Mirror Blind

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Each week, I prepare a packet of five cartoons that I submit to the editor of a newspaper group. The editor runs one of them. Back in 2012, two of the cartoons that were not published dealt with President Obama’s decision to defer the deportations of the “dreamers” and their parents.

The first cartoon showed two men walking in front of the US Capitol. One says to the other, “Well, you know what they say about power: Abuse it or lose it.”

The second showed an undocumented migrant being interviewed by a journalist at the border. Journalist: “Why are you migrating to the US?” Migrant: “Because in my country the president ignores the legislature and does whatever he wants.” Journalist: “So, why are you migrating to the US?”

I recently resubmitted these two cartoons, on two different weeks. Both were published. The rest were rejected. I think I’ll hold on to them.




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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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We Survived Another Election

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A newspaper columnist in my hometown called the elections of 2018 about social justice and the soul of America. It was, some said, the most important election of our lifetimes.

So much for that. RealClearPolitics projected a Democratic gain in the House of Representatives of 25; Nate Silver said 35. As I write, the day after the election, the result looks to be in that range. The Democrats lost seats in the Senate, which the pollsters had also predicted.

Does that amount to a “blue wave”? Yeah, but more like a surfing wave than the tsunami for which the anti-Trumpers yearned. Consider that in 2010, two years into the reign of Obama, the Tea Party-driven Republicans conquered the House with a 63-seat gain. In 1994, two years into Clinton’s first term, Republicans took the House with a 54-seat gain. In 1966, two years into Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Republicans picked up 47 seats in the House, though they fell short of controlling it. In each of these first-term off-year elections, the “wave” party also took seats in the Senate.

Does that amount to a “blue wave”? Yeah, but more like a surfing wave than the tsunami for which the anti-Trumpers yearned.

So we’ll have a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. That’s not such a bad outcome. We had divided government in most of the Bill Clinton years, and they were better years than most. Congress passed welfare reform, ratified NAFTA, and decided to keep its hands off the Internet — all good.

Rand Paul, libertarians’ favorite Republican senator, was not on the ballot this year, but he would have won. A Republican won Tennessee’s other Senate seat. Justin Amash, libertarians’ favorite Republican congressman, was easily reelected in Michigan.

In New Mexico, big-L Libertarian Gary Johnson came in third with 15% of the vote for a seat in the US Senate. He was not a spoiler; the Democrat had a majority and would have won had Johnson not been on the ballot. Johnson said it is his last campaign. Too bad. He’s a good man — but America has a two-party mind.

It's not such a bad outcome. We had divided government in most of the Bill Clinton years, and they were better years than most.

In Arizona, small-L libertarian Clint Bolick was up for a retention election for his nonpartisan seat on the Arizona Supreme Court. Bolick, who had been appointed to the court by the Republican governor, was targeted by the National Education Association — and he made it through easily.

As with most elections, some of the more interesting things were choices other than candidates, especially in the central and western states. Start with dope and guns. Voters in Michigan, which has had medical marijuana since 2008, passed Proposal 1, general legalization. Voters in North Dakota rejected a similar proposal. Medical marijuana won in Utah, the nation’s most conservative state, and also in Missouri, which had three versions of it on the ballot. Medical marijuana is not a big deal any more, at least outside the South.

Voters in my home state, Washington (which has had medical marijuana for 20 years), passed Initiative 1639, which raises the age for owning a gun to 21. The measure, said to be one of the toughest gun-control laws in the country, was pushed by urban progressives, and they had the votes to pass it.

Medical marijuana is not a big deal any more, at least outside the South.

Washington is a Democratic state with a split personality: it is the leftiest state with no income tax and no appetite for income taxes or any other new taxes. This year its voters nixed Initiative 1631, which would have slapped a hefty tax on gasoline refiners and handed the money — a lot of money — to a coterie of political appointees to spend on environmental good. Bill Gates was for it and Big Oil was against it. Well, the people sided with Big Oil.

Washington also considered Initiative 1634, to prohibit local government from adding new taxes on food. The left-leaning city of Seattle had recently slapped a tax on sugary drinks — a measure that was, of course, entirely for the public health. This went into effect in January, raising the price of a case of Gatorade at Costco from $15.99 to $26.33. Though I-1634 advertised itself as a barrier to taxes on food, everyone knew it was to stop any more raids on the consumers of Coca-Cola, Gatorade, and Red Bull. The propaganda for it was paid for by Big Soda, and Big Soda had a big victory.

Thank you, Big Soda. And Big Oil. Several of my friends voted for the food and gasoline taxes because it offended them deeply that corporate interests were trying to sway their votes. I admit that some of the propaganda was bad, but not so awful as to make me vote against my own interests.

Bill Gates was for it and Big Oil was against it. Well, the people sided with Big Oil.

Californians, I thought, had a better reason to vote for taxes: their roads. I recall a stretch of interstate near Livermore a couple of years ago with so many potholes it looked like something from the Syrian civil war. Since then California’s gas tax has been raised by 12 cents, an increase Proposition 6 would have canceled. And the people voted not to cancel it. Well, I won’t argue with them.

Several states had things on ballots that were offers of free stuff, or almost-free stuff, of a welfare-state nature. One was an expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state medical insurance for the poor. Basic Medicaid covers children, pregnant women, parents, and caretakers. Under Obamacare, states can opt to cover other adults under 65 if their incomes below 138% of the federal poverty level. Some 33 states had opted to do this, but as of this year’s election the rest — mostly “red” states — had not.

Raising the minimum wage has proved to be an irresistible offer in “red” states whose business-friendly leaders are loath to impose it.

The federal government will pay 90% of the cost of Medicaid expansion — the same percentage it paid states to build the interstate highways. It’s an irresistible offer, and Idaho (Proposition 2), Nebraska (Initiative 427), and Utah (Proposition 3) voted to accept it. In Montana, which had already decided to accept the federal money, Initiative 185 asked voters if they wanted to pay the state’s 10% share by increasing the cigarette tax by $2 a pack. That’s a different question, and as I write it looks as if their answer will be no.

Raising the minimum wage has proved to be an irresistible offer in “red” states whose business-friendly leaders are loath to impose it. For example, Arkansas has an $8.50 state minimum because of a ballot measure passed in 2014. Voters there were offered Issue 5 to raise the minimum to $9.25 in 2019, $10 in 2020 and $11 in 2021. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson was against it, as was the state chamber of commerce. And the conservative voters of Arkansas approved it overwhelmingly. In Missouri, where voters just flipped a Senate seat to the Republicans, they raised the state minimum wage from $7.85 to $8.60 in 2019, $9.45 in 2020, $10.30 in 2021, $11.15 in 2022, and $12 in 2023, indexing it thereafter to the Consumer Price Index for urban workers.

Occasionally some electorates do reject freebies. In California, Proposition 10 was a measure to allow local governments to impose rent controls on private housing. And it failed. The people of California voted it down.

Why, I don’t know. Maybe they understood the economics. Maybe it’s just that more homeowners vote than renters.

So much for the election of 2018. The Republic survived.




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What So Fulsomely We Hail

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“It’s so insane,” said Sean Hannity at the start of his May 16 TV show, “there’s so much news; we’ll try to get it into an hour.” He followed this protest against the constraints of time with a summary of what he planned to say in his “opening monologue,” which itself turned out to be a summary of what was going to happen still later in the show: “we’ll have more of that in just a second.” His insane, or at least cockeyed, attempt to outline his remarks lasted 13 minutes, about one-third of the show’s noncommercial time.

