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September 17, 2020
This Ain’t Science
by Stephen Cox
You don’t need to be a supporter of President Trump to view the endorsement of his opponent by one of the nation’s most prestigious scientific journals as an ominous event. Displaying something like the opposite of the objective, dispassionate scientific approach, an approach that backs its claims with evidence and courts rigorous counterarguments, Scientific American denounced Trump for everything except clogging the kitchen sink and instigating the Crimean War. The editors’ frantic screed accuses Trump not only of failing to combat the coronavirus, thus killing tens of thousands of people, but also of failing to finance alternative sources of energy, provide universal (cunningly called “comprehensive”) healthcare, stop “climate change,” and accomplish other progressive goals. Not only that! He prevents people from voting, and he neglects to increase the wages of childcare workers. By these and a plethora of other offenses Trump has unmistakably demonstrated his utter contempt for “evidence and science.”
Biden, by contrast, “has a record of following the data and being guided by science.” Evidence:
Biden wants to spend $2 trillion on an emissions-free power sector by 2035, build energy-efficient structures and vehicles, push solar and wind power, establish research agencies to develop safe nuclear power and carbon capture technologies, and more. The investment will produce two million jobs for U.S. workers, his campaign claims, and the climate plan will be partly paid by eliminating Trump’s corporate tax cuts. Historically disadvantaged communities in the U.S. will receive 40 percent of these energy and infrastructure benefits.
All very scientific. You can tell from the numbers — exactly 2035, exactly two million jobs, exactly two trillion dollars, exactly 40% of the, uh, benefits. Like the Great Gatsby, Biden has clearly been devoting at least two hours a day to the study of needed inventions.
When Trump acted, for better or worse, on the advice of scientific experts to shut down travel to and from China, Biden immediately and repeatedly denounced these measures as “hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering.” So did many of his Democratic political colleagues, some of whom insisted that their constituents join in mass celebrations of Chinese New Year and other notable events. Biden’s science consisted of little more than constant, repetitive, over-the-top attacks on Trump, against whom he happened to be running for public office. So far from showing a grasp of public health issues, Biden has yet to say a word about the governors, mainly Democratic, who shoved infected old people into nursing homes, where they and their associates died like flies. Trump offered safe beds on Navy hospital ships, but the beds were never used.
These are some of the counterarguments available to anyone who has a computer — counterarguments that anyone of scientific or even rational mentality would feel bound to answer. But not Scientific American. Instead, it accused Trump of the deadly sin of criticizing said governors. It went further. It blamed him for the tens of millions of job losses that followed, as the night the day, the governors’ lockdowns of their economies.
Scientific American’s mishmash of accusations is what one might expect from the president of the Young Dems club at the local high school — or from a group of people so isolated in their specialized professions, and so arrogant in their isolation, that they imagine they can simply voice their dogmas and prejudices and have it all pass for science. The editors’ manifesto is what the Marxists used to call “a class product.” It’s what such people spontaneously utter at a cocktail party attended by members of their caste, where ritualized opinions pass for truth.
Experts on the sex lives of termites and the behavior of quarks have, I suppose, no way of knowing that economists, sociologists, historians, political scientists, and yes, physical scientists, have actually studied the issues and demands that appear in the editors’ remarks, and have formed a more (shall we say) complicated view of them. There’s not a hint that anyone ever broke the editors’ self-contemplation by advising: “Hey, did you know — not far from your office, there’s a whole library full of books about these things! And by the way, what they’re saying doesn’t look particularly good for what you’re saying.”
As science, learned writing, and even as journalist rhetoric, Scientific American’s performance is shameful. It is also funny, if you like to see professors making fools of themselves. (And who doesn’t?) But the bad thing, the terrible thing, is that by diving into politics, a premier learned journal has removed itself from the list of trusted sources. By revealing its desperate partisanship, it has annihilated confidence in the objectivity, hence the truth and usefulness, of everything it publishes. Its articles may be ever so true, and ever so useful, but who can trust them now?
And please don’t tell me about peer review, which is one of the longest running academic jokes. Who selects the peers?
September 9, 2020
Repatriation, Religion, and Rights
by Elizabeth Weiss
It is early, just after dawn. A bioarchaeologist (an archaeologist specializing in studying the skeletal remains of those found in archaeological sites) wishes to start her research on a group of skeletal remains, but before she can take out her calipers, she is stopped. “No, you can’t handle those individuals,” she is told. When she asks why, the response is that only men can handle and study the remains of warriors!
At another site, archaeologists stop excavating where a line is drawn in the sand, although the other side holds far more intriguing relics. Beyond the line, they are told, they may cause spiritual disturbances, which will lead to danger. Thus they are impeded from further excavation.
A group of professors and curators sit around a conference table to start a meeting, but this meeting is different — it will start and end with a prayer that is in a language none of them understands, and the words will not be translated. Secrecy is important to those saying the prayer. But that’s OK, because these professors and curators are used to not understanding what is being said. When conducting research or curating remains, all matters relevant to these skeletal collections are discussed first with religious leaders and consultants, who insist on secrecy, in this same unknown language. The religious leaders or consultants will then relay only the information that they want the professors and curators to know.
A sigh of relief comes over two coauthors who have just finished a paper on their study of a skeletal collection. They are certain of publication, since they already have had the paper approved by religious leaders and no “inappropriate” hypotheses have been tested. Yet the paper needs further approval. They are reprimanded and told to exclude such insensitive words as “cranium” and “burial.”
Where are we? Is this anthropology as attempted in a theocracy, such as Iran or Tibet? No, we are in the USA and these are the effects of NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act).
NAGPRA, a federal law that enables Native American tribes to prevent excavations and to rebury skeletal remains regardless of their affiliation to the tribe, was enacted in 1990. Anthropologists were crucial in providing support for NAGPRA and viewed it as a human rights law that helped to right the wrongs of the past. Anthropologists believed that NAGPRA would be good for the science and would result only in the loss of remains from culturally identified or affiliated collections, which consisted of about 10% of the collections. These are collections for which a reasonable link can be made to a federally recognized tribe.
In 2013, however, culturally unaffiliated remains and artifacts became available for reburial too. This change will likely result in all collections of Native American remains disappearing from museum and university shelves within 50 years (Gonzalez and Marek-Martinez 2015 SAA Archaeological Record). In general, anthropologists were against this move — but they should have seen it coming, since NAGPRA is not a human rights law but a religious law.
Native American religious leaders claimed victory when NAGPRA was passed, and it is easy to understand why: traditional religious leaders are required in the committees of NAGPRA, creation myths can be used to determine affiliation, each NAGPRA meeting starts and ends with an indigenous prayer, consultations revolve around demands to include blessings or other religious activities in archaeological work. For instance, Kurt Dongoske (1996 American Indian Quarterly) noted that while collaborating with the Hopi, he worked with priests and religious societies to ensure that the research was sensitive to their needs.
Some anthropologists acknowledge the importance of religion in NAGPRA and bemoan that science is too involved in NAGPRA-mandated procedures. For example, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (2010 Anthropology News), lamented that the NAGPRA committees are too science-oriented and hoped that removing the affiliation requirement to repatriate or rebury remains would help solve this issue!
Others have argued that perhaps scientifically-oriented anthropologists and repatriation-oriented Native Americans can find common ground (e.g., Clifford 2004 Current Anthropology; Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson 2004 Journal of Social Archaeology). These anthropologists don’t seem to accept the fact that many religious adherents argue that research is harmful — it damages the spirits (Walker 2000 Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton). This is like arguing about evolution with a creationist; it is usually futile. Native Americans have even adopted the creationist catchphrase about evolution — “it’s just a theory” — to dismiss research published on migrations into the Americas (Weaver 1997 Wicazo Sa Review).
Other anthropologists go a step further and claim that collaboration can infuse our field with new perspectives when oral tradition and scientific evidence are placed on equal footing (e.g, Goldstein and Kintigh 1990 American Antiquity; Zimmerman 2000 Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? , University of Nebraska Press). Oral tradition is basically code for creation myths and other religious stories, many of which are inherently racist. For example, one alternative theory promoted by multiple Native American religions is polygenesis, which means different biological origins for different people. Polygenesis was disproved by Charles Darwin over a hundred years ago. Polygenesis, of course, has often been used as a way to explain why one group of people is better than another group of people. It was promoted, for instance, by colonialists in the late 17th and early 18th centuries who, predictably, thought they were better than the people they encountered in their journeys.
Some readers may think that even if NAGPRA is a religiously supported law, this is so discipline-specific that it will not affect our ability to conduct scientific research in general. But NAGPRA is the legal ramification of a greater repatriation ideology, which must be stopped in order to protect scientific and academic freedom. Repatriation ideology consists of attempts to constrain research by giving control to people who place religion above science. Most essentially, according to repatriation activists, Native American elders’ narratives should be treated as truths and that scientific conclusions on the past should defer to religious views. Repatriation ideology has seeped into the study of genetics, as when official Havasupai leaders sued genetics researchers for using freely-given blood samples to study schizophrenia, inbreeding, and ancient human population migration. Repatriation ideology has led to censorship (e.g., Anyon et al. 1996 SAA Bulletin; Gonzalez 2015 SAA Archaeological Record). For example, an Arizona professor who wrote a book on Native American religion has been prevented from publishing her work because tribal leaders hired lawyers to block publication (Mihesuah 1993 American Indian Culture and Research Journal). And repatriation ideology has shaped which topics can be studied. Ferguson (1996 Annual Review of Anthropology) notes that to gain access to collections, anthropologists should avoid topics that Native Americans — or, more properly, their self-nominated representatives — may find offensive, such as religion, power, gender, and treatment of the dead!
In order to protect science, both the biological sciences and the social sciences, we need to reject the intrusion of the supernatural, including creation stories and other religious traditions, into any scientific research.
- Anyon, Roger, T.J. Ferguson, Loretta Jackson, and Lillie Lane. 1996. “Native American Oral Traditions and Archaeology.” SAA Bulletin 14 (2): 14–16. https://www.saa.org/publications/the-saa-archaeological-record.
- Clifford, James. 2004. “Looking Several Ways: Anthropology and Native Heritage in Alaska.” Current Anthropology 45 (1): 5–30.
- Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip. 2010. “Remains Unknown: Repatriating Culturally Unaffiliated Human Remains.” Anthropology News 51 (3): 4–8.
- Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip, and Thomas J. Ferguson. 2004. “Virtue Ethics and the Practice of History: Native Americans and Archaeologists along the San Pedro Valley of Arizona.” Journal of Social Archaeology 4 (1): 5–27.
- Dongoske, Kurt E. 1996. “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: A New Beginning, Not the End, for Osteological Analysis — A Hopi Perspective.” American Indian Quarterly 20 (2): 287–96.
- Ferguson, Thomas J. 1996. “Native Americans and the Practice of Archaeology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 25 (1): 63–79.
- Goldstein, Lynne, and Keith Kintigh. 1990. “Ethics and the Reburial Controversy.” American Antiquity 55 (3): 585–91.
- Gonzalez, Sara L. 2015. “Of Homelands and Archaeology: Indigenous, Collaborative Approaches to Archaeology with two California Tribal Communities.” SAA Archaeological Record 15 (1): 29–32.
- Gonzalez, Sara L., and Ora Marek-Martinez. 2015. “NAGPRA and the Next Generation of Collaboration.” SAA Archaeological Record 15 (1): 11–14.
- Mihesuah, Devon A. 1993. “Suggested Guidelines for Institutions with Scholars Who Conduct Research on American Indians.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17 (3): 131–39.
- Walker Phillip L. 2000. “Bioarchaeological Ethics: A Historical Perspective on the Value of Human Remains.” In Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton, edited by M. Anne Katzenberg and Shelley R. Saunders, 3–40. New York: Wiley-Liss.
- Weaver, Jace. 1997. “Indian Presence with No Indians Present: NAGPRA and Its Discontents.” Wicazo Sa Review 12 (2): 13–30.
- Zimmerman, Larry J. 2000. “A New and Different Archaeology? With a Postscript on the Impact of the Kennewick Man Dispute.” In Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains, edited by Devon A. Mihesuah, 294–306. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
September 6, 2020
Politics Before Science
By S. H. Chambers
The death rate from COVID-19 is higher in the United States than in most other countries. On the network news, the usual explanation given for this is that President Trump has botched the federal government’s response to the pandemic. Recently, on the PBS Newshour, correspondent William Brangham added public television’s voice to the network chorus when he referred to the lower death rates outside the US, saying, “The fact is, those nations don't have better doctors. They don't have more effective medications. They simply mounted a more effective response.”
I enjoy the PBS Newshour. I watch it almost every night. And I take it as given that the president’s response to the pandemic has been hamhanded. But to blame Trump, even without naming him directly, for this difference in death rates is simply bad journalism.
There is a better reason.
I’ll explain that reason and how I first learned about it, then how it was subsequently validated by research. A short rant about shaping narratives will be followed by the transcript of an imagined meeting. As always, my aim is to amuse.
* * *
Back in April, I was reading in the New York Times about COVID-19 and BCG, the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine, which is used to prevent tuberculosis. Over the past century, BCG has prevented as many deaths as the polio vaccine. Every year, more than 100 million children all over the world get the BCG shot. What caught my eye was this: “Countries that did not implement or had abandoned universal B.C.G. vaccination have had more coronavirus infections per capita and higher death rates.”
That is the kind of statement that cries out for googling.
First, I found the BCG Atlas, a site that summarizes BCG vaccination policies around the world. Then I went to Our World in Data, a site that tracks COVID-19 death rates by country. And then I made a little chart, since lost, of the BCG vaccination policies of European countries and their COVID-19 death rates. Below is a new version with data from August 20, 2020. On this one, the death rates are from Wikipedia.
