Barbara Branden, RIP

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Two weeks ago I received a message from Barbara Branden expressing joy that her book, The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986), was now available as an ebook, with a new introduction by her. Nice going! I thought, to have a book in print for 27 years, and to be reintroducing it today, in a form of publication unknown when the book was written.

In her 84 years, Barbara herself passed through many forms and editions, without ever losing her essential being, or her essential spunk. When very young, she and her former husband Nathaniel Branden became acquainted with Ayn Rand — first as inquirers into the philosophic and literary work of an author who was not, at the time, particularly well known; then as virtual family members, the innermost of Rand’s inner circle; then as Rand’s chief publicists; then as her first biographers (Who Is Ayn Rand? [1962]); then as disillusioned former disciples (1968).

Now here is the very unusual thing: both Barbara and Nathaniel repudiated their absurdly flattering and credulous biography and many of the fanatical conclusions that their mentor had derived from her libertarian and Objectivist premises, but they didn’t throw the accomplishments out with the failures. They kept investigating and publicizing the best parts of Rand, her true intellectual accomplishments. And in 1986, Barbara produced the first real biography of her former friend, a work that demonstrated she could not only admire but also distinguish what was worthy of admiration. She showed where her earlier biography had gone wrong, and she had a lot to say about where she herself had gone wrong during the time when she wrote it. No maudlin emotions, no spite was expressed — but a great deal of gratitude for the true things Rand taught.

Very few authors ever repudiate anything they’ve written; even fewer repudiate their writings in a candid and discriminating manner. And very few libertarians or Objectivists have ever possessed the charm, the personal persuasiveness of Barbara Branden. I sometimes think that there would be millions more libertarians if there were only a few more people able to speak like Barbara. She was never interested in rhetorical victories or smart remarks (though she did have a taste for ironic epigram); she was interested in stating a case clearly and smoothly (no “ums” allowed). She succeeded, both in private and in public.

Barbara was a prize speaker at libertarian events, but I can tell you that she was also an excellent listener, one of the best listeners I have ever known among ideologically inclined people. She didn’t debate; she didn’t spar for intellectual advantage; she didn’t pretend to know what she didn’t know; she asked questions, acknowledged contrasting ideas, made suggestions, said things like “I hope you’re right,” and smiled with joy over the human fellowship that real conversation brings.

Very few libertarians or Objectivists have ever possessed the charm, the personal persuasiveness of Barbara Branden.

Memories. I remember sitting on the big couch in Barbara’s apartment in Los Angeles, while she took a day to help me with the research I was doing for The Woman and the Dynamo, my biography of Isabel Paterson. Rand was Paterson’s disciple, and Barbara was Rand’s disciple, and now Barbara was helping me, the latter-day disciple of Paterson. She was completing one of the many circles that libertarians needed to complete. When my book came out, Barbara received it with pleasure, despite the different interpretations it presented of some important things in her own book. Another author would have resented them; she assuredly did not.

I remember attending the party that preceded the auction of some of Rand’s papers, at Los Angeles in 1998, talking with Barbara, and watching her pose for pictures with Nathaniel. She didn’t pretend not to cry; not all the cycles of her life had been pleasant for her, although she was happy to see this particular cycle returning on an upward curve. She did not cry when I talked with her on the phone while she was recovering — oh, this was many years ago — from a cancer that could have claimed her life. I called, fearing to find her at death’s door. Not at all! Her voice was a little weak, but her spirit was confident. “I am learning,” she said, “not to be a cancer-prone person.”

I remember Barbara telling me about the time when she (and Nathaniel, I believe) were arguing with Bennett Cerf, Rand’s publisher, a man known as a modern liberal. “I don’t think that went very deep,” Barbara said. “When we pressed him about the liberal idea that people should sacrifice to help ‘those less fortunate than themselves,’ he finally said, ‘We have to do it, because otherwise they’ll destroy us.’”

I remember looking forward to visiting Los Angeles so I could go with Barbara to her favorite restaurant (a place with “Hamburger” in the name) and hear more of her stories. I remember Barbara’s healthy appreciation for handsome, hunky men. I remember her humor. And I remember her good humor. Some people are born bitter; others have bitterness thrust upon them; Barbara always refused that gift. She was interested in more vital matters.

