The Possession Fallacy

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One of America’s most enduring, and at least faintly humorous, historical images is that of Europeans landing someplace on the continent and claiming everything from there to the next ocean as the property of the high and mighty prince, King Such and Such of Somewhere.

On June 14, 1671, Francois Daumont, Sieur de St. Lusson, an agent of that most puissant monarch Louis XIV, stood at “the Soo,” the rapids of the St. Mary’s River, and took possession of the Great Lakes, Manitoulin Island, and “all other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto, as well discovered as to be discovered, which are bounden on the one side by the northern and Western seas and on the other side by the South Sea including all its length and breadth.” “This formula,” says F. Clever Bald, the historian of Michigan, “he repeated three times.”

The ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

There is a verbal equivalent. It is the act of seizing on some word or concept and using it to impose your standards of morality, history, or logic on everything that could possibly be related to it. Let’s call this the Possession Fallacy. It might also be called, colloquially, Blab It and Grab It, after an idea current in American Christianity. Some evangelical Christians have the notion that if you pray for something in the right way, if you name it in your prayers, then you are also making a legitimate claim to it, and God must give it to you. The idea is known by Christians who espouse it as Name It and Claim It; by Christians who are skeptical about it as Blab It and Grab It. In either case, the ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

Ours is the great age of self-righteousness, and therefore of the Possession Fallacy. It’s always absurd, but one of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history, simply by pretending that “Republican” and “Democrat” mean today what they meant, say, 150 years ago. Sean Hannity, who knows less about history than anyone but the inhabitants of the House of Representatives, has been doing this for years. Rather than quoting Hannity, who never says anything in less than 1,000 words, I’ll quote an essay published this month in the Aspen Times. Attacking the “hypocrisy” of present-day Democrats, it says:

It was the Dems who defended slavery against the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln; it was the Dems who were behind racial segregation in the South; it was the Dems who opposed civil rights laws; and it was the Dems who bombed government buildings and attacked policemen during civil unrest in the ’60.

It was the Dems of the Ku Klux Klan who lynched blacks and occasionally Jews, and persecuted Catholics.

Et cetera. Some of this is pure nonsense: it was communists, not Democrats, who bombed government buildings. But the deep nonsense is the idea that because some Democrats did X, Y, or Z, this means something about all Democrats — or Republicans — who have ever lived. Anyone who read a book could write endless numbers of sentences in the same form: “It was the national Republicans who advocated Prohibition, while the national Democrats resisted it. It was the Republicans who victimized working people with high tariffs and a national bank, while the Democrats insisted on low taxes, hard money, and decentralized banking. It was Republicans who represented white Southerners in opposition to Northern Democrats during the conflicts over civil rights.” Et cetera.

Slipping into my perpetual role as Mammy lecturing Miz Scarlett: I done tole you an tole you, the two American political parties are organizations designed to get votes. (See, for instance, Liberty, February 2005, pp. 19–24.) Seeking this prey, they wander across the ideological and historical landscape, vacuuming up ballots wherever they can reach them. There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

One of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history.

How preposterous it is to act as if, by saying the name of a political organization spanning generations of history, you can score points either for or against it. This is almost as preposterous as the Left’s current attempt to get its way by labeling people of the distant past as “racists,” “sexists,” “imperialists,” and what not. In today’s terms, Jefferson was a racist, as was virtually the entire population of the world. What are we to deduce from this? That he should be treated as racists are justifiably treated today? Here the assumption is that some leftist agitator, who like Hannity has never read a real book, has the right to name and claim Jefferson’s reputation, on the basis of his own moral superiority — which is quite an assumption in itself. Or is it the idea that not only Jefferson’s memory but also his principles should be treated as those of a racist? “All other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto . . .”

There’s never been a moment in my lifetime when someone wasn’t discovering that the Declaration of Independence is, in the present vocabulary, racist and sexist: racist, because Jefferson was a slaveholder, and sexist, because the document says that “all men are created equal.” If the Declaration were a cow, this would be a constant attempt to rebrand her. But words have meanings, no matter who wrote them, and these particular words, correctly understood in their obvious meaning, provided the intellectual foundation of the abolition movement. When, 81 years after the Declaration, in the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that they didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone — including slaveholders, who were happy to hear this new interpretation. As for women — if Jefferson had wanted to say “males” he would have said “males.” The default meaning of “men” in almost every period and region of the English language has been “human beings, people.” Those who assert that “men” equals “males,” unless proven innocent, are trying to snatch the common language and claim it as their own.

There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

There has lately been a competition to see who can use the Possession Fallacy in the most egregious way. The game is very aggressively played, but right now, Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke, candidate for president, appears to be ahead. O’Rourke kindly interrupted his demanding campaign schedule for some informational “speaking with immigrants and refugees,” and told them:

Here we are in Nashville, I know this from my home state of Texas, those places that formed the Confederacy, that this country was founded on white supremacy and every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects the legacy of the slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression, even in our democracy.

O’Rourke’s syntax was characteristically muddled, but there’s general agreement that by “this country” he meant the United States of America, not the Confederate States of America — although the latter actually was founded on white supremacy, and the former was not, unless you agree with Chief Justice Taney. So he was talking about the United States when he said that “every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects” racist practices, up to and including slavery.

When people use the Possession Fallacy, they’re ordinarily making a claim to the whole ranch and every cow on it, whether or not they know how many cows there are, or, indeed, have ever seen a cow. If they went the other way and tried to gather all the cows that bore their brand, they might not come up with any. To put this in a different manner: Possession can usually be identified as a fallacy when you ask the possessor to name the specifics, and he can’t come up with any. In most cases, asking that question is a waste of time; the most he’ll do is point at Ol’ Bossy and some theoretical cow on the other side of the hill, and that will be enough for him to keep claiming that he owns the whole county.

When, 81 years after the Declaration, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that its words didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone.

But you can ask yourself some questions. What do you suppose would be on O’Rourke’s list of “every single institution and structure”? Does the Presbyterian Church still reek of racism? How about “Sesame Street”? The NAACP? Planned Parenthood? The Democratic Party, USA? Is that what elected O’Rourke to Congress — a racist system? These are just the first questions that came to my own mind. I could expand the list. So could you. I think it would be fun to include all the big-government programs that Beto voted to fund. Since, by his own declaration, these are all racist, he must be a racist too, and an especially sneaky one, since most of those “institutions and structures” are purported to be anti-racist.

Sorry; I’m just taking his words seriously. And that’s the problem for users of the Possession Fallacy. If they want to possess everything, they’re making themselves responsible for everything.

Jeffrey Epstein certainly has a lot to be responsible for, but former President Clinton once tried to take on even more responsibility: he made a strenuous attempt to possess Jeffrey Epstein. Clinton stepped up to the plate, shouldered the burden, bit the bullet, and went whole hog. In 2002, on one of the four trips that Clinton says he took on Epstein’s private plane, he and some (other) people from the world of entertainment journeyed to Africa to “tour HIV/AIDS project sites.” It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them. How was it possible to explain this lavish expenditure of wealth on the egos of Epstein’s junketing celebrities? The answer seemed easy: just appropriate every concept of technocratic goodness you can think of, and deed the whole thing to Mr. Epstein, who would, by association, deed it back to Mr. Clinton and the other gawkers, making it their lawful property. “Through a spokesman” Clinton described the enormous intellectual ranch on which Epstein’s charitable cows were nurtured:

Jeffrey is both a highly successful financier and a committed philanthropist with a keen sense of global markets and an in-depth knowledge of twenty-first-century science. I especially appreciated his insights and generosity during the recent trip to Africa to work on democratization, empowering the poor, citizen service, and combating HIV/AIDS.

Clinton left out the part about raising the dead. He didn’t want to go too far.

It would have been interesting if anyone had asked Clinton to discuss some specific features of the vast mental property notionally possessed by Jeffrey Epstein, college dropout, high school math teacher, options trader, and consultant for a Ponzi scheme. He might have been asked to say what he meant by the large term citizen service. I don’t have a clue. Neither can I guess what he meant by in-depth, democratization, empowering the poor, or work on (when used of people taking a jaunt on a billionaire’s plane). Clinton, presumably, could have said what he meant, because he had made himself the owner and possessor of these phrases. But he didn’t, and I suspect he never will. He is now at pains to indicate that he barely knew Jeffrey Epstein — although he is not at pains to distance himself from the wonderful work that Epstein once helped to finance. He still wants contributions for that.

It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them.

This is one of the ways in which conceptual mortgages come due. There are others. Let’s return to O’Rourke’s our democracy, a sappy phrase if ever there was one. I remember it from my ninth-grade civics text. Even then, it seemed childish. Like so many other uses of our, it was an obvious attempt to make kids think that they owned something they could not possibly own: our history, our families, our ideals, our cities, our highways, and so forth. The idea seemed to be that it wasn’t enough to praise motherhood and apple pie; one had to speak of our motherhood and our apple pie.

