Things that Make Me Laugh

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I confess: I have a taste for self-refuting discourse. The other day, I complained to one of my friends about the incomprehensibility of some of the “Settings” on my cell phone. “Oh,” he said, “it’s actually very simple.” And he began to explain them. When he reached the third minute of his explanation, we both started laughing. Obviously, something that requires a long explanation — by a person who, by the way, happens to be a genius about technology — cannot be “simple.”

But my favorite self-refuting words are those of the “No, I am not ANGRY with you!!!” variety. The funniest I’ve ever heard were recently emitted by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. James Rosen, a reporter, asked her a question about whether hatred could possibly have something to do with her drive to impeach Donald Trump. Her response was hilarious:

"I don't hate anybody. I was raised in a Catholic house, we don't hate anybody — not anybody in the world,” said Pelosi. She had been asked by a journalist during her weekly press briefing if she “hates President Trump.”

Pelosi had earlier announced the House Democrats would begin drafting the articles of impeachment.

"As a Catholic I resent you using the word 'hate' in a sentence that addresses me," a visibly angered Pelosi said, point[ing] her finger at the journalist. She went on to claim that she prays for Trump “all the time.”

“So don't mess with me when it comes to words like that," she added.

Pelosi is fond of making up stuff and claiming that she found it in the Bible, so perhaps she thought she was quoting some episode in the gospels in which Jesus wags his finger at a hapless questioner and screeches, “Don’t mess with me!”

Absurd generalizations are the mother’s milk of politics, and they’re usually a total crackup.

There are other things that delight me here, besides the self-confutation. People always laugh when they recall the remark that Richard (“Tricky Dick”) Nixon supposedly made: “We can do that, but it would be wrong.” Pelosi is even funnier: she thinks the fact that something is wrong is proof that she isn’t doing it. She even thinks you can’t be accused of doing something wrong if your parents taught you it was wrong.

And what about Pelosi’s grand generalization: “We don't hate anybody — not anybody in the world” — with the silent but obvious addition, “not even that bastard Trump”? Absurd generalizations are the mother’s milk of politics, and they’re usually a total crackup. This one certainly is. If the aforesaid Jesus was a Catholic (itself rather a large assumption), he seems not to have gotten the message. In the book of Revelation (2:6), the same Jesus compliments the church of Ephesus because “thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.” There are no qualifications about hating the sin but loving the Nicolaitanes. In the gospel of Luke (14:26) he says, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” This is a long way from Pelosi family values. A hyperbolic statement? Yes, OK. But it doesn’t give much cover for Pelosi’s impersonation of Heidi.

So, in an act of supreme inclusivity, tolerance, and diversity, he had to exclude those judges — even the ones appointed by other presidents.

Attempting to compete with Pelosi in the self-refutation derby, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed, shortly before Christmas, a bill intended to allow federal judges to marry people in his state. His reason? Some judges were appointed by Trump, and Cuomo cannot “in good conscience” let them perform the sacred rite.

“President Trump does not embody who we are as New Yorkers,’’ the Democratic governor said. “The cornerstones that built [cornerstones build?]our great state are diversity, tolerance, and inclusion. Based on these reasons, I must veto this bill.”

So, in an act of supreme inclusivity, tolerance, and diversity, he had to exclude those judges — even the ones appointed by other presidents. That’s a pretty good self-refutation. Cuomo, who is said to be a Catholic, may also be competing for best “conscience” with Pelosi, although he needs to get up pretty early in the morning to beat her at that.

Can you picture a series of murders flyin’ around and hittin’ them civic values smack in the face?

Suddenly I’m reminded of a message that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted back in October, about what is described as “the savage slaying of four vagrants” in his city:

We’re stunned and horrified [but not too stunned to tweet] by this senseless act of violence against the most vulnerable members of our community. It flies in the face of the values of our city. We’re keeping the victims and their loved ones in our hearts.

“Flies in the face of the values of our city,” eh? We learned from Governor Cuomo that states have values, (otherwise known as cornerstones) but cities now have them too? If so, can you picture a series of murders flyin’ around and hittin’ them civic values smack in the face? Probably De Blasio just turned to one of the many online templates of talking points — go ahead, google them — and found the formula for student council resolutions condemning hate on campus or some such thing. Yet flying in the face of values is easy to picture, compared to the notion of Mayor Bill holding the victims (people he never heard of before) and their loved ones (God bless mommy, and daddy, and teacher, and that lady on the bus, and her husband, if any) in his heart. Do you think they’re still in there? If so, exactly where?

But to return to Pelosi’s hate-filled attack on hate: it’s entertaining to witness psychological symptoms so weird that only Freud’s weird theories can account for them. Other people Dr. Freud would have liked to get his hands on are the media analysts and commentators who have accepted Pelosi as their Amazon queen. While laughing at her bizarre self-revelation as a fanatical hater, I somehow imagined that the media would (in the spirit of Whittier’s “Ichabod”) walk backward with averted gaze, and hide the shame. But no! Her outburst was greeted with nearly universal celebration. Google this one too; you’ll see: it’s the Joan of Arc treatment. If, once again, you’re wondering whether these people are quite in their right minds, wonder no more.

Legions of talking heads, even at Fox News, continue to be puzzled by how such things could be done by this "very smart operator." Really?

Pelosi’s daft comments about religion presaged her daft behavior after the impeachment vote. Having maintained her party’s position that Trump must be impeached right now, not a minute to lose, and don’t wait for Christmas, she refused to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, at least until the House reconvenes in January. She babbled about ensuring fairness, and refused to answer questions. Wha—?! Legions of talking heads, even at Fox News, continue to be puzzled by how such things could be done by this very smart operator. Really?

Another brainy fella is Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Evan Horowitz, a man who spent many months minutely examining the behavior of a group of bumbling secret policemen who hounded Trump’s campaign — people who omitted no opportunity to evince their hatred of the people they were investigating — and concluded that he couldn’t say whether they were biased or not. If he can’t settle that point, why don’t we hire someone who can? Someone who won’t make an ass of himself in the manner illustrated by the inspector general’s congressional testimony on December 11:

In response to questioning by Sen. [Mazie] Hirono, Horowitz says they use the term "surveillance" rather than "spying" because the latter has such negative connotations, and he did not use it in the report. Hirono asks if he is bothered by [Attorney General William] Barr's comments that spying occurred on the campaign. Horowitz says he doesn't want to get into people's motives or thinking on matters.

