From Facts to Frenzies

 | 

I’m familiar with the philosophical — or perhaps anti-philosophical — idea that the words we use cannot be judged by their relationship to the realities they try to represent, that we all have our own “language,” that language is not representational but expressive, and that the deployment of words creates reality rather than mirroring it. I find this a depressing idea. I would not want to live in one of those incompatible language “worlds.” And I do not believe that I live in one. Except right now.

On August 13, Shepard Smith, one of the ickiest people in the Fox News lineup, “reported” on the sit-in at the Hong Kong airport, and on the minor acts of violence that occurred between protestors and police. “It was an unimaginable occurrence, that police should come into this place at this time,” Smith said. Here is a private language, if there ever was one. In the Smithian tongue, August 13 was a sacred day, a day on which the cosmos prohibited violence; and the Hong Kong airport was the place where, above all other places, violence could never occur. That it did was therefore unimaginable. To me, on the contrary, it was so far from being unimaginable that . . . Look! He was talking about something that we were both watching on the Fox feed from Hong Kong!

You might argue, and you would be right, that the cause of such weird ripples in existence is anything but philosophical; it is, instead, merely rhetorical — an hysterical impulse, chronic in our era, to inflate rhetoric beyond the confines of reality. But you would be wrong to argue that it isn’t important, and isn’t troubling.

Here is a private language, if there ever was one.

People who want to blame President Trump for legitimizing this impulse have some reason to do so. This month, he reached a rhetorical zenith with a series of tweets (August 23) about the trade war with China:

Our Country has lost, stupidly, Trillions of Dollars with China over many years. They have stolen our Intellectual Property at a rate of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year, & they want to continue. I won’t let that happen! We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far … better off without them. The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP.

I’m not an expert on trade, so I don’t know whether we have a level playing field with China. I do know that the way to lower tariffs on both sides is usually to raise or threaten to raise your own. I know that the Chinese appropriate other people’s patents without paying for them. (Whether patents are, on balance, a good idea is another matter.) But I’ve noticed that when people talk about trillions of dollars and vast amounts of money and year after year, for decades, and when they join such terms as made with such terms as stolen so as to shift discussion from the first term to the second, without defining either, they are generally talking through their hats. If you don’t believe me, listen to any speech by Bernie Sanders.

In the next particle of tweet, however, Trump sent the rhetorical escalator through the roof:

Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.

No one, probably not even Trump, believes that he has the power to order anyone to look for new business locations, even if he puts a hereby on the order. The pumped up rhetoric was useless as well as stupid, unless it was intended to wreck the home economy. Trump’s tirade sent the stock market down 623 points.

People who want to blame President Trump for legitimizing this impulse have some reason to do so.

The president’s mad identification with King Canute, who reputedly ordered the tides to halt, had good precedent. Let us return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Barack Obama was the nation’s inspirer in chief. Let us return specifically to June 3, 2008, when Obama celebrated the primary victory that ensured his nomination for the presidency. He told a cheering throng:

Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.

It’s hard to get more inflated than that, short of the millennium. Many people have noticed Obama’s pomposity about extending the life of our planet, but notice that he also proposed to extend our own lives. How else could he foresee that “generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children”?

But let’s look back to Trump. The day on which his rhetoric so dismayed the stock market was just a normal day for other people’s rhetorical attempts to destroy him. That was a day on which his former staffer Anthony Scaramucci likened him to murderous cult leader Jim Jones; Obama honcho David Axelrod tweeted that if Justice Ginsburg leaves the Supreme Court and the administration tries to replace her before the next election, which Trump would surely do, “it will tear this country apart”; and media activist Frederick Joseph observed the death of libertarian philanthropist David Koch by tweeting: “David Koch is gone. It’s a celebration. But imagine the turn up when orange satan is taken back to hell.” He added a video clip of basketball fans madly cheering.

It’s hard to get more inflated than that, short of the millennium.

It’s difficult to get more hateful, or more childish, than this, and a measure of the childishness is that the practitioners of that kind of abuse seem incapable of entertaining the obvious reflection that they themselves may be tearing the country apart, acting like cult demagogues, spitting like storybook Satans, and so forth.

While their volume increases, the scope of their invectives expands, as if they knew that superheated rhetoric quickly eats up its fuel, and more supplies need to be located. New targets must be found, and new ways to abuse them. And so they are. It’s not just Trump who’s fair game; it’s Trump’s supporters. Three years ago they were discovered to be deplorables; then it was noticed that they were abhorrent working-class white males (note how far the Left has moved from its authentic social-democratic roots), white women without college degrees (same comment), and of course racists. And not just racists but (invoking the language of the old Alabama Democratic Party) white supremacists.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much new fuel in that forest. Racism is hard to pin on anyone, even the most deserving objects, when you try to pin it on everyone; and people who want to think they’re smart have been deriding the working class as long as there’s been one. To vary my already mixed metaphors, this is like 18th-century tobacco farming, which involved planting the same crop over and over, until there was nothing left of the land. But people kept trying, and so does . . . Beto O’Rourke.

Practitioners of that kind of abuse seem incapable of entertaining the obvious reflection that they themselves may be tearing the country apart.

O’Rourke lately caused as much of a sensation as is possible for him to cause anymore by suggesting that he didn’t really want to say it (especially when he’s out cadging votes), but yeah, all the people who voted for Trump are racists. On August 11, CNN host Jake Tapper got him on the subject:

“Almost 63 million Americans voted for [Trump]. Do you think it is racist to vote for President Trump in 2020?”

There was a long pause from O’Rourke before he said, “I think it’s really hard.”

But actually, as Walter Williams, who is black, conservative, and funny, remarked, “Being a racist is easy today.” Formerly you had to say or do racist things. The responsibility was on you. Now you can just sit back and let people like Beto confer racism upon you, like an honorary degree.

Be that as it may, I’m going to miss Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke when he shuffles off the mortal coil of his presidential campaign and no longer appears on television, unless by accident, in the crowd watching a frisbee competition. He’s a dependable benchmark for the height of frenzy and the depth of illiteracy that is tolerated in today’s putatively serious discourse. Here’s an example. In another appearance before Jake Tapper (August 4), he affirmed that Trump is not only a “white nationalist” but an “open, avowed racist.” I realize that Beto may have trouble with the meaning of avowed, but I thought that open was not a difficult term. Just for frosting, O’Rourke said that Trump’s ideas, or words, or take your pick, “are reminiscent of something you might hear in the Third Reich.” He instanced Trump’s alleged conviction that people are “inherently defective or dangerous” “based on” several things, including “their sexual orientation.” Right. That’s the Donald Trump who appointed Rick Grenell ambassador to Germany. Grenell has been named, by that august authority, Wikipedia, “the highest ranking openly gay American official ever.”

Let’s move from Betoland to a higher (ahem!) intellectual plateau. On August 25, a professor from Duke University, one Allen Frances, joined the choir of CNN Trump denouncers and showed what happens when professors try to reason. Trump, he said, “needs to be contained, but he needs to be contained by attacking his policies, not his person” — a reasonable reflection, but somewhat odd when it comes immediately after: "Trump is as destructive a person in this century, as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were in the last century. He may be responsible for many more million deaths than they were.” Frances did have compunctions about calling Trump crazy, I think because he wanted to say something very funny and clever about him: "Lumping the mentally ill with Trump is a terrible insult to the mentally ill and they have enough problems." But that didn’t keep Frances from claiming that all the voters are nuts: "Calling Trump crazy hides the fact that we’re crazy, for having elected him and even crazier for allowing his crazy policies to persist."

I realize that Beto may have trouble with the meaning of "avowed," but I thought that "open" was not a difficult term.

Nota bene: This is one of those “we’s” that really mean “you.” You need algebra to get at these high professorial significations, but when you finally grok one of ‘em, wow! What a zinger!

Since Frances is a professor of psychiatry, one may be interested in seeing how he diagnoses mental illness. How can he tell whether you or I or the whole American electorate is “crazy”? It’s simpler than you might have thought. You just look at the policies that people endorse:

"It’s crazy for us to be destroying the climate our children will live in. It’s crazy to be giving tax cuts to the rich that will add trillions of dollars to the debt," Frances added. "It’s crazy to be destroying our democracy by claiming that the press and the courts are the enemy of the people."

I hate to think what he would say if somebody alleged that there may be something goofy about psychiatrists.

Of course, I could go on all day, culling flowers of anti-Trump invective. But even Sleepy Joe Biden, as Trump calls him, is not immune from over-the-top critiques. Every day, his enemies, both Left and Right, are out in the field, hunting for gaffes; and every day, they find them. It would be pleasant for the nation to be permitted to enjoy these things for what they are, the follies of an old fool. But too bad for us: low-decibel chuckling is now impermissible, barely conceivable; moral outrage must always be kicked into life. Thus, when Biden observed, on August 8, that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids," he was widely criticized, as if he himself were a racist. “Look,” he said. “I misspoke,” and that should have been the end of it. Naturally, it wasn’t. And note: when Biden intends to say something mean, it doesn’t just slip out. My favorite example is the charge he leveled against Republicans in a prepared speech on August 14, 2012, before a crowd that included lots of black people. Faking — badly faking — an African American accent, he said, “They gone put y’all back in chains!” Did I indict Trump and Obama for the rise in rhetorical fakery? There’s a lot of responsibility to be shared.

How can he tell whether you or I or the whole American electorate is “crazy”? It’s simpler than you might have thought.

How shall this stuff be contained? Two known correctives for over-stimulated rhetoric are (A) humor and (B) fact. When used, they work. One of this month’s rhetorical events was the ridicule that greeted the remarks of CNN’s Chris Cillizza about the purchase of Alaska (1867). Cillizza, a reliable source of hot air, was reacting to reports of President Trump’s bizarre desire to purchase Greenland. Jazzed by this new opportunity of blaring his opinions — “Donald Trump has a lot of wild ideas as president. Buying Greenland may be one of the most unorthodox. But it's also not one of his worst” (got that?) — Cillizza produced a column adorned with hasty, pointless, wiki-style recaps of history, such as:

One of the last times the United States bought land from a foreign country was in 1867, when Seward orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million. It didn't work out so well — and has gone down as 'Seward's Folly' in the history books.

There were outcries from readers, so CNN — not Cilizza, who had vanished from the scene — issued a revision of the article, annotated in this way:

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly state the history of US land purchases.

The new version says of the Alaska purchase:

It was heavily criticized at the time — and has gone down as “Seward’s Folly” in the history books.

One would like to know what “history book” pronounces this judgment, but never mind. The passage shows how dully conservative, as well as just plain daffy, the notions of “progressive” media can be. Oh horrors, to be joked about in children’s books! And oh horrors, to be heavily criticized at the time — along with medical hygiene, racial equality, women’s right to vote, and other follies.

Nevertheless, the rhetoric had been tempered — a little. Alaska was no longer an unspeakably hopeless case. An island of relative calm had appeared in the sea of verbal frenzy. We’ll see whether an archipelago emerges, and whether anyone is content to live on it.




