President Corleone

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go figure.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s just say.

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




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Ex Cathedra

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

Does Trump lie? That is the question.

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

Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Temporization Fugit

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As speculated in a June 7 feature here, President Trump today (June 16) announced, before a packed Miami crowd, a big change in US-Cuba policy. Though tourism to the island by American-based visitors has been technically banned by the embargo for quite some time, the 2014 Obama thaw fudged the issue in a variety of ways. President Trump has just dumped the fudge.

Pre-Obama’s thaw, regulations allowed Americans to visit Cuba under a variety of categories, including a people-to-people category — once their itinerary had been vetted by the Treasury Department. Under that category, only organized tour groups with a detailed itinerary were allowed to visit, with the intent of American folks and Cuban folks getting to know each other.

Compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

On December 2014, President Obama eliminated the vetting process and allowed visitors to vet themselves on an honor system. At the same time, visitors returning from the island weren’t scrutinized, only questioned perfunctorily or not at all, about their compliance with US government regulations.

According to CNBC, “President Trump's policy restricts this form of travel to Cuba for individuals. Americans pursuing this type of travel would have to go in groups.” And their compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

But the ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company, GAESA. "The profits from investment and tourism flow directly to the military. The regime takes the money and owns the industry. The outcome of the last administration's executive action has only been more repression and a move to crush the peaceful, democratic movement," Trump said in Miami on Friday.

The ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company.

According to Fox News, The policy calls on Americans traveling to Cuba to use "private businesses and services provided by the Cuban people, rather than businesses and services provided by GAESA." In effect, government hotels and resorts are out. US-based visitors must use private B&Bs and restaurants otherwise known as casas particulares and paladares.

The new policy does not go into effect until the new regulations are issued. We await the Cuban government’s reaction . . .




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Talk Tough but Temporize

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During the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump criticized President Obama’s Cuba policy and promised to reverse it. However, after Trump’s win, during the transition, “he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately expressed support for Obama’s Cuba policy,” according to a June 2 ABC News report.

In typical Trump fashion, the candidate talked tough but the president is keeping his options open as he educates himself on the issues. And in typical government fashion, a “policy review” under the auspices of the National Security Council was set up to study the issues. It was supposed to report its recommendations on May 20, the 115th anniversary of Cuban independence, but the issues turned out to be more complex than originally envisioned, and Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on that hallowed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

Yes, that’s right: in a Wilsonian-Carterian flourish, Trump’s Cuba policy “will have important differences with respect to that of Barack Obama, especially with a ‘major emphasis’ on human rights,” according to Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America.

Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on the appointed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

It seems — to a cynic who might ignore the president’s ostensible, stated reason — that Trump’s thrust is based on two objectives. One is the aim, originating in a gut reaction, to reverse anything Obama did; the other is more nakedly political: according to the Associated Press, the Trump administration wants to maintain good relations with Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate committee investigating Trump’s relations with Russia, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — both Cuban-Americans, and the latter a not-too-distant relative of the Castros.

Meanwhile, in a Trumpian flourish just before leaving office, Obama restricted Cuban immigration by rescinding the so-called “Wet foot, Dry foot” policy whereby a Cuban caught on the waters between Cuba and the United States ("wet feet") would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore ("dry feet") can remain in the United States, and would later qualify for expedited legal permanent resident status in accordance with the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, and eventually US citizenship.

The Trump administration’s ambivalence toward Obama’s Cuba policy proceeds from the fact that its favorable aspects conflict with its unfavorable consequences. While the reduced restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba that President Obama signed as an executive order in 2014 have tripled leisure travel to nearly 300,000 last year, much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the state security (repressive) apparatus. Organized tours, especially in the “people-to-people” and “educational” categories are little better, spending all their time under direct government control, visiting such exciting venues as printing workshops, organic farmers’ cooperative markets, and other government-organized venues, while traveling in government tour buses with government guides.

Those dollars strengthen the security organs. According to ABC News, arrests and detentions climbed from 8,899 in 2014 to 9,940 in 2016.

Much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the repressive state security apparatus.

On the other hand, continues the ABC report, a significant proportion of travelers eschewed organized tours, opting instead to explore Cuba on their own and thereby “injecting hundreds of millions in US spending into privately owned businesses on the island,” businesses made possible by the 201 private enterprises (especially B&Bs and restaurants) legalized by the regime since 2010, and “supercharging the growth of an entrepreneurial middle-class.”

Still, the hype has blinded what ought to be sober players into overreach. President Obama did not change the requirements for US travelers to Cuba; he only put compliance with them on the honor system, a system that still requires registering with the US Treasury Dept. The same ABC News report I quote here incorrectly states that “Obama eliminated that requirement.”

And it’s not just ABC News. Airlines such as JetBlue, American, Silver Airways, and Frontier, anticipating tens of thousands of travelers to book their own, independent trips to Cuba, have had to cut back considerably. Silver and Frontier have both canceled all their flights, citing "costs in Havana to turn an aircraft significantly exceeded our initial assumptions." In other words, the costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines. Earlier this year, JetBlue announced it would use smaller planes for its Cuba flights, and American Airlines cut its daily flights to Cuba by 25%.

The Obama changes did increase US travel to Cuba, just not as much as some expected. NBC News reports that “according to the state-run site CubaDebate, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba spiked in January of this year at 43,200. CubaDebate said that's a 125% increase from January of last year.” In addition, it reported 31,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to the island in January.

The costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines.

Those Cuban-Americans recently became a political football for cruise lines, which also dove into the liberalized US-Cuba travel market. The Cuban government does not recognize naturalized US citizenship by any Cuban-born individual: in their eyes such people are still Cuban citizens. Many of these expatriates, although allowed to visit relatives in Cuba under one of the allowed US categories of travelers, refused to set foot on the island for any prolonged length of time, declining to give even one dollar to the regime. But the promise of a cruise with all the amenities provided by a US ship and onshore visits a matter of only hours on terra firma suddenly attracted many.

But it was not to be.

The Cuban government declared that Cuban-born Cuban-Americans would not be allowed on shore from any visiting US cruise ship, referring to an earlier Cuban law that prohibited any Cuban-born person returning from to the island by sea. This was probably meant to place a fig leaf over the prosecution of any foreign-based infiltrators.

So, initially, Carnival Corporation refused to sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans. Two lawsuits put paid to that. They were filed in federal court in Miami: a class-action suit and a civil suit, by Cuban-born Americans who attempted to book and were denied tickets on Fathom Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of Carnival. According to the Miami Herald, “the lawsuits alleged that the cruise line was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by following a policy that discriminates against a class of Americans on a place of public accommodation for transient guests — a cruise ship.”

Carnival then decided to sell tickets to Cuban-Americans but delayed its cruises until Cuba changed its policy — which it did, effective April 26, 2016. The first cruise sailed on May 1, 2016.

Cuba has not adapted well to the increase in visits. Forget booking a hotel room in Havana during the peak season of November-April on your own; rely instead on a package tour. And good luck finding a B&B, called in Cuba a casa particular. Under the Obama initiatives, both governments have struck agreements to cooperate on issues ranging from human trafficking to oil spills, and even increased internet access — a pledge extracted out of Raul Castro by President Obama. The Cuban government has “opened nearly 400 public Wi-Fi access points across the country,” according to the AP. But that reality is much less than meets expectations. The outlets are mostly in parks and plazas and only provide email connections. Full internet access, while more available than before, is beyond most Cubans’ budgets and remains frustratingly slow.

Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years.

The challenge for the Trump administration’s policy reset is to keep the good bits — full diplomatic relations, some relative freedom of travel, the benefits to Cuba’s private sector, etc. — while limiting Americans from doing business with the Cuban security organs, “according to a Trump administration official and a person involved in the ongoing policy review” (ABC report). Additionally, what with President Trump’s emphasis on jobs, Engage Cuba, a pro-détente group, released a study this May asserting “that a complete rollback of Obama’s Cuba policy would cost airlines and cruise lines $3.5 billion over the next four years and lead to the loss of 10,154 travel jobs.” (Wow, really? Such incredible specificity!)

One novel proposal that might be included in the Cuba policy reset — to ensure the support of the Cuban-Americans — is to impose a 2% export tax on US agricultural products sent to the island. “It is a politically creative, financially plausible measure and may possibly be a first step toward a comprehensive settlement of compensation to those who hold certified claims,” said Richard Feinberg, a former assistant to President Clinton and author of a Brookings Institution study on Cuban claims published in 2015. Of course, whether that 2%, factored into the price of the exports, would come out of the exporters’ profits or out of the Cuban government’s pockets is up for negotiation — if the proposal is implemented. Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years, though the majority of small claims could be settled with dispatch.

* * *

Oh, yes . . . and what about those extra 1,041 arrests and detentions in 2016? ABC News reports, “Cuban officials say many of those arrests are deliberately provoked by dissidents who are funded and backed by anti-Castro groups with the deliberate objective of driving up detention statistics.”

No doubt those officials saw the May issue of the Cuban American National Foundation’s Boletín Informativo, displaying a photograph of a protester racing in front of Havana’s May Day parade waving an American flag in the air and wearing a Cuban flag on his chest. Daniel Llorente Miranda’s action took the security organs by surprise. After a few seconds’ chase, they threw him to the tarmac and brutally beat him.




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The Strange Case of Feelings Versus Facts

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Don’t tase me, bro, but I sometimes watch “Outnumbered” on Fox News. I do it mainly because I like the discussion leader, the always poised, always intelligent Harris Faulkner. She isn’t big on one-liners, but on December 13 she put a lot of truth into just five words. “Facts,” she said, “don’t care about feelings.”

That could provide a fitting introduction and conclusion to any discussion of political discourse in 2016, which consisted largely of lunatic ravings, followed by shrieks of joy or anguish that had virtually nothing to do with facts and almost everything to do with the writer’s or speaker’s mental condition. Particularly notable was a fleet (I was going to say “raft,” then promoted it to “ship,” then “battleship,” and so on up) of statements, based wholly on their authors’ authority, the content of which demolished that authority. These statements included Donald Trump’s continuous assurances that he would successfully perform various mostly impossible economic tricks, and Hillary Clinton’s continuous assurances that she had been vindicated by every investigation ever undertaken of her.

When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us.

Blame is not confined to those two notorious offenders. Throughout my life I’ve been bored and irritated by elder statesmen, pollsters, media commentators, religious leaders, and yes, college professors like me retailing their opinions as if everyone else were bound to believe them, in obeisance to the source. This year, I was alternately nauseated and entertained as I watched such people asserting their intellectual authority by rushing onstage, tearing off their costumes, setting fire to their toupees, and making obscene gestures at the audience. These were the people who considered themselves entitled to laugh like maniacs at the idea that Trump could ever be elected, because they understood American politics, or they had taken the pulse of the American voter, or they had high ratings among Americans in the prime demographic, or they were in touch with the spiritual longings of the American people. These were the authorities who then screamed and tore their hair at the sudden discovery that America had been — all along, and unknown to them — a nation of xenophobes and white supremacists.

The facts, of course, didn’t care about these people’s feelings, any more than they cared about Jill Stein’s feeling that somehow the election had been “hacked,” or about Hillary Clinton’s feeling that it was “Comey” who had done her in, or about her later feeling that it was the Russkies that done it (by the simple act of revealing her servants’ private correspondence), or about Donald Trump’s feeling that he, like Shakespeare’s Bottom, knows how to perform every part in the play.

Fortunately, libertarians have so far avoided this bad behavior, even when sorely tempted by the example of Stein. When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us. Years ago I attended a libertarian conference at which a resolution was presented. It said that such and such idea was contrary to reality, and that “reality always wins.” This might have been taken as a mere rhetorical flourish, but a lengthy debate followed among the many people who took that truth claim seriously. Some of them argued, passionately, that even false ideas are part of “reality,” while others retorted, with equal passion, that false ideas aren’t really real. After an hour or so of this, Bill Bradford and I walked out. We were laughing at the futility of the whole affair, which was simply a disagreement about two common understandings of a common word. But we were not laughing at the libertarian reverence for “reality,” and we certainly weren’t laughing at the egalitarian nature of the proceedings. If anybody had said, “I’m a college professor, and I know what ‘reality’ means,” or even, “I’m a libertarian, and this is how libertarians view ‘reality,’” the crowd would have gaped in wonder. What’s this guy talking about?

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock, or as Chelsea Clinton. He’s the former presidential candidate who became former when he announced during a debate that there were three federal agencies he would eliminate, one of which was the Department of Uhhhh. He meant the Department of Energy, but he couldn’t remember the name. His appointment recalls the ancient Athenian democracy, in which public offices were filled by lot. You or I could just as easily have received a call from the president-elect: “Hullo Stephen, this is Donald Trump. Oh, I’m doing incredible today, thank you. Look, Stephen, I’ve got this unbelievable job for you . . .”

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock.

Alas, I didn’t get the call. (If I had, I could have told Mr. Trump that there would, indeed, be one less federal agency.) Perry got it because he is a former governor. His appointment was an act of deference to the political class, which is known for its deep feeling and sensitivity, its tendency to brood over any apparent slight. By appointing Perry, Trump was undoubtedly trying to save him from a tailspin of grief about his apparent obsolescence, while relieving other senior politicians from similar fears.

Colin Powell may be one who needs reassurance. Like many of the rest, he feels that he deserves power, no matter what. A political general whose career was advanced by the Republican Party, he repaid the GOP by exposing its racism and disdaining its presidential candidate, not expecting him to be elected. Proven wrong about that, he still let it be known that he was “available for advice” to the winner. This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because . . . he’s an Elder Statesman.

You don’t have to be all that Elder to be accorded automatic hat-tips by the Establishment media. Any government employee — any employee likely to be a modern liberal — is an object of solicitous concern. Here are two Google News headlines from December 13: “Trump taps Exxon’s Tillerson as top US diplomat, lawmakers worried” (Reuters); “Energy Dept. rejects Trump’s request to name climate change workers, who remain worried” (Washington Post). Notice that in both instances the final emphasis falls on a status group (“lawmakers,” “climate change workers”), that the two groups enjoy their place in the sun because their members are paid by the government, and that their status is exalted enough to qualify them for euphemistic treatment. In place of the common yet arresting words one expects in a headline, Google hands us the very uncommon and unarresting “lawmakers” (a euphemism for “politicians” or at most “elected officials”) and “climate change workers” (a euphemism for “government bureaucrats concerned with, and probably advocating, the theory that the climate is changing, that human beings are responsible, that this is a bad thing, and that geniuses like themselves should be employed to stop it”). When prostitutes — literal prostitutes — start getting paid by the government, we will see headlines about “sex workers” being “worried” by requests to know their names.

