In Our Guts, We Know They’re Nuts

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I’m not old enough to remember Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. But because the late senator is a hero of mine, I have read quite a bit about what happened. I am, therefore, well aware that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s people put out a TV ad implying that if the Republican challenger triumphed in the 1964 election, he would blow up the world. Reportedly the spot only aired once, but that was all it took. A nuclear bomb doesn’t need to go off twice.

“In your heart, you know he’s right” was Goldwater’s campaign slogan. This was changed, by the Democrats, to “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” The political Left has a long history of smearing those it doesn’t like with accusations of insanity.

During that tumultuous campaign, a now deservedly defunct magazine called Fact put out an article whose headline screamed, “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President!” If facts really mattered to this publication, one detail might have given it pause. Absolutely none of those 1,189 self-proclaimed experts ever actually examined the senator.

The political Left has a long history of smearing those it doesn’t like with accusations of insanity.

Goldwater sued the magazine’s editor, Ralph Ginzburg, for libel, and won $75,000 in damages. Though that was, at the time, a lavish sum — the equivalent of approximately $592,000 in today’s funds — the case exerted an influence that was larger still. It resulted in what has come to be known as the “Goldwater Rule.” Officially designated paragraph 7.3 of the Principles of Medical Ethics by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 (and still in effect today), the rule reads as follows:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

Of course the same president whose campaign accused his challenger of insanity is the one who accelerated US military involvement in Vietnam. It was outside his White House that the protestors chanted, “Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” The nation didn’t need to wonder whether President Johnson’s abuses of political power would lead to the deaths of massive numbers of people, because they undeniably did.

But like every other ethical constraint in 21st-century politics, the professional responsibility we might expect from media shrinks is probably not long for this world. Now that Donald Trump is president, his adversaries have the Goldwater Rule in their crosshairs. Some know-it-all in the psychiatric industry rises up to tell us, almost on a daily basis, that if the present occupant of the Oval Office is not a raving maniac, he is, at the very least, teetering on the brink.

The nation didn’t need to wonder whether President Johnson’s abuses of political power would lead to the deaths of massive numbers of people, because they undeniably did.

Though I think the former assessment is extreme, there are a lot of days when I agree with the latter. The Donald often strikes me as an oversized and very spoiled child, who’s been indulged with dangerous toys. Unlike Little Ralphie in A Christmas Story, he probably never had grownups in his life with the nerve to tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” But then again, I don’t regard politicians in general as the most stable or mature specimens of humanity. It could be credibly argued that no mentally healthy adult would ever run for president of the United States.

What really seems to set Donald Trump apart from the rest of the field is the undisguised, boyish glee with which he lives his presidential dream. He’s Big Ralphie, and his BB gun is apocalyptically yuge. He lacks the veneer of sophistication and glibness — an aura of helmsmanship that is probably never more than tissue-thin — that we’ve seen in almost every other aspirant to high office. I suspect, however, that far from making him more destructive than any potential rival, Trump’s weird childishness makes it easier for a majority of us to keep from trusting him overmuch.

Yet the armchair headshrinking is threatening, as well as unethical, because when such “professional” conduct is treated as legitimate, everyone who disagrees with the “experts” runs the risk of being branded as “crazy” — a term that has long been synonymous not only with “dangerous” but also with “evil.” A phony diagnosis is evil in itself. And it subjects people who actually suffer from mental problems to stigma, isolation, and, potentially, far greater dangers than the vast majority of them pose to anyone else.

It could be credibly argued that no mentally healthy adult would ever run for president of the United States.

Thus does the quest for political power threaten to obliterate the very line between sanity and insanity. An insatiable lust for power is coming to be accepted as mentally healthy, and the belief that there are more important things in life is widely dismissed as a disease of moral irresponsibility. But to those who love liberty, tyranny is insane. If liberty is to be preserved, that line must continue to be sharply and clearly drawn.




