Liaisin’ the Night Away

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No, I am not going to do the predictable thing — review Hillary Clinton’s book. I reviewed her earlier one, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us (Liberty, May 1996, pp. 51–54), and that’s enough to expect from me. True, this one seems to have been written by different ghost writers, although it’s hard to be sure. There’s a point below which stylistic analysis can’t be conclusive. But that’s not enough to justify further consideration of this “author’s” work.

Besides, a lot of other people have already done a good job with What Happened. One of them is Joseph Bottum in the Washington Free Beacon. Says Bottum, writing about the “writer”:

Has there been a more self-conscious major-party presidential candidate since Richard Nixon? The stiff way she moved, the personalizing of every slight, the grimacing smile as though she had been forced to teach herself how to wear her face: Nearly everything about Hillary Clinton spoke of a self-consciousness so vast, so heavy, that only the sternest will could shoulder it. Like a robot with slow actuators, she always seemed to have a gap between a stimulus and her response — a brief but noticeable moment of deciding how to react. Leave aside questions of her truthfulness about everything from her Rose Hill law firm's files to her private email server while she was at the State Department. Trump's needling epithet of "Crooked Hillary" gained traction because, regardless of her actual honesty, she had the affect of dishonesty — the pause that recalls for many viewers a liar choosing what to say.

Well put, and I’ll leave well enough alone. On to other matters.

In 1959, Isabel Paterson found a young couple who wanted to buy her old wooden farmhouse near Princeton, New Jersey. “The young wife,” she wrote to a friend, “‘loves an old house.’ She has certainly got something to love.”

Readers don’t care about somebody being killed, but they do care about penthouses, luxury suites, celebrity yachts, and high-rise apartments.

I’ll say the same thing about the good old English language: those who love it have certainly got something to love. It has the largest vocabulary in the world, and the most chaotic spelling, and sources that are stranger and more varied than those of any other language. In addition, it has the world’s most insensitive users.

I can’t establish that scientifically, but I have plenty of what “scientists” disparage as “anecdotal evidence.”

Here’s some:

On July 27, Wyndham Lathem, a science professor employed by Northwestern University, and Andrew Warren, an employee in the business office of Somerville College, Oxford University, allegedly butchered the boyfriend of Lathem in the latter’s high-rise apartment in Chicago. I put in high-rise because murder stories are always supposed to have stuff like that in them. Readers don’t care about somebody being killed, but they do care about penthouses (Ayn Rand wrote a murder play called Penthouse Legend), luxury suites, celebrity yachts, and high-rise apartments. Readers want class.

If it’s a sign that there are still murderers who love a good book, as they did in the Nero Wolfe stories, then it’s a good thing.

Now, after what seems to have been a high-rise thrill-killing, Lathem and Warren apparently left the corpse to cool and — you will never guess what they did next. They drove to the public library in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where Lathem made a contribution of $1,000 in memory of the victim. They then escaped to California, where they eventually turned themselves in. They are now in jail in Chicago.

I thought your curiosity would be aroused by that part about the donation to the library. It leaves me with a few thousand questions, too. If it’s a sign that there are still murderers who love a good book, as they did in the Nero Wolfe stories, then it’s a good thing. But what makes the story relevant, more or less, to reading and writing is what spokespersons for Oxford University had to say about the university’s employee, Mr. Warren.

The PR release was sensibly worded. It said, among other things: “We have been in contact with the police in the UK and are ready to help the US investigating authorities in any way they need.” Unfortunately, the principal of Somerville College wouldn’t leave well enough alone. She added this:

We and the university authorities will liaise with the investigating authorities and provide any assistance that is required.

This comes as upsetting news to all of us. Counselling support can be made available to anyone who needs it.

The principal, Alice Prochaska, is a distinguished archivist and curator who was once head librarian of Yale. Yet her acquaintance with books seems not to have extended far enough to inform her that “liaise with” is a pretty poor substitute for “help,” especially when it is used as a redundant parallel to “provide assistance.”

At first I was willing to congratulate Principal Prochaska on avoiding the temptation to administrative overreach. According to the well known statement of Rahm Emanuel (which I am about to paraphrase), administrators seldom fail to waste a good crisis, but the principal’s double qualifiers, “anyone who needs it” and “any assistance that is required,” somewhat allayed my fears. Then I realized: everything in the principal’s message is classic overreach.

It’s not just the quantity of words that’s important; it’s the quality.

Consider the rush from helping investigators to providing counselling support for “anyone who needs it.” Is Somerville College, whose alumnae include Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Daphne Park, the Queen of Spies, so sheltered a place that the rumor of crimes committed by a clerk in the financial office can drive its inhabitants round the bend? Principal Prochaska’s psychiatric initiative looks like just another way for a modern bureaucracy to reach out to its subjects and clutch them to its smothering breast.

Somerville College had no connection with the murder. If you were wondering, for some bizarre reason, whether the college would help the police with any facts it might have about Andrew Warren, the press release cleared that up. The principal’s only function was to expand useless verbiage — which appears to be why we employ college administrators. Under their tutelage, help becomes assistance, and assistance gives birth to counselling. To increase the number of syllables, counselling generates counselling support (we wouldn’t want anyone to think that our counselors will be non-supportive), and they need generates that is required. It is only proper, in such an authoritative message, that authorities should appear twice in the same sentence.

But it’s not just the quantity of words that’s important; it’s the quality. That’s where liaise comes in. Its function is to convert a common, low-quality, bureaucratic communication into something fairly stinking with high intrigue.When I read “ready to help,” I picture one cop calling up another cop and saying, “Ya know this bloke Andy Warren? Yeah, that’s the one. Got anything on him?” When I read “liaise,” I picture Allied agents behind the German lines, hoping that the message they inserted in the shoe of the Swedish diplomat will somehow make its way to Churchill.

The purpose of official patois is not to communicate meanings clearly or truly in any way. The purpose is to project the self-importance of the authorities.