This tactic has now been sickeningly revived by Democrats maddened by the election of Trump. For them, nearly everything in political life involves Trump’s attacks on our democracy. The popularity of our democracy now eclipses that of the equally icky in this country, which the Democrats always used to tack onto the end of their sentences: “We must fix healthcare in this country”; “We must enable everyone to vote in this country”; “We must build more affordable housing in this country.” As you can see, in this country was the kind of phrase that nags use. It was a bitchy reminder that America is not exceptional; it is a country like every other country, no better, no worse, except that it’s worse. The phrase went nicely with only country in the world: “America is the only country in the world that lacks universal healthcare.” Such statements were never likelier to be true than the pious our country phrases, but they had a critical edge. Progressives would die rather than say in our country, but in this country came readily to their lips. Eventually, even the Republicans took it up, reciting it with the zombie-like expression of people who don’t know what they’re saying — which they didn’t.

Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother.

Now our democracy is the obsessive phrase. Inevitably, Republicans have started using this one too, but in any statement made by a Democratic politician you can depend on hearing it four or five times. If you can believe US Representative Elijah Cummings (D, MD), it has spread to the general public. Cummings told ABC: “No matter where I go, what I'm hearing over and over again from my constituents is, ‘Please save our democracy.’"

This is a clear example of the Possession Fallacy. Here is a phrase with no literal meaning, a succession of sounds with as much connection to reality as the incantations of the Sieur de St. Lusson, but intended to lay claim to a continent full of ideas and attitudes. No one says what kind of “democracy” is implied, or what kind of ownership is denoted by “our.” It is merely assumed that the speaker knows the meaning, even as a carpenter knows his tools, and that he is eminently qualified, even as a master carpenter is qualified, to determine this tool’s proper use in shaping the otherwise recalcitrant materials of life. In the present crisis in our democracy, the recalcitrant material is the monster Trump. If there is one thing that is clear about our democracy, it’s that our democracy is anything other than what Trump is about. Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother. To talk of motherhood is to deny the existence of Americans who are not mothers. Let us talk instead of our democracy.

The distasteful thing — well, there are a lot of distasteful things, but one distasteful thing — about our democracy is that it’s a double trick of possession. The first is the implicit but dogmatic assertion that the speaker knows what it means and, without any pretense of defining it, can make it the basis of argument. The second is that while pointedly excluding some people from membership in the mystical social union (Trump, or whomever) it suggests that you, whoever you are, actually own the thing. “Our” means “mine and yours."

From "my" to "our" to "your," the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

Perhaps you think that Robert Francis O’Rourke isn’t smart enough to play tricks on anybody, but you must remember that he didn’t invent this little act; he’s just copying others’ performance. But there’s a third trick going on — did you notice it? It’s the owning-not owning trick. “Our” is first a way of appropriating a concept for private use; then it’s a way of coopting the audience into feeling as if it owned the thing too; and then (the third trick) it’s a way of leaving the audience holding the bag. Beto isn’t saying that he is responsible for the racism of our democracy. How could he be?

He wants you to vote for him. He’s saying that you are responsible. From my to our to your, the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

And that’s how the Possession Fallacy works. It’s a means of forcing responsibility on other people for one’s own acts of ownership. I make something up, and you’re supposed to believe it. If you do, you’ll be the one who pays.




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Phobe-o-Phobia

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Bigotry, these days, is a subject treated very much like a supernatural monster. Racism, sexism, and homophobia exert an outsized influence on the popular imagination. They are our vampires, werewolves, and zombies. And precisely because of their exaggerated power, while many people fear them, others deny their very existence.

To be accused of being a racist is little different from being charged with sorcery. Anyone so tagged becomes a pariah. Humanity recoils from such an individual as it once might have shrunk from one familiar with the devil. That this is true precisely because racism is no longer considered acceptable in decent society is largely lost on those who see a racist under every rock.

Racism is still, very sadly, real. So, too, are sexism and homophobia, though the latter two still lag behind racism in witching power. The problem develops when people are accused of these faults whether they’re guilty or not. As in colonial Salem, the charge alone is sufficiently damning and needs no proof.

To be accused of being a racist is little different from being charged with sorcery. Anyone so tagged becomes a pariah.

Most bigots don’t think they’re bigots. Their beliefs are misguided, but they’re based in something other than themselves. No one sets out to be a bigot. What sounds like prejudice to others sounds, to them, like the truth.

Racism, sexism, and homophobia — that unholy trinity — are said to simply exist, like the Blob. People in public life are branded, especially as racists, with no thought to their motivation. Any insensitive remark can be cited as proof. The Blob can strike anyone, anywhere.

Some people simply say stupid things. And sometimes, after they’ve said them, they change their minds. Finding a bigot under every rock casts doubt on the entire enterprise. Very often the motive to smear an individual shows more clearly than the motive to hate the members of a particular group of people.

What happens when the charge is factual? Do real bigots suffer much when they’re exposed? When, for every real bigot, there are 20 unjustly accused, which real bigots really suffer?

Free speech tends to show people in a true light. If people aren’t deathly afraid to say the wrong thing, genuine racists, sexists, and homophobes will say what they have to say; but when speech is chilled, everyone is careful. Real bigots can hide.

When, for every real bigot, there are 20 unjustly accused, which real bigots really suffer?

I want to know what people think about me. They shouldn’t need to hide. Not that it makes much difference to me that some may irrationally hate a group I’m part of. I’m an individual, and everyone whose opinion I value judges me as such. The free market will deal harshly with those who wouldn’t serve me because of any circumstance I can’t change — if I even wanted to.

A sort of hysteria has overtaken us. At any time, any one of us could be branded guilty of criminal thought. That’s what bigotry really is — thought. But only those who act upon their hate are truly dangerous. If they can hide, simply refraining from saying the wrong things, we’re defenseless against the actions they may sometime decide to take.

In the hierarchy of accepted speech, certain forms of prejudice are perfectly acceptable. At the other end of the ladder, some people are suspected of bigotry simply by circumstance. Now certain political views come under automatic suspicion. Even wearing a red cap is enough to evoke suspicion. We live in a frightfully irrational age, and the fright is visited on all of us. How many points do I have in the aggrievement Olympics? Two: I’m female and gay. Others will always outrank me. I have to watch my step.

Aggrievement isn’t power. It’s weakness. People obsessed with how badly they’re treated are not masters of their own fate.

The free market will deal harshly with those who wouldn’t serve me because of any circumstance I can’t change — if I even wanted to.

None of the vigilance against bigotry makes me feel safe. Our guards are trigger-happy. In their extremity and sheer irrationality, they’ve turned those who really hate me into heroes. Not surprisingly, standing up to a charge of bigotry has become an act of courage — a mark of integrity.

I think I’ll take my chances alongside those who resist the witch hunt. That sometimes puts me in strange company. But bigotry is on the wane, and the very atmosphere of hysteria — of unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims of bigotry — is proof that it is. Someday, sane people will realize that. When we’ve all been branded, branding will no longer loom as a threat.

In the meantime, I still don’t have enough points. Surely that ought to count as a handicap. May I have another point?




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Something There Is

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“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall...”
                                                         —Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

I’m far from convinced that a border wall is desirable. But the people who fulminate against it tend to be so insufferable that they push me into seeing the good side of it, if only out of sheer contrariness. I am sick of “progressives” lecturing me on bigotry. They’re the last people on the planet with any room to talk.

Supposedly, wanting a wall is racist. Though actually, it’s pretty racist to lump people who obey the law — including immigration laws — together with those who don’t, based on nothing but skin color. Do “progressives” think that for those south of the border, criminality is the norm? Most of those trying to reach this country hope to leave the criminals behind them; they don’t appear to be in favor of letting everyone in.

These United States have held together as long as they have not only because they permitted compatible people to live together, but because they let incompatible people live apart.

Walls don’t only divide. They also unite. Good neighbors on each side of them are usually glad they’re there. A wall lets you be you, and me be me. Forcing people to put up with one another does nothing to help them get along.

People don’t all want the same things out of life. These United States have held together as long as they have not only because they permitted compatible people to live together, but because they let incompatible people live apart. I am a Westerner, born and bred. There is little chance I’d ever move East of the Mississippi, and I would appreciate it if people from those parts stopped trying to turn Arizona into Massachusetts or New Jersey. People north of the Mexican border can be forgiven for not wanting the US to become Mexico, Guatemala, or Venezuela.

It is not racist to want to separate oneself from violent and lawless people, or even from those whose way of life vastly differs from one’s own. Nor is it racist to prefer the company of those who want to preserve our way of life and can be trusted to do us no harm. There should be ways to make sure that people stop before they enter the country — actually stop — so we can see whether they will affirm our way of life as other immigrants have done. Though I think the wall would be unnecessary and excessively expensive, I do understand the reasons why a fair number of Americans want one. To dismiss them all as racist is irrational and intellectually dishonest.

I have lived around Hispanic Americans all my life. On the whole, I like them. They are a part of the culture of my home state, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere they weren’t welcome. I don’t associate those I know with human traffickers, drug smugglers, or murderers. People who make such a general association are racist, and no matter how much they may project their guilt onto others, the definition fits.

Though I think the wall would be unnecessary and excessively expensive, I do understand the reasons why a fair number of Americans want one.

