Weaponized Fear

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On the Sunday after the election, during the coffee hour following Mass at my Episcopal church, a parishioner went around the social hall doling out safety pins. Accompanying them were flyers telling us how comforted and loved we were supposed to feel, thanks to kind souls who — well, gave us safety pins and flyers. Just in case any of us somehow missed the point, he’d also tacked the flyers up in the hall, the narthex, and the parish house.

I declined to take one of his special safety pins. And, just because sometimes I’m ornery that way, I asked him exactly what it is we’re supposed to feel safe from. Perhaps appropriate for someone handing out safety pins, once used to fasten cloth diapers, he responded in baby-talk.

For all their supposed kindness, compassion, and moral superiority over the rest of us, the “progressives” of today are among the most hostile and aggressive people I have ever seen.

Though I tried to be polite, I’m fairly sure that my annoyance showed through. I am heartily sick of the crocodile tears of those who refuse to accept the election of Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for him, but he won — and I was brought up to believe that regardless of whether they like the outcomes, adults simply accept the results of lawful elections as matters of fact. What I have a hard time accepting is Hillary Clinton’s troopers bringing their petulant “not my president” nonsense into church.

The safety pin missionary smiled his kindly Christian smile. But his eyes glazed and his jaw clenched. He clearly wanted to sock me. I must admit that at that particular moment, I didn’t feel particularly safe. For all their supposed kindness, compassion, and moral superiority over the rest of us, the “progressives” of today are among the most hostile and aggressive people I have ever seen.

It wasn’t enough to foist his magical talismans off on us during coffee hour. In the middle of a meeting of the St. Anne’s Guild — an Episcopal women’s organization — he burst in to pass them around. When they came to me, I dropped them. I confess I can’t be sure it was entirely accidental.

Am I overreacting? Is there anything wrong, at heart, with this ministry of the diaper pin? There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to comfort fearful people. I suppose I’d find these admonitions not to be afraid more comforting — not to mention more convincing — if they weren’t coming from the very people turning a blind eye to mass tantrums that degenerate into riots. In an instant, this crowd can go from speaking pabulum words of peace to screaming through a bullhorn.

Fear is the weapon of tyrants. Statists are, at the very least, tyrants-in-training.

I’d be the last to deny that fear has reached pestilential levels in our society. We see it everywhere, and it motivates more of what we do than most of us would care to admit. When our “fear” button is pressed too often, and too hard, it gets stuck in the “on” position. And an overload of fear — especially during an extended period — goads us into rage. Rage is nothing more or less than weaponized fear.

Fear is the weapon of tyrants. Statists are, at the very least, tyrants-in-training. Donald Trump has poured his share of gasoline on the fire. Not so much in what he’s said, himself, but in the hordes of supporters who, throughout his campaign, he encouraged to be angry and little else. They were angry because they were afraid, and because they were so angry they’ve made many other people afraid.

This vicious cycle won’t be stopped by people who condemn fearmongering only in those with whom they disagree, while condoning it in their political allies. I believe that Trump supporters would have been equally quick to kick, scream, and turn blue if their candidate had lost the election. Those who behave that way are certainly very likely to be afraid. But they don’t hesitate to throw their rivals into the most ungodly terror they are capable of inspiring.

The safety-pin crusade was, in itself, an act of aggression. That it masqueraded as an attempt to be comforting fooled nobody who wasn’t willing to be fooled. It was infantile, as acts of aggression usually are. If protestors against our constitutionally stipulated political process continue to behave like irrational children, they will destroy this country. And any church that doesn’t stop this nonsense from happening in what its parishioners trust to be sacred space will eventually find its entire body of believers in diapers, and nothing in the collection plate but safety pins.




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The Religion of the Environmentalists

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The crazed environmentalism of the official class has recently been the subject of two articles in Liberty, which is highly appropriate: if those people won’t leave the subject alone, why should we? Here’s my own, smaller contribution.

I’m interested in the status of environmentalism as a religion. I agree with the libertarian and conservative consensus that it is. What makes me curious is the psychological component. What do the true believers in environmentalism get out of it, as a psychological reward?

The traditional religions offer many psychological rewards and motivations: a personal relationship with the God of the universe; the prospect of eternal life; the glory of religious art, music, and literature; pride in an ancient heritage; the calm assurance of truths understood by contemplation. These are rewards that environmentalism does not offer.

If you believe what they said, they were ready to shoot themselves over the possibility that George Bush would permit oil drilling in a tiny part of Alaska.

