July 4, 2015

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As we approached the Fourth of July weekend, I found myself in a pessimistic mood, and cursing myself for my pessimism. But I learned to enjoy it.

Of course, the mood itself isn’t hard to explain. Probably you feel it too. The presidential campaign has produced candidates ranging from the dismal to the palpably evil. The Supreme Court, in its Obamacare decisions, has reached new depths of sophistry. The current president is one of the worst in history, and would be still worse if not for his fecklessness. Virtually all members of Congress appear to have abandoned, or never to have entertained, the idea that there could be any just or even natural limits to their power to decide things for other people.

So are there grounds for pessimism? Yes, plenty. Yet pessimism per se is always suspect. Pure pessimism deters any form of action. Yeats was thinking in this way when he wrote his poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a meditation on the violent end of a relatively sane, modern, and progressive world, in the catastrophe of the Great War. The poem embodies a critique of optimists and their complacency:

Come let us mock at the good
That fancied goodness might be gay,
And sick of solitude
Might proclaim a holiday:
Wind shrieked — and where are they?

Yet in the next stanza Yeats turns with greater disgust to the pessimists and cynics:

Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.

I thought of Yeats’ poem, and then I thought of the pessimism — the vigorous and mordant pessimism — of the tenth Federalist paper, where Madison discovers the foundation of constitutional government not in optimistic feelings about the people’s wisdom but in an awareness of their vanity and stupidity:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.. . .

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

As you know, Madison’s argument is that in a government with many organs continually checking one another, the contest between various kinds of wickedness and stupidity will prevent the ruin of the whole.

No one ever expected this to work perfectly, or to work all the time. It’s working pretty badly now, although it’s working well enough for me to write this reflection, and for you to read it — and that’s something. That’s a lot; and if you don’t think so, you can make the comparison with about 150 other countries. This business of distrusting human nature can produce a lot of limited government, and a lot of liberty, too.

Are there grounds for pessimism? Yes, plenty. Yet pessimism per se is always suspect.

I’m sorry to say that we libertarians often see just one side of the matter. Chronic pessimists forecast the imminent destruction of freedom and its pleasant companion, material well-being. Chronic optimists insist that if people were only free from the trammels of the state, all would be well, forgetting that the state results, in very large part, from people’s inherent desire “to vex and oppress each other.”

So this may be a time when optimism and pessimism can show due regard for one another, and for all to appreciate the clear-eyed pessimism about ourselves on which any polity dedicated to the optimistic idea of liberty depends. In this peculiar sense, I agree with old Stephen Decatur, and with the reviser of his famous statement, Carl Schurz, in saying: “My country, right or wrong.” I say this because my country, the United States, was founded on the right and true idea that its people will usually, jointly and severally, be in the wrong.




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Discovering the New American Dream

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Much has been written recently about the death of the American Dream. The collapse of the real estate market in 2008, followed by a worrisome three-year recession, a struggling job market, and the rising cost of college tuition have caused many to wonder: is the American Dream still alive? Can it be restored? Should it be laid to rest?

James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in 1931 when he wrote,

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone. . . . It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (The Epic of America)

For over a century the American Dream was characterized as having a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, two cars in the garage, 2.5 children in the house, a faithful dog in the yard — and a chicken in every pot. The twin equalizers of democracy and laissez faire promised social mobility, financial security, judicial equality, and prosperity through hard work. Next door to that house in the suburbs lived the Joneses, and keeping up with them was part of the dream too. Bolstering the dream was “an underlying belief that hard work pays off and that the next generation will have a better life than the previous generation” (Ari Shapiro, NPR).

Today’s dreamer, however, keeps the dog on the bed, not in the yard, and children are likely to be delayed into the mid-30s, if they come at all. Bicycles stand next to the hybrid or electric car in the garage, and the house is controlled remotely by smart phones. The chicken in that pot must be free-range, antibiotic-free, and served with locally grown vegetables.

The average student leaves college saddled with more than $30,000 in student loans. Debt is a prison they dream of escaping.

Unlike the Joneses next door, the new dreamers are less materialistic and more likely to be getting rid of stuff than accumulating it. Bigger is no longer considered better, and tiny houses are the latest fad. The new dreamers eschew self-interest and care about connectedness and global awareness. Buzzwords like “sustainability,” “social responsibility,” and “green” drive their dream. They want to live in downtown urban areas and prefer apartments or multi-family dwellings where they can share amenities and reduce their carbon footprint. Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech, says, “this generation is more interested in the amenities of the city itself: great public spaces, walkability, diverse people and activities with which they can participate.”