This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because he’s an Elder Statesman.

The problem that supposedly justifies these solemn headlines is that the status group is worried. Well, as Scarlett O’Hara said to her worried sister: “Too bad about that!” If there’s a significant issue to be debated, sure, let’s debate it; but why should anyone worry about the mental condition of any particular group of people? Only in a status society are specific groups or individuals granted the right to sympathy.

As 2016 drew, slogged, dragged, or devolved to its end, one saw more clearly than ever that, in today’s America, this right is conferred by modern-liberal politicians and the media that serve them. Formerly, Democrats called attention to the frequent stupidity and chronic tyranny of the FBI and CIA; now they dwell upon the selfless heroism of the CIA, because a member of the Agency has whispered that Putin loves Trump and wants him to be president. About the FBI the “liberals” switch back and forth, like locomotives looking for a train, one moment extolling its “integrity,” because it allegedly exonerated Hillary Clinton, and the next moment excoriating it as “deeply broken,” because it allegedly caused her defeat.

The Electoral College has been on a sympathy rollercoaster all year long. Before the election, a lot of Democrats who couldn’t do arithmetic smugly assumed that their party had a lock on the electoral college, because it would deliver a large block of votes from such solidly Democratic states as California. The College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era, the members of which were mindless hacks, selected for a total lack of intelligence and responsibility. Then arose the movement to reverse the election by getting Electors to switch from Trump. Now the College was a great American institution and its members wise solons who needed only to be reminded of their power. When, thus reminded, they didn’t switch, they were again the objects of scorn. They were un-Americans who had no right to vote as they did. They were people who had “sold out the country,” people who “don’t deserve to be in America.” This was one of the things that protestors screamed at Electors; a protestor in Wisconsin added a monarchical “This is my America!”Not yours, you bastards.

She had a point. If facts really do respond to (my) feelings, then I really do own . . . everything. I am a divine-right monarch with the arbitrary power to say what shall be true. Monarchs themselves often start to believe the meaningless, self-serving things they feel. It is a symptom and a means of their fall. And that’s what we’re seeing now, in the spectacle of leading Democrats demanding sympathy for what they themselves did to their party, and doing so without a hint of embarrassment. On December 19, when William Jefferson Clinton was being quoted as blaming his wife’s defeat, not on her, but on angry white men, Tucker Carlson (whose new TV show is, unexpectedly, pretty amusing) asked the rhetorical question, “Does he include himself?” It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to Clinton.

The Electoral College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era.

Even more obtusely self-righteous was John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s campaign. He was the person whose computer provided many of the emails that damaged her campaign. In strict terms, those emails were probably not hacked, as people insist on saying, but were phished in the stupidest, most obvious way. But on December 18, Podesta tried to unelect Trump by saying, “It’s very much unknown whether there was collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russkies, in the matter of the emails. He called for the Electoral College to be informed about this very much unknown conspiracy.

I just can’t get my head around this. After everything Podesta did to lose the election, he wants some kind of do-over. Why? Because it’s unknown whether his opponent was involved in the revelation of his (Podesta’s) own stupidity. If you say things like that, you believe you have a natural right to boundless sympathy and respect, and even reparations, in the form of a delegitimized election.

In the December 22 Washington Post, Ruben Navarrette painted a suggestive portrait of Podesta and the org he managed:

Thanks to a combination of leaks and reporting, we now know just how poorly run the Clinton campaign was, how top campaign staffers dismissed the importance of working-class white voters, how Democratic leaders had contempt for their own supporters, and how the coziness between the news media and campaign officials turned to collusion and created a backlash.

And virtually all those storms have something in common: Podesta. In short, the campaign chairman was at the center of just about everything that went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House.

I wonder whether you noticed what I did: every critical comment that Navarrette makes about the Democracy can also be made about the modern state: it’s stupid, unreflective, badly managed, and sovereignly contemptuous even of its clients and supporters (with one exception: the supporters known as the mainstream media). The Clinton org was a state within a state, with its own departments of revenue, foreign affairs, enforcement, propaganda, etc. It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to William Jefferson Clinton.

In the Clinton machine one saw statism in a pure form. That’s why no one could figure out what Mrs. Clinton’s program was, or why, in the absence of any particular goals that she wanted to achieve as president, she kept running for the office. The state in its pure form is power; it desires no reason for its existence but the projection of its power. Hillary Clinton wanted that power and needed no other justification of her political life (which, horrible to say, is her whole life). Never once did she or her organization advocate an action that was not an extension of state power; never once did they propose or recognize the existence of any limitations on this power, or reflect on the fact that human knowledge would be limited even if human power were not. Identifying themselves so completely with an all-powerful, all-knowing state, she and her associates assumed that they had a right to be the state. They still do. If you think you have a natural right to unlimited power, and you somehow, in some way that you cannot understand, lose that power, your demand for sympathy will also be unlimited. It’s another rebellion of feelings against fact.

No one actually feels sorry for Hillary Clinton, but many people feel sorry for themselves, because their side lost, and they believe it had a right to win. So they try to see her as a sympathetic figure — a kind of Charles I, condemned and executed by a mob of cretins who could never grasp his greatness. In fact, Charles was an autocrat, and a stupid autocrat, and a deceitful autocrat to boot. As with Mrs. Clinton, if Charles said you had ten fingers, you would count your fingers to make sure. But when he was deposed and executed, the self-pity of the aristocrats who had despised him during his life was focused on him, and he became a Saint. I doubt that this process will go very far with the ludicrous Mrs. Clinton, but it is well underway with her former boss, President Obama. The funniest source is Fareed Zakaria of CNN, whose December 7 crockumentary about Obama suggested that America had failed its president: “It remains unclear if the country was ready for Barack Obama’s vision.”If you’re looking for a fact-free sentence, you have found it.

It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

In America, we have whiny, self-privileged classes, and whiny, self-privileged individuals. Now these have given us whiny, self-privileged issues, political positions that can get away with anything. Today, you are at least as likely to be fired for questioning inclusiveness, economic equality, public education, the environment, or the rights of undocumented workers — or even seeking definitions of these sacred concepts — as you used to be for taking the same approach to Americanism, our Judeo-Christian heritage, defeating the Reds, or the fight against illicit drugs; and before that, temperance, womanhood, our men in uniform, or purity of essence. (OK, I admit it: I took that last one from Dr. Strangelove.) One of the most privileged issues is, of course, common-sense gun control (i.e., elimination of the private ownership of firearms). So empty of fact and full of feeling is the anti-gun cause that The Federalist ran an absurd but accurate headline: “Progressives Demand Gun Control After Knife Attack at Ohio State University.” The article following the headline provided many examples of “progressives” who knew that any attack must be a gun attack, or caused by guns, or preventable by the prevention of guns, or something. Among millions of Americans, the very word “gun” (or even “knife”) is enough to cause hysteria. It makes them feel so insecure.

