Don’t Say That to Me

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Let’s spend some time thinking about pronounciation.

I spelled it that way because that’s how I heard it in a lecture on the subject when I was in high school. It never occurred to the teacher guy that the spelling of a word might conceivably provide a clue to the sound it makes when you say it. And surely, he must have heard somebody say it before, and say it in the obvious way. This also might have given him a clue, but he didn’t pick up on it.

Ironically, most people are too sensitive to comment on your failure to show an ordinary sensitivity to ordinary words.

It’s true, there are words that are hard to avoid mispronouncing. These words are generally shibboleths — entities whose true properties are known only to a few, and whose proper use identifies you as one of that small, that special clan. The story that explains the word is told in Judges 12:5–6. Charm is an implicit celebration of individuality, and most shibboleths have charm. You know that someone’s from Southern Illinois if he pronounces Versailles as VurrrSALES and Cairo as KAYro. You know that someone’s tuned in to the study of British antiquities when she refers to the Ruthwell Cross as the RIVill Cross. And you know that someone is continuing the educated tradition of English pronunciation when he pronounces err as Alexander Pope did when he wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” The word is ur, not air.

You wouldn’t think to look these words up; you probably don’t hear them in conversation; you have to be inducted into their pronunciation by a kindly friend — but that’s charming, isn’t it? No one, however, will take you aside and tell you, “Hey buddy, it’s pronunciation, not pronounciation.” Ironically, most people are too sensitive to comment on your failure to show an ordinary sensitivity to ordinary words.

What would you think — what do you think — when you introduce yourself as Denise Hahn and the person you’re talking to insists on calling you Janis Haines? What do you think, especially, when people who are paid to talk to you — for instance, people who are on the other end of the line in a business conversation — cannot get your name right, despite the fact that you’ve said it and their computer is showing it? You think they have no respect for you as an individual. And you’re right. They also have no respect for the individuality of words. In their minds, their pronunciation is close enough.

This is the Age of Approximation — an age in which even earth scientists can read the word “Arctic” and render it Artic, throughout their careers. I know a university administrator, a very good one, in fact, who never pronounces sophomore as anything other than southmore. These people can read — they read all the time — and they’re not hard of hearing, but Artic and southmore are close enough for them. Speaking of science, news reports rather frequently inform us that scientists at John Hopkins University have discovered such and such. I’m sure that the press release from Johns Hopkins said “Johns Hopkins,” but hey, who can read?

You think they have no respect for you as an individual. And you’re right. They also have no respect for the individuality of words.

This is also the Age of Invention, but not always in a good way; its linguistic inventions are generally shoddy substitutes for things that already existed, and worked. For instance, there are established ways to create a plural in English. We use these tools every day. Ordinarily, you add an “s” to the end of the singular form — or an “es” if the singular ends in “s” or “x.” Simple, right? But for many people, it isn’t simple enough. That’s why we read that “the Trump’s vacationed in Florida.” And that’s why we hear that “the crowd applauded the prinCESSes” — the “-es” addition producing a pointless change of emphasis in the original word. This one goes back a long way; I find it in the newsreel about “the two prinCESSes,” Margaret and Elizabeth (now queen), that appears in an otherwise good film, The Snake Pit (Fox, 1948). PrinCESSes was very common in my fourth-grade readalouds. But every time the mispronunciation happens, it requires a fresh act of invention.

Still more imaginative, though not in a childish way, are current efforts, usually by figures of authority, to turn common English plurals into flashy imitations of such Latinate words as analyses and bases (analiseez, baseez). In these usages the mispronunciation of the last syllable is usually emphasized, to make sure you don’t miss it. On June 18, Christopher Wray, head of the FBI, testified before Congress about biasEEZ in his department’s investigations. Maybe he did it because four days earlier, Ron Hosko, former assistant FBI director, had testified before Tucker Carlson about the biasEEZ of FBI officials; Wray evidently didn’t want to be left behind. It’s notable that Wray was reproved by this column for earlier congressional testimony in which he kept saying “processEEZ,” but he paid no heed, and now he’s at it again.

If you’re confused about it, why not look it up?

English is not an entirely phonetic language, God knows, but there is a logic to it, and certain helpful rules of access, the most important of which is: when in doubt, look it up. And when you do, look at the first pronunciation the dictionary gives you, not the concession-to-bad-taste secondary ones. Awful things happen when such rules are flouted. (Note, not flaunted.) In August, a Pennsylvania grand jury published an elaborate complaint about sex abuse in several dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church. Among the many television and radio reporters I heard on this subject, I encountered no one who had figured out how to pronounce either diocese or dioceses. After pronouncing the first one wrong, they pronounced the second one in the same way: DIohseez. These words are by no means as familiar as process and processes, and their succession of “s” sounds makes them goofy to most ears. It is, however, possible to look them up.

Yet the pressure to talk can be daunting, confusing, bewildering. I’m sorry to say that even the great Rod Serling reacted badly in moments of unnecessary bewilderment. You recall that the Twilight Zone was “a wondrous land, whose boundaries [plural] are that [singular] of imagination.” Well, that’s not a problem of pronunciation; it’s a problem of grammar. But try: “you’re looking at a specie . . .” as Serling says in his introduction to the Twilight Zone episode “People Are Alike All Over.” Unluckily, the singular of species is species; and although saying “a species” may sound funny, phonetically identical singulars and plurals are hardly unknown in English (deer and deer, fish and fish, etc.). If you’re confused about it, why not look it up? To which the answer is, I suppose, Why not just make it up?

There is a whole specie of people who do this. I recently participated in a meeting in which a group chock full of college degrees was discussing the report of a landscape architect regarding the placement of water spigots in a flower garden. (Please don’t ask me how I wandered into that bureaucratic Eden.) Everyone in the room pronounced it spickots. All right; maybe they don’t subscribe to Spigot Industry News, so they’ve never seen the word written out. Does that account for the people who look at my first name and call me SteFAHN? I am doubly cursed, because I live on a street whose name is spelled in the phony British way: Centre. Many people are observant enough to recognize this as a form of Center. They’ve seen it before, or they’ve seen the word theatre, and they can draw an inference. Frequently, however, I am asked, by a native English speaker, to confirm my address “on Sentree Street.” Now, how many words ending in “re” are pronounced as –ree? Does anyone go to a theatree? No. But go ahead, just make it up.

Elders never corrected anyone who called her General. Such people never do.

A more frequent example is lay, as in, “When police arrived, the victim was laying on the bed.” Are all the news writers, as well as all the hillbillies, unacquainted with the look and sound of the common-as-dirt word “lie”? Have they never seen or heard the sentence, “He was lying on the bed”? Has a physician never told them to “lie down on the examining table”? Do they themselves say, “I’m going to lay down now”? Well, maybe they do. And maybe their friends do too. But haven’t they ever read a book?