But people who emigrate to the United States should be amenable to our culture. Not everyone who comes to our country respects it, or wishes to live a life compatible with our ideals. Education by state-run schools tends to indoctrinate the young into a reliance on the state to solve all social problems. I stand equidistant from those who want a border wall and those who want open borders.

Among those opposed to a wall, I strongly suspect there are many for whom that viewpoint’s primary attraction is that they want to be as different as possible from people who want one. Libertarians are divided on the issue, depending on whether they believe freer movement between countries is worth the risk of cultural decay. The problem is that as our culture decays, a commitment to liberty erodes along with it.

Libertarians have a tremendous stake in the promotion of what has traditionally been called American culture. We have no reason to assume that if we throw the gates open wide, all of those who stream in are going to respect liberty, individual responsibility, or what we hold to be basic human rights. We need to stand firmly for the values we hold dear.

I’ve been asked several times to run for office. I refuse to do that, because I’d run as a libertarian — which means that I would lose. The world doesn’t need any more politicians, but it needs every libertarian it can get.

Race and culture are frequently confused. Those who love liberty and individual responsibility are accused of racism — as if only people of white European ancestry can be assumed to care about such things. But it’s definitely racist to attribute particular ideas to certain races. A nonracist — and truly libertarian — policy would be to preserve and promote our culture, both in our immigration policies and in the education of our own citizens.

The world doesn’t need any more politicians, but it needs every libertarian it can get.

We don’t need a wall, but we do need something. Good fences do make good neighbors, but if I dislike the idea of Arizona becoming New Jersey, I hate even more the possibility that it might become East Germany. With or without an actual wall, a police state mentality is poisonous.

So, what is that “something?” What influence can we exert (“control” may be too strong a word) over who comes to the United States and why? And how can we do this if we don’t win elections and seize power?

We can refuse to call people racist when they express concern over what is happening to our culture. We can also take a greater interest in what is taught in our schools. We may not like the fact that most of them are taxpayer-funded, but as long as we are among those funding them, we have not only a right, but also a duty to insist that an appreciation for Western civilization is being inculcated. In the foreseeable future, most kids will continue to be educated in public schools.

If I dislike the idea of Arizona becoming New Jersey, I hate even more the possibility that it might become East Germany.

Liberty, societal stability, and the protection of natural rights answer common human yearnings. There are people in all cultures who do not have these yearnings, but there are also people who do. “Freedom has many difficulties,” noted President Kennedy, “and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”

If we don’t continue to stand for freedom here at home, the time will come when those who oppose a wall to keep immigrants out will indeed need walls to keep us in. We owe it to Americans of every race and generation to make sure that those who come to our country to escape hell aren’t bringing it along with them.




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Cowboys and Other Ones

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More Sweet Thoughts about Love

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Suppose that one of your acquaintances used this as the heading of his Twitter account:

I am simply here to help save the world. Nothing is more important than love.

How would you react? If your eye fell only on the second sentence, you might think something like, “Sweet, but childish. Like a little kid. Actually, he may be letting his little kid write some of this stuff.”

It’s true: kids don’t know much about literacy, agriculture, airplane technology, telecommunications, vaccines, and anesthetics, or (to look on the other side of the coin), ignorance, conflict, death — all arguably more important than love in this world we inhabit. And if it’s just a question of moral values, kids may not understand that truth and justice are often far better than love.

No child says he is here to save the world. Only the most narcissistic of adults say that.

So, you think, that sentence must have been written by a child — or by one of those childish old souls you’re afraid to talk to, because they’re certain to load you with theosophical advice. Should you commit the error of making eye contact, the conversation will go like this:

Well hello! And how are you today? (Delivered with a smarmy glare and a wet handshake.)

Uh . . . All right, I guess. (Somehow, you don’t want to discuss the fact that you’ve lost your job and you don’t know where the next mortgage payment’s going to come from.)

Just remember one thing (an admonition strongly suggesting that you have trouble remembering anything): nothing is more important than love.

Recalling such scenes, you feel a sense of doom as your gaze drifts back to the left of “love,” where you discover the portentous saying, “I am simply here to help save the world.”

No child says he is here to save the world. Only the most narcissistic of adults say that. “Help” is in the sentence merely to fend off accusations of extreme narcissism. Of course, that level of self-consciousness indicates that the narcissism is not naïve at all; it is ruthlessly assertive, fully convinced of itself, and aggressively intolerant of any doubts.

If it’s just a question of moral values, kids may not understand that truth and justice are often far better than love.

Now that, unhappily, you have read both sentences, you try to put them together, and find it a creepy experience. Here is a narcissist billing himself as a crusader for love. Either he has so little introspection that he doesn’t recognize the love that’s important to him is self-love, or he has so much contempt for his audience that he expects everyone to swallow whatever he says.

But at least, you may be thinking, the theme is love. This guy may be dotty and self-absorbed, but thank God he isn’t devoting his life to saving the world with some political scheme, with some campaign of force. Then you remember that love has been the justification for many egregious acts of power. The medieval church burned heretics at the stake in the name of its love for men’s souls — including those of the heretics. Laws that send people to jail for using or selling drugs are purportedly motivated by love for our children — including those who use or sell drugs. Prohibition was justified largely as an expression of Christian love for the American family. How much better it was for the gay marriage movement to use “Love Wins” as one of its slogans — though even in that instance, there was the specter of punishment if you didn’t agree. Recall those people who were dragged into court because they declined to make gay wedding cakes. Recall the false accusation that such a cake had been deliberately defiled by (gay) staff at Whole Foods.

All good motives can be reasons for bad deeds and bad emotions. “I am become a socialist,” says Pierrot in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Aria da Capo. “I love Humanity; but I hate people.” If love is really the most important thing in the world, it must have tremendous force for ill as well as good. Remember the scene in Stardust Memories in which someone comes up to Woody Allen and says, “I’m your biggest fan” — and shoots him.

Then you remember that love has been the justification for many egregious acts of power.

Such meditations on love and messiahship may make you hesitate to read any further in this fellow’s Twitter account. But if you do, here is the sort of thing you’ll encounter:

“Shut the hell up you b—— a— n——. You will continue to run this country further into the ground and risk lives every time you breathe. You’re not the president. Just a dumpster full of hate. FOH. [F— outta here] Sick to my stomach that literal s— currently represents America to the world.”

“@AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] is only speaking facts. This is so far beyond political party affiliation. Across the world ... no matter the border ... from sea to shining sea ... 45 and all his white hooded cohorts are a national disgrace. And if you support them ... so are you. Clowns.”

“Dear @realDonaldTrump ... you are a disgusting, racist, piece of trash ... Sincerely, Everyone who is not a disgusting, racist, piece of trash.”

As the song says, “This can’t be love.” Nor is there any indication that it’s a response to any experience of hate directed at the author or anyone he knows. In appearance, it’s a message posted by an anti-homosexual white racist (“b—— a— n—— ”) who has had some kind of falling out with the “white hooded cohorts” of the Ku Klux Klan but has lost nothing of their hatred. Few racists refer to themselves as racists; they’re too busy attributing evil to other people. The denunciation of the president as a racist may be taken simply as an instance of projection, as Freud called it.

I am by no means an appreciative reader of Freud. I dislike the coyness with which he modestly suggests, on one page, that such and such may possibly be considered an object of speculation, and five pages later assumes that the same such and such is obviously true. His grounds of argument and the progress of his arguments seem to me utterly fallacious. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and I think that Freud was onto something when he identified projection as a primary means of pseudo-thought. He doesn’t put it in exactly this way, but I think it’s true that the more out of touch with reality you are, the more you are inclined to claim that it’s other people who are out of touch — and, because you’re defending yourself from charges that the rational part of your brain (if any) would naturally bring against yourself, you are especially eager to say that you’re not like those other people, who are guilty, guilty, guilty.

Few racists refer to themselves as racists; they’re too busy attributing evil to other people.

It’s pretty clear that anybody who is tweeting the things I’ve quoted — without, as I say, any particular external incitement, of the type that regularly carries tweeters away — is projecting a s— load of hatred. If this be love, thank you, I’d rather have the Caesar salad. The fact that the tweeter believes in himself as an apostle of love is a matter of still more concern. It’s one thing for a person to be “a good hater.” It’s another thing to believe that hate is the same thing as love. There are good haters and bad haters, and whoever wrote those passages is a bad hater.

By now you may have guessed who that bad hater is. It’s Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett, who was arrested on February 21 for faking an attack on himself, a gay black man, by pro-Trump bigots using some of the vocabulary he had applied to Trump. After the arrest, Chicago police also accused him of having sent a vilely racist and sexist and threatening letter to himself, complete with a white substance suggestive of anthrax powder. The alleged motive? His desire for a raise in salary (currently about $1.3 million) as a C-list TV actor. The cops’ idea was that self-love might sometimes be the most important kind.

From the beginning, Smollett’s story appeared ridiculous: he was attacked in downtown Chicago by masked men who had been waiting for him to walk by at 2 a.m. on one of the coldest days of the year, men who shouted racist insults, beat, kicked, and bit him, poured bleach on him, and put a noose around his neck (tied like a tie you wear to dinner). He emerged with one small cut on his face, an intact cellphone on which he had been conversing, and a Subway sandwich that was preserved unharmed until his arrival at his home, where a friend called the police, about 40 minutes later. When the police came, Smollett refused to let them take his phone for a few hours and have it examined for clues. He said he needed it. Much later he provided a much “redacted” list of his calls.

