From Facts to Frenzies

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I’m familiar with the philosophical — or perhaps anti-philosophical — idea that the words we use cannot be judged by their relationship to the realities they try to represent, that we all have our own “language,” that language is not representational but expressive, and that the deployment of words creates reality rather than mirroring it. I find this a depressing idea. I would not want to live in one of those incompatible language “worlds.” And I do not believe that I live in one. Except right now.

On August 13, Shepard Smith, one of the ickiest people in the Fox News lineup, “reported” on the sit-in at the Hong Kong airport, and on the minor acts of violence that occurred between protestors and police. “It was an unimaginable occurrence, that police should come into this place at this time,” Smith said. Here is a private language, if there ever was one. In the Smithian tongue, August 13 was a sacred day, a day on which the cosmos prohibited violence; and the Hong Kong airport was the place where, above all other places, violence could never occur. That it did was therefore unimaginable. To me, on the contrary, it was so far from being unimaginable that . . . Look! He was talking about something that we were both watching on the Fox feed from Hong Kong!

You might argue, and you would be right, that the cause of such weird ripples in existence is anything but philosophical; it is, instead, merely rhetorical — an hysterical impulse, chronic in our era, to inflate rhetoric beyond the confines of reality. But you would be wrong to argue that it isn’t important, and isn’t troubling.

Here is a private language, if there ever was one.

People who want to blame President Trump for legitimizing this impulse have some reason to do so. This month, he reached a rhetorical zenith with a series of tweets (August 23) about the trade war with China:

Our Country has lost, stupidly, Trillions of Dollars with China over many years. They have stolen our Intellectual Property at a rate of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year, & they want to continue. I won’t let that happen! We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far … better off without them. The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP.

I’m not an expert on trade, so I don’t know whether we have a level playing field with China. I do know that the way to lower tariffs on both sides is usually to raise or threaten to raise your own. I know that the Chinese appropriate other people’s patents without paying for them. (Whether patents are, on balance, a good idea is another matter.) But I’ve noticed that when people talk about trillions of dollars and vast amounts of money and year after year, for decades, and when they join such terms as made with such terms as stolen so as to shift discussion from the first term to the second, without defining either, they are generally talking through their hats. If you don’t believe me, listen to any speech by Bernie Sanders.

In the next particle of tweet, however, Trump sent the rhetorical escalator through the roof:

Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.

No one, probably not even Trump, believes that he has the power to order anyone to look for new business locations, even if he puts a hereby on the order. The pumped up rhetoric was useless as well as stupid, unless it was intended to wreck the home economy. Trump’s tirade sent the stock market down 623 points.

People who want to blame President Trump for legitimizing this impulse have some reason to do so.

The president’s mad identification with King Canute, who reputedly ordered the tides to halt, had good precedent. Let us return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Barack Obama was the nation’s inspirer in chief. Let us return specifically to June 3, 2008, when Obama celebrated the primary victory that ensured his nomination for the presidency. He told a cheering throng:

Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.

It’s hard to get more inflated than that, short of the millennium. Many people have noticed Obama’s pomposity about extending the life of our planet, but notice that he also proposed to extend our own lives. How else could he foresee that “generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children”?

But let’s look back to Trump. The day on which his rhetoric so dismayed the stock market was just a normal day for other people’s rhetorical attempts to destroy him. That was a day on which his former staffer Anthony Scaramucci likened him to murderous cult leader Jim Jones; Obama honcho David Axelrod tweeted that if Justice Ginsburg leaves the Supreme Court and the administration tries to replace her before the next election, which Trump would surely do, “it will tear this country apart”; and media activist Frederick Joseph observed the death of libertarian philanthropist David Koch by tweeting: “David Koch is gone. It’s a celebration. But imagine the turn up when orange satan is taken back to hell.” He added a video clip of basketball fans madly cheering.

It’s hard to get more inflated than that, short of the millennium.

It’s difficult to get more hateful, or more childish, than this, and a measure of the childishness is that the practitioners of that kind of abuse seem incapable of entertaining the obvious reflection that they themselves may be tearing the country apart, acting like cult demagogues, spitting like storybook Satans, and so forth.

While their volume increases, the scope of their invectives expands, as if they knew that superheated rhetoric quickly eats up its fuel, and more supplies need to be located. New targets must be found, and new ways to abuse them. And so they are. It’s not just Trump who’s fair game; it’s Trump’s supporters. Three years ago they were discovered to be deplorables; then it was noticed that they were abhorrent working-class white males (note how far the Left has moved from its authentic social-democratic roots), white women without college degrees (same comment), and of course racists. And not just racists but (invoking the language of the old Alabama Democratic Party) white supremacists.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much new fuel in that forest. Racism is hard to pin on anyone, even the most deserving objects, when you try to pin it on everyone; and people who want to think they’re smart have been deriding the working class as long as there’s been one. To vary my already mixed metaphors, this is like 18th-century tobacco farming, which involved planting the same crop over and over, until there was nothing left of the land. But people kept trying, and so does . . . Beto O’Rourke.

Practitioners of that kind of abuse seem incapable of entertaining the obvious reflection that they themselves may be tearing the country apart.

O’Rourke lately caused as much of a sensation as is possible for him to cause anymore by suggesting that he didn’t really want to say it (especially when he’s out cadging votes), but yeah, all the people who voted for Trump are racists. On August 11, CNN host Jake Tapper got him on the subject:

“Almost 63 million Americans voted for [Trump]. Do you think it is racist to vote for President Trump in 2020?”

There was a long pause from O’Rourke before he said, “I think it’s really hard.”

But actually, as Walter Williams, who is black, conservative, and funny, remarked, “Being a racist is easy today.” Formerly you had to say or do racist things. The responsibility was on you. Now you can just sit back and let people like Beto confer racism upon you, like an honorary degree.

Be that as it may, I’m going to miss Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke when he shuffles off the mortal coil of his presidential campaign and no longer appears on television, unless by accident, in the crowd watching a frisbee competition. He’s a dependable benchmark for the height of frenzy and the depth of illiteracy that is tolerated in today’s putatively serious discourse. Here’s an example. In another appearance before Jake Tapper (August 4), he affirmed that Trump is not only a “white nationalist” but an “open, avowed racist.” I realize that Beto may have trouble with the meaning of avowed, but I thought that open was not a difficult term. Just for frosting, O’Rourke said that Trump’s ideas, or words, or take your pick, “are reminiscent of something you might hear in the Third Reich.” He instanced Trump’s alleged conviction that people are “inherently defective or dangerous” “based on” several things, including “their sexual orientation.” Right. That’s the Donald Trump who appointed Rick Grenell ambassador to Germany. Grenell has been named, by that august authority, Wikipedia, “the highest ranking openly gay American official ever.”

Let’s move from Betoland to a higher (ahem!) intellectual plateau. On August 25, a professor from Duke University, one Allen Frances, joined the choir of CNN Trump denouncers and showed what happens when professors try to reason. Trump, he said, “needs to be contained, but he needs to be contained by attacking his policies, not his person” — a reasonable reflection, but somewhat odd when it comes immediately after: "Trump is as destructive a person in this century, as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were in the last century. He may be responsible for many more million deaths than they were.” Frances did have compunctions about calling Trump crazy, I think because he wanted to say something very funny and clever about him: "Lumping the mentally ill with Trump is a terrible insult to the mentally ill and they have enough problems." But that didn’t keep Frances from claiming that all the voters are nuts: "Calling Trump crazy hides the fact that we’re crazy, for having elected him and even crazier for allowing his crazy policies to persist."

I realize that Beto may have trouble with the meaning of "avowed," but I thought that "open" was not a difficult term.

Nota bene: This is one of those “we’s” that really mean “you.” You need algebra to get at these high professorial significations, but when you finally grok one of ‘em, wow! What a zinger!

Since Frances is a professor of psychiatry, one may be interested in seeing how he diagnoses mental illness. How can he tell whether you or I or the whole American electorate is “crazy”? It’s simpler than you might have thought. You just look at the policies that people endorse:

"It’s crazy for us to be destroying the climate our children will live in. It’s crazy to be giving tax cuts to the rich that will add trillions of dollars to the debt," Frances added. "It’s crazy to be destroying our democracy by claiming that the press and the courts are the enemy of the people."

I hate to think what he would say if somebody alleged that there may be something goofy about psychiatrists.

Of course, I could go on all day, culling flowers of anti-Trump invective. But even Sleepy Joe Biden, as Trump calls him, is not immune from over-the-top critiques. Every day, his enemies, both Left and Right, are out in the field, hunting for gaffes; and every day, they find them. It would be pleasant for the nation to be permitted to enjoy these things for what they are, the follies of an old fool. But too bad for us: low-decibel chuckling is now impermissible, barely conceivable; moral outrage must always be kicked into life. Thus, when Biden observed, on August 8, that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids," he was widely criticized, as if he himself were a racist. “Look,” he said. “I misspoke,” and that should have been the end of it. Naturally, it wasn’t. And note: when Biden intends to say something mean, it doesn’t just slip out. My favorite example is the charge he leveled against Republicans in a prepared speech on August 14, 2012, before a crowd that included lots of black people. Faking — badly faking — an African American accent, he said, “They gone put y’all back in chains!” Did I indict Trump and Obama for the rise in rhetorical fakery? There’s a lot of responsibility to be shared.

How can he tell whether you or I or the whole American electorate is “crazy”? It’s simpler than you might have thought.

How shall this stuff be contained? Two known correctives for over-stimulated rhetoric are (A) humor and (B) fact. When used, they work. One of this month’s rhetorical events was the ridicule that greeted the remarks of CNN’s Chris Cillizza about the purchase of Alaska (1867). Cillizza, a reliable source of hot air, was reacting to reports of President Trump’s bizarre desire to purchase Greenland. Jazzed by this new opportunity of blaring his opinions — “Donald Trump has a lot of wild ideas as president. Buying Greenland may be one of the most unorthodox. But it's also not one of his worst” (got that?) — Cillizza produced a column adorned with hasty, pointless, wiki-style recaps of history, such as:

One of the last times the United States bought land from a foreign country was in 1867, when Seward orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million. It didn't work out so well — and has gone down as 'Seward's Folly' in the history books.

There were outcries from readers, so CNN — not Cilizza, who had vanished from the scene — issued a revision of the article, annotated in this way:

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly state the history of US land purchases.

The new version says of the Alaska purchase:

It was heavily criticized at the time — and has gone down as “Seward’s Folly” in the history books.

One would like to know what “history book” pronounces this judgment, but never mind. The passage shows how dully conservative, as well as just plain daffy, the notions of “progressive” media can be. Oh horrors, to be joked about in children’s books! And oh horrors, to be heavily criticized at the time — along with medical hygiene, racial equality, women’s right to vote, and other follies.

Nevertheless, the rhetoric had been tempered — a little. Alaska was no longer an unspeakably hopeless case. An island of relative calm had appeared in the sea of verbal frenzy. We’ll see whether an archipelago emerges, and whether anyone is content to live on it.




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Judicial Conscription

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"United States District Court" reads the return address on an envelope I received today.

It is a summons for jury duty.

My honest attitude is, "I'd love to be on a jury," but it is genuinely impossible for me to do so: I have absolutely no transportation, especially to go all the way to Tucson, 65 miles from this front door to the courthouse. Plus, my health is such that, truly, I have trouble walking across a room.

Plus, according to the rules . . . well, let me put it this way: it's easy to see that the government is run by the government.

If one must travel 60 or more miles to answer this summons, one will be allowed to check into certain approved hotels; but one must pay for the room, then present a receipt next day to the PIGs, the Persons In Government, and hope to be reimbursed. Theoretically, one does get reimbursed at a certain rate per mile, but nowhere is there provision for destitute people. And there’s no way that I could pay up to $90, or more, for a hotel room, even if I were able to get there.

It's easy to see that the government is run by the government.