In other cases the appropriate question would be, “Don’t they have any logic?” Consider the word “royal.” A common English noun. Not one of those troublesome verbs that keep changing all the time: lie, lay, lain — who can remember it? Nobody screws up the pronunciation of royal. So how would you pronounce “battle royal”? In the same way you pronounce “battle” and “royal,” obviously. But that isn’t obvious enough for the leading intellectuals of Fox News, Neil Cavuto and Tucker Carlson, who during the month of May made themselves merry by referring to various political and commercial conflicts as examples of a battle royALE. Whether they were leading or following the pack, I don’t know, but I was soon hearing that peculiar noise on every channel. I noted that some people are now fools enough to spell the phrase that way. I suppose the ultimate source is the James Bond novel Casino Royale, although “royale,” being a French word, is not properly accented on either syllable. RoyALE is a Las Vegas pronunciation. In American, even the big island in Lake Superior is simply Isle ROYal, despite the French spelling.

But I must compliment Neil and Tucker for not going the whole distance and babbling about battle royals, in the way that some people do — the same people who think there are such things as attorney generals, who are to be addressed as General So-and-So. This nonsense originated in the Clinton era, when Joycelyn Elders was the nation’s Surgeon General, wore a uniform (like her idiot predecessor C. Everett Koop), and was routinely addressed on TV as General Elders. She never corrected anyone who called her that. Such people never do. These titles, of course, have nothing to do with the military; they merely signify an official who is in general control of something, and their plural is formed by adding “s” to the noun, where “s’s” always belong: attorneys general, surgeons general, inspectors general. And battles royal. Is that too hard?

But there are authority figures even greater than Pooh and professional readers of the Bible.

The really embarrassing pronunciations are those of people who are trying to display their intelligence. These people know a word or two, and they assume that other words work the same way; they also assume that they themselves are superior, in this wisdom, to all other people. You have probably heard talkers on NPR saying that such and such political figure is the arkenemy of someone else. These people know that archangels are arkangels and therefore believe that all other arches are arks. They do not rest with this sagacity; they feel a duty to employ it widely, rooting arkenemies and even arkbishops out of the most unlikely topics, thereby displaying their remarkable mental powers.

To continue with the religious theme: when I’m driving I sometimes listen to the Bible readings provided by a certain chain of Christian radio stations. These recorded readings were made by a gentleman whose voice reeks with pomposity, but I’m very willing to listen to 20 minutes of Isaiah or Job or the histories of Israel, even if he’s the one who’s reading them. I have to put up with a lot, though. Beneath the pomposity is a real inability to figure out how words are pronounced — not just the hard Bible words but also such puzzlers as “Naphtali,” “Ephraim,” and “Gaza” (“GAZEuh” — as if the GAHza Strip hadn’t been in the news these past three generations). The guy is also baffled by such English terms as “requited,” which comes out of him as “RECKwitted.” Yet the language of the King James version, which his broadcasters properly venerate, isn’t good enough for him; he insists on censoring it. Thus, “one that pisseth against a wall” (which is the definition of “male” in 1 Kings 16:11 and other verses) becomes, in his rendition, “one that watereth against a wall.” Watereth? If Winnie the Pooh undertook to read the Bible, that’s what the text would sound like.

But there are authority figures even greater than Pooh and professional readers of the Bible. In the June 6 edition of Fox’s “Outnumbered,” Newt Gingrich, speaking with a self-complacency suggesting that he always got straight A’s in Vocab, made a point of saying that a certain event “presages” a certain other event. The word is obscure, but useful. Yet he pronounced it preSAGES instead of PRESages, as if anyone who knew the word ever said that something was a preSAGE of something else.

In a genial speech, Villaraigosa said he wasn’t “castigating aspersions” on anyone for his electoral defeat.

How much worse it is when someone’s big, impressive word is just a misunderstanding of how another word is pronounced! This seems to be happening in an article that Professor Jonathan Turley published in The Hill (June 10).

Turley is discussing the important but little-heralded indictment of James Wolfe, former director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who allegedly leaked secret information to his girlfriend, who published it where it would do the most political damage. Turley claims that “one person should be especially discomforted by the indictment: former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe.” McCabe is neither here nor there, but discomforted, used in this sense, plainly results from a failure to understand the phonetics of the word discomfited. To cite a more flamboyant instance: on June 5, Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, took the high road while conceding defeat in his attempt to become the Democratic nominee for governor of California. In a genial speech, Villaraigosa said he wasn’t “castigating aspersions” on anyone for his electoral defeat. Probably he’d never seen casting aspersions in print; probably he’d just heard people say it and assumed that their pronunciation was wrong. Anyway, he could do better, so casting became castigating. Bless his heart.

The hearts I do not bless are those that foster or permit the horrible deformation of the English language known as uptalk. You understand? It’s the kind of speech? that turns every phrase? into something that sounds? like a question? Scorned, at its origins in the 1970s, as the “valley girl dialect,” it proved incapable of taking the hint and crawling back under its rock in Tarzana. It never went away. In fact, it spread. By the 1990s it was as common as ya know. By 2010 it was in general use in news reports and solemn political interviews. I shudder to think what may lie (not lay) ahead. Tomorrow, when I turn on the radio, I may hear a high-church voice intoning, “In the beginning? God? created? the heaven? and the earth?” On my deathbed I may hear, just after the sigh of the last breath leaving my body, the sound of a doctor saying, “Dude? I think he’s dead?”




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What I Learned when My Panera Closed

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On July 10, I walked into my local Panera shop to take out a turkey and avocado sandwich and was told that the place would be closing five days later. I hadn’t been prepared for that.

As you probably know, Panera is a chain of sandwich shops. The menu is limited but tasty. You can take out or eat in, and if you choose the latter, the seating is pretty comfortable. Food is moderately priced. I visited Panera about twice a week, usually to take something out but sometimes to sit down and enjoy one of the small hot breakfast sandwiches — scrambled egg (or over easy) with bacon and cheese.

I have no moral objection to maximizing one’s profits. Yet I remembered what I’d seen in my Panera during its busy hours.

But now I’d have to find another place for such minor pleasures and conveniences, and that wouldn’t be easy. My Panera was only 1,000 steps from where I live. I didn’t want to get up early on Saturday morning and drive someplace for a breakfast sandwich. And if I wanted to get something on my way home, I didn’t feel like driving six miles out of my way, to the now-nearest Panera. My life would change — only a little, but not for better. I liked the people who worked at my Panera, and they liked me enough to give me advance notice of their closing. I was glad to hear that places had been found for them in other Paneras. But I would miss them.

Why was my Panera closing? “We do a good business in the morning and afternoon, but as you know, the place is sort of empty after 6 pm.” All right; I have no moral objection to maximizing one’s profits. Yet I remembered what I’d seen in my Panera during its busy hours.

The knitting club that occupied several tables once or maybe twice a week. The perpetual Scrabble people. Quite a few people meeting for cards. The basically-gay Meet Up every Saturday morning, where anyone could sit around and talk with anyone without fear of embarrassment. The low-income families who regarded Panera as a luxury restaurant. The old lady who infested the place, plumping her bag down at a table and then wandering around finding ways to talk to strangers — complimenting their hairstyles or their boyfriends or their reading matter and generally making herself a nuisance. But who can tell? Maybe the people who were nice to her — and everyone was, except me, who always hid in a book at her close approach — really valued her attentions.

What would happen to her, now that the place was closing? What would happen to the knitters and the Scrabblers and the chatters? Where would they go?

