Presidential Prelude

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If you got a bunch of people together and asked them, in an average week, what day and time would be the best for picking a presidential nominee, chances are they wouldn’t say “Sunday morning.” Yet here we were, 9:30 ante meridiem, waiting in a hotel ballroom in Orlando resortland, waiting for the assembly to come to order and select a champion.

The candidates milled about shaking hands, checking in with allies, killing time without actually doing much — least of all Gary Johnson, refusing to get beyond generalities other than a specific, strong denunciation of the debate questions the night before. To be fair, the media questions weren’t much more inspiring; many of the outside reporters started coming to me and a couple of others who had been through the event previously to fill in details about what, exactly, was going on.

While the primary system in theory allows broader input from across the country, its actual effect is to concentrate power in the hands of an imperial figure.

The Libertarian convention is a wholly different manner of thing from the Republican and Democratic versions. Because the nominee has almost always been established weeks beforehand, the entire convention gets bent to their caprice; backstage drama is not about who will or won’t head the ticket, but rather who will or won’t be allowed a speaking slot to address the convention — a must for anyone with present or especially future designs on party power. Thus while the primary system in theory allows broader input from across the country, its actual effect is to concentrate power in the hands of an imperial figure. In large part, political beat reporters long for a contested convention for the sheer sake of having something to report on other than mid-level position jockeying and embarrassing ego stroking.

The beauty, and the danger, of the Libertarian model is that every convention is contested. Whatever your advantages going in, nothing can be taken for granted (as Bob Barr learned in 2008) and almost anything can happen (as the entire Party learned with Michael Badnarik in 2004). From an outsider’s view, there was no way that Johnson, with his higher profile, past political experience, and infinitely greater access to media outlets, could do anything but cruise to victory. I wasn’t so sure: while none of the competitors seemed likely to steal away the nomination, they might be strong enough together to make things difficult — if their coalition held. With Johnson straw-polling at about 35–40%, and the next three pulling between 13–15% each, we looked set for at least two or three rounds.

There was a motion to make Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter series into the party’s mascot, because “Dobby has no master.”

With the ballots distributed, we hurried up and waited. The interim between voting and counting was filled, as usual, by a variety of speakers, most of them candidates for Congress or even state office. These are not the operators of the major-party scene; these are people who have entire lives outside of politics: hobbyists and dilettantes, certainly, but ones who care enough to devote their own time and money to a losing cause — whether that be standing up to an incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed, or calling out the tyrannies of opponents on either side. They’re also an incredibly mixed bag: among the convention speakers were Lily Tang Williams, a Senate candidate from Colorado who “grew up eating trapped rat meat in Mao’s China”; Kimberly Schjang, a black lesbian running for the Nevada state senate; Rick Perkins, a Texas candidate about as white as one man can be, who then called up to the stage a black teenager from Georgia who planned to start a “freedom club” at her high school upon returning home. “This is the future!” he said, lifting her hand with his — a great message for whatever TV audience was looking on, though unfortunately far from the defining image it should have been. (And it wasn’t all highlights: choice among the opposite number was Ernest Hancock of the Arizona delegation lambasting the “lame-stream media” for not “getting it,” in front of the largest mainstream media contingent the Party has ever drawn to anything.)

The remainder of the time was taken up with an incessant stream of questions from the delegates, in the parliamentary forms of points of order, information, inquiry and personal privilege. Though often just a guise to promote the Party’s website, phone number, and social media info, these moments can also serve as funny or surreal irruptions amid the more orderly business. Two stood out: one motion to make Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter series into the party’s mascot, because “Dobby has no master” (and by the end of the series, one might note, no life either); and another lamenting the lack of an official song for the convention, which the speaker remedied for himself, at least, by playing a jaunty tune on his harmonica.

At last the tally was complete, and the chairs of each state delegation commenced the finest part of any convention: stepping up to announce vote totals and brag about their state. In the LP, this usually means highlighting defeats of overbearing legislation, or historical points of relevance; for instance: “The great state of Illinois, where we send our governors to prison, casts its votes as follows . . .” Others took a different tack: “Those of us from the state of New Jersey would like to say, We’re sorry . . .” New Hampshire’s chair claimed the state’s high Libertarian percentage would help Granite Staters “survive the zombie apocalypse.”

Witty or otherwise, all the states took a turn; as each was announced, it became clear that Johnson could take the ballot, but it would be very, very tight. Johnson was polling better than 40%, but Petersen and McAfee scored in most states as well, and there was a small but surprising tally for Feldman off the back of his energetic debate performance. All of these appear to have drained a bit of support from Perry, who kept only the hardest core of the Radical Caucus, but still cleared the 5% necessary to carry on. Kevin McClintock came in last with nine votes, less than 1% of the total — which normally would have made him a non-factor, except that in the final count, Johnson lacked only five votes to win outright.

New Hampshire’s chair claimed the state’s high Libertarian percentage would help NHers “survive the zombie apocalypse.”

By the time McClintock finished his two-minute concession, the campaign crews were hard at work. The McAfee and Petersen crews each expected to get the other’s support when they dropped out, and Perry’s as well (though Perry would personally have gone None Of The Above before Petersen) — but the three of them together would also have to pull votes from Johnson’s haul. Part of Petersen’s strategy was to stage a confrontation with Johnson outside the ballroom, breaking through the media scrum to accuse him of refusing to “unify the party” with a more conciliatory VP pick. But Johnson saw through theatrics and stepped away, leaving Petersen to get caught up in arguments with ungracious hecklers. Really the governor was just serving as decoy; as Brian Doherty details, instead of waiting for the McClintock faction to drift in, the Johnson campaign was busy whipping Feldman voters, reminding them that it was the governor’s support that got him in the debate, and making the case that one tribute vote was enough.

The strategy bore immediate dividends: Johnson took the second ballot with almost 56% of votes cast; out of the 60 he picked up, 40 came from Feldman. McAfee held onto his count, and Petersen picked up a handful, but not close to enough; Gary Johnson would be the party’s presidential nominee for the second election running.

Johnson saw through theatrics and stepped away, leaving Petersen to get caught up in arguments with ungracious hecklers

And yet, strange as it may seem, all the foregoing served merely as prelude for the real fight of the day, over whether or not former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld serve as the Party’s vice-presidential nominee. As soon as the victory was announced, everyone switched gears: Johnson, with Weld at his side, went to meet the press as nominee; Petersen quickly declared his endorsement of Johnson at the top of the ticket, but threw his own support behind Alicia Dearn’s campaign. McAfee left the floor entirely; given past statements that he would be LP for life except if Johnson was the nominee, some wondered if he was gone for good. Perry attempted to round up any outstanding VP tokens to see if he could get into the race — not actually to run, but to withdraw and urge support for either Larry Sharpe or Will Coley.

Over the lunch break, the “Anyone But Gary” coalition morphed into a “Never Weld” one. And, unlike with Johnson — who for all his drawbacks remained reasonably well respected, even liked, among the rank and file — this time, they would be going after a much more vulnerable target.



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Staging and Blocking

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Back in (comparative) reality — even in the main ballroom, the night’s event was ticket-only, reserved for top-tier donors, or those who had $20 to spend on being there. Despite that, people lined up early and eventually filled the room past seated capacity, with Johnson and Petersen supporters chanting out the names of their candidate — a mindset which I know I will never, ever be able to fathom: why invest so much in a person who, through the process of politics, will inevitably disappoint you in principle, performance, or both?

Moderating would be radio personality and self-styled “Sage of Southern California” Larry Elder, the same question in different wordings. Thankfully the debate format — 30 seconds to respond to any question, 30 seconds rebuttal to any rival mentioned by name — kept things mostly on track. But the questions disappointed. Afterward, nobody would own up to having written them, and it’s easy to see why, between barrel-fish such as “What should we do about the Fed?” for the candidates to dutifully shotgun, and spring-load traps such as “Should driver’s licenses be required to operate a car?” for the candidates to either produce extreme responses, or get booed for their lack of extremity. And that’s not even to mention simply bizarre questions such as, “Do you think American intervention in World War I and World War II was justified?”, as if anyone could answer such a question in 30 seconds.

In the main ballroom there was introductory music from a man playing gently looping ambient guitar, with occasional lyrics urging hearers to "arm yourselves to the teeth."

Johnson had, in many ways, the hardest task, forced to play not only to the more radical crowd on the floor, but also the TV audience and the bumper crop of media. So he concentrated mostly on process: noting not the utopian ideals he would instill as president, but which bills he would or would not be prepared to sign should Congress put them on his desk. His economic plans were a buffet of conservative thinktank ideas: flat tax, vouchers for schools, states as labs for entitlement plans, higher retirement age and means testing for Social Security (huge boos here), privatized infrastructure, etc. Asked about Trump, he said he “didn’t want to talk about him,” before rattling off a long list of ways the Republican candidate is wrong, a rapid-fire preview of what a 2016 Johnson campaign could be.