I remember so many other things about Barbara . . . but how strange it seems to say “remember,” as if she were actually gone. True, she died on December 11, 2013 — in her sleep, after leaving a hospital where she had been treated, apparently with at least temporary success, for a lung ailment. But no one who knew Barbara Branden will believe she is actually gone.

rsquo; he finally said,




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The Wave Breaks

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Kathleen Sebelius’ tardy and reluctant, oh so reluctant, release of the numbers of consumers who have affiliated themselves with Obamacare offered few surprises. For several days, the administration had been leaking estimates (which it then disavowed in public), in an attempt to remove the element of surprise — nay, shock — from the announcement of how few customers have shown up.

The administration now claims that 106,000 of these people have appeared, 27,000 on its own website and the rest through mechanisms set up by the states. The total is said to be one-fifth of those anticipated by the administration, which in early October had celebrated the alleged materialization of “millions” of eager Obamaites.

California, which has its own signup procedure, managed to get 35,000 people enrolled. Meanwhile, one million insurance policies were canceled in the state. Nationwide, over five million policies have been canceled — 50 times more than the 100,000+ customers reported by Secretary Sebelius.

And of course, the administration’s figures are far from wholly truthful. They include in the category of “signups” everyone who has merely “selected a plan,” whether the plan has been purchased or not. Even “Greg Sargent’s take from a liberal perspective” in the Washington Post warned the White House against obscuring the real numbers in this way, but the White House never resists a temptation.

Nevertheless, Sebelius actually had the nerve to say about the ridiculously small success of the program she administers, “The promise of quality, affordable coverage is increasingly becoming reality in this first wave of applicants. We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months.”

King Canute amused the world by stationing himself on the seashore and demanding that the waves retreat. Kathleen Sebelius, the servant of King Obama, now stations herself on the shores of the Potomac and commands a “wave” of helpless people to struggle toward her waiting arms. It is a peculiarly repulsive spectacle.




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What? When? Why?

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Exactly what did the president just “apologize” for?

For lying, when he promised, over 30 times, that if you like your insurance you can keep it, “period”?

No.

For saying, as late as Sept. 25, “If you already have healthcare, you don’t have to do anything”?

No.

For misleading people when he said those things?

No.

For causing millions of people to lose their insurance, and other millions to lose their full-time jobs over the insurance issue, caused by him?

No.

For permitting a healthcare delivery system to be initiated despite the fact that the people administering it knew it wouldn’t work?

No.

“You know — I regret very much that — what we intended to do, which is to make sure that everybody is moving into better plans because they want ’em, as opposed to because they're forced into it. That, you know, we weren't as clear as we needed to be — in terms of the changes that were takin' place. . . .

“Keep in mind that most of the folks who are gonna — who got these c — cancellation letters, they'll be able to get better care at the same cost or cheaper in these new marketplaces. Because they'll have more choice. They'll have more competition. They're part of a bigger pool. Insurance companies are gonna be hungry for their business.

“So — the majority of folks will end up being better off, of course, because the website's not workin' right. They don’t necessarily know it right. But it — even though it's a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged . . . I am sorry that they — you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me.”

Huh? If that’s an apology, what is he apologizing for?

And when did he realize that he was, uh, well, uh, uh . . . that he might be somewhat, uh . . . at fault . . . ? Or no, that he needed to . . . maybe . . . uh . . . apologize? . . . Or no, that he needed to say those magic words “I am sorry”? I mean, stick them somewhere in a sentence.

Was it on Oct. 30, when he belligerently claimed that he had never said that if you liked your insurance, you could keep it, period, because what he had actually said was that you could keep it if it didn’t change (because he made laws to force it to change)?

Was it last week and all this week, when his propaganda machine blamed the insurance companies for causing all the problems?

Was it last week and all this week, when his propaganda machine blamed the Republicans for causing all the problems?

