Presidential Punctuation

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O Tempora! O Bama!

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For anyone who enjoys linguistic spectacle, who savors both the triumphs and the flops of the American language, there is just too much to savor in the political carnival now going on. You’re reduced to picking a few favorites — but there are so many to pick from.

For a while my favorite performance was the testimony, if you want to call it that, of Kathleen Sebelius, God’s gift to satirists, who on October 30 told a congressional committee investigating the zany antics of the Obamacare website, “Today, more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans. We are pleased with these quick improvements, but we know there is still significant, additional work to be done. We continue to conduct regular maintenance nearly every night to improve the consumer experience.”

That was her way of describing the worst disaster in the history of computation. Unluckily for her, the website crashed (for the thousandth time) during the hour of her testimony, a testimony in which she said, “The website has never crashed. It is functional but at a very slow speed and very low reliability.”

 I thought that was hard to beat, but then I discovered Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of something called the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (Everything is a “center” these days, and every center has as many “services” as confidence men have “angles.” Pretty much the same angles, too.) On November 5, Tavenner let Congress know what her center is doing about people whose insurance plans have been swept away by Obamacare: “This is actually a conversation we're having today. . . . Is there a way we can actively engage to reach out to people who have been canceled?" 

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage.

 Rome burned while Nero conversed. “Conversations,” thoughts of “engagement,” and questions about whether there are ways to “reach out” (“actively,” not passively) are good means of wasting time if you’re chairman of the country club greens committee, or if you’re a highly paid bureaucrat who finds that she has nothing to say for herself when the public finally discovers her existence. I’m not sure they do much for “people who have been canceled.” As the Beatles might have sung, “Oh, look at all the canceled people.” 

 Tavenner looked like a winner — until I encountered US Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC). On November 12, Hagan panicked and called a press conference to rescue herself from the Obamacare wreckage (she’s up for reelection next year). Someone asked her to comment on the miserably small number of people signing up for Obamacare. According to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, this is what ensued: 

“You know,” she replied. “I know the — I believe this coming Friday, those numbers are going to be published and uh, you know, as soon as I see them, you know, obviously it’s, it’s m-much fewer than the administration expected.”

A reporter from the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record asked why Hagan, like President Obama, had told people that if they liked their health plans they’d be able to keep their health plans.

There was a long pause before Hagan responded, then a deep intake of breath. “You know, Doug,” she responded, “the, um” — here she exhaled and paused again — “the way these, the — the regulations and the law, uh” — pause — “came forward recently, I think people were surprised that the, uh, the — the actual original plans would be, um, would be canceled.”

You may say that all politicians would sound like that, if the statements they made were accurately reproduced; and if so, you’d be close to right. Deprived of his teleprompters, President Obama says “uh” about 20 times a minute, up to 40 when he’s agitated (these subverbal attempts to communicate are tactfully omitted from the reported versions). And of course President Obama, and Rep. Boehner, and former Gov. Palin (shall I go on?) often have no more meaning in their utterances than poor Sen. Hagan.

But we mustn’t judge rhetorical effectiveness simply by the content of a politician’s remarks, or noise. It’s charm that counts, and our politicians have little or none of that quality. The “uhs” contribute to the effect, but even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff. Nor would it turn President Obama into a charming character.

Whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure.

For some, certainly, Obama has “charisma,” but of charm he is completely destitute. He comes across as a phony and a blowhard, and it’s hard not to see a wide vein of meanness and chronic anger beneath the high-school-principal intonations. When he’s not looking at his teleprompter — when he’s supposed to be conversing with an actual human being — he’s usually gazing fixedly at a point about 12 inches in front of his chest, as if he were studying an invisible set of instructions for dealing with the underclass. This is the antithesis of charm. It’s the kind of thing one expects from bank examiners, experts on epistemology, and actors emerging from a heavy course of anger therapy. Sen. Hagan, by contrast, manifests herself as a hapless innocent, as someone so childish that she calls a press conference to display her knowledge — of a subject she knows nothing about. She’s like a little girl who begs to show everyone how well she can play the piano, without ever realizing that you can’t play a tune without learning the notes. But isn’t it cute, the way she’s trying? Less cute is President Obama.

There are four types of rhetoric in which he habitually indulges, and none of them is even mildly amusing, let alone endearing:

1. The “soaring” mode that even his supporters now derisively call “the hopey-changey thing.”

2. The false-plebeian style that he uses in exact proportion to his slippage in the polls. This style, or pretense at style, consists largely of dropping final g’s, saying “a whole buncha” instead of a number, and referring constantly to “folks.” In that speech he gave at Boston, the one in which he tried to save his lie about Obamacare by claiming he had always told people “you can keep your insurance . . . if,” he said of his failed healthcare scheme, “We’re just gonna keep workin’ at it. We’re gonna grind it out.” That might be charming if the accent weren’t so obviously faked, if “grind it out” meant anything under the circumstances, and if he (“we”) were actually doing any work, as opposed to golf.

3. The paranoid style, in which he unmasks the monstrous forces scheming against his official program, the “some people” who “don’t want it to succeed” and therefore, magically, keep it from succeeding. Evidence? Most of them voted against it!

4. The cold, haughty, you’re-so-dumb-you’ll-just-have-to-believe-this, lie-flinging mode. “I was not informed directly that the website would not be working, as [sic] the way it was supposed to,” he said on November 14. Wait. What do you mean? Do you mean that you didn’t know? That nobody ever told you? No, they didn’t. They didn’t tell me directly. Now go away.

Of course, when people insert “directly” into a sentence like that, you know they’re trying to deceive someone. You also know that the someone is not going to be you; almost anybody (most certainly including you) can catch on to the fact that “directly” means “I hope to fool you.” Indeed, the trick is so obvious that only a fool would use it. Obama himself has recognized that people might possibly think he’s a fool — and by recognizing the possibility, he has tried to eliminate it. “You know,” he said on November 14, “I’m accused of a lot of things [there’s that paranoid style again] but I don’t think I’m stupid enough to go around saying this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity a week before the website opens if I thought that it wasn’t going to work.” But either he is stupid enough to keep telling obvious lies or he is stupid enough not to insist on being informed directly about the stuff he seems to be lying about. Take your pick; either way, he’s stupid enough.

The mystery to me is why people ever thought there was any force or meaning in Obama’s verbiage. At its best, it was just the same awful guff that politicians are always dishing out. In his second inaugural address, where he might have been expected to be on his best behavior, he made such sparkling utterances as:

We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. [A fresh thought, that.]

This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. [What happened to changing when the times change?]

My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together. [Damn! And here I was just about to seize it myself. I guess I’ll have to wait for a consensus to emerge.]

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. [Note: not just to some posterity.]

