Twenty Answers

 | 

What do you say if you’re a self-entitled person who suddenly has to deal with people who are not impressed by your credentials?

Lately, we’re seeing more of these situations. This may mean there are more self-entitled people (SEP), or they’re stupider than they used to be, or both. One indication that this class of people is deteriorating in quality is the frequency with which they ignore the existence of electronic means of recording. Even SEP who make a profession of hogging the camera and tweeting their brains out always seem surprised when somebody actually notices what they’ve said, and sees how stupid and offensive it is.

How wonderful it is when we see the Governing Class asserting its credentials, only to be dismissed with a Bronx cheer.

Nevertheless, the SEP have developed, because they need it so often, a long list of things they can say when they are caught and challenged. Here are 20 items that appear on that list. I’ve tried to put the more popular sayings first; as you’ll see, they tend to be the funniest ones, though they are not intended to be funny. But SEP seldom find just one of these responses sufficient. It’s like diet books, of which there are thousands; if any of them worked, there would be just one. Anyway, here’s my short list of SEP comebacks:

  1. I never said that. I would never say a thing like that.
  2. I’m the victim of a hacking.
  3. I was quoted out of context.
  4. My remarks were misinterpreted.
  5. The American people know where I stand on this issue.
  6. This isn’t what the American people are interested in. They’re interested in jobs and education and the welfare of our children, which is what I’m spending all of my time on.
  7. This is simply the Democrats’ [or Republicans’] attempt to divert attention from their failures.
  8. Last year, the Democritan candidate for Congress was involved in a real scandal; I don’t recall your investigating that.
  9. I know, that’s what Donald Trump [or Nancy Pelosi] wants you to believe.
  10. I don’t see you asking men that kind of question.
  11. This is racism, pure and simple.
  12. I have already addressed this issue.
  13. This is a personnel matter, so I am unable to comment.
  14. This matter is under investigation, so I am unable to comment. (If you think you can get away with it, substitute “so I am forbidden by law to comment.”)
  15. As a public servant, I have always been proud to represent Missouri [or whatever] values, and I plan to continue advocating for them in the public forum. [If you were in Our Town in high school, go ahead and say “in the public square.”]
  16. At times like these, I believe it’s important for all of us, both Democrats and Republicans, to put aside old animosities and work together for the common good.
  17. This is not the time to relitigate this matter.
  18. Those responsible for this unfortunate incident have been appropriately disciplined.
  19. I have already taken full responsibility for this incident, and now it’s time for me to get back to doing the people’s business.
  20. I’m not going to allow you to take the love of the people of this state away from me. [Sorry, I couldn’t resist. That one’s from Citizen Kane.]

Isabel Paterson said that the purpose of elections was not to enable the voters to run the country but to give them the opportunity to fire the people who are currently running it. Her idea was shared by whoever it was — I believe it was a Republican, reacting against the long incumbency of the New Deal — who thought up the slogan, “Had Enough?” Today it is clear that everyone except the self-entitled class has had enough of the responses listed above. Not on the list is one that SEP never think of, although it is one that might work: Fiorello La Guardia’s “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.” LaGuardia was a modern liberal, thus not my ideal of a leader, but he had a pretty good idea of how a leader of Americans should talk, and it wasn’t Responses 1–20.

Turner is evidently so inextricably a part of the Governing Class as to profit from both political parties.

The really bad thing is that some people fall for this stuff. A large proportion of the populace put up with Hillary Clinton’s use of 15 or 16 of those sayings. And although it so happens that America’s Governing Class, which is peculiarly self-entitled, is overwhelmingly Democratic, you’ll get the same responses from the congressman representing Anytown, USA, a safe Republican district, that you will from a Democrat.

Disgusting? Yes. But how wonderful it is when (to quote the words of the old hymn) the darkness turns to dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright, and we see the Governing Class asserting its credentials, only to be dismissed with what La Guardia knew as a Bronx cheer.

Submitted for your approval . . . the case of Caren Z. Turner.

Ms. Turner (sorry! I should have called her something else, because, as you’ll see, she demands to be called something else) lives in Tenafly, New Jersey (median household income, $126,000; cf. national household income, $49,500). She is a professional lobbyist and is evidently so inextricably a part of the Governing Class as to profit from both political parties. She worked for Hillary Clinton, but Republican Governor Chris Christie appointed her to office as one of the 12 commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It may seem odd that a career in lobbying should fit one to exercise authority over an agency that operates giant tunnels, bridges, terminals, and airports (LaGuardia, JFK, Newark, etc.), but I ask you: who knows, better than a lobbyist, how state agencies are run?

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell, from her lengthy account of herself, exactly what she does.

Turner’s skill set, whatever it may be, was clearly considered appropriate for a government official, as government officials are today. According to her self-description (formerly here, now offline), Turner most prominently exemplifies “Experience You Can Trust.” In other words, she’s been around for a while. Nobody has drained her out of the swamp. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell, from her lengthy account of herself, exactly what she does — but the results are said to be conspicuous:

Campaigns led by TURNER GPA [that’s her business — “Turner Government and Public Affairs; Caren Z. Turner, Esq. CEO”] are noted for their high energy, intense focus and no nonsense approach. [I’m italicizing the clichés.]

She has been referred to as “a woman on a mission” (CBS TV), creating legislative solutions where “pigs fly” (NRA News) and having an “iron fist in a velvet glove.” With over twenty-five years federal government relations experience, she has earned the respect of both Republican and Democratic policymakers. Her solutions to business problems are innovative, often radically different from the “norm” and designed to maximize her client’s bottom line with minimal legislative tinkering.

I’ve had some trouble running down the sources of Turner’s quotations, except the one for the iron fist cliché. The ultimate source for that is Napoleon; the proximate source, apparently, is Turner. That’s just the way she likes to see herself. She wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and thinks about iron fists in velvet gloves. I don’t much care who said the other things, because I haven’t any idea what they’re supposed to mean.

I didn’t learn much more from her list of accomplishments, either:

Ms. Turner is proud to have won several eight figure benefits on behalf of clients. [Tell me, what do you mean by “benefit”? An award in a legal case? A government subsidy? A law stipulating that some amount must be appropriated for something or other?] . . . Business issues on which Ms. Turner has worked include: defense, aerospace, tax policy, international trade, health care, Medicare and biotechnology. “Social issues” include: gun safety, genetic ethics and standards, discrimination, children’s advocacy, domestic violence, and cancer research.

Well, isn’t she the little engine that could? But how is she different from talk show hosts, presidential candidates (successful or disappointed), popular preachers, Shepard Smith, or anyone who works for CNN? They all know everything, don’t they?

She wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and thinks about iron fists in velvet gloves.

OK, I’ll move on. Because of Turner’s profound and extensive knowledge, she has been, according to her, “on” finance committees for Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Jon Corzine (Democrats) and has served as “Honorary Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s (NRCC) Business Advisory Council.” She has also been a member of the “Presidential Business Commission” — whatever that is. And whatever any of those things are. She was an intern for Teddy Kennedy, and perhaps that’s the operative factor. Who knows?

And who knows how she has found the time to perform all these honorable functions? But, as the Wizard of Oz told the Tin Man, what a good-deed doer needs is a testimonial. And Turner has plenty of them:

Awards include: “Top 100 Privately-Held Businesses in District of Columbia 2010,” “Top 50 Woman Owned Businesses in the District of Columbia 2010” and “Top 50 Diversity Owned Businesses in the District of Columbia 2010” [Only in 2010? What happened after that?] awarded by Diversity Business.com[.] Honoree “Women’s Business Enterprise Leadership Spotlight” September, 2007. Awardee, 2007 Top 100 Minority [She’s white!] Business Enterprise Awards. Selected one of 15 “Women of Prominence”, BC Magazine.

Is that BC magazine, a former arts and entertainment journal in Hong Kong? Is that the Boston College Magazine? Is that Bergen County the Magazine? No matter. The idea that there are people in this world who are unfortunate enough to spend their time figuring out what are the top 100 privately-held businesses in the District of Columbia is enough to make me question the existence of God. And suppose that in every state there are people employed to root out the top 50 “diversity owned businesses,” and that they actually do that, with proper attention to corporate reports, stock averages, local business rankings, and the philosophical problem of what the meaning of “diversity” is . . . How many lives have been sacrificed so that such as Caren Z. Turner should be officially congratulated for being in the top 50?

But even these indications of exalted social status can never be enough for a go-getter like Caren Z. Turner, Esq. We must picture her partaking in the nightly feasts of ego in the Club of the Governing Class, enjoying the rewards of her mighty efforts, yet still poised just half in and half out of the inner sanctum. She is the kind of person on whom Mrs. Clinton once smiled, assuming she was someone else. She is the kind of person who spends significant time sending CVs to people who pass out Diversity Awards (“to be considered, the prospective honoree must reserve a table for eight at the Awards Luncheon — requested donation $4,000”). She is the kind of person who has one foot in the doorway, but whose other foot has not yet found a way to follow. She’s making a living, but she could be making a much better living.

The idea that there are people in this world who are unfortunate enough to spend their time figuring out what are the top 100 privately-held businesses in DC is enough to make me question the existence of God.

And then, by the connivance of certain friends in Trenton, Republican and Democratic, she gets a real job, meaning a job with Visibility. She becomes a Port Commissioner! This position pays nothing, but it sounds as if it did, and it is, after all, a position in government. Ms. Turner’s path is trending upward.

But then, on March 31, 2018, something changed. Turner discovered that not everything in Jersey is politically corrupt. And she was expelled, actually expelled, from the Club!

What! You’re kidding! How could this have happened?

Here’s how. On the date mentioned, a daughter of Turner was riding through the highways and byways of Tenafly with three of her friends, and the car in which she was riding was halted by a pair of Jersey cops who had noticed that it had tinted windows, illegal in the state, and a partially obscured out of state license plate. Investigation showed that the driver was also defective; he had no current car registration or proof of insurance. Because of these technical improprieties, the cops proceeded to have the car impounded. Daughter called mother, and mother came to the scene to try to intimidate the cops into releasing the car. A long discussion followed, in which cops and Self-Entitled Person deployed their characteristic rhetoric.

These cops knew enough of the law to realize that they didn’t need to recognize her as what Al Gore used to call the “controlling legal authority.”

I want to stipulate that I am not a fan of the cops’ zealous pursuit of the technical, or of their way of speaking. As they grew irritated with Turner they relied repeatedly on the notion that her “demeanor” — that is, her arrogance and contempt — discouraged them from giving her the information she ostensibly sought, which was “what’s goin’ on here, officers?” This is repulsive. Policemen aren’t the mistresses of a charm school that punishes you if you show the wrong demeanor. They have to go by the law, whether they like you or not.