It has often been noted that the manners of the aristocracy are eventually transferred to the middle class and thence to the lower classes. It’s true; that often happens, and often it’s a good thing. I regret the fact that aristocratic reserve is no longer practiced in restaurants and airline terminals, or even museums and nature trails, where you can always depend on somebody showing up with a cellphone and a voice like Goebbels. But aristocracy is fully alive in another, quite unfortunate way. We are witnessing a transference of self-regard, self-privilege, and self-pity from the American political aristocracy to the issues they push and then to the pathetic voters who derive their own self-regard and their own demands for pity not from any fact but from their feelings about these mighty issues. That is how state power corrupts its holders, and how its holders corrupt everything.




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The Trash Pile

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I know it’s my duty to conduct a thorough review of language used in the 2016 presidential campaign, to assess the major features of this language, and to make appropriate recommendations for improvement. If I accepted that duty, I could answer all requests for information by saying, “I can’t comment; the review is ongoing” — until everybody forgot the whole thing. But I’m sorry: I can’t do it; I can’t conduct that review. The subject is too disgusting. Besides, it would take a book the size of Ulysses, and even more tedious, to sort this trash out.

As with most collections of garbage, however, one sees a few particularly large and unpleasant objects jutting out of the pile, and one feels one ought to notice them. A prominent feature of the current collection is that typical Donald Trump locution: “I gotta tell ya, it was definitely a catastrophe — definitely. Definitely a catastrophe, folks, one hundred percent — an unbelievable catastrophe. And we’re gonna fix it. Definitely. It will be fixed. This incredible catastrophe.” And who could fail to notice and abhor Hillary Clinton’s habitual tone (a grating noise, followed by shrieks) and facial language (the apotheosis of smug)? I was often sickened by Trump’s unbelievable ability to ignore the obvious arguments on his behalf, and Clinton’s chronic use of concept creep; e.g.: Trump makes fun of an idiot female TV personality; Clinton therefore denounces Trump as anti-woman; Trump responds to gross abuse directed at him by a Muslim father whose son was killed in the American armed services; Clinton therefore denounces Trump as opposed to all Muslims and gold-star families. It must have taken an army of Googlers just to resurrect that phrase.

Without such revelations, the Clinton machine would still be gliding across the landscape, covered both with filthy lucre and with the aura of progressive saintliness.

As with all reeking piles of trash, one tries to pass these things with averted gaze. But one knows that either Clinton or Trump will be everywhere during the next four years, emitting even more noxious fumes.

One also knows that, occasionally, something useful gets thrown in the trash. I hope that certain ways-with-words can be rescued from the catastrophe of this year’s campaign. One is Ben Carson’s warm but precise mode of speech, which is always that of a real person talking to other real persons. Another is Carly Fiorina’s way of getting rapidly to the point, and to the actual evidence, with a minimum amount of rhetorical nonsense. Yet another is Donald Trump’s (yes, Donald Trump’s) willingness to say openly what almost everybody understands privately.

My other hope is that detailed revelations of what has really been said or written in the caverns of power will continue to be made, as the result either of lawsuits or of direct action, as the communists used to call it. (By direct action I mean Wikileaks.) People now see this modern version of Laputa more or less for what it is, even if they plan to vote for it. That’s a big improvement, despite the votes. Almost no one thinks that any power Mrs. Clinton gets will be legitimate.

But shouldn’t I regret the thefts of information by which the secrets of this machine have been made known? Shouldn’t I discuss the great moral issue of prying into other people’s secrets?

I don’t think so. I suspect that few people come to this column expecting advice about morality. If they do, they had better go someplace else. I simply want to suggest that there is a difference between (A) publishing secret information that may, when exposed, subvert legitimate government or get innocent people killed, (B) publishing private information that is nobody’s business to learn, and (C) publishing the dark and immoral sayings that pass within such things as National Committees, Departments of State, Federal Bureaus of Investigation, and the armies of hacks that such grotesque entities as those employ to bamboozle the public. Revealing the dirty communications of Mrs. Clinton’s toadies (C) is very different from publishing the codes to atomic missiles (A), or hacking into the life of somebody who works the counter at the DMV (B). I don’t like the DMV. In fact, whenever I think of Hillary Clinton I think of the DMV, because that is her ideal of government. But I believe I can see a moral difference.

I grew up when the Most Respected dispenser of news was Walter Cronkite, a bubblehead with a good voice and presence.

I’m talking about the struggle for information between the people and the Establishment. The term “Establishment” became prominent in America during the agitation of the 1960s. It was in that agitation that the modern Democratic Party and its current standard-bearer acquired their remarkable hunger for power. The self-righteous, rich-kid, elitist “liberalism” of the 1960s and 1970s eventually solidified into the stone-faced statism of the 2010s. It solidified in the form not only of the Democratic Party leadership but of the immense crowd of government employees, crony capitalists, know-nothing academics, politicized “faith leaders,” do-gooders on the take, officials of teachers’ unions, college activists, professional ethnics, gender mongers, grand old men of journalism, persons interviewed on NPR, and all the other tools who get money and prestige from the modern liberal state and in return surrender their identity to its rulers. A prominent feature of our political era is the paucity of public dissent, the rarity of defection from the vast Establishment. Nobody gets fired, and nobody departs in protest. This is something very unusual, and very ominous in American history. And no one who still has a brain will deny that 90% of the media, the people whose careers are supposedly dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of truth, are violent advocates of the Establishment.

I grew up in the days of three government-licensed television networks and a full constellation of newspapers whose major moral purpose was to keep the populace anesthetized. I grew up when the Most Respected dispenser of news was Walter Cronkite, a bubblehead with a good voice and presence. Despite the credit he took (much later) for having somehow, in some subtle way, criticized the Vietnam War, I remember my childish revulsion when I turned on the family TV and heard the perfectly bloodless way in which Cronkite reported every move of the Johnson administration to “beef up our forces in Vietnam.”

Beef up. Even as a kid, I sensed there was something vile about that kind of language, and the inhumanly elitist state of mind it represented. Even I was bright enough to notice that the Establishment media, which were the media of the time, were interested in absolutely no criticism of, or even discussion about, the rightness of such minor matters as conscription, the confiscatory income tax, government schools, labor unions, Social Security, “urban renewal” (i.e., tearing the heart from cities in order to “improve” them), the war on recreational drugs, the imprisonment of gays . . . Need I go on?

President Kennedy womanized on a vast scale, and invited members of the press to participate (which they did), and no word leaked out. Quite the contrary; the media fawned on him as the greatest living embodiment of family values. His family was continuously presented as an Example to Us All. Only its absolutely inescapable sins were reported. When one of his brothers left a young woman to drown after a drunken auto accident, doing nothing except trying to cover up his own involvement, the matter was reported, but the approved assessment was that the poor kid (a member of the US Senate, aged 37) had already suffered enough.

Even as a kid, I sensed there was something vile about that kind of language, and the inhumanly elitist state of mind it represented.

I’m saying these things because I don’t want to lapse into the common illusion that there was once a golden age of American journalism. People who think there was are ordinarily so mired in the cultural Establishment that they confuse journalistic objectivity with journalists’ occasional crusades against an enemy of the Establishment (e.g., Senator Joseph McCarthy). But despite my firsthand knowledge of this history, I am still disgusted by the violent affection of the media for Hillary Clinton. I can see, very well, why people might not like Donald Trump, but it’s literally unimaginable to me that Mrs. Clinton should be liked by anyone, much less by journalists, whose ostensible mission is to discover truth and expose lies. Nothing is more obvious than the fact that when Hillary Clinton tells the truth, it’s an accident, and that she has surrounded herself with hundreds of people whose function is to mislead the public on every possible occasion. This has apparently escaped the attention of the classy media, but it has not escaped mine, and I know it has not escaped yours either.

