The Problem of Perspective

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When libertarians (and others) get into debates, we often bewail our opponents’ lack of facts. But I suppose you’ve noticed that even when everybody has the facts, the debate continues — a situation that has become very frequent in this age of quick and plentiful access to information. Often the problem is simply the perfectly accurate perception of people on one side or the other that if the force of the facts were recognized, they would have to alter their political identity.

I recently found myself in a dispute with a person whose writing I admire. (This is not uncommon.) She said that because a certain politician had said X, therefore we must conclude that he was preaching the gospel of Y. I quoted what the man had said, which was literally and vigorously anti-Y. My friend replied, “I know that. But that’s just the cover-up. What he obviously meant was Y.” To my friend, it was so important that X meant Y that she would never be betrayed by mere facts.

People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective.

Even this, however, is not the major barrier to healthy political discourse. The deeper problem is a lack of perspective on facts. People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective. We all know people who can quote every foolish thing that President Obama or President Trump ever said (and that’s a lot), and on that basis are prepared to prove that one of them is a mere pawn of certain Interests or is the master player in a plot to destroy the republic and institute rule by force. What’s missing is common sense, and the perspective it provides. Lots of people say foolish things. In fact, we all do. Anyone can quote some remark by me, or some other libertarian you know, and say, triumphantly, “How can a person who said that pretend to be a libertarian?” Well, it’s quite possible, and it might not be a pretense. Extend the logic to people you don’t know, and it works just as well. To admit this is not to give your sanction to Obama, Trump, or anyone else. It’s to have a little bit of common sense.

A lack of commonsense perspective lies at the root of conspiracy theories generally — the false ones, of course, because people do sometimes conspire to produce certain ends, and why should we be shocked by that? The dedicated researchers who believe that Oswald was a fall guy know many more facts about Oswald than I ever will, but the overwhelming truth that 54 years have passed since Oswald and Kennedy were killed, and no one has emerged to confess that he had any kind of involvement, however peripheral, in any kind of conspiracy to make Oswald a fall guy suggests that facts can easily betray you, absent the perspective of common sense.

The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities.

But there’s another lack of perspective that is especially characteristic of the present moment, and that is sheer ignorance of historical,as opposed to immediate, facts. In 1988, virtually all the public-policy writers in the United States, from the New York Times on down (or up), preached, with the Leninists, that communism in Eastern Europe was an irreversible phenomenon. In 1989, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe crashed. “Oh, who woulda thunk it?” was the experts’ cry. The answer was: anybody who knew some history. Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not. Historical examples: France in 1789. France in 1814. Germany in 1918. The Stuarts in 1688. The Commonwealth of England in 1660. I could go on.

Between 1950 and 1990, Americans were told — and in my experience of some of those decades, Americans believed — that they were living in a unique time in human history: never before had “a civilization and a way of life been threatened with total destruction.” The reference was to the atomic bomb, which was, indeed, new; but the notion about its unique effects was so false to the facts of history as to be laughable. The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities. If your enemies conquer you, they will rape all the women, enslave all the woman and children, and kill all the men. That will be the end of your “way of life.” If one recognized that modern America was not unique in this respect, one couldn’t just go out and deduce some great truth about what should be done regarding, say, Soviet missiles in Cuba, but one might be more rational, and less hysterical, about one’s pacifism or militarism. It’s a matter of perspective.

So much for the myths of the last generation. There were lots more of them, but you get the point. My sense is that the “educated” people of 2017 know a hell of a lot less about history than the “educated” people of 1988 — and not just the history of the world but the history of their own country. I am not a fan of the Southern secessionists, or of Woodrow Wilson. I positively dislike most of what I know about them. But to assume that the only fact about their lives that could possibly be worth knowing is that they were racists is an astonishing intellectual performance. To teach this to children is to warn them against all historical curiosity, to turn history into an endless, and endlessly disgusting, game of hunting the Great Satan. Some people, thus educated, will pretend to join the hunt, out of the cynicism that ideologues are good at inspiring; others will adopt it as their own fanatical crusade; most will get the sense that nothing about history is very interesting, after all — let alone inspiring.

Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not.

Let’s look at another example in which perspective has been completely lost, by the denial of simple curiosity. Unlike many other vocal libertarians, I believe that the current struggle against Islamic terrorism is real and important and must be won. Nevertheless, terrorism results not just from religious or political ideas but from certain, very imperfectly understood, psychological and social factors. Might it not be helpful to know something about the history of terrorism in the modern world?

Well, it didn’t start with 9/11. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “socialist,” “populist,” and “anarchist” (actually communist) terrorists swarmed over Europe and North America, killing, among many others, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria; Umberto, King of Italy; Alexander, Emperor of Russia; William McKinley, President of the United States; and Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago (in an attempt to assassinate President-elect Franklin Roosevelt). They also killed or attempted to kill such private citizens as the industrialist Henry Clay Frick (see Liberty, September 2005, pp. 40–45). Then there was labor union terrorism, which peaked in 1910, with the bomb that blew apart the pressroom at the Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people. This is the case in which the unjustifiably iconic Clarence Darrow, the socialist lawyer, attempted to bribe a juror on the streets of Los Angeles. But the biggest event in “domestic terrorism” was the Bath (Michigan) School Disaster, in which a local farmer, dissatisfied for some reason with his admittedly humdrum life, killed his beloved wife, destroyed his homestead, and blew apart a wing of the schoolhouse down the road, destroying, all told, 44 people, 38 of them children.

These incidents might conceivably shed some light on why depraved men or women (usually men) suddenly decide to kill large numbers of innocent people, but since almost nobody realizes that the events even happened, almost nobody looks for that light.

Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Let’s proceed to another type of violence, the violence of words, and other symbolic deeds, that is making it virtually impossible for sane men and women to read the news without symptoms of convulsion. I, for one, do not wish to rise in the morning only to be assaulted by a vast array of establishment-media venues ravaging the current president as if he were the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Nor is it a pleasure to visit my favorite non-establishment sites and find them wholly given over to defenses of the president. Nor — to give you a third and final nor — is it gratifying to me to read the president’s own abusive messages about the media, which are sometimes amusing, but you can’t bank on that. Strange to say, the chief complaint of all these splenetic keyboard artists is that never before in history has political discourse been so hostile and abusive.

Well, that isn’t true, and I’m glad it’s not true, if only because hostility produced the following delightful letter from Former President John Adams to Former President Thomas Jefferson (April 19, 1817).

Dear Sir

My loving and beloved Friend, [Adams’ Secretary of State Timothy] Pickering, has been pleased to inform the World that I have “few Friends.” I wanted to whip the rogue, and I had it in my power, if it had been in my Will to do it, till the blood come. But all my real Friends as I thought them, with Dexter and Grey at their Head insisted “that I should not say a Word.” “That nothing that such a Person could write would do me the least Injury. That it would betray the Constitution and the Government, if a President out or in should enter a Newspaper controversy, with one of his Ministers whom he had removed from his Office, in Justification of himself for that removal or any thing else.” And they talked a great deal about “The Dignity” of the Office of President, which I do not find that any other Persons, public or private regard very much.

Nevertheless, I fear that Mr. Pickerings Information is too true. It is impossible that any Man should run such a Gauntlet as I have been driven through, and have many Friends at last. This “all who know me know” though I cannot say “who love me tell.”

I’m reminded of the words of Addison DeWitt: “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent.” Adams’ superb wit, proud and knowing, and so characteristic of his letters, would distinguish him in any context, just as the lack of any literary quality whatever would be sufficient to identify virtually all political writing of the present age.

I’ve talked about this in Word Watch, and I’ll talk about it again in that place. What I want to emphasize here is the historical perspective offered by the presidential letter of two centuries ago. It suggests that there is nothing off-the-charts about the “abusive rhetoric” of contemporary politics.

To be fair, of course, we need to consider what exalted condition of politesse American political discourse is supposed to have declined from. That high standard, I believe, is the manner of handling news and opinion that prevailed in the days when the senior members of our current news establishment were growing up, the days of Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Edward R. Murrow. The declension from those glory days is sad, sad. Never before in American history . . .

If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one.

Well, did you ever try to read anything that Edward R. Murrow wrote? David Brinkley, who was one of the tribe, but an eccentric one, could actually write, but he was virtually the only one, and none of the present handwringers ever mentions him. His perspective on history, which was a pretty wide one, has been forgotten, and would certainly not be sought, by the preachers of auld lang syne. What they pine for is the slick modern-liberal sentiments and the passive-aggressive style of that former age, a style inveterately contemptuous of the host of people, places, ideas, and emotions whose existence it refused to recognize. What they miss is its lying veneer of “objectivity,” so-called.

That veneer wasn’t much in evidence in the first great age of American journalism, when innovations in printing, transportation, and data transmission (the telegraph) enabled everyone to read two or three papers — Democrat, Republican, and Just Plain Mean — and to spend all day, if they wanted, soaking themselves in political bile. Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict.

Reporting on the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, which Lincoln lost, though not decisively, one paper reported that “the triumph of Senator Douglas was complete”; Lincoln was “exceedingly lame throughout . . . The Illinois Giant [Douglas] at the first onset pushed his adversary to the wall, and never ceased for a moment his blows, until Abraham was taken by his friends, dispirited and overcome.” Another kind of partisan paper thought that Lincoln had “chewed [Douglas] up . . . Douglas is doomed . . . [the] contest is already practically ended.” From yet another journalistic standpoint, the campaign proved that the two candidates were nothing but “a pair of depraved, blustering, mischievous, lowdown demagogues.”

All these characterizations were false, and most people knew they were. But verbal abuse wasn’t the only oily sheen on the surface of political life. If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one. Here’s Senator Thomas Hart Benton, in his Thirty Years’ View; Or, A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850 (1856), discussing the Anti-Duelling Act of 1839:

The death of Mr. Jonathan Cilley, a representative in Congress from the State of Maine, killed in a duel with rifles, with Mr. Graves of Kentucky, led to the passage of an act with severe penalties against dueling, in the District of Columbia, or out of it upon agreement within the District.. . . Like all acts passed under a sudden excitement [there were sudden excitements in the 1830s, too], this act was defective, and more the result of good intentions than of knowledge of human nature. Passions of the mind, like diseases of the body, are liable to break out in a different form when suppressed in the one they had assumed.

Following that libertarian critique of mere good intentions, Benton notes, as if everyone in his audience already knew it, that the Act

did not suppress the homicidal intent — but gave it a new form: and now many members of Congress go into their seats with deadly weapons under their garments — ready to insult with foul language, and prepared to kill if the language is resented. (Vol. 2, pp. 148-49)

Benton, who had once shot Andrew Jackson in a fight that was something worse than a duel, later became Jackson’s friend and political ally; but in 1850, in the Senate chamber, a fellow member, Henry Foote, attempted to shoot him over a political disagreement. "I have no pistols!”, Benton shouted. “Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!" Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict that in our law-obsessed era would immobilize the capital and the courts in perpetuity.

Less pacific were many of the things that national leaders said. William Seward had cause to regret his “irrepressible conflict” speech, just as Abraham Lincoln had cause to regret his “house divided” speech; both were interpreted by the South, and not unreasonably, as an indication that if either of those gentlemen were elected president, the South must secede. John C. Calhoun had cause to regret the many speeches in which he incited the South to dissolve the union — but Calhoun, like our current politicians, never regretted anything he said, during a lifetime of self-contradiction.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric.