Share This


Did Anyone Ask for an Encore?

 | 

July 30. Another debate among ten Democrats: more of the same, piled higher and deeper.

Bernie Sanders, the white-haired Vermont Castro, was at it again, promising to save the exploited Americans. If Elizabeth Warren was for canceling 95% of student debt, Bernie was for canceling all of it. Bernie’s “Medicare for all” was really for all, whether they wanted it or not. And when challenged by Representative Tim Ryan on whether he could assure union members in Michigan that their government benefits would be as good as the private ones they have now, Bernie said his plan would cover medical, dental, and vision benefits with no copays, no deductibles, and no premiums.

Free medicine!

“You don’t know that,” Ryan said.

Sanders’ big idea was government. Every reference he made to private corporations was unfavorable.

“I wrote the bill,” Sanders said snippily. Later he grumbled, “I get a little bit tired of Democrats who are afraid of big ideas.”

Sanders’ big idea was government. Every reference he made to private corporations was unfavorable. The oil companies, he said, were criminal. When asked about his socialism, he dodged the question, but if you listened to his words you could hear it. He declared, “For 45 years the working class has been decimated.” He said he would “take on the greed and corruption of the ruling class.”

Working class. Ruling class.

Closest to him was Elizabeth Warren. Asked to explain why she insists she is a “capitalist,” she dodged the question as slickly as Sanders dodged the one about socialism. Instead, she bragged about taking on the giant banks. She promised “big structural change.”

Warren said her “green industrial policy” would provide $2 trillion for “green research.” She said this would “create 1.2 million industrial jobs,” many of them right there in Michigan and Ohio. Industrial jobs. Nobody jumped on her for this.

Asked to explain why she insists she is a “capitalist,” Warren dodged the question as slickly as Sanders dodged the one about socialism.

Warren argued that US trade policy had been written “by and for” the multinational corporations. “We’re going to negotiate our deals with farmers, union people, and human rights advocates at the table.” Of foreign countries, she said, “Let’s make ’em raise their standards before they come to us and want to sell their products.”

I recall Bill Clinton breezing into the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle in 1999 and insisting on putting labor and environment into trade agreements. I remember the reaction of the Pakistani delegates. They didn’t want it. They resented it. They thought of it as a rich country making impossible demands of them in order to placate rich, overfed workers. Later Obama did get some labor and environmental stuff into trade agreements, but the critics said they didn’t amount to much. I never investigated this, but was inclined to believe it because the only standards other countries would be likely to accept would be ones that didn’t amount to much.

Essentially, Warren was proposing to put people in trade negotiations who were interested in other causes — to subordinate the trade between A and B to the political demands of C. This is not a proposal of someone who cares about trade or the rights of people to engage in it.

When several of the candidates denounced tariffs as taxes, Warren said that modern trade agreements are not mostly about tariffs, but about corporate claims to profits. She didn’t say “intellectual property,” but that’s what she was talking about: movies, music, software, biotechnology. She spoke as if ownership of these things were a concern to corporate bosses only, and not to the Americans who created them. She made her position clear: She was not going to protect any of this stuff.

Buttigieg said “Systemic racism touches everything in America,” but then he’s a white mayor of South Bend, Indiana, which has had some difficulties.

Another issue was reparations for slavery — an idea I believe would be as deeply unpopular as busing. Only a handful of the Democratic contenders were for them — no surprise there — but no one denounced them. For that matter, no candidate dared denounce any “progressive” idea about race. Sanders was asked why he opposed paying reparations in cash. His answer wasn’t too clear — he was not comfortable with the issue — but it seemed that he wanted any such money to be spent by the government rather than by private citizens.

Marianne Williamson, the candidate of “deep truth telling,” was asked how she decided $500 billion was the morally correct amount of racial reparations. Her answer was that it was the politically possible amount; the morally correct amount was larger.

Others made bows to the Left without embracing the particular idea. Pete Buttigieg made a point of saying, “Systemic racism touches everything in America,” and I wanted to ask, “everything?” but then he’s a white mayor of South Bend, Indiana, which has had some difficulties. Beto O’Rourke insisted that America’s wealth was built on the backs of slaves, but he’s another white guy, and from an old Confederate state. It is obvious to me that race relations have improved a whole lot in my lifetime, but nobody said that.

In the June debates, O’Rourke had annoyed me more than any of the others because he kept dodging the moderators’ questions. Answering the question you want asked rather than the one asked is an old trick, and in this forum it was obvious when they were doing it. On July 30 O’Rourke did it again. He also said “in this country” a lot. I had never taken notice of that phrase before Liberty editor Stephen Cox groused about it in a column last year; but since then it has been a fly in the ear. In his closing statement, O’Rourke said “in this country” at least three times. He also used the word “winning” over and over in describing a political campaign in Texas, which he lost.

Answering the question you want asked rather than the one asked is an old trick, and in this forum it was obvious when they were doing it.

O’Rourke is a no-hoper, which pleases me a lot, as does the coming exit of the touchy-feely Marianne Williamson. Some of the other no-hopers I liked a little better. John Delaney said he would get America to “zero carbon” by 2050 — an imaginable time, at least — through technical innovation, creating a “market for carbon capture,” and “investing in people and entrepreneurs.” It was grandiose stuff, but even using the word “entrepreneurs” was notable in this crowd. Another no-hoper, Hickenlooper, said again that he had no interest in a “Green New Deal” that would offer everyone a government job — and I noted that none of the others came to the defense of guaranteed government jobs. Amy Klobuchar said again that she had no interest in handing out free college tuition to rich kids. But these are all no-hopers, and soon will be gone, along with Tim Ryan and Scott Bullock.

Of this group we will have Sanders and Warren, and maybe Buttigieg for a while.

* * *

July 31. Two and a half more hours. Since June, nine hours of Democrats.

It was some relief that the final group spent less time declaring how terrible things are in America. Joe Biden, no doubt mouthing a line prepared by his consultants, said of America and Donald Trump, “We love it, we’re not leaving it, we’re here to stay and we’re certainly not leaving it with you.”

Biden and Kamala Harris resumed their fight. In June Harris attacked Biden for having opposed forced busing sometime in the last century. Perhaps realizing that moving school children around like pieces of furniture is not a popular idea, Harris opposes it now. Yet, she said, “The vice president has still failed to acknowledge that he was wrong to take that position at that time.” And why was busing a better idea then? She didn’t say, and Biden, having had a whole month to defend his opposition to busing, didn’t dare. Instead he said Harris had been attorney general of California for eight years and had had done nothing about the “segregated” schools in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The final group spent less time declaring how terrible things are in America.

On medical insurance, Biden hammered Harris because her plan would allow private coverage for only 10 years, and then ban it. Harris hammered Biden because his plan would leave out 10 million Americans. That’s 3% of the population — and which 3% is it? The poor? Medicaid covers the poor. The old? Medicare covers them. Who, then? Criminals? Rich people? People between jobs? Illegal immigrants? No one explained this.

I didn’t like Kamala Harris. She seemed to have an aura of weariness and bitterness about her. I liked it when the Girl Scoutish Tulsi Gabbard accused Harris, former attorney general of California, of putting “1,500 people in jail for marijuana offenses.” Harris was quick to tell other candidates that they had their facts wrong, but she didn’t contradict Gabbard. Of course Harris is for marijuana legalization now; she is as progressive as she needs to be.

Regarding immigration, Biden was asked about the 800,000 illegals who were deported in the first two years of the Obama-Biden administration. If you cross over illegally, he said, “you should be able to be sent back.”

Most of the candidates were not for sending illegals back. Bill DeBlasio asked Biden whether he had used his power as vice president to try and stop the deportations — a question that opened up a pit to fall in on either a yes or a no. Biden was careful not to answer yes or no. One of his responses was, “If you say you can just cross the border, what do you say to the people around the world standing in line?” That’s a reference to people around the world who have filed the papers to immigrate to America and are waiting their turn under their country quota. I know people who waited 10 years, and they have no sympathy for “queue jumpers” who climb over the wall and insist on being admitted immediately.

Kamala Harris seemed to have an aura of weariness and bitterness about her.

Andrew Yang, the man with no necktie, was still pushing his nutty idea of giving everyone $1,000 a month. I recalled a documentary about open heroin use in Vancouver, B.C., where the drug addicts all line up on Welfare Wednesday to get their checks from the Canadian government. (It’s on YouTube.) Other than that, I rather liked Andrew Yang. He’s upbeat, and he’s from the private sector. He argued that tying medical insurance to employment makes it harder to start companies, harder to hire, and harder to switch jobs. Decouple insurance from work, he said, “and watch entrepreneurship recover and bloom.” At least this man knows and cares about the process of creating real work, which so many of the other Democrats do not.

Yang also said the most sensible thing that evening about climate change. Jay Inslee had insisted, “We have to act now. We have to get off coal in ten years,” and the other candidates promised this, that, and the other. But Yang pointed out that carbon dioxide is a global problem, and that America is only 15% of it. Every politician offering a big plan assumes his big plan will work. Yang’s unpolitical answer was, “Start moving our people to higher ground.”

If Biden had said this, it would have been a sensation. When Yang said it, nobody cared.

Well, Yang will be gone soon enough, as will the windbag de Blasio, who bellowed twice that he would “tax the hell out of the wealthy,” and Cory Booker, who enunciates as if he’s talking to someone partially deaf, and Kirsten Gillibrand, whose every statement was about women, and Julian Castro, who can’t make up his mind whether he lives in the land of opportunity or the land of “Americans who are hurting.”

And at least seven of them said “in this country” at least once. Buzz, buzz, buzz.




Share This


Democrats, Debating

 | 

First Day

I did my duty and watched the Democrats’ “debate” on June 26. It was chaos. Two hours of ten candidates, each interrupting the others to delivering rehearsed lines to elicit cheers from the friendly audience. All the while, I’m thinking, “Is it going to be one of these? Please, no.”

Look, I admit that Donald Trump was a ridiculous candidate, unqualified to be president of the United States, and that Barack Obama, two years out of the Illinois legislature, was not fully qualified either. But does that mean qualifications are off the table? Would the Democratic Party really nominate a 44-year-old former secretary of HUD? Or a 46-year-old former member of the House of Representatives who ran for Senate and lost? Three of the candidates in the debate were current House members, but America has not elected a congressman president since the 19th century.

All the while, I’m thinking, “Is it going to be one of these? Please, no.”

We do occasionally elect senators, and I knew of Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. The debate began with Warren declaring that America was a great country for the oil companies, the drug companies, and the insurance companies, but that the game was rigged against the rest of us. The badness of life in America was a common theme. “The economy is not working for the average American,” Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey boomed. “There’s plenty of money in this country,” said New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, whose city includes Wall Street. “It’s just in the wrong hands.”

Really? Is that the reason to reject Donald Trump — that life here is fundamentally unfair? Didn’t life offer about the same measure of fairness under Barack Obama? Has Trump transformed America that much in two and a half years? Apparently so; the debate among Democrats has shifted hugely left, and is now revolving around “social justice.” I use the term in quotation marks — but then, I’m not a Democrat.