But even this smaller, more earth-friendly dream seems remote to many. The new dreamer no longer believes that hard work: necessarily pays off and worries that, for the first time in our history, the next generation will not be better off than its parents. In fact, according to columnist Adam Levin, being debt-free is a key factor in the new American Dream. According to his study, only 18.2% of Americans today see homeownership as part of the American dream, while 27.9% cite having enough money to retire at 65 as their goal and 23% of young people today simply dream of being debt-free. This is not surprising, when the average student leaves college saddled with more than $30,000 in student loans. Debt is a prison they dream of escaping.

Contrary to media pundits and government analysts who push the idea that consumer spending drives the economy; any move toward saving and fiscal responsibility is good for the economy, and thus good for the American Dream. In fact, the Bureau of Economic Analysis recently acknowledged the distortion of focusing so much on consumer spending and recently began issuing GO (gross output) statistics that include the production sectors of the economy.

Meanwhile, welfare and unemployment are dragging down the American dream. Not only is welfare expensive in terms of how much transfer payments cost, but also in how much is lost from the lack of productivity from those who aren’t working and contributing to the economy. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 made progress toward ending lifelong welfare, but today, 35.4% of Americans are living on welfare of some sort, according to the Census Bureau. This nightmare has to be changed if the dream is to stay alive.

Throughout the 20th century, home ownership was encouraged as a way to stabilize and improve communities, because people who own their homes are more likely to stay put, take care of their property, get involved in local politics, and remain employed. Millennials, however, avoid home ownership for those very reasons. They don’t want to “stay put” but value spontaneity, mobility, and the freedom to accept unexpected opportunities without having to worry about selling a house. Home ownership has, in fact, been declining since 2004. In a survey conducted last year, only 61% said they would buy a house if they had to move (New York Times, Feb. 8, 2015). In the words of Thoreau, “our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them” (Walden).

Today’s dreamer keeps the dog on the bed, not in the yard, and children are likely to be delayed into the mid-30s, if they come at all.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that today’s generation is lazy, however. Most work hard, but they work, or want to work, at doing things they love. Many are turning from corporate America to entrepreneurial America and rely more on developing a horizontal social network than on climbing a vertical corporate ladder. And, while it is fashionable to hate capitalism, many are capitalists by default, creating businesses and often working from home. The new American sells advertising to support blogspots and engages in crowd-funding campaigns to raise capital for projects.

In short, the New American Dream is more about finding happiness and sustaining the planet than about achieving financial prosperity — although we are happy to accept prosperity if it finds its way to our door. Personal satisfaction is more important than keeping up with the Joneses, and making time for oneself — to work out at the gym, go to a concert, read a book, post a blog, or create a work of art — is more important than putting in overtime at the office.

Is the American Dream alive? It is, but it’s changed. And it isn’t just for Americans ant more. What’s your dream? And how are you making it come true?




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It’s Smart, It’s Exciting, It’s Fun

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The specific details of a superhero movie plot seldom really matter; all we usually need to know is that an evil superpower, sporting a foreign accent, is out to destroy the world as we know it, and it is up to the superhero not only to protect the community from destruction but also to preserve our way of life. Dozens of superheroes have been created in comic-book land, and all of them have been sharing time on the silver screen for the past decade or more, with half a dozen of their adventures released this year alone. So far audiences are flocking to theaters with the same enthusiasm that kept our grandfathers heading to the local cinema every Saturday afternoon to see the latest installment of Buck Rogers.

These films tend to reflect the fears and values of whatever may be the current culture, which is one of the reasons for their lasting popularity. We see our worst fears in the threats posed by the enemies, and our hopes and fears in the characters of the heroes. But lately those heroes have been somewhat reluctant and unsure of their roles as heroes, and the people they have sworn to protect have been less trusting and appreciative — they complain about collateral damage and even question the heroes’ loyalty. In an era of relativism and situational ethics, a full-on hero with overwhelming power seems hard to support.

The Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions.

This month it’s Captain America’s turn to save the day. Created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941, Captain America (alter ego: Steve Rogers) is a WWII fighter pilot who is transformed from a 5’4” wimp to a 6’2” muscle man through a scientific experiment intended to create an army of super warriors. He ends up being cryogenically frozen and is thawed out in modern times. Part of his appeal is his guileless naiveté, especially as he reacts to modern technology and mores. He uses his virtually indestructible shield to fight for truth, justice, and the American way (okay, that’s the other superhero, but their morals are virtually the same). I like Captain America’s shield — it signifies that his stance is defensive, not aggressive.

