Unfinished Business

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Back in the mid-1990s, Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind chronicled the struggles of a poor, black honor student named Cedric Jennings as the latter aspired to get out of an inner-city high school and into a top-notch university. Suskind’s pieces garnered him a Pulitzer Prize and led to a book-length treatment of his subject, A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League (Broadway Books, 1998, 372 pages).

Cedric, a junior at Washington DC’s Frank W. Ballou Senior High School, has to suffer the slings and arrows of a student body that largely takes a dim view of academic achievement. Part of a small group of accelerated science and math students, he dreams of being accepted into MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program, offered the summer before his senior year. Anywhere from one-third to one-half of those successfully completing the program go on to matriculate at MIT, and Cedric has his heart set on being one of them and majoring in mathematics.

The young man who wanted to major in mathematics at MIT and make mathematics a career instead bailed out of mathematics altogether with just a minor at Brown. Why?

Although he makes it into the MITES program, he quickly finds himself outclassed: most of the black students are middle-class, hailing from academically superior suburban high schools and having much higher SATs. Decidedly at a disadvantage, he nonetheless manages to complete the program. But during a meeting with academic advisor Leon Trilling, he is told that his chances of getting into MIT aren’t that good. Particularly telling are his SAT scores, 380 verbal and 530 math, for a combined total of 910 out of a possible 1600. Professor Trilling suggests that he apply instead to the University of Maryland and Howard University, even giving him the names of particular professors to contact. The distraught Cedric will have none of it though, even going so far as to accuse Trilling of being a racist.

If he can’t get into MIT, he’ll prove the critics wrong by getting into an Ivy League school. Pulling his SATs up to 960 from 910, he applies to Brown University because it has an impressive applied mathematics department. He’s accepted, and Suskind chronicles the trials and tribulations of his freshman year. The book came out during Cedric’s junior year, Suskind commenting in the Epilogue, “His major, meanwhile, is in applied math, a concentration that deals with the tangible applications of theorems, the type of high-utility area with which he has always been most comfortable” (364).

Thus concludes the summary of the book published 17 years ago. As the years went by, I wondered how Cedric had fared during the remainder of his Brown experience and after graduation. Every now and then I came across some tidbit of information. Although I was expecting to find him putting his major in applied mathematics to work in that field, I discovered instead that he had gone back to school, earning a master’s in education at Harvard and a master’s in social work at the University of Michigan; he had been involved in social work and then had gone on to become a director of government youth programs. Nothing particularly unusual about that, though; lots of folks get graduate degrees in fields other than their undergraduate major and end up veering off onto other career paths.

But I discovered that a revised and updated edition of A Hope in the Unseen had come out back in 2005, and I was surprised to come across this statement in the Afterword describing Cedric’s graduation from Brown: “Then Cedric proceeded, arm in arm with Zayd, Nicole, and a many-hued host of others, to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in education, a minor in applied math, and a 3.3 grade point average” (377). Suskind casually lets slip that Cedric didn’t end up with a major in applied mathematics after all! That he only minored in that field means he didn’t have to take the final upper-level courses required for a major.

Suskind had also made Leon Trilling out to be some kind of Prince of Darkness thwarting the Journey of the Hero, and this is a most ungenerous characterization.

Although the book does have Cedric contemplating a second major in education along with his original major in applied mathematics, doubling up in that way just didn’t make much sense. As with his MITES experience, he found himself outclassed at Brown, having to compete with students from academically superior suburban schools, students with SATs hundreds of points higher than his own. He had trouble with some of his freshman courses, even his specialty, having to drop a course in discrete mathematics. Would it not have been more prudent, under those circumstances, simply to focus on one’s original major and on required courses without having to worry about the additional academic load of a new, second major? And if one did take on a second major and then had to scale back on the total number of courses taken, would it not have made more sense to scale back on the second major, getting a minor in that field instead, while going on with the original major? Something just wasn’t adding up here.

Although Brown had been unaware that Cedric was the subject of a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal when he was admitted under Brown’s affirmative action program, the college most certainly would have found out in short order, and it would have been in its best interest that this particular admit not get in over his head. Education is a much “safer” major than applied mathematics, and it is a popular major with many African Americans.