Was it when he and his party claimed that millions of people had gone online to sign up for insurance? Or when they kept claiming that the insurance website was entirely cool? Or when, last week, they claimed that it was fully functional, just somewhat “slow”? Or when — even now, five weeks after the disaster began — they decline to tell anyone how many people have managed to sign up? Or when — constantly — they have claimed that Obamacare has already reduced the cost of insurance “for everyone”?

What? When? . . . And why? Does anyone believe that Obama “apologized” because he was sincerely aggrieved to discover that he had done something wrong? In short, does anyone still believe that he has a conscience?

Tell me.




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Scylla Defeats Charybdis

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Last night (Nov. 5) Democratic fixer Terry McAuliffe became governor of Virginia by defeating Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in a singularly unpleasant race. The Libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis, finished with 6.6% of the vote—a more than respectable total in most statewide elections, but ultimately a bit disappointing in this one, given the almost South Parkesque awfulness of the major-party pair.

As noted earlier in this space, Sarvis had hoped to be included in the final televised debate on Oct. 24, and seemed to have met the requirement of polling at least 10% in major independent statewide opinion polls (in fact, as of the final poll before the debate, he was polling at 12%). But the decision was made — likely because of strong pressure from the Cuccinelli campaign — to hold to a cutoff of Oct. 10 for the polling data, back when Sarvis averaged just over 9%.

If it was Cuccinelli who supplied the pressure, it was a craven but politically expedient move. Trailing McAuliffe by seven to ten percentage points both before and immediately after the debate, the Cooch — no really, that’s the nickname — saw a chance to make up some of that gap by taking votes out of Sarvis’s hide rather than McAuliffe’s. Given Cuccinelli’s firm Catholic belief, I can only assume he derived this strategy from 2 Samuel 12, where the rich man shrewdly steals a poor man’s lone lamb rather than culling one from his own vast flocks. Wherever he got it, though, the result was Rand Paul coming out to stump for Cuccinelli, and bizarre arguments being made in conservative-friendly press outlets such as Breitbart about how Cuccinelli was actually the more libertarian choice.

Never mind that the Virginia AG wanted to remake sodomy into a felony crime, or that he has an anti-immigrant streak a border-fence wide, or that he used his office to threaten a lawsuit against a university scientist for research he didn’t like. The real problem is that he just comes off as insufferable even by the standards of politicians; to be regarded less favorably than Terry McAuliffe —someone whom even the Daily Show, no friend to conservative or libertarian causes, labeled “pond scum”— takes some doing.

In fact, the only thing that seemed to be more unfavorable still was the Affordable Care Act, especially with the ongoing “glitches” in implementation and the parade of lies told by Obama and his advisors coming daily to light. So Cuccinelli doubled down on his pitch to Virginia’s fiscal conservatives, billing himself as the candidate who could stop Obamacare. Though Sarvis had been gathering support in southwest Virginia — up to 20% in regional polls, and even a newspaper endorsement from the Danville Bee — some people evidently defected for Cuccinelli, and the race tightened up notably over the final week.

As a result, those in the Democrat base who may have considered voting Sarvis as a protest vote (or as a vote for his stronger commitment to marriage equality and other generally liberal social issues) ended up choking back their bile and voting McAuliffe instead. And even so, it was closer than most polls inicated: the final margin was about two percentage points, and that’s with the Democrats outspending the GOP by about $15 million.

It remains to be seen what promises McAuliffe had to make, and to whom, in order to get that money, and the state of Virginia can now look forward to the time when those favors get called in. It’s very likely that the list of beneficiaries will include favored contracting firms, green-energy boondoggles, “clean” coal miners, and the NSA shadow economy that spiderwebs through the DC suburbs. But who knows? After all, this is a man who stopped at a fundraiser on the way back from the hospital with his wife and newborn child; he has specialized for decades in connecting people with money to people power, and now he’s the one with the power. He’ll wield it while filling an office previously held by the likes of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe.