As The Winter Soldier opens, nothing is going right for the Avenger team led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Captain America (Chris Evans). Police, government agencies, and even agents of SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, the organization that oversees and deploys the superheroes) are attacking them and treating them as national enemies. The Captain and former Russian spy Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow, have become Public Enemies number 1 and 2, but they don’t know why. They spend the rest of the movie trying to clear their names and save the world, without any help from the government they have sworn to uphold.

While the specific plot isn’t particularly important in these movies, motivation usually is. Why do the characters do what they do? Meaningful dialogue inserted between the action scenes reveals the values of both good guys and bad guys, and away we go, rooting for the guy who is going to save us once again.

I’m happy to report that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, lives up to its potential. As a libertarian, I can agree with most of the values it projects. First, politicians, government agencies, and the military industrial complex are the untrustworthy bad guys in this film, and for once there isn’t an evil businessperson or industrialist in sight. Additionally, the Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions. For example, The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) aka Sam Wilson, tells Steve about his buddy being shot down in the war, and then says, “I had a real hard time finding a reason for being over there after that.” Captain America admits, “I want to do what’s right, but I’m not sure what that is anymore.” Like Montag in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, he is ready to think for himself and determine his own morality. (Compare that philosophy to Peter Parker [Spider-Man] being told by his wise Uncle Ben that responsibility is more important than individual choice in Spider-Man 2, followed by Uncle Ben’s death when Peter chooses “selfishness” over responsibility.)

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State (Robert Redford — yes, Robert Redford! He said his grandchildren like the franchise, so he wanted to do the film for them) says cynically of a particular problem, “It’s nothing some earmarks can’t fix.”

The mastermind behind the assault on freedom (I won’t tell you who it is, except that it’s someone involved in government) justifies his destructive plan by saying, “To build a better world sometimes means tearing down the old one” and opining that “humanity cannot be trusted with its own freedom. If you take it from them, they will resist, so they have be given a reason to give it up willingly.” Another one adds, “Humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom for security,” echoing Ben Franklin’s warning. These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course. Such tactics are as old as Machiavelli. Yet nothing could feel more current. I’m happy to see young audiences eating this up.

Captain America first appeared on film in 1944, at the height of WWII. He has never been as popular as Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. A made-for-TV movie aired in 1979, and a dismal version (with a 3.2 rating) was made in 1990. However, the latest incarnation, with Chris Evans as the wimp-turned-military powerhouse, has been highly successful, with three films released in the past four years: two self-titled films (Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, and this one) as well as one ensemble outing (The Avengers, 2012).

These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course.

One of the things I like about the Avengers is that they aren’t born with innate super powers à la Superman or X-Men; for the most part their powers come from innovation, technology, and physical training. They’re gritty and real, and they bruise and bleed. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo were determined to make this movie as real as possible too, so they returned to live action stunts whenever they could instead of relying on CGI and green screen projection. Yes, they use stunt doubles when necessary, but, as Anthony Mackie (the Falcon) reported in praise of the Russos, “if they could build it [a set piece], they built it. If we [the actors] could do it [a difficult maneuver], we did it. . . . That’s why the movie looks so great.” Many of the action scenes are beautifully choreographed and often look more like dancing than fighting, especially when Captain America’s shield is ricocheting between him and a gigantic fighter plane.

Of course, the film has its share of corniness too. When you’re a hero named Captain America, you’re expected to be a rah-rah, apple-pie American, and Captain America is. He even drives a Chevy, the all-American car. So does Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who brags about his SUV with a straight face as though it’s a high-end luxury vehicle. In fact, all the SHIELD operatives drive Chevys, as do many of the ordinary commuters on the street. That’s because another concept that’s as American as apple pie is advertising. Product placement permeates the film, but most of the time it’s subtly and artfully done. Captain America wears an Under Armour t-shirt (which is pretty ironic when you think about it — under armor beneath a super-hero uniform), and the Falcon, whose superpower is a set of mechanized wings that let him fly, sports a small and subtle Nike swoosh on his after-hours attire. (Nike — the winged goddess, get it?)

Captain America is a hit, and for all the right reasons. The dialogue is intelligent, the humor is ironic, the action sequences are exciting, and the heroes are fighting for individual freedom. It even contains a theme of redemption. And for once, the bad guys aren’t businessmen. Ya gotta love it.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Sony Pictures, 2014, 136 minutes.




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Apple Pie, Puppy Dogs, and Sunshine

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Those promoting a political idea usually sell it to the public by portraying it as pure wonderfulness. “We want apple pie, puppy dogs, and sunshine for everybody!” And really, who wouldn’t want that?