One is "allowed" and in fact urged to respond to the summons via the internet; it's spelled out very pointedly that a mere letter-on-paper asking to be excused will go unheeded. Again no provision for destitute citizens.

So, I'm wondering if my best bet is to ignore the summons completely. To treat it as, 50 years ago, I treated notices from my draft board: chuck it into the barrel.

Then, if some federal PIG, Person In Government, comes to arrest me, I could perhaps expect medical care while in custody.

I'm wondering if my best bet is to treat it as, 50 years ago, I treated notices from my draft board: chuck it into the barrel.

Well, a friend who used to be a nurse in a hospital told me that when police brought a prisoner to the hospital for treatment, they often released him . . . so that the prisoner-patient became responsible for the treatment!

For now, I’m going to look at the "ejuror" site and see just what questions there are and what answers I will be able to give — if, that is, there’s a place for an explanation. Usually, in my experience, one must jump through a bunch of hoops, and over a bunch of hurdles, before getting to a place to explain.

But isn't it wonderful to live in a free country?




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Never the Same Again

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Hong Kong ranks among the freest societies in the world. Not only economically, but socially it is a very liberal place. It was marinated in British ways until 1997, much longer than Singapore and other colonies. Then China took it over as a special administered region, which according to the agreement with the UK meant that it was only nominally to be under Chinese control for the next 50 years. It was possibly the only colony in which a vast majority of citizens did not want the British to go.

For most of the past 22 years, China has been easy on Hong Kong, despite the fact that the People’s Liberation Army’s garrison headquarters is one of the most visible landmarks of Hong Kong island, a constant symbol of the fact that China can fully take over Hong Kong in minutes, if it wants to. This alone is enough to generate fear and hate among the people of Hong Kong. It does not help that they are conscious and made aware every day by the hordes of visiting tourists from China — through what are seen as their rather less sophisticated ways, their rudeness and misbehavior — that a far less developed country of China controls one of the richest societies on the planet.

Nouveaux riches from China buy properties in Hong Kong, driving up prices, their children take up slots in good schools, and they put buying pressure on edible goods, such as milk powder, etc., that have a high risk of being adulterated in China. Or at least this is what the people of Hong Kong think.

The People’s Liberation Army’s garrison headquarters is one of the most visible landmarks of Hong Kong island, a constant symbol of the fact that China can fully take over Hong Kong in minutes.

China has built ultramodern infrastructure in the region. It is now possible to cross the sea from Hong Kong to Macau using the world’s longest bridge, which is 55 kilometers long and cost a whopping $19 billion to build. Bullet trains now run from the heart of Hong Kong to Shenzhen in a mere 15 minutes for a cost of $10, and to Guangzhou in a mere 50 minutes. Shenzhen and Guangzhou are cities that were the fountainhead of the Chinese economic miracle when Deng Xiaoping made them the places for experiments in free-market capitalism in 1979.

The area adjoining Hong Kong continues to be the heart of Chinese manufacturing. It is a hive of energy, activity, progress, and optimism unlike anywhere else on the planet. In many ways, technology is more customer friendly in East Asia than it is in the West. The enormity of this can be appreciated only by those who visit. I often go to China, where I hold a long-term visa, and I go to Hong Kong often enough that I am allowed to pass the immigration eChannel that its citizens use, without a need to talk with any officer.

I am extremely fond of China, and see it as the future of humanity, and certainly as the only Third World country — if at all it can be considered that any more — that has the potential to become a developed society. Culturally and economically, it has been on a rapid upward trend. Chinese today compete with the best in the world, and their creativity has been unleashed. In many areas of research, Chinese organizations produce more quality and quantity of output than any other country on the planet, including the US. The reading habit is increasing rapidly among Chinese. There are tens, perhaps hundreds, of Chinese cities whose downtowns look more modern than those in the most developed parts of the world.

China owes a lot of its growth to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, countries that were able to channel both Western technology, adapted for Chinese culture and language, and Western investments. China became successful by copying Western technology and often improving on it, something that I, unlike others in the West, see as a massive achievement — because copying is not all that easy, as is demonstrated by the failure of the other Third World countries to do the same. China owes its gratitude to the West for enabling this.

I see China as the future of humanity, and certainly as the only Third World country — if at all it can be considered that any more — that has the potential to become a developed society.

Time has moved on, and gratitude has faded, or perhaps it never existed — the concept of national gratitude hardly exists outside the West and Japan. And China’s egocentric president Xi Jinping has inserted his thoughts in the constitution of China, declared himself a lifetime president, implemented a tyrannical social credit system, and taken a heavy-handed policy toward neighboring countries. In his overconfidence, he appears to think that China has arrived and could fight a trade war with the US head-on.

Xi has likely surrounded himself with yesmen and with others too fearful to speak. His arrogance and his distance from the ground realities are weaving a web of entanglements for China. Xi has helped to accentuate a sense of nationalism among Chinese. Out of jealousy and an inferiority complex, Chinese nationalists act big-brotherly toward Taiwan and Hong Kong, both highly developed societies. But in a country where face value is very important, where the central government is the key stabilizing force, and where decisions once taken cannot be easily reversed, Xi cannot afford to look weak. In a country of 1.39 billion people, this has created a massive systemic risk.

Unfortunately, by fuelling nationalism, by engaging in trade war with the US — a war that could have been avoided had he agreed to play fair — by being heavy-handed in contrast to tilting toward the rule of law, and by constantly interfering in Hong Kong, Xi is making China unstable, and at best seriously retarding its progress.

In his overconfidence, Xi appears to think that China has arrived and could fight a trade war with the US head-on.

When in 2014 Xi tried to influence Hong Kong’s electoral process, massive protests arose. Today, Hong Kong again finds itself in the crosshairs of China. The new protests, enormous and intense, are against China’s attempt to institute a law enabling extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China. Xi miscalculated. The protestors have come to conclude that China wants — by hook or by crook — to incorporate Hong Kong fully into China, something the people of Hong Kong are very paranoid about.

Hong Kong people are not like those who were at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The people of Hong Kong lack conditioning in fear-based control. They will fight much longer and harder, and will do everything possible to attract international attention.

According to the agreement that China had with the UK, it was to keep Hong Kong politically independent until 2047. But Xi cannot keep his hands off the golden-egg-laying goose. He and nationalist Chinese fail to understand that Hong Kong under the party’s control will no longer be Hong Kong, and will break one of the major channels of progress for China. But if he has to pull back, the reverberation will embolden those elements within China that want democracy. This is a lose-lose interference — because democracy would be a disaster for China.

Let me explain.

Across the spectrum from the Right to the Left, the people of Hong Kong tend to like the West. Many would have preferred to be continued to be ruled by the UK. They fly the Union Jack or the American flag to show their affiliation. The central theme organizing the protestors is a desire for a democratic process, unrestrained by China.

Hong Kong people are not like those who were at Tiananmen Square in 1989. They will fight much longer and harder, and will do everything possible to attract international attention.

But despite their liking for the West, a large number of people in Hong Kong exist in situations that would not be approved of in the West. Live-in maids who must stay away from their families in Indonesia and the Philippines, lower-class workers who must share a small room, often with the same bed shared among those working in shifts — many examples are possible. They all go against the sensitivities of the egalitarian forces in today’s West. Of course, these people exist because they get a better deal in Hong Kong than they would have where they grew up. Insisting that they get better working conditions would only mean that they would not have a place in Hong Kong and would be forced to stay in their home countries. Life is tough, but the free market offers them the best deal.

Democracy, by igniting populist forces, will destroy this arrangement. Taxes will go up and interference in private property and business — the kind of interference that gets socially generated in a democracy — will significantly reduce the freedoms that make Hong Kong what it is.

Hong Kong has no minimum wages. And, interestingly, wages in Hong Kong go down when the economic situation requires. No doubt there is a huge underclass. In a democratic system, the underclass will vote for economic egalitarianism, exactly what will destroy Hong Kong’s free market — damaging the underclass the most.

But anyway, it is impossible to see Hong Kong becoming democratic. China won’t let that happen. China cannot even afford to find a compromise, for losing face would mean nationalists going against the government, destabilizing China.

Taxes will go up and interference in private property and business will significantly reduce the freedoms that make Hong Kong what it is.

The need of Xi and China not to lose face means that this situation can no longer be disentangled. Given Xi’s constant interference, democratic desire in Hong Kong is going to stay. Several of my friends living in Hong Kong are seriously contemplating moving to Singapore. I myself am investing in property companies in Singapore, but I feel sad that, irrespective of which side wins, Hong Kong will never be the same again.

I go to China often. Chinese people are clearly fearful of discussing politics in the open, often even among friends. I like the fact that they are politically not active and focus on their own circle of influence. They lack the sense of entitlement. They also lack political freedom (which often translates into a sheep expecting the fox to steal from another sheep), but they enjoy social and economic freedoms. Unlike in other poor countries, women walk around feeling mostly safe.

If Xi now gives in, even partially, to the demands of Hong Kong protestors, it will embolden those demanding democracy in China. But a democratic China would be a disaster. It would create entitlements among its people, waste their resources on political activism, and introduce short-term-minded politicians and outright goons to power. Stability would be replaced by political infighting, and with that would also go whatever liberties there are. Measuring liberty is subjective, but I cannot think of a poor country that offers more liberty than China. I certainly feel far freer in China than in India — although the Chinese generally dislike Indians.

Whatever happens, Hong Kong will no longer be the same Hong Kong. Nor will China be the same China. And Xi is responsible for the mess, and for creating massive systemic risks against stability within China. I am a big fan of China and hope it finds a way out. But in retrospect, China would have been much better off never acquiring Hong Kong.




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Strong on the Individual

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With its intellectual A-list cast sporting two comediennes, multiple Oscar nominees, and a writer-director known for his careful character development founded in realism, Where’d You Go, Bernadette promises to be the perfect choice for filmgoers with discriminating taste (if “discriminating” can still be used in a favorable context) I was a little concerned by the 46% critics’ rating, but the 77% viewer approval (and that A-list cast) gave me hope that the critics had missed the point on this one.

Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) lives with her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and teenaged daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) in Seattle, where Elgie works as a software developer for Microsoft and Bernadette is a stay-at-home mom whose eccentric nonconformity drives the other mothers mad at Bee’s tony private school. As the film opens they are planning a family trip to Antarctica, a reward for Bee’s perfect report card, and Bernadette is smiling her agreement while plotting how to avoid going.

The film’s title refers literally to Bernadette’s unexplained absence from home midway through the film, but it also refers figuratively to her lost sense of identity. She is an award-winning architect who has lived for nearly two decades in a peeling, unfinished fixer-upper and uses a virtual assistant in India so she doesn’t have to deal face-to-face with people; a gregarious and affectionate wife who can’t open up to her husband; a homeowner who creates devious acts of microaggression against her neighbors; and a mother who . . . well, mothering seems to be the one things she does joyously and well.

As the film opens they are planning a family trip to Antarctica and Bernadette is smiling her agreement while plotting how to avoid going.

Slowly, gradually, we begin to understand what has made Bernadette so withdrawn, and our sympathy for her deepens. We get it. We even discover that she has a bit in common with Ayn Rand’s architect Howard Roark. But the development is too slow and too gradual to be more than moderately engaging, let alone comedic. Yes, it has deeply ironic moments that cause us to guffaw knowingly, but the pacing is simply too slow, the movie too long, and the delivery too deliberate for most audiences.

Bernadette seems to be delusional or agoraphobic or clinically depressed — or perhaps all three. Blanchett plays them all to perfection, manically discoursing nonstop one moment, retreating into isolation the next, growing loving and affectionate in other scenes. We may not understand her, and we wouldn’t want to live next door to her, but we like her all the same. In sum, she is suffering an identity crisis of enormous proportions.