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The Cruelty of the Self-Righteous

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I am generally favorable to President Trump, and I can give you reasons for that. But I am not favorable, at all, to his role in the current “you aren’t doing enough about this” war between political factions about the so-called opioid crisis. Trump has upped the ante by calling for the death penalty for illicit peddling of opioids. The only way you can call and raise him on that is by recommending the death penalty for users — something that, unfortunately, may already be entailed by the agitated proposals now issuing from Trump and other officials.

Look. Every 20 years there’s another drug “crisis.” This has been going on for more than a century. But seldom has it gone on about a more useful family of drugs than opioids. These drugs reduce severe and chronic pain, and pain is a good thing to reduce. Often it is something that needs to be reduced in order to prevent a suicide; very often it is something that needs to be reduced in order to give sick people a real life.

To arbitrarily limit the number of prescriptions for useful drugs is to arbitrarily increase the amount of human pain. That’s pretty much the definition of cruelty.

There is no doubt that these drugs can be falsely prescribed, over-prescribed, and abused. There is no doubt that they can cause addiction and death. I hope I am not offending you by saying that all of this is a familiar part of life on this planet. The best, and in fact the only, way of meeting this “crisis” is to exercise responsibility for your own medications. It is not to tell your neighbor to take those little pains to the nearest Zen master, or man up and bear them.

To raise the price of “illicit” drugs by raising the penalty for peddling them merely increases profits for the vast majority of dealers who always escape such penalties. To arbitrarily limit the number of prescriptions for useful drugs, which is what is now being proposed on all sides, is to arbitrarily increase the amount of human pain. That’s pretty much the definition of cruelty.

So I say, Damn your cruelty, Mr. President. And damn the cruelty of all the self-satisfied people who agree with you only about this, of all things.




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Sic Semper

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The firing of Andrew McCabe, long the number two person at the FBI and during part of 2017 its interim director, rejoiced my heart, which was even more rejoiced by the fact that his firing denies him access to the government pension, said to be worth almost $2 million, that he was on the verge of receiving. Now he can begin to deal with the legal and financial punishments that his organization has long visited upon innocent American citizens.

Of course, this person, fired for his own misdeeds, immediately issued a statement claiming that the event was an attack on “public servants” and “the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally.” I, for one, do not regard the FBI as sacred, or intelligence agents as a priestly class, or “public servants” as more than government employees. And even if they were, I would consider McCabe a very poor candidate to embody their virtues. This is a man whose wife took hundreds of thousands of dollars from a friend of Hillary Clinton to help her run for office on behalf of the party of Hillary Clinton, and still had the effrontery to supervise investigations of Hillary Clinton.

McCabe's firing is big news because we are seeing a tyrant fall.

Yet the fact that McCabe’s firing was big news, the fact that I and millions even notice the fate of Andrew McCabe, is no cause for celebration. “The FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally” are not supposed to be that important. Their professional careers are not supposed to be crucial to our system of government. The firing of one cop, justified or unjustified, should be no more important than the firing of a professor, a nurse, an engineer, or any other normal person.

McCabe’s firing is big news because he had big power; and he had big power, not because he had a big talent, which he didn’t, but because he was a ruler in an organization that investigates, controls, and often persecutes American citizens, while doggedly withholding information about itself. Under the leadership of McCabe and others, it has become a tyrannical organization. His firing is big news because we are seeing a tyrant fall. Let’s now get rid of the laws and attitudes and social customs that permit the tyranny of the Inner State.




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The Cruz Case: The State’s Kindly Cruelty

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An informative article by Paul Sperry in Real Clear Investigations shows how Nikolas Cruz, a violent lunatic who was a frequent subject of complaint at home and at school, could have maintained a record that was clean enough to allow him to buy guns and massacre 17 people at his high school in Florida.

Although he was disciplined for a string of offenses — including assault, threatening teachers and carrying bullets in his backpack — he was never taken into custody or even expelled. Instead, school authorities referred him to mandatory counseling or transferred him to alternative schools.

That did a lot of good, didn’t it?

How could Nikolas Cruz, a violent lunatic who was a frequent subject of complaint at home and at school, maintain a record that was clean enough to allow him to buy guns and massacre 17 people?