I thought that by now I would have finished with the recently-failed Arizona SB 1062 “religious freedom” bill — the subject of my previous essay in Liberty. But the reaction my opinion has received, from several people I know, makes me realize I’ve only scratched the surface of a deeper problem, one that is, in the long run, far more interesting. To those of us who love to watch political theater for the sheer entertainment of it all, the phenomenon is fascinating indeed.

As the state held its breath to see if the governor would sign or veto SB 1062, I sat in an ice cream parlor with some friends. Inevitably, the subject came up, and I gave my take on it. Across the table from me, my friend John underwent an amazing transformation. For a moment, I thought he was going to turn into the Incredible Hulk.

Leaning into his whipped cream, his eyes bulging and forehead arteries popping, he said, “It’s about religious freedom, okay?!”

Apple pie, puppy dogs, sunshine, and religious freedom for everybody. Okay? But where does this leave people who know there’s a poison pill inside that candy shell?

Issues are framed this way, by those who promote them, so that anyone who opposes them looks like the baseborn child of Snidely Whiplash and Tokyo Rose. I like John very much, so I didn’t want to leave him with that impression. “I don’t think the bill would really do what it’s claimed to be trying to do,” I said. And then I told him why.

We are not an unfeeling nation. We do a powerful lot of feeling. But that we do precious little thinking has become painfully obvious.

Three or four people — out of all the millions in this country — filed silly lawsuits against merchants who refused, “for religious reasons,” not to serve them. We would never accept the notion that because of what three or four heterosexuals did, all of them should be judged guilty. But that is exactly what was done here. And it is done to gays and other minorities all the time, and for no other reason, apparently, than because it can be.

How does that serve liberty? How is it possible, on such a basis, even to make an intelligent or responsible decision about legislation — which is itself government intrusion, no matter how attractively it’s packaged — that affects the lives of millions? Appeals to wield the club of government this way are nearly always made on the basis of raw emotion. A free people who would remain free would be wise to pause, breathe, and think about the issue in the light of fact.

John responded to my opinion not with reason but emotion. He may have thought he was giving me a reason — “religious freedom” — but I was not questioning whether that is a good thing. I was challenging whether religious freedom would best be served by the bill proposed. I thought the measure taken was too extreme to be warranted by the incidents that provoked it, which might better be addressed in other ways. And I thought that its passage would bring consequences not only unintended but undesirable.

As I suggested in my previous piece on the subject, we could reform the civil court system to discourage frivolous lawsuits. If we absolutely could not resist passing yet another law protecting religious freedom, we could include a clause requiring merchants who would refuse to serve certain patrons to post their policy publicly. Far better, we could sidestep government coercion altogether and encourage those who proudly serve all customers without bias to participate in a plan to publicize this. In Arizona, for example, businesses can take the Unity Pledge. As those wishing to refuse same-sex couples’ business for religious reasons have no justification for hiding their light under a bushel, it’s difficult to see why they would want to keep their convictions a secret.

Other people with whom I have discussed this legislation have responded the same way John did. Motivated by passion, they want to act on passion. On cue, everybody — feel, feel, feel!

I might suggest that we are not an unfeeling nation. We do a powerful lot of feeling. But that we do precious little thinking has become painfully obvious.

Majorities tend, all too often, to resort to brute force. They do it simply because they are the majority, so they can get away with it. This is behavior conducive not to liberty but to license. Those who worship the power of the state seem unable to distinguish between the two. Those who believe in liberty — if we would keep that liberty — would be wise to make the distinction.




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The Babble about “Gun Violence”

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When I was driving to work the other day, the only thing on the radio was a discussion of the latest crazy-high-school-student shooting. Two “newscasters” with, apparently, no news to cast were babbling about how terrified parents “across the nation” must feel about learning that someone, somewhere had used a gun in one of America’s 100,000 public schools. Of course, the babblers didn’t make the common-sense observation that such terrified parents need to calm down, the better to notice what their own kids are doing and think about whether some of them might need some mental help.

The thing that struck me most was the lead babbler’s constantly repeated query, “Why are Americans so violent?” If this query prompts you to ask, “So violent, compared with whom?”, he had an answer. Compared with the Europeans. “When you talk to Europeans, they all wonder why Americans are so violent, when in Europe, they don’t have this violence at all.” Presumably, murdering hundreds of millions of your fellow Europeans, until the Americans come in and teach you better manners, doesn’t count as “violence.” Presumably, soccer riots don’t count as violence. Presumably, the Europeans’ until-1989 addiction to the institutionalized violence of communism doesn’t count as violence.

