Nathaniel Branden, R.I.P.

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On February 22, a memorial will be held in Los Angeles for Nathaniel Branden. Branden (1930–2014), a close associate of Ayn Rand during the writing and initial success of Atlas Shrugged, remained a brilliant interpreter of her philosophy and a strong influence on libertarians and individualists. He was also a controversial and perennially interesting personality.

Old friends of Rand and Branden have had much to say about him. Liberty asked two younger friends to comment, the writers Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian.

Garin:

A half century ago, when he was a student at UCLA, Nathaniel Branden wrote a letter to Ayn Rand. Many years later, when I was a student at UCLA, I wrote a letter to Nathaniel Branden.

I had discovered Objectivism through my friend Alec Mouhibian. In high school we had read most of Rand's writings. We had read Branden’s writings, too. We had become good disciples, I think, although there are some reports of our arrogance from those years. In the tenth grade we published a political newsletter called "A Dose of Sense."

It was Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand" (and later Barbara Branden’s book The Passion of Ayn Rand) that had alerted us to the possible excesses of our passion. Nathaniel had raised important questions: was there a “principle of benevolence” in addition to the “virtue of selfishness” praised by Rand? Were we guilty, in our endless debates with classmates and teachers, of an “appalling moralism”? Had we become bad and unkind people?

There is a time in life when one is certain of things and then there is a time when one is not, and for me and Alec the transition between those times was marked by Nathaniel Branden and his essay. That is why I had written to him. It was one of the last letters I wrote to anyone from my college e-mail address: rational@ucla.edu.

The following week Nathaniel took me out for a cheeseburger. Some time later, Alec met him, too. And then we met together. I will let Alec finish the story here and to tell you who Nathaniel was for us.

Alec:

When I first met Nathaniel Branden, a full decade ago, I had a good sense of how Ayn Rand felt when he walked into her home for the first time in 1950. What a day that must have been for her! Some writers, if they are lucky, get to see their creations come to life on a movie screen. Rand’s highly idealized, very unrealistic hero stepped right out of the pages of The Fountainhead and through her front door, destined to convert the peculiar genius of her stories into a cultural force that would never die. That is what Rand thought, during the next 20 years of her life, until her disastrous break with him over matters that had little to do with culture.

He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both.

One must talk of movements in a memorial of Nathaniel Branden. He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both. (Movements tend to call for that.) His work with Rand, and his reflections on it, were also vital to the modern libertarian movement. His essay, “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,” offered all aspiring martyrs for liberty a priceless, personal account of how a passion for ideas can become a slavery to ideas, if one forgets the more mysterious values of human life.

Like so many people over the years, I had a strong desire to meet Nathaniel Branden, and in 2004, at the age of 19, I was lucky enough to get the chance. I was introduced by my comrade Garin Hovannisian, who had written about Nathaniel and subsequently met him for a cheeseburger. I showed up at his front door without a cheeseburger, but with many, many questions to ask. I asked him about Rand, of course, and I asked him about Iraq, torture, the meaning of death. We even discussed some dark subjects, like self-esteem and sex.

There is a reason the Q&A sessions after Nathaniel’s public talks invariably set off a stampede to the microphone, with brutal consequences for anyone in the audience who had forgotten to wear steel boots. Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small. I asked him everything on my mind that afternoon. Most of all I longed to know, not disinterestedly, how he had recovered from that glorious time when he once knew everything. Our conversation itself was his answer, not that I fully appreciated this at the time. We parted on warm terms.

Who was Nathaniel Branden? Objectivist, psychologist, therapist, or God forbid, “public intellectual” — none of these labels, in my view, measure up. Ideologues, even good ones, tend to be transparent and predictable, whereas Nathaniel remained a mystery to adversaries and admirers alike. I myself have tritely attempted to liken him to a character in a novel, for I believe that a profound love of liberty, and that elusive ideal of objectivity, were alive and pure in his soul. One of the last times I saw him was at a screening of the first Atlas Shrugged movie. Barbara Branden, his former wife and eternal friend, was also present, and there was nothing trite at all about how exhilarated they were by the long-delayed illustration of their early intellectual dreams. The poem had survived.

Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small.

When news of Nathaniel’s final illness began to surface, Stephen Cox, a longtime friend of his, wrote this about the ever-surprising question of influence: “We literally do not know what we are doing.” An unexpected epitaph for a man dedicated to rationality, and also a perfect one. Nathaniel Branden was ultimately a monk of the mind, whose thoughts, like the prayers of a religious monk, performed wonders far beyond what anyone could track.




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Brian Williams: The Political Effect

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Yesterday I had lunch with a friend whom I have known for a long time, and whom I would describe as an idolator of Hillary Clinton. My friend is an intelligent person, but Hillary is her blind spot. Every national election cycle has seen her proudly hailing Hillary’s political progress or bitterly regretting her failure with the electorate. Any attempt to suggest grounds for skepticism has been greeted with a swiftly rising cloud of anger.

Yesterday was different. When she pointedly brought up Brian Williams, I thought I would soon hear her favorite refrain about “people who lie — just like George Bush.” This time, however, the “just like” was Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s amazing lie about being shot at in Bosnia was recounted in detail, and with something approaching glee. My efforts to divert the discussion from such an unpleasant subject were unavailing. My friend now despises Clinton.

When people hate Brian Williams for lying, a little bell goes off in their heads, and a lot of them start hating Hillary Clinton for lying.

I suspect there are a lot of other people like her. I also know there are a lot of other problems with Hillary, besides the one that got to my friend. Hillary’s lies about not being rich. Her being rich, with money accrued during the political process. Her total lack of accomplishments. Her bizarre and ridiculous husband, and the bizarre and ridiculous things she has said about him. Her slick, repellent friends. Her friendship with crony capitalists. Her “what difference does it make?” speech about Benghazi. Her “business doesn’t create jobs” speech. Her “vast rightwing conspiracy” speech. Her apparent inability to give a speech that anybody actually likes. Her own complete lack of likability.

I was surprised to hear someone as savvy as Doug Schoen (speaking on Fox News on February 9), alleging that none of this matters to Hillary’s prospects. He pointed to the disarrangement of the Republicans, which supposedly makes people like Hillary more. I have another theory. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I’m trying it out. When people hate Brian Williams for lying, a little bell goes off in their heads, and a lot of them start hating Hillary Clinton for lying. Similarly, when people hate Clinton for being a nepotist, the little bell goes off again, and they hate Jeb Bush for the same reason. And when people hate President Obama for his babbling obfuscations, they remember the babbling obfuscations of most of the leading Republicans.

These reactions, which are normal and natural for normal people, may clear a lot of bad candidates out of the field. Hell, it worked with Romney.




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Dear 454729: Welcome to CUNY

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Probably I should save this for a Word Watch column, but here goes. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, once a distinguished academic institution, has commanded staff to drop “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” and I suppose “Miss,” when addressing people. Faculty are urged to follow suit. The preferred option is, apparently, to address people as “John Doe” or “Mary Roe,” not as the hated, sexist, “Mr. Doe” and “Ms. Roe.” It is intimated by the administration that federal anti-discrimination laws require this.

Of course, it’s all idiotic. It is also grossly tasteless, despite the pretense that it is intended to "ensure a respectful, welcoming and gender-inclusive learning environment.” “Gender-inclusive” is different from “genderless.” And how do you feel when someone starts a letter with “Mary Roe: Welcome to the fall semester” — let alone “Mary Roe: I am sorry to tell you that your mom has died.” I don’t feel warmly welcomed or deeply respected when strangers can’t come up with a better door opener than “Stephen Cox” when they want to confide their thoughts and feelings to me. Returning to “inclusive”: if inclusivity means not knowing whether someone is a man or a woman, we will have to banish all first names, too. They might give it away. And if you want to be ethnically inclusive as well as gender inclusive, there go the last names. Soon the only way to communicate a respectful welcome will be to address people by numbers.

Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea.

This stuff is hypocritical. Do you think the exalted leaders of the City University of New York have stopped referring to themselves as “Dr.,” despite the class distinction and often the ethnic distinction involved in that? I mean, to call oneself “Dr. Smith” shows that you are better than other people, doesn’t it? And aren’t most people with Ph.D.’s Caucasians? Case closed.

But why is this important? One reason is that laws — while bad enough in themselves — become the basis of decrees, which are ordinarily worse. These decrees proceed from someplace so deep in Cubicle City that no one can tell what perpetrator to fire, supposing that anyone had the power to fire anyone. Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea (in this case the bureaucratic sponsorship of the “transgendered”). Nothing else matters: custom, grace, the real respect owing to the people with whom one wants to communicate, nothing.

A society that allows itself to be thus cheapened, bit by bit, day by day, will eventually have no customs, social graces, or respectful gestures to enable differing people to dwell together sociably. It will be a constant, meaningless drama of inflamed sensitivities on the part of some and sullen acquiescence on the part of others.

Libertarians are often remarkable for our lack of intellectual interest in the kinds of daily interaction that make liberty possible. Hayek didn’t suffer from that lack; neither did Mises or Paterson. But for too many of us, nothing bad can happen unless a government agency is directly responsible for making it happen. That leaves the rest of the culture, the culture whose values enable the government to do whatever it does, completely off the hook. You may say, “Well, CUNY is an agency of government,” and it is; but you know, or else should know, that private colleges are almost equally busy coarsening our intellectual and cultural life. We can’t let ourselves off the intellectual hook by imagining that individualism can be robust no matter how debased the surrounding culture may be.




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Stevie, Dictator of Togo

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I was a student at the Université du Bénin in Togo in 1983. With typical and, I think, admirable American disrespect for authority, my fellow exchange students and I enjoyed calling the president of Togo “Stevie,” because he had changed his name from Etienne (French for “Steven”) to Gnassingbé, to sound more African. Our Togolese friends did not find it funny. It wasn’t that they were offended. They were afraid when they heard us talking like that and told us of ditches where the tortured corpses of the president’s critics appeared overnight.

According to my sources, the legends about Eyadéma Gnassingbé were officially encouraged. One, the story of the plane crash, was the subject of an entire comic book that I read when I was in Togo. In the comic, the president of Togo figured as a superhero with metaphysical powers. It was meant to be taken literally.

It’s true that Eyadéma survived a plane crash in 1974. It’s also true that he credited his survival to his own mystical powers. In the comic book, the plane was sabotaged, and his survival was definitely the miraculous result of his personal magic. In a national monument built to commemorate the incident, Eyadéma’s statue towers over images of the heroic officials who apparently didn’t have enough magic of their own and died in the crash.

A vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and they usually ended up dead.

It’s also true that Eyadéma was a leader of the coup that unseated Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of Togo. At the time of the coup, Eyadéma was called Etienne Eyadéma, and the legend is that he personally machine-gunned Olympio at the gates of the American embassy in Lomé, where the then-president was seeking asylum. By the way, that coup followed a common pattern in sub-Saharan, post-colonial Africa: colonial powers establish trading relations with coastal tribe (in Togo’s case, the Ewe). Colonial powers assert administrative control over a large inland area, making the coastal elite a minority within the colonial borders. At the time of independence, the coastal elite takes over. (Sylvanus Olympio was Ewe.) The army is dominated, numerically, by inland tribes. (In Togo’s case, they included the Kabye.) The soldiers get fed up and stage a coup. (Eyadéma was Kabye.)