It would be unfair to the British if I left this discussion of the Chicago murder case without providing a parallel anecdoteabout American verbiage. Here are the wise remarks of a Chicago police spokesman about the murder’s probable cause: "Something pivotal happened that resulted in the victim being attacked." You don’t say so! I thought it was something completely unimportant. I thought it was something on which nothing turned, so to speak. Now I know it was like, oh, the voyage of Columbus, or the invention of the incandescent light. It was something . . . pivotal — whatever it was.

Am I being petty? No, I’m not. The purpose of official patois is not to communicate meanings clearly, or emphatically, or wittily, or charmingly, or poetically, or individually, or truly in any way. The purpose is to project the self-importance of the authorities. That being so, it’s easy to see that this is commonly the language, not just of obscurity, but of obvious untruth, which the recipients are nevertheless expected to swallow.

One of the TV stations in my area has been trying to capitalize on the autumnal return of school children to their places of so-called instruction, by advertising a series about bullying in the schools. In one of its ads, a reporter intones, “We’re not afraid to stand up to bullying.” Refreshing, isn’t it? Here’s a public institution that is prepared to resist the threats of 12-year-olds.

Also refreshing is the station’s openness to the community. “I want you to be part of the conversation,” the reporter assured me. Well, maybe not me. Maybe the million little me’s out here in watcherland who are thought to be gullible enough to believe that by listening to some gasbag on TV, they’re participating in a conversation.

Refreshing, isn’t it? Here’s a public institution that is prepared to resist the threats of 12-year-olds.

If there’s a grossly politicized word in the vocabulary, it’s conversation. Remember when everyone in the Obama White House wanted to start a national conversation about that never-before-discussed topic, race relations in America? In other words, they wanted a conversation in which they had the final, and possibly the only, word. I remember Gorbachev, when he was in power. He was always calling for openness. One day, when he was out in the street conversing with his fellow citizens, a woman actually said something, and it wasn’t favorable to his policies. His response was, “That is what you think. Now I will tell you what I think.” How much more preposterous is someone with a microphone and a TV tower, inviting the invisible people who pick up his electronic signals to start a lively conversation with him? I quoted Gorbachev; now I’ll quote Brooklyn: “How dumb da ya think we are?”

The issue here is manipulative speech, speech that is less concerned to convey facts or even opinions than to neutralize the audience’s well-justified resistance. In this regard, television “journalists” and political “leaders” face a similar problem. Their audience really doesn’t care what they think; it doesn’t care to converse. It prefers, for the most part, to be left alone — unless, in some highly unusual case, a useful fact needs to be extracted from the flow of sound. Say, for instance, a useful fact about an approaching hurricane.

God help me, I squandered many hours of time watching the TV coverage of Hurricane Irma, particularly the 24/7 treatment offered by the Weather Channel. From this coverage I derived one useful fact: if you live in Florida, a hurricane may hit you sometime, so you should consider the obvious choices — leave or stay. If you stay, you should take in supplies and board up your windows.

That’s it. No other valuable knowledge was imparted. Despite graphic displays of predictive models — the European Model, the American Model, etc. — practically nothing was confided about how these models are constructed, or how hurricanes are constructed, or how to respond to the constant changes in the models’ estimates, or . . . anything.

The more the hurricane fizzled, the more insistent the news crews became about keeping it going.

As wall-to-wall coverage completed its sixth day, I began to pity all those hapless souls who had to stand in front of a camera and recite the same shrill warnings, purported facts, and solemn speculations over and over again. I was fascinated by the number of times I heard how foolish it is to try to ride out a hurricane in a small boat, and how dangerous it supposedly is to use candles if your power goes out.

I could forgive a lot of blather from people who have to keep talking long after they’ve exhausted their material. I could even forgive their obvious desire to cover a big story, which could only be the story of terrible destruction. I had more trouble forgiving their inclusion of the word “meteorologist” in every available sentence: “Turning now to meteorologist Jane Doe,” “As a meteorologist, I can say that this is indeed a big storm,” and so forth. I found it impossible to forgive anyone, meteorologist or not, who inflicted on the audience such locutions as, “Miami stands to get a large douse of rain” and “During the past week, millions of people fleed.”

The more the hurricane fizzled, the more insistent the news crews became about keeping it going. On Monday, September 11, the day after it hit, the weather guys had nothing to do but stand in a light breeze, muttering forecasts about the dreadful things that could yet happen. “There’s nothing weak about this,” one of them said, “only weaker.

Well, OK. What else can you do with all that airtime? One thing you could do is provide a sober consideration of what went wrong with all the confidently scientific predictions about where the storm would strike, how hard it would strike, and what the effects might be. That would be interesting, both scientifically and humanly. “Let’s see where things went wrong” is a fascinating study in imperfect humanity. Or you could share your knowledge (if any) about the history of evacuations, particularly the costs and benefits of leaving a place rather than staying in it.

The stunned weather guy didn’t know what to say. He had finally met someone with a sense of realty.

I heard none of that. What I heard was an increasingly shrill hall-monitorism — more warnings about using candles, evading curfews, driving on the roads during the recovery period. On Monday morning, one of the Weather Channel people positioned himself on a residential street and spent 15 minutes bemoaning the fact that a few cars were making their way through the light debris (palm fronds and such). Why are they here? he wondered. Why can’t people see that they may be blocking the way of first responders? Seeing a plump middle-aged gentleman walking calmly along, the weather guy said, “Let’s find out!” So, sir, why are you here?

The man explained that he had refugeed out but was now returning to see how his house was. He also commented that the storm hadn’t been nearly as bad as expected, and gave details. The stunned weather guy didn’t know what to say. He had finally met someone with a sense of realty. As he dismissed the home owner with an admonition not to block any first responders, I wondered what the gentleman might have replied, if he hadn’t been a gentleman, to this weird guy standing in the street with a microphone and a truckload of TV technicians. “Same to you, fella”?

I can’t resist dragging another party into court — Rick Scott, governor of the state of Florida. Scott seemed to me a competent organizer of disaster preparations, such as they are. He may have precipitated a run on gasoline by the millions of people whom he urged, perhaps uselessly, to evacuate, but he did arrange for gas to be stored and rushed to market afterward. And probably he can’t be blamed for trusting the scientific models of coming disaster. But I do resent his failure to notice the existence of 54 % of his state’s population.

