of your way to avoid them? Why insist on discussing “the soul of America”? This sort of thing is drivel. Actually, it is worse than drivel. It is false and indecent.

It is false because it wantonly denies the essential terms of human life, which include the fact that some people become unbalanced and as a result do horrible things. In 1927, in the insignificant community of Bath, Michigan, a man burdened with some grievance, or set of grievances, or Satanic inspiration, or whatever, laboriously planted explosives under his home, his farm buildings, and the local school. When he had planted enough of them, he murdered his wife, blew up his house and farm (he had hobbled his horses to make sure they would be burned to death), and, by means of timed explosives, blew up the school. After that, grinning, he drove his truck to the ruins of the school, observed the behavior of the anguished crowd, called the school superintendent over to the truck, shot into it, and detonated the explosives he had put inside. He and the superintendent were killed. A total of 42 other people were killed, and 58 were injured. Most of the victims were young children.

A horrible, sickening event. But it did not tear at the soul of the nation. To say so would be drivel. As long as human beings are human beings, some of them will find ways to do such things. To be startled about this fact is false and futile.

But indecent — why?

It is one thing to assert that you have feelings when you do not have them; it is another to exploit the deaths of innocent people in order to advance some argument of your own, or (as in the case of Mr. Rove) to avert the arguments of other people.

What do I mean by “exploit”? Good question. If I believe that my fellow citizens should surrender their guns, because guns sometimes kill innocent people, and these deaths can be prevented by laws, there is surely nothing immoral about stating how many innocent people are killed by guns in a given year. And it is not exploitation to emphasize any new gun deaths that are reported. Exploitation happens when deaths occur and you are willing to say anything, no matter how ridiculous, to display your supposed regret and sympathy, your “thoughts and prayers,” and make other people look hardhearted if they refuse to follow suit.

Is it possible that such exploitation is engineered without pleasure and satisfaction? “Aha! More corpses! Now they will listen.” No, it is not possible.

This, I hold, is indecency — the behavior of moral vultures, hovering over the countryside, waiting for deaths on the highway. Vultures, I hear, are often seen to drivel.




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