Heaven forbid that an investigator should use words with negative connotations or concern himself with motives. What next, “I don’t know what he could have been thinking, but I was forced to consider arresting the gentleman for conveying Mrs. Grundy’s purse to another location”?

Our ability to laugh is the sign of our ability to transcend whatever we’re laughing at, and in this case the things transcended are decay and death.

Even people who have never been mistaken for smart operatorscan make themselves very funny. My last column began with a consideration of remarks made by His Royal Highness Prince Andrew, Duke of York, concerning his relationship with legendary sex demon Jeffrey Epstein. There are doubtless reasons to be concerned about the fool Prince Andrew continues to make of himself. But according to Fox News, the big issue is something I would never have suspected. Nor you, either. Fox cited reports that Prince Charles, the heir apparent,

is “furious” that his 12-day tour of the South Pacific, which aimed to raise awareness on environmental issues such as climate change and how it's rising [sic] ocean levels, has been completely overshadowed by [Andrew’s] scandal impacting the British royal family.

That’s sort of a selfish approach, isn’t it? Worrying that your brother’s problems might impact your publicity tour? And after all, how much would it take to overshadow Prince Charles’s expedition? A butterfly wing? A blade of grass? Thank God, it’s not as if environmental issues had escaped all public awareness.

I have a soft spot for Charles’ mom and will feel sorry when she’s gone — although I confess that I can no longer tell the difference, if there is any difference, between Elizabeth II Regina and the woman Helen Mirren played in that magnificent film, The Queen. But now that monarchs lack the ability to create world wars, there’s generally something funny and engaging about them. I’m thinking about the comment made by Farouk, the ill-fated king of Egypt, to the effect that in the future there would be five kings left in the world: the king of hearts, the king of diamonds, the king of clubs, the king of spades, and the king of England. Funny, and curiously reassuring. Our ability to laugh is the sign of our ability to transcend whatever we’re laughing at, and in this case the thing transcended isn’t just the monarchical system of government; it’s decay and death.

Even if it did rave, that would be nothing special for The New York Times, would it?

A more ordinary object of transcendence — drearier and more ordinary than death — is the dull, constant pressure of our present would-be authorities: Pelosi, Horowitz, the geniuses that CNN, Fox, and MSNBC pay to lecture us, the teachers, spiritual leaders, and priests of sensitivity who patrol our moral lives, the strange organisms that cling like muck to every spade that tries to drain a swamp, even the trivial headlines that purport to tell us what we need to know. The goofiness of headlines, which are supposed to be so impressive to us common folk, is a dependable source of merriment to me. Where would respectable news sites be without headlines saying that so and so had just ripped, torched, or blasted someone? It’s like those movie trailers that inevitably cite the New York Times as raving about the product. Even if it did rave, that would be nothing special for the Times, would it? That paper has been raving mad since Reagan.

Occasionally, a headline can make me laugh out loud because it’s actually true, and the truth is terrifically funny. Here’s one from CNBC (December 20):

Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren releases a $10.7 trillion plan to create 10.6 million green jobs

Evidently this headline writer knew that “creating” jobs at the rate of a mere million dollars per job is an idea that only an idiot would come up with, and that the math need only be cited for the idiocy to be shown. Years ago, The Onion ran a headline that’s my all-time favorite:

Miracle Of Birth Occurs For 83 Billionth Time

Like the Warren headline, this one assumes an audience intelligent enough to see the joke.

But let’s think about some wordings that are not tributes to the human intelligence. Call this, if you wish, a letdown from the high discourse of King Farouk and Elizabeth Warren, but I think it’s time to notice that there is a class of expressions that consist of two individual words; examples: Turn on. Push back. Take over. Sometimes the two words can be joined to make a single noun, often with a hyphen between them — "Britain’s pushback against Europe’s attempted take-over was a big turn-on for me.” But you can’t do that with the verb form, because the two parts are separable from each other: “I was turned completely on when I saw Britain push strongly back against Europe’s attempt to take the country over.” Once almost everybody who was able to write, or even type, knew this. But now we constantly behold our well educated (or perhaps just expensively credentialed) neighbors and colleagues making fools of themselves by writing, “Use blue button to turnon lights in conference room”; “Let’s pushback against this plan”; and “I am happy to inform you that Marjorie has agreed to takeover our customer relations office.” Sad to say, this is not entirely or even chiefly an American illiteracy. Witness a headline in a British paper:

Your CAR could be at risk of cyberattacks: Scientists reveal 'holes' in systems that let hackers steal data or even takeover your smart vehicle

My own CAR is smart enough to sneer at the possibility that it will be takenover. It has always pushedback against all attacks and attempts to surveille, turn green, or otherwisepusharound its passengers. Perhaps the Model 2020 Republic will prove to be smart enough to do the same.




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Highs and Lows

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You probably remember the days when Christmas packages had to be mailed by December 10 if you wanted them to arrive for Christmas. Then private industry entered the delivery market and changed everything. This past month I watched in awe as deliveries from UPS, FedEx, Amazon Trucking, and yes, even the US Postal Service brought packages to my door within two days of my ordering them. I received half a dozen packages on Christmas Eve alone, including one that had been redirected from an incorrect address the day before.

This nearly didn’t happen. In the early days of FedEx, founder Fred Smith faced a serious cashflow problem. The company was millions of dollars in startup debt. Pilots were purchasing fuel with their personal credit cards. Employees were agreeing not to cash their paychecks, knowing they would bounce anyway. Desperate to stave off bankruptcy, Smith took the company’s last $5,000 to the Las Vegas blackjack tables. He returned in less than a week with $27,000 and used that money to secure additional funding. How could he take such a risk with the last of the company’s cash? He figured he would probably lose it all in bankruptcy court, so the real risk was in not doing anything.

Howie is constantly orchestrating a story. He owes everybody, renegotiates with everybody, constantly lies, constantly expects the next big gambling hit to fix everything.