Now, if you look at the public utterances of the people I’ve mentioned (except for Foote), you will find that in both style and intellectual substance they are infinitely above those of anyone now in politics. To say this isn’t to fall into the trap of assuming that everything that happens in one’s own time is happening for the first time in history. If one has any historical perspective, one can distinguish things that actually are new or special from things that actually aren’t.

It is the intellectual and verbal illiteracy of American public culture that has that “never before in history” aspect — and it has that aspect because of the lack of perspective that makes contemporary Americans feel as if they can do without any knowledge of or respect for people who lived in the past. Thus, if you’re a “progressive” leftist, Thomas Jefferson was a racist who considered blacks inferior to whites, as if that were his only historical significance; and Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder who behaved with great barbarity toward Indians, as if those evil characteristics, common to hundreds of thousands of Americans of his time, including Indians who enslaved other Indians, were all we needed to know about one of the most complexly influential people in our or any history. And thus, if you’re a rightist, Ronald Reagan was the world’s greatest inspirational speaker; George Patton embodied all the strengths that make real men and women want to get up in the morning; and Theodore Roosevelt, a little man who kept exclaiming “bully!”, made life worth living for soldiers, workers, and the American bison. Meanwhile, all people worship Lincoln as the incarnation of Christ.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries seem incapable of taking any good to themselves from their acts of ferocious love and cherished hatred. They never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric when compared with that of Lincoln, or their own courage when compared with that of Jackson. They may idolize “Teddy” or spit on the memory of Jefferson or rerun Reagan’s speeches or get off on Patton, the movie, but that’s what they’re seeing, a movie playing on their own TVs, just a few feet from their self-infatuated heads. The rest of the house is empty.




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The Bad and the Ugly

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I suppose that everyone who has been chained to a sofa and forced to watch the presidential “race” (which is actually a horrible, slow crawl, relieved only by an occasional fall off a cliff) has compiled a mental list of the best, better, worse, and worst verbal performers. Here’s my list.

The Best performer, I believe, was Carly Fiorina. Trailing badly in the polls, she was willing to speak at any time, on any subject — and every time I saw her, she was crisp, clear, and well-informed. She was actually, on occasion, informative. She said things that conveyed knowledge that I, at least, hadn’t possessed before. She could surprise you that way. She didn’t completely avoid clichés, but she had a lower cliché count than the other candidates, and she had practically no “uh” count.

This is very rare among politicians, and should be greeted as a miracle after seven years of Obama, whose rate often goes up to 40 “uhs” a minute. Saying “uh” all the time commonly indicates that a person is trying to hold the stage long after running out of anything to say. Obama is the best example in the present era. If you counted the time he has spent on substantive remarks, and compared it with the time he has lavished on “uh,” you’d end up with a ratio of about 1 to 100. But Fiorina never wasted your time. And she, virtually alone in the pack of presidential contenders, never evaded a question by proclaiming that the American people don’t care about that; what they care about is blah, blah, blah. She was likable, and I liked her.

She was actually, on occasion, informative. She said things that conveyed knowledge that I, at least, hadn’t possessed before.

In any context except that of an American political campaign, none of the other candidates would be regarded as even a tolerable public speaker. Most of them would be considered sickening bores, heartless charlatans, or dangerous lunatics. In that sad context, however, they can still be ranked as better or worse.

Marco Rubio is a case in point. Chris Christie, in the best rhetorical moment of his own campaign, told Rubio that he was onto him: Rubio had a thing that he said all the time, something about Obama trying to make America into a European socialist country; and while that happened to be true, Rubio said it on every occasion, in answer to every question, and that was going too far. Christie noticed it, and made an issue of it in debate with Rubio, and his comments had a devastating effect on Rubio’s campaign. Rubio actually apologized to his supporters for screwing up so badly. In my opinion, Christie’s reproof of Rubio was the verbal high point of the campaign, so far.

But notice the difference between Christie and Rubio. Christie is great in dealing with hecklers, and in giving sharp answers to the kind of inside-the-beltway questions that turn other candidates into bores. Beyond that, he’s a bore himself. He could not manage to argue for own candidacy. But Rubio, who was on the losing side in his exchange with Christie, is actually a pretty good public speaker. Most of his time is occupied with denouncing Obama, which is easy to do, but he manages to do it without the overt ranting that is one of Ted Cruz’s besetting sins (about which more, below). Rubio’s “uh” count is low, and although he seldom has anything informative to say, he’s fluent and well organized and occasionally puts a little vibration in his voice that passes for inspiration.

In any context except that of an American political campaign, none of the other candidates would be regarded as even a tolerable public speaker.

On February 8, two days after his disastrous exchange with Christie, Megyn Kelly interviewed Rubio on Fox News and tested him by popping a quick series of questions about niche issues: should kids be legally required to get vaccinations? should “racist” Hallowe’en costumes be outlawed? etc. Rubio replied to all her queries rapidly and incisively, without the hedging to which most candidates resort when they don’t want a minor issue to make them the victims of pressure-group mayhem.

Ben Carson was an unusual candidate and an unusual speaker. I enjoyed his understated manner. He was too slow, but with him slowness suggested thoughtfulness, not lack of substance. His tendency to generalize was unfortunate, because it associated him with professional politicians and other people who seldom have anything specific to say. Carson did know what he was talking about, most of it, until he got involved with foreign policy — which was too bad, because his lack of knowledge in that field implied (I think falsely) that he didn’t know much about other fields, either.

My lack of bias in this assessment of speaking skills is demonstrated by my placement of Jeb Bush, whose nepotistic sense of entitlement I very much disliked, in the ranks of the Better speakers, with Rubio at the top of the Betters, Carson someplace in the middle, and Bush at the still-honorable bottom. Despite the mean things that Donald Trump kept saying about him, Bush was not notably lacking in energy or enthusiasm (as I certainly would have been if I had spent every waking hour of the past few years indulging a greed for public office). His tone was too even to inspire or surprise, and his constant references to various obscure and uninteresting successes in “running” Florida gave him the gravitas of a lead pipe. Nevertheless, he was a reasonably coherent speaker and much more circumspect in diction than the majority of his opponents. I say this despite his many obnoxious statements about “growing” things that cannot be “grown,” such as the economy.

Bush’s real problem wasn’t his lack of enthusiasm for the race but his audience’s lack of enthusiasm for his politics. His salient proposals, examined either singly or together, attracted no one except the crony capitalists and RINOs and Chamber of Commerce types. Whenever Jeb said anything, he was reasonably suspected of relaying the doubletalk of those core supporters, and of his brother — a language in which “immigration reform” means “open borders,” “I don’t believe in nation-building” means “I do believe in nation-building,” and so on. For normal listeners, that was not a source of enthusiasm.

As politicians go, however, Jeb did a much better than average job. There’s something to be said for the quality that ancient rhetorical theorists would call his ethos, the character he projected. I can hardly think of anything more demoralizing than to be regarded as my party’s inevitable nominee, and be backed by maybe a hundred million dollars in contributions and pledges, and then fall into the swamp, and stay there. Yet Jeb maintained to the end the same ethos, dull but sturdy, with which he began. Even Dr. Carson finally yielded to the temptation of public bitterness, as he found himself sinking in the polls. But Jeb did not. That was the best thing about him.

Jeb Bush’s real problem wasn’t his lack of enthusiasm for the race but his audience’s lack of enthusiasm for his politics.

Exchanging, now, the Better for the Worse, we come to Ted Cruz. Cruz is a trained debater. If you read his speeches, he often comes across as a clever verbal strategist. But when you hear him deliver them, the effect is different. He is nasal, uncomfortably gestural, and full of the little pauses that say, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. This is going to be one of my best statements.”

He has been criticized — indeed, portrayed as weird — for using the Bible, even when, in celebration of his victory in Iowa, he turned to Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” That verse, familiar to most Christians, and cited with considerable effect not just by Cruz but by such people as Gene Debs, the socialist leader, struck media commentators with astonishment. What was the guy saying? Was that the Bible? How can we find out? Well, there are such things as Bible concordances, scores of which you can find online, if you know the word “concordance.” But we shouldn’t suppose that the educators of the populace will themselves be educated people. The problem for me was that Cruz’s Iowa victory speech, like many of his other efforts, was mercilessly long and frothy, indicating nothing so much as a delight in hearing himself talk — a problem that can only grow worse, should his electoral success, such as it is, continue. Another bad, bad tendency is pandering to his audience, not once but over and over again. The occasional Bible verse is one thing, but his evangelical buzzwords are another. Even the evangelicals must be bored by them.

I’m tiptoeing toward the Worst.

I am not the only person who’s said it, but the political success of Bernie Sanders is almost entirely attributable to the fact that he is not Hillary Clinton. The claim has been made that he’s buoyed by his own ethos (if an ethos can keep you from drowning, which it usually can’t). But ask yourself: if he were your neighbor, would you like or respect him? Sure, he’s sincere, in the sense that he believes the nonsense he spouts, but must we assume that every crank or crackpot is sincere? That’s the question H.L. Mencken asked about William Jennings Bryan, and his answer was No. The idea is that if you have cancer, and I offer to cure it by having you place your hands on your television and chant, “I am the 99%,” the concept of sincerity does not apply. If you sincerely want to cure cancer, why don’t you become a physician? Why don’t you read a book? As Mencken said, “This talk of sincerity, I confess, fatigues me.”

Cruz is nasal, uncomfortably gestural, and full of the little pauses that say, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. This is going to be one of my best statements.”

Sanders cares too much to read a book. And his is not a passive but an aggressive ignorance. His speeches are nothing but rants. You realize that when you hear his words, but the awful thing is that you get the same impression when you turn down the volume and just look at him. He is the male equivalent of the Witch of the West. A person who looks like that when he talks, or yells, can hardly be said to have a persuasive ethos. And when, with reluctant hand, you turn the volume back up, you get the full horror of Bernie Sanders. The words are idiotic. That whole business about one-tenth of one percent owning 90% of the nation’s wealth . . . You’d have to redefine 20 common terms in 20 peculiar ways in order to get to that figure, and even then, I don’t see how you could. No, it’s crap, and it’s obvious crap, and nobody with an ounce of integrity would spout it.

But there’s a Worst of the Worst, and everyone knows who it is. It’s Mrs. Clinton. A delight to all opinion journalists, she is the person about whom nothing is too bad to say. Even among people who intend to vote for her there is almost universal loathing of her public performance and private character. Of all serious presidential candidates in American history, she is undoubtedly the most repellent. No list of adjectives can exhaust her repulsive qualities, and one of the most repulsive is that the people who support her know it and feel it themselves. A person who can command a leading campaign under these circumstances does indeed have something going for her, but it has nothing to do with the old categories of ethos, pathos, and logos.It has to do with the fact that she is a pathetic fool, hopelessly twisted by her lust for money and power, and therefore irresistibly attractive to wealthy people of similar character.

Well, but what happened to Donald Trump? What shall we think of him?

This is a problem. What kind of public speaker is Donald Trump? As I said in last month’s column, he’s a person who blurts out his message, whatever it is, in slogans and fragments of observations and whoops of glee (“We’re gonna win so much, and you’re gonna be so happy . . . !”). None of this leaves much room for literary analysis. He is not Daniel Webster. And he is not “presidential” in any normal sense. John Kasich — whom I haven’t discussed in this column, because he is far too dull — was correct in suggesting that Trump lacks the ethos of a president. But his candidacy demonstrates, for good or ill, that you can become president without that ethos. So he, too, must have something.

The political success of Bernie Sanders is almost entirely attributable to the fact that he is not Hillary Clinton.