Of the ten politicians on the first day, the most articulate, zealous, and dangerous was Elizabeth Warren. When the moderator asked, “Who among you would abolish private health insurance,” her hand shot up immediately, and it was the only one. Warren had no hesitation on any subject except for guns, which she uncharacteristically said needed to be “researched” and was “not an across-the-board problem.” For her, everything else was an across-the-board problem. She knew the solutions she wanted and promised to bite down like a pit bull in order to get them.

Three of the candidates in the debate were current House members, but America has not elected a congressman president since the 19th century.

The closest to Warren that first night was Booker. When it came to “health care for all,” Booker was positively pushy. If Congress wasn’t ready to act when he took office, he said, “I’m not going to wait.” I waited for somebody to ask, “And do what?” but nobody did.

I noted that when the subject came to war, Bill DeBlasio objected that America has “gone to war without Congressional authorization.” I liked that he referred to the Constitution — hardly anyone did — though I recall Barack Obama saying something similar. When politicians get power they like to use it.

The contestants did the usual dodging of questions. The champion evader was the former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who was asked whether he favored a 70% top rate of income tax. He switched to Spanish, and when he returned to English, he had changed the subject. He dodged a question from the former HUD secretary, Julian Castro, who tried to get him on the record about Title 1325 of the US Code. I didn’t know what that was, and I don’t think O’Rourke did, either. When O’Rourke was pitched a question about climate change, he dodged it by talking about his visit to Pacific Junction, Iowa, which had had a flood. O’Rourke was the “I-feel-your-pain” candidate. Some of the others tried it, but he was the master of it. He irritated me more than any of them.

Warren knew the solutions she wanted and promised to bite down like a pit bull in order to get them.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has been cheered by libertarians for her stance against war, was calm and controlled. Not that this is an asset; “fire in the belly” is what wins elections, and she didn’t have much. Maybe it was her military training. Still, when Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio was cornered into saying that America has “to stay engaged” in Afghanistan, Gabbard replied, “We have to bring our troops home.” That was good.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, the climate-change man, bragged about the Evergreen State’s wind turbines and its progress toward “clean” electricity. Washington is my home state, so his bragging doesn’t impress me. Because of our mountains and rivers, we have been able to produce 70% of our electricity from dams, but most of them were in place before Inslee was born, and not one has been built since he was elected. Wind turbines produce 6% of our electricity, but they are federally subsidized and require the dams to ramp up when the wind dies down. Washington does have a strong economy as Inslee said, but it had that before he was elected.

At one point a moderator asked Inslee if his “plan” could save Miami from being flooded by the rising seas. He began a long-winded answer, checked himself and said, “Yes.” It was the most ridiculous promise of the night: Jay Inslee, the man who would hold back the sea.

O’Rourke was the “I-feel-your-pain” candidate, more irritating than any of the rest of them.

Not all the comments among the no-hopers were as goofy as his. After Elizabeth Warren had come out for abolishing private health insurance, Representative John Delaney of Maryland allowed that many people like their private health insurance. “Why,” he asked, “should we be the party of taking things away from people?” Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota made the same point. It was a reasonable one; there is no way any of them, if elected, would be able to do away with private health insurance. It was a night, however, when reasonableness was in short supply and offered mainly by candidates who weren’t going to win.

Second Day

More of the same. I tuned in just as Joe Biden was bloviating about Donald Trump’s “tax cut for the wealthy,” which was followed by Senator Kamala Harris of California going on about the “tax bill that benefited the 1%.” “No,” I thought, “not two hours of this.”

A few minutes later the moderator asked Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont if it wouldn’t be politically wiser to define the Democratic Party as nonsocialist. Sanders dodged the question and declared that Trump is “a pathetic liar and a racist.” Sanders was the only candidate to name Wall Street as the enemy. Regarding the health insurers, he said, elect him and “their day is done.”

It was the most ridiculous promise of the night: Jay Inslee, the man who would hold back the sea.

Sanders promised to cut prescription drug prices in half. This was the outrageous promise of Day Two, though it doesn’t quite match Jay Inslee’s promise to hold back the seas.

Kamala Harris, California’s former chief prosecutor, promised to fight. On immigration, she said that if Congress didn’t offer her a bill granting residence to illegal immigrants who came in as children, and their parents who came in as adults, she would declare it by executive order. Harris also said she would “ban by executive order the importation of assault weapons.”

The other candidate promising executive orders was Sanders, who said he would reverse by executive order every one of Trump’s executive orders.

Later in the debate the moderators asked for a yes-no reply on the question of whether noncitizens who had no papers allowing them to be in the United States should be deported. It was stated that under Barack Obama, three million such people were deported. Not one of the candidates said they supported this. All of them were for letting everyone who made it over the wall stay here, and for giving them free medical care and all the other goods and services to which every American had a “right.”

Sanders was the only candidate to name Wall Street as the enemy.

Harris, whose ancestry is part African, played the race card on white Joe Biden, saying, “I do not believe you are racist,” and then accused him of excusing racism. Clearly this was a prepared missile launched at the principal enemy. Part of it was that Biden had opposed mandatory racial busing sometime in the distant past — opposition to busing apparently being an indisputable mark of Cain. Biden didn’t defend his opposition to busing as such; his reply was that he had favored busing imposed by local authorities but not by the Department of Education.

As the frontrunner — and a guy with a long political record — Joe Biden made a fat target. Sanders lit into him for voting for the Iraq War (which Hillary Clinton had done as well). But that vote was in 2002, 17 years ago, when the Woke Generation was still in Pampers. Biden didn’t bother to defend it, but said, “I don’t think we should have combat troops in Afghanistan.”

Trump said that, too, as I recall.

Among the no-hopers, John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, said the Democratic Party should not label itself socialist, and that it just wouldn’t work to be “guaranteeing everybody a government job.” I liked that, but nobody cared what John Hickenlooper said. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was for taxpayer-funded election campaigns, which would save the nation by “getting money out of politics.” Representative Eric Swalwell of California advocated a federal buyback of assault guns, whether you wanted to sell yours or not. Andrew Yang, the Pie in the Sky candidate, wanted to give every American $1,000 a month, which he said would make people so physically and mentally healthy that it would increase Gross Domestic Product by $700 billion a year. (He really did say this!) And then there was Marianne Williamson, an author of some self-help books that I’d never heard of, but which made the New York Times bestseller list. She wanted to “harness love” to beat Donald Trump in November 2020.

As the frontrunner — and a guy with a long political record — Joe Biden made a fat target.

Finally, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. He also said some things, but I can’t find anything in my notes that makes actual sense.

The one candidate I was eager to hear was Pete Buttigieg. I admit to a certain prejudice against the man, not because he is gay but because the idea of elevating a 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to the office of president of the United States strikes me as a jump too far. South Bend is not much bigger than Yakima, Washington, and for the presidency, age 37 is barely legal. But what the hell . . . Buttigieg did say more sensible things than any of the rest of them.

My first note on Buttigieg was that his version of “Medicare for All” was not forcing everyone to have government insurance — the Sanders-Warren idea — but allowing people without private insurance to buy into a Medicare-like plan. Buttigieg said, “Even in countries that have full socialized medicine like England, they still have a private sector.”

And then there was Marianne Williamson, who wanted to “harness love” to beat Donald Trump in November 2020.

On guns, Buttigieg said he was for universal background checks. That’s all. Noting that he was the only candidate on stage who had trained in military weapons — he served in Afghanistan — he said, “There are weapons that have absolutely no place on America’s streets.” He didn’t say which ones, but it was a reasonable statement.

On the topic of China, Buttigieg, who is from a part of the country not too favorable to world trade, made it clear he did not favor a trade war. “Tariffs are taxes,” he said. His answer to the economic challenge of China was to “invest in our own competitiveness.” I agreed with that, too, though a warning flag goes up when I hear a politician say “invest.”

Still, if I had to vote Democrat, I’d vote for Buttigieg — if I had to vote Democrat.




Share This


Untruths Unlimited

 | 

In his autobiography, The Prince of Darkness (2007), Robert Novak, a “Washington journalist” who could actually write, describes his weird encounters with former President Jimmy Carter. Early in Carter’s campaign for the presidency (1976), Novak caught him in several lies about his experiences and associates, and published a short column describing Carter’s “fibs.” Carter’s organization produced a refutation, and his press secretary told Novak that according to Carter, he was the liar.

The next time Novak talked with Carter, the sanctimonious politician — “who at every campaign stop said, ‘I’ll never lie to you,’” — told him, “Bob, you have done me a grave injustice and you may well have damaged my candidacy. But that’s not what bothers me. I’m just sorry that you have such a low opinion of me. That really hurts me.” Novak replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way” — only to be told that by the end of the day, Carter had been telling another reporter, “Bob Novak apologized to me. He said he was sorry he wrote the column.”

“After the Iowa incident,” Novak writes, “I became convinced I was too soft in my column by talking about ‘fibbing.’ Jimmy Carter was a habitual liar who modified the truth to suit his purposes” (pp. 285–87).

By the end of the day, Carter was telling another reporter, “Bob Novak apologized to me. He said he was sorry he wrote the column.”

“So what?” you may say. “Politics is full of untruth.” But it’s fascinating to see how many forms untruth can take — and do it with perfect innocence. I don’t mean that the people who create the lies — remember, truth just exists; untruth has to be created — aren’t aware of what they’re saying. They often spend hours and days and polls and counselors and, as the song says, “pretty maids all in a row,” laboriously concocting their nonsense. Yet they may still retain a Jimmy Carter air of naiveté. No one could have lied more, or more ridiculously, than Hillary Clinton in the matter of her illicit emails. Who can forget her riposte to the question about whether she had wiped her server? “What?” she laughed. “Like with a cloth or something?” She uttered this idiocy in the childlike enjoyment of saying something smart. Perhaps with her, as with Carter, the best thing about lying is the feeling of liberation that comes from knowing that, no matter what nonsense one foists on one’s friends and fellow countrymen, one is still pure and right and innocent and wise and clever, after all, and all at the same time. Ain’t I cute?

An old saying — a saying conjecturally attributed by Mark Twain to Benjamin Disraeli — holds that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But there are more, countless more. In the incident just cited, Jimmy Carter created what can be called a five-dimensional lie: first he lied, then he branded as a liar the person who discovered his lies, then he lied about his attitude toward the discoverer, then he falsely claimed that the discoverer had acknowledged his lie — and he did so in a way that would send this latest lie back to the person he was lying about.

Joseph Robinette (“Joe”) Biden, Jr. is a one-dimensional liar. He just tells one lie after another, apparently unable to control himself. He has never filtered his statements for truth, except, apparently, to keep it out. In 1987 he was run out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination after it was discovered (easily) that he had plagiarized his statements about his personal history from some (odd) remarks of a leader of the British Labour Party about his own history. This disaster did not diminish Biden’s taste for lies. That taste continues, as shown in a report from June 12:

"Know what I was most proud of?" he said, in reference to former president Barack Obama's presidency. "For eight years, there wasn't one single hint of a scandal or a lie," he told a cheering crowd.

