“I Actually Believe This”

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In politics, if you can’t get attention by saying something sober and judicious, say something bold, even fanciful. I give as an example Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s statement on July 13 that if elected president he would ask soccer player Megan Rapinoe to be his secretary of state.

When some at the Netroots Nation conference laughed, Inslee said, “I actually believe this.”

Really? Secretary of state is a post that has been held by Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, and George Shultz, and before that by John Foster Dulles, Elihu Root, James Madison, and even Thomas Jefferson. All of these folks had some qualifications for the job. Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had been first lady and a senator from New York.

This got Inslee noticed, but I don’t think it’s going to do him much good.

But a soccer player? What’s next — Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson as secretary of defense?

Poor Jay Inslee. He’s stuck at 1% in the polls, and he’s trying to get noticed. This got him noticed, but I don’t think it’s going to do him much good. It merely confirms that he does not have the judgment necessary to be president of the United States.




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Then They Came for the TP

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A few days ago I was thinking about all the pleasures and conveniences of life that alleged environmentalists attempt to deny us, from plastic straws to the ever-useful Styrofoam. There’s even a California legislator who has been agitating to banish paper receipts for retail goods. I said “alleged” environmentalists because the purported danger is usually microscopic compared to the environmentalists’ constant quest for power.

As I mentioned, I was reflecting on these things, and, having just purchased a supply of toilet paper, I was feeling happy that there was no attack on that. In the event of blizzard, flood, or civil disturbance, I might run out of food, but I would not run out of TP.

The next day, my eye fell on one of the most depressing news stories I have seen this year — the Guardian’s alarmed account of how much TP, and unrecycled TP, is being used, and of the voices raised against the practice. Seems that toilet paper is actually made out of trees, which have to be cut down to make it! So something, obviously, has to be done.

Here it was again, this religious aversion to using any kind of resource, and it was asserting itself in a much less polite, much more dangerous way.

I remembered a complaint that a student made to me, several years ago, on the first day of class. I had passed out my syllabus — a paper syllabus — and she politely protested the lack of sustainability in my conduct. When I mentioned to her that trees are renewable resources, she looked at me with glassy eyes. So I clarified my statement: “They grow back.” “What do you mean?” she said. I then explained that people who own the trees make sure that their valuable resource does not run out, that they replant the trees they cut, and that this has been going on for generations, quite successfully. It was clear she did not wish to believe my good news. She said she would check it out.

But here it was again, this religious aversion to using any kind of resource, and it was asserting itself in a much less polite, much more dangerous way. The Guardian cited as an authority a spokesman for the environment, who claimed, among other things:

Only around 30% of the world’s population uses toilet roll, so [emphasis added — dig that crazy logic] we know that there are lots of perfectly hygienic alternatives to using paper-based products. It’s important we consider what we’re using to wipe our behinds with, because at the moment our precious planet is getting a bum deal.

Ha, ha. What a funny pun. I can just imagine what the purported 70% of the world uses instead of toilet paper. I’m sure it’s perfectly hygienic. I’m sure their standards of public health are even higher than our own.

Maybe you’ve noticed: two of the leading signs that a social regime is entering its death throes are a decline in public health and a lack of toilet paper.




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Stories, Good and Bad

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Steve Almond’s latest book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, is the author’s attempt to sort through America’s flaws, as he perceives them, in order to explain the ascendency of President Donald Trump. The rock that gave credibility to his account — the Trump-Putin collusion — has now eroded to mere talus, and Almond’s book stands before the world as just another silly piece of business from the academic left.

Almond is enough of a socialist to recommend the nationalization of the football industry (and that’s going pretty far). In an interview in The Sun (September 2015) he was questioned about his recently published book, Against Football. At one point, the interviewer, David Cook, asks: “Is there anything that would make football worth watching again for you?” In his reply, Almond describes his “dream” of public ownership of the “football industry.” Thus: “The football industry could benefit our communities rather than billionaire owners and sponsors. What would it be like if the teams were publicly owned and the profits were funneled into the public coffers?” And he asks, “Is that such a crazy idea: that this game might help the people who need help the most?”

Almond’s book stands before the world as just another silly piece of business from the academic left.

Bad Stories is premised on the determinist idea that individual minds develop according to the stories to which they’re exposed. Furthermore, bad stories, the ones he sees as flawed or distorted, function to keep the good stories out of circulation. All this comes very close to the traditional socialist preference for a deterministic theory of human character and conduct. As Robert Owen put it, “A man’s character is created for him.” Owenite socialist experiments in America collapsed, one by one, and yet he kept on preaching the socialist faith, and many others have since joined him in resisting reality.

The Great Enlightenment of the 18th century, with its discovery that man, through reason and experiment, could identify chemical elements and synthesize molecules, led some thinkers to believe that they could, through reason, design an ideal society. Breathing this atmosphere, Owen concluded that the social order was all wrong, as did Fourier and such other extremists as Marx and Sorel. The main obstacle between them and the realization of their collectivist dreams was human experience, which included 35,000 years of trial and error. One product of the centuries of ebb and flow was the rise of Western civilization and its slow and costly march toward personal and economic freedom. And thus emerged free-market capitalism with its built-in pricing system, a wondrous instrument that adjusts production and distribution, according to demand. Under socialism, the free-moving pricing system is replaced by a governing bureaucracy — a nonaccountable realm, as James Q. Wilson described it. However much the socialist may rant about a just distribution of wealth, the pricing system carries with it a justice that sensible humans can truly understand — rewards based on the satisfaction of consumer demand.