As with most elections, the best one can say about this one is that, thank God, it’s over. And there is a bright side, at least from a policy standpoint: the Republicans maintained a “solid” House of Delegates majority, meaning that it’ll be a street fight for McAuliffe to get anything done. But it also means the bitterness of the campaign trail will extend into every legislative tussle over the next four years. One can only hope that the Old Dominion sees better options come 2017.

in major independent statewide opinion polls (in fact, as of the final poll before the debate, he was polling at 12%). But the decision was made



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Yet Another New Record

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Well, the autocrat occupying the White House got his way. President Obama, with the able assistance of his worshipers in the mainstream media — i.e., the mainstream media in totality — forced the Republicans to give in on both funding the government and raising the debt limit, with no cuts of any kind, especially to ObamaCare. Obama promptly celebrated with a gloating, moon-in-your-face news conference, in which he bragged about his achievement.

And he promptly set a new record. The first day the limit was raised, he added an eye-popping $328 billion to the national debt — yes, in one day. This was the greatest addition to the US debt in history, eclipsing the earlier record of $238 billion added in one day. That one was set in 2011, by none other than Obama himself.

Actually, the neosocialist nabob set two new records. The second was, for the first time, a thrust of the national debt to over $17 trillion — to be exact, $17.075 trillion. This is hugely ironic, considering the fact that the fiscally incontinent Obama accused his predecessor of being “unpatriotic” for incurring far less debt.

The lapdogs in the mainstream media have not touched this story, although they were willing to run phony stories about how the poor citizens were suffering under the government shutdown and the “threat” of default (the only threat, of course, came from Obama).

Unfortunately, however, the debt story is even worse than indicated above. According to the deal Obama pushed for and won, he can add as much debt as he wants until February 7 of next year. That gives him four months to keep adding hundreds of billions a day, if he chooses.




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Filner Found Felonious in Sizzling Sex Scandal

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I am a resident of San Diego who has disliked former Mayor Robert Filner from the moment he first reared his ugly head in electoral politics — and that was a long, long time ago. As far as I’m concerned, he is a man with no good qualities. So I was not unhappy when he (at last!) became the subject of national ridicule. I was disappointed, however, that he was ridiculed almost exclusively for being what the early 20th century called a masher, “a man who attempts to force his attentions on a woman.”

Filner did hundreds of things wrong, besides planting unwelcome kisses and giving hugs from which women had difficulty escaping. I thought that some of those other things deserved notice also. But it was the sex behavior that drove him from office a few weeks ago.

On Oct. 15, Filner paid a surprise visit to a local court, where he admitted his guilt for one felony and two misdemeanors. The Los Angeles Times has a convenient summary:

The felony count involves allegations of false imprisonment by "violence, fraud, menace and deceit." The count alleges that Filner used undue force to hold a woman against her will at a political fundraiser in March, apparently in a move known derisively as the "Filner headlock."

The battery counts involve accusations that he kissed one woman at a Meet the Mayor session at City Hall in April and grabbed another by the buttocks at an environmental cleanup . . .

State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said Filner's conduct — touching women inappropriately, kissing them without permission, whispering lewd suggestions — "was not only criminal, it was also an extreme abuse of power."

For such crimes, Filner will be sentenced to three years’ probation and forced to agree not to run for public office again.

News of this event ignited a controversy between citizens who thought he had been punished appropriately and citizens who thought he should have been taken out and hanged. I am one of the few people who appear to have been disgusted by the whole procedure.

First, of course, I’m disgusted with Filner. But second, I’m disgusted with the politically correct pretense that being gross and offensive amounts to “false imprisonment by violence, fraud, menace and deceit,” and that such conduct is something for criminal courts to involve themselves with.

I say “pretense” because nobody really believes that Filner imprisoned anyone, and few people really believe that kissing someone at a Meet the Mayor session should, even theoretically, send you to jail. Run you out of office — fine. But make you liable for imprisonment? Why?

Watch a movie from the 1960s or before, and you will see men — the heroes! — behaving toward women in ways ten times worse than the ways in which Filner behaved.

