Okies in Outer Space

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After last year’s Gravity introduced technological advances that led to cinematic magic on the screen, I couldn’t wait to see Interstellar, this year’s much-heralded space flick. Helmed by master action director Christopher Nolan and with a cast led by last year’s Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, it had every reason to be, well, stellar. That it has taken me two weeks to write this review might give you a hint as to my reaction.

Interstellar is set in a not-so-dystopian future when the military industrial complex has been disbanded, machines and computers are no longer being manufactured, the space program has been closed for refusing to drop bombs, and textbooks proclaim that the lunar landing was a hoax. Anarchy has not led to chaos, however. No dictator enforces tyrannical rule, nor have marauding gangs taken over à la Mad Max. Neighbors play baseball, farmers plant corn, and life seems idyllic — except for the fact that corn is the only crop that will still grow, and gigantic clouds of dirt rivaling those of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s regularly blow through town. Yet no one on earth seems remotely aware of the impending extinction or even has the gumption to move to another part of the country. At least the Okies packed the rocking chair on top of the truck and moved to California to find better fields and opportunities.

I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance. But that part of the film is short-lived.

A few souls do remember the old days. Cooper (McConaughey), a farmer who used to be a pilot, wistfully laments to his children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet), “There was a time when we were explorers and pioneers. Now we’re just caretakers.” When Murphy’s teacher calls Coop to task for telling Murphy that the moon landing really did happen, Coop rightly asserts his authority as a father to teach her what he knows to be true. Freedom of thought, if not intellectual honesty, seems reasonably alive and well in the future, according to this film. As I settled in to watch it unfold, I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance.

But that part of the film is short-lived. Through pseudo-supernatural means, Coop and Murph are led to an underground research lab where former NASA rocket scientists have been working on a project to discover a compatible planet in outer space. They hope to transport the remnant of humankind there. Within hours Cooper is pressed into service as the only pilot capable of flying the rocket, and a couple of days later he is blasting off. Tearfully he hugs his children goodbye, knowing that, because of the effects of traveling beyond the speed of light, he is likely to be much younger than they are when he returns. Murphy is understandably despondent and refuses to say goodbye even as Coop drives away.

Murphy’s refusal to talk to her father is the only dramatic conflict we encounter inthe first half of this nearly three-hour film. No one is hoarding or looting, and everyone seems calm. “The last to starve will be the first to suffocate,” someone shrugs about their future, but no one seems to be in a panic about it. They aren’t even motivated to move to a less dusty area where the climate might still be conducive to agriculture. Without dramatic conflict, the film has about as much tension as a science documentary.

That all changes in the second half of the film, when our space travelers encounter catastrophic forces of nature, mortal combat with crazed enemies, devastating rocket explosions, split-second rescues, and a time-travel sequence that, while implausible, is inventive, suspenseful, and exciting. For the last hour of the film I was right where I wanted to be, on the edge of my seat. But it took way too long to get there.

Ultimately Interstellar is more about an irrational father-daughter dynamic than it is about space travel or saving the world. It suffers from serious plot holes, unresolved character discrepancies, and weak dramatic conflict. The special effects are pretty special, and the second half makes the film worth seeing once. But I wouldn’t want to sit through the first half twice.


Editor's Note: Review of "Interstellar," directed by Christopher Nolan. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 169 minutes at well below the speed of light.



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You Are Perfectly Free to Say Nice Things

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Continuing in its fifth year, the Broadsides series published by Encounter Books consists of paperback pamphlets modeled on 18th-century political pamphlets such as The Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Short and accessible, polemical and jargon-free, speedily produced and mass-marketed, these pamphlets examine any number of policy issues from immigration and climate change to gun control and Obamacare.

Published this year, the 39th book in the series is Greg Lukianoff's Freedom From Speech, a vigorous and cogent refutation of the increasingly popular notion that people have a right not to be offended. Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving civil liberties in academia. His first book, Unlearning Liberty, earned high acclaim from pundits and reviewers with diverse political leanings.

Who gets to decide what is offensive and what isn't? How do we determine who is worthy of such power?

"It seems as if every day brings a new controversy regarding the purportedly offensive remarks of a celebrity, an official, or an ordinary citizen," Lukianoff observes, "followed by irate calls for the speaker to suffer some sort of retribution." He points to Donald Sterling, Phil Robertson, Paula Deen, Gary Oldman, Don Imus, Mel Gibson, Jerry Seinfeld, Isaiah Washington, and Alec Baldwin as examples of public figures whose insensitive statements provoked the ire of the commentariat and set into motion institutional disciplinary procedures that used humiliation as a form of rehabilitation. Having a mean thought and then expressing it, or failing to choose your words prudently, can result not just in your silencing, but in your punishment. And the parameters of approved opinion keep getting narrower. What Lukianoff calls "the thought pattern of the modern American censor" is reducible to this decree: "there must be zero tolerance for anything that anyone might consider offensive, regardless of the context."

This impossible standard raises countless questions. Who gets to decide what is offensive and what isn't? How do we determine who is worthy of such power? By what criteria should allegedly offensive statements be evaluated for acceptability? What's a manageable method for regulating speech if people of every background and belief are prone to offense at some phrase, characterization, or tone? One wonders where all this is heading when the CEO of a major corporation, Mozilla, is forced to resign after it’s revealed that he made (legally permissible) donations to a campaign supporting California's Proposition 8 (a proposition opposing gay marriage). Regardless of one's view of that issue, it shouldn't escape notice that no respectable figure was calling for the president to resign because of his own documented opposition to gay marriage while Proposition 8 was on the ballot in 2008. By what measure does Obama get a pass while Brendan Eich, the Mozilla CEO, gets the boot?

There are no reasonable answers to these questions, only more questions. Lukianoff acknowledges that "what happened to Eich was not an actual First Amendment violation" because Mozilla is a private company, not a government entity, "but that does not mean," Luikianoff avers, "it had nothing to do with free speech."On the contrary, "freedom of speech is a far broader idea that includes additional cultural values" that warrant debate and study, not silencing and condemnation. Only through the rigorous filtering mechanisms of longstanding deliberation and civil confrontation can good ideas be sorted from the bad. Only by maintaining disagreement at a rhetorical and discursive level can we facilitate tolerance and understanding and prevent the imposition of ideas by brute force.

Lukianoff's primary target is American higher education and such strange phenomena as the now-frequent "disinvitations" of speakers and the "trigger warnings" for course materials deemed upsetting. The problem is not limited to American colleges and universities — other countries and other entities have their own varieties of censorship — but the censorship culture tends to emanate from American institutions of higher education, where eager and impressionable students are easily conditioned to believe they are doing the right thing by removing from their purview ideas they don't like. The irony is that young people believe they're dissenting when they quash dissent, usually at the behest or encouragement of faculty and administrators who enjoy positions of authority.

Build thick skin; develop counter-discourse; sharpen your own mind and rhetoric. But don't put the institutional muzzle on free expression.

Students above all will benefit from Lukianoff's quick and informative read. They'll learn that intellectual comfort is dangerously close to unthinking laziness and that censorship is not a matter of "left" versus "right," "liberal" versus "conservative," or any other simplistic, polarizing signifiers that dumb down constructive debate or prevent it altogether.

Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from speech. Rather than learning how to avoid offense at all costs, academics, professional victims, and those pretending to be academics and victims ought to learn how not to take offense, how to handle offense in healthy and productive ways, or how to intelligently, rationally, creatively and convincingly rebut arguments and positions with which they disagree. Build thick skin; develop counter-discourse; sharpen your own mind and rhetoric. But don't put the institutional muzzle on free expression.

We all on some level wish to live out our days serenely and swimmingly, away from opposition and complacently content with our limited experience and cherished presuppositions. It's work, after all, to defend our convictions and justify the actions that our beliefs inspire us to take. The fact of the matter, however, is that we cannot progress without overcoming challenges. If universities are places that cultivate critical thinking, as they claim to be, they must welcome a range of values and opinions. Freedom of speech cannot mean freedom to suppress the speech of others. A freedom that is divisible or available to a preselected few is no freedom at all. Lukianoff realizes this. His organization combats censorship in its many manifestations on a daily basis.

As battles over university censorship continue, keep your eye on Lukianoff. He’ll be on the front lines. “The fight for freedom of speech has never been easy,” he says, adding that “it will be a hard battle indeed.” More than a few readers of this book will be ready to enlist. Mr. Lukianoff, reinforcements are on their way.


Editor's Note: Review of "Freedom From Speech," by Greg Lukianoff. Encounter No. 39, Broadsides. Encounter Books, 2014, 61 pp.



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Missouri, Compromised

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American political rhetoric is often like American politicians themselves: bland, oblivious, tone-deaf, and inimical to the cause of liberty. Whenever they say stupid things, we mock them for it, and justly so. But there’s another type of political rhetoric less entertaining but often far more harmful: the plain speech of the authority figure refusing to do anything which might in any way challenge the structure of which he is part. This is what we saw last night (Nov. 24) when St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced to the press that the grand jury convened by his office had decided there was no probable cause to pursue charges against police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown.