But why was he treated this way? The reason appears to be that, inspired by modern liberal educationists, officials — police honchos and the rulers of government schools — had adopted a policy of not punishing or even recording crimes committed by young people. I’m not talking about violations of some marijuana law. I mean crimes. The policy, adopted with great ceremony and self-applause, was addressed not just to “nonviolent” offenses but also to “’assault/threat’ and ‘fighting,’ as well as ‘vandalism.’”

And the district’s legally written discipline policy also lists “assault without the use of a weapon” and “battery without serious bodily injury,” as well as “disorderly conduct,” as misdemeanors that "should not be reported to Law Enforcement Agencies or Broward District Schools Police.” This document also recommends “counseling” and “restorative justice."

In other words, students and other young people could roam about, assaulting people and threatening them, with no punishment other than a silent referral to “counseling.”

The Cruz case illustrates the cruelty of modern liberal policies and tactics, which encourage crime, especially in poor and middle-class communities, and then respond to it with demands that means of self-defense (otherwise known as guns) be removed from the same communities. It illustrates the folly of conservatives’ bizarre faith in “law enforcement,” which more and more appears as highly paid but irresponsible use of force, whether manifested in “kindly” social engineering or in the brutal recklessness of assaults on unarmed civilians.

Students and other young people could roam about, assaulting people and threatening them, with no punishment other than a silent referral to “counseling.”

But the Cruz case also has a lesson for libertarians. Our genial, live-and-let-live philosophy and our well justified fear of government sometimes lead us to ignore the fact that government’s legitimate purpose (or, if you’re an anarchist, the legitimate purpose of a contractual defense agency) is to prevent or punish the initiation of force — by anyone. Gangs on the streets and lunatics in the corridors are the principal dangers to liberty that many people, especially young and vulnerable people, have to face. To ignore private dangers to liberty is to adopt the irresponsible elitism so much in evidence among the blind conservative proponents of “law and order” and the smug liberal advocates of “social justice.”




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Profound and Destructive

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President Trump’s destructiveness requires few words here. Consider how world stock and currency markets have been shaken by the resignation on March 6 of Gary Cohn, regarded until then as Trump’s chief economic adviser. Although not a trained economist, Cohn apparently had some sound instincts derived from years of financial experience. His departure apparently and ominously leaves more influence, or echo, to Peter Navarro — look him up with Google.

This latest example of destructiveness follows the one touched off by Trump’s March 2 tweet bewailing America’s loss of “many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with” and heralding trade wars as “good, and easy to win.”

Trump views international trade as a game, a zero-sum game in which one player’s gain is another’s loss.

I’ll spend more words on how profound Trump’s ignorance is. He considers a country’s excess of imports over exports a measure of loss. This measure applies even to trade with each foreign country separately. He counts China and Mexico among the worst offenders, deserving punishment. He does not understand the multilateral aspect of beneficial trade.

Nor does he understand how we gain in buying goods cheap from abroad. What difference does it make if steel and aluminum are cheap because of low foreign prices or because they grow cheaply on bushes at home? Money cost is a measure of opportunity cost, which means the loss of other goods when resources go instead to make the particular good in question. Opportunity cost reflects scarcity. Scarcity applies even to prosperous America, where we could enjoy still higher standards of living if food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, and other goods and services came costlessly and miraculously from heaven. Scarcity and how gains from domestic and foreign trade alleviate it are fundamentals of economics. The principle of comparative advantage goes far in explaining how.

The profundity of Trump’s ignorance goes beyond economics, extending even to the behavior of a decent human being.

Without understanding the academic presentation of the “absorption approach to the balance of payments,” everyone should be able to grasp its central idea, which is sheer arithmetic. If we as a country use more output for consumption and real investment than we produce, then the difference must come from somewhere — from abroad in the form of more imports than exports. A big item in this excess absorption, alias national undersaving, is government deficits. Yet Trump and Congress are complacent about increasing the deficit and debt by taxing less and spending more.

All too many politicians say that they are in favor of free trade if it is “fair trade” played on a “level playing field.” These slogans express Trump’s view of international trade as a game, a zero-sum game in which one player’s gain is another’s loss.