One day, I was walking through the market with a Togolese friend when he told me another story about Stevie. I had pointed out to him a very pretty girl selling chocolate bars. The girl was about 13. She balanced an enameled tin platter on her head. The platter bore a perfect pyramid of scores of identical chocolate bars in white and red paper wrappers. And the grace note was the girl’s matching white and red dress. She had made herself into a lovely advertisement for dark chocolate. Clever and pretty. But it only reminded my friend of the legends about Eyadéma’s sexual powers. He said that a vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and that they usually ended up dead, not because of any abuse beyond presidential rape, but as a mere side effect of the great girth of his manhood.

Stevie died in office. At the time of his death in 2005, he was the longest serving head of state in all of Africa. His son, Faure Gnassingbé, took over and is still president.




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Die Nasty

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Statist “progressives” are obsessed with wealth and power. I think that back in the ’80s, they must have been sucked into their TV sets, and they’ve been trapped ever since in an endless episode of Dynasty. This must be why they have no idea what the real world is like.

Oliver, a friend of mine who’s about to retire, will need to go on working — just to survive — until he dies. He can’t disclose to the government that he’ll still be earning money, or he’ll lose the Social Security he paid for with money he might otherwise have invested. Without it, he can’t make enough money, at any job that will still have him, while living on Social Security alone would reduce him to poverty. When I complain about this to people with standard-issue leftist views, all they do is rant about the greedy rich and the big corporations — as if Oliver didn’t exist.

On both the Left and the Right, statists seem to get their view of the world from soap operas.

Another friend, Kevin, keeps bees and chickens at the home he shares with his life partner, on a spacious property in a semi-rural area. The city, or county, or whoever hands down such edicts, does not permit him to have enough bees or chickens to make a living selling honey and eggs. So he must return to an office cubicle — to spend the rest of his life working for big corporations and the rich.

How does any of this make sense? I mention my second friend to people who care so much about “the working class”. And I get blank stares and silence. Then they launch into yet another diatribe about “social justice.”

I’m beginning to think that they live on a different planet. A good name for it would be Die Nasty. And that’s definitely the way a whole lot of us are going to die, if “progressives” keep showing us their compassion.

The first requirement of honest politics, it seems to me, is that they apply to real people, here on earth. On both the Left and the Right, statists seem to get their view of the world from soap operas. They ignore those of us who actually exist. Stereotypical, one-dimensional characters are all that interest them.

I’m much more concerned about actual human beings. Oliver would love to spend his golden years camping and fishing, and God knows he’s worked hard enough to earn it. Kevin’s farmette is within a stone’s throw of the zoo. He loves getting up to the crow of the rooster and the roar of the lions, and tending to the living things that flourish in his care. But although the American Dream looks different to each of us, for many it’s been preempted by a nightmare.

Were I to appeal to one of my own favorite fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes, he would quickly collar the culprit. “Tell me, my dear Lori,” I hear him muse, as he puffs on his pipe and plays the violin, “who really benefits from this mad scheme?”

I don’t need Doctor Watson to help me find the answer. It is elementary, indeed. The statist Left is the only sector of our society that gets anything out of the equation. “Splendid!” Holmes would declare. “And there is . . . do you not agree . . . a terrible beauty to it all.”

I suppose there is. Leftists keep making the very problems they purport to solve even worse than ever, thereby assuring that they themselves will keep being needed to save the day. Only day after day goes by, and no matter how many years pass, the problems remain. We keep getting more and more desperate for a solution, and far too many of us continue to call upon our “progressive” heroes to help.

The only people who might hold the statist Left responsible for keeping its promises are those who support it.

Both Oliver and Kevin are diehard progressives. They persist, against all evidence to the contrary, in thinking that their saviors will come through for them. Racial tensions soar into the stratosphere, the battle of the sexes goes thermonuclear, and gay activists snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by attacking religious freedom just as same-sex marriage is gaining ground. Still, the faithful keep faith. If I were to tell my friends that government is making their lives miserable, they would quickly protest that — oh, no! — government is noble, and has We the People’s best interests at heart.