Anyone tuning in could be forgiven for thinking that McCulloch was actually speaking for the defense. For more than 20 minutes, he laid out what he saw as the facts of the case, careful to promote the account he found believable—Wilson’s, of course—and to dismiss any others that conflicted with it, all prefaced by an attack on the “24-hour news cycle” that inconveniently demanded facts about a case where very few were made available to anyone outside the secret grand jury proceedings.

In theory, it’s the prosecutor’s job to convene such grand juries so that probable cause might be found, and the case proceed to trial. As Ben Casselman notes, the grand jury is a slam dunk for prosecutors — it is extremely rare for grand juries to refuse to find any reason not to go to trial, except in cases involving police shootings. So how then, in more than 20 years as prosecutor, has McCulloch never managed to successfully recommend charges against a single police officer? It’s not for lack of opportunity.

Anyone tuning in could be forgiven for thinking that McCulloch was actually speaking for the defense.

Potentially, it could have something to do with McCulloch’s father, mother, brother, uncle, and cousin all working for the St. Louis Police Department. Imagine if a case involving a company came before a judge whose entire family worked for that company: if the judge did not recuse himself, it would be grounds for his removal from the bench. Consider also that McCulloch is the present president of The BackStoppers, an organization that funds families of police officers killed or wounded in the line of duty. Of itself, this could be noble work—but McCulloch has been charged by the voters of St. Louis County with pursuing justice, and that means avoiding conflicts of interest or the appearance of partiality. Given his family history, his record of performance on the job, his daily work alongside officers, even his statement that he became a prosecutor because, having lost a leg to cancer as a child, he couldn’t become a cop—one can understand why there were questions raised about his sincerity in presenting this case to the grand jury. And it can definitely help explain why to many, including at least one former prosecutor, it looked like McCulloch had no interest in bringing a case at all.

But instead of recusing himself, McCulloch stayed on, up to the point of calling an inexplicably late press conference to mug for the cameras and urge for “calm” while the Ferguson PD rolled out all the military surplus gear they’ve acquired over the past decade: a troop carrier, sound cannons, riot armor, automatic rifles, and a seemingly endless supply of flashbang grenades and tear gas. (In more typically vapid rhetorical territory, President Obama took center stage soon after to say absolutely nothing whatsoever of substance, while scenes of gassed protestors played alongside him.)

One can entertain reasonable doubts about what happened in the meeting between Wilson and Brown. One could even believe, after considering the evidence as the grand jury supposedly did (in proceedings that cannot be disclosed, by a vote that they are legally obligated to conceal), that Officer Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown at least six times. But I struggle to imagine any circumstance under which one could find it appropriate that Robert McCulloch was wielding that authority and giving that speech last night. Because he was, we got the rare spectacle of an American public figure neither leaning on clichés nor bumbling his lines. No: he communicated, at length, exactly what he meant to say.



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The Good Side of Jonathan Gruber

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News! News as you’ve heard it, 300 times a day, on your favorite radio or TV station: “My Pillow [a kind of, guess what? pillow] is the official pillow of the National Sleep Foundation!” http://www.mypillow.com/

Alas, I am not certain that this announcement achieves its desired effect. Nor am I certain — for similar reasons — that the information one finds in the Wikipedia entry for Jonathan Gruber achieves the effect he wanted.

Gruber, as you already knew, is the man who this month became famous for bragging about the methods by which he and other sponsors of Obamacare fooled the “stupid” American people. We’ve now heard a lot about Jonathan Gruber. In fact, there’s too much Gruber to keep up with — especially in the form of videos that keep surfacing every day, each with its own grinning image of Gruber explaining how he schemed to mislead us all.

What can you say that’s good about a man who considers “rip off” a favorable term?

(By the way, who are the people who hoarded videos of this ugly man and then decided to release them now? Who would want to record a lecture by Jonathan Gruber, a man whose personality most closely resembles a load of wet gravel smacking into your windshield? Maybe he grated so much on the people he thought were laughing along with him that a few of them decided to bide their time and pay him back.)

I could choose many examples of Gruber’s style, but I’ll limit myself to one. It’s from a CBS report (Nov. 21):

“And the only way we could take it on [by “it” he means Obamacare] was first by mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people, when we all know it’s a tax on people who hold those insurance plans,” he explained.

In 2012, Gruber described how former Sen. Ted Kennedy ripped off the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars to craft a universal health bill for Massachusetts.

“The dirty secret in Massachusetts is the feds paid for our bill, okay, in Massachusetts,” Gruber said in the recording obtained by CBS News. “Ted Kennedy and the smart people in Massachusetts basically figured out a way to rip off the feds for about $400 million a year.”

Now, what can you say that’s good about a man who considers rip off a favorable term? Well, if you’re Gruber, you can think of plenty of good things to say about yourself, and some of them have landed on Wikipedia. I assume that Gruber’s Wiki page was written mainly by him, except for the “Controversies” part at the end. That’s the usual way with hacks like Gruber. I picture him hunkering down with a list of his supposed accomplishments and checking each of them off as he feeds it into the Net. This is the result:

In 2006, Gruber received the American Society of Health Economists Inaugural Medal for the best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under. He was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine in 2005. In 2009 he was elected to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association.

In 2011 he was named “One of the Top 25 Most Innovative and Practical Thinkers of Our Time” by Slate Magazine. In both 2006 and 2012 he was rated as one of the top 100 most powerful people in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare Magazine.

It tickles me to imagine a roomful of “professionals” sitting around thinking about whom to name as the “best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under.” Were birth certificates required? Was Gruber’s “medal” supposed to stimulate the other kids in the class to work as hard as he did?

Even funnier is the idea of grown people (or was it interns?) scouring the internet to generate a list of the “most innovative and practical thinkers of our time” (“yes, she’s innovative — but is she practical?”), then devoting all their powers of analysis to knocking the list down to 25. Or did they start with five (of which one was their boss), and work like hell to bring it up to 25? Probably the latter — that’s how Gruber would have gotten in. It’s hard for me to believe that powerful is an appropriate adjective for people in health care, but maybe that’s because I think of healthcare as a field in which you help others, not push them around. An old-fashioned idea, no doubt. But coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence. And feeling proud to be on that list? It’s all rather hard to understand.

But the funniest part of Gruber’s canned biography is a sentence recording the fact that in 2006, “he was named the 19th most powerful person in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare magazine.” It’s one thing to spend your time getting 25practical thinkers or 100 powerful people into the corral; but to rank the cows in the exact order of their potency — that would truly be an absorbing occupation; that would truly be something for the hired hands to puzzle over. “Nope, Chuck — reckon yer wrong. Bossy, thar, she ain’t quite so powuhfull as ol’ Thundercud, though mebbe she’s jest a leetle more powuhfull than Fatty Pie genrully is.”

Coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence.

Must have been hard to decide. But the existence of these bizarre competitions does throw some light on the video performances that made Mr. Gruber famous. When he bragged about fooling the voters, he was behaving as the 19th most powerful person in healthcare, and evidently enjoying the role; but when he explained how to rip the voters off, he was competing strongly to be named the 18th most obnoxious person in healthcare.

Ambition is a good thing. Yet Gruber’s powers as a rhetorician will, I am afraid, never get him even to 500th place in a contest for the most eloquent person in healthcare — over, under, or around the age of 40. When the performances by which he appears to have pleased some, if not all, his fellow experts were witnessed by a more numerous but less impressionable audience, and his act was discovered to be (if I may paraphrase Irving Berlin) a turkey that you’d know would fold, he found no better way to placate outraged viewers than to murmur: “The comments in the video were made at an academic conference. I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately and I regret having made those comments.”

One secret of public speaking is not to shoot yourself in the head. If you intend to avoid doing that, you should know — especially if you are a brainy college professor — that a good way of aiming for your head is to say things that will lead almost any audience to think of devastating questions, such as:

Aren’t academics paid to engage in the objective, disinterested search for truth? So if you’re willing to go before an academic audience and brag about misleading the people, what would you say in front of a political audience? If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious? When you say you were speaking inappropriately, do you mean that what you said was wrong? If so, was it wrong in the sense of not being true, or wrong in the sense of turning out to be embarrassing? What do you mean by inappropriately — inappropriate to what?

Obvious questions, easily anticipated. And to answer most of them would probably get you in even deeper trouble than you were in before. Gruber hasn’t answered them. But he doesn’t need to, because the national audience he must have longed for all his life has already found the answers, without his help.