But unfortunately for Turner, these cops knew enough of the law to realize that they didn’t need to recognize her as what Al Gore used to call the “controlling legal authority.” As they noted, she was not involved in the incident, and when she angrily demanded to know what, precisely, had happened, they referred her to the operator of the car and its passengers, who were standing right there and who knew all about it. Turner refused to get her information from that source, thereby proving that she wasn’t after information. She was after intimidation.

But this was a rhetorical crisis. How could she intimidate people who didn’t recognize her right to intimidate them? Unable to impress them as an individual, she invoked her membership in the Governing Class. She told them she was “a concerned citizen and friend of the mayor.”

Policemen aren’t the mistresses of a charm school that punishes you if you show the wrong demeanor.

The Governing Class likes to authenticate itself in this way. It likes to combine and confuse the personal-emotive (concerned), the populist (citizen), and the authoritarian (friend of hizzoner).

When I hear concerned citizen, I figure I’m soon going to hear about the citizen’s membership in a political action group including Senator Bullfinch, Representative Stalwart-Bones, and thousands of people like you! Then I’m going to hear about the need to pass another law and enforce it. The most important part of the three-pronged approach is the authoritarian prong. Realizing that, Turner flashed a card, and probably a badge, and told the cops, “I am a commissioner of the Port Authority, and I'm heading up over 4,000 police officers.”

As NJ.com remarked, “there are only 1,600 officers employed at the Port Authority. And she is not directly in charge of them in any way, shape or form.” The instinctive response of the powers-that-be is: “Just lie to ’em; they’ll never find out.” Nowadays, basic facts are easy to discover online, so that trick doesn’t work as well as it used to. But Turner kept pushing her institutional authority, insisting that she be called, not “Miss” or “Ms.,” but “Commissioner.” She also mentioned that she was an attorney.

That didn’t get her anyplace, so she tried a peculiar recombination of the emotive-personal and the Governing Class appeal. Indistinctly, and then with more clarity and oomph, she insisted on special privilege because, as she put it, “I got four people who are coming back to my house, including people who live in New Haven, attending Yale graduate school, a Ph.D. student.” She was talking about the people in the car, daughter and friends, whom she would now apparently have to drive back to their seats in Valhalla.

The instinctive response of the powers-that-be is: “Just lie to ’em; they’ll never find out.”

I’m sure you’ve noticed that Turner’s grammar and syntax aren’t all that they might be. Remember this; I’ll come back to it. But I need to tell you that I, as the holder of a Ph.D., find this part fascinating. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see that we’ve reached the point where a politically savvy person thinks she can get her way simply by revealing that she is someone who knows someone who is trying to get a Ph.D. from Yale. When she brought it up again, she added MIT.

It went downhill from there. Turner made references to political and police superiors in Tenafly, to whom she would take her complaint, but she was bad at remembering names. As faithfully reported by NJ.com, she said:

"You know Louis, what's his name? Schmaradaski?" Turner asks, apparently referring to Tenafly police traffic officer Louis Smaragdakis.

"What does that have to do with anything?" asks Officer Savitsky, utterly bewildered, and now officially The Most Patient Person in the Universe.

"Well, I'm just telling you who I am," answers Turner.

Or who she thinks she is, as in the old expression, Who do you think you are, anyway?

Turner thinks she’s a person who’s good with words. And isn’t this an attribute that’s supposed to qualify the Governing Class for control of everyone else? (I said “supposed.” I know about George Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump.) That appears to be Turner’s assumption, because one of her parting shots at the cops was, “You can’t put a sentence together.” She said the same thing five times during the episode. In another parting shot, she told the cops, “Shut the fuck up.”

Isn’t this an attribute that’s supposed to qualify the Governing Class for control of everyone else?

This sordid little incident has no importance in itself, but it illustrates a healthy tendency. Since members of the Governing Class are still unaware of the fact that when they make fools of themselves, their folly is likely to show up on Youtube, public exposure of their emptiness and stupidity has become routine. That’s what happened to Commissioner Turner. The police were recording everything on their dashcam, and they released what they had to the public, which was immediately and sanctimoniously outraged, as only video footage can make it. Turner was censured by the Port Authority board and “resigned” her post as commissioner.

May all members of the Governing Class join her lemming rush to the sea. But here’s another interesting thing. If you’re wondering what Turner did as Commissioner of the Port of New York and New Jersey, I’ll tell you: she headed the Government and Ethics Committee.




Share This


Ex Cathedra

 | 

I apologize. I’m treading on Word Watch’s territory. But I can’t help myself, so I’ll go ahead and step in the mire: President Donald J. Trump’s pronouncements.

Does Trump lie? That is the question.

According to the Washington Post, as of May 1 the President has amassed 3,001 lies or “misleading claims.”

Really?

Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly.

Every politician lies. Stephen Cox hit the nail on the head when he stated in April’s Word Watch that, “The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways.”

In spite of his hailing from Chicago, the Alamogordo of old-time political mendacity, Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly. Three examples immediately come to mind: “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.” “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history.” And the immensely more consequential — and extremely ill-conceived (especially to a libertarian) — threat he made on August 20, 2012, that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be “a red line for us.”

Well, that red line was a mirage on shifting sands. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry decided that they’d rely on that paragon of probity, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to ensure the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical arsenal. Not only did that never happen, but Putin used the opportunity to join the fray in Syria. What the hell — both Putin and Assad now knew that the US would do nothing. In quick succession, Assad and Putin targeted Aleppo, an opposition stronghold, destroying hospitals and massacring civilians, including fleeing doctors evacuating the wounded. The US had lost all credibility.

Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health.

What could be worse? Considering that the primary responsibility of the president of the United States is national security, a responsibility based on credibility, it’s hard to imagine anything worse in the diplomatic arena.

Obama’s excuse for not enforcing his red line ultimatum was twofold: One, he believed he was speaking from Mount Olympus . . . speaking for all of the free world without first consulting the rest of it. Two, he was in the thick of negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and didn’t want to imperil it by attacking Assad, an Iranian ally.

Really?

Why not do the right thing: enforce his completely undemocratic red line and let the chips fall where they might. Was the deal worth dumping US credibility? After all, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as it is so eloquently known) was only a stopgap measure (and Trump has just withdrawn the US from it).

But the best part of that entire red line debacle was Vladimir Putin’s Obama moment. Immediately following the latest Assad Bunsen burner experiment on his people (the second in a two-part series), Vlad “The Impaler” threatened “severe consequences” if the US retaliated. So the US, this time actually consulting France and Britain and getting them to join, let loose a barrage of missiles on April 14, 2018, that proved particularly effective.

Putin’s response? “If the US does that again, there will be severe consequences!.” One month later, we’re still waiting for those consequences.

The fine print that nearly everyone misses is that papal infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals.

Donald Trump turned Obama’s lie into truth, however belatedly. And since the subject was the credibility of our national security, that puts it in a completely different category from, say, Trump’s assertion that he “unequivocally” is “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

There are lies, damn lies, spin, wishful thinking, statements of fervent intent, hyperbole, and artful irony. I’d put Trump’s health statement in those last two categories. For one, the portly septuagenarian fools no one — especially in this BMI and health-obsessed country — as to his athletic abilities. Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health. Mrs. Wilson took over for Woodrow during his near total incapacitation by a stroke from September 1919 to the end of his term in 1921, during the first five months of that period keeping the country in the dark.

As to FDR, the Associated Press claimed that “Roosevelt’s disability was virtually a state secret during his presidency.” Though he never denied he was a paraplegic, FDR did his damnedest to conceal it, virtually never allowing his wheelchair or his struggles with other aids to be photographed.

Ditto for JFK. According to The Atlantic, “the lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history — no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed.” I don’t know whether Trump was aware of those deceptions and decided on a post-ironic, “fascinating way” to indulge in hyperbole; or whether Trump just hit a “colorful” bull’s eye through sheer chutzpah and luck. I’d be tempted to put his assertion on a par with Obama’s “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history” — except that Obama was certainly serious while Trump may well have had his tongue in his cheek.

The press and the public misunderstand Trump’s pronouncements — much as they misunderstand Pope Francis’ pronouncements. The widely held belief that the Catholic Church considers the pope infallible is based on dogma declared in 1870 at the First Vatican Council. But the fine print that nearly everyone misses is that his infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals. Additionally, his infallibility only kicks in when he makes a declaration ex cathedra, “from the full authority of his office.”

Trump's brand of lying may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

When the press reported that Pope Francis denied the existence of hell or that “capitalism is terror against all of humanity” it didn’t make a distinction between whether the pontiff was speaking ex cathedra or off the cuff, perhaps using the ambiguity for its own sensationalist ends (or maybe they’re just stupidly ignorant). But the pope is also at fault. While he always specifies when he’s speaking ex cathedra, he never clarifies his other statements as informal or just personal opinions. Needless to say, the ambiguity serves his purpose.

Ditto for President Trump. Whether in tweet, press conference, base rally, or state of the union address, the president never specifies whether his statements are hyperbole, aspirational declarations, firm US policy, or just a needling dart at his opposition. But they are all — in the mind of the uber-deal maker — potential negotiating tactics. MSNBC and the Fox Five will interpret these statements in radically different ways — in ways that push their own agendas. It may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

Hell, if it works for the pope, why not for Trump?

The press and the public should stop treating every Trump pronouncement as if it were ex cathedra when he might just be P.T. Barnuming it.




Share This


Out of Whack

 | 

"War is a judgment that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe."

 — Dorothy Sayers          

Like those of most libertarians, my views cause widespread confusion. Friends often ask my opinion on the political brouhahas of the moment. Because I don’t come down, with the brute consistency of a sledgehammer, on the same side every time, they tend to accuse me of being inconsistent.

They may be right about that, though I happen to think that the libertarian philosophy is the only truly consistent one in currency today. But I also hold a value I consider at least as important. I believe in balance.

Most of the choices we face from day to day don’t lend themselves to “conservative” or “liberal” solutions.

The ancients regarded balance as a primary virtue. A person of sense and reason was one of balanced mind. As was a responsible citizen. But 21st-century society has gotten perilously out of balance, out of whack.

It is virtually impossible for an individual human being to be either totally conservative or totally liberal. We wouldn’t even attempt it in everyday life. And most of the choices we face from day to day don’t lend themselves to “conservative” or “liberal” solutions. Will you buy this “liberal” tie at the clothing store? Will I squeeze myself some “conservative” grapefruit juice for breakfast?

In their behavior as citizens, however, most people feel they must always run in the same direction. They are less like adults than like middle-schoolers. They distrust their own opinions, or simply can’t be bothered to form them. Instead, they join a gang.