It’s this form of justice that the socialist cannot abide, for he cannot control it — cannot channel its rewards to those that he, by heaven, believes are the most deserving. Hayek has warned us that personal freedom has never existed without economic freedom. “Fear not,” the socialist might say, “human nature is malleable. People will adjust to the imposed system.” But have they ever done so? And one might ask — if people are all that malleable, how did the socialists dream up socialism?

Owenite socialist experiments in America collapsed, one by one, and yet he kept on preaching the socialist faith, and many others have since joined him in resisting reality.

But here we have Steve Almond, feeling impelled to explain the rise of Donald Trump. He reveals the many reasons he divines, foremost among them being those “bad stories” that “distort our belief system.” Why does he neglect the individual’s reasoning process and the skepticism it can produce — especially in reflecting on political issues? Are individual Americans mere bots, driven now here, now there, by media prompts? The reasons he deduces for victorious Trumpism often involve a mass response to external influences, and these often trace back to capitalism. Consider this partial list: voter suppression, elections held on Tuesday, a disaffected electorate, hostile feelings for the other party, passions of a small minority, white privilege and the petty bourgeoisie, dehumanization, conservative paranoia, lying Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, thirst for entertainment, the sports brain, racism, opposition to social change, Trump’s unbridled aggression, television, the internet, Russian bots, lack of a Fairness Doctrine, the media’s right-wing conspiracy (a laugher), Vladimir Putin, Albanian hackers, and, of course, the Electoral College.

Almond criticizes the right and the alt-right for their paranoia, never showing, through example, how they demonstrate that quality. But his own apocalyptic predictions evince the paranoia he attributes to Trump supporters. One of his preferred literary works when seeking an analogy for Trumpism is Moby-Dick. The novel reeks with Significance. So great is the reek that I’ve wondered whether Melville was only kidding. One of my teachers in college, Professor E.H. Rosenberry, had similar thoughts — consider his book, Melville and the Comic Spirit.

But to Almond, Captain Ahab is “a parable about our national destiny in which the only bulwark against self-inflicted tyranny is the telling of a story.” (A bulwark? — how about the Constitution?) But Trump is more than an inchoate Ahab — he also resembles Kurtz, the antihero in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad himself was a conservative, loyal to his adopted country, and, according to biographer Jeffrey Meyer, congenitally pessimistic. In Kurtz, we discover a smooth-talking reformer, who seeks to civilize a primitive African tribe. He dreams of a heroic reputation, but is drawn into the very culture he hopes to uplift. “The horror! The horror!” are his last words. Is it Almond, not Trump, who resembles Kurtz? But Almond ventures onward — Trump is also the golden calf prayed to by the Israelites. Indeed, he sees Trump as a packhorse for all the tyrannical vices — a bully, a bullshitter, a hollow entertainer who avoids the issues.

Why does he neglect the individual’s reasoning process and the skepticism it can produce — especially in reflecting on political issues?

What issues? Almond hardly mentions intellectual issues. He never details those Russian-hacker smears he complains of, though he spends a great deal of space on Hillary’s emails. When he does address policy issues, he bases his judgments on the immediate interests of his close acquaintances and a woman he found on Vox.com. He mentions the benefits they derived from Obamacare, for example, or from the Obama “stimulus package.” He overlooks the long-term effects of these “benefits” on the country. He believes the voters should worry more about their personal vulnerabilities than about their grievances. Were this a sound principle, the Pilgrims might have stayed home, along with others who sailed the seas to America. Aggrieved by oppression, they risked a long period of vulnerability at sea — for the promise of freedom.

As Almond sees it, Vladimir Putin is still fighting the Cold War. That we won that war is, to Almond, a bad story, even though the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire is an established fact, and America can rightly claim to have carried the day. The author disparages Ronald Reagan as “the star of Bedtime for Bonzo napping in the Oval Office.” And yet, crucial steps toward Cold War victory were taken during the Reagan presidency. The Reagan-inspired arms race, Reagan’s frankly anti-Soviet stance, and his close alliance with the Thatcher government, all contributed to the economic failure of the Soviets and the eventual decision by Gorbachev to release the captive nations. At the time, George Kennan and his containment policy got much of the credit, though the policy had led to the squandering of blood and treasure in winless wars. But Reagan’s contribution was enormous. What was his approach to the Cold War? “We win, they lose,” he said — and we won.

Will Trump initiate a period of American decline? Putin hopes so, according to Almond. So far, Trump’s tax cuts have brought a period of prosperity to America and provided a clear lesson: as an economic stimulus, a tax-cut beats the federal printing press every time. Creating inflation to stimulate the economy is the equivalent of a lie — an economic falsehood. But Almond, the socialist, may well see prosperity as decline — as “late-model capitalism.” And consider this claim by the author: “When our president fumes about NFL player protests, or Confederate monuments, or gun rights, he isn’t just ‘shoring up his base.’ He’s doing Putin’s bidding.” This is fanciful nonsense.

Almond, the socialist, may well see prosperity as decline — as “late-model capitalism.”