Such is the ignorance and illiteracy of our leaders that until now, Gruber’s sub-500th-rate rhetorical skills have not limited his political influence. According to Wikipedia,

In 2009–10 Gruber served as a technical consultant to the Obama Administration and worked with both the administration and Congress to help craft the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as the ACA or “Obamacare.” The act was signed into law in March 2010, and Gruber has been described as an “architect”, “writer”, and “consultant” of the legislation. He was widely interviewed and quoted during the roll-out of the legislation.

Both Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi expressed their respect for Gruber’s talents. Today, however, Obama is dismissing Gruber as someone who never worked for him, and Pelosi is commenting in an even more dismissive way:

Mr. Gruber's comments were a year old, and he has backtracked from most of them. You didn't have it in your narrative. That's really important. He is not even advocating the position that he was at some conference and some said. So I don't know who he is. He didn't help write our bill. With all due respect to your question, you have a person who wasn't writing our bill, commenting on what was happening when we were writing our bill, who has withdrawn some of the statements.

If you want to check that quotation, it’s from an article by David Weigel at BloombergPolitics, Nov. 14. No matter how hard it is to understand, those are the words Pelosi used. Her employment of “so” is really a puzzler. Does the House minority leader mean to say that because Gruber allegedly “backtracked,” and because “Gruber’s comments were a year old” (were also presents a difficulty: how old are they now?), and because “some said” (what did they say?), she doesn’t “know who he is”? In 1984, unsuccessful politicians became unpersons. In Pelosi’s universe of discourse, they become “Mr. Gruber,” who is “a person,” which sounds even worse than an unperson, somehow.

If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious?

Fox News sent one of its guys, David Webb, to lie in wait for Gruber and ask him if he had really backtracked on the idea that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. . . . Call it the stupidity of the American people or whatever.” This was their exchange:

David Webb: “Professor, do you think the American people are stupid?”
MIT Professor Gruber: “No comment.”

Gruber has realized that there are certain occasions on which even a genius like him should shut his mouth. If he continues this clever strategy, he has a chance of becoming the 499th most powerful rhetorician among healthcare hacks. And the rest of us will hear less of the word inappropriate.

So much for Professor Gruber. Inspired by the political season of 2014, which has been coextensive with calendar year 2014, I’ve put together a list of terms that, like inappropriate, should take a long vacation from the American vocabulary:

  • Americans are tired of gridlock in Washington: I’m not tired of gridlock, and I bet you aren’t either. If Americans were offered a choice between having Congress and the president agree on new laws, or having them caught in a literal gridlock from which their chauffeured vehicles could not escape, my prediction is that 90 percent would choose the latter.
  • Bucket (“bucket of proposals,” “bucket of states that Hillary might carry in 2016,” to say nothing of “bucket list” — things you want to do before you kick the bucket): How vulgar can you get?
  • Double down: Once is enough.
  • Fighting for the middle class(“We’re going to continue fighting for the middle class” — Harry Reid): Starting with George Soros.
  • Income disparity: A term used by people who want everyone to be paid $15 an hour, and no more.
  • Pivot(“The president pivoted to foreign policy”): What do you think of people who are always changing the subject?
  • Shellacking (“The president took a real shellacking in the November election”): That is to say, the president was varnished with a purified lac dissolved in denatured alcohol. Slang should be more descriptive.
  • The people want us to work together, the people just want us to get things done, etc.: Propaganda slogans used by Democrats to get Republicans to concede to them.
  • Vote suppression: Keeping the other party’s voters from voting twice.
  • We are a nation of immigrants: Is that supposed to be an argument?
  • What this election is really about: Whatever your talking points are.

I am considering additions to this list, and I would appreciate readers’ contributions. One of my own candidates is unacceptable, a useful word but perhaps, like red states and blue states, a little too useful for its own good. This month, the people who run Obamacare discovered — actually, their critics discovered — that they had misestimated, by a mere 400,000, the number of people who signed up for the program. And guess which way they misestimated? Right! They overestimated. According to Reuters, the administration’s flack-catcher on this issue, a haggard person named Sylvia Burwell, responded as follows (on Twitter, naturally): "The mistake we made is unacceptable. I will be communicating that clearly throughout the [department]."

Well! That’s telling ‘em. They’ll never do thatagain. It’s unacceptable.




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Hong Kong in Context

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Taking a casual survey of American political rhetoric, one would suspect that we were at the dawn of a new age — or at least that this nation had a poor memory. Somehow everything has become unprecedented. Unprecedented healthcare reform; unprecedented opposition to healthcare reform; unprecedented Republican victories in the midterm elections; unprecedented demonstrations in Hong Kong. But China has a long memory.

The recent protests in Hong Kong have adhered to the choreography of Chinese politics in at least one important respect: the Communist regime has accused its political opponents of being unpatriotic. Xinhua, the state news agency, recently published a commentary denouncing celebrities who supported the protests for the putative crime of challenging the authority of the Party, and — by a heroic leap of logic — of betraying a lack of love for the motherland. CY Leung, the Chief Executive, has accused foreign actors of orchestrating the demonstrations. He did not specify who these foreign actors were, but we all know that he means the United States, as if we weren’t content with the existing friction in bilateral relations and decided on a whim to make life more difficult for the Chinese government.

The democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong should be framed, by them and by their friends abroad, not in terms of their unique identity, but in terms of universal values that all Chinese can share.

Such hamfisted tactics could be dismissed, were it not for the real danger that the accusations might actually be taken seriously. There is an ugly history of antagonism between the people of Hong Kong and their estranged brethren on mainland China, inspired by subjects ranging from the status of the Cantonese dialect to patriotic education to reports of tourists doing unseemly things in unseemly places in Hong Kong. To people from mainland China, the aloofness of people from Hong Kong often smacks of arrogance and snobbery. But the Chinese can put up with snobbery. It plagues Beijing and Shanghai, and nobody seems to mind. In the case of Hong Kong, the danger is that the protests may be viewed in light of this antagonism and interpreted as a posture of “more-democratic-than-thou.”

Hong Kong has always been viewed as an enclave of wealthy, westernized Chinese, enjoying a wide measure of civil liberties that have been resolutely denied to people from the mainland. There is a significant possibility that they will be regarded as spoiled children, not content with their privileges and clamoring for more. The Communist regime will avail itself of every opportunity to cast aspersions on the pro-democracy demonstrators, and any indication that this is a struggle for Hong Kong’s exclusive rights will only serve to alienate it from the rest of China.

The democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong should be framed, by them and by their friends abroad, not in terms of their unique identity — for that would invite references to their former status as a colony of the West — but in terms of universal values that all Chinese can share. To Americans nurtured on the idea of universal values, this should not seem unprecedented.

/p




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The Berlin Wall

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I often travel between Canada and the United States. Typically, I am asked to line up involuntarily at the immigration counter to be interrogated by the officers. The Canadians and the Americans ask exactly the same questions. Where am I coming from? Am I married (for I have brown skin)? What do I do? Where do I live? What is my name? Where will I be staying? How long will I be there for?

The extremely clever minds of the officers process my tone and responses to decide whether I am a terrorist or not.

In Canada, I am often greeted as “Sir.” And when I am tired — after a 20-hour flight — they show some understanding. I expect none of this in the US. In the US, the herd is constantly shouted at to keep them well-behaved.

It is hard to think that these are actually our (public) servants. But given that an individual cannot really change much, one’s knee-jerk reaction might be a preference for the Canadian way.

I prefer the American way.

A long time back I was mugged when crossing a park in Manchester (UK). They addressed me as “Sir” and were extremely polite. When they found fifty pence in my pocket, for I was broke and hungry those days, they returned it and promised me that they would never stop me again. Then they let me go. Lacking perspective, I was lost and confused. I never reported this event. Were they not nice guys? They could have beaten me if they wanted to. At the same time, I was overwhelmed by an unknown, cloudy anger. How could someone who calls me “Sir” have the right to detain me? How could they touch me, physically molest me while showing respect toward me?

Twenty-five years after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, we are proud of the world without it, but now there are many more such walls all around us.

Had they not been nice, at least I would have left sane, with my mind clear, unclouded by conflicting emotions. I would have seen them clearly as robbers.

Do you remember the Internal Revenue Service? Would you not feel clearer about what they did if they did not call themselves a service? No one in his right mind considers it a service department and mostly it incites anxiety, even among the most “law” abiding people.

How many people experience any interaction with “peace officers” without fear?

When I get told what to eat, and what I can do or what I cannot do, should I feel warm about the caring nannies or should I worry about how, through a nice facade, they take over my liberties? Moreover, they attempt to confuse me through Orwellian language and the application of laws that claim to do good to me exactly when harming me.

I prefer the mental clarity and reduced frustration that come from a robber being clear that he is a robber.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western world has become increasingly less free. All our lives are now fully documented and filed in obscure databases. In Canada, if you have a certain savings account (called a tax-free savings account), you don’t even have to file any tax documents. The revenue agency gets all the relevant information directly from the bank. If they don’t like how you run that account, they issue an assessment based on what the bank tells them.