Uncut Gems shows a different side of gambling — not the glitzy glamour of roulette wheels and craps tables and exciting payoffs but the dirty, violent, addictive side that entices with the promise not of wealth but of the euphoric adrenaline rush during the heady anticipation of winning. For Howie Ratner (Adam Sandler) the desire is all consuming. He has to have that high.

The film’s frenetic, unrelenting pace mirrors Howie’s frenetic, unrelenting mania. The camera follows him from room to room and scene to scene without so much as a pause to orient the audience. Howie is constantly orchestrating a story. He owes everybody, renegotiates with everybody, constantly lies, constantly expects the next big gambling hit to fix everything. The problem is, he doesn’t really want to fix everything, and he isn’t really after the money. Howie gets off on the risk and anticipation, the fear of losing it all and the release of fear when the game comes his way. Gambling is his cocaine. Winning is his euphoria. We don’t see any drug use in Uncut Gems, yet the movie is a story of freewheeling addiction — addiction to adrenaline.

Howie runs a jewelry store with an off-the-books, secondhand business in the back. As the movie opens he is working a deal to sell a 4,000-carat uncut black opal from Ethiopia through a Manhattan auction house. He expects to garner a million dollars on the deal. But he also has a short-term commitment with a loan shark that needs to be fixed today. (In fact, he has several such commitments.) So he uses the opal to solve several problems at once. He persuades Kevin Garnett (yes, the basketball star, playing himself) that the opal can give him good luck. Then, taking Garnett’s NBA ring as collateral in exchange for letting Garnett keep the opal overnight, Howie pawns the ring for cash; sends a photo of the cash to a loan shark, implying he is on his way to pay the loan; shakes off the heavies of another loan shark by giving them a fake Rolex; heads to his bookie, where he uses the money from Garnett’s ring to bet on Garnett and the Celtics, and finally gives way to the gambler’s euphoria as he watches the game — in which Garnett is in top form, because of his new talisman. All in a day’s work.

If he just so happens to end up in the trunk of his car, stripped naked and calling his wife to push the trunk-open button from the auditorium door during his daughter’s play, so be it.

But Howie doesn’t have time for the big hustle. Every plan has to be made on the fly. He’s entirely short-term oriented, because every moment could be his last. We feel his rising panic as he deals with big-time loan sharks and big-time enforcers who could kill or maim him at any moment. (Howie’s poorly capped teeth suggest an enforcer has taught him a lesson in the past, although how he lost his original teeth is never mentioned.) Like every compulsive gambler, he believes his plan will work and the next big win is as good as in his hands. Then he’ll pay everyone off and everything will be fine.

Like many gambling addicts, Howie is a family man. He was once the kind of guy who takes out the recycling on Wednesday night, recites the prayers at Passover, and attends his kid’s school play. And he still does all that. But he’s always distracted by his latest bet and yesterday’s collectors. If he just so happens to end up in the trunk of his car, stripped naked and calling his wife (Idina Menzel) to push the trunk-open button from the auditorium door during his daughter’s play, so be it. She doesn’t even ask him what happened.

Howie is desperate but not hopeless, and therein lies the key to his character. Hope drives him. In that sense he is the eternal optimist. He’ll do anything, pawn anything, and promise anything to get out of the current jam and into the euphoria of a big score. The more cons he has going and the greater the risk, the higher he gets. Desperation is foreplay for him, and watching a game on which he has a big bet is orgasmic. It isn’t even about the money. When he wins big, he needs sex. But not with his wife. He needs Julia (Julia Fox), the beautiful mistress living in his downtown apartment. No wonder both are called scoring.

After Daniel Day-Lewis saw the film, he called Sandler to congratulate him on his tour-de-force performance. Daniel Day-Lewis!

The camera work and musical score reflect Howie’s relentless determination. Usually dark and fast-paced, the music changes to a dreamy, jazzy arrangement whenever Howie is winning, to reflect his momentary euphoria. The lighting also brightens just a bit in those moments — not enough to be cheesy, but enough that you start to notice it after a while. The Safdie Brothers’ direction is controlled and masterful, even as Howie’s story is frenetically spinning out of control. This frenzy also spills into the audience, as the nearly two and a half hour film feels like 90 minutes. Kevin Garnett, too, is a revelation, delivering a believable performance that comes from deep within his soul, not sitting statically in front of his eyes, as happens with most sports figures who are called on to play themselves. His acting coach should have a separate listing in the credits.

Uncut Gems is a filmmaker’s film, and Sandler has come a long way from his silly Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison days. This isn’t his first foray away from comedy; he delivered excellent dramatic performances in Punch Drunk Love (2002) and Spanglish (2004). But Uncut Gems is his most impressive — gritty, manic, and unrelenting as it follows the life of a crazed gambler who just can’t get enough. After Daniel Day-Lewis saw it, he called Sandler to congratulate him on his tour-de-force performance. Daniel Day-Lewis!! I wouldn’t call it entertaining, and I’m not sure that you, dear reader, would enjoy it. But when funnyman Adam Sandler wins the Oscar for Best Actor, at least you’ll know why.


Editor's Note: Review of "Uncut Gems," directed by Benny and Josh Safdie. Elara Pictures, 2019, 135 minutes.



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Liberty for Security

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The Democrats’ December Debate

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Seven of them! I was going to say, “Still too many,” but I think I’ll miss the ones that will be squeezed out next. Already I miss Representative Tulsi Gabbard. She is not going to be the nominee, but I note that she was the only Democrat in the House to vote “present” on the articles of impeachment. It would have been entertaining and maybe instructive to have the other seven Democrats light into Gabbard, and her into them. Gabbard had helped vanquish Kamala Harris — a net gain for the republic.

The rest of the candidates are becoming painfully familiar. Their spiels are not only memorized but burned into their neurons like the tracks on a DVD. They have conditioned themselves not to answer certain questions, but to select the question they wanted and press PLAY. The moderators, who know this, ask the wrong questions in the hope of unleashing a wobble of individuality. The first question of the night was to answer why, given that they all supported impeachment, did only about half of the American electorate support it?

Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer all pressed PLAY and gave the prepared answer: Trump deserves impeachment because his administration is “the most corrupt in modern history” (Sanders), et cetera. Steyer one-upped the others by saying he began a public effort for impeachment two years ago — before Trump’s telephone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The candidates are becoming painfully familiar. Their spiels are not only memorized but burned into their neurons like the tracks on a DVD.