We live in a time when the news is full of stories about people who have assaulted other people, stolen their property, swindled them out of their life’s savings, clobbered them in a drunken rage, stolen their personal information (are you listening, US government?), instigated riots, kept but did not control vicious and destructive animals, spent years camping, pissing, and shitting on other people’s doorsteps, abandoned infant children while appropriating the mother’s welfare checks, paralyzed cities with acts of political self-expression, and yes, actually held other people against their will, who are never seriously prosecuted for anything — until the day when, by some amazing chance, they end up committing and being apprehended for what is then called “a major crime.” Few other people get excited, even when that happens. But along comes Filner, and the sky falls. The city, we are told, could proceed with the healing process only when Filner was dragged into court and forced by some secret process of plea bargaining into confessing to charges worthy of a pirate with free admission to a nunnery.

Watch a movie from the 1960s or before, and you will see men — the heroes! — behaving toward women in ways ten times worse than the ways in which Filner behaved. Now, in the great B movie that is our public lives, we see the forces of law and light acting exactly like the Legions of Decency that, we are told, used to make such a ridiculous to-do about morals.

The main indecency, it seems to me, is the American people’s long-standing habit of abandoning reason and proportion whenever they hear the magic word SEX. Picture Filner in the dock, confessing to those high crimes and misdemeanors. Now picture the kings and queens of the “music” world, standing on spotlit stages, collecting awards for purveying attitudes toward sex and women so vile, so lewd, that they cannot be exemplified on a site like this.

There is something badly wrong about Robert Filner. There is something much worse about the atmosphere in which we live.




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Have You Tried Turning It Off and On Again?

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The following is a printout that fell from a garbage truck on Pennsylvania Avenue in DC when it ran over a protesting veteran.

[Welcome to the USA online support help chat. A representative will assist you shortly.]

[User BarryH is requesting support.]

[Agent PublicSupport is now online.]

PublicSupport: Hi, how can I help you?

BarryH: My government doesn't work.

PublicSupport: Can you describe the error?

BarryH: It has stopped running. Well, 85% of it still runs, but the rest is frozen.

PublicSupport: What did you do last?

BarryH: Nothing! Well, almost. I loaded the application ObamaCare while I had no more free space in my deficit, and the legislative branch went berserk. I should have gotten rid of it.

PublicSupport: One moment while I investigate . . .

BarryH: Well?

PublicSupport: It appears that the system is working as designed. This happened many times already, and users were not complaining. Have you checked the original specifications?

BarryH: Your specifications? You mean that old, musty, handwritten thing that starts with "We the people"? Couldn't read it, I threw it out.

PublicSupport: That's the source of your problems right there.

BarryH: So what? I won. Make it work.

PublicSupport: A new legislative branch is on its way. Estimate time of arrival is 2014. You might not like it. [End of transmission]

[User PublicSupport left the conversation in utter disgust.]

BarryH: What? Hello? Are you there? . . . Hello? . . .




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Structure vs. Belief

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Many libertarians embrace public choice theory as a sophisticated, intellectually rigorous political analysis that is consistent with libertarian ideas. This does not mean that libertarians should accept it uncritically.

Public choice theory looks at politics through a lens that treats politicians as selfish actors striving to maximize their power and self-interest, not as people chiefly motivated by the public good. Public choice theory has identified several structural defects in the American political process that lead politicians to destroy liberty as a byproduct of their self-interest. One such defect is the dispersion of interests problem, the fact that a rent-seeking law imposing taxes to help a special interest group has a highly concentrated interest group to lobby for it, whereas the interest to lobby against it is dispersed over the entirety of the taxpayers. Individual taxpayers aren’t sufficiently aware of the tax to be highly interested in fighting it.

Another defect is the fact that politicians usually get noticed by the media for what they do, and not for what they don’t do, so election campaigns tend to reward politicians for being active, which leads to bigger government. Because of the fame that attaches to moralistic crusades, the structure of democracy also rewards legislatures for passing new criminal laws, which leads to overcriminalization.

It is the beliefs of the people that caused the decline of liberty and the rise of big government in post-New Deal America.