We are repeatedly told that this is all for our own good.

Twenty-five years after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, we are proud of the world without it, but now there are many more such walls all around us. It is merely that we don’t see the walls as clearly and find ourselves confused even if we can see them, for they don’t have the rough facade that the actual wall had. We are presented instead with cuddly, warm, fuzzy facades.

I prefer the American immigration and the real walls. At least I see them for what they are. At least they don’t assault my sanity and confuse my understanding of morality.

I prefer that when I am raped, it is done in a way that I don’t enjoy.




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Apocalypto-World

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Opponents of libertarianism often make its adherents sound deadly dangerous. They speak as if, at any minute, libertarians might seize absolute power, changing life as we know it in cataclysmic ways and at supersonic speed. Dire warnings are issued of the apocalypto-world, Mad Max society we would create. The poor would starve in the streets, children would wither from lack of nurture, rabid dogs would tear us to bits, people would be perpetually naked and stoned and copulating in public and nobody would even care. Where the hell does this stuff come from?

It comes equally from the statist left and the statist right, from everyone who buys into the notion that if government doesn’t do absolutely everything, absolutely nothing will get done. The fact that for the vast majority of human history, government didn’t do most of the things it does right now is entirely forgotten.

Some libertarians contribute to this by talking as if we could, or should, make dramatic transformations simultaneously and in the blink of an eye. But of course, any change we influenced could only happen gradually. And once implemented, every step would also need to succeed very rapidly, or it would be even more rapidly reversed.

The fact that for the vast majority of human history, government didn’t do most of the things it does right now is entirely forgotten.

If a full libertarian agenda were enacted all at once, we would be in trouble. Our society has become so corrupted, degraded, and infantilized that we probably wouldn’t be able to deal with it. We have, indeed, come to depend on government to do everything for us except think. And government wantsto do that for us, too. But in order for a nation with limited government and a reliance on personal responsibility to survive, people must once again be willing to do for themselves all that countless generations did far better than government ever could.

The process wouldn’t be like that of children growing up. It would be like that of adults who, having suffered debilitating brain injuries, must be rehabilitated to full functionality. The difference is that we have suffered injuries not so much to our brains as to our spirits.

It isn’t the nature of libertarians to rule over everybody and everything. If we did that, we would no longer be libertarians. The most we really can do is exert an influence. If that influence is great, it will open a wider space for experimentation, to verify what works and what doesn’t. The best ideas, once proven, don’t need to be forced.

Most libertarians actually know that our agenda could never be enacted all at once, nor do we all agree about what the agenda should be. I wish we did a better job of assuring people that we can’t flip a switch, wave a wand, or cast spells with a wiggle of our nose, like Samantha on Bewitched. A libertarian transformation of society could indeed be enacted only over a long period of time. People opposed to it would have to fight it, be won over, and — perhaps hardest of all — get used to it.

Government does everything it can to discourage us from taking care of one another.

Behind the fear of a libertarian nose-wiggle is the notion that if government doesn’t force people to do good things, they simply won’t do them; that when they’re not being bullied by thugs with a license to kill, human beings are incapable of responsible behavior. According to this view, we are toddlers who will need Mommy, Daddy, Nanny, and Teacher all our lives.

I beg to differ. We are perfectly capable of cooperating peaceably with one another, engaging in trade, and caring for those who need our help. Government of some sort will always be necessary to protect us from force and fraud, but when it attempts to do anything beyond that it inevitably becomes a nuisance, and generally something worse than a nuisance. Then it does more harm than good. Though we’re always being told that government makes us virtuous, what it actually does is degrade us morally. Its constant warnings of our irresponsibility, infantilism, and decadence become self-fulfilling prophecies. Government does everything it can to discourage us from taking care of one another. It breaks us of the habit of spending on behalf of our families and communities by taking our money and spending it for us — often on things we don’t want. It tells us, again and again and again, that we can’t take care of ourselves or each other, that we’re too stupid to know what’s best and that we can’t run our own lives until we begin to believe what it says.

Increasingly, however, instead of helping us to do good things for each other, government is actually keeping us from doing them. Thus municipalities levy fines against churches for feeding the homeless, or for taking them in, to save them from freezing. Law-abiding citizens are now prohibited, in many areas, from defending themselves or their families against violent criminals. The police themselves are rapidly becoming militarized, devoting nearly as much time to preying upon the innocent as they do to protecting them.

It is no longer possible for statists to conceal the emptiness of their claim to be keeping us safer or making us better. In fact, they barely bother trying to hide their intent to control us. In pushing their authority, they are in-our-faces brazen.

The people who actually do the work in this country are merely expected to foot the bill. We have little, if any, say over how the money bled from us is spent. Yet nothing gets my “progressive” friends more apoplectic than my claim that we should be the ones to determine where our money goes. They splutter that it should be spent on behalf of “social justice.” As if that’s what’s happening now.

The common, working American is presumed to be too selfish to use his or her money to help care for those less fortunate. As in imperial Rome, the state has been deified. It is credited with powers of divine benevolence and entrusted with the duties of upholding every worthy cause and providing for our every need.

Big government is expensive. It will inevitably belong to those who can afford to buy or bribe it. This stark reality, which should be obvious even to simpletons, somehow eludes the statist Left.

People built and sustained communities for thousands of years before government decided it had to do that for us. Systematically, the leviathan state has destroyed community. It wants to plan how we live, where we live, and with whom we live. But true community is the nexus between the individual and the larger society, and to function in ways that contribute to human happiness, it must equitably serve the needs of both. That which crushes the individual for the supposed sake of society — micro-managing people so they’ll be good little cogs in the social machine — really serves neither.

Those in other countries who pose a danger to us are often protected and enabled by our own government. Most of the weaponry with which they attack us was manufactured by us. If protecting our own people ever became a greater priority than milking money from us to fund our enemies, the great majority of those who pose a genuine menace to us would be disarmed. If we had more control over how our money is spent, we would certainly spend it on ourselves — and each other — instead of on them.

I suspect that what the powers-that-be actually fear is that we might use our time, talent, and treasure for our own good, and for that of our fellow human beings. That would explain the millions of dollars they’re pumping into the corporate media to warn us how dangerous and irresponsible we are. A hell of a lot of capital is being invested in telling us to trust our self-proclaimed (and handsomely-funded) betters, instead of trusting ourselves and each other.

Big government is expensive. It will inevitably belong to those who can afford to buy or bribe it.

If we truly got the chance, once again, to work together unimpeded by government restraint, we could put to constructive use all that progressivism genuinely has to teach us. Would some use their freedom to do things of which others disapprove, and that would, perhaps, even be self-destructive? Of course they would. But those who did so would lack the government-backed brawn to force themselves on all the rest of us, or to dump the consequences of their irresponsibility on us.

The nervous nellies can relax. Libertarians have great confidence that our way is the best way. And we have reason to hope that someday, even many of the most dogged skeptics will come to realize it, too.

Those opposed to our ideas seem very much afraid that our influence could succeed. They don’t dare to even let us think so. But a world in which statist control freaks don’t rule over everyone else would be an apocalypse only for them.




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Canada’s 10/14

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Two recent events in Canada have taken over the emotions both of Canadians and of people far and wide. In a more rational world these might not even have been news, but in our world they have become very big news, largely for the wrong reasons: the victims were in uniform and there is an association with Islam.

Americans and Canadians have been so conditioned to fear Islamic influence that even minor events related to Islam suddenly appear to be all that matters. They also forget that those in uniform take up jobs in which their lives may actually be at stake. Ironically, deification of the uniformed means that any death among them becomes the cause of hysteria.

The state never loses an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. The indoctrinated, infantile population, deep in their being expecting a utopia where no one ever dies or even gets hurt, must beg and plead for a bigger state, more reductions in privacy, and a ramp up of war.

Ironically, deification of the uniformed means that any death among them becomes the cause of hysteria.

In league with the United States, Canada has unilaterally declared war on several states or state-like entities in the Middle East, most recently on ISIS, an organization that no one, not even the “all-knowing” US spy agencies, had a clue about a few months back but that, ironically, for the convenience of the English speaking populace, has given itself an English name rather than scarier ones such as Abu Sayyaf, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Al-Shabaab, etc. The Taliban and al Qaeda are now old-fashioned. If what we have been told about ISIS is to be believed, it is trying to take over a region where what is supposed to work politically in the United States has not worked. Having removed Saddam Hussein, who kept stability and sectarian violence at bay, the US created massive chaos in the region.

The whole iteration of implanting democracies, removing democratically elected Islamists, funding and arming rebels who then become inconvenient, then going back through the sequence again and again, forever churning out more insecure sociopaths, hasn’t convinced the US that it should leave Iraq and Syria alone to deal with their own problems, organically evolving their own institutions, as Hayek would have suggested. The US and its groupies, Canada and the UK, must decide how others should live.