Cedric believed that getting into a top-notch university was a reward of sorts for all that he had to put up with through high school: “I could never dream about, like going to UDC or Howard, or Maryland or wherever . . . It just wouldn’t be worth what I’ve been through” (49). But it appears he may have had to strike a bargain in order to achieve that end. The young man who wanted to major in mathematics at MIT and make mathematics a career instead bailed out of mathematics altogether with just a minor. Why was the motivation behind such a tantalizing shift of academic focus not duly chronicled by Suskind in the Afterword to the revised and updated edition? He offers no explanation whatsoever for Cedric’s stopping short of a full major in applied mathematics, furtively sneaking the fact by as if hoping the reader wouldn’t notice.

Had Cedric gone to Maryland (or Howard) instead, would he have gone on to realize his STEM aspirations?

Suskind had also made Leon Trilling out to be some kind of Prince of Darkness thwarting the Journey of the Hero, and this is a most ungenerous characterization. In 1995, the mean math SAT score of entering freshmen at MIT was 756 out of a possible 800; Cedric’s score was 530. Dr. Trilling was absolutely correct to wonder whether Cedric was a good fit for MIT at the time. Trilling’s advice to Cedric to apply to the University of Maryland and Howard University was based on the fact that those schools were involved in a project with MIT called the Engineering Coalition of Schools for Excellence in Education and Leadership (ECSEL), a program aimed at underrepresented minorities in the field of engineering. Had Cedric been accepted by either of those schools and majored in engineering, he could have had another shot at MIT as a transfer student if his grades had been good enough and if he had been able to boost his SATs. Trilling was actually trying to keep Cedric’s STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) aspirations alive. Even if Cedric still fell short of getting into MIT, he could have gone on to get an engineering degree from Maryland or Howard and contribute to a STEM field in which blacks are woefully underrepresented relative to such fields as education and social work.

During the drafting of this review, I discussed its content with a friend who urged me to check out chapter three of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Allen Lane, 2013, 305 pages). That chapter was titled, “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in science.” Caroline Sacks — a pseudonym — is a straight-A “science girl” all the way up through high school in Washington, DC. Applying to Brown University as first choice, with the University of Maryland as her backup choice, she’s accepted by both and of course chooses Brown. But she has to drop freshman chemistry at Brown and take it over again as a sophomore. Then she has trouble with organic chemistry, finally having to leave her STEM track altogether and switch to another major. She achieves an Ivy League degree from Brown, but at the expense of her passion for science. Had she gone to Maryland instead, she believes, she’d still be in science. Had Cedric gone to Maryland (or Howard) instead, would he have gone on to realize his STEM aspirations?

A Hope in the Unseen has become widely assigned classroom reading, even spawning a number of accompanying classroom study guides. Although it is indeed an inspiring story, it’s simply not all that it’s cracked up to be. Legions of readers have assumed as a matter of course that Cedric proved the naysayers wrong by earning a major in applied mathematics at Brown when his dream of earning a major in mathematics at MIT was derailed by his low SATs. In reality, Cedric had to leave applied mathematics at Brown — and had he instead been admitted to MIT and attempted a major in mathematics there, he probably would have had to leave much earlier, perhaps even having to forgo the consolation prize of a minor.

Although many consider Cedric’s experience at Brown an affirmative action success story, his experience actually highlights the problems inherent in affirmative action policies that lower academic standards for minorities.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League," by Ron Suskind. Revised and updated edition. Broadway Books, 2005, 390 pages.



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Pulp

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When I was in grade school, a neighbor had an unfinished basement room, all studs and drywall, filled with paperback science fiction books and magazines. I was given free rein to browse and borrow. It was a treasure trove.

Among the things I read was the 1951 short story, The Marching Morons, by Cyril M. Kornbluth. It takes place in a distant future where, because of adverse genetic selection, the average IQ has fallen to 45.

A detail of the story that has stayed with me was the marketing of cars in that imaginary distant future. The cars weren’t very fast or powerful, so they were fitted out with electronic sound effects that made them sound like rolling thunder.

Here's the short story.

Reading the Washington Post the other day, I stumbled upon this:

For the 2015 Mustang EcoBoost, Ford sound engineers and developers worked on an “Active Noise Control” system that amplifies the engine’s purr through the car speakers . . .

Ford said in a statement that the vintage V-8 engine boom “has long been considered the mating call of Mustang,” but added that the newly processed pony-car sound is “athletic and youthful,” “a more refined growl” with “a low-frequency sense of powerfulness.”