On this chart, each European country has been put into one of three groups, “Current,” “Stopped,” and “Never.” “Current” lists the countries that vaccinate all their children with BCG. “Stopped” lists the countries that used to vaccinate all their children, but don’t now. The year each of those countries stopped is noted. “Never” lists the countries that have never mandated vaccinating children against tuberculosis.
BCG and COVID-19
||Deaths per million
||Deaths per million
||Deaths per million
To summarize the chart, then: the average number of deaths per million from COVID-19 for countries in Europe that presently mandate vaccination with BCG is 107. The average for those that used to vaccinate, but stopped, is 257. The average for those that never mandated vaccination at all is 563.
One possible takeaway is that the COVID-19 death rate in the countries that currently vaccinate is less than a fifth of the death rate in the countries that never did.
So, where does the US fit in?
While most countries around the world try to vaccinate all their children with BCG, the United States of America does not now and never has. In the US, BCG is only given when testing indicates that it is necessary, which is very seldom. There just isn’t that much tuberculosis in the United States.
The number of deaths per million in the US from COVID-19 as of August 20, 2020, is 530, a lower rate than Italy’s and slightly below the average of the countries in Europe that have never vaccinated. About what you’d expect, all other things being equal.
Taken at face value, then, these numbers suggest that the higher COVID-19 death rate in the US is in large part due to the lack of a BCG vaccine mandate.
When I made the first chart, back in April, the results were similar, but I knew that it proved nothing. It wasn’t meant to. I’m not a statistician, much less a scientist. I was just following up on the Times article with some back-of-the-napkin stuff.
To test a hypothesis like this, much information must be gathered and analyzed: age, obesity, rates of diabetes and heart disease. Lots of data have to be harvested and crunched in elaborate ways. Wealth, health, education, population density, and other demographic variables have to be taken into account. Even variations in DNA and strains of vaccines may be relevant.
I also knew that correlation does not prove causation and that any conclusions drawn about BCG vaccination mandates and COVID-19 death rates would have to be based on a very strong relationship between the numbers.
I got all that, but the chart still piqued my interest.
Since early April, then, I have googled “BCG vaccine” and “COVID-19” with “mortality rate” and similar words probably 50 times. I have read many articles and research reports and squinted at scores of charts and graphs. The evidence confirming what my little chart suggested began to roll in, slowly at first, and then more rapidly.
For example, one of the earliest studies, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was “BCG vaccine protection from severe coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).” It was submitted by a group out of Maryland in early May and published on July 9, 2020. It concluded that while BCG vaccination could not be shown to actually cause fewer deaths from COVID-19, there was a significant correlation between the two. The null hypothesis was rejected. It also recommended using new BCG vaccination to help fight the pandemic only after clinical trials have proven it to be safe and effective.
Then, on July 11, 2020, the journal Vaccines published “Significantly improved COVID-19 outcomes in countries with higher TB vaccination coverage,” a study by a group from Ben Gurion University. After controlling for 23 variables in countries all over the world, they concluded that “the significantly strong correlation between the BCG vaccination and better outcomes for COVID-19 is shown across many countries, covering the majority of the world population.”
They also point to the importance of BCG-induced resistance to COVID-19 on overall contagion rates and, ultimately, on mortality rates, regardless of whether vaccination resulted in immunity for any given individual. While their research also suggests that resistance to COVID-19 created by BCG may fade after 15 years, it leaves no doubt that more childhood BCG vaccinations means fewer COVID-19 deaths.
On August 5, 2020, an American study titled “Mandated Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccination predicts flattened curves for the spread of COVID-19” appeared in Science Advances. After elaborately crunching all the numbers then available, a complex analysis concluded that “the total number of COVID-19-related deaths in the United States as of 29 March 2020 would have been 468 — 19% of the actual figure (2467) — if the United States had instituted the mandatory BCG vaccination several decades earlier.”
On August 11, 2020, a Japanese study appeared in the Journal of Infection. “Impact of routine infant BCG vaccination in young generation on prevention of local COVID-19 spread in Japan” gathered together all the meticulous BCG vaccination and COVID-19 records in Japan, prefecture by prefecture. After crunching these numbers very hard, they reached their conclusion: “Our findings suggest that routine infant BCG vaccination coverage in young generation had a significant impact on prevention of local COVID-19 spread in Japan.”
The evidence is in. Countries that vaccinated children with BCG have many fewer deaths from COVID-19 than they would have had otherwise. Just how BCG accomplished this feat isn’t yet clear, but a consensus is emerging that the immune systems of the vaccinated children were primed to resist infection from this new version of the coronavirus at the same time, but in a slightly different way, than they were primed to resist tuberculosis bacteria. It seems that the children became resistant to COVID-19 rather than immune, making the aggregate effect on herd immunity an important part of today’s significantly reduced death toll in countries that vaccinated. However BCG accomplished it, many fewer people have died, as shown in study after study, in country after country.
I read other articles and research papers about BCG suppressing COVID-19 from Australia, Serbia, and Indonesia. I saw it on TV in India. It seemed to be common knowledge outside the US. An international internet squabble broke out about whether people who’d missed childhood vaccination should get a BCG shot now. Experimental trials were launched. There was even an online argument about whether people hospitalized with COVID-19 might benefit from BCG. There was a lot of global coverage, but that central conclusion about childhood vaccination decreasing the death rate that I first saw in the Times back in April never made it to the modern American equivalent of the front page. Not that I saw, anyway.
As the evidence mounted, I was hoping to hear about the connection between BCG and COVID-19 on the PBS Newshour. I thought the story that a BCG vaccination mandate would have saved the lives of tens of thousands of Americans might have been of interest to the American public. It was particularly surprising when the study projecting the 80% reduction in deaths was published and PBS didn’t pick up the story. Imagine the headline: “BCG vaccination would have reduced COVID-19 deaths in the US by 80%.” It would have been a big story, a Frontline episode, perhaps. But PBS was silent.
And then, on August 28, 2020, as I said at the start, on the PBS Newshour, I heard William Brangham say,
“I'd like to show you this graphic here that gives you a better measure of this. We are still losing more Americans to this virus than other nations. This is a coronavirus deaths [sic] per million in developed nations. That red line at the top, that is the US's rate. All those other little lines at the bottom on the right-hand side are other modern nations, very similar to us, Canada, Australia, the European Union, South Korea. You can see that red line is far above them. We are losing far more Americans than these other nations. And the fact is, those nations don't have better doctors. They don't have more effective medications. They simply mounted a more effective response. And on this chart, you can see the results. More of their citizens are still alive than ours.”
We’re almost to the rant.
But first, those “little lines at the bottom” should be sorted according to their BCG mandate history.
Canada is in the “stopped” category. Although it didn’t have a national mandate, as recently as the 1970s, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, and Quebec all had BCG vaccination programs. Quebec’s went on into the 90s.
Australia is a “stopped” country as well, having had a BCG mandate until the mid-80s.
The European Union is not a country, of course. As my chart shows, it is a collection of “current,” “stopped,” and “never” countries. By making it a single line on the graph, this important distinction is lost. More about that later. Perhaps it’s best to categorize it as “stopped.”
South Korea is a “current” country that vaccinates all of its children with the BCG vaccine.
In other words, the only “country” on the graphic that has never inoculated its children with the BCG vaccine is the US.
As an aside, that we are losing “far more Americans than these other nations” does not seem surprising, and I am still trying to coax meaning from the phrase “more of their citizens are alive than ours.”
We’re all teed up for the rant.
Much has been written about the dishonesty of Donald Trump. Much of it is true. For years now, I have admired the restraint shown by the PBS journalists as they respond to his sometimes stunning bullshit. They have been so civilized. The half-raised eyebrow, the suppressed guffaw, the polite interruption — they deserve medals for their gentile stoicism. Call it the Woodruff Award. More importantly, in the face of his relentless onslaught, they have sought not just to cling to decorum, but to keep up the appearance of honest journalism, of separating opinion from fact, emotion from reason, and wishful thinking from hard reality. It cannot have been easy.
In journalism, of course, there is a constant temptation to guide the narrative, to steer the conversation, to direct the flow of the news toward conclusions consistent with the beliefs of the news organization. This is natural, and occasionally succumbing to the temptation, if only unconsciously, is probably unavoidable. It is part of human nature and we are all human.
I know that PBS leans left. Everybody knows. It’s hardly a secret. But they’ve usually done their semi-progressive soft-shoe routine with style. They’ve taken the time to make a polemic sound like the reluctant outcome of unbiased, careful research. They’ve mastered the art of deniable slant. They’ve made a real effort to ape fairness, cherry-picking carefully crafted Pew Center facts to gently shape the narrative. Objectivity may be a chimera that can’t be captured, but PBS has tried to creep as close to the beast as they can without compromising their beliefs.
As I watched William Brangham present his graphic, I was reminded of my first trip to Berkeley in the ’60s, when a street hustler tried to lure me into a quick game of three-card monte. Find the queen and win ten bucks. He even employed a shill.
Did Mr. Brangham know what he was doing when he called the European Union a country? Did he know that the United Kingdom, which is actually a country in Europe, and Sweden, Spain, Belgium, and Italy, which are actually countries in the EU, have higher COVID-19 death rates than the US, or that Greece, which is also a country in the EU, did its best to vaccinate all of its children and has only 22 COVID-19 deaths per million people, while Belgium, which never vaccinated its children at all, has 967 deaths per million? If he did know that the death rate in Belgium was 44 times higher than in Greece, did he really think that the difference was due to the fact that the feckless Belgians had not “mounted a more effective response” to the coronavirus than the prescient Greeks? Did Mr. Brangham know that the only “country” on the graphic he presented that has never mandated the vaccination of its children with the BCG vaccine at all is the United States? Did Mr. Brangham even know about the effect of BCG vaccination on COVID-19 mortality?
If he did know these things, and he used that graphic anyway, then I have a suggestion: stop playing three card monte with the truth, Mr. Brangham. I’ll tell you where the queen is. She’s in Brussels. Go con someone else.
It is so disappointing. This is the kind of coverage that the American people have come to expect from Jake Tapper, or maybe Chuck Todd, but not William Brangham.
Maybe I’m being too hasty, and too harsh. What if he didn’t know these things? It is possible that William Brangham, despite having covered the pandemic for months, has never heard of the BCG vaccine at all. He may have missed the article in the Times, and may not have been following the research into COVID-19. And he may know very little about Greece and Belgium, or geography itself, for that matter. He may actually believe that Europe is a country where Americans are dying from COVID-19. He may not know what he’s doing at all. If that’s the case, then I apologize. I had no idea.
There is, however, another possibility.
What if PBS has simply decided to drop the act?
* * *
The following is the transcript of a recording of what seems to be an editorial meeting. It was made in secret. Only this fragment survives. It was apparently made about ten weeks before the 2020 elections. At the time, the polls showed Trump far behind, by almost the same distance as in 2016. The voices on the tape are tense, quavering slightly with what may be fear.
It’s like a bad dream. He can’t win again. He just can’t. We have to help. We have to do more.
(Soft sobbing in the background.)
But what else can we do? We’ve tried everything.
We could say that the huge death toll from COVID-19 in the US is his fault. (A pause. A dry cough.)
But that’s not true.
They say it on the networks all the time. We don’t have to use his name.
But our journalistic standards are higher than theirs. It would be wrong.
What is more important right now, Judy, the truth or getting that man out of the White House?
(Indistinct murmuring. Several voices.)
(Sighs.) You’re right. We have a higher loyalty. But who would do it? It would ruin their reputation.
I’ll do it.
Oh, William, you’re sure? You’d probably have to go work for MSNBC.
Yes, I’m sure. It would be worth it.
The tape ends here, in what is either a burst of static or applause.
* * *
I did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Neither did I vote for any of the other presidential candidates. I didn’t feel that I had been given much of a choice. There doesn’t seem to be much of a choice this time around, either. I hadn’t planned to vote this year. The evil of two lessers, if you see what I mean.
But when William Brangham takes off the nonpartisan gloves and puts on a pair of James Carville knuckle-dusters and transforms himself into an enforcer for the Democrats, we are no longer boxing by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. There are no more neutral corners. Not even feigned ones.
Mr. Brangham’s tactics may have backfired. By imitating Mr. Trump’s dishonesty, he has reduced the contrast between the two sides and, as a result, the President suddenly looks less objectionable. Mr. Brangham may have inadvertently nudged me toward Trump’s corner.
Heck of a job, William.
September 1, 2020
Kingdom of Clichés
by Stephen Cox
Hey, lady, you took the words right out of somebody’s mouth. Most likely Satan’s.
A spokeswoman for the New York City government (Bill de Blasio, mayor) commented on reports that businesses are fleeing the city because they can’t make enough money to survive under NYC’s draconian anti-COVID regime. She said:
In response to COVID-19, we’ve activated resources to stand up new supply lines and work with businesses to produce materials we never have before and provided our small businesses with aid and technical assistance. New York City businesses are strong, creative, innovative, resilient, and they are doubling down on building their future here.
Fox News, of all places, introduced this statement with the words, “New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio seems aware of the situation, having taken steps to try and help businesses recover.” Thank you, “rightwing” Fox, for declaring that the controversial leftwing mayor isn’t controversial at all. By the way, which rabbit hole did those steps arrive at? If Fox knows, it should tell us.
But we should remember that this is the news outlet that reported so informatively on a bear that went shopping in a supermarket at Lake Tahoe and snared a bag of Tostitos. The bear was filmed by a woman who “witnessed the sighting.” (Apparently she didn’t see the bear, just the sighting.) She “then took the video of the animal eating garbage [meaning the Tostitos?] from what appeared to be a safe distance.” The story does not explain why the bear was at a safe distance from the garbage. Maybe it was wearing a mask.