He often returned to his experience as governor, but it got him in trouble once: when asked how or who he would appoint to the Supreme Court, Johnson brought up a bizarre hypothetical he used to vet candidates in New Mexico: if a law passed making graffiti punishable by the death penalty, would the candidate uphold an indisputable conviction under that law? It’s a strange thought experiment at best, but one that was never going to land in a roomful of people who earlier that day had committed the party to a platform plank against the death penalty, whatever the offense. More generally, Johnson has a strange catch to his voice when he talks off the cuff, so not only is it very clear which responses are practiced, it also makes the spontaneous ones less confident, or in the sharper words of a fellow reporter, “more pulled from his ass.” If he somehow manages to get a debate with the major-party candidates, Trump will pick him to pieces for that if it’s not dealt with. However, he showed that he’s not afraid to stick to his guns on answers he knows will draw disapproval, in particular in reaffirming that he would sign off on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, banning racial discrimination in both public and private establishments.

The questions disappointed. Afterward, nobody would own up to having written them, and it’s easy to see why.

Johnson was on his strongest ground in asserting that he is the only candidate with even a narrow chance of getting to a national stage; several of his opponents were rhetorically smoother, if perhaps not more practiced, but their lack of name recognition or record of political accomplishments would make sure they never saw any media time, period. The only exception among the debaters was John McAfee, who can command media attention, but at the cost of no one having any idea exactly what he’s going to say at any given moment. He left open more room for government involvement (by Libertarian Party standards) than anyone besides Johnson; e.g., in transitioning Social Security and entitlement programs rather than just ending them outright, allowing a minimum role in repairing and maintaining interstate highways, and possibly in discouraging lawsuits, both because of the costs added to health insurance by malpractice suits, and similar; and because of personal experience — “I’ve been sued more than 200 times; lawyers are the hand of Satan.”

On other issues, though, he went out the farthest on the limb, such as being the only candidate to explicitly acknowledge climate change as a manmade phenomenon, even as he noted (as did Johnson) that government, and especially the military, is the biggest polluter, and it will take free markets to provide the necessary solutions. Despite this, he didn’t get booed as Johnson did — possibly because he wasn’t a Republican governor in the past, but possibly also because his magnetism in one-on-one conversations doesn’t really carry through to a debate format. McAfee was perhaps constitutionally unable to play a crowd; one can see why he’s out of step with the Silicon Valley hordes in the era of huckster-pattered TED Talks.

On the opposite spectrum was Darryl W. Perry, a New Hampshire-based anarchist with no problems filling the room with his voice. Perry’s extensive catalog of applause lines, honed on his radio show Free Talk Live, demonstrated both his greatest strength and weakness: the former his ability to riff on almost any question that could be put to him; the latter the sheer predictability of his answers — not even in content so much as in rhythm: start with a seeming tangent or even non sequitur, then bring it back to the subject by the end. Thus, asked about Social Security, Perry starts by asking the crowd “Do you love grandmas?” and how people will support grandmas through voluntary contributions if the program is eliminated. Asked about transgender rights and the North Carolina bathroom law, Perry introduces the question of where Buck Angel — a musclebound trans male porn star — would “go potty” in an NC government building.

I had heard these same anecdotes from Perry in an interview the day before, almost down to the exact pitch and modulation (and, a bit unfortunately, nearly the exact volume as well, in a smaller space). Perry’s voice is a strength — “radio quality” as several media onlookers noted — though as he gets excited, he can lose command of it, with a tendency also toward destructive gestures such as podium-pounding. He has a sense of theater; he was the only candidate to liven up his obligatory “end the Fed” answer by ripping apart a dollar, noting that act was “probably a felony”; he also may have been the only candidate to quote literature or classical liberal philosophy, dropping in references to both Mark Twain and Frédéric Bastiat. None of which was likely to earn him a single vote outside the radical faction: many in the LP would applaud lines about conducting all government business via charitable contribution, making all drugs “as legal as tomatoes,” and eliminating the entire presidential cabinet in alphabetical order, but they weren’t going to make their speaker the face of the party.

Perry introduced the question of where Buck Angel — a musclebound trans male porn star — would “go potty” in an NC government building.

Petersen put great faith in his face, and in polished image and presentation generally; it was only when the debate (or events off the convention floor) went off-plan that the cracks began to show. In the debate, he had the great advantage of being at Johnson’s right, meaning that for four out of every five questions, he responded immediately after the ex-governor. Whenever Johnson suggested an incrementalist approach to reducing the size of a government program or agency, Petersen was right there to suggest ending it immediately. If Johnson said the free market had bankrupted coal, Petersen retorted that it was government regulation and crony capitalism instead. If Johnson suggested user fees for the road system, Petersen broke out his best Back to the Future: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Amid all this needling, Petersen’s best moment was a reminder of the racist origins of the minimum wage, passed by union-backed white legislatures as a means of keeping black labor from entering the market. But Petersen lost some support elsewhere: in particular by responding to the question of when life begins (which Perry rightly called out as a trap meant to divide the audience), by asserting it’s at conception — though he wouldn’t be drawn on when, if ever, terminating a pregnancy would become a criminal act. Asked about the appropriate size of the military, he trotted out a favorite phrase of recently retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Maddis: “Be professional, be polite, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” Petersen even got booed from some corners for suggesting that it would be reasonable to have laws preventing children from buying heroin or other hard drugs.

If Petersen profited by having Johnson at his left, he got himself into the red by having Marc Allan Feldman to his right. Feldman wasn’t exactly the breakout star of the event — as he reminded everyone, he was nobody before he began his campaign, and he encouraged them to vote for nobody in the ballots to come. He began by noting that he was passing up part of his son’s wedding weekend to be in Orlando; to judge from his performance, it was the correct decision. Here was a man having the absolute time of his life: with no need to attack anyone or defend any particular position, Feldman spoke with honesty and humor, handling even the thornier questions with grace as well as lines that meandered less than some others’. He sidestepped the religious question by noting that, for religious reasons, he didn’t believe in mixing milk and meat — yet he wouldn’t argue that cheeseburgers should be illegal. On the question of withdrawing from or ending NATO, the IMF, or the UN, he quipped that maybe the UN was fine, since it didn’t ever seem to do anything.

Asked about the appropriate size of the military, Petersen trotted out a favorite phrase of recently retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Maddis.

I don’t mean to suggest that these lines were the height of wit, but rather to credit Feldman for selling them with his warmth and obvious sincerity. On every question where the candidates were largely in agreement — cutting government spending, opening up trade, easing or eliminating immigration controls (there was scarcely a word to be heard here for tight borders, all those voters evidently having gone to Trump) — Feldman offered at least a little joviality through his responses. For his final statement, the candidate who had run a video of himself rapping during his nomination speech went back to the well, running through a sort of slam poem with an intensity that brought the house down; he very nearly got carried out on the crowd’s shoulders.

After the debate, the candidates pressed the flesh while operatives scurried about trying to get rough counts for the next morning’s election. While Feldman was soaking up the well-wishes of debate attendees, he was also already getting pressured by both Johnson and Petersen campaigns to drop out after the first ballot and endorse the respective candidacies. McAfee and Perry had earlier worked out an agreement of reciprocal support, but now Petersen (whose campaign suite shared an interior door with McAfee’s) sought the same — though it would be uphill going, to judge by the several radicals I spoke with on the night who would vote McAfee, but preferred that old Libertarian standby, None Of The Above, to either Johnson or Petersen. Nonetheless, via various channels, the three campaigns began work in earnest on an “Anyone But Gary” coalition. As the candidate machine hustled, convention attendees moved in knots and bunches out to the pool, into the bars, and up to the various room parties. With the nominations and debate done, the true business of the convention could begin.



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One-Ring Circus

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And on the third day, the Libertarian Party rose again, and ascended to the stage, to sit at the right hand of the party chair. From there they shall judge whose campaign is living, and whose is dead.

OK, maybe not. But it was a day of judgment. And Jesus did appear to the masses. But all that in good time.

The morning session saw leftover platform material from the night before; in particular, a motion failed to delete the party’s longstanding, 10th-Amendment-inspired “Omissions” clause: “Our silence about any other particular government law, regulation, ordinance, directive, edict, control, regulatory agency, activity, or machination should not be construed to imply approval.” Additionally, the LP passed, for the first time in Party history, a platform plank calling for the abolition of the death penalty. The other morning diversion was a William Weld meet-and-greet that turned into a grill session, with Gary Johnson wading in to help out his floundering partner. (Sample of said flounder: asked what sort of threat the CIA might pose, Weld tried to joke about how his wife’s great-uncle Kermit Roosevelt helped orchestrate the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, thus making him “probably the wrong person to answer that question.”)

One outside media onlooker said that McAfee’s speech was “the most apocalyptic thing I’ve ever heard at a political event” — proving his total lack of familiarity with LP events.