Trump does not understand how the price system coordinates economic activity, making most government planning about jobs and industries unnecessary and harmful.

The profundity of Trump’s ignorance goes beyond economics. It extends to diplomacy in domestic and foreign relations and even to the behavior of a decent human being. Yet his destructive economic ignorance remains prominent.




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Caesars Non-August

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I should have known. The first time I saw Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel on TV, he was wearing four gold stars on each side of his collar. The highest rank that anyone can hope to achieve in the US Army is the rank of four-star general. It is difficult — no, ridiculous — to equate a four-star general with an elected cop in a county in Florida. I should have known that a person who would parade around that way would have lots more blustering incompetence to show us.

And he did. Not caring — or perhaps not even caring to know — that his guys had scores of contacts with the lunatic who killed 17 students in a Broward County school, and yet did nothing about those contacts, thereby allowing said lunatic to purchase guns and pursue whatever evil purpose he might find, Sheriff Israel leapt onto the TV screen to insist that more power be given to governmental agencies such as his own, to deal with citizens who want to own guns.

It is difficult — no, ridiculous — to equate a four-star general with an elected cop in a county in Florida.

When it became known that, during the massacre, one of Israel’s armed minions had declined to attack the lunatic, allowing him not only to continue killing people but to walk away from the scene and refresh himself at two fast-food joints, the sheriff self-righteously denounced the cop — while deflecting accusations that three or more other cops had done the same. Israel highhandedly refused to release the videotapes of the event — because the release “would expose the district’s security-system plan.” There was a plan?

Sheriff Israel responded to criticism by modestly observing that he had “given amazing leadership” as sheriff and by reciting nonsensical rhymes:

Listen, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, O.J. Simpson would still be in the record books.

Two years ago, Israel responded to accusations of political corruption by saying, “Lions don’t care about the opinions of sheep.” He’s the lion, you understand.

I should have known that a person who would parade around that way would have lots more blustering incompetence to show us.

The Florida State Attorney’s office had already started more than 40 investigations of Israel’s little troupe of Scouts. Then there is the case of Jermaine McBean. Sarah Carter summarizes it in this way:

While Israel is battling allegations that his office failed to appropriately respond to the Cruz shooting, he is also fighting a civil court case brought by the family of Jermaine McBean, an African-American information technology engineer. McBean was killed in 2013 by Israel’s deputies after they responded to a call that McBean was walking in his neighborhood with what appeared to be a weapon. It was an unloaded air rifle.

McBean was shot by one of the three cops who accosted him, a man who “feared for his life” because of the “gun” that McBean was carrying on his shoulder.

You can see the history of the case in Carter’s article. You can make your own judgment. But here’s the most sickening part, to me:

Three months after the shooting, Israel awarded two of the deputies [involved in the McBean affair] the BSO’s prestigious “Gold Cross Award.” But under mounting criticism he later told reporters the deputies should not have received the awards, adding that he didn’t award the deputies but couldn’t investigate the matter because someone accidentally destroyed the paperwork.

If you want to see how people look when they’re giving and getting awards of this kind, go here. It’s not a pretty picture. The 2015 report just cited notes that “while the investigation has dragged on for more than two years, the decision to give the officers awards was swift.”

He’s the lion, you understand.

I am not at all sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, and I happen to think that many anti-police accusations are phony, transparently phony, and villainous. Others turn out to be mistaken. But there are plenty that don’t turn out that way, and if the 17 deaths in Broward County — make it 18, counting Jermaine McBean — can possibly result in any good, it will be the continuing exposure of the preening little dictators who stand at the heads of so many well-funded agencies of the police state that is the enforcement arm of the welfare state.

Oh, you’ll be happy to know that the FBI (remember them, and their record of efficiency and impartial justice) is investigating the McBean case — at least as reported a mere two and a half years ago.