His failure to make sense was emblematic of our great communicators’ disdain for most of the people who are purportedly part of their conversation.

What I mean is that 54% of adult Floridians are single, but in Scott’s long string of televised announcements he talked almost exclusively of “families” — as in his oft-repeated, literally absurd promise, “No resource or expense will be spared to protect families.” For the sake of families, he was willing to blow up Disney World, execute every alligator in the state, cut off his thumbs, and destroy every unmarried person he could find.

Or maybe not. Maybe he was just being pompous. But his failure to make sense was emblematic of our great communicators’ disdain for most of the people who are purportedly part of their conversation. And this disdain is generally reciprocated. Somewhere there are people who love Rick Scott for finally mentioning families. Somewhere there are people who feel that they are actually conversing with a television station by listening to its lamentations about childhood bullying. Somewhere there’s a person who warms to university administrators when they mention their passion for liaising. But I’m sure that these people amount to far fewer than 46%.




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Evidence for Emerson

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In the olden days — say, the 1960s — college professors were still carrying on debates about something called the Influence of Great Men on History. Basically, they denied that there was any.

Emerson had written, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man . . . and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” A century later, not many earnest professors, spending their lives in the lengthened shadows of the American Historical Association, cared to believe that. Even Bismarck and Napoleon were the products of social circumstances, etc.

Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality.

Arrayed on the other side were the writers of popular history. Whether they were sincerely attracted to the Emersonian idea, or they knew that social history doesn’t sell, they busied themselves about topics that assumed the crucial influence of a few important people. The multitudes of What Would Have Happened articles exemplify the trend: what would have happened if Hitler had ordered more air attacks at Dunkirk? What would have happened if Lincoln had not been shot? What would have happened if Lee had occupied better terrain at Gettysburg?

Well, what indeed? But the academics just got more and more “social.” Today, if you want to publish historical articles with Emersonian assumptions, you will not, I repeat not, get tenure.

Yet although they don’t seem to realize it, the professors are now faced with a dilemma. Almost all of them hate President Trump, and lots of them spend their idle hours — which appear to be many — campaigning against him, asserting that if he is permitted to prevail, America will become a nationalist, white supremacist, xenophobic state. But this assumes that the political shape of the nation has a good chance of being irrevocably changed by the election of a single powerful personality. And this is contrary to what you think you believe.

Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters.

I’ll leave people who are so wise about history to discuss that problem among themselves. I simply wish to note that Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality. If Trump’s personality were not significant, wouldn’t the social movement that elected him have the professors and the other members of the ruling class on the run by now?

A person of normal discernment could have followed up his victory, which was a triumph over the entrenched leadership of both political parties, by getting at least three or four parts of his agenda immediately enacted. Every victory would have strengthened his position for the next big effort to fulfill his movement’s social demands. But no. Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters. So far, none of his opponents’ fears, real or purported, have turned out to have been justified. Is this not evidence for the crucial importance of the individual personality?

And as to his opponents . . . Their strategy has depended on the socialist ideal of mass resistance among the populace. And what has this strategy accomplished? Nothing in particular. What has stymied Trump hasn’t been their Marches for Science and Marches for Women and Marches Against the Border and Marches for the Sake of Marches. It has been the lengthened shadow of Trump himself.




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Crypto-Antifascists

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Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and neo-Nazis are vile, fascist thugs. They have been routinely denounced for decades by both political parties, incessantly so after the Unite the Right rally of August 12 at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally, ostensibly to protest the removal of Confederate statues, did not take place. Under lax police tactics, which have been criticized by both protestors and counter-protestors, 34 people were injured, only four people were arrested, and one woman was killed by a person, likely deranged, who supported the rightwing ralliers.

Antifa (short for Anti-Fascist) is a nationwide network of masked, left-wing agitators and anarchists who have taken it upon themselves to protect communities from right-wing fascists and racists. Their standard mode of operation is to descend upon suspicious events (e.g., rallies, marches, and speaking engagements) to shut down free, but hateful, speech, thereby preventing the violence that it will surely cause — doing so often with violence, which they openly embrace, and, preferably, without police assistance, which they openly reject. In an article in The Atlantic, “The Rise of the Violent Left,” Peter Beinart writes, “They pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet. They pressure employers to fire them and landlords to evict them. And when people they deem racists and fascists manage to assemble, antifa’s partisans try to break up their gatherings, including by force.”

Under lax police tactics, which have been criticized by both protestors and counter-protestors, 34 people were injured, only four people were arrested, and one woman was killed.

So far so good, you may be thinking. But before you run out to purchase your mask, black hoodie, and bat, before you head down to the local alt-Left recruitment office to enlist, consider that the universe of fascism extends far beyond the villainous skinhead demographic that you have always despised. That unsuspecting bigot whom you are itching to sneak up behind and cold-cock might be your neighbor, a fellow employee, a relative, perhaps. To the alt-Left, and to the sycophantic news media, academia, and Democrat party, America is awash with fascists and racists.

According to an author featured by CNN, everyone who voted for President Trump is “by default” a white supremacist. And, notes Beinart, roughly three-quarters of Democrats are convinced that he is a racist who is advancing fascist policies. During the racial and radical strife that consumed the presidential campaign of 1968, Gore Vidal famously won a political argument with William F. Buckley, by simply calling Buckley a crypto-Nazi, a Nazi sympathizer — thereby creating an intellectual foundation for modern liberal discourse. Consequently, the “progressive” argument today, that Mr. Trump and the 60 million Americans who elected him are white supremacists because liberals say they are, is thought to be unassailable. And no doubt following this logic, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded that rampant bigotry now permeates America, and felt compelled to issue a formal "early warning and urgent action procedure," said to be “a rare move often used to signal the potential of a looming civil conflict.”

To avert this second Civil War, the news media and politicians have decided against denouncing the alt-Left. Politicians, that is, except for Trump, who blamed both the alt-Right and the alt-Left for the Charlottesville violence — and has been excoriated himself, by both political parties, ever since. Republicans such as Mitt Romney and Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio have accused him of equating the acts of racists and fascists with the acts of those fighting against racism and fascism. Said Gary Cohn, Trump’s National Economic Council Director, “Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK.” Mr. Cohn went on to urge his administration to “do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities.”