Now, to Johnson’s credit, this was already far more engagement than was shown by 2008 candidate Bob Barr. But by the afternoon session, the LP Radicals, energized by their successes in the bylaw and platform portions, were even more eager to rattle sabres (or whatever the equivalent is for anarchist anti-warriors) against Johnson/Weld. As of the afternoon session, the delegate count stood at 907: half again as many as in 2012. Each delegate could cast a vote, or “token,” for one presidential candidate: 30 tokens would suffice for nomination, but it would take 86 to enter the evening’s televised debate. In the end, that meant six candidates out of the 16 potentials moved forward: the high-coverage trio Gary Johnson, Austin Petersen, and John McAfee; anarchist Darryl W. Perry; and rank outsiders Marc Allan Feldman and Kevin McCormick, with only the first four (at least initially) qualifying to debate.

The order of nominating speeches was determined by a favorite of both libertarians and the next-door MegaConners: a 20-sided die, which dictated that McAfee would go first. He was nominated by Derrick Grayson, a Ron Paul supporter and failed VP candidate from the night before; McAfee then went without a seconder in order to talk on the importance of supporting the grassroots and creating “a different definition of victory” within the party — something that would involve “derailing the train” that we are currently on. One outside media onlooker said that McAfee’s speech was “the most apocalyptic thing I’ve ever heard at a political event” — proving his total lack of familiarity with LP events.

Next was Gary Johnson, whose bona fides were established by Bill Redpath and seconded by one-time prez candidate Steve Kerbel, before the ex-NM gov. took the stage with the less-than-inspiring message that he was “not an old white guy” nor “a Republican-lite.” Afterward, though, everything was red meat for the libertarian soul, with even a Gandhi quote landing. I found myself confused, however, by his statement that, though he “doesn’t understand or articulate LP principles as well as some here,” nonetheless behind his lead “we can get this thing done.”

After a too-long rap video, the candidate urged attendees to “Vote for Marc Allan Feldman, nobody for president.”

Johnson then did double duty by speaking as a second for Feldman, as a means of encouraging delegates to get him the few more tokens it would take for debating privileges; all would end the night grateful for the maneuver. Despite a too-long rap video start (no, really, he rapped), he charmed by noting that he was running for president “because I can,” and urging attendees to “vote for Marc Allan Feldman, nobody for president.”

Austin Petersen’s nominator, Sean Haugh of North Carolina, said he used a “call my mom” test to decide which candidate to support — as in, which candidate most inspired him to call his aged mother and tell her to turn on the TV. (It’s a little Norman Bates, sure, but only a little.) The candidate urged everyone to gather together and counter “the armies of darkness [that] are on the march,” something that would involve ending the Fed, for a start. Petersen was also the only candidate to put down a clear anti-abortion platform (though, as he would clarify in the debate, not favoring criminal charges against women seeking such), earning him some boos from the crowd.

Darryl W. Perry was the first candidate not to speak on his own behalf, though whether this is because his nominating speaker went overlong — rattling on about Orwell and Ruby Ridge, before using the Platonic cave as an allegory for libertarian epiphany (unaware, one hopes, of Plato’s more explicitly political works praising tyranny and repression) — or because he made a strategic choice to save it all for the debate. Either way, Perry received a second from Starchild who, wearing a Wilma Flintstone number with matching leopard-print parasol, set off a cascade of press photographers getting social media snaps.

Last, in every way, was McCormick, who didn’t seem to have much reason to be there — he admittedly entered the race late; he didn’t have a nominator; he didn’t even speak in favor of his own campaign — his message instead was to encourage party unity come November. (He also asserted that this gathering was “the most diverse group of people ever at a political convention,” which just — no, dude. No.) Following this speech, LP chair Nick Sarwark announced that Feldman had indeed made the debate via late tokens; McCormick remained nowhere close to debating, but would still be in the mix as designated Round 1 casualty the next day. And after that, they adjourned (early!) to set up for the debate.

Austin Petersen's nominator said he used a "call my mom" test to decide whom to support — a little Norman Bates, sure, but only a little.

Let me preface this next statement by noting that I am comfortable with both the bizarre and the avant-garde. And I relish particularly the sort of oddity that pops up in gatherings of individualists, such as the LP. That said, John McAfee’s campaign reception was the weirdest scene I’ve come across while covering this beat. It’s not that it was that out there, more that there was just enough of the sheer mundanity of the convention reception — standing tables, too-large room, cash bar, people standing about awkwardly — to underline the strangeness of the rest of it and turn the whole thing into a screeching car-crash. The room was semi-dark, with strobing lights and projected visuals like butterfly wings, with tech-company Euro-trance playing over the PA. There were two women standing on chairs dressed as architecture swaying gently to the tunes. The MC, a man in a tuxedo T-shirt, came in to play live, amplified violin over top of the recorded music while a woman in a cat costume cavorted onstage behind him. Later an acrobat draped herself across a large ring in the midst of the room, while gossamer-winged women on stilts stalked through the crowd and the aforementioned Jesus spun round slowly, parading himself on stage. All this happened, and we hadn’t even yet hit the debate.

Part two of this report to follow Sunday, with election report and convention wrap after. For up-to-the-minute coverage, follow @libertyunbound on Twitter.



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Defying Convention

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This year’s Libertarian National Convention is indisputably the most widely covered in Party history. Walking the halls of the Rosen Centre today, you would have seen CNN reporters making video diaries with Austin Petersen; a Spike TV team filming a documentary on John McAfee; MSNBC interviewing Gary Johnson and his handpicked veep candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld; a gaggle of onlookers from ABC, CBS, and regular NBC; and an extremely bored-looking crew from Vice News that probably expected rather more sex and drugs, and rather less parliamentary procedure. And that’s just the TV folks: there’s also reporters on the ground from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Politico, Huffington Post, FiveThirtyEight, et very much alium. All seem to agree that the event matters this year in a way it previously hasn’t, though the exact matter of that mattering is up for debate. And all those without prior experience of the LP seem a bit unsure exactly what to cover, or how.

Some, like the Vice crew, clearly came to confirm some stereotype that doesn’t reflect the actual makeup of a crowd much more inclined to policy wonkery than debauchery. (If you wanted coke-fueled rentboy orgies, guys, you should have tried the Republican Convention.) Some came to document grotesques, only to find that the most outré LP members—like Starchild, resplendent today in a translucent polyvinyl poncho over a black Speedo; part of his quest to encourage “transparency” in Party dealings—are also often their most erudite and well-spoken.

If you wanted coke-fueled rentboy orgies, you should have tried the Republican Convention.

Many of the reporters resorted to hanging around the back of the main ballroom, trying to wend their way through the Byzantinia of LP procedure; others wandered in a daze around the exhibit area, latching onto T-shirts with Ayn Rand’s face on them, or booths advertising some sort of holistic healing, as proof at last of the dogmatism or crackpotdom of the attendees. (Not knowing any better, they already missed the story there evident only through absence: the lack of booths devoted to the 9/11 Truth movement or other conspiracies—all those types having already jumped ship to Trump.) Most, though, bounced around campaign events for the three high-profile candidates, trying to get some sort of comment. And this is odd, because in the three conventions I’ve now covered, I can’t imagine a convention where it is less necessary to get vox spots from the mainliners, given what’s already on the public record.

Start with Petersen. He’s a fresh-faced Seth Macfarlane-looking guy, barely old enough to fulfill the constitutional requirements to serve as president. He has a stable of press-ready statements about how he is the “outsider candidate in the outsider party”—though he has worked within the LP apparatus for years now. He presents himself, especially via his personal pro-life beliefs, as the option for outreach to conservative #NeverTrump-ers—but his main method of limiting abortion would be through expanded access to contraceptives: a sensible approach, but not one likely to seduce those Catholics left unhoused by events in the GOP. In the past, he’s been goaded into boastful, callow statements by people he should handle easily; though he claims to have “grown” since then, one wonders just how much difference a year can make—and likewise, how much difference it will make to the national press, who can and will harry him with that comment should he ever become relevant.

McAfee, on the other hand, seems to be carrying out some sort of publicity stunt. I actually don’t doubt the sincerity of his beliefs—few people have seen firsthand the dangers of government like he has—but whether under his own steam or others’, he’s involved in this quest to rehabilitate his image through what must be one of the last outlets open to him. He’s a striking figure, to be sure, and even a brief talk with him provides glimpses of a rogue and roguish intellect, but given his past troubles and present unpredictability, few I’ve talked with can actually envision him as anyone’s standard bearer; even his threat to leave the Party if the “boring” Gary Johnson gets nominated is met with a resounding, “So?”

Given McAfee's past troubles and present unpredictability, few I've talked with can actually envision him as anyone's standard bearer.