The only people who might hold the statist Left responsible for keeping its promises are those who support it. I have stopped, because I no longer believe in statism at all. I, too, will have to work for the rest of my life, because Obama and Company have robbed me of the chance that I might ever retire. I still believe in progress, but I refuse to accept the silly mummery that claims to promote it as any substitute for the real thing.

Real people need real solutions. It would help if more of us got a clue. Where is Sherlock Holmes when we need him?




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They Shoot Cartoonists, Don’t They?

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On the morning of January 7, following the terrorist attack on the Paris office of the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, CNN was continuously occupied with discussions of the event by various purported experts. On the screen below the talking heads appeared these words: “Is Paris shooting an attack on free speech?”

I believe the answer to that question may just possibly be Yes.

Invading a newspaper office and slaughtering the people who work there, in response to its satires of your religious heroes, does appear, at least on the surface, to be an attack on free speech. Even President Obama, who has been reluctant to say anything that could possibly be considered critical of Islamists, and whose administration tried mightily to blame the Benghazi disaster on an idiot whose so-called movie had supposedly hurt Islamic feelings, immediately stood up and said that what happened in Paris was “an attack on free speech.”

Now, what are the greatest dangers to free speech in the world today?

One is political Islam, in most of its forms. A prominent CNN commentator, a twit named Bobby Ghosh, took care to emphasize the idea that “everyone across the Muslim world agrees that this [the terrorist attack] is not an appropriate response” to critiques of Muhammed and his faith. This idiotic remark went unchallenged by the network’s other twits. But while some Muslim governments have criticized the Paris terrorists, their objection boils down to an attempt to exclude interlopers from their own campaign against freedom. What would have happened to the staff of Charlie Hebdo if they had performed even one satire of Islam within the territory of an Islamic state? They would have been lucky, very lucky, to escape with their lives. There is one successful secular state in the Islamic world, and that is Turkey; and the Turkish government just granted its first permission since 1923 for a Christian church to be built in its domain.

But don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech. For centuries England has been noted for government pre-censorship of the press and for weird libel laws that allow anyone with hurt feelings to take the nearest free speaker to court. England is the place where the star of an American TV crime show (Telly Savalas) successfully sued a paper for saying that his singing was no good. The other Western European countries have a panoply of hate-speech laws that allow people to be sent to jail simply for what they say or write.

And don’t just blame the Europeans. How long, O Lord, has political correctness been surging in America? It probably started in the 1960s, when leftists sold the idea that it was vicious persecution to call someone a Communist simply because he was a Communist. Senator McCarthy is dead, but anti-McCarthyism still has long teeth. Then came the idea that no one’s feelings should be hurt, and that anyone represented by a pressure group got to decide what is meant by “hurt.” Almost everyone knows, regrets, and laughs at political correctness — but it grows upon us daily. Even the New York cops, a tough bunch if ever there was one, now complain that Mayor De Blasio (admittedly a complete jackass) didn’t simply endanger their lives but went so far as to hurt their feelings.

Don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech.

We can’t do much about religious fanatics in other lands, but we can do something to clarify our own attitudes. The next time somebody talks about how he’s in favor of “responsible free speech” or “protected free speech” or “speech that is free in the political arena” — all of which means that free speech is not a right but just something you may be allowed if you have a good purpose and don’t “hurt” other people — repeat what Isabel Paterson said: “When we say free speech, we mean free speech, even if you don't know what we mean.”




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Atlas on Woodward Avenue

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The great power outage that struck Detroit on Dec. 2 reminded me — did it remind you also? — of the way in which Ayn Rand and some of her disciples used to look for signs that “Atlas is shrugging.” They closely inspected every sign that scientists and engineers were withdrawing from the industrial grid and that the grid itself was collapsing.

The apocalypse never came. Jimmy Carter was kicked out of the White House. Stagflation went away. Capitalism kept producing wealth even faster than the government could devour it. Even in this Age of Entropy, Atlas is not so much shrugging as working harder than ever to pay his medical bills. He’s depressed; he’s ailing; but he’s still showing up at work.