To say that there has been a lack of perspective concerning subsequent events would be putting it mildly. In Canada, the two murderers had opportunities to kill a few civilians on the way; they didn’t. Moreover, the fact that there was only one crazy who was involved in entering the Canadian parliament shows that he was unable to find more to join him in his “jihad.” Making the next step a rational response is too much to expect from indoctrinated Canadians. They will do exactly the opposite. They will work to increase the size of the state and its military effort. The guy working at Starbucks worries about the lack of driving rights among women in Saudi Arabia, not knowing that it is a US protectorate. In a generalized fear of all the strange things he hears, he sees massive civilian deaths by US drones as mere collateral damage; he acquiesces in the idea of killing women and kids to bring more freedom to women and better education to kids. People who are indoctrinated emotionally lose their bearings and their foothold on reality — and when it comes to the crunch, Canadians, the more indoctrinated and socialistic people, will exhibit a worse side than Americans.

We are constantly profiled, fingerprinted, photographed, and traced by our governments. Can writings like this be forbidden?

Stephen Harper will not let this overblown crisis go to waste. If sanity prevailed, Canadians would be protesting their entanglements in Iraq, Syria, etc., which have had horrible unintended consequences. But expecting rational actions would be asking for the impossible.

Post script: We must all watch what we say these days. What one says or writes ends up in the NSA or similar meta-databases. We are constantly profiled, fingerprinted, photographed, and traced by our governments. Can writings like this be forbidden? The Canadian government is contemplating a law to make it illegal for anyone to sympathize with terrorists. What “sympathy” means will of course be left to the judgment of the bureaucrat. My guess is that Canadians will take the pill of increased slavery without a murmur.

We often forget that governments can actually get away with a lot more than they do. The reason they do not increase regulatory control is not so much a fear of resistance from the citizens as a fear of hurting the economy, and hence their tax collections, as well as a realization that heavy-handed laws may increase corruption and the fragmentation of their control mechanisms, defeating the whole purpose. They always tread the thin line that helps them maximize control, tyranny, and privilege.




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Putting the Art in “Art Film”

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What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981) is one of Raymond Carver’s most significant short stories. Four characters — two couples — sit around a kitchen table talking about — well, talking about love, in all its manifestations, but never actually communicating what they mean in a way that the others can understand.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence) stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an aging actor best known for his cinematic superhero alter ego, Birdman. The film could just as easily be titled How We Act When We Act as Though We Aren’t Acting. It’s a forgivably self-indulgent self-study of the art of acting, portrayed by some of the least celebritized actors in the business.

Like many celebrity movie stars today, Thomson is trying to shake off his stardom by treading the boards of Broadway. He has been pigeonholed by his fans as the Birdman and is trying to escape the character that seems to have taken up residency inside his brain. The Birdman talks to him in a voice that is strangely reminiscent of Batman, and seems to give Thomson kinetic powers. Thomson’s daughter in the film (Emma Stone) is often on the ledge of the rooftop, and Thomson is often on the edge of sanity. He sees and hears things that aren’t there, does things he doesn’t do — or does he? We really don’t know.

It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

Keaton portrayed Batman in two Tim Burton films almost a quarter of a century ago, so it’s easy to make a connection between him and the character he plays in this film. Keaton is a fine but reclusive actor, choosing his projects carefully, and mostly choosing not to work. Yet he has said in interviews that Riggan Thomson is the least like him of any character he has played — and he has played a lot of unusual characters, including Batman, Beetlejuice, and the Multiplicity clones.

The film is set in the St. James Theater on 44th Street, where Thomson is writing, directing, and starring in a “serious” Broadway play based on the Carver story. Art imitates life imitates art as characters break character within the play and actors occasionally break character within the film, making the audience intently aware of the difficulty of both filmmaking and playmaking.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wanted to film this movie in the way a play is made — live, uninterrupted, all in one take, mistakes and all. After discussing the project with stage and film director Mike Nichols, he realized he would need to settle for several long takes of 15 minutes or more rather than one two-hour take, and it was a good compromise. The camera work is stylized and unsettling without calling undue attention to itself. Instead, it recalls the unsettled and stylized state of Riggan Thomson’s fragile mind. For example, the camera climbs the walls to get from a sidewalk shot to a rooftop shot, preparing the viewer to accept Thomson’s ability to reinhabit the Birdman’s power of flight — for real. Or as real as acting can be. At one point the camera just sits in a hallway, waiting for Keaton’s character to come into view. Perhaps Inarritu intended it this way. Perhaps Keaton was late for his entrance. Either way, Inarritu left it as is, instead of editing it out. It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

In the Carver story, light plays a significant but subtle role; the room is light while the four friends are talking, but light gradually leaves the room as it becomes apparent that they will not be able to articulate sufficiently what love is. They can talk about love; they can feel it individually when it happens; they can share stories that seem to express it, but they can’t explain or define it for someone else. They talk about stories and examples that seem to prove what love is, but they discover that language is insufficient to express what they mean. In the film, music seems to take the place of light. The film’s soundtrack alternates between lush symphonies by Mahler, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff and a cacophonous interpretive jazz drum piece created brilliantly by Antonio Sanchez. The music is one of the best components of the film, conveying the changing moods of the character as he soars and frets, yet insufficient for expressing what Thomson is really experiencing.

Birdman is not a mainstream film. It’s not even a standard indie film. If you’re looking for an absorbing plot or wacky entertainment, this isn’t it. But it’s a fascinating piece of art and well worth watching.

How do you act when you act as though you aren’t acting?


Editor's Note: Review of "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence)," directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Twentieth Century Fox, 2014, 159 minutes.



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Six Reflections in Search of an Election

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1. So many wonderful entertainers perished on the stage this Tuesday! And I will miss them all. Mark Udall, who pushed women’s issues so hard in his campaign for senator from Colorado that respectable people called him Mark Uterus. Martha Coakley, who ran for governor of Massachusetts with but one purpose — to make everybody laugh — and fulfilled it brilliantly. The two successive Democratic candidates for Senate from the state of Montana — a retired Army officer whose response to his allegedly traumatic service in Iraq was a mad career as plagiarist, and a math teacher who doubled as a far-left video blogger, specializing in inane satires of people she disliked. And is Alison Lundergan Grimes, former Democratic candidate for US Senate from the Commonwealth of Kentucky, still bound by professional ethics not to reveal how she voted? Will we be forced to guess whether she voted for herself on Tuesday, or bolted to Mitch McConnell?

2. The Clintons lost 31 of the 48 races they campaigned in.

3. When Carl DeMaio, an openly gay candidate, campaigned for Congress in a notably non-gay district, the 52nd in California, he received no national attention — because he’s a Republican. The votes are still being counted, but he will probably win. As I write, the results of this election are still in doubt, the 52% of votes that were cast with absentee ballots not having been counted. You know how efficient the government is.

What kind of role would Barack Obama play in a political system that had no effective checks and balances? What internal checks would keep him from becoming a dictator?

4. All the political commentary preceding this election emphasized the extraordinarily large number of extremely close major races. Yet in most instances, Republicans won by margins ranging from the substantial to the stupefying. Are people lying to pollsters? If so, why? Are the polls weighted against the Republicans? Or is polling (perish the thought) not yet fully predictive, or even snapshot accurate?

5. Ask yourself what kind of role Barack Obama would play in a political system that had no effective checks and balances. What internal checks would keep him from becoming a dictator? None; none at all. We know that whenever he has been able to wield dictatorial power, he has wielded it; and he has proudly promised to do even more of that after the election. You can ask yourself the same thing about many of the people who have surrounded him as advisors, and about such elected leaders as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

If nothing else, this election served the fundamental purpose of denying absolute power and apparent legitimacy to such people as that. You may feel intellectual contempt for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner — everybody does! But they notably lack the dictatorial temperament. And even if they didn’t, the victory of their party at both state and national levels means that dictatorial power has received a mighty check.

6. Albert Jay Nock, who is commonly regarded as a founder of libertarianism, wrote an autobiography entitled Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. Could today’s libertarians write similar accounts of our own lives?Certainly not. Libertarian ideas are everywhere in American society. They set much of the agenda of the two major parties, from legalization of drugs to reduction of taxes. The problem, of course, is that the ideas are inadequately distributed, that each of the parties has only half the libertarian agenda — Democrats, generally, the civil libertarian side, and Republicans, generally, the financial libertarian side — and that each of them fills the missing, nonlibertarian side with ideas so bizarre that one can only greet them with laughter (on one’s way to jail, perhaps).

Libertarians who throw elections to the more aggressively statist of the two major parties, which at the moment is the Democratic Party, are voting for that aggressive statism.

So we libertarians are no superfluous people. But if the Libertarian Party were to write its autobiography, Memoirs of a Superfluous Org might now be an appropriate title.

