Innocents at Home

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Here’s an ad that runs on the radio. A child’s voice says:

Hey there, we need to talk. We have more food than we know what to do with in this country, but there are 17 million kids who are struggling with hunger.

The idea is that the audience should give money to an organization that will deal with those kids.

This ad has been running for quite a while on Rush Limbaugh’s show, which is a very expensive ad venue. If it can drag money out of the cobwebbed wallets of Rush’s audience, it must work — a disturbing thought for people who want to believe in the good judgment of the American people.

It’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages.

Who is a “kid”? Suppose we go all out and define “kid” as anybody under 18. That means there are something like 70 million “kids” in this country. The ad asserts that one out of four of these kids is struggling with hunger. If this is so, we might expect to find some evidence in our daily life. We might expect to hear that two or three kids on our block don’t get enough to eat. But we don’t.

We can’t all live in Beverly Hills; but even if we did, while driving through a poorer neighborhood in some adjacent city we might expect to see a lot of kids just sitting idly by, too weak to play. Walking along a city street, we might expect to encounter many young people who were thin and wasted, struggling with hunger. I’ll speak for myself: when I walk down the street, there’s barely enough room on the sidewalk; the space is filled by enormous fat people, many of them enormous fat kids. At the 7-11, the club for poor people in my neighborhood, it’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages. And I think you know what it’s like to shop at Walmart. I’m pretty sure that Chelsea Clinton never does that, but on June 20 she tweeted, “Our globe has an obesity crisis.” Being Chelsea Clinton, she must be right.

About 46 million people get food stamps from the government — about the same number as those considered to be “beneath the poverty line” — and $70 billion are spent on food stamps, enough to give $4,000 a year to every kid allegedly struggling with hunger, or $1,000 a year to every kid, period.

 Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Clearly, obviously, patently, transparently, there is something wiggly about that ad. Somebody is defining the operative terms in a way that does not appear to be the product of childlike innocence.

But consider the ad’s first sentence. It’s an authentic reproduction of the way in which some children talk, the way in which some children are brought up to talk. It’s the voice of a cute little smart-alecky kid who’s repeating Joan Rivers’ old routine (“Can we talk?”), without knowing who Joan Rivers was or even what a routine may be, but ready and willing, nonetheless, to tell the grownups a thing or two. It’s the kind of voice that’s supposed to put us to shame with its innocent candor, while impressing us with its tuned-in sophistication. Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Maybe not. In real life, that kind of voice makes you want to take a swat at the parents, and at every sentimentalist who regards children as oracles and “it’s for the children” as a conclusive argument. Oscar Wilde was right in thinking that “the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. . . . A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without having to pay for it” (De Profundis). The first payment that the sentimentalist refuses is the effort required for a moment’s thought.

Anyone can do the math on these for the children campaigns. Anyone who’s tempted to vote more money for education can easily go online and find out how much more money has been given to public education every year and how small the results have been. Similarly, anyone can investigate why UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got? One would think that people who cared about the cause would invest a little of their time in seeing whether their funds will be spent productively or counterproductively. But of course they don’t. They just cynically write a check. They care a little bit about money, much more about restoring their sense of innocence, and nothing in particular about the children.

Last month’s Word Watch considered the childlike (or childish) innocence (or guile) of such entities as James Comey, Donald Trump, and the New York Times. But that column was premature. New evidence of sentimental “innocence” keeps rolling in.

UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got?

A good little child may say, “I’ll bet my granddad is a thousand years old,” or “My bike can go faster’n an airplane,” or “My teacher’s the best teacher in school. She’s the best in town. She’s the best in the whole world.” A significantly older, but not necessarily more adult President Trump habitually practices the same rhetoric. Here he is, giving appropriate, then sort of appropriate, then ridiculously inappropriate sympathy to Congressman Steve Scalise, the hospitalized victim of an attempted assassination:

Steve, I want you to know, you have the prayers not only of the entire city but of an entire nation and, frankly, the entire world.

Frankly, the entire world.

Trump is ordinarily characterized as a tough talking man of action, a swamp drainer, or (by other accounts) gutter dweller. He is no such thing. While enemies denounce him as a traitor, demand his impeachment, and enact his prospective murder, Trump kisses babies, communes with wunnerful, wunnerful fokes, walks on the sunny side, brightens the corner where he is. He fears no evil, even from such a transparent enemy (not to mention hypocrite, Pharisee, and double dealer) as former FBI Director Comey. No normal adult would invite a person like Comey into his office for a little private chat, just the two of them. If a normal adult wanted to ask Comey the obvious question, “Since you’ve already told me I’m not under investigation, why don’t you go ahead and say that in public?”, he would call in lots of other people and ask the question in front of them, thus embarrassing his foe into telling the truth. Whether or not Trump said what Comey claims he did in their private conversation, only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

As for Comey himself, here is an FBI director who uses “Lordy!” as his edgiest oath and who in his recent appearance before Senate investigators amazed the nation by depicting himself as a Babe in Toyland confronting the evil Mr. Barnaby. His testimony might be approved reading for any kindergarten, so loaded is it with moral conflicts that Anyone Can Understand. On one side, there’s the wicked monarch, enticing the boy-hero into his magic oval office, there to be killed and eaten if he fails to solve the tyrant’s riddles; on the other side, there’s the hero himself, little Jim Comey, all frail and scared and sick at his tummy (“queasy” is the word he likes), just as he was when that mean ol’ witch, Loretta Lynch, tried to make him do somethin’ wrong. (Which, by the way, he proceeded to do.) Of his discussion with Trump, Comey said, “Maybe if I were stronger. . . . I was so stunned by the conversation. . . . Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance but that — that was — that’s how I conducted myself. I — I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.” Well! Jimmy sure learnt somethin’ that day, didunt he?

Only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

After escaping, somehow, from what might have been a fatal interview, the solitary, haunted child waked in the middle of the night to ask himself, “What more can I do for the cause of truth, justice, and the American way?” The answer came, quick as lightning: “I’ll take one of those memos I wrote to myself in case I wanted to tattle to somebody, and I’ll pass it along to the newspapers,through the able hands of my trusty friend, a noble professor of law. I’ll be just like the Little Dutch Boy, except that I’ll take my finger out of the dike!”

Comey’s own description of the episode is still more innocent:

It — to me, its major impact was — as I said, occurred to me in the middle of the night — holy cow, there might be tapes. And if there tapes, it’s not just my word against his on — on the direction to get rid of the Flynn investigation. . . .

I asked — the president tweeted on Friday, after I got fired, that I better hope there’s not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night, because it didn’t dawn on me originally that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape.

And my judgment was, I needed to get that out into the public square. And so I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter.

Holy cow! How childish would Comey have to be, to think that made sense, or to think that other people would think it made sense? If there were tapes, he wouldn’t have to worry about corroboration of what he said; whatever he said could be checked. But kids do the darnedest things. Comey took the possibility of tapes as a signal to provide his own kind of corroboration, the kind that was secret and anonymous, so the evidence could not be checked. Only the undeveloped logic of a child could come up with that. I reject the possibility that Comey was clever enough to think he could get a fallacious narrative on record and then be able to claim that any taped evidence must have been doctored after the fact. No one who actually thinks by means of such expressions as the public square is bright enough to concoct such a scheme.

But it occurs to me that what we’re considering may be more than a children’s story. It may be something even more naïve. It may be the type of story you expect a modern existentialist to write, a story in which the protagonist (dare I say the hero?) transcends the socially imposed solipsism of writing merely to himself and for himself, and breaks free, makes contact, finds a wider world — the world of newspapers and congressional testimony. “Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster, in a childishly vengeful novel. “There might be a tape,” said James Comey, in a childishly vengeful testimony. Both became heroes of themselves, and of a childish New York Times.