Donald Trump is proving of little danger to America. And he will likely alert our people to a true danger — the swing among Democrats toward socialism, a system that has created a procession of disasters, especially during the 20th century. Its popularity on campuses is a monument to the corruption bred by left-academics, and the ignorance they cultivate. An extensive literature of liberty exists in the archives of America and the Western world. But one would hardly suspect its existence, if judged by the state of knowledge of the average college student of today. When colleges and universities accept an enormous tuition, yet keep students in ignorance to preserve their leftist sympathies, they perpetrate a fraud.

Almond’s political ideas are accompanied by a fashionable anti-patriotism. That America is a representative democracy is, to him, a “bad story.” But members of both houses of Congress are elected by the populations of entire states, or of districts within each state — hence we have representative democracy in the legislative branch. The president of the United States is, at present, chosen by electors in each state, the number of each state’s electors being the same as the number of members in its Congressional delegation. The Constitution doesn’t require a direct popular vote for these electors. The system was meant to protect the interests of the less populated states and to produce a careful choice for an office of great potential power. George Washington recognized this power and, after his second term in office, established a precedent by bidding it farewell.

There is something malodorous in the words, something that smacks of mere namecalling.

And yet, Almond views America as “borne [sic] of high ideals and low behaviors, the land of all men are created equal and slave labor. We’ve been engaged in a pitched battle ever since, between greed and generosity, between the comforts of ignorance and the burden of moral knowledge.” This quotation is taken from the final chapter of Bad Stories, one that particularly reveals Almond’s affliction with Trump Derangement. Here, anti-Trumpism reaches the brink of hysteria — environmental protection, civil rights, free trade, public education, health care, are “all heading for bankruptcy.” On the other hand, “the markets for white supremacy, mass shootings, corporate profiteering, and nuclear cataclysm are booming.” And worse, “[Trump’s] aides and allies are mortified by his cognitive deterioration, his inability to read, or concentrate. It becomes more and more obvious that he’s unfit for the office. And yet, the office belongs to him.”

Do Almond’s own words represent a bad story as he defines it — one flawed and distorted? There is something malodorous in the words, something that smacks of mere namecalling. He subjects the man who is now president to an incompetent psychological evaluation. Trump, it seems, “never experienced a sense of being unconditionally loved, what psychologists call attachment. The best he could hope for within his family of origin was to please his domineering father through aggression. Because he never developed an intrinsic sense of self-worth, he can’t protect himself from feelings of inadequacy.” Thus Trump “proved especially captivating to disaffected Americans.” Does this last follow? Or was his appeal simply his departure from the Republican nice-guy-loser pattern — the one pioneered by Tom Dewey and emulated by Messrs. Goldwater, Bush, Dole, McCain, and Romney?

Experience clearly indicates that free-market capitalism is a far more effective system than its rivals. It’s no contest.

Chapter 15 in Bad Stories is entitled “Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses.” This fragment Almond sees as a “bad story.” It’s taken from a sonnet, “The New Colossus,” by the poet Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), a gifted woman. Her poem has been used and abused in debates over immigration, in particular those involving the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. Mencken wrote that the poet doesn’t deal in truth, but rather “conjures up entrancing impossibilities.” Perhaps the Lazarus poem conjures up a beautiful dream, the kind that guides and inspires the living. It bears a touch of early feminism, which ought to fascinate the present-day advocates. But it also contains, not only an invitation to our shores, but the inspiration to seek freedom wherever it’s dreamed of.

Alas, Almond is an apostle of equal outcomes, rather than freedom. I’m amazed that socialism ended up, not as one of Almond’s bad stories, but as a resuscitated grand scheme, or better, a secular faith. The fall of the Soviets after decades of blood and slave labor — despite the cheerleading from Western intellectuals — the rejection of British socialism with its Control of Engagements Order, the move of Scandinavian countries toward a free-market economy, and, much earlier, the failure of virtually all socialist communities in America, all taken together, suggest that maybe socialism isn’t such a good idea. The mass murders in Cuba, the desperate exits of its citizens, and the impoverishment of Venezuela offer more evidence of its futility.

Have you ever seen a more hysterical sentence?

Still, Almond sees capitalism, personified by Donald Trump, as the great evil. It stands in the way of our solving “crises that are beyond empirical doubt.” In his view, these include “climate change, resource depletion, and inequalities of wealth and opportunity, all of which are triggering mass immigrations, political unrest, and violent extremism.” It follows — to him — that we must reject bad stories (which ones?) and place our faith in “reason and empiricism.” Empiricism? But empiricism is the doctrine that the source of all knowledge is experience. And experience clearly indicates that free-market capitalism is a far more effective system than its rivals. It’s no contest.

Resistance to Almond’s collectivist agenda is reflected not only in “a ruthless free market theology” but also in other reactionary attitudes — a “make believe retreat from globalism, a nostalgia for white hegemony.” Worse yet, “our culture lurches about within the shadow of its own extinction, yet lacks the moral imagination to change its moral destiny.” Still worse, “our style of capitalism has acted as a financial centrifuge, perhaps the most brutal aggregator of wealth in human history, built on a foundation of slave labor and fortified by plunder, imperial warfare, the decimation of the labor movement, the predation of Wall Street, [and] the steady subjugation of oversight to private gain.” Have you ever seen a more hysterical sentence? Or one requiring more determined efforts to trace empirical facts about the world’s greatest multiethnic middle-class society back to its supposed causes in plunder and brutality?All this “resistance,” Almond conjures up with little regard for the reason and empiricism he urges on the rest of us.