But there was another example. “I’ve talked to Pakistanis who ask why America is such a violent country.” Oh you have, have you? Isn’t Pakistan one of those countries that has trouble turning terrorists away? And the Pakistanis think we’re violent.

In fact, the murder rate in the United States (4.7 per 100,000 population) is very far beneath the world murder rate (6.9), beneath the murder rate of a number of countries in Europe, beneath the murder rate of dear old Pakistan (7.8), and beneath the murder rate of scores of other countries and “countries” — virtually none of which, so far as I know, are habitually or even occasionally criticized for their violent dispositions. But as usual, America loses the game of cultural comparison, the function of which is never to make any society look bad except ours.

Here is Wikipedia on the recent execution of the uncle of the current dictator of North Korea:

On 12 December 2013 state media announced he had been executed, claiming that "despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him." The 2700 word statement detailing the accusations also included other charges such as placing a granite monument carved with the supreme leader's words "in a shaded corner," "let[ting] the decadent capitalist lifestyle find its way to our society by distributing all sorts of pornographic pictures among his confidants," and "half-heartedly clapping, touching off towering resentment of our service personnel and people" when one of Kim Jong-Un's promotions was announced.

Reading this kind of thing, almost everybody laughs and says something equivalent to “there they go again.” That’s just how the North Koreans are, isn’t it? The high-class babblers then take to their computers to consider whether such events increase or decrease the possibility that North Korea will attack its neighbors with nuclear bombs, or simply continue starving its own people. There is no analysis of why the North Koreans are so violent, any more than there is any analysis of why the Pakistanis, the Mexicans (23.7 murder rate), the Hondurans (91.6), or any other people are violent — not to mention the South Africans (31.8), among whom even a man accused of helping to burn two other men to death with a necklace of burning tires can rise to the exalted position of fake sign-language interpreter at the funeral of the national hero. But there is always plenty of analysis of what is psychologically, socially, and spiritually wrong with “American exceptionalism,” the idea that the United States is in some way better than other countries. America is allowed to be exceptional in only one way — its amazing level of “violence.”




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The Faith of Our Fathers

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Damsel in Distress

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The Obama Movie

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2016: Obama's America has been filling theaters and surpassing box office expectations across the country — no mean feat for a documentary. The film is based on the book The Roots of Obama's Rage by Dinesh D’Souza, an Indian immigrant and popular conservative spokesperson who also co-wrote, co-directed, narrated, and executive-produced the film. It provides a well-reasoned, well-researched exploration of the philosophical underpinnings that motivate Barack Obama.

D'Souza begins with a simple premise, which is emblazoned across his posters and promotional material: "Love him. Hate him. You don't know him." He then takes viewers on an investigative journey across four continents to discover what makes Obama tick, concluding that the ticking we hear could very well be a time bomb set to explode the minute he is reelected. As Obama told Premier Medvedev in an infamous open-mic incident, "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility." Well, flexibility to do what? That is the question D'Souza tries to answer. What is Obama's ultimate goal for America?

According to D'Souza, Obama is motivated first and foremost by intense anticolonialism inherited from his parents, grandparents, and academic mentors. D'Souza understands this anticolonialism. He grew up with it in India, where his grandfather's mistrust of British colonialists included mistrust of whites in general. He could not understand why young Dinesh wanted to go to college in America, where there were "so many whites."

In some respects this film is the biography of an intellectual immigrant, written by an actual immigrant. D'Souza begins the film by telling his own story: raised in relative poverty in Mumbai, he came to the United States as a teenager to attend Dartmouth College. When he was barely 20 he was offered a job in the Reagan White House, not unlike the young Obama being elected to the Senate. Both Obama and D’Souza are passionate speakers. Both ended up as presidents — Obama as the president of the United States, D'Souza as the president of The King's College in Manhattan. D'Souza and Obama were born in the same year, graduated from Ivy League colleges in the same year, and married in the same year. Both spent their childhoods in third-world Asian countries. Yet ideologically they are polar opposites.

This background is important because it shows that D'Souza is specially, perhaps uniquely qualified to understand Obama's history. It also demonstrates that one is not controlled by one's environment; we all have choices. Obama himself said, "My destiny wasn’t given to me; it was constructed by me."

Obama, of course, was born and schooled in Hawaii, the 50th state in the union. (D'Souza dismisses the birther argument without even addressing it, noting simply that Obama's birth was reported in two local newspapers.) But Obama’s Hawaii is an island state, far from the mainland, where anticolonialist sentiment is strong among ideologists, such as the people who brought him up. He has the background of an immigrant, having lived in Jakarta as a child and among Hawaiian anticolonialists as a teenager. He arrived on the mainland at the same age as D’Souza, with the mindset of a non-American, and perhaps something more.