Every healthy society needs both conservatives and liberals. Nobody is infallible. We need each other, even if we don’t like each other.

Inevitably, the gang swells into a mob. All too easily, it may then metastasize into an army. Therein lies the peril.

When they get frustrated because they can’t figure me out, my friends will demand to know just where I stand. Am I a liberal or a conservative? One of “us,” or one of “them?” And when I reply that I am both — a very libertarian answer — they either tell me that’s impossible, or they get so frustrated that they never mention politics around me again.

If they give me a chance to explain, I say that I don’t consider liberalism and conservatism to be mutually exclusive. Sure, we’re always being told that they are. But every healthy society needs them both. Nobody is infallible. We need each other, even if we don’t like each other.

We can’t make sound decisions if we must follow one strategy all the time. In politics, as in the governance of our individual lives, one size never fits all, nor does one approach solve every problem. Too often, politics attempts to govern all of our lives. But we can’t make good choices even for ourselves, much less for others, if we ignore common sense and the balanced perspective necessary to maintain it. Surely neither Left nor Right can be correct every time.

We can’t make sound decisions if we must follow one strategy all the time. One size never fits all, nor does one approach solve every problem.

Now, when we tell our friends we think they’re right some of the time and at least occasionally wrong, it disarms them. It invites them to think instead of automatically reacting. In our refusal to be drafted into either army, we retain our own power. We stand firm as conscientious objectors in a totally unnecessary and wasteful war, waged on behalf of tyrants.

Divide-and-conquer tactics are useful only to conquerors. Those who would rule over us cherish one value, and only one: power. They are totally consistent. They are brutes. And unless enough of us refuse to cooperate, the sledgehammer they wield will crush us all.




Share This


Regressive Education

 | 

Amid the current idolization of teenagers’ political activity, it may be interesting to consider the latest report on American students’ intellectual proficiency. It’s the results of tests conducted on the reading and math skills of eighth graders for the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the US Department of Education.

One reason the dismal results of these tests have received little attention since they were announced on April 10 is that people just don’t seem to care what their tax money is doing, or not doing. Another reason is that the data are presented in on the NAEP website in a bafflingly complicated way. One useful summary appears in an item on the conservative news site CNS. There’s no conservative spin in the story; there doesn’t need to be. The fact is as simple as CNS puts it: “Sixty-five percent of the eighth graders in American public schools in 2017 were not proficient in reading and 67 percent were not proficient in mathematics.”

There follow graphs of the performance of students in various states and public school districts — reading proficiency in Los Angeles, 23%; in Detroit, 7%; and so on.

One reason the dismal results of these tests have received little attention is that people just don’t seem to care what their tax money is doing, or not doing.

But what does reading proficiency mean? In terms used by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, “Eighth-grade students performing at the Proficient level should be able to provide relevant information and summarize main ideas and themes. They should be able to make and support inferences about a text, connect parts of a text, and analyze text features. Students performing at this level should also be able to fully substantiate judgments about content and presentation of content.”

I should note that this standard is far too high for the Washington Post. But it does seem appropriate for students who are about to enter high schools where they are encouraged to become political activists; i.e., encouraged to think that because of their ability to read and reason, they can start telling other people how to live.

Well, but maybe something good happens to them between grade 8 and high school? No. Even the Voice of America’s bland presentation brings disturbing news on this front. It indicates that proficiency tends to decline with schooling:

About 40 percent of 4th graders were found to be proficient in reading and math. The report found just 25 percent of 12th grade students had math proficiency, while 37 percent reached that level in reading.

In science, 38 percent of 4th graders were rated proficient, while about 34 percent of 8th graders demonstrated proficiency.

It costs something to promote this ignorance. The NCES data show that California (to cite one example) spends $70.5 billion on its public schools, or about $11,300 for each student. The result is that only 32% of its eighth graders are proficient in reading, and only 29% are proficient in math.

But maybe something good happens to them between grade 8 and high school? No.

So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the students are smarter than their elders, after all. The elders pay their useless taxes without demur, but I doubt that even the student leaders would be willing to plunk down 11 grand a year for the education that fits them for their public roles.




Share This


The Perils of Mexico-Bashing

 | 

As I have noted before, in a number of ways President Trump resembles President Obama. Both hate free trade, oppose immigration (Obama covertly, Trump ostentatiously), favor unions over consumers, and so on. Trump’s mania against free trade is on display in its most virulent form in his war on NAFTA.

NAFTA was a truly bipartisan accomplishment. Conceived and promulgated by President Reagan, the free trade agreement (FTA) between Canada, Mexico, and the United States was negotiated under Bush the Elder, approved by a large, bipartisan vote in the Senate, and ratified by Bill Clinton. And it has seen trade blossom: as of last year, US trade exports to Mexico and Canada were four times what our trade exports are to China.

But even in the primaries, Trump singled out this one FTA for a torrent of abuse, accusing both Canada and Mexico of cheating, because we have a balance of trade deficit with each. Along the way, Trump’s heavy-handed and accusatory style has helped drive Canadian and Mexican opinion of him — and the rest of us, since we elected the bird — to new lows.

NAFTA has seen trade blossom: as of last year, US trade exports to Mexico and Canada were four times what our trade exports are to China.

The renegotiations have dragged on, mainly because America keeps trying to impose onerous restrictions on its neighbors. This is another trait shared by Obama and Trump: disdain for our own allies. Love Russia, hate Canada and Mexico — how daffy can you get?

A recent Wall Street Journal article reports the latest on the NAFTA fight. The chief American negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, is introducing new absurd demands. He now wants to require that at least 40% of the content of all cars crossing the American border must come from workers earning at least $16 per hour. This is at least double the existing wages of auto-assembly workers, and four times that of Mexican auto-parts workers! Cars that don’t meet that criterion will be heavily tariffed at the border.

Trump’s intention is crystal clear: pay off his union supporters by forcing Mexico to surrender its comparative advantage (lower cost labor). This is his populist-autarkist idea of “fair trade”: make the other party do things as stupidly as you do, rather than doing things smarter yourself. Add to this his demands for a periodic renewal vote on staying in the agreement, and you have a one in-your-face-F-off-and-die populist ultimatum.

Trump’s intention is crystal clear: pay off his union supporters by forcing Mexico to surrender its comparative advantage.

This ultra-protectionist ploy is arousing opposition, both here and (more ominously) in Mexico. Free-trade Republicans — what pathetically few of them are left — are not amused. In a piece he wrote for the WSJ, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) expressed annoyance with the Trumpian tactics. Trump has told the Senate — in true bossman style — which had lawfully ratified the NAFTA agreement during Clinton’s term in office — either to ratify a new, eviscerated NAFTA or see him unilaterally withdraw the US from it. Toomey says that if this ultimatum is put to him, he will vote against it and oppose in federal court the cancelation of the treaty.

Recently, Trump withdrew the US from the Iran deal negotiated by the feckless Obama. That’s constitutional, because that deal was explicitly not put forward as a treaty. But NAFTA was, and as Toomey rightly observes, the Constitution delegates the framing of trade policy expressly to Congress. The rare prior cases of a president unilaterally withdrawing from a ratified treaty never concerned a commercial treaty. I would observe that the Declaration of Independence should be consulted. I refer to the parts in which the king is accused of “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world,” not to mention “obstructing the laws for the naturalization of foreigners” and “refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”

Trump and his foolish followers clearly want to stick it to the Mexicans, and have done so since his first campaign appearances.

Holding out an olive branch, the estimable Toomey suggests that Trump focus on correcting obvious problems, such as ending Canada’s tariffs on cheese, and solidifying Mexico’s recent moves to open up its energy sector to US fracking investment. Add to that correcting a (relatively minor) sin, the current Mexican practice of putting low caps on duty-free sales of American stuff, and you pretty much have perfected the agreement; and have done so quickly, without arousing countervailing populist rage.

But Trump and his foolish followers clearly want to stick it to the Mexicans, and have done so since his first campaign appearances. The countervailing rage is rising in Mexico, where the frontrunner for the next presidential election is a populist leftist — one Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), close friend of Britain’s leftist Jeremy Corbyn.

Mexico is clearly being driven to its own populist extreme — AMLO now leads by 18%, much better than he has registered before. A radicalized Mexico could easily allow Russia to set up naval bases in its waters, and allow Chinese troops to move in to help “train” Mexican troops. The Russians have shown every desire to extend their world influence, and Mexico would be an even better vehicle for that than Cuba. As to the Chinese, their recent building of bases in the South China sea, their behavior on the Indian border, their rush to build a blue-water navy, and their clearly strategically planned moves to increase their influence in Latin America all indicate a long-term game plan that is anything but tame.

A lot of good a wall would do then.




Share This


Trump: Right on Iran?

 | 

On May 8 President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). By doing so he isolated the US diplomatically (only Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some small states in the Persian Gulf support US abrogation of the agreement), and drew the ire of globalists, liberals, and the establishment media. But was Trump in fact right to pull out of the agreement?

I should mention that I have advocated détente with Iran since the 1990s. I even published an essay on the subject in Liberty back in March 2007 (“Engage Iran: A Way out of Iraq"). I still look upon the Iranian people as potentially our best friends in the Middle East. Iranians in general are more pro-Western than any of the Arab peoples. Sadly, we derailed Iran’s progress toward a western-style democracy when in 1953 we and the British overthrew the first and only democratic government in the country’s history. The Islamist tyranny that took over Iran in 1979 and still rules there today is the result of the coup d’état staged by the CIA and MI6.

The Iranian people are still potentially our best friends in the Middle East.

Obviously, we can’t turn back the clock. But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome. We did something like this with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, by denying it credits and technology transfers, and by luring it into an arms race it could never win. Trump, by abrogating the 2015 nuclear accord, has begun to take Iran policy in a similar direction.

Despite Trump’s fulminations against the 2015 accord, the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration wasn’t really a bad deal. It ended Iran’s covert program to develop a nuclear weapon. Some 97% of Iran’s nuclear material was removed from the country. The inspection regime was adequate, even robust in some respects. The main weakness of the agreement was that it allowed Iran to resume enriching uranium for peaceful purposes after a 15-year hiatus. Objectively speaking, however, this was not a sufficient reason for us to withdraw from the agreement only three years after it was signed — and particularly so since the other signatories had no intention of leaving with us.

But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome.