Change happens. Business decisions are made. But the loss of my Panera made me realize, though not for the first time, how precious what they call capitalist business is.

When you drive through the great heartland of America and stop to take a piss or buy a hamburger at McDonald’s, you often find that you’re in the place where the whole town hangs out. If it weren’t for McDonald’s, where would the farmers get together to gripe about their crops? Where would the teenagers woo and scream? Where would the church ladies plot their next fundraiser? Maybe in the church basement, if they were forced to do so. But they’d rather go to McDonald’s.

Before my Panera, there was another restaurant in that space, a very nice Italian restaurant. It moved to another place in town, and I could no longer walk there to eat. So that was a loss. Change happens. Business decisions are made. But the loss of my Panera made me realize, though not for the first time, how precious what they call capitalist business is.

How precious, and how fragile. I know of towns where nearly all the businesses have died. Try being an old person in a town like that, and wanting to go someplace to get some coffee. Or see people you know. To just get out of the house! A capitalist business gives you a way to do all that. In fact, capitalist businesses give you most of the pleasures in your life. Yes, they may go away, but the biggest problem is that when they do, you’re left with the things that won’t go away, which are the non-capitalist businesses. There are towns I know where the only things open are the police station, the DMV, and the welfare bureau.

So that’s what I learned when my Panera closed. Maybe it will be replaced by an even friendlier focus of the neighborhood. I hope so. I hope that the obnoxious old Panera lady will find someplace pleasant to spend her days. If she does, it will almost undoubtedly be because some capitalist wanted her business. And mine.




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Eerie Sounds and Apparitions

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How strange our political people are!

Their strangeness isn’t enough to make their lives interesting. Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, the many Roosevelts — all had fascinating lives, no matter how you assess them. Robert Novak, the political commentator, wrote a fascinating account of his own life. But who wants to read a biography of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Charles Schumer or Nancy Pelosi or Chris Matthews or George F. Will?

Yet such people have the power to create those uncanny moments that shake one’s faith in a rationally comprehensible world. It’s as if one heard a voice from the closet, calling, “Eat more rocks!” What? you wonder. What was that? The voice said what?

Brennan has repeatedly denounced Trump for denouncing people in the same way in which he himself denounces Trump.

On August 18, John Brennan, former CEO of the CIA, said something that has had me reading his words over and over, trying to figure them out — but it just isn’t possible

Since the 2016 election, Brennan has made a lot of statements that were over the top, especially statements about Donald Trump, who failed to reappoint him to any leading office in the secret police. He has repeatedly denounced Trump for denouncing people in the same way in which he himself denounces Trump. Responding to Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, where Trump neglected either to denounce Putin for interference in the 2016 election or to bomb the former Soviet Union back into the Stone Age, Brennan tweeted (July 16):

Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???

That was enough to indicate that although Brennan spent his official life trying to identify people who were committing treason, he has no idea of how treason is defined. (See Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution.) The message showed his incompetence as well as his aptitude for slander. But it was not impossible to understand.

On August 18, however, he went on Rachel Maddow’s show and moved boldly into the realm of the surreal. Maddow noted, quite sensibly, that he had accused Trump of committing treason, but this seemed a new thought to Brennan. Looking, as always, like Zinjanthropus with a bad hair day, he denied that he had done that. Here are his remarks, as transcribed by The Hill:

I did say that it rises to and exceeds the level of high crimes and misdemeanors and nothing short of treasonous, because he had the opportunity there to be able to say to the world that this is something that happened.

And that’s why I said it was nothing short of treasonous. I didn’t mean that he committed treason. But it was a term that I used, nothing short of treasonous.

That speech must have left Maddow feeling pretty woozy; I know it made me that way. As she observed, again quite rationally, “nothing short of treasonous means it’s treason.” “Well,” she said, trying to make some kind of sense out of this, “you didn’t mean that he committed treason, though?” “I said,” Brennan replied, “‘it’s nothing short of treasonous.’ That was the term that I used, yeah.”

The message showed his incompetence as well as his aptitude for slander.

Maddow might disagree with me, but at this point I wondered how many surreal people have infiltrated our government. Plenty, I think. But my worst moment came when I looked at the summary that The Hill, which is a mainstream venue, made of Brennan’s account of his “treason” claim:

Former CIA Director John Brennan said that he didn’t mean President Trump had committed treason when he called Trump’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin “nothing short of treason."

Brennan clarified the comment during an interview Friday, after NBC’s Rachel Maddow said Brennan said the press conference “rose to treason.”

Clarified . . . Clarified? Tell me, isn’t that Rod Serling, standing at the back of the set?




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They Did What to Those Kids?

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The first day of college can be daunting. Will people like me? Will I fit in? That didn’t seem to be a problem when one young man began his first day at New York’s Sullivan College back in 1980. Everyone seemed to know him. “Hey, Eddy!” one guy said, clapping him on the back. “Welcome back, Eddy!” said several others. One girl even greeted him with a big smooch. But there was one problem: his name was Bobby, not Eddy.

Meeting one of Eddy’s best friends, Bobby soon realized that he had a twin brother who, like himself, was adopted as a baby. When a New York paper published an article with the two of them smiling from the front page, a third brother, David, recognized himself in the photograph and soon there were three brothers playfully roughhousing, hugging, “rolling around on the ground” (as one observer described their reunion), and mugging for the cameras. “They looked alike, they walked alike, at times they even talked alike,” to quote the theme song from the old “Patty Duke Show,” as they traveled the talk-show circuit, cut the line at the famous Studio 54, hung out in each other’s homes, and eventually started a restaurant together in Manhattan. The photographs from those early years show three smiling, happy-go-lucky young men frolicking like puppies in their joyful rediscovery of each other.

All three adoptive families wanted to know: how could this happen?

Three Identical Strangers, a documentary about these men, is a fairytale story with the makings of Shakespearean comedy. Three brothers, separated at birth, reunite when two of them enroll at the same college. Madcap misidentification ensues, right? Hayley Mills began her acting career with such a concept in The Parent Trap, and Hollywood has offered various riffs on it since then, from the Olsen twins’ It Takes Two to Schwarzenegger and DeVito in Twins to The Parent Trap reboot with Lindsay Lohan and more. Except that in this story, the protagonists, likeable though they are, do not live happily ever after. This is Shakespearean tragedy, not comedy. And its subject is something that actually happened, in the mid-20th century.

All three adoptive families wanted to know: how could this happen? Who would deliberately separate siblings — identical triplet siblings — at birth? When they confronted the adoption agency, the answer seemed innocuous enough: “Twins are hard to place. Few people want to take more than one.” That was bull, of course; most people dream of the magic of having twins, and many adoptive parents, already concerned about infertility, would jump at the chance for a “two-fer.”

The real story was downright sinister: the boys were part of an experiment to discover whether nature or nurture plays a stronger role in determining personality, intelligence, aptitude, career choices, financial success, and so forth. The boys had been carefully placed, one in a working-class family, one in a middle-class family, and one in an upper-class family, to test how they were affected by their environments. And as an example of how carefully the study was planned, each had an adoptive sister a year older than he who had been placed in the family by the same agency.

Each mother reported that her son would bang his head against the bars of his crib at night, as though he were terribly angry or terribly unhappy.