It seems fair to remind Almond and his admirers that in its two-and-a-half centuries of existence, the United States of America has freed more people from slavery than any country in history. It has taken in tens of millions of immigrants seeking a better life and, through trade and the simple giving of gifts, has spread its bounty around the world. It has lost hundreds of thousands of its bravest sons in battles against the forces of tyranny — and often restored the war-damaged lands.

It’s the very risks, the adventure, involved in living in a free society that fascinate those whose heroic qualities remain unsuppressed.

Perhaps a touch of the sportsmanship in a “sports-brain” would make Almond a better, more reflective writer, as would a closer look at that “ruthless free-market theology.” A “brutal aggregator of wealth” must operate in a system of voluntary exchange. He doesn’t hide his money in the bathtub. He adds it to the river of capital that flows into financing and investments — creating new businesses, new products, new homes, more jobs, and more opportunities for improving the human condition. Is everyone happy in a free-market economy? No, of course not. Would there be greater happiness under any other economic regime? No again. A system that rewards the takers by plundering the producers will only spread misery in the long term. Frédéric Bastiat understood this, and his plain words might well be put in the hands of college students everywhere. He spoke of the “instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty.” Yes, and the struggle reflects those heroic qualities, which, taken together, represent a wonder of this earth — it’s called the human spirit.

It’s the very risks, the adventure, involved in living in a free society that fascinate those whose heroic qualities remain unsuppressed. But will their spirit roam free, or will it suffocate under a system that forces them to abide by a bureaucratic plan? An enforced equality can only be achieved at the expense of the best — the most creative, the most productive, the most in need of liberty. I see nothing in this that shows “moral imagination,” or that will lead to an improved “moral destiny.” And it may place all of us nearer to extinction.

With the exception of Almond’s personal experiences, which might make a decent book, Bad Stories is of little value as a source of truth. But as an example of the fashionable nonsense that passes for truth among the academic Left, it may be very useful indeed — it may lead some heroic individuals to educate young minds properly.

Useful Reading


Editor's Note: Review of "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," by Steve Almond. Red Hen Press, 2018, 257 pages.



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Only Yesterday

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On July 6, 1957, John Lennon and his skiffle band, the Quarrymen, performed at the Crowning of the Rose Queen parade at Woolton Parish Church in Liverpool. Paul McCartney met Lennon backstage between sets and played a few songs, including a medley of Little Richard songs, on his own guitar. Two weeks later John invited Paul to join his band, and in 1960 they changed their name to the Beatles. Ten years after that the band dissolved. It had been the most prolific and profound decade of music writing, producing over 200 original songs on 13 albums and covering nearly 100 songs written by other artists.

I bring this up because today, as I write, is July 6, the anniversary of Paul’s meeting John, and today I happened to see Yesterday, a whimsical film based on their music.

What if Paul hadn’t attended that Rose Queen parade? What if John had become an artist instead of a musician? What if the Beatles had never existed as a musical group? Would the music still exist somehow? Was it their music, or does it belong to the universe?

Ten years after that the band dissolved. It had been the most prolific and profound decade of music writing.

That’s the theme of Yesterday, Danny Boyle’s delightful story of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) a mediocre singer-songwriter who wakes up one day after an unexplained global power outage to discover that no one has heard of the Beatles, and none of their songs exist — except in his own memory. A Google search of Beatles produces nothing but a big black stinkbug. A search for John, Paul, George, and Ringo brings up a wiki article on Pope John Paul. Coca-Cola doesn’t exist either, along with several other modern products we take for granted. Jack’s reactions to the loss of these products, and his friends’ reactions to his requests for them, lead to several delightful moments in the movie.

So what would you do if you discovered you were the only repository of some of the greatest music of the 20th century? Jack is like Guy Montag and the educated tramps at the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — he becomes a living songbook, trying to remember and recreate every song in the Beatles lexicon.

Well, OK — he also performs the songs and accepts the accolades for having written them. He isn’t completely motivated by altruism. Or even a little bit. It’s somewhat galling to hear that these new songs are the best he’s ever written, but he gets over it easily enough. Soon he abandons his lifelong manager and almost girlfriend Ellie (Lily James) for a high-powered LA agent played by a deliciously wicked Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live’s Hillary Clinton), who openly admits to Jack that he will do all the work while she takes all the money — a clear but subtle reference to “Taxman.”

A Google search for John, Paul, George, and Ringo brings up a wiki article on Pope John Paul.

As familiar as he is with the music, Jack struggles to remember the lyrics. “Yesterday” is easy enough. But what about more complex works, such as “Eleanor Rigby” or “Back in the USSR”? We struggle along with him, wryly learning that we can sing along, but we can’t really sing alone. “When does she do that knitting?” he murmurs to himself as he works on recreating “Eleanor Rigby.” “And where does the rice come in?”

Eventually he pulls it together. (Father McKenzie, not Eleanor, does the darning, not knitting. And it’s “a” wedding, not “her” wedding — a significant difference for a song about loneliness. Such is the weakness of memory.)

So while Jack doesn’t actually write the songs he claims as his own, he does exert tremendous effort and labor to recreate the songs. And even then, he doesn’t quite get it right. As he accompanies himself on guitar or keyboard, some of the melodies and harmonies are a little off — intentionally so, I’m sure, to remind us how memory works — or doesn’t. Jack performs the songs as a solo act, and while I liked some of his modernized arrangements, especially his passionate version of “Help,” I missed the harmonies. All of this emphasizes how complex the Beatles’ recordings were, how deceptively simple their harmonies seemed, and how tight they really were, often trading off the melody as they sang.