It’s not clear whether the crowd consisted entirely of mental defectives or of the kind of people who cheer a magician for falsely claiming to have sawed a lady in half. Maybe it was both kinds — because only a dimwit could mistake Biden for a magician.

Joe Biden just tells one lie after another, apparently unable to control himself.

Still more dramatic evidence of his aversion to truth appeared on June 11, when he told a crowd in Ottumwa, Iowa:

I promise you if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America, we’re gonna cure cancer.

“The statement,” we are told, “drew applause from the [demented?] audience.”

This type of lie deserves its own special name. Let’s call it a promissory lie, a lie that would get you sued or even sent to jail if it appeared on a legal document. It’s not the kind of statement that can be interpreted in virtually any way and is therefore too meaningless to qualify as a lie. Donald Trump’s “We’ll make America great again” can mean almost anything except “We’ll make America not-great again.” “We’re gonna cure cancer” has a more restrictive and actionable meaning.

A striking characteristic of today’s Fair Field of Falsehoods is the fact that many of its obvious untruths go unnoticed, because most people assume it is immoral to see them for what they are. These are virtue falsehoods. Public schools, we are told, are failing because they aren’t given enough money. People live on the streets, we learn, because they can’t find affordable housing. Healthcare, we hear, as we receive our routine hip replacements and cataract surgeries, is broken.

This type of lie deserves its own special name. Let’s call it a promissory lie, a lie that would get you sued or even sent to jail if it appeared on a legal document.

In my town, a supermarket chain runs an ad for food donations, or some such thing, alleging: “One in six San Diego kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from.” A website provides the mess of “statistics” from which this alarming statement appears to come: it mixes “food insecure” with “at risk of hunger,” and both with “do not know where their next meal comes from,” meanwhile proclaiming rather than admitting that “36% of children at risk of hunger in San Diego County are not eligible for federal nutrition programs (free or reduced-price school lunch or breakfast).” So 64% are eligible, eh? Now, I’m sure there are some hungry children, somewhere in town. There are such things as neglectful parents — and tax-funded agencies to deal with them. But I don’t know what it means to say that “the estimated annual meal gap for Feeding San Diego’s service area is 61,524,500 meals.” I am sure that hungry people do not constitute one-sixth or one-sixtieth of the “kid” population. Where are these hordes of (potentially) starving children? No one sees them. Perhaps no one really, concretely, imagines that they exist. Yet virtuous people are supposed to ignore the evidence of their experience and piously go with the program.

Evasion of the truth need not be conscious. The unconscious mind works busily at the task. It has plenty of techniques for performing it. No professional writer has to focus very hard on the problem of getting through a story without stating a truth that may result in accusations of thought crime. You don’t have to lie; you just have to say things that will license a lie. Hence those saving clichés of journalism — only time will tell, some observers suggest, opinion is divided. “Some observers suggest that communist governments impoverish their countries, but opinion is divided; only time will tell whether this will happen in Venezuela.” Even when the time comes, it usually stays mum. Why be brutally honest?

How to write about this in a "serious" manner, without offending any unserious people?

Consider the clichés of evasion in a recent report on the Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett case. You will remember Smollett as the actor on the TV show Empire who falsely claimed to have been the victim of a racist attack on the streets of Chicago. You will also remember that the nation dissolved in laughter at the ridiculous nature of his story, the absurd manner in which prosecutors got him off the hook, and the baffled outrage of Chicago’s liberal establishment about this offense to the city’s amour propre.

But the problem arose: how to write about this in a serious manner, without offending any unserious people? Well, you can do it in this way (I quote from The Hollywood Reporter, June 3):

[Newly released court] documents have raised more questions than they’ve answered about the spectacle surrounding the Empire actor. . . . Whereas Smollett had garnered a loud and vocal base of support after the initial charges against him were dropped, those voices had started to dim even before the latest dumps, as the murkiness around his story continued to deepen.

Incidentally, how do you garner a base? Be that as it may; the murkiness didn’t deepen. There wasn’t any murkiness. But if some people want to believe, contrary to the facts narrated by the Reporter itself, that “the documents have raised more questions than they’ve answered,” these phrases may keep them from voicing their outrage with the hapless writer.

The degree to which social anxieties can license untruth is shown by the confession of a social media “influencer.” Cora Smith is a travel journalist on Instagram. She is called an influencer because that is how someone sees her role in society. Yet she is the one who was disastrously influenced to suggest that her stay in the Dominican Republic was a beautiful experience — omitting certain experiences that, she says, left her in constant fear of violence. She says that she was assaulted and nearly kidnaped, but she wanted to make nice with the Dominicans, or at least about them, for fear of her audience. She was “very worried about bashing anyone or anything. In all honesty, influencers are too scared to tell the truth and feel they need to show the beautiful side. Most people only want to hear the positive things. . . . You feel this obligation to be honest, but a fear of rejection if you are.”

Observers of the trial even suggested that Oberlin despaired of being acquitted and was simply trying to limit the amount of money it would have to pay.

Worse, much worse, are the unctuous untruths of the licensed, accredited, endowed, and established influencers, especially those of the academic tribe. Examples are legion; some new ones appear in the annals of the Oberlin College case, in which a jury awarded tens of millions of dollars of damages against the college for its role in injuring the reputation and business of a local bakery that was accused, on no evidence at all, of racism. Oberlin officials maintained that they were just trying to help.

Throughout the affair, the 2,800-student college-of-third resort projected as much arrogance as if it were the last redoubt of the Romanovs. Yet the college knew it was in trouble, lots of trouble. Observers of the trial even suggested that Oberlin despaired of being acquitted and was simply trying to limit the amount of money it would have to pay. Then the jury awarded $11 million for actual damage done to the bakery — and a second phase of the trial began, the phase to determine if there would be punitive damages as well. At this point, Oberlin tried to jolly the jurors with false suggestions of a change of heart:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you have spoken,” Oberlin College attorney Rachelle Zidar told the jury Thursday before the larger award was announced, according to the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. “You have sent a profound message. We have heard you. Believe me when I say, ‘Colleges across the country have heard you.’”

The jury thereupon decided to fine Oberlin $33 million more. Perhaps it regarded the “we” in “we have heard you” as just as likely to be truthful as any other institutional use of the first-person plural. If you tried to make Ms. Zidar herself pay the bill for what Oberlin did, the “we” would immediately change to “they.”

But it was hard to stick “we have heard you” on anybody, because just a few days before, the college’s general counsel had passed out a statement disagreeing with the jury’s guilty verdict. Then, the “message” seemed anything but “profound.” The great academic institution deemed the verdict proof that the jury was paying no attention to “the clear evidence our team presented.” At this writing, Oberlin has yet to communicate the profundity that the jury spake unto its soul. The college has reverted to the idea of vindicating itself — presumably in a higher court. Eventually, it hopes, chin uplifted to the rising dawn, it will find the intelligent audience it deserves.

Here is an element common to many varieties of falsehood — the idea that what counts is not what you say, but whom you say it to. If you can find an audience that’s willing to put up with what you say — because you are a college, or a “statesman,” or an “activist,” or . . . whatever — then go ahead; say anything you want! Never mind that nobody with a brain actually believes you. That just means that opinion is divided.




Share This


Six Degrees of Separation

 | 

For many years there has been an idea that everyone in the world exists in only about six degrees of separation— or fewer— from everyone else. This may be true.

I believe there are only six degrees of separation between me and the 17th-century person who brought my DNA to this continent. (In my family, generations seem to last a long time.)

I know there are three degrees of separation between me and Adolf Hitler. Ditto me and Franklin Roosevelt.

I don’t think you’re pining to learn more about my family history. But since I mentioned Hitler and Roosevelt, I assume you’d like to know whether my three degrees have enabled me to find out something interesting about them.

The artist in question wound up in Sweden, where he enjoyed his wealth and particularly enjoyed staging large parties that were free to turn into orgies.

First about Roosevelt. A brother of my friend Muriel Hall, friend and executrix of Isabel Paterson, the great libertarian author, was the priest of an Episcopal church in Virginia when Franklin Roosevelt came to worship there. At the time, Roosevelt’s physical handicap was understood by few people, even sophisticated members of an Episcopal parish across the river from Washington. Muriel’s story was that the congregation was admitted only after Roosevelt was seated, and that after the service it stayed in place to allow him to leave without interference— only to be astonished by his agonizingly slow progress up the aisle, struggling with the crippling effects of his poliomyelitis.

Now about Hitler. My connection with him is a German Marxist academic who told me, years ago, that he had met a man who had known Hitler before World War I, when they both lived in a home for down-and-outs in Vienna. This man was a painter, like Hitler, but unlike Hitler an ultimately successful one. He became wealthy by painting pictures that my Marxist friend described as “the kind of thing you can buy at a dime store.” This was a while ago, so I need to say that dime stores were early varieties of Target.

Let’s move along. The artist in question wound up in Sweden, where he enjoyed his wealth and particularly enjoyed staging large parties that were free to turn into orgies. Visiting one night, my friend chatted with him while “stepping among the Swedish bodies spread out on the floor.” The man who knew Hitler had this comment: “Hitler? I knew him. His political ideas— they did not work out. But as an artist, he had real potential.”

“My love is a red, red rose”: picture a rose; picture my love; how many steps do you need to get from one to the other?

Good stories, and I’m sure they’re true. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with the world of words, which is the subject of this column. Here’s what I want to do with “degrees of separation.”

Every time you or I make a verbal reference to something, there is a degree of separation between that something and the words we use. “My love is a red, red rose”: picture a rose; picture my love; how many steps do you need to get from one to the other? Because most people know what a rose is, I think there’s only one degree of separation. Maybe two, if recognition of something as a metaphor counts as a conceptual step.

It’s a pretty easy journey from “love” to “rose.” But in any situation, it’s the business of a good writer or speaker to provide relationships between X and Y that are distant enough to be interesting, charming, unexpected, unusual, dramatic, picturesque, or provocative, while close enough to be understood without perplexity. The business of a bad writer or speaker is to keep you guessing— to put so many stones in the stream, and to make them so distant and obscure, that you have an unduly challenging time hopping across it. Either that, or to make you jump onto some rock that you can’t get off of.

The shape of one’s neck has nothing to do with one’s political worth, and everybody knows that.

I must concede— and this is a significant concession— that chumminess between words and things isn’t always desirable. No religion would get very far if its holy book said, “You want to know who God is? No worries— he’s exactly like this.” Outside the demanding precincts of poetry and theology, however, there are vast territories that are natural habitats for plain speech. And most people seem to like plain speech. That’s one reason why so many of them like President Trump. They realize that half the things he says are false, but they knew that about President Obama, too. At least they don’t have to do a genealogical trace to find out where Trump’s meanings are coming from.