The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

Childish? How can something so old and gray be childish? Well, it can be. The Times is a venue that lectures its readers continually about the dangers of an armed society, while sponsoring a production of Julius Caesar in which the president is stabbed to death. Even Bank of America withdrew its sponsorship, but the Times sees no evil — in the assassins, at any rate. After all, these guys are using knives, not guns. Children often make such meaningless distinctions. And perhaps that helps to explain the Times’ reaction to Salman Abedi, the Muslim fanatic who killed 22 people in Manchester, England, by using a bomb. For as long as possible (according to a quotation provided by a faithful reader in Northern California), the paper insisted that “no one yet knows what motivated him to commit such a horrific deed.” Do newspapers, as well as people, experience a deaf, blind, cranky, crazy second childhood?

I was not surprised when the Times announced, on May 31, that it was reducing its editorial staff, including “Public Editor” Liz Spayd, whose position was reduced to nothing. Spayd is best known for reprimanding the paper about its hubristic ignorance of Americans who live more than 50 miles from an ocean (and of many Americans who don’t). The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

That won’t make much difference; the Times has never looked as if anybody was exercising those functions. But one thing is alarming about the Times’ new policy: the paper is allegedly going to use the money it saves by firing editors to hire more reporters — or as management put it, “more on-the-ground journalists developing original work.” Strange . . . I thought the Times’ reporting was already original enough.




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The Smartest Girl I Know

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When I first met Deja and Zhane, they were living with their mother in a Section 8 housing unit in Yonkers, New York. Their mother was what most people would describe as a “typical welfare mom” — she got a job once in a while, although the risk of losing her benefits if the job didn’t work out made it difficult to get off welfare. But she was proud of those girls! They didn’t go out on school nights, studied hard, stayed away from boys and drugs, and won numerous school awards. When Zhane was offered the opportunity to attend a scholastic camp during the summer, her mother hustled to contact everyone she knew who might be willing to sponsor the girl with a donation of $20, $10, even $5 if they could spare it. I was one of the hustled. More than once. And I was happy to help.

I lost track of the girls when they stopped attending our church, but I ran into Deja recently at the grocery store in my middle-class neighborhood north of Yonkers, where she is working as a clerk and saving money for college. She also works at a Burger King in the evenings, but she enjoys her grocery job better. “I like the customers, and I feel like ‘somebody’ here,” she said. I asked about her sister, and we caught up.

An estimated 40 million Americans are saddled with outstanding student loans totaling over a trillion dollars.

Zhane is also working two jobs, trying to earn enough money to pay off the debts she accrued after one year of college. “She didn’t want to owe all that money,” Deja told me, “so she’s working to pay it off before she goes back to college.”

Smart girl.

According to statistics compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank and the Chronicle of Higher Education, an estimated 40 million Americans are saddled with outstanding student loans totaling over a trillion dollars. Many of them are well into middle age now, with little hope of ever paying off their debt. In fact, student loans are the only debt that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, and if the loans aren’t paid off by age 65, when Social Security kicks in, payments to Sallie Mae will be deducted off the top. So add student loans to the inevitability of death and taxes — and don’t plan to leave that fancy engagement ring to your heirs, because Sallie Mae will be first in line when your will is probated.

The average student debt is $30,000, but many students owe well over $100,000 when they graduate, and it isn’t unusual today for grad students from Ivy League schools to amass debts totaling over a quarter million dollars. Unless you’re fortunate enough to land a six- or seven-figure job, those loans will never go away. Never.

Deja and Zhane might not be in college yet, but they know the difference between “aid” and “debt.” Other college students aren’t so wise. One of my own students, repeating a required English course for thethird time, was rather flippant when I cautioned her that she was amassing a huge debt without making any progress toward graduation. “I don’t have to pay for it,” she said proudly. Thinking she meant that her parents or grandparents were footing her tuition bills, I reminded her that she should be more respectful of their money. “Oh no,” she crowed, “they don’t have to pay either. The school gave me financial aid!” This poor, foolish girl thought “aid” meant “help.” She had no idea that it really meant, “Let me hold the door for you as you step into a lifetime of debtors’ prison.”

Unless you’re fortunate enough to land a six- or seven-figure job, those loans will never go away. Never.

At the university where I teach, I encourage my students to purchase their textbook, an anthology of classic literature, on Amazon. Cheap, used editions are seldom available at the college bookstore because the book is updated every three years, making the older editions conveniently obsolete. Half the time the new edition is the only option, and they can’t sell it back at the end of the semester because a new edition is usually about to come out. But I don’t care which edition they use. It’s classic literature, after all! Most of my students find the book online for $5 or so (one found it for a penny!), instead of paying $120 for the new edition at the bookstore. However, last semester I received an email from the dean: “Please encourage students to purchase their books at the college bookstore. Remind them that this is to their advantage, as they cannot use their financial aid if they purchase books online.” So let me get this straight: my students are better off borrowing $120 from Sallie Mae and paying 4–8% interest for the next 20 years than they would be if they simply skipped Starbucks for one day and bought the book online with cash? What kind of new math is that?

“Learn now, pay later” is one of the main reasons tuition has skyrocketed in the past two decades. When students can enroll without putting a penny down, they don’t give enough thought to how much it’s going to cost them later, and colleges can raise tuition almost indiscriminately. When our daughter began college at a private southern California university 15 years ago, she was awarded a scholarship that covered 50% of her tuition. We were delighted, and budgeted accordingly as we allowed her to select this expensive school. By the time she graduated four years later, however, the scholarship was only covering 25 % of her tuition, because tuition had doubled in those four years. How can anyone plan for college, when tuition is changing that drastically?

Banks would not be awarding these astronomical, uncollateralized loans to unproven debtors if the government weren’t guaranteeing the loans.

I fear for this generation whose future is being sold for a mess of pottage. Fully 60% of students accept some kind of loan for college, without ever considering the consequences. Most of them are mere teenagers when the university’s suave, educated, comforting grownups tell them to sign their lives away on the dotted line because “that’s the way everybody does it.” After all, it’s financial aid. The government is helping you get ahead. Aren’t you lucky.

I’m not suggesting that these loans should be forgiven. I don’t really have a solution for the 40 million Americans who are already hopelessly strapped with debts they knowingly contracted. I certainly don’t think free college is the answer. But something has to be done. Banks would not be awarding these astronomical, uncollateralized loans to unproven debtors if the government weren’t guaranteeing the loans by making them undischargeable through bankruptcy, and college tuitions wouldn’t be rising beyond the ability to pay if these loans weren’t creating artificial demand.

As I left the grocery store that day I congratulated Deja again on her wisdom in avoiding debt. By saving her own money for college, she is more likely to spend it carefully on a degree that truly interests her, and she’ll study more effectively because she won’t want to waste the money she has worked so hard to earn. She’ll live at home with her mother and sister instead of paying $1,000 a month for dorm life, and she plans to attend community college before transferring to a university, which will also help keep her costs down. She expects to have enough saved to pay for her first year of tuition by September. And she sleeps well, knowing that her savings account, not her loan balance, is growing.

Smart girl.




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Notes on the Extinctions at the Top of the World

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Between bouts of ducking and covering under my second-grade desk in case the Russians dropped an atom bomb on our classroom, I spent a lot of time studying geography. Not because my teacher emphasized matters geographical, but because she had a thing about homework. And not in a good way.