It’s somewhat galling to hear that these new songs are the best he’s ever written, but he gets over it easily enough.

Boyle’s admiration for the music is apparent in subtle ways — a familiar flute riff in the background in one scene, a whimsical tuba in another, the tornadic crescendo rising to a climax from A Day in the Life as Jack flies into the air during an accident that occurs when the lights go out. Jack is “the lucky man who made the grade” — the chosen one who will “fill the holes” in the music.

So here are the questions I came away with after watching this well-written and solidly acted film:

  • Were the Beatles great because of their music, or was their music great because of the Beatles?
  • Would the Beatles have been so profoundly influential if their later, more experimental works had come first, the way Jack presents them, before their bouncy love songs had cemented their popularity?
  • In short, was the phenomenon of the Beatles as important to their lasting influence as the music itself, or does the music stand on its own?

Another question is whether the Beatles would have been as successful today. The music industry is profoundly different today from what it was 50 years ago. Music is sold (or stolen) piecemeal on iTunes or YouTube and other sites. Musicians make their money on concert tickets and merchandise sales, not music royalties.

Could the Beatles have written more than 200 songs and produced 13 albums if they had been on the road month in and month out? How would the piecemeal nature of today’s music sales have affected their creativity?

The ’60s were a magical time for music, and Boyle suggests through this film that there was something mystical about it as well.

There really wasn’t a “B side” to a Beatles record; nearly all their songs were hits. Their albums were carefully curated so that each track complemented the others. Rubber Soul has a personality distinct from Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s was organized and performed as though it were an actual concert. Fans waited months for the next album to emerge and bought all of them eagerly, listening to each track in the order that was intended. By contrast, Jack feeds his audience all the songs at once, as he remembers them, almost the way we binge on Netflix series, glutting ourselves greedily and then looking around for more, sad that we didn’t savor what we had. As a viewer I couldn’t help but wonder what was going to happen when Jack ran out of songs. By contrast, the ’60s were a magical time for music, and Boyle suggests through this film that there was something mystical about it as well.

Yesterday asks us to consider these questions, but only in passing. The story stands on its own, with a delightful cast of main and supporting characters (Jack’s parents are a hoot!), a sweet love story, and a nostalgic soundtrack. Skip Spider-man’s Homecoming this week and enjoy a little homecoming of your own, reminiscing with the music of Yesterday.


Editor's Note: Review of "Yesterday," directed by Danny Boyle. Universal Pictures, 2019, 116 minutes.



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We're All Turning Into Trust-fund Babies

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No cause is so noble that it won't attract fuggheads (Niven’s Law #17). Which, naturally, brings me to Peter Buttigieg.

Now I don’t want to refer to anybody who holds such an august position as mayor of a middle-sized city in Indiana as a fugghead, but it’s hard to take seriously a man who calls himself “Mayor Pete,” not if he aspires to any position requiring more gravitas than community organizer of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. Still, I think Hizzonor is onto something with his talk about national service.

I know the arguments in opposition; they’ve been well made right here at Liberty — that universal service, whether mandatory or just customary, is a form of slavery. And I yield to no one in my admiration for Lori Heine and Stephen Cox, both as to their talents as writers and the acuity of the thinking that illuminates their writing, but I believe they’re missing an important point about slavery. And citizenship, for that matter. To start with, I don’t think universal service has anything to do with slavery.

It’s hard to take seriously a man who calls himself “Mayor Pete,” not if he aspires to any position requiring more gravitas than community organizer of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Nobody would accuse the citizens of ancient Athens of being slaves. That’s what they had slaves for. The citizens ran the place and elected their leaders and debated in the agora. Some headed up schools of philosophy during business hours, and spent their spare time embarrassing people in the street by asking questions the people couldn’t answer. Socrates was famous for that. He also put in a lot of time in national service. In his case, the infantry. Heavy infantry hoplites fitted out with up to 30 kilos of armor, greaves, shield, spear, sword, helmet. Socrates served in the military, when Athens needed infantry, from his early twenties straight through to his late forties. Close to 30 years: two in training, others disputing against Potidaeans, then Boeotians, and then Spartans.

Here’s why we Americans should care: it was the philosophers who did the fighting, not the slaves, because slaves weren’t citizens, philosophers were, and military service was a badge of citizenship. Even a philosopher who questioned pretty much everything else never asked whether his talents were best suited to the infantry. I don’t know what reasons a middle-aged Socrates would have given for picking up all that gear and heading off to battle time after time, other than that it was his duty as a citizen, but here’s a list of reasons why I think Americans should do national service.

1. The Islam Principle (also applies to academics who can’t get it out of their heads that somewhere, someplace, communism will actually work, members of Kool-Aid cults, people who’ve spent 30 years in psychotherapy, and those who think Hillary Clinton should have another go at the presidency).

Socrates served in the military, when Athens needed infantry, from his early twenties straight through to his late forties.

It doesn’t cost anything to be an American, and it should. There’s a principle in psychology that the more it takes to obtain something the more valuable that something is. Also in economics. You can see this in what people give up to become Muslims: alcohol; bacon; companionable relations with the other sex; the right of women not to be dehumanized by having to wear special costumes when they step out of the house; the right not to dissipate one’s wealth on overpriced trips to Mecca . . . I could go on. It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to know it’s the sense of community that Muslims derive from mutually suffering through this nonsense that gives Islam the strength to resist the otherwise universal solvent of Enlightenment values.