Yang was the only one who answered the question. Americans don’t agree on impeachment, he said, because they are getting their news from different sources, some of them pro-Trump and some rabidly anti-Trump that say he’s president only because of “Russia, racism, Facebook, Hillary Clinton, and emails.” The impeachment fight, Yang said, “strikes many Americans as a ballgame where you know what the score is going to be.”

Indeed. Yang is not going to be president, but it was good to have him there.

Moderators asked another “tough” question: given that the American economy is operating at full employment, how can they argue against Trump on the economy? Predictably, all who answered wallowed in gloom. Biden said, “The middle class is being killed.” Warren said, “The middle class is being hollowed out.” Buttigieg said, “This economy isn’t working for most of us.” Sanders said of an increase in average wages of 1.1% (Nov. 2018–Nov. 2019, after inflation, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics), “That ain’t great.” Yang joined in on the gloomfest, saying that average life expectancy in America has dropped for three years, largely on account of drug overdoses and suicides.

Yang is not going to be president, but it was good to have him there.

I checked that out, and it’s true. The drop came in 2015, 2016, and 2017, the last year for which statistics are available, from 78.9 years to 78.6 years. I didn’t know that, and I thank Yang for bringing it up, but what does it have to do with Donald Trump? What control does the president of the United States have over drug overdoses and suicides (including those that occurred before he took office)? And for that matter, what control does he have over the average increase in real wages?

One of the most annoying features of these long, gas-filled debates is that candidates offer solutions and “plans” for everything under the sun, from planetary climate to the worries of a diabetic in Nevada sharing insulin with his sisters. Never do you hear a candidate say, “The presidency is an office of limited powers, and I couldn’t help you with that.” The closest in this debate was on the question of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which all good Democrats are for. The question was then put to Biden, who was vice president for eight years when it was not done. And Biden said, “You have to have congressional authority to do it.”

Biden also said, regarding his support of the war in Afghanistan, “I was wrong.” I credit him for that. Politicians hardly ever say it.

On the matter of global warming, Steyer said he would declare a national emergency. So would Sanders. Declaring an emergency would allow the president to do — what? Buttigieg and Klobuchar supported a carbon tax, which would have to be passed by Congress. Biden wanted to offer Americans 550,000 electric charging stations and tax credits for solar panels on their roofs. (More free stuff!) One of the more interesting questions was whether the candidates would support nuclear power, because it emits no carbon. Warren, like the good progressive she is, said no more nuclear. So did Steyer. “We actually have the technology that we need,” he said. “It’s called wind and solar and batteries.” (Wind and solar and batteries?) Only Yang said he would consider nuclear, mentioning “next generation thorium reactors.”

What control does the president of the United States have over drug overdoses and suicides (including those that occurred before he took office)?

Does the president decide what sort of power plant utility companies build? They spoke as if he did.

The questioners repeatedly asked questions appropriate to a dictator, or a god. One of the questions was, what would you do to stop violence against transgendered people? An honest answer might have been, “I could condemn it vigorously.” Warren said, “I will go to the Rose Garden once every year to read the names of transgender women, people of color, who have been killed in the past year.” It was a weak answer, but what could she say?

The one field in which the president is king is foreign affairs. There the Democratic thought was that America had to rejoin its allies and act in unison to support democracy and human rights. Several referred to Hong Kong, where protesters have been challenging Chinese hegemony — and China has, so far, held back. Yang had been to Hong Kong, and he has family there. He talked about the Hong Kong police’s use of facial recognition technology and the territory’s ban on facemasks. He didn’t suggest anything America could do about Hong Kong. Buttigieg talked about “isolating” China if it sent in the army. Biden talked about beefing up the Pacific Fleet to “protect other folks.” (What folks?) He added, “We don’t have to go to war. But we have to make it clear: this is as far as you go, China.”

I cut the candidates some slack here. They can be clear about the big policy things they can’t do by themselves, but foreign policy they can do, and it does not pay to show one’s hand in advance.

The questioners repeatedly asked questions appropriate to a dictator, or a god.

There were also some flashes of clarity. The questioners tried to pin down Sanders on why he’s for zero tuition at public colleges for everyone, and not just for those with, say, family incomes under $150,000 — Buttigieg’s proposal. Why would he cancel student debt for all, including the well-off, especially since he has it in for “the billionaire class”?

“I believe in the concept of universality,” he said, offering as examples Social Security and the public schools.

Warren was asked the same thing in regard to free tuition. Well, she said, she was going to pay for it with a tax on wealth — the implication being that the wealthy should not be excluded from free tuition. Universality, again.

And what would free public college mean for the private colleges? Nobody asked.

The one issue that heated up the debate was the one that means the most to the candidates themselves — paying for their campaigns. All candidates except the super-wealthy have to ask donors for money, and they hate doing it. The Democrats were all for getting private money out of politics — i.e., getting it from the government — but since that handout has not yet been universalized, they are in a bind. They can stand under a halo and accept only small donations, as Sanders and Warren are doing, or they can take big checks from those willing to write them and risk being called hypocrites.

Buttigieg was taking the big checks, and Warren called him out on it. Buttigieg had recently held a fundraiser in a “wine cave,” at which a bottle of inebriant went for $900. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States," Warren said.

Democratic hopefuls can stand under a halo and accept only small donations, as Sanders and Warren are doing, or they can take big checks from those willing to write them and risk being called hypocrites.

This made me chuckle. Nine hundred isn’t a billion, and would billionaires pick Buttigieg? I didn’t think so. Buttigieg was not chuckling, He said Warren’s statement demonstrated “the problem of passing purity tests that you yourself cannot pass . . . Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine.”

(Big cheer from the audience.)

“I don’t sell access to my time,” she said.

Buttigieg said her campaign is partly funded with money she raised in earlier campaigns and transferred to this one. “Did it corrupt you? Of course not,” he said.

This was the fourth or fifth Democratic debate I’d endured and I was tired of the pretense that they all mattered.

Klobuchar, who didn’t have a lot memorable to say this night, joined in and said, “I have never even been to a wine cave.” I recalled that in an earlier debate she said she had raised campaign money from old boyfriends.