On the first day of class she handed out the first assignment and I did the obvious thing. I forgot about it. She didn’t forget, though, and the next morning, while the other kids were enjoying recess, I got invited to sit at my desk and complete the work. I passed the time staring at islands on the big world map next to the blackboard. On the third day I owed two homeworks, both of which would have to be turned in before I could head out to recess. Come April, I owed a hundred-and-some homeworks and all possibility of recess had forever receded below the horizon. If my family hadn’t moved to another city, I’d still be in second grade, puzzling over the Rorschach shapes of faraway islands.

Svalbard has the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs.

There are a lot of islands in the world, and I came out of that experience with a geographical bucket list of almost bottomless capacity. It was, looking back, a list based on shape and remoteness instead of anything particular my seven-year-old self knew about any of the islands. Which is how my seven-year-old self wound up sending me to Svalbard more than half a century later, still thinking the place should be called Spitzbergen, the way it used to be.

The two things that I knew about Svalbard were that it is very far north, farther north, even, than Siberia, as far north as the northernmost reaches of Greenland; and that Svalbard had the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs. Also, my seven-year-old self wanted to be there in the winter for the true Svalbard experience, and to see the Northern lights.

Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, is the former silver medalist for the title of northernmost civilian place on the planet. In the ’90s it got defaulted up to northernmost when the model Soviet city 50 miles west and a dozen or so closer to the pole was disqualified on account of going out of business. My wife and I lodged in a room in Longyearbyen, in barracks that housed coal miners before the miners rioted over their poor living conditions. Longyearbyen seemed an apt enough name for somewhere to be stuck on a yearlong contract digging coal. No wonder the miners rioted. It took a while for me to find out that the town was named after John Munro Longyear, the Michigan timber baron who began the mining operations in 1906.

It looked like a rundown middle-school gym, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds.

People who didn’t riot were the inhabitants of the Soviet model city. According to the young Russian who showed us around, it had been a very desirable place to be, Soviet-Unionwise. It’s called Pyramiden and people waited years to be assigned there. Like Longyearbyen, Pyramiden was a coal-mining town. We boated over one day to check it out.

There was a big, brass, snow-blown bust of Lenin welcoming us to the Sports Palace. The Palace had a basketball court and a tawdry little music room and an even tawdrier niche fitted out with shelves that some wag had designated as a library. It looked like a rundown middle-school gym in a community that had experienced a property-tax revolt, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds. There was also a sinister sounding building called the Tulip Hotel, which, since we weren’t Soviet royalty off on a junket, we weren’t allowed inside of. “Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

Free included a bleak apartment in the men’s building, if you were a guy. In the ladies’, if you weren’t. There were rumors of a secret tunnel connecting the two which were hard to credit since both buildings were constructed several feet off the ground because of permafrost. Still, if you could manage to hook up with a coal miner of the opposite sex you hit the jackpot because married people got upgraded to a couple’s apartment. There must have been a limited number of those apartments, though, or people would have been allowed to meet out in the open rather than having to sneak around in tunnels.

Free also, of course, included all the labor those miners put in. And the food, the food was free, too. Evidence about what kind of food you can get for free lurks in the abandoned institutional kitchen. Mostly it seemed to have been canned peas stirred in huge electric-powered tubs that reminded me of the first-generation washing machines you see in photographs from the Depression. Free industrial peas at the end of working all day in the mines — no wonder the vodka was free, too. The vodka is still there. You can purchase a shot at the northernmost bar in the world. One taste, and you realize why it hasn’t migrated to a more competitive locale. And why it had to be free.

“Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

High class people. Doctors. Lawyers. Folks with political pull pulled strings to get sent to a place farther north than Siberia so they could work in mines all day and eat cafeteria peas at night and hook up in tunnels like horny junior-high kids and shoot down vodka that would have etched the chrome off the fancy ZiL limousines the nomenklatura were chauffeured around in back home. A few miles away, Norwegian miners were rioting because they didn’t like the rooms they were given, but these poor schnooks thought they were living in paradise. There may have been Northern lights somewhere, but I wouldn’t know. It turns out the Northern lights are easier to see when it isn’t snowing all the time.

Also, I should have given a bit more thought to that business about seeing polar bears. Even my seven-year-old brain could have put it together. Bears. Winter. Hibernation. But I wasn’t any more analytical when I planned the trip than I’d been about not turning in my homework.

Or the bear thing may have had something to do with the fact that polar bears are dying out. All the right people say so. The pack ice is melting and bears all over the Arctic are falling into the water and starving to death, so if you live in Churchill, keep a close eye on your pets. There are a lot of hungry bears wading ashore. But people in Svalbard didn’t seem to be worried about polar bears dying out. They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Longyearbyen has a university, the Harvard of the Arctic, according to the Toronto Star, where you can study oceanography, but I wouldn’t. Studying oceanography involves SCUBA diving, and there are plenty of fine programs at places more equatorial than the Barents Sea. They have a nice museum at the university, though, a museum that focuses on geology and, this being Svalbard, the glaciers that sit on top of the geology. It was while I was reading about those glaciers that I came across this:

For the past four to five thousand years the Earth has been subject to a marked cooling, which gradually has created better conditions for the growth of glaciers and permafrost. Five thousand years ago the average temperature in Svalbard was around 4 degrees warmer than today. Then, one would probably have had to climb 200-400m up in the mountains in order to find permafrost, and many of today’s glaciers would not then have existed. The largest glaciers would have existed in a much reduced size. Many of Svalbard’s glaciers, therefore, are less than three to four thousand years old.

They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Svalbard has gotten a lot of attention over the past few months for being the ground zero of global warming. Maybe, even, a bit above zero, sometimes. Degrees on Svalbard have shot up quicker than degrees anywhere else on earth, which got me to wondering about those polar bears. Polar bears have been floating around in the Arctic for something like 200,000 years. Even if Svalbard is warming up today, what were they floating on 5,000 years ago? The sign didn’t say, so I had to look it up on my own. And discovered that there are two schools of thought on the bear situation.

The first is the one you’ve already heard. The other is that the bear population has exploded in recent years, mainly because of an international ban on polar bear hunting. When I tried to look up the exact numbers, I found some in the articles that thought there were more bears than ever. Twenty-five thousand, and climbing. Thirty-thousand, with populations of bears well established in dozens of locations throughout the polar region. The articles that thought the bears were dying out talked about pack ice. Less pack ice than ever. You can drive to the North Pole in your bass boat, if you want to.

Now I’m not a polar bear scientist and I’m not qualified to judge the quality of those articles, but it did seem to me that one side was willing to commit to real numbers and the other, well, the other weaseled out of addressing the question.




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Washington Post Arranges Win for Trump

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Before Tuesday, which was election night in Georgia’s sixth congressional district, I hadn’t been following the affair. I knew there would be a special election to replace a Republican congressman — Tom Price — whom President Trump had appointed to the cabinet. I also knew there was something funny about the Democratic candidate: the guy didn’t live in the district.

Jon Ossoff, a former Democratic staffer and “documentary film maker,” was typical of a class: a young, pretty-for-a-politician, supposedly charismatic person who was used as a target for big-money donations, most of them from Hollywood. A couple of times a year, one of these people — a Kennedy, some kind of activist, something — is revealed as the hope for America’s future, a leader whom the citizens of Anytown, USA, will certainly hail as a savior, if only he or she is well-funded. These people almost always lose. The locals just don’t like ’em.

But Ossoff pushed the envelope. He didn’t live in the district, and he didn’t bother to move there. His explanation was that his girlfriend didn’t live in the district. Oh, I see. His opponent, Karen Handel, a standard Republican, created what seems to have been the only memorable moment of her campaign by asking Ossoff, in a debate, whom he intended to vote for. Long silence from Ossoff, who couldn’t vote because he didn’t live in the district.