Johnson is boring, don’t get me wrong, as boring as an Everest-climbing pot baron can possibly be. Firebranding doesn’t come naturally to him, and his stump speeches labor, as if he has to remind himself continually what emotions are, and which one he should be showing at any particular point. There are legitimate concerns about his campaign expenditures, and the percentage of funds going to consultant services or servicing past debt. (And here I note the sad lack of an R.W. Bradford to scour spreadsheets and turn up the story behind the story.) And there is an argument to be had about whether the LP can claim to be the “party of principle” when it serves as landing pad for career Republicans on the outs. But it’s evident also that Johnson must be the choice if the party wishes to take advantage of an election whose likes, God willing, we will never see again. And whatever happens here, it seems unlikely to produce the sort of recrimination or schismatic bluster of the 2008 convention.

All the media I’ve talked to without prior LP familiarity are confused by the idea that Johnson wouldn’t be the nominee—after all, why wouldn’t you want the person clearly best positioned to maximize your returns in this cycle? But they underestimate another libertarian stereotype, one more deeply grounded: that inherent anti-authority stance, the perversely impish bird-flipping to anyone or anything telling them what to do, even (or especially) if it’s in their best interest. In Orlando, you can see this most clearly in the response to Weld, whose VP candidacy is under fire from Petersen and others wondering why the Libertarian newcomer didn’t endorse Johnson this time or last. Johnson’s reply, that Weld was “the original libertarian,” was met with the scorn it deserved; even if the ex-New Mexico Gov. gets nominated, it may be without his fellow gubernatorial alumnus. Catchphrases like “taxation is theft” clunk off Weld’s tongue, and he was vastly outperformed in the evening’s VP debate, by black veteran Larry Sharpe in particular—though Weld did still take the straw poll after; much of the drama of this convention could well cohere in the vice-presidential election.

Johnson is as boring as an Everest-climbing pot baron can possibly be.

Enough about them, though. In Party news of actual note, if there were any GOP takeover on the cards, it proved abortive on the day. The Radical Caucus was in full force at the bylaws and platform meetings, with several members patrolling the ballroom aisles with neon lightsabers and signs emblazoned with thumbs—if the caucus supported a motion, the sabers glowed green and the thumbs turned up; if not, then a red gleam and thumbs down. Their biggest success on the day was defeating an effort to delete the “personal conscience” abortion plank in the LP platform—led, many suspected, by Republican refugees, although there was also a group seeking to delete that plank in order to replace it with one more explicitly supporting a pro-choice position. The assembly also rejected the addition of “Parental Responsibilities” to the “Parental Rights” plank. While one would hope that very few attendees would speak for the rights of parents to abuse or neglect their children (or as one speaker put it, to prostitute their 2-year-olds and give them heroin), the plank itself was considered too vague, with even such words as “child” lacking a clearly delineated, legally valid meaning.

Platforming and electioneering, and Liberty’s coverage of it all both here and on Twitter will continue on the morrow.



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Opening Day

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Seen from the air, Orlando looks like a candidate for utopia: lush and expansive, with lakefront views for all. But down at street level, it’s mostly sprawling, congested, and full of the same suburbanite ideas repeated over and over again. And sure, there’s a metaphor there for Libertarian politics, but I’ll try not to run it too far into the ground.

I’m in Orlando to report on the 2016 Libertarian Party National Convention. Why Orlando? It’s a fair question. Four years ago, it was in America’s playground, Las Vegas. Four years before that, Denver, not so much a playground but still a beautiful place with things to do and see. Orlando has little on offer, just those lakes and the boggy expanses between them, some of which are occupied by mega-parks and highly-strung families.

Most people’s first experience of the city will be Orlando International Airport, with all those families are coming and going at all hours of the day. It is not for the faint of heart; however straightforward the flight may be, when you arrive you’ll step off the terminal shuttle into a space that J.G. Ballard might have envisioned on a particularly grumpy day, a combination TSA staging area and hotel atrium, with guests free to surveil all the goings-on from their concrete escarpments. Just like Dealey Plaza in Dallas, everything in MCO looms; add in the chaos of several hundred planeloads of children (not to mention the guarantees of choice product placement), and it likewise would make a great site for an historic assassination.

When you arrive, you’ll step off the terminal shuttle into a space that J.G. Ballard might have envisioned on a particularly grumpy day.

Furthermore, thanks to the sprawl, getting to the convention site is harder than you might think. It’s about 13 miles, give or take, from MCO to the convention-center corridor known as International Drive. Without traffic—which will never happen—that’s at least a $45 cab fare. In many cities, Uber and its clones help even out such costs; Orlando cab drivers, however, with the enthusiastic support of Mayor Buddy Dyer and the city transit board, have managed to keep UberX and other official, above-board providers away from the MCO pickup line. (Uber’s upscale service, Uber BLACK, cut a compromise: in exchange for agreeing to all the extra taxes, licenses, background checks, lane fees, etc., they can now serve the airport. Unsurprisingly, their prices are little better than the taxi cartels’.)

Readers of Liberty, or anyone with any economic sense whatsoever, will not be surprised to learn that there a vigorous black-market has developed over Craigslist and similar sites, where drivers sell services directly to riders, without the transparency or oversight that Uber, Lyft, et al. provide. One enterprising Libertarian ran a “civil disobedience” shuttle, ferrying over any convention attendee willing to donate $40 to the Party—a good deal for a round trip. For my own part, I chose the last available option: the public bus. I can only imagine how ludicrously oversubsidized and inefficient it must be, because for $2, I was taken from the airport right past the convention center, and it only took an extra half an hour. I’d recommend it to anyone willing to capitalize on the city’s civic largesse.

The Rosen Centre itself, host of this year’s convention, is surprisingly not terrible, though it’s also not Orlando’s main convention center—that would be across the street, and host this week to MegaCon, a pop-culture and comics convention. So while libertarians are a pretty diverse group in terms of personal style and accoutrements, they were put to shame by the costuming and pageantry on display from the MegaCon attendees—will be interesting to see if anyone from the LP raises their game to compensate. (Looking your way, Starchild.)

Today was mostly for meeting old friends, renewing acquaintances, and squabbles over credentials and delegate seating. The latter had wrapped up by the time I was able to join the fun, so I headed instead for an event hosted by our friends at FreedomFest, nearby the convention. As future presidents go, the crowd was pretty strongly against Gary Johnson, and for Austin Petersen—which made sense, as he was the only candidate who bothered to make the short walk over. Petersen is an engaging enough figure, and I’ll hope to bring you more about him the next couple days, but the short stump speech he gave here was little different than any of the others he has up on social media.

Better soundbites awaited me at the convention’s opening reception, where they had arranged for speakers to alternately harangue or sing at the crowd. One of the speakers, Jim Rogers, went on at some length about the government’s “war on cash,” stipulating in particular that they would start soon by seizing everyone’s 401(k)s, and only later move to nationalize all bank accounts; an extrapolation, it seemed from recent Greek experiences. Shakier, perhaps, was his assertion that “California is more Communist than China”; I was tempted to ask just which particular sort of communism he had in mind, but the LPNC didn’t seem the ideal place for discussions of the finer points of neo-Marxist and Maoist theory.

One enterprising Libertarian ran a “civil disobedience” airport shuttle, ferrying over any convention attendee willing to donate $40 to the Party.

At some point, improbable presidential candidate John McAfee appeared at a table by poolside, his manifestation completed by a TV crew from Spike filming footage for some sort of upcoming show. While the candidate talked with hoi polloi, I heard interesting if necessarily vague anecdotes from McAfee’s bodyguard about his (the bodyguard’s) past in bodyguarding, starting with work for private Italian family concerns in Chicago, as well as his (again the bodyguard’s) theories about what actually happened that day in Belize where McAfee’s neighbor got shot in the head.

Gary Johnson, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen, and would not be until a later unofficial debate with McAfee, anarchist candidate Daryl W. Perry, and campaign-reform candidate Marc Allan Feldman—see the videos here posted by Petersen, who filmed but did not participate. Johnson’s aloofness added to the vibe I picked up earlier, a perception that he’s already taking the nomination as fait accompli, or as a formality to be dealt with before moving on to the general. And in fairness, that’s probably true—but that sort of aerial view can miss a lot of what’s happening far below. Over the next two days, we’ll see what surprises, if any, this convention has in store.
 



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Just Keep Talking

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In case you think that United Statesians are the only people who are losing command of their language, and American politicians are the permanent world champions in the Oaf and Malaprop contest, consider what happened in the Canadian Parliament on May 18.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, known on the street as Li’l Obama, got upset about his colleagues’ slowness in voting on, of all things to get hot about, an assisted-suicide bill. So he stomped across the chamber toward Opposition Whip Gord Brown and some other people, including opposition member Ruth Ellen Brosseau. In the language of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is so nicey-nice that you can hardly understand it, “in video from the House, Trudeau is seen walking toward Brown in a crowd of MPs in the Commons aisle, taking his arm in an apparent effort to move Brown toward his seat. While doing so, he encountered Brosseau, who was also standing in the aisle and was seen physically reacting after the contact.” In the language of a more alert reporter, Trudeau “strode across the floor with an anger fierce in his face and eyes, towards a group of individuals. What took place was the prime minister physically grabbing people, elbowing people, hauling them down the way.” Brosseau said she had been “elbowed in the chest [i.e. breast] by the prime minister.” Others reported the PM’s deploying “the f-word” and continuing the confrontation in dialogue with the New Democratic Party Leader, who characterized him, aptly enough, as “pathetic!”