In this election, most LP candidates drew, as usual, very small numbers of votes. In a handful of states, however, their performance was notable. As I write, Robert Sarvis, LP candidate for Senate in Virginia, holds (with 2.5% of the counted votes) the balance between the Republican and the Democratic candidates, who are separated by 0.5%. If you believe survey results (see above), Sarvis drew more from the Republican than from the Democratic side, and may, when all votes are counted, have cost the Republicans the election. Certainly this was what the Democrats in Alaska thought, when they helped out the LP candidate in an attempt to deflect Republican voters. Yet the polling about Sarvis and about Sean Haugh, LP Senate candidate in North Carolina, indicates a grab-bag of voters, holding views on virtually every side of every issue.

As readers of these pages know, I am a dedicated proponent of voting for the lesser of the two evils. If you don’t vote for the lesser evil, you increase the chances of the greater evil. So Libertarians who throw elections to the more aggressively statist of the two major parties, which at the moment is the Democratic Party, are voting for that aggressive statism. According to me. But everyone can see the fallacy of the idea, constantly urged, that the Libertarian Party wages “educational” campaigns. Throwing an election to a party you loath is not educational, and if you don’t even get enough votes to throw an election, how educational have you been?

By the way, I am a registered Libertarian.




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Election 2014: The Ballot Measures

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Libertarians should take encouragement from some of the ballot measures in the Nov. 4 election:

Medical freedom

Arizona voters passed Proposition 303, which seeks to allow patients with terminal illnesses to buy drugs that have passed Phase 1 (basic safety) trials but are not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

To libertarians, this is an old and familiar cause and one in which it is easy to find allies if people are paying attention, which most times they are not. The movie Dallas Buyers Club provided an opening, and this year legislatures in Colorado, Missouri and Louisiana passed what are now called “Dallas Buyers Club” laws. In Arizona, the cause was promoted by the Goldwater Institute.

Opponents have said that such laws will give many terminal patients false hope, which is surely true. But it is better to give 90% false hope if 10% (or some other small share) obtain real benefit, if the alternative is an egalitarian world of no hope for all. And it ought to be the patient’s decision anyway.

What the FDA will do about the “Dallas Buyers Club” laws is a question; as with marijuana, the matter is covered by a federal law, if one of questionable constitutionality. At the very least the Arizona vote, a whopping 78% yes, should give other states, and eventually Congress, a political shove in favor of freedom.

Marijuana

Legalization measures were first passed in 2012 by the voters of Colorado and Washington (the two states that had the Libertarian Party on the ballot in 1972). They have been followed this year by the voters of Alaska, which passed Measure 2 with 52%; Oregon, which passed Measure 91 with 55%; and the District of Columbia, which passed a decriminalization measure, Initiative 71, with 65% yes.

Alaska and Oregon were early supporters of marijuana for medical patients, as were Colorado and Washington. When the opponents say medical marijuana is a stalking horse for full legalization, they are right. It is — which means that more states will join Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado.

On Nov. 4 Florida rejected medical marijuana, but only because it required a 60% yes vote. Florida Amendment 2 had nearly 58%.

Taxes

In Massachusetts, which several decades ago was labeled “taxachusetts,” voters approved Question 1, which repeals the automatic increases of the gas tax pegged to the Consumer Price Index.

In Tennessee, Amendment 3, forbidding the legislature from taxing most personal income, passed with a 66% yes vote. Tennessee is one of the nine states with no general income tax, though it does have a 6% tax on interest and dividends, which will continue.

In Nevada, 79% of voters rejected Question 3, to create a 2% tax on adjusted business revenue above $1 million. Proponents called it “The Education Initiative” because the money was to be spent on public schools; opponents called it “The Margin Tax Initiative.” The measure was put on the ballot with the help of the Nevada branch of the AFL-CIO, which then changed its mind and opposed it. Good for them; most people and organizations in politics never admit of making a mistake.

Debt

In Oregon, Measure 86 would have created a fund for scholarship grants through the sale of state bonds. The measure was put on the ballot by Oregon’s Democratic legislature and supported by the education lobby. It was opposed by the founder of the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute and by the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian, because of the likely increase in public debt. It also would have allowed the legislature to dip into the fund for general spending if the governor declared an emergency. In this “blue” state, the measure failed: 59% no.

Regulation

In Massachusetts, which has had mandatory bottle deposits on carbonated beverages since 1982, voters rejected Question 2, an initiative to extend the bottle law to sports drinks, juices, tea and bottled water (but not juice boxes). The vote was a landslide: 73% no.

Abortion

Libertarians are divided on abortion, depending on whether they consider a fetus to be a person. Voters in Colorado rejected Amendment 67, which would have defined an embryo or fetus as a “person” or “child” under state criminal law. The vote was 64% no.

In North Dakota, a “right to life” amendment the state legislature put on the ballot as Measure 1 was rejected, also 64% no.

In Tennessee, voters approved Amendment 1, which asserts state control over abortion but would leave to the legislature what sort of control it would be. Opponents called it the “Tennessee Taliban Amendment.” It got 53% of the vote.

All of these measures are probably symbolic only, because the question has been coopted by the U.S. Supreme Court under Roe v. Wade and later decisions. Still, symbolism can matter.

Alcohol

In Arkansas, where about half the counties are dry, Issue 4 would have opened the entire state to alcohol sales. It failed, with 57% voting no. That’s a loss for freedom if a gain for federalism.

Guns

Washington voters passed Initiative 594 to require background checks for sales of guns by non-dealers. The measure was bankrolled by Michael Bloomberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and a liberal Seattle venture capitalist and given an emotional push by shootings at a nearby high school. Washington remains a concealed-carry state.

Minimum wage

Politically, this is a lost issue for libertarians. On Nov. 4, Arkansas voted to raise its minimum from $7.25 (the federal minimum) to $8.50 by 2017; Alaska, to raise its minimum from $7.75 to $9.75 by 2016, and index it to inflation; Nebraska, to raise it from $7.25 to $9 by 2016, and South Dakota, to raise it from $7.25 to $8.50 by 2015, then index it. These measures passed by 65% in Arkansas, 69% in Alaska, 59% in Nebraska and 54% in South Dakota.

In Massachusetts, voters approved Question 4, mandating paid sick days in private business. The yes vote was 59%.

Governance

In Oregon, voters rejected the sort of “top two” election system operating in neighboring Washington. In that system, anyone can file in the primary and declare their party allegiance, and the top two vote-getters, irrespective of party, advance to the November election, which becomes a run-off. California has a similar system. Little parties like the Libertarian Party hate it, because it keeps them off the November ballot except in some one-party districts.

Oregon voters were offered a top-two system in 2008 and voted 66% against it. This time, for Measure 90, they voted 68% against it.




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New Hope for the LP?

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In advance of Election Day, Liberty managing editor Andrew Ferguson spoke with new Libertarian Party chair Nicholas Sarwark about the state of the party, the prospects for 2014, and what can be done to fight for a future more free.

Liberty: How did you come to the Libertarian Party?

Nicholas Sarwark: I came to the LP, my father was actually an active libertarian in Phoenix when I was growing up, so I've been around libertarians and LP meetings since I was 10 or 12 in Maricopa County, and then I got active in the organized party in ’99 or 2000 in Maryland, was state chair there for a while. Started going to national conventions in 2000, moved out to Colorado in ’08, and fairly quickly ended up vice chair of the Colorado Party.

Liberty: And you all were pretty active there in the pot legalization campaign.

Sarwark: We were right in the thick of it. The proponents of the amendment came and talked to our executive board, we formally endorsed Amendment 64 — no other state political party did that — and then it won overwhelmingly. It got more votes than Obama did in Colorado.

That’s sort of the model for where I’d like to position the party going forward into 2016, where there are these issues that the voters have moved to a certain position, and the LP is at the position or has been at that position since the founding, and the older parties just won’t go there. They’re ignoring their base. Neither the Republicans or Democrats would come out in favor of marijuana legalization; up until Joe Biden’s conversion, even the Democrats wouldn’t come out in favor of marriage equality, even though the LP has been there since 1971. So we need to more aggressively position ourselves on these issues where you have us and the voters on one side, and the old party politicians who are stuck with failed policy positions on the other side.

The Drug War is a perfect issue where, while the old parties may have different tones, they both have a lot of sunk cost with the prison-industrial complex and the police unions and the whole infrastructure built around punishing people for what they put in their own bodies. And it’s just nuts. For too long the LP has played defense on issues like the Drug War, had internal movements that said, “Hey, let’s back off of this, it’s too extreme.” We need to tell people we hate extremism — we hate the extreme position that it’s OK to kick down somebody’s door and shoot their dog and burn their baby in the crib to try and stop them from putting something in their own body. That’s extreme.

I want to take a bit more pugnacious position for the party and make sure that going into the next election cycle, with Rand Paul gaining some traction, that it’s the LP who’s defining what libertarian means, not the Washington Post and Sen. Paul.