My selection of these idiotic sentiments is as close to random as selection can get; the speech is all like that, although sometimes Obama decides to give you something extra special in the way of metaphor. This attempt always fails. One example may suffice. After quoting the Declaration of Independence, Obama says, “Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” What in the world can those words signify? Picture words, words that have meaning. Now picture bridging that meaning. Huh? Already it makes no sense. But then we’re supposed to picture the bridge as the realities of our time. And this journey to do something with the realities of our time is never-ending? It’s going to last forever? No, it’s all too much for me.

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage. This one is about the great discoveries that “we” have made during “our” history: “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” Gosh, really? Schools and highways? Glad we determined that requirement.

I have little sympathy with the worldview evoked by President Kennedy’s inaugural address, but it is a work of literature — not great literature, but certainly very respectable. Anyone who, having read that speech, turns to Obama’s reinaugural remarks will be struck by the attempted resemblance. But whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure. Indeed, it was written for the same purpose. The only literary excellence that Obama ever showed was his curious refusal to speak at Gettysburg on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s speech. There’s just one way to explain it. Obama thought he could top John F. Kennedy, but he feared he couldn’t top Abraham Lincoln, and for once a kind of humility came over him. It’s too bad, because that speech would have offered a lot of entertainment.

Even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff.

Given the glaring weaknesses of Obama’s prose, it is shocking, almost horrifying, that both his friends and his adversaries keep paying tribute to it. His critics, astonishingly, condemn him for his inability to live up to his rhetoric. Here’s Obama foe Rich Lowry, writing in National Review Online: “The launch of HealthCare.gov should cast a shadow over the stirring passage in the president’s second inaugural address where he spoke of how ‘we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government.’” Pardon me — harnessideas? Technology to remake our government? This stuff is “stirring”? It’s barely intelligible. Before we harness those ideas, do we have to brush them and feed them and make sure they’re well shod? Is that something Obama neglected to do with his healthcare “ideas”?

The biggest contribution that Obama has made to stirring the linguistic pot has been the license he has given to other people who think it’s cool and smart to enact the role of political used-car salesmen. They don’t understand how funny they are. And the comedy leaks from the op-ed page into the news reports. Consider the following from Reuters (Nov. 19):

The rollout of Obama's signature domestic policy has hurt the popularity of the initiative, but the decline has been fairly modest, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Monday.

Forty-one percent of Americans expressed support for Obamacare in a survey conducted from Thursday to Monday. That was down 3 percentage points from a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken from September 27 to October 1.

Opposition to the healthcare law stood at 59 percent in the latest poll, versus 56 percent in the earlier survey.

In other words, once you’ve fallen down the first 56 steps, the next three are only a modest reduction in altitude. After you’ve passed the landing on the 50th step, it’s hard for anything to do much more damage to your unpopularity. But wouldn’t it be funny if you thought you could talk your way upstairs?




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Obamacare by the Numbers

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Let's say you were put in charge of Obamacare. It sounds like a daunting business — to provide affordable healthcare insurance for 30 million uninsured Americans. But what if you didn't have to make a profit and were handed $940 billion for giving your product away free to some customers and selling it at steep discounts to others? Throw in $5 billion more for web site development and a $700 million marketing budget to lure reluctant customers.

Too timid to give it a try? OK, let's double the size of the slush fund to $1.8 trillion, pass a law forcing everyone to buy health insurance, and write a regulation that makes the existing policies of perhaps 100 million Americans illegal. I know what you are thinking: even an idiot could sell healthcare insurance, at a discount, to people required by law to buy it. There must be a catch.

And you would be right. But the catch is not the intransigent website problems or greedy, uncooperative insurance companies or bitter Republicans with their feeble attempts to defund the program. The catch is Obamacare itself — an immense, overreaching, already tottering Rube Goldberg contraption that cannot possibly succeed, no matter how much money is thrown at it.

True, most of us would do a better job at salesmanship than President Obama, at least those of us with a couple of years of high school under our belts. We certainly wouldn't have lied to our customers, at least not as often. None of us would have botched the website. We would have had it working like a charm, on time, and for a small fraction of the cost of the three-year, $600 million hack job that still crashes regularly at every whim of its spaghetti code. The frugal among us would have had the insurance industry do it for free. Why not? Look at the profits insurance companies will receive from inflated Obamacare premiums — not to mention the revenues from more than 30 million new customers to be sent goosestepping their way.

Millions of people who thought they would get subsidies earn too little to qualify — another awkward messaging problem for Obamacare navigators.

Nevertheless, we too would fail. A secure, fully operational website will not help. Indeed, it will simply expose and magnify the defects of Obamacare more quickly. Delays to fix the rollout or extend the individual mandate will only postpone the inevitable. When Obamacare is finally deemed open for business, with its shiny, new "tech-surged" website at the floodgates, the deluge of customers qualifying for subsidies and free health insurance will no doubt be flawlessly processed. So too will be the trickle of paying customers. The numbers — provided by the government (the White House, Health and Human Services, the Congressional Budget Office [CBO]) and the insurance industry — are bad. They have always been bad; intentionally hidden or obscured, only to be dismissed as insignificant when becoming visible or clear. And, as emerging enrollment data and insurance cancellation notices reveal, they are getting worse. Much worse.

The paltry enrollment to date provides a mere glimpse of the actuarial havoc to come, as predominantly high-cost customers — the old, the sick, the poor, the unemployed, the desperate — flock to enroll, while the low-cost, young, and healthy customers stay away, as they should, in droves. For a plan purporting to rescue the uninsured by giving 51% of them free medical care and 39% of them subsidies, this should not be unexpected; nor should the shock that $1.8 trillion (already twice the estimate of the $940 billion celebrated only three years ago) is woefully inadequate. Always surprised, always last to know, Mr. Obama will soon be asking for more.

According to the CBO, Obamacare will reduce the number of uninsured by 14 million in 2014. This will be accomplished, courtesy of the individual mandate, by moving nine million uninsured into Medicaid and five million uninsured into the Obamacare exchanges. In addition, two million with "substandard" individual health insurance policies will be switched to the exchanges, creating a total of seven million Obamacare customers. With incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL), they will receive subsidies (averaging $5,290 in 2014) to make their new, government-mandated, "quality" health insurance "affordable." These seven million "partial-payers" will become America's next entitlement class. It will grow rapidly to 24 million by 2023. The average subsidy will also grow (to $7,900), costing taxpayers well over $1 trillion.

Of this initial seven million, 2.7 million must be healthy, in the 18-34 age range, and undaunted by the exorbitant premiums they will be charged to defray the cost of insuring the older and sicker. Snaring them will be no small feat. Apart from rate shock, there is the Obamacare provision that allows them to stay on a parent’s plan until age 26, shrinking the young Obamacare customer pool roughly by half.