The film itself suffers from a similar identity crisis. Like its heroine, it pretends to be what others want it to be instead of what it is — a surprisingly upbeat but slow-paced drama about a woman struggling with mental illness and her relationships with the people who love her. Yet if you’ve seen any trailers for the film, you would expect it to be a fast-paced, rollicking, laugh-out-loud comedy. But it’s not, which is probably why critics have given it a pass. It’s as though the marketing team decided to promote what they wanted the film to be, instead of what it is. And that’s a lot of Bernadette’s problem too: she has chosen to suppress what makes her special, including the tragedy in her life, in order to be accepted. And it’s driving her crazy.

Slowly we begin to understand what has made Bernadette so withdrawn, and our sympathy for her deepens. We even discover that she has a bit in common with Ayn Rand’s architect Howard Roark.

Director Richard Linklater deliberately cast against type in order to defy audience expectations and emphasize the message of the film: We can’t really be ourselves when we are trying to satisfy someone else’s expectations. Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig, and Megan Mulally, all titans of smart and sassy comedy, are excellent, but they’re given serious roles, one as a clinical psychologist, one as a former acquaintance, and one as a tight-assed controlling neighbor. And because we expect them to be rollickingly funny, we can’t quite accept them as they are — we make them funny, even when they aren’t. It’s a brilliantly subtle directing decision, but it doesn’t quite work, especially in the face of a marketing campaign that didn’t trust the strategy.

Bernadette failed with the critics for largely the same reason Bernadette fails with her neighbors — it tries to present itself as something it’s not. And it simply isn’t necessary. It doesn’t have to fit a genre. The film has strong characters, strong acting, and a strong message. It may be slow, but that’s OK. My friends don’t have to keep me in stitches all the time, and neither do my movies. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is slow, but it’s worth seeing, and maybe even worth seeing again.

Blinded by the Light is another independent film about discovering and maintaining one’s true identity when others are trying to tell you who you ought to be. Set in the 1980s and inspired by the youthful experiences of writer Javed Khan as a Pakistani growing up in Luton, England, its themes of immigration, racism, culture, and fitting in are as current as yesterday’s Facebook post.

In Springsteen’s music Javed finds his own story: the working-class neighborhood, unemployed father, blue-collar expectations with white-collar dreams, and the raw talent to make them happen.

Javed (Viveik Kalra) lives in a working-class neighborhood in England with his ultratraditional Pakistani family. His father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) left home against his own parents’ wishes in search of a better life for his family in England, but he is extremely traditional in his expectations about family and culture. He controls the money, the social life, and the future plans of his wife and his children. “You will not become British!” he shouts at Javed when Javed asks to attend a neighborhood party. As the film opens they are preparing for their oldest daughter’s marriage to a man she has not yet met. Malik pockets the meager earnings from his hard-working wife and children, commanding respect and control even though he is unemployed himself.

And yet, isn’t “becoming British” – or American, or Texan, or suburban — precisely why immigrants bring their families to a new land? Isn’t it because they like what they have observed and want to take advantage of its success? Yet I see newcomers time and again setting about to change the very culture that attracted them.

At school Javed is picked on and shunned. In the neighborhood he is chased and spat upon. At home he feels isolated and unhappy.

And then he discovers Bruce.

Springsteen may not be the Boss of me, but he certainly became the Boss of his own life, without ever losing sight of his hometown roots.

In Springsteen’s music Javed finds his own story: the working-class neighborhood, unemployed father, blue-collar expectations with white-collar dreams, and the raw talent to make them happen. I’ve never been a big fan of Bruce Springsteen; most of his music is too loud and his raspy voice is too harsh for me. But as The Boss’s lyrics became the soundtrack to Javed’s young life, with key phrases popping onto the screen during key moments, I gained new insights and appreciation for Springsteen as a poet. He may not be the Boss of me, but he certainly became the Boss of his own life, without ever losing sight of his hometown roots.

That’s the key to Javed’s identity too — he discovers how to stand up for himself, follow his own dreams and choose his own path without rejecting his foundation as a Pakistani growing up in working class England. Through the inspiration of Springsteen’s music Javed finds his own voice and a way to embrace both his future and his past.


Editor's Note: Review of "Where’d You Go, Bernadette," directed by Richard Linklater. Annapurna Pictures, 2019, 130 minutes; and "Blinded by the Light," directed by Gurinder Chadha. Bend It Films, Ingenious Media, Levantine Films, Rakija Films, New Line Cinema, Warner Brothers, and a slew of others (Chadha was persistent in getting this film distributed!), 2019, 118 minutes.



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Lori Heine, R.I.P.

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Lori Sue Heine, a beloved contributor to Liberty, died on July 8 at her home in Phoenix. She was 56.

A native of Phoenix, Lori graduated from Grand Canyon University in 1988. She spent much of her life in the insurance industry, but several years ago struck out on her own, working from home on individual projects. Her first contribution to Liberty, "Preaching to the Unconverted," appeared in our May 2010 issue. She was very popular with our readers.

I last heard from Lori in response to messages I sent on June 20 and 22, asking whether she was writing anything for us. She replied in the early morning of June 24: “I'm working on some notes right now for another essay. It should be ready in a few days.” She added that she taking some medication that wasn’t going right: “I've spoken with the doctor and she's prescribing something different. Hopefully it will be an improvement. I expect to be back on track now.”

When you read Lori's essays, you’ll meet an independent thinker, always judicious but always lively, ably projecting an energetic personal style.

In her latest article for Liberty she had criticized presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, pointing out aspects of his ideas that no one else seemed to have noticed. On July 3 I sent her new evidence of his folly, congratulating her on being right. The next day she wrote to me: “I agree. Buttigieg is a couple crab puffs shy of a pu-pu plate. This is shaping into a very entertaining Democratic race.” She mentioned “the circus of amusement,” and wished me a happy Fourth of July.

That message was the last I received.

If you go to Liberty’s Search function and type her name, you’ll find about 80 contributions — a remarkable legacy. Some are responses to items in the news, some are answers to perennial questions, but each of them is as fresh as the day it was written. Lori had the knack of showing how immediate issues are connected with universal principles, and of illustrating universal principles by vivid pictures from ordinary life. When you read her essays, you’ll meet an independent thinker, always judicious but always lively, ably projecting an energetic personal style.

I used the terms “independent” and “personal,” but they aren’t good enough. It’s easy to be independent and personal if that’s all you want to be: just adopt the edgiest position you can, and announce it in the first words that come to you. Lori wouldn’t dream of doing that. She labeled her works “essays” (“Essay #3,” “Essay #5”) because that’s what they were: essays, in the original sense of the word — serious attempts to arrive at truth. Each was an intellectual experience, ripening toward the moment when it could be given its most appropriate name. Yet as you read it, its shape came through right away, clear and sound as a crystal vase.

Lori required very little editing. Good copy is delightful to any editor, but I was particularly interested in Lori’s responses to the few edits I made. She considered them carefully, accepting most but often going beyond them, sending the work back to me with brief but important additions and alterations. They weren’t just fine tunings; they were ways of setting things right at the moment while embarking on the next journey of thought and feeling. It was as if there were one great essay that was always growing out of her experience. When I’d write to her asking whether she might have something for Liberty, she usually replied, “I’ve been thinking . . .”

She labeled her works “essays” because that’s what they were: essays, in the original sense of the word — serious attempts to arrive at truth.

Maybe a crystal vase isn’t exactly the right metaphor, although it’s close. Lori’s essays were shapely, but they weren’t intended to be ornamental; she wanted them to hold water, and they did. Before she sat down at the keyboard, her concepts had already passed a serious examination; then, as the keyboard clicked, they were rigorously interrogated and ruthlessly disciplined. When she was finished, I’m sure she sat back and said, “I think that’s good!” When she started her next essay, I’m sure she said, “I think this will be better!”

Bill Merritt, also a distinguished contributor to Liberty, has said of Lori: “I never met her and didn't know her outside of the pages of Liberty but sometimes one comes to feel like he knows a writer, and I'd come to really admire her, not just for her words, but for the largeness of her . . . soul, for lack of a better word.”

Lori’s political ideas expressed that generous soul. She was a libertarian because, to paraphrase the words of Christ, she wanted people to have life and have it more abundantly. Her most common argument was that both Left and Right have it wrong; their idea of reality is severely constricted, and being so, is blind to at least half the world and its opportunities. For ignorance, prejudice, self-conceit, and meddling she had a noble scorn, but her goal was to persuade both Left and Right, and Libertarians too, that they should grow out of those things. She thought that when they did, they would find that life was good. To paraphrase another literary eminence, she thought they might achieve a just and lasting peace among themselves, and with all others.

As a lesbian Christian, active in the Episcopal church and in gay environments in which libertarian opinion is uncommon, Lori had many opportunities to practice what she preached. She seized them. Detesting the sentimentality and hypocrisy of modern liberals and Progressives, just as she detested the social bigotries of many modern conservatives, she declined to participate in the rituals of any tribe; yet she stayed in there, making good arguments, trying to find common ground, and when not finding it, refusing to have a fit, stage a scene, or make contemporary social life any more miserable than it was already. I believe she was always — to use the military metaphor — left in possession of the field.

Lori was a libertarian because, to paraphrase the words of Christ, she wanted people to have life and have it more abundantly.

Now I will speak more personally. The news of Lori’s death was devastating to me. During the years of our association I had come to depend on her, in several ways. Most obviously, I looked forward to the writing that she regularly, and generously, provided to Liberty. She wasn’t “on contract,” but every three or four weeks, an essay would turn up in my mailbox. If more weeks passed and I hadn’t received an essay, I wrote to her, saying that I knew she had something cooking — and she always did. Something savory, too.

But I didn’t rely just on her writing. I relied on her. Lori was one of those great libertarians — Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson, R.W. Bradford — who delighted in staying up late at night to converse about things that mattered, in a way that mattered: wittily, knowledgeably, and with all of the self engaged. That’s what she did for me, online, during the many late nights of messages that she and I sent back and forth. Often our conversation was about popular culture and our impressions and memories of it — “Wonder Woman”! — and about life in Gay America. Often it was about people’s attitudes to politics and the strange experiences that a normal, rational person (Lori) had in her journey through our weird National Conversations. And often the dialogue turned to religion. Lori was devoutly but unostentatiously religious. As a fellow Episcopalian, I treasured her sharp insights on Christian customs and beliefs, and on the social environment of our church and other churches. I didn’t just treasure them. I looked forward to them, laughed over them, and loved them.

Again, I found that Lori was willing to back her opinions with her daily life. A vigorous opponent of political correctness, she refused to reciprocate the hostility of the politically correct. An advocate of individualism, she made her own decisions and took absolute responsibility for them. A lover of her country, she embodied, in her thoughtfulness and candor, the true ideals of citizenship. A lover of liberty, she gladly granted others not only freedom but also tolerance and understanding. A thinker, she also knew how to write. What more can you want? Only that Lori should still be with us.

In September 2018, Lori’s book Good Clowns was published. It is available from Amazon.




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Nuclear Power: Again, Why Not?

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Those who believe that manmade climate change threatens civilization, and even nature itself, with imminent death should be clamoring for more nuclear energy production, which releases no greenhouse gases. I wrote this recently as part of a longish essay about my nonexpert citizen’s skepticism regarding climate change. I speculated that one reason for the fact that there is no closing of the ranks around nuclear energy is that it’s reputed to be dangerous, especially in view of the possibility of radiation leaks. I also argued that, in spite of this ill fame, it’s difficult to find anywhere evidence of much health damage caused by radiation.

This information scarcity makes it difficult to assess the reasonableness of the widespread avoidance of nuclear energy production. Almost everyone who expresses an opinion dislikes it or is mistrustful of it. Voicing the objection that these unfavorable attitudes are not rooted in evidence either raises the eyebrows of disbelief or triggers the silent charge that you have not looked hard enough (which may, of course, be true).

Soon after writing the essay I just mentioned, I read a new book overflowing with anti-nuclear evidence that moved the hand on my clock some — only a little, but enough — to be worth discussing. The book is Kate Brown’s A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. In any case, if I don’t discuss it, others will, from a predictably laudatory angle, I would bet.