What fascinates me is how anyone can distort the news with such singleminded absorption as we have seen in the current campaign — while still imagining that nobody can perceive what’s going on. I’m sure you’ve collected as many examples as I have. Perhaps you’ve found some of them in the media’s coverage of Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson. At the beginning of his campaign, the LP appeared in the modern-liberal media, if it ever did appear, as a sad collection of weirdos. Then magically, in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it became a respected protest against the vileness of the Right. Or maybe you’ve been thinking about the complete lack of concern among the media, which are religiously anti-war, about Clinton’s long record of going on the warpath — against Iraq, against Syria, against Libya, against Egypt, and now against Russia — and the ecstasy she has found in killing her enemies.

Maybe you’re thinking about a lot, and so am I. But at this moment, I’m reflecting on something comparatively minor. On the morning of October 8, the day after embarrassing revelations were made about both Trump and Clinton (the revelation of Trump’s remarks about propositioning women, and the first verbatim reports of Clinton’s secret Wall Street speeches), I looked at the six Top Stories on Google News. Four of the six — Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5 — were anti-Trump. Magically, as if there were some kind of conspiracy or coordinated action or obedience to Clinton’s daily talking points, they were all advertising the Establishment or Country Club Republicans who were trying to get Trump to leave the race. No. 4 was about Hurricane Matthew, then traveling up the East Coast — a matter of actual moment for ordinary people. No. 6 returned to Trump. That one was about the dog-bites-man topic of foreign financial bigwigs not liking restrictive trade policies, such as those advocated by him. Other anti-Trump stories appeared beneath the “Top” — plenty of them. You had to go down to No. 21 before finding a story about Clinton’s latest scandal.

Nothing is more obvious than the fact that when Hillary Clinton tells the truth, it’s an accident.

But here’s a pivot, as the media like to say. Let’s consider a campaign speech that President Obama made on October 14. Trying to make fun of anti-Establishment media, Obama said, “Look, if I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me.”

This is one of the few really funny things that Obama, a man with a microscopic sense of humor, has ever said. But try it this way: “Look, if I read the New York Times, Iwould certainly vote for me.” It isn’t funny, is it? But why not?

Comedy requires surprise. It isn’t a surprise that people who read the NYT support Obama, and people who follow Fox do not. The surprise is the idea that Obama himself would be persuaded by Fox, if he ever deigned to watch it. He stipulated that he has “more diverse sources of information” (ranging, I believe, from Rolling Stone to Golf Digest), which prevent him from succumbing to the charms of Fox and similar media. But this is really a joke about Obama’s own gullibility, his willingness to be influenced — and the secondary surprise is that he appears to be too dumb to realize how his own joke works. What he thought he was joking about, as suggested by the rest of his speech, is the large proportion of the American people who are stupid enough to listen to Fox and other alternative media, instead of to himself. But if that’s his intended message, why does he think it’s funny?

As many people have noted, the Left, once rich in humor, often of an earthy kind, is now as dour and humorless as the pitchfork in “American Gothic.” Hence “political correctness” — the Left’s crusade for conformity, the crusade that everyone else has been laughing at for decades. The Establishment still can’t see the joke. That’s how stupid, how blankly stupid, it is. If you look at Google News or listen to “All Things Considered,” you know that alleged microaggressions, almost always committed against people with lawyers, will be the subject of constant and grave meditation, while the desperate condition of poor people’s lives and property in cities operated as monopolies of the modern-liberal party will rarely be mentioned — and when it is, responsibility will immediately be assigned to everyone except the modern-liberal party. For me, it’s hard to think of a contemporary rhetoric that is more inhuman — less motivated by actual human problems.

The surprise is the idea that Obama himself would be persuaded by Fox, if he ever deigned to watch it.

If the present campaign showed nothing else, it showed the true size and shape of the Establishment, from such geniuses of the GOP as John McCain, James Comey, and Mitt Romney to such guardians of one-speak as the NYT and the Washington Post. Even Geraldo Rivera, who blustered for a while about having tapes of Donald Trump saying worse things than he said to Billy Bush, finally showed that he can tell a hawk from a handsaw. On October 14, Geraldo commented: “I have never — and I’ve been around a long time — ever, ever seen the mainstream media, particularly the New York Times or the Washington Post — be so partisan in terms of their involvement.”

Ainsley Earhardt, Rivera’s collocutor on that morning’s Fox News conversation, added that “on Thursday night, ABC, NBC, and CBS all devoted a significant amount of time to the allegations [of Trump’s sexual misconduct] — up to nine minutes on ABC and NBC and five minutes on CBS, while only devoting seconds — 30 on ABC, 26 on CBS and none on NBC — to Wikileaks’ leaked Clinton emails.” Rivera continued: “Did you see the New York Times this morning? There was no mention of Wikileaks that I could find in the whole first, in the whole A section.”

When it comes to words, this is the big news: no mention. But I have a feeling that, no matter which bizarre presidential candidate wins this election, no mention will not be a permanently viable option during the next four years.




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You Can Write Whatever You Want

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Word Watch has entered its fifteenth year of operation — a good time to take up a subject that deserves to be addressed, especially on behalf of a libertarian audience. I do this from time to time, in various ways, but I haven’t done it for quite a while. So here goes.

There are two ways of discussing grammar and usage. One is descriptive: you try to describe how a language “really is,” right now. The other is prescriptive: you try to say what the language should be. Almost all academic linguists, and some academic grammarians, take the descriptive, supposedly scientific course. This column, however, is strongly prescriptive. It tries to describe what’s going on, but it also tries to state where it went wrong (or, occasionally, right). But rules and prescriptions — even advice — can be hard to sell to libertarians.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed.

“Why,” readers sometimes ask, “do I have to bother with rules? Why can’t I say and write whatever I want, so long as my audience understands me? And who has the right to make these rules, after all?”

Those are good questions, and they deserve good answers. Here they are.

It’s true; you don’t have to bother with rules. By right you are free to express yourself in whatever way you want. If you want to say, “I think everybody should, like, go ahead and, like, you know, vote for the, like, party of freedom?, I mean the, you know, Libertarian Party?” you can do so, and a normal audience will understand what you’re driving at, despite the pointless interjections and the irritating “uptalk.” But that doesn’t mean that no one should have the temerity to suggest that you sound like an idiot.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed. According to a creed that was temporarily espoused about 40 years ago (and probably 40 years before that, too), teachers should not presume to “correct” their students’ work; they should simply encourage them to abandon their fears and write. If you did enough writing, you would turn out well. Or good. Or something. Old-fashioned teachers were satirized for penning such insolent marginalia as, “I know what you’re trying to say, but it’s not quite coming through.” How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying? But of course that’s nonsense. If a young American writes, “The judge was so disinterested that she fell asleep,” you’ll know what he meant, and you’ll also know that the word he needs, whether he knows it or not, is “uninterested.” You’ll know it because you’re more competent than he is.

Well, who has the right to say that uninterested is the right word? People use uninterested and disinterested interchangeably, all the time.