Later, amid loud cries of scorn and derision, Trudeau “apologized.” This is what he said:

I want to take the opportunity . . . to be able to express directly to [Brosseau] my apologies for my behavior and my actions, unreservedly. The fact is, in this situation, where I saw . . . I noticed that the member, the opposite member whip, was being impeded in his progress, I took it upon myself to go and assist him forward, which was I now see unadvisable as a course of actions and resulted in physical contact in this House that we can all accept was un, un, unacceptable. I apologize for that unreservedly and I look for opportunities to make amends directly to the member and to any members who feel negatively impacted by this, by this exchange and intervention because I take responsibility.

Here, in the comments of the lordly Canuck, are the same four and twenty blackbirds that American politicians are always baking into their own verbal pies:

A. The “apology” — but for what? For trying to “assist” someone. Some crime, eh?

B. The misleading description. Trudeau, it seems, took “a course of actions that resulted in physical contact.” Gosh, we all do that every day. I guess he’s no guiltier than the rest of us, eh?

This is a society in which tens of millions of people spend all day on their cellphones, and far too many people are paid to start talking and never stop.

C. The total disregard, or ignorance, of common idioms. English speakers never talk about “a course of actions.” It’s action, for God’s sake. Can’t you listen when other people talk? But when you’re a politician or other prominent personality, you don’t have to. So you don’t.

D. The reduction of a dramatic offense to something merely “unadvisable.” By the way, no one says unadvisable if he’s ever heard of inadvisable.

E. “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” — or at least of ignorance. You’re getting close to illiteracy when, within a very few words, you say, “We can all accept [that something] was unacceptable”; when you join accept with a clause, as in such current clichés as “you need to accept that your husband is a drunk”; and when you utter that virtually meaningless cliché “negative impact.”

F. The shifting of blame from actions to feelings, and hence from self to others — those others who “feel negatively impacted” by what you did. I am so sorry that you feel that way — now get over it.

G. The stilt stumble. Instead of saying that someone had trouble getting through the crowd, you climb on your stilts and say he was “being impeded in his progress.” My, Justin, what a big boy you are!

So much for Mr. Trudeau’s “unreserved” apology — and its ilk, whose name is legion, on both sides of the border.

Modern society is verbal to a degree that often makes me feel like Norma Desmond, longing for the days of silent movies. This is a society in which tens of millions of people spend all day on their cellphones, and far too many people — from talk show hosts and alleged teachers to political “consultants” and “activists” — are paid to start talking and never stop. But there appears to be an inverse relationship between quantity and quality.

Take Hillary Clinton. (Please!) She does nothing but talk. That’s been her sole occupation for the past 50 years. But somehow, the more she talks, the worse she gets. The more she talks about anything, the worse she gets about whatever that is. If you haven’t seen the YouTube video, “Hillary Clinton Lying for 13 Minutes Straight,” take a look at it, especially at the parts where she denies ever having changed her mind — or her essential values, or her basic concerns, or what she fights for, or whatever phrase she wants to substitute for mind. More hilarious still are the parts that show her lying — needlessly, endlessly, pathologically — about the nonexistent attack on her at that airport in the Balkans.

Now consider her attempts to jimmy her husband into her campaign. She and the liberal media (at present, her only friends and audience) still believe that Bill Clinton is the most popular person in the world. On May 20, Mr. Clinton appeared in my county, speaking in a high school to what was termed “a good crowd.” At the same time, the cops were blocking off streets for a Sanders rally. Who’s popular?

More hilarious still are the parts that show Clinton lying — needlessly, endlessly, pathologically — about the nonexistent attack on her at that airport in the Balkans.

It must seem strange to Mrs. Clinton that every time she brings up her husband, she loses more supporters. Insanely, she keeps on trying. On May 15, desperately attempting to get the workers of Kentucky to vote for her, despite her promise to put coal miners out of their jobs, she actually called the guy her “husband” — something she had hitherto avoided at all costs. (Understandable — she got where she is because of her own accomplishments, right?) She screamed about “my husband, who I’m gonna put in charge of revitalizing the economy, cause, you know, he knows how to do it.” At the mention of “my husband,” she waved her hand nonchalantly, as if already enjoying absolute power.

Note the phony folksiness of “gonna” and “cause,” and the real lack of grammar embodied in “who.” In view of her syntax, and her total absence of reference — what do we know that Bill Clinton knows about doing it? — Democrats should no longer complain about these qualities in Donald Trump. She’s right down there with him. Incidentally, if Bill knows how to revitalize the economy, why isn’t he doing it? What’s standing in his way? Has Hillary never anticipated these questions?

The “13 Minutes” video shows how dumb politicians can look when they’re trying to be clever. But here’s where the Dumber Principle comes into play. That’s what R.W. Bradford called the idea — useful to politicians, salesmen, conmen, evangelists, and people who are anxious to unload the house that they paid too much for — that “there’s always somebody dumber than you are.” On May 20, after the crash of the Egyptian airplane, I saw a Democratic spokesman castigating Trump for immediately suggesting that the cause was terrorism. The Fox News interviewer was apparently too dumb to mention that Mrs. Clinton had done exactly the same thing. He was also too dumb to deal with the contention that “there’s no evidence it was terrorism.” He looked puzzled, as if there was something he was missing, or something he had forgotten . . . But he never found it.

At the mention of “my husband,” she waved her hand nonchalantly, as if already enjoying absolute power.

The missing concept was the distinction between evidence and proof. Of course there was no proof of terrorism, or anything else, a few hours after the plane fell from a clear sky into the sea. But there was certainly evidence. The plane, which was on its way from Paris to Cairo, two top targets of terrorism, fell from a clear sky, into the sea, and without any cry of distress.

Confusing evidence with proof is a common dodge, a dumb looking for a dumber, and ordinarily finding it. President Obama used it on May 12 to debunk the FBI director’s contention that police are making fewer arrests because of the bad publicity they got from real and alleged abuses in black neighborhoods. “We have not seen any evidence of that,” the president said; it was all “anecdotes.” I’m not debating the substantive issue — I don’t know enough about it — and I don’t know whether there’s proof, one way or the other. But if you’re looking for proof, you need to start with evidence, and since when aren’t anecdotes evidence? Obama’s use of “evidence” to mean “proof” was simply a way of deferring the inspection of whatever evidence exists, until everyone forgets the matter. He did the same thing with the evidence of IRS harassment of rightwing nonprofits. But don’t let the blame stop with him. Where is the interviewer, or even commentator, who says on such occasions: “Excuse me. We’re talking about this because there is evidence. We’re trying to find out whether it’s proof or not.”

Let’s see. What else can I pick on this month? Here are two other instances of people emitting words long after they’ve run out of anything that makes sense to say.

My use of the first example demonstrates my integrity, because I’m bringing up a flaw in one of my favorite things in the world, Turner Classic Movies. TCM has given me so many hours of knowledge and pleasure that I am willing to forgive even the dumb things its announcers say about Hollywood people “accused” of communist sympathies; actual communists are unknown to TCM. But in the land of TCM, unlike a communist dictatorship, all kinds of movies are shown, and no movies are cut or censored. In our era of censorship and self-censorship, this is a shining accomplishment. So I am also willing to forgive the offense I am about to mention — although to forgive is not to forget.

So here it is: TCM keeps advertising its annual film festival as “the intersection of emotion and excitement.” This leaves me speechless, and not with admiration. An advertisement has to say something, but not that. No, not that. In a purely linguistic sense, President Obama’s failure to distinguish “evidence” from “proof” is of no importance, compared with TCM’s demand that we picture an intersection where emotion and excitement, which is a type of emotion . . . intersect. I may be too smart, or I may be too dumb, but I cannot picture that.

Confusing evidence with proof is a common dodge, a "dumb" looking for a "dumber," and ordinarily finding it.

Passing quickly, and finally, to someone who is not as likable as TCM, to someone who is not likable at all, I come to “Pastor” Jordan Brown, the idiot who tried to shake down Whole Foods in Austin by falsely alleging that when he ordered a cake that said “Love Wins” the store handed him a cake that said “Love Wins — Fag.” Linguistically, this event was important only because many of the media refused to state the offensive word, making up for their self-censorship by joyously presenting a picture of the cake itself, with the word on it.