Brown is an engaging writer, though one with baffling lapses, in several languages.

Brown’s thesis is that the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident released more radioactivity, in more places, for longer than the official sources allow, and that many more people’s health was affected, and much more severely, as well as more lastingly, than is openly acknowledged.

Brown is an engaging writer, though one with baffling lapses, in several languages (“tribunal” for “tribune,” “amass” for “mass,” “bales of hay,” for “bales of wool,” to “curate” for to “examine,” “Judenrein” for “Judenfrei”). Although she is a Soviet expert and a reader of Russian, for several pages (p. 184 and on), she confuses perestroika (“deep societal reform” or “restructuring”) with glasnost (informational “opening,” in the sense of increased transparency). And despite the fact that Brown is a tenacious, assiduous, even a formidable, researcher in the service of her thesis (more on this below), several major defects detract from the persuasiveness of her book.

First, Brown is not a neutral investigator, or even a journalist, but unambiguously an activist who hates nuclear anything. Perhaps as a result, she pretty much treats every dissenting voice as part of a long-lasting conspiracy involving Soviet authorities (national and local — no surprise), major UN agencies, and several US federal agencies, to conceal the scale of the ill effects of radiation exposure, as well as the intensity and duration of such exposure. This is not completely unbelievable. I myself think that the deadly climate change narrative is supported at once by local, national, and international government actors, although not within the context of a conspiracy but of a passively shared perception.

But Brown’s overreliance on a conspiracy explanation ends up undermining the credibility she earns by good archival digging. When she adds the International Red Cross to her already rich mix of plotters, my willingness to suspend disbelief vacillates. I don’t see how it cannot. As she continues, it crashes. The main international organization that cites large numbers of radiation victims following the accident is Greenpeace. But Brown herself honestly describes Greenpeace’s attempt to collect data in the Soviet Union as a fiasco.

Second, and possibly fatally for her, Brown straightforwardly imputes increases in mortality and morbidity in the vicinity of Chernobyl to a rise in radioactivity in the region following the reactor’ meltdown. She does this without benefit of baseline estimates regarding either radioactivity or health conditions before the accident. This is a major defect, of course: you may not impute a rise in Y to a rise in X if you cannot demonstrate a rise in X. In a roundabout way, she admits in several places that she cannot demonstrate a rise in radioactivity around Chernobyl or, in fact, anywhere at all, following the accident. She argues — persuasively if you disregard the rest of her book — that hundreds of nuclear weapons tests in the ’50s and ’60s had so overwhelmingly loaded the atmosphere with radioactivity that it may be difficult or impossible to isolate the comparatively modest radioactive emissions from Chernobyl specifically. (See, for example pp. 244–245, for the radioactive saturation following American tests.)

Brown’s overreliance on a conspiracy explanation ends up undermining the credibility she earns by good archival digging.

But it seems to me that if you are unable to measure a rise in X, there is no point in trying to blame it for a rise in Y. And if you believe that X causes Y and you cannot link an actual increase in Y even to an identified increase in X, you may not claim much about anything. Brown thus finds herself in the impossible situation of trying to demonstrate rigorously that something that she argues cannot be assessed (increase in radioactivity) is the cause of something that she loosely measures or that remains unmeasured (rises in illness and in mortality reasonably traceable to radiation exposure).

Third, like many writers with a cause, Brown devotes no attention to possible negative evidence, to evidence against her thesis. She has nothing to say about situations where there should be an excess of pathologies and of mortality — according to her implicit model that enough exposure to radiation must result in noticeable excess morbidity — but none appears. The book is written a little like a scholarly article in which contradiction is pretty much expected, even guaranteed, from other knowledgeable sources, as part of a social process. But for this book, it’s not, for reasons I develop below.

Some of the book’s tangible findings seem defective as soon as you perform a little comparison around them. For example, Brown deals abundantly with rates, including accident rates, of course, before and after the Chernobyl disaster. But she seldom provides absolute numbers, which alone can tell us how much the rates matter. (If I read that the annual rate of suicide among churchgoing southern black grandmothers of five has increased by 100% in one year, I should ask whether it’s gone from 10,000 to 20,000, or from two to four, or even from one to two.) When she does give real numbers, absolute numbers, the effect tends to be underwhelming in ways she does not seem to understand: “eighty new thyroid cancers among 2.5 million Belarusian children . . .” (p. 250). Obviously, that’s hundreds of tragedies for parents and relatives and for the sick children themselves, but it’s not a massive epidemic. Perhaps it’s no more than a counting error.

Here is an indirect but reasonable comparison of orders of magnitude: in 1990, the rate of child mortality for Russia was 2.15% (“Child Mortality,” Max Roser, Our World in Data, May 10, 2019). Applying this rate to Brown’s 2.5 million children gives us a raw number of children’s deaths from all causes of about 54,000. I am sorry, but 80 out of 54,000 is not a big surplus. This comparison assumes that Belarusian children's death rate from all causes after Chernobyl is similar to Russia’s in 1990. This does not seem farfetched. Furthermore, the 80 thyroid cancers Brown reports probably did not all result in deaths, which makes the raw number of 80, blamed on accidental exposure to radioactivity, look even smaller.

When she does give real numbers, absolute numbers, the effect tends to be underwhelming in ways she does not seem to understand.

More strangely, the author treats what I believe is her best causal evidence with near indifference. She mentions in passing two large studies of nuclear plant workers conducted in Europe, in relative openness and under favorable European conditions — studies that convincingly link exposure to radiation to several pathologies (p. 294). To reach skeptics like me, that research should have been presented at the beginning of the book, rather than near the very end. Since it was not, I have to wonder what’s wrong with this research. (It’s probably nothing, but am I expected to confirm the research myself?)

Even the best evidence that Brown collects herself seems relegated to a near afterthought. She reports that the health statistics for areas affected by radiation remain normal-looking until shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the ’90s, when higher figures begin to show up. It’s as if a lid had been removed that constrained the truth. However, there are other possible explanations for this sudden change and its coincidence with the end of Soviet power; Brown spends little time discussing them.

In spite of its serious structural defects, in spite of its inadequate treatment of intriguing data, I am not able to dismiss Manual for Survival . . . not entirely. The main reason is that I am one of those who secretly suspect (against orthodoxy) that a large enough accumulation of anecdotal evidence ceases to be merely anecdotal.

If nothing else, the secretive habits of the Soviet informational first responders at the time pretty much guaranteed that some data were locked up, and others simply not collected.

Brown has performed huge amounts of both field research and archival research, spread over what seems to be 25 years, or even 30 years. Her perseverance is exceptional. Thanks to the quality of her narrative, the reader easily gathers that much of her work was done under adverse conditions, physically and politically. (The thought crossed my mind that I would want Brown on my side in any bar fight.) But, as I said in an opening paragraph, Brown is an activist. She seems to understand the scientific endeavor, but science isn’t her main business. It’s difficult to imagine anyone checking her numerous sources, except perhaps a scholar funded by the nuclear industry. The hire would pretty much have to be a Ukrainian with a very good command of English, because a high proportion of the book references are in Russian, or even in Ukrainian. It’s not going to happen. No one is likely ever to check all her sources — not even a principled sample of her sources, not even a handful.

Yet, I am thinking, a portion of her alarming assertions is probably true, and official sources probably underestimate the health damage caused by the Chernobyl accident. If nothing else, the secretive habits of the Soviet informational first responders at the time pretty much guaranteed that some data were locked up, and others simply not collected. The health lessons that Chernobyl has for today are still necessarily limited. The accident happened in connection with a primitive nuclear technology and under the rule of a political system that was routinely both criminal and mendacious. Since Chernobyl, the nuclear reactor core at Fukushima melted down in the worst possible context of a natural catastrophe. Dissimulation of the health consequences of the Fukushima disaster was unlikely in the relatively open Japanese society. Radiation leaks took place in the midst of a population especially sensitive to such dangers. And yet, not much appears to have happened to anyone’s health that can be linked to radiation.

So, Manual for Survival has moved the needle a little for me — not much, but some. The best way I can express it is this: I would still advocate the replacement of nearly all coal-fueled energy production plants with nuclear plants. I would probably refrain from the same recommendation in connection with relatively clean natural gas plants. That’s because there is no doubt that coal burning pollutes in several ways, irrespective of the reality of the climate change narrative. Natural gas is so clean by contrast that it may not be worth it to take even the slight and poorly demonstrated health risk that may be associated with accidental radiation exposure in order to avoid burning gas.

Her monumental work is largely irrelevant for rationalists, except from a historical viewpoint. It may stand well as another chapter in the sorry history of the Soviet Union.

Of course, if someone whom I thought qualified reviewed Brown’s multiple sources and pronounced them mostly adequate, I would revise my judgment again about the safety of nuclear energy production.

In the end, her monumental work is largely irrelevant for rationalists, except from a historical viewpoint. It may stand well as another chapter in the sorry history of the Soviet Union. The primitive technologies and the incompetent and weak sociopolitical controls of Chernobyl are gone for good. There is a segment in Steven Pinker’s well-documented Enlightenment Now (2018) about both the disadvantages and the overwhelming advantages of nuclear power (pp. 144–150). Why, even climate-change-fixated National Geographic shows a few signs of coming around! Though not many signs: see the short feature on nuclear engineer Leslie Dewan, in the March 2019 issue.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future," by Kate Brown. Norton: New York, 2019. 432 pages.



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Tiananmen Revisited?

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I fear that China is about to crack down on Hong Kong and retake the airport by military force. A crackdown is what it did in June 1989 when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, which they did after a long period of protests during which the government did nothing. China’s leaders finally lost patience and crushed the protests by force. Their descendants show signs of doing the same thing again, particularly when they brand the occupiers of Hong Kong Airport as “terrorists.”

I have just read a piece by Minxin Pei in which he argues that a Tiananmen-type crackdown would cost the government of China too much.

“Hong Kong’s residents would almost certainly treat Chinese government forces as invaders, and mount the fiercest possible resistance,” Pei writes. “The resulting clashes — which would likely produce high numbers of civilian casualties — would mark the official end of the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement, with China’s government forced to assert direct and full control over Hong Kong’s administration.”

Tiananmen's descendants show signs of doing the same thing again, particularly when they brand the occupiers of Hong Kong Airport as “terrorists.”

And that, Pei writes, would cause “an immediate exodus of expats and elites with foreign passports” and of Western businesses, with a “collapse” of Hong Kong’s economy.

I lived in Hong Kong for three years. It was a long time ago, and I may be on shaky ground when I argue with Minxin Pei, but it’s difficult for me to picture the Hong Kong people putting up “the fiercest possible resistance” to the Chinese army. The Hong Kongers are not a military people; they are an unarmed, commercial people. When I was there, they were much less ideological than Americans. Obviously, that’s changed, but by how much? And if Hong Kong’s youth have embraced ideology and activism, what difference can it make now?

Hong Kong was a British colony during most of the 20th century. It had an odd mixture of freedom and capitalism under British common law but with no democracy. The time to have taken to the streets and occupied the airport was in the early 1980s, when the deal to give Hong Kong 50 years of a separate system under China’s sovereignty was being negotiated between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. If the Hong Kong people had shut down the airport and demanded independence, they might have got it from Britain, though it’s doubtful that China would have let them keep it. There is no chance of getting independence from China now.

When I was there, the Hong Kongers were much less ideological than Americans. Obviously, that’s changed, but by how much?

The protesters in Hong Kong want control of Hong Kong by the Hong Kong people. China’s leaders cannot afford to give them that, and they won’t.

Either the protesters give up and leave the airport, or the Chinese Army forcibly evicts them. Either way, they lose.

What, then? If the Chinese army takes the Hong Kong airport and says, “Order is restored, back to work!”, will the Western businesses leave? Maybe a few. The crackdown in Beijing in 1989 created bad publicity all over the world; it caused tens of thousands of Chinese students to stay in the United States, and it kept tourists away from China for a while. It cost China billions of dollars. But look what it bought: no domestic opposition for 30 years. For China’s leaders, it was worth the cost. My bet is that they’ll do it again.