Look — If I tell you that Franklin Roosevelt had persuasive charm, are you going to attack me for favoring the New Deal? I don’t favor the New Deal, and the New Deal has little to do with an assessment of Roosevelt’s rhetorical techniques. Please apply the same logic to what I say about Trump. My assessment of Trump’s rhetoric is that it’s done a lot of harm and a lot of good. The harm is that it’s narrowed the gap between competition for the world’s most potent office and the kind of thing one reads in entertainment magazines. When Trump talks about political issues, he does it in the style of a Hollywood columnist, full of breezy anecdotes, flashy claims, and satirical remarks.

That’s the bad part. The good part is . . . well, you’d have to possess a heart of stone not to enjoy the satirical remarks. But the really good part is that he has broken the bonds of media correctness.

When Trump began his campaign, you were not supposed to say that Bill Clinton is a bad man, and that his wife has been his enabler. You were not supposed to say that there are millions of people in this country illegally, and that their presence depresses wages for people who are in the country legally. You were not supposed to say of any candidate for the presidency that he is lifeless and weak. You were not supposed to say that an unpopular foreign leader is someone we need to come to terms with. Now, whether such things are true or not, they are on the minds of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, and they should be spoken about, so they can be debated. What kind of political process is it that forbids such obvious topics from being introduced? It’s a corrupt political process, a process in which every type of social pressure is exerted against the expression of unpopular ideas and even of popular ones.

This is new, and terrible. But Trump successfully defied the ban. He showed that he just didn’t care what the managers of public discourse thought about him. He didn’t care that they wanted to shame him and shut him up. He just went on saying things — many of them goofy or tasteless or just plain wrong — and it soon became evident that the other candidates and their managers and the pressure groups who support them and the analysts and the academics and the would-be censors weren’t smart enough to know how to answer him. This general unmasking has to be good for the country, and perhaps for the world.

Every victory for Trump that I can think of has not been a victory so much for his specific ideas as for his refusal to be shut up.

If there is a sacred cow on this planet, it’s the pope. Heaven forbid you should say something against the Pope o’ Rome, especially such a wonderful, sympathetic, warmhearted man of the people as the current wearer of the triple crown. But the problem with prelates is that they always want to intervene in politics. That’s what Pope Francis spends a lot of his time doing, and that’s what he did when he called Trump “unchristian” because he wants to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States. The pope denounced him for wanting to build walls rather than bridges — and you’d have to look a long way before finding a more inane comment, unless you looked through some of the pope’s other statements. Trump immediately blasted back, and the pope sent out a public relations man to say that Francis didn’t really mean Trump, and didn’t really mean to intervene in politics . . . “This wasn’t, in any way, a personal attack or an indication on who to vote for [sic]. The Pope has clearly said he didn’t want to get involved in the electoral campaign in the US and also said that he said what he said on the basis of what he was told [about Trump], hence giving him the benefit of the doubt.”In short, the Vatican could come up with nothing better than an obvious lie, soaked in obvious bilge. It was another victory for Trump.

In fact, every victory for Trump that I can think of has not been a victory so much for his specific ideas as for his refusal to be shut up. He has shown that if you don’t pretend to respect people and opinions that you do not, indeed, respect, you can keep on talking, and you may also find yourself winning friends and influencing people. Does that mean that Trump’s talk is any good? Certainly not. But I would like to live in a world in which I am free to criticize the pope, or to call Hillary Clinton an enabler of vice. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

To tell you the truth, however, what I really want to do is to stop talking about any of the candidates. I probably won’t get my wish. But I did think it was my duty to say something about them now, before people forget who most of them were.




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The Good Side of Jonathan Gruber

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News! News as you’ve heard it, 300 times a day, on your favorite radio or TV station: “My Pillow [a kind of, guess what? pillow] is the official pillow of the National Sleep Foundation!” http://www.mypillow.com/

Alas, I am not certain that this announcement achieves its desired effect. Nor am I certain — for similar reasons — that the information one finds in the Wikipedia entry for Jonathan Gruber achieves the effect he wanted.

Gruber, as you already knew, is the man who this month became famous for bragging about the methods by which he and other sponsors of Obamacare fooled the “stupid” American people. We’ve now heard a lot about Jonathan Gruber. In fact, there’s too much Gruber to keep up with — especially in the form of videos that keep surfacing every day, each with its own grinning image of Gruber explaining how he schemed to mislead us all.

What can you say that’s good about a man who considers “rip off” a favorable term?

(By the way, who are the people who hoarded videos of this ugly man and then decided to release them now? Who would want to record a lecture by Jonathan Gruber, a man whose personality most closely resembles a load of wet gravel smacking into your windshield? Maybe he grated so much on the people he thought were laughing along with him that a few of them decided to bide their time and pay him back.)

I could choose many examples of Gruber’s style, but I’ll limit myself to one. It’s from a CBS report (Nov. 21):

“And the only way we could take it on [by “it” he means Obamacare] was first by mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people, when we all know it’s a tax on people who hold those insurance plans,” he explained.

In 2012, Gruber described how former Sen. Ted Kennedy ripped off the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars to craft a universal health bill for Massachusetts.

“The dirty secret in Massachusetts is the feds paid for our bill, okay, in Massachusetts,” Gruber said in the recording obtained by CBS News. “Ted Kennedy and the smart people in Massachusetts basically figured out a way to rip off the feds for about $400 million a year.”

Now, what can you say that’s good about a man who considers rip off a favorable term? Well, if you’re Gruber, you can think of plenty of good things to say about yourself, and some of them have landed on Wikipedia. I assume that Gruber’s Wiki page was written mainly by him, except for the “Controversies” part at the end. That’s the usual way with hacks like Gruber. I picture him hunkering down with a list of his supposed accomplishments and checking each of them off as he feeds it into the Net. This is the result:

In 2006, Gruber received the American Society of Health Economists Inaugural Medal for the best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under. He was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine in 2005. In 2009 he was elected to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association.

In 2011 he was named “One of the Top 25 Most Innovative and Practical Thinkers of Our Time” by Slate Magazine. In both 2006 and 2012 he was rated as one of the top 100 most powerful people in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare Magazine.

It tickles me to imagine a roomful of “professionals” sitting around thinking about whom to name as the “best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under.” Were birth certificates required? Was Gruber’s “medal” supposed to stimulate the other kids in the class to work as hard as he did?

Even funnier is the idea of grown people (or was it interns?) scouring the internet to generate a list of the “most innovative and practical thinkers of our time” (“yes, she’s innovative — but is she practical?”), then devoting all their powers of analysis to knocking the list down to 25. Or did they start with five (of which one was their boss), and work like hell to bring it up to 25? Probably the latter — that’s how Gruber would have gotten in. It’s hard for me to believe that powerful is an appropriate adjective for people in health care, but maybe that’s because I think of healthcare as a field in which you help others, not push them around. An old-fashioned idea, no doubt. But coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence. And feeling proud to be on that list? It’s all rather hard to understand.

But the funniest part of Gruber’s canned biography is a sentence recording the fact that in 2006, “he was named the 19th most powerful person in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare magazine.” It’s one thing to spend your time getting 25practical thinkers or 100 powerful people into the corral; but to rank the cows in the exact order of their potency — that would truly be an absorbing occupation; that would truly be something for the hired hands to puzzle over. “Nope, Chuck — reckon yer wrong. Bossy, thar, she ain’t quite so powuhfull as ol’ Thundercud, though mebbe she’s jest a leetle more powuhfull than Fatty Pie genrully is.”

Coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence.

Must have been hard to decide. But the existence of these bizarre competitions does throw some light on the video performances that made Mr. Gruber famous. When he bragged about fooling the voters, he was behaving as the 19th most powerful person in healthcare, and evidently enjoying the role; but when he explained how to rip the voters off, he was competing strongly to be named the 18th most obnoxious person in healthcare.

Ambition is a good thing. Yet Gruber’s powers as a rhetorician will, I am afraid, never get him even to 500th place in a contest for the most eloquent person in healthcare — over, under, or around the age of 40. When the performances by which he appears to have pleased some, if not all, his fellow experts were witnessed by a more numerous but less impressionable audience, and his act was discovered to be (if I may paraphrase Irving Berlin) a turkey that you’d know would fold, he found no better way to placate outraged viewers than to murmur: “The comments in the video were made at an academic conference. I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately and I regret having made those comments.”

One secret of public speaking is not to shoot yourself in the head. If you intend to avoid doing that, you should know — especially if you are a brainy college professor — that a good way of aiming for your head is to say things that will lead almost any audience to think of devastating questions, such as:

Aren’t academics paid to engage in the objective, disinterested search for truth? So if you’re willing to go before an academic audience and brag about misleading the people, what would you say in front of a political audience? If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious? When you say you were speaking inappropriately, do you mean that what you said was wrong? If so, was it wrong in the sense of not being true, or wrong in the sense of turning out to be embarrassing? What do you mean by inappropriately — inappropriate to what?

Obvious questions, easily anticipated. And to answer most of them would probably get you in even deeper trouble than you were in before. Gruber hasn’t answered them. But he doesn’t need to, because the national audience he must have longed for all his life has already found the answers, without his help.

Such is the ignorance and illiteracy of our leaders that until now, Gruber’s sub-500th-rate rhetorical skills have not limited his political influence. According to Wikipedia,

In 2009–10 Gruber served as a technical consultant to the Obama Administration and worked with both the administration and Congress to help craft the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as the ACA or “Obamacare.” The act was signed into law in March 2010, and Gruber has been described as an “architect”, “writer”, and “consultant” of the legislation. He was widely interviewed and quoted during the roll-out of the legislation.

Both Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi expressed their respect for Gruber’s talents. Today, however, Obama is dismissing Gruber as someone who never worked for him, and Pelosi is commenting in an even more dismissive way:

Mr. Gruber's comments were a year old, and he has backtracked from most of them. You didn't have it in your narrative. That's really important. He is not even advocating the position that he was at some conference and some said. So I don't know who he is. He didn't help write our bill. With all due respect to your question, you have a person who wasn't writing our bill, commenting on what was happening when we were writing our bill, who has withdrawn some of the statements.

If you want to check that quotation, it’s from an article by David Weigel at BloombergPolitics, Nov. 14. No matter how hard it is to understand, those are the words Pelosi used. Her employment of “so” is really a puzzler. Does the House minority leader mean to say that because Gruber allegedly “backtracked,” and because “Gruber’s comments were a year old” (were also presents a difficulty: how old are they now?), and because “some said” (what did they say?), she doesn’t “know who he is”? In 1984, unsuccessful politicians became unpersons. In Pelosi’s universe of discourse, they become “Mr. Gruber,” who is “a person,” which sounds even worse than an unperson, somehow.

If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious?

Fox News sent one of its guys, David Webb, to lie in wait for Gruber and ask him if he had really backtracked on the idea that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. . . . Call it the stupidity of the American people or whatever.” This was their exchange:

David Webb: “Professor, do you think the American people are stupid?”
MIT Professor Gruber: “No comment.”

Gruber has realized that there are certain occasions on which even a genius like him should shut his mouth. If he continues this clever strategy, he has a chance of becoming the 499th most powerful rhetorician among healthcare hacks. And the rest of us will hear less of the word inappropriate.