At his recent rally in Grand Rapids, Trump called a certain congressman with whom dislike is mutual “pencil-neck Adam Schiff.” It’s a low, ugly insult, and everybody knows it. The shape of one’s neck has nothing to do with one’s political worth, and everybody knows that too. Everybody also knows that Adam Schiff isn’t important to anyone except Adam Schiff. But the remark immediately caught fire. Why? I suspect it’s because Schiff has spent the past two years telling the world that Donald Trump is a traitor, or something like a traitor, and that he (Schiff) has evidence, or something just as good as evidence, that convinces him, and will convince you too, once you get a chance to see it, or hear it, or learn more about it from Adam Schiff. . . . You see the problem. There are so many steps between what Schiff says and what you’re supposed to make of it that you’d have to take out your . . . pencil . . . . and diagram it all. But you hear Trump say “pencil-neck Adam Schiff,” and with one merry jump, like the 12-year-old you used to be, and probably still are, inside, you understand him perfectly, and agree.

As for “interpretation,” that’s what you’re trying to do, if Royce would only let you.

Let me say more about the depraved art of keeping people from understanding you. If you visit the campus of UCLA you will find, carved over one of the portals of Royce Hall, a quotation from its namesake, alleged philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916): “The world is a progressively realized community of interpretation.” This is not like other remarks by alleged philosophers, such as Albert Einstein, who emitted the famous saying, “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” No difficulty with that idea. It isn’t true, but it’s perfectly clear. The oracles of Royce are not like that. If you’re trying to follow them, you’re in for something worse than a pinball’s trip from the top of the machine to the bottom. You bounce off the concept of “progress,” only to get smacked by the question of “what is ‘realized’ supposed to mean?”; then, before you know it, you’re slapped down by the lever of “community.” As for “interpretation,” that’s what you’re trying to do, if Royce would only let you.

The current political equivalent of dear old Josiah Royce is John Owen Brennan, former head of the CIA, former United States homeland security advisor, former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center— in short, one of the nation’s leading secret policemen. In this role, he was a major engineer of the attempt to remove President Trump from office by means of preposterous accusations about Trump’s supposed collusion with the Russian government. Brennan made a fourth career for himself as denouncer of Trump, tweeting such things as this in response to Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018:

Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???

Do you remember the non-event that was Helsinki? No? Then you’ll have quite a few steps to take before you’re able to connect Brennan’s idea of a treasonous performance with anything in the real and historical world. Yet some people assumed that, since Brennan had been a top cop and everything, he must have had something definite in mind; they just couldn’t quite get to it, that’s all.

Then came the Mueller report, or its summary, and it was clear that whatever Brennan had in his mind probably didn’t exist in the outside world, and never had existed. On March 25 he was asked about this, and he said, in words that should be engraved above some kind of door, maybe the door to the latrine at CIA headquarters, or to the New York Times: “I don’t know if I received bad information, but I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.”

Let’s try to figure this out, and consider how many steps we must take to do it.

So Brennan was in search of bad information? I don’t think he means to say that. But what does he mean to say?

First there’s the problem of whether Brennan received what he calls bad information or not. “Two roads,” says the poem by Robert Frost, “diverged in a wood.” Either Brennan’s information was bad or it wasn’t. Either we can follow the road of bad information and try to understand what that was and how it misled him so badly, or we can follow the road of good information and try to understand how that could possibly have misled him. But we can’t tell which road to take. Brennan— who is so positive about everything else— says that he doesn’t know; so how should we? And wait a minute: is bad information actually information at all? I’m not sure. Yet Brennan’s meaning seems to hinge on the idea that information may be bad or good.

At this point, however, Brennan appears to imagine that we are rushing to his meaning with heedless speed. He holds up his hand and halts us: “But I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.”

There’s a lot to ponder in that sentence. Literally he is saying that he may have suspected (though he isn’t sure; he just thinks he suspected) that there was more information— bad or good— than actually existed. Again we see the problem of the two roads. It’s easy to understand that he might have suspected there was more good information than there was, but it’s also possible that he suspected there was more bad information than there was. So Brennan was in search of bad information? I don’t think he means to say that. But what does he mean to say?

If Brennan wanted to bring us closer to his meaning, he had every means of clarifying all these things. He speaks English, doesn’t he?

I think he means to say, “So what? Who cares?” Yet I doubt that this is the meaning on which he wants his audience to land. It’s just that with all those steps we have to take . . . . We can land almost anywhere. The degrees of separation are uncountable.

Brennan, of course, is far from the only public figure to present this difficulty, or the only one to present it on purpose. After all, if he wanted to bring us closer to his meaning, he had every means of clarifying all these things. He speaks English, doesn’t he? Well, sort of. But now let’s consider something even more challenging.

There are places along the Mississippi River where, at certain seasons of certain years, one can cross by jumping from stone to stone. This is not true of the Pacific Ocean, at any time of any year. Yet politicians and bureaucrats are often seen attempting such feats. Consider Nancy Pelosi, who keeps trying to cross that great ocean of ideas, the Bible, with nothing but some fragments of concepts and pebbles of conjecture.

It’s hard to see how someone who doggedly searches the Scriptures wouldn’t eventually realize that the passage reflects neither the verbal nor the intellectual style of any book in the Bible.

For a long time, Pelosi has been looking in Scripture for something— anything— that could mandate her political program. Usually she comes up with nothing more than a claim that the golden rule constrains her to insist on enormous expenditures of tax money for her favorite projects. But sometimes she just makes the whole thing up. There’s a “biblical” adage that she’s been reciting for many years. Eleven years ago she was told that it wasn’t in the Bible, but she’s still using it.

Now consider the way she packaged it in a speech to “Christian educators” in January:

“I can’t find it in the Bible but I quote it all the time, and I keep reading and reading the Bible. I know it is there someplace," Pelosi told the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities conference last Wednesday. “It’s supposed to be in Isaiah, but I heard a bishop say to minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.”

“It’s in there somewhere in some words or another, but certainly the spirit of it is there,” Pelosi said. “And that we all have a responsibility to act upon our beliefs and the dignity and worth of every person.”

Curiously, Mrs. Pelosi, who knows everything about running the country, doesn’t know that there are such things as Bible concordances, which would in seconds relieve her of all anxieties about where that passage is located. Again, the answer is: not in the Bible. It’s hard to see how someone who doggedly searches the Scriptures wouldn’t eventually realize that the passage reflects neither the verbal nor the intellectual style of any book in the Bible, as rendered by any translation. Nevertheless, she goes skipping into the ocean on the stepping stones of:

  • I know it’s there
  • A bishop (which bishop, pray?) said it
  • It’s in some words or [an]other
  • It’s there in spirit
  • I can’t find it
  • So I quote it

If you had trouble following Finnegans Wake, try following Nancy Pelosi.

But maybe the opposite approach is better. Maybe people should invite their readers or listeners to find their own stepping stones of meaning, and see where they end up. My example here has to do with Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., better known as “Joe” Biden, and the current accusations that he has been too handsy with women. I need to state at once that there are few living persons for whom I have more contempt than Biden. He’s a liar and a fool and a credibly accused corruptionist, but one of the worst things that can be said of him is that, before becoming vice president— a good job for someone with no visible talents— he had served six terms as US senator. Further, I don’t think it’s right to sneak up behind someone and snuggle and snuffle her hair, or whatever he’s accused of doing.

On the other hand, I don’t think this peculiar conduct is anything worthy of national concern, or of plaints of victimhood, particularly when the alleged victims of his predatory actions waited years to publicize their pain and anger— waiting, it seems, until there was a political reason to show their courage as survivors. The attacks on Biden commenced when Lucy Flores, a minor-league “progressive” politician, anticipated the announcement of his (ludicrous) candidacy for president by accusing him of having done something with her hair, back in 2014.

There are few living persons for whom I have more contempt than Joe Biden.

Biden made a number of predictable replies; then he went to a union convention and made a joke about asking permission to hug one of the participants. At this, outrage swept the nation, and Ms. Flores issued a victorious tweet:

It’s clear @JoeBiden hasn’t reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable. To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have.

Reading this, one’s first reaction is bound to be, “You’re surprised? When did @JoeBiden ever reflect on anything?” But that’s not her point, nor is that the way in which such language works. It’s meant to give you a verbal rope and tell you to go hang yourself, intellectually.

Unsolicited touching can mean anything from smacking you on the face to surprising you with the unexpected embrace that first introduced you to romance. And when you reflect for a moment, you can see that most touching is and has to be unsolicited. It’s not something that, under the best of circumstances, people are ordinarily asked to do. In fact, most touching in this world is merely accidental.

Our author provides no bridge between unsolicited and inappropriate or, in plain terms, wrong. That’s something you’re supposed to build yourself, however you want to do it. If you want to spread all the horror of inappropriate onto unsolicited, well, go ahead. But what does inappropriate mean? It could mean what Donald Trump said on the Billy Bush tape. It could mean something you said about Baptists when you were drunk at a party. It could mean those personal questions that old Aunt Rosa asks when she meets your friends. Because our author is so upset and so indignant, many people will assume that the inappropriate behavior was something terminally gross and disgusting. Yet note: the author never said that; she left it to you to infer.

"Unsolicited touching" can mean anything from smacking you on the face to surprising you with the unexpected embrace that first introduced you to romance.

The second sentence is the masterpiece. Never mind the patent falsehood of “women everywhere.” Consider the conversation. Which conversation? Can you guess? Of course you can. You can fill in the missing step and conclude that the author means her conversation, the conversation she’s having right now. No, she never said that; she left it up to you, convinced that you would find the appropriate interpretation.

And what is that conversation about? It’s about the issue of consent. But again, the operative term is wholly undefined. It could mean the implicit, Lockean consent by which all societies operate. It could mean the explicit consent that is properly required to make a will, enact a law, conclude a contract, or engage in sex. This too is of fundamental importance in a decent society, and many readers will think that this is what is meant in so serious a tweet.

But the reflective reader will see that these meanings cannot be the right ones. Biden is not accused of having engaged in sex without his partner’s consent. Nor do “progressive” politicians consider consent a matter of much significance when it comes to the enforcement of their political program, the whole of which depends on doing things to people without the consent of anyone except politicians like Ms. Flores. Yet if you, as a reflective reader, notice these things, you are not the intended audience. The intended audience will make tracks directly to the unexpressed concept of sex, equating whatever stupid old Joe may have done with all the nonconsensual erotic and otherwise evil things he could possibly be imagined to have done. Indeed, there will be no “tracks”; there will be only a single jump.

Which conversation? Can you guess? Of course you can.

You can say pretty much the same thing about virtually the entire politically correct vocabulary, which consists of words thrown in front of you so you can jump on them with whatever personal, presumably fanatical, meanings you happen to be carrying with you. It’s an attempt to annul all restraining and reflective degrees of separation between words and emotions.

From emotions thus produced I, for one, would like some separation, although the alternative extreme— that of many weird and murky degrees of conceptual distance— is equally unattractive. Today’s political discourse reminds me of one of those parties where most of the guests appear to be friends of a former coworker’s sister-in-law by her first marriage, or something else that’s too tiresome to figure out, and the rest are people you know very well, because they keep yelling in your face. I just hope there’s another party, and that someone will invite me there.