A couple of times a year, one of these people — a Kennedy, some kind of activist, something — is revealed as the hope for America’s future.

So that’s what I knew before Tuesday, June 20, when I saw the morning headline in the Washington Post: “Hard-fought House race in suburban Atlanta comes to an end as a referendum on Trump.” That headline was No. 1 all day in Google News Top Stories. It was run as if it were a locally generated headline by online newspapers across the world. And it got my interest. Polls were showing a 50-50 race in the sixth district of Georgia, but the guys at the Post hated Trump so badly that they couldn’t keep from betting all their chips on Blue. If, contrary to their fervent hope, the Republican happened to win — so would Trump!

That was enough for me; I decided to follow the returns as they came in. Clicking around, I discovered that the best sources for updates on the vote were the special live sites of the Atlantic and the New York Times. Both of them offered frequently refreshed totals, and the Times added maps of the district clearly showing where the votes for each party were coming from.

By contrast, CNN’s TV coverage was absurdly bad. A big panel of “experts” had been assembled, and they dealt out the usual inanities; but if you wanted the vote totals, you wouldn’t get them from CNN. Sample: At 9:16 Georgia time, CNN showed Ossoff ahead by 2%, with 156,000 votes counted, while the Atlantic showed Handel leading by 4.5%, with 184,000 counted. Oops. Guess we missed something. CNN’s vote analyst kept talking about votes still being awaited from places that according to the Times were mainly counted already, and must have been, to reach the current totals. At 9:53, when the Times’ vote analysts called the election for Handel, she was 10,000 votes ahead with only 30,000 remaining to be counted; but at 9:50 the vote total on CNN was still 20,000 behind, and at 9:54, 42,000 behind.

Ossoff didn’t live in the district, and he didn’t bother to move there. His explanation was that his girlfriend didn’t live there.

Fox News followed the vote only sporadically, perhaps because it wasn’t betting on the success of the Republican, but it had an absurd moment too. At the point where the vote total reached 120,000, Bret Baier, its most respected news anchor, was brought in for an interview, and he prattled on about how it was still early in the evening, only a fraction of the votes had been counted, who could tell?, etc. Dauntless researcher that I am, I had just been checking Wikipedia to determine the number of votes that are usually cast in the district. I easily and accurately predicted that 250,000 would be counted on June 20, but Baier had obviously not benefited from such research. It was clear from discussions on both Fox and CNN that their people hadn’t noticed the difference between the percentage of precints that had (fully) reported and the percentage of votes that had actually been counted.

Suddenly, at 10 PM, CNN’s vote total miraculously caught up, and it conceded what had been obvious for almost an hour before: the election had gone to the Republican. The Times election-returns site called the election at 9:53. Right to the end, however, the Times itselfkept the headline it had been running all day (also high up on Google Top Stories): “Georgia’s special election comes to a nail-biting finish.” And the Post kept its own headline, which, as I mentioned, was “Hard-fought House race in suburban Atlanta comes to an end as a referendum on Trump.”

One minute after CNN declared a victor, its irrepressibly behind-the-curve anchor Don Lemon opined, “The results were actually really close.” No, they weren’t. Except in safe districts, a vote of 52-48 is well within the “decisive” range in an American election.

A big panel of “experts” had been assembled, and they dealt out the usual inanities.

So Trump had won? I doubt it. Ossoff was the kind of gasbag who in his concession speech informed his followers: “As darkness has crept across this planet, [you] have provided a beacon of hope for people here in Georgia, for people across the country, and for people around the world.” Well, Ossoff may not have had any self-awareness, but he did have money — something between $20 and 40 million in funding, making this the most expensive congressional election in American history. Still, it wasn’t enough to cancel the fact that he didn’t even live in the district. As for Trump, he appears to have been popular in some parts of the district, but not in others. What a surprise.

So who knows? Unfortunately, either the Republican or the Democrat had to win.

Now, I know that the Washington Post sees things differently. But I’m still waiting for the headline that, according to its own logic, it should now be running — the headline that says, “Trump Wins Referendum.”




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Ich Bin Ein Latino

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Who is a Latino? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “Latino,” as used in North America, means, “a person of Latin American origin or descent.” That seems pretty straightforward. So, if you’re looking for a simple answer to a seemingly simple question, there it is. If, on the other hand, it strikes you as too neat and you’d like to know why that is, read on.

* * *

In order to use the OED definition to determine who is a Latino, one must first take out an atlas and determine exactly where Latin America is. While this may seem like hair-splitting, it’s not. The boundaries of Latin America and the parameters of the definition are inextricably intertwined. For example, if my grandfather was born in, say, Cuba, am I a Latino? Yes? How about Haiti? OK. Jamaica?

The first line that can be drawn is along the southern border of the US. While some suggest that it should be drawn considerably farther north to include the territory the US took from Mexico, for the moment, there is general agreement that Latin America is composed only of lands south of what may one day be called Trump’s Wall.

There is also some disagreement about which of the lands south of the US should be considered part of Latin America. While the United Nations takes the broad view, considering all of the nations and territories in the Western Hemisphere south of the US to be part of “Latin America and the Caribbean,” intentionally overlooking all historical and linguistic differences, the people who actually live in the Americas are more selective. While they generally agree that nations whose primary language is Spanish are part of Latin America and that those whose primary language is either English or Dutch are not, there is a difference of opinion regarding the inclusion of those whose primary language is either Portuguese or French.

Just because a person is of Latin American origin or descent does not mean that he speaks a language directly descended from Latin.

A circumnavigation of the blogosphere gives a fairly clear picture of the dispute. The majority opinion seems to be that because Portuguese and French are, like Spanish, directly descended from Latin, nations that speak one of these languages should be considered part of Latin America. Support for the inclusion of Portuguese was stronger than for French, perhaps because Portuguese and Spanish are more alike. That there are about 400 million Spanish, 200 million Portuguese, and around 11 million French speakers in the region may have had something to do with it as well. (Interestingly, the OED joined the minority in this case and chose to exclude francophone countries in its definition of Latin America.)

In any case, this is the map of Latin America, with all the Romance speaking countries in and all the Germanic speaking countries out, as confirmed by the collective wisdom of Wikipedia. In South America, by this reckoning, only Surinam (once Dutch Guyana) and Guyana (once British Guyana) are not part of Latin America, while in Central America the only country that is excluded is Belize (once British Honduras). In the Caribbean, all the English and Dutch speaking islands are excluded, including Jamaica, Barbados, Aruba, Curaçao, and all the others. The rule is simple, really: English and Dutch need not apply. (The island that in English is called Saint Martin has been divided since 1648 between France and the Netherlands. The French side is in Latin America, the Dutch side is not.)

* * *

Does it follow that because a nation must speak a Romance language to be part of Latin America, a person must speak a Romance language to be considered a Latino? It does not. Just because a person is of Latin American origin or descent does not mean that he speaks a language directly descended from Latin.

For instance, consider a child born in Peru of Peruvian parents who is raised to speak only Quechua, the language of the Incas. That the child does not speak Spanish, or any other Romance language, does not alter the fact that he is of Latin American origin and is, therefore, a Latino.

This is not a hypothetical case. There are millions of people in Latin America who speak Quechua, Guarani, Kekchi, and Nahua, to name the most widely spoken of the hundreds of indigenous languages still in use. In 2007, Richard Baldauf, in Language Planning and Policy in Latin America, estimated that 17% of the 40 million or so indigenous language speakers in Latin America were monolingual, which means that there are something like seven million people in the region who not only don’t speak a Romance language but don’t speak any Indo-European language at all, who are, nonetheless, Latinos.