So much for Professor Gruber. Inspired by the political season of 2014, which has been coextensive with calendar year 2014, I’ve put together a list of terms that, like inappropriate, should take a long vacation from the American vocabulary:

  • Americans are tired of gridlock in Washington: I’m not tired of gridlock, and I bet you aren’t either. If Americans were offered a choice between having Congress and the president agree on new laws, or having them caught in a literal gridlock from which their chauffeured vehicles could not escape, my prediction is that 90 percent would choose the latter.
  • Bucket (“bucket of proposals,” “bucket of states that Hillary might carry in 2016,” to say nothing of “bucket list” — things you want to do before you kick the bucket): How vulgar can you get?
  • Double down: Once is enough.
  • Fighting for the middle class(“We’re going to continue fighting for the middle class” — Harry Reid): Starting with George Soros.
  • Income disparity: A term used by people who want everyone to be paid $15 an hour, and no more.
  • Pivot(“The president pivoted to foreign policy”): What do you think of people who are always changing the subject?
  • Shellacking (“The president took a real shellacking in the November election”): That is to say, the president was varnished with a purified lac dissolved in denatured alcohol. Slang should be more descriptive.
  • The people want us to work together, the people just want us to get things done, etc.: Propaganda slogans used by Democrats to get Republicans to concede to them.
  • Vote suppression: Keeping the other party’s voters from voting twice.
  • We are a nation of immigrants: Is that supposed to be an argument?
  • What this election is really about: Whatever your talking points are.

I am considering additions to this list, and I would appreciate readers’ contributions. One of my own candidates is unacceptable, a useful word but perhaps, like red states and blue states, a little too useful for its own good. This month, the people who run Obamacare discovered — actually, their critics discovered — that they had misestimated, by a mere 400,000, the number of people who signed up for the program. And guess which way they misestimated? Right! They overestimated. According to Reuters, the administration’s flack-catcher on this issue, a haggard person named Sylvia Burwell, responded as follows (on Twitter, naturally): "The mistake we made is unacceptable. I will be communicating that clearly throughout the [department]."

Well! That’s telling ‘em. They’ll never do thatagain. It’s unacceptable.




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Aping the English Language

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Are you annoyed, angered, outraged by our national illiteracy? Or have you come to be amused by it? Do you wake every day grinding your teeth about the ridiculous mistakes you expect to find, not in the spam section of your email, but in the published words of people who are actually paid to write the bizarre things they write? Or do you rise bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to enjoy the latest nonsense?

I am still one of the intellectual Cro-Magnons who belong to the first category, but I’m evolving toward the second one. The American language is becoming too ridiculous not to laugh about. Suppose that a pianist sits down to perform her first recital, and forgets several bars of the sonata she wants to play. That would be sad, perhaps tragic. But suppose that a chimpanzee sits down at a piano and starts running his paws over the keys as if he were a concert pianist. That would be funny. It might even be entertaining. If chimps have charm, this would be a moment when their charm could be appreciated. The fumbling could be understood as a momentarily interesting, perhaps exhilarating, confirmation of what we already knew: we are smarter than chimps. Some of us, anyway.

This month’s examples of idiotic verbal mistakes are presented in that spirit of fun. At least most of them are.

On August 31, Fox News reported on an explosion in a Paris apartment house: “Initial reports are that this was caused by a potential gas leak.” How great is that! An apartment house blows up, and Fox blames it on a potential gas leak. Imagine what an actual gas leak would have done.

The American language is becoming too ridiculous not to laugh about.

On September 4, John Nolte, writing on Breitbart’s site, noted that “USA Todayis Gannett's flagship publication and enjoys the highest circulation of any other American newspaper.” A paradox worthy of Zeno himself: USA Today is both itself and something other.

On September 17, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published an article about the various kinds of incarceration available for T.J. Lane in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Lane, as you may recall, is the young gentleman who in 2012 assassinated several other young people at a high school in Chardon, Ohio, then showed up in court wearing a shirt on which he had written “KILLER,” and delivered bawdy insults to the victims’ families. This month, he escaped from a ludicrously under-secured facility, was recaptured, and was sent to a real prison. After detailing the penitentiary’s super-max provisions, the article notes that “the maximum-security portion houses about 300 slightly less restrictive inmates.” I can understand that some inmates have to be more restricted than others, but what are the inmates restricting? Their guards’ ability to restrict them, perhaps?

The most entertaining result of T.J.’s escape was the bewildered speculation pursued by many channels of public information about the motivation for his latest escapade. CNN’s online headline (September 12) says it all: “Chardon School Killer T J Lane: Tightlipped about Motive, Escape.” T.J., it seems, failed to say why he scaled the fence and left the prison. Readers can only guess why anyone would want to do a thing like that.

This month, even John McCain showed that he still has what it takes to entertain us. On September 11 he had an amusing confrontation with Jay Carney, formerly the president’s chief prevaricator (i.e., press secretary). In this instance, I suppose, McCain’s heart was in the right place. He called Carney a liar, and why should he call him anything else? But what he said was, “You are again, Mr. Carney, saying facts that are patently false.” Paradox again! Only a radical Pyrrhonist could so boldly assert that even facts can be false, and patently false. The biggest paradox, however, is that Sen. McCain, a man who for many years has done nothing but talk, more or less in English, can be so patently ignorant of the meaning of a common English monosyllable. The word facts is foreign to him.

Jonathan Swift claimed that he wouldn’t satirize people who didn’t court his satire with their ridiculous pretensions. He “spared a hump or crooked nose / Whose owners set not up for beaux.” To vary Swift’s metaphor, it isn’t sporting to make fun of lame people who slip and fall in the street, but when lame people advertise themselves as Olympic athletes, then one has a right to be amused.

If you attend to these sickening displays of self-righteousness, you may be amused by how clumsy they are. They’re almost as subtle, or convincing, as an ape in a tuxedo.

You can see how this applies to McCain, who smugly invoked the rare word patently, only to fall headlong over simple facts. It also applies to the headline writer of the Daily Mail. On September 3, the paper published a translation of one of those arrogant messages that ISIS sends to world leaders. The headline over the article was: “This message is addressed to you, oh Putin.” Oh, how literate! Oh, how parodically grandiloquent! The problem is that the headline writer and the headline approver and the headline proofreader, none of them, knew that the signal of the English vocative is O, not oh. It’s hard to parody someone else’s exalted tone when you don’t know the forms of exalted language.

Is this important? Is it a mere slippage from O to oh? A mere confusion between a vocative and an interjection? A mere revelation that someone doesn’t grasp the language of Milton, Shakespeare, or common English hymns? Or is it another ominous sign that these days, most people are more willing to write than they are to read? After all, when you read, you run into all kinds of whacky old words, and who wants to do that?

If you care about words as tools of meaning, you may have a hard time seeing any fun in the continual erosion of the language. But you won’t deny the dark humor of the latest disaster to afflict Malaysia Airlines. It was a verbal disaster, not an aeronautical one; this time, the company didn’t lose any planes. But it was the kind of disaster that is happening wherever English is the standard tongue, and tongues have found that they can operate without any connection to brains.

Devising its current advertising campaign, Malaysia Airlines began by confusing wit with vulgarity. There’s a vulgar expression that unfortunately has some popularity today. That expression is bucket list. A bucket list is an enumeration of the things you want to do before you kick the bucket; i.e., die. Kicking the bucket was funny at the start of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), in the scene where Jimmy Durante kicks it. Bucket list is an attempt — a stupid attempt — to bring back the fun. But just when it was becoming obvious that bucket list had jumped the shark, Malaysia Airlines, famous for its multitude of dead passengers, initiated an ad campaign called “My Ultimate Bucket List.” If you submitted the “best” bucket list — whatever “best” might mean, although I guess it wouldn’t mean smoking less weed or apologizing to the people you’ve wronged — you would get some kind of prize.

Most people’s idea of an appropriate prize from Malaysia Airlines would be survival, but a thought like that would never occur to a company like that. The company was shocked to discover that anyone could possibly have been offended. Nevertheless, it changed the name of the contest to “Win an iPad or Malaysia Airlines Flight to Malaysia.” I’d accept the first gift, after checking it out for possible safety problems, but I’d pass on the second.

The errors I’ve discussed so far are mostly innocent, monkeylike antics; but not every verbal fumble can be described in that way. Oh, no. Consider the verbal wallpaper that goes by the name of “public service announcements.” If you attend to these sickening displays of self-righteousness, you may be amused by how clumsy they are. They’re almost as subtle, or convincing, as an ape in a tuxedo. This month, the PSA campaign that caught my attention was some advice dished out by a group ostensibly concerned with keeping people’s lives from being ruined by arrests for drunk driving — in other words, a group intent on threatening people with having their lives ruined if they don’t follow its advice.

Make no mistake: people’s lives are ruined by pressure groups like this. I have known several people who lost their jobs and therefore their families because they were poor and they got stopped by a cop and were found to be “drunk” and were jailed and fined and lost their license to drive, which meant that they lost their ability to work. Their lives were devastated, not because they did any damage but because the amount of alcohol in their blood was a trifle higher than a politically identified limit fixed by the law and continually lowered in response to the demands of mad mothers, crony capitalist insurance companies, do-good committees and foundations, municipalities cadging fines, and other lovable persons or nonpersons.

When people try to win an argument by redefining words, they are admitting that they’ve lost the argument but insist on winning anyway.

But that isn’t enough. Enough isn’t a word that busybodies ever understand. Their public service announcements now warn us that we will be arrested even if we are not driving drunk. They claim that we will be arrested for simply driving buzzed: “Buzzed driving,” the ads assert, “is drunken driving.” To which any ordinary speaker of English will reply, “No, it isn’t; that’s why they are called by two different words.” To be buzzed or tohave a buzz on or to have a buzz going is very different from chucking empties of Jim Beam out the window as you drive the wrong way on a one-way street. Everybody knows that. The confusion of drunk with buzzed is an intentional attempt to intimidate. It’s similar to all those other means by which contemporary puritans try to confuse normal conduct, or mild misconduct, with actual crime, and prepare to administer appropriate punishment. Thus, smacking a kid’s bottom becomes child abuse. Having sex with someone who is buzzed or who did not specifically say yes becomes rape. Accusing the president of laziness becomes racism, and declining to subsidize young women’s birth control becomes sexism.

It’s a rule with few exceptions: when people try to win an argument by redefining words, they are admitting that they’ve lost the argument but insist on winning anyway. There would be no reason to call spanking child abuse if people who are opposed to all corporal punishment had convinced the majority of the public that they were right. But they didn’t, so now they are trying to get public opinion, and ultimately the law, to punish spanking by jumbling it together with abuse. Their ideological cousins try the same stunt, by jumbling racism together with counting President Obama’s golf games.

Here is a great way of creating confusion: making one expression stand for very different things. A curious example of this method is what has happened to the most popular political expression of 2014, boots on the ground. This phrase was once fresh and vivid, and its purpose was clear. It was meant to identify and exclude a certain kind of military force: “There will be no boots on the ground.” But boots on the ground established itself as a cliché that could be given as many delusive meanings as friends of the most transparent administration in history could come up with. Its ostensible meaning is still no troops on the ground, but its real meaning has become no troops on the ground except advisors on the ground; no combat troops on the ground except those originally intended to be combat troops; and no foot soldiers on the ground — only paratroopers, Navy SEALS, Marines, active military advisors, Boy Scouts . . .

And no, I don’t think that’s entertaining.




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That Instructive Tone

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Many years ago, when I was a kid libertarian emerging from the swamps of the New Left, one of my friends, a student of sociology, told me something he had learned in class: among its other functions, government is a means of supplying information.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “like when they put up a traffic light. It tells you when to stop and go.”

I was too young to be paying any perceptible amount of money in taxes, so I didn’t think, “So this is why we need a government that spends as much every year as Europe did between AD 100 and AD 1960 — so it can throw that little switch on the traffic light?” But I did think, “Gosh, that’s banal.”