A secondary purpose behind the agreement, as the Obama administration saw it, was to promote a thaw in US-Iranian relations, with the hope that before 15 years had passed we would witness the end of the Islamic Republic and the evolution of a moderate, pro-Western regime. It has to be said, however, that the current leadership of Iran has shown no signs of softening its anti-American views. At the same time, the lifting of most sanctions on Iran after the agreement was made provided the regime with some economic relief (the Iranian economy and financial system were definitely hurt by sanctions) — and political relief, too, in that the people felt that their lives would improve once sanctions were removed. The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Moreover, Iran has continued to expand its influence in the region — in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and as supporter of the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Iran’s activities threaten to destabilize the Middle East generally, and are particularly worrisome when it comes to Saudi Arabia, its rival across the Persian Gulf and our most important ally in the Arab world. Although the US no longer needs to import Middle East oil, a crisis in the Gulf or, worse, the collapse of the pro-American regime in the world’s largest oil producer would roil energy markets and indeed the world economy.

Equally important is the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has initiated a program of reform in the kingdom that holds out the prospects of, first, bringing Saudi Arabia into the 21st century and, second, ending the plague of Sunni jihadism that has infected Saudi society and large swathes of the Muslim world. If Prince Mohammed is successful in this, he will have rendered a service not only to his country and the region, but to humanity as a whole. The West has a big stake in his ultimate success.

The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Containing Iran is good for almost everybody – including, ultimately, the Iranian people. The only loser would be the Iranian regime itself. Supporting a reformist Saudi regime against Iranian mischief may help damp down Islamic radicalism and terrorism worldwide. And re-imposing sanctions on Iran, as Trump has done, may be the final straw that breaks the back of a regime beset by enormous economic problems.

I could never be a Trump supporter. His personality, behavior, and many of his policies are anathema to me. He has shown no real understanding of the nuclear agreement that he decided to tear up. That said, abrogating the agreement and reimposing sanctions on Iran seems to me a legitimate geostrategic play which, if it succeeds, will have enormous benefits for the US, the world, and, it is to be hoped, the Iranian people. With his dramatic move on May 8 Trump may very well have stumbled into the right policy.




Share This


Cuba, Race, Revolution, and Revisionism

 | 

When Cuba’s serial and multiple African military interventions began in 1963 with Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence from Portugal, Fidel Castro selected black Cuban soldiers and conscripts to man his liberation regiments. Dead black bodies in Africa were less likely to be identified as Cuban, according to Norberto Fuentes, Castro’s resident writer and — at the time — official biographer, confidant, and a participant in the later Angolan wars.

Cuba’s African — and Latin American — adventures were made possible by agreements reached among the USSR, Cuba, and the United States to end the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. One of those protocols was a promise from the US that it would respect Cuban sovereignty and refrain from invading the island. To Castro, this was a green light to build Cuba’s armed forces for the liberation of the world’s downtrodden instead of having to concentrate his resources for the defense of the island.

Ochoa was the only subordinate who could speak uninhibitedly with, and even kid or tease, the humorless, haughty, and overbearing Fidel Castro.

However, when it came to deploying his black brigades, Castro found himself short of black commanders. Enter Arnaldo (“Negro”) T. Ochoa Sánchez.

Ochoa had been part of Castro's 26th of July Movement ever since its creation, and by March 1957 he had joined Castro's guerrilla army in the Sierra Maestra, fighting against the Batista dictatorship. It was then that Ochoa and Raúl Castro forged a close friendship, one that also led to a certain intimacy with Raúl’s brother, Fidel. According to Fuentes, in his book Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, Ochoa was the only subordinate he knew who could speak uninhibitedly with, and even kid or tease, Fidel Castro — a humorless, haughty, and overbearing caudillo.

Ochoa, of humble Oriente peasant origins, had distinguished himself in the Revolution and during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, subsequently attending the Matanzas War College and Frunze Military Academy in the Soviet Union and rising to the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee. But he really distinguished himself in the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict. Cuba aided Ethiopia in this USSR vs. China proxy war, since both boasted Marxist regimes. Ochoa brilliantly defeated the Somalis in the tank battle of the Ogaden. For that he was dubbed “the Cuban Rommel.”

The problem was that Ochoa wasn’t really “black,” a racial classification that could apply to almost anyone in Cuba, especially if one uses the rule of thumb once common in the United States: that anyone with any black ancestry, no matter how distant or dilute, is black. (This author’s DNA test reveals a 1–3% West African ancestry, a detail not noticeable in his phenotype.) Ochoa is very swarthy, in a Mediterranean sort of way; yet his phenotype fails to show any classic “Negroid” features. It was Raúl Castro who nicknamed him Negro (black) by bestowing on him a promotion to “Black” General. The Armed Forces Minister wanted a black commander for the black troops he sent to Africa because he lacked a qualified, real black general who would realize both his political and his military objectives.

Ochoa brilliantly defeated the Somalis in the tank battle of the Ogaden. For that he was dubbed “the Cuban Rommel.”

Now, Cuba’s armed forces actually did include black commanders, among them General Víctor Schueg Colás (see below) and Juan Almeida Bosque. Almeida was a veteran of the assault on the Moncada Army barracks that launched the 26th of July Movement. Along with the Castros, Almeida was caught, imprisoned, amnestied, and exiled to Mexico after that defeat. He was on the Granma yacht as it landed survivors in Cuba, and he fought against Batista in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Later he was promoted to head of the Santiago Column of the Revolutionary Army. Wikipedia, without any sense of irony, says that “he served as a symbol for Afro-Cubans of the rebellion's break with Cuba's discriminatory past.” In his book Como Llegó la Noche, Huber Matos, third in command of the Revolutionary armies after Fidel and Raúl — though later to be purged — describes Almeida as unsuited for military command, a “yes” man. He says that Fidel kept him purely for his loyalty and as a symbol of the Revolution’s inclusiveness of Afro-Cubans. Almeida was the only black commander during the Revolution. He was Fidel Castro’s token black.

Ochoa took the nickname Negro in stride and probably even affectionately, fully understanding the political rationale behind the dubbing. In this author’s opinion, his attitude towards race (and by extension, Fuentes’ attitude) is pretty representative of one general streak of Cuban racial attitudes. Here is my translation of Norberto Fuentes’ description of Ochoa’s reaction to the moniker:

Ochoa, besides being mestizo, was very obstinate. When anyone alluded to Raúl’s reason for the nickname — that the Minister didn’t have any competent, real black generals — Ochoa would begin to vigorously shake his head. And he would continue this stubbornness even when reminded of General Víctor Schueg Colás — el Negro Chué — as he was generally known: a black Cuban general.

Ochoa responded that “el Negro Chué was not a negro who was a general.”

“And what kind of BS is that, Arnaldo?” asked a member of the group.

“He is a general who is black, and that’s not the same thing as a black who is a general.”

For a second I [Fuentes] thought Ochoa was about to write a second volume to Alex Haley’s Roots. My mind reviewed the list of black Cuban generals.

“And what about Kindelán? And Silvano Colás? And Moracén? And Calixto García? And Francis?” I challenged him.

“None of those are either generals or black,” he declared.

“But then what the fuck are they, Arnaldo?”

“Fictions, my friend. Nothing more than nonsense,” he blithely answered.

If you, dear reader, can’t make sense of that, don’t worry. It’s Ochoa’s way of saying that race doesn’t matter, that race is irrelevant, that concerns about race are nonsense. One Cuban-American academic, quoted in Guarione Diaz’ The Cuban American Experience: Issues, Perceptions and Realities, averring that humor is an essential trait of the Cuban personality, describes the archetypal Cuban as “one who jokes about serious matters while taking jokes seriously.” In that vein, there is a deeper intent in Ochoa’s flippancy that Fuentes, in a stream of consciousness rant, then goes on to elaborate.

The Castros were recapitulating the trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse: shackled by the ideological chains of a monomaniacal dictator and sent back to Africa.

His idea is that Ochoa, in his own irreverent way, was seeking redemption for the tragedy of Cuba’s “stoical, forced, brave, sweet and immense blacks” who had to carry — since 1965 — the full brunt of the Revolutionary Armed Forces’ guerrilla campaigns in Africa, because the Castros believed that dead black bodies in Africa couldn’t really be traced back to Cuba. They didn’t contemplate any POWs.

In Fuentes’ view, the Castros were recapitulating the trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse: two centuries ago, in physical chains across the Atlantic to the Americas; in the late 20th century, shackled by the ideological chains of a monomaniacal dictator and sent back to Africa.

To Ochoa, race was a trivial issue; to the Castros it was an essential component of their revolutionary tool kit in their struggle for universal social justice. When, according to Diaz, Cubans began leaving the island in droves to escape the repressive regime, “the revolutionary government denied exit visas to Blacks more than to Whites to show the international community that Cuban Blacks supported the revolution and did not flee Cuba.”

Castro himself, coming down to Girón, interrogated the black prisoners — just before their sham execution — accusing them of treason both to their country and to their race.

The Castros’ revisionist racial attitude reared its ugly head again during the Bay of Pigs fiasco when the invading members of Brigade 2506 surrendered or were captured. Black prisoners were singled out for extra abuse. They were perceived as traitors since, in the Castro calculus, the Revolution had been fought — in part — for them. Haynes Johnson, in his book, The Bay of Pigs: The Leaders’ Story, adds that “of all prisoners, Negroes received the worst treatment.” They didn’t fit Castro’s Revolutionary narrative, and their presence on the invasion force infuriated him. He himself, coming down to Girón, interrogated them — just before their sham execution — accusing them of treason both to their country and to their race. Osmany Cienfuegos, a Minister in Castro’s government and brother of Revolutionary Commander Camilo Cienfuegos, second in popularity only to Fidel, lined them up against a wall and told them: “We’re going to shoot you now, niggers, then we’re going to make soap out of you.”

One notable exchange during the prisoners’ trial was with Tomás Cruz, a paratrooper of the 1st Battalion. “You, negro, what are you doing here?” Castro asked, reminding Cruz that the Revolution had been fought for people like him, and of the swimming restrictions at some tourist resort hotels before the Revolution (a pathetic concession to attract American tourists).

Cruz, with all the dignity he could muster, responded, “I don’t have any complex about my color or my race. I have always been among the white people, and I have always been as a brother to them. And I did not come here to go swimming.”

Black is White and White is Black

Broadly speaking, in Cuba, race — in this context meaning skin color — is a relatively unimportant issue, on par with other physical traits such as weight, height, pulchritude, hair color, and even disposition. Unlike in the US, where large proportions of black people distinguish themselves from the broader population with distinctive clothing, hair styles, music, linguistic flourishes, political attitudes, and other traits, all kinds of Cubans share cultural values, patois, styles of dress, music, etc. Even religious affiliation, which in the Unites States often makes a visible difference between the races, tends toward a high degree of syncretism, with ancestral roots and beliefs to the fore instead of any racial overtones — a theme that the Castro regime has falsely exploited by preferential treatment of Santeria over other religions, treating it as compensation to a previously “oppressed” race (in Castro’s revisionist ideology). American hypersensitivity to race is unknown in Cuba.