If the Hong Kong people had shut down the airport and demanded independence, they might have got it from Britain. There is no chance of getting independence from China now.

Long term, the biggest question about Hong Kong has been whether its system will remain distinct from China’s or whether the two systems will begin to merge. If China cracks down, an answer to that question will begin to take shape — and it won’t be one the Hong Kong people want.

And what of the United States? Will Donald Trump impose economic sanctions on China? That bolt has already been shot, for all the good it’s done.

I fear the Hong Kong people are on their own.




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Climate Change Denier, Part 2

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In Part I of this two-part feature, Jacques Delacroix began his review of problems with the public presentation of climate research. He continues now.

* * *

Sins Against the Spirit of Science

Now, some objections that have to do with the logic of the overall scientific endeavor. Many or most individual studies of climate change may be well or even perfectly designed. However, there is also an implicit design to the macro endeavor. I mean the large set of scientific studies as arranged in the collective minds of a semi-educated media — their own synthetic presentation of the relevant scientific enterprise. The latter is, of necessity, what most citizens must consume, lacking time and expertise to do anything else. The implicit but very clear design of this synthetic presentation is fatally flawed, impossibly unscientific, lacking even in simple logic.

Many scientists are incapable of keeping themselves on the straight and narrow. Some cheat; many more are overcome by love for the findings they want their hypothesis testing to produce and thus become honestly blinded. To circumvent the regrettable consequences of such love, of such blindness, science invented the diabolical practice of double-blind peer reviewing.

To put this briefly: strangers who remain anonymous throughout, strangers who may be ill-disposed or inimical to the findings the author reports, are put in charge of judging the merits of his submission. In respected journals, those referees are given license, are even encouraged, to devastate the submission, to look for hidden defects, for covered-up bias, for anything they want. Often, the first thing they do is check for faulty design. The knowledge that this could happen to your piece, to your baby, tends to make you prudent, even if it never actually happens. The results of such savagery are not always perfect; some bias does survive. But in general, the results of research that has gone through this savaging process are considerably more trustworthy than those that have not.

Many scientists are incapable of keeping themselves on the straight and narrow. Some cheat; many more are overcome by love for the findings they want their hypothesis testing to produce.

Yet the overarching endeavor of climate change research, the way many research items are put together, the way that most affects decision making, does not benefit from this kind of scrutiny. Although each and every one of the studies that feed into it may be competently reviewed, the general endeavor is allowed to continue with bad design. I’ll explain.

Suppose I am a medical researcher testing a new fever-abating drug. I design an experiment thus: I will take so many feverish patients’ temperatures, administer the medication, and determine that if the patients’ temperature falls after they take the drug, the drug is effective. And if the patients’ temperature rises, I will also consider the drug effective. Should that happen, you would know I was doing something wrong. You would tell me that I had to choose. The drug may have no effect but, if it has one, it either raises or lowers temperature. In general, you can’t have it both ways.

I first heard from the media, including the highbrow media, that rising (manmade) hothouse gases —including CO2 — caused global temperatures to rise. It was called “global warming.” I recognized a familiar causal form: The more X, the more Y. That’s at the heart of the scientific endeavor, of course. Then, I heard on the occasion of several extreme winters somewhere or other that it was also true that the more hothouse gases, the lower the temperatures. I recognized the other familiar form. The more X, the less Y. If memory serves, that’s when “global warming” was replaced by the term “climate change.”

I did not bat much more than an eyelash at the juxtaposition of the two propositions: the more X, the more Y and, the more X, the less Y. That’s because these opposite relationships occur in nature (and also in society), arranged sequentially: If it’s cold in the morning, when the ambient temperature rises, I feel increasingly comfortable; past a certain point, however, as the temperature keeps rising, I feel increasingly uncomfortable.

Then, I was told that rising hothouse gases caused an unlimited number of categories of unpleasant meteorological events judged to be extreme by the unreliable yardstick of individual living memories (almost never with even a simple recourse to easily accessible archives such as those found in local newspapers). At that point — where I am now — the overall representation of aggregate alleged findings looks like this: The more X the more Y, and the more X the less Y, and the more X, the more W, and the more Z, and the more X, the more anything that’s objectionable to believers — all this, without apparent limit.

When you put me in that situation, I think we are outside of reason, in a religious zone, perhaps.

I don’t know for sure if the absurd model above is true to what duly authorized scientists in the relevant disciplines would say. I wouldn’t know how to go about ascertaining this. And frankly, it’s not my job. I am only an alert, fairly well-informed consumer of this sort of information. I can’t even go to the general authority, the IPCC, for an answer. If I don’t understand this organization’s prose when it’s explicitly trying to communicate with laymen (see above, Part 1, under “Lack of Clarity”), surely I can’t explore abstract issues in its scientific reports.

By now, HCC apologists, I have lost faith in your capacity to do simple logic. That’s true no matter how many ad hoc explanations you mention to explain deviations from the starting proposition (the more hothouse gases, the warmer the globe becomes) in addition to the absurd expansion of the overall model I just described. I become especially worried if you seldom discuss this apparently faulty logic. When you put me in that situation, I think we are outside of reason, in a religious zone, perhaps.

Measuring: The Thermometer Problem

Here is another simple but serious technical problem: in science, as when installing draperies at home, it’s very bad practice to switch measuring devices, or measurement procedures, in the middle of the job. That’s because different instruments may give different measurements in ways you don’t know. Take the medical experiment described above. Suppose you take the patients’ temperature rectally before administering the medication, and then take their temperature in the armpit at the end of the period of observation. Anything wrong? The former reading may be systematically higher or lower than the latter.

I have seen serious research published in a respected science magazine (not a scholarly journal) where annual temperatures are measured by reading tree rings (no objection) for most of the 19th century, and by reading scientific instruments from early in the 20th. Anything wrong, this time? Any reason to be suspicious? Surely tree rings are available for the 20th century. Tree ring-based measurements for that period could have been presented side by side with measurements produced with high-tech tools. I mean tree-ring measures in addition to them. It could even have been done in a footnote, or in a technical appendix, or on the magazine’s website, online, to save trees.

Arbitrary Period Sampling

Finally, still in the bad science category; this bad science may be performed mostly by nonscientists who report on what they think are scientific findings; I wouldn’t know. There is a problem of period sampling that plagues public declarations on global warming specifically. It’s conceptually difficult for most people, so don’t feel bad if you don’t grasp it, and just skip this section and move on. This part is not indispensable to the overall demonstration of the weakness of the HCC narrative.

It’s easy to produce every other day some sort of record, for some sort of period.

The February 7, 2019 issue of the Wall Street Journal — not usually a trumpet for the HCC narrative — has an inside page (A3) feature titled, “2018 Was Fourth-Warmest Year Since 1880.” That’s according to data from two federal bureaucracies “which track annual climate change” (“climate” not just temperature?) affirms the article. The feature includes three images covering three different time spans. I have to ask: Why is “fourth warmest” significant? And, especially, why since 1880? What’s special about that year? What would be the ranking of the year 2018 since 1890? Since 1860? Since 1990? Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution? Why not since 1879? What would be lost in the demonstration by choosing this seemingly arbitrary year?

The logic problem is this: give me reasonable variation in the thing being observed and give me enough possible periods of observation, and I can create an impression supporting almost any assertion. The number of separate periods of observation available between 1800 (an artificial date for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) and 2019 veers toward infinity. It’s like this: 1800–1801, 1800–1802; 1802–1803; 1800–1850; 1800–1851, 1852–1873, beginning of 1800 to mid-1800, and so forth. Let’s now limit ourselves to ten-year periods of observation, for some imaginary legitimate scientific reason. The number of resulting periods now available is reduced, but it remains very large, like this: 1800–1809; 1801–1810; 1802–1811, 1803–1812, etc.

With such an abundance of periods of observation to pick from, and with vagueness about what constitutes a record, it’s easy to produce every other day some sort of record, for some sort of period. This looseness allows for massive cherrypicking: “Hottest year in two years, in three years, in the four years between ___ and ___.” What would happen if a contrarian cherrypicked the coldest years for some period of observation chosen to optimize the impression that global temperatures are actually dropping? I myself lived through the two coldest hours in central California in 30 years. Should I contend it’s relevant to something or other? How long does a period of observation have to be, to make it legitimate? Can it be chosen any old way? Is the answer to both questions: whatever suits my purpose?

Well, here we go, from the Wall Street Journal again: “For the first time in at least 132 years, the temperature didn’t hit 70 degrees in downtown Los Angeles, in February.” Global cooling at work! (“California’s Weather Cycles,” unsigned editorial, March 4, 2019.)

It’s well documented that even reputable scholarly journals are often loathe to retract anything.

Of course, the images accompanying the February 7 Wall Street Journal feature — though they are difficult to read together or in conjunction with the story — lend the whole thing an appearance of seriousness, of scientificity (I know I just made up this word; it deserves to exist.) A normal reading of the whole newspaper item by a normally intelligent but normally busy citizen will add some credence to the oft-repeated assertion that there is overwhelming evidence in support of the climate change narrative. It shouldn’t; it doesn’t; it’s just anecdotes until demonstrated otherwise.

I have no objection in principle to declaring contrary events meaningless, like this: the accumulation of CO2 gradually raises global temperatures in the long run. A few extremely cold weeks in the American Midwest in winter, 2018–2019, are just glitches that don’t undermine the validity of the general statement above. Someone has to make the declaration explicitly and also consider publicly the possibility than an extremely hot summer in the US in 2008, or in another year, may likewise be just a glitch — and that the hottest summer on record seems to have occurred in 1936, before the accumulated emission of CO2 was much advanced. I would even expect some respectable spokesperson to contradict aloud the multitude of untrained voices clamoring that two hot summers necessarily prove that climate change, etc.

Missing Links?

Sometimes I wonder if there may be somewhere a piece of research of good quality asserting that most climate scientists are skeptical that there is significant climate change, or that it’s caused by human activity, or that we need to worry about it right now. If there happened to be one such piece, would I know about it? I am pondering the likelihood that it would come to my attention without my actively looking for it. There is a good place to look: the contrarian website Watts Up With That. The website is presented on Wikipedia in mostly derogatory terms. Why would that be? Seekers of balance may be outnumbered and not be able to keep up with “crowd” contributed changes in the relevant Wikipedia entry or entries, changes that nearly anyone can effect. Note that this scenario does not require a conventional conspiracy, just plural enthusiasm.

I also ask myself what is the probability that such a piece of research could actually be published in any refereed journal, with all the advantages such publication confers in terms of credibility. I have to ask, for two reasons. The first is that refereed journals have a well-documented anti-negative bias. Other things being equal, a submission that claims that something happens has a better chance of making it through the refereeing process than one that announces that, on the contrary, nothing of the sort happens.

I am impressed, both from my research experience, and from daily life, with most people’s bad memory and by the ease with which they are influenced.

Here is my second reason to doubt: I suspect there exists a well-established, high-brow, politically correct orthodoxy that makes it difficult to consider, process, and finally accept even a very well-constructed scholarly paper denying the reality, source, or importance of climate change. It’s well documented that even reputable scholarly journals are often loathe to retract anything. This is true even when they don’t object to the reasons for which the retraction is requested. (See, for example, “Confirmation Bias Hurts Social Science,” by Robert P. George, Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2019, A15.)

I spent 30 years in American academia. I have witnessed there the construction of intellectual orthodoxies from their earliest beginnings. I have suffered from some of them (not much), and I may have benefited from one. It happened in and around the discipline of sociology — which has a reputation for being soft, it’s true, though it’s a reputation that has not been much deserved for 30 years. I am not pointing here to the kind of cynical publication conspiracy I evoke elsewhere but to smaller, more tacit cultural movements within academic subspecialties. Such orthodoxies regularly emerge spontaneously and aboveboard. They do not require bad consciousness from believers. Some may even be inherently virtuous.