Hannity is perhaps the biggest timewaster in “public life.” He is a man who is virtually incapable of making a simple statement or asking his guests a simple question. If he seems to ask a question and they try to answer it, he breaks in to let them know what he would say if anyone put the question to him. The processional and recessional to every segment of these agonizing conversations is a list of the top ten crimes of the Democratic Party, often interrupted by the reminder that he’s “said this again and again.” Hannity could easily get the news into an hour, but there aren’t enough hours in anybody’s day for whatever he thinks he’s doing.

The subject of this month’s column is extras, add-ons, timewasters, and verbal extensions of all kinds. If you like today’s political and cultural discourse, you should be grateful for these things, because without them, that discourse would hardly exist.

Sean Hannity is a man who is virtually incapable of making a simple statement or asking his guests a simple question.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You’ve probably heard the famous story about Calvin Coolidge, who was noted for his brevity. Someone told him that she thought she could get him to say more than two words in response to her, and he replied, “You lose.” This story has taken many forms, in some of which the woman is Dorothy Parker, the writer. That is certainly untrue. What is true is that the story first appeared in public in a speech delivered at a lunch at which Coolidge was present, and that Coolidge immediately denied it. Whether he did so with a twinkle in his eye is not recorded, but I want to think he did, because this probably false anecdote is the only thing that many people know about him, and they like it.

We all like brevity — in other people. We feel, perhaps, that their verbal restraint gives us more time to babble, and that couldn’t be bad. But there is still the problem of how to hold their attention, or at least to make ourselves feel that we do.

Lord Chesterfield, in his immortal letters on social decorum, gives this advice to his son (October 19, 1748):

Talk often, but never long: in that case, if you do not please, at least you are sure not to tire your hearers. . . .
Never hold anybody by the button or the hand, in order to be heard out; for, if people are not willing to hear you, you had much better hold your tongue than them.

We no longer hold unwilling listeners by the button — partly because Chesterfield’s letters helped to improve people’s manners — but we have many other means of coercing attention. One is by being elected to public office. Every public official, from the president to the village chief of police, has or believes he has the right to talk a hundred times longer than he ought to.

We all like brevity — in other people.

How many times has your TV or radio enjoyment been interrupted by a press conference at which a police department spokesman introduces the officer in charge of the investigation, who introduces the chief of police, who elaborately thanks the mayor, sheriff, fire chief, county director of emergency services, and several other microphone-attracted worthies, not forgetting special words for all first responders, whether involved or not, and then, having congratulated them for their incredible and unbelievable performance, slowly reviews information already reported, finally refusing to answer any questions — because, after all, the episode is under investigation?

And how many times have you tuned into a congressional hearing on some issue of real importance (I know, that’s narrowing it down a bit), only to be treated to hours of partisan orations, pretending to be questions? If you’re lucky, this nightmare of boredom may be followed by a real interrogation, but you can be certain it will be so swathed in verbiage that it goes nowhere.

How do these people get elected? How do they get nominated? And why is Hannity, Baron of Blowhards, Prince of Pish-Posh, one of the most popular people on television? Even politicians have to compete for an audience, and these people succeeded. How?

If you’re lucky, this nightmare of boredom may be followed by a real interrogation, but you can be certain it will go nowhere.

The explanation is that some people who could never be held by a button are easily held by an attitude. They feel comforted by existential affinity. The rule of novel writing has always been: if they like 200 pages of this stuff, they’ll like 800 pages better — even if it’s pointless background, meaningless subplot, and purely rhetorical conversation. You may not care what happens to the Joad family, but people who do care, or feel they should care, don’t mind that The Grapes of Wrath is four times longer than it needs to be. They don’t need to be persuaded; they like it already.

In the same way, there are people who leap out of bed in the morning, eager for the endlessly repeated shriekings of The View, and cannot go to sleep at night without the endlessly repeated inanities of Stephen Colbert. I know an intelligent person who thinks that Hillary Clinton is “a brilliant public speaker.” Someone else I know claims that President Trump “goes right to the heart of things.” In other words, Clinton and Trump go magnificently to these people’s hearts, no matter how many times Clinton and Trump bore the pants off everybody else.

Such elective affinities have always been important. But at some times in human history there has been a general belief that a serious public utterance should have a broader appeal — an appeal, perhaps, to taste and insight. That’s not true of our time. Today the great controversial documents are hideous bores, sickening bores, Satanic bores — from Clinton’s speeches to Trump’s speeches to (worst of all) Bernie Sanders’ speeches, and finally to the recent work of Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz (and others), elaborately entitled A Review of Various Actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in Advance of the 2016 Election. Already you can see that the authors have no trouble piling up words. They also seem to know that if you pile them high enough, no one will be able to find the topic. Which would be a problem, if that were your purpose — to discuss your topic. If not, so much the better. Reading that title, who would think the report had anything to do with the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails?

In other words, Clinton and Trump go magnificently to these people’s hearts, no matter how many times Clinton and Trump bore the pants off everybody else.

And who would think that people wanted to read it to find out whether the FBI conducted a biased investigation of Clinton? That’s the question everybody wanted the report to answer — but if you have enough words, you don’t need to answer anything.

The document frequently refers to bias, but this is the way it does it:

There were clearly tensions and disagreements in a number of important areas between [FBI] agents and prosecutors. However, we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative decisions we reviewed in Chapter Five, or that the justifications offered for these decisions were pretextual. (p. iii)

Pretextual? Where have you ever seen that word before? Does it have anything to do with those monkeys that hang by their tails? And speaking of animals, how do you decode that elephantine passage about “tensions and disagreements” and not finding “documentary or testimonial evidence” that bias “directly affected . . . specific [as opposed to nonspecific] investigative decisions”? I think it means that nobody wrote or spoke a confession about having made a biased decision. When you take the pillows off, this is a hard bed to lie in. Nobody ever takes out a piece of paper and writes, as testimonial evidence, “I let Hillary off the hook because I wanted to throw the election to her.”

But Horowitz may be smarter than he sounds. He seems to realize that someone may accuse him (imagine! him!) of bias for excreting such an absurd statement. So, nine pages later, we discover this passage, buried in another mountain of words:

[W]hen one senior FBI official, [Peter] Strzok, who was helping to lead the Russia investigation at the time, conveys in a text message to another senior FBI official, [Lisa] Page, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it” in response to her question “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”, it is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects. This is antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice. (p. xii)

Were you expecting the second half of that amazingly long series of words to say, “this indicates that the two investigations were biased”? Didn’t the first half reveal the documentary or testimonial evidence of biased investigation? But no, the second half identifies only a biased state of mind (which is evidently quite different from simple, two-syllable bias) and a mere willingness to take official action to impact the prospects. The climactic revelation is that this willingness was antithetical to the FBI’s core values. Well! I am so shocked! Who woulda thunk it?

He seems to realize that someone may accuse him (imagine! him!) of bias for excreting such an absurd statement.

One of my favorite sayings is something I heard from a local preacher. He said he was a strong supporter of the First Amendment, because it lets “everyone talk long enough to show how much of a fool he is.” That’s the problem with piling up words, isn’t it? And that’s what we see in the official response of the FBI to the inspector general’s report. Here’s a highlight:

No evidence of bias or other improper considerations was found by the OIG in the [FBI’s] team’s: use of consent, rather than subpoenas, search warrants, or other legal process to obtain evidence; decisions regarding how to limit consent agreements; decision [sic] not to seek personal devices from former Secretary Clinton’s senior aides; decisions to enter into immunity agreements; decisions regarding the timing and scoping [sic] of former Secretary Clinton’s interview, or to proceed [did anyone proofread this?] with the interview with Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson present; and, the decision to obtain testimony and other evidence from Ms. Mills and Ms. Samuelson by consent agreement and with act-of-production immunity.

No evidence, then, except for this and that, and OK, there was also that, and then there’s that other thing. . . . Would that all windbags would discredit themselves as effectively as the blowhards of the FBI.