But the bone I want to pick with the “pastor” has to do, not with the cake, but with one of the inspirational statements he tweeted to advertise his “church,” which if it existed was in the self-help, love-yourself business. The statement, sent out on April 14, just before the affair of the icing, was: “You cannot become what you will not confront.” If anything can be less than nonsense, that’s it. But it isn’t a peculiarly Jordan Brown statement. It’s the kind of idiocy exuded from every organ of the self-help monster that continues growing, 30 years after it ran out of the clear, simple, and actually helpful advice with which it began. Its brain is dead, but its words go on.

I like to remember what the actual pastor of an actual gay church once told me, in defense of other people’s right to say nasty things about gays: “Freedom of speech means being able to talk long enough to prove you’re a fool.”




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Liberty at the LPNC

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This week, Liberty managing editor Andrew Ferguson will be covering the Libertarian Party's national convention in Orlando, Florida!

Follow along here and on Twitter (@libertyunbound) for daily reports and bulletins on all the convention happenings and oddities.



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Hollywood Fights Market; Market Wins

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Money Monster isn’t billed as a comedy (in fact, it’s supposed to be a thriller), but it is still one of the silliest films I’ve seen in ages.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a cable TV investment personality of the Jim Cramer school, with a shtick that includes dancing girls, funny hats, crazy film clips, party noisemakers, and outlandish recommendations that often turn out to be profitable investments. He doesn’t think much about his viewers’ actual profits and losses because he never sees his viewers — that is, until Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) shows up on the set with a figurative axe to grind and a literal gun in his pocket. He also has a funny explosive vest to go with Lee’s funny hat. He makes Lee wear it.

We are expected to believe that Budwell, the terrorist, would be able to wander onto a live set, simply because he is dressed like a deliveryman and carries a couple of cardboard boxes.

I’ll warn you here that this review is going to contain a few spoilers, but knowing some of the plot twists is not going to ruin the film for you; it’s pretty much ruined on its own, and these are mad meanderings, not genuine twists. Besides, I don’t recommend that you waste your money or your time on this monster of a movie, and revealing some of the plot is the only way I can demonstrate to you just how silly and unbelievable the premise is.

Hollywood will go to great lengths to cast aspersions on Wall Street, business, and the free market, even greenlighting a movie with a script with more holes than a Chuck E. Cheese Whack-A-Mole (and a lot less entertaining). First we are expected to believe that Budwell, the terrorist, would be able to wander onto a live set, simply because he is dressed like a deliveryman and carries a couple of cardboard boxes. Sorry, folks, the days of Cary Grant sneaking into the boss’s office carrying a florist’s bouquet are long gone, and security at a television station is much tighter than that.

Then we are expected to believe that the cameras would continue to roll and the signal would continue to be broadcast while a lunatic holds a gun to the head of a nationally known journalist — or anyone, for that matter. Regardless of what the terrorist (and the voyeuristic television consumer) might be demanding, someone — anyone — would have pulled that plug immediately.

We are also expected to believe that Kyle invested all his money — all his money — in a single hedge fund. The SEC has rules about that. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, “qualified investors” must have a net worth of at least a million dollars, not counting their personal residence, or an income of at least $200,000, in order to purchase shares in risky investment vehicles such as the one in the script. Kyle makes $14 an hour as a sanitation worker. He is not a qualified investor. The hedge fund would not have accepted Kyle’s money. George Clooney and Jodie Foster (the film’s director) probably don’t realize this because they have managers who invest their money for them. They’re qualified investors; they just aren’t qualified to play with investors in the movies.

Next is Lee Gates’ ridiculous solution to Kyle’s problem. It seems that Kyle invested his money in a hedge fund that Lee recommended a few weeks ago, and the fund’s price tanked, taking Kyle’s money with it. Lee turns to the camera and asks his viewers to start buying the stock in order to pump up the price for Kyle and his fellow losers. First, viewers would smell a rat if a showman like Gates made such an outlandish plea. Remember Soupy Sales? “Kids, take a dollar out of your mother’s purse and send it to Soupy at this address . . .”

Kyle's girlfriend bawls him out and dares him to pull the trigger on the bomb — while she is in the studio. Who in the world would be that crazy?

More importantly, Lee’s idea wouldn’t help Kyle or the others who have lost money, even if the stock did return to previous levels. Stock prices rise and fall as new buyers purchase shares from current owners. It’s the ultimate example of supply and demand. In this case, the people who sold on the way down don’t own any shares anymore, so they aren’t going to get their money back, even if prices climb to the sky. They’re just going to feel worse. The only people who could make money on Lee’s new deal are the ones who buy at the bottom and sell at the new top. And believe me, Lee Gates would be investigated for investment fraud after these shenanigans were over. (Assuming he made it out of the exploding vest in one piece.)

The cops are just as stupid. They bring Kyle’s girlfriend to the studio to talk some sense into him and calm him down, even though they know she’s fit to be tied about him. And she’s just as stupid. Instead of calming him down, she bawls him out and dares him to pull the trigger on the bomb — while she is in the studio. Who in the world would be that crazy? And then there is the usual Hollywood inanity of having SWAT teams or, in this case, bomb squads enter a highly volatile location without wearing helmets. I know, it’s a film technique considered necessary so that we (the audience) can see their pretty faces while they talk.

In such situations, we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief, and usually I do. But in this movie my disbelief was suspended so far above reality that I became positively giddy from lack of oxygen.

The denouement is just as ridiculous as the build-up. We are supposed to believe that the greedy director of the hedge fund has manipulated a mining strike in South Africa in order to buy low and then sell high when the strike is called off, but a glitch in his plan resulted in a loss of $800,000,000. That’s a lot of platinum for two weeks’ digging.

I’m sure that George Clooney, who produced the film as well as starred in it, thinks he’s doing the world a big favor by pointing out the evils of greed and investing, but all he did with Money Monster is point out his own monstrous ignorance. He still has the dark swoony eyes, though. Maybe he should leave the social justice films for a while and make a nice romantic comedy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Money Monster," directed by Jodie Foster. Tristar Pictures, 2016, 98 minutes.



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The Libertarian vs. the Activist

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Last month I read a pair of little news stories about animals in German menageries and what people have done, and not done, about them. These stories suggested certain analogies to human behavior that, when they occurred to me, appeared far-fetched. They may be so. But the stories kept coming back to me — evidence, at least, that they spoke to some personal identification with the ideas they suggested. They may be suggestive to you, too.

One of the stories had to do with a pair of male penguins in a German zoo. They were brought there to mate with female penguins and help preserve the king penguin species. But “they only mated with one another.” The zookeepers gave up and let them enjoy themselves in their all-male love nest.

In the other story, humans just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Animal rights “activists” — what a peculiar word that is, “activist,” as if being “active” were some kind of profession — were inspired by the slogan “Free All Animals” to break into a small circus and “free” two ostriches and a goose. The goose and one ostrich were recaptured, but the surviving ratite might have to be executed, because German law requires ostriches to be kept in pairs and the other ostrich was killed by a car. It seems that fowl, once “freed,” still aren’t very good at negotiating modern streets.

Of course, the animals themselves are not a fair analogy to humans, who do indeed have rights and deserve to be free. What interests me about the stories is that they illustrate two different approaches to life.

What a peculiar word that is, “activist,” as if being “active” were some kind of profession.

The penguins benefited from the first approach. They enjoyed the tolerance and capacity for reflection that leads people to say, “Oh well. Our plan failed. I guess we don’t know everything. But go ahead; be yourselves. We’ll let you alone.”

This, as I take it, is the libertarian approach, and the truly libertarian mindset. But there is another mindset, one that sometimes masquerades as libertarian. This is the approach that destroyed the ostriches. It’s the approach that assumes, “I know everything, and what I know is that everything is a moral issue, and everyone has an obligation to be active in addressing all moral issues, and therefore no one should ever leave anyone or anything alone.”

I confess that this attitude disturbs me about as much as anything could, especially when it gets mixed up with the idea of rights and freedom. Even the notion that animals have rights strikes me as a fantasy originating in a refusal to leave anything alone.

The concept of rights, which is perhaps the most valuable concept that mankind ever discovered, is grounded in the observation that there are beings in this world that have the capacity to make their own moral decisions and take responsibility for doing so. A coherent conception of rights involves the notion that rights are guarantees and therefore must not contradict other rights or guarantees. My right must not conflict with your right.

College can cost a lot, and students often go into debt to finance their college education. There’s a real solution to this problem: do nothing about it.

The animal rights “activists” whom I have known — good people, well-meaning people, fine people in almost every way — have waged war on hunting, zoos, pet stores, and even municipal restrictions on the presence of wild animals in the hearts of cities. Yet they have kept their own cats, dogs, fish, and ferrets in close captivity, and they have had no moral compunction about killing them when they got old or sick. Surely there is a contradiction here. And surely there is a contradiction in thinking that a cat has the right to kill a bird, just as a bird has the right to fly where it wants, even if it’s into the jaws of a cat. The deeper problem is that none of these animals is capable of making a moral decision or accepting responsibility. None of them is capable of respecting other animals’ “rights.” And no wonder, because they don’t have rights. That’s why nobody, least of all the “activists,” wants to try Pudgie the poodle for killing Peter the possum.