That unsuspecting bigot whom you are itching to sneak up behind and cold-cock might be your neighbor, a fellow employee, a relative, perhaps.

Good luck salving up those divisions; the alt-Left exists to create them, the deeper the better. Patrisse Cullors, one of Black Lives Matters’ three cofounders, claims that Mr. Trump is prosecuting a Hitler-like genocide on our communities. Says Ms. Cullors, “Trump is literally the epitome of evil, all the evils of this country, be it racism, capitalism, sexism, homophobia and he has set out the most dangerous policies not just that impacts this country but that impacts the globe.” To Antifa’s Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement, she has barely scratched the surface of America’s unjust, illegitimate landscape. In its recruitment video (which should turn neo-Nazi leaders and their videographers green with envy) we are told that the government “has openly declared war on our communities, threatening to ethnically cleanse Latinos, criminalize Muslims, destroy indigenous land, oppress the LGBTQ community, and continues to murder and oppress black people.”

Although little may seem more virtuous than shameless affirmations of the alt-Left’s moral superiority over the alt-Right, Messrs. Romney, McCain, et al. should give “Burn Down the American Plantation” a read. It might cause them to question, possibly challenge, the Alt-Left crusade. Incidentally, the violence produced by such divisive vitriol began long before Trump’s election, in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland.

Democrats, and the media, on the other hand, not only refuse to condemn alt-Left violence; they condone, if not encourage, it; they revel in the division it creates. The alt-Left, they say, does not advocate violence, as does the deplorable alt-Right. Never mind that the alt-Left consciously seeks to stir up violence at every opportunity, and uses “self-defense” as an excuse for its own violence. As such, alt-Left thugs are referred to as counter-protestors and peace activists, sometimes as heroes. For example, former Hillary Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon, Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, and CNN anchorman Chris Cuomo all likened the alt-Left counter-protestors at the “Unite the Right” debacle to American soldiers on D-Day, who “confronted the Nazis without a permit.”

The violence produced by such divisive vitriol began long before Trump’s election, in cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore.

They are not heroes. Heroes (92% of them) don’t live with their parents, hide behind disguises, throw public tantrums, sucker-punch unsuspecting victims (even if the victims are authentic fascists), or hurl balloons filled with urine and feces at police. (By the way, I can’t imagine anything that I could hate enough to make me even touch a shit balloon, let alone fill one. And how is it done, with safety to the hurler? I bet that a terrorist, concerned about a weapon going off prematurely, would be more fearful of a shit balloon then an IED.)

And the alt-Left does not exist to fight fascism. Its violence has plagued the nation for years, and its attacks have been focused, not on avowed or even plausible fascists, but on conservatives or libertarians such as Charles Murray, Anne Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Heather Mac Donald, who were invited to speak at liberal colleges and universities; on police, on attenders of Trump rallies, and on ordinary Americans whose only sin was the ownership of homes, vehicles, and businesses in the vicinity of unchecked alt-Left destruction, burning, and looting. Its principal targets have been capitalism, liberty, tolerance, law and order, property rights, peaceful assembly, American history, and, most importantly, free speech. These so-called antifascists did not confront actual fascists until the Charlottesville tragedy — where their “peace activist” behavior was indistinguishable from that of the vicious fascist thugs that they engaged.

For the most part, alt-Right fascism exists only in the paranoid minds of the alt-Left, and in the hysterical talking points of the journalists, social science professors, and politicians who tell us, incessantly, that it is on the rise. If so, where? The Unite the Right rally was the largest white supremacist gathering in over a decade, drawing an estimated 250 to 500 racists from all over the country. One would expect a racist nation to send tens of thousands of hate-filled bigots to such an event.

The alt-Left's principal targets have been capitalism, liberty, tolerance, law and order, property rights, peaceful assembly, American history, and, most importantly, free speech.

“Alt-Right” groups such as the neo-Nazis and the KKK have been despised for decades by the American public; they hold no positions in government, academia, the news media, entertainment, or corporate America; they have no money; they wield no power. According to Anti-Defamation League estimates, there are only “3,000 Klan members and unaffiliated individuals who identify with Klan ideology” in the entire country — probably only half that number, if the ones in old age homes and prisons are deducted.

As Kevin Williamson observed in his article “Gangs of Berkeley,” “the so-called antifa and the white-nationalist clowns are two sides of the same very sad little coin.” The news media, academia, and politicians — crypto-antifascistswho tacitly endorse the alt-Left — would do well to heed the admonition of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz: “Do not glorify the violent people who are now tearing down the statues. Many of these people, not all of them, many of these people are trying to tear down America. Antifa is a radical, anti-America, anti-free market, communist, socialist, hard left censorial organization that tries to stop speakers on campuses from speaking.”

One week after the Unite the Right rally, a Free Speech rally was held in Boston (aka the Cradle of American Liberty), Massachusetts. The organizers, the Boston Free Speech Coalition, “publicly distanced themselves from the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and others who fomented violence in Charlottesville,” emphatically stating, "We are strictly about free speech . . . [W]e will not be offering our platform to racism or bigotry. We denounce the politics of supremacy and violence." The Boston Police Department, which assigned 500 police officers to the event, requested that counter-protestors not throw urine at them.

The rally drew fewer than 100 free speech advocates. No Nazis and no Klansmen attended. But 40,000 counter-protesters showed up — witless fools, in effect, protesting against free speech, in the cradle of liberty.

Neo-Nazis and the KKK hold no positions in government, academia, the news media, entertainment, or corporate America; they have no money; they wield no power.

Included among the protesters were an estimated 2,000 members from the alt-Left. They attacked the few free speech advocates that they could find, screamed infantile chants; e.g., "Hate speech is not free speech," "Cops and Klan go hand in hand", "Oink oink, bang bang," and “George Soros, where is our Money!” And, of course, they threw urine at the police.