Several times a year the boys had been visited by researchers from the adoption agency who purported to be studying adoptees in general, but were actually studying identical siblings. These boys weren’t the only siblings in the study who had been separated at birth; there had been several sets of twins, and perhaps other sets of triplets, separated for the purpose of studying them throughout their lives. The study was cut short when it came to light in 1980, and at that point no one really knew how many families were involved, or the results of the study, because the study was — and remains — sealed until 2066.

How were the children affected by the separation? Each mother reported that her son would bang his head against the bars of his crib at night, as though he were terribly angry or terribly unhappy. Director Tim Wardle muses, “What would it be like to share a womb and then a crib, and then suddenly — emptiness?” as old black-and-white film of triplets being cared for in a single crib plays in the background.

What makes this story even more draconian is that the study was devised and conducted by noted child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer, a Freudian who worked closely with Freud’s daughter Anna at the Hampstead Clinic in London. And he was an Austrian refugee from the Holocaust! The triplets were born in 1961, just 16 years after Allied forces liberated the concentration camps from the Nazis and discovered the atrocities that had happened there. Americans were horrified to discover the human experiments that had been conducted by Josef Mengele, including studies he conducted on twins. And come to find out, a similar study was happening in our own backyard, by a Jewish adoption agency and a Jewish psychiatrist. Unbelievable.

From the beginning, the study was laughably flawed.

So which is more important, nature or nurture? At first glance the documentary appears to support nature. Although the three were placed in different socioeconomic conditions, they had uncanny similarities. All three wrestled in high school. All three liked Chinese food. All three were smokers. All three smoked Marlboros. All three had cheerful, devil-may-care personalities. “We sit the same way; we have the same gestures and mannerisms; we finish each other’s sentences,” one explained to Phil Donahue. One pair of twins discovered that they were both editors of their high school newspapers and had both gone to film school. “We have the same mannerisms,” they pointed out during a television interview. Ooh. Spooky. Wrestling and mannerisms must be genetic.

But the documentary comes to the opposite conclusion. David, raised by a jovial working class family, clearly had the happiest childhood and seems to have been the most stable. Eddy, raised by a distant, authoritarian father, became clinically depressed. Bobby, raised by a medical doctor, fits in the middle, not as carefree as David, but not as uptight as Eddy. Obviously, environment plays a greater role than genetics in determining personality and happiness, right? (And evidently, the poorer the environment, the better.)

From the beginning, however, the study was laughably flawed, providing convincing support for neither conclusion. The study was small and far from random. Although no one knows for sure how many twins and triplets were studied, logic tells us that it can’t have been more than a dozen or two, and probably fewer. After all, how many Jewish mothers in New York had twins in the decade following World War II and gave them up for adoption? One journalist was told “six or eight.”

The children’s participation in cognitive testing would have influenced and fundamentally changed the very environment being studied.

Another flaw was in the setup of the experiment. All the children were placed in homes within the New York area, so how diverse could those environments be? Wouldn’t placing one in New York, one in the Midwest, and one in, say, the South of France have provided a better test of environmental factors? Other flaws were introduced by the experimental process itself. The children’s participation in cognitive testing, as the researchers came around every few months, would have influenced and fundamentally changed the very environment being studied. By setting the subjects apart from their school peers, who weren’t receiving this kind of intellectual challenge and focus on mental development, the researchers established a strong common ground among the siblings. Moreover, the similarities in the separated siblings weren’t that unexpected. Young men of a certain build often gravitate toward wrestling; the majority of teenage boys in the ’60s smoked, and Marlboro was one of the most popular brands. And their mannerisms can be described as typical of New Yorkers.

In the end the documentary does as much damage as the original study. The focus on Freudian issues, especially parental influence, comes dangerously close to the argument that overbearing mothers and weak fathers “cause homosexuality,” for example. And suggesting that a father’s parenting style contributed to his son’s suicide is just plain cruel.

The diabolical experiment that separated children from their siblings had no possibility of becoming the landmark study Neubauer had hoped to produce. It was a narcissistic curiosity at best and a tragic example of child abuse at worst. The film, too, is a disappointment. It’s fascinating as a human-interest story, and director Tim Wardle masterfully creates suspense and conspiracy in his storytelling. But, like the study, it’s inadequate as an historical or scientific document. Interesting and voyeuristic, but not a study to be quoted.


Editor's Note: Review of "Three Identical Strangers," directed by Tim Wardle. CNN Films, 2018, 96 minutes.



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The Return of Malthusian Equilibrium

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After the departure of Europeans from their colonies following the end of World War II, the Third World rapidly became tyrannical, and their economies began a long decline. The institutional collapse of the Third World has continued over all these years, except that in the past two decades, from an extremely low base, its economies have improved. This economic growth did not happen because the Third World liberalized its economies or adopted any fundamental cultural change in its societies. What enabled synchronous economic progress over the past two decades in the Third World was the internet and the emergence of China.

Cheap telephony and the internet came into existence in the late ’80s. The internet provided pipelines for the transfer of technology and enabled wage-arbitrage to be exploited. Also, many countries — particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Arica — benefited from the export of resources to gluttonous-for-resources China, the only emerging market I know of, and to the developed world, which contrary to propaganda is economically still by far the fastest growing part of the world.

Cherry-picking countries of subsistence farmers and cattle-herders for propaganda purposes tells you nothing about the sustainability of their growth.

It is hard to believe, but many countries in the Middle East and North Africa peaked economically in the 1970s. Their competitive advantage was oil, not human resources. The per capita real GDPs of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite the fact that they have had a relatively peaceful existence, are about half as large as they were in the ’70s. The situation is similar in Venezuela and to a large extent in Nigeria. Except for the personal use of cellphones, the information technology revolution has simply bypassed these and many other countries.

According to the propaganda — steeped in political correctness — of the international organizations, all the fastest growing economies are in the Third World. But simple primary school mathematics helps cut through this propaganda. Ethiopia is claimed to be among the fastest growing large economies. This is quite a lie. An 8.5% growth rate of Ethiopia on GDP per capita of US$846 translates into growth of a mere US$72 per capita per year. The US economy, with GDP per capita of US$62,152, is 73 times larger, and despite its growth at a seemingly low rate of 2.2%, it currently adds US$1,367 to its per capita GDP — 19 times more than Ethiopia. The situation looks even more unfavorable for Ethiopia if its population explosion of 2.5% per year is considered.

Cherry-picking countries of subsistence farmers and cattle-herders for propaganda purposes tells you nothing about the sustainability of their growth, and certainly does not in any way enable comparison with the developed world.

The developed world is growing much, much faster than the Third World. The only exception is China.

Over the past two decades, the low hanging fruit of economic growth has been plucked in the Third World. South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Africa, and Latin America are now starting to stagnate. As the tide of the economic growth rate recedes, institutional collapse will become more visible. It will be seen on the streets as civic strife. What is happening in Venezuela, Syria, Turkey, Nicaragua, Honduras, Pakistan, Congo, and South Africa — where institutions are collapsing, social fabric is falling apart, and tyranny is raising its ugly head — are not isolated events but part of the evolving Third World pattern. Once its institutions have been destroyed, there will be no going back. They simply cannot be rebuilt.