But they have plenty of competition in official circles. You don’t have to live in Washington; you don’t have to be writing 500-page reports; you can be a blowhard without leaving the provinces, and in only a few ill-chosen words.

Here’s a typical political utterance, from some California potentate grabbing a mike to emit a series of sounds. This person is an advocate of “Title 10,” about which he states: “Title 10 has been a lifeline for about four million Americans in this country.” Never mind what Title 10 is. Never mind that “lifeline” is an image without a fact or definition, and therefore pointless. Never mind that politicians’ statistics are never right, and known never to be right. The idea is simply to make a sentence by throwing things into it. Length equals substance.

Would that all windbags would discredit themselves as effectively as the blowhards of the FBI.

Consider the speaker’s time-wasting substitute for “people”: Americans in this country. (As distinguished from Americans outside this country.) Americans, of course, is better than people, because it drags in the conservative, nationalist attitude to complement the modern-liberal, throw-out-the-lifeline notion. But why in this country? One reason is that about 25 years ago leftist politicians started adding that phrase to every critique they made of America, as in, “There are 30 million people without health insurance in this country.” It sounded cool because it made America into just another country, except that it was worse than all the rest of them. This phrase flourished so mightily that even conservatives now use it, and use it as obsessively as the liberals, and with no hint of satire or, indeed, of any purpose except maintaining a continuous sound. It’s an all-purpose timewaster, one of many phrases useful for bogarting air time: due diligence, first priority, path forward, moving forward, going forward, up for grabs, risk their lives for us every day, 20-20 hindsight, what’s at stake for us as a nation, dear to us as a nation, our values as a nation, never before in our nation’s history, revisit the issue, only time will tell, remains to be seen, nation of immigrants, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, tough road [sic] to hoe, thank you for your service. It’s there to take up space, to keep any other sounds from breaking in, to hold you by the button.

The dumbest of time wasters is the immemorial ya know, still popular after all these years and, I’m sorry to hear, even more popular than it was 20 years ago, when it was the chief verbal identifier of teenagers and illiterate sports figures. Now it’s everywhere.

The host of a morning talk show on one of my local radio stations recently lavished an hour on an interview with a young woman whom he identified as a former assistant superintendent of the school district. She was following up on a mother’s complaint about alleged mistreatment of her handicapped son by a special education teacher. I was stuck in traffic and got to hear almost all of this. Only my sense of duty as a reporter on linguistic developments kept me from turning it off, or killing myself in despair. The commercials were bliss compared with the interview — because of ya know.

It sounded cool because it made America into just another country, except that it was worse than all the rest of them.

I couldn’t tell whether the ex-superintendent’s charges were justified. All my available energy was required just to figure out what she was saying — an attempt in which I failed. She was incapable of narrating any events that took place outside her head. She harped on how she felt, how greatly she was outraged, how greatly she continued to be outraged. She had innumerable ways of repeating her outrage. But what had happened? The host tried to lead her into saying what had happened by summarizing part of the story, but she refused to take the hint. Nevertheless, with the aid of “ya know” she talked continually. There was at least one “ya know” in every sentence, and usually more than one. Some sentence-like bits of debris consisted almost entirely of that phrase. I estimated that by the time I reached my destination she had used “ya know” about 400 times. This is a person whose profession is teaching, who once supervised and presumably trained teachers, and who made no mention of being fired because she was judged to be inarticulate. She was obviously hired despite that disability. What, I wondered, were the speech habits of the person who did not get the job?

Well, maybe that person is now in Congress. If you’re a member of the House of Representatives, all your speeches are long, all your sentences are long, all your phrases are long, all your words are long. Faced with the choice of point in time or point or time, you always select point in time. No one has to guess whether you’ll say use or utilize; naturally, it will be utilize. Between single and singular, you will infallibly choose the longer one. And now you’re giving us fulsome instead of full.

The ubiquitous Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) may not have originated this brain-dead attempt to make full still fuller, but he popularized it. About May 4, before Horowitz published his report, Gowdy admonished him, “It is of the utmost importance that your review be as fulsome, complete and unimpeded as possible.” As you see, Gowdy is almost as good at this stuff as Horowitz. One adjective would be enough, but Gowdy gives us three: complete, unimpeded, full. And one syllable would be enough for full, but that must have sounded hasty, so he turned it into two syllables: fulsome. Unluckily, that word is not synonymous with full, and is almost always derogatory: “fulsome kisses” come to mind, as do William Congreve’s “fulsome lies and nauseous flattery.”

If you’re a member of the House of Representatives, all your speeches are long, all your sentences are long, all your phrases are long, all your words are long.

Well, so Gowdy made a mistake one time. No, he didn’t. On May 11, on Tucker Carlson’s show, he repeated this illiteracy, twice, burbling about his expectations for a “fulsome report,” a report that would present a “fulsome picture.”

By June 7, Department of Justice hacks, who are Gowdy’s political enemies, had caught his disease. On that day, Sara Carter reported on the DOJ’s constant slow-walking of documents to congressional committees:

[A] DOJ official said with regard to not providing the documents on Thursday, “Although the Department and FBI would have liked to provide this information as early as this week [I’ll bet they did], officials have taken a little additional time to provide the most fulsome answers to the members’ questions as possible.”

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Carter’s source is the one person in Washington who knows what “fulsome” means and is accurately describing the way officials write. Remember Congreve’s words about “fulsome lies.”

The final word, for this month, on officials’ determination to turn blah into blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah comes from the aforementioned Peter Strzok, the secret police agent who wrote of Trump’s presidency, “We’ll stop it.” Whatever you think of the sentiment, the expression showed admirable restraint and perspicuity.

One adjective would be enough, but Gowdy gives us three.

But when confronted by congressional investigators with the evidence that he had, at least once, said something brief and to the point, Strzok haughtily denied the charge, implying that anyone who found a simple and direct meaning in anything he said in an email had committed a misidentification of genre similar to confusing Hitchcock’s Vertigo with a hand-written sign reading “Watch Your Step”:

To suggest we can parse down the shorthand like they’re [sic] some contract for a car is simply not consistent with my or most people’s use of text messaging.

In the Clinton era, parse started to be used as an effete synonym for “figure out what the president’s sentences really mean.” Strzok put a new (to me) spin on the word: parse down. Let’s try to follow this. He believes that it’s wrong to take a simple statement and reduce what is already in “shorthand” until you get something that is like a contract for a car — which, as we know is a long, long, redundantly long document — thus discovering meanings that are not consistent with the generic expectations of text messagers.

In this case, the something was a translation of “we’ll stop it” into “we’ll stop it.”

With many strange words Strzok demanded that his simplest declarations be given a meaning so complicated that it could be reached only by refusing to parse down the shorthand, thus producing, by not parsing, the real message for which the shorthand stood — a message, I assume, of approximately 100,000 words.




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Imitations of Life

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In the surreal world of “news,” the funniest thing that happened during the past few weeks may have been the fake Thanksgiving episode of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” The show was prerecorded, but — and this is the thing that tickled me — Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski kept making fraudulent Thanksgiving sounds. As reported by the New York Daily News:

“Day after Thanksgiving. Woo! I’m stuffed!” host Mika Brzezinski said to open the show.

“A great Thanksgiving,” Joe Scarborough replied before they both offered a few awkward clichés.

S and B later claimed that the performance was a joke and that anyone who took it seriously (e.g., all media reporting on it) was a “moron.” Was that a joke? A joke about a joke? Much funnier was the network’s response to complaints. Its spokeswoman said:

There was no intention to trick viewers. Would it have helped if there was a disclaimer? Maybe. But that’s not typically done.

If this is correct, does it mean that news shows are typically faked? I can believe it. And I guess she’s right: a disclaimer wouldn’t help.