People in the other half of the desired customer pool are told that they should be happy paying high rates today; they too will pay lower rates later, when they are old and need the benefits. Medicare is cited as a successful program exemplifying the beneficence of such inter-generational subsidization. It's an excellent example, ironically. Medicare is a program that pays benefits to the old, using taxes paid by the young, which is on track to become insolvent by 2026. This statement clearly applies to Obamacare, except that Obamacare premiums are extraordinarily higher than Medicare taxes and Obamacare will go broke long before 2026. Unfortunately, this poses a difficult messaging problem for Obamacare navigators, who will persuade few with the "Hey kid, sign right here. Sure you'll get screwed by Obamacare, but you're already getting screwed by Medicare" angle.

The nine million uninsured who are ushered into Medicaid are mostly childless adults living in poverty. They reside in the 26 states employing the Medicaid Expansion. When applying for Obamacare, they will be given Medicaid, right after being informed that they won't get a nickel in subsidy money. Alas, millions of people who thought they would get subsidies earn too little to qualify — another awkward messaging problem for Obamacare navigators, who, for example, must explain to an individual making $11,500 per year why he won't get a subsidy, while an individual down the block, making $24,000 a year, will get $1,500.

In apologizing for lying about the ability of people to keep their healthcare providers and plans, Mr. Obama lied again.

For residents of the 24 states that have not expanded Medicaid, HealthCare.gov blithely points out, "you may not have as many options for health coverage." If you are poor, your total number of options is one. And it's not good. For example, an Alabama resident with an annual income of $11,400 (99% FPL) must buy an Obamacare policy costing $3,030 per year, offset by a subsidy of $0.00. Where did the Obamacare wizards think that people with an annual income of $11,400 could come up with $3,030 for Obamacare, when even the $95 fine for declining it is beyond their reach?

The Obamacare Medicaid Expansion, projected to cost federal taxpayers $709 billion, will add 13 million Americans to Medicaid by 2023 — all nonpaying customers. Furthermore, it is likely that this group will consume its "free" healthcare at a much higher rate than normal. That is, the cost will be much greater than $709 billion.

Many of the two million previously insured are people who thought they would be able to keep their existing plans and doctors, if they liked them, period. They may find solace in not being the only ones to be fooled — as they are joined by millions of other individuals who have recently had their "substandard" health insurance plans cancelled. And let's not forget President Obama, the Democrats in both houses of Congress who passed Obamacare in March of 2010, and the tens of millions of other Americans who thought that Obamacare would also reduce the deficit, "bend the health care cost curve down," and shrink health insurance premiums by $2,500.

Amid the furor that he repeatedly and knowingly misled Americans with his incessant if-you-like-it-you-can-keep-it-period incantations, Mr. Obama submitted a most spurious apology (exquisitely characterized by Stephen Cox, in “What? When? Why?”). He expressed sorrow for those "finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me," right after dismissing the people receiving cancellations as "a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged."

But in June of 2010, the Obama administration knew that "66% of small employer plans and 45% of large employer plans will relinquish their grandfather status by the end of 2013” and that 40 to 66% with individually-purchased plans would suffer the same fate. For three and a half years, therefore, the White House has anticipated that as many as 100 million could lose their policies — hardly a "small percentage of folks." That is, in apologizing for lying about the ability of people to keep their healthcare providers and plans, Mr. Obama lied again.

To date, over five million individuals have already received cancellation notices. Together with millions more who will receive them by the time the Obamacare website is fixed, they will rush to the Obamacare exchanges, which have subsidy money for only two million. Where will Mr. Obama get the money for this "train wreck"? Then there is the second, much bigger, wreck arriving next year, when the employer mandate kicks in. And how much money will be needed to bail out health insurance companies, whose profits will shrink or vanish if Obama's youthful fan base doesn't show up in numbers large enough to prevent the so-called adverse selection "death spiral"?

The fallout from this follow-on wreck will peak just before the 2014 elections. What then will Mr. Obama and Democrat candidates have to say about the disruption and premium increases caused by Obamacare? With the Obamacare rollout last October, outrage was expressed by Republican and independent voters, while Democrat voters were silent. But their support was only apparent; they were in a sullen Obamacare transition from infatuation to familiarity. Next October they will be among many of the 100 million new and angry Obamacare customers clamoring for subsidy money. Many will be employed by insurance companies clamoring for bailout money.

How surprised will President Obama be when he is finally notified of the anger and unrest of more than "a small percentage of folks"? Whom will he blame for the mess this time? Doctors and hospitals, for charging too much? The old and the sick, for being too old and sick? What will be his solutions? What will he say they will cost? Will anyone believe him, or care about anything he has to say?




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Kennedy and Communism

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On November 22, it will be 50 years since I sat in my typing-for-infants class and heard a radio voice coming over the PA system. “There are reports,” it said, “that shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, Texas.” My teacher, a model of business efficiency, concluded very plausibly that someone in the principal’s office was playing around with the equipment. Unfortunately, she was wrong.

I can’t say that I regard Kennedy’s death as a world-historical event. He was a brighter and, to me, a much more interesting and sympathetic personality than his kinfolk or most of the other political figures of the time. Several times in his life he faced the virtual certainty of death, and faced it with courage and cheerfulness. He learned enough about economics to advocate a large tax cut that vastly increased the nation’s wealth. He also helped to get us into the Cuban missile crisis — and then rather skillfully got us out of it. I don’t know what he would have done about Vietnam. I do know that he fostered a cult of military masculinity (fifty-mile hikes!) that produced some very sorry thinking and acting. He believed that Robert McNamara was a real smart guy; he had a soft spot for can-do fools like that. The scion of a gangsterlike family, he plotted to make his brother Robert and then his brother Edward presidents after him. He lied habitually and outrageously about almost every aspect of his own life. He accepted the Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn’t write, and became angry when people suggested that he hadn’t written it. There is reason to believe that in 1960 he was able to defeat his good friend Richard Nixon because his allies in Texas and Illinois stuffed the ballot boxes for him. Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

About the assassination I have little to say. To my mind, David Ramsay Steele made a conclusive case for Oswald as the sole assassin; see his article in Liberty in November 2003. Since then, no evidence has been discovered that threatens Steele’s argument, and much analysis has confirmed it. I am bothered, however, by something closely connected with the assassination (but not with Kennedy himself), something that appears not to bother anyone else. It is a strange idea: the idea that communism was never of any significance in America; that either there weren’t any communists or they never really did much of anything (such as killing President Kennedy). Even intelligent and well-disposed people believe this.

Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

But of course there were communists, and they did lots of things. They were very busy bees. It’s not for nothing that the 1930s were once called the Red Decade in American intellectual life, or that a ton of intellectual autobiographies were written from the standpoint of “I was a communist although later I quit.” About communist influence in the popular media during the 1930s and 1940s, take a look at Red Star Over Hollywood by Ronald and Allis Radosh — and even the Radoshes couldn’t get all the red influences into a book. In 1948, the Democratic Party was split by a conflict between anticommunists, communists, and communist stooges; out of it came the Progressive Party, an outfit managed by communists and their friends. Its presidential candidate was the former vice president of the United States, Henry Wallace. In 1956, there were still American intellectuals fighting it out over the issue of whether Khrushchev should have trashed the memory of Stalin.