The news media and Boston politicians celebrated. Evidently, the police too were jubilant. Of the 40,000 protesters, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans gushed that they came to Boston "standing tall against hatred and bigotry in our city, and that's a good feeling."

Not so for national unity, peaceful assembly (33 arrests were made), or the First Amendment.

The alt-Right is vile, but powerless. The alt-Left is vile, but, through the tacit endorsement of the cowardly news media, servile academia, and spineless politicians, it has become a significantly destructive force in American culture. As such, it is immensely more worrisome than the alt-Right. I worry about the contaminating effects of the alt-Left’s hatred for America, in general, and free speech, in particular.




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The Problem of Perspective

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When libertarians (and others) get into debates, we often bewail our opponents’ lack of facts. But I suppose you’ve noticed that even when everybody has the facts, the debate continues — a situation that has become very frequent in this age of quick and plentiful access to information. Often the problem is simply the perfectly accurate perception of people on one side or the other that if the force of the facts were recognized, they would have to alter their political identity.

I recently found myself in a dispute with a person whose writing I admire. (This is not uncommon.) She said that because a certain politician had said X, therefore we must conclude that he was preaching the gospel of Y. I quoted what the man had said, which was literally and vigorously anti-Y. My friend replied, “I know that. But that’s just the cover-up. What he obviously meant was Y.” To my friend, it was so important that X meant Y that she would never be betrayed by mere facts.

People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective.

Even this, however, is not the major barrier to healthy political discourse. The deeper problem is a lack of perspective on facts. People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective. We all know people who can quote every foolish thing that President Obama or President Trump ever said (and that’s a lot), and on that basis are prepared to prove that one of them is a mere pawn of certain Interests or is the master player in a plot to destroy the republic and institute rule by force. What’s missing is common sense, and the perspective it provides. Lots of people say foolish things. In fact, we all do. Anyone can quote some remark by me, or some other libertarian you know, and say, triumphantly, “How can a person who said that pretend to be a libertarian?” Well, it’s quite possible, and it might not be a pretense. Extend the logic to people you don’t know, and it works just as well. To admit this is not to give your sanction to Obama, Trump, or anyone else. It’s to have a little bit of common sense.

A lack of commonsense perspective lies at the root of conspiracy theories generally — the false ones, of course, because people do sometimes conspire to produce certain ends, and why should we be shocked by that? The dedicated researchers who believe that Oswald was a fall guy know many more facts about Oswald than I ever will, but the overwhelming truth that 54 years have passed since Oswald and Kennedy were killed, and no one has emerged to confess that he had any kind of involvement, however peripheral, in any kind of conspiracy to make Oswald a fall guy suggests that facts can easily betray you, absent the perspective of common sense.

The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities.

But there’s another lack of perspective that is especially characteristic of the present moment, and that is sheer ignorance of historical,as opposed to immediate, facts. In 1988, virtually all the public-policy writers in the United States, from the New York Times on down (or up), preached, with the Leninists, that communism in Eastern Europe was an irreversible phenomenon. In 1989, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe crashed. “Oh, who woulda thunk it?” was the experts’ cry. The answer was: anybody who knew some history. Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not. Historical examples: France in 1789. France in 1814. Germany in 1918. The Stuarts in 1688. The Commonwealth of England in 1660. I could go on.

Between 1950 and 1990, Americans were told — and in my experience of some of those decades, Americans believed — that they were living in a unique time in human history: never before had “a civilization and a way of life been threatened with total destruction.” The reference was to the atomic bomb, which was, indeed, new; but the notion about its unique effects was so false to the facts of history as to be laughable. The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities. If your enemies conquer you, they will rape all the women, enslave all the woman and children, and kill all the men. That will be the end of your “way of life.” If one recognized that modern America was not unique in this respect, one couldn’t just go out and deduce some great truth about what should be done regarding, say, Soviet missiles in Cuba, but one might be more rational, and less hysterical, about one’s pacifism or militarism. It’s a matter of perspective.

So much for the myths of the last generation. There were lots more of them, but you get the point. My sense is that the “educated” people of 2017 know a hell of a lot less about history than the “educated” people of 1988 — and not just the history of the world but the history of their own country. I am not a fan of the Southern secessionists, or of Woodrow Wilson. I positively dislike most of what I know about them. But to assume that the only fact about their lives that could possibly be worth knowing is that they were racists is an astonishing intellectual performance. To teach this to children is to warn them against all historical curiosity, to turn history into an endless, and endlessly disgusting, game of hunting the Great Satan. Some people, thus educated, will pretend to join the hunt, out of the cynicism that ideologues are good at inspiring; others will adopt it as their own fanatical crusade; most will get the sense that nothing about history is very interesting, after all — let alone inspiring.

Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not.

Let’s look at another example in which perspective has been completely lost, by the denial of simple curiosity. Unlike many other vocal libertarians, I believe that the current struggle against Islamic terrorism is real and important and must be won. Nevertheless, terrorism results not just from religious or political ideas but from certain, very imperfectly understood, psychological and social factors. Might it not be helpful to know something about the history of terrorism in the modern world?

Well, it didn’t start with 9/11. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “socialist,” “populist,” and “anarchist” (actually communist) terrorists swarmed over Europe and North America, killing, among many others, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria; Umberto, King of Italy; Alexander, Emperor of Russia; William McKinley, President of the United States; and Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago (in an attempt to assassinate President-elect Franklin Roosevelt). They also killed or attempted to kill such private citizens as the industrialist Henry Clay Frick (see Liberty, September 2005, pp. 40–45). Then there was labor union terrorism, which peaked in 1910, with the bomb that blew apart the pressroom at the Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people. This is the case in which the unjustifiably iconic Clarence Darrow, the socialist lawyer, attempted to bribe a juror on the streets of Los Angeles. But the biggest event in “domestic terrorism” was the Bath (Michigan) School Disaster, in which a local farmer, dissatisfied for some reason with his admittedly humdrum life, killed his beloved wife, destroyed his homestead, and blew apart a wing of the schoolhouse down the road, destroying, all told, 44 people, 38 of them children.