Nevertheless, there is something emblematic, something that provides a startling reminder of the End envisioned in Atlas Shrugged, in the horrible fate of the former industrial capital of America. Detroit is bankrupt. It has lost almost two-thirds of its population. Large segments of the city have returned to wilderness. Along Woodward Avenue, once the Champs Elysées of the Midwest, every large business has disappeared. The avenue’s distinguished churches, each an architectural masterpiece, still raise their towers, but several have been abandoned, and all are struggling. A classic theater, a classic movie palace, a classic this and that have been heroically preserved, but the monumental beaux-arts building that used to be GM world headquarters is a nearly empty hulk in a crime-ridden neighborhood, a square mile in which only 3,000 people dare to live. A magnificent art deco skyscraper now houses the countless bureaucrats of the failed public school system. The Institute of Arts, one of the world’s most important museums, the gift of fortunes created by the automobile, has been supported by the state for many years. Its hours are limited; its parking structure has been closed because of structural decay.

A picture tells part of the story. It shows visitors standing in the museum’s central court during the outage. The court, which is lit by windows in the ceiling and is therefore not dependent on electricity, is decorated by murals made by Diego Rivera, a communist, and financed by Edsel Ford, an industrialist. The murals show the progress of industry and suggest that it can be used either to create or to destroy. Beneath the murals, people mill about, apparently oblivious to the art. Perhaps a few of them are reflecting on the process of cultural disintegration. Perhaps one of them is asking himself, Did Atlas shrug — or did he merely lose what made him Atlas?




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There Is No Such Thing as an Innocuous Tax

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On July 17, Eric Garner was accosted by police on the streets of Staten Island, suspected of selling cigarettes on which no tax had been paid. Garner complained, the police tried to arrest him, they got him in a chokehold, and he died as a result. His death has become an issue because he was black.

Do people really need charges of racism before they see how vicious the state can be — how vicious it routinely is — when it enforces its laws?




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Missouri, Compromised

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American political rhetoric is often like American politicians themselves: bland, oblivious, tone-deaf, and inimical to the cause of liberty. Whenever they say stupid things, we mock them for it, and justly so. But there’s another type of political rhetoric less entertaining but often far more harmful: the plain speech of the authority figure refusing to do anything which might in any way challenge the structure of which he is part. This is what we saw last night (Nov. 24) when St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced to the press that the grand jury convened by his office had decided there was no probable cause to pursue charges against police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown.

Anyone tuning in could be forgiven for thinking that McCulloch was actually speaking for the defense. For more than 20 minutes, he laid out what he saw as the facts of the case, careful to promote the account he found believable—Wilson’s, of course—and to dismiss any others that conflicted with it, all prefaced by an attack on the “24-hour news cycle” that inconveniently demanded facts about a case where very few were made available to anyone outside the secret grand jury proceedings.

In theory, it’s the prosecutor’s job to convene such grand juries so that probable cause might be found, and the case proceed to trial. As Ben Casselman notes, the grand jury is a slam dunk for prosecutors — it is extremely rare for grand juries to refuse to find any reason not to go to trial, except in cases involving police shootings. So how then, in more than 20 years as prosecutor, has McCulloch never managed to successfully recommend charges against a single police officer? It’s not for lack of opportunity.

Anyone tuning in could be forgiven for thinking that McCulloch was actually speaking for the defense.

Potentially, it could have something to do with McCulloch’s father, mother, brother, uncle, and cousin all working for the St. Louis Police Department. Imagine if a case involving a company came before a judge whose entire family worked for that company: if the judge did not recuse himself, it would be grounds for his removal from the bench. Consider also that McCulloch is the present president of The BackStoppers, an organization that funds families of police officers killed or wounded in the line of duty. Of itself, this could be noble work—but McCulloch has been charged by the voters of St. Louis County with pursuing justice, and that means avoiding conflicts of interest or the appearance of partiality. Given his family history, his record of performance on the job, his daily work alongside officers, even his statement that he became a prosecutor because, having lost a leg to cancer as a child, he couldn’t become a cop—one can understand why there were questions raised about his sincerity in presenting this case to the grand jury. And it can definitely help explain why to many, including at least one former prosecutor, it looked like McCulloch had no interest in bringing a case at all.