How does all this connect with Kennedy? The connection is that the person who shot him, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a communist activist. Oswald defected to the Soviet Union and upon returning to the United States became a professional defender of Castro. He denied being “a communist” but proclaimed himself “a Marxist.” He had his picture taken holding a gun in one hand and militant literature in another; his wife wrote “Hunter of fascists” on the back of it. Oswald lay in wait for and attempted to murder Edwin Walker, a rightwing general. When the fervently anticommunist President Kennedy came to Dallas, Oswald succeeded in murdering him. Now, why do you think he did that? Do you think that communism might not have had something to do with it?

According to most conspiracy theories, however, Oswald either didn’t shoot Kennedy at all, or he was the least important member of a murder group that had nothing to do with communism. The theorists believe that Kennedy was murdered by rightwing CIA operatives, or rightwing oil companies, or rightwing militarists — anyone on the right will do. Even sensible people have trouble with the simple notion that Oswald was a freak for communism. Consider Fred Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post on November 14. Kaplan says that he himself, in his callow youth, accepted various conspiracy theories, only to discover that they weren’t decently based on fact. (I can say something similar about my own intellectual development.) But then he says:

The only remaining mystery, really, is Oswald’s motives — and yet, here too, no convincing evidence has emerged that links his action to the Mafia, the CIA, the Cubans, or anything of the sort. The most persuasive theory I’ve read — first put forth in a New York Review of Books article by Daniel Schorr (later reprinted in his book Clearing the Air) — is that Oswald killed Kennedy, believing the deed would earn him favor with Castro. But who knows? The mystery at the heart of the matter (why did Oswald do it?) remains unsolved.

“Really”? Do people talk this way about Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley because Czolgosz was an anarchist and McKinley wasn’t? Do people talk this way about Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield because Garfield failed to gratify Guiteau’s insane idea that he deserved to be appointed ambassador to France? Do people talk this way about John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln because Wilkes was a supporter of the Confederacy and Lincoln had just destroyed it? Do people talk this way about . . . oh, why go on? If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

The real mystery is why even well-meaning, well-educated Americans can’t just accept communism for what it was (and is): a political movement capable of interesting people and inspiring them, even inspiring them to violent action — which it has often praised and rewarded. Oswald killed Kennedy because Oswald was a communist, and acted up to it.

So silly is the cover-up-the-communists routine that the hosts of movies on my beloved Turner Classics are always alleging that someone was “blacklisted” or otherwise injured by “accusations” of communism, without ever wondering — just as a subject of curiosity, now that we’re discussing old so-and-so’s difficult life — whether he or she may actually have been a communist.

And speaking of cultural authorities, I recently (don’t ask me why) looked up the Wikipedia article on Ed Sullivan, the prune-faced impresario of early television song-and-dance shows, and discovered that its account of Sullivan’s life occupies itself mightily with the question of whether Sullivan excluded communists from his program. I have to admit that I am an agnostic on this grave moral issue. If I were Ed Sullivan, maybe I’d have had communists on my show, and maybe I wouldn’t have. I probably would have, if they were good enough dancers — but if you substitute “Nazis” for “communists” in this thought experiment, fewer people would say that my decision should be obvious. But look at what the Wikipedia entry says: “[A] guest who never appeared on the show because of the controversy surrounding him was legendary black singer-actor Paul Robeson, who . . . was undergoing his own troubles with the US entertainment industry's hunt for Communist sympathizers.”

If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

All right; I guess so. But Robeson didn’t need to be “hunted”; everybody knew where he was on the ideological spectrum. And his politics ensured that he had other troubles, of the intellectual and moral kind, troubles far worse than not getting on the Ed Sullivan show. The facts are simple. Robeson had a great voice. He could even act. He was also America’s best-known communist. He was proud of this morally repellent role. Accepting the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953, he said, among many other things:

I have always insisted — and will insist, even more in the future on my right to tell the truth as I know it about the Soviet peoples: of their deep desires and hopes for peace, of their peaceful pursuits of reconstruction from the ravages of war, as in historic Stalingrad; and to tell of the heroic efforts of the friendly peoples in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, great, new China and North Korea — to explain, to answer the endless falsehoods of the warmongering press with clarity and courage.

For Robeson’s tribute to the “deep kindliness and wisdom” of Joseph Stalin, go here.

Wikipedia’s own page on the “Political Views of Paul Robeson” does its best for him, but it concludes, “At no time during his retirement (or his life) is Paul Robeson on record of mentioning any unhappiness or regrets about his beliefs in socialism or the Soviet Union nor did he ever express any disappointment in its leaders including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Moreover, only a few sources out of hundreds interviewed and researched by two of his biographers Martin Duberman and Lloyd Brown agreed with the claims made in the mainstream media of Robeson's supposed embitterment over the USSR.”

Why bring these things up? Mainly because there’s a significant historical question at stake: were there communists or not, and were they important or not? That’s enough, but there are political reasons too. The abolition of communism from American history has been a way of arousing sympathy for the authoritarian Left and any ideas or people associated with it. It has been a way of keeping the Left from self-criticism, the kind of criticism that, one is given to believe, would automatically lead to such excesses as “witch-hunts” against “alleged communists.” Denying the presence of communism has been a way of obeying the old slogan, “No Enemies on the Left.” There is a danger here, similar to the danger of forgetting the sometime appeal of fascism.

This month witnessed another anniversary besides that of the Kennedy assassination. Thirty-five years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, a man named Jim Jones engineered the murder-suicide of more than 900 people, mostly Americans, at Jonestown, Guyana. People think of Jones as some kind of offbeat Christian who got a little more offbeat. What he did is regarded as a warning against religious cultism. But he wasn’t, and it isn’t. Jones was a political agitator who used a pretense of religion — and it was a pretty feeble pretense — to sell what he called “revolutionary communism.” This approach enabled him to become a major player in San Francisco politics. Some of his fellow politicians covered up for him, ignoring or denying his communism; others were actually inspired by him — by his politics, not by his “religion.”

If you go to yet another Wikipedia page — “Peoples Temple” — you will learn a lot of things about this, although you won’t learn why the Jonestown episode isn’t seen as Americans’ most impressive and also most disastrous attempt to build a communist utopia. Yet the take-home message can still be found. It appears in the clichéd slogan that was posted behind the speaker’s stand from which Jones delivered his death decrees: “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It.”




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Back in the Lab

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Lessons from November 2013

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Let’s look at three of the elections held on Nov. 6, and try to discern what they could be telling us about 2014 and ’16.