Yes, that’s a description of what they do. They also say, “I seen you crossing the street,” all the time. There remains the question of what they ought to do. Anyone has the right to decide that question, and be correct or incorrect about it, just as anyone has the right to decide whether Raphael was a better artist than the four-year-old next door.

How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying?

In respect to Raphael and the preschool kid, the best qualified judges will be people who have seen lots of art, and lots of kinds of art, people who are familiar with the various effects that art tries to achieve and who are perceptive enough to notice whether those effects actually are achieved by any given work. Such judges may well say that the kid’s paintings project an immediacy that Raphael never achieved (or wanted), but they will also say that when it comes to the art museum, or the narthex of the church, Raphael is better.

These people’s judgments will carry authority, but the issue is never who shall judge but how the judgment is made. If you have a competent understanding of the resources of the English language, you know that uninterested and disinterested are traditionally considered virtual opposites of each other, and you recognize that the distinction between them continues to be valuable. It allows people to say such things as, “The judge was admirably disinterested, but she was woefully uninterested in the case before her.” No one has authority over the English language — not even Webster’s Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage — but every informed and rational judgment is authoritative.

This is no tyranny. It is a vindication of the individual mind.

Having said all this, I don’t want to sacrifice too much to the idea that, yes, we can understand you, no matter how ugly we consider your self-expression. Sometimes — not infrequently — we cannot understand you, because your ugliness gets in the way.

On August 11, a good example came into my possession. I was on a ship off the eastern coast of Canada, and my internet connection didn’t work. Actually, I was too cheap to make it work. Anyway, I picked up a copy of the news digest that the New York Times provides for the maritime trade, and there I found an article about James K. Galbraith, an economist who gives zany advice to people in Greece. Apparently the advice is to initiate the millennium by inflating the currency enough to repudiate the nation’s debts. If I’m wrong about this, I’m sorry; I’m just trying to interpret the Times account of his notions:

Galbraith . . . argued passionately that a new currency would wash away the country’s debts, solve Greece’s competitiveness problem and ultimately create what he called a “good society.” A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks, he had drawn up a contingency plan for Greece under [finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis’s direction, in case the country was forced to leave the [euro] currency zone by its creditors.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But there’s a crucial grammatical error in there. It occurs in the second sentence. It’s a dangling modifier. “A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks” is supposed to fit with or “modify” something else in the sentence, but what? The normal candidate would be the noun or pronoun immediately following the modifier. In this sentence, that candidate is “he.” Unfortunately, “he” is not a “step.” So the modifier is dangling, apparently unattached to anything else.

Many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence.

Now, the English, and especially the British, language is full of dangling modifiers. They are widespread, but they are wrong. When you, as a reader, pay the kind of attention to sentences that any author would appreciate your paying, you try to visualize the author’s meaning. But when a sentence includes a dangling modifier, the resulting image is misleading or ludicrous. Steps don’t draw up contingency plans.

And here the dangling modifier creates a problem that is worse than aesthetic. It’s a conceptual problem: what is the step that most Greeks oppose? It is not, alas, Mr. Galbraith (“he”); many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence. Well, is it the “contingency plan”? Probably not. Schemes to get rich by welshing on your debts are usually pretty popular. OK. How about “a good society”? No . . . few people are “opposed” to anything like that.

We’re still searching for the “step.” But notice that now we’re trying to figure out what the passage means by using whatever we knew about the subject before we read the passage. We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

All right, suppose that the “step” to which most Greeks are “opposed” is “a new currency”? Maybe. Probably. But how can we be sure? No matter how free you are with your lingo, “currency” is not a “step.” And we reached our identification of “step” with “currency” only through the process of eliminating every other possibility. It’s conceivable that there is no “step,” that the passage is literally meaningless.

Writing of this quality hardly inspires confidence in the New York Times. It’s a harsh saying, and sometimes wrong, but it’s basically true: if you don’t reflect on the way in which you say things, the things you say are unlikely to be taken seriously.

That’s true about words that appear in professional jargon or regional dialects or purely colloquial language as well as about words embedded in formal written English. If you’re trying to talk like a millennial and you don’t recognize the difference between dude, bro, brother, and mate, you’re not going to be treated as reliable on most of the subjects you want to address. If you’re trying to make some intellectual contribution and you show that you don’t care, or maybe don’t know, about the rules of grammar, your readers will wonder, perhaps justifiably, whether you have anything to contribute. And if you, as an intellectual, turn out writing that’s as stiff as a board, people will begin to ask themselves whether you have the understanding of human beings, their likes and dislikes and ways of interpreting the world, that is necessary to most intellectual disciplines.

We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

I’m talking about what Aristotle called ethos — the perceived character of a speaker or writer. As Aristotle observes, if you don’t have a decent ethos you’ll have lots of trouble getting other people to listen to you and agree with you. But I’m also talking about what we moderns call empathy — human beings’ ability to imagine what others are like, what others are likely to feel, how others are likely to react to what we do or say. If you can’t summon enough empathy to look at your sentences and see whether your readers will receive them as clear communications or as verbal puzzles, you should stop writing until you’re in a better mood. If you insist on writing, “All taxpayers have been now directed to submit his/her forms to the nearest IRS/tax office,” you should have enough empathy to know that while most readers will understand your sentence, sort of, their attention will be fixed not on your meaning but on your annoying slash forms, your unidiomatic placement of words (“now”), and your odd switch from plural (“taxpayers”) to singular (“his/her”). You’re free not to realize that or to care about it, but don’t think you’ll emerge from that sentence with your ethos intact.

In July, the computers at Southwest Airlines failed, and hundreds of flights were canceled. Passengers were understandably unhappy, but the icing on their cake of fury — note: I have enough empathy to realize that you will realize that this is an awful metaphor; I ask you to have enough empathy to understand that the image is supposed to be amusing — the icing on their cake of fury, I say, was Southwest’s explanation of the affair, an explanation that the airline placed on an obscure website, which nobody ever goes to, an explanation headlined by these words:

Information Regarding Operational Impact of Technology Issues

Is there a man or woman on the face of the earth who would guess that this had anything to do with a canceled flight? Empathy? We don’t need no stinkin’ empathy. And is there a person on earth who, after finally getting the point, would retain any confidence in anything that Southwest might deign to say thereafter?

Proceeding to another sample of great corporate writing — an advertisement for the Viking line of cruise ships, which makes this claim:

Designed as an upscale hotel, Viking’s chefs deliver a superb . . . experience.

Here’s another dangling modifier: “designed as an upscale hotel.” It’s presumably the ship that’s designed that way, but ship is nowhere in the sentence. What the sentence literally means is that Viking’s chefs are designed as an upscale hotel.

It’s funny; you laugh. Then you wonder: if Viking’s spokesmen are so careless with words, are they also careless with meanings? Can it be that their messages are just so many phrases thrown at the audience, to see what will stick? Can it be that a Viking ship is not actually anything like an upscale hotel? But one thing is clear: no one at Viking imagines that readers will actually think about its messages.

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy.

Ethos and empathy . . . On July 22, President Obama made a statement in which he said that Donald Trump’s speech of the night before “just doesn’t jive with the facts.” The president said that twice. Of course, what he meant was “agree with the facts.” I know that. But the word that means “agree,” in this sense, is jibe, not jive. I understand that there are millions of people who don’t know the difference. Peace to all such. There are also millions of people who don’t realize that the past tense of “see” is not “seen.”