Environmentalism offers no hope of an eternal life; its concern is entirely with this world. It replaces God with material objects and forces that cannot speak and cannot help. While some adepts claim that nature puts them in a contemplative state in which they make actual discoveries of truth, the truths they learn are hard to identify. Their experience, as described, is indistinguishable from the one you get from eating a big dinner. As for art, music, and literature, the best that environmentalism seems to offer is the photography of pretty objects, and one can find that in any fashion magazine. There is no environmental music, and as for literature, if you think John Muir was a good writer, you might do well with any other old-fashioned sermonizer. The great literature of “nature” was the literature of the Romantic period, which was pre-environmentalist; it was a literature specifically concerned, not with the preservation of certain rocks and trees, but with the mind’s superiority over the natural world:

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
       And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
           Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
               Enveloping the Earth—
And from the soul itself must there be sent
        A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Dejection ode

When I try to find some grand tradition of environmentalist “literature,” I think of Samuel Butler’s parody in The Way of All Flesh (1903):

The first glimpse of Mont Blanc threw Mr Pontifex into a conventional ecstasy. “My feelings I cannot express. I gasped, yet hardly dared to breathe, as I viewed for the first time the monarch of the mountains. I seemed to fancy the genius seated on his stupendous throne far above his aspiring brethren and in his solitary might defying the universe. I was so overcome by my feelings that I was almost bereft of my faculties, and would not for worlds have spoken after my first exclamation till I found some relief in a gush of tears. With pain I tore myself from contemplating for the first time ‘at distance dimly seen’ (though I felt as if I had sent my soul and eyes after it), this sublime spectacle.”

Not only are many traditional rewards completely absent from the environmentalist’s psychological balance sheet, but many new debits have been added. One of them is panic fear. If you can believe the sources, environmentalists are convinced that the civilized world is about to be ended by “climate change,” that “unless all of us work together now,” a new dark age will descend upon humanity. On the local level, they are constantly being scared to death by some new “environmental threat.” What a way to live! If you believe what they said, they were ready to shoot themselves over the possibility that George Bush would permit oil drilling in a tiny part of Alaska that not one in ten thousand of them could have found on a map, that none of them would ever have visited, and that could not have affected any of their lives, even if a meteor had wiped it out. And now they’re looking, with fear and trembling, at a convocation of blowhards in Paris as the last, best chance to Save the World.

So what are the psychological rewards of the environmental religion? There must be some. I’ve thought of four.

1. An easily sustained self-righteousness. Members of traditional religions are famous for this quality. Jesus denounced the self-righteous religious teachers of his time, finding many of these “hypocrites” among people who were close to agreeing with him on doctrinal issues. But traditional religions usually make you jump through some hoops before you blossom forth as a scribe or Pharisee. To be a self-righteous Christian, you have to be baptized, make a financial pledge, show up at the charity bazaar . . . something. But an environmentalist can feel self-righteous about nothing more than voting Democrat, or intending to. The kindergarten teacher who scares the kids into thinking that if they don’t recycle all their garbage they’ll be killing the whales no doubt experiences one of the cheapest rushes of self-righteousness available on this planet.

There is no environmental music, and as for literature, if you think John Muir was a good writer, you might do well with any other old-fashioned sermonizer.

2. Freedom from moral control. Traditional religions have mechanisms to keep their members in line. That sounds pretty grim, and often it is, but imagine what would happen if they didn’t, if every believer got to express his self-righteousness in any way he wanted. But you don’t have to imagine anything; just look at the environmental movement. Is there anyone in the movement whose job is to say, “Wait a minute. You’re going too far. There’s such a thing as truth. It really isn’t true that ISIS was caused by climate change. And you know, when you remove a lane of heavily traveled road and turn it into a bike lane, you’re not doing any good for the environment. Not only are you hurting other people but you’re increasing emissions from the jammed up cars. So my advice is, stop it.” Have you ever encountered anyone like that — in the movement itself?

3. Membership in an exclusive group. When you notice that last month you depleted your bank account by $1,000, rather than the $2,000 you predicted, you naturally welcome that knowledge. “Whew!” you say. “That’s great! Next time, I’ll pay better attention to my math.” When you meet a nice elderly lady who spends one day a week working for her church’s charity mission, and she notices that the number of homeless people has greatly diminished, you’ll hear her say, “Thank you, Jesus! Something must be working!” But when you suggest to an environmentalist that the dire predictions of climate change, or whatever such people want to call it this month, may not be true, you know what the reaction will be. Your facts will be dismissed, your intelligence will be questioned, and if you persist in conveying the good news, that will be the last time you get a chance to do it.