Here's the link to the piece.

Welcome to the future.




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Right-to-Work Nation?

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The mainstream media has more or less ignored some interesting news out of Wisconsin. It is that the governor, the unflappable Scott Walker, has signed into law a right-to-work bill that covers private sector unions.

This makes Wisconsin the 25th state in the country to adopt right-to-work legislation, that is, legislation that stops any union from forcing workers to support it.

Wisconsin’s action is notable for a variety of reasons. First, it is a traditionally blue state. Second, it is an upper-Midwest industrial state. Third, it has a history of heavy unionization — about one-fifth higher than the national average (8.2%, compared to 6.7%). Back in the mid-1980s, over 20% of Wisconsin private sector workers were in unions.

Also, like Michigan, Wisconsin passed the bill even though its governor was initially reluctant to support it. Walker had originally called it a “distraction,” but after the state senate majority leader pushed the billed through the legislature, Walker quickly signed it into law.

The law did not have bipartisan support. In the state assembly, all 35 Democrats voted against it while all 62 Republicans voted for it. In the senate, 14 Democrats (joined by one turncoat Republican) voted against it, while the remaining 17 Republicans voted for it.

The vitriol reached its peak when a union supporter threatened to gut Walker’s wife “like a deer.”

Proponents of Big Labor hegemony were predictably outraged at Walker’s signing the bill. One union supporter lamented, “It’s going to take 25 to 40 years to correct problems Scott Walker’s done in 4 ½ years.” Phil Neuefeldt, head of Wisconsin’s AFL-CIO, threatened, “We’re not going to forget about it.” And of course our unifying President Barack Obama had to chime in, calling the Wisconsin law “a sustained, coordinated assault in unions, led by powerful interests and their allies in government.”

As if Obama’s whole tenure weren’t a result of the machinations of powerful interests — not least of which is Big Labor.

But then, Walker has made a career of facing down unions. In his first term, he pushed through restrictions on public employee unions’ collective bargaining powers, forced public employees to contribute more to their pension and health care benefits, and gave government employees the right to opt out of the obligation to pay dues to the public employee unions.

These modest reforms appear to have saved local governments in Wisconsin $3 billion in taxpayer dollars and kept property taxes from rising while keeping the number of teachers from being cut. But the teachers’ unions are singing the blues: the National Education Association saw its Wisconsin membership drop from 100,000 to 66,000, the American Federation of Teachers (representing the college teachers) saw a drop of 50%, and the state employees union dropped from 70,000 to 21,000.

For all this, Walker faced near-riotous demonstrations and a recall election, with Big Labor money flowing in from across the nation, to remove him. The public employee unions even tried to remove a Wisconsin state Supreme Court judge who had upheld Walker’s earlier law.

The vitriol reached its peak when a union supporter threatened to gut Walker’s wife “like a deer.” I am always moved by the boundless compassion offered by progressive liberals.

The rhetoric of the Walker-haters aroused by the current law — which, please note, merely gives private-sector workers the freedom given to public sector workers, years ago — has been amazing. But what is to come will almost surely be worse. GOP legislators are now indicating that they will take on Wisconsin’s nearly century-old “prevailing wage law,” which forces governments to pay union-dictated wages on all public works projects.

In the end, what is driving the push for worker freedom is popular opinion, supported by unarguable logic. One recent poll put public support for the right of workers not to support a union at 62%. And the reasons have been the same for decades. First, unions force workers to support candidates and causes they abhor. Second, unions often destroy the businesses that employ the workers. Third, unions violate the human right of free association.

With the action in Wisconsin, half the states in the union now give liberty to workers to belong or refuse to belong to unions. In many of the remaining states, such as California, the stranglehold of Big Labor is too strong to break. Yet there is hope. Should Scott Walker ever become president, with a Congress controlled by Republicans, it is possible that a federal right-to-work law would be enacted.

Should that ever happen, there would be a cry of freedom from American workers that would rock the gates of Heaven itself.

And it could happen.




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The Battle of the Resumes

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Maureen Dowd’s new column about Hillary Clinton convinces me that I am not the only one who smells something peculiarly sick and rotten in presidential politics.