Or maybe it would, if the news content still made sense. I know, I know: that would mean hiring news people with the (minimal) knowledge and (minimally) balanced minds required to tell the difference between sense and nonsense. Such people would need to be paid, and that might be difficult, because the corporate vendors of news are strapped for money; they’ve got nothing left after paying such people as Matt Lauer and Megyn Kelly tens of millions, just to cause trouble.

Was that a joke? A joke about a joke?

But if the principal news media could scrape up some cash, maybe we wouldn’t see reports about “young, undocumented immigrants born in the U.S.” (NBC, November 28). That phrase (discovered by hawkeyed Liberty author Michael Christian) was later changed to “brought to the U.S.,” when somebody finally noticed the obvious mistake. But what’s the difference? The Dreamers are here, aren’t they? Who cares whether they were born or brought?

The larger question is why soi-disant journalists should want to make sense about anything, when nobody else seems to care. If the people at large really cared, why would they be getting their news from NBC or “Morning Joe” in the first place? And if the president cared . . .

Here’s a good one. When, on December 18, an Amtrak train went off the rails on a curve near Tacoma, killing several people, Trump immediately attributed the disaster to a lack of government investment in the infrastructure:

The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!

Now, one of the first things broadcast about the accident was the observation of witnesses that the train was going about 80 miles an hour. This turned out to be true. And if anyone was curious enough, as I was, to google a map, he could see at a glance that a train going anywhere near that speed would never get around that curve. Little more time was required to discover — because this too was immediately reported — that the stretch of rail in question had just been opened to passenger transportation after a vast federal investment in the infrastructure. This doesn’t mean that the president is always wrong. It does mean that his Does It Make Sense Monitor is subject to periodic deactivation.

That would mean hiring news people with the (minimal) knowledge and (minimally) balanced minds required to tell the difference between sense and nonsense.

But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: if VIPs made sense, where would Word Watch be? The answer is: out of copy. So senselessness has its benefits. That sudden, excited breath you take, that little jump your heart makes when you ask yourself, “Did the president really say that?” — you’d be missing all that fun if the VIPs (Vitally Ignorant People) limited themselves to sensible statements. As Yeats put it, “What theme had Homer but original sin?”

The sin of senselessness can brighten any subject. On December 14, ABC fired somebody named Mario Batali, who seems to be a chef, from its show “The Chew”(!). The cause was the usual sexual allegations, and Batali responded with the usual Reeducation Rag:

I have made many mistakes and I am so very sorry that I have disappointed my friends, my family, my fans and my team. My behavior was wrong . . . . I will work every day to regain your respect and trust.

That tells you a lot, doesn’t it? Now I feel that I understand exactly what happened. But he added:

In case you’re searching for a holiday-inspired breakfast, these Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls are a fan favorite.

He followed with a picture of the magic Rolls, and a button you could click to get the recipe. It’s an odd effect, isn’t it — this combination of repentance and recipes? But the senselessness is almost as savory as a plate of warm cinnamon rolls.

If you want senselessness of any kind, sex is the most dependable source, and the result is virtually guaranteed when sex is combined with politics. As John McLaughlin used to say, here’s a political potpourri.

If VIPs made sense, where would Word Watch be? The answer is: out of copy.

My first exhibit comes from Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). She is one politician who really knows how to sling the clichés. Determined to destroy, as she put it, the “toxic culture of predatory sexual behavior” (that’s two big clichés in only six words), she attacked her colleague, Congressman Ruben Kihuen (D-NV), for his alleged sexual improprieties. But she was anxious to free herself from any implication of unfairness, and this is how she did it (dateline December 1):

I support a full, fair and expedient investigation against Congressman Kihuen and any other Member of Congress who have women or men come forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior. This process must be open [and] transparent and have an appropriate investigatory timeline that delivers justice.

It’s good to know what Senator Masto supports, as opposed to what she actually believes (if anything).

It gives her utterance that special something that was lacking in Mr. Batali’s statement of personal responsibility — that flavor of political process that adds so much to moral discourse. It suggests speaking at rallies, recording your vote, and wearing your most serious face when the cameras are on. She supports — but does she think? The quality of her thinking is indicated by her reference to a fair investigation against Kihuen. Thank you, Madame Defarge.

Let’s see, let’s see . . . the next linguistic scandal is provided by the Los Angeles Times, reporting on the life of California Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, who has lately been charged with sexual impropriety:

In 2013, Dababneh narrowly won a special election for his Assembly seat in a reliably Democratic district. . . . Since then, he has handily won reelection twice, boosted by a flush campaign account and an influential perch as chairman of the Assembly’s Banking and Finance Committee.

Picture that, if you can: boosted by a flush account, the man attained an influential perch. “Perch”: what is that, a fish? No, but I can more easily imagine a fish being influential than influence being wielded by one of those things that a bird sits on. My assumption is that the Times, which was knocked off its perch by a drop in daily circulation from 1,225,000 in 1990 to 274,000 in 2017, feels a compulsion to be flashy and jazzy all the time. Or try to be.

Again, big birds (well, once-big birds) give examples of senselessness to all the little birds. Remember Nancy Pelosi, and you’ll see at once what I mean. Whenever sane persons hear her name, they automatically ask themselves, “What idiotic remark has she made now?”

The quality of her thinking is indicated by her reference to a "fair" investigation "against" Kihuen. Thank you, Madame Defarge.

Pelosi’s special characteristic has always been her senseless clichés. A cliché is often just a tired way of saying something sensible, but her clichés are tired ways of saying nothing. Pelosi is the High Priest, the Grand Mufti, the Magical Adept, the Mysterious Oracle of meaningless clichés.

When sex charges arose against Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) — a perpetual representative from Detroit, where politics is as dirty as dirt — Pelosi stepped forth to defend him, dressed in her costume as the sweet village maiden who never wants to hear any bad things. I’ll quote her, putting her clichés in italics:

We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two?

How dear that she didn’t know! Although it wasn’t just one. If it had been, she wouldn’t have been talking about it. But now comes the Yankee Doodle Dandy part of her comments (except that Yankee Doodle Dandy was created by people who understood what to do with clichés):

John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women — Violence Against Women Act, which the left — right-wing [oops!] — is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that, and he did great work on that. [Did you ever notice how similar Pelosi’s rhetoric is to that of her bête noir, Donald Trump?] But the fact is, as John reviews his case, which he knows, which I don’t, I believe he will do the right thing.

I always enjoy listening to moral lectures, especially from people who don’t know what they’re talking about:

When asked specifically whether she believes the accusations against Conyers, Pelosi said: “I do not know who they are. Do you? They have not really come forward.”

Actually, they had. So later that day (November 26) Pelosi put out a statement saying, "Zero tolerance means consequences. I have asked for an ethics investigation, and as that investigation continues, Congressman Conyers has agreed to step aside as Ranking Member."

But there was more. According to NBC,

Pelosi, meanwhile, also [being a news writer means that you don’t have to worry about whether it’s senseless to write also when you’ve already written meanwhile] said the reaction to sexual misconduct accusations against former President Bill Clinton from that era versus today represent [and you don’t have to worry about subject-verb agreement, either] “obviously a generational change.”

“The concern that we had then was that they were impeaching the president of the United States, and for something that had nothing to do with the performance of his duties, and trying to take him out for that reason," Pelosi added. "But let's go forward. Let's go forward. I think that something wonderful is happening now, very credible. It's 100 years, almost 100 years, since women got the right to vote. Here we are, almost 100 years later, and something very transformative is happening.”

What the hell? What does that mean? It’s said that the definition of “true poetry” is something that cannot be translated into any other language. So I guess that Pelosi’s words are true poetry. You can’t even summarize them in a sensible way. As Alexander Pope put it, “true no-meaning puzzles more than wit.”