D'Souza takes viewers on an investigative journey across four continents to discover what makes Obama tick, concluding that the ticking we hear could very well be a time bomb set to explode the minute he is reelected.

Obama spent his childhood in Jakarta, not America, and was nurtured by a mother who was decidedly anti-American. It was almost laughable to hear Kathleen Sebelius claim Obama as a Kansan during her speech at the Democratic National Convention. His mother may have been born there, but she was certainly not in Kansas anymore when Barry was being brought up. Obama titled his biography Dreams from My Father, but it was his mother who taught him those dreams; Obama met his father only once, when he was 10 years old. Most people don’t realize that.

Of course, in many ways an absent father is more powerful than a father who comes home from work every day. The absent father is never seen making a mistake, losing his temper, drinking too much, or disciplining his child. He can be whatever the child dreams him to be. D’Souza asks, “What is Obama’s dream? Is it the American Dream? Martin Luther King’s Dream? Or another dream?" To answer that question, he focuses on the preposition in the title of Obama's book: dreams from, not of, the father. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Obama seems to have adopted the dreams and aspirations that were his father’s. These include an African anticolonialism that led to a rabid anticapitalist, anti-American mentality. Although, by his own admission, he hides it well behind a carefully crafted, winning smile, Obama embraces his father’s third-world collectivism, a collectivism he learned at his mother's knee.

In addition, Obama had a series of philosophical fathers. In his education years he met a stream of radical mentors. These included Frank Marshall Davis in Hawaii, Edward Said at Columbia, Roberto Unger at Harvard, and Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright in Chicago — all self-proclaimed radical leftists. Unger recently complained that Obama has not been progressive enough! It was Obama’s campaign strategy to distance himself from these mentors (although the distance from Wright had to be forced on him by publicity). Yet their influence, D’Souza suggests, is already deeply embedded in his philosophy. And Obama’s obscured friends and influences are likely to come out of obscurity during a second term, when he no longer has to worry about reelection.

One of Obama's goals is to "level the playing field" by disarming the United States and other Western nations. Yes, it would be great if all the countries in the world agreed to destroy their weapons. Weapons have a way of being used eventually. But America seems to be the only country that is actually following through with Obama's idea of reducing defense (!) missiles from 5,000 to 1,500 to an eventual goal of hundreds.

Meanwhile, right under our noses, Obama has been cagily stockpiling his own "weapon of mass destruction." This weapon is the burgeoning mountain of debt that has accrued during his presidency and about which he seems to care absolutely nothing at all. D'Souza suggests that the unprecedented increase in the national debt has been a deliberate tactic, designed to destroy America's position as a leader of the world. "We will collapse into bankruptcy, and our creditors will have the upper hand," he concludes, adding prophetically, "Nothing shapes the future like the debts of the past."

The tone of this film is neither shrill nor bombastic nor even particularly emotional. It doesn't make wild accusations or offer unfounded rumors. In fact, it uses Obama’s own words in his own voice to tell Obama’s own story. (To make money, Obama produced a self-narrated audio version of Dreams from My Father.) This gives the film an unexpected voice of authenticity, a voice that cannot be denied, even by those who love and admire Obama, because it is his voice. The film is all the more frightening and convincing because of its calm and reasoned approach.

It is, simply, one of the most powerful and important films of the year. It may not win any Oscars, but it may just win an election. Congratulations are due to Dinesh D'Souza for this courageous documentary — as well as my own thanks for letting us premier it at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival this July.


Editor's Note: Review of "2016: Obama's America," directed by Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan. Obama's America Foundation, 2012, 89 minutes.



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Wage War on Dependence

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Recently, I heard a school administrator promoting the importance of making all of the parents at our schools aware of the existence of government programs for the homeless. “Lots of people don’t even know that they qualify for these programs.” she enthused. “If they are living with family members and not paying rent, they can qualify as homeless!”

What would that do for them, I wondered?

According to the website of the Oregon Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP), its “re-housing program” can provide these kinds of services to the "homeless":

Re-housing programs work with people who are already homeless to help them quickly move into rental housing. Re-housing programs can provide housing location, financial assistance including security deposits, rent assistance and payment of arrearages and case management. Both homeless prevention and rapid re-housing programs coordinate with other community resources to ensure that participants are linked to ongoing assistance, such as housing vouchers, intensive case management, or assertive community treatment.