Animal rights “activists” (who are often libertarians) believe in rights, which is good; and they believe — when it comes to animals — in kindness and tolerance, which are also good. But they can’t leave any of those concepts alone; they have to take them out of their proper context and let them run wild, to trample or be trampled, until there is nothing left but carrion.

And they aren’t the only ones. This is what you see when a libertarian calls you a racist or a fascist, a foe of all rights, because you place some value on borders and border security. These good people think that terrorism is merely a word invented by government to tighten its control on the populace. They believe that when religious zealots bomb a footrace, bring down a skyscraper, or shoot up a Christmas party full of friendly co-workers, they are merely responding to American aggression in the Near East. These intellectual activists are eager for everyone who has the price of a plane ticket to migrate to America, be supported on government subsidies for education, healthcare, transportation, and every other feature of the welfare state, and finally vote for a government that is exactly the opposite of libertarian. The abstract idea of “rights” is all that matters to them. And if you disagree, they cannot leave you alone in your ignorance and folly. No, they must attack.

If you can find this activist streak in libertarians, where can’t you find it? It is perhaps the major problem in America today. Here’s a topic, picked literally at random: student loans.

College can cost a lot, and students often go into debt to finance their college education. There’s a real solution to this problem: do nothing about it. Leave the young penguins alone. Don’t keep telling them that everyone must go to college. Don’t keep suckering them into government-sponsored loans. Don’t keep sending federal money to colleges, to make sure that everyone can and will attend them. It doesn’t lower student costs, although it does give administrators larger salaries and larger staffs and greater leverage in society. Let the colleges find out how to offer students something they value — actually value for itself, not for the notional status of having graduated from an institution (any institution will do) of higher learning. Let students go into debt, if they think their education is worth it because, for instance, they think it will qualify them for a good job, or because they may learn something in college that they wouldn’t learn anywhere else. If their decision was rational, they can pay off the loans, as other people pay off loans, considering them payment for value received.

Conservatives' problem is not so much with the concept of rights as with the concept of righteousness.

But the liberals won’t leave the idea of “college” alone. They insist all the more that everyone should be “free” to go to college, in fact should go to college, and that colleges should be so well subsidized by the government that most of them never need to attract students by lowering their costs. The liberals make sure to increase these costs by saddling colleges with every kind of social mandate they can devise, thereby doubling or tripling the total price of a college education. After that, the liberals insist that everyone in the country has a responsibility to pay off the loans that the students contracted — either that, or just pay everyone to go to college. College education — free at last! Here again we see the ostrich of “freedom” bolting wildly through deadly traffic.

Conservatives are justly famous for not being able to leave anything alone. Their problem is not so much with the concept of rights as with the concept of righteousness. Is it right that foreigners have corrupt governments? Is it right that some people’s lives are ruined by drugs? Is it right to spend every waking hour drinking, smoking, fornicating, and indulging an “addiction” to pornography? No, it is not right. But the conservatives, like the liberals, cannot stop with such an admission. They have to do something to make sure that, metaphorically, no penguin ever makes the mistake of mating with the wrong penguin.

Now picture the near future, part of which is already with us, thanks to conservative and liberal activism. In that future stands the great composite ideal of the liberals and conservatives: an 18-year-old Marine who is being sent to die in Afghanistan without ever having drunk a beer, smoked a cigarette, sniffed some coke, gone to a dirty website, owned a personal firearm, had sex without a condom, used a racial epithet, neglected to recycle, or expressed a doubt about global warming. And all this because he has been doing what he is told and required to do.

Please don’t write in to debate about whether these particular prescriptions are right or not. That young Marine is not right. He is an absurd deformation of the concept of humanity. He is one more ostrich on the loose, racing toward spiritual annihilation. But that’s what the activists always want. They want to maximize their favorite types of behavior. They often call that “freedom.” The results? Why worry?

Well, I said it was a far-fetched analogy. But is it? I hope so. But the point about the penguins is not far-fetched. Leave the penguins alone.




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The Green, Green Cane of Cuba

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Cuba has garnered a reputation for, and has been touted as, a model of green, organic, non-GMO sustainable production and consumption. According to the Organic Consumers Association (quoting Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis, a study), many of the foods that people eat every day in Cuba are grown without synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.

Some of this is true, but because the regimen has been adopted out of necessity and not out of ideology (unless you count the Communist ideology that brought this on in the first place), it is not rigorously adhered to in the way in which, for instance, an organic farmer in the US might adhere to it. It is expediency, with ideology added after the fact to capitalize on necessity.

At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail.

As USA Today reported in March, “Cuba once focused on capital-intensive, industrialized agriculture on large state-run farms, but was forced to change after economic support from the Soviet Union evaporated. Beginning in 1990, Cuban food production fell precipitously. The country shifted to a low-input agricultural cooperative model. Even so, it suffered serious food shortages in 1994, which prompted further changes.” It might be added that, changes or not, sugar production has fallen by 60% over the past 30 years.

Unable to import industrial fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba resorted to using horse, cow, pig, chicken, and even human waste for soil nutrition. And it tried to become self-sufficient in food production. At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail. And woe betide the gardener who broke a shovel — sabotage!

Into the breach stepped Uncle Sam, easing the embargo restrictions on exporting food and medicine to Cuba.

On my recent bike trip across Cuba, I was accompanied by a bourgeois socialist couple — retired on government pensions, upbeat about Castro’s “reforms,” berning-for-Bernie — who wanted to see the island before it was “ruined” by McDonalds, Walmarts, discount dollar stores, and other popular tendrils of free choice that might invade once the embargo is lifted. Fair-weather vegetarians (don’t mention bacon around them!), free-range egg fans, supplement-swallowing, sugar-hating, GMO-abjuring, organic-food faddists, they were also looking forward to eating “healthy” food in Cuba.

Well, Cubans don’t do vegetarianism. Castro pushed salads — mostly cabbage — on them during the “Special Period” in the ’90s; and, at least for tourists, greens remain a dependable staple, composed mostly of cabbage, tomatoes, beets, and cukes topped with canola oil and vinegar. But Cubans much prefer meat, beans, rice, and starchy veggies — yuca, malanga, and plantains, preferably fried — plus anything with sugar: rum (and any other alcoholic drink, such as the mojito, with an added dollop of sugar), guarapo (pure sugar cane juice), raw sugar cane, churros, cucurucho (a mixture of honey, nuts, coconut, and sugar), coffee brewed with sugar (traditional), malta (a thick, extremely sweet version of non-alcoholic malt stout), coke mixed with sweetened condensed milk, ice cream, and extra sweet pastries.

Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice it up.

On our visit to Cuba, my wife and I saw chickens everywhere, scrawny but free range. Every evening when arriving at our lodging, our host would offer us dinner, an always preferable alternative to eating in a government restaurant. I’d ask what was available and, knowing Cuban cuisine, would decide for the group. Initially I’d lean toward chicken out of respect for my “vegetarian” companions. Invariably, the chicken portions would consist of a giant thigh and leg with meat so white one could have mistaken it for a breast.

Aside: contrary to popular US perception, Cuba does have a fast-food restaurant chain — El Rapido, a state-run enterprise. Guidebooks and trip accounts tout it as dependable, with food quality varying from passable to good, especially the chicken — again, a thigh and leg combo. We never ate at a Rapido — but not for lack of trying. The ones we stopped at were either out of meat or not serving food because something had malfunctioned, or something else had gone wrong — but still open, with full staff just sitting around.

Riding with me in a taxi one day, Melinda, one of my progressive companions, wondered how the chickens we were served were so big when the ones we saw roaming about were so rickety. So I asked our driver. He said Cubans don’t kill their chickens, they’re for eggs. Eatin’ chickens are stamped with madinusa. Not familiar with the term, I asked him what it meant. He looked wryly at me, sideways, and then I got it: Made in USA.

When I told Melinda she gulped and said, “You mean we’ve been eating Purdue chickens? From now on let’s ask for pork; at least it’s organic.”

Pork is the ubiquitous Cuban meat. The only available roadside lunch snacks were in-season fruit stands and roast pork sandwiches consisting solely of pork and bread. (Cuba grows no wheat; it’s all imported, some of it possibly GMO.) Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice up the pork sandwiches (yes, it’s a strange combination, but delicious).

Beef was the least available meat, even though we saw lots of cattle in the central provinces. Apparently it’s reserved for the nomenclatura and tourists. Though not available in government ration stores, it can be obtained by anyone at convertible currency stores — if you have the money. At one B&B where the owner was tickled pink that I was a Cuban-American, it brought out her impish side. I requested ropa vieja, a traditional brisket or flank steak dish. She thought about it for a minute and said, “We can do that. And it’ll be the best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.”