The more out of touch with reality you are, the more you are inclined to claim that it’s other people who are out of touch.

Clearly, this was a hoax. Yet everyone from Donald Trump to Trump-hating Democratic presidential candidates immediately expressed horror and sympathy; no investigation was needed or desired. It was remarked by citizens of Chicago that people living close to the nonevent were less willing to believe the story than people living far away — more evidence for the libertarian idea that the higher you build a pyramid of power, the less those at the top understand about the world beneath them. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, and hundreds of others at the acme of political and “cultural” influence seemed anxious to prove this.

One thing that Trump, who was busy being a fool like all the others, clearly didn’t understand was the vicious hatred that the alleged victim had for him, despite the fact that the hatred had been advertised as much as it could possibly be. Anyone could access Smollett’s public utterances, and you would think that anyone who did would notice the way in which “love” was being used to license hate. You would think that even Kamala Harris would have hesitated to proclaim, in cadences reminiscent of the hypnotized characters in The Manchurian Candidate, “Jussie Smollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know.” But I have so far encountered no one who confessed that, well, yeah, those utterances were sort of a bad sign, that maybe there was something a little . . . strange about them. Can it be that the confusion of love with hate has become so common in our society that it is no longer noticed — so ordinary and inoffensive, indeed, that when it is witnessed it is spontaneously shared?

This kind of confusion is encouraged by the culturally-official dogma that if one cares about victims, including alleged victims, one must believe them, whether their stories are absurd or not. Only under these conditions can the behavior of Robin Roberts, host of “Good Morning America,” be explained. Roberts, star of a program run by ABC News, gave Smollett an interview of whopping length, in which her most probing question was how he could heal if the cops failed to wreak justice on his assailants. (He replied that he couldn’t bear to consider the possibility.) Clearly, she believed the victim — everything the victim said.

He emerged with one small cut on his face, an intact cellphone on which he had been conversing, and a Subway sandwich that was preserved unharmed.

After the scandal was officially exposed, she tried to wipe the egg off her face by saying that when the interview was recorded the police still seemed to be going along with Smollett’s story. Who was she to question the police? Days after that, her associates at the network, prompted to defend her, “suggested that Roberts was a victim, who was ‘lied’ to by Smollett.” So now it’s the job of a news person cheerfully to believe the victim (and the police), even if it makes her the victim of lies.

Roberts interviewed Smollett two weeks after the “crime.” It’s safe to say that by that time almost everyone who’d ever heard of the case was convinced it was a hoax — everyone, that is, except the people whose job it was to report the facts. But even with two weeks to put the facts together, Roberts hadn’t a clue. Finally confronted by the amazing! revelation! that Smollett was not entirely on the up and up, Roberts said:

This touches all the buttons. It’s a setback for race relations, homophobia, MAGA supporters. I cannot think of another case where there is this anger on so many sides and you can understand why there would be.

Pardon me — what is she babbling about? I understand how the Jussie thing might be considered a setback for race relations (although I don’t think the discovery of a hoax can do anything but increase truth and candor, which every well-meaning person values, regardless of race), but how can it be a setback for “MAGA supporters”? Or for “homophobia”? Does it increase or decrease the fear of gays? Roberts is literally saying that it decreases it, which she would probably think is a good thing, but . . . what is she babbling about?

Can it be that the confusion of love with hate has become so common in our society that it is no longer noticed?

More babble issued from politicians and media people, spin artists all, who responded to the scandal by regretting that “conservatives” or “Trump followers” or “rightwing bloggers” or some other groups they don’t like would pounce on it and use it for their own purposes. This tactics, now in use whenever the Left embarrasses itself, is a new wrinkle on the ugly old face of American journalism. Newspapers in the 1850s were violently partisan, but even the most absurd Southern rag wouldn’t have run the headline: “Abolitionists Pounce on Legree Misdeeds.” I do feel a bit underrepresented, though, when I read about all these other people pouncing. Why shouldn’t I — or you, or you, or you, whoever you are — pounce on this story, too? It seems that anyone who’s interested in a hysteria-free society would want to use it for some purpose. To point a lesson, perhaps.

Yes, and lots of lessons, but not the one that is most often heard in media comments on the incident — the idea that Smollett’s actions will lead people to think that hate crimes are not a serious issue. Bigots will continue to think that, just as credulous people on the other side will continue to believe that hate crimes are happening all around them. Any hate crime is serious, but any fake hate crime is serious, too.

If you want to know an approximation of the truth about the frequency of hate crimes, you might consult Wilfred Reilly, a professor who teaches at an historically black college and has a new book on the subject. In a recent op-ed, he provides documentary sources on the large number of hate crime hoaxes (he claims to have easily numbered 409 confirmed instances) and says:

To put these numbers in context, a little over 7,000 hate crimes were reported by the FBI in 2017. . . .

However, hate crime hoaxers are “calling attention to a problem” that is a very small part of total crimes. There is very little brutally violent racism in the modern USA. . . . Inter-racial crime is quite rare; 84% of white murder victims and 93% of black murder victims are killed by criminals of their own race, and the person most likely to kill you is your ex-wife or husband. When violent inter-racial crimes do occur, whites are at least as likely to be the targets as are minorities.

From that, you can take whatever lessons you want, but such facts are a good deal more useful than the constant hurling of charges between Right and Left about inattention to hate crimes on our side of the racial or political divide.

Newspapers in the 1850s were violently partisan, but even the most absurd Southern rag wouldn’t have run the headline: “Abolitionists Pounce on Legree Misdeeds.”

What is most disturbing to me about the Jussie Smollett incident is nothing that I’ve mentioned above. It’s a particular manner of regretting the incident, a manner that became very common across the moderate-to-hard-Left spectrum in the days when Smollett’s guilt was thought (by some) to be in doubt. I refer to the touching hope that he wasn’t lying after all.

One example — this from a writer published by CNN:

I continue to hold a sliver of hope that the dots that continue to feel so far apart will eventually connect and the picture before us will show he was telling the truth all along. I hold hope that those faint whispers that began almost as quickly as the story made its way across the networks will be silenced[!], that Smollett will be vindicated. And the people who took to social media to demand justice for him will not be left to look like fools. . . .

I . . . am still hoping that he's telling the truth. It may be naïve, but it's a hell of a lot better than trying to answer the "what" — as in what do we do next?

Apparently the author, like Jussie Smollett, is laboring under the impression that we just have to be doing something majestic all the time. But the vital phrase is, “I am still hoping that he’s telling the truth.” Which means —  You’re still hoping that bands of bigots are roaming the streets, beating up gays and blacks? Still hoping that race hatred is so plentiful that it never runs out, even in downtown Chicago at 2 a.m., with enough wind chill to blast your hands off? Still hoping that the world is a terrible place that only you can save?

Ah yes! That may be it. It’s all about you, isn’t it?




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Fools and Their Folly

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Ralph Northam, governor of Virginia —perhaps soon-to-be ex-governor of Virginia — is a fool. On that we can all agree.

But until a few days ago, he was not a fool.

He was not a fool when he was running for governor and some of his followers ran an ad suggesting that his opponent was a violent racist, an ad that he first defended, while implicitly disavowing, and then disavowed, while implicitly defending. A few associates of his opponent’s party remember that, but nobody really cares.

Someone finally publicized what must have been known to many, a page from Northam’s med-school yearbook showing a man in blackface and a Klansman drinking happily together

And he was not a fool when, on January 30 of this year, he commented on a bill advanced by his party in the legislature that seemed to allow abortions during normal-term birth, with the option of infanticide, by saying:

So in this particular example if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.

Conservatives pounced on this saying, asserting that Northam was a baby killer, although it was easier to show that his comments about “exactly what would happen” were more like the maunderings of a fool than any declaration of specific intent. But few people called him a fool.

Then, in early February, someone finally publicized what must have been known to many, a page from Northam’s med-school yearbook glorifying alcoholic beverages and illustrating their glory by showing a man in blackface and a Klansman drinking happily from their cans of (presumably) brew. That’s exactly what you want in your med-school yearbook, right? If you do, you’re a fool.

Northam then proceeded to prove, and overprove, that you cannot part a fool from his folly. He confessed that he was one of the men in the picture, though he didn’t say which one, and apologized for the harmful effects of what he had done. A day later he decided that he was not one of the men in the picture and had, in fact, nothing to do with the picture — although, he added, he had once done a blackface imitation of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk routine. It is said that Northam’s wife had to prevent him from showing the press that he could still do the moonwalk.

The root cause of racism and all its ridiculous symbols and tokens is folly, mindlessness, sheer stupidity.,

Instantaneously, cries arose from every quarter, including Northam’s own party, that he must resign forthwith. There were even cries, from outside his party, against the allegedly culpable inaction of his lieutenant governor, an African-American who, perhaps, did not wish to be seen staging a coup d’etat. Northam was now everything vile and vicious, and the whole nation appeared to agree.