In short, Fox — and it’s not alone among media — is so deficient in editing that its news stories are beginning to look like those illiterate comments that appear at the end of the stories. Reporting on the arrest of a man for throwing an explosive device at the federal courthouse in Portland — an arrest that occurred because his grandmother stupidly identified a picture of him — Fox ran a headline calling him the “alleged ‘bomber.’” But this wasn’t good enough. In the article, his granny became “the alleged relative.”
The only news source able to cap this Fox performance was the other alleged relative, the accused. In a letter to the New York Post he showed how far alleged can be carried, once somebody gets a grip on it. His words are quoted in the Fox report:
“The device I’ve been accused of allegedly throwing was allegedly given to me by an unknown protestor with full face coverings,” [Gabriel] Agard-Berryhill wrote to the paper. “I was allegedly told that it was a strobe firework that wouldn’t damage the building or harm anyone around it.”
“Law enforcement has not contacted me for any alleged crime as of right now,” he claimed.
Any more of those allegations could send the guy to prison for life.
But let’s return from tales of bears and bombers to the defend-the-mayor statement that the NYC PR woman crafted with such glaring professionalism. Her thesis seems to be that the city’s businesspeople are so wonderful — so strong, creative, innovative, and resilient — that they can withstand even the city’s efforts to help them.
Certainly none of them is childish enough to swallow her gooey, tasteless compliment. More interesting is her description of what the government has done for business. This masterpiece of opacity can only be the work of seven devils, each working his tail off to create a Babylonian wall of clichés. “We’ve activated resources to stand up new supply lines and work with businesses to produce materials we never have before and provided our small businesses with aid and technical assistance.” I think this means, if it means anything, “We handed out face masks.”
But that’s just a suspicion I entertained while asking myself such questions as: What is an unactivated resource? Does stand up mean start? Then why not say start? So maybe it doesn’t mean start. Then what does it mean? When you work with a business, what do you actually do? What is your work? What do you mean by materials? When I think of that word, all that comes to mind is my kindergarten teacher saying, “Now children, please gather your materials, so we can start our coloring.” Did anybody ever describe what goes on in a grownup store or factory as the production of materials? But I guess materials come through supply lines, which to me suggests Napoleon’s trouble with maintaining them during his visit to Russia. Is this the intended image? Continuing the theme of foreignness, of the Other, is aid and technical assistance. Isn’t that what we give to backward countries? What store of intellectual or scientific skill or knowledge does the government of New York City possess, that it might bestow it on its technically impoverished small businesses? Finally, the age-old question: when politicians talk about small businesses, what exactly do they intend? Remember that they operate the largest businesses in the country, and compete at every point with the small ones.
The expressions I’m discussing originated in diverse environments — commerce, engineering, the military, international relations, kindergartens — but it is politics that makes them into clichés, deprives them of meaning, and propels them into the public consciousness. What else would you expect in a world in which government is always increasing, always overreaching, and therefore always occupying more space in consciousness itself? The prominent clichés of this year are especially numerous and especially deprived of meaning, milled by the heavy wheels of angry and despotic government.
Liberty Senior Editor Bruce Ramsey wrote in to mention his irritation with a number of these clichés. As always, he’s worth quoting.
I keep hearing people on TV saying that somebody needs to be "held accountable." But what does that mean, exactly? Punished? Nobody says that. Punishment is something that actually hurts, or at least causes inconvenience. Maybe "held accountable" means only talk. I don't know what it means . . .
And when somebody says, "there is no magic bullet," I think, when have I heard anyone say they DID have a magic bullet? I can't recall a single instance.
Another one that has annoyed me for years is "gospel," in the political sense. It is always negative, something ridiculous. Nobody describes his own belief as gospel.
Bruce also mentions the appalling fact that
when people say, "There's no magic bullet," they obviously think they've said something meaningful and clever. By referring to a thing that exists nowhere ("magic bullet"), they are implying that some people are dumb enough to believe in such things. It's similar to "gospel," [as when] the leftists accuse someone of believing in "the free-market gospel." They never refer to their own beliefs as "gospel." (I should think a Christian would find this use of "gospel" particularly annoying.)
Yes, I would think so too. But if Christians aren’t annoyed by the replacement of the King James Version of the gospel with some stumblebum paraphrase, and if they aren’t annoyed by the replacement of classic hymns with inane “praise music,” then nothing can possibly annoy them.
Except, perhaps, protests against such changes. I myself am capable of embracing change; I even go so far in advocating for change as to suggest that public figures and public institutions stop demanding change. In every instance, what they’re saying is that you should change, while they retain their smugness and arrogance and will to power. To see such ancient hierarchs as Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden inciting young people to work for change is as nauseating a spectacle as I can think of — with one exception. I have just discovered that there is something called The Trust, of which Henry, Duke of Sussex is president and which involves his wife Megan, Duchess of Sussex. Both of them are as dumb as rocks, but they have placed themselves at the head of an organization described as “a network of young changemakers across a global family of 54 countries, many stemming from the former British Empire.” Network, family, trust — huh? That these people, who without their unearned titles would be schlepping bags and cleaning hotel rooms somewhere in Sussex, are ganging up with young ninnies everywhere to get other people to change, apparently for the sake of change, says a lot about the way in which “change” operates as cover for Orders from the Top.
At worst (and among people with real power, it’s always the worst), the goal of professional changemakers is to mobilize the young and vague and send them out to attack the elders’ targets — which are ordinarily people like me and you, in short normal people, minding their own business. At best, the purpose is to look good while saying something entirely meaningless yet entirely self-serving. An ad for TV news in my town takes this approach to the virus scare:
The past few months have shown us that change is inevitable. . . . If we want to get through this, we all have to come together.
Ah! How delightful! Finally, news with heart! With real concern! And with a sermon to prove it! So I will reply in biblical terms, “Who made thee a judge over us?” Who gave you the wisdom to discern that change is inevitable and that therefore we have to start coming together with somebody? And that we all have to do it, for the sake of mere survival? By the way, how can I tell if I’m coming together? That’s a fair question. Another is, precisely how did the coronavirus show us, to our stupefaction, that change is inevitable? If a mob, as may very well happen, surrounds my car, drags me out of it, and stomps on my head, that would be change. If a state governor, as has happened, several times, confines corona-infested old people to nursing homes where they die like flies, that would also be change. Is the proper response, “Oh, this shows that change is inevitable”? If and when my doctor diagnoses me with a terminal illness, I hope, for his own sake, he does not say, “This just shows that change is inevitable.”
Speaking of death and change, I’m sure that all of us have lists of virus-speak expressions that we would like to kill off. Social distancing, bend the curve — relatively innocuous, but enough already! Not innocuous, ever, is that expression it’s the law! , which has become the blather of choice whenever the ruling classes try to impress their will on questioners. Wonder why you have to wear a mask and stand six feet away from everybody? Answer: because it’s the law! The usefulness of the expression comes from the fact that these commandments are not the law, don’t come anywhere near being the law, but if somebody accepts the idea that some of them may be law, you can add any number of others to the list — they’ll all have the same impressive status. So go ahead, just make it up. The other day I heard a politician bellowing “it’s the law!” at constituents who had the nerve to gather on a public beach. Get off the beach! It’s the law! We have really had too much of this.
A friend in Africa tells me that if she hears “the new normal” one more time, the perpetrator can expect retribution. No one, anywhere, has ever liked that expression, except public figures invited to predict the future. The future always turns out to be exactly what they want, which is always a world that people like them control. Never does the future include an extension of individual freedom, only extensions of state power. These are the same people who insist that we all adapt to change, the change obviously continuing to the point where they themselves are satisfied. It can then be decreed the new normal, and rigidly enforced.
But what galls me right now is something I often hear as parting words — in a store, on the phone, or in the canned messages texted to me after I object to a total stranger appropriating my phone to enlist me in a political cause. One such message read, “I am removing you from further texts from MoveOn immediately. Stay safe and be well.” I’m glad to get off the list, but what’s the assumption here? Rhetorical climaxes of this kind never used to happen, unless someone knew that your health or safety was in danger. Now the idea is that you must be in deadly danger, because everyone is, all the time, but you are too dumb to know it. So you must be told that you are, and told what to do about it, by any and every member of the army of virtue signalers and virtue enforcers who go forth daily to fulfill the orders of the political thought police. If you want to defund the police, start with them.
August 26, 2020
The Sociopaths Who Rule Society
by Stephen Cox
Definitions of mental illness or deficiency have always seemed to me as loony as the people they are supposed to help diagnose. But one such definition may be useful. Somewhere in college I learned that a sociopath is someone who has no empathy for other people and no feeling for any suffering he may inflict on them. This seems a fair description of the public officials to whom the coronavirus surrendered power over Americans’ lives.
If, for some urgent reason, a normal man or woman felt called upon to throw millions of people out of their jobs; deprive hundreds of millions of the ability to plan their work, their travel, and their daily lives, denying them even the ability to attend weddings and funerals and to practice their religion; and kill tens of thousands by shutting them in infected homes and preventing them from diagnostic care for life-threatening illnesses, wouldn’t that person be ravaged by the pain he was causing?
You may say, what kind of situation would ever demand such conduct? If you say that, you will be right. It’s almost unimaginable that anything short of a catastrophic war could necessitate the use of such powers. But grant it for the sake of argument. Suppose it happened, and you were the person who had to exercise those powers. Wouldn’t you show some distress at what you had to do? Wouldn’t you show some sympathy for the victims of your power? Wouldn’t you break down in tears? Wouldn’t you spend all day, every day, trying to repair the damage you had caused?
The answer, of course, is yes. Only a sociopath would do these things without compunction, empathy, or sympathy. But that is exactly what our public officials do.
I’m not talking about the significant minority who delayed cracking down on the public as long as they could, and then sought to reopen their domains to normal life as soon as possible, often while being hunted almost to extinction by outrage artists baying at their “weakness,” “selfishness,” and “politicization” of the “crisis.” They may not have been willing to voice all their doubts and regrets, but their hesitant and moderate actions usually indicated what was in their minds. Most public officials, however, leapt forward with schemes to imprison the populace, and they have loosened their grip only when forced to do so. It’s of these supposed idealists that I now write.
Think of one draconian governor, mayor, or health official who has broken down in tears. Think of one who has ever revealed a moral conflict. Think of one who has ever shown that he understood and actually felt the costs of the terrible things he says he was forced to do.
I can’t think of any. Can you? What we see instead is preening, politicking, microphone-grabbing, a constant delight in giving orders and a constant scorn for anyone who suggests that less stringent measures might succeed. A normal person would pursue every such possibility, anxious to shed the burden of hurting others. The officials in question never, ever do this. They are content, or in some cases positively thrilled, with things as they are. They wake up each morning happy to perform the next grim set of self-assigned duties.
There have been many nauseating displays of self-righteousness in American history, but this is something special. This is a blank indifference to suffering. It is true heartlessness, on a scale so great as to define the official class as the Heartless Class.
Of course, examples are not lacking of public officials who can walk through the cities they rule, view the miserable condition in which people live, and notice it only when they want to blame it on others. This is typical behavior in any ruling class. But when a person is directly causing enormous suffering, and he knows it and glories in his power to do it — that’s not normal in any class, except the one whose deeds we are witnessing now.
The famous chapter title in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is “Why the Worst Get on Top.”
August 20, 2020
Hong Kong, Bad to Worse
by Bruce Ramsey
On July 30, President Trump suggested that the November elections might be postponed. American progressives took him seriously, or pretended to, and the presidential tweet was followed by a spasm of public feather-ruffling. It was all for show. Postponing the elections was not going to happen — not in the United States. It did, however, happen in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, a place where the threats to liberty are much more immediate and drastic than in North America.
On the same day that Trump made his infamous tweet, Hong Kong Executive Carrie Lam announced that she was postponing legislative elections for one year. “The postponement is entirely made based on public safety reasons,” she said, citing the coronavirus. “There were no political considerations.”
On the contrary, the considerations were almost entirely political. Last year the former British colony was in a state of turmoil for months. In a territory of some seven million people, hundreds of thousands had swarmed into the streets, again and again, to protest a proposed extradition law that would subject them to trial in mainland China. In lower-level elections, “pro-democracy” candidates took control of 17 of 18 district councils. When she postponed the elections set for September 2020, Chief Executive Lam was obviously afraid that the opposition would make similar gains in Hong Kong’s high-level Legislative Council.
Lam is not subject to the voters herself. She is effectively appointed by China and is obliged to do what China says. Only half the seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council are elected by the Hong Kong people, the other half being selected by “functional constituencies” such as the district councils, the labor unions, and the chambers of commerce. The nondemocratic seats have been easier for friends of China to control, and at the moment they control 42 of the Council’s 70 seats. For that reason, a landslide vote for the pro-democracy candidates would not necessarily mean an opposition takeover — though it might. A strong vote for the pro-democracy parties would, however, cause China and Carrie Lam to lose face. It would also embolden the opposition. China doesn’t want any of that — hence the postponement.
A year ago, during the mass protests, I argued here that the protesters had no chance to win. I thought that China would send in the army. In the event, armed intervention wasn’t necessary. The coronavirus provided a public-health excuse to do what China’s leaders wanted to do all along, which was to crack down.
On June 30 of this year, China imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong. It has 66 articles. They impose a maximum sentence of life in prison for acts of secession, or acts that undermine the power or authority of the central government, or collude with foreign forces. The law allows China to set up a police force in Hong Kong, a police force that China controls, with the power to use wiretapping and electronic surveillance. This new authority will have the power to send suspects to be tried in China. China, not the Hong Kong courts, will have the power to interpret the national security law, which will be superior to the British-influenced law of Hong Kong.