I responded, “Remember, I had a Cuban mother.”

Without skipping a beat she retorted, “It’ll be the second-best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.” We both laughed.

Fish is widely available but of varying quality. Whenever it was offered as fresh and a good species, especially pargo, Cuban Red Snapper (nothing like it!), I opted for it. Yes, Cuba hasn’t overfished its stocks. But not for eco-ideological reasons; rather for “sugar cane-curtain” reasons: to limit small boat traffic along its shores, minimizing escape and infiltration attempts. Additionally, small-enterprise fishing businesses haven’t been allowed: the state will provide the fish. However, lobster is often available, and it is to die for — huge, cheap, and delicious.

Arguably, our best meal was at a paladar (private restaurant) in Playa Giron (aka Bay of Pigs). We were the only ones there. The menu, recited, not read, included a special trio of fresh fish, shrimp, and lobster, all for $15 each, including cheap imported Chilean wine and all the trimmings. When the waiter was through I asked him about caiman (the Cuban croc), which I’d heard was available for eating in the Zapata swamp area. He answered that yes, they served it but couldn’t announce it, as it was a protected species. Though I desperately wanted to try it and cock a snook at the Castro regime, we all opted for the special.

One of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — the source is nostril level and in-your-face.

One B&B owner, who’d been in the tourism business all through the Special Period, both legally and illegally (and had spent time in jail), elaborated on what food was like back then. He cooked us a typical dinner (as a side dish to the marlin and lobster he was serving us): boiled cabbage. I don’t know what he did to it, but it was surprisingly tasty. He added that breakfasts in the special period consisted of sugar water followed by labor in the cane fields — a dish he didn’t serve us.

You see a lot when you ride a bike through the countryside. At least once we saw someone spraying pesticides on crops. When I mentioned it to Melinda she despondently admitted that she too had seen it. But one of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — Cuba’s breezes dissipate that possibility, and there’s little heavy industry. The source is nostril level and in-your-face. All those old cars that look so charming have been retrofitted with diesel engines that have zero emission controls. Clouds of black smoke spew out of nearly every vehicle, to such a degree that one of our companions got sick. Riding for any length in one of those classic cars will make you sick. Floor holes funnel the poison into the cabs, which means that all windows must be open all the time. Our B&B in Havana closed all the windows facing the street, to keep the exhaust out. Though the problem is acute in cities and towns where traffic can be dense, even out on the highways we’d hold our breath and avoid in any way we could the passage of a bus or truck, the most common vehicles on highways.

Garbage, like many things in Cuba, is full of contradictions. Cubans are a very clean people. One informant told me that trash collectors are particularly well paid. In general, the streets are quite clean. But . . . every once in a while mounds of garbage dot cities, towns, and the countryside, almost as if they’ve been warehoused in discreet piles and then forgotten, only to make a sudden reappearance.

On the way to find my grandmother’s grave, I struck up a conversation with a street sweeper, about my age. He was pushing a two-binned pushcart and sweeping with a handmade broom. He had a very photogenic face and was smoking a cigar. Intermittently picking up trash — there wasn’t much — and sitting in the shade, he caught my eye. I asked if I could photograph him. He was proud to be so noticed. After some introductory remarks and typical Cuban give-and-take, he declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” I asked him to elaborate. He said things were much better before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

According to one person I talked to, the only municipal potable tap water in Cuba is in Baracoa, in the Sierra Maestra mountains at the far east end of the island. And it is delicious. Cool, free-flowing rivers fill Baracoa’s reservoir. Elsewhere, municipal water is a mess. In Guantanamo and in Havana, where I actually watched the process of getting tap water (and likely in other places too), it runs like this: Early in the evening, the water mains fill up. In a couple of hours the water level in the pipes gets high enough to reach the house branches. At this point, my two B&B owners turned on an electric or gasoline pump to get water from the mains into a cistern. Another couple of hours goes by; then, around 11 pm, another pump moves the water from the cistern up to a rooftop tank. Voila! Domestic water! — though not provided in the greenest way. Rural areas depend on trucked water and cisterned rainwater. Potable, government bottled water is also widely available. It is definitely not delicious. Though it has no actual repellent taste or smell, I have never tasted worse purified water. The consumer cost of both water and electricity is trivial — again, hardly an efficient or green approach to conserving resources.

Cuba’s organic farm production and the Obama administration’s trade overtures have caused concern among Florida’s organic farm growers. The March 18 issue of USA Today reports that

Florida farmers say the Obama administration’s plan to allow Cuban imports threatens their $8 billion-a-year business. Florida’s larger organic growers, already struggling to remain profitable, may be particularly hard-hit because Cuba has developed a strong organic farming sector.

Initially, Cuba most likely would export many of the same products grown by Florida organic farms, and the communist nation would enjoy the advantage of lower wages, state subsidies, cheap transportation and the novelty appeal of Cuban products.

It’s not just the subsidized competition that is worrisome. One American farmer asks, “When you buy Cuban products, are you helping the Cuban farmer — or the Cuban government?” He goes on to note that he worries about diseases, pests, and invasive species. Two-thirds of Florida farmers are against any deal. Bell peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers are the primary products of Cuban state farms, but avocados and more exotic produce such as guanabana (soursop) are in the running.

The street sweeper declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” Things were much better, he said, before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

USA Today adds, “Eva Worden, a Cuban-American organic grower in Punta Gorda, Fla., supports a resumption of trade between the U.S. and Cuba but wants to be sure the fruit and vegetable needs of the Cuban people are met before encouraging exports.”

Natural, organic, and even “genetically modified” terms have always been a minefield of imprecision and ideology. When politics is added to the mix, it’s anyone’s guess what government policy might turn out to be. Best to let the consumer decide . . .




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We Are All Victims Now

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On April 30 a 19-year-old Arizona man was arrested on 70 criminal charges after it was discovered that, in a picture taken last August of his high-school football team, the tip of his penis was protruding from the top of his pants. Although the photo, joke included, appeared in his high school yearbook and in programs distributed at sports events, it took all this time for someone to notice the little flash of penis. Nevertheless, “Mesa [Arizona] police booked Osborn [that’s the kid] on one count of furnishing obscene material to minors, a felony, and 69 counts of indecent exposure. Ten faculty members and 59 students were present when Osborn exposed himself and are considered victims, according to police and court documents.”

This happened in a country in which Prince, a musician who appeared on stage and in videos with his naked butt protruding from his costume, while dancers mimicked sex acts, was mourned as a national hero after his death from an apparent drug overdose; a country in which the most profitable music lyrics are so obscene and violent that journals not labeled “adult” never quote them; a country in which, over two decades ago, the Surgeon General suggested that young people be taught to masturbate; a country in which hundreds of thousands of young women are exploited as “baby mamas” by irresponsible men; a country in which major corporations boycott a state because it does not stipulate that people can enter any restroom that matches their own idea of their gender; a country in which . . . Add your own examples. This is the country in which 70 people became sexual victims without even knowing that anything happened to them.

By the way, the charges against the young man have now been dropped. There was a public outcry, thank God. Now I hope we can all focus our attention on our national schizophrenia about sex.




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Public Choice

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Can This Be Real?

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Like millions of other people, I’m used to regarding the current presidential campaign as something I see on television — a long-running show that isn’t nearly as good as the original Law and Order, and is much farther removed from reality.

But now I’m convinced that this thing is real. It isn’t just a drama about Martians invading the earth. The Martians are actually here. Beings called Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will actually be nominated for the highest office in the secular world.

I have only some scattered thoughts to offer.

1. If the establishment “conservatives” had done what they promised to do, and could have done, instead of giving veto power to Harry Reid and every pressure group in the country, this never would have happened.

2. If the establishment “liberals” thought that funding universities to teach people nonsense would not produce a perennial crop of agitators, they were stupider than I thought. But yes, they were stupider than I thought. You can see this in the amazement on Hillary’s face whenever somebody hits her with a slogan that comes right out of Democratic Party 101.

If Donald and Hillary were people of responsible character, they would not be the presumptive nominees for president of the United States.

3. It has been said that if you subsidize something, you get more of it. Both parties have spent the past generation subsidizing the arrogance of the rich, the illusions of the poor, and the ignorance of everyone. Can you imagine Donald Trump reading a book? Can you imagine Hillary Clinton reading a book, even a book she “wrote”? Now imagine one of these illiterates in the seat of Adams and Jefferson.

4. If you went for personal advice to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, what do you think you’d hear? Can you think of anyone, not criminally insane, who would give you more spiritually debilitating counsel?

5. Does character count? Yes it does, but in politics it often counts in ways we wouldn’t like it to count. If Donald and Hillary were people of responsible character, they would not be the presumptive nominees for president of the United States.

6. Some libertarians believe that this amusement park election will expose the evils of American politics. I’m sure they’re right. In fact, it has already done so. The question is, what condition will we be in when we stumble off the roller coaster at the end of this ride?




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