A woman of the people.

Sanders bragged that he has more donors than anyone in American history, and that the donations average $18. Biden said his average was $43. Steyer, who has been donating millions to himself, wanted to change the subject. “We need to talk about prosperity,” he said.

I was tired of all the talking. This was the fourth or fifth Democratic debate I’d endured — I was losing count — and I was tired of the pretense that they all mattered. Steyer is not going to be the nominee. No way is the Democratic Party going to nominate a businessman. Ditto Yang, the entrepreneur. He even made a joke about this in his closing remarks: “I know what you are thinking, America. How am I still on the stage with them?” Yeah, I was thinking that. Yang is more of an individual, more “authentic,” than the rest of them, but he’s not going to be the nominee. Probably not Buttigieg or Klobuchar either. It will be Warren, Sanders, or Biden.

Well, let it be Biden. At least he knows the office, and he’s not a socialist.




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The Good News about Us

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I was teaching a seminar, a week or so ago, when I got an interesting response to a simple observation.

The text was the Divine Comedy, and the topic was sin. I wanted to emphasize the distinction between “original sin” and what theologians call “total depravity.” There’s plenty of evidence for original sin, I noted; just look at children. They quite naturally lie, steal, and commit aggression. But the idea that there’s nothing good about people — that’s something different. “The empirical evidence indicates that people are mainly good,” I said. “Every day, almost everything they do is right.”

The students looked confused. “Our world couldn’t exist,” I continued, “if the vast majority of people’s decisions weren’t right. That’s how I was able to get here on the freeway this morning. Everybody was operating a lethal instrument, and one that’s not easy to handle, either; but everybody made the kind of moral and practical decisions that allowed thousands of us to get to our destinations.”

The empirical evidence indicates that people are mainly good. Every day, almost everything they do is right.

Suddenly the looks of doubt and confusion turned to surprise and joy. No one had thought of this obvious truth — a truth so obvious that, frankly, I usually forget it myself. As you know, I am especially prone to forget it while writing about the shocking state of our political affairs.

Yet the overwhelmingly correct decisions that people make in their daily lives are not just a vindication of human nature; they are a vindication of libertarian ideas about the importance of letting people make their own decisions. It’s true, there’s a difference between moral and practical choices. And it’s true, education is needed. Teenagers need to learn how to drive. They also need to learn that it’s morally wrong to express their irritations by aiming a huge hunk of steel going 70 miles an hour at the targets of their displeasure. But once they have the necessary education — which is not too hard to acquire, if authority figures don’t mess it up — they do pretty well in their own bailiwick. Better than the authority figures ordinarily do in theirs. So leave them alone! Laissez-faire!

No one had thought of this obvious truth — a truth so obvious that, frankly, I usually forget it myself.

Speaking of education, this isn’t a lesson that’s particularly difficult to convey to our friends and neighbors. It’s a joyful lesson. And here’s the corollary: The genius of limited government is that it reduces the number of bailiwicks in which authority figures can intervene, and make a mess of things. I don’t know how to spend your money, and neither does President Trump. And I don’t know how to run your race relations, healthcare, retirement schemes, diet, college choice, weapons provision, electricity consumption, or — to return to the original example — means of transportation. Neither does Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or any of the rest of them. So they should butt out.

Again, not hard to understand. And not even new. Alexander Pope said it 300 years ago:

Each might his sev’ral province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.




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A Strange and Important Film

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When I first saw a trailer for Jojo Rabbit, I had no interest in viewing it. Hitler Youth frolicking in the forest like Boy Scouts at a Jamboree? Adolf Hitler sidling up to our young protagonist with an ingratiating grin? No thank you. The Holocaust was serious business. So was Aryan expansion into all of Europe.

And yet, like a witness at a crash scene, I couldn’t avert my eyes. So there I was on a Tuesday night, ready to see if it was truly Springtime for Hitler in Hollywood. My discovery? Not exactly.

Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a charming, lonely, 10-year-old, blue-eyed Aryan blond who can’t wait to join the Hitler Youth camp. He is excited to prove his love for Germany, but really he’s “just a 10-year-old kid who likes to collect swastikas and dress up in funny clothes,” as one character observes. Mostly he just wants to belong. The boys run around the forest hollering and laughing. But Johannes flinches and runs away when it’s time to play battle games. The other boys are older, stronger, and more aggressive. He doesn’t want to get hurt. He’s only ten, after all. Just a boy. We never lose sight of that in this film.

Hitler Youth frolicking in the forest like Boy Scouts at a Jamboree? Adolf Hitler sidling up to our young protagonist with an ingratiating grin? No thank you.

The camp is supervised by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), the one-eyed demoted lunatic who invites the boys collegially to “Call me Captain K” in one moment and then stirs them into a killing frenzy in the next. He tells them, “Today you become a man,” ironically echoing the purpose of a bar mitzvah in the religion they are taught to despise. When Captain K tells Johannes to wring a rabbit’s neck to prove his willingness to kill Jews, Johannes lets the bunny go and then runs away like a — well, like a frightened rabbit. Hence his hated nickname, Jojo Rabbit.

Here’s what you need to know about this film: The whole time the boys are chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” I wasn’t thinking about Lord of the Flies. (Well, maybe just a little bit.) I was mostly thinking about Looney Tunes’ Wagnerian “Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!” scene with Bugs Bunny in Valkyrie getup.

And that’s the perverse magic of Jojo Rabbit. It’s insanely funny, utterly serious, and totally bizarre. It manipulates you the way Hitler manipulated the masses. And you go along, the way the masses went along with Hitler, because it’s just so compelling. In an early scene, the Beatles’ “Komm, gib mir deine Hand” plays while Jojo runs exuberantly to the youth camp and masses of screaming Germans present their upraised right hands to the Fuehrer in a thundering salute. Yes, they have come to give him their hands. The idolizing hysteria of the Germans mimics the mass hysteria of Beatlemania 25 years later. And hysteria it is. The message is clear: Hitlerism was fueled by hyperemotionalism and little else. Moreover, “Heil Hitlering” becomes a verb in this movie, being used 31 times in a single minute in one particularly satirical scene.

The captain tells them, “Today you become a man,” ironically echoing the purpose of a bar mitzvah in the religion they are taught to despise.