On one side, we have Hillary Clinton, who presents a resume for high office with these major bullet points:

  1. Partnership in a radically dysfunctional marriage with a discredited former president, specializing in cheating and sleazing.
  2. Female gender.
  3. A long string of jobs — partner in a provincial law firm, power behind a throne, United States senator, secretary of state — which she survived, innocent of credit for any specific accomplishment.
  4. Proven ability to cadge money from Near Eastern religious fanatics, one-dimensional feminists, crony capitalists, and other people with hands out for favors.
  5. Proven ability, acquired from her husband (see 1, above), to operate (with the help of 4, above) a political mafia.
  6. Proven ability to tell nothing but lies.
  7. Proven ability to deliver any desired quantity of self-righteous statements about other people’s duties.

On the opposite side, we have John Ellis (“Jeb”) Bush, whose resume emphasizes these points:

  1. Membership in a family that includes two abjectly unsuccessful presidents.
  2. Modest success as governor of Florida.
  3. Proven ability to cadge money from “moderate” (i.e., non) Republicans and crony capitalists devoted to cheap labor, open immigration, and votes for Dems.
  4. Proven ability to lose votes from anyone to the right of Anderson Cooper.
  5. Proven ability to look stupid on any public occasion.
  6. Proven ability to deliver any desired quantity of self-righteous statements about other people’s duties.

It’s remarkable that everyone who has any knowledge of politics has read these resumes, understands them, and talks about them as if they were plastic disks in a checkers game.

Well, almost everyone. Dowd, for all her leftist craziness, is a respectable person.

But let’s see . . . Who has the longer resume? Jeb or Hillary?

It’s Hillary! She wins!

Can it be that in today’s America, or any other country, this is how things happen?




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Having Fun with Hillary

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There were a lot of laughs in Mrs. Clinton’s press conference on Tuesday.

I enjoyed her holding the conference at the United Nations, as if that would increase Americans’ respect for her. I enjoyed her starting the conference by accusing 47 Republican senators of consorting with America’s foreign enemies. I enjoyed her taut, contemptuous grin. I enjoyed hearing an average of three or four “uhs” per sentence, surpassing even President Obama’s remarkable off-script performances. I enjoyed the first questioner, a gentleman from Turkey, who was recognized to ask the bold and challenging question, Do you think you’re being treated differently about this matter than a man would have been? I enjoyed her steady refusal to concede that she could have made a mistake, preferring to allow that, looking back on it, it might have been better to have done something different, although everything was perfectly all right anyway. New and interesting light was shed on Mr. and Mrs. Clinton’s odd, very odd relationship when she claimed that she didn’t want to let anyone else see emails between her and her husband, just after said husband revealed that he had sent only two emails in his life, neither of them to her.

I was even more impressed by her repeated assertion that she didn’t want to be inconvenienced by having to use two email accounts, one private and one governmental, and therefore two phones. We’ve always known that the Clintons have utter contempt for everyone but themselves, but what takes the cake is Mrs. Clinton’s lunatic idea that she is smarter than everyone else. Look, we all have cellphones! Lots of us have more than one email account! Accessible from the very same phone! Most of us do! Are you telling me that the secretary of state couldn’t find someone who could enable her to read government email on the same phone on which she read her Yahoo mail?

She claimed that she didn’t want to let anyone else see emails between her and her husband, just after said husband revealed that he had sent only two emails in his life, neither of them to her.

But the best thing was her contention that she could be sure that all her job-related emails were preserved, because the US government officials to whom she sent them were using their own government email service. She actually expects us to believe that as secretary of state she didn’t send emails to (1) the private accounts of US government officials, (2) the accounts of American constituents, experts, and so on, (3) officials of NGOs, (4) officials of the United Nations, (5) officials of foreign governments. Or does she expect US archives to go looking for accurate copies of her emails in the files of, say, the government of Iraq? Afghanistan? Syria? Russia? China?

Oh, I forgot. China probably got her emails, several years ago. All of them.




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Infrastructure

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Somewhere I saw a quip about all roads running downhill. It is worth elaborating into a proposal for America’s crumbling infrastructure. We should rebuild our roads and bridges to run downhill — in both directions.

Although the earth’s surface is marked by hills and valleys, it is a sphere in the big picture, possibly allowing a downslope on balance. If America could harness the atom and put a man on the moon, we should be able to harness gravity to move our cars and trucks.