So, if I were not a skeptic, I would have to believe that given its scarcity in scholarly journals there is no good research on the other side of the HCC narrative divide regarding the credibility of all, or even of part, of this narrative. Is this possible, I ask? It seems to me that to raise the question is to answer it. This section is somewhat subjective. I don’t expect it directly to change anyone’s mind. It’s useful to raise the issue though. At least it can hurt no one, except the devout.

Unused Usable Metrics

I wrote above of the importance of proper measurement and of the possible suppression of non-conforming information. The two ideas blend with respect to the matter of uninterrupted series of measurement going back a long time that are readily available but seem mysteriously absent from the public discussion of climate change.

Little effort is made to explain to the unwashed masses how the ocean level can be durably different in different locations.

One of the most dramatic features of the HCC narrative is the purported rise of the ocean. In the past five years, a good consumer of news, I have seen two sorts of very different expressions of the assertion. One is the kind of imagery in which a guy in a loincloth stands up to his belly in seawater while telling us that he used to help his father when he was a kid grow taro exactly where his feet are now placed. (Seen in the old and lovely French television series “Thalassa”; it was taking place in some remote island in French Polynesia.) The second kind of measure related to the rise of the ocean with which I am familiar involves esoteric satellite metrics.

I dismiss the first kind of testimony out of hand because I am impressed, both from my research experience, and from daily life, with most people’s bad memory and by the ease with which they are influenced. I hold the second kind in high regard, but it’s the sort of superstitious regard that was in the hearts of the first New Guineans who saw an airplane. I am incompetent to judge myself, and I don’t know what or who is competent, to vouch for those measurements. And no, I don’t suspect a monstrous plot to feed us false and alarming measurements. I suspect instead a great deal of collective self-indulgence if the measurements are the least bit ambiguous. (And wouldn’t they often be ambiguous, I inquire — naively, to be sure?)

I also have some conceptual trouble with the impression that little effort is made to explain to the unwashed masses (me) how the ocean level can be durably different in different locations. After all, it does not happen in my bathtub, or not for long. (Yes, the close proximity of references to “unwashed” and to “bathtub” is deliberate.)

Against this background, I have to ask why no one appears to be using the obvious to make the rise of the ocean obvious to rational nonspecialists like me. Here is a practical case in point. The English Channel and the North Sea are lined with nations possessing a long maritime past associated with an age-old economic dependence on fishing. Still today, thousands of small boats on both sides of the Channel go up and down entirely according to the tides. The same boats spend a significant portion of each year resting on muddy or sandy harbor bottoms during many low tides. In spite of the construction of convenient deep-water marinas everywhere, many pleasure boat owners, and some fishermen, still find their movements in and out of harbors constrained by a complex tide regimen. Until recently — in my lifetime — all boats in that region except the biggest naval ships were so constrained. Approximately the same situation prevails in the Baltic (which I don’t know as well). I am told it’s also true of Japan, of course. It’s probably the same on much of the Chinese and Korean coastlines facing the Japanese archipelago.

Almost everyone understands that the main solutions actually offered (as in the 2015 Paris Agreement) involve a significant decline in the standard of living of presently well-off societies.

All the societies I mentioned have one thing in common besides their maritime positioning. They have all included fair numbers of literate people for a thousand years or more. Accordingly, in those with which I am a little familiar, Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, there are detailed written records going back hundreds of years about conditions affecting the movements of boats and ships. These include water height on given dates at tight spots, which are largely the same as today. In some harbors, on both sides of the Channel, large iron spikes in seawalls mark record high tides.

This is all easily usable material and also convenient of access. To exploit it requires only inexpensive, low-tech methods (comparable to reading annual temperatures from tree rings). It would seem to be perfect raw material for many graduate students in search of data. The exploitation of individual records would not even need to be coordinated to contribute to our understanding. And finally, any such endeavor would have the immense advantage of being intuitively clear to ordinary, alert people. It’s mysterious why none of this seems to have been undertaken. Perhaps it’s considered superfluous to be clear to the rank and file on this issue also.

But maybe the kind of studies I long for have actually been done, and they escaped my attention. If that’s true, I must ask why? I explained above, when presenting my credentials, that I am literate, very interested, and well connected to the media. If I failed to notice such intuitively accessible research, how many other, responsible parties also did? Whose fault?

Partial Solutions Missing

HCC narrative advocates seldom propose reasonable partial solutions to the greenhouse effect that do not require government intervention or any sort of centralization of power. Also, almost everyone understands that the main solutions actually offered (as in the 2015 Paris Agreement) involve a significant decline in the standard of living of presently well-off societies.

HCC believers do diffusely promote a handful of tiny personal solutions that have the merit of making individuals feel virtuous but that cannot make a dent on disasters of the magnitude they predict. Those include, for example, biking to work (I don’t knock it; it’s good for the bikers; it helps to alleviate traffic congestion), and buying electric cars. (I understand that these are marginally less polluting than contemporary internal combustion vehicles, when you take into account the processes by which electricity powering them is produced.) When it comes to big, non-government global-level efforts, I hear only silence.

Planting a tree, or two, or three, could easily become the fashionable thing to do. It might morph into a nearly universal ethical obligation.

I am wondering, for example, how difficult it would be to plant two additional billion trees each year (20 billion in ten years). Supposing that half survive after two years, the world would still have an additional ten billion CO2 reducers. Any semblance of success would probably create a salutary contagion to repeat the process. Perhaps this number, ten billion, is too low to make a difference, but some number of trees must be able to mitigate the existing CO2 emissions, or begin to. I don’t know what the number is, but I am sure that every little bit helps and that trees are cheap. A Swiss scientist, John Christian, claimed recently that 1.2 additional trillion trees would absorb all (current) emissions. If half the current residents of the earth (roughly) each planted 15 trees every year, we would be there in 20 years, without major transformation of society, or mass impoverishment (but this assumes that CO2 emissions were kept at the current levels). It all seems feasible, if there’s enough space available. The same Swiss author affirms that there is. I couldn’t check.

Whatever would be a useful number, I am also certain that planting billions can be done in a decentralized manner, even on a personal basis, in the absence of a permanent organization, without resorting to the coercive power of government. Individuals, including schoolchildren, households, clubs, affinity groups, could do it on their own and at their own pace. Billionaire philanthropists would be glad to pay for the saplings, I think. (They would cost about a quarter each, wholesale.) Planting a tree, or two, or three, could easily become the fashionable thing to do. It might morph into a nearly universal ethical obligation, because everyone likes trees. A single family in Brazil planted more than two million trees in eight years.[1]

Globally, there are plenty of vacant lots, urban rooftops, roadside paths, rights-of-way (such as abandoned railroad tracks), and other unused land available for planting. Most of the US, most of Canada, much of South America, most of Australia, and most of Russia are nearly empty. Not all of this land is already covered by forest, and the density of trees could be improved in much of it. Even China, even Japan have mountainous areas unsuitable for agriculture, some not already forested. In some developed, old industrialized countries, such as France, close to major CO2 pollution, former agricultural land is quickly returning to wilderness. (In about 80 years in the 20th century, French forests increased by 50% as a result of the abandonment of agriculturally marginal lands. {B. Cinotti, Évolution des surfaces boisées en France: proposition de reconstitution depuis le début du XIXe siècle [1996].) Spontaneous reforestation in such areas could simply be helped along by volunteer actions. The same is true for other parts of Europe. Remember that if HCC is really global, trees planted anywhere at all are somewhat helpful. We might also try to open a worldwide subscription, a vast GoFundMe to purchase and maintain more expensive nut and fruit-bearing trees. NGOs could give them outright to villagers in the Sahel without otherwise intruding in local affairs. This enterprise would get us a two for one: less CO2 globally, and a rampart against further desertification locally.

My own skepticism about the HCC narrative would not prevent me from subscribing to such pleasant, optimistic, and joyful endeavors. (I would hope there would be a humble “Delacroix Grove” somewhere, of course.)

It’s a mystery, unless some other agenda than saving the planet is involved here.

I raise the idea of planting trees because we have now nearly forgotten that CO2 is also plant food. It’s common knowledge and (as far as I understand) still undisputed that trees can consume large quantities of CO2. Strangely, I almost never hear this fact mentioned anywhere in my casual, haphazard following of diverse media. The only time in several years when I have come across the idea that rising temperatures and especially rising CO2 levels are both separately beneficial to plant food production was in an item apparently smuggled into the pages of a small (circulation 45,000) conservative weekly, the Washington Examiner. (“Scientists: CO2 the ‘miracle molecule’ key to feeding the world,” February 26, 2019.)

It’s a mystery why the kind of proposal exemplified by my tree planting scenario has not already been pushed vigorously. I am thinking of the likes of National Geographic, which never publishes a single issue lacking some sort of catastrophic climate prediction. It’s a mystery, unless some other agenda than saving the planet is involved here, or unless climate change is relevant to something else, something I can only guess at. The list of potential nongovernmental remedies to increasing CO2 emissions appears endless to me. Why doesn’t it seem to occur to Green activists? Aren’t they interested in innocent, painless, heartwarming, noncoercive solutions with little potential to induce poverty?

What’s Going On?

Of course, I have been asking myself what accounts for the viciousness, the ludicrousness, the gobbledygook, the inconsistencies, the bad faith, and the plain deceitfulness, which the social movement that has grown around the HCC narrative demonstrates so frequently. The attachment to bad scientific presentation and, to some extent, to bad scientific practice by those who ought to know better perplexed me for a long time.

For several years, I told myself that the Green opinion current was made up of amiable, foo-foo headed treehuggers, plus some disappointed or disoriented leftists. When they started to make demands that governments should impose big, significant restrictions on nonbelievers — on everyone, indeed — I thought they would eventually go away. I scoffed at Al Gore’s crude, mendacious movie An Inconvenient Truth. But some around me treated it with complete seriousness. As the Green voices became increasingly shrill, I began to get a sense of déjà vu. I realized little by little that I had been there before, perhaps even twice.

Aren’t they interested in innocent, painless, heartwarming, noncoercive solutions with little potential to induce poverty?

When I was growing up in France, in the ’40s and ’50s, the French Communist Party regularly pulled more than 20% of the votes in legislative elections. It was always the first, second, or third largest party. Communist leaders were everywhere in the newspaper and on the radio. My family’s aspiring middle-class apartment block was next to a blue-collar block where everyone was a Communist, a fellow traveler, or else kept quiet. Of course, I went to elementary school with children from that block and I knew some of their parents. Truth be told, in many ways they were similar to people in my more familiar Catholic environment: most of the Communists lived by faith alone. Looking back on them, it seems to me that eight out of ten Communists were naive True Believers (I use the words as Eric Hoffer did in his book by that title [1951]), vaguely hoping for a better life and for abstractly defined “social justice” They put their faith in Comrade Stalin, and in his dwarfish deputies in their own country. The cult of personality was out in the open, unabashed, and it borrowed openly from familiar forms of religious devoutness. (Some of my neighbors even lowered their voices piously when they mentioned His name.) They thought that soon, very soon, France would become a fair society, as the Soviet Union already was.

Of every ten Communists whom I knew or knew of, one was a determined and cynical seeker of power, and another was in transition. The Communists, in the papers, on radio, and on the street, treated viciously those they considered their class enemies (not me, for sure). Their faith in the Soviet Union and in the forthcoming Communist utopia was ludicrous. They seemed to speak two languages. Their everyday language was normal; I mean that it was like mine. Yet when they explained why the victory of socialism was inevitable, they became incomprehensible.

There were even evening Party schools that young adults attended, just to be able to understand the esoteric language of “dialectical materialism.” Some just pretended. Attendance at the schools was a requirement for good Party standing. In their second language, the Party-Marxist talk, they made no sense whatsoever. But then, neither I nor most of my friends understood Mass Latin.