In Cuba, slaves could marry, own personal property, testify in court, and run businesses.

But how did race virtually disappear as a contentious issue in Cuba, while persisting until modern times in the United States — especially considering that the former eliminated slavery 21 years after the latter?

In spite of the awful conditions of the sugarcane fields, slavery under Spanish colonial rule was nothing like what it had become in the United States by the eve of the Civil War. According to historian Jaime Suchlicki in Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond, “Spanish law, the Catholic religion, the economic condition of the island, and the Spanish attitude toward the blacks all contributed to aid the blacks’ integration into Cuban society.” After all, the Spanish had lived for centuries under the comparatively tolerant rule of Moors.

In the American south, negritude — to any degree, i.e., the notorious “one drop rule” enacted in several states — equated skin color with a deprivation of rights. In Cuba, slaves could marry, own personal property, testify in court, and run businesses. One 18th-century observer noted that many had become skilled craftsmen, “not only in the lowest [trades] such as shoemakers, tailors, masons and carpenters, but also in those which require more ability and genius, such as silversmith’s craft, sculpture, painting and carving.”

Joining the US became a nonstarter during the US Civil War when Cubans realized how badly Negroes were treated in the South.

Additionally, Spain’s liberal manumission policy “resulted in almost 40% of African-Cubans being free in 1792,” reports Andro Linklater in his book on the evolution of private property, Owning the Earth. The diverging legal and social attitudes toward race in Cuba and in the US presaged future developments in each country. The paradoxical contrasts are striking. Whereas Reconstruction in the US institutionalized policies that had grown more nakedly racist since Independence — equating skin color with the presence or absence of rights and talents — the opposite was true in Cuba. Under the influence of the Catholic Church, the fundamental humanity of Africans was uncontroversially established early on; slavery and skin color were philosophically separated. In the time of Cuba’s Wars of Independence, Antonio Maceo, an Afro-Cuban, became second-in-command of the rebel armies.

At about the time of these wars, a notable segment of Cuban intellectuals favored the Texas model: declare independence from the colonial power and petition the US Congress for admission to the Union. The idea was so popular that the proposed Cuban flag was modeled on the Texas flag: a single star on the left, stripes on the right, and the whole rendered in red, white, and blue. However, joining the US became a nonstarter during the US Civil War when Cubans realized how badly Negroes were treated in the South. It wasn’t just the exploitation of slaves (which also happened in Cuba), but rather the contempt for dark skin color that denied a person’s humanity.

Cuba has always had an amorphous racial climate, one mostly misunderstood or puzzling to Americans. Racism, in the sense of hating or fearing a person for his skin color, is unknown. Skin color was never an impediment to respect. But skin tone snobbery (rarely surpassing trivial tut-tutting or even semi-serious priggishness) was not uncommon. Color gradations, like degrees of body mass index ranging from the skeletal to the morbidly obese, extended into categories of people Americans would consider “white,” with the too-pale also looked at askance, as if they were anemic and rickety.

Fulgencio Batista, while president, was denied membership in the Havana Yacht Club: he was considered too swarthy; although his son, Jorge Luis, was admitted. That he didn’t take the rejection personally and, as a dictator, did not take reprisals, is inconceivable to an American. Instead, the president donated a marina to the Havana Biltmore Yacht & Country Club, as swanky a venue if not more, and, voila! he and his family became members of that club.

Racism, in the sense of hating or fearing a person for his skin color, is unknown in Cuba. Skin color was never an impediment to respect.

This nonchalant — politically-correct Americans might say insensitive — attitude is related to Cubans’ tendency to nickname everyone, even strangers. A person with epicanthic folds will be called Chino, a very black man Negro, a fat person Gordo (my own nickname after immigration), a starkly white-skinned person Bolita de Nieve (Snowball), a skinny woman Flaca, a large-nosed man Ñato, a full-lipped person Bembo (hence, Negro Bembón for a full-lipped black man), a pug-nosed man Chato . . . You get the picture.

But the irreverence also gets manifested post-ironically, in the same vein as Ochoa’s nonchalant whimsy: a very black man might be nicknamed Blanco or Bolita de Nieve, a fat woman Flaca (skinny), and so on.

My favorite example of this is Luis Posada Carriles’ nickname. Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile militant, is considered a terrorist by the FBI. He is generally thought to be responsible for the bombing of Cubana flight 455 in 1976, which killed 73, including 24 members of Cuba’s National Fencing Team. In addition, Posada Carriles is said to have been involved in the planning of six bombings at Havana hotels and restaurants during 1997. His rap sheet is much too long repeat here. Posada Carriles’ nickname? Bambi.

But I digress. Overtones of Americans’ racial (a term I hesitate to use, as you’ll see below) attitudes are making inroads into the Cuban-American experience. One white Cuban-American informant admitted to being fearful of and avoiding groups of black men after dark in the US, a behavior that had never crossed his mind back in Cuba. Would one call his reaction in the US “racism”? I wouldn’t. I’d call it adaptability based on experience, a phenomenon that black economist Thomas Sowell has explicitly addressed in his writings.

The Color of Culture

Americans, both black and white, are quick to cry racism in any untoward exchange between people of different hues when someone is being a boor or a snob or experiencing a misunderstanding or, more often than not, when mild ethnocentricity is at work. Ethnocentricity . . . a big word that simply means the tendency of most people to exercise a preference for congregating with like-minded, like-speaking, like-dressing and like-looking people — people they can easily “relate to.” Expressed hierarchically, people’s instinctive loyalty is first to their family, then to their clan (extended family), town, state, religion, in-group, political party, culture, nation, etc. One can see this in the popular slogans “buy local” and “buy American.”

Imagine you’re a small business owner looking for a sales rep. You interview two applicants, one black and one white. The white applicant is sloppily dressed, needs a shower, doesn’t speak clearly, and seems distracted. The black applicant, on the other hand, is fully engaged, is dressed smartly, and seems keen to join your operation. It’s a no-brainer — the black applicant has more in common with you; skin color is not a factor.

We all share a tendency to look at other cultures solipsistically: we see through the lens of our own values, evaluating people according to preconceptions originating in our own standards and customs.

Now imagine the opposite scenario: The black applicant displays plumber’s crack, reeks, and is unintelligible; while the white wears a coat and tie, speaks in your local accent and displays overwhelming enthusiasm. Again, a no-brainer, with skin color again not a factor; instead of that, it is shared values that determine your choice.

Ethnocentrism does, however, have its extremes, the ones you’ll most often come across in a dictionary, without the nuances of an Anthropology 101 course. The first — and one that we all share to some degree — is a tendency to look at other people and cultures solipsistically: we see through the lens of our own culture and values, evaluating other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of our own milieu. More extreme is the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own ethnic group or culture — an attitude that, taken to an absurd limit, can breed intolerance, chauvinism, and violence.

The Origin of Races

What is race? One doesn’t need to understand race in order to be a racist or accuse someone of racism. Contrary to popular opinion, skin color is not a determining factor of race. H. Bentley Glass and Ching Chun Li were able to calculate from blood group data that North American Negroes have about 31% white ancestry (cited in Stanley M. Garn and Charles C. Thomas, Readings on Race [1968]). For practical or political reasons, biologists and physical anthropologists are divided as to the validity of the concept.

First, the more practical biologists. In biology, race is equivalent to variety, breed, or sub-species. In a nutshell, it is incipient speciation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, race is “a group of living things connected by common descent or origin” — as uncontroversial and far from the whole-picture definition as one can dream up. But to understand race one first has to understand species.

Contrary to popular opinion, skin color is not a determining factor of race.

A species is a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, just below genus — yet even this is by no means a simple or clear-cut concept. Think of horses, donkeys, mules, Jennies, zebras and zorses (a horse-zebra hybrid); or dogs, wolves and coyotes. These animals can interbreed, with various rates of fertility success, but do not normally interbreed in the wild. To account for this, the classic definition of species was amended by the addition of a qualifier, that the group of organisms in question must not only be able to interbreed but must also do so regularly and not under extraordinary or artificial circumstances.

To further complicate things (or was it to simplify?), Ernst Mayr, one of the 20th century’s leading evolutionary biologists and taxonomists, formulated the theory of ring species (aka formenkreis) in 1942 to explain a natural anomaly in the distribution of closely related populations. According to Wikipedia, “a ring species is a connected series of neighboring populations, each of which can interbreed with closely sited related populations, but for which there exist at least two ‘end’ populations in the series, which are too distantly related to interbreed, though there is a potential gene flow between each ‘linked’ population.”

The term ‘ring species’ is a vestigial remnant of some of the first ring species identified, but the populations need not be in a ring shape. Examples include the circumpolar Larus herring gull complex, Ensatina salamanders, the house mouse, trumpet fish, drosophila flies, deer mice, and many other bird, slugs, butterflies, and others. Most natural populations are bedeviled by such complexities, including our closest relative, Pan troglodytes, among whom the East African subspecies shweinfurthii is separated by the Congo River and half a continent from the West African variant verus.

Gould believed that the concept of "race" had been used to persecute certain human groups to such an extent that it should be eliminated.

So that brings us back to race, or incipient speciation. Charles Darwin, in Origin of Species, identified the speciation process as occurring when a subpopulation of organisms gets separated from the larger group, fails to interbreed with them, and interbreeds strictly with itself. This process increases the smaller group’s genetic complement while reducing — again, within the smaller group — the larger group’s greater genetic diversity. The eventual result may be that the smaller group becomes distinct enough to form a new species. This part of the process is labeled “genetic drift.”

Two other factors usually contribute to speciation: genetic mutation and adaptation (through natural selection) to a new environment or way of life. Here “adaptation” does not carry the sense of individuals “getting accustomed to” a new situation but rather the sense of individuals carrying genes that are detrimental in that situation dying before they procreate — in time deleting those genes from the smaller group. This is called “natural selection.” After a subgroup separates from the main population and before it becomes a new species…this is when the term “race” properly applies.

But Darwin understood the limitations:

Certainly no clear line of demarcations has as yet been drawn between species and sub-species — that is, the forms which in the opinion of some naturalists come very near to, but do not quite arrive at the rank of species; or, again, between sub-species and well-marked varieties, or between lesser varieties and individual differences. These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage.

Of course, a race may never become a new species; it may well, for any number of reasons, reintegrate back into the main population — which brings us back to human races and the more political anthropological concepts.

Some experts, the late Marxist paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to the fore, believed that race, as applied to humans, was unhelpful, even invalid. He believed that the concept had been used to persecute certain human groups to such an extent that it should be eliminated. And forget “variety” (humans aren’t flowers) and “breed” (they aren’t dogs) and “subspecies” (the Nazis’ use of unter ruined that prefix).