They are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide.

Since that time, unfortunately, government has become ever more intent on fulfilling the vital function of supplying information. Its attempts to do so are not limited to “merge,” “no left turn,” “pay your taxes by April 15 (or we are sending you to prison).” In my state, you can hardly eat a meal without being informed, someplace on the menu, that eggs and chickens need to be cooked at such and such a temperature. You can hardly pick up a package of anything without seeing a sign that says:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

You can hardly enter an apartment house without seeing an even more disturbing sign:

WARNING: This Area Contains a Chemical Known to the State of California to Cause Birth Defects or Other Reproductive Harm.

A second or two after grabbing their genitals, most Californians recall that this information is without any merit or interest. Every property in the world includes some substance, some chemical, that might conceivably prevent you from reproducing. Eat enough dirt, and you will never reproduce again.

But lately the “information” conveyed by government has assumed a somewhat more lethal form — lethal to mental health, at any rate. President Obama’s comments are almost all of this nature; and the problem has gotten worse as Obama has moved from Partisan Manipulation and Just Plain Lies to the still deadlier genre of Words for the Ages. Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

As for the people who thought those speeches had information to supply, they are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide. I’m sure we can agree, however, on the idea that with such encouragement from the top, Obama’s subordinates are very likely to optimize their own potential for banality.

Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

Governmental banality manifested itself in virtually Platonic form in remarks delivered on June 11 by Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, former senator, former banker, former head of a cellphone company, former organizer for the Reagan campaign, former official of the Veterans Administration, former lobbyist for a tire company, and current Secretary of Defense. The occasion of his remarks was an investigation conducted by the House Armed Services Committee into the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who walked away from his post in a combat zone in Afghanistan, was captured by the enemy, and was ransomed at considerable expense by the Obama administration.

Hagel said:

Wars are messy, and they’re full of imperfect choices. . . .You know there’s always suffering through war. There’s no glory in war. War is always about human beings. It’s not about machines. War is a dirty business. And we don’t like to deal with those realities. But realities, they are. And we must deal with them. . . . . . War, every part of war, like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise. The hard choices and options don’t fit neatly into clearly defined instructions in how-to manuals. All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.

Now, would anybody ever guess that this man had come to Congress to talk about Bowe Bergdahl?

Of course, it’s hard to talk about something you know absolutely nothing about. Hagel’s comments, on this and other occasions, indicated that he had no idea whether Bergdahl was a deserter or if other soldiers had lost their lives looking for him or if the five Taliban honchos who were released in exchange for him were really important or not. But as Secretary of Defense, he had to talk about something, so he talked about the eternal truths. If someone produces The Wit and Wisdom of Chuck Hagel, these wise observations will need to be included:

Wars are messy.

There’s always suffering through [sic] war.

War is not some abstraction.

War is always about human beings.

War is a dirty business.

And just to keep the troops happy:

There’s no glory in war.

What is the listener supposed to deduce from this string of truisms? Don’t go to war? If you go to war, make sure to obliterate your enemies? All’s fair in a dirty game? What goes around comes around? War is an existential tragedy, best understood by curling up with a Camus novel? War isn’t half so pleasant as a successful career in Washington? Pass me the gin bottle?

Here we have a traffic light that’s blinking red, green, and yellow, all at once. But Hagel’s demeanor insisted that you had to respect any information he supplied. When anyone expressed a hint of skepticism, the Secretary of Defense was miffed.

Watching Hagel’s testimony, I was reminded that Leland Yeager had alerted me to the existence of another exponent of government as information, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. And Yeager was right, although McCarthy turns out to have a very different style from Hagel’s. Hagel (age 67) plays the part of the wise but grumpy old grandfather; he reacts to criticism by twisting around with an expression on his face that suggests his hearing aid is missing and he knows that the questioner has stolen it. By contrast, McCarthy (age 60) is young and hip. At least she thinks she is.

In a long, long speech delivered on June 2, McCarthy puffed something called the Clean Power Plan. In case you hadn’t guessed, this monstrosity has to do with governmental “shaping” and “crafting” of large but impenetrably vague “solutions” to such nonproblems as global warming.

Remember global warming? The idea that people are heating up the globe, or planet? Yes, that’s what we used to hear. But since the expected warming doesn’t seem to be going on, people concerned with the purported emergency have changed their name for it. What government is now supposed to prevent is climate change, climate inaction, or, if you’re really hip, just climate. Those are the words that McCarthy uses in her speech; never once does anything so frank as warming appear. But she is hip, or cunning, enough to realize that some people in her audience know, or have heard somewhere, that there’s been a lot of actual cooling going on. How can she handle that? She handles it by indicating she’s so far ahead of the game that she’s plumb tired of watching it. After all, her sole purpose is to win. So whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we? I mean, sometimes the electricity goes off!

If anything, what threatens reliability and causes blackouts is devastating extreme weather fueled by climate change. I’m tired of people pointing to the Polar Vortex as a reason not to act on climate. It’s exactly the opposite. Climate change heightens risks from extreme cold that freezes power grids, superstorms that drown power plants, and heat waves that stress power supplies. And it turns out, efficiency upgrades that slow climate change actually help cities insulate against blackouts.

The solution, of course, is a set of nationwide government interventions, entailing many billions in losses for companies and consumers.

But what strikes me is the tone. It’s the tone of a tenured sage who is tired of people with their petty questions and objections. If that’s the way they are, they’re not worth talking to — even though they’re paying her salary.

Remember, this woman hasn’t even been elected to her exalted position. And she isn’t a person who has won repute by offering the public some goods that it wants to buy. She’s just a government employee. But here she is, talking to people who have either been elected by the public or whose business has been favored in some kind of marketplace, and acting as if it’s her role to give awards at the kindergarten graduation:

I want to give a shout out to all the local officials, rural co-ops, public power operators, and investor owned utilities leading on climate change: It’s clear that you act not just because it’s reasonable, but because it's the right thing to do for the people you serve. Governors and mayors of all stripes are leaning into climate action. They see it not as a partisan obstacle, but as a powerful opportunity. And we know that success breeds success. Those of us who’ve worked in state and local government have seen healthy competition push states to share ideas and expertise. That’s when everybody wins.

If McCarthy actually were a teacher, I would advise her, first, to drop the attempt at pretending to be hip and cool. If you’re not young, you ought to know enough not to do that. But this is a teacher so unwise as to think that somebody’s going to like her to death because she uses expressions like shout out, lean into, and, elsewhere in her rambling, boring, repetitive speech, all about (“This plan is all about flexibility”), a win (“efficiency is a win”), think about it like this, calling our number (“Now, climate change is calling our number”), etc. It must be admitted that there are some signs of authenticity in McCarthy’s youthful patter: she resembles many young people in never having mastered English grammar and syntax. In company with her boss, President Obama, she has not yet learned the “like-as” distinction — and that’s just one example of a grammatical notion she’s never leaned into.

Whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we?

Second, I would advise her that one establishes one’s credentials to instruct others by recognizing and avoiding clichés, and not by running after them as if they were one’s heart’s desire. How else could she give us the right thing to do, of all stripes, success breeds success, and everybody wins within the space of five lines? In other passages we get in the driver’s seat, shifts the conversation, proven path,skeptics who will cry the sky is falling (actually, a skeptic would doubt that the sky is falling, but if you’ve collected a lot of clichés, you may as well butcher some), competitive edge, think of our children, cried wolf, bottom line, doomsday predictions that never came true (another odd choice for a person who spends her time warning about apocalyptic climate stuff),and my favorite pair of bromides, “Corporate climate action is not bells and whistles — it’s all hands on deck.”

That, like the earlier list, is selective. In the space available to me, I can’t do justice to McCarthy’s clichés. But go ahead — read the speech. I dare you. I gave you the link.

In the meantime, I ask you: Is she truly exercising the function of government to supply information? What she supplies is attitude, and a very bad attitude indeed. Bad ’tude, dude. No adult should talk to other adults in this way. In fact, no one should talk to anyone in this way. Although both the tone and the total absence of thought will be familiar to all who remember their high school assemblies, that precedent doesn’t make any of this a good, or even a decent, model for discourse of any kind, including high school assemblies.

But here, as bad speakers like to say, I’m reminded of a joke. Once there were two people who were very religious. They went to church all the time; they gave money; they never missed a vigil or a potluck dinner; with them it was all hands on deck. I’ll call this couple Adam and Steve. One Sunday Adam was sick, but he wanted to find out what the new priest had to say that morning, so he sent Steve along to church with instructions to report back to him. So Steve went and returned, and on his return he said, “Do you want the bad news first, or the good news?”

Adam gulped. “I guess,” he replied, “I’d better hear the bad news first.”

So Steve said, “Well, the priest got into the pulpit, and he preached nothing but heresy!”

“Oh my God!” Adam exclaimed. “After that, what could the good news be?”

“The good news,” Steve said, “is that nobody was listening.”

I would place bets on how many people, if any, read that speech by Ms. McCarthy, or, if present, listened to it. I fear that Leland Yeager and I may be her only attentive audience. And Obama’s sermons are just as eagerly followed.




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John Kerry Speaks!

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At many colleges and universities across this great land of ours, graduation weekend has just passed. Amid the festivities and regalia and good-hearted celebration, that meant the return of one of our most dreaded civic traditions: the commencement speech. For those fortunate enough to have avoided these in recent years, the commencement speech has become the chief opportunity for would-be public intellectuals to spout truisms and feel even more self-important than usual.

Case in point: one of this site’s favorite bloviators, John Kerry. Invited to speak at Yale’s Class Day, presumably on the strength of his sterling undergraduate record, Kerry produced a masterpiece of vacuity, making a case for how urgently the students needed to trust their “instutitions,” by which he meant the government. In addition to the expected lame jokes and the kinds of cultural references that dads make to try and pretend they’re still cool, Kerry indulged in his habitual verbal offenses:

  • word salad, such as rallying students to “galvanize action to recognize felt needs” (translation: “we need to spend lots of money meddling with people”);
  • doublespeak, such as “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade.” (translation: “especially meddling with people in other countries”);
  • bumper stickerism, such as “None of our problems are without solution, but neither will they solve themselves” (translation: “our meddling can solve anything”); and
  • dubious assertions, such as “Participation is the best antidote to pessimism and ultimately cynicism” (translation: “never doubt even for a moment that meddling isn’t the right thing to do”).

Thing is, by graduation-weekend standards, Kerry’s speech is only half bad—I’ve survived much worse. What’s happened this year that has given me hope is students finally getting fed up and fighting back. At a number of schools, the student body banded together to reject the speaker being foisted on them. This move has brought howls from the sorts of writers who hope themselves one day to deliver commencement addresses. But why submit yourself to listening to a half hour from an architect of the Iraq War, like Condoleeza Rice, or a defender of forceful police coercion against nonviolent student protestors, like Robert Birgenau, if there’s any alternative? Graduations are a time for students to celebrate with friends and family, a chance to reflect on years past and look forward to years future. Nothing about that requires the importation of big-name outside speakers—especially those whose fame depends on the degree to which they’ve intruded themselves into the lives of others.



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Peripheral Vision

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Does it seem to you that people are losing their peripheral vision? It seems that way to me.

I halt at a stop sign, look to the left, look to the right — and then, just when I start to move, observe with horror that people are jumping off the curb and walking in front of me. I’m looking in their direction, but they’re not looking in mine. Oh no. They’re looking straight ahead, with no indication that they see my car, hear my brakes, or feel the heat of my engine as I screech to a stop three feet away from them. They parade in front of me with the gait of peacocks solemnly treading the Queen’s lawn.