This program would dramatically increase gasoline mileage, guaranteeing our energy independence. It would reduce carbon emissions and stop the menace of global warming. It would make nationwide highway travel and transport faster and cheaper than ever. The very scale of the program, together with decisive benefits still to be mentioned, will create new prospects of national purpose and greatness, which to many citizens will be worth some sacrifice of their own narrow interests.

Rebuilding roads and bridges to slope downwards will be expensive, but that itself is an advantage. The great increase in federal spending (the rich paying their fair share) will stimulate the economy through multiplier effects and create jobs. More directly, very many scientists, engineers, and lawyers will be employed, at high salaries, to work out the program’s scientific, technical, and environmental details (such as the conservation of energy). Universities will find more grants and consulting work available for professors and more fellowships for graduate students. Many executives and bureaucrats will administer the program, and workers in many specialties will do the actual construction.

That is the clinching argument: jobs!




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Nathaniel Branden, R.I.P.

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On February 22, a memorial will be held in Los Angeles for Nathaniel Branden. Branden (1930–2014), a close associate of Ayn Rand during the writing and initial success of Atlas Shrugged, remained a brilliant interpreter of her philosophy and a strong influence on libertarians and individualists. He was also a controversial and perennially interesting personality.

Old friends of Rand and Branden have had much to say about him. Liberty asked two younger friends to comment, the writers Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian.

Garin:

A half century ago, when he was a student at UCLA, Nathaniel Branden wrote a letter to Ayn Rand. Many years later, when I was a student at UCLA, I wrote a letter to Nathaniel Branden.

I had discovered Objectivism through my friend Alec Mouhibian. In high school we had read most of Rand's writings. We had read Branden’s writings, too. We had become good disciples, I think, although there are some reports of our arrogance from those years. In the tenth grade we published a political newsletter called "A Dose of Sense."

It was Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand" (and later Barbara Branden’s book The Passion of Ayn Rand) that had alerted us to the possible excesses of our passion. Nathaniel had raised important questions: was there a “principle of benevolence” in addition to the “virtue of selfishness” praised by Rand? Were we guilty, in our endless debates with classmates and teachers, of an “appalling moralism”? Had we become bad and unkind people?

There is a time in life when one is certain of things and then there is a time when one is not, and for me and Alec the transition between those times was marked by Nathaniel Branden and his essay. That is why I had written to him. It was one of the last letters I wrote to anyone from my college e-mail address: rational@ucla.edu.

The following week Nathaniel took me out for a cheeseburger. Some time later, Alec met him, too. And then we met together. I will let Alec finish the story here and to tell you who Nathaniel was for us.

Alec:

When I first met Nathaniel Branden, a full decade ago, I had a good sense of how Ayn Rand felt when he walked into her home for the first time in 1950. What a day that must have been for her! Some writers, if they are lucky, get to see their creations come to life on a movie screen. Rand’s highly idealized, very unrealistic hero stepped right out of the pages of The Fountainhead and through her front door, destined to convert the peculiar genius of her stories into a cultural force that would never die. That is what Rand thought, during the next 20 years of her life, until her disastrous break with him over matters that had little to do with culture.

He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both.

One must talk of movements in a memorial of Nathaniel Branden. He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both. (Movements tend to call for that.) His work with Rand, and his reflections on it, were also vital to the modern libertarian movement. His essay, “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,” offered all aspiring martyrs for liberty a priceless, personal account of how a passion for ideas can become a slavery to ideas, if one forgets the more mysterious values of human life.

Like so many people over the years, I had a strong desire to meet Nathaniel Branden, and in 2004, at the age of 19, I was lucky enough to get the chance. I was introduced by my comrade Garin Hovannisian, who had written about Nathaniel and subsequently met him for a cheeseburger. I showed up at his front door without a cheeseburger, but with many, many questions to ask. I asked him about Rand, of course, and I asked him about Iraq, torture, the meaning of death. We even discussed some dark subjects, like self-esteem and sex.

There is a reason the Q&A sessions after Nathaniel’s public talks invariably set off a stampede to the microphone, with brutal consequences for anyone in the audience who had forgotten to wear steel boots. Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small. I asked him everything on my mind that afternoon. Most of all I longed to know, not disinterestedly, how he had recovered from that glorious time when he once knew everything. Our conversation itself was his answer, not that I fully appreciated this at the time. We parted on warm terms.