Nancy Pelosi is the High Priest, the Grand Mufti, the Magical Adept, the Mysterious Oracle of meaningless clichés.

Now that I’m quoting from the 18th century, I recall that Thomas Gray called the great front of the palace of Versailles “a huge heap of littleness.” A good phrase, susceptible of many applications. “A huge heap of littleness” is what all these official people are making of our language — our means of thinking and the palace of our culture.

On December 11, Fox News described, with peasant navieté, the way in which achievement is signified in Washington. The subject was Bruce Ohr, one of the horde of hollow men that government spawns and nurtures:

Until Dec. 6, when Fox News began making inquiries about him, Bruce Ohr held two titles at DOJ [if you aren’t inside the Beltway, this means “the Department of Justice”]. He was, and remains, director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force; but his other job was far more senior. Mr. Ohr held the rank of associate deputy attorney general, a post that gave him an office four doors down from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The day before Fox News reported that Mr. Ohr held his secret meetings last year with the founder of Fusion GPS, Glenn Simpson, and with Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled the dossier [accusing Donald Trump of bad behavior in a Moscow hotel], the Justice Department stripped Ohr of his deputy title and ousted him from his fourth floor office at the building that DOJ insiders call “Main Justice.”

Associate deputy attorney general . . . four doors down . . . ousted from the fourth floor . . . good grief! What would the Buddha think? What would your grandmother think? There used to be a half-good novel (Fannie Hurst, 1933) that spawned two half-good movies; and its title was Imitation of Life. That title is appropriate to many people and many things.

But here we are, as Pelosi says, at the end of 2017 — a year of linguistic horrors. It’s fitting that she should have the last word about this year, because she has extended it. Yes she has.

Pelosi thinks that "the process" has some significance, because she said it.

She doesn’t want anyone to imagine that she and her party exploited the cloyingly denominated Dreamers by promising that their wishes would be made into law this year, only to disappoint them. Therefore, by decree of Pelosi, 2017 has acquired a 13th month.

This was all reported by The Hill on December 21:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Thursday defended her fellow Democrats for allowing the debate over “Dreamers” to carry into January, saying the delay is no indication that party leaders have abandoned demands that the issue be tackled this year.

Instead, according to Pelosi's argument, the Republicans’ decision to punt the fight over 2018 spending into next month meant the Democrats had to postpone their immigration push, as well.

“They kicked the can for the omnibus into January. It’s this year, extended, that’s what it is. It’s the process,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.

What does this mean, if anything? It means that Pelosi thinks that everyone in the country knows the significance of the omnibus, just as everyone is supposed to know the significance of the fourth floor. It means that she thinks the process has some significance, because she said it. It means that she thinks kicked the can sounds fresh and new. It means that she thinks she can lie about the calendar.

My idea is that neither the calendar nor the United States of America can be favorably transformed by nonsense words. My idea is that words ultimately depend on realities. To put this in another way, I agree with Yeats: “At stroke of midnight God shall win.”




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The Republicans’ Hidden Motive

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I knew a man who owned a house in an upscale suburb, and instead of maintaining a carefully manicured front yard, he planted sweet corn in it.

Strange — but why shouldn’t he have a garden like everybody else? And why shouldn’t it be corn? Why should anybody assume that a little strip of cropped grass is the badge of middle class respectability, just because hundreds of years ago English aristocrats maintained enormous parks of such stuff? Corn is much more beautiful. And useful!

The man clearly had reason on his side. But aren’t you thinking, “No amount of money would make me grow corn in my front yard?”

If you’re a Washington Republican, you’re free to campaign against Obamacare or endorse schemes to reduce the deficit or bewail government regulation, so long as such advocacy is without prospect of success.

That’s the way I think too — but why? Presumably, it’s because I know that my neighbors — most of whom are utter strangers, whose lives have no interest to me at all — would disdain me, and I would suffer a loss of status, at least in my own mind. It would be worse if my colleagues and friends got wind of it and disdained me also, or just thought I was crazy.

Now, picture a conservative political figure, a member of the Republican Party — congressman, senator, senior staff employee. He (or it may be she) identifies with what class of people? People who live in small towns in New Mexico and plant corn in their front yards? No, he does not, even if he comes from New Mexico. This professional inhabitant of Washington identifies with people who graduated from important colleges, people who eat at stylish restaurants, people who know what positions the EU takes, people who consult for things called NGOs or serve on the boards of banks, people who spend Sunday mornings reading the New York Times, thereby representing the height of intellectual culture. He does not identify with Pentecostals, people who wear shirts with their names over the pocket, people who drink Budweiser, people whose factories are about to close, people who wait tables while they’re attending trade school, or any other people who voted Republican. The person I have in mind is burdened by a $2,000,000 mortgage, contracted because “there’s no other way to live in Washington.” He would rather die than come to the office in a Hawaiian shirt, or wearing a MAGA cap.

The people you dine with in Washington don’t care. They think it’s just the price of doing business.

This publicly concerned American may be a trust-fund baby, or he may be an incarnation of Jay Gatsby, the kind of person who wants to have been a trust-fund baby, but the effect is nearly the same. Status is all in all to him. In his mind, a veneer of culture (so called) and professionalism (so called) is worth a hundred times more than the world from which he came and the political values that allegedly summoned him to Washington.

If you’re a Washington Republican, you’re free to campaign against Obamacare or endorse schemes to reduce the deficit or bewail government regulation, so long as such advocacy is without prospect of success; the rubes back home may care, but the people you dine with in Washington don’t. They think it’s just the price of doing business. Your staff doesn’t care, either; they majored in Poli Sci like everyone else.

The question is whether you care. Maybe you did at some time. But now you find yourself in an embarrassing situation, because now you have the chance to do something with your political ideas. You have the chance to end all these government programs you’ve been promising to end. But you just can’t bring yourself to do it. If you think for a moment about actually, seriously, attempting to reduce the growth rate of the NEH or the NEA or Amtrak or anything in the government, you feel that if you did, you couldn’t face the people at the next cocktail party. You couldn’t face your interns the next morning — even if you’ve never succeeded in remembering their names. They wouldn’t say it out loud, but you know what they’d be saying to one another behind your back. You’ve heard them saying it about other people. “Knuckle dragger” would be the nicest term.

You can’t face that. What you are able to face is the mainstream media, which will always proclaim you a courageous statesman if you betray your constituents and your political party. After all, every proposal for change has something wrong with it. There’s always a Section F, Paragraph 14a, about which you can hold a press conference, declaring that you cannot, in good conscience, vote for a healthcare reform that would prevent the stepchildren of soldiers wounded in battle from receiving free measles vaccinations. The question isn’t whether the reform is beneficial, or whether your constituents favor it, or whether you and your party were elected by advocating it. The question is whether you lose social status or gain it. Which will it be?

Now you find yourself in an embarrassing situation, because now you have the chance to do something with your political ideas.

Like conservatives and modern liberals, libertarians tend to explain human behavior by reference to an extraordinarily short list of motives. The usual suspects are money, power, envy, hatred, and sex. The result is that these explainers of human life are continually perplexed by some very common human actions.

A notable instance is the inability of Congressional Republicans to pass any of the Republican president’s key proposals. It’s not that they fear a loss of power, campaign contributions, or bribes. If they voted their alleged convictions, they would gain immensely more power, and enjoy an immensely larger share of the money that ordinarily accompanies power. They might lose the contributions of the Chamber of Commerce, but it’s amazing how small most political donations really are. And they would get others, while avenging themselves royally on their envied and hated enemies. As for the sex motive, I’m not sure that it’s easier to get sex as a liberal than it is as a conservative, but I am sure that the ordinary person with pretensions to gentility would rather die than face the day when his daughter comes home from Wellesley and demands to know why, as her professors suggest, he’s a fascist.