On the other side stand the Physical Anthropologists (Stanley Garn, Paul T. Baker, Bentley Glass, Joseph S. Weiner, et al.) with the late physical anthropologist Carleton S. Coon, who pioneered the scientific study of human races under the Darwinian paradigm of adaptive and evolutionary processes.

Coon divided Homo sapiens into five races with origins in some distant past, distant enough that genetic and phenotypical differences appeared: the Caucasoid, Congoid, Capoid, Mongoloid and Australoid races. These had diverged not only because of genetic drift, but also as adaptations to their local conditions. The oldest races were the darkest: African Blacks, Australoids and Papuans; while whites, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians diverged later. Skin color varied according to sun exposure. For example, northern European climates favored fair skin to improve Vitamin D synthesis, while dark skin was a shield from Vitamin D overdose. However, in extremely hot and sunny climes such as the Sahel, too-black a skin would tend to heat a body too much, favoring a more swarthy tone. Along the lands of the upper Nile, tall, lanky bodies helped radiate accumulated heat.

When sickle-cell anemia was discovered in white populations, it clinched the notion that racial adaptations were responses to local environments and independent of adaptations such as skin color

On the other hand, the Inuit were physically well adapted to extreme cold: compact bodies to conserve heat; little facial hair to prevent frozen breath condensation that might freeze the face; lightly protruding noses to protect it from freezing; epicanthic eye folds to reduce the area of the eyes to the elements and yellow or yellow-brown skin. The yellow skin likely evolved as an adaptation to cold temperatures in northern Asia. The yellow color resulted from a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, visible through translucent outer layers of skin.

A more recent adaptation was lactose tolerance, which apparently evolved in whites, permitting adult consumption of milk following the domestication of cattle about 6,000 B.C. But one of the most curious adaptations was sickle cell anemia, a debilitating genetic disease that nonetheless provided partial immunity to malaria to the carrier of one allele. First discovered in black African populations, it was first considered a Negroid feature. However, when it was discovered in white circum-Mediterranean populations, it clinched the notion that racial adaptations were responses to local environments and independent of other adaptations such as skin color — a curious vestigial association from more unenlightened times.

Coon’s classifications — mostly unbeknownst to him because the later fine points post-dated him — were already a mélange built on a vast diversity of prehistoric Homo: neanderthalensis, sapiens, denisovans, floriensis, erectus, habilis, etc. Some scholars define these as separate species, others as separate races. I would argue that it is impossible to define an extinct species within a genus from bone remains alone. (Conversely, albeit ironically, modern skeletal remains often yield their race.) DNA researcher Svante Päävo, one of the founders of paleogenetics and a Neanderthal gene expert, has opined that the ongoing “taxonomic wars” over whether Neanderthals were a separate species or subspecies as the type of debate that cannot be resolved, “since there is no definition of species perfectly describing the case.”

Human evolution, ignoring all the tedious debates, continues to surprise us.

Luckily, some Neanderthal DNA has been sequenced and it was discovered that Sapiens includes some of those brutes’ genetic material — about 2% — in northern European populations. In our history, studies suggest there may have been three episodes of interbreeding. The first would have occurred soon after modern humans left Africa. The second would have occurred after the ancestral Melanesians had branched off — these people seem to have thereafter bred with Denisovans, 90% of whose genetic material is extant in modern Sapiens. The third would have involved Neanderthals and the ancestors of East Asians only, whose percentage of Neanderthal genetic material nears 20%.

One difficulty with Coon was his overly distinct racial categories. To some degree he realized this, even while recognizing many subraces, racial mixtures, and incipient formenkreis (before the phenomenon had a name). The problem was that these incipient races kept interbreeding at their verges (and even farther afield; consider Vikings, Mongols, and Polynesians), and accelerating racial mixture after 1500, when human populations began interbreeding willy-nilly, because of globalization.

And that, dear reader, is why Gould and others eschew human racial classifications.

Meanwhile, human evolution, ignoring all the tedious debates, continues to surprise us. The April 21 issue of The Economist reports the discovery of a new human racial variant in the Malay Archipelago. The Bajau people spend almost all of their lives at sea. “They survive on a diet composed almost entirely of seafood. And . . . spend 60% of their working day underwater . . . They sometimes descend more than 70 meters (240 feet) and can stay submerged for up to five minutes . . . They have lived like this for at least 1,000 years.” The evidence suggests strongly that these astonishing abilities are genetic, the result of mutations and natural selection.

The Bajau spleen, an organ that acts as an emergency reserve of oxygenated red blood cells, is 50% larger than those of neighboring populations — “a difference unconnected with whether an individual was a prolific diver or one who spent most of his time working above the waves on a boat. This suggests that it is the Bajau lineage rather than the actual activity of diving, which is responsible for a larger spleen,” continues The Economist.

There is nothing in any of this to suggest that race should be used for political purposes by governments and demagogues — Hitler, Castro, and others.

DNA analysis tells a similar story: a series of Bajau genetic mutations controls blood flow preferentially to oxygen-starved vital organs; another that slows the build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream and one that controls muscle contractions around the spleen.

What to make of all this? Human racial differences, both behavioral and phenotypic, exist and are worth studying: for medicine, forensic science, DNA studies and just for basic scientific knowledge. Genes are not destiny; they encode broad parameters for modification, in the uterine environment, through nurturing, and now through technology (for better or worse). There is nothing in any of this to suggest that race should be used for political purposes by governments and demagogues — Hitler, Castro, and others.

Will Americans in general ever achieve Arnaldo Ochoa’s insouciance about race? We can only hope. After a Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, segregation, and Civil Rights, we’re now experiencing a heightened sensitivity in the finer details of race relations — probably a good indication of the tremendous progress that has been made in the fundamentals.




Share This


Clueless in Seattle

 | 

In Seattle, where I have spent most of my life, I often walk around a lake near where I live — Green Lake, which is bordered by a strip of public park. It is the most popular park in the city, hosting walkers, runners, skaters, and bicyclists on the paved path around the water. In this urban idyll a coven of campers lives year-round in RVs and tents or, in good weather, sleeps in the open on the ground. If I drive to the University of Washington, I go past another encampment near the freeway exit. Under an overpass by the University Bridge is a rag-and-cardboard hovel surrounded by stolen Safeway carts and piles of garbage.

We didn’t have this when I was growing up here in the 1960s, or many years afterward. Then you could see alcoholics in downtown Seattle, where they sat on park benches and drank. We called them bums. They were male, and mostly white or Native American. They lived in missions and flophouses. They didn’t pitch tents under overpasses and in city parks, because the city didn’t allow it. Legally it still doesn’t, but legality alone doesn’t matter. Seattle does allow it, which is why people do it.

Seattle’s unemployment rate is close to 3%, which is as low as it ever gets. There is plenty of work.

The mix looks different now. I see modern nylon tents, some of them with bicycles parked next to them, or discarded office chairs. Many of the homeless have electronic devices to play music.

The situation is not at all like the famous picture from the 1930s of the “Hooverville” of squatter shacks with the pointed top of the Smith Tower in the background. That was a time of social emergency, of 20 or 30% unemployment. Today the city is booming. Seattle’s unemployment rate is close to 3%, which is as low as it ever gets. There is plenty of work. As I write, within one block of my house are two “Help Wanted” signs on restaurants. Within five blocks are several building sites where work has been repeatedly stopped, probably because of the shortage of labor.

Nor is the problem that Seattle is nasty to the homeless. Quite the contrary. I refer to The Hungry American, a book self-published 2004 by Tom McDevitt, an Idaho doctor who went slumming as his retirement project. Of all the cities in which he practiced being a bum — Pocatello, Salt Lake, Phoenix, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle — my city was the most generous. But in none of those cities, he said, did the homeless starve. The hunger he saw in the Sad Sacks around him “was not of the belly kind, but the gnawing hunger for tobacco, alcohol, drugs and relief for a tortured mind,” he wrote. “In America people are homeless because either consciously or subconsciously they want to be homeless.”

To Seattle progressives this is a cold, insensitive, reactionary, and racist point of view. Their view was correctly expressed in the Seattle Times last November by Adrienne Quinn, who earned $188,662 in 2017 as director of the King County (Seattle) Department of Community and Human Services.

When I see people living in tents on the shores of Green Lake, living out of rat’s-nest cars and RVs within a mile of my house, am I really to believe that it is not their fault?

“Homelessness is a symptom of failures in the child-welfare system, racism, wage inequity, the failure to adequately fund mental-health and addiction services, and skyrocketing housing costs,” she wrote. “Not being able to find an apartment for less than $2,000 a month, or being put on waitlists for housing or treatment, or living in foster homes as a child are not individual failings; they are societal failings.”

I have a relative who is adopting two boys from foster care. Before being in foster care they were living on the street and eating out of dumpsters. Their plight was terrible. But it was the fault of individuals, not “society.” The individuals at fault were their parents, who were heroin addicts.

When I see people — white men, mostly — living in tents on the shores of Green Lake, living out of rat’s-nest cars and RVs within a mile of my house, am I really to believe that it is not their fault? The other day I asked one of the Green Lake maintenance men about the camper that has been parked all winter in lower Woodland Park, a few hundred feet from the sign that says, “No Camping.”

“We can’t do anything about that,” he said. “They send social workers to talk to those guys.” The social workers’ job is to convince the homeless to use social services.

That’s Seattle.

The Seattle Times has a special team funded by outside donors — Starbucks, the Seattle Mariners, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others — that writes about nothing but the homeless. Recently the Times had a story about the death on April 5 of Sabrina Tate, 27, who had been living out of a camper in a city-sanctioned homeless parking lot the politicians called a “safe zone.”

Economically, Seattle is a stunningly successful city.

Sabrina Tate was from Spokane, a city less transformed by entrepreneurial capitalism than Seattle. She got into the drug lifestyle as a teenager, after her parents divorced, and she eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest’s big city. She became a heroin addict and was for some years. In February she had gone back to Spokane and seen her mother, who was alarmed that Sabrina’s legs were swollen and infected as a side effect of drug use. Her mother offered to take her to the hospital to treat her legs and kick the heroin, but Sabrina insisted on returning to the “safe zone” and her camper, where shortly thereafter she was found dead on the floor.

Her parents got back together long enough to come to Seattle to see where their daughter had lived and died. They had never seen it. Inside Sabrina’s RV, wrote Times reporter Vianna Davila

The place was trashed. Flies buzzed around rotted food. There was hardly any room on the floor, though investigators told them that’s where her body was found. Much of the floor was covered with wet clothes, possibly the result of a leak in the roof. This looked nothing like the picture she had painted for them.

Her parents may never know if this was how Sabrina lived. They were told by police that the RV was quickly ransacked after her death.