These incidents might conceivably shed some light on why depraved men or women (usually men) suddenly decide to kill large numbers of innocent people, but since almost nobody realizes that the events even happened, almost nobody looks for that light.

Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Let’s proceed to another type of violence, the violence of words, and other symbolic deeds, that is making it virtually impossible for sane men and women to read the news without symptoms of convulsion. I, for one, do not wish to rise in the morning only to be assaulted by a vast array of establishment-media venues ravaging the current president as if he were the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Nor is it a pleasure to visit my favorite non-establishment sites and find them wholly given over to defenses of the president. Nor — to give you a third and final nor — is it gratifying to me to read the president’s own abusive messages about the media, which are sometimes amusing, but you can’t bank on that. Strange to say, the chief complaint of all these splenetic keyboard artists is that never before in history has political discourse been so hostile and abusive.

Well, that isn’t true, and I’m glad it’s not true, if only because hostility produced the following delightful letter from Former President John Adams to Former President Thomas Jefferson (April 19, 1817).

Dear Sir

My loving and beloved Friend, [Adams’ Secretary of State Timothy] Pickering, has been pleased to inform the World that I have “few Friends.” I wanted to whip the rogue, and I had it in my power, if it had been in my Will to do it, till the blood come. But all my real Friends as I thought them, with Dexter and Grey at their Head insisted “that I should not say a Word.” “That nothing that such a Person could write would do me the least Injury. That it would betray the Constitution and the Government, if a President out or in should enter a Newspaper controversy, with one of his Ministers whom he had removed from his Office, in Justification of himself for that removal or any thing else.” And they talked a great deal about “The Dignity” of the Office of President, which I do not find that any other Persons, public or private regard very much.

Nevertheless, I fear that Mr. Pickerings Information is too true. It is impossible that any Man should run such a Gauntlet as I have been driven through, and have many Friends at last. This “all who know me know” though I cannot say “who love me tell.”

I’m reminded of the words of Addison DeWitt: “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent.” Adams’ superb wit, proud and knowing, and so characteristic of his letters, would distinguish him in any context, just as the lack of any literary quality whatever would be sufficient to identify virtually all political writing of the present age.

I’ve talked about this in Word Watch, and I’ll talk about it again in that place. What I want to emphasize here is the historical perspective offered by the presidential letter of two centuries ago. It suggests that there is nothing off-the-charts about the “abusive rhetoric” of contemporary politics.

To be fair, of course, we need to consider what exalted condition of politesse American political discourse is supposed to have declined from. That high standard, I believe, is the manner of handling news and opinion that prevailed in the days when the senior members of our current news establishment were growing up, the days of Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Edward R. Murrow. The declension from those glory days is sad, sad. Never before in American history . . .

If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one.

Well, did you ever try to read anything that Edward R. Murrow wrote? David Brinkley, who was one of the tribe, but an eccentric one, could actually write, but he was virtually the only one, and none of the present handwringers ever mentions him. His perspective on history, which was a pretty wide one, has been forgotten, and would certainly not be sought, by the preachers of auld lang syne. What they pine for is the slick modern-liberal sentiments and the passive-aggressive style of that former age, a style inveterately contemptuous of the host of people, places, ideas, and emotions whose existence it refused to recognize. What they miss is its lying veneer of “objectivity,” so-called.

That veneer wasn’t much in evidence in the first great age of American journalism, when innovations in printing, transportation, and data transmission (the telegraph) enabled everyone to read two or three papers — Democrat, Republican, and Just Plain Mean — and to spend all day, if they wanted, soaking themselves in political bile. Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict.

Reporting on the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, which Lincoln lost, though not decisively, one paper reported that “the triumph of Senator Douglas was complete”; Lincoln was “exceedingly lame throughout . . . The Illinois Giant [Douglas] at the first onset pushed his adversary to the wall, and never ceased for a moment his blows, until Abraham was taken by his friends, dispirited and overcome.” Another kind of partisan paper thought that Lincoln had “chewed [Douglas] up . . . Douglas is doomed . . . [the] contest is already practically ended.” From yet another journalistic standpoint, the campaign proved that the two candidates were nothing but “a pair of depraved, blustering, mischievous, lowdown demagogues.”

All these characterizations were false, and most people knew they were. But verbal abuse wasn’t the only oily sheen on the surface of political life. If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one. Here’s Senator Thomas Hart Benton, in his Thirty Years’ View; Or, A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850 (1856), discussing the Anti-Duelling Act of 1839:

The death of Mr. Jonathan Cilley, a representative in Congress from the State of Maine, killed in a duel with rifles, with Mr. Graves of Kentucky, led to the passage of an act with severe penalties against dueling, in the District of Columbia, or out of it upon agreement within the District.. . . Like all acts passed under a sudden excitement [there were sudden excitements in the 1830s, too], this act was defective, and more the result of good intentions than of knowledge of human nature. Passions of the mind, like diseases of the body, are liable to break out in a different form when suppressed in the one they had assumed.

Following that libertarian critique of mere good intentions, Benton notes, as if everyone in his audience already knew it, that the Act

did not suppress the homicidal intent — but gave it a new form: and now many members of Congress go into their seats with deadly weapons under their garments — ready to insult with foul language, and prepared to kill if the language is resented. (Vol. 2, pp. 148-49)

Benton, who had once shot Andrew Jackson in a fight that was something worse than a duel, later became Jackson’s friend and political ally; but in 1850, in the Senate chamber, a fellow member, Henry Foote, attempted to shoot him over a political disagreement. "I have no pistols!”, Benton shouted. “Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!" Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict that in our law-obsessed era would immobilize the capital and the courts in perpetuity.

Less pacific were many of the things that national leaders said. William Seward had cause to regret his “irrepressible conflict” speech, just as Abraham Lincoln had cause to regret his “house divided” speech; both were interpreted by the South, and not unreasonably, as an indication that if either of those gentlemen were elected president, the South must secede. John C. Calhoun had cause to regret the many speeches in which he incited the South to dissolve the union — but Calhoun, like our current politicians, never regretted anything he said, during a lifetime of self-contradiction.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric.