So if a family (in this community often a new immigrant family) is managing their finances by living with relatives until they can get on their feet, government agencies can arrange to give them financial assistance in the form of security deposits to rent a place they otherwise couldn't afford to rent, and participate in a program of government “rent assistance” or “housing vouchers.” The person recommending this seems to think it would be a good thing to move someone into a situation where he was dependent on government for a place to live. Implied, but not stated, is the assumption that it is kind of stupid to prefer to take care of yourself when you can get something for free instead.

Connected to that assumption is the proposition that any well-meaning person, such as a teacher or school administrator, has an obligation to convince stiff-necked individuals that their pride is hurting their children, and they really should accept the government’s largesse. This assumes, however, that one’s quality of life is measured simply by the dollar amount of the things one receives, without regard to how one obtained them.

Implied, but not stated, is the assumption that it is kind of stupid to prefer to take care of yourself when you can get something for free instead.

Not so many decades ago it was commonly understood that there was something demeaning about being on "the dole.” People did not want to accept charity if they could make their own way in life. There were the pejorative terms “kept woman” and worse still, “kept man,” meaning a person who did not have a job but was supported by a sex partner. Many of the social programs we have today were sold with difficulty to an American public for whom public assistance and dependency carried a stigma.

According to Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, Social Security was presented not as a needs-based program of charity in which today’s workers pay for the benefits of today’s elderly, but as “a system of social insurance under which workers (and their employers) contribute a part of their earnings in order to provide protection for themselves and their families if certain events occur. As a result of this 'earned benefit' status, collection of Social Security benefits has never carried the stigma associated with food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, or other welfare programs.”

That has been the pattern with a number of “entitlement” programs. Instead of being needs-based charities, which show one’s dependence, programs such as Medicare and Social Security are made for everyone. Therefore there is no stigma and everyone should be happy to receive benefits from the government. Of course, the effect is that these programs have ballooned in size and are currently unsustainable. (Odd that sustainable houses and buildings are all the rage, but sustainable social programs, not so much.) We have a huge financial burden looming ahead of us as these entitlement programs become ever more costly as more of us baby-boomers retire and expect to collect benefits. Because there is no stigma associated with these programs, we all intend to capitalize on them.

Here lies the problem — and also the solution to the problem. Instead of a War on Poverty, we should have a War on Dependence. All our social programs should have as their goal helping people become independent of government assistance. They would still require considerable effort and would still employ many social workers for years to come, but the war could be won! We could get to the point where everyone had a way to support himself.

How would that look different from today’s social programs?

For one thing, we’d begin by applauding all those who already take care of themselves. We would hold them up and give them recognition. We would put them on talk shows and news programs to tell their story of how they manage in life without government assistance. They would become our role models. We would applaud and appreciate the fact that they do not need to collect on the various social programs to which they are “entitled.”

For example, people over 65 who were working at a job or who could afford their own medical insurance would be honored for their ability to be independent of Medicare. Right now of course, you virtually have to take it, because no one will insure you at age 65 unless you collect all the Medicare benefits you can. So right now we are forcing dependency — but the War on Dependence would change that.

We should encourage everyone to avoid having to depend on Social Security as well. Anyone over 65 who doesn’t need to collect “benefits” from the payroll tax in order to survive in old age would be a hero in everyone’s eyes. If people keep working, that would be super, because they can be independent thereby. If people save enough to retire with dignity, that would be even better, because they would be permanently independent. What’s more, their children would be well on their way to permanent financial independence, when they inherited the principal of their parents' retirement fund. As part of the War on Dependence, social workers would help younger people set up various retirement savings plans. Each person who had a workable retirement savings plan could stand tall in the knowledge that he would not become dependent on Social Security.

All our social programs should have as their goal helping people become independent of government assistance.

One of the sad byproducts of the endless and hopeless War on Poverty is that self-sufficiency is no longer valued as it once was. Someone is considered a fool to turn down government benefits if he can “qualify” for them. What’s more, someone who gets a first-rung-on-the-career-ladder-job at a low wage still feels bad about himself. Instead of being proud of being independent, he sees that he is still in relative poverty, and that is what’s bad. People who are supporting themselves, no matter how meager their circumstances, should be encourage to take pride in not being dependent. We should make self-sufficiency the goal, the prize, the honor.

Social workers could help farmers who accept government subsidies find ways to become self-sufficient so they can be respected for making an “honest living” without help. Businesses that sold products abroad without help from the government would be recognized and patronized. Similarly, industries that did not ask for protectionist tariffs imposed by the government, but could stand on their own, would be new American heroes. Students who found a college they could afford without government help would be seen as more resourceful and valuable future employees. Colleges that keep themselves in business without whining for more government money would be seen as more competent than those that couldn’t manage on their own. This turn of events might even drive down the cost of college. Primary and secondary schools that focus on helping their graduates prepare for the real world would also be recognized and respected; the ability of their graduates to avoid dependence would be the final measure of the schools' own worth.