The Times reporter recorded the reaction of Sabrina’s father, Tommi Tate. “I’m furious,” he said. Furious with his addict daughter? Furious with himself? Of course not. He was furious with the government.

“This kind of stuff shouldn’t happen and it doesn’t need to happen, and it’s only going to stop if people quit looking the other way and if our governments really, truly care,” he said. “Shame on Seattle.”

Shame on Seattle?

Reading that, I wanted to say, “Hey! You're her father. Where wereyou? It wasn’t the government's job to care about your daughter; it was yours. And at age 27, it was hers, and had been for some time. She made years and years of bad choices to get where she was. It had nothing to do with whether public employees ‘really, truly cared.’”

The median price of a single-family house in Seattle has jumped to $800,000. The median rent on a one-bedroom apartment is pushing $2,000.

This story spoke strongly to me, because I have a son the same age as the dead girl. The difference is, he is healthy and has a career and a home. Why is that? Is it because the city employees here really, truly cared for him?

Enough stupid questions.

Economically, Seattle is a stunningly successful city. Recalling the city I knew as a kid back in the early 1960s, I remember the brick buildings downtown, most of them, like the Smith Tower, built in a burst of investment in the second and third decades of the century. That old downtown has been buried in a forest of glass-and-steel skyscrapers, the latest of which are being built for Amazon. For most of my life, the city population was stuck between 525,000 and 550,000. Suddenly it’s at 700,000. Including Seattle, King County’s population is now 2.1 million.

Among the state’s 39 counties, King County, the largest in population, has the highest average per-capita personal income. Seattle’s figure is $40,868, more than 40% above the U.S. average. King County is the home to Boeing’s commercial airplane division, Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Costco and Nordstrom. It is the home of Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates.

To the disappointment to the Democrats who run state government in Olympia, Washington does not have a state income tax.

The median price of a single-family house in Seattle has jumped to $800,000. The median rent on a one-bedroom apartment is pushing $2,000. Part of this is because of Seattle’s restrictive zoning code and King County’s growth-management policy, and the Left mostly ignores this, but the commercial growth is the most important reason.

Politically, King County is the most leftwing county in the state. Here’s the picture from 2016, in which Hillary Clinton easily carried the state of Washington. Statewide, Donald Trump took 37% of the vote. In King County, he got 21%. In Seattle, he got 9%. Since the 1980s, Seattle has been a one-party town. To be identified as a Republican in this city is instant political death.

But we do have a communist on the city council.

Am I “red-baiting?” I suppose so. Councilwoman Kshama Sawant calls herself a socialist and says she’s for democracy. But she has identified herself as a member of Socialist Alternative, which the Internet tells me is a Trotskyist organization — meaning Leon Trotsky, former chief commissar of the Red Army. Sawant’s campaign manager told me she was a Marxist, and in listening to her when she first ran for office, I judged that he was correct. She came out for nationalizing Boeing, for example. If all that doesn’t justify the c-word, then I withdraw it. Sawant is pretty far left, though. She voted against Seattle’s famous $15-an-hour minimum wage law because it wasn’t strong enough.

The rest of Seattle’s city council is all deeply Progressive. And given the view around here of the “root causes” of people sleeping in the park, there should be no surprise at the solution the council has reached.

Raise taxes on business.

Seattle is not a low-tax city. We have a property tax that hits most homeowners between $5,000 and $10,000 a year, and a retail sales tax at the nose-bleeding level of 10.1%. (Buy a car here, and feel the pain.) We have a tax on soda pop and a tax on disposable grocery bags. But to the disappointment to the Democrats who run state government in Olympia, Washington does not have a state income tax. The people voted for one in 1932, but the Washington Supreme Court threw it out, and statewide voters have since rejected it four times. Seattle has tried to impose a city income tax, and has been blocked in the courts.

This is a tax on employment to fund non-employment.

Now to the matter at hand, the head tax. This is how Seattle’s ruling class — its political ruling class — proposes to raise the $75 million it wants for the homeless: a 26-cent-an-hour tax on payrolls of companies with at least $20 million in annual gross sales.

Work out the math. Twenty-six cents an hour is more than $500 per employee per year. This is a tax on employment to fund non-employment. And the only employers obliged to pay it would be the for-profit companies. As I read it, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would not have to pay, nor would Seattle’s big multimillion-dollar medical groups — Swedish, Virginia Mason, and Kaiser Permanente Washington — nor would Recreational Equipment Inc., a membership cooperative. Neither Boeing nor Microsoft nor (except one store) Costco Wholesale would have to pay, because they are not actually based in the city. But Nordstrom and Starbucks would have to pay, as would Amazon, which put itself right where Seattle progressives wanted, near the light-rail line at the north end of downtown. Amazon would be nailed for some $20 million a year.

And CEO Jeff Bezos, who has Amazon looking for a second headquarters city already, doesn’t want Amazon to pay. Amazon has announced that it is suspending planning for its next Seattle skyscraper, and that if the head tax is passed, it will build somewhere else.

The push for a head tax has not gone unchallenged. An opposition now coalesces.

I haven’t heard anyone say the company doesn’t mean it. The leaders of the Aerospace Machinists did say that a decade ago when Boeing threatened to open an assembly line for the 787 jet transport in South Carolina unless it got a ten-year no-strike agreement in the labor contract. The union guys didn’t believe the company. They rejected the concessions — and Boeing opened the line in South Carolina, just as it said. People in Seattle also remember when Boeing moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago.

They believe Bezos’ threat.

And the Left’s attitude toward this? Katie Herzog, writer for The Stranger, Seattle’s left-wing entertainment weekly, quotes Bezos on The Stranger’s blog saying that he wants to put his personal billions into space travel. Confusing Bezos’s personal money with Amazon’s corporate money, she writes:

“WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK, JEFF BEZOS??? THE ONLY WAY TO SPEND YOUR MONEY IS SENDING IT TO SPACE???? Please, excuse me for a moment while I go burn my Prime membership. (Just kidding. I use my dad's.) Here's one way Bezos, who has yet to make any significant philanthropic mark on the world, could spend his 130 billion dollars: PAY THE FUCKING HEAD TAX.”

I hear people who are angry — and almost all of them are Democrats.

Socialist Councilwoman Sawant, Herzog writes, should lock Bezos in a room and convince him to “get his shining head out of his ass and start using his wealth to help people other than himself.”

That is the Seattle Left in full, in its ideas and its manners.

The push for a head tax has not gone unchallenged. An opposition now coalesces. It includes the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and other business groups long accustomed to the political culture called Seattle Nice. It includes the Seattle Times editorial page, which is urging Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to veto it. (Durkan, whom the Times supported for mayor, was Obama’s US Attorney here.) And when our socialist councilwoman and her groupies held a protest in front of Amazon’s new skyscraper, they faced a counterprotest of union ironworkers — the proletarians who would lose the chance to build Amazon’s new skyscraper.

The final vote is not scheduled until May 14. But whatever happens, much good has come of this. I hear people who are angry — and almost all of them are Democrats. Maybe Seattle will develop a two-party system — not a Republican-and-Democrat system, but some kind of opposition, some kind of choice. If it does, I will vote for whoever carries its flag.




Share This


When Stalinists Collide

 | 

There is a newly released movie called The Death of Stalin. It’s not really about Stalin or his death, but you should see it anyway. One reason is that it’s been banned in Russia; the other, much more important reason, is that it’s really good and really entertaining (in a really grim way).

Stalin does appear for a few minutes at the start of the film, where we see him as a drunken clod with a low sense of humor and a proclivity for intimidating and boring his colleagues. Like Hitler, he forces people to stay up all night watching B movies from Hollywood. Then he dies, and the real story begins, as the second and third bananas battle one another to capture his authority. The movie is about the difficult process of redistributing power in an ideological regime that has become a personal regime and is now becoming a regime of bureaucrats. First came the Idea (communism); then came the Man (Stalin); now we have the Men, the party hacks and the heads of this or that, who survived long enough to start asserting their own personalities. We get to see what those personalities are, once asserted, and to study their grisly and comic clashes.

First came the Idea (communism); then came the Man (Stalin); now we have the Men, the party hacks and the heads of this or that, who survived long enough to start asserting their own personalities.

The lead actors are remarkably skillful at entering their roles and projecting them. Simon Russell Beale, playing Lavrentiy Beria, head of the secret police, succeeds in making Beria seem what he was, one of the most repulsive figures of history. Jeffrey Tambor, playing Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s presumed successor, presents Malenkov as a man who, if you don’t like Woodrow Wilson, looks and acts exactly the way you imagine Woodrow Wilson looked and acted. Jason Isaacs, playing Marshal Zhukov, conqueror of Berlin, demonstrates that absurdly over-the-top masculinity still has its dramatic interest. Steve Buscemi, the star of the show, plays Nikita Khrushchev as the smartest and most complicated and most interesting of them all.

This is stage-play politics, but it might actually have been politics in the stagy totalitarianism that was the Soviet Union. Some of the characterizations do seem questionable to me. Stalin was not the overt fool that we see in Adrian McLoughlin’s performance (which no doubt responded to Armando Iannucci’s direction). Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), doesn’t seem rigid and doctrinaire enough, nor as constantly devoted to his insanely doctrinaire wife as Molotov actually was. (Stalin sent Madame Molotov to the gulag, but this did nothing to reduce her devotion to him.) I don’t know whether Svetlana Stalin was the way Andrea Riseborough (and the script) portrays her — a goofy, spoiled, adult brat — but I would have enjoyed watching her performance for much longer than the movie’s run time.

Simon Russell Beale succeeds in making Beria seem what he was, one of the most repulsive figures of history.

And here’s something strange. If you deplore, as I do, the creepy foreign accents that non-English speakers are given in Anglophone movies, there’s none of that in this film — everyone speaks with some kind of British accent. Yet hearing Stalin speak like a working-class Brit was startling to me, and the other people’s speech was only slightly less startling. That’s probably because I’m an American, so it all seemed foreign to me — but in a strangely displaced way. Yet that’s what’s supposed to happen on stage, isn’t it — some kind of strange displacement? The strangeness makes you conscious that you are watching someone else’s conscious performance, a re-creation of human life in which your own imagination needs to be involved.

So, for many reasons: if this film has already left your theater, make a note to see it when it comes out on DVD and other means of presentation.

Finally, here’s a SPOILER. Look away if you’re not ready for it.

Khrushchev wins in the end.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Death of Stalin," directed by Armando Iannucci. Main Journey-Quad Productions, 2017, 107 minutes.