Now, who would want to hear bad news? Only people for whom knowing the terrible truth provides membership in a group of superior minds, in a club of intrepid thinkers who know things that other people don’t, including things they don’t know because the things aren’t true. Millenarians are commonly of this type. If you try to show them that their prophecies of a dreadful end-time are not being fulfilled, they won’t feel happy and relieved; they will shun you with contempt. Membership in their exclusive group is purchased at the price of unquestioning belief, and for some people, this isn’t too high a price for the satisfaction it gives.

4. Aggression. Put satisfactions 1 through 3 together, and that’s what you get. The environmental religion is a refuge for people who enjoy feeling right in their own eyes, who value their membership in an allegedly superior group far more than the claims of truth, and who want to be free from normal ethical controls. When those conditions are satisfied, the pleasures of aggression can be indulged without limit.

Is there anyone in the environmental movement whose job is to say, “Wait a minute. You’re going too far. There’s such a thing as truth"?

The spirit of aggression is, of course, well manifested in the constant barrage of leaflets, “public service” announcements, museum displays, school curricula, political diatribes, and other means of insulting and degrading any human being who drops a Kleenex in the “non-recycle” bin. It is manifested in the gleeful fantasies of those religious visionaries who delight in imagining a not too distant future when deniers will find their cities sinking under the waves and their children screaming for relief from 130-degree temperatures.

And there are many Americans who, mild-mannered in the book club or the faculty lounge, derive great and sordid pleasure from damaging others’ lives and livelihoods. Do you think people would give their time and money agitating for laws against plastic bags or paper plates if they didn’t get a kick out of closing down some “polluter’s” business? Do you think they would fight, as California’s “environmental activists” have fought, to dump billions of gallons of water into the Pacific Ocean in order to “save” an ugly and useless fish, while demanding harsh penalties for humans who do not “save water”? Do you think the bureaucrats who take out two lanes of a busy street and turn them into bicycle paths feel anything but pleasure as they watch a thousand heathen motorists creeping through a traffic jam, while a solitary saint whizzes past them on a bike? Do you think anyone would do such things, if he weren’t enjoying his aggression against normal people?

Isabel Paterson observed that “there is a secular self-righteousness which borrows all the unbearable features of formalized piety with none of its graces.” When she made that remark, in 1932, she was thinking about some particularly unfortunate aspects of Victorian culture — about which, she noted, there were also many good things to say. But there aren’t any good things to say about environmentalism. And unlike the Victorians, it’s still around. In fact, it’s everywhere.




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Two Films: One Right, One Not So Right

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The weakest of this season’s Oscar finalists is Philomena. This film about an Irish woman’s search for the baby she gave up for adoption, more than half a century earlier, has received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). It is a good film, with moments that are lighthearted and funny and other moments that are deeply emotional and full of anguish. The performances by Judi Dench as Philomena; Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the down-on-his-luck journalist who helps her; and Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young Philomena are top-rate. But the film is marred by the same characteristic that is probably driving the critics and the Academy to rave about it: it revels in unfair and bitter vitriol against the Catholic Church. Hollywood loves to hate religion.

Philomena is really the story of two souls — the title character and the journalist — who have had their lives pulled asunder by external forces. When the young and unmarried Philomena becomes pregnant, her parents send her to a convent house where unwed mothers are hidden away and cared for until their babies are born and put up for adoption. To earn their keep, the girls do domestic work inside the convent, and they are allowed to see their babies every day until homes are found for them. But the outcome is known from the beginning: the girls have come to the convent to hide their pregnancies, give up their babies, and return to normal life. The nuns are simply doing what they agreed to do.

Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church.

The sad truth, however, is that no one knows until she has experienced it how hard the mothers’ role really is. How can she “return to normal life” once she has had a baby growing inside her? Whether she marries the father, raises the child by herself, gives the child to another family, or terminates the pregnancy, there is no forgetting the child and no going back to what life was like before. Parents of the pregnant girl might mean well in trying to go backward; “six months away and it will be as though it never happened,” they might think. But they don’t know. Certainly the nuns and priests don’t know; they’ve taken a vow never to become parents except indirectly, as Mother Superior or Father to the flock. Only the members of this exclusive club of special mothers can truly know what it’s like, so I won’t pretend to suggest that I know the answers. I only know that it’s hard.