But the root of this vileness was not identified. The root cause of racism and all its ridiculous symbols and tokens — symbols and tokens that may sometimes exist without any particularly racist thought, or any thought at all — is folly, mindlessness, sheer stupidity, the conviction that you are thinking when you’re not, the conviction that you can get through the world without any mental activity, and that nobody else will notice.

Apparently, the odds on doing so are pretty good, because Northam did get through 59 years in this world without anyone noticing what a dope he is. It’s only the “racism” that was finally observed. And I suppose that this is the way the republic needs to continue, because where could political leaders be found if every fool were identified as such, and driven from public office?




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L’Amour, L’Amour!

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I’m sure that at some time in your life you’ve had a friend who made you his confidant about the details of a troubled romance. He claimed to want your advice, but advice was hard to give, because he kept painting different pictures of his special person. One day she was an angel; the next day, a devil; the third day, some woman he could barely remember — a minor mistake from which he was moving forward. But the cycle began all over again, and you wondered whether he was talking about the same person, or any person, or just a strange projection of himself.

I thought of this when I watched the behavior of the alleged news media on the weekend of January 18, when they fell in love with a story provided by an oft-discredited reporter for the oft-discredited BuzzFeed. The story, which involved “evidence” that Donald Trump had told one of his attorneys, the oft-discredited Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a hotel deal in Russia, was unlikely on the face of it. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the media took to it like trout to Acme’s Amazing Fly. Then it was proven false, and became, like a discarded love affair, a sad betrayal of ardent feelings, closely followed by, “Oh, that! Do you still care about that?”

I’m doubtless being too judgmental, but ye who have watched a friend go through this cycle again and again, whisper now to me: after a while, don’t you begin to wonder whether your lovelorn buddy is actually very bright? You don’t care whether he’s a college professor or an expert on something scientific, or even a talking head on TV. You wonder: maybe this guy’s just not very smart.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the media took to it like trout to Acme’s Amazing Fly.

I say that, because the media have gone through all this many times before, and we know they’ll go through it many times again. Curiously unable to make a cogent argument against the Trump regime, the $300K-per-year hacks of big media are always dying to romance another story with flashy makeup and fishnet stockings, protecting themselves from consequences not with a condom but with a magic incantation: “If this is true . . . .”

On January 18, the phrase, “If this is true, then President Trump will be impeached” was repeated so often that, a couple of days later, during the wake-up-with-a-hangover-but-without- your-wallet period of the news cycle, I heard a pundit on MSM-TV (don’t ask me which; they all look alike to me) exclaim: “‘If true’ — the most important words in Washington today!”

Here’s the game, and any fanatic, or newsroom partisan, or idiot with an axe to grind, knows how to play it: in a well-wired nation of hundreds of millions of people, you can source any kind of story you want to run. If you want to suggest that plants can talk, or microwaves cause cancer, or marijuana has no medical value, or minimum wage laws create jobs, or immigration increases average household income, or crime is out of control, you can refer to a study or report that makes that claim, broadcast it, and add, “If true, this calls for . . .” some kind of action.

After a while, don’t you begin to wonder whether your lovelorn buddy is actually very bright?

You can do the same with any well-known person. You can find someone who accuses him or her of something, present some version of testimony or senior officials’ anonymous comments or the cleaning staff’s careful review of discarded notes, add the “If true,” and make your own suggestions about impeachment, hanging, drawing and quartering, or merely (because you are full of mercy) firing, shaming, and reeducating.

Intelligent people can usually see through this. Unintelligent people assume that nobody will. It is with this in mind that I present the comment of Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC) regarding the “if true” debacle of the weekend of January 18: “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front [by saying], 'If this is true.' When you preface your statement with 'If this is true,' that, to me, gives you all the cover you need."

So if some rightwing screed should claim, with no evidence except its say-so, that Jim Clyburn told an election official in his district to pack the ballot box, the whole establishment media as well as House Republicans would be justified in saying to the nation, in tones of solemn righteousness, “If this is true, Clyburn will be thrown out of Congress”? Well, if you say so. People have been hanged on less evidence.

Intelligent people can usually see through this. Unintelligent people assume that nobody will.

But let’s return to the wording of Representative Clyburn’s statement, the part about “if this is true” giving “you all the cover you need.” Cover, used in this sense, has interesting connotations. It originated in the argot of criminals — “Yeah, I’m a bank teller; that’s my cover, till we git through with lootin’ the joint” — and it has never shed its associations with shady dealing. To cover yourself means to obscure a wrongful or equivocal deed. No one says cover myself without meaning cover up. If Clyburn doesn’t know this, he’s illiterate. If he does know it, he’s bragging about his colleagues’ shadiness.

Aaron Blake, senior political reporter for the Washington Post (what titles they have!), reviewed the issues about BuzzFeed’s fake news and its, ahem, coverage in a long series of tweets, going back and forth over the ethical problems like a cow searching helplessly for that last blade of grass (“I honestly don’t know what the answer is here”), and munching such deep thoughts as: “Each piece that’s written about something that may turn out to be untrue is counter-productive, at best. Even with extensive caveating (which I included), it furthers a story the [sic] erodes trust in the media.” He preceded this observation with a muddled commentary on the supposed responsibility of you and me, his audience (if any): “Media consumers aren’t as savvy as we’d like them to be, and just because something is technically accurate and qualified doesn’t make it good. People skip right over those caveats, and if they want to believe these reports, they treat them like gospel.”

Well, isn’t that smart! It’s almost as smart as thinking that caveating is a word, and very hip and cool, indeed. It’s almost as smart as telling your audience (media consumers) how dumb you think they are. But wait! Maybe that means that you yourself aren’t very smart. If that is true . . .

If Clyburn doesn’t know this, he’s illiterate. If he does know it, he’s bragging about his colleagues’ shadiness.

It’s hard to think about Washington, the place where words and phrases go to die, without thinking of that great eviscerator of meanings, the Washington Post, which recognized and continues to encourage the talent of Mr. Blake. On the night of January 18, the Post ran a story, as it had to do, about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s contemptuous dismissal of the BuzzFeed report. At the end of that story appeared the words, in bold type: “Reporting the facts for over 140 years” — a bizarre reference to the Post itself. This claim was followed by a list of articles that “The Post Recommends.” The first two ridiculed President Trump. The third was headlined in this way:

Five big takeaways from the stunning report that Trump told Cohen to lie

If Trump told Michael Cohen to commit perjury, this could break the dam.

For God’s sake, couldn’t they drop the “recommends” at the moment when they themselves were debunking the stunning report?

Intelligent? No.

But as if to verify a lack of intelligence, the liberal media, and some noteworthy conservative media, immediately fell head over heels in love with a new story — a story about the supposed attack on an “ancient,” “frail,” American Indian “elder” and “Vietnam War veteran” who was “surrounded” and “harassed” and “threatened” by teenagers from a Catholic school in Covington, Kentucky who had come to Washington to participate in a church-sponsored anti-abortion rally.

It’s almost as smart as telling your audience how dumb you think they are.

By this time, I don’t need to tell you what happened on January 18 at the Lincoln Memorial. My own version, which I believe is now the generally accepted one, is that the teenagers were waiting for a bus when they were attacked with violent words by a nutball group of “black Israelites” who called them crackers, faggots, and incest children, and called their black members a word that sounds like Negro, but is not. Rather than respond with violence, the students continued to wait, with placid, dopey high-school expressions on their faces. Then, out of nowhere, an American Indian from Ypsilanti, Michigan came forward to beat a drum in their faces. I mean in their faces. Through all these things, the students responded with goofy good humor, chanting inane school cheers, jumping along with the rhythm of the drum, etc. That’s it. Here is Robby Soave’s account of the story, from Reason. And here are videos, of various political tendency. You are welcome to disagree with Soave’s interpretation, or mine.

In any event, the “elder’s” entourage bore cameras, and by means of a Twitter source that even Twitter has now banished for misrepresenting itself, an invidiously edited video of the proceedings was made available to established “news” organizations, which immediately, without waiting a second, retailed the incident as a prize example of white racism.

This new spasm of national outrage included, in short order and with no pretense of investigation, fervent denunciations of the students not only by the usual suspects but also by the March for Life, the students’ Catholic diocese, the neighboring Catholic diocese, their school, and that august conservative journal, supporter of the right to life, and scourge of political correctness, National Review. NR published an article alleging of the students that “they might as well have just spit on the cross and got it over with.”

I’m not a Catholic, but I’m willing to confess: when I see “spit” being used instead of the real form of the verb in question, which is “spat,” my thought goes to, “You’re pretty dumb, aren’t you?” Especially if you’re a religious person, supposedly steeped in Scripture, and think that the Kentucky students are like the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross. That’s the comparison that NR’s author made. My liveliest feeling was disgust at this combination of ignorance (why can’t you bother to investigate, at least, before you accuse people of being Christ-killers?), lack of perspective (even if the kids had been guilty of something, they’re effing kids, man), and inquisitorial thinking (by this point in history, I don’t need to explain what I mean by that). National Review — is that the journal William F. Buckley once edited?

When I see “spit” being used instead of the real form of the verb in question, which is “spat,” my thought goes to, “You’re pretty dumb, aren’t you?”