2. Everybody needs a little skin in the game. Not only are Americans not required to serve in our military; 44% of us don’t even pay federal taxes. But we all expect the military to protect us. We expect air-traffic controllers to keep our planes from bumping into things. We expect the FDA to keep our food from killing us. We expect interstate highway bridges not to collapse beneath us. We expect our harbors not to silt up. We expect . . . oh, you get the point. The 44% of us who don’t pay for any of this, and the 93% who never serve in the military, expect it as much as everybody else.

It’s moral hazard. It’s easy come easy go. It’s welfare queens, rentseekers, and trust-fund babies.

3. The Eisenhower Principle. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of the military as an institution. One of the things you learn from having served is how wasteful, how bloated, how bureaucratic, how just plain stupid the military can be, and that’s not a bad thing for our civilian leaders to know from personal experience.

It doesn’t cost anything to be an American, and it should.

Ike didn’t drop the bomb in Korea, and he didn’t drop it all over again when the Red Chinese were threatening Quemoy and Matsu, even though just about every general he talked with was hounding him to do just that. He knew enough about the military, he knew enough about strategic thinking and, especially, he knew enough about military leaders not to be bullied into doing the wrong thing. I’m not saying every candidate for president should be a five-star general, but I am saying that having leaders who’ve spent enough time in the military to know not to take military people too seriously might save a lot of us from some serious incineration down the road.

4. To know, know, know them is to . . . well, if you don’t love all of them, at least the ones you dislike you dislike because they’re jerks. Here’s another principle in psychology: You’re scared of people you don’t know.

In the military you do know them. You know them because you live in a big room with them. I was a white boy from the suburbs of Atlanta bunking with tough, rural whites; a guy who claimed to be connected to one of the New York crime families and might well have been; a guy from Mississippi who said his family were Druids who’d immigrated to America in the 1700s; sharecroppers; northern whites with hideous, aggressive accents who looked like they stole things; a lawyer; a cowboy who called everybody “partner”; a campus cop from the University of Colorado who’d let himself into the room containing photos from Project Bluebook and came away convinced that flying saucers were real; an African-American chemist who went AWOL and never came back; Chicanos who didn’t want us to eat grapes; ghetto blacks who called each other “nigger” and probably had knives to back it up; and an Eskimo. It all seemed very strange.

One of the things you learn from having served is how wasteful, how bloated, how bureaucratic, how just plain stupid the military can be.

It’s remarkable how that changed. By the time I got out of the army we’d become relaxed around each other and funny. We were loud and raucous and sang along with the Righteous Brothers or Creedence or Waylon and worried about what our girlfriends were up to but, mostly, we just wanted to go home . . . all except the chemist, who may have already been home for all anybody knew. I came to admire some, I never liked all of them, but I liked most of them, and I liked some of them a lot. And the ones I didn’t like, I didn’t like because I didn’t like them personally, not as representativesof something or other I’d never met. It’s not just our leaders who need experience in the military; it’s our people who need experience of America.

5. It makes one hell of a gap year (or two). I’m not going to say that I enjoyed every moment I was in the army. There were times, and plenty of them, I would gladly have been almost anywhere else. But that doesn’t mean I’m not glad I did it. I wasn’t even sorry at the time.

For a young man who’d done nothing more exciting than sit in school and keep his mouth shut while people talked at him, the army scratched a primordial itch. Instead of telling me to sit still and listen, the army told me to run around and yell, and the faster I ran and the louder I yelled, the better they liked it. The army gave me a gun to shoot and things to throw that blew up. It sent me to a strange foreign place and gave me a boat to drive. That was fun and interesting and exotic. There were strange foreign people along the river banks and in sampans, and they were interesting and exotic, too. Sometimes, I got to throw things in their direction that blew up and, other times, they tried to blow me up. I can’t say all that was fun, but I sure wasn’t the same person when I came home. And I was glad of that. I especially wasn’t anything like the people who never went, and I’m even gladder about that. I was stronger and more mature, and had seen some of the world and had a pretty good sense of how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, and it didn’t have much to do with what the people who wanted me to sit at desks and be quiet thought I should do. And I’m most glad about that.

6. It would put a stop to store clerks thanking you for your service. Not that this annoys me, exactly, but these thank yous never seem to reek of sincerity. Now, I’m the last one to argue that Home Depot should discontinue its discount for veterans. Ten percent off goes a long way on big-ticket items. It’s just that the store clerks who thank me don’t know whether I ran a typewriter at Fort Dix or a patrol boat on the Saigon River, which doesn’t make me feel like I’m being thanked for anything I specifically did. Mostly the thankyous come across as smarmy, and hints at some kind of psychiatric sugar-coating for people who either feel smug about not having been in the army or secretly wish they’d had a bit more adventure when they were young. At bottom, I’m just not persuaded that anybody should be thanked for serving in the military. Nobody thanks you for paying taxes. Or sitting on a jury. Or voting. Those are duties that come with citizenship.

Instead of telling me to sit still and listen, the army told me to run around and yell.

I’ve been running on about the military, as if that were the only way to accomplish any of this; but, of course, it’s not. For one thing, the military couldn’t accommodate that many people, and God save the republic if it tried. There are plenty of other things our nation needs doing, not the least of which is just doing things together.