Whatever their numbers are, the millions of people of Latin American origin or descent in the US who speak only English are also Latinos.

Neither is it hypothetical that monolingual speakers of indigenous languages from Latin American countries migrate to the US. In 2014, the New York Times reported on a Mixtec speaker from Mexico who arrived in East Harlem without Spanish or English. An estimated 25 to 30 thousand Mixtec speakers live in New York City alone, and there are about 500,000 Latin Americans in the US who speak indigenous languages. They are all Latinos.

To be clear, monolingual speakers of indigenous languages born in countries south of the US border where the primary language spoken is Germanic, meaning English or Dutch, would, of course, not be considered Latinos. This restriction would apply, for example, to Guyana (the former British Guyana), and to Surinam (the former Dutch Guiana), but not to French Guiana, which is, curiously, part of the European Union.

Next, consider the case of Mexican migrants living in the United States with a child who has been raised to speak only English. Is he a Latino? The answer has already been given. As he is of Latin American descent, he is a Latino.

Although neither the US Census Bureau nor the Pew Research Center seems to know how many English-only Latinos there are in the US, their stories abound on the internet and polling by the Pew Research Center shows that with each successive generation, the descendants of Latin American migrants are less likely to rely on the primary language of their antecedents. A 1999 Stanford report on the linguistic isolation of Hispanics of age 60 and older showed that more than 10% of the 125,000 polled spoke only English. Whatever their numbers are, the millions of people of Latin American origin or descent in the US who speak only English are also Latinos.

(As an aside, according to 2015 American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau, 3.4 million Spanish speakers in the US who were asked how well they spoke English responded “Not at all.” The question, presumably, was asked and answered in Spanish. They, too, are Latinos.)

* * *

Is it possible for a person who is not of Latin American descent and who was born outside of Latin America to be considered a Latino? Well, no, at least not according to the OED.

Before us is a Spanish child, born in Spain, of Spanish parents, raised and educated in a Spanish speaking home, then brought to the US at ten. Listen carefully. Just because a person is of Romance language country origin and descent does not mean he is a Latino. This child is not, and can never be, a Latino. It is simple, really. He is not of Latin American origin or descent.

But then there is Enrique Iglesias. His father, the singer Julio Iglesias, is from Spain, and his mother, the journalist Isabel Preysler, is from the Philippines. Enrique was born in Madrid, raised speaking Spanish, and currently lives in Miami. In 2010 he was named the King of Latino Pop by Latin Gossip magazine.

Just because a person is of Romance language country origin and descent does not mean he is a Latino.

While I will grant that the editors of this journal know far more about the scuttlebutt in the Vatican cafeteria than I could ever hope to, bestowing that title on Enrique makes as much sense as awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. Unless, of course, the folks at Latin Gossip know more about the word “Latino” than the contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Or consider Carmen Miranda. She was born in Portugal of Portuguese parents. She was taken to Brazil as a child, became a great singer, and then took America by storm, singing such hits as “Chica Chica Boom Chica,” and starring in such films as “Copacabana” before dying tragically in 1955. She is viewed as a latina icon by Literanista, a wonderfully eclectic blog that covers such matters. A quick review of feminist, Latino, and multicultural blogs confirms that Ms. Miranda has been universally designated and welcomed as a latina icon.

But hold on. Latin American origin? Well, no. Latin American descent? Again, no, not really. Far be it from me to second-guess the creator of Literanista, who undoubtedly knows far more about the life of Ste. Bernadette of Lourdes than is absolutely necessary, but to beatify she-of-the-fruit-hat as a “latina icon” makes no more sense than the coronation of Enrique. To be fair, it could be that the editor of Literanista hadn’t consulted her copy of the OED while researching the piece.

The case of New Mexico is trickier. About half of the people of the State of New Mexico are Spanish speaking, to one degree or another. Many of them have their roots in Mexico, but most of them, particularly those in the northern part of the state, are the direct descendants of the original Spanish settlers. (Santa Fe, the current capital, was founded in 1610, ten years before the Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor.) Often called Hispanos, many of them speak a sort of Old World Spanish. That the New Mexicans who are of Mexican descent are Latinos is clear, but are the Hispanos, who are direct descendants of Spanish settlers, Latinos?

To beatify she-of-the-fruit-hat as a “latina icon” makes no more sense than the coronation of Enrique.

Let’s say that the family tree of a Hispano man named Juan is populated exclusively by Spaniards who came directly from Spain to settle in New Mexico. As in the case of the “King of Latino Pop,” Juan was not born in Latin America and his ancestors were not Latin American. Is Juan a Latino? Well, no.

Let’s try this: New Mexico itself was once part of Mexico. If Juan’s ancestors were born in New Mexico at that time, they could be said to be of Latin American origin, which would mean that all of their descendants, including Juan, could be said to be Latinos.

Then there are the genizaros. During colonial times, the Spanish colonists of New Mexico snatched Native American children away from their tribes and forced them to work as domestic servants and, tragically, slaves. By 1776, a third of the people in what would become New Mexico were genizaros. According to some sources, the practice continued into the early 20th century. Today, there are about 300,000 direct descendants of genizaros in New Mexico, most of them Spanish-speaking.

(The word “genizaros” comes from the Turkish word “yeniceri” that translates into English as “janissary.” The Janissaries were Christian children captured by the Ottomans and then trained and compelled to serve in their military as shock troops.)

Are the genizaros Latinos? The same reasoning that could make it possible for Juan to be considered to be a Latino could also apply to the genizaros. If their ancestors were born in New Mexico when it was a part of Mexico, then those ancestors could be said to be Latinos. As direct descendants of those ancestors, the genizaros could be said to be Latinos, too.

If that line of reasoning is accepted, however, then the descendants of the children of American settlers in Texas who were born in Texas when it was a part of Mexico would have to be considered Latinos, too.

For example, the older children of Samuel May Williams, a close associate of Stephen F. Austin, were born in Texas when it was part of Mexico. Under the broad interpretation of “origin” used with the genizaros, any descendants of these children would have to be considered Latinos as well. It sounds rather Talmudic, but it could be viewed as heartless to deny the genizaros a place at the Latino table. If the only price that would have to be paid would be to make a little room at the table for a few Anglos whose patriarch acquired the 125-ton schooner Invincible, credited with depriving Santa Anna of much-needed supplies and reinforcements, thereby (arguably) ensuring Sam Houston’s victory at San Jacinto and the independence of Texas, it might be a good deal. After all, seven Tejanos died defending the Alamo.

That’s right, even the Inuit of Baffin Island would have to be considered Latinos. The same would probably have to apply to New France.

One more Talmudic twist: genetic tests have proven that many of the Hispanos of New Mexico were Jews from Spain who had either converted to Catholicism or feigned conversion to avoid the Inquisition. Their descendants, sometimes called conversos or marranos, could be considered Latinos, in the same way that Juan could. In fact, Juan may be a converso. (In Judaic scholarship, they are called the “anusim,” or “the forced ones.”)

There may be a problem. If the boundaries of Mexico prior to the creation of the Republic of Texas and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo are allowed to define Latin America, then the window of opportunity for a birth to convey latinidad to subsequent generations is small. While Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, in 1836 Texas won its independence, and in 1848 the rest of the American Southwest became part of the US, so New Mexico was only part of Mexico for 27 years. Unless an ancestor of Juan gave birth to another of his ancestors during that interval, Juan might have no ancestor who was of Latin American origin, which would mean that Juan could not be a considered a Latino.