Virginia

In the Virginia gubernatorial race, a “DC swamp slime” (Democrat Terry McAuliffe) defeated a “crusading prude” (Republican Ken Cuccinelli). McAuliffe got 1,065,000 votes (48%) to Cuccinelli’s 1,010,000 (45%). The Libertarian Party candidate, Robert Sarvis, garnered 145,000 votes, or almost 7% of the total. Sarvis, a young and very well-educated man with business experience, stood head and shoulders above the two major party candidates in terms of policy, personality, and integrity. Given the cankerous quality of the two leading candidates, Sarvis ought to have done even better. His distant third-place finish reinforces the already well-established fact that American voters are pretty much addicted to the two-party system. If the Virginia electorate won’t rise up against the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli choice presented to them by the two established parties, what hope is there for the LP becoming a national force? (Equally telling is the fact that Rand Paul went to Virginia and campaigned for Cuccinelli, not Sarvis.)

Sarvis took more votes away from McAuliffe than from Cuccinelli. He did best among young voters (18–29 age group), taking 15% of that vote. He won 15% of independents, and 10% of self-described moderates. It’s unlikely, however, that 15% of Virginia’s young voters will continue, as they age, to support the LP. The thirties and beyond bring new life burdens and responsibilities such as parenthood, mortgages, and paying for college. Some and perhaps most of those young LP voters will morph into persons who look to government for help with their adult responsibilities. It’s easy for young people to vote LP when they have a social safety net — their parents — to fall back on.

The youth vote in Virginia should give Republicans pause. Cuccinelli won only 40% of voters 18-29. Advocating state intervention in people’s sex lives, as Cuccinelli has (on this see Andrew Ferguson’s Oct. 3 Liberty article, “Two Evils”) is not the way to win the votes of young people. Keeping social issues to the fore is a sure recipe for helping Democrats win elections in most parts of this country.

McAuliffe won among all income groups, with the single exception of those making between $50,000 and $100,000 (this group, of course, is the one that is most squeezed by taxes). McAuliffe’s margins were highest among those making under $30,000 per year (65%–28%), and those making over $200,000 (55%–39%).

Cuccinelli carried the male vote, 48%–45%; McAuliffe won women by 51%–42%. These figures mirror national trends. Cuccinelli, however, won a majority of married women. McAuliffe won handily among unmarried voters; he carried single men by 58%–33%, and single women by 67%–25%. These are worrisome figures for the Republican Party.

Cuccinelli won the white vote, 56%–36%, yet still lost the election. Whites make up 72% of the Virginia electorate. That percentage will continue to decline in Virginia as well as nationally. McAuliffe won 90% of the African-American vote.

Virginia is of course something of a special case. McAuliffe won big in northern Virginia. The Washington, D.C. suburbs, which contain a large number of government employees, carried him to victory. He also won the Tidewater region by a large majority. This area includes a sizable military population, and in the past has been kinder to Republicans than it was to Cuccinelli. Almost one third of Virginia’s voters said that someone in their household had been affected by the government shutdown. These people voted heavily for McAuliffe. Government employees and their dependents have turned Virginia from a red state into a purple one.

Despite declining faith in government across almost all demographic groups, the great majority of Americans are not libertarians or rugged individualists.

But the problem for Republicans goes deeper than this. Demographic trends are turning the Old Dominion blue. Older white voters from rural areas no longer decide the winners in Virginia elections. Women and nonwhites are now the deciders, and Republicans in Virginia and across the nation are increasingly viewed with disfavor by both groups.

For the first time in 40 years, Virginia has elected a governor from the same party as the sitting president. The governor, the lieutenant governor, and both US senators are Democrats. Had the Republicans run a moderate against McAuliffe, they probably would have taken the governorship. But had the Democrats run just about anyone other than McAuliffe, that Democrat would have beaten any Republican. Republicans in Virginia should be worried — very worried.

New Jersey

Governor Chris Christie rolled to reelection with 60% of the vote. It’s surprising that he didn’t score even higher, given that the Democratic Party did little for its candidate. Christie got the attention of some analysts by carrying 57% of women and 50% of Hispanics. He even took 21% of the black vote. In the wake of the election, journalists and political junkies began speculating anew on the prospects of a Christie presidential run in 2016.

Yet the fact remains that Christie would find very rough going in the Republican primaries. He’s little better than a Democrat to Republican voters in such places as Iowa and South Carolina. A strategy based on New Hampshire-Florida-California doesn’t get Christie the nomination. Even if he somehow won the nomination, his prospects in the general election would be much iffier than most analysts appear to realize. His penchant for insulting people may work well for a New Jersey governor, but it’s not what most people want in a president. There are personal and ethical issues lurking in the background as well. A series of negative ads featuring Christie being Christie could have a devastating effect. The Democrats may have taken his measure already, which would account for their failure to try to drag down his majority in the election just past. Even New Jersey voters favor Hillary over their governor by 48–44. Christie may very well take the plunge in 2016, but one way or another his fate is likely to be the same as that of another New Jersey blimp — the Hindenburg.

Alabama: the establishment strikes back

A special Republican runoff election was held in Alabama’s 1st congressional district (the incumbent Republican resigned to take a position in the University of Alabama system). It pitted Chamber of Commerce-backed lawyer Bradley Byrne against Tea Partier and businessman Dean Young. The two candidates were neck and neck in the polls going into election day, but a late blizzard of spending by Byrne carried him to victory with almost 53% of the vote. National Tea Party organizations largely ignored the race, a tactical error that could mean the ebbing of Tea Party fortunes in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

The Chamber and other business organizations, as well as leaders of the establishment wing of the GOP, were energized by the government shutdown debacle. Since 2010 they had largely avoided confrontation, hoping to channel the radicals’ passion and energy into promoting establishment policies and goals. Prior to the shutdown, this dual track hypocrisy wasn’t working very well. Maintaining the dual track became impossible when Ted Cruz and Co. brought the federal behemoth to a halt for 16 days, a move that alienated wide swathes of the public, including many Republicans.

It remains to be seen whether the financial clout of the establishment can bring the Tea Party definitely into line. If the establishment fails in this the GOP will remain hopelessly divided between pragmatists and radicals, with electoral doom the result. Should it succeed, the Tea Partiers may just take their ball and go home, with electoral doom the result. To put it in another way, will the Tea Party accept more moderate policies in return for winning elections and gaining power? Centuries of political history tell us the answer is yes. But so far at least this grassroots movement has defied logic and convention. The GOP’s ability to remain a viable force in American politics is, therefore, uncertain.

What comes next?

Are the Democrats also staring into a pit of their own making? Just a month ago, things seemed to be going their way. The shutdown had obscured the botched rollout of Obamacare. The polls indicated widespread public disillusionment with the Republicans, who themselves seemed hopelessly divided. The October jobs number looked pretty good. Then came the second blow to Obamacare: several million people learned that the president’s promise, “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it,” was a bald-faced lie.