The Communists always left some things out of their description of the Soviet paradise, small things such as famines, mass arrests, and concentration camps. (The latter were well known already in the ’50s.) When confronted with contrary facts, they first insulted viciously; then they just lied. It appears that the lies were enough to stop sufficient numbers of followers from asking further questions. The French Communist leadership came and went, but there was never any grand moment or reckoning. Unlike the Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself (under Khrushchev), the French Party never said, “We were wrong on this and that.” Communists and fellow travelers had such influence on attitudes and language (same thing in the long run) that by the time I was 18, being overtly anti-Communist constituted a kind of social death. Only two brave French public intellectuals stood firm throughout (Raymond Aron and Jean-Francois Revel).

In many ways the Communists were similar to people in my more familiar Catholic environment: most of them lived by faith alone.

The Communist Party as a political force eventually almost disappeared through attrition, leaving behind little left-wing parties composed of those who had parted company at various times, and of those who were excluded for ideological sins. The remnants of the Party and its leftovers keep re-supplying a foul residue of vague and murky statism. They have been poisoning the French political discourse ever since. In the current (2018–2019) “yellow vests” crisis in France, participants are even unable to voice their demands in other than vulgar Marxist terms. I believe the French Communist Party and its offshoots destroyed long ago the conceptual vocabulary the protesters would now need.

Of course, French Communists — adopting Karl Marx’s shameless claim — contended that their analysis (of society) was “scientific.” (Scientism had long been a source of holiness.) The scientific pretension was their quick path to inexorability. Incidentally, they believed and declared that their actions would save not only themselves but the whole of humanity. (Little philosophical problem here: the victory of communism is inevitable, but our deeds are necessary to its victory. This probably requires a little muscular persuasion.) I believe, however, it never even crossed their minds to affirm that their actions would save Mother Earth herself. They were a backward lot, you might say.

The HCC narrative promoters promise us worse than hell on earth, the end of earth itself — if we don’t take on an emergency-basis step that entails a massive enlargement of government relative to the rest of society, and an increase of several orders of magnitude in the coercion applied to ordinary people. The solutions proposed also constitute a kind of drastic deindustrialization. They would cause large-scale impoverishment in the prosperous countries and a diminished likelihood that poor countries would ever achieve the prosperity of currently advanced ones. The only political processes imaginable to implement the key propositions associated with the HCC narrative involve a hefty form of authoritarianism and the suppression of dissenting forces, as well as a fair degree of popular participation. That’s a textbook definition of fascism, of course. (Maybe, see my “Fascism Explained.”) This is not a difficult guess, as the process is observable already in attenuated forms in several countries.

The authoritarianism I forecast does not come out of my imagination. The impeccably democratically chosen Chancellor Merkel decided pretty much on her own that Germany must abandon the production of electricity from fossil fuels within a few years, starting immediately. She also decreed the rapid closure of nuclear plants. She could do all this in spite of predictable hardships the decisions would entail because a large fraction of German public opinion was already persuaded of the imminent danger global warming posed. (The discussion of the dangers of nuclear energy had been closed long before.) Chancellor Merkel’s decisions trod on minorities of opinion in a manner reminiscent of the crushing of the religiously unorthodox everywhere. (To be fair, she did not propose to burn anyone at the stake.) The moral weight of electoral majorities, and even of simple pluralities, was in this case sufficient to begin the dismantling of the admirable edifice of centuries of German effort and ingenuity.[2]

When they explained why the victory of socialism was inevitable, they became incomprehensible.

In its most extreme manifestations, the HCC narrative and its policy implications look like the latest avatar (but not the last avatar, surely) of the same strand of authoritarian collectivism that appeared before as Communism, and in various other brands of Fascism. And like the narratives of these other millenarian social movements, the HCC narrative has a pronounced religious character.

New or Old Cult?

The parallel between the climate change movement and Christianity has been drawn many times, by me and others. After all, the movement has its dogma, a hatred of heretics sometimes bordering on the murderous, repeated attempts to remand heretics to the “secular arm” — government — for legal punishment, and a strong sense of individual sin. It also traffics constantly in apocalyptic imagery.

But I have now come to think that the sociopolitical movement associated with the HCC narrative is not pseudo-Christian but more like an older cult, some Bronze Age religion. It harbors no idea of individual redemption, it has no Messiah, and, certainly, it entertains no nonsense about God becoming human and thus exalting Man. Its deity does not heed the prayers of the faithful, but yet demands from them complete and exclusive submission. It does seem to respond to incantations (in the mass media). It craves sacrifices. When I see two middle-class parents each towing a toddler in tiny trailers behind their bikes, near blacktop-level, at night, sharing the street with old men in trucks, I think Moloch, I think Baal. The stern but caring God of the New Testament is nowhere to be seen. And Jesus seems to have gone home early.

Note, please, that if all the HCC models are factually correct and if all the predictions they entail are also, it does not negate the religious character of the corresponding movement. It’s just that the more obviously true the HCC statements of all kinds are to ordinary people, the more superfluous is the religiosity attached to the movement.

Where Do I Stand?

In the end, am I deeply convinced that there is no climate change caused by human activity that demands quick solutions?

I am not. I am not convinced of anything, at this point. All it would take is exposure to one good document, to several good discussions, preferably ones with an overall design that does not betray basic logic, to make me fall off the high stool of my skepticism. The discussions would have to be principled, along traditional lines, fairly respectful of the presentation of opposite viewpoints. They would incorporate no insults and no condemnations of a quasi-religious nature. They would take place in the local vernaculars of ordinary educated people rather than scientific and pseudoscientific jargon. I must admit that I fear it may be too late to hope for any of this, because so many careers are at stake. I would like to be wrong, though.

I have now come to think that the sociopolitical movement associated with the HCC narrative is not pseudo-Christian but more like an older cult, some Bronze Age religion.

Even a single good book, a clear, well organized book, would do it for me. But the last good books I read on environmental issues are old. One is Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday (2012), which does not directly address the HCC narrative though it has much to say about climate. The other is the statistician Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001). Lomborg currently accepts the main tenets of the HCC narrative but he agrees with almost none of what the movement presents as its unavoidable policy implications.

Concretely, it would take two or three steps to undermine my skepticism.

First, I would have to become convinced that the earth has been warming abnormally, based on all that we know of past temperatures. I am not even convinced that it has been warming abnormally in recent years — because of a few inconvenient scattered facts. One is that Greenland was warmer during the 1000–1200 period than it is now. I gleaned this by reading the same environmental activist and serious intellectual Jared Diamond. Here is what I gathered from his best-seller, The World Until Yesterday: the Norse settlers of Greenland ate significant quantities of beef. Now, it seems to me that there were only two possible sources for that beef. Either they imported mature cattle for butchering from Iceland or from Norway in large numbers, in their little boats, or they raised cattle right in Greenland. The first explanation I discount as technically and economically untenable. So the Norse evidently raised cattle in a part of the world where you could not do it now. You could not because Greenland is too cold to produce the hay necessary to feed cattle during its long winter season. Greenland was warmer then than it is after nearly two centuries of big human CO2 emissions. I am pretty sure Norse peat fires were not at fault.

Second, one would have to demonstrate to me the likelihood of a causal link between CO2 emission and warming. I am too moderate to ask for actual proof. Fairly tight coincidence in time between the two variables — with the purported cause preceding the alleged effect — will not kill my skepticism outright, but it will give me pause. Of course, no trick, no hockey stick! All the data available must be used, or a good reason provided as to why they are not. The consequences of not using all data available must be carefully and frankly explored and explained.

If you tell me that the ocean will rise by three inches, I will say, “Call in the Dutch; they will know what to do!”

In the above, substitute any reasonable variable connected to the climate for “warming” or “temperature,” if you please. “Frequency of extreme weather events” would be conceptually fine with me but I warn you it’s a can of definitional worms! It’s the kind with which HCC advocates have not been dealing too well as a far as I am concerned.

After accomplishing the above, HCC narrative promoters must provide some verifiable metric prediction that’s truly dreadful if they want me to even consider the possibility of adopting any part of their lethal agenda of authoritarian deindustrialization. I warn you, HCC militants: if you warn me that average global temperature will be 2 degrees centigrade higher in 50 years, I won’t care. If you tell me that the ocean will rise by three inches, I will say, “Call in the Dutch; they will know what to do!” You are demanding of this citizen something extremely alarming. Your admonitions have to be irresistibly alarming.

I would also be more likely to pay attention if the bright features of climate change were mentioned more often. It would be nice if those who did it were famous exponents of HCC. It would be even nicer if they had scholarly credentials. (I can imagine teams made up of one scholar and of one famous, trusted media person.)

Finally, it would help the credibility of HCC declaimers if, once in a while, they reached out and made a public example of the myriads of enthusiastic, ignorant fools who at all times babble irresponsibly and without foundation about climate change.

Oh, and I almost forgot, no more of the kind of vicious insults historically associated with religious fanaticism!

Been There?

Filling my mind with any sense of urgency is going to take some doing anyway, because of past experiences. I was a young adult in the good old days of the Club of Rome and of Paul Ehrlich’s glory. The first published The Limits to Growth in 1972, promising us a series of calamities, and especially of famines, if we did not change our ways radically. We did not. Global food production increased radically instead. The consensus of the Club of Rome was if anything more impressive than the HCC consensus. It included just about everyone who counted — scientists, of course, other kinds of scholars, business decision makers, prominent politicians.

Famines within 12 years. Does this time horizon sound familiar?

The entomologist and mite specialist Ehrlich (also a Nobel Prize winner, but not in anything related to climate disciplines) had earlier also promised famines, due to overpopulation. His 1968 book The Population Bomb began with these words: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” (Emphasis mine.) Famines within 12 years. Does this time horizon sound familiar?

Ehrlich was wrong; the Club of Rome was wrong. The former continued his distinguished academic career at Stanford University pretty much as if the facts had proven him right and the earth had swallowed hundreds of millions of victims of hunger. The Club of Rome is still in existence. It’s a well-funded, apparently respected organization.

Of necessity, dire predictions pertaining to global warming ensued. According to AP’s Peter John Spielman, in 1989 a senior UN environmental official declared that “entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000”! (“Notable and Quotable: Warming.” Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2019, A17.) I observe with interest that in that early case, the time allotted to remedy the situation did not even reach 12 years; it was only 10.5 years!

That previous apocalyptic narratives with an environmentalist inspiration were wrong, that no one stood up to apologize, does not prove that the current HCC narrative is also wrong. Still, experience should inspire intellectual prudence. Given those past fiascoes — in addition to the enormous stakes involved — rigorous, critical scrutiny is in order. The more esoteric the topic, the more removed from the average citizen’s competence, the more exigent must one be with respect to the general credibility of the exponents of the narrative. Collectively HCC narrative activists have low credibility, in my estimation. That’s why I think there is no reason to worry right now. The HCC narrative still bears watching, though, just in case proponents of the HCC narrative clean up their act and turn out believable. But using the very numbers that they, the HCC proponents provide, it’s still hard to see how all human CO2 emissions together, plus cow burps and flatulence, can do much damage to our atmosphere, compared to your medium-size volcanic eruption, or even to three consecutive above-average El Niños.

How About You?

I mean you, supporters of the human-caused disastrous climate change narrative, you who assess the evidence supporting the narrative as overwhelming, you who demand immediate and drastic action: what would it take to turn you around? To clam you up even a little? Anything at all?

I believe it’s up to those who would upend our pretty good civilization to persuade me, without appeal to the sort of quasi-religious abracadabra we left behind in the 18th century. I refuse to put to sleep my rationality and even my common sense before unverifiable claims of expertise. I also don’t want to be forced to master arcane areas of the physical sciences just to be able to stop my government from doing something irreversibly destructive. That’s not too much to ask.

You who demand immediate and drastic action: what would it take to turn you around? To clam you up even a little? Anything at all?