Share This


The Karma of Flaming Cronyism

 | 

In 2009, Vice President Joe Biden announced a $539 million Department of Energy (DoE) loan awarded by the federal government to Fisker Automotive. Fisker, a newly formed crony capitalist firm, would use the money (together with private funding from the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, whose partners include green crony capitalist and former Vice President Al Gore) to produce hybrid electric vehicles in Biden's home state of Delaware. The investment would create 2,500 American jobs, by 2014 produce an annual 75,000–100,000 "highly efficient vehicles," and by 2016 "save hundreds of millions gallons of gasoline and offset millions of tons of carbon pollution."

With gasoline prices below $2 per gallon at the time, free enterprise could not be counted on to produce planet-saving electric vehicles (EVs) and establish the US as the world leader in EV technology. Capitalism can only be counted on to produce what consumers demand. Then-DoE Secretary Steven Chu believed that the demand for EVs would not materialize until gasoline prices reached nine or ten dollars per gallon. In the interim, only crony capitalism would do.

The Fisker loan was considered a vital, timely investment for America: in 2009, thanks to years of US outsourcing of jobs and manufacturing expertise that propped up its emerging crony capitalist economy, China had become the world’s leader in green technology spending. “We are putting Americans back to work,” exclaimed Chu, “and reigniting a new Industrial Revolution that is paramount for the economic success of this country.” The loan was "seed money," heralded Biden, "that would return back to the American consumer in billions and billions and billions of dollars in good new jobs."

Fisker Automotive was founded by crony capitalist Henrik Fisker, in fall 2007, only to be sued by Tesla Motors, in spring 2008, for stealing design concepts and trade secrets that Fisker allegedly used to develop the Karma — a heavily subsidized vehicle that would compete with the heavily subsidized Tesla Roadster.

The true brilliance of Elon Musk, who is regarded by many as a genius, lies in his ability to hornswoggle governments and investors.

It was also in 2008 when fellow, and far superior, crony capitalist Elon Musk became CEO of Tesla. Barely one year later, Tesla received a $465 million DoE loan. Mr. Musk knows no other form of capitalism. According to the LA Times, he "has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars [Tesla], sell solar panels [SolarCity] and launch rockets into space [SpaceX]," with the help of a staggering $4.9 billion in taxpayer-funded government subsidies. Apparently, Musk will have nothing to do with any enterprise from which he cannot obtain "government incentives, including grants, tax breaks, factory construction, discounted loans and environmental credits that Tesla can sell. It [the $4.9 billion] also includes tax credits and rebates to buyers of solar panels and electric cars."

The true brilliance of Musk, who is regarded by many as a genius ("our generation's Thomas Edison"), lies in his ability to hornswoggle governments and investors. While ordinary crony capitalists are content with bellying up to the government trough for tax breaks and loans to help build their businesses, Musk has the government build businesses for him. He's "so adept at landing incentives that states now compete to give him money."

New York State, for example, is building a $750 million manufacturing plant for SolarCity. With property tax gimmicks, investment tax credits, and cash grants, the entire deal constitutes a $2.5 billion windfall for Musk — courtesy of the taxpayers. Without their coerced support, crony SolarCity, indeed, the entire solar industry, could not survive. Yet in June, New York crony capitalists prevailed over the use of drastically cheaper energy, derived from free market fracking, by officially banning the technology (and denying billions and billions and billions of dollars in lower utility costs for New York residents), ostensibly because of safety concerns: natural gas might leak from wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale bonanza that the state sits on top of, causing flames to shoot out of water faucets.

Inspired by Musk's promises to lead the world into a future without gasoline (he pledged to make millions of electric vehicles by 2025), investors have bid up Tesla stock from $16 per share, when it was first publicly offered in 2010, to $260 per share today. With this runup, Tesla was able to raise more than enough private capital to repay its DoE loan — an event that the DoE declared as "living proof" that "Tesla and other U.S. manufacturers are in a strong position to compete for this growing global market.” Only in the world of green cronyism is debt repayment celebrated as success.

At least the Model S doesn't burst into flames, as did Fisker's Karma, which had a few flaws.

Tesla, which sold 31,655 vehicles in 2014, is valued at $33.8 billion — more than half the value of Ford Motor Company, which sold 6.3 million vehicles during that year. And Ford made a profit, unlike Tesla, which has failed to do so since its inception in 2003. In 2014, Ford posted a profit of $6.3 billion; Tesla lost $294 million. Incredibly, even with its government side business of selling zero-emission-vehicle (ZEV) credits to its competitors, from which it made $217 million, Tesla still lost $294 million. But Musk promises profitability by 2020.

So confident is he of continued government largesse that he scoffs at competitors such as Toyota, which has developed a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, that sells for $10,000 less than Tesla's $71,000 Model S. Musk's response: “Fuel cells should be renamed ‘fool cells’” — demonstrating a wit as sharp as his automotive genius.

Nevertheless, no one has done more than Mr. Musk to advance EV development in the United States, and, by all accounts, the Model S is a flawless vehicle that has exceeded the expectations of elite Silicon Valley and Hollywood car buyers. It doesn't burst into flames, as did Fisker's Karma, which had a few flaws.

The Karma — which was initially projected to ship in 2009 and to sell over 15,000 units built by 2500 American workers at a refurbished GM plant in Delaware — did not come to market until 2011. But, according to an ABC News investigation, by October of the year only 40 Karmas were produced, all of them assembled by 500 Finnish workers at a factory in rural Finland.

There was not a single US firm with the manufacturing expertise to produce the Karma. "We're not in the business of failing; we're in the business of winning," exclaimed Mr. Fisker. "That's why we went to Finland."

Less than a year later, Fisker Automotive failed — ceasing production in July 2012 and declaring bankruptcy in November 2013. Of the 2,450 Karmas that were eventually built, 1,600 were purchased by consumers, and 2,000 were recalled because of lithium-ion battery-related fire risks (including the possibility that, while parked and disconnected from a charging station, a Karma could mysteriously explode into flames, and burn to unrecognizable rubble).

Numerous reasons have been cited for Fisker's collapse: unrealistic sales goals, compressed launch timeline, insufficient funding, flaming rubble, etc. In the end, however, most subsidized green-technology companies simply find ways to lose money. They can't make a profit, even with government support. The most famous example is Solyndra (the recipient of a $535 million DoE loan), which went bankrupt selling solar panels for half of what it cost to make them. Then there is A123 Systems, Fisker's battery supplier and the recipient of a $249 million DoE grant. A123 sold batteries that cost the company $1.57 for each dollar of sales — leading to its bankruptcy in October 2012, and, in no small part, hastening Fisker's.

A123 might have charged Fisker twice as much, thereby returning a per unit profit of 43%. Why not? Couldn't Fisker absorb the cost increase? It was getting government money too, not to mention the $7,500 tax refund awarded to EV buyers. And, with the price of gasoline heading towards $4 a gallon, surely the demand for EVs was growing. Besides, anyone who could afford the $103,000 Karma might be willing to pay a little extra. Except that, on average, Fisker spent $660,000 for each vehicle produced. To make even a meager profit of, say 10%, Fisker would have had to charge $733,000 — a price that might have scared off early Karma buyers such as pop stars Justin Bieber and Al Gore.

Most subsidized green-technology companies simply find ways to lose money. They can't make a profit, even with government support.

The purpose of the DoE grant to A123 was to help America compete with China. "President Obama was determined not to let China run away with green energy technologies," said a Forbes article covering the bankruptcy auction, where A123 was unloaded for, one could say, a fire sale price. Guess who won the bidding (hint: it wasn't an American company). It was the Wanxiang Group, a Chinese conglomerate run by Lu Guanqiu, an auto-parts magnate with deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

Forbes characterized the business acumen of our green cronies as a triple irony:

The U.S. borrowed money from China to subsidize a battery company to compete with state-subsidized Chinese battery companies. The American company gets bought out by a Chinese company for about the same amount of money that the U.S. government gave it. The U.S. still has to pay the money back to China. The Chinese company buying the American company makes a lot of money by providing auto parts for the cars that Americans drive.

Perhaps of greater significance is the national security implication. The sale of A123 included US technology developed for advanced ultra-light lithium-ion phosphate batteries — technology that extends beyond powering EVs, to important applications for electricity generation and distribution, not to mention sensitive military applications. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Hillary Clinton vehemently opposed such sales, asserting the need for "ensuring that technologies . . . critical to U.S. national security are not sold off and outsourced to foreign governments." Yet Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time, did nothing to interfere with the sale.

The Fisker bankruptcy snuffed out the DoE plan of "reigniting a new Industrial Revolution," as well as Joe Biden's hopes of "billions and billions and billions of dollars" for American consumers. It was followed by a DoE announcement that, instead, American taxpayers would get a bill for $139 million, the amount that the government lost in the Fisker debacle. Fisker was sold, in another fire sale, not only to a Chinese company but to the same one that bought A123.

Today, just one year afterward, Mrs. Clinton is running for president and Mr. Biden is thinking about throwing his hat into the race. Mr. Guanqiu is planning to resurrect the Karma with his new company, formed from the old Fisker and A123, businesses he picked up for a song: a measly $406 million. The amount is much less than the manufacturing assets and intellectual property he purchased. They represent a value that the DoE must have believed was significantly greater than the $778 million it invested in these companies. But that's life in the risky world of green cronyism: sometimes seed money leads to abysmal failure, especially when it is other people's seed money.

Mr. Musk is now getting into the battery business, building the world’s largest battery factory, a gigafactory, he says. That is, he bamboozled the state of Nevada into a $1.3 billion incentive package to build it. What crony could turn down a deal projected to generate $100 billion? With capitalist fracking driving gasoline prices down to less than $2 a gal (when $9 gasoline is needed for EV's to be competitive), any capitalist sees folly. But crony capitalists see only the delusion of billions and billions and billions of dollars — that, and taxpayer-funded subsidies for fellow cronies.

That's life in the risky world of green cronyism: sometimes seed money leads to abysmal failure, especially when it is other people's seed money.

And Mr. Fisker is planning to start another automotive venture. He is "intrigued with Millennials, their craving for new kinds of transportation and their fascination with all things digital." It would behoove him to rekindle his relationship with Al Gore, this time for marketing purposes. Who is better than Mr. Climate Change at pitching flimflam to Millennials? Whatever Mr. Fisker has in mind, he remains optimistic, believing that "the timing is right for something completely new."

But none of this is new. Under our current political system, the timing is always right for crony capitalism. And, unlike taxpayers, crony capitalists will profit from another completely new green auto company, even if it goes down in flames.

#39;s Thomas Edison




Share This


When You Wish Upon a Czar

 | 

Two minutes after President Obama gave his political crony Ron Klain the job of Ebola Czar, I got a text message from a friend. He’s a political scientist, so I was expecting him to complain about Klain’s being nothing but a Democratic Party hack, but he didn’t. His comment took an historical turn. What he said was, “If trends continue, America will have more czars than Russia had in its whole history.”

I saw that as a protest, not against the Russian monarchy, but against the current assumption that words prove their worth, not in use, but in overuse. To my friend, a word is valuable because it’s both appropriate and fresh. To many other people, it’s valuable because it’s capable of being used over and over again, in any possible circumstance.