If you’re in Congress, you’ll cling to your seat no matter what you do — you’re likelier to die before the next election than you are to lose it. But loss of status among the nice people you know, or do not know, would be unendurable.

Unless, of course, you actually believe in the political ideas you espouse. Probably, however, they’re just your way of gaining enough status to enable you to renounce them.




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Silver Linings Playbook

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Never mind that the Democrat elite engineered the nomination of probably the only person in the country who could lose the presidency to a game-show host with a personality disorder . . . and outspend him two-to-one while doing it. Never mind that the same people saw to it that their party lost control of the House of Representatives for, maybe, ever; assured a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for what could be generations; ensured that their party would be denied power in most state houses and governorships, and be reduced to a level not seen since 1928. Never mind that they didn’t even notice they were losing. Never mind that they have set up the party itself for an internal catfight it might never recover from.

Never mind those things — because that very same elite, in the words of the Washington Post, has discerned what its headline describes as “A ‘silver lining’ on election night.”

What, you might ask, is this silver lining?

The rest of the headline comes right out and tells you. “First Latina elected to US Senate.” There it is. The whole ongoing catastrophe has been worthwhile because a Latina will now be bringing her third-world diversity to the Senate.

Never mind that Catherine Cortez Masto isn’t a third-world anything. She’s a third-generation American born right here in the good ole US of A. Never mind that this makes her practically Mayflower material, compared to Antonin Scalia. Never mind that she grew up in Nevada and graduated from Gonzaga, that her roots and her law degree, and her life experiences, pretty much clone those of almost every other member of the Senate. Never mind that the politically correct Democrat elite can’t even bring themselves to call her an American. The bare fact of the Latina-ness of her and her husband’s last names will add much-needed diversity to our most august deliberative body. The serape ceiling has been broken! Never mind the fact that the very same out-of-touch elite blew their . . . and her . . . chance at having any real power in the Senate, or anywhere else in the government, by not winning elections.

Here’s the actual silver lining: these clowns are too out of touch to ever figure out why they keep losing. And, with that, the Republic is really better off.




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Paul Ryan and the Extreme Populist Establishment

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When it comes to the Republican Party’s base, there isn’t “an establishment” — there are two. The Realistic Conservative Establishment (the RCE) consists of those in power (in the media and industry) who speak to and for those Republicans who embrace free market capitalism and limited government (the free movement of goods, labor and capital globally). The Extreme Populist Establishment (the EPE) consists of those in power who speak to and for those Republicans who embrace populist economics (opposition to free trade, to immigration across the board, and to companies moving operations abroad to avoid America’s corporate taxation and regulation).

The two establishments are fighting to get the Republican base to nominate their preferred candidates and pursue their preferred policies. The focus now is on the presidential primary, with the EPE generally supporting Donald Trump, with the backup position of Ted Cruz or Ben Carson. The RCE support is split among the remaining candidates (except Rand Paul, who is more the libertarian choice). But nowhere is the split between the two Republican establishments more clear than in their respective treatments of one of the unsung heroes of our time, House Speaker Paul Ryan.

You should measure the success of a negotiation not merely against what you get, but against what you get facing the opposition you have.

Ryan only recently took over after then-Speaker John Boehner resigned from a controversial tenure, a bitterly disappointing one to the populist base and the EPE. After weeks of turmoil, Ryan reluctantly agreed to become speaker. He met with deep skepticism by the EPE. Now Ryan has accomplished several things, and the EPE has attacked him furiously. As a classical liberal, I am angry at the short-sighted EPE commentators attacking what I perceive as major accomplishments.

Consider Ryan’s recently negotiated budget deal. EPE hero Rush Limbaugh was outraged at it, saying it gave Obama everything, and the conservatives nothing, and opining that “what has happened here is worse than betrayal.” Others echoed this sentiment. But I contend that the Ryan deal is in fact a good one, especially considering the fact that the Democrats still have the power to stop bills in the Senate and hold the White House. I mean, Earth to EPE pundits: you should measure the success of a negotiation not merely against what you get, but against what you get facing the opposition you have. Let’s look at some of the major provisions of the deal so condemned by the EPE.

First, Ryan secured about $700 billion in tax cuts — extending some useful deductions and making some (such as the R&D tax credit) permanent. Oh, and the tax cuts include greater expensing of small business costs, and renewable energy credits are phased out.

The second major victory the Ryan deal won was an increase of $573 billion in spending for defense, and another $163 billion for veterans’ programs. To those of us who have voted Republican as opposed to Libertarian all these years, this is huge. Realist conservatives and classical liberals view defense as the most important function of the federal government, and while the previous “sequester” deal did lower the deficit, it did so by cutting defense spending massively. Would I have preferred that this increase in defense spending not been accompanied by increases in spending for pet Democratic social programs? Sure, but defense spending has been held hostage by the Democrats, with the ransom being increased domestic spending; and that won’t change until there is a Republican in the White House. Concession on this issue was what it took to secure Obama’s signature on the compromise deal.

The third victory achieved by the deal escaped notice by the EPE commentators as much as by the mainstream media (the Progressive Liberal Establishment). The deal puts major restrictions on the highly politicized and deeply corrupt IRS. These restrictions include forbidding the use of personal email accounts for conducting IRS business (Lois Lerner’s cute little trick), as well as barring the targeting of nonprofits based upon their political or other ideological beliefs. This was a deeply satisfying victory for those of us who feel we have been politically targeted by the IRS.

This asinine prohibition was passed by a Democrat Congress and signed into law by a Republican president nearly 40 years ago, in the middle of the oil crisis.

Of course, if the Republicans can elect a president this year, I would push for that president to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Lerner — along with the dozens of IRS creeps who worked with her to annihilate the Tea Party — for violations of the civil rights of taxpayers.

But the fourth victory is one that is a profound gamechanger. It will transform not just the American economy but the politico-economic order of the whole world. Again, this victory escaped the notice of the EPE pundits no less than the mainstream media. Ryan’s deal amazingly succeeds in repealing one of the most idiotic laws ever passed — the law prohibiting American oil companies from exporting domestically produced oil. This asinine prohibition was passed by a Democrat Congress and signed into law by a Republican president nearly 40 years ago, in the middle of the oil crisis. Really, how stupid is it to attempt to get the country’s oil companies to drill for more oil — by walling them off from the world market? The policy guaranteed that the major oil companies would focus on oil exploration abroad. So it sent more American jobs abroad, made us even more dependent on foreign oil, and sent vast billions of dollars out of the country, to enrich our enemies. The ill-considered law no doubt delayed our oil fracking revolution by decades. Ryan’s compromise not only suspends this law, but permanently repeals it.

The elimination of the export ban is massive. We can now compete head-to-head with the Middle Eastern and Latin American oil states, along with Russia. We can help Europe become completely free from dependence on Russian energy, thereby dramatically weakening Putin’s power to cause mischief. By keeping world prices low, we starve Putin of petro-dollars with which to build up his military. In fact, the continuing low price of oil has drained Russia’s reserve fund by 30%, and it is projected to be empty by the end of the year. We can become Asia’s number one supplier of fossil fuels, keeping our friends (Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea) close and our enemy (China) closer. Moreover, by selling them oil and natural gas, we can lower our trade deficit enormously. Finally, we can cut the Venezuelan socialist regime off at the knees.

Indeed, just a few days after the deal was signed, the first two tankers carrying American domestic crude for ports abroad. The first ship left Corpus Christi, Texas, bound for Trieste, Italy, loaded with oil drilled from the Eagle Ford Shale field by ConocoPhillips. The second ship left Houston carrying oil to Marseilles, France. The shipping should ramp up rapidly: the Corpus Christi terminal alone is capable of sending out 400,000 barrels a day (BPD) as is, and developments under way will boost that to 575,000 BPD in the near future. The CEO of ConocoPhillips suggests that the demand from foreigners for our oil will hit 2,000,000 BPD by 2020. If the price of oil recovers and moves into the $50 range, exportation should just explode. So much for “peak oil” and eternal dependence on the OPEC thieves.