The film turns the nuns and the church into the villains of the story, and it’s true (or seems to be true) that they were harsh in how they enforced their rules. But it should be remembered that no one in the church reached out and kidnapped these young unwed mothers; their parents sent them to the convents, and social custom embraced the plan. In a climate in which unwed mothers were treated as outcasts and their children were treated as bastards, these premature grandparents did what they thought was best for their daughters, the babies, and the childless couples who wanted them. And yes, for themselves. But Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church, through several disparaging remarks made by Sixsmith toward the Church, and even more through the cruel, heartless way the nuns treat the mothers of the babies, and by the deliberate withholding of information by the convent’s head nun. I’m not Catholic, but I am offended by the anti-Catholic sentiment that permeates the film.

Martin Sixsmith has experienced a frustration of his own: as the film opens, he is a former journalist who has been sacked from his position with the Labour Party over an offense that he did not commit. He is outraged by the unfairness and tries to have his job restored, just as Philomena tries to reclaim her son, but to no avail. After reporting international news for so long, he feels demeaned by accepting this fluffy human-interest story for a magazine. But accept it he does, and the two set off for America to trace the snippets of information available to them about the child’s adoptive parents.

They are an unlikely pair, Martin with his international political interests and Philomena with her game shows and romance novels. She nearly drives him nuts with her never-ending summaries of the latest love story she is reading and her penchant for talking to strangers. These lighthearted scenes provide some of the most enjoyable moments in the movie, and balance the scenes of unbearable anguish portrayed by Young Philomena and the more controlled, but just as real, anguish felt by her older self. This is a lifelong pain that never goes away.

The film is certainly worth seeing, on its artistic and its social merits. But better than Inside Llewyn Davis? Or even Saving Mr. Banks? (Neither of them was nominated for Best Picture.) Not on your life. Philomena was nominated purely for its political correctness in hating on the Catholic church. And that’s just not a good enough reason in a season of such outstanding films.

No external considerations were necessary to produce admiration for the next film that I want to consider — another nominee for Best Picture: her.

her is a cautionary tale about the love affair with electronic devices and the disconnect it is causing in normal relationships, from simple inattention to internet dating and cybersex. Even the name, “her,” suggests objectification; the title is not She, and it is not even capitalized. “her” is just the objective case of what once was a woman.In this story of a near-future utopia, the voices that talk to us from our phones and GPS units and have names like “Siri” have developed emotions and personalities that aren’t almost human; in many ways they’re better than human. But this is not Westworld (1973) run amok, with sentient robots destroying their creators in order to take over the planet. No, “her” is a soft-spoken voice that comes in the night, whispering sweet nothings and taking over the creators’ emotions.

But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation.

Theodore Twolmy (Joaquin Phoenix) is an emotionally crippled introvert who writes “heartfelt personal letters” for other people. It’s sort of like being a cross between a Hallmark poet and Cyrano de Bergerac. Theodore is separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he has known since childhood, and is very lonely. His days are filled with writing love letters, but he lacks any love in his own life. He turns to what amounts to porn calls in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t satisfy him. He spends his evenings playing holographic video games and becomes so immersed in the adventure that when he’s out on a blind date, he talks about the video character as though he were a friend. And the date gets it. Without thinking it’s weird or nerdy. Just as Ray Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451, the people on the screen have become family.

This scene in which Theodore talks about his video friend reminded me of the time, years ago, when my son completed the final level of the first “Zelda” game. He had been working at it for a few weeks, and I thought he would feel exhilarated. Instead, he was morose and despondent. “You can start the game again,” I told him, thinking that would help him shake the blues. He responded with great sadness, “But she won’t remember me!” That was my first understanding of just how deeply someone can become involved in a cyber relationship, even one that doesn’t have a real person at the other end of the email.

Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the witty, husky voice inside Theodore’s electronic devices. When Theodore purchases a new operating system to manage his electronic information and Outlook files, he is surprised to find how humanlike the artificial intelligence interface is. Because this software has complete access to all his files, “she” knows him inside out and can evolve into a personality that responds to his emotional as well as organizational needs. And he responds viscerally to this being who knows him so deeply. It is what he has been aching for.

The film’s delicate tone makes it both very special and very disturbing. The sets and costumes contribute a great deal to that tone. The colors are mostly soft oranges and greens, the fabrics natural and touchable. The clothing is only slightly futuristic — the shirts have a different kind of collar, for example, and they are tucked into pants that ride high above the waist, instead of riding low on the hips as they do today. Furniture is sleek and mildly mid-century, with wall hangings and table decorations made of wood or stone. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, yet so natural and comfortable that I expect to see it “in reality” next year. The overall effect is rather dreamy and inviting, not unlike Theodore’s relationship with Samantha.