A possible solution hinges on the fact that, prior to becoming part of Mexico, New Mexico was part of the Spanish Empire. It would be tempting simply to stipulate that anyone who has an ancestor within the borders of Spanish America is, under the OED definition, a Latino. The sticking point is that Mexico is a Latin American country and Spain is not. If this exception were allowed, there would be people calling themselves Latinos who were not of Latin American origin or descent. This “Hispano exception” will be considered further, if only to see where the twisted path leads.

In 1494, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the Americas with a single line, drawn north to south. Spain got everything to the west of the line; Portugal got everything to the east. The Pope gave the treaty his blessing, with the proviso that only non-Christian lands were fair game for conversion and conquest.

Is it correct to infer, from the fact that the OED definition of “Latino” makes no mention of the construct of race, that a person of any racial identity can be a Latino? Yes, it is.

An inescapable consequence of using the boundaries of Spanish America to determine “Latin American origin or descent” is that every Native American from Tierra del Fuego to Point Barrow would have to be considered a Latino. That’s right, even the Inuit of Baffin Island would have to be considered Latinos. (The same would probably have to apply to New France. Everyone with an ancestor who lived within its boundaries would also be a Latino.)

All of which illustrates the difficulties that can crop up when the OED guidelines are ignored. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and adherence to the OED parameters ensures consistency and clarity. “Hispano,” after all, means “Spanish,” not “Latin American,” and the Inuit probably have no wish to be Latinos, anyway.

* * *

Is it correct to infer, from the fact that the OED definition of “Latino” makes no mention of the construct of race, that a person of any racial identity can be a Latino? Yes, it is. Over the past 500-plus years, millions of migrants traveled from Europe, Africa, and Asia to join the millions of Native Americans already in Latin America. They are all Latinos.

A few examples will help underscore the point.

There are at least 17 million Latinos of German descent living in Latin America, of whom at least a million speak German. A handful of them are descendants of Nazis who fled Allied justice after Word War II.

Because of differing methods of determining race, estimates range from 19 to 67 million Latinos of African descent in South America alone, a fraction of whom are descendants of the thousands of runaway slaves, or maroons (from the Spanish cimarrónes), who created their own free communities, called palenques by the Spanish andmocambosorquilombos by the Portuguese.

if you’re riding on the city bus in Des Moines and a stranger sits next to you, you cannot know from his appearance or his language whether he is a Latino or not.

There are at least 2 million Latinos of Japanese descent living in Latin America, a few of whom who may be descended from the samurai recruited by the Spanish crown and brought from Manila harbor to protect the mule trains filled with Asian treasure being carried from Acapulco to Veracruz.

There are also thousands of Latinos who are descendants of the “Confederados” who fled Yankee occupation at the end of the Civil War and settled in southern Brazil.

All these people are Latinos.

In addition, there are many millions of people living in Latin America whose genes reflect the endless combinations that such diverse ancestors make possible. In colonial times, there was a peculiar and intricate system of classification called “las castas” that assigned names, some of them quite exotic sounding, to a multitude of the combinations. Some of the names are still in use today. The bearers of these names, too, are all Latinos.

In the US, there are Latinos of many racial identities as well. In the 2010 US Census, the more than 50 million who marked the box for “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish,” went on to identify their “Race,” by indicating one of the following categories: “White, Black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Some Other Race, or Two or More Races.” In excess of 26 million, or 53% of the respondents, identified themselves as “White.” Latinos, all.

Further proof is unnecessary: Latino is not a race.

* * *

To summarize:

  1. Latin America comprises all the Romance language speaking countries in the Western Hemisphere south of the United States.
  2. A person born in Latin America is a Latino.
  3. A person born outside of Latin America who has Latin American antecedents is a Latino.
  4. A Latino does not have to speak any particular language.
  5. A Latino does not have to have any particular racial identity.

In other words, if you’re riding on the city bus in Des Moines and a stranger sits next to you, you cannot know from his appearance or his language whether he is a Latino or not. Two examples will make this point.

A dark-skinned man with the distinctive profile of a Mayan aristocrat takes his seat and starts to talk with the man in front of him in Spanish. Is he a Latino? No. He is from Belize.

A blonde-haired, blue-eyed man sits next to you and starts talking to his friend across the aisle in German, but with a soft accent that you can’t quite place. Intrigued, you gather up your courage and say, “Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind my asking, but, are you by any chance Swiss?”

He quickly purses his lips in suppressed amusement before answering, “Nein, ich bin ein Latino.”




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Temporization Fugit

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As speculated in a June 7 feature here, President Trump today (June 16) announced, before a packed Miami crowd, a big change in US-Cuba policy. Though tourism to the island by American-based visitors has been technically banned by the embargo for quite some time, the 2014 Obama thaw fudged the issue in a variety of ways. President Trump has just dumped the fudge.

Pre-Obama’s thaw, regulations allowed Americans to visit Cuba under a variety of categories, including a people-to-people category — once their itinerary had been vetted by the Treasury Department. Under that category, only organized tour groups with a detailed itinerary were allowed to visit, with the intent of American folks and Cuban folks getting to know each other.

Compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

On December 2014, President Obama eliminated the vetting process and allowed visitors to vet themselves on an honor system. At the same time, visitors returning from the island weren’t scrutinized, only questioned perfunctorily or not at all, about their compliance with US government regulations.

According to CNBC, “President Trump's policy restricts this form of travel to Cuba for individuals. Americans pursuing this type of travel would have to go in groups.” And their compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

But the ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company, GAESA. "The profits from investment and tourism flow directly to the military. The regime takes the money and owns the industry. The outcome of the last administration's executive action has only been more repression and a move to crush the peaceful, democratic movement," Trump said in Miami on Friday.

The ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company.

According to Fox News, The policy calls on Americans traveling to Cuba to use "private businesses and services provided by the Cuban people, rather than businesses and services provided by GAESA." In effect, government hotels and resorts are out. US-based visitors must use private B&Bs and restaurants otherwise known as casas particulares and paladares.

The new policy does not go into effect until the new regulations are issued. We await the Cuban government’s reaction . . .




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Designer Reality

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Libertarians take great stock in the law of supply and demand. We understand that as long as something is in demand (as long as it isn’t a cure for cancer), there will generally be a supply of it. As it was with alcohol — the consumption of which only increased as a result of Prohibition — so, too, has it been with such drugs as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

Less obvious, perhaps even to us, is the driving force behind the seemingly unstoppable popularity of alternative reality. Why do so many people, in this increasingly dystopian century, appear to be disconnected from objective truth? I don’t believe it can simply be explained as dissatisfaction with dystopia. There appears to be a general notion that people can believe whatever they want, and that reality is so subjective that it is mere clay, to be molded into whatever shape they choose.

In childhood, this is called imagination. If it persists into adulthood, it can become a form of mental illness. And instead of the remedy for dystopia, it appears to be the cause of it. Even a great many of those who never resort to alcohol or other drugs are addicted to designer reality.

Why do so many people, in this increasingly dystopian century, appear to be disconnected from objective truth?

Nor are libertarians immune to the addiction. I recently made the mistake of involving myself in one of those pointless Facebook flame wars I keep resolving to stay out of. It was on a libertarian page, and some cocky young gun posted yet another of those dreary challenges to feminine patience: “Why aren’t there more libertarian women?”

Of those who jumped into this discussion on the commentary thread, at least half were women. Real live, flesh-and-blood women were saying that we did exist, explaining how we had come to be libertarians, and suggesting how more of us could be encouraged to follow. Not that this appeared to teach the young gun, or his buddies, anything of value.