At home Jojo confesses his shame about the rabbit, his loneliness, and his general cowardice to his only friend, Adolf Hitler (director Taika Watiti). No, not the real Adolf, but Jojo’s imaginary friend who, like Calvin’s tiger Hobbes, gleefully stirs him up, urges him forward, and eventually gets him maimed by an overzealous toss of a practice grenade that happens to be loaded and armed. In the comic strip Calvin blames all of his misdeeds on Hobbes, when in reality his pranks and adventures are entirely his own idea. Similarly, Jojo uses his imaginary friendship with Adolf Hitler to gird up his loins and prove his commitment to Germany.

Many Germans would use the “Hitler made me do it” excuse after the war, when in reality they, too, had choices. Stephen Merchant, who plays a threatening but inept Gestapo agent Deertz, said that in preparing for the role he “imagined members of the Gestapo like his character as ‘quite petty bureaucrats’ who, prior to the war received little respect, and during the war let their power go to their heads.” This may have been true of many Germans who welcomed the opportunity to treat their Jewish neighbors with contempt, while blaming their hatred on allegiance to Hitler and the Fatherland. Yet other Germans resisted Nazism, and many of those gave their lives for freedom.

Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) doesn’t approve of the direction in which Germany is headed, nor does she approve of the Hitler Youth organization her son has joined. She is outspoken, feisty, and fashionable in a way that we don’t expect in 1940s Germany. (Director Waititi says that Berliners continued to be sociable and fashionable even during the war, and he wanted to portray that in his film with vibrant colors and bucolic scenery. Kind of like Americans during our wars in other nations.) She is a free-spirited mother who wants to make a difference, even if it means saving just one person. Nevertheless, these are perilous times. Children are being taught to report any examples of disloyalty to Germany or sympathy for Jews. Rosie adores little Jojo, and the scenes between mother and son are endearing and lovely. But she refrains from sharing too much of her philosophy with her son. The fear of snitching is real.

Similarly, Jojo uses his imaginary friendship with Adolf Hitler to gird up his loins and prove his commitment to Germany.

To stir up fear and hatred toward the Jews, outlandish stories are told in camp and at school. An ancestral Jew mated with a fish. Jews have horns, eat babies, and have animal bodies. They read minds and are attracted to ugly things. And they love money. Jojo has never met a Jew (as far as he knows) and believes the propaganda. Of course, Jews are none of these things. And that is a major point of this film — hatred and mistrust are taught by others who want us to hate and mistrust, not by personal experience. Jojo doesn’t realize this, however; he’s just a 10-year-old boy, trained to believe and obey his elders. When he discovers that his mother has been harboring a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in his deceased sister’s closet, he faces the ultimate dilemma: should he report his mother to the Gestapo? For Germany?

And what about this Jewish girl? As time goes on, Jojo’s inner conflict deepens. He confesses to Adolf (who is feasting on unicorn head — I’m not kidding), “She doesn’t seem like a bad person to me.” And isn’t that the point? When we base our judgments on our own experience with people, we’ll discover that some are bad, some are good, some are friendly, some are boring. It has nothing to do with labels. But we’ll never learn the truth if we simply believe what others tell us to think about an entire group of people.

John F. Di Leo warned in a recent Facebook post, “This wasn't some ancient, barbaric country, in some uncivilized, undiscovered territory. It was Germany, in Europe, just 78 years ago. . . . It can happen anywhere, if government is allowed to get too powerful . . . and if politicians are empowered to demonize an innocent group.”

That is a major point of this film — hatred and mistrust are taught by others who want us to hate and mistrust, not by personal experience.

Jojo’s dilemma reminds one of Huck Finn, torn between helping Jim escape and worrying about how his own salvation will be affected for doing it. What courage it takes for Huck to say on his knees, before God, “Then I’ll go to hell if I have to . . . You can’t pray a lie. I found that out.” This young, virtually illiterate boy has too much integrity to ask for forgiveness for something he does not regret doing. He likes Jim. Loves him, in fact. And yet, in the end of the book, Huck and Tom still have Jim hidden away in a cage. Jojo does that too. The film abounds with literary references.

Jojo Rabbit is one of the most engaging films I have seen this year. Like Jack Benny’s To Be or Not to Be (1944), it’s delightfully funny yet deadly serious as it reveals the conflict between freedom of thought and the madness of crowds. I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about choice and accountability.


Editor's Note: Review of "Jojo Rabbit," directed by Taika Waititi. Fox Searchlight, 2019, 108 minutes.



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Obstruction and Contempt

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The Democrats’ drive to impeach and convict President Trump has been comical throughout, although the comedy hasn’t been good enough to hold the attention of very many people. One thing that I find irresistibly amusing, however, is the two charges (or, more accurately, beefs) that the Democrats are bringing forward.

One is “abuse of power,” as if virtually all presidents for the past several generations had not grossly abused their power, and as if that in itself were a crime instead of a stupidity or moral evil. And as if Congress itself didn’t continually abuse its power.

“Why are they charging him with contempt of Congress? Don’t we all feel that way?”

The other is “obstructing Congress,” as if that were a crime or even a moral evil, given the Congressional abuses mentioned above. When you think about it, isn’t it the job of the president, and all good Americans, to obstruct Congress? Isn’t that why he has a veto, and we have a vote?

I remember a joke about charges like this. I first saw it when I was a kid. It was in a book decrying the activities of the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, which charged people with “contempt of Congress” for refusing to answer its questions. The book contained some cartoons, one of which, as I recall, showed a man reading a newspaper with a headline related to a recent outbreak of the “contempt of Congress” charge. The man says to a woman, presumably his wife, “Why are they charging him with contempt of Congress? Don’t we all feel that way?”




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A Happy Family Beach in Puerto Vallarta

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Something good is happening in Mexico in spite of the country’s sluggish official economic figures. My metric, my indicator, is the large number of highly visible Mexican families who are newly vacationing at the seaside. It seems to me that traveling from the interior of Mexico after making reservations at a beachfront hotel, and actually staying there for a week or more, sings out, “middle class!” That’s true even if the hotel in question is a little run down by gringo standards, and almost awful according to the criteria of the Mexican upper class.