7. Life is better when you’re the landowner. Fifteen, twenty years ago I was at an overlook at Bryce when this old guy got out of his car and walked over and admired the trail leading down into the canyon. The trail was wet and sloppy and stuck so thoroughly to your boots from late-season snow that it was like trying to walk in glue, and boy did that old guy love that trail. When he was a teenager he’d been in the Civilian Conservation Corps and he’d built it. “That trail, right there.”

Sixty or so years later he still came to visit it sometimes. His trail, the one we were looking at. That trail, right there. His wife stayed in the car and harrumphed. She’d been through this before. And she’d never been in the CCC.

There are plenty of things our nation needs doing, not the least of which is just doing things together.

OK, I can hear what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Bill? Bill? The CCC? Really? Enough with this collectivist talk.

But I don’t see it that way. It seems to me I’m talking about responsibility, which is as far from collectivism as you can get because collectivists don’t take responsibility for anything, least of all the country they live in. Collectivists expect the country to take responsibility for them. We’re the libertarians. We’re the ones who take responsibility. We take responsibility for ourselves. We take responsibility for the people we care about. And, at least if you’re me, we’re the ones who should take responsibility for our country as a whole . . . because if we leave it up to the collectivists we’re not going to have a country. At least not a country any of us would want to live in.




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Democrats, Debating

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First Day

I did my duty and watched the Democrats’ “debate” on June 26. It was chaos. Two hours of ten candidates, each interrupting the others to delivering rehearsed lines to elicit cheers from the friendly audience. All the while, I’m thinking, “Is it going to be one of these? Please, no.”

Look, I admit that Donald Trump was a ridiculous candidate, unqualified to be president of the United States, and that Barack Obama, two years out of the Illinois legislature, was not fully qualified either. But does that mean qualifications are off the table? Would the Democratic Party really nominate a 44-year-old former secretary of HUD? Or a 46-year-old former member of the House of Representatives who ran for Senate and lost? Three of the candidates in the debate were current House members, but America has not elected a congressman president since the 19th century.

All the while, I’m thinking, “Is it going to be one of these? Please, no.”

We do occasionally elect senators, and I knew of Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. The debate began with Warren declaring that America was a great country for the oil companies, the drug companies, and the insurance companies, but that the game was rigged against the rest of us. The badness of life in America was a common theme. “The economy is not working for the average American,” Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey boomed. “There’s plenty of money in this country,” said New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, whose city includes Wall Street. “It’s just in the wrong hands.”

Really? Is that the reason to reject Donald Trump — that life here is fundamentally unfair? Didn’t life offer about the same measure of fairness under Barack Obama? Has Trump transformed America that much in two and a half years? Apparently so; the debate among Democrats has shifted hugely left, and is now revolving around “social justice.” I use the term in quotation marks — but then, I’m not a Democrat.

Of the ten politicians on the first day, the most articulate, zealous, and dangerous was Elizabeth Warren. When the moderator asked, “Who among you would abolish private health insurance,” her hand shot up immediately, and it was the only one. Warren had no hesitation on any subject except for guns, which she uncharacteristically said needed to be “researched” and was “not an across-the-board problem.” For her, everything else was an across-the-board problem. She knew the solutions she wanted and promised to bite down like a pit bull in order to get them.

Three of the candidates in the debate were current House members, but America has not elected a congressman president since the 19th century.

The closest to Warren that first night was Booker. When it came to “health care for all,” Booker was positively pushy. If Congress wasn’t ready to act when he took office, he said, “I’m not going to wait.” I waited for somebody to ask, “And do what?” but nobody did.

I noted that when the subject came to war, Bill DeBlasio objected that America has “gone to war without Congressional authorization.” I liked that he referred to the Constitution — hardly anyone did — though I recall Barack Obama saying something similar. When politicians get power they like to use it.

The contestants did the usual dodging of questions. The champion evader was the former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who was asked whether he favored a 70% top rate of income tax. He switched to Spanish, and when he returned to English, he had changed the subject. He dodged a question from the former HUD secretary, Julian Castro, who tried to get him on the record about Title 1325 of the US Code. I didn’t know what that was, and I don’t think O’Rourke did, either. When O’Rourke was pitched a question about climate change, he dodged it by talking about his visit to Pacific Junction, Iowa, which had had a flood. O’Rourke was the “I-feel-your-pain” candidate. Some of the others tried it, but he was the master of it. He irritated me more than any of them.

Warren knew the solutions she wanted and promised to bite down like a pit bull in order to get them.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has been cheered by libertarians for her stance against war, was calm and controlled. Not that this is an asset; “fire in the belly” is what wins elections, and she didn’t have much. Maybe it was her military training. Still, when Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio was cornered into saying that America has “to stay engaged” in Afghanistan, Gabbard replied, “We have to bring our troops home.” That was good.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, the climate-change man, bragged about the Evergreen State’s wind turbines and its progress toward “clean” electricity. Washington is my home state, so his bragging doesn’t impress me. Because of our mountains and rivers, we have been able to produce 70% of our electricity from dams, but most of them were in place before Inslee was born, and not one has been built since he was elected. Wind turbines produce 6% of our electricity, but they are federally subsidized and require the dams to ramp up when the wind dies down. Washington does have a strong economy as Inslee said, but it had that before he was elected.

At one point a moderator asked Inslee if his “plan” could save Miami from being flooded by the rising seas. He began a long-winded answer, checked himself and said, “Yes.” It was the most ridiculous promise of the night: Jay Inslee, the man who would hold back the sea.