We can now compete head-to-head with the Middle Eastern and Latin American oil states, along with Russia.

This is a success that was way beyond the dreams of us who believe that our fracking revolution will make us energy independent. But the only way to get anti-fossil-fuel Democrats in Congress and our global-warming-obsessed president to agree was to offer them all a lot of useless spending — such as renewing subsidies temporarily for unproductive forms of energy such as wind and solar power.

Of course, should the Republicans win the White House in 2016 and hold both chambers of Congress, these subsidies can be easily ended. But should the Democrats keep the presidency and take back the Senate — which they will surely do if Trump gets the nomination — it would be almost impossible for them to reinstitute the ban on exporting oil.

In fine, Ryan outfoxed the Democrats magisterially — amazing for someone who just stepped into the job.

What peeves the EPE commentators about the deal? Their stated objections are obviously weak. They complain that in the bill Ryan negotiated, ObamaCare was not eliminated, the taxes intended to pay for it (such as the steep tax on “Cadillac” health care plans) were deferred for two years, funding for Planned Parenthood was not ended, and the budget deficit increased. The replies are simple. If Ryan had put the elimination of ObamaCare in the bill, it would not have passed, or if it did, Obama would not have signed it.

Should the Democrats keep the presidency and take back the Senate — which they will surely do if Trump gets the nomination — it would be almost impossible for them to reinstitute the ban on exporting oil.

Ironically, soon after getting this bill done, the ever-clever Ryan was able to put through Congress bills repealing ObamaCare outright and ending funding of Planned Parenthood and place them on the desk of the president, who of course immediately vetoed them. Ryan thus kept his promise to force Democrats to vote publically on the issues, and put them on the desk of the president to veto. But for this, the long-time EPE pundit Lou Dobbs bashed Ryan, saying that getting those bills through Congress was mere theater.

What really angered the EPE crowd is that Ryan dared to cut a deal at all. The EPE crowd would rather be right than be president. And that’s the way they will continue to play it.




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From Compton to Congress

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There are very few movies I would describe as explicitly “libertarian," but as unlikely as it may seem, F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton is high on that list.

The film interweaves the stories of legendary hip hop artists Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and chronicles their rise out of violence and poverty to fame and fortune as the groundbreaking gangsta rap group, NWA ("Niggaz Wit Attitude"). This is not, as you might imagine, a film for children or even most teens. It depicts a life experience steeped in drugs, gang violence, and police brutality in one of the poorest, most dangerous parts of Los Angeles in the 1980s. Against this backdrop, three teenagers looking for a way out created one of the biggest entertainment acts of the last three decades, and irrevocably changed the face of the record industry.

At its heart, Straight Outta Compton is a great entrepreneur story, but more in the tradition of The Godfather than Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Nearly all of the business dealings that occur throughout the film are built on threats and violence, and certainly not what libertarians would endorse. But contrary to what a lot of people might assume given NWA's music, there is no glorification of gangs or gang culture in the film. In fact, a major theme is the drive to escape violence, even though it swirls around every character in the movie.

Nightly news warned parents of the pernicious influence gangsta rap had on America's innocent children.

One of the most powerful moments for me was seeing the direct parallel that the film draws between police brutality against Rodney King and the LA Riots in 1992, and the brutality and coercion with which business "deals" were conducted as relationships fell apart among Ice Cube, Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). The culture of violence from the streets of Los Angeles spilled over into every other part of these guys' lives, even while they were all working to leave the dangers of that life behind. The film makes it abundantly clear that this wasn't what any of them wanted and they weren’t proud of it.

More importantly, however, Straight Outta Compton contains one of the most powerful defenses of free speech that I have ever seen in cinema.

As I grew up with a love of music and entertainment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I remember a lot of people talking about the events depicted in the film. But I was a bit too young and, as a white kid in rural Nebraska, too disconnected from the gangsta rap scene blowing up around the country to fully appreciate it at the time. The thug image cultivated by NWA and its successors was a huge source of consternation for authority figures. Nightly news warned parents of the pernicious influence gangsta rap had on America's innocent children.

But the history that a lot of people have forgotten was that NWA rose to prominence at the fever pitch of a new censorship movement that started with outrage over sexually explicit lyrical content in pop music such as Prince's "Purple Rain" and the supposedly "Satanic" lyrics of heavy metal.

The congressional hearings make it crystal clear that the Washington Wives' claims of simply wanting the industry to adopt their proposal really came at the point of a gun.

In 1985, a group of four "Washington Wives" — Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius — created an organization called the Parents Music Resource Center ostensibly to persuade the music industry to "voluntarily" adopt a ratings standard that would protect children from hearing what these women called "porn rock." These influential ladies convinced the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to convene a hearing to discuss the issue on September 19, 1985. Even though his own wife founded the PMRC, then-Senator Al Gore features prominently as a speaker in these hearings, instead of recusing himself as he obviously should have done, given the blatant conflict of interest.

The full hearings are completely maddening to listen to, but they are worth watching or reading because they make it crystal clear that the Washington Wives' claims of simply wanting the industry to adopt their proposal really came at the point of a gun. At the time, my own state's Senator from Nebraska, Jim Exon, had an exchange with Frank Zappa that perfectly makes the point:

Sen. Exon: "This is one senator that might be interested in legislation and/or regulation. To some extent recognizing the problems with free rider expression and my previously expressed views that I don't believe I should be telling other people what they have to listen to, but I really believe that the suggestions made by the original panel for some kind of arrangement for voluntarily policing this in the music industry is the correct way to go. So if it'll help you out in your testimony, I might join Senator Hollings and others in some kind of legislation and/or regulation unless the free market system — both the producers and you, as the performers — see fit to clean up your act."

Frank Zappa: "Ok, thank you. . . . Ok, so that's hardly voluntary."

Quite so. Similar to the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) in 1930 and the Comics Code Authority in 1954, these ratings systems and the so-called "voluntary" censorship instituted by industry groups have often come as a direct result of threats from the government.

So just a few years later in 1989, when NWA and gangsta rap gained popularity, the old "seduction of the innocent" fears were already a major issue in American politics. In 1990, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) adopted a "Parental Advisory" labeling system to warn parents of explicit or otherwise unsavory lyrical content, in no small part because of the music being released by NWA, Ruthless Records, and Lench Mob Records. But parental advisory warnings weren't enough for a lot of people in America, and throughout the film, we see activists smashing records, protesters picketing concerts, the federal government issuing threats, and even police officers in Detroit specifically dictating to the band that they wouldn't be allowed to play their hit "Fuck Tha Police" on the grounds that it could incite a riot.

NWA played it anyway and they were arrested.

What follows in the film is a press conference sequence that contains one of the most rousing defenses of free speech I've seen in a film in a very long time. Ice Cube explains that the lyrics to their music were not endorsing gangs or gang violence. Instead, he defends NWA's words as "a reflection of our reality" and asserts that no one has the right to control what they write, say, or perform.

Police officers in Detroit specifically dictated to the band that they wouldn't be allowed to play their hit "Fuck Tha Police" on the grounds that it could incite a riot.

Technically speaking, the cinematography by Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, Black Swan) is gorgeous to look at throughout. And with Ice Cube's own son playing his character, the casting is shockingly spot on, and the performances are uniformly excellent. Where the film suffers a little is in editing the stories of the three main protagonists together. While several clear themes and character arcs stretch across the whole movie, there are also a few disconnected scenes that don't entirely matter to the story — although one such scene involving Dr. Dre is one of the most emotional moments of the movie. The biggest problem is that once the band starts to split up and the guys go their separate ways, it's not always totally clear whose story the film is really telling.