There’s nothing wrong, in itself, about the use of “czar” to mean something like “an official appointed to exercise full power over a designated matter.” Czar is an admirably brief, concrete, imagistically evocative word to express that meaning. But one can be driven to suicide by other people’s overuse of even the finest words. No one wants to hear “I love you” every minute of every day, and certainly no one wants to contemplate an endless sequence of organization charts in which every position is labeled “Czar.”

We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: it would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

Consider: the United States now has two czars in the same realm. The first was Dr. Nicole Lurie, whose existence no one remembered until the president started being urged to appoint an emergency preparedness czar. Then we learned that we already had one, and it was Dr. Lurie, who is Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response for the Department of Health and Human Services. But that made no difference; another monarch was added to America’s ever-growing College of Czars.

In 1908, when Ferdinand I, Prince Regnant of Bulgaria, proclaimed himself Czar of Bulgaria, his action excited much unfavorable comment from other monarchs. There already was a Czar of Russia, and the general opinion was that one was enough. Contemporary Americans are clearly without that kind of taste and discrimination. We want a czar in every pot. We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: they are very hard to get rid of. Even if they’ve finished their job and wiped out Ebola or baseball or whatever else it is they’re supposed to handle, they or their bureaucratic progeny remain in office. It would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

There’s another term that has been spread by the nation’s romance with Ebola — the old but increasingly dangerous abundance of caution. How long those six syllables had, until recently, been incubating deep in our linguistic organs, only the zombies know, but now, suddenly, the contagion is everywhere. Whenever a government official delays some urgent job, it’s out of an abundance of caution. Whenever an American citizen is prevented from exercising his rights, it’s because an abundance of caution led the FDA to deny him a drug, or led the gun suppressors to deny him a permit, or led the cops to arrest him for reminding them of the law, or led the high school principal to tell him not to wear a flag-print t-shirt, thereby offending non-Americans. Once it gets going, abundance of caution can do a lot of damage.

State-friendly terms such as czar, abundance of caution, and of course national crisis have been big winners in this, the Ebola Period of our history. Meanwhile, phrases dear to the hearts of (certain) libertarians have suffered badly — indeed, have virtually disappeared from public use: open borders, freedom to immigrate, right to immigrate, and the like. I confess that such terms have never been favorites of mine. To the disgust of (certain) other libertarians, I have argued at length against the concepts they express (Liberty, October 2006). Those terms will have a difficult time regaining the spotlight now occupied by domestic terrorists, the terrorists’ wacko foreign exemplars, and the Ebola virus. It’s hard to see how a radical immigrationistwould answer the question, “Do you mean that Thomas Eric Duncan had a right to enter America and spread a deadly disease?”, or the obviously succeeding questions, “So you’re saying that the right to immigrate isn’t universal, after all? So why do you think it’s a right?” We’ll see what the friends of open borders do to revive their favorite words. I’m sure they’ll think of something.

Where would we be without "adults in the room" and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis?

While they’re thinking, we await in horror the coming election. The political results may be bad or good — more or less crippling to our actual rights — but the linguistic phenomena are already gruesome. A friend recently asked whether American political commentary could do without stupid sports metaphors. The answer is, Apparently not. Where would we be if elections weren’t up for grabs, if the trailing candidate didn’t need to hit a home run, if the leading candidate weren’t trying to run the clock out, orif one of the two parties weren’t just playing DE-fense, never managing to get across the goal line?

And where would we be without adults in the room and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis? Protestors, for example, never yell and scream; they vent their frustrations; they act them out. Their actions are signals that our communities need healing, and that healing can come only from a therapeutic national conversation or bipartisan dialogue — both parties on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not.

But here I must apologize. At some point in this column, I went out of bounds. I stopped blaming the victims — blaming phrases that started their lives with hope and promise, only to lose it because of community pressure to be something they’re not — and I started displaying my phobias about expressions that were losers to begin with.So I’ll adopt a more proactive stance and pose the challenging question: what would happen if an American public figure actually tried to ignore all insipid current clichés and restore the greatness of the English language, the language of Shakespeare and Emerson and Jefferson, of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and . . . oh, maybe, of William Butler Yeats?

Well, here is what would happen, and did happen, when, on Oct. 3, Vice President Biden spoke at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Forum, “Harvard’s premier arena for public speech.” “Folks,” said Biden,

Folks, “all’s changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” Those are the words written by an Irish poet William Butler Yeats about the Easter Rising in 1916 in Ireland. They were meant to describe the status of the circumstance in Ireland at that time. But I would argue that in recent years, they better describe the world as we see it today because all has changed. The world has changed.

There’s been an incredible diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability. Emerging economies like India and China have grown stronger, and they seek a great force in the global order and global affairs. . . .

The international order that we painstakingly built after World War II and defended over the past several decades is literally fraying at the seams right now.

Now, let’s see. Yeats did write a poem, called “Easter 1916,” about the Irish nationalist Easter Rebellion. His poem suggests that commonplace people were transformed, at least in imagination, by their participation in that failed revolt:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not. No good poem, and particularly not Yeats’s poem, “describe[s] the status of the circumstance” of something. But does Biden understand his own remarks? Again, clearly not. What terrible beauty could he possibly see in “the status of the circumstance” that he himself describes — “diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability,” an “international order” that is “literally fraying at the seams” (and can ya believe it, “right now,” too)? That’s not beautiful. It’s not even terrible, in the sense that Biden wants to import from Yeats. A person who doesn’t understand that literally means literally, not figuratively, or that something that was “built” doesn’t have “seams” and therefore cannot “fray” . . . this person should stay as far away as possible from other people’s poetry. We’re used to the vice president’s torrent of clichés; must we now be visited with his attempts to be learned and original?

It’s interesting to speculate how many people would say what they say, if they understood it. Here’s a passage that the vice president presumably wouldn’t like; it’s from a political analysis by Jennifer Rubin, issued on Sept. 30 by the Washington Post.It’s about a number of Democratic senators who may not win their elections. I’ll put the most obvious clichés in italics:

They were napping while the Islamic State surged and were asleep during the wheel for other Obama foreign policy flubs. They didn’t raise any objection to zeroing troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. They were unmoved by the atrocious Iran interim deal. They were quite happy to watch the sequestration cuts wreak havoc on military preparedness. Now the bill has come due for circling the wagons around Obama.

The quantity of clichésis bad enough, but does she really mean to say that the senators were happy to watch even when they were asleep? Is she really able to picture a cut, much less such a passive, somnolent thing as a sequestration cut, wreaking havoc? Does she really think that people who circle wagons get a bill for it? And what picture was in her mind when she thought of people sleeping during the wheel?

Enough. I’m tired. I’m going to find some wheel to sleep during.




Share This


The Debates: An Autopsy

 | 

In the last version of this column, promises were made that the presidential debates would be noticed at some time in the future. These promises will be fulfilled.

Indeed, the fulfillment is already on its way: the debates were noticed in my very last sentence. So there. If I were running for public office, I could now inform you that the issue has been addressed, and it is time to move on. The American people are no longer interested in debates. They are interested in jobs.

So that is what I came to talk to you about today. Word Watch has a ten-point program to grow the economy.

Point One: Reduce the size of government.
Point Two: Reduce the size of government.
Point Three: Reduce the size of government.
Point Four . . . .

How’s that? If Word Watch were running for public office, that is what Word Watch would say.

But Word Watch is not running for office, so it will take the politically unprecedented step of fulfilling its promise. It will dissect the presidential and vice presidential debates.

The debates were chiefly significant for showing that Obama wasn’t the great speaker that people had always been told he was, and that maybe they had thought he was — while hitting the channel changer as soon as he reached the third sentence on his teleprompter. The debates also showed that Romney wasn’t a particularly bad speaker or a particularly bad person. As Michael Barone commented on October 27, they even demonstrated that Romney was more articulate than Obama.

To borrow a Randian way of looking at things, both candidates showed themselves curiously selfless. They weren’t interested enough in their own ideas even to represent them clearly.

I’m not putting Romney’s skills too high; as you know, this column has never considered it hard to beat Obama at the word game. After all, even Joe the Plumber did it. Compared to old-time politicians, Obama is basically nothing. He doesn’t know any more words than they did, and his grammar isn’t any better. His range of allusions is much more limited than theirs (they could quote Shakespeare and the Bible, while he appears to live in a world without any books at all); and he doesn’t know any good stories. He is as stiff as a high school principal who has attended Toastmasters on two separate and distinct Thursday evenings, and his self-importance is untiring. It doesn’t take much to overtake Obama in the oratory department.

Nevertheless, Romney did it. Don’t ask me to cite examples of his verbal brilliance; there weren’t any. But given the competition, they weren’t needed. When, in the second and third presidential debates, Obama “revived,” “woke up,” or “agreed to participate” — however you want to put it — he did even more to show what he is: snarky, snippy, evasive, demagogic, unwarrantably superior, bored or angry with everyone except his slavish adorers.

Both candidates spoke in ways that reveal their refusal to think about words in any except the most brutally instrumental manner — by which I mean considering words only as tools for turning out the vote. Beyond that goal, there was no attempt to enlighten or even to entertain, no attempt to show who one is or what, exactly, one thinks. In that sense, to borrow a Randian way of looking at things, both candidates showed themselves curiously selfless. They weren’t interested enough in their own ideas even to represent them clearly.

For instance, neither of them had any suspicion that “we need to grow the economy” or “I have a plan to grow the economy” might be an empty substitute for some real meaning. They swathed their vast, vague plans in a grossly inappropriate image of the economy as a natural object like a radish or a squash, some little object that you can grow. No reflective person uses language like that; only lazy minds choose the default setting, assuming that other lazy minds will relate to whatever clichés happen to waft their way.

Obama, of course, prides himself on his ability to communicate with the rubes. So he mentioned folks and workin’ people as often as he could, and he recited such phrases as “educating our workers” and “retraining our workers.” “Goodness,” said Jed Leland, responding to Citizen Kane’s campaign speeches about the downtrodden working people, “you talk as if you owned them.” If Obama knew the impression his words really create, he wouldn’t use them. But he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t even know that. And his self-knowledge is even feebler than his knowledge of the world. Again, it is the hollow man who lusts for power.

Of course, the candidates’ words were hardly news. They were so familiar that Charles Krauthammer characterized the last debate as the “national soporific,” the national “Ambien.” He’s a doctor, and he ought to know. I would say the same thing about the other debates, too, including the vice presidential one. That was interesting if you enjoy sitting in a bar and listening while an ancient blowhard recycles all his familiar comments about himself, the workin’ people, and the greatness of Harry S. Truman. The only thing that interested me about Biden’s uncouth performance was his pretended embodiment of the “blue-collar America” I grew up with. Some working man — the guy was a senator for 36years! But he does a great imitation of the sneering, ass-scratching, proud-to-be-ignorant loudmouth who makes life miserable for the other guys on the assembly line. This was a type that was never very popular among real working people, and its popularity with the Democratic Party elite, none of whom ever worked a day in their lives, shows you something bad about American political culture.