“Effectively, they are imposing the People's Republic of China's criminal system onto the Hong Kong common law system, leaving them with complete discretion to decide who should fall into which system,” said Johannes Chan Man Mun, professor of law at the University of Hong Kong.
On July 28, the university fired one of Chan’s law school colleagues, Associate Professor Benny Tai, because of his open support of the protests.
On July 29, the day before Chief Executive Lam postponed the Legislative Council elections, she banned 12 pro-democracy candidates from running. The cited reasons were that they had advocated Hong Kong’s independence from China, they had opposed the extradition law, they had announced their intention of voting against the government in the Legislative Council, and they had solicited foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs.
On August 10, the Hong Kong government arrested several political opponents, including newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai. Lai had fled Communist China at age 12 and made his fortune in Hong Kong in the apparel industry. He became politically active in 1989 after China’s crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. In 1990, when I was living in Hong Kong, I bought a T-shirt with the word “Freedom” in four languages from one of Jimmy Lai’s Giordano stores. He was an opponent of the Communists then, and he has continued to be an opponent. He sold the Giordano chain and founded the Apple Daily, which he built into Hong Kong’s most-read Chinese-language newspaper. It is not a newspaper friendly to the Chinese government.
Lai was released on bail, thanks to Hong Kong’s still-British legal system. But bringing criminal charges against newspaper publishers for their political statements is an ominous act. And Lai was duly chastened. Speaking to the opposition, he said, “We have to be more careful and creative in [our] resistance . . . We can't be as radical as before, especially young people, because the more radical [we are] the shorter lifespan we have in our fighting. We have to really use our brains and patience, because this is a long fight.”
It looks like a very long fight. If there is any chance of victory — and there is almost none in the short term — it will come with the political transformation of China. Many in the West expected that to happen by now, or at least begin to happen, and it hasn’t. It has in Taiwan, so it is not impossible. Change can come quickly, as it did in Russia in the 1980s. Or slowly. Right now it looks like slowly.
August 13, 2020
The Sun Also Rises — But Not Solar Power
By Gary Jason
A recent article allows me to reflect on one of my favorite topics — so-called renewable energy — as well as think ahead to the upcoming election.
The article concerns the infamous Tonopah Solar Energy plant. In 2011, the Obama DOE (Department of Energy) gave a $737 million loan to Tonopah to finance the $1.1 billion Crescent Dunes Solar project in Nevada. The plant was funded between 2011 and 2013. But very soon it faced technical problems.
As noted in an earlier report, in 2014 the plant only generated 45% of the power California had contracted for, and in 2015 only 68%. By 2015 it was already obsolete, and an outage forced the plant to shut down from October 2016 to July 2017. Another outage hit in April of last year, shutting it down to this day.
Solar Reserve, the main developer of the Crescent Project, filed for bankruptcy in November of last year. Tonopah owes the DOE over $424 million and finally reached a settlement late last month: Tonopah will pay back $200 million to the taxpayers. This is a fraction of what Uncle Sugar loaned the company, but then creditors seldom get much back in a bankruptcy settlement.
I give credit to the Trump DOE for retrieving at least some of the money that the Obama administration squandered on the Tonopah fiasco. And I continue to blame Obama — as I did in countless articles at the time — for funding dubious “green energy” projects, many run by businesses owned by people who had connections to the Obama regime.
Here I will pass from reflection to prediction. I have tried to be fair with the Trump regime when possible, tried to be intellectually honest. I have written pieces pointing to some things that Trump has done that seemed good to me. But on the whole, his reign has been wretched. Yes, he appointed some conservative judges — which any other Republican would have done. And he did use his executive powers to cut some regulations, which the next Democrat president will reverse on the first day in office. He also cut taxes for some people — though raised them on others.
The Boss has governed as the narcissistic populist he appeared to be. That is, he is basically protectionist, anti-free-trade, anti-immigrant (really, often demagogically nativist), with a knack for alienating allies and accommodating enemies. (It took a plague that China inflicted upon us to arouse in him the level of antipathy he viscerally feels for Germany, Canada, and Mexico.) He has appointed a string of competent people only to ignore their advice and push them out. And his abysmal lack of coherent leadership is most apparent in his policy flip-flopping about COVID-19.
So I think Joe Biden will be the next president. Just let those words slip off your tongue: “President Biden!” Say it, savor it — what a soporific prospect. Now, the question is: how will he govern? I would suggest he will be like Obama on Quaaludes.
Since this is a reflection on energy policy, let me unpack that remark. Obama was your typical Green Progressive. He professed to want to end the use of fossil fuels (to stop global warming), and so — being as scientifically ignorant as most Green Progressives are — instead of taking the obvious route of nuclear power, he pushed solar and wind power. To this end he shoveled billions of dollars at dicey solar and wind energy projects, and exempted those projects from environmental regulations protecting wildlife. Wind and solar, it turns out, are massively lethal to birds, killing about half a million of them a year — including raptors, many them members of endangered species.
But Obama was clever in this instance. While he took no action to help the fracking revolution, he took none to stop it, either. It is not widely known, but oil production under Obama’s reign more than doubled. And to my amazement at the time, he did something I complemented him for doing. He signed a repeal of the stupid 50-year-old law prohibiting American oil companies from exporting domestically produced oil.
I suspect that Biden will play the same game when he is president. He will placate the scientific ignoramuses in the environmentalist movement by bashing fossil fuels and ignoring nuclear energy. And he will shovel massive amounts of taxpayer cash at wind and solar projects, probably with the same corrupt ties to his campaign. But I doubt he will shut down fracking, There are just too many jobs — especially union jobs — dependent on it. And there is just too much geopolitical power dependent on our energy independence — which is what fracking has given us.
August 6, 2020
No Atlas — Just the Shrug
by Stephen Cox
At a press conference on July 9, Nancy Pelosi said something that made me think. How often does a politician make anyone do that? In my experience, not very often. So this event should be memorialized.
Here’s what she said. Someone (finally!) asked her a question about what she thought about all the statues that are being torn down “by mobs in the middle of the night.” At first she looked confused, or perhaps just surprised that anyone would ask such a question. Then she said:
People will do what they do.
And here are the thoughts that this remark inspired in me.
First I thought, here’s a person who, barely six months ago, was constantly reminding America that “no one is above the law.” In All About Eve (which I am constantly reminding everybody of — sorry!), the title character says, “I can’t believe my ears,” to which Addison DeWitt, the great theater critic, replies, “A dull cliché!” A little later he reproves her for telling “a stupid lie, easy to expose, not worthy of you.” Eve Harrington is presented as a very clever person, and the lie certainly wasn’t worthy of her intelligence. I’m not sure I’d say the same thing about Pelosi and her “no one is above the law.” It’s certainly a dull cliché, but hardly unworthy of her. And despite its dullness, she got everyone else in her party to recite that cliché, often (as by Kamala Harris) with oratorical solemnity befitting the most challenging pronouncement of philosophical principle. The cliché was voiced as if nobody knew it was a cliché — in fact, as if nobody had ever heard it before, and as if nobody knew that the allusion to “no one” applied solely to Donald Trump, then being impeached by Pelosi and friends.
This was no bravura display of genius. But to go from “no one is above the law” to “people will do what they do” — that’s amazing. The contradiction, of course, is flat, obvious, and damning. Trump was absolutely not, in no way! above the law, but now that Pelosi wants the votes of the BLM and Antifa crowd, what the hell? Go out and violate those laws! Just make sure you do it in public, and you curse Trump while you’re doing it.
That’s bad. And there’s worse. Though a cliché, and subject to critical examination about the meaning of at least one of its terms, “no one is above the law” actually means something. What does “people will do what they do” mean?
Literally, it means nothing. But here’s another thing I thought. Not all meaning resides in words — far from it. If Pelosi had been speaking as a sin-sick Calvinist, contemplating the evil nature of the human race, mournful tone and gesture would have imparted some significance to the otherwise vacant phrase. Yes, sadly, people do what people do! And by tone and gesture, she did impart significance to her words — not moral significance, but the rejection of it. Her tone conveyed a contemptuous lack of interest. Her whole body shrugged. She didn’t use the words, “So effing what?” but that meaning was clearly communicated.
A little torrent of thoughts followed that one through my brain. Thoughts such as these:
Pelosi’s performance was barely noticed. Even conservative media didn’t make very much of it. Perhaps that was an effect of the daily debasement of thought and language by every political person from the president to the demonstrator-on-the-beat. Now even the conservatives may be opining that “people will do what they do.”
Even a few years ago, however, a comment such as Pelosi’s would have ended the career of any politician holding an office that wasn’t in the safest district in the world — supposing that it could not be convincingly explained as having been misinterpreted, taken out of context, et cetera. (Pelosi does get sent to Congress by one of the safest districts in the world, but she doesn’t hold her speakership that way.) It would have been viewed, not so strangely, as an incitement to mob violence. Don’t tell me that change is good and the problem is my difficulty in adapting to change. A change that made politics even a little bit literate and just a little less than wholly destructive would be easy for me to adapt to. The change just noted is not that kind.
Another thing Pelosi said at her press conference was, “I’m not one of those people who is wedded to a, Oh, statue of somebody someplace is an important thing.” Once you’ve decoded that utterance, it may seem strange that she continues to wage a relentless campaign to rid the Capitol of all statues honoring “traitors,” i.e. one-time supporters of the Confederacy. She doesn’t shrug about them. For her, the Civil War is suddenly not yet over. But does that mean she appreciates, and in her own way honors, the importance of gesture, be it verbal or nonverbal, in word or in stone? Does that mean that when she shrugs she is doing the same thing as when she attacks — issuing signals that should be granted their proper semiotic weight, not merely dismissed, like her words, as empty or self-contradictory?
I think that’s true. There is a violent intensity about that Pelosi shrug. The nature of the intensity, however, is neither moral nor intellectual; it is always strictly and mindnumbingly political. I see the Republicans, who do their best not to object to acts of violence and vandalism, as shrugging in the same way. They intensely want to be returned to office, and that is the only thing they want. No other goals, no other values can be expressed or even intellectually entertained. It’s all politics, all the way down. The assumption is the same as that of the Marxist or “anarchist” revolutionaries, who hold that all evil in this world results from inequalities of political power, and that the way to remedy the situation is to give them power over everything.
What this means in practice is that nobody cares about such a nothing thing as a statue, or if he cares, he gets it wrong, because he sees nothing about it except politics, and his own kind of that.
I am distinctly not an admirer of Woodrow Wilson. It’s fair to say that I hate him. He was a racist of an especially disgusting kind, happy not just to segregate but to humiliate, and his actions in regard to the Great War and the so-called peace that succeeded it helped to destroy many millions of lives. But it will be a sad day for me as an Episcopalian when the so-called National Cathedral (really just the Episcopal cathedral in Washington, jumped-up into something “national”) blasts open his tomb and flings his corpse into the street. (It has already obliterated Robert E. Lee from its window commemorating large events in American history. Lee, by the way, was an Episcopalian.)
Why would I feel like that? I’ll tell you. Wilson wasn’t some government flunky who died a week ago, whose cronies demand that streets be named for. He is part of history, real history. Nobody has a fresh quarrel with Woodrow Wilson. For better or worse, he was a world-historical figure. His incorporation into the ecclesiastical architecture recognizes his historical importance. It gives the nave of the cathedral some interest, even if the interest is the derisory one of people like me. I don’t visit the cathedral to worship Wilson; I visit it, if I do, to worship God. I know the difference, and so does everybody else. To picture someone crying out in terror because he entered the church and beheld the tomb of Wilson — that’s what people supposedly feel when they confront the monuments of racists and imperialists and so forth. But nobody feels that way. Even little children don’t — even if you compose terrified and outraged letters and mail them out in the children’s names.
Wilson is a hard case for me, because most of the things for which he is memorialized are things I detest. But I don’t make the mistake of working myself into imagining that he’s memorialized for his racism. I know that’s not true. If anything, he’s memorialized for qualities that his newly generated critics — including the flunkies at Princeton who are busy erasing his formerly prestigious memory at that institution, of which he was once the self-righteous and divisive CEO — are themselves very pious about: internationalism, modern liberalism, custodial government.
Let’s move on to Thomas Jefferson, for whom I have some admiration. His statues are being removed. Why? Because he was a slaveholder, hence frightening to college students and other living beings. But that’s not why those statues were created. They were not created to honor a significant slaveholder, of whom there were many. They were created to honor, as his tomb records, the “author of the declaration of American independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” If you don’t know that, you don’t know enough to make any demands. That Declaration, by the way, was the favorite argument of the abolitionists, who used it with enormous effect. But several of the statues toppled by demonstrators happened to be those of abolitionists. Shrug. Who cares? People will do what they do.
Here’s the last thing, and very important to me. It isn’t morality, or history, or politics. It’s art.
I have a very well-developed contempt for Napoleon Bonaparte. (If you want to know why, read the summary of his career in Harold Nicolson’s magnificent The Congress of Vienna.)But the last thing I want is for his tomb in the Invalides to be blown up, and his ashes scattered to the winds. Why? Because not only is it fully involved in history, it’s also an impressive work of architecture. What do you want in its place? A supermarket? A Bureau de la Diversité, de l’Equité, et de l’Inclusivité?
You wouldn’t? Some people would — such people as the monstres intellectuels who insisted that Notre Dame be rebuilt in postmodern style, so as to dissociate it from the political sins of the past. Which would also mean dissociating it from history, from beauty, from its lordly place in its city, from its millions of cultural connections, bad and good — but mainly good, and each one interesting in its way. What could replace them? Nothing. But the thing that would try to replace them would be a work of politics, not a work of art.