When one looks at the world map, one realizes that all colonized countries were created in European boardrooms.

On a simplistic organizational chart, institutions in the Third World may look the same as they looked when European colonizers departed, but without reliance on the rule of law, respect for individual rights, and a rational approach to problem solving — all foundational concepts propagated by the West. They have been swamped by tribalism, magical thinking, and arbitrary dogmas and rituals.

Without the foundation of rational, critical thinking, formal education merely burdens the mind. The result is that stress among the so-called educated people in the Third World is growing, and no wonder: formal education, unassimilated, can work only in narrow areas, where all you want is cogs that can do repetitive jobs in corner cubicles, without encouragement or reward for creativity. This is not a future-oriented environment; it is a merely pleasure-centric one, in which people become easy victims of cultural Marxism. Democratic politics devolved into the politics of anti-meritocratic mass rule, destroying any institutions of true self-government.

During my recent visit to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, a young Western girl working for a Western embassy told me that she once went out without her security force. The police stopped her car, and she was fortunate that her security arrived before the police could take her away. The negotiation between police and security was about how much it would take not to rape her. Rape is common in Papua New Guinea, as it is in the rest of the Third World; but because this was a girl working for the embassy, rapists would have had their bones broken the day after. But their bones would have been broken the day after, “too far in the future” to be of much concern.

Without institutions of liberty and protection of private property, financial and intellectual capital does not accumulate.

When one looks at the world map, one realizes that all colonized countries were created in European boardrooms. There was no country of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Congo, or even India before the arrival of Europeans. The people who now run these countries simply do not have the ability or impetus to manage such large societies. They have tribal mentalities, unable to process information outside the visible space. The rulers of modern tribes continuously increase the size of their bureaucracies, but this merely creates overcentralization, the ossification of institutions, and massive, though unseen, systemic risks. Of course, tribalism is irrational, and internecine rivalry a fact of existence that is experienced only on a moment-to-moment basis.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, most of sub-Saharan Africa had no written language and few tools, contrary to popular perception of a pre-colonial utopia. Warfare was the order of the day. Eating flesh and brains of an enemy killed in conflict was practiced from Papua New Guinea, to Africa, to the Americas. Cannibalism is not unknown even today. Contrary to politically correct versions of history, 19th-century colonization was a massive, sudden improvement for many colonized peoples, and a paradigm shifting event for the Third World.

Europeans of the 1940s clearly knew that if they left the Third World, entropy would rapidly ensue, the locals would fail to run their countries, and those countries would implode into tribal units. These wouldn’t be self-managed societies that libertarians dream of, but tribal ones afflicted with internecine warfare. That is indeed where the Third World is heading, and much of it has arrived.

Africa’s population is growing at a faster rate now than it was in 1950.

Without institutions of liberty and protection of private property, financial and intellectual capital does not accumulate. Indeed, the Third World actively destroys or dissipates any material benefit that accrue to it. This happens through war, overconsumption, expansion of the exploiting (ordinarily the governing) class, and the active destruction of capital that one sees in the crime, vandalism, riot, and other means of destroying property that characterize the Third World. Despite their extreme possessiveness, people who destroy the capital of other people fail to maintain their own. In many Third World cities, when there is a day of celebration it is easy to assume that it is the day when employees got their salaries — which disappear by the next morning, drunk away. Capital fails to be protected or accumulated; the rational structure of a productive, thrifty, and prudent culture is not there.

While people in the West are blamed for being materialistic, Third World people are often much more focused on their possessions. The great fleet of servants in India, who are destined to forever remain servants, may earn a mere $100 dollars or less a month, but must have the latest smartphone. For me it is impossible to comprehend how they pay their rent, buy food, and still have some money left to buy a phone; but I remind myself that actually they take loans to buy smartphones and are forever in debt.

And now — the population problem is becoming worse.

Consider Africa alone. Africa’s population in 1950 represented a mere 10% of the world population. By the end of this century Africa, the poorest continent, is predicted to have at least 40% of the world’s people. Africa’s population is growing at a faster rate now than it was in 1950. Given that this rate begins from a much higher base, Africa adds six times more people today than it did in 1950.

More important: in the Third World countries, population control has mostly happened within the relatively more educated, intellectually sophisticated part of society. In Northern India, to cite another example, the unstable, uneducated, chaotic, and backward part of the population is exploding in size. Southern India, which is relatively stable and better off, is falling in population.

With ease of mobility, segregation is picking up its pace. The economically best people of the Third World find it much easier to emigrate than to stay home and fight to make society better, or maintain it in its current state. In 2017 alone, 12% of Turkish millionaires and 16% of Venezuelan millionaires emigrated. So great has been the emigration from India that it is virtually impossible to find a decent plumber or electrician. Forget about finding a good doctor. In a survey, only 30% of Indian doctors could diagnose a simple ailment. Everywhere educated people move to cities, while the rest stay on in rural places. Segregation is real, leaving the underclass with a huge deficit in leaders.

There is also segregation by sector of the economy. As the private sector has evolved in the Third World, government institutions have increasingly become brain-dead, for the best brains now want to work for high salaries in the private sector, leaving state power in the hands of the worst brains. Naturally, people have become very stressed and unsure. As an emotional escape, superstitious rituals and religious-nationalism are increasing exponentially, contributing to the elevation of exploitive, sociopathic elements to positions of power.

Perhaps, payments made to people for having children must stop; instead people should get money not to have children.

It is possible that some parts of the Third World simply cannot be “governed.” A couple of years back I undertook what I consider the most dangerous trip of my life. I went to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on my own. Even for DRC, Goma is a lawless part. The Swedish police I was staying with told me one day that a pregnant woman had been raped, her fetus removed, cooked, and fed to other women of the tribe, who had all been raped. Listening to the stories of celebration of such brutalities in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa, I couldn’t but imagine what I would do if I were forced to run the DRC. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to bring it back to relative sanity without imposing the tyranny — for fear is the only restraint available in the absence of reason — for which Leopold II of Belgium is infamous.

This brings us to the terrible predicament of the Third World. Except for China, the countries of the Third World have failed to develop inner competencies and hence internal reasons to accumulate financial and intellectual capital. They have failed to maintain their institutions, which have continued to decay after the departure of European colonizers. The crumbs of economic benefits — the gifts of western technology — have been dissipated. What can be done? How would you deal with the predicament?

There is no hope unless the vast size of the underclass, who are statistically unable to participate economically, particularly in the age of AI, is reduced. Perhaps, payments made to people for having children must stop; instead people should get money not to have children. Even this first step can only happen if the Third World institutions are changed and rational leaders are imposed. But who will impose them?

The end result is obvious. With time — slowly and then rapidly — the Third World will continue to fall apart institutionally. The Third World will implode. This two-thirds of the world population will fall into tribes that, being irrational, will have no way to resolve disputes. They will enter a phase of neverending warfare, with other tribes and within their own tribes. If there is any surplus left, it will be dissipated through population growth and overconsumption. Ahead there is only entropy and a Malthusian future, mimicking the sad Malthusian equilibrium that existed before the colonizers came.