Eventually NR apologized for the frantic article by its deputy managing editor, but with some curious excuses. The author, it said, was “operating off the best version of events he had” — an excuse that can be made for any failure to exercise a modicum of skepticism — and he was “writing as a faithful Catholic and pro-lifer who has the highest expectations of his compatriots, not as a social-justice activist.” Wait a minute — did I get that right? Are readers of NR supposed to be reassured that a writer of trash is one of their own?

Within a few days, and after a few threats of lawsuits, many prominent people who had said literally thoughtless things about the Kentucky high-school students — such as the suggestion that there were never more punchable faces than theirs (a desire for physical brutality is ordinarily a sign of intelligence, correct?) — were deleting their posts and tweets and declarations and journal articles (such as the NR article), sometimes in coward silence, but sometimes with sickeningly stupid attempts at explanation.

Example: one Jack Morrissey, a figure in Hollywood, has a Twitter account, on which he said, “#MAGAkids go screaming, hats first, into the woodchipper.” He followed that evocative phrase with a famous image from the movie Fargo, in which a dead body is fed into a woodchipper. Be it noted that the Kentucky kids were, some of them, wearing MAGA hats, which seems to have been the real reason why they were harassed, first in person, and then in the media, it being fair to attack kids as faggots and incest children and words that sounds like Negro but are not and people who have stolen your land, so long as they appear to be supporters of the opposite political party. Very well. Mr. Morrissey dumped his tweet, and apologized. He said, “Yesterday I tweeted an image based on FARGO that was meant to be satirical — as always — but I see now that it was in bad taste.”

Are readers of National Review supposed to be reassured that a writer of trash is one of their own?

Well, good. But wait a minute. Morrissey also said, “I have no issue whatsoever with taking responsibility, but also completely apologizing that I clearly intended it to be seen as satire. That was clearly not recorded that way by many who saw it.”

Oh, I see. It’s we the readers who were dumb enough to miss the point that Morrissey clearly intended to be seen as satire. I’m very sorry! I completely apologize (as opposed to partially apologizing). But tell me, what was it a satire of? If Morrissey would give me a clue, even in his afterthoughts, that it might conceivably be a satire of people who rush to judgement and persecute other people and, in effect, feed kids into a woodchipper, alive and screaming, hats first, then perhaps I will understand. Otherwise, I will conclude that it was a satire of the students, and it was a kind of satire suggesting that something atrociously bad should happen to its objects.

I don’t think that smart people join mobs.

And I don’t think that smart people, apologizing for writing something that appears to be a vile attack on others, will abdicate their responsibility to discover, at long last, the relevant facts of the situation they wrote about. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Morrissey is as smart as he’s paid to be. Maybe it isn’t dumb for him to have added: “I have seen tweets from both sides feeling disappointed that the mainstream media went his [sic] way or that way. But I haven’t had the headspace to take the time to watch all the videos.”

Isn’t that precious? He doesn’t have the headspace. And I’ll bet he’s right. He doesn’t.




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Glorious Beale Street

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“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city,” James Baldwin wrote in the 1974 novel on which Barry Jenkins’ film If Beale Street Could Talk is based. It refers to an area of Memphis important to African-Americans, designated by an act of Congress as “the Home of the Blues.”

In the 1860s black traveling musicians began performing there; they eventually developed a genre known as Memphis Blues, led by such legends as B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Rosco Gordon, Memphis Minnie, Albert King, and Rufus Thomas. B.B. King was once billed as “the Beale Street Blues Boy.”

An astute real estate developer, Thomas Church, became the first black millionaire in the South after he bought land along Beale Street following a devastating yellow fever epidemic. The famous Church Park, a cultural and recreational center where blues musicians gathered, is named for him, not for a religious organization.

By the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings.

In 1869 a congregation of freed slaves began building the Beale Street Baptist Church. Besides the congregation, it housed the newspaper offices of civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells. Such notables as Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt spoke there, while Booker T. Washington, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR spoke at the 2,000-seat auditorium in Church Park.

However, by the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings and the neighborhoods surrounding it instead of renewing them. In April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated not far from Beale Street.

Eventually the neighborhood was restored by the racially diverse Beale Street Development Corporation, and the area is now a popular tourist destination featuring the Beale Street Music Festival in early May each year. Beale Street’s development is tightly controlled by the city of Memphis, the BSDC, and a management company.

In so many ways, the story of Beale Street is an apt metaphor for the African-American experience — artistically gifted, entrepreneurially astute, politically active, brought down by neglect and resentment, and then restored by a consortium of well-intentioned but often misguided do-gooders who have changed the essence of what it once was.

In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from Fonny's cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art.

Beale Street is also an apt metaphor for the characters in Jenkins’ movie If Beale Street Could Talk. A love story at heart, the film uses flashbacks to show how Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) grew up as childhood friends, fell in love as teenagers, planned a future that included marriage and family, and saw their plans destroyed when Fonny was falsely accused of a heinous crime.

Although the movie takes place in Harlem, the characters represent different aspects of the Beale Street story. Fonny is an artist with big dreams. In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from his cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), works tirelessly against injustice, and Tish’s sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) is a rising activist who tells Tish at one point, “Unbow your head, sister, and do not be ashamed.”

Tish and Fonny’s fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are both hardworking entrepreneurs. (Well, OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.” And in truth, Fonny is in jail because false witnesses have been suborned against him.) Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) represents the church in the black community — moral and austere. And of course the urban renewal board is represented by the overzealous justice system that intends to clean up Harlem by putting the young black men in jail — whether they’re guilty or not.

Jazz and the blues also play central roles in this film. The soundtrack, mostly performed as string adagios, is bluesy, haunting, and full of despair, an emotion created by the close, discordant, unresolved harmonies and the deep, slow vibration of the bow across the bass strings. At the end, the credits roll to the sound of Billy Preston and Joseph Green’s slow, jazzy, plaintive “My Country ’tis of Thee.” If ever there was a time for singing the Beale Street blues, this is it.

OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.”

Although Baldwin describes the young lovers in his novel as plain and unattractive, Jenkins chose to cast his Tish and Fonny with two astonishingly beautiful young actors. KiKi Layne radiates wide-eyed innocence mingled with tough determination, and Stephan James is not only handsome but also blessed with kind eyes and a warm smile. Who wouldn’t be drawn to them? Studies show that we trust and like attractive people more readily than ugly people, and clearly Jenkins was not going to take any chance that the audience might not sympathize with his protagonists. Mind you, I’m not complaining about the casting; it was a pleasure watching these two fall in love on screen.

We don’t learn the nature of the crime with which Fonny has been charged until 45 minutes into the movie, although we learn in the first five minutes that he is in jail. Jenkins also softens the scene of the first sexual encounter between the two by having Fonny gently cover Tish’s naked breasts with a blanket in a gesture that is both protective and romantic. It subtly tells us that Fonny could not have done what he is charged with; he just isn’t that kind of guy.

Sadly, under our flawed, overcrowded, injustice system, it doesn’t much matter whether a person is guilty or innocent, especially if the person is poor or black. Most never go to trial. In fact, according to legal scholar William J. Stuntz, an astounding 94% of state felony convictions and 97% of federal convictions stem from plea bargains. If you can’t afford bail, you’ll sit in jail, waiting for your day in court, often for months and sometimes for years. So you take the deal and the record, just to get out of jail and back to your life. As Tish says to the audience in voiceover narration, “I hope that no one has to talk to anyone they love through a glass.”

Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal.

Moreover, plea bargains have now become the safer bet in a legal system where freedom hangs on how a jury interprets the evidence and the defendant. Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal. The deadly “to life” tacked on to many sentences today is especially chilling for the innocent; how can you convince the parole board of your remorse for a crime you did not commit?

The routine indeterminate sentencing of “to life,” which is bad for many reasons, was created three generations ago by liberal reformers. Its heyday is long past and needs to be eliminated, along with mandatory sentencing and three-strikes rules, to allow judges to judge and prisoners to have hope.

If Beale Street Could Talk presents a powerful story of love, loss, and loyalty. Baldwin’s 1974 portrayal of the injustice of our court system is just as true today. Barry Jenkins’ film version is not completely true to the novel, nor should it be — film is a visual and aural genre and needs to be adapted accordingly. The film is beautiful to watch, even though it is heartbreaking to comprehend.


Editor's Note: Review of "If Beale Street Could Talk," directed by Barry Jenkins. Annapurna, 2018, 119 minutes.



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No White Saviors Need Apply

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Witty, ironic, meaningful, and delightfully entertaining, Green Book is quite possibly the best movie released in 2018.

It’s based on the true story of African-American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the unlikely friendship he developed with Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a Copacabana bouncer and self-proclaimed bullshitter. In fall 1962 Shirley hired Tony to be his driver and bodyguard during a concert tour through the South of the Don Shirley Trio, consisting of Shirley and two white string musicians. What follows is a new twist on the old buddy genre as two opposites, one black, suave, educated, and sophisticated and the other white, uncouth, ill-spoken, and street smart, learn to like each other. The two could not be more different, or more written against stereotype.