Art. Remember that? Remember that Pelosi’s party always wants to provide more and more of it, by ever more generous funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and similar outfits? Meanwhile, the party condones and endorses the massive destruction of, yes, art. The statues that earned the shrug of the Speaker of the House are art, and often they are great art. The statue of Theodore Roosevelt (not an ideological friend of mine) that stands in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York — the statue that’s going to be removed, without regard to the fact that Roosevelt provided a lot of the museum’s collections — qualifies as great art. Other endangered statues are good art — and how much do we have of that? The crap the NEA funds? Please.
The statue of Andrew Jackson standing in the center of Lafayette Park, across from the White House, was virtually lost, set upon by a mob of screaming “protestors” who threw ropes about it to tear it down, when the president gave the order for an armed force to save it. This statue, dedicated in 1853, is said to have been the first bronze statue made in the United States, and the first equestrian statue, and the first equestrian statue in the world “made with the horse rearing on two legs with no additional support.” The sculptor had never seen an equestrian statue before, but his work was a distinguished engineering and artistic success.
Whether a statue is a good work of art or not, it has a peculiar dignity, and a peculiar pathos. The statue of a human being stands alone, night and day. You can observe it. You can ignore it. You can study its artistic qualities. You can walk around it in the deep night, fighting your fears — not about the statue, whomever the statue represents, but about poverty and neglect and lovelessness and the deaths of friends, and your own death. You can watch it age as you age. You can make love by it. You can tell people to meet you next to it, because everyone knows — or knew — that it will always be there. But when you see it destroyed by a cheering mob, you understand how vulnerable it is — vulnerable, like yourself. Really, anyone at any time could have defiled it or destroyed it, just as you or any other human being can be destroyed or defiled by someone who gets pleasure out of doing harm. That is scary. Nazis knew this, and made sure to destroy the statues and defile the graves of people they didn’t like. They vented their hate; they also impressed the populace with the fragility of its own existence. Fear has nothing to do with art, but it has a lot to do with political power.
It has been said of bears that human beings have always loved them and wanted to represent them in art, because, of all creatures, they look and act the most like human beings. To wantonly kill such an animal feels to most people like an assault on humanity. A statue is much more intimately related to us. To see the statue of, say, Hans Christian Heg — an abolitionist leader who died at the battle of Chickamauga, fighting to end slavery — pulled from the place where it gave a sense of human life to the dreary approach to the Wisconsin capitol, was to witness the execution of a human being by a mob that neither knew nor cared what it was doing. Afterwards, I’m sure, the executioners adjourned to their favorite coffee houses to savor their feat of political libido. The event was another monumental shrug at all values except the political — in this case, politics of an especially dumb and nasty kind.
It is now being said (by some) that the use of political criteria (otherwise known as community values) to censor speech and gesture, and their culmination in art, is totalitarian. And indeed it is, because abolishing speech you don’t like comes close to abolishing thought you don’t like. But there’s something else to be said.
The other statue destroyed by the gleeful mob at the Wisconsin capitol was that of a female figure dramatizing the state’s motto, “Forward.” The statue, which was the work of a woman sculptor — supposing that you care about women — has been described as “an allegory of devotion and progress.” But people who don’t understand the allegorical language of gesture wouldn’t need to puzzle out a meaning by looking at the sculpture itself. A sign on its base said “Forward.” Apparently the mob understood as little of such things as it understood of Hans Christian Heg. And the mob didn’t care. So this is more than totalitarianism. Even Stalin had respect for art, and a great deal of respect for symbolism. What we have now is barbarism without mask or pretense, reason or excuse.
July 30, 2020
The New Stories and the Old
by Bruce Ramsey
I don’t follow auto racing, so I’d never heard of Bubba Wallace, a black racecar driver who in June 2020 was told that what appeared to be a noose had been found in the garage stall assigned to him at the race track in Talladega, Alabama. I’ve had CNN on all through the coronavirus time, and they were going on and on about this hate crime of this noose.
American institutions, which are said to be “systemically racist,” took the noose seriously. The racing association issued a statement that “there is no place for racism in NASCAR, and this act only strengthens our resolve to make the sport open and welcoming to all.” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, Republican, said she was “shocked and appalled” by the “vile act.” The Trump administration’s Justice Department and FBI began an investigation.
They quickly found that the noose — which really was tied like a hangman’s noose — had been on the pull rope for the garage door since at least October 2019, when the garage was assigned to white drivers.
No hate crime, then.
I accept the argument that under certain circumstances putting up a noose can be a crime — for the same reason Justice Clarence Thomas accepted that a burning cross on a black family’s lawn can be a crime. A threat of violence is not protected speech. But here it wasn’t a threat. It was just a knot on a rope to pull down a garage door.
CNN reported the FBI’s finding. They didn’t argue with it, but they kept talking about it on national television as something that might have been a hate crime, and how serious that would be had it been one. There have been other stories like this, the import of which is that America is a racist country. A deeply racist country. A systemically racist country, meaning that white supremacy is baked into the cake and not merely an ornament on it. And the message this conveys is that nothing has changed.
Nobody actually says that nothing has changed, but essentially it means that. To the young this is deep wisdom. They style themselves “woke,” and I think, yeah, that’s about right. You just woke up. You just got here. I am nearly 70. I have been here a long time, and you are telling me that nothing in my country has changed during that time, or at least, nothing important enough for you to concede to me. But you weren’t here.
I am reminded of a passage from George Orwell: “One ought also to stick to one’s own world-view, even at the price of seeming old-fashioned: for that world-view springs out of experiences that the younger generation has not had, and to abandon it is to kill one’s intellectual roots.”
Growing up in suburban Seattle the 1960s, I never saw a “whites only” sign, though there were some color bars I didn’t know about. To take an example of a comparatively minor but very insulting practice: The Seattle Times ran wedding photos in the Sunday paper. Until the late 1960s, they never pictured African-American brides and grooms. I didn’t notice; I wasn’t looking at wedding pictures, and I wouldn’t have noticed anyway. I heard about the no-blacks picture policy after I retired from that newspaper. The features editor who changed the policy had died, and the publisher announced her death to a gathering of retirees. And of all the things she’d done in her career, he remembered her for her change in the picture policy back in the 1960s.
The world has changed. A lot.
When I was a kid in the 1960s, the message from adults was that racial prejudice was bad. Teachers in school said it. But almost everyone in my school was white. Just about everyone on TV was white. Except for Sidney Poitier, just about everyone in the movies was white. Some of the songs I liked on the radio were sung by black women (remember the Shirelles?), but the disc jockeys on my favorite top-40 station were all white men. I remember the first time I heard a white female DJ. It was a shock. I accepted it; there was no reason not to have a woman on the radio. But it also struck me that I had never questioned that all the DJs had been men.
Years later, I experienced something similar. I went to a US government office to help a person who was not white. The clerk took down my name and motioned us to sit in a waiting room that was full of people who were not white. After a minute, a government agent, who was white, called my name and we went up to the counter. Instant service! As we walked out the door, the person I had helped said, “That was fast! Next time I’ll know to bring you along.”
And I thought, “White privilege.”
On second thought, probably it was US citizen privilege. The office where it happened was the United States Consulate in Hong Kong, and the people in the waiting room were probably not citizens.
White privilege in Hong Kong was real enough, and it occasionally revealed itself. If my wife wanted some purchase returned to the store, it was my job to take it back, because I was white and she was Chinese, and if you wanted a refund it went much better if you were white. Another case: we had a Filipina maid. I commented once how amusing it was that on Sundays, a day off work for both of us, she would dress up and I would dress down. She replied, “But sir, if I don’t dress nicely, the people in the shops will think I don’t have money. You’re white; they know you have money.”
Those were eye-openers, but it was not in America.
I try to imagine what it was like in America for the generation before me. The difference between their experience and mine is at least as much as the difference between mine and the “woke” generation of today. Probably more. My parents lived in the South during the war, and my mother told me about segregation. At the bank, the men in line in front of her stepped aside so she could go first because she was a white lady — but she was a Northern white lady, and it felt wrong. When she wanted yellow cornmeal, she was told that was what the Negroes used, and she had to go to the Negro store for it. Earlier in the war, in the spring of 1942, she had gone to downtown Seattle to say goodbye to her Japanese house cleaner, who being put on a bus to an internment camp in Idaho. She told me she cried, but nobody dared object to the internment.
When I was growing up, all this was ancient history. She was telling me these stories because she had experienced them and I would not.
Step back to the years before the war. In my reading of historical newspapers, I recently came across a news story from July 1929, when my mother was still a teenager. America’s new First Lady, Lou Hoover, invited the wives of newly elected congressmen to the White House for tea. Among them was Jessie De Priest, the wife of the first black congressman elected in the 20th century, Oscar De Priest, Republican of Chicago. (There are 55 members of the Congressional Black Caucus today, all of them Democrats.) In 1929, the First Lady’s invitation of a “negress” caused an uproar among whites in the South. The Seattle Times printed a letter from a white woman defending her fellow Southerners. “The white race is often in an ominous minority in the far South,” the woman wrote. “We there need to be let alone, while we keep the negro in his proper place.”
In an adjacent editorial titled, “A Mistaken Attitude,” the Times’ editors gently disagreed. “While asking to be ‘let alone,’ the writer indicates reluctance to let others alone in their judgments,” they wrote.
None of that could happen today — not the objection, not the Southern woman’s argument, and not the namby-pamby reply. It wouldn’t have happened that way in the 1960s. The story is from another world.
Here is a news story from the Seattle Times of Sept. 22, 1929:
Spite Suspected as Negro’s Home Burns
Spitework was seen by the sheriff’s office yesterday in the unaccountable burning Thursday night at Auburndale, near Auburn, of the newly purchased little home of George W. Summers, Seattle negro.
He had invested a life’s savings in the little frame house near the highway, he told the sheriff, and to find his investment completely wiped out had been a shock. Prior to moving out into the valley he had been living at 1518 Yakima Ave., traveling to and from Auburndale during the day to build and make repairs on his house.
On finding the smoking ruins, he said, he visited his neighbors’ homes to learn the cause of the conflagration. Without a single exception, he reported, they refused to speak to him, shutting their doors in his face.
The sheriff’s office was investigating the blaze with the hope of establishing incendiarism and making arrests.
Written today, the story of the torching of George Summers’ house would have none of the condescension of the “little home” and the “little frame house.” It would be full of anger. It would have a photo of George Summers in front of his burned home, it would quote him and his family, if he had any. The story would be all over national TV for a week. Politicians would pontificate about it. There would be protest marches demanding justice for George Summers, and the neighbors who closed their doors would be called to account. Even in the 1960s a story like this would be front-page news locally, and there would have been protests of some kind. In 1929 the torching of this man’s house was a tiny story — three column-inches on page 7. And there was no followup story to pressure the sheriff’s deputies to do their jobs. I believe that had anyone been put on trial for burning down George Summers’ house, the Times would have covered it. And it didn’t.
Back then, when whites burned down a black man’s house, the local sheriff’s office satisfied the press by saying they were hoping for an arrest. Today, a car racing executive thinks a pull rope on a garage door may be a racial threat and it is a major story on national television. In advance of any investigation, the TV people assume it is a racial threat and pontificate about the sickness of “this country.” Down swoop the Justice Department and a phalanx of FBI agents.
That does not look like a racist system.
All the talk about the systemic racism of police focuses on police only. Take the recent killing of Rayshard Brooks, 27, in Atlanta. Yes, a policeman shot him in the back twice when he was running away. But Brooks, who had passed out in his car in a Wendy’s drive-through line, was drunk (blood alcohol of 0.108; legal threshold is 0.08). When he faced arrest for driving under the influence, he fought back. He had recently been in prison under a sentence for false imprisonment, battery, and cruelty to children, and was out on parole, and he knew an arrest would send him back to the pen. In his struggle, he grabbed the officer’s taser and made off with it. None of that justifies two deadly shots in the back, but it is nonetheless damn foolishness to fight an arrest and grab a policeman’s weapon.
The animosity between young black men and police has causes on both sides. Yes, black lives matter. So do people’s attitudes and behavior. It’s not a problem that can be solved by defunding the police and spending billions of dollars on social programs.
The Black Lives Matter movement has a simple, bumper-sticker message about law enforcement: the problem is white police mistreating and killing black men. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited riot and protest all around the country because the story neatly fitted that idea, which people already had in their heads. They were primed for it. Their reaction was, “This again? Enough!” And yeah, enough. No one can justify a cop leaning his knee on a man’s neck — a non-struggling man’s neck — for nine minutes, until the man is dead. But this was not a typical event. In a country with more than 300 million people all doing their thing, atypical events happen. Real events are complicated, and not always what they seem. When a white cop kills a black man, it fits a stereotype. People label it racism before they know the details. Sometimes they are right. But there is also a general problem of police use of lethal force. Unarmed whites get killed by cops, too. Those stories don’t fit the idea that news editors have in their heads, so they are not national news.
Racial feeling exists in all races, and people who are the brunt of it notice it. The Seattle Times recently had a piece by a young writer who was not white, writing about her experience of racism in America. Much of it was her emotional reaction to police shootings in the news — in other words, of seeing it on television and feeling, “I can’t breathe.” But there was no knee on her neck. Her own experience was of the “microaggression” variety — things people said, mostly not intended to hurt, but reminding her that she was different from them.
She had a valid point: people need to think before they speak, and if they say race doesn’t matter, they should make it so. But people also need to keep in mind the distinction between inartful wording and deliberate nastiness, between being annoyed and having one’s house burned down. Intentions matter. Magnitude matters. Individual responsibility matters. Let’s not burn down the Wendy’s and destroy the jobs of the people, black or white, who work there because of what one policeman did in the parking lot.