But despite public choice theory’s analytical value and libertarian leanings, I would argue that it is mistaken about the fundamental cause of statist laws. As an alternative to public choice theory I would present the rule of intended consequences: the reason for the existence of any given law in a republican democracy is the voters’ belief that the law is good and performs a just purpose; the unintended consequences of a law are usually not the primary reason for that law’s existence. This rule holds that the best way to get an unjust law repealed is to persuade the voters that the law is unjust, so that voter pressure will lead the politicians to repeal it.

For example, the reason why gambling is illegal is that mainstream American voters have inherited a Puritan conservative Christian morality dating back to the colonial era, and they feel that gambling is evil and should be illegal. The Indian casino owners and the casinos in Las Vegas and the state lotteries all benefit from the anti-gambling laws. And they all have lobbying power. But despite the lobby whose interest is favored by criminalization, the primary reason for the anti-gambling laws is the feelings of the voters, not the lobbying of the special interests who benefit from the law. If the voting public did not believe that gambling should be illegal, then it would be legalized.

I doubt that any amount of lobbying or special interest funding could keep gambling from being legalized if the politicians thought that the voters strongly favored its legalization. Legislators who fought the tide of public opinion would simply be voted out and replaced by legislators who would obey the public will. Gay marriage and Prohibition are two other examples showing that the law tends to change when the beliefs of the voters change. The rise of gay marriage laws and both the start and end of Prohibition illustrate the fact that politicians will adopt policies that were once unpopular if they see that the mainstream beliefs of the public have changed.

I would characterize the debate between public choice theory vs. the intended consequences rule as a quarrel between structure and belief. Public choice theorists think that the structure of a republican democracy disadvantages liberty and favors the growth of government. In contrast, I think it is the beliefs of the people that caused the decline of liberty and the rise of big government in post-New Deal America. The rise of socialist sympathy in the Democratic Party in the 1930s coincided with the seepage of socialist theories from the late 19th century into the consciousness of the American public. The expansion of our government has followed Americans’ abandonment of the libertarianism of the American Revolution and their acceptance of modern liberal dogma.

If I am correct, then the key to restoring liberty is not to alter the institutional structures of the nation. Instead, the key is to persuade the voting public to believe in liberty, to transform the people’s moral sentiments so that they feel that statist laws are unjust. This challenge may seem difficult to meet, but altering beliefs would be easier than the task presented by public choice theory, which would be nothing short of fundamentally altering the structure of American government. Public choice could probably succeed only through a series of libertarian constitutional amendments, which seems unlikely. The war of ideas and persuasion is the right path for libertarians to focus on.




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Cuckoo War Games?

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Harry Lime — the fabulous villain in the superb film The Third Man — opined about the Swiss: “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!”

Of course, this was as historically false as it was insulting. The Swiss have never been pacifists; they have been fierce fighters, when necessary. In fact, Switzerland has the largest armed forces per capita of any European nation, and it still has the draft. At age 19, all men must undergo military training for five months, and they must take refresher training periodically until age 30.

Regarding Switzerland’s creativity, suffice it to say that among nations with a significant population (over a million citizens), it ranks first in per capita number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences.

All this was brought to mind by the story that in its most recent war games, the Swiss army conducted an exercise that simulated the invasion of Switzerland by — France!

Yes, the Swiss army is training for the scenario in which France, bankrupted by its welfare state excesses, splits into warring sections, and one of them (dubbed “Saonia”) decides to invade Switzerland, to steal its money.

Lord, is this not simply exquisite?

In the simulated invasion, Saonia is dominated by a paramilitary group called the Dijon Free Brigade (the “BLD”), which has convinced its followers that Switzerland somehow stole their money. The BLD invades on three fronts, near Geneva, Lausanne, and Neufchatel.

Considering how offensive the anti-“Saonia” exercise might be to the French — legendarily hypersensitive to slights, or perceived slights — a delicately defensive Swiss captain, Daniel Berger, noted that “the exercise has nothing to do with France, which we appreciate. . . . It was prepared in 2012, when fiscal relations between both countries were less tense.” But, as the article explains, since France elected its socialist government it has become more confrontational about secret Swiss bank accounts — no doubt because most of the productive French citizens who haven’t yet fled the country have hidden their assets abroad.