Now, if you look at the public utterances of the people I’ve mentioned (except for Foote), you will find that in both style and intellectual substance they are infinitely above those of anyone now in politics. To say this isn’t to fall into the trap of assuming that everything that happens in one’s own time is happening for the first time in history. If one has any historical perspective, one can distinguish things that actually are new or special from things that actually aren’t.

It is the intellectual and verbal illiteracy of American public culture that has that “never before in history” aspect — and it has that aspect because of the lack of perspective that makes contemporary Americans feel as if they can do without any knowledge of or respect for people who lived in the past. Thus, if you’re a “progressive” leftist, Thomas Jefferson was a racist who considered blacks inferior to whites, as if that were his only historical significance; and Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder who behaved with great barbarity toward Indians, as if those evil characteristics, common to hundreds of thousands of Americans of his time, including Indians who enslaved other Indians, were all we needed to know about one of the most complexly influential people in our or any history. And thus, if you’re a rightist, Ronald Reagan was the world’s greatest inspirational speaker; George Patton embodied all the strengths that make real men and women want to get up in the morning; and Theodore Roosevelt, a little man who kept exclaiming “bully!”, made life worth living for soldiers, workers, and the American bison. Meanwhile, all people worship Lincoln as the incarnation of Christ.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries seem incapable of taking any good to themselves from their acts of ferocious love and cherished hatred. They never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric when compared with that of Lincoln, or their own courage when compared with that of Jackson. They may idolize “Teddy” or spit on the memory of Jefferson or rerun Reagan’s speeches or get off on Patton, the movie, but that’s what they’re seeing, a movie playing on their own TVs, just a few feet from their self-infatuated heads. The rest of the house is empty.




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Infighting: The Libertarian National Pastime

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Baseball is America's national pastime, or so the saying goes. I can say something similar for the libertarian movement. Not a day goes by that two well-known libertarians don't have a fight on Facebook or Twitter, each accusing and condemning the other and seeking to persuade the other to leave the libertarian movement entirely. On some days, in Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other. All of these people self-define as "libertarian"!

Why does this happen? I think one explanation is that, to be a "libertarian," one must (probably) possess certain core beliefs about freedom, capitalism, etc., and have a certain attitude toward government and individual rights. The Non-Aggression Axiom is a nice summary of that attitude. But that leaves room for many positions, on many issues — which means that there are many issues about which libertarians have passionate feelings. Since core libertarian values don’t clearly define what your position on these issues should be, there are going to be many people in strong opposition, within the same tent.

In Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other.

For example, a libertarian can be pro-choice or pro-life, can be minarchist or anarchist, can be for open immigration or closed borders, can be pro-GOP or pro-LP or pro-anarchy, can be pro-Trump or anti-Trump. I would even say that a libertarian can be anti-Union and pro-Confederacy (from opposition to centralized government) or anti-Confederacy and pro-Union (from opposition to slavery) — although it is curious that this quarrel is still considered relevant, more than a century and a half after the Civil War ended.

So, let's be frank. Take, for example, abortion. Pro-life people believe they are crusaders against the murder of babies. Pro-choice people believe they are crusaders for women's rights, and that the government’s taking control of a woman's body is the moral equivalent of rape. These people hate each other. But, within the big tent of libertarianism, both types of people exist, often in even numbers.

Because this issue is so important, fighting is inevitable. But note that libertarians, as a group, tend to be people who define their identity by means of their political positions. As such, libertarians will tend, not merely to argue, but to try to say that theirs is the position that should win, that it is the "one true libertarianism," that it is logically necessary from libertarian core principles (which it never is, because the core principles don't define these positions), and then kick everyone who disagrees out of the movement. To continue my example: the pro-life libertarians will accuse the pro-choice ones of being liberals who should go join the Democratic Party; in return, the pro-choice libertarians will call the pro-lifers closet conservatives who should call themselves such. And then, to each other, they will say GFY, GTFO, and other rude, insulting acronyms I only learned after spending some time on Facebook Groups.

A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom.

And do you know what I think? I think this is necessary because of the structural foundation of the libertarian position itself. Liberty specifies a few core positions and then leaves gaps and room for individuals to think through their own beliefs on each specific issue. And you know what else? I think that this is how things are always going to be, and any alternative would be no better, even though this state of affairs has some toxic consequences.

What would be better? For some master leader of the movement to choose his position and impose it on every other libertarian, so that the movement could have ideological purity and unity? A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom. And, in the absence of someone forcing everyone else to conform to one position, the diversity of positions will persist, and from them follows the necessary infighting.

But what are the toxic side effects? Libertarians can't agree on specific political issues, hence cannot rally around one candidate. If all the libertarians who are registered Republican, and all the ones who are registered Libertarian, and all sympathizers of both, could vote on one unity candidate, that might be enough votes to pose a threat to the establishment. But it can't happen, because there is too much disunity to unite around one candidate. With libertarian votes split between GOP, LP, and people who don't vote as a matter of principle, we just don't have the votes to elect our own candidates. Furthermore, constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

What is the solution to this problem? As I see it, there isn't one, and if there were it would be worse than the problem. In a free-for-all, there is fighting, and unregulated capitalism is, among many other things, a free-for-all.

Constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

But, to conclude on a note of hope, the candidacy of Trump proves that charisma is far more important for getting votes than party unity. If the Libertarian Party would nominate a candidate with great personal charisma and a cult of personality, then he or she could win the White House. If Trump can win then anyone can. But until that happens, we'll just wait on the sidelines of politics and kick one another in the teeth for disagreeing about which color of mouthwash is correct for libertarian dental hygiene. And, of course, both sides will think that the color of their mouthwash is defined by the Non-Aggression Axiom or Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard or Ron Paul, and that they themselves are obviously correct, and that everyone else can JGTFO.




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Vicars of Christ Say the Darnedest Things

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Pope Francis recently remarked that the US, among other countries, has a
"distorted vision of the world."




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Cruise Ship Books

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I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors while perusing the books other passengers have left behind in shipboard libraries. While cruising in Alaska, I discovered Michael Frayn and couldn’t stop until I had devoured all of his novels and then looked around hungrily for more.