The ripple effect was immediate and profound. Obama’s favorability rating, and that of his party, plummeted. Democrats in Congress started peeling off and calling for changes in the Affordable Care Act. Public faith in government action as a force for good took yet another hit, and a big one — something that can only hurt the party of government. Obama himself appeared pathetic as he tried to explain his playing fast and loose with the truth. Does this portend an unraveling of the Democratic Party, with major consequences for 2014 and ’16?

Christie would find very rough going in the Republican primaries. He’s little better than a Democrat to Republican voters in such places as Iowa and South Carolina.

Probably not. The Obamacare storm is likely to blow over. A return to the pre-Obamacare healthcare system would not mean healthcare bliss for most of the uninsured, for people with pre-existing conditions, for parents whose children are unemployed (official youth rate unemployment is currently around 15%) and therefore dependent upon them for healthcare. Despite declining faith in government across almost all demographic groups, the great majority of Americans are not libertarians or rugged individualists. They want a certain amount of protection from the cold, cruel world and the powerful forces that inhabit it. The Republican Party, which is the party of less (though still big) government, has lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. Although it has a majority in the House of Representatives, it actually lost the total vote for Congress by five percentage points in 2012.

The Democrats have certainly been hurt to some extent. While they had very little chance of recapturing the House in 2014, any hopes in that direction have now been definitely dashed. The Senate, which appeared safe only a few weeks ago (despite many more vulnerable Democrats than Republicans being up for reelection), may now be in play again.

2014 may then turn out to be a better than expected year for Republicans, though by no means a repetition of 1994 or 2010. How much success the GOP has will depend largely upon whether its two wings can come together to fight the common enemy. Of course, many Tea Partiers view the establishment wing of the GOP as the other enemy; at this moment it seems doubtful that many of them will choose unity over ideological purity. To the extent that this proves true, Republican gains will be limited.

And so to 2016. Republican strategist Mike Murphy sees three strong (i.e., electable) presidential candidates in the Republican stable for 2016 — Chris Christie, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush. I’ve already discussed the likely outcome of a Christie candidacy. Walker is not a national figure; he lacks the personality, drive, and money that would be required to make him one. This analyst would be flabbergasted if Walker made a splash outside the Great Lakes region.

Which leaves Bush. Should he run, the whole weight, financial and otherwise, of the GOP’s establishment wing will be behind him. His conservative credentials are superior to those of the two previous nominees. He has an attractive family, including a Mexican-American wife. Polls show that the public is gradually coming to have a more benign view of his brother’s disastrous presidency. All this indicates to me that he can win the GOP nomination for president, if he chooses to run.

An insurgent candidate representing the Tea Party wing — that is, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz — could score some surprising victories in the caucuses and primaries. He could even go all the way, in the absence of a heavyweight establishment candidate. But in that case the general election would end in Goldwater fashion.

The problem for the Republicans, even if united, is that their base of support is shrinking because of demographic trends. Voters who are white, married, and making between $50,000 and $150,000 per year will elect Republican candidates again and again and again. But this demographic is shrinking, while Democrat constituencies are growing. Attempting to combat this trend through voter suppression, as the Republicans have sought to do in many states, is both wrong and impractical. Somehow the GOP must broaden its appeal if it is to survive and prosper.

Hillary is probably the next president, unless she decides not to run. Any other Democrat could be vulnerable, depending upon how badly the Obama administration ends. In the absence of Hillary there is a small chance that Democrats will turn to a far-out candidate, such as Elizabeth Warren. A Warren candidacy would breathe new life into the Republicans.

It seems to me that either Hillary or Jeb will take the crown in 2016. Should both stand aside, we will be in for a very interesting campaign. In any case we should recognize that the best people rarely seek office, while government continues to grow bigger and more intrusive. This is a recipe for more bad things in our future. The decline of the Republic, which began in the mid-1960s (or, more precisely, at Dallas in 1963), will continue.




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Clueless in Seattle

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My hometown, Seattle, has probably elected a Marxist to the City Council.

I write more than a week after election day, and the outcome is still not certain. Washington votes entirely by mail, and counting ballots goes on for days. But the outcome seems more and more likely.

Seattle is the “bluest” part of King County, which is the bluest county in a blue state. The city’s longtime representative in Congress is Jim McDermott, apostle of single-payer health insurance. The city votes 85% Democrat.

Seattle does have a hard-left heritage, if you go back to the General Strike of 1919. More recently, it was in Seattle that anti-capitalist protesters tried to shut down the 1999 ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization, though not all the demonstrators were from here. They chanted the slogan, “This is what democracy looks like,” but it was a false claim. Democrats were what Seattle looked like, for years and years and years.

This is a city of mandatory recycling, of bike lanes and a ban on plastic bags. It was the center of Washington’s push to legalize marijuana. It tried, against state law, to ban guns in city parks. It has just elected as mayor Ed Murray, the Democratic leader in the state senate who pushed through the state’s same-sex marriage law and subsequently married his partner.

None of this quite prepares the city for a councilwoman the likes of Kshama Sawant.

Sawant appeared on the political radar a little more than a year ago. An immigrant from India, she was teaching economics at Seattle Central Community College, which had been a hotbed of anti-WTO activity in 1999. She filed for office as a Socialist Alternative candidate against state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, Democrat.

She held out the egalitarian ideal, he would hold out moves toward it, which she would depreciate as crumbs from the corporate cupboard.

Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Stranger, picked up her cause, suggesting that she also run as a write-in against the other representative in that district, Frank Chopp, Democrat. That was a brassy move: Chopp is the speaker of the House in Olympia, and at the time (when we had a female governor) he was the most powerful man in Olympia. He had a totally safe seat; Republicans had given up running candidates against him.

We have a top-two primary in Washington. Anyone can file for office and identify himself as “preferring” a party, or no party. The top two votegetters, however they identify themselves, go on to the November ballot.

Sawant made the top-two cut against Pedersen and Chopp. The law didn’t allow her to run against both, so she chose the speaker.

She challenged him to a debate. At this debate she blamed him for presiding over all the cuts to social programs the legislature had made during the recession. Chopp is a defender of those programs, and he responded that he had done his best to protect them. He had saved the funding for this one and that one; it was because of him, he said, that 95% of the children in the state had health insurance. Sawant replied that the speaker shouldn’t boast until all children had health insurance. Chopp invited the audience to work with him to provide for that 5%. On it went: she held out the egalitarian ideal, he would hold out moves toward it, which she would depreciate as crumbs from the corporate cupboard.

Chopp debated as a gentleman, an older white man careful of what he said about the younger woman. She was edgier. She had a brassiness alien to Seattle’s let’s-be-nice politics. Her followers, who dominated the debate audience, loved it.