The answer to every one of our comments was some variation of the same: “Libertarianism is a logical philosophy, and men are logical, but women are not. Women are emotional and cannot be logical.” It was basically only a slightly more mature version of “Girls are stinky and have cooties” or of that old playground taunt: “Girls go to Jupiter to get more stupider. Boys go to Mars to get more candy bars.” I suppose the goal was to get us to be more emotional, so they could prove their point.

The word “logic” kept being repeated, as if it were a magical incantation. I saw zero evidence that these guys were using much of it, but they seemed to think if they kept asserting that they possessed superior logic, they needed to do no more. They had their designer reality, it gave them a terrific high, and they could imagine nothing better. The possibility that if they stopped telling us how illogical we were, and actually made the effort to explain the libertarian philosophy to us, they might meet with more widespread results, apparently never occurred to them.

It differs little from telling children that Santa Claus doesn’t really come down the chimney and eat those cookies.

Taking the chance that since they talked so much about logic, they might actually recognize it when they saw it, I attempted to reason with them. I pointed out that libertarians believe in the value of the individual. That one of their sages, Ayn Rand (herself — ahem — a woman), proclaimed that the individual was “the smallest minority” and stalwartly championed individual rights. And that they were speaking of women in a strictly collective sense — lumping us all together in a most unlibertarian way. They responded by casting Rand, and presumably any other woman who actually used logic, as a freak of nature who was at worst a horribly deformed woman, or at best some sort of an honorary man.

I have had this experience with nearly all the designer reality addicts I have ever engaged in conversation, no matter what pretty world they’ve chosen to inhabit. The cherished belief is doggedly repeated. Regardless of how good my argument happens to be, or how much evidence I present to support my position, it has no effect except to make them less logical and more — well — emotional. It differs little from telling children that Santa Claus doesn’t really come down the chimney and eat those cookies. They seem not so much indifferent to the truth as afraid of it.

The problem does not begin with the seemingly endless variety of designer reality available to us. Its origin can be traced to an insatiable demand. And the lure is powerful. This is not because all designer reality is utter bunk, but because in almost every version, there is at least a grain of truth.

Women can be emotional. I know that after that online conversation with those male libertarians, I wanted to scream my head off. But the political powers-that-be can take a grain of truth, add a little yeast, and expand it into a monstrous blob of dough. Many women turn their frustrations with men into protest-marching, silly-hat-wearing, man-hating lunacy. Today’s feminists have managed to make burning bras look, by comparison, charmingly quaint.

The big-government power structure functions as a duopoly, neither side of which is totally right or wrong. Most people choose the portions of truth they prefer and ignore the fact that the rest of what they’ve chosen is falsehood. The powers-that-be are basically telling us that we can have no more than part of the truth. That we are not entitled to the full truth. That we must be content with whichever lies we find the most pleasant — or at any rate, the least painful.

Today’s feminists have managed to make burning bras look, by comparison, charmingly quaint.

A temptation to accept partial truth is, it seems to me, the contemporary equivalent of taking the apple from the Serpent. It is the fruit the State dangles before us. And when we get cast out of the Garden, we waste our time arguing over trivialities — such as whether to blame Adam or Eve. Or maybe Adam and Steve.

Liberty enables us to pursue the full truth. We certainly don’t all agree on what that is, but each of us who values freedom should never settle for anything less. When we waste our time bickering over whose designer reality is prettier, we sell our freedom short. And, so divided, we invite the potentates of big government to conquer us.




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Talk Tough but Temporize

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During the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump criticized President Obama’s Cuba policy and promised to reverse it. However, after Trump’s win, during the transition, “he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately expressed support for Obama’s Cuba policy,” according to a June 2 ABC News report.

In typical Trump fashion, the candidate talked tough but the president is keeping his options open as he educates himself on the issues. And in typical government fashion, a “policy review” under the auspices of the National Security Council was set up to study the issues. It was supposed to report its recommendations on May 20, the 115th anniversary of Cuban independence, but the issues turned out to be more complex than originally envisioned, and Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on that hallowed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

Yes, that’s right: in a Wilsonian-Carterian flourish, Trump’s Cuba policy “will have important differences with respect to that of Barack Obama, especially with a ‘major emphasis’ on human rights,” according to Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America.

Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on the appointed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

It seems — to a cynic who might ignore the president’s ostensible, stated reason — that Trump’s thrust is based on two objectives. One is the aim, originating in a gut reaction, to reverse anything Obama did; the other is more nakedly political: according to the Associated Press, the Trump administration wants to maintain good relations with Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate committee investigating Trump’s relations with Russia, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — both Cuban-Americans, and the latter a not-too-distant relative of the Castros.

Meanwhile, in a Trumpian flourish just before leaving office, Obama restricted Cuban immigration by rescinding the so-called “Wet foot, Dry foot” policy whereby a Cuban caught on the waters between Cuba and the United States ("wet feet") would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore ("dry feet") can remain in the United States, and would later qualify for expedited legal permanent resident status in accordance with the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, and eventually US citizenship.

The Trump administration’s ambivalence toward Obama’s Cuba policy proceeds from the fact that its favorable aspects conflict with its unfavorable consequences. While the reduced restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba that President Obama signed as an executive order in 2014 have tripled leisure travel to nearly 300,000 last year, much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the state security (repressive) apparatus. Organized tours, especially in the “people-to-people” and “educational” categories are little better, spending all their time under direct government control, visiting such exciting venues as printing workshops, organic farmers’ cooperative markets, and other government-organized venues, while traveling in government tour buses with government guides.

Those dollars strengthen the security organs. According to ABC News, arrests and detentions climbed from 8,899 in 2014 to 9,940 in 2016.

Much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the repressive state security apparatus.

On the other hand, continues the ABC report, a significant proportion of travelers eschewed organized tours, opting instead to explore Cuba on their own and thereby “injecting hundreds of millions in US spending into privately owned businesses on the island,” businesses made possible by the 201 private enterprises (especially B&Bs and restaurants) legalized by the regime since 2010, and “supercharging the growth of an entrepreneurial middle-class.”

Still, the hype has blinded what ought to be sober players into overreach. President Obama did not change the requirements for US travelers to Cuba; he only put compliance with them on the honor system, a system that still requires registering with the US Treasury Dept. The same ABC News report I quote here incorrectly states that “Obama eliminated that requirement.”

And it’s not just ABC News. Airlines such as JetBlue, American, Silver Airways, and Frontier, anticipating tens of thousands of travelers to book their own, independent trips to Cuba, have had to cut back considerably. Silver and Frontier have both canceled all their flights, citing "costs in Havana to turn an aircraft significantly exceeded our initial assumptions." In other words, the costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines. Earlier this year, JetBlue announced it would use smaller planes for its Cuba flights, and American Airlines cut its daily flights to Cuba by 25%.

The Obama changes did increase US travel to Cuba, just not as much as some expected. NBC News reports that “according to the state-run site CubaDebate, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba spiked in January of this year at 43,200. CubaDebate said that's a 125% increase from January of last year.” In addition, it reported 31,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to the island in January.

The costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines.

Those Cuban-Americans recently became a political football for cruise lines, which also dove into the liberalized US-Cuba travel market. The Cuban government does not recognize naturalized US citizenship by any Cuban-born individual: in their eyes such people are still Cuban citizens. Many of these expatriates, although allowed to visit relatives in Cuba under one of the allowed US categories of travelers, refused to set foot on the island for any prolonged length of time, declining to give even one dollar to the regime. But the promise of a cruise with all the amenities provided by a US ship and onshore visits a matter of only hours on terra firma suddenly attracted many.