(She does have peacocks, doesn’t she? In the summer? Or is it swans? Very well, with the gait of swans solemnly treading, etc. Swans always seem about as stupid as peacocks, except in Tchaikovsky ballets. And even then, they’re more beautiful than smart.)

There’s a general opinion that this kind of behavior is restricted (A) to persons under 25, and (B) to persons with electronic instruments jammed in their ear sockets. But no, it’s not. It has spread to every demographic group.

They don’t see anything. They just continue. Like those children of all ages, waltzing merrily in front of the oncoming traffic.

Have you ever been in a Whole Foods store? I ask that because Whole Foods is somewhat more expensive than your ordinary supermarket, and notoriously attracts a Better Sort of People — mainly NPR clones and trust-fund babies with tattoos, but lots of libertarians as well. (Like me.) These are sensitive souls, if anybody is. That’s why the baby seal advocates line up outside to get their signatures in support of sensitive causes. But you can’t walk through the aisles without constant attempts to avoid injury from NFL-class shoppers jumping in your way, then stopping dead in front of you, blocking the aisle. When you try to dive around them, boom! There they are again. If you make it to the dairy products, you can expect two or three of them to smash into you while you’re reading the labels, innocently attempting not to buy soy milk. They didn’t see you. They never see you. They have no peripheral vision.

Something of the same effect is achieved by all those people who make your life miserable in restaurants, movie theaters, and other places of public resort — the blithe spirits who yell, shriek, chatter, debate, and conduct lengthy reviews of their private lives for the benefit of everyone within a five-block radius. When you give them the meaningful look that, when your grandparents used it, would shush everyone but the most hardened conversational criminals, they just face you with a glassy stare. They’re not staring at you. They don’t see you. They don’t see anything. They just continue. Like those children of all ages, waltzing merrily in front of the oncoming traffic. Like their fellow hazards to health, the parents who chat idly with each other while their children run about the airport, the parking lot, or the edge of the nearest volcano, endangering their lives and the lives of others. Their parents literally do not see them. They have no peripheral vision.

This is the kind of behavior that was formerly common among those whom our grandparents rudely classified as trash. Only now is it manifesting itself as a mass phenomenon. Its counterpart is the recent, very large increase in loss of peripheral vision about what people are saying while they insist so much on saying it. No one seems to care that it might be embarrassing to tell a roomful of strangers all about one’s effing conversation with one’s effing bedmates, because said effing bedmates are getting fatter than effing hogs, not to mention being bad about their toilet manners. It must be stipulated, however, that loss of peripheral vision is especially pronounced among the self-important classes, who ought, one might think, to take more care about saying things that will disgrace them.

Strangely, this loss has coincided with an enormous increase in the retrievability of verbal gaffes. Nowadays, if you don’t have enough peripheral vision — once known as foresight — to notice that your words may possibly come back and bite you on the ass, it’s much more likely that they will come back and do just that. Digitally embodied, they will wait beside you, visible to all but you, until such time as they are ready to spring upon and permanently discredit you.

Suppose, to take a purely hypothetical example, a racial or sexual epithet should be scrawled on someone’s wall. These are the days of forensic science; it gets easier and easier to determine who did such things. If the action is in fact a fraud — an expression not of racial or sexual hatred but of a sick desire to advertise some cause or issue of the person who scrawled the epithet in order to make accusations about somebody else — chances are large that the fraud will be exposed. During the past few years, scores of these moral disasters have occurred, and have been well publicized. Now why are such fraudulent charges always attended by instant, loud, fanatical declarations of their unquestionable truth, delivered by every school principal, public official, church leader, and college professor in the neighborhood? These people practically crawl over one another to get to the microphone and announce their support for even the most ridiculous accusations. Then, when their charges, the charges they have made their own, prove false, they apparently think all memory of their words will be erased. Things don’t happen that way, but they still can’t see it. They have no peripheral vision. They don’t see the car that’s going to hit them.

Listening to friends of the current administration, one would think the attempt to “end poverty in our lifetime” had been a grand success. Apparently they never heard of Detroit.

To put this in a broader context: were you as astonished as I was when intellectual friends of the current administration began making loud noises about the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty? Their intention was not to mourn the devastation that the War (apt name) had visited on the poor in America. Their intention was to celebrate the War. Listening to them, one would think the attempt to “end poverty in our lifetime” had been a grand success — and also, curiously, that we need even more of it. Apparently they never heard of Detroit. Apparently they can’t see the neighborhoods that lie directly adjacent to the government zone in Washington or to 50 of those proud universities from which celebratory noises issued. Everyone else can see — so why can’t they?

Like the people at the intersection, they don’t see because they don’t bother to look; and they don’t bother to look because they feel entitled not to look, not to see, not to get hit by the onrushing vehicles — of failure, and of public exposure. They see themselves, of course, but only as the heroes of their inward vision. They haven’t a clue about how they look or sound to others.

And now we come to Secretary of State John Kerry. On Feb. 16, in, of all places, Indonesia, he delivered a speech about “climate change.” By now, almost everyone has observed that climate change is a term used by people who don’t want to admit that their wild predictions of global warming have been falsified. They don’t want to see the falsification, any more than the guy stepping off the curb wants tosee the car approaching. Truths are indeed inconvenient. To admit the existence of the car might require one to change one’s course — and who wants to do that? But the climate change people are in a worse position than the guy in the street. They actually believe that other people don’t see them either, see and rememberthat they predicted a lot of hurricanes, but now there are very few; that they predicted wet days for California, but California is in drought; that they predicted warm winters, but look at the country now. Well, as a satirical friend remarked last night, “the most devastating thing about climate change is its unpredictability.”

Kerry, being an old man and a failure in his real job, now wants another job. He wants the job of prophet. He declared to the Indonesians that “this city, this country, this region, is really on the front lines of climate change. It's not an exaggeration to say that your entire way of life here is at risk." "In a sense,” he said, “climate change can now be considered the world's largest weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even, the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction." “The science,” he said, “is unequivocal, and those who refuse to believe it are simply burying their heads in the sand." Like his boss, President Obama, Kerry has a real zest for clichés. And like his boss, he carries the clichés as far as they will go. He believes that climate change, whatever that is, must be regarded as settled science.

Now, Senator, I hate to tell you, but you’re strolling across a busy street. I’d be a little more careful if I were you. Most of the people on this street don’t think that what you’re talking about is settled science at all. Some suspect it’s an unsettled science. Some suspect it’s a pseudo-science. Some suspect it’s a real science that is disgracing itself by its cheap propaganda. Some, including many scientists who are close to the grant-getting game, know that it would look a lot less settled if so much weren’t being done to prop it up. Overwhelmingly, grants go to people who investigate the assumed effects of climate change, not people who set out to examine the process critically (if it is a process, and one process, and a process not competing with other natural processes). Schools and colleges deluge students and faculty with propaganda about the danger of climate change, with no hint of interest in the multitude of debates that attend this issue. Whole communities are mobilized to promote the kind of sustainability and climate friendliness that could be rationally defensible if (A) the theory had been proved, (B) the theory hadn’t changed so, well, unpredictably that right now it’s hard to tell exactly what is being proved or disproved, and (C) doing without paper bags could have the slightest effect on the global climate, no matter what condition it’s in.

Kerry doesn’t see the millions of eyes watching him, and noticing that he’s made a fool of himself.

A theory that you are not allowed to doubt is a theory that has proved its doubtfulness. A scientific theory that needs the support of sermons by such renowned scientists as a former vice president and a former senator from Massachusetts is a theory that confesses it is in serious trouble. Theories that appear to need this kind of assistance merely invite public ridicule. If they turn out to be true, which is always possible in a regime of true science, they have already damaged their own credibility, and the damage may be fatal. I think it is safe to say that only a tiny minority of the American population believes the party-linestatements that Kerry was making in his big, pompous speech, and the majority is even less likely to believe the theory, now that he has spoken.

Kerry doesn’t see the millions of eyes watching him, and noticing that he’s made a fool of himself. His way of avoiding the oncoming cars is by insulting their drivers, braying about “shoddy scientists” and “extreme ideologues” and comparing anyone who disagrees with him to members of “the Flat Earth Society.” And because there is no one this side of North Korea who is more arrogant, humorless, and condescending than John Kerry, no one who is fitter to be called the embodiment of social entitlement, he has done more to harm his cause than an army of deniers could possibly do.

He doesn’t see it. He’ll never see it. But what I saw, next to the news story about Kerry’s speech, was a series of teasers for other news stories:

Another Ice Storm Causes Havoc Across the South

New England Hit with Another Winter Blast

Another Messy Morning in Winter-Weary Northeast

Is this proof that Kerry is wrong about whatever theory of change he has in his head right now? No, probably not; one winter doesn’t make a case (although Kerry claimed individual meteorological incidents as conclusive evidence of change). Is it proof that Kerry is a fool? Oh yes. How hard is it not to look both ways before you cross the street?




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Logic and Liberty

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A key instrument of political persuasion is the logical argument. Advocates of every ideology back their ethical and political beliefs with arguments based on premises that reflect their fundamental views of the nature of reality and the nature of man.

Libertarians promote freedom-oriented values using closely reasoned arguments based on widely accepted social and ethical norms. Yet few people newly exposed to such arguments become libertarians. Why is this the case? Is it moral failure on the part of the listeners, failure such as envy or the desire for the unearned? Is it a refusal to accept rational arguments, putting faith or feelings above reason? Is it peer pressure, favoring the traditional and conventional?

Or is it something else entirely, something we’ve missed?

To understand why communicating the value of libertarian principles is often so difficult, we need to reexamine the nature of logical argumentation and the role it plays in political and ethical debate. Classical or Aristotelian logic is a powerful tool for grasping and organizing concepts and defining their relationships to one another and to reality. But decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas. Indeed, when used improperly or in an inappropriate setting, it often achieves the opposite of its intended result.

Decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas.

A widely held belief among libertarians is that, aside from direct perception, the primary way that people acquire knowledge or beliefs is by using their rational faculties, employing either classical logic or mental processes that are reducible to classical logic. This is not true; and even if it were, the use of logic alone would not be an efficient means of promoting a libertarian worldview. Here are several reasons why.

When dealing with concepts, people construct mental models of these concepts. These models are mental images representing typical examples of the concepts under discussion, based on previous encounters with instances of them. For example, when one is presented with the concept “bird,” the image that comes to mind is likely a “generic” bird such as a robin or a sparrow, rather than a less typical bird such as a penguin or an ostrich.

Once an image has become associated with a specific concept in an individual’s mind, that image becomes the standard by which he or she judges any instances of that concept encountered at a later time. When presented with a logical statement — for example, “if A, therefore B” — a person will evaluate not only whether the statement makes logical sense, but also how well “A” and “B” match his or her mental images. If two or more competing arguments are presented, people usually accept the one most strongly in accord with their preexisting images.

This leads to difficulties in the realm of political discourse. Taking an example from the libertarian playbook, consider the following syllogism: “Taxation is theft. Theft is morally wrong. Therefore, taxation is morally wrong.”

As libertarian arguments go, this one is relatively straightforward, easy to explain and understand. However, a listener’s response to this syllogism and its embedded concepts will be heavily influenced by the images that these concepts generate in his or her mind. For a non-libertarian listener, the word “theft” is likely to conjure up the image of a conventional criminal rather than a tax collector.

By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought.