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy. He has, for instance, never mastered the like-as distinction or the not-so-subtle rules governing pronoun case (“just between you and I”). With him, lack of ethos is related, as it often is with lesser mortals, to a lack of empathy. He has evidently never asked himself whether there may be persons on this planet, and millions of them, who know more about grammar and usage than he does, so he has never felt the need to investigate these subjects.

“Well,” I hear some truly generous libertarians saying, “we all make mistakes.” Yes, we do. Indeed we do. And that’s the most important realization we can have about this subject. We all make mistakes. The question is whether we want to notice our mistakes and do something about them.




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The Unmentionables

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I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon. Virtually no one I know is willing to start a conversation about the current election campaign.

As an academic with many academic acquaintances, I grew used to hearing people inject George Bush into every possible conversation, always in a derisive manner. But this year, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of mentions my colleagues have made of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The same pattern holds with groups or individuals who I am certain will vote for Trump. No one wants to mention the campaign or the personalities.

This is a welcome relief, but why is it happening? I have several guesses.

  1. People are aware that this election is even more divisive than the past few elections, and they’re unwilling to start a fight.
  2. Many people who are expected by their friends to vote for Clinton will actually vote for Trump, and vice versa, and they don’t want to give themselves away.
  3. Everybody’s just sick of the damned thing.

These ideas may go far toward explaining the matter. But there’s at least one other possibility. Many people are discouraged about the presidency itself. They regard it cynically, as just one more object on a growing pile of political rubbish.

I’m not sure whether it’s good or bad that people feel that way. The imperial presidency lost almost all of its glamor with the abject failure of Obama (whom, by the way, hardly anybody ever mentions either). That’s certainly good, and maybe it’s permanent. I’m not sure, however, that complete political cynicism is a good long-run strategy for the pursuit and capture of individual freedom.




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The Sounds of Silence

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People make up their ideas of the world by listening to what other people say — in a speech, on a survey, to their friends. But maybe we could learn something if we reflected on what people do not say.

Here are 33 things that nobody in America says. Or, possibly, thinks.

  1. The tax rates are just about right, except for people like me. My taxes should be higher.
  2. I am a member of the 1%.
  3. The policeman is your friend.
  4. I hate all people of other races, but I keep quiet about it, to avoid being criticized.
  5. I got my job from affirmative action.
  6. No one is qualified to teach kids their ABCs unless certified by the government.
  7. I know someone who died from climate change.
  8. The Constitution was written to abolish capital punishment, preserve the lives of endangered fish, and ensure a living wage for all Americans.
  9. When the government provides a service, it usually does a better job than private business.
  10. Some Americans are so poor that they have to steal from other people.
  11. Some Americans are so poor that they have to murder other people.
  12. Open borders would increase Americans’ pay rates while improving Americans’ security.
  13. American public schools are very good.
  14. American public schools are good.
  15. American public schools are acceptable.
  16. American literature, music, and art are better than they were in the past.
  17. I have a perfect right to tell my neighbor what opinions she may express.
  18. The government is better at handling my money than I am.
  19. The American government has a good plan for dealing with terrorism.
  20. I believe in everything my pastor says.
  21. If you don’t like this country, stay right here.
  22. If you graduated from an elite university, you must be smart.
  23. Few people actually get important jobs just because they come from wealthy families.
  24. It makes good sense that people can vote before they are trusted to drink a legal beer.
  25. It makes good sense that people can serve three years as Special Forces operatives before they are trusted to drink a legal beer.
  26. At least one Muslim country recognizes equal rights for Christians, gays, and women.
  27. America’s Middle Eastern wars succeeded.
  28. The War on Drugs succeeded.
  29. The War on Poverty succeeded.
  30. The Libertarian Party will eventually take power.
  31. President Obama has improved race relations.
  32. Donald Trump is a deeply spiritual man.
  33. When I have an important decision to make, I ask myself, “What would Hillary Clinton do?”



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They Couldn’t Have Said That!

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On May 27, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that his city had received a grant of $9 million dollars to employ people from Los Angeles who have recently gotten out of prison and train them in “life skills.” I’ve published a book about prisons, and I still do research in that area. I’ve usually liked the convicts and ex-convicts I’ve met. I’m very much in favor of giving them the clichéd second chance, and I don’t think I’d have any more worries about employing one of them than about employing an otherwise similar person who had never been in prison. People who land in prison tend to be fairly young, and they are much less likely to commit crimes when they get older. Also, as a prison warden remarked to me, many convicts committed their crimes when they were drunk or high, and they’re different people when they’re not that way. So if they don’t go crazy with substances again, why not employ them?

Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

Nevertheless, I did have some problems with Garcetti’s glee over his $9 million grant, because the money came from CalTrans, the California state agency that is supposed to be maintaining our roads and is not, despite the fact that it constantly demands more money. The fact that the money came from CalTrans was obscured by news “reporting” that spoke about an “agreement” or “pact” between CalTrans and the city, or simply said that “between” them they would spend $9 million. I don’t think the source of the money was intentionally obscured; it was represented in that way because the news writers just didn’t care. What’s another $9 million of the taxpayers’ money? And who cares whether everyone in the state should pay for services to Angelenos, or just the Angelenos themselves?

More upsetting was the fact that nobody paid any attention to the strange things that Garcetti actually said in making his announcement — nobody, that is, except the “John and Ken Show,” an afternoon radio program that raucously exposes the misdeeds of California politicians. John and Ken ran and reran the audio of Garcetti’s remarks:

When we invest in people we don’t know where things will turn out. But when people have paid their debt to society, our debt of gratitude should be not just thanking them for serving that time, but allowing them a pathway back in. They will also have access to services from life skills training to cognitive behavior therapy. You can’t just give folks a job; you have to give services with the job.[emphasis added]

Who would say such a thing? And who would neglect to mention it, if they were reporting on a politician — the mayor of the nation’s second largest city — who said it? The answer: people who have spoken and listened to the language of political correctness for so long that they no longer recognize its most ridiculous extremes as . . . well, ridiculous — abnormal, absurd, insulting to the intelligence. The episode provides an index of how low the American “elite” has sunk. Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

A few days after the “John and Ken Show” — which happens to be the most popular public affairs show in Southern California — started making fun of Garcetti, he grabbed an interview with a “John and Ken” reporter and said, pleasantly, that he (the mayor) had been confused. His remarks had been delivered on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and they had gotten mixed up with thoughts about members of the military for whose service we should be thankful. To my mind, this just made things worse. Garcetti’s excuse was that he had, sort of naturally, confused the idea of “service” when it applies to fighting for one’s country with the idea “service” when it applies to being sent to prison.

Oh well. From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same. Should I bring up the “workplace violence” at Ft. Hood?

Let’s follow the path from the ridiculous to the truly degraded. The man who shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando was a Muslim fanatic who repeatedly claimed religion as his motivation. Is there any mystery here? No. This was a religious crime, by now familiar to the whole world. For the editorial board of the New York Times, there’s no mystery either — except that it is somehow plain to the Times that Republican politicians were to blame for the atrocity:

While the precise motivation for the rampage remains unclear, it is evident that Mr. Mateen was driven by hatred toward gays and lesbians. Hate crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. They occur where bigotry is allowed to fester, where minorities are vilified and where people are scapegoated for political gain. Tragically, this is the state of American politics, driven too often by Republican politicians who see prejudice as something to exploit, not extinguish.