July 18, 2020
The End of the Affair
by Robert H. Miller
“How long are those boats?”
I’d spotted a gnomish character in my rearview mirror. He was standing behind my car in the parking lot of the YMCA gym. Two kayaks were strapped atop my car.
“Nineteen feet, one inch,” I responded. He stared dreamily at the sleek, beautiful boats — serious seagoing kayaks.
“What do you use them for?” A fair question in central Arizona.
I told Asher — as he’d introduced himself — that my wife Tina and I were training on the local lakes to go up to Ketchikan to paddle Behm Canal in Misty Fjords National Monument.
“Where is that?”
“In Alaska’s Panhandle. Ketchikan is where the so-called ‘bridge to nowhere’ was proposed. It’s on Revillagigedo Island. We plan on circumnavigating the island, a distance of about 150 miles. It’ll take about three weeks.”
Asher wanted to know more, so I encapsulated the details: “The kayaking would take about ten days. With a few preparation, rest, and sightseeing days, it would be a three-week trip — not counting getting up there and back on the Alaska Ferry.”
Asher’s rheumy eyes glistened with wonder. I told him we’d paddled the entire Inside Passage years ago, and that I’d written the only sea kayaking guidebook to the 1,500 miles of protected waterway. Behm Canal is one of many sinuous, braided channels through the archipelago that forms the Inside Passage. My lifelong project was to try to document all of the many channels for subsequent editions of my guide. At 70, this was likely my last essay.
“What does it take to do that?” Asher’s interest was bordering on dumbstruck reverence.
I kept it simple: “A kayak, a drysuit, basic kayaking and camping skills, stuff to camp out in constant rain — Ketchikan gets 156” of rainfall a year — and temperatures in the 50 to 60-degree range. Not to mention the fitness and determination to accomplish it, requiring constant, hard paddling for about six hours per day at a rate of three mph.”
Stats that would turn most people off . . . Instead, Asher’s eyes filled with wonder and inquiry. Perhaps out of modesty or not wishing to seem intemperate he hesitated to ask whether I thought him capable of accomplishing such a trip, but I could sense his disposition.
His leathery face bristling with stubble, he looked like a craggy, retired stevedore. I asked him how old he was. “Seventy-five,” he answered with a certain gleam in his eye that fished for a compliment or at least respectful acknowledgement. (Above the waist he looked like the Hulk.)
Asher smiled and asked if I did pullups. I answered that yes, as a rock climber, I made pullups part of my work-out routine. So he invited me into the gym for a pull-up contest.
Now I’m not in the least bit macho and avoid any sort of pissing contest, but in the spirit of things I decided to play along. However, instead of heading for the chinup bar, Asher beelined to a cable machine that duplicates the pull-up motion. Its adjustable weights ranged all the way up to 350 pounds, way beyond either of our body weights. To allow for greater-than-body-weight pull-downs, a padded bar atop the thighs could be adjusted to lock oneself in.
Asher pinned the 350-pound plate at the bottom and gave me a knowing glance. He sat down, grabbed the cable handles, locked his thighs under the padded bar, and psyched up to pull the 350 pounds. I counted how many repetitions he completed. He then got up and shot me a sideways grin that implied, “Your turn — equal that, youngster!”
A bit nervous attempting a machine I’d never used before, I disclaimed, “These aren’t real pull-ups,” and then sat down and grabbed the handles. To my surprise I was not only able to pull down the 350 pounds but also to equal Asher’s repetitions. I could have done more but, as I said, I’m not into pissing contests . . . and this was just his getting-to-know each other routine.
Afterward, we walked back to our cars together and, before parting, Asher popped the question: “How much would you charge to take me along on your trip? I have the time and the money.”
Whatever his age, this guy reeked of enthusiasm, was fit and strong . . . and had the time and the money. I asked about his background. When he said he was a “life coach,” I despaired of the turn this encounter had taken. To me, “life coach” suggests a devious combination of servility, condescension, and golddigger; the modern equivalent of a snake oil salesman; a flim-flam man who abets the incompetent to achieve mediocrity and overcharges for adult babysitting.
Asher sensed my skepticism. He elaborated that he helped victims of extreme trauma to regain their lives, specializing in physical recovery and therapy along with psychological coaching. I was reassured. Had he ever kayaked? Yes, he’d circumnavigated Espiritu Santo Island in the Sea of Cortes (he didn’t add that it was an introductory sea kayaking course led by a paid guide), and yes, he owned a kayak, a small toy boat for tooling around on lakes and streams.
It was at this point that my libertarianism got the best of me. “I wouldn’t charge you anything. I don’t want to be responsible for you. But (it’s a free country; you can go anywhere you want and I can’t stop you) you’re welcome to tag along (as an independent, separate entity joining up simply for conviviality, with no responsibility for each other).” Please note, dear reader, that the parenthetical remarks were hidden libertarian premises in my response to Asher. But I was overcome by this man’s infectious enthusiasm, a trait I’d spent years trying to instill in students and clients. There was no way I’d discourage him.
Asher’s eyes gleamed. He was ready to jump out of his skin with excitement. This was, to him, serious bucket list territory. In his mind, hooking up with me was hitting life’s jackpot. He immediately became target fixated.
With just a few weeks before launch, I told him he had to secure a sea-worthy kayak, buy a dry suit (no simple matter for either, since one becomes a second skin while the other locks to one’s hips, converting legs to something akin to a mermaid’s flukes), and read all the preliminary chapters in my guidebook for training, equipment, and necessary skills.
* * *
In the interim, Asher posed a puzzle. He lived in Dallas. He’d run into me by chance while visiting his grandkids in Prescott. After he returned home, his contact with me was sparse, something that worried me no end. Even though I bore no formal responsibility for him, I didn’t just want his passion to be rewarded not just with success; I wanted him to prevail in comfort. He posted no detailed questions about equipment, food, or anything else. He did, however, notify me that that he was paddling his little boat 49 miles a week for training, that he'd bought a dry suit and had located a 14’ kayak for rent in Ketchikan. I responded that he required a larger boat to carry two weeks’ worth of gear and food in an inclement environment.
Asher flew to Ketchikan a few days early — to test his boat, dry-run pack it, and get a feel for southeast Alaska. Tina and I arrived later by the Alaska Ferry with our boats. On the day of departure we met at the Bar Harbor launch ramp. Asher had gotten there early and packed his boat. Watching us pack, he readjusted some of his load; then he revealed that he needed assistance with a couple of things. For one, he couldn’t don his one-piece dry suit by himself; and, his back and shoulders being so broad, muscle-bound, and stiff, he couldn’t snap his spray skirt on the cockpit behind his back by himself.
So much for separate, “independent” expeditions — Asher would be unable to do the trip by himself. I resigned myself to the fact that from then on Asher was our project. Besides his physical therapy training, he was trained in humanistic psychology (as I later found out), a discipline that prejudices its practitioner to interact with and intuit people in certain curious ways. One of these is “group dynamics,” which makes it inconceivable for someone trained in that way to conceive of an aggregation of folks, each of whom acts completely independently. For adepts in “group dynamics,” people in close proximity constitute “a group.” Therefore, he, Tina, and I were “a group,” and no intellectual gymnastics could change that.
June 6 dawned clear and windless. Each of our kayaks on the Bar Harbor boat ramp, fully loaded, weighed in at about 160 pounds. We helped each other launch. Three gigantic cruise ships were docked in Ketchikan harbor. Our first task was to swing clear of them, in case they attempted to reposition themselves. I told Asher to huddle close, which he mostly did, in spite of his tendency to outpace us.
Asher had an aggressive, competitive paddling style, twirling his paddle like a windmill in a gale — tough on the deltoids and a most inefficient motion to maintain continuously for six to eight hours. Focused furiously on his paddling and oblivious to any short-term target strategy, he soon lost track of our location and direction. Inevitably, he wandered off and got into trouble.
Alaska’s winter weather pattern hadn’t yet given up the ghost, a condition of which we were still unaware. Fierce southwest winds picked up in the early afternoon, creating two- to three-foot waves. Seeking the shelter of paddling close to shore, Asher instinctively headed there. But the waves were crashing against the talus blocks built up along Ketchikan’s suburb’s shore as a breakwater to prevent erosion. The waves ricocheted off chaotically, creating clapotis, a localized sea state resembling a punk hairdo. We yelled and screamed, to no avail. The belated realization that he was heading out of the mixing bowl and into the blender caused Asher to reverse course — almost too late. Long sea kayaks don’t turn on a dime. Only his incredible strength saved him.
Revillagigedo Island is incut by six or seven (depending on how one tallies them) fjords that must be crossed in order to circle the island. Carroll Inlet, the widest at two-miles, takes half an hour to cross when paddling with dispatch — something I had to gird my shoulders to do. My right shoulder was throbbing with pain from a previous injury. Asher, with his physical therapy training, assessed it and pronounced it fit for the crossing. Past Point Sykes, on the far side, we scoured the shore for a campsite.
The entire Inside Passage is challenging campsite territory. Banks are steep, rocky, or lined with cliffs. In other places the nearly impenetrable rain forest runs right down to the high tide line. With 15-foot tidal fluctuations what seem like attractive beaches at anything less than high tide can turn into an inundated wallow in the middle of the night. Otherwise, a place that might provide a suitable spot is either marshy or packed with drift logs stacked like giant Chinese pickup sticks.
Back in the 1970s, the National Park Service began kayak patrols in Misty Fjords. As a result of these excursions, it published a handout for kayakers locating the campsites the rangers used. The handout — in descriptive prose, not a dot on a map — indicated two possible spots past Point Sykes. In and out endless coves and around headlands we scoured the shore for the purported spots. No dice. Perhaps after nearly 50 years they’d eroded or been overgrown.
But then, around a bend, we spotted a gently sloping shingle beach in the distance and went for it. Two skiffs were parked on the cobbles. Above the high tide line a giant tarp covered a cleared area. Underneath, a welcoming campfire, log benches, and a rustic counter beckoned. Folks who looked like they didn’t belong out here — draped in dime-store, clear serape ponchos — engaged in frivolous banter. But one who did — big, bearded, and slickered — approached us and offered a hot cup of coffee. I asked if there was an out-of-way spot where we could pitch our tents.
The outfitter pointed to some tiny clearings outside the giant tarp’s protective covering. He explained that at 8 pm — still daylight at this latitude in June — they would all depart and we could make ourselves at home, but by 6 am they’d return and we had to clear out. We were camped in the outfitter’s fishing camp. His business consisted of taking cruise ship tourists out for a day of fishing in backwoods Alaska. We could help ourselves to the bin of bottled water on the counter.
Tina helped Asher kit up his tent. He had never set it up and was clueless as to how to do it. Afterward he worked on my bad shoulder, which for the rest of the trip caused me no trouble. But Asher’s dinner was a minor cause for concern. While Tina and I cooked up a hot pot of noodles with a tin of bully beef and gravy mix, Asher opened a tinfoil pouch and ate its contents directly with a spoon. Perhaps he was so hungry, I thought, he decided not to set up his stove and heat his dinner, so Tina offered to warm it up on our stove. He declined, saying he hadn’t brought a stove or cooking pot, figuring it would take up space. It was the first indication that Asher had no inkling how the cold and wet could sap one’s strength and morale. But he did gratefully accept a hot cup of tea.
We launched before 6 AM as the new batch of cruise ship dudes arrived. We were headed for Alava cabin, a remote Forest Service building we’d rented for one night. It’s one of a series of backwoods rustic cabins and shelters peppered throughout Southeast that are available for rent and stocked with dry, split firewood. Again, the south winds freshened, creating white caps abeam — difficult, tiresome, and dangerous conditions — especially at Thorne Arm, the second inlet we had to cross.
Behm Canal, with Alava Bay ensconced at its entrance, promised more protected waters than the open Revillagigedo Channel we’d been paddling in. From Alava’s mouth we couldn’t see the cabin, and nearly despaired — it had been a very long day — until around one more incut bend the tiny structure appeared.
The 15-foot vertical tide fluctuations sometimes translated to as much as a one-mile horizontal distance from water’s edge to dependably dry, inland ground, depending on the coastal slope. Today, a quarter-mile carry sufficed. Landing and launching always required multiple gear and boat carries up to or down from camp, since a fully loaded kayak was too heavy to haul. After the schlepping, Asher volunteered to provide us all with potable water — water, I assumed, from the nearby stream — with the two-gallon gravity water purifier he’d brought. But he completed the task so quickly, I suspected something was wrong. It was. He’d filled the Katadyn bladder with salt water. I immediately emptied it, telling him that with salt water the ultra-fine-meshed filter would quickly clog and be useless, adding that it was designed to filter biological contaminants such as giardia, not desalinate sea water.
He had no idea . . .
After the two days of tough paddling we decided to lay over a day at the warm cabin and dry our wet togs. Outside, Behm Canal looked to be in full conditions; it channeled the south winds up its increasingly narrowing seaway. We’d find out later that the winter weather pattern was late in leaving. Still, mornings were relatively calm, allowing us to paddle in proximity and get to know each other better.
Asher was a curious combination of intelligence, ignorance (he wasn’t widely read and had only glanced at my guidebook), wisdom, forbearance, and complete impracticality. Having lived all his life in an urban environment, he was agog at his surroundings. Tides and currents were a complete mystery to him. He asked me to explain them, yet celestial phenomena were outside his ken. If there was a difficult or roundabout way of getting something done, he’d find it first. He said he’d lived his life through metaphors and marveled at our pragmatism and ability to problem solve. From now on, he averred, he was going to make a concerted effort to look at reality as it really was. We called him “the rebbe,” a nickname he found flattering and treasured.