Since the argument presented by the libertarian conforms to the rules of logic, the listener will evaluate the validity of the argument based upon the degree to which the image of “tax collector” corresponds to the image of “thief” in the listener’s mind. If the listener’s mental images for “thief” and “tax collector” are too far apart, the listener may conclude that the libertarian is attempting to stretch the definition of the word “theft” beyond its appropriate boundaries, and as a consequence may reject the argument entirely.

This is more than a trivial issue regarding the effectiveness of libertarian outreach. Mental images can be much more influential than logical arguments in shaping and maintaining a society’s character, laws, and customs. The history and political culture of the United States at present provide a case in point.

For many Americans in the revolutionary era, the exemplar of a person fully entitled to liberty was a white male, preferably a landowner and farmer. Native Americans, African-Americans, and women were seen as inferior in various respects when compared to this idealized image, and thus not entitled to enjoy the same rights as white males. These images or mental models were widespread in colonial and revolutionary America, reflected in policies such as expulsion of Native Americans, enslavement of African-Americans, limitations on women’s (especially married women’s) property rights, and exclusion of all three groups from meaningful participation in the political process. The pervasiveness of these mental images partially explains how so many white landowners were able, in their own minds, to justify owning slaves while simultaneously fighting a revolution based on “inalienable” human rights.

Political and cultural images are no less powerful today. Most of them (though not all) help to sustain the perceived legitimacy and effectiveness of government intrusion into all aspects of a supposedly “free” society, even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. Statist politicians take full advantage of these images to bypass rational debate as they advance their agendas. Virtually all political advertising in the mainstream media attempts to influence voters by appealing to their established mental images in order to manipulate their emotions.Experience has shown that such advertising is effective. By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought; if it could, libertarians would have won the ideological battle long ago.

People assign measurement parameters to qualitative concepts, based on how well particular instances of these concepts match their mental images. The relationship between concepts and measurement is a tricky one. Many concepts, such as height, require some form of measurement when applied to a concrete example. Concepts that are more abstract, such as motivation, can be given descriptive forms of measurement (“highly motivated”, “barely motivated”), allowing specific instances to be compared to one another. Finally, there are concepts, such as “bird,” that apply to a specific set of entities and appear to be purely qualitative and not subject to measurement — either a particular entity is a bird, or it isn’t.

But people apply measurement parameters to qualitative concepts also, in terms of the degree to which a specific example matches a person’s mental image. A penguin may have all the formal characteristics of a bird and yet be too different from a “typical” bird to be considered a full member of the “set” of birds. Faced with this conundrum, people often give only partial or qualified recognition to a penguin’s status as a bird (“a penguin is sort of a bird”).

When qualitative concepts such as “bird” are assigned a measurement component, their inclusion in logical statements becomes problematic. If this type of concept is used in the premise of a syllogism, the measurement component will also carry over into its conclusion, and in some cases will diminish the perceived validity of the entire argument.

Revisiting our previous example of taxation as a form of theft, a non-libertarian is likely to assign the concept “tax collector” only partial membership in the set of conceptual entities denoted by the word “thief.” Depending on the listener’s perspective, the concept “tax collector” will correspond to the concept “thief” anywhere from 100% (if the listener is a hardcore libertarian) to 0% (if the listener is a hardcore socialist who does not recognize any right to private property). Most people will estimate the percentage as somewhere in between, depending upon the degree of legitimacy that each person assigns to the concept of taxation and how reasonable the person considers a tax rate to be. The extent to which a person believes that a tax collector is a thief is the extent to which that person will agree with the libertarian’s position regarding the morality of taxation. Only rarely will such agreement be total.

The higher the level of abstraction, the more widely a population’s mental models of a concept will vary. Higher-level concepts are derived from multiple lower-level concepts. The same holds true for mental images. Each lower-level image varies from person to person, increasing the overall variation in a population’s higher-level mental images. As an analogy, consider a contest among several chefs preparing a meal from the same recipe. The recipe itself is identical for all chefs, but each chef’s interpretation of that recipe will make each final product unique. The more complex the recipe — the more ingredients used and the more steps required in the meal’s preparation — the greater will be the variation in the resulting dishes.

Propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public.

Variation among high-level images greatly increases the difficulty faced by libertarians seeking to change people’s minds through the use of logic. Most concepts relating to libertarian principles and values — concepts such as justice, morality, property, and individualism — involve high levels of abstraction. But the more abstract the concepts employed in a libertarian’s argument, the less likely is the listener to share the libertarian’s interpretation of those concepts. To convince people to adopt a libertarian view of high-level abstractions such as justice, one must also convince them to revise their mental models of the lower-level concepts that give rise tothese high-level abstractions. Often this can be achieved only by a complete overhaul of a non-libertarian’s core values. Logical arguments, no matter how elegantly structured, are not sufficient by themselves to accomplish this task.

Because of evolutionary pressures, people are “hardwired” to resist change, an attribute that logic alone cannot overcome. In his recently published book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo identifies a widespread human trait — one that helps explain why it is so difficult for libertarians to be successful in challenging the political status quo. He writes: “The brain lives on a preferred diet of stability, certainty, and consistency, and perceives unpredictability, uncertainty, and instability as threats to its survival — which is, in effect, our survival.”

This universal human tendency — developed in a much more dangerous world to cope with ambiguous threats, and now part of our evolutionary heritage — raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the methods we use to advance our political philosophy. In employing an “educational” strategy using logical argumentation, we are constantly outmaneuvered by the hardwiring of the human brain that craves “stability, certainty, and consistency.” Our political agenda is not an obvious fit in any of these three categories. However, most libertarians do not recognize this as a serious problem, and ignore or downplay voters’ concerns regarding stability, certainty, and consistency, preferring to focus almost exclusively on the advantages of liberty and less intrusive government.

In doing so we make it difficult to gain adherents, because we are urging people to take a leap into the unknown and untried — at least in their experience. The prospect of instability triggers a perception of heightened risk and uncertainty in listeners’ minds. Most people are risk-averse, especially in matters concerning their own survival, their livelihood, and the wellbeing of their families. In times of crisis such as now, they gravitate toward solutions that promise stability, and shun proposals that are fraught with uncertainty, even if such proposals promise a greater level of individual freedom.

Given these reasons why logic alone cannot convince most people to adopt a libertarian philosophy, it might appear that our most potent weapon in the battle for liberty is inadequate to the task. But each of the limitations described above can be overcome by employing logic carefully and in combination with other means of persuasion. Here are a few suggestions in this regard.

If two words or phrases mean substantially the same thing, choose the one that is most likely to evoke the desired mental image in the listener’s mind. For example, defenders of economic liberty often use the terms “capitalism” and “free market” interchangeably. Strictly speaking, the two concepts are nearly identical in meaning. But to the general public, the word “capitalism” evokes a multitude of unfavorable associations and images that do not arise when the term “free market” is used.

For many people, “capitalism” conjures up images of politically connected financial institutions receiving government favors; multinational corporations “outsourcing” American jobs to cheaper and less regulated labor markets abroad; giant retailers crushing helpless smaller competitors; exploitation of conscientious workers by uncaring employers; and the awarding of multi-billion-dollar bonuses to rich Wall Street executives.

Although most of these undesirable events result from massive government interference in the economy, the public at large perceives them as failures of capitalism. This happens because of the pervasive influence of the media and the public education system, both of which are overwhelmingly friendly to “activist” government and hostile to business.

However, propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public, and “free market” is familiar to many people as shorthand for a system of voluntary exchange. While “capitalism” can readily be personified and caricatured (“evil capitalist,” “plutocrat,” “exploiter,” “monopolist”), the term “free market” does not lend itself to such verbal distortion — we never hear statists castigating “evil free marketers.”

If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy.

When we promote our ethical and political principles through the use of logic, we are evoking people’s mental images as we attempt to appeal to their rational faculties. Our arguments can be much more persuasive if we strive to use words and phrases that evoke the most favorable images and associations in their minds. In this instance, promoting the “free market” rather than defending “capitalism” is more likely to achieve this goal.

Avoid the use of higher-level concepts when lower-level ones will address the issue at hand. For example, in casual conversation with non-philosophers, it is usually not helpful or appropriate to invoke natural rights theory, Austrian economics, or high-level abstractions such as individualism when discussing issues such as Wall Street bailouts and Obamacare. Most listeners will more readily connect with everyday libertarian talking points about freedom of choice and the unfairness of income redistribution.

Demonstrate that our policy proposals promote “stability, certainty, and consistency.” This means toning down the language of “radical upheaval” in favor of the language of “sensible reform.” As noted earlier, most voters are risk-averse when faced with the prospect of major changes in the social or political landscape. Such voters will be more receptive to arguments promoting a libertarian agenda if these arguments are presented in a manner that is reassuring rather than unsettling.

When proposing policies based on libertarian principles, avoid the temptation to insist that such policies be applied in every case. Although principles are not contextual, policies are. For most policies there are exceptional circumstances, such as “lifeboat” situations, that make it appropriate to modify them temporarily, or waive them. If we treat our political principles as axioms and our policy prescriptions as moral absolutes, our arguments become fragile; any real or perceived exceptions will weaken such arguments in the minds of listeners.

In libertarian circles, an unfortunate but common example of this phenomenon is misuse of the non-initiation-of-force principle (really a policy prescription rather than a principle), which states that no one may initiate force against another person. This policy is appropriate in most adult-to-adult interactions. However, in other contexts exceptions come readily to mind, such as dealings with children or persons afflicted with severe mental problems.

If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy. We can more effectively promote our principles, and receive a more respectful hearing from a non-libertarian audience, if we do not overstate our case by insisting that our ideas be put into practice regardless of any circumstances that may arise. Libertarian proposals for public policy are aimed at maintaining or defending values, and can legitimately be overridden when higher or more fundamental values are at stake.

Ultimately, our success in promoting a libertarian worldview depends not only on presenting well-reasoned logical arguments, but also on making sure that we employ language and concepts that are appropriate to the particular issue and the particular audience we are addressing. Putting in this extra effort can go a long way toward making libertarianism accessible and attractive to those we seek to reach.




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Puzzles

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Several current phenomena puzzle me. Maybe some of Liberty’s readers have answers. I’ll save one puzzle about politics until the end of this Reflection.

  • BP, notorious for spilling oil in the Gulf, has been filling TV screens with ads about its concern for the region’s prosperity. According to these ads, it has installed “cutting edge” technology and a “state-of-the-art” monitoring system operating “twenty-four/seven.” How can BP and its advertising agency believe that its public image benefits from the insincerity suggested by three clichés in ten or fifteen seconds in an ad often repeated in a few minutes?
     
  • In its ads Kroger, the grocery chain, offers reduced prices if one buys at least a specific number of specified items or spends at least a specific amount on them. To take advantage of the deal, the customer has to count which of them he really wants or is willing to stock up on and how much, in dollar terms, he wants them. This additional little complication to life often makes me omit buying the one or few specified items that I do want; I don’t want to yield to the price discrimination. Sometimes I even shop at another supermarket. My reaction may be irrational in the most narrowly economic sense, but I think it is human. I wonder how common such reactions are and whether Kroger takes them into account.
     
  • Charities often send out personalized return-address stickers, presumably to put recipients on a guilt trip if they do not contribute. Almost without exception these stickers put a title before the name — in my case “Professor,” “Prof.,” “Dr.,” or “Mr.” Don’t these fund-raisers realize that it is bad form (except perhaps for a physician) to refer to oneself with a title? The name alone is better.
     