So much for the nauseating debates. Their salient feature was the cynicism they manifested, and aroused. Everyone who talked about them focused solely on their (for want of a lower word) rhetorical effects, having completely discounted the idea that anything of substance might actually emerge. The talk was always about how Obama will deflect criticism or how favorably Romney will be perceived, never for so much as ten seconds about any thoughts that either candidate might convey. After the last debate, all the conservatives who had insisted that Romney could succeed only if he went for Obama’s throat, especially about Libya, went on television to praise his statesmanlike restraint. They thought it had a positive impact on the audience.

Maybe they were right. But they magnified the already overwhelming cynicism that surrounded these events. The commentators all (rightly) assumed that the debates were a publicity stunt, and were apparently content with that. Dick Morris, holding forth on the “O’Reilly Show,” admitted to squirming as he watched one of the affairs, but his conclusion was: “The important thing in this debate was that women did not think he [Romney] was a warmonger. . . . It was a skillful debate on Romney’s part.” That may be true — but only because neither candidate was expected to provide as much real instruction as you get from your senile uncle, discussing his adventures as a young man, delivering auto parts in and around Cincinnati.

Biden does a great imitation of the sneering, ass-scratching, proud-to-be-ignorant loudmouth who makes life miserable for the other guys on the assembly line.

There’s a certain comfort in discovering that it wasn’t just the politicos who refused to take the debates seriously. As far as I could tell, nobody did. Since the debates weren’t serious, that’s a good thing. What I regret, even more than the lack of intellectual seriousness, is the lack of words — real words, interesting words, memorable words, words that could actually engage a normal person’s mind, rather than prompting that person to speculate about the impression they would make on someone of abnormally low intelligence.

It was not always thus. I’ve been reading Robert Douthat Meade’s old biography of Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate statesman. Meade was a competent writer, and Benjamin was a colorful character, so the book is always fun. But in the present context, what’s remarkable is how interesting words used to be, even when they emerged without a hint of preparation or intention to wow the mentally deficient. I’ll share one sample with you.

When Benjamin was a US senator from Louisiana, he got into an angry debate with Jefferson Davis, then a senator from Mississippi, over the details of a military appropriation. It was an impromptu quarrel that began when Davis, in a bad mood, answered an inquiry from Benjamin in a flippant way. This exchange followed:

Benjamin: It is very easy for the Senator from Mississippi to give a sneering reply to what was certainly a very respectful inquiry.

Davis: I consider it is an attempt to misrepresent a very plain remark.

Benjamin: The Senator is mistaken, and has no right to state any such thing. His manner is not agreeable at all.

Davis: If the Senator happens to find it disagreeable, I hope he will keep it to himself.

Benjamin: When directed to me, I will not keep it to myself; I will repel it instanter.

Davis: You have got it, sir.

Benjamin: That is enough, sir.

If you’re like me, you care nothing about the subject of this dispute, but you enjoy the language. You even want to know what happened next.

So here it is: Benjamin sent Davis a letter challenging him to a duel — a gesture at once more serious and more interesting than any of the silly grimaces, chats with friendly folks, and public visits to fast-food joints that we got from this year’s political antagonists. And Davis responded in an interesting way: he tore up Benjamin’s challenge, telling the messenger, “I will make this all right at once. I have been wholly wrong.” He publicly apologized, and Benjamin handsomely accepted his apology. Three years later, Davis appointed Benjamin to his cabinet, and he became the second most important personality in the Confederate government.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a revival of the Confederacy. I am advocating a revival of the English language.




Share This


Why the Moneyed Media Should Pray for Obama's Defeat

 | 

Everybody knows that the Moneyed Media (also known as Mainstream Media) are in trouble. The press, in particular, is doing badly. Readership and advertising income are down. The Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism reports that it's so bad they are going to rename themselves the Observatory of Media Mediocrity. Nah, actually, they report that 2011 newsstand circulation was down 43% since 2008. Overall circulation was down "only" 6% thanks to cut-rate subscription rates. Magazine ad pages went down 46% in the same period. Newspaper advertising and circulation, on average, went down about 50%. In short, a bloodbath.

Is it because Americans watch more TV? Nope. According to Nielsen's annual "Television Audience" report, a growing percentage of households in the 18-to-49 core demographic that advertisers so covet do not even own a TV set (about 3% this year, vs. 1% last year). If they ever want to watch a show or a movie, these people play a DVD on their computer or, increasingly, stream video from Hulu, Netflix, or the like. They are exposed to a few ads, but that's nothing in comparison to the 35% of airtime devoted to commercials that cable viewers get to swallow. And of course, all the news and infotainment spewed by network TV never reach these unplugged eyeballs. Even among the declining TV owners, the big networks and their affiliates saw their prime-time audience decline 12% since 2005. Live ratings of programs have been decreasing constantly for the last three years.

All these factors are a good reason to stop calling Big Media "mainstream." They still have income, a payroll, and some notoriety, though, which is why they can be called "the Moneyed Media."

What are the causes of this decline? According to every media consultant I've read, it's because of this darn internet. The ponderous Paperosaurus Rex and Teeveelociraptors are in competition with the small, nimble Internet mammals, and the old beasts are losing.

The modern-liberal media outlets show a disconcerting uniformity and are rarely critical of the Obama administration, except when considering the most irrelevant subjects.

According to the consultants' narrative, professional journalists see their carefully researched stories ripped and copied to multiple sites. Cheap local TV with underpaid, half-starving crews gains an undeservedly equal footing with the major networks, thanks to their websites. And the world mourns the death of Real Investigative Journalism, since these blog writers that now pass for journalists don't leave their mom's basement to go track toxic iPad factories in China or children killers in Africa.

Yes, granted: these factors certainly count. But isn't there another big reason for America's disaffection with the Moneyed Media?

Let's look again at the Pew report mentioned above. In 2011, the only national newspaper that increased its circulation was the Wall Street Journal, a resolute opponent of state intervention in the economy. The WSJ may not be every libertarian's cup of tea, but we have to give them this: they are, with Investor's Business Daily, one of the few national conservative dailies left in the country.

Similarly, Fox News has a notable anti-liberal slant, and gathers almost four times as many watchers as the combined CNN, MSNBC, and HLN (5.7 million vs. 1.5). Are we seeing a pattern here?

Fox and the WSJ are rare exceptions. In their enormous majority, the Moneyed Media are consistently modern-liberal. In 2007, the aforementioned Pew Research Center surveyed journalists and found that about 80% of these professionals identify themselves as liberals or at least as Democrats. Only 8% identify themselves as conservative (which would, presumably, include libertarian or classical liberal). It is a truism that most newsrooms are staffed with liberals and that a conservative journalist has very few employment opportunities in the Moneyed Media.

Now, let's put ourselves a second in the Birkenstocks of Dave Democrat and Lisa Liberal. They want to read a paper or a magazine during their train commute, and after their tofu and granola dinner, they want to watch some political commentary TV. They won't watch Fox or buy the WSJ, of course. But once past this initial filter, hundreds of publications and shows compete for their attention, from the allegedly moderate ones that Dave Democrat might favor to the rabidly leftist ones that Lisa Liberal may prefer. Lisa is even suffering from an embarrassment of riches: recall that only 19% of Americans call themselves liberal, yet a disproportionate share of the media caters to them.

The modern-liberal media outlets show a disconcerting uniformity and are rarely critical of the Obama administration, except when considering the most irrelevant subjects, such as Michelle's wardrobe or the antics of Secret Service agents. A grayish, soothing conformism oozes from all these mouths that babble without actually saying anything important, spewing a verbiage that carefully avoids important problems. It's a nice, relaxing way for Dave and Lisa to reinforce their biases, but it's pretty boring.

At the end, Dave will browse the Democratic Underground on his iPad while Lisa will read Daily Kos. At least, the crazy comments sometimes elicit a smirk.

And here lies the problem of the Moneyed Media: it's all the same leftist drivel, a uniform river of meaningless information that never evokes crucial problems.

The Moneyed Media carefully minimize all the news items that could harm or ridicule Obama and his peons. And yet, what golden material the Obama administration offers! The shady, undocumented past — even his student records are sealed. The illegal alien relatives. The DOE subsidies and loans to dubious firms, with taxpayers' money ending up in the pockets of rich Democratic donors. The gun-running scandals, which NBC News didn't mention until mid-June. The runaway regulations. The EPA undoing congressional laws. The beyond-reason deficit. The laws and court decisions that are ignored — sorry, "not enforced" — except in the case of medical marijuana, against which the law is sternly invoked. The continuing unemployment four years after the financial crisis started. The lawsuits against states. The gleeful, careless waste of money by the federal administration. The secret meetings while golfing. Why, if Nixon had done any of this, popular culture would still reverberate from the outrage!

If only half of Obama's stupid gaffes had been uttered by Bush I or II, they would be sarcastically recounted daily on every channel, in every paper.

And the gaffes, the gaffes! Whenever Obama strays from his teleprompter, hilarity ensues. "I've now been in 57 states" during the campaign was a howler by itself. Then we had "I don't speak Austrian" — yeah, I hope you speak Australian at least. We heard a Navy member being called a "corpse-man." We saw the president, parading at a goofy show, disparage his own bowling, comparing it to the Special Olympics — how classy. Oh, but that's OK, because "We're the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad." Too bad the country is inhabited by working-class voters, because "they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Then we basked in his wisdom: "Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries." But don't think he is unpatriotic: to a veteran crowd, he said, "I see many of the fallen heroes in the audience here today as we celebrate Memorial Day." And there are many more. If only half of these stupid things had been uttered by Bush I or II, they would be sarcastically recounted daily on every channel, in every paper, and used as icebreaking jokes by every attendee of conferences.

And then there are unexplainable acts that occupy a class by themselves, Obamaisms that, by their weirdness, leave any Bushism far behind. Bowing to the Saudi king. Bowing to the Japanese emperor. Giving a speech during "God Save the Queen" at Buckingham Palace. You can treat these awkward moments as fodder for comedy or for indignation, but they certainly deserve better than the silence that greeted them in the Moneyed Media.

You see, our talking heads are being protective of this "mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," in the immortal words of Joe Biden. (And speaking of comedy, Biden's bloopers would have launched a hundred standup routines in a less leftist America.) But this unflinching support makes the heads uninteresting drones who can no longer connect to an audience or a readership. The public is bound to notice mindless idolatry, at some point. And it has. It pays less and less attention to the babbling poseurs in the Moneyed Media. That's why business is down.

The remedy is obvious. Since all these fine intellects in the newsrooms are currently paralyzed by unconditional devotion, let's turn the love into rage. Let's replace blatant self-censorship with thundering, fact-exposing editorials. In a word, let's have a Republican president. Faced with the fall of the One, all the creative energy currently spent in covering up scandals and making media boring will suddenly get channeled into the pursuit of truth. If the present GOP favorite is elected, we won't see much difference (alas) in the level of statism, but we'll immediately be regaled with the slightest nuggets of scandal unearthed from a boring Mormon life. After four years of self-muzzling, our media will once again learn to analyze documents, discern truth, and expose coverups. The moneyed media will be back in business.

But of course, they will fight tooth and nail against it.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2019 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.