Liberty: Looking back at your acceptance statement after the party chair election, you said, If you were a member of the party and left in frustration at something we did or didn’t do, this is your home — sort of a homecoming announcement. What sort of that frustration have you seen or heard about in talking with people?

Sarwark: The biggest frustration that I received and ended up having was I was calling around to state chairs and delegates and people I knew and saying, “I’m going to run for chair, will you support me,” and a disconcertingly large number of them would say, “I think it’s great you’re running, but national hasn’t really done anything to speak of, and I don’t see any reason for me to engage with the national party.” That’s something I’ve heard, that a lot of state parties don’t feel that national provides any kind of added value. National exists to have a biannual convention, nominate presidential candidates, and help those states where the laws are draconian to get ballot access for president; they publish a newsletter, send membership cards, have a website, that’s all they do.

We need to tell people we hate extremism — we hate the extreme position that it’s OK to kick down somebody’s door and shoot their dog and burn their baby in the crib to stop them from putting something in their own body.

A lot of people have been very frustrated that the national party has been, not quite shrinking, but stagnant. And when you contrast that with states like Ohio or Indiana or Georgia or Texas or Colorado, states where there’s a lot of dynamism, and more and more candidates running, and a higher caliber of candidates running, earning more votes each time out, they look at that kind of activity and it’s been kind of a no-brainer to ignore national — it’s there, but who cares?

Liberty: How are you looking at the role of the chair — what are you hoping to do with it, and how might that be different from what your predecessors have done with the role?

Sarwark: The chair, in years past, has not really set a direction or had much vision. If you go back over the last 10 years, there haven’t been that many big initiatives, with the exception of establishing a permanent headquarters — five or six years ago Mark Hinkle started scouting out buildings and raising a building fund, and Geoff Neale picked up that torch, and we had our grand opening back in September, so now we’re one of only three parties who own their own headquarters. And if you go back to the founding, to David Nolan in the living room in Colorado Springs, he would talk about, we’ll never really elect anybody but what we can do is send a message, and maybe push public policy in our direction. We’re past that. We’re not going anywhere, we’re here to stay, we’ve got a mortgage, we’ve got an office, and generally speaking, within the state affiliates, the enthusiasm is in our favor.

But while the states are growing and active, the national party has had flat revenues, and flat membership numbers for about ten years. And it’s during a time when the next generation of voters is, according to polling, pretty much explicitly libertarian, and the state parties are moving forward. So for national to stay flat in that environment is actually a decline.

Liberty: I get the sense of a more libertarian sensibility in the generation that’s coming up now, but that to a lot of them the actual word “libertarian” carries some sort of a taint, or it’s been caricatured so successfully that many wouldn’t identify themselves as libertarian even if it matches their own conscience.

Sarwark: Right. And that’s one of the reasons why we have to rebuild. The idea that we’re either fringe or just some sort of weird branch of the Republican Party who votes along with them, we have to break that. And the only way to do it is to have strong messaging that differentiates us, that relentlessly focuses on what we will do and what we care bout and how it is different.

I draw a lot of my inspiration from the abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, and the idea that human freedom is the overarching principle that is above all others. Our cause is not only just, but of sufficient import that we need to be passionate, we need to be aggressive, we need to be respectful, but also make it clear that we’re not comfortable with leftovers, or only being an option if there’s no one else on the ballot. We’re definitely not comfortable allowing Republicans or non-libertarians to define what “libertarian” means, which happens on the right and the left: you have Rand Paul being referred to as a libertarian while he’s still supporting foreign intervention and a number of other things, but you also have the New York Times or Washington Post writing about this liberal-libertarian cooperation in Congress, but all the supposed cooperation are on completely anti-libertarian policies.

For the national party to stay flat when the next generation of voters is pretty explicitly libertarian is actually a decline.

So it’s a word that we don’t own anymore and we need to show people that we’re serious about showing up for elections and presenting options and a message that is both distinctive and, frankly, sensible. We’ve bought into the bullshit that the major parites have hit us with for so long that we’re somehow the extremists. Anyone who wants to control your life is the extremist. We’re the ones who want you to control your own life. And we need to hit them with that.

Liberty: So in terms of actually reaching out to generations of college students or other young voters who have affinities with libertarian ideals, what sort of outreach will reach them?

Sarwark: We have to lead by example. We are a party for a newer generation — I’m not quite 35 yet, and I’m the national chair. If you look at our candidates, we skew younger. So we show them that if you want a party that is not mean or bigoted, but also isn’t going to try and take your money and give it to old people, then the LP is for you.

That’s what the Pew study and the Reason study have shown about millennials: they’re definitely liberal with regard to social issues like marriage equality or marijuana legalization or racial issues, but when they are polled and asked about government and welfare programs, they turn into super fiscal conservatives. They’re behind the Democrats on being nice to people, but not on redistributing wealth or any of the Great Society programs. And they’re behind the Republicans on a relatively free market and lower taxation, but they just think they’re mean, and so they won’t associate with them. We’re going into a generation where, no matter how good your policy prescriptions are, if you don’t come across as caring and sensitive, you will not win. We can seize on that and — not to take anything away from 2014 and 2016 as elections we will contest, and contest more strongly than we have before — but we can look at ten years out, where we become the second party in a number of states where things are lopsided and one of the old parties has become moribund, and we’re on the ballot in all 50 states and people want our presidential nomination, instead of us having to hunt for people.

Liberty: It’s been fun watching Hillary Clinton try to reposition herself as a real human being who actually cares and is sensitive to anything whatsoever.

Sarwark: Right.

Liberty: So you’re recruiting candidates then, not only for the executive role but also for the downticket elections, who can come off as contribute some media savvy to their candidacy?

Sarwark: We can set the tone from the top, what our priorities are and what kind of message we send, about what libertarians are and what they do. I’m not trying to do any kind of purity purge, or kick candidates out because they’re heterodox on certain issues, but it will be clear over the next couple of years what the libertarian position is on issues. And if there are candidates who deviate, then they will explain how they are different from the rest of the party. The party will not compromise our positions in order to make the candidates more comfortable.

It’s going to be easier and better for candidates who are able to present that kind, caring, compassionate yet completely devoted to freedom message than in the past, we had libertarians who had taken extreme positions for philosophy’s stake, without being able to communicate the human element to those policies. And that’s not what we’re going to do.

The fiscal issues are not winners for us as a party. The Republicans will lie about cutting taxes all day long, and the people who are going to believe those lies are going to pull the lever for Republicans.

We’ve been coming up into this term focused on the idea that human progress comes from cooperation and the free exchange of ideas, and it’s government that holds us back. So our candidates are focused on making concrete proposals where they can say, “If elected, I will cut these programs and thereby increase your freedom.” Whether it’s reducing military spending by 60% or sponsoring legislation to eliminate the Department of Education, we’ll be making testable campaign promises. This flips on its head the approach of old-party candidates who are always afraid there’ll be a hot mic at a fundraiser, and they’ll get caught out saying they’ll do something and then not do it. We’re very purposefully going out and publicly saying, “If elected I will do this thing,” and then going to the old-party candidates and saying, what’s he promising you? Nothing, just empty platitudes. And that’s where we show the voters that if they want something done to actually make their life better, then they need to vote Libertarian.

Liberty: I’ve seen this sort of playbook for dismissing libertarians, there comes a point where — we had the election in Virginia last year, where Robert Sarvis actually made some inroads against the most loathsome pair of candidates you’re likely to run across . . .

Sarwark: Are you’re saying there’s negatives to Cuccinelli and McAuliffe? To an election between a party hack and a bigot?

Liberty: There was this weird moment where all of a sudden, there was this campaign to somehow debunk Sarvis by showing him up as inadequately schooled in Austrian economic theory or other relative obscurities, and all these people came out of the woodwork to say, actually Cuccinelli is the better candidate for libertarians. They respected libertarianism for the amount of time it took to steal it back again.

Sarwark: There’s nothing new under the sun. This is straight out of Rothbard — the whole idea that you can get in bed with the social conservatives because if you have enough money, it doesn’t matter what kind of laws they try to have about what you can do in your social life. And the idea that somehow libertarians are going to turn into such savvy political players that we’ll be able to cut deals right and left in order to hold the Republicans hostage and get something from them.

If you think that yelling at children to make a political point is effective, there’s a really cool picture I have for you from the civil rights era. You’re just an asshole.

That’s been tried and it hasn’t worked. It wouldn’t have worked in Virginia, even with a very bright, photogenic traditional nuclear family candidate who is able to talk to people as people, be smart on policy, and be articulate about those areas in which he deviated from orthodox libertarianism. At the end of the day, he did very well, and he put the lie to this idea that we only steal from Republicans. It was 2-to-1 McAuliffe voters who were voting for Sarvis versus ones for Cuccinelli. No one wants to believe that data because it goes against the notions that they’ve had for decades, but the truth is that where we are positioned in this political climate, we will probably end up taking more voters who would have leaned Democrat because of our support for social issues.