Success would no longer be a nebulous and ill-defined chimera, but would be identified as the ability to support oneself and one’s family. Families that took care of their own (whether the young or the elderly) without government assistance would be honored. People with disabilities would be helped to develop as much independence as possible, and honored for every bit they could obtain — instead of scorned for their efforts to contribute to their own support.

Industries that did not ask for protectionist tariffs imposed by the government, but could stand on their own, would be new American heroes.

Oddly, poverty could, in a sense, be eliminated overnight by simply writing checks of the proper amount to all the poor. It would help if all our programs of assistance were rolled into one program, so we could keep track of how much we were giving to each person. We might find that we had already eliminated poverty — that the cash value of all the various forms of assistance we provide to the needy would total enough to give them an income over the poverty line. But few people really believe, deep in their hearts, that mere dollars will eliminate the problems of the poor.

Independence is the solution — and we need to return to the habit of valuing it. There is still truth in the old proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” That means focusing our efforts on reducing dependence instead of fostering it. A War on Dependence would be infinitely better than the old, unwinnable War on Poverty.




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Arctic Warming

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The Arctic region is beginning to get hot — but not for anything having to do with “global warming.” No, international tensions are increasing, because of the increasing international demand for fossil fuels.

As Alan Dowd of the Fraser Institute notes in a recent piece, the Arctic is attracting rapidly growing geostrategic attention.

The place is amazingly rich in fossil fuels. The US Geological Survey puts total Arctic oil reserves at 90 billion barrels of oil, or about 13% of estimated undiscovered reserves worldwide, and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or about 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas.

Those are just the conventionally available fuels. God alone knows how much unconventional fossil fuel energy (shale oil and gas, methane hydrates, and so on) lies beneath that frigid sea.

These resources are becoming more and more commercially attractive, for several reasons. First, the Green Regime in Washington has worked to strangle our own domestic production, hoping to shift America to dependence on so-called green energy (wind, solar, and biofuels). Second, Middle East production is increasingly expensive. Finally, as formerly poor countries such as India and China become ever more industrialized, their consumption of fossil fuels is growing. The Energy Information Agency projects a 20% increased in world oil usage over the next 18 years.

This is leading inexorably to friction among nations that have claims in the Arctic: the United States, Canada, Russia, and Norway (together, to a lesser extent, with Sweden and Finland). And it is no surprise the form that this increasing tension is taking: Russia, under the Putin Regime, is pushing to control the lion’s share of the region’s energy wealth.

Russia’s intentions are easy to read from its actions. A 2007 Russian expedition planted the Russian flag on the North Pole. Its leader boasted, “The Arctic is ours!” A year later, a Russian general said that his country was planning to train troops to engage in combat in the region, noting cheekily that “wars these days are won and lost before they are launched.” A year after that, Russia announced that it was opening a string of bases along its northern tier. And last year, it announced plans to deploy 10,000 troops in the region to “defend its Arctic claims.”

And there has been a dramatic increase in Russian bomber interceptions by Canadian and American fighters (up from eight between 1999 and 2006 to 45 between 2007 and 2010). All this is evidence that Putin wasn’t joking when he recently said, “Russia intends without a doubt to expand its presence in the Arctic. We are open to dialogue, but naturally, the defense of our geopolitical interests will be hard and consistent.”

In reaction, both the Bush and the Obama administrations have reaffirmed our national security interests in the region. The US keeps 20,000 troops in Alaska and is conducting “Northern Edge” exercises meant to train our forces in defending the Arctic and keeping the waterways open.

Canada is also concerned. It is constructing new military bases in its Northern Territories and is training troops. The Canadian military has conducted joint exercises with the American and Danish military. A few years ago, Norway conducted Arctic maneuvers with 12 other nations, as did Sweden on its own a year later. Now Finland, Norway, and Sweden together are developing a “Nordic security partnership.” And Denmark is beefing up its military forces in Greenland (its legal territory). The pacifist nations appear to be uniting over this matter.

Such happy high jinks! Notice that these countries aren’t fighting over solar panels, wind turbines, or switchgrass farms. No, they’re fighting over fossil fuels. But, then, people don’t argue over what has no value.

The place is amazingly rich in fossil fuels. The US Geological Survey puts total Arctic oil reserves at 90 billion barrels of oil, or about 13% of estimated undiscovered reserves worldwide, and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or about 30% of the world




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