Shirley is an isolated individualist — certainly not defined by his race, but confined by Jim Crow nonetheless.

The name of the movie comes from a guidebook published by the Negro Tourists Bureau from the 1930s to the mid-1960s called The Negro Motorist Green Book. As you can guess, it identified restaurants, hotels, and public buildings that travelers of African descent could patronize. It was demeaning, and the Don Shirley Trio could make three times as much money doing gigs in New York, where they were more accepted and could move more freely. But, like Jackie Robinson before him, Don Shirley was out to make a point and blaze trails. He chose the southern circuit on purpose. Oleg (Dimiter D. Marinov), the bass player, understands. “Genius is not enough,” he explains to Tony. “It takes courage to change people’s hearts.”

We also realize that genius is not enough to bring happiness, any more than money is. Shirley is educated, talented, and rich, but he drinks alone. He knows the white European masters of music, but he doesn’t recognize Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, or Sam Cooke. He is a gourmand, but has never tasted fried chicken. He isn’t welcome in the hotel where his companions are staying, but when some men staying at the Green Book hotel invite him to join them for a game of horseshoes, he doesn’t know what to do. “If I’m not black enough, or white enough, or man enough, then tell me — what am I?” he asks Tony in anguish. He is an isolated individualist — certainly not defined by his race, but confined by Jim Crow nonetheless.

The acting throughout the film is superb. Ali won a Golden Globe for his role as the regal, impeccable Shirley; his comedic timing for noncomic dialog is perfect, and wait till you see him play the piano! In fact, the music in this film is stunning. Mortensen packed on the pounds and embraced his inner slob to play the lovable, slovenly, totally unself-aware Tony Lip. Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife Dolores is so perfect that Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s real-life son and the author of the book on which the screenplay is based, said that he was in tears whenever Cardellini was on camera, because she is so much like his mother. Cardellini is one of those quietly unsung actors who is marvelous in everything she chooses to do. In addition, many of the people in the family scenes are not actors but members of the Vallelonga extended family, and there is an authentic vibrancy as they interact with one another around the table.

Tony is an equal opportunity bigot; he warns Shirley to “watch out for them Krauts and Cuban bastards.”

Unfortunately, following the film’s initial praise from critics when it opened and its three wins at the Golden Globes (for Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Picture) the reputation of this fine film was maligned. Critics recently charged that it’s “racist” and another “white savior story.” Either these people haven’t seen the film, or they don’t understand the “white savior" genre, or they’re terrified to speak out against the progressivist hegemony.

Well, I’m not afraid to speak out. The person who is saved in this film is not the cultured, wealthy, talented black pianist, who hires the bodyguard, pays the bills, and calls the shots. It’s the gauche, ignorant, uncouth, bigoted white restaurant bouncer who takes the job and the orders. And anyone who suggests that any film with a black star and a white star necessarily creates a hierarchy with the black man at the bottom is being, well, just plain racist.

At the beginning of the movie Tony is comfortable in his bigotry. He’s a product of his environment, and his environment has been racist. He’s an equal opportunity bigot, however; he warns Shirley to “watch out for them Krauts and Cuban bastards.” Tony agrees to be Shirley’s driver and manage his itinerary, but he flatly refuses to launder his employer’s clothes or shine his shoes. He needs the money the job will provide, but he’s a little embarrassed by the relationship; when someone questions him about it he responds, “He ain’t my boss — I work for the record company!” At his home, when two black repairmen finish a heavy job, Dolores gives them each a glass of water. Seeing this, Tony fishes the glasses out of the sink and drops them into the trash. He will not be putting his lips where black lips have been. Does this sound like someone with a “white savior complex” to you? I think it’s no coincidence that during his concerts Shirley often plays a jazzy medley of songs from South Pacific, one of which bears the lyric, “You've got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made, / And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade. / You've got to be carefully taught.” This film shows that you can be untaught as well.

Although Tony does rescue Shirley from a couple of beatings, which he is paid to do, Shirley rescues Tony from jail.

The reversal of stereotypes continues when the well-spoken Dr. Shirley offers to correct Tony’s diction and make him more presentable in fine society, an ironic (and witty) race reversal. He even tries to change Tony’s last name to Valley, “something more pronounceable,” in an ironic nod to the emasculating and insidious practice of renaming slaves for the convenience of the owner when they were purchased. While Tony is the star of the movie, Shirley is the power of the relationship. He even owns a throne.

In every way, Dr. Don Shirley is superior to Tony. He is wealthier, more educated, more refined. He lives in a beautifully appointed apartment above Carnegie Hall and wears immaculately tailored suits, while Tony lives in a small apartment in the Bronx and wears ill-fitting bowling shirts. Although Tony does rescue Shirley from a couple of beatings, which he is paid to do, Shirley rescues Tony from jail. Tony is the protagonist on this journey, the one who changes, the one who is saved from his own bigotry to discover a friendship that would last until the end of his life. Not willing to share a glass with a black man? By the end of the film he is walking around in his undershorts and sleeping in the same room.

No, the real concern about this film — the true progressivist fear that’s whitewashed by accusations of white saviorism — is that it does not fit the current narrative of blacks as victims who need saving. (Ironically, at the behest of our mostly white legislators.) The hypocrisy is so blatant it’s maddening. Don Shirley’s “sin” is that he achieved success through hard work and talent — yes, by his bootstraps — and that he espoused a philosophy of peaceful resistance. "You don’t win with violence,” he tells Tony. “You only win with dignity.” Try touting that philosophy with activists today.

Tony is the protagonist on this journey, the one who changes, the one who is saved from his own bigotry to discover a friendship that would last until the end of his life.

In one particularly poignant scene, Shirley and Tony happen to stop near a field of black laborers to check something in the car. Camera filters intensify the lighting of the scene, mimicking the muted colors of a mid-century painting. No words are spoken, and none are necessary. The laborers stand in the fields picking cotton, dressed in headscarves and calico, while Shirley sits in the backseat of a Cadillac DeVille picking lint from his tailored suit with his soft manicured hands — for one reason: Shirley was given not only a talent for music but also a mother who could recognize it, nurture it and sell it. The key to his success is hinted at in the unsung lyrics of “Happy Talk,” also from the South Pacific medley: “You got to have a dream. / If you don’t have a dream / How you gonna have a dream come true?” Yes, Shirley, as well as the fieldworkers, faced racism and Jim Crow laws. Shirley had to live by the Green Book when he traveled, and he hated it. But he wasn’t victimized by it. He had a dream, and he made it happen.

In sum, Don Shirley’s story does not fit the political narrative of black suppression and victimhood that can only be righted through in-your-face activism and hatred toward whites. We are allowed to admire Black Panther as a strong leader and role model without disturbing the political narrative because he comes from Africa and has not been “tainted” by American sins. But we mustn’t tolerate the example of strong African-American characters without the backdrop of white racism. Thus a central theme of Hidden Figures — a film about the remarkable black women mathematicians who worked in NASA’s space program — deals with the women having to leave the building where they worked to use the colored bathrooms in a distant building, despite the fact that NASA already provided integrated bathrooms at that time. Talk about “demeaning.” Hollywood put them in the colored stalls, not NASA.

Similarly, the story of Don Shirley’s remarkable achievement must be sullied through unfair and untrue criticism of the powerful, witty, uplifting movie based on his life, simply because it doesn’t fit the acceptable stereotype. Indeed, I was soundly criticized for praising this film. But I won’t be cowed. And don’t you be fooled: Green Book is quite possibly the best movie you’ll see this year.


Editor's Note: "Green Book," directed by Peter Farrelly. Participant Media, 2018, 130 minutes.



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Ominous Parallels?

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A congressman wrote to a friend about an argument on the floor of the House of Representatives:

I never said a word to anybody, but quietly cocked my revolver in my pocket and took my position in the midst of the mob, and as coolly as I write it to you now, I had made up my mind to sell out my blood at the highest possible price.

An historian described the atmosphere in the Capitol in this way:

Recurrently, speakers lashed out in passages that threatened to precipitate a general affray. . . . Practically all members were now armed with deadly weapons. In both chambers, Senator Hammond said, “the only persons who do not have a revolver and a knife are those who have two revolvers.” For a time a New England Representative, a former clergyman, came unarmed, but finally he too bought a pistol. A Louisiana Congressman threatened to fetch his double-barrelled shotgun into the House. Supporters of both parties in the galleries also bore lethal weapons, and were ready to use them.

I quote from Allan Nevins’ The Emergence of Lincoln (New York, 1950; 2.121, 124), the best study I know of American politics in the late 1850s. The passages I cite refer to events of early 1860. In the middle of 1861, such events and the emotions that accompanied them produced their final effect — civil war.

What produced this expansion of political and military force, much of it permanent, though unimaginable in earlier American history?

Daniel Webster (and many others) had warned that factional disputes, intensified without limit, could result only in catastrophe:

Sir, he who sees these states, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without producing the crush of the universe. (Speech in the Senate, March 7, 1850)

The warnings were heard and understood; yet, as Lincoln was to say in his second inaugural address, “the war came.”