But instead of recusing himself, McCulloch stayed on, up to the point of calling an inexplicably late press conference to mug for the cameras and urge for “calm” while the Ferguson PD rolled out all the military surplus gear they’ve acquired over the past decade: a troop carrier, sound cannons, riot armor, automatic rifles, and a seemingly endless supply of flashbang grenades and tear gas. (In more typically vapid rhetorical territory, President Obama took center stage soon after to say absolutely nothing whatsoever of substance, while scenes of gassed protestors played alongside him.)

One can entertain reasonable doubts about what happened in the meeting between Wilson and Brown. One could even believe, after considering the evidence as the grand jury supposedly did (in proceedings that cannot be disclosed, by a vote that they are legally obligated to conceal), that Officer Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown at least six times. But I struggle to imagine any circumstance under which one could find it appropriate that Robert McCulloch was wielding that authority and giving that speech last night. Because he was, we got the rare spectacle of an American public figure neither leaning on clichés nor bumbling his lines. No: he communicated, at length, exactly what he meant to say.



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Hong Kong in Context

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Taking a casual survey of American political rhetoric, one would suspect that we were at the dawn of a new age — or at least that this nation had a poor memory. Somehow everything has become unprecedented. Unprecedented healthcare reform; unprecedented opposition to healthcare reform; unprecedented Republican victories in the midterm elections; unprecedented demonstrations in Hong Kong. But China has a long memory.

The recent protests in Hong Kong have adhered to the choreography of Chinese politics in at least one important respect: the Communist regime has accused its political opponents of being unpatriotic. Xinhua, the state news agency, recently published a commentary denouncing celebrities who supported the protests for the putative crime of challenging the authority of the Party, and — by a heroic leap of logic — of betraying a lack of love for the motherland. CY Leung, the Chief Executive, has accused foreign actors of orchestrating the demonstrations. He did not specify who these foreign actors were, but we all know that he means the United States, as if we weren’t content with the existing friction in bilateral relations and decided on a whim to make life more difficult for the Chinese government.

The democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong should be framed, by them and by their friends abroad, not in terms of their unique identity, but in terms of universal values that all Chinese can share.

Such hamfisted tactics could be dismissed, were it not for the real danger that the accusations might actually be taken seriously. There is an ugly history of antagonism between the people of Hong Kong and their estranged brethren on mainland China, inspired by subjects ranging from the status of the Cantonese dialect to patriotic education to reports of tourists doing unseemly things in unseemly places in Hong Kong. To people from mainland China, the aloofness of people from Hong Kong often smacks of arrogance and snobbery. But the Chinese can put up with snobbery. It plagues Beijing and Shanghai, and nobody seems to mind. In the case of Hong Kong, the danger is that the protests may be viewed in light of this antagonism and interpreted as a posture of “more-democratic-than-thou.”

Hong Kong has always been viewed as an enclave of wealthy, westernized Chinese, enjoying a wide measure of civil liberties that have been resolutely denied to people from the mainland. There is a significant possibility that they will be regarded as spoiled children, not content with their privileges and clamoring for more. The Communist regime will avail itself of every opportunity to cast aspersions on the pro-democracy demonstrators, and any indication that this is a struggle for Hong Kong’s exclusive rights will only serve to alienate it from the rest of China.

The democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong should be framed, by them and by their friends abroad, not in terms of their unique identity — for that would invite references to their former status as a colony of the West — but in terms of universal values that all Chinese can share. To Americans nurtured on the idea of universal values, this should not seem unprecedented.




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