How do I know those are new seaside vacationers? Easy! First, they don’t know how to swim at all. (Unlike the US, Mexico does not have a swimming pool in nearly every high school and in every little cheap motel.) So, Mexican newcomer families do something very sweet to take advantage of the warm ocean. Dad, usually the tallest of all, will stand in the water up to his chin. Mom will sit on his extended knee, with her arm around his neck. The children hang from one or both of them as best they can. Families can do this for hours, with satisfaction and pleasure written on all faces. More experienced vacationers either swim or simply avoid such jejune displays of affection. The standing still in the water makes sense, though, because it’s very hot outside.

I had to talk myself into swimming that morning. It had rained heavily the night before.

The second way I am able to spot the newbies is by what they wear and what they carry. They seem to prepare for their vacation by consulting women’s magazines and now, increasingly, the internet, in order to find out what equipment is required at the beach. So, in addition to brand new bathing suits, small arm floats to keep children above the surface, just in case, and large ones, yellow or green, shaped like giant ducks or dinosaurs, to sit on. Many carry both kinds. In addition, thanks to Chinese industriousness, their children have many, but many, brightly colored sand tools. Colorfulness alone is often enough to spot the neophytes.

This may sound condescending, but it’s not. It reminds me a little of my own childhood, although my family was composed of transgenerational beach veterans. A bit of retrospective envy is involved here: instead of a dozen tools for each child, we had three cheap tin sand tools, in all, which had to be shared among four children.

Anyhow, one day I was swimming within 40 yards of a tiny hotel beach circumscribed by two small breakwaters. I had to talk myself into swimming that morning. It had rained heavily the night before and a nearby river had projected its brownish alluvial waters far into the normally blue Pacific Ocean. One of its branches was approaching my little beach. In the end, I went anyway.

At one point, I heard female voices yelling insistently. This went on long enough to pierce into my consciousness.

When I say that I was swimming, it’s almost an exaggeration. I was lying face down in the water, giving myself a little push by fluttering my straightened legs every so often. As is my habit, I was wearing a face mask. I use one almost whenever I am in the sea because I like to catch any sign of life near the bottom while I swim. And then, there was that time on a crowded beach in the Virgin Islands when I spotted and caught by hand a nice-sized lobster on the sandy seafloor, and I was allowed to keep it. I was never the same afterwards. As people say nowadays, it was a transformative experience. I was not using a snorkel that time on the little Mexican beach, so I had to raise my head to breathe every so often.

Moving around like that, only a short way from the sand, I remained faintly aware of the laughter and other happy noises from people in the shallows. When I lifted my head, I also saw, without giving them any attention, vacationers walking or playing on the sand, or just standing, gazing at the ocean. Soon I became absorbed in my vague search for creatures and in my swimming thoughts (a special kind of thought — some other time). At one point, I heard female voices yelling insistently. This went on long enough to pierce into my consciousness. Slowly, I realized that those specific shouts were not part of the repertories of either happy women or angry women. (I have a decent experience of both, if I may say so.) And also, it was not the time or place for such vocalizations. When I raised my head to breathe, I detected that there was no one left in water deeper than two feet. I just failed to add two and two. The shouts redoubled in both loudness and in urgency. I noticed that they came from two teenage girls standing on the water's edge with an adult woman.

I couldn’t make out what the trio was yelling except that every yell started with the word “Señor.” Well, I am kind of dense, but not that dense. It dawned on me finally that there was a good chance the women were shouting at me. (If they had shouted “Señora,” I would have thought differently, trust me.) I was in no hurry to understand what else they were shouting, because who wants to pay attention to overexcited landlubbers? I know, I know what you are thinking: dumb, inattentive, oblivious, probably arrogant gringo ignores the advice of wise natives. Will pay for it! I know what you are further thinking, because this was happening in and on the edge of tropical waters, as in a movie.

Finally, finally, I recognized the long word at the end of the shouted sentences: “cocodrilo” — “crocodile”!

Making things clear: my Spanish is, frankly, good — in general. (That language is only a dialect of Latin, like my own native language, French. It helps.) There is one Spanish word in particular that is engraved in several parts of my brain because I have free-dived and speared fish in Mexico hundreds of times. The word is the term for shark: “tiburón!” It’s always accompanied by an exclamation point, or even two, Spanish style: “¡tiburón!” Well, I had definitely not heard the women on the sand shout that word. It would surely have drawn my attention if they had. So I returned to my leisurely swim.

Then others joined the women in screaming something incomprehensible; some of them were almost jumping up and down in their excitement. I looked around and determined that I was the only possible target of all this agitation. I swam a little closer to the sand. Finally, finally, I recognized the long word at the end of the shouted sentences: “cocodrilo” — “crocodile”! Well, damn it, context is everything; how was I supposed to guess that? I am an old Paris boy, after all. There has not been a crocodile in the Seine for a couple of million years, or something like that.

I raised my head, looked to my right, looked to my left, and finally turned around on myself. Sure enough, a crocodile as long as I am tall was peacefully lounging two or three feet from me. For the first time that day, I swam fairly fast, until my belly hit the sand. And, yes, sure thing, the creature was only as big around as my thigh. It was maybe a teenager. Still . . .

After I left the water, I thanked the nice middle-class women from Mexico City for saving my life, or perhaps a limb, or worse. Then I walked along the water’s edge to follow the beast’s slow progress while keeping my eyes on it. When it disappeared behind one of the breakwaters, I felt a sense of loss. It was my first time swimming with a crocodile after all.




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It’s Tuesday, So Give Us Some Cash

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If you have email, you know that there is something in this world called Giving Tuesday. Since 2012 it’s happened on the Tuesday after the weirdly named Black Friday. It’s an occasion for “charities” and “nonprofits” to guilt you into putting money in their trough, and it’s backed by the usual corporate and “charitable” elites. As Giving Tuesday’s Wiki entry says,

Reception of Giving Tuesday has generally been positive, with a large number of organizations, including Google, Microsoft, Skype, Cisco, UNICEF, the Case Foundation, Save the Children, and others joining in as partners. Giving Tuesday has been praised as an antithesis of consumer culture and as a way for people to give back.