Our first evening out of Alava we again struggled to find a suitable site for camp, a situation made worse by a deteriorating wind and sea state complete with breaking shore waves, mostly on rocks and logs. Finally one tiny protected cove with two flat spots just above that night’s projected high tide sealed the deal, while a short intermission from the incessant rain gave us ample time to set up our tents and fix dinner.
After Tina and I ate, she hurdled and slalomed over and around the giant beached logs to check on Asher. His tent was up and he was recording into his journal. The tent was only slightly bigger than a coffin. To save weight and number of poles, it was asymmetrical, with entry on one side — a design not given to intuitive assembly. Asher hadn’t bothered to read the instructions. A cursory glance indicated everything was fine. But when the night’s deluge began, his tent collapsed, no doubt aided by a pole he had incorrectly forced into the wrong grommet, a pole he subsequently broke, rendering the tent useless. His down bag — a no-no in wet environments — soaked and also collapsed.
But Asher didn’t tell us about his troubles. He soldiered on, thinking hardship on a camping trip was par for the course. His equanimity and good humor never wavered — even when the effects of cold and sleep deprivation began to take their toll. We first noticed subtle changes when the sparkle in his eyes turned tired, when he uncharacteristically stumbled, and when he lingered longer on his chores, and . . . though his paddling strength never wavered, he stopped racing ahead.
Finally, at one camp where conditions required we set our tents in close proximity, Asher said that his tent didn’t work, adding that he needed a big fire to dry out his sleeping bag. I suggested he give starting a fire a go — no small feat in a rain forest — while Tina assessed his tent and I gathered firewood.
After many tries, I took over and showed him how to start a fire. Meanwhile Tina discovered a pole on his tent that was not only broken but also forced into the wrong sleeve. While he and Tina worked out the tent’s proper composition, I set up a trellis made of branches to hold his sleeping bag the right distance from the fire so it would dry without burning.
After much to-and-froing on the tent Tina figured out that a piece of the broken pole was missing, making her diagnosis much more difficult on such an eccentrically shaped tent. So she found a supple sapling with which to splint the broken pole with duct tape. Asher was very impressed with her ingenuity. By now he was accepting hot drinks from us regularly.
Lunch stops required vigilance, not just for bears but also for tidal fluctuations. Tides come in and go out about every 12.5 hours, so it takes about 6.25 hours for the water to rise or recede. In one hour — about the length of our lunch break — a fifteen-foot tide can wax or wane over two feet. Depending on the slope of the shore, the resulting distance to the water can be altered considerably. This fluctuation affects a beached boat. It can leave a 160 lb. boat high and dry — a pain to refloat; or, on a rising tide, float the boat away. So, during lunch, we had to constantly, incrementally reposition our boats up or down.
Launching on a receding tide called for some fine timing. With the boat partially beached for stability, the kayaker had to insert himself in the narrow and tight cockpit, lock himself in, attach the drum-tight sprayskirt, make sure everything was shipshape, ready his paddle, and have enough draft to knuckle himself and his boat off shore — all made a bit tougher with full dry suits, PFDs, and sometimes gloves. With Asher’s lack of experience and need for help attaching his sprayskirt, his timing was sometimes off and he’d have to get out and start the process all over again.
One day, during the period when he was particularly sluggish from cold and lack of sleep, his timing for launch after lunch was off. Try as he might, he couldn’t push himself into the water as it receded faster than he’d figured. To save time, Tina — being very quick and agile — told him to hold on. She popped out of her boat, ran to him, grabbed his bow, and attempted to help push him into the water.
She lifted and pushed, she huffed and she puffed, but she couldn’t budge 350 pounds of rebbe and kayak. She wasn’t one to give up easily. She tried again. On the third attempt Asher was afloat. But the price she paid was dear.
That evening we reached Manzanita Bay, about halfway around Revillagigedo Island, and well protected from the winds scouring Behm Canal. At almost anything but high tide, the whole bay shoals with sandbars, creating an over-one-mile distance from its entrance to the Forest Service lean-to shelter at its head. Luckily, we arrived at mid-tide — only a half-mile carry to camp. But Tina couldn’t manage it; her shoulder throbbed so. Asher and I lugged everything up.
On one of the long carries up to camp Asher said, “Robert, I want to thank you for letting me come along on this trip. It means a lot to me.”
He had come to appreciate, even admire, my straightforwardness — a quality essential in any wilderness outing, where artifice of any sort can be detrimental. After choosing my words carefully I told him that I did not “let him come along on this trip,” that my premise as to his participation was quite different, especially since he was a stranger to me; and essentially, that where he went and what he did was his business, something I not only couldn’t control but thought wrong to try to control. I couldn’t keep him from kayaking Misty Fjords National Monument and, in fact, didn’t want to quash his enthusiasm, especially since, on first impressions, he seemed to be capable of doing it.
My assumption — and I apologized to him for not being more explicit — was that he would mount his own, solo, expedition completely separate from ours and that if and when we met on the water, we would share in the conviviality without being explicitly dependent on one another.
Asher didn’t respond.
* * *
Tina had a miserable night. Her shoulder was so painful that by morning she couldn’t move her arm. Asher diagnosed it as a rotator cuff injury, one that would require immobilization followed by medical assessment — the rotator cuff being very delicate. There was no way she could paddle. She needed to be evacuated.
Emergency procedures out here are complex. Cellphones don’t work: there are no antennae. A marine radio, which we had, mostly works along line-of-sight only. An EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) sends out a continuous SOS with one’s location. The latter is monitored by the Coast Guard. We activated our EPIRB and sent out periodic marine radio SOSs in case a boat cruised by Manzanita Bay’s entrance. At 75 miles from Ketchikan, had I kayaked out for help, it would be nearly a week in arriving; additionally, I didn’t want to leave Tina in her condition.
Within a few hours we got a response from a small ecotourist tour boat that had just anchored at the bay’s mouth. The tide was up and they meant to explore the bay. Instead, the captain sent a small Zodiac to pick one of us up and transport us to the mother ship so we could contact the Coast Guard via the boat’s satellite radio.
Second only to my concern for my wife’s injury, the prospect of the expense of a 150-mile evacuation — with 19-foot kayaks and all our gear — overwhelmed me. I couldn’t let her depart alone, and I couldn’t abandon our boats and gear. Asher reassured me, saying he would pay for everything. He recognized his partial responsibility for Tina’s injury.
Asher arranged for a float plane to fly in that afternoon. It could take all three of us and our gear, but not our boats — a detail we’d have to work out after our return to Ketchikan.
We hustled to pack our gear and lug it to the water’s edge. The tide was receding fast. Would the plane arrive while there was enough water to land, load, and take off?
Finally we heard a motor — then saw the plane. The pilot circled once, landed, opened his door, and yelled, “You have one minute before I have to take off!” We ran through the shallows, arms loaded to the hilt, multiple times…with barely enough depth left for the plane to taxi and take off.
* * *
Asher paid for half the airlift . . . and he arranged to have the outfitter who had rented him his kayak pick up our boats — a full-day affair for which he also paid. Tina was advised to wait until she got home for medical evaluation, because of Ketchikan’s questionable specialist health services. Her rotator cuff wasn’t torn, just badly strained, yet still required immobilization.
By the time we caught the next Alaska Ferry back to Bellingham, the summer weather pattern had settled in, providing calm seas and gentle breezes for weeks on end. But had we continued up Behm Canal, we faced two days of granite cliff shores with only two ledges the Forest Service considered landable and campable. Considering the winter weather pattern, which was still holding, and the Forest Service’s undependable campsite locations, it would have been a dicey two days.
The lesson? Always question your libertarian premises . . .
July 12, 2020
Putting Students First
by Dr. Douglas Young
What a blessing to teach college for over 33 years! Educating folks on government and politics is my life’s work, and for the past 21 of those years it has been a particular joy to teach students at the University of North Georgia, where there are so many fine professors, staff, and administrators.
But recent disturbing trends have harmed students across the country. Indeed, on too many campuses there is an obsession with homogenization, bureaucratization, research, and money.
As acclaimed University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Dr. Parker Young notes, “Any college worth its salt is a true free marketplace of ideas.” Yet there has been a huge increase in campuses with constipated “hate speech” codes or climates hostile to free inquiry. In the Orwellian guise of protecting “diversity,” too many higher education administrators restrict basic speech rights and, often invoking “social justice,” too many professors substitute their political bias for teaching many sides of issues. So what should be the freest places in America are often the least free. As the famously liberal Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black warned, “the freedoms of speech, press, petition, and assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment must be accorded to the ideas we hate, or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.”
Universities should provide an outstanding education and vibrant campus life that spur students to grow intellectually, emotionally, and morally. We should not just teach them propaganda but help young people to reason critically. They need to question everything — including their professors — and always think analytically for themselves.
Yet there is also far too much emphasis on uniform “assessment” at college. In ever more freshman and sophomore classes, administrators make professors give the same assignments and use the same “rubric” to grade papers, à la high school. So much for hiring the best teachers and trusting them to create their own class assignments and grading methods. But so many bureaucrats crave the very standardization that has so stifled innovation and achievement in K-12 schools.
Education should help students learn, mature, and achieve the most meaningful lives possible. Yet administrators tend more and more to see students as little more than dollar signs, numbers, and means to get their offices, departments, or schools more funding, recognition, and power. Indeed, many administrators don’t teach and know little and care less about good instruction and the need for schools to create a challenging, yet nurturing, environment for students navigating a vulnerable time in their lives. This is a time for all college and university workers to recall who pays our salaries.
Sadly, too often students get real world lessons in Machiavellian campus politics. In fact, US Secretary of State and Harvard University professor Henry Kissinger concluded that university politics were positively “vicious.” In short, when administrators or professors put personal professional interests ahead of our students, we undermine the very purpose of education.
Alas, the biggest lessons I learned as a graduate student at a large, “prestigious” (see: “publish-or-perish”) university were how not to teach and how never to treat people. Classmates and I got daily doses of just how cold and uncaring too many bureaucrats and faculty can be.
Such ethical concerns go unnoticed as ever more administrators push precisely this publish-or-perish model. When a professor knows he has to get published in X number of officially approved journals by Y date, he easily calculates that time spent with students detracts from researching and writing — and thereby keeping his job. A closed office door with its window papered over and the light on inside tells students to go away. While some professors are inspiring teachers and researchers, that combination is uncommon.
Too many universities covet the prestige of U.S. News & World Report rankings, fallible as these are, and the government funding that follows an emphasis on research. Again, students’ education is sacrificed on the altars of reputation and money.
The surge in online courses (now fully dominant in the corona environment) further compromises instruction. Posting lessons on a computer is a poor substitute for in-person lectures and real-time discussions. There’s also far more cheating with online tests. Yet many schools covet online classes to make more money; digitized students don’t need buildings. One day, a salary-free computer may “teach” 100 such classes.
Making everything worse are the outrageous costs of tuition and textbooks that have followed the huge increases in government grants and loans to students in recent decades. Colleges have responded by spiking costs ever more, causing far too many students to go deeply in debt.
I pray that every university will rededicate itself to providing the best instruction at a reasonable cost to the largest variety of students, and will cherish those students in a warm, welcoming environment that celebrates a true diversity of ideas and free inquiry. May students always come first, and may all educators be Good Samaritans who make a special effort to see that no student is lost by institutional neglect.
July 6, 2020
Aren’t You Just the Smartest Thing!
by Stephen Cox
“Here I’ve been talking to the most intelligent people in the world, and I never even noticed.”
That’s what Lieutenant Columbo said when he found that the murder he was investigating occurred among the members of a Mensa-like group, consisting of people whose “I.Q.” was in the “top 2%.” (In case you want to know, the Columbo episode in question is “The Bye Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case,” first broadcast on May 22, 1977. It’s one of Columbo’s best.)
I find myself bewildered in the same way, whenever I read or — God forbid — have to listen to this world’s most highly accredited smart people and amazing communicators.
Did you know that only one American president has been a Rhodes scholar, and he was that great intellectual William Jefferson Clinton? Clinton, whose popular nickname is “Slick Willie,” went to Oggsford, where the Rhodes folks sent him, but he didn’t manage to complete his degree. Now consider some of the other names on the Rhodes roll of genius: “Pete” Buttigieg, Susan Rice, Cory Booker, Bobby Jindal, Rachel Maddow, Ronan Farrow. In what sense are these people any brighter than the dude that runs the auto parts store? Or any more worthy of being listened to?
I’ll continue this theme in another way. One measure of your intelligence is the type of words you regard as intelligent. For her use of words — screaming rants against all adults — Greta Thunberg has been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year; she has been made Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Mons; she has been honored by Nature, one of the world’s top scientific journals, as one of the “ten people who mattered in science in 2019”; and she has become so popular among very smart, scientific people that a spider, a beetle, and a snail have been named for her. More ugly little creatures will surely follow.
All this because of words, words that have struck a chord among the brainy people of the world. And here is a sample of the words that Dr. (H.C.) Thunberg utters:
Today is Earth Day and that reminds us that the climate and environmental emergency is still ongoing and we need to tackle both the corona pandemic, this crisis, at the same time as we tackle climate and environmental emergency, because we need to be able to tackle two crises at once.
Her logic is daring: we need to tackle two crises at once, because we need to tackle two crises at once.
Celebrating the connection thus discovered between the two crises, the journalistic reporter of these remarks duly tried to describe what it was:
As the coronavirus has spread across the globe, killing nearly 180,000 people, infecting more than 2.59 million, and devastating the world's economy, climate and environmental activists have called for a global Green New Deal and just recovery that prioritizes a rapid transition to renewable energy and other efforts to reduce planet-heating emissions and pollution more broadly. Recent studies tying poor air quality to COVID-19 deaths have added weight to those demands.