Soon Theodore is spending all of his time talking with Samantha. He takes her on “dates” by putting his phone in his shirt pocket with the camera facing forward, and they have flirtatious conversations together. At a party he leaves the group of human friends to go into an empty side room and chat with Samantha. At night he feels especially close to her. He lies in bed in the dark, watching for his phone to light up with a message from her. There is something so magical and enticing about speaking to her in the dark. He tells others that Samantha is his girlfriend. He becomes goofy with happiness, giddy with the swivet of romance. It leads to a sick isolation from the real people in his life — an isolation many real people create for themselves as they engage in cyber relationships.

Of course, the nighttime conversations eventually lead to cybersex. Despite the giddiness of the growing “relationship,” he still feels morose and disconntected.

He tells her, “Sometimes I think I’ve already felt everything I’m ever going to feel, and from here on out I’m never going to feel anything new.” After a pause he adds, “But you feel real to me, Samantha.”

And then it starts. “I wish I could touch you,” he says. “How would you touch me?” she asks, genuinely curious, since she does not have a body or any experience with touch. “First I would . . .” and he tells her where he would touch her. And touch her.

His imagined touching is gentler and more romantic than his experience with phone porn earlier in the film, before he has “met” (that is, purchased) Samantha. It suggests that their deep intellectual conversations have led to a deeper, more meaningful sexual connection as well.

“Mmmmmm,” she responds. “That’s nice.” And he expresses more places he would touch her if he could.

And then . . . the fireworks. For both of them.

It seems utterly romantic. They’ve been talking for weeks. It feels like real communication. They seem to be connecting on a deep, intimate, personal level. There’s a reason sex is called “intercourse.” But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation. Or in this case, single masturbation, because Samantha exists only in his computer. She’s not real, and what they seem to have is not real, either. He loves the rush he feels when he is talking to her, but it keeps him from having any real relationships with real people. And that, of course, is the danger of cyber “relationships.” They are emotionally stimulating, but socially crippling.

“How do you share your life with someone?” Samantha asks when Theodore tries to tell her about his relationship with Catherine and his grief at their breakup.

“Through influence,” he suggests, thinking about how he and Catherine would talk to each other about their writing and their careers. “Try this, try that,” he explains about their creative influence on one another. “You grow and change together,” he continues, trying to understand the sharing of a life as he explains it to Samantha — who is, of course, his own creation. “But the danger is growing apart.”

Perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity.

He believes that he cannot grow apart from Samantha, because they are so completely in sync and in love. “You’re mine,” he says simply. But there are no guarantees in cyber relationships; there is only what you believe you have created. And that, too, is a danger. It is far too easy in cyber relationships to invent personas that aren’t quite real, to create dialogs that are fresh and funny and exciting, but in the end are just scripts in an evolving melodrama.

Are human relationships any better? “Falling in love is socially acceptable insanity,” Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) opines at one point. And perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity. Perhaps there isn’t any logic or sense or sanity about human relationships. They’re hard to develop and even harder to maintain, especially in this day when everyone’s head seems to be dipped toward an electronic device. “Falling in friendship” can be just as inexplicable. We seem drawn toward communicating with cyber friends, checking our email and updating our tweets, even while a real, live friend is right there beside us. It’s a serious and growing problem, this love affair with electronics, a problem that is beautifully, disturbingly displayed in this creative and powerful film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Philomena," directed by Stephen Frears. BBC Films, 2013, 98 minutes; and "her," directed by Spike Jonze. Annapurna Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



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The Non-Political Side of Life

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At times like this, we all need to be reminded that there is a world outside of politics — a world of wonders that has nothing to do with Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. I was recently reminded of that when I spent a few days on Isle Royale.

If you’re like all of my friends but one, you have never heard of Isle Royale. So think of Lake Superior, the way it looks on the map. It looks like a wolf’s head, pointing west. The eye of the wolf is Isle Royale. It’s 50 miles long and 10 miles wide, and as Grace Lee Nute wrote in her book about the greatest of all lakes, “It is not really an island at all, but a miniature continent, surrounded by its own islands.” Isle Royale is part of Michigan, the land of shibboleths, so its name is naturally pronounced differently from what you would expect. It isn’t “roy-ALL”; it’s “ROY-ull.” (In Michigan, Charlotte is “shar-LOT,” Lake Orion is “Lake OH-ree-on,” Mackinac is “MACK-in-aw,” and Sault Ste. Marie is “the Soo.”)