But it was not to be.

The Cuban government declared that Cuban-born Cuban-Americans would not be allowed on shore from any visiting US cruise ship, referring to an earlier Cuban law that prohibited any Cuban-born person returning from to the island by sea. This was probably meant to place a fig leaf over the prosecution of any foreign-based infiltrators.

So, initially, Carnival Corporation refused to sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans. Two lawsuits put paid to that. They were filed in federal court in Miami: a class-action suit and a civil suit, by Cuban-born Americans who attempted to book and were denied tickets on Fathom Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of Carnival. According to the Miami Herald, “the lawsuits alleged that the cruise line was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by following a policy that discriminates against a class of Americans on a place of public accommodation for transient guests — a cruise ship.”

Carnival then decided to sell tickets to Cuban-Americans but delayed its cruises until Cuba changed its policy — which it did, effective April 26, 2016. The first cruise sailed on May 1, 2016.

Cuba has not adapted well to the increase in visits. Forget booking a hotel room in Havana during the peak season of November-April on your own; rely instead on a package tour. And good luck finding a B&B, called in Cuba a casa particular. Under the Obama initiatives, both governments have struck agreements to cooperate on issues ranging from human trafficking to oil spills, and even increased internet access — a pledge extracted out of Raul Castro by President Obama. The Cuban government has “opened nearly 400 public Wi-Fi access points across the country,” according to the AP. But that reality is much less than meets expectations. The outlets are mostly in parks and plazas and only provide email connections. Full internet access, while more available than before, is beyond most Cubans’ budgets and remains frustratingly slow.

Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years.

The challenge for the Trump administration’s policy reset is to keep the good bits — full diplomatic relations, some relative freedom of travel, the benefits to Cuba’s private sector, etc. — while limiting Americans from doing business with the Cuban security organs, “according to a Trump administration official and a person involved in the ongoing policy review” (ABC report). Additionally, what with President Trump’s emphasis on jobs, Engage Cuba, a pro-détente group, released a study this May asserting “that a complete rollback of Obama’s Cuba policy would cost airlines and cruise lines $3.5 billion over the next four years and lead to the loss of 10,154 travel jobs.” (Wow, really? Such incredible specificity!)

One novel proposal that might be included in the Cuba policy reset — to ensure the support of the Cuban-Americans — is to impose a 2% export tax on US agricultural products sent to the island. “It is a politically creative, financially plausible measure and may possibly be a first step toward a comprehensive settlement of compensation to those who hold certified claims,” said Richard Feinberg, a former assistant to President Clinton and author of a Brookings Institution study on Cuban claims published in 2015. Of course, whether that 2%, factored into the price of the exports, would come out of the exporters’ profits or out of the Cuban government’s pockets is up for negotiation — if the proposal is implemented. Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years, though the majority of small claims could be settled with dispatch.

* * *

Oh, yes . . . and what about those extra 1,041 arrests and detentions in 2016? ABC News reports, “Cuban officials say many of those arrests are deliberately provoked by dissidents who are funded and backed by anti-Castro groups with the deliberate objective of driving up detention statistics.”

No doubt those officials saw the May issue of the Cuban American National Foundation’s Boletín Informativo, displaying a photograph of a protester racing in front of Havana’s May Day parade waving an American flag in the air and wearing a Cuban flag on his chest. Daniel Llorente Miranda’s action took the security organs by surprise. After a few seconds’ chase, they threw him to the tarmac and brutally beat him.




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The Reusables

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My state, California, recently enacted a Bag Law. Intended to reduce the mighty environmental danger of plastic bags, it forbids drug stores and groceries from giving them out for free; they have to charge at least ten cents. This nanny-state microaggression was approved at last November’s general election, by the same voters who gave Hillary Clinton a majority in this state.

I have only anecdotal and speculative evidence about the effects of this law. I assume that workers who make plastic bags have been hurt, and that retailers have not been hurt, because they get to keep the ten cents. A slim majority of voters waked up in time to keep the money from going to some phony environmental fund.

Is saving a dime worth all that effort? Would it be worth ten cents to keep other customers from hating you?

As for the customers, a remarkable number of them are doing what the law wants them to do — bringing their own “reusable” bags.

Of course, some of them did that before the law was passed. These were environmental zanies, and their post-election conduct was predictable. They look smug, make self-congratulatory observations to the clerk, bother their kids with information about the purpose of “daddy’s bag,” etc. Such people were always few, and their numbers have not increased.

But there has been a substantial increase in the number of people who seem sane in other respects but are now showing up with reusables. Nowadays, I rarely hit the checkout line without being preceded by someone who spends five minutes, in close collaboration with the clerk, packing and repacking his week’s supply of groceries in a container made to hold an avocado, a piece of kale, and three back issues of Prevention magazine. Is saving a dime worth all that effort? Would it be worth ten cents to keep other customers from hating you? Would it be worth a dime to spare yourself the scientifically documented risk of disease entailed by the reuse of bags in public and the difficulty of washing them? By the way, wouldn’t it be worth ten cents, just to save yourself the trouble of washing a stupid shopping bag? Not to mention all the precious energy consumed in the process.

No rational defense of reusables is possible.

Now, on to me. I may not like the Bag Law — in fact, I detest it — but when I’m paying $50.00 for groceries, an increase of ten cents (twenty for double bagging) is insignificant. Compared to the hassle of dragging reusables around, it’s microscopic. I don’t mind carrying a wine bottle out in my own bare hands; in fact, It makes me feel all manly and edgy and lumpen. But I mind even less spending ten cents for a bag that will hold the wine, the frozen dinners, the two avocadoes, the tortilla soup, and that weird cheese from New Zealand, without any need for forethought or planning — a bag that will then be available the next day, to line the garbage can.

Of course, this is not a principled stand, but neither is it a principled stand to torture yourself with reusables — if you’re a normal person, that is. So why do normal persons do it?

The answer, according to a conservative-libertarian friend who also detests the law but who reluctantly admits to using reusable bags instead of paying the damned ten cents, is the following:

"I hate to waste money."

I’m puzzled by his reasoning. So you’d be wasting ten cents on a plastic bag, but you’re not wasting more than that on a reusable?

This is not a principled stand, but neither is it a principled stand to torture yourself with reusables — if you’re a normal person, that is.

 

Thinking about what he said, I discovered numerous parallel puzzlements. For example:

I never spend a minute balancing my checkbook, but I’ll spend an hour calling to protest a three-dollar overcharge on my credit card.

I’ve caught myself putting up with terrible service in store A, simply because I don’t want to waste five extra minutes to travel to store B.

We all know people who are grossly inconvenienced — even threatened in their lives or livelihood — by the machinations of X political party, but who will never, never vote for Y political party, because some proponent of Y once made some offensive remark, or because their Ma and Pa always voted for X.

These are all instances of being penny wise and pound foolish, and some serious research needs to be done on them. It might explain a lot about life on earth.

But my friend pointed out something else. He lives in what, according to South Park, is the citadel of “Smug” — the San Francisco Bay area. There, he says, he has observed the three types of bagholder whom I have observed, here in Southern California: the people (e.g., me) who just go ahead and pay the ten cents for a plastic bag, the people who reluctantly but willingly tote a reusable (that’s him), and the people who gleefully advertise their allegiance to reusables.

But he says that he frequently encounters a fourth type, which is worse, even, than the third: people for whom reusables became a fact of nature as soon as the Bag Law was passed, people who see them not as a hardship or a puzzlement or a moral victory but as an expression of the way things ever were and ever ought to be. For them, there is no problem — because they are the problem.




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