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The Civic Sacred Cow

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Recently someone left a pile of human shit on the back steps of my building. A neighbor was assaulted by a homeless person in the alley. A clerk at the 7-Eleven tried to get a beggar off the property and was slammed against the wall and threatened; the police said, “Well, you weren’t hurt, were you?” The secretary of a neighborhood church told me she was getting afraid to go to work, since there was always at least one drugged-out man camping on the steps. The front yard of another church was filled with homeless every day and night, often blocking the sidewalks. Fires repeatedly swept through the city property next to the freeway, site of homeless encampments and cookouts. A friend who plays in a women’s softball league complained that the restroom they formerly used in the city park was always occupied by homeless men. At that point, finally, I resolved to do something. The park is in my city council district, not hers.

There began a series of calls and emails between me and numerous city and police officials, in which I mentioned to everyone on the other end of the conversation that cops patrol the neighborhood but do nothing about its obvious problems. The result, finally, was that the invaders were out of the women’s restroom and the church secretary got some temporary assistance in evicting permanent transients from the property. The other problems have not been touched.

If you call to report that your neighbor has parked his car in your driveway, blocking your egress, I doubt that the first thing you hear will be a frosty, “Parking is not a crime.”

My experience can stand for that of thousands of others who have tried to do something about the growing Problem of Homelessness, which in many cities of America is making life miserable for all classes except the rich. The interesting thing to me is that when people call public officials to complain, they are invariably admonished that “homelessness is not a crime.” I was told that too, right off the bat, in every conversation I had.

This seems increasingly peculiar to me. If you call to report that your neighbor has parked his car in your driveway, blocking your egress, I doubt that the first thing you hear will be a frosty, “Parking is not a crime.” Now let’s try it the other way. If you threaten your neighbor, assault him, shit on his steps, camp in his doorway, and occupy, in your nakedness, the restroom of the opposite sex, what will happen to you? You will be arrested, forthwith.

So what’s the difference? The difference is that you are a lowly taxpayer, bound by every rule that anyone can think of; whereas the people who are making your environment annoying, tough, dangerous, or merely sickening are “homeless” and therefore above the law. In fact, they are some of the largest beneficiaries of the law; every community I know of gives them tax-supported aid in innumerable forms. In San Francisco it is about $37,000 per year, per vagrant.

If we lived in a libertarian anarchy, something would still need to be done about this.

As a human being, I feel pity for most of these people, because they are crazy, or addicted to drugs and alcohol. True, many could kick their addictions and submit to treatment for their craziness; they could “take their meds.” But they won’t, and for that I also feel sorry for them, though not nearly as sorry as I feel for the people they happen to rob, kill, and infect with disease. My city has a very large and very good Catholic charity that is able and willing to shelter any homeless person who agrees, essentially, not to be disruptive; the charity’s beds are never fully occupied.

I don’t know how to solve this problem; I wish I could solve all of my own problems. As a libertarian, I would defend anyone’s right to wander on whatever streets he chooses, to drink and smoke and shoot up as much as he wants; all I insist is that he not impose himself on others, occupy their property, ruin their businesses, insult their houses of worship, rob them, threaten them, and appropriate for his own use the things that other people, many of them poor people, have paid for. If we lived in a libertarian anarchy, something would still need to be done about this.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask that city authorities sympathize with me in this dispute. The fact that their default position is that I’m wrong and the “homeless” are right and fully justified by the “law” can hardly be explained on rational grounds, even if we extend “rationality” to mean “honey up to the voters, or they may toss you out on the street.” To insult the voters with moral lectures or sham economic theories (“if housing weren’t so expensive, people wouldn’t need to live on the streets”) is an act of irrationality that can only be explained by the assumption that some mystical, religious value is at stake.

Of course, this isn’t any of the great religions; it’s the little religion of self-righteousness.

And so it is. Our officials now believe that they have a higher obligation to the homeless than to everyone else, the kind of obligation that leads some people to sacrifice their self-interest on behalf of God or the Bible. One of the two major political parties now proclaims, by its every word and action, and particularly in parts of the country where “the homeless” abound, that in any conflict between the voters and the homeless (who do not vote), it will side with the homeless.

Of course, this isn’t any of the great religions; it’s the little religion of self-righteousness. But it has the same effect as certain customs of the great religions. I believe that in some parts of India, cows are still permitted to wander at will through the people’s markets, eating what they will from the merchants’ produce, and, of course, shitting where they will. And why? Those cows are sacred.




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The Boss Finally Discovers the Real Enemies!

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President Trump — The Boss, the man of steel — has an improbable target for his incandescent ire: the Koch brothers, billionaires famous (or infamous, depending upon your political predilections) for funding free-market-oriented Republicans.

What triggered The Boss was the fact that the Koch brothers have refused to support a Trump puppet Republican — one Kevin Cramer — in his fight to defeat Democrat Heidi Heitkamp for the North Dakota Senate seat. The Kochs use a PAC they help fund — Americans for Prosperity, or AFP — to support free-market Republicans. You know traditional liberal free-market thinking: free movement of goods, capital, and labor. That sort of view is antipathetic not just to high taxes and regulation but to protectionism, nativism, and unbounded government spending as well. It once was the defining ideology of the Republican Party (full disclosure here: I have in the past donated to the AFP). Cramer supports “fair trade” (which typically means “trade under tariffs and non-tariff barriers until we have equal trade balances”), and fully backs The Boss’s plan to provide $12 billion in subsidies to American farmers who are casualties in this administration’s worldwide trade war.

Trump played the nativist card by accusing the Kochs of being against “strong borders,” and bragged that he has never needed their money.

The Kochs have launched radio ads opposing this policy of subsidizing farmers to make up for the business they have lost from the tariff war. This lost business is the unseen economic downside of tariffs that protectionists can never quite grasp: tariffs may save some jobs, but they cost other jobs, elsewhere in the economy. When those jobs are lost, you then have to subsidize the people who were screwed over to save the original jobs — hell, you could have just subsidized the original companies that lost jobs!

Besides refusing to back Cramer, the Kochs have indicated that they are looking at several other close Senate races to see whom to support (if anyone).

The Boss is not amused at all this. In one of his signature blitzkrieg tweet attacks, he railed against the Kochs, calling them “globalists” — which is the current epithet that has replaced the old rightest term “cosmopolitans,” meaning people who have no patriotic loyalty to their own country, but only to the world — or their ethnic group spread out around the world, or their secret clan (the Illuminati!). He also called them a “joke in real Republican circles.” He played the nativist card by accusing them of being against “strong borders,” and bragged that he has never needed their money. The boss also crowed that the Koch brothers’ network is “overrated” and claimed, “I have beaten them at every turn.” Naturally, he suggested that the Kochs oppose tariffs because of selfishness: they don’t want their foreign operations taxed.

Oh, those rootless cosmopolitans! Such traitors, and all for money!

All this is insufferably rich. Trump — who has himself made a fair amount of money in business done abroad — is attacking a group of pro-business, pro-free-market Republicans who believe in free trade and balanced budgets. A group, please note, that has been supporting Republican candidates far longer than The Boss — who, until a few years ago, almost always gave his political donations to Democrats, including to “Crooked” Hillary Clinton. And The Boss had no problem with the Kochs’ spending millions to help get his tax bill passed.