And frankly, the fiscal issues are not winners for us as a party. The Republicans will lie about cutting taxes all day long, and the people who are going to believe those lies are going to pull the lever for Republicans. While we are in fact more committed to fiscal conservatism than any Republican I’ve seen in my lifetime, we don’t need to lead with that. We need to lead with stuff that distinguishes us and creates that unique selling proposition for who libertarians are, and how we are different. We really support freedom, all the time; all your freedoms, all the time, and we don’t make you pick what is important to you. One of the things that has worked well for activists in Massachusetts is marching in the Pride Parade with a big banner that says “Freedom to Marry and Freedom to Carry Since 1971” — we don’t make you pick between your guns and who you love, or between keeping more of your paycheck and whether or not you want to smoke weed at the end of the day. These are not choices you have to make. And the old parties have been saying you have to pick which ones are more important to you? They’re lying.

Liberty: In terms of reaching out to groups with some affinities to the libertarian platform, and then some obvious very strong opposition as well, is it possible to reach out to them? To build issue-based partnerships with, for instance, the Tea Party people in border states, or socialist-leaning Drug War abolitionists in other states?

Sarwark: Drug war abolitionists, yes. Tea Party people in border states, probably not, because frankly they have been infected with this nativist mentality: shut ’em all down, deport ’em, let’s go yell at little kids on school buses. I’m not trying to recruit people like that. If you think that yelling at children to make a political point is effective, there’s a really cool picture I have for you from the civil rights era. You’re just an asshole.

So those are not my voters. But organizations like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, privacy orgs to stop NSA surveillance — we were the only political party to sign onto the coalition letter calling on President Obama to veto the FISA Amendments Act. No other political party has the stones to say it’s not OK for your government to spy on you, because they’re all tied up into the status quo. That’s who lobbies them, that’s who pays their bills. It’ll be a lot easier to move forward on the personal liberties.

The fiscal side gets real tricky, because probably the biggest piece of corporate welfare to come down the pike, the Export-Import Bank, Republicans are all over that. They don’t care to be the party of capitalism, they care to be the party of doling out favors and sweetheart deals, and having a revolving door whereby the regulators become the lobbyists and you can’t tell your players without a program. The places that we’re going to have difficulty making inroads are Chambers of Commerce, and any sort of lefty-leaning group that depends on wealth transfer programs or high taxation for its continued existence.

What I’m looking at is — not to use the term in its historical sense, but in the root definition — a more populist libertarianism. We’re focused on people, normal people, letting them pursue happiness in whatever way they want to, getting the government out of the way.

Demographically, the Republicans are dead. They’re like a gutshot guy just walking around, thinking they’ll be OK, but they’re going to bleed out, and it won’t be that long.

I think there are opportunities to build up more bridges, produce more cooperation, and over these next two years I’ll seek those out, up to and including repairing that bridge that got burnt down between the LP and Cato in 1984. I was 5 years old at the time, so whatever problem they had at that point, that’s done. I have some optimism for that endeavor, given that Ed Crane’s PAC helped out Sarvis’ campaign. So it’s not like they’re philosophically opposed to supporting Libertarians, it’s just that the national Libertarian Party had a trust deficit with its members and supporters, whereby they don’t believe that we do anything or that we have any use. There are a lot of people who are not going to send me any checks unless or until I can show them results, and that’s what I aim to do.

Liberty: We talked about Sarvis — are there any other up-and-comers to keep an eye on in other states?

Sarwark: There’s a lot of really good people running right now. John Buckley’s running for Senate in West Virginia, formerly elected to state house as a Republican, openly gay, very articulate. Our candidate for governor in Iowa, Dr. Lee Hieb, she’s an orthopedic surgeon running a very professional campaign. There’s some really good candidates coming out of Ohio. Julie Fox is running for comptroller in Illinois against some pretty bad odds.

Liberty: They could use some auditing there, not sure if they’re willing to follow through on it though.

Sarwark: She does have to drum on that in her campaign — you could elect an auditor who’s actually a CPA — but clearly their government runs so well without having actual financial people at the helm.

We’ve got a really strong candidate here at the congressional level in my district in Colorado, Jess Loban: a wounded Air Force vet, four kids, salt-of-the-earth guy, frightened the Republicans sufficiently that they sent former gubernatorial candidates to try to convince him to drop out of the race in exchange for a Republican nomination in 2016 — which has just energized him. We are at that tipping point as a party where we’re past ridicule, and we’re moving into fear and fighting. The Republicans in Ohio are passing laws specifically to prevent us from being on the ballot, Republicans in Colorado are either surreptitiously asking over lunch for our candidates to drop out, or in the case of one state house race, a sitting state house member came to ask us not to run a Libertarian candidate in his district and convince us of how libertarian he was, really. They’re reaching out to us now. And they’re desperate. Because the truth is, demographically, the Republicans are dead. They’re like a gutshot guy just walking around, thinking they’ll be OK, but they’re going to bleed out, and it won’t be that long. And they’re desperately afraid of us showing just how bankrupt their policy positions have been when they’re given the keys of government.

What I’m looking at is — not to use the term in its historical sense, but in the root definition — a more populist libertarianism.

The other candidate I should mention — Florida is running an incredibly strong ticket, the gubernatorial candidate Adrian Wyllie went and dared people to arrest him at debates, driving around without a license to fight REAL ID laws, and taking stuff to court. Then over in Pinellas County, Lucas Overby is running a very strong campaign in a two-way race against a sitting Republican, David Jolly, who became just the eighth sitting Republican congressman to come out in favor of marriage equality, a flip-flop that happened less than 90 days into the race. The frustration is then that the media doesn’t acknowledge that the only reason he came out in favor of marriage equality is because he was running against a strong libertarian, who’s another photogenic, kind, compassionate, blue-collar guy who is just going out and showing people that we care more about them than the old parties do, and we want them to live their lives. That’s a message that’s resonating sufficiently that they’re fighting us now.

So I don’t know where the next up-and-comer will emerge, but we’re getting a much better crop of candidates — and with guys like Dan Feliciano in the governor’s race in Vermont, we’re seeing more diversity as well. The states are where the action is, and that’s what I said when I was seeking the nomination for chair: “I want you to elect me to be the least important member of the Libertarian Party.” Because all the action is the candidates running in the local elections, and the state officials who are building up the grassroots. National should set a tone and direction, but without strong state affiliates then there’s nothing.

Liberty: Looking to 2016, do you think we’ll see Gary Johnson or another candidate like him running again, or would you look more to someone who would be a purer LP flag-carrier?

Sarwark: From what I saw of the delegates in 2012 in Vegas, I don’t think the appetite is there for a pure flag-carrier so long as there’s someone with more traditional candidate qualities in the field. Now, a lot can change between now and Orlando in 2016, so I hate to predict. I see Gary Johnson potentially running for the nomination — [note: Johnson has since confirmed that he will seek the LP nomination in 2016] — but I’m heartened by the fact that we’re beginning to see something we’ve never seen in the Party, ever: candidates capable of rising up from inside the Libertarian farm team to seek that nomination. We had Harry Browne before who came out of publishing, we’ve had local elected officials seek the nomination, we’ve had famous activists seek the nomination, we’ve had former Republicans seek it (and maybe forget they had changed party). But we haven’t had a traditional homegrown candidate, with the advantages of being both a hardcore libertarian and having the experience of running a large-scale national campaign.

Liberty: Orlando is an interesting site for 2016. Is it possible to go into a bulwark red state, at least in recent years, and into a city that is one of the more Republican in America, and dig into that base there?

Sarwark: It’s not as hard as it could be, because they’re terrible. So I think Florida is going to be a great place. The party is energized there, and I think the Republicans have taken it for granted for so long that locally I think we’ll do well. Floridians are just tired of that state control.

Liberty: Where would you like to see things as of that 2016 Convention? What would be a really solid couple years of work heading into that?

Sarwark: Where we’re getting frequent media mentions, where they’re coming to us for comment, when they’re not studiously avoiding mentioning our candidates’ names, where millennials with fiscally conservative and socially liberal ideals identify as libertarian. When it becomes the brand, and we position ourselves as clearly different from Sen. Paul — we show people this is where we’re the same, this is where we’re different; he’s a very good Republican, but he is still a Republican, and that carries baggage. And positioning ourselves to get those voters if and when Sen. Paul is beaten back by the Republican machine, much like his father was. The idea that you can fix the GOP from the inside is akin to suggesting that a few good cashiers and line cooks could, with enough motivation, turn McDonald’s into a vegan restaurant. Not going to happen. So if we have significant more name recognition and strong state affiliates who are running good candidates then we’re kind of actively engaged in politics in a way we haven’t been, and that will set us up for 2016 and a well-attended convention launching into a better campaign than we’ve run in the past.

Liberty: Thanks very much for your time, and good luck in the coming elections!



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