This sort of thing is beneath contempt, and almost beneath comment. The solemn denunciation of hate is itself an obvious product of hate. But hate is nothing compared to the cheap rhetorical tricks by which the writers try to develop reasons for their gross and obvious lie. The tricks are clear evidence that the authors know they are lying and are proud of their ability to continue lying without, as they imagine, getting caught.

From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same.

Do atrocious crimes happen in a vacuum? No. Do they tend to happen where bigotry is allowed to fester, minorities are vilified, etc.? Yes. And are there politicians in America who exploit prejudices (besides the prejudices that sway the New York Times)? Why, yes. Therefore, it was American politicians, specifically Republican politicians, who incited Mateen’s murders. A clever arrangement of thoughts!

Well, the authors must think so. It must never occur to these brilliant people that readers, even their readers (the numbers of whom are diminishing every hour), could possibly respond by saying, “Stop! Wait a minute! Wasn’t the atmosphere for this kind of slaughter the bigotry, vilification, and scapegoating practiced without let or shame by the radical Islamists whom Mateen claimed as his inspiration?” Which of course it was. Which of course it continues to be, not just in America but in Islamist regimes throughout the world, many of them the friends of the Times’ good friends. Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing. This is a vacuum that the Times can’t imagine anyone noticing.

Another view of the vacuum was provided by the Times’ idol and oracle, President Obama, in his recent discourse on the demands by people on the right, and people with sense, that he call Islamic terrorism “Islamic terrorism,” instead of “terror,” “hate,” and other unmodified, meaningless terms. These demands, alas, were not prompted by Word Watch, which has always wanted people to talk so that other people can understand what they’re saying. But the demands made sense. They were prompted by a realization that the president, like any other head of a vast bureaucracy, commands the apparatus as much by what he does not say as by what he actually does say. There are many indications that by refusing to make radical Islam a concern of law enforcement, by in fact saying that terrorism has nothing to do with Islamand that ISIS itself is not Islamic. Obama sends government agencies out on a futile search for “hate” instead of a search for certain specific fanatics who want to kill other people.

Finally, on June 14, faced with a catastrophic example of what he must have wanted to call nightclub violence, Obama meditated upon the weighty problem of nomenclature. Since he is a constant public speaker and an alleged author, his ideas about words would surely be worthy of consideration. And they are. “Calling a threat by a different name,” he pronounced, “does not make it go away.”

Reading that, one remembers the old chestnut about whether Senator McCarthy had any sense of decency. “Have you no logic, sir,” one wants to say. “At long last, have you no logic?” If calling a threat by a different name doesn’t make it go away, why do you insist on calling Islamic terrorism by so many different names?

The truth, I’m afraid, is that somehow such people as the president and the editors of the New York Times worry more about the tender feelings of radical Muslims — who violently oppose every value that the modern liberals profess — than about safeguarding the lives of normal Americans, gay or straight, white or black, Muslim or non-Muslim. This ruthlessness of sentiment is something I cannot explain.

Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing.

We saw it again, in a particularly ridiculous way, on June 20, when the FBI, under orders from the Department of Justice, issued a “transcript” of the Orlando assassin’s electronic conversations during the atrocity. The transcript was “redacted.” For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, redacted means censored. The conversations were long, but practically none of the words appeared in the transcript. All possible references to radical Islamic contacts and inspirations were removed. The alleged reason was that the government didn’t want to “propagandize” for the radicals, and that it did not want the surviving victims to be “retraumatized.”

Either the Attorney General and her employees believe this or not. If not, they’re lying. If so, they have a very strange idea of the effects of public discourse. If someone goes into a nightclub and starts slaughtering people, and in the process claims you as his inspiration, is that a good notice for you? Doubtful. More doubtful is the notion that translating the assassin’s “Allah” as “God” will save the feelings of his victims. (Yes, “Allah” is a word for the more or less shared god of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but in English it is always and everywhere rendered as “Allah.”)

All this was so exceedingly ridiculous that the government relented and published another redaction, which it called unredacted. The government relented — but it did not repent. This version apparently still lacked much of the original, and it still rendered “Allah” as “God.” I have no questions to ask the government about God, but I would like to know what all those expurgated words may have been. I would also like to know — really know — what these strange officials have in mind. Unfortunately, all you get from thinking about this is the craving for a good stiff drink.

I don’t have a drink to offer you, but here’s some good news. Fox’s late-night comedy show, “Red Eye,” which rose to greatness under the wonderful Greg Gutfeld, is under new management (Greg got a one-man show), and it seems to be working out. Tom Shillue, the new host, maintains Greg’s style of humor, one element of which is a constant stream of clichés deployed in solemnly hilarious ways. When Greg wanted to refer to Obama, he used to say, in an ominous tone, “President Obama, if that’s his real name.” Now Tom is discussing “the reclusive billionaire, Donald Trump.” This kind of stuff goes by too fast for you to wonder, “Why am I laughing?” But it’s great and you don’t forget it.

Greg Gutfeld is a libertarian, and probably Tom Shillue is also, though I haven’t heard him say so. I wish there were more libertarians with a sense of humor. For a single, delicious moment I thought that Gary Johnson, Libertarian nominee for president, had one of those things. In a television interview on May 23, I heard him say, “Most people are libertarians; it’s just that they don’t know it.”

I thought that was hilarious. Imagine: a nation full of libertarians, almost none of whom ever manage to vote for the Libertarian Party! What are they thinking? Are they drunk? Stoned? Are they as illiterate as the thousands of Californians, some of them celebrities, who recently discovered that when they registered to vote as partisans of the American Independent Party, they weren’t actually registering as “independents”? Or are they playing their own massive joke on the politicians — consistently voting for principles they detest? The zany adventures of a wacky electorate!

But Johnson didn’t smile; he just kept talking as if this absurdity were true! I’ve heard him say it several times since, and I’ve been forced to conclude that he is only being funny in the way that politicians usually are funny — unconsciously.

For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, "redacted" means "censored."

The sad truth is that most Americans are not libertarians. They are the beneficiaries of a great libertarian tradition, inseparable from this noble nation, but they are not libertarians. They are libertarian about gun laws but not about drug laws. Or they are libertarian about taxes but not about gun laws or drug laws. Or they are libertarian about the internet but not about taxes or gun laws or drug laws or anything else. They are libertarian about X but not about Y through Z or A through W.

These proclamations of Mr. Johnson are either pious lies or self-deception. He’s a nice guy, so I strongly suspect the latter. But they are uncomfortably close to the perpetual declarations of the mainline politicians, who are always assuring us that “what the American people really care about” or “what the American people really want” is miraculously identical with what the politicians themselves want or care about. That’s one reason why there’s so little real argument in American politics. The strategy is not to say anything new, anything you might have to argue for, but simply to compliment the audience as fulsomely as you can, then slip offstage, bearing away as many votes as you’ve managed to collect. I can’t see any reason to vote for someone like that, except to keep someone worse from winning.

I’m sorry if I done Mr. Johnson wrong. If he’s got any amusing remarks lying around, I hope he’ll come out with them. We can use them right now.




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