O’Rourke was the “I-feel-your-pain” candidate, more irritating than any of the rest of them.

Not all the comments among the no-hopers were as goofy as his. After Elizabeth Warren had come out for abolishing private health insurance, Representative John Delaney of Maryland allowed that many people like their private health insurance. “Why,” he asked, “should we be the party of taking things away from people?” Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota made the same point. It was a reasonable one; there is no way any of them, if elected, would be able to do away with private health insurance. It was a night, however, when reasonableness was in short supply and offered mainly by candidates who weren’t going to win.

Second Day

More of the same. I tuned in just as Joe Biden was bloviating about Donald Trump’s “tax cut for the wealthy,” which was followed by Senator Kamala Harris of California going on about the “tax bill that benefited the 1%.” “No,” I thought, “not two hours of this.”

A few minutes later the moderator asked Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont if it wouldn’t be politically wiser to define the Democratic Party as nonsocialist. Sanders dodged the question and declared that Trump is “a pathetic liar and a racist.” Sanders was the only candidate to name Wall Street as the enemy. Regarding the health insurers, he said, elect him and “their day is done.”

It was the most ridiculous promise of the night: Jay Inslee, the man who would hold back the sea.

Sanders promised to cut prescription drug prices in half. This was the outrageous promise of Day Two, though it doesn’t quite match Jay Inslee’s promise to hold back the seas.

Kamala Harris, California’s former chief prosecutor, promised to fight. On immigration, she said that if Congress didn’t offer her a bill granting residence to illegal immigrants who came in as children, and their parents who came in as adults, she would declare it by executive order. Harris also said she would “ban by executive order the importation of assault weapons.”

The other candidate promising executive orders was Sanders, who said he would reverse by executive order every one of Trump’s executive orders.

Later in the debate the moderators asked for a yes-no reply on the question of whether noncitizens who had no papers allowing them to be in the United States should be deported. It was stated that under Barack Obama, three million such people were deported. Not one of the candidates said they supported this. All of them were for letting everyone who made it over the wall stay here, and for giving them free medical care and all the other goods and services to which every American had a “right.”

Sanders was the only candidate to name Wall Street as the enemy.

Harris, whose ancestry is part African, played the race card on white Joe Biden, saying, “I do not believe you are racist,” and then accused him of excusing racism. Clearly this was a prepared missile launched at the principal enemy. Part of it was that Biden had opposed mandatory racial busing sometime in the distant past — opposition to busing apparently being an indisputable mark of Cain. Biden didn’t defend his opposition to busing as such; his reply was that he had favored busing imposed by local authorities but not by the Department of Education.

As the frontrunner — and a guy with a long political record — Joe Biden made a fat target. Sanders lit into him for voting for the Iraq War (which Hillary Clinton had done as well). But that vote was in 2002, 17 years ago, when the Woke Generation was still in Pampers. Biden didn’t bother to defend it, but said, “I don’t think we should have combat troops in Afghanistan.”

Trump said that, too, as I recall.

Among the no-hopers, John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, said the Democratic Party should not label itself socialist, and that it just wouldn’t work to be “guaranteeing everybody a government job.” I liked that, but nobody cared what John Hickenlooper said. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was for taxpayer-funded election campaigns, which would save the nation by “getting money out of politics.” Representative Eric Swalwell of California advocated a federal buyback of assault guns, whether you wanted to sell yours or not. Andrew Yang, the Pie in the Sky candidate, wanted to give every American $1,000 a month, which he said would make people so physically and mentally healthy that it would increase Gross Domestic Product by $700 billion a year. (He really did say this!) And then there was Marianne Williamson, an author of some self-help books that I’d never heard of, but which made the New York Times bestseller list. She wanted to “harness love” to beat Donald Trump in November 2020.

As the frontrunner — and a guy with a long political record — Joe Biden made a fat target.

Finally, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. He also said some things, but I can’t find anything in my notes that makes actual sense.

The one candidate I was eager to hear was Pete Buttigieg. I admit to a certain prejudice against the man, not because he is gay but because the idea of elevating a 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to the office of president of the United States strikes me as a jump too far. South Bend is not much bigger than Yakima, Washington, and for the presidency, age 37 is barely legal. But what the hell . . . Buttigieg did say more sensible things than any of the rest of them.

My first note on Buttigieg was that his version of “Medicare for All” was not forcing everyone to have government insurance — the Sanders-Warren idea — but allowing people without private insurance to buy into a Medicare-like plan. Buttigieg said, “Even in countries that have full socialized medicine like England, they still have a private sector.”

And then there was Marianne Williamson, who wanted to “harness love” to beat Donald Trump in November 2020.

On guns, Buttigieg said he was for universal background checks. That’s all. Noting that he was the only candidate on stage who had trained in military weapons — he served in Afghanistan — he said, “There are weapons that have absolutely no place on America’s streets.” He didn’t say which ones, but it was a reasonable statement.

On the topic of China, Buttigieg, who is from a part of the country not too favorable to world trade, made it clear he did not favor a trade war. “Tariffs are taxes,” he said. His answer to the economic challenge of China was to “invest in our own competitiveness.” I agreed with that, too, though a warning flag goes up when I hear a politician say “invest.”

Still, if I had to vote Democrat, I’d vote for Buttigieg — if I had to vote Democrat.




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