  • Expressing my next puzzle might seem to be a complaint about other people. It is not; I am genuinely curious. Why do so many people want almost continuous contact with one another, as by cellphone, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media? Myself, I do not want to send or receive hourly or daily bulletins about the trivia of everyday life, not even to or from close friends. I understand that the social media are useful in coordinating revolutions, but what accounts for their popularity in the United States?
     
  • Whatever became of the half-dollar? Why is the quarter the largest denomination of coin routinely circulating in the United States?
     
  • Why does bitcoin, the digital currency, receive the respect it does in the popular press? A full-fledged currency must maintain a reasonably stable and predictable value, at least over the time between a holder’s receiving it and paying it out in transactions. Bitcoin’s value, however, has been monstrously unstable, ranging from $13.50 in January 2013 to $782 in mid-November, then falling back. How could people confidently use such a currency for pricing and regular transactions, let alone for long-term or even short-term loans? A sound money derives a determinate value either by linkage to some commodity like gold or by regulation of its quantity with some attention for the demand to hold it. Bitcoin, however, is created in a decentralized and capricious way as the reward for solving difficult mathematical problems requiring much expensive computer time; the problems become more and more challenging so as supposedly to put a ceiling of 21 million on the total issue. The system lacks the transparency required for a sound currency of determinate value.

    Its wide fluctuations do give bitcoin an appeal for speculators. Yet for anyone interested in a nongovernmental currency that performs all the functions of a normal money and that, moreover, allows a high degree of anonymity in transactions, ideas for reform must run along other lines. Bitcoin remains a puzzling distraction.
     
  • My last puzzle centers on a fund-raising letter from Speaker John Boehner enclosing a purported survey of opinion. The questions are slanted to draw desired answers. The phoniness of the whole business is epitomized by the date on Boehner’s letter, “Monday morning” — nothing more. (I received the letter and survey on Monday afternoon, November 18.) Many such appeals — complete with the provocative phony dating — have arrived in my mailbox from Republican politicians over the years; I wonder what the Democrats send out. Anyway, how can anyone believe that such phoniness attracts rather than repels voters and contributors?



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Progress and Poverty

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I remember R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal, testing a new keyboard by typing out, “Good news — the depression is over, and the banks are filling with money.” Anyone else would have written, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” But Bill liked news, and when he could find it, good news.

So I want to begin with some good news. The year now ending witnessed significant reductions in the rates of certain linguistic crimes. And since “law enforcement agencies” (a.k.a. cops) always take credit for any accidental lowering of a crime rate, this column gladly takes credit for these reductions. Congratulations, Word Watch.

After years of pointing out that “begging the question” doesn’t mean what you might too hastily assume it means (the prompting of an inquiry) — that it means, instead, a species of logical fallacy (arguing in a circle, using a proposition to prove itself) — I am happy to find that many public speakers now realize where the trap door is hidden, and do their best to avoid it. The people on Fox News practically break their necks getting to the other side. They used to put “that begs the question” in every other sentence, and always in the wrong way. No more. Now, just when you see that they’re dying to say it, there’s a pause, a deep breath, and a slow rephrasing: “That . . . uh . . . poses the question”; “That . . . leads to the question”; “That . . . makes me want to ask you . . .” Somebody obviously told them to read Liberty.

After years of hammering away at the ridiculous idea that President Obama is a great, or even a good, writer and speaker (a hammering that could be heard as recently as last month’s Word Watch), I am gratified by some faint signs that conservatives don’t always feel obliged to begin their denunciations of an Obama utterance by saying, “Despite his soaring rhetoric,” or “The president’s actions are not as inspiring as his words.” They should be saying, “Despite his bathetic attempts at rhetoric” and “not as insipid as his words,” but that may come later, when pundits learn the existence of “bathetic” and “insipid” — in short, when they read Word Watch more often.

The great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy.

And after years of insisting that celebrity is not the same as significance, or even fame, I find curious indications that Word Watch may be exerting some influence on the crude but candid (i.e., free) media. I refer, for instance, to the reader comments that appeared on TMZ, following the death of Paul Walker. Walker was an action film star. He liked fast cars. On November 30, he was killed in a speeding car that went out of control and hit a light pole. It was a horrible accident, and the reader comments on TMZ were appropriately sympathetic. But they were more. They were self-dramatizing in a way that has become predictable after every death of anyone who might conceivably be regarded as a public figure. Hundreds of readers proclaimed themselves devastated with grief on behalf of Walker, his family, and his friends — people with whom these readers had no acquaintance whatever. Finally, someone had had enough. “Sorry,” he wrote, “RIP, our prayers are with the family, etc.....who is he?”

It’s a good thing that TMZ, like Word Watch, exists in cyberspace, or there would have been mob violence. But somebody had to point out that heartfelt feelings are often nothing but words.

Celebrity is fleeting, and even authentic feelings pass away, but some things never leave us. Word Watch can’t do anything about them. For God’s sake, even the second George Bush is back. He is daily proclaimed “more popular than President Obama.” When you think of it, this isn’t saying much. But now he is being cited as a film authority — and in the most gruesomely authoritative way. In late November, ads appeared for a movie called The Book Thief, and these ads said, “The critics are raving . . . . And President George Bush raves, ‘It’s a truly wonderful movie.’” He certainly put a lot of energy into that one. Not only wonderful but truly wonderful. But what truly conveys the feeling of the perpetual, the eternal, the Egyptian pyramidal, is that word “raves.” Raves. The expression has screamed at me from every film ad I have ever had to sit through. The critics are raving. Even a former president is raving. And as always, the New York Times raves. They’ve all gone crazy together.

Well, let them. We’re used to it. But must we get used to the steady seep of ignorance into the foundations and concrete basements of our language? I know you have your own examples; here are three of mine:

1. The effort to make “which” a universal connective: “I bought a new place in Vista Hills, which I didn’t realize the taxes were so high.”

2. The loss or mangling of strong verbs, and the creation of dumb replacements for them. It’s bad enough to hear that “the suspect spit,” not spat, “at the arresting officer”; but must we hear “spitted at him”? And why can’t people realize that the past tense of “fit” is “fitted,” but the past tense of “shit” is “shat”?

3. The growing movement to ignore the rules about comparatives and superlatives, whenever their use requires a split second of thought. Example: a journalist on Greta van Susteren’s show, commenting (December 10) on the latest Quinnipiac poll about Obama: “It’s on healthcare that people are ranking him the most low.” Most low? The superlative of “low” is ”lowest.” Is that too hard? Yes, if you can’t figure out what to do when an adjective gets two words away from its noun.

“Most low” exemplifies a general problem — people’s increasingly evident inability to keep track of their sentences. Leland Yeager, a friend and expert advisor of this column, has collected many instances of the problem, including offerings by such respectable journals as The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Try these exhibits from the Yeager museum of unnatural history:

“A key benefit to [sic] offshore wind power is the lower rate of wind turbulence at sea vs. on land” (WSJ, June 19, 2008). As Yeager suggests, why not just write, “A key advantage of offshore wind power is less wind turbulence at sea than on land”? But here is early documentation of an illiteracy that continues to spread: the use of “versus” (“vs.”) to mean “than.” What next — “My kid is smarter vs. your kid”?

Commentators “take great pride in emphasising how much more sophisticated civilization was in Japan in the 11th century compared with Europe at that time” (Economist, Dec. 20, 2008). It doesn’t take much to compete with the medieval West. But what exactly is being “compared” — “the 11th century” and “Europe”? No, it’s supposed to be . . . let’s see . . . it must be levels of sophistication in Japanese and European civilizations in the 11th century. Commentators apparently like to emphasize the idea that in the 11th century Japan was more sophisticated than Europe.

That’s one way of reforming the sentence, and you can easily think of many others — none of which occurred to the writer. But there are sentences that just make you want to give up and head for the bar. If you have any interest in economics, you’ve seen too many sentences like this one, which Yeager recovered from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review (Sept.-Oct. 2008):

But the embedded leverage in these products meant that end-investors were often buying assets with much greater risk characteristics compared with the underlying pool of mortgages, credit card debts, or loans than they might suppose.

Do scholarly journals still have editors?

Still, the great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy: always ignorant, always talking, always striving to influence, always striving, simultaneously, to obscure the truth. The Obamacare fiasco has born teeming litter after teeming litter of repulsive words. Any example will do, but let’s look at a little missive by the irrepressible Julie Bataille, director of communications, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (November 22, 2013). Remember, as you read, that she is a director of communications.

“Today,” she begins, “Jeff Zients [the wizard that Obama appointed to clean up the mess he had made of the merry old land of Oz] offered an update on our efforts to improve HealthCare.gov; data on key metrics on site performance, the progress made this week and the view looking forward.”

Already you know you’re in trouble. You know that Bataille has no intention of rushing forward with any facts. If she did, she would say up front what’s wrong with the site, instead of tucking “site performance” into a box called “metrics,” tucking that box into one called “data,” and tucking that one into an “update” that was “offered” by somebody else. How about just giving us the data? We know that an update on “progress” assumes that progress has been made — but that’s the topic of debate, isn’t it? Could Bataille be begging the question? Clearly, she is a very bad writer. She’s going to give us nothing but happy talk, and the happy talk will consist of slick-sounding clichés, such as the progressive “view looking forward.” Turning worse into worst, she will mangle those clichés. To her, a “view” looks.

As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time?

“In late October,” she continues, “we appointed QSSI as the general contractor to deploy their expertise in technology and program management to lead this project forward.”

So. Since late October, when the nation, as distinguished from Ms. Bataille, realized that Obamacare was a hideous disaster, something called QSSI has been leading the project forward. (There’s that word again.) But how is that leading accomplished? What’s been happening? Oh, it’s all very technical. Let’s just say that the company (singular), here regarded as they (plural), deploy their expertise. Expertise, one gathers, is like an army. Division 1: Attack that defective code! Division 2: You’re in reserve; wait behind the hill. Division 3: Lift the siege of Fort Obama!

“The team from QSSI continues to work with people from CMS [can’t have enough acronyms] and other contractors around the clock [can’t have enough clichés, either] to troubleshoot the system, prioritize fixes, and provide real-time management decision making.”

So you can “troubleshoot” a “system,” can you? I suppose, then, you can “troubleshoot” almost anything. “Hey, honey, I just wanta troubleshoot ya.” OK. But I draw the line at prioritizing fixes. It just sounds so gruesome. As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time? Maybe that’s what went wrong with Obama . . .

We haven’t reached the end of Bataille’s memo — that’s a very long way off — but we have reached the climax, which she has cleverly deployed in the middle. And this is it:

“Thanks to this team effort, we have made measurable progress.”

Measurable progress.Let’s consider how such phrases might work in real time.

Automobile passenger: “Hey, what’s the speed limit, anyway? Seems like we’re going awful slow.”
Automobile driver: “No, we are making measurable progress.

Airline seat holder: “How long before we get to Cleveland?”
Airline attendant: “We are making measurable progress, sir.”

Employer: “When do you expect to get that project done?”
Employee: “I am making measurable progress.”
Employer: “You’re fired.”

Bataille’s communication, horrible as it seems, is a fair sample of the words oozing out of Washington. If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered: do people who write this kind of prose actually think the way they write? Are they just prowling across their keyboard, trying to find enough words to bamboozle everybody else, or does it all come spontaneously and sincerely to them? When their car breaks down, do they look for expertise that can be deployed? When the guy from Triple A arrives, do they reflect that measurable progress is now being made? Which alternative is more terrible to contemplate — that kind of cunning or that kind of sincerity?




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