What produced this awful effect, this war in which a million people perished, and more were dreadfully wounded? What produced this war of limbs hacked off without anesthetic, of towns put to the torch, of economic and psychological devastation on an enormous scale? What produced this expansion of political and military force, much of it permanent, though unimaginable in earlier American history? And what produced the peace that followed the war, a peace in which black people, the objects of the victors’ alleged solicitude, languished in poverty and systematic humiliation, generation after generation? And this sorry peace was inseparable from the war itself.

In the second inaugural Lincoln identified what he considered the causes of the conflict:

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.

Lincoln’s words impute to the major actors more conscious choice and final purpose than most of them felt. Jostling one another in the pursuit of immediate ends, leaders on both sides employed political methods that were not intended to produce a war, yet turned out to be the best means of doing so.

Let me put it in this way. Suppose you want to effect a violent disruption of human life. Here are some things you can do.

1. Convince yourself that you and your friends are right, entirely, and no one else is right, at all, about anything, thereby creating as many political divisions as possible. Reject any speculation that other people, though wrong, may have serious reasons for being that way.

A flood of propaganda spread the idea that no one who disagreed with the latest version of partisan orthodoxy could possibly have any but immoral reasons for doing so.

2. Try to make sure that the political field is cleared of everyone but deadly enemies.

It is often said, and this is true, that before the 1830s Southerners were in general agreement that slavery was an evil, and many Southerners were more than amenable to limiting and eventually getting rid of it. There is also general agreement that the great majority of Northerners were happy enough to endorse ideas for the gradual abolition of slavery; indeed, every Northern state that started with slavery had successfully ended it. Even in the slave states, there were large numbers of free black people — by 1860, 250,000 of them.

Yet 30 years of being labeled enemies by both the partisans of slavery and the partisans of abolition progressively immobilized the ordinary, mildly well-intentioned middle range of public opinion. A flood of propaganda, emanating from each camp of zealots, spread the idea that no one who disagreed with the latest version of partisan orthodoxy could possibly have any but immoral reasons for doing so. Of the thousands of low points in this supposed dialogue, I will mention one — the political emasculation of Webster, formerly the North’s most admired public figure, at the hands of his fellow New England intellectuals, for the crime of supporting the Compromise of 1850. Thus Whittier, the supposedly gentle Quaker poet, depicting Webster as Satan in hell and Noah in his drunkenness:

Of all we loved and honored, naught
Save power remains;
A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.

From those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!

Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame! (Whittier, “Ichabod”)

Note the instructive tone, the ecclesiastical certainty (“the soul has fled”), the moralistic comments and commands. These methods, though repulsive to almost everyone, are necessary to your purpose. You cannot be too self-confident when affixing the mark of Cain. Guard yourself: you must never become conscious of the irony involved in damning people while pretending that they are only worth ignoring.

Leaders on both sides employed political methods that were not intended to produce a war, yet turned out to be the best means of doing so.

3. Once you’ve converted potential collaborators into scorned opponents, and multiplied those opponents, do your best either to silence or to enrage them. Southerners were better at this than Northerners. In the South, the mails were censored to prevent dissemination of anti-slavery opinion, and mobs were formed to rid communities of people who gave signs of being anti-slavery; in ten Southern states, the Republican Party wasn’t even on the ballot. But in the North as well, jurists, writers, and teachers were targets of political correctness. Mobs were raised against “agents of the South,” non-abolitionists were purged from Protestant clergies, and politically active people were hounded into choosing between an official Democratic Party, directed by an incompetent president, which insisted that the Kansas-Nebraska Act be renounced and reviled, and a rising Republican Party, which insisted, for opposite reasons, that the Kansas-Nebraska Act be renounced and reviled.

4. Turn marginal positions into moral and political tests. The great issue of the 1850s was the question of whether slavery should be permitted in the Western territories, where no one but wild fanatics had ever believed that slavery could subsist. The North nonetheless demanded that it be banned by act of Congress, and the South nonetheless demanded that it be promoted by act of Congress. Sectional moralists indignantly rejected the Kansas-Nebraska idea, once favored by the South, that the question be left up to the people of the territories. Here was an issue of no practical importance, but it became the test of political viability. Emphasizing politically marginal questions makes it certain that marginal politicians will rise to the top; and if trouble is what you want, these people will give it to you.

5. Try to win, not by debate, but by definition; this is what “principled” people do. To the South and its friends, Republicans were always Black Republicans; that’s what they were. To radical Northerners, all proposals from south of the Mason-Dixon line were by definition products of the Slave Power, which was attempting to spread chattel slavery throughout the North, and ultimately to rule the Western hemisphere. It followed that useful proposals, such as gradual emancipation, which had attracted great sympathy on both sides of the Ohio, were by definition entering wedges of the opposition’s Satanic schemes, to be rejected out of hand.

Emphasizing politically marginal questions makes it certain that marginal politicians will rise to the top; and if trouble is what you want, these people will give it to you.

6. Do your best to promote identity politics — the quest for power considered as a right derived from group membership. Southern partisans applauded the Supreme Court’s bizarre decision in the Dred Scott case, asserting that the Constitution governed everyone but protected only persons of non-African descent, while the cultural leaders of the North assumed that the Constitution was of no effect whenever it contradicted the will of God, which was effectively the will of Northern clergymen.

7. Render yourself blind to your own hypocrisy. The goal of hardcore abolitionists was (hold on to your hat) the secession of the North from the South, an act that would relieve the North of any possible association with slavery. To say that this idea expressed maximal concern for the tender consciences of abolitionists and minimal concern for the welfare of the slaves would be a pathetic understatement. As documented by such historians as Edward Renehan (The Secret Six, 1997), few abolitionists (John Brown was an exception) had any respect for actual, living African-Americans. Distinguished leaders of the abolition movement spoke of them in terms I do not wish to quote. Most hardcore abolitionists were also pacifists, advocates of “non-resistance.” Yet when secession happened, they became fervent advocates of violence as a means of crushing the other section’s suddenly illegal and immoral rupture of the union. Southern publicists cultivated a similarly gross hypocrisy — a growing emphasis on the Christianizing and civilizing effects of slavery, amid increasing attempts to criminalize the education of black people and curtail their practice of religion.

8. The fact that you can’t perceive your hypocrisy doesn’t mean that other people can’t; to prevent its public disclosure, you must therefore remove from positions of influence everyone who sees you as you are. Any pretext will do. You can follow the example of the religious proponents of slavery who removed honest preachers from the pulpit, as punishment for being divisive. Or you can take your cue from the religious opponents of slavery, who attacked all who differed with them as foes of Christian love.

Few abolitionists had any respect for actual, living African-Americans. Distinguished leaders of the abolition movement spoke of them in terms I do not wish to quote.

9. Flirt with, encourage, and finally idealize violence. In 1856, Charles Sumner, Republican of Massachusetts, delivered a speech in the Senate that was so insulting to a Southern senator, a person who had aided and befriended him, that Stephen Douglas, listening, muttered to himself, “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.” The candidate for other damned fool was Congressman Preston Brooks, Democrat of South Carolina. He didn’t try to kill Sumner, only to humiliate him, but he went to the Senate chamber and assaulted him with a cane. Once he had started, he became more enthusiastic and wounded him so badly that he might have died. The response of Southern partisans was to celebrate Brooks’ achievement, often with souvenirs of model canes, as if caning your political foes were an act of Arthurian virtue. In 1859, John Brown’s attempt to abolish slavery by inciting a servile insurrection — a campaign in which the first enemy slain was Heyward Shepherd, a free black man — sent Emerson, Thoreau, and other Best People of the North into paroxysms of idolatry. Their celebrations of Brown were immediately followed by a wave of Southern lynchings of people erroneously suspected of being in league with him. The participants seem never to have regretted their mistakes; it was all in a good cause.

When things have gone that far, what’s left but war? It’s true, few people, North or South, black or white, wanted a civil war; comparatively few people in the South actually wanted secession, and none of them would have wanted it if they’d had enough sense to visualize its consequences. But when zealots who hold political power cannot stand to be in the same room with one another, except when they are armed — physically or rhetorically — with weapons of destruction, the only choice remaining is the choice between peaceful dissolution and civil war. And few people of that kind will settle for peaceful dissolution.

Once Brooks had started, he became more enthusiastic and wounded Sumner so badly that he might have died.

So much for the events and feelings of the mid-19th century. Do they have anything to say to us, about our own time?

You can answer that question as well as I can. The idea of “ominous parallels” is basically a joke — nothing is really parallel in history, and the most ominous thing about purported parallels is probably the strength of people’s belief in them. But alleged parallels can suggest real similarities, however distant — and important dissimilarities, too.

When I compare 1860–61 with 2018–19, one dissimilarity seems especially important: the difference in intellectual culture, historical knowledge, and capacity for complex political thought between the leaders of then and the leaders of now. Seward, Lincoln, Crittenden, Davis, Benjamin, Douglas, Stephens, Houston, and immediately before them, Webster, Benton, Clay . . . We can discuss their delusions, their false perspectives, their sacrifices of long-term to short-term benefits, their strange errors of judgment. But please show me a list of equally intelligent, capable, knowledgeable, or even personally interesting political leaders in America today.

You can’t? That’s what I call ominous.




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