But ultimately, Straight Outta Compton is a fantastic movie where violence and gang life ultimately give way to legitimate business and freedom of expression with a surprising amount of heart, drama, humor, and a ton of great music.

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Editor's Note: Review of "Straight Outta Compton," directed by F. Gary Gray. Circle of Confusion / Cube Vision / Legendary Pictures, 2015, 147 minutes.



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On Dogs, Cats, and Carnal Knowledge

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Reading the Drudge Report just after the House of Representatives defeated a bill that would have given President Obama fast track authority (or “TPA,” for “trade-promotion authority”) to conclude free trade agreements, I remembered a line from the first Ghostbusters movie. The busters (Ray, Egon, Winston, and Peter) are explaining to the mayor that his city is headed for “a disaster of biblical proportions.” When the rather obtuse man asks what they mean by “biblical,” Ray says, “Real wrath of God type stuff.” Egon adds, “Forty years of darkness!” Winston chimes in with “the dead rising from the grave!” Whereupon the ever-arch Peter adds loudly, “Human sacrifice . . . dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria!”

What happened on June 12 was that a bill to grant Obama the same power (fast track authority) that almost every other president since World War II has been given went down to defeat in a procedural vote, primarily because Democratic members followed their leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in opposing it. The maneuver was to join Republicans who oppose spending more money on work retraining programs — which are usually just boondoggles that don’t retrain anybody — in voting down a package deal that included the TPA and also increased retraining funds that had earlier passed the Senate.

Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

Fast track authority is the power Congress can (and almost always does) give any president to negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs) in confidence and without congressional meddling. If any FTA is concluded, it of course becomes law only if the Senate votes in favor of it. Naturally, the Senate can only vote the submitted FTA up or down — it cannot amend it, since amending it is renegotiating it, which the other side of the agreement would not accept. Without such power, you have 435 members of Congress playing president, making it impossible to get any treaty — free trade or otherwise — negotiated.

Despite Obama’s last-minute personal intervention, in which he tried to convince his own party members in the House to support his plan, or perhaps because of his intervention, the bill went down by a vote of 302–126. As one unnamed Democratic congressman put it, “She screwed this president.”

But a number of Republicans opposed the measure, too. Here we get to the dogs and cats getting it on together.

After the vote, Matt Drudge ran a large banner on his website. It screamed, “Brave Pelosi Says No!” Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

I won’t rehearse all the arguments about why free trade is economically beneficial. I have done so at length in these pages (“The Case for Free Trade,” Liberty, December 2010, pp. 33–41). And the case was made again, succinctly and well, in a recent piece by Larry Kudlow, Art Laffer, and Steve Moore. To economists, 90% of whom favor free trade, it is obvious that free trade is on balance economically good for countries engaging in it. Why is it that when 85% of climate scientists agree on anthropogenic global warming, it becomes “settled science,” but when 90% of economists agree that free trade increases wealth (the theory of comparative advantage), the matter is never considered settled?

The reason for Obama’s defeat is threefold.

First to be mentioned is the decline in free trade sentiment among Democrats. Coming out of the Great Depression and the devastating war it helped to spawn, Democrats agreed with Republicans that the protectionism associated with the Smoot-Hawley tariffs was and is economically counterproductive and geopolitically dangerous — for, as Frédéric Bastiat observed a century and a half ago, when goods cannot cross borders, soldiers will. That is why fast track authority has been given to all but one president since the end of the second world war.

While Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, any free trade agreement he negotiates will likely err on the side of suffocating regulations for both sides.

But the Democrat party has moved ever more toward the extreme left — progressive liberalism, as Solzhenitsyn observed, ever evolving into socialism — and fewer and fewer Democrats are willing to support free trade. Really, Bill Clinton was the last president to push for it, when he signed NAFTA into law. One of the most important of the core Democrat constituencies, Big Labor, loathes free trade. In this most recent vote, for example, when Pelosi and her myrmidons went against fast track for the president of their own party, Big Labor Daddy Richard Trumka (King of the AFL-CIO) praised her mightily, proclaiming that “she stood up against corporate interests.”

Second, despite the best efforts of House Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s to give Obama fast track authority, a portion of the Republican Party opposed the measure. The biggest reason is their distrust of Obama. That’s why websites such as Breitbart.com and the Drudge Report were bashing the bill mightily.

Now, as any more-than-casual reader of these pages knows, I have been unwavering in my opposition to and contempt for the Obama Regime. To put this simply, I regard Obama as the worst president in modern history. (When I said this not long back, one reader chastised me for not characterizing Obama as the worst president in all history, but I confess that my weakness on the history of 19th-century presidents restrains me from agreeing.) President Obama will have done more to harm this country in both domestic and foreign policy than any other modern president, and if we are lucky enough to elect a decent Republican president in 2016, he or she will have to spend most of a first administration reversing the damage.

But as the old saw has it, even a broken clock is right twice a day. More to the point, while Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, in fact really pathetic at it, any FTA he negotiates will likely err on the side of trying to saddle the other side with what he favors for our side too: suffocating regulations. While that is economically deleterious, I doubt that it will result in a net disadvantage to us. Moreover, any final agreement he negotiates must still be approved by Congress, so any grossly unequal deal — say, one that increases Japan’s access to our markets but protects its agricultural industry — can quite easily be voted down, forcing him back to the table.

A good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false.

The third, and in my view the most important, reason for Obama’s loss is Obama himself. Let’s put aside the personality issue, which is that Obama is a patently arrogant, distant, snarky, intellectually mediocre narcissist who doesn’t work or play well with anyone except complete stooges. This doesn’t help him, but it isn’t the biggest problem about his free trade initiative. That problem is his history.

Obama has never gone on a tour, selling the need for a trade agreement with Asia and answering the obvious populist arguments against free trade. In this, ironically, he is like George Bush — who, while he negotiated and signed into law more FTAs than any other president, didn’t explain them, argue their importance, or refute the economically ignorant but passionately tribal populist objections to them. Obama doesn’t explain, you see; he merely shows contempt for differing opinions and expects everyone just to see his colossal greatness.

Worse, his history is one of buying the same populist claptrap arguments against free trade that he is being met with now. He bashed Hillary because her hubby signed NAFTA, which, he claimed (parroting the Trumka types), cost jobs; though this was obviously false, as must have been manifest even to an intellectual lightweight such as himself. When in office, he quickly started trade wars against both Mexico and Canada, wars that ceased only when those neighbors fought back and kicked his ass. He stalled the three FTAs left over from the Bush era, only signing them late into his second term, in the face of the worst economic recovery in American history. Now this guy — out of the blue — advocates free trade?

The average American, like the average person anywhere else on this planet, basically has his scientific and moral views set by history. The physics that the average person believes, for example, holds that objects are completely solid, and that they fall at different speeds; that space is completely empty and infinite in all directions, and that it has but three dimensions. Tradition doesn’t make such ideas true. The economics that the average person believes maintains that while labor deserves to be compensated, the lending of money doesn’t; that it is better if all people do all things for themselves, rather than dividing up the tasks among many people, possibly people in different countries; that saving rather than spending hurts jobs, but protecting home industries promotes jobs; and many other things. Tradition doesn’t make these notions true, either.

In short, a good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false. But Obama can’t teach anyone about fallacious ideas. Indeed, he often simply accepts them himself — unless he was just lying (something he does with amazing frequency and ease) when he campaigned against Hillary. Either way, he’s not able to teach the public why hunter-gatherer myths are wrong.

Maybe the Republicans can save him from the anti-free-trade crowd, but it is unclear that they can. If not, the biggest loser will be the American public. But I believe in the precept that people get the government they deserve.

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