Share This


No Cheers for Democracy

 | 

Democracy, the most celebrated religion of both the Left and Right, has spread like wildfire. Zimbabwe has recently fallen for more democracy. Social movements in the Middle East — with the most recent one known as the Arab Spring — are inching the area toward more democracy. Even in reclusive Saudi Arabia democracy is slowly gaining an upper hand. Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Nepal are solidifying their democracies; their military or traditional-religious heads have found it increasingly difficult to assert their will. Many political leaders in Africa now vacate their seats in response to the verdict of their citizens.

Democracy is winning. It is a religion, a faith, which is seen as an objective, universal truth, a truth that cannot be challenged. It is the solution to all ills. It is perfect and cannot be damaged by evidence. When a society does well, the true believers attribute this to an improvement in democracy. When a democratic system does not work — as it doesn’t in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia — the blame must go elsewhere. The true believers always ask for more democracy.

South Africa has continued to become more democratic, with its institutions increasingly reflecting the wishes and the culture of the masses. The political leadership is now openly in support of expropriating farms from the minorities. The masses, quite fallaciously, believe that such acts will improve their lot.

The true believers always ask for more democracy.

In 1994, before the advent of democracy, South Africa had a first-world infrastructure. Today, there are random electrical outages, water supply is in deep crisis, roads are bad, and crime is off the charts. Hate-crime against the minorities, including vicious torture and sadistic rape, is on the rise. For more than two decades the canniest people of South Africa have been emigrating to Canada, Australia, or the US.

The end of apartheid — in 1994 — did not have to begin the rule of the masses, but it did. Democracy has slowly changed the nation’s institutions, adjusting them to the mass’s demands and whims. The minority are whites, so the media and the intellectuals pay little heed to their rights. According to the media’s definition of “racist,” only whites can be that way.

Was South African apartheid a bad policy? Is the Indian caste system regressive? It is easy to say “yes” — and move on. But all changes in social and political systems have their collateral damages. A culture of individualism, decentralization, and the rule of law emerged in Europe to reduce collateral damage. From this point of view, supremacist democracy has been a disastrous regression.

The end of apartheid did not have to begin the rule of the masses, but it did.

South Africa now has apartheid against the whites, one consequence of which has been the destruction of the lives of blacks as well. The white minority — even today — is the intellectual and business spine of South Africa. As the minority loses its grip or emigrates, South Africa is imploding. Can the masses, peasants, and politicians not see what is coming? Apparently they cannot — which is the reason why democracy puts a society in a vicious cycle. Not just South Africa but the emerging democracies of Egypt, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Nepal have been on assured paths to disaster.

Instead of thinking through why democracy might be the reason for the failure of societies, Western intellectuals blame a made-up recession in the number of democracies. When things go wrong, they credit the situation to a lack of democracy, even if democracy has been in ascendancy. If their rationalizations are no longer tenable, through circular reasoning they define and redefine “democracy” to ensure that it stays on the pedestal.

Over the long haul, Turkey and Malaysia have been among the best examples of progress in the third world. Not only have they become increasingly democratic but their GDPs per capita have grown relentlessly, making them middle-class societies. Both also have Muslim majorities; there is likely no other country in which increasing democracy in a Muslim majority society coincided with rapidly rising GDP per capita and maintenance of stability.

Can the masses, peasants, and politicians not see what is coming? Apparently they cannot.

It was not too far in the past that Turkey was under strict secular control by the army. Then, in 1997, the military asked the then Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, to resign. His fault was that he had mixed religion with politics. Pressure from the US and international organizations meant that Turkey had to become more democratic and distance itself from the rule of the military.

It might be claimed that Turkey improved economically and socially because of this strengthening of its democracy. But Turkey was merely one beneficiary of a general trend of economic growth affecting the third world. The economies of Turkey, Malaysia, Latin America, South Asia, Africa, in fact, every country and particularly non-democratic China grew rapidly during the past two decades. None of them grew because of democracy. They grew because of the electronic revolution. Ironically, the growth of non-democratic China changed the economic structure of the world and made it possible for the third world to benefit, as the crumbs fall into its lap. Because it suited their purpose, ideologues credited this all to “democracy.”

But now, as democracy has grown, politics in Turkey and Malaysia increasingly reflect the will of the masses. Masses in the West might care more about hedonism, but it is religion, magical thinking, and the afterlife that occupy the minds of the masses in the third world. Fanaticism — hence totalitarianism and diminishment of the individual — has been growing rapidly in Turkey and Malaysia.

Most people in top positions in the media, the IMF, the World Bank, etc., maintain the usual, regurgitated, and extremely favorable view of democracy and multiculturalism. This has to be the case, for they cannot say (and eventually even think) anything that might be (mis)interpreted as racist, or they will be thrown out of their jobs. The result is that political correctness has absolute control over the institutions of the West.

Fanaticism — hence totalitarianism and diminishment of the individual — has been growing rapidly in Turkey and Malaysia.

Of course, it requires little reflection to notice that democracy isn’t the panacea it is made out to be. Quite to the contrary, it has been an unmitigated disaster for the third world. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia had massive public support when they took power. During their rule, the guards at the concentration camps soon became the inmates, while the earlier inmates were sent to the killing fields after grotesque torture and dismemberment. Even the topmost “leaders” got caught up in this cycle of brutality. In a period of just over three years, they managed to kill as much as 25% of the population.

What they did in Cambodia is something no sane person, using the lenses of Western culture and political correctness, can understand. But perhaps that is exactly what needs to be understood to see the underpinning problems of democracy. One must understand the psyche of the masses and the peasants.

A vast majority of even the world’s enlightened society is made up of people who have no interest in public policy. While in the West, this is often reflected in an expectation of free-stuff and resulting social welfare programs, the counterpart in the third world is usually tribal and superstitious. In the West, the desires of the masses result in a politics of redistribution and envy, a win-lose paradigm that, like a termite from within, slowly destroys the morals and the institutions of society. In poor countries, these desires result in a politics that is increasingly sociopathic and tyrannical, a lose-lose paradigm.

To see the underpinning problems of democracy, one must understand the psyche of the masses and the peasants.

I travel around the world to understand what is happening, without the lenses of political correctness distorting my understanding. One soundbite that I often hear from economic analysts is that if a country wants to keep growing it has to allow entrepreneurialism to take hold, reduce regulations and the size of the state, and do what is right. If that is the way the world worked, in this modern age of technology there would have been no reason for vast areas of the world to suffer from abject poverty. These economists are either politically correct (or else they would be thrown out of their jobs), living in gated communities (real or virtual), or simply naive. In any case, they are paid well to stay ignorant about the problems that democracy is afflicting on the third world, and increasingly in the first world.

Why can the masses not see the problems they are creating for themselves by voting to destroy their wealth-generating class, the backbone of their society? Why do they not see that they are creating tyranny for themselves by imposing through their vote fanaticism in their institutions, a contest in which there is no winner? Why cannot the wisdom of the crowds — democracy — provide improvement in governance? Why don’t their collective votes align their economic structures for growth?

For the third world, tribalism and magical thinking are the mental and cultural operating system. While they claim to seek peace and economic growth, there is a list of numerous other dominant considerations — superstitions, religious dogma, the afterlife, pride in the tribe, which makes the individual impotent, the everpresent fear of Satan, family entanglements, envy, ego, and a conspicuous lack of understanding of the concept of causality. Even if they are keen on economic growth, their irrationality assures that they do more of what created their poverty, in a vain attempt to remove their poverty.

Economists are paid well to stay ignorant about the problems that democracy is afflicting on the third world, and increasingly in the first world.

The situation gets rapidly worse as you go down the class hierarchies of these societies and arrive at the people who mathematically are the major voting bloc. The peasants are traditionally tribal, superstitious, and envious. In a democracy, the bottom 51% of a society decides the nature of its institutions. Institutions take a long time to change, but eventually the psychology of the masses, their irrationalities, and their tribalism permeates it.

Many people worry ad nauseam that the USA supports the totalitarian regime in Saudi Arabia. But people from that area know that were Saudi Arabia to become democratic, it would become much more fanatical. While isolated locals might ask for more liberties, and their voice be exaggerated by the Western press, making Saudi government look like the one remaining province of tyranny, the masses insist on an increase in totalitarianism. While a few isolated women might burn their hijabs, the majority of women insist on them.

And what about other countries?

Quite in contrast to video images of recent protests, and the Western narrative of Iranians asking for liberties, 83% of Iranians favor the use of sharia law. It is a no-brainer that more democracy isn’t going to change Iran in the way romantics in the West think it will.

A rule of, by, and for the peasantry is the maturing of democracy, and it never ends well for anyone, including the peasants.

Syria is nothing but an advanced stage of the Arab Spring, of the movement for democracy. So, mutatis mutandis, is Venezuela, where the culture of the masses and peasants has seeped into the government. With each gyration of democracy, Pakistan has become an increasingly Islamic state, where a word against the holy book results in a death penalty. India, the world’s biggest democracy, is rapidly taking the same course, as its deep-rooted superstitions, tribalism, and magical thinking continue to permeate its institutions.

We must again ask whether any democratic change would increase the rule of law and the culture of individualism — or whether it would be detrimental to both.

A rule of, by, and for the peasantry is the maturing of democracy, and it never ends well for anyone, including the peasants. The peasant revolutions of Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the innumerable civil wars of sub-Saharan Africa have virtually no competitors in causing misery and destruction. Peasants, except in New Age literature, have high time preference; they lack education, critical thinking, and rationality; and they are unskilled in planning. They focus at best on the immediate accumulation of resources. Allowed to feel victimized, allowed to pass responsibility onto others for their predicament, they happily do so.

But haven’t the elite, the intellectuals, the businessmen, the entrenched classes, the feudal lords not been exploitative?

In Brazil, India, and Venezuela the middle class is extremely corrupt. In the caste system of India, the lower caste does not even exist as human being in the minds of the upper caste. The elites are the exploiting class. But when the peasants get into power, there are no limits left for corruption and exploitation. They enable lose-lose tyranny and brutality — pure, unadulterated savagery.

All power structures are exploitative. The question is which one does the most for society.

The state is a totalitarian instrument. Apartheid was the same. The caste system is the same. Among all these systems, the rule of peasants — democracy — is the worst. Their inability to think of the future and understand public policy means that once in control, they rapidly destroy the institutions, enter a phase of hedonism, go into conflicts over resources, or simply destroy the country’s capital, eventually trending society toward Malthusian equilibrium. One has to spend time in backward societies to see how, as if by magic, the masses instinctively destroy any advantages they get from technology and economic growth.

Capital, civilization, and prosperity do not occur in nature. Increasing capital and even maintaining it is the job of the elite — not of masses or peasants. All power structures are exploitative. The question is which one does the most for society and what steps to take to move society toward more liberty. Democracy isn’t that next step forward.




Share This

© Copyright 2018 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.