Of course, the idea that by getting you to give them money instead of spending it on yourself, or deciding for yourself where to spend your charitable cash, big corporate charities are combating “consumer culture” is no more logical than the idea that a guy who robs you on the street is trying to restore you to the simple life of the poor. And the notion that when I give to a cause I like, or, heaven forfend! to a person I like, I am giving something back . . . that piece of effrontery is almost unspeakable. If Microsoft ever gives me something, I will consider giving something back. So far, it hasn’t. Oh no. Distinctly not.

I expected ARI’s message to be somewhat like the comments I wrote above — bottom line: keep your money!

And speaking of effrontery — how insolent is it to imply that an amorphous something called society gave me something that now I need to give back . . . to UNICEF, or any other self-designated organization, the distinguishing characteristic of which is that it never had anything remotely to do with me?

I would expect my unfavorable view of organized “giving” to be held by many people, especially the good people at the Ayn Rand Institute. Most readers of this journal are well acquainted with Rand’s belief in the form of rational self-interest she called “selfishness.” So when I received an email from ARI designating the Sunday after Thanksgiving as Selfish Sunday, I expected ARI’s message to be somewhat like the comments I wrote above — bottom line: keep your money! Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Selfish Sunday was just another occasion for giving — only this time to give to the Ayn Rand Institute, so it could give Ayn Rand books to high school students.

What’s the difference between giving to the United Nations Foundation for the prospect of a brighter future, and giving to the Ayn Rand Institute for the prospect of a brighter future?

So what’s the difference between Giving Tuesday and Selfish Sunday? ARI’s email explained that Selfish Sunday is “our way of inviting you to consider spending just $5 to help the Ayn Rand Institute in its fight for a better culture, for your sake.”

Uh . . . OK . . . But on Giving Tuesday itself, ARI went further. It sent out emails trying to replace “Giving Tuesday” with “Trading Tuesday”:

That’s how we’ve renamed “Giving Tuesday” — to emphasize Ayn Rand’s trader principle: mutual exchange to mutual benefit. And today, just $5 allows the Ayn Rand Institute to supercharge your money’s power. . . .

Will you trade us a bit of money for the prospect of a brighter future?

So, again: what’s the difference between giving to the United Nations Foundation (an originator — natch! — of Giving Tuesday) for the prospect of a brighter future, and giving to the Ayn Rand Institute for the prospect of a brighter future?

Good question.

Now, if ARI said, “The difference is that we’re doin’ good stuff and the rest of them are doin’ bad stuff, so we hope you can give us some money, sometime,” that would be swell. You can say that at any time; you don’t need to wait till Stupid Sunday or Tiresome Tuesday. But the notion that when you give to ARI you’re either giving to yourself or doing a deal . . . that ain’t so swell. No, not at all.




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The Rich Have Not Been Idle

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On Thanksgiving Day I had an unhappy conversation with a libertarian friend. The conversation started with a report of a holiday dinner he had just attended with his extended family. Inevitably, during dinner, some of his family made political statements that were, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. They were credulous believers in and campaigners for the “progressive” program of the Democratic Party — tax increases, socialized health, regulation of everything, all the ideas and causes that were exploded by rational analysis generations ago.

These people are by no means dumb. They have advanced degrees, they make their living by analysis and application of facts, and they are financially very successful. Moreover, they made their own money. They are not the idle, coupon-clipping rich. Yet they are rich.

I reflected on my own friends. Many of them are progressive Democrats. Their ideas are, as far as I can tell, precisely the same as those of the people I just described, because they believe precisely everything the “progressive” media have to say. And these people are also rich.

They were credulous believers in and campaigners for the “progressive” program of the Democratic Party, all the ideas and causes that were exploded by rational analysis generations ago.

In our society, despite the ostensible wishes of the progressives, the wealthy matter very much. One of the ways they matter is that they are the ones who fund the programmatically anti-wealth progressive movement and are determined to force everyone else to fund it too.

This is a mystery that many detectives have tried to solve. Their conclusions vary:

  • The rich have all the material stuff they want, so all that’s left to buy is power, and progressivism makes the largest offer of power.
  • The rich feel guilty because they’re rich, and progressivism claims to help the poor.
  • The minds of the rich were corrupted by teachers who envy wealth and want to redistribute it, to themselves and others, progressivism being the best means of doing that.

These theories all have merit — a lot of it, in fact. I have one theory to add.

I’ll start by asking a question. What do you call a set of ideas and practices that, though impervious to fact, arouses such strong emotions that people will sacrifice to it their time, their energy, and (at least some of) their wealth, deriving from it their ethical validation and regarding everyone who takes another view as either ignorant or immoral? If you said, “That sounds like a fanatical religion,” you are right. There has never been a fanatical religion in the modern West that has not found wealthy people to support it, no matter how much it preached against wealth.

Fortunate people! They have a religion that never constrains, always gratifies the emotions.

A couple of generations ago, fanatical religions had more competition for the bucks and reputed brains of the “propertied classes.” The competition was the non-fanatical religions, which provided plenty of opportunities for rich people to make contributions in exchange for ego benefits. In our society, however, the wealthy appear to have become irreligious at a much faster rate than anybody else. Even those who have maintained a semblance of conventional religiosity manifest no compunction about sacrificing traditional religious ideas to the temptations of political ideology. The desire to be part of a religious movement, combined with the conviction that ordinary religion is impossibly uncool, is typified by the pious tone of the wealthy Hollywood personnel who, when not happily boycotting their favorite “moral” (i.e., political) offenders, are busy purveying sex and violence. Fortunate people! They have a religion that never constrains, always gratifies the emotions.

With the very rich getting very richer and pledging ever more funds to the Church of Virtue Signaling, libertarians have a harder row to hoe than they did back in the day, when their principal opponents were the supposed representatives of the working classes — grasping labor unions and warmongering nationalists. The answer is not to try serving up libertarianism as its own substitute religion, as too many activists do. It is to preach the open, optimistic promises of a non-cult, to offer the calm and common sense that are treasured by the majority of working people — people who truly “just want to be left alone” by politicians, particularly those who make a religion out of politics. I think it is that desire, more than anything else, that elected Donald Trump, and libertarian ideas present a refreshing alternative to the rest of his message. It’s the “working class” — not the academics, and certainly not the rich — who are now our natural audience. It’s time to let them know that we’re still here.




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