Seattle has no Socialist party that amounts to anything. “Socialist” was a label she pinned to herself. Against the Speaker she took 29% of the vote, which is better than any Republican had done in several decades.

That was 2012. In 2013 she filed against Councilman Richard Conlin. It was a citywide race, because all council seats were at-large (though that has just changed).

Conlin has been a progressive. City government has an Office of Sustainability and Environment largely because of him. He pushed the ban on free plastic bags. Recently, though, he was the one holdout against the city’s ordinance mandating paid sick leave in private-sector employment — not because he disagreed with it in principle, he said, but because he disagreed with the details of it.

Council seats in Seattle are nonpartisan, but everyone knew Conlin was a Democrat; they were all Democrats. Conlin had the backing of most of the important unions, including the politically active Service Employees locals that were pushing a $15-wage ballot measure in the airport city of SeaTac. Conlin was backed by the Asian paper, the black paper, and the Seattle Times; by the Washington Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club; by just about every elected Democrat in the city.

Sawant’s most prominent endorser was Dan Savage, sex columnist at The Stranger. She had a few union locals (postal workers, school employees) and some organizations that sounded like unions (e.g., Transit Riders Union).

And she had grassroots support.

It wasn’t the socialism. Seattle has had plenty of socialists run for office — three others this year, if you count the communist who ran for the Port of Seattle commission. Mostly they just file and sit, raise no money and lose.

I talked to the communist. He said he had gone to hear Sawant speak, and was disappointed that her message was “pure populism.”

“She’s a Marxist,” I said.

“She says she is.”

Sawant wasn’t marketing workers’ revolution. She was advocating specific things: rent control, a tax on millionaires’ incomes (in a state with no income tax), and a $15 minimum wage.

In the richest county in Washington state, she raised more than $100,000 for her campaign. Of her largest donors, the most common occupation was software engineer. Her donors included engineers and other tech types at Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and F5 Networks.

Conlin more than doubled her amount. His war chest was to be expected. Hers wasn’t.

Her red yard signs far outnumbered his. An old political rule is that a yard sign should have no message other than the candidate’s name — a rule that never made sense to me, because such a sign would give no reason for supporting the candidate. Sawant’s signs broke the rule. They said, “$15 minimum wage.”

The gap between top and bottom earners makes a political difference, whether you think it does or not.

Washington already had a $9.19 minimum wage with a cost-of-living provision that would push it to $9.32 on Jan. 1, 2014. This is the highest minimum wage of any state. But the Seattle metro area also has one of the lowest unemployment rates of any US city and some of the highest costs. The economy is strong here. Median house prices have been rising strongly since the beginning of 2012, and have almost cracked $500,000 again. In the neighborhood of the Amazon headquarters a new studio apartment costs $1,500 a month. Obviously, prices are that high because some people can pay them, but there are many who cannot.

The income-equality issue doesn’t ring loudly to libertarians, who are content to respect whatever the market says. But the gap between top and bottom earners makes a political difference, whether you think it does or not. If that gap is not too wide, people will accept it. But it widens, decade after decade, and neither Republicans and Democrats do anything to stop it. The progressives talk about the middle class going away, which a gross exaggeration, but the proportion of new jobs that are middle-income is less than it was. Among recent graduates the technical ones do fine, some of them better than fine, but the political science and English lit grads are working in coffee shops and grocery stores, and they resent it.

They look to the left for political rescue, and in Seattle, the Democratic Party is not the left. It would feel like the left to most Americans, but here the Democratic Party is the establishment. Kshama Sawant is the left. Her cry is to “break the Democratic Party’s corporate domination of Seattle.”

Apparently, she has.


Editor's Note: On November 15, Sawant was declared the winner, with just over 50% of the vote.



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The Wave Breaks

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Kathleen Sebelius’ tardy and reluctant, oh so reluctant, release of the numbers of consumers who have affiliated themselves with Obamacare offered few surprises. For several days, the administration had been leaking estimates (which it then disavowed in public), in an attempt to remove the element of surprise — nay, shock — from the announcement of how few customers have shown up.

The administration now claims that 106,000 of these people have appeared, 27,000 on its own website and the rest through mechanisms set up by the states. The total is said to be one-fifth of those anticipated by the administration, which in early October had celebrated the alleged materialization of “millions” of eager Obamaites.

California, which has its own signup procedure, managed to get 35,000 people enrolled. Meanwhile, one million insurance policies were canceled in the state. Nationwide, over five million policies have been canceled — 50 times more than the 100,000+ customers reported by Secretary Sebelius.

And of course, the administration’s figures are far from wholly truthful. They include in the category of “signups” everyone who has merely “selected a plan,” whether the plan has been purchased or not. Even “Greg Sargent’s take from a liberal perspective” in the Washington Post warned the White House against obscuring the real numbers in this way, but the White House never resists a temptation.

Nevertheless, Sebelius actually had the nerve to say about the ridiculously small success of the program she administers, “The promise of quality, affordable coverage is increasingly becoming reality in this first wave of applicants. We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months.”

King Canute amused the world by stationing himself on the seashore and demanding that the waves retreat. Kathleen Sebelius, the servant of King Obama, now stations herself on the shores of the Potomac and commands a “wave” of helpless people to struggle toward her waiting arms. It is a peculiarly repulsive spectacle.




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A Slave Narrative, and More

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12 Years a Slave is one of those must-see films that you’re glad you’ve seen, even though you can’t say you enjoyed it. It simply isn’t that kind of film. Like Schindler’s List (1993), it’s an important film historically, but it’s difficult to watch, as characters are torn from their families, forced to work at hard labor, and savagely whipped — backs torn open, bleeding profusely. In one agonizingly slow scene a man hangs by the neck for what appears to be several hours as others go about their business in the background. His toes are barely able to reach the mud beneath his feet and he shuffles awkwardly as he struggles to keep his neck above choking. The scene is unbearably long and utterly silent except for the soft buzzing of insects and the mutter of unconcerned conversation in the background as he slowly dances in a circle.

Yet, for all that, this is an exquisitely beautiful film. The camera work by Sean Bobbitt often focuses tightly on unexpected closeups — the backlit hands of a store clerk wrapping a package, or a caterpillar munching on a sunlit leaf. These artistic touches are typical of Steve McQueen’s directorial style, and they provide a vivid contrast to the dark theme of slavery in this film.

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a cultured, educated free black man living with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and their two children in Sarasota, New York, when he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by treacherous men masquerading as his friends. Bewildered and frightened, he is whipped into submission and then sold from farm to farm into increasingly harsher conditions. He quickly learns to hide his literacy and his background as a freeman in order to survive, as it is impossible for him to contact friends and family in the north, and masters feel suspicious of and threatened by slaves who can read and write.