This lost business is the unseen economic downside of tariffs that protectionists can never quite grasp: tariffs may save some jobs, but they cost other jobs, elsewhere in the economy.

The Kochs and their AFP organization should be commended for standing on principle and opposing the trade war, increasing government deficits, and nativism that The Boss represents. They were consistent when they supported his drive to cut regulations and taxes, and they are consistent now in opposing his protectionism, nativism, and indifference to deficit spending.

But The Boss, who cannot bring himself to view Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping as enemies, now views these decent Americans as precisely that. This is puzzling, until one recalls Proverbs 29:27, which tells us that “an unjust man is an abomination to the righteous, but one whose way is straight is an abomination to the wicked.” This explains what we see here with perfect clarity.




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Intimations of Immortality

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How Many Branches of Government Do You See?

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Executive, legislative, and judicial — the three branches of government, right? That’s what we learned in school. And it’s true, those are the legally established branches. But they aren’t the only ones.

Defined in a realistic, not a schoolbook way, a branch of government is a political power that is so continuously and firmly influential as both to instigate its own coercive programs and to veto the programs of others, including other branches of government. By this definition, the American government currently consists not of three but of at least six branches.

Generation after generation, the heritage media have advised and staffed the executive branch and have planned and directed public policy.

You can try numbering the branches for yourself, but I would add, to the usual three, the three following: the heritage media, the professional bureaucracy, and the taxpayer-financed social orgs and lobbies.

Start with the heritage media. For countless other organs of pseudo-public opinion, the New York Times and the other historically significant media still identify what is news and how to slant it, what the government is for and what the government should do. Generation after generation, the heritage media have advised and staffed the executive branch and have planned and directed public policy as much as any Secretary of State or Treasury or Health and Human Services could possibly do. So much for the fourth branch of government.

The existence of a fifth branch has been established beyond any possibility of doubt by the past ten years’ revelations of the power, tenacity, and guileful self-confidence of the IRS, FBI, CIA, and other secret agencies. For many years, no president has really been in control of them, and the war between them and the current president has demonstrated that they have the power of veto.

Now for the lobbies and institutional pressure groups, the sixth branch of government. For more than 150 years they have been denounced as a “hidden government,” but now you can drop the “hidden.” Many of them, such as Planned Parenthood, the anti-drug organizations, the anti-smoking organizations, the police and firefighter lobbies, the mental health consortiums, the legal services providers, the farmers’ organizations, the education associations, the “nongovernmental” welfare services groups — you are welcome to expand the list — are supported by taxpayer money, in the form of grants for “research” and “services” and the “training” of the subject population. Others are supported and empowered by their provision of “experienced’ and “professional” staff for government functions, including the writing of laws. They stock the regulatory boards and the credentialing boards; they provide the public service announcements on TV and radio; they provide the press releases recited without skepticism by the comfort animals of the press; they provide the bullet points for the resumes by which politicians try to establish their bona fides. You know the template: “I worked closely with the National Association for X in developing new programs to deal with the grave national problem of Y.” The one thing you can count on is that none of these well-funded, well-placed, and doubtless well-intentioned organizations advocates a smaller role for government.

Regardless of whatever is currently on the list, it seems inevitable that the self-appointed job of any branch of government will be to increase its power at the expense of individual liberty.

If I were writing this 50 years ago, I might have added to the list of branches the labor unions and the churches. But with union membership hovering around 11% and the churches unable to keep either their flocks or their alliances together, both of these would-be branches can be labeled former — and they’re pretty bitter about it, too.

But regardless of whatever is currently on the list, it seems inevitable that the self-appointed job of any branch of government will be to increase its power at the expense of individual liberty. The framers of the Constitution knew that. They therefore designed branches of government that could put the brakes on one another. And, although I’m not aware that the framers said so, it’s the tendency of every large organization to develop its own internal brakes, its own internal dissent and competition. This can also be an aid to the liberty of men and women who want to live their lives without being told what to do.

But how does the situation stand right now? We have an executive branch, personified in Donald Trump, that is better at generating internal dissent and competition than anyone could have dreamed. We have a judicial branch whose members are utterly incapable of reading the same page in the same way. We have a legislature locked in the death struggle between the two great parties, each of which is locked in a death struggle with its own suicidal impulses.

By contrast, the heritage media, the grand array of lobby groups, and the federal bureaucracy are bent on maintaining their power and cohesion until the end, the bitter, bitter end. Bitter for you and me.




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President Corleone

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In late November 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, President Obama was in Peru for the APEC Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Riding in the back of the US presidential limousine with a few of his closest aides, he turned to his longtime advisor, Ben Rhodes, and said, “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”

This struck me as an odd thing for the president to say.

Michael Corleone and Barack Obama would seem to have little in common. To begin with, one is fictitious, the other is not.

It is from Rhodes’ new book, The World as It Is, which I have not yet read. I found it in Peter Baker’s review of the book in The New York Times.

In the following, I will explain why I thought it odd and then mull over why he said it. The purpose of the exercise is to amuse.

* * *

At first glance, Michael Corleone and Barack Obama would seem to have little in common. To begin with, one is fictitious, the other is not. More to the point, the life experiences of Corleone seem to bear little resemblance to those of Obama.

Michael Corleone, as every film buff knows, was not keen to join the Mafia. In his mid-20s, however, he murdered both the drug kingpin and the NYPD captain who had tried to kill his father, Don Vito Corleone, and, badabing, he was in.

Michael has his sister poison a rival don. Michael’s daughter is shot to death. Even the Pope gets whacked.

A few years later, when he became the head of the Corleone crime family, he orchestrated the murders of all his family’s rivals in New York City. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful baptism montage in The Godfather tells the tale. Then, for decades, Michael Corleone controlled the bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder that are the Mafia’s bread and butter. He was cold, cunning, and absolutely ruthless. He even had his brother Fredo murdered.

The scene Obama referenced in his comment to Rhodes is in the final film of the series, The Godfather, Part III. In it, Michael, who had been trying to extricate himself and his immediate family from the world of organized crime by transferring his ill-gotten gains from the rackets to legitimate businesses, has just survived a machine-gun attack from a helicopter arranged by Joey Zaza, who he had personally chosen to take over the Corleone family’s criminal interests. Michael, now about 60 years old and in ill health, stands in his kitchen and wails, “Every time I try to get out . . .they pull me back in.”

The rest of the movie is a series of betrayals, counter-betrayals, and murders. Michael has his sister poison a rival don. Michael’s daughter is shot to death. Even the Pope gets whacked. The trail of corpses only ends when, much later, Michael, broken, forgotten, and alone, falls off his chair, dead.

Obama has no haunting spectre trailing him, no litany of sins hanging over his head.

Now, it is pretty clear what Michael Corleone meant by his comment. He was trying to morph from a shady mafioso into a legitimate businessman, but his criminal past had created underworld entanglements so deeply rooted, so strong, that try as he might, he was never able to break free.

But what did President Obama mean? In what sense did he identify with this tragic figure, Michael Corleone?

