Six Degrees of Separation

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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.




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The Karma of Flaming Cronyism

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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




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When You Wish Upon a Czar

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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.




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The Debates: An Autopsy

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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.




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Why the Moneyed Media Should Pray for Obama's Defeat

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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.




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