Personally, I would like to walk away from the messy and often acrimony-inducing issue of climate change. I can’t afford this luxury because I am afraid that someone is going to do something with it that’s incredibly stupid and harmful to me and mine.

P.S.: If you are attracted to the minutiae of climate research and if you want a reliable source of detailed, quantitative, scientific contrarian information about the HCC narrative, you may wish to visit this blog. That outfit has posted a globe displaying a number of graphs summarizing much climate information, including some severely at variance with the popular version of the HCC narrative. And Wikipedia in French (for some reason) has published a list of credentialed experts who have expressed skepticism about HCC. I have not checked its credibility; I probably wouldn’t know how. The list includes Nobel winner Gary Becker of the University of Chicago.


[1] Somewhere in India, 1.5 million volunteers are supposed to have planted 66 million trees in one hour. That would be 660 million in ten hours, or in one hour by 15 million volunteers. I don’t know if the story is true; it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records. If it is true, it makes my proposal look ridiculously humble.

[2] No one should lament too much the fate of the German populace shivering in their cold dark houses as a result of Chancellor Merkel’s suddenly decreed switch to so-called “renewable energies” (i.e., minus nuclear). In 2018, the German government discreetly began buying electricity from plants across its southwestern border. The French plants there are powered by coal. One may thus add official hypocrisy to the list of virtues associated with the implementation of an HCC inspired agenda.




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Take Me to Your Libertarians

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Just when I was in despair about the world’s declining interest in libertarianism, my hopes have been revived.

Patrick Byrne, a libertarian billionaire, has made news by announcing that he developed a relationship with a woman named Maria Butina, a Russian who is now in an American prison for having failed to register as a foreign agent. According to journalist Sara Carter,

Butina . . . told Byrne, that [Alexander] Torshin, the Russian politician who [sic] she had been assisting while she was in the U.S., had sent her to the United States to meet other libertarians and build relations with political figures. She repeated to him numerous times that she was not a spy, even when he directly asked her.

Whether she was a spy or not, the idea is flattering to libertarians, as is the interest purportedly taken by the American government in such doings. According to Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll,

At some point prior to the 2016 election, when Byrne’s contact with Maria diminished or ceased, the government asked and encouraged him to renew contact with her and he did so, continuing to inform the government of her activities. Byrne states he was informed by government agents that his pursuit and involvement with Maria (and concomitant surveillance of her) was requested and directed from the highest levels of the FBI and intelligence community.

Well, there you have it. Libertarians are more interesting than they think. Do you know who your friends really are?




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Did Anyone Ask for an Encore?

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July 30. Another debate among ten Democrats: more of the same, piled higher and deeper.

Bernie Sanders, the white-haired Vermont Castro, was at it again, promising to save the exploited Americans. If Elizabeth Warren was for canceling 95% of student debt, Bernie was for canceling all of it. Bernie’s “Medicare for all” was really for all, whether they wanted it or not. And when challenged by Representative Tim Ryan on whether he could assure union members in Michigan that their government benefits would be as good as the private ones they have now, Bernie said his plan would cover medical, dental, and vision benefits with no copays, no deductibles, and no premiums.

Free medicine!

“You don’t know that,” Ryan said.

Sanders’ big idea was government. Every reference he made to private corporations was unfavorable.

“I wrote the bill,” Sanders said snippily. Later he grumbled, “I get a little bit tired of Democrats who are afraid of big ideas.”

Sanders’ big idea was government. Every reference he made to private corporations was unfavorable. The oil companies, he said, were criminal. When asked about his socialism, he dodged the question, but if you listened to his words you could hear it. He declared, “For 45 years the working class has been decimated.” He said he would “take on the greed and corruption of the ruling class.”

Working class. Ruling class.

Closest to him was Elizabeth Warren. Asked to explain why she insists she is a “capitalist,” she dodged the question as slickly as Sanders dodged the one about socialism. Instead, she bragged about taking on the giant banks. She promised “big structural change.”

Warren said her “green industrial policy” would provide $2 trillion for “green research.” She said this would “create 1.2 million industrial jobs,” many of them right there in Michigan and Ohio. Industrial jobs. Nobody jumped on her for this.

Asked to explain why she insists she is a “capitalist,” Warren dodged the question as slickly as Sanders dodged the one about socialism.

Warren argued that US trade policy had been written “by and for” the multinational corporations. “We’re going to negotiate our deals with farmers, union people, and human rights advocates at the table.” Of foreign countries, she said, “Let’s make ’em raise their standards before they come to us and want to sell their products.”

I recall Bill Clinton breezing into the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle in 1999 and insisting on putting labor and environment into trade agreements. I remember the reaction of the Pakistani delegates. They didn’t want it. They resented it. They thought of it as a rich country making impossible demands of them in order to placate rich, overfed workers. Later Obama did get some labor and environmental stuff into trade agreements, but the critics said they didn’t amount to much. I never investigated this, but was inclined to believe it because the only standards other countries would be likely to accept would be ones that didn’t amount to much.

Essentially, Warren was proposing to put people in trade negotiations who were interested in other causes — to subordinate the trade between A and B to the political demands of C. This is not a proposal of someone who cares about trade or the rights of people to engage in it.

When several of the candidates denounced tariffs as taxes, Warren said that modern trade agreements are not mostly about tariffs, but about corporate claims to profits. She didn’t say “intellectual property,” but that’s what she was talking about: movies, music, software, biotechnology. She spoke as if ownership of these things were a concern to corporate bosses only, and not to the Americans who created them. She made her position clear: She was not going to protect any of this stuff.

Buttigieg said “Systemic racism touches everything in America,” but then he’s a white mayor of South Bend, Indiana, which has had some difficulties.

Another issue was reparations for slavery — an idea I believe would be as deeply unpopular as busing. Only a handful of the Democratic contenders were for them — no surprise there — but no one denounced them. For that matter, no candidate dared denounce any “progressive” idea about race. Sanders was asked why he opposed paying reparations in cash. His answer wasn’t too clear — he was not comfortable with the issue — but it seemed that he wanted any such money to be spent by the government rather than by private citizens.

Marianne Williamson, the candidate of “deep truth telling,” was asked how she decided $500 billion was the morally correct amount of racial reparations. Her answer was that it was the politically possible amount; the morally correct amount was larger.

Others made bows to the Left without embracing the particular idea. Pete Buttigieg made a point of saying, “Systemic racism touches everything in America,” and I wanted to ask, “everything?” but then he’s a white mayor of South Bend, Indiana, which has had some difficulties. Beto O’Rourke insisted that America’s wealth was built on the backs of slaves, but he’s another white guy, and from an old Confederate state. It is obvious to me that race relations have improved a whole lot in my lifetime, but nobody said that.

In the June debates, O’Rourke had annoyed me more than any of the others because he kept dodging the moderators’ questions. Answering the question you want asked rather than the one asked is an old trick, and in this forum it was obvious when they were doing it. On July 30 O’Rourke did it again. He also said “in this country” a lot. I had never taken notice of that phrase before Liberty editor Stephen Cox groused about it in a column last year; but since then it has been a fly in the ear. In his closing statement, O’Rourke said “in this country” at least three times. He also used the word “winning” over and over in describing a political campaign in Texas, which he lost.

Answering the question you want asked rather than the one asked is an old trick, and in this forum it was obvious when they were doing it.

O’Rourke is a no-hoper, which pleases me a lot, as does the coming exit of the touchy-feely Marianne Williamson. Some of the other no-hopers I liked a little better. John Delaney said he would get America to “zero carbon” by 2050 — an imaginable time, at least — through technical innovation, creating a “market for carbon capture,” and “investing in people and entrepreneurs.” It was grandiose stuff, but even using the word “entrepreneurs” was notable in this crowd. Another no-hoper, Hickenlooper, said again that he had no interest in a “Green New Deal” that would offer everyone a government job — and I noted that none of the others came to the defense of guaranteed government jobs. Amy Klobuchar said again that she had no interest in handing out free college tuition to rich kids. But these are all no-hopers, and soon will be gone, along with Tim Ryan and Scott Bullock.

Of this group we will have Sanders and Warren, and maybe Buttigieg for a while.

* * *

July 31. Two and a half more hours. Since June, nine hours of Democrats.

It was some relief that the final group spent less time declaring how terrible things are in America. Joe Biden, no doubt mouthing a line prepared by his consultants, said of America and Donald Trump, “We love it, we’re not leaving it, we’re here to stay and we’re certainly not leaving it with you.”

Biden and Kamala Harris resumed their fight. In June Harris attacked Biden for having opposed forced busing sometime in the last century. Perhaps realizing that moving school children around like pieces of furniture is not a popular idea, Harris opposes it now. Yet, she said, “The vice president has still failed to acknowledge that he was wrong to take that position at that time.” And why was busing a better idea then? She didn’t say, and Biden, having had a whole month to defend his opposition to busing, didn’t dare. Instead he said Harris had been attorney general of California for eight years and had had done nothing about the “segregated” schools in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The final group spent less time declaring how terrible things are in America.

On medical insurance, Biden hammered Harris because her plan would allow private coverage for only 10 years, and then ban it. Harris hammered Biden because his plan would leave out 10 million Americans. That’s 3% of the population — and which 3% is it? The poor? Medicaid covers the poor. The old? Medicare covers them. Who, then? Criminals? Rich people? People between jobs? Illegal immigrants? No one explained this.

I didn’t like Kamala Harris. She seemed to have an aura of weariness and bitterness about her. I liked it when the Girl Scoutish Tulsi Gabbard accused Harris, former attorney general of California, of putting “1,500 people in jail for marijuana offenses.” Harris was quick to tell other candidates that they had their facts wrong, but she didn’t contradict Gabbard. Of course Harris is for marijuana legalization now; she is as progressive as she needs to be.

Regarding immigration, Biden was asked about the 800,000 illegals who were deported in the first two years of the Obama-Biden administration. If you cross over illegally, he said, “you should be able to be sent back.”

Most of the candidates were not for sending illegals back. Bill DeBlasio asked Biden whether he had used his power as vice president to try and stop the deportations — a question that opened up a pit to fall in on either a yes or a no. Biden was careful not to answer yes or no. One of his responses was, “If you say you can just cross the border, what do you say to the people around the world standing in line?” That’s a reference to people around the world who have filed the papers to immigrate to America and are waiting their turn under their country quota. I know people who waited 10 years, and they have no sympathy for “queue jumpers” who climb over the wall and insist on being admitted immediately.

Kamala Harris seemed to have an aura of weariness and bitterness about her.

Andrew Yang, the man with no necktie, was still pushing his nutty idea of giving everyone $1,000 a month. I recalled a documentary about open heroin use in Vancouver, B.C., where the drug addicts all line up on Welfare Wednesday to get their checks from the Canadian government. (It’s on YouTube.) Other than that, I rather liked Andrew Yang. He’s upbeat, and he’s from the private sector. He argued that tying medical insurance to employment makes it harder to start companies, harder to hire, and harder to switch jobs. Decouple insurance from work, he said, “and watch entrepreneurship recover and bloom.” At least this man knows and cares about the process of creating real work, which so many of the other Democrats do not.

Yang also said the most sensible thing that evening about climate change. Jay Inslee had insisted, “We have to act now. We have to get off coal in ten years,” and the other candidates promised this, that, and the other. But Yang pointed out that carbon dioxide is a global problem, and that America is only 15% of it. Every politician offering a big plan assumes his big plan will work. Yang’s unpolitical answer was, “Start moving our people to higher ground.”

If Biden had said this, it would have been a sensation. When Yang said it, nobody cared.

Well, Yang will be gone soon enough, as will the windbag de Blasio, who bellowed twice that he would “tax the hell out of the wealthy,” and Cory Booker, who enunciates as if he’s talking to someone partially deaf, and Kirsten Gillibrand, whose every statement was about women, and Julian Castro, who can’t make up his mind whether he lives in the land of opportunity or the land of “Americans who are hurting.”

And at least seven of them said “in this country” at least once. Buzz, buzz, buzz.




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