Nobody lives all year long on Isle Royale; it’s a national park with a lodge and places to camp and a lot of not-very-well-frequented trails into forest, steep, and swamp. There are moose, and I saw their tracks. There are fox, and I saw their spoors. There is a tribe of wolves, and I didn’t see any part of them. The Lake is perfectly clear, and at dawn the planet Venus shines not like a star but like a silver door left open in the sky.

Very little has ever happened on Isle Royale. Starting 5,000 years ago, Indians mined copper there, and it’s a big thrill to see the little pits where they did that. The stuff traded all over North America, and perhaps beyond. But they didn’t live there, either. In the 19th century white people tried large-scale mining, and failed; the ores weren’t good enough. Independent souls established outposts where they fished and sold their catch to ships that called at the island. The biggest excitement was the occasional ship that managed to wreck itself, running into Isle Royale. In the 1930s, do-gooders decided to protect the island from the nondevelopment that was taking place, and the national park was established.

Nobody I encountered, even the loudmouths in the bar and grill, showed the slightest interest in politics.

Why am I telling you all this? Because there’s no television on the island; there’s no cell phone service; and there’s only one hot spot for the internet — which I saw nobody using except me. I didn’t even know it existed until my last day on the island. And nobody I encountered, even the loudmouths in the bar and grill, showed the slightest interest in politics, or curiosity about what was happening in the desperate electoral war being waged in The Battleground States.

This attitude continued in evidence when I took the boat back to Houghton, Michigan (80 miles away). Nobody there — even, again, the loudmouths, and they’ve got a few of them in Houghton, too — had anything to say about politics. In Houghton’s twin city, Hancock, I saw a huge Ron Paul sign hanging from someone’s porch, but that was it. This indifference to civic virtue didn’t seem to have any harmful effect on people’s moral stature. During the long boat ride, I noticed that everyone, ultimately including me, left all valuable articles — computers, purses, cameras, small but expensive gear — just lying around on the seats: no crime was anticipated. In Hancock, I attended one of the local churches, which like everything else in Upper Michigan is seriously down on its luck but in which the tiny congregation frankly and cheerfully discussed its history, prospects, and current business with the chance visitor from Southern California. After a long conversation over coffee in the basement social hall, the last person left (I had exhausted all the others) asked whether I’d had a chance to study the century-old carvings around the altar, upstairs. “No,” I said. “Do you have a couple of minutes to show me?” “Oh,” she replied, gripping her walker and swiveling herself up from the table, “my ride is here, and I have to go. Just look around, and close the door behind you when you go.” No problem; I probably wouldn’t hurt anything. So for the next two hours I had the opportunity to enjoy some of the most remarkable works of art I’ve ever seen. No advertising words had been used. Nobody talked about “Houghton’s iconic church” or claimed that its décor was “legendary,” “famous,” or (heaven forfend) “infamous.” It was just there, if you wanted to see it. Take a look.

Wonders of the nonpolitical world.

Unfortunately, however, I need to be fair. I am not one of those libertarians who think that all would be well if the state would just wither. The world of nonpolitics has its heavens, but it also has its hells. Liberty’s observant managing editor, Drew Ferguson, located two of them the other day. They are visions from which even Dante Alighieri would turn in horror.

Of course I’m exaggerating, at least about the first one. But it does involve dying. It’s the headline that TV station WBTV (wherever that is) gave to one of its stories: “MAN KILLED TO DEATH.” It’s possible, barely possible, that whoever wrote that headline had in mind the words of the Revelation of St. John the Divine (2:23), in which Jesus says of an ideological enemy, “I will kill her children with death.” But probably not.

Drew’s other find was much worse, and much more elaborate.

Georgia Tech, I am sorry to report, has been going through a spiritual crisis. It has felt the need to “reenergize its look, while staying connected with its past.” It is, therefore, doing what other collective souls in crisis have done. It is “showcasing” new football uniforms.

To me (but what do I know?) these new football suits look exactly like all the others. But the ramblin’ wrecks from Georgia Tech know better. Among the “Jersey Highlights” are the following (and I quote):

• New custom Georgia Tech sublimation pattern on the neck front, sleeves and back insert
• New custom stretch twill numbers that reduce jersey weight and provide a leaner fit as compared to standard fabric numbers
• New custom sublimation number pattern and font featuring "GT navy" honeycomb
• New "GT gold" banded edge offsets sublimation pattern for sharper contrast at stitch borders
• Extreme Compression tight fit fabric minimizes grab capabilities by opponents
• Lower mesh insert on front and back for ultimate breathability

“I’m sold!” was Drew’s remark.

But what, you may ask, is a “sublimation pattern”?