Another daring leap! The virus kills because of “poor air quality,” and poor air quality results from nonrenewable energy. Solution: a global program not just to “devastat[e] the world’s economy” but to destroy it. That’s science for you — always something unexpected. But here’s another scientific discovery: in case you didn’t know it, what has devastated the world’s economy is “the coronavirus,” not the genius political leaders’ responses to it. It was the virus that sat down at its desk and issued decrees that shut down every business on your street. Of course, the virus did its deadly work because of internal combustion engines. If only your hairdresser hadn’t been using fossil fuels! Then she’d still have her job. But that’s just how dumb she was.
Speaking of scientific pronouncements, I want to go back to Nature’s certification of the genius of Greta Thunberg Thought. After all, where are geniuses to be found, if not at Nature? As Heinrich Heine said, “The tips of the mountains see each other.” The great journal of science was pleased to announce that Dr. Thunberg had “brought climate science to the fore as she channeled her generation’s rage.” The more you look at that statement, the stranger it gets. In what sense did a blabby, obnoxious, literally insufferable teenager bring science to any fore? Science, and “climate science” too, had been around for a good long time before Thunberg was injected into the game. And it’s mighty scientific, isn’t it, to say that she channeled (picture a ditch) the rage of her generation. She is certainly enraged, but what’s the evidence that her generation ever was? By the way, why is rage so honorable, from a scientific point of view?
The corona scare has taught us that many people who don’t have the sense God gave possums assert their supposed intelligence by trying to control other people, which is what Thunberg and other advocates of a Green New Deal, and evidently Nature magazine, in its role as demagogue, are doing — and that’s all they’re doing. People used to call this (rather loosely) leadership; but since leadership is sometimes felt to impose responsibilities, right now they’re calling it science.
The word implies no duties for people who invoke it, not even the duty to be curious about facts. I recently spent a dismal hour reading purportedly scientific news reports about a “spike” in corona cases in my county and state — reports that may, as local health scientists aver, licking their lips in anticipation of this happy outcome, result in a rollback of the region’s opening. Have you noticed how often science appears to be on the side of orders and controls, and how seldom on the side of freedom? And have you noticed that people who thrust themselves at microphones are almost always issuing orders or demanding controls? How else could they prove their superior knowledge and wisdom?
Non-scientist that I am, I suspected, as any moderately intelligent person would, that when you do more testing to see whether people are sick, you discover that more people are sick. They are sick, although they mostly didn’t notice it until some scientific people told their boss that they had to be tested, and now they’re part of the spike. My suspicions were confirmed when I discovered that the death rate was stable and, if you looked beyond the headlines, the deaths were still occurring mainly among old people who started off with some dangerous illness. But it took me an hour to find an article, published by, of all things, a local TV station, that mentioned the matter of tests. Someone even put it in the article’s title and in its teaser: “For the second day in a row, the new cases set a daily high, but accordingly, the number of COVID-19 tests reported Friday also reached a daily high.” Times are pretty tough, intellectually, when the mere reporting of simple facts bursts on you like a miracle.
I want to return to leadership. Sometimes actual leadership — bad or good, but actual — reveals itself in “small” ways, such as the ability to know where one’s sentences are going. No matter what guff they gave out, American leaders used to have that ability. No longer. I don’t need to instance the president; examples are omnipresent. Here’s one, taken almost at random from among less illustrious pretenders to leadership. It comes from a recent dispute between the Pennsylvania state legislature and the governor of Pennsylvania about whether the legislature can pass a resolution that ends the Democratic governor’s (childish and destructive) virus control measures. The Republican Senate majority leader argued that
People need to have the freedom to return to normalcy and decide for themselves the level of engagement with society that they are comfortable doing.
A Democratic state senator counterargued:
If [the resolution] passes, and whether you believe the governor has no input on it or the governor does something with or does nothing and let it become law, it doesn't impact the order that was executed by [Pennsylvania Health] Secretary Rachel Levine under her authority. That is where the closures come in. More importantly, the emergency declaration is not a precedent to her being able to make sure that she can do the order.
The Democrat had the more serious struggle with literacy. I dare you to figure out his first sentence, with all of its input and impact. But both the Democrat and the Republican have difficulty thinking of other verbs than do. Hence such strange feats of diction and syntax as doing a “level of engagement” (Republican) and “do the order” (Democratic). Not even Huey Long would have dreamed of doin’ words like that.
This, I suppose, is “political speech,” of the kind that the Supreme Court is always so concerned about, thinking that “political” is the “core” kind of speech defended by the First Amendment. OK, but do we have to put up with headlines like this?
Denver City Council meeting stormed by protesters demanding for the defunding of the police
Take that, American power structure! I’m demanding for the defunding!
And do we have to put up with Fox News reports about “protesters who have advocated against police brutality”?
To advocate means to speak in favor of something. The abuse of this term began when advocacy, like activism, started to be acclaimed as a profession. Advocate was then in all the smart communicators’ mouths, but unfortunately they, unlike smart people in the past, had never read a book, so how would they know what the word meant? They didn’t realize that “advocate” is what my grandmother, who never went to college, or even high school, but taught in a one-room school out in the fields, easily recognized as a transitive verb, meaning that it takes a direct object. In other words, you advocate something. Immersed in their first, really weird, experience with a word of more than two syllables (well, maybe one syllable), they cast around for a way to put this alluring word advocate in a sentence of their own, and they discovered advocate for. So now we don’t advocate sensible policing; we advocate for such things. If we’re still not clear on the concept, we advocate around them. It’s a small step from that to advocate against, which takes us even farther from the basic question: “Exactly what do you want?”
I work for a university, and I get institutional memos every day, informing me of discussions around something. If I were wondering whom to accuse for the illiteracy of the communicative classes, the overwhelming evidence of illiteracy among educators would tell me where to look. But to return to Huey Long. Were he alive today, he would have no trouble seeing how far the political class has fallen. He would have only to read the words of the mayor of Seattle, responding to a fatal shooting in the part of her city that she allowed to be taken and occupied by communists and “anarchists.”
One knew in advance that there was one response she would not consider. She would not dream of saying what every Democratic politician and servile “scholar” was intoning 24/7, just six months ago: “No one is above the law.” To learn what she did say, after much time expended in earnest thought, you can read the report of the Seattle Times:
Sunday evening, making her first public statement on the shooting, Mayor Jenny Durkan said “thousands of peaceful demonstrators gather almost daily” on Capitol Hill, but acknowledged “more dangerous conditions” at night.
She said the city “will continue to make changes on Capitol Hill in partnership with Black-led community organizations, demonstrators, small businesses, residents, and trusted messengers who will center deescalation.”
How smart she must have thought she was as she crafted that epistle to the good citizens of Seattle.
It has all the marks of honing and polishing and careful attention to the best practices of public officials in this wonderful year. If these knights of the press release ever published a manual of rhetoric, it would contain the following advice, firmly grounded on Jenny Durkan’s little masterpiece:
First, just leap in and say the opposite of what is true. Maintain that it’s peaceful demonstrators who occupy an important part of your town — as peaceful as I would be if I camped on your doorstep with a gun, keeping police and firefighters and ambulances away, and keeping you away too if I felt like it, and whenever I got bored, spraypainting your walls with obscene slogans.
Second, logic-chop. The neighborhood is only dangerous at night, which is only a third of a summer’s day. (Remember: it takes but a fraction of one’s day to, for instance, murder someone. You see how unimportant the murder is in the grand scheme of things.) And the place isn’t really dangerous at night; it’s just more dangerous than it was during the day, which we’ve already established as peaceful and therefore not dangerous at all.
Third, say things that have no known meaning and create no communicable image that could be examined and criticized. “Messengers who will center deescalation” — what? When you deploy an impenetrable vocabulary as if you expected your victims to understand it, a large number of them will think, “Gee, it’s too bad I’m not as bright as she is! If I were, I’m sure I’d understand what she’s talking about.” The college “educated” won’t understand you either, but they’ll nod and agree, recognizing the language of their class, and they will defend you as violently as ordinary Catholics used to defend every syllable of the Latin Mass.
Fourth, be inclusive. Anyone with any sense will realize that no meaningful consultation can have occurred between the mayor and “small businesses,” “residents,” or even “demonstrators”; and it’s axiomatic that the first two were never involved in any partnership for change. None of them ever asked for anything like this to happen. But go ahead; pretend that they “continue” to be involved. Then anyone who speaks out against your actions will be giving a slap in the face to everyone you mentioned.
Smart, very smart.
They are all so smart.
July 1, 2020
by S. H. Chambers
June 28, 2020
Now I Have Real Power!
by Stephen Cox
“Silence Is Violence.”
The leftist slogan — which is now current but, like most slogans, has been around for a long, long time — brings joy to my heart.
I know, the Right has denounced its “totalitarian” assertion that people are guilty unless they’re busy proving their innocence. I also know that the slogan has a peculiar emptiness, sort of like that old favorite, “The People United Can Never Be Defeated.” Who are “the people”? Grad students in philosophy? Trump voters? Mechanics in Maine? The spouses of mechanics in Maine? Christian Scientists, perhaps? Or possibly the gentlemen who always write to complain when I disparage the Single Tax? But of course, you’re supposed to know what “the people” means, just as you’re supposed to know what “God’s church” is, and if you don’t . . . You’re not a people. You see what I mean. “People” may mean anything, so it comes down to meaning . . . nothing.
And “Silence Is Violence” is even emptier. Imagine that somebody takes the hint and loudly denounces Black Lives Matter. That means he’s a pacifist, right? Or is he a fascist? It’s a mystery.
These objections can be considered, but to dwell on them is to miss the vein. If silence is violence, then I have a ticket to avenge myself on innumerable entities that I detest so much that I can barely stand to speak of them. And not just a ticket to go there, but the reality of being there already. I didn’t know it, but I am already, in the privacy of my own home, ripping, shredding, demeaning, dishonoring (whatever word is right in a given instance) such things as:
- Trollope’s novels
- Cities and counties in which government employees are in the top 10% of annual income
- People who tell us we should all work together
- Businesses that donate their customers’ and stockholders’ money to political or other “charitable” causes
- Vandals, puritan iconoclasts, destroyers of statues, censors of any kind
- People who talk about crime but never heard of crime statistics
- People who can’t talk without saying that what they’re talking about is the greatest or the worst in history
- All men and women who worship at the Mystic Shrine of the Mask
- My Urban History teacher, who made us read Joyce Carol Oates’ cheap and disgusting book Them, claiming it was “a blockbuster of a novel,” while otherwise acting as if he were a thousand miles above his material
- Speakers who present “if it saves just one life” as an irrefutable argument
- People who call themselves “activists”
- People who “advocate for”
- All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs
- All persons who on shaking hands, shake hands with you like that
- The Olympics
- Burt Lancaster (except that he’s dead)
- Anyone who proposes anything “for the children” — unless it’s a tax decrease, which it never is
- People who use the word “systemic”
- People who claim that humor “trivializes” their favorite “issues”
- People who use the word “issues”
I don’t like to talk about these things. I’m sorry I even mentioned them. But rest assured, there are many, many more that I didn’t mention.
And now I find, though I knew it not, that I have the power to ravage them! In fact — ha ha! — I am now ravaging them. Even as you read these words (as I hope you are, because Not Reading Is Violence), they are feeling my wrath!
But ask yourself: am I being silent about you?
June 25, 2020
Can Government Take What It Wants?
by Michael F. S. W. Morrison
Here in these United States, several years ago, some everyday, working-class people in Connecticut were told they had to give up their homes and move out because some rich developers, who were coincidentally friends (and financial supporters) of the local politicians, wanted the property.
The homeowners, backed by the admirable and heroic Institute for Justice, fought back. These are our homes, they said, and no one should have the right to just take them, no matter how much money they offer, if we don't want to leave. The case went to the US Supreme Court, and they lost, 5–4. This is the Kelo case, named for Susette Kelo, who fought against the local government’s taking of her home.
Unfortunately, one of the gravest of errors is part of the Constitution. It is called “eminent domain,” and it says governments may indeed take private property, but “for public use.” Not, it should be clear, so that rich developers can become richer — though the excuse given by the politicians is that more expensive properties will bring in higher revenues to the local government.
In the Kelo case, the land thus stolen by local government and intended to be “rehabilitated” to provide more money for that government to throw around, is, after all these years, still unoccupied, unused, and littered with trash.
The Castle, an Australian “comedy-drama” about a similar taking by government, was released in 1997. The Kelo decision was rendered in 2005. Seeing The Castle in 2020, I am dumbfounded by the similarities of the situations: very rich developers trying to use their connections to governments, and the governments’ component politicians, to grab homes from working-class people in order to get richer.
“You can't fight City Hall” is not an accepted truism to the protagonists of this movie or the real-life Kelo case. Naively, they did fight, believing that being in the right, believing that having justice on their side, would lead to victory.
The Castle is a wonderful film, filled with likable people, quirky though they might be. They are decent people. They are good people. They are loving people.
How good, decent, working-class people take on Leviathan can be serious and disturbing, as in Little Pink House, which is about the Kelo decision, or funny and inspiriting, as in The Castle.
I highly recommend The Castle, which can be rented on YouTube.
Review of “The Castle,” directed by Rob Sitch. Working Dog-Village Roadshow Entertainment, 1997, 75 minutes.
Michael F. S. W. Morrison is a freelance editor and writer, resident in Cochise County, Arizona, and cofounder of the Free State West movement. His young readers’ book, The Calico Truck, is available through Amazon.