This film chronicles the 12 years that Northup spent as a slave. It is horrifying because he was a freeman kidnapped and unfairly sold into slavery, but the plight of the other slaves is no less horrifying. In fact, all slaves are kidnapped in one way or another — either directly, or by birth into slavery. It is horrifying because slavery was practiced by otherwise liberty-minded American colonists who somehow found a way to justify their “peculiar institution,” often by reading from the Bible. And it is horrifying because it was legal. As abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt) says to a southerner who defends his legal right to own Northup, “Law don’t make it right. What if they passed a law making it legal to buy and sell you?”

Another horrifying aspect of this story of a free man sold into captivity is that it still happens today. So many young men today are wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes they did not commit. Many of them are beaten or terrorized in the interrogation room until they are so frightened and confused that they confess to crimes they did not commit, just as Northup is beaten into a confused stupor in this film when he claims to be freeborn. They languish in prison for 20 years or more, unable even to apply for parole because the parole board requires a declaration of remorse for one’s crime — and how can a man express remorse for a crime he did not commit? I teach in the college program at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison, and while most of the men are indeed guilty of their crimes, several do not belong there. Tears water their pillows at night, just as Northup’s tears water his pillow in the film, because their lives are destroyed by false arrest, false witness, and false judgment. There is a rush to put them away with the justification that “if he isn’t guilty of this, he must be guilty of something.” Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Films are like myths. They often reveal the values, beliefs, and fears of a culture. A few seasons back we saw multiple films about reluctant superheroes alienated from the society they have sworn to protect and weary of their isolating roles. This has been a season of films about the struggle to survive in an unfamiliar environment — an astronaut stranded in space (Gravity), a ship’s captain kidnapped at sea (Captain Phillips), a socialite demoted to her sister’s tiny apartment (Blue Jasmine), and an “everyman” stranded in the ocean (All is Lost), to name just a few. In many ways these films reflect the concerns of our current culture as we struggle to survive in what is an increasingly hostile and estranged America, where instead of being appreciated, individual people (including some of the most successful producers) are beaten down and denigrated.

Although 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story, it is impossible to know what is factually true, and what is substantially true. Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.

It also does not make sense that all the black characters in the film have perfect diction and lofty vocabulary — so lofty that Lupita Nyong’o sometimes stumbles over the uncomfortable sentence patterns. Yes, Northup was highly educated, and many other blacks were educated too. But not in Louisiana. And not field slaves. It would have been more realistic to have written a script that was truer to the vernacular used by slaves in the mid-19th century. But I suppose that would have given rise to accusations of stereotyping.

In his recent article for the Atlantic Noah Berlatsky quotes UNC professor William Andrews’ view in To Tell a Free Story (1988): Solomon Northup’s story was actually written by his attorney, David Wilson. Andrews argued that most, if not all, slave narratives were merely dictated to white writers, who “cleaned up” the diction and made the works presentable in style and language for white audiences. However, Berlatsky would have been wise to read a more recent commentary on slave narratives. Later scholarship presents compelling evidence that many of them were indeed written by the former slaves themselves.

I studied slave narratives as the focus of my masters thesis, “To Tell a True Story” (1993), in which I discuss the purpose, themes, and genres of slave narratives as well as their truthfulness and the difficulty of claiming the authors’ own voices. All these narratives were framed by authenticating documents written by reputable white people who lent a stamp of credibility to the narrators. Of course, many of these supporters were abolitionists with a cause, so for more than a century it was whispered that these white benefactors did the actual writing. “How could an illiterate slave write something as elegant as this?” critics asked. Evidence is rising that the narrators did indeed read — and write. They learned to write well by reading good books and learning from the patterns they found there. But we can never know for sure who put pen to paper, the teller or the auditor. The important thing is that the stories have been told.

12 Years a Slave is a profound film that tells a profound story. It is difficult to watch, not only because of its intense emotion and brutality but because of the guilt it engenders in those who are not black, simply because they are white. Right or wrong, we tend to identify with those of our own race, and it is difficult to identify with character after character who has not a single redeeming quality until Brad Pitt finally appears on the screen as a reasonable white abolitionist. But Schindler’s List was difficult to watch too, for many of the same reasons. Both are brutal, both use nudity to demonstrate the humiliation of their characters, and both are overwhelmingly respectful of their subjects. Both are films you ought to see.


Editor's Note: Review of "12 Years a Slave," directed by Steve McQueen (no — not the blue-eyed blond of Great Escape fame). Plan B Productions, 2013, 135 minutes.



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What? When? Why?

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Exactly what did the president just “apologize” for?

For lying, when he promised, over 30 times, that if you like your insurance you can keep it, “period”?

No.

For saying, as late as Sept. 25, “If you already have healthcare, you don’t have to do anything”?

No.

For misleading people when he said those things?

No.

For causing millions of people to lose their insurance, and other millions to lose their full-time jobs over the insurance issue, caused by him?

No.

For permitting a healthcare delivery system to be initiated despite the fact that the people administering it knew it wouldn’t work?

No.

“You know — I regret very much that — what we intended to do, which is to make sure that everybody is moving into better plans because they want ’em, as opposed to because they're forced into it. That, you know, we weren't as clear as we needed to be — in terms of the changes that were takin' place. . . .

“Keep in mind that most of the folks who are gonna — who got these c — cancellation letters, they'll be able to get better care at the same cost or cheaper in these new marketplaces. Because they'll have more choice. They'll have more competition. They're part of a bigger pool. Insurance companies are gonna be hungry for their business.

“So — the majority of folks will end up being better off, of course, because the website's not workin' right. They don’t necessarily know it right. But it — even though it's a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged . . . I am sorry that they — you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me.”

Huh? If that’s an apology, what is he apologizing for?

And when did he realize that he was, uh, well, uh, uh . . . that he might be somewhat, uh . . . at fault . . . ? Or no, that he needed to . . . maybe . . . uh . . . apologize? . . . Or no, that he needed to say those magic words “I am sorry”? I mean, stick them somewhere in a sentence.

Was it on Oct. 30, when he belligerently claimed that he had never said that if you liked your insurance, you could keep it, period, because what he had actually said was that you could keep it if it didn’t change (because he made laws to force it to change)?

Was it last week and all this week, when his propaganda machine blamed the insurance companies for causing all the problems?

Was it last week and all this week, when his propaganda machine blamed the Republicans for causing all the problems?

Was it when he and his party claimed that millions of people had gone online to sign up for insurance? Or when they kept claiming that the insurance website was entirely cool? Or when, last week, they claimed that it was fully functional, just somewhat “slow”? Or when — even now, five weeks after the disaster began — they decline to tell anyone how many people have managed to sign up? Or when — constantly — they have claimed that Obamacare has already reduced the cost of insurance “for everyone”?

What? When? . . . And why? Does anyone believe that Obama “apologized” because he was sincerely aggrieved to discover that he had done something wrong? In short, does anyone still believe that he has a conscience?

Tell me.




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