I would remind you that every art has its lingo, and that technical words, which look like nonsense to the uninitiated, must often be used by professionals. “Sublimation pattern” is a perfect example. I haven’t the faintest idea what that could mean. If you know, please contact Liberty. I do know, however, because the manufacturers have divulged this information, that the outfit as a whole “catalyze[s] a spirit of enthusiasm for the season ahead.”

Of course, this stuff is benign, compared to political oratory.

Not quite so benign, but similar in effect to the football-uniform puffery, is the allegedly technical language of social scientists. A grad student at Princeton, who wishes to remain anonymous, obliged this column by reporting the following sample, taken from an academic disquisition of some kind. The mighty problem that engages its author is the old issue of whether people can be attracted to each other, despite their differences. He concludes that they are attracted, until they aren’t. In other words, you may think I’m fun because I’m different, but you’ll tell me to get lost if my difference gets too large. Here’s the great social scientist’s way of putting it:

Consider “Like attracts like” versus “Opposites attract each other.” . . . [I]f attractiveness is an inversely U-shaped function of novelty or similarity, each of the two opposing mechanisms might simply describe different parts of the curve. . . . [U]ltimately, some optimal level is reached, whereafter increases in the independent variable are held to give rise to reductions in liking.

 

Ya gotta love it.

I’m told that the paper from which this sample is drawn gets handed out frequently in classes at famous colleges like Princeton, and that students think it’s hilariously funny. I hope that’s why the professors hand it out. Where would we be if they actually thought it meant something?

Among the entirely nongovernmental institutions I cherish is the peculiarly American phenomenon of the fortune cookie. (No, they don’t come from China; they are as American as you and I, whoever we are.) But have you noticed that their quality has been declining? This decline is, in fact, disastrous; it represents a total misunderstanding of the genre.

A fortune cookie is supposed to give you a fortune. Picture yourself going to a fortuneteller. She (almost all of them are she’s) looks into your hand and says, “I foresee there will be problems in your life from the young ambitious one, and also from the lady with gray eyes.” She blathers on like that for a few minutes, then indicates that this is the point where you’re supposed to leave, or give her another 20 bucks and get your other palm read too. So you give her the other 20, and she starts in about how the man from southern parts will bless you with his business, but there will be much danger from accidents with cars.

No, this isn’t specific enough to ruin your day, but at least you feel that she’s given you some of your money’s worth.

Apparently, however, the fortune cookie people figure that by the time their product arrives at your table, you’ve already eaten the meal and have to pay the check, so why should they bother to come up with a fortune? So they give you something else.

This is what passed for a “fortune” on one of my recent visits to Chinese cuisine:

Your future looks bright.

What? That’s a fortune? No, it’s not.

My friend Mehmet, who was with me on that expedition and therefore had to put up with my rant, made this suggestion: “Maybe it should say, ‘Your October 12 looks bright.’” Well, yes. That would be an improvement.

On another recent occasion, Mehmet and I were both handed that most pathetic of all substitutes for a fortune — good advice.

Let’s think for a moment. Suppose there’s something wrong with you. You keep having these blinding headaches. So you go to a doctor. Or maybe you go to a “spiritual counselor” of some kind. No difference. You want to know what’s going on, and what’slikely to result. In short, you want your fortune told. And suppose the person whom you’re consulting looks you in the eye and says, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

“Huh?” you ask.

“A stitch in time saves nine,” he continues. “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”

You would, I am sure, be tempted to commit assault and battery, not to mention stiffing the jerk when he presented the bill.

So you can imagine my feelings when, on that other recent occasion, I looked at my fortune and saw:

A good beginning is only half done.

What the . . . ? What kind of human being would write crap like that, and put it in an innocent lump of dough?

As I looked at the squirrely little slip of paper, my whole life flashed before my eyes. I vividly remembered the summer when my parents, who were very averse to travel, actually took me on a trip to New York City. In the restaurants along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which were then very nice, and fascinating to little kids from Michigan, there were scales into which you could insert a quarter and receive, along with your weight, a long, narrow, tightly rolled piece of paper that contained your fortune, reckoned according to your astrological sign. The thing was vastly specific; it must have had 2000 words in it, with all sorts of numbers and figures and days of the week and months of the year and forecasts about what would happen to you on every day of the next month. It was wonderful. I cherished it, and hid it in my hands in the back seat of the car, because if my parents saw it they would not only scoff but probably take it away from me, as a warning against superstition. I have no faith in divination whatsoever, but I wish I had that fascinating object now. It was a work of art.

I do know, however, because the manufacturers have divulged this information, that the outfit as a whole “catalyzes a spirit of enthusiasm for the season ahead.”