Spies is perhaps my favorite. A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village, where he tries to make grownup sense of things that happened there so many years ago, while he and his boyhood friend hid in the privet bush pretending to be spies. The dual perspective of middle age and childhood, as well as the contrast between the WWII setting and the “present” of 30 years later makes the book particularly evocative, and the mystery of what actually happened drives the story.

Frayn’s books often present a tone of detachment and loss, as expressed in these opening lines from A Landing in the Sun:

On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.

These hands, and the crisp white shirtsleeves that lead away from them, are the only signs of me in the room.

The separation of the action performed by his hands from his intentional, sentient will is also reminiscent of the book-burning fireman, Montag, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Montag . . . glanced to his hands to see what new thing they had done.” Both authors use synecdoche effectively to suggest the protagonist’s looming split with authority and his attempt to regain control over his life.

A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village.

It was on a cruise ship traveling around Australia and New Zealand that I discovered the historical novelist Tracy Chevalier. Her Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which she creates a compelling and poignant backstory for the supposed model of Vermeer’s famous painting, had recently been made into the film that launched Scarlett Johansson to stardom; but the book that hooked me was Fallen Angels, a name that refers to the memorial stones in a local graveyard but also to the fallen characters within the story. Beginning at the end of the Queen Victoria’s reign, the book’s multiple storylines focus on husbands and wives, friends and lovers, ruling class and servant class, and a gravedigger’s son.

From the moment I entered Chevalier’s world of shifting narrative perspectives set in turn-of-the-century England, I didn’t want to leave. I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century. Similarly, while viewing Manhattan from across the river in one of the books I review here, a character observes, “You wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.” That’s how I felt while reading many of the books I’ve mentioned in this review — I wanted to approach the end, but never quite arrive there.

This past month I was cruising the western Mediterranean when I discovered Rules of Civility by the talented author Amor Towles, whose fresh metaphors and unexpected developments delighted and surprised me. I had barely finished reading it when, craving more of his elegantly crafted sentences and trusting his storytelling skills, I downloaded his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, to my Kindle for the long flight home from Europe.

I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century.

The title Rules of Civility refers to George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a dog-eared copy of which is discovered by the narrator, Katey Kontent, on the bedside table of the central character, Tinker Grey. Towles’ book is a novel of manners set in 1938 Manhattan and framed by a 1966 photography exhibition. As the book opens, a middle-aged Katey spies two candid photographs taken of her long-lost friend Tinker at the beginning and the end of 1938. This chance sighting becomes the catalyst for her recollection of that year, a year that became a turning point in her life as she navigated between boarding houses and mansions, trust-fund kids and dockworkers, the upper West side and the lower East side, in her journey to define who she would become.

Katey begins 1938 living in a women’s boardinghouse and working in a steno pool. She and her roommate, Eve Ross, meet the posh and elegant Tinker Grey at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, and he becomes the direct and indirect catalyst for everything else that happens that year.

Like the original “novels of manners,” set in manor houses and often populated by governesses or impoverished heiresses who make satirical observations about the ruling class, Rules of Civility contains biting, cogent cultural commentary. Katey is paid well as a secretary, but when she decides to move on to a job in the literary world, she must accept a huge cut in pay. She wryly observes, “A secretary exchanges her labor for a living wage. But an assistant comes from a fine home, attends Smith College, and lands her positions when her mother happens to be seated beside the publisher in chief at a dinner party.” I worked under an executive director who landed her position in the same way, and it was just as galling. Katey also notes, after guests at a dinner party heap praises upon the hostess at the end of a fine meal, “This was a social nicety that seemed more prevalent the higher you climbed the social ladder and the less your hostess cooked.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer.

Katey is a philosopher by nature, and her thoughts begin to resonate with the reader. As she looks back on 1938, she recalls, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course . . . shouldn’t come without a price. I have no doubt [my choices] were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance — in this case, from the bright optimism of making right decisions to the mournful grief of cutting oneself off from other options — permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer. Consider the span of emotion in moments like these: “I tore the letter into a thousand pieces and hurled them at the spot on the wall where a fireplace should have been. Then I carefully considered what I should wear.” And: “Something fell from my jawbone to the back of my hand. It was a teardrop of all things. So I slapped him.” And this cautionary reflection: “In moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”

Katey wants everything to be neat and orderly and open. As a secretary, she “suture[s] split infinitives and hoist[s] dangling modifiers,” and she wants life to be as simple as that, with rules that allow no ambiguities and people who are who they say they are. But soon she realizes that “it’s a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon, a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact . . . there are tens of thousands of butterflies, men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings — one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage — and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.” Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Katey is not well-bred, but she is well-read, and her running references to such books as Walden, Great Expectations, Washington’s Rules of Civility, Agatha Christie novels, and others add depth to the story. I especially like the way she combines insights from Thoreau and Christie to deliver this:

In the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. . . . For the most part, in the course of our daily lives we abide the abundant evidence that no such universal justice exists. Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christie promises.

We all have turning point moments in our lives — moments that occur during the years when we’re deciding who we will be and making decisions so profound that they change our course completely and irrevocably. They often seem insignificant at the time, and the people who influence us most profoundly move on from our lives. Although we may never see them again, we think of them frequently. I have one such friend from my childhood who moved on from my life when we were 11, yet much of who I am today comes from the experiences I shared with her during the three profound years we spent together, just as Michael Frayn’s narrator in Spies is forever influenced by the events he experienced with his childhood chum.

Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Towles suggests the importance of these so-called minor characters when Katey begins reading a Hemingway novel from the middle rather than the beginning: “Without the early chapters, all the incidents became sketches and all the dialogue innuendo. Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way.”

And Katey learns to read life that way too — paying more heed to the side characters who influence us unexpectedly. Eventually she discovers that “when some incident sheds a favorable light on an old and absent friend, that’s about as good a gift as chance intends to offer.” Reading Rules of Civility gave me cause to reflect on many an old and absent friend, and that’s one of the many good gifts of this book.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spies," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2002, 261 pages; "A Landing on the Sun," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2003, 272 pages; and "Rules of Civility," by Amor Towles. Penguin Books, 2011, 338 pages.



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