And this is not the first time the Swiss military has staged politically incorrect war games. Last year, its games simulated an invasion by hordes of southern European refugees after the collapse of something it dubbed “The European Single Currency.” Hmm . . . wonder what that might refer to?

I am moved to offer the plucky Swiss a suggestion for next year’s war games. The Obama neosocialist regime has also pressured the Swiss to provide access to banking information, since some productive Americans who have not yet fled this country are apparently hiding taxes from the president’s “you didn’t earn that” tax ambitions. So perhaps the Swiss should have war games structured around an imagined infiltration of American commando squads, to be dubbed the Obamanista Liberation Army (OLA). The OLA squads would spread through the Swiss countryside, staging attacks on banks, coordinated by their free Obamaphones.

Just a thought.




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The Shutdown, and the Sickness at Our Core

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To me, the most ominous feature of this political moment is the fact that most of the American people appear to regard “shutting down the government” as so dangerous, so frightful, so morally detestable, that they will suffer virtually anything, including the horrors of Obamacare, to avert such Days of Doom.

Many of our fellow citizens do not realize, even after 20 years of threats and experiments in this field, that the real effects of the “shutdown” will be minimal. It will mean a short-term lapse of certain “non-essential government services” (there being thousands of such services deemed essential). But I think that most people do realize that. Nevertheless, they are unwilling to part with even a few of the alleged benefits of government, even temporarily, even for an important cause. In other words, they are willing to burden themselves and everyone else with trillions of dollars of debt, to support programs that most of them heartily dislike, at the behest of lawmakers whom they scorn and ridicule, merely to avoid . . . what? Not getting their mail on Saturday? But they probably will get their mail on Saturday.

I know many people who will fight almost to the death to avoid paying for some item they bought that turned out to be defective, but who rant against the Republicans for resisting Obamacare with the only weapons that are available. None of these people happen to be on the government dole, at least in any way that could conceivably be affected by a “government shutdown.” They all have their own, big beefs with government, and do not hesitate to talk about them. Yet this is how they behave.

The usual explanation for such behavior is “cognitive dissonance”: a clash between two attitudes, both of them devoutly held but each in opposition to the other. Yet in cognitive dissonance theory, people try to find some way of reconciling their opposing attitudes, or at least of rationalizing the opposition. That is not happening now. Our fellow citizens simply announce their hatred for government and their hatred for anyone who tries to act against government.

I am afraid that we are witnessing one of those phenomena that signal a deep sickness within a culture, a sickness for which no name or diagnosis appears to be available. You can see it, but you don’t know what it is.

The woodland Indians of North America valued an attitude of grave deliberation, often spending days or weeks in solemn meditation on the right course to take on issues of practical or moral import. Yet their favorite entertainment was the fiendish torture of other human beings, conducted amid scenes of riotous celebration and clinical interest in every detail of suffering. Something, clearly, was amiss — but nobody thought there was, or tried to reconcile the conflict.

Our fellow citizens simply announce their hatred for government and their hatred for anyone who tries to act against government.

When you watch reports of a political demonstration in the Middle East, what do you see? Usually it is a crowd of young men dressed in designer jeans and the latest sneakers, riotously denouncing Western culture and appropriating every possible Western means of communication to advertise their denunciations. Again, one can see the symptoms of some deep internal conflict, but the conflict inspires no reflection among the participants.

I would consider it wrong for someone on welfare, or Social Security, or a government payroll, to advocate strong government, lecture everyone about the virtue of following government orders, and denounce opponents of big government as anarchists. This would, however, be readily understandable, self-consistent, and in its way psychologically healthy: you benefit from big government; therefore, you openly advocate it. But so far, only Harry Reid, a creature from outer space, has done that; only he has called the opponents of big government “anarchists.” Tens of millions of other citizens lament the government and all its works, as if they themselves were anarchists, while simultaneously resenting and denouncing the very idea of “shutting” it.

In this way — this way alone, but it’s an important way — they are sick, and Harry Reid is healthy. There is something very wrong with this picture.




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