Soon after that, The Old Farmer’s Almanac swam into my childish field of vision. In those days, it wasn’t a bland modern-liberal throwaway, as it is now. It not only presented wonderful astronomical data, full of weird symbols and funny expressions (“ecliptic,” “the moon rides low”); it had Features that were real Features, by God. My first acquaintance with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner came from its reprinting in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which also ran the Doré illustrations — mysterious, tantalizing, unforgettable. In those times, the OFA still asserted that it had a secret algorithm for predicting the weather, and it gave out its meteorological forecasts in rhymed poetry. Oh my! What a wonderful thing.

But here, sitting on the table, amid the ruins of the cookie I destroyed to free the verbal genie from its bottle, is a “fortune” that says:

A good beginning is only half done.

That doesn’t even make sense. What would it mean to “do” a “beginning”? And how would a beginning be “good” if there was only “half” of it?

As always, Mehmet came out with a cogent comment. “It’s like the Donner Party,” he said. “This isn’t so bad; it’s only begun.” At first, the people in the Donner Party may have thought that a couple more inches of snow wouldn’t really mean very much . . .

Come to think of it, that comment — “it’s like the Donner Party” — is a pretty good summary of political discourse. It tempts me to drift back to what might, with too much generosity, be called the rhetoric of the present campaign. So I’ll quit while I’m ahead — or, in fortune cookie language, leave while my good beginning is still half done.

rsquo;t seem to have any harmful effect on people




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Two Years

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Today the three women belonging to the band Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” a charge that resulted from a brief protest they staged in a Moscow cathedral last winter. They were sentenced to two years in prison.

The women, who have been held by the authorities since their arrest last March, will now disappear into the bowels of the Russian prison system. A few hundred Russians held a protest outside the courtroom. The crowd, which included former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, was quickly broken up by police, and Kasparov was arrested. As this is written, there are unconfirmed reports of beatings.

According to a New York Times dispatch from Moscow, defendant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said the following in her closing statement:

To my deepest regret, this mock trial is close to the standards of the Stalinist troikas. . . . Who is to blame for the performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and for our being put on trial after the concert? The authoritarian political system is to blame. What Pussy Riot does is oppositionist art or politics. . . . In any event, it is a form of civil action in circumstances where basic human rights, civil and political freedoms are suppressed.

Two years. A severe blow to liberty was struck in Moscow today.




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Free the Grrrls!

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Liberalism, in its better sense, hardly exists in Russia. Male chauvinism, gay-bashing, and other aspects of cultural reaction are rampant throughout contemporary Russian culture. Tolerance for edgy and avant-garde cultural expression has improved only slightly since the days of Communist rule. A prime example is the response to the antics of the Russian grrrl band Pussy Riot. Last February 21, three members of the band — Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova — entered the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow and gyrated before the altar for about 40 seconds. The women were taken into custody and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” for which Russian law provides a penalty of up to seven years in prison. The verdict in the case will be announced tomorrow.

That Russia’s thug-president Vladimir Putin and the Russian patriarch Kirill I have led the way in condemning Pussy Riot should surprise no one. What is somewhat surprising is the lack of sympathy for the women in Russian society generally, including among so-called liberals. The three women maintained a stoic front during their trial, which has only exacerbated the hostility toward them expressed by many Russians. That women should act up and then refuse to show remorse or beg for mercy clearly touches a nerve in a society still dominated by hypermasculine posing. It has been left to the so-called international community to take up the cause of Pussy Riot. A broad mix of prominent organizations and people — including Amnesty International, German parliamentarians, and Madonna — has helped put Pussy Riot’s plight on the world’s front pages.

The international uproar has had some effect. President Putin stated recently that the women’s punishment should not be too harsh. Apparently a not guilty verdict was never a possibility. As for the punishment, we shall know tomorrow how severe (or not) it will be.

The women of Pussy Riot are not especially talented. Compared to PJ Harvey or even Bikini Kill, they are rank amateurs. And they probably exercised poor judgment by making a scene in the cathedral. But in a normal, civilized, liberal (in the best sense) society, they would face trespassing charges and a small fine. In Russia they face the prospect of several years’ imprisonment for what amounts to a harmless prank.

The Russians are a great people with a tragic history. And in general I believe that the internal affairs of other nations are none of my business. But the Pussy Riot show trial is a blatant affront to artistic expression and individual freedom. Libertarians should join the Pussy Riot Global Day protests that will be held tomorrow, August 17.




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The Christmas Controversy — The Early Years

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