Who was Nathaniel Branden? Objectivist, psychologist, therapist, or God forbid, “public intellectual” — none of these labels, in my view, measure up. Ideologues, even good ones, tend to be transparent and predictable, whereas Nathaniel remained a mystery to adversaries and admirers alike. I myself have tritely attempted to liken him to a character in a novel, for I believe that a profound love of liberty, and that elusive ideal of objectivity, were alive and pure in his soul. One of the last times I saw him was at a screening of the first Atlas Shrugged movie. Barbara Branden, his former wife and eternal friend, was also present, and there was nothing trite at all about how exhilarated they were by the long-delayed illustration of their early intellectual dreams. The poem had survived.

Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small.

When news of Nathaniel’s final illness began to surface, Stephen Cox, a longtime friend of his, wrote this about the ever-surprising question of influence: “We literally do not know what we are doing.” An unexpected epitaph for a man dedicated to rationality, and also a perfect one. Nathaniel Branden was ultimately a monk of the mind, whose thoughts, like the prayers of a religious monk, performed wonders far beyond what anyone could track.




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Brian Williams: The Political Effect

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Yesterday I had lunch with a friend whom I have known for a long time, and whom I would describe as an idolator of Hillary Clinton. My friend is an intelligent person, but Hillary is her blind spot. Every national election cycle has seen her proudly hailing Hillary’s political progress or bitterly regretting her failure with the electorate. Any attempt to suggest grounds for skepticism has been greeted with a swiftly rising cloud of anger.

Yesterday was different. When she pointedly brought up Brian Williams, I thought I would soon hear her favorite refrain about “people who lie — just like George Bush.” This time, however, the “just like” was Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s amazing lie about being shot at in Bosnia was recounted in detail, and with something approaching glee. My efforts to divert the discussion from such an unpleasant subject were unavailing. My friend now despises Clinton.

When people hate Brian Williams for lying, a little bell goes off in their heads, and a lot of them start hating Hillary Clinton for lying.

I suspect there are a lot of other people like her. I also know there are a lot of other problems with Hillary, besides the one that got to my friend. Hillary’s lies about not being rich. Her being rich, with money accrued during the political process. Her total lack of accomplishments. Her bizarre and ridiculous husband, and the bizarre and ridiculous things she has said about him. Her slick, repellent friends. Her friendship with crony capitalists. Her “what difference does it make?” speech about Benghazi. Her “business doesn’t create jobs” speech. Her “vast rightwing conspiracy” speech. Her apparent inability to give a speech that anybody actually likes. Her own complete lack of likability.

I was surprised to hear someone as savvy as Doug Schoen (speaking on Fox News on February 9), alleging that none of this matters to Hillary’s prospects. He pointed to the disarrangement of the Republicans, which supposedly makes people like Hillary more. I have another theory. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I’m trying it out. When people hate Brian Williams for lying, a little bell goes off in their heads, and a lot of them start hating Hillary Clinton for lying. Similarly, when people hate Clinton for being a nepotist, the little bell goes off again, and they hate Jeb Bush for the same reason. And when people hate President Obama for his babbling obfuscations, they remember the babbling obfuscations of most of the leading Republicans.

These reactions, which are normal and natural for normal people, may clear a lot of bad candidates out of the field. Hell, it worked with Romney.




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Dear 454729: Welcome to CUNY

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Probably I should save this for a Word Watch column, but here goes. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, once a distinguished academic institution, has commanded staff to drop “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” and I suppose “Miss,” when addressing people. Faculty are urged to follow suit. The preferred option is, apparently, to address people as “John Doe” or “Mary Roe,” not as the hated, sexist, “Mr. Doe” and “Ms. Roe.” It is intimated by the administration that federal anti-discrimination laws require this.

Of course, it’s all idiotic. It is also grossly tasteless, despite the pretense that it is intended to "ensure a respectful, welcoming and gender-inclusive learning environment.” “Gender-inclusive” is different from “genderless.” And how do you feel when someone starts a letter with “Mary Roe: Welcome to the fall semester” — let alone “Mary Roe: I am sorry to tell you that your mom has died.” I don’t feel warmly welcomed or deeply respected when strangers can’t come up with a better door opener than “Stephen Cox” when they want to confide their thoughts and feelings to me. Returning to “inclusive”: if inclusivity means not knowing whether someone is a man or a woman, we will have to banish all first names, too. They might give it away. And if you want to be ethnically inclusive as well as gender inclusive, there go the last names. Soon the only way to communicate a respectful welcome will be to address people by numbers.

Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea.

This stuff is hypocritical. Do you think the exalted leaders of the City University of New York have stopped referring to themselves as “Dr.,” despite the class distinction and often the ethnic distinction involved in that? I mean, to call oneself “Dr. Smith” shows that you are better than other people, doesn’t it? And aren’t most people with Ph.D.’s Caucasians? Case closed.

But why is this important? One reason is that laws — while bad enough in themselves — become the basis of decrees, which are ordinarily worse. These decrees proceed from someplace so deep in Cubicle City that no one can tell what perpetrator to fire, supposing that anyone had the power to fire anyone. Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea (in this case the bureaucratic sponsorship of the “transgendered”). Nothing else matters: custom, grace, the real respect owing to the people with whom one wants to communicate, nothing.

A society that allows itself to be thus cheapened, bit by bit, day by day, will eventually have no customs, social graces, or respectful gestures to enable differing people to dwell together sociably. It will be a constant, meaningless drama of inflamed sensitivities on the part of some and sullen acquiescence on the part of others.

Libertarians are often remarkable for our lack of intellectual interest in the kinds of daily interaction that make liberty possible. Hayek didn’t suffer from that lack; neither did Mises or Paterson. But for too many of us, nothing bad can happen unless a government agency is directly responsible for making it happen. That leaves the rest of the culture, the culture whose values enable the government to do whatever it does, completely off the hook. You may say, “Well, CUNY is an agency of government,” and it is; but you know, or else should know, that private colleges are almost equally busy coarsening our intellectual and cultural life. We can’t let ourselves off the intellectual hook by imagining that individualism can be robust no matter how debased the surrounding culture may be.




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Stevie, Dictator of Togo

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I was a student at the Université du Bénin in Togo in 1983. With typical and, I think, admirable American disrespect for authority, my fellow exchange students and I enjoyed calling the president of Togo “Stevie,” because he had changed his name from Etienne (French for “Steven”) to Gnassingbé, to sound more African. Our Togolese friends did not find it funny. It wasn’t that they were offended. They were afraid when they heard us talking like that and told us of ditches where the tortured corpses of the president’s critics appeared overnight.

According to my sources, the legends about Eyadéma Gnassingbé were officially encouraged. One, the story of the plane crash, was the subject of an entire comic book that I read when I was in Togo. In the comic, the president of Togo figured as a superhero with metaphysical powers. It was meant to be taken literally.

It’s true that Eyadéma survived a plane crash in 1974. It’s also true that he credited his survival to his own mystical powers. In the comic book, the plane was sabotaged, and his survival was definitely the miraculous result of his personal magic. In a national monument built to commemorate the incident, Eyadéma’s statue towers over images of the heroic officials who apparently didn’t have enough magic of their own and died in the crash.

A vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and they usually ended up dead.

It’s also true that Eyadéma was a leader of the coup that unseated Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of Togo. At the time of the coup, Eyadéma was called Etienne Eyadéma, and the legend is that he personally machine-gunned Olympio at the gates of the American embassy in Lomé, where the then-president was seeking asylum. By the way, that coup followed a common pattern in sub-Saharan, post-colonial Africa: colonial powers establish trading relations with coastal tribe (in Togo’s case, the Ewe). Colonial powers assert administrative control over a large inland area, making the coastal elite a minority within the colonial borders. At the time of independence, the coastal elite takes over. (Sylvanus Olympio was Ewe.) The army is dominated, numerically, by inland tribes. (In Togo’s case, they included the Kabye.) The soldiers get fed up and stage a coup. (Eyadéma was Kabye.)

One day, I was walking through the market with a Togolese friend when he told me another story about Stevie. I had pointed out to him a very pretty girl selling chocolate bars. The girl was about 13. She balanced an enameled tin platter on her head. The platter bore a perfect pyramid of scores of identical chocolate bars in white and red paper wrappers. And the grace note was the girl’s matching white and red dress. She had made herself into a lovely advertisement for dark chocolate. Clever and pretty. But it only reminded my friend of the legends about Eyadéma’s sexual powers. He said that a vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and that they usually ended up dead, not because of any abuse beyond presidential rape, but as a mere side effect of the great girth of his manhood.

Stevie died in office. At the time of his death in 2005, he was the longest serving head of state in all of Africa. His son, Faure Gnassingbé, took over and is still president.




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