President Obama is fit, rich, and relatively young, with a loving wife and family. He can choose from among the endless opportunities available to former presidents, or choose to do nothing at all. He can stay out of the political arena and Washington forever, if he wants to. Hollywood would welcome him. In fact, it already has.

He stepped down from the presidency with his head high, unbowed by scandal. He has no haunting spectre trailing him, no litany of sins hanging over his head. There is no Watergate, no Teheran Hostages, no Iran-Contra, no Monica Lewinsky, no missing WMDs, no Special Counsel to dog his footsteps for the rest of his days. There is no helicopter circling. In fact, some argue that his was an untainted, if not exemplary, presidency. Some even say that his has been a charmed life.

Likening his disappointment with the 2016 election results to Michael Corleone’s torment brings to mind the little boy whose ice cream falls from the cone and splats on the sidewalk. The boy looks at the sky and says, “Why me, God?” OK, that probably goes a little too far, but you get the point.

The remark seems odder because there was a more apt comparison much closer at hand.

In the runup to the election in November of 2000, Bill Clinton’s hand-picked successor, Al Gore, was thought by many to be the favorite. But while Gore won the popular vote, he lost in the Electoral College, some say because of an unfair assist by the Supreme Court. As a result, Bill Clinton had to give the keys to the White House not to his chosen successor but to George W. Bush, who opposed his policies in many areas, among them: taxes, gay rights, energy, abortion, education, the environment, and foreign affairs.

Bill Clinton really did get out, his wife’s career ambitions and the occasional tarmac meeting notwithstanding.

Before the 2016 election, Barack Obama’s chosen successor, Hillary Clinton, was the clear favorite. But while Clinton won the popular vote, she lost in the Electoral College, some say because of Russian help. As a result, Barack Obama had to give the keys to the White House to Donald Trump, who opposed his policies in many areas, among them: taxes, immigrant rights, energy, women’s health, education, the environment, and foreign affairs.

Now, had President Obama said to Rhodes, “I feel like Bill Clinton must have felt when Bush beat Gore,” it would have made perfect sense. True, the bit about “almost getting out” doesn’t quite fit here, in that Bill Clinton really did get out, his wife’s career ambitions and the occasional tarmac meeting notwithstanding. Still, the circumstances are remarkably similar.

But when Obama sought to explain himself to Rhodes, what popped into his mind was not the face of the charming former president whose liberal, if triangulated, legacy had suddenly been put in jeopardy by a more conservative successor. No. When he gazed deeply into the mirror of his consciousness what he saw staring back at him was the tortured face of Michael Corleone.

Go figure.

* * *

While the above should help clarify why I found the president’s comment odd, it does not explain why he made it. Three possible explanations follow.

Peter Baker suggested the first possibility in the NYT review of Rhodes’ book. Here’s the complete line that includes the comment: “In handing over power to someone determined to tear down all he had accomplished, Mr. Obama alluded to The Godfather mafia movie, ‘I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.’

When Obama gazed deeply into the mirror of his consciousness what he saw staring back at him was the tortured face of Michael Corleone.

But in The Godfather, Michael was handing over power to Joey Zaza, his chosen successor. Joey wasn’t trying to tear down anything the Corleone family had built; he just wanted it all for himself, and Michael dead. That’s why Michael couldn’t get out. Am I missing something here? Hillary Clinton was Obama’s hand-picked successor. Is she supposed to be out to get him? Is Donald Trump or some other rival that I’m unaware of trying to keep President Obama from “getting out” of politics? Is there some opponent who’s trying either to assassinate him or to “pull him back” into the political arena? No. This explanation of Obama’s comment just isn’t working.

More importantly, is Baker suggesting that President Obama was equating his own life’s work, fostering peace, justice, and sustainability, with Michael Corleone’s, committing bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder? That doesn’t sound like the kind of analogy that President Obama would encourage, not if he’s proud of his accomplishments. It certainly wouldn’t do much to burnish his legacy. No, Baker’s explanation just doesn’t fit. It lacks verisimilitude.

The second possibility is hypothetical. Given that bending the arc of the moral universe can be very hard work, let’s say that President Obama sometimes resorted to means that ever so slightly trimmed ethical or legal corners in order to achieve the precise curvature that the moral universe seemed to call for at the moment. By employing this hypothetical, we may be able to find a context in which the words that the president uttered in the back of “the Beast” that day in Lima make sense.

Is Baker suggesting that the president was equating his own life’s work, fostering peace, justice, and sustainability, with Michael Corleone’s, committing bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder?

Let’s say that President Obama quietly approved the fix of Hillary Clinton’s illegal handling of classified documents, and her hamhanded attempt to cover it up in order to keep her candidacy alive. Let’s say that he put the desired end, a Democratic successor, on one side of the scale and the means proposed to achieve that end, a political decision not to indict, on the other side, and decided that the greater good would be served by putting the fix in, cut corners and all. When, in spite of the fix, the public’s confidence in Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness plummeted, let’s say that President Obama became more eager than ever that his successor be a fellow Democrat. Let’s say that he approved of an effort to discredit Donald Trump by, among other means, using the fishy DNC-funded Steele dossier to manipulate a judge into allowing surveillance of the Trump campaign. Let’s say that when Donald Trump won the election despite this effort to derail his candidacy the president was concerned.

Let us now imagine how President Obama’s comment might sound in this hypothetical scenario.

A few weeks after the election, President Obama, wearing an immaculately tailored dark suit, was riding in the back of his armored black Cadillac Escalade with a few of his closest aides. He was looking through the five-inch thick bulletproof window. He knew that in order to get Hillary Clinton off the hook and to put Donald Trump on it he had done things worse than the Watergate break in. He also knew that, at that very moment, the effort to conceal those deeds was growing a web of semi-transparent lies that was threatening to ensnare him.

If only Hillary Clinton had won, as everyone had expected, he could have ridden the wave that had elected him twice all the way to the beach. He could have stepped off the board directly onto the sand, a free man. The new president would have had his back and her administration would have been composed of the very people who had helped him to put her in office. He would have been out, scot-free.

He closed his eyes and pressed his right temple to the glass. He realized that he was in a war. He would have to fight or he would end up like Nixon, disgraced. Sitting next to him was his long-time advisor, Ben Rhodes. The president turned to him, sighed, and said, “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”

If only Hillary Clinton had won, as everyone had expected, he could have ridden the wave that had elected him twice all the way to the beach.

The third possibility is not as illogical as the first or as far-fetched as the second. It is this: the president was joking.

Frankly, this is my favorite explanation, in part because it is the least disheartening. No one wants to think ill of the president, do they? And all of that abusing of presidential power for personal gain and self-preservation in the second explanation would make the president seem so grubby, so small. No one wants to believe that possible. People want to think the best of the president, not the worst. Right? I mean, only Vladimir Putin would want the American people to think of their president as a Mafia don.

OK, then. So no one laughed. Maybe Ben Rhodes didn’t get the joke. That’s OK. Apparently, Peter Baker didn’t get it either. But I suspect that if President Obama were asked about it, and he was being perfectly honest, he would admit that he had just been trying to be funny.

Let’s just say.

“Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh man.’ Now they just keep on lying.” — Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, July 17, 2018




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