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How to Seize the Moral High Ground

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I was never a fan of Billy Graham. I considered him a raving bore and a probable nitwit. But I was disturbed to read that his death was greeted by a torrent of abuse from leftwing and “moderate” media, as if hundreds of pundits had been storing up rage against him for the past 30 or 40 years. Some of it made me gasp. Literally. Here is the tweet with which someone named Lauren Duca, a figure at Teen Vogue, of all places, bade farewell to Graham:

Have fun in hell, bitch.

“Bitch,” in that sense, started as prison talk for “male homosexual.” After prison it spread to other locales, such as Teen Vogue. Duca’s opposition to Graham seems to have resulted from Graham’s opposition to homosexuality.

I have never been a fan of Quentin Tarantino, at all. I think his films are vulgar and obvious. I am aware that he has recently become a politically controversial figure, not because of his “art” but because of his alleged countenancing of his friend Harvey Weinstein’s alleged crimes. But I gasped at the weird screed about Tarantino that appeared on a widely read rightwing site that sometimes publishes good things:

He’s a slobbering, drooling, film-school nerd who stuffs his movies full of bloodshed and curse words, apparently hoping no one will notice the Uber-geek behind the camera who’s likely wearing either panties or diapers. He bears the unmistakably soft air of someone who’s never been punched in the face.

For all of his films’ alleged danger and violence, it’s always seemed barkingly obvious to me that he’s a twerpy fake who’d burst into tears if he chipped a fingernail. He’s an emblem of a generation which truly knows nothing beyond pop culture and gets nearly all of its “life experiences” from a screen.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds this stuff — the leftwing sample and the rightwing sample — literally sickening. What kind of people enjoy these things? This is not H.L. Mencken. It’s not Lord Byron. It’s not Zola. It’s not Mr. Dooley or Sinclair Lewis. It’s not anyone who ever attacked an enemy with wit and insight. It’s not even the vicious polemics of the American revolutionary period, of the Jackson and anti-Jackson movements, or of the Crisis of the Union in the 1850s. It’s garbage.

What gives it cultural license? What allows it to be either cheered or justified — as the canards about President Obama’s birthplace were cheered, and, much more prominently, as the constant charges of treason against President Trump are cheered?

What kind of people enjoy these things? This is not H.L. Mencken. It’s not Lord Byron. It’s not Zola.

Some of the attraction is simply to lynch-mob attitudes. Many years ago I visited a friend who rented an apartment in South Boston. He was gay and Jewish. He had trouble getting out of his place without being ridiculed and threatened by local Catholic youth. Those days are gone. So are the days in which interracial couples were taunted and threatened on the streets of Northern cities. (I don’t have to read about it; I saw it.) But the same mentality, if you want to call it that, is visible in the fanatical attempts to exile from schools and colleges anyone who expresses rightwing ideas, many of which are simply the modern-liberal ideas of 20 or 30 years ago. The same mentality is visible in the frenzied hunt for people who, 30 or 40 years ago, allegedly violated some sexual code. And no, I am not in favor of sexual harassment, however defined. I just don’t like lynch mobs, even when the target is guilty.

But there’s something else going on. Since the 18th century, at least, it’s been noted that people are seldom embittered when they lose a contest they didn’t think they had any reason to enter. I’m not bitter about my failure to be elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, or to be chosen president of my university. But I would be embittered if an assistant professor in my department were given my office and my committee positions. I would be still more embittered if that person asserted his or her right to my perks.

People on the Right, many of them, are embittered and hateful because, for many years, they have been treated as second-class citizens — their distinctive ideas removed from the schools, their gun ownership restricted and threatened, their religion mocked by the most prestigious figures in popular culture. They eagerly applaud every attack on their supposed superiors.

I’m not buying it. If you want to preserve traditional culture, a war of abuse is not how to do it.

People on the Left, many of them, are embittered and hateful because they have grown used to their culture’s institutionalized authority and prestige. The leading figures of government who did everything they could — and are still doing everything they can — to get Trump unelected are not just opposed to his ideas, if any; they are angry, angry, angry that nobodies from the Right have seized their own cultural thrones. No attack on the infidels is too vulgar for them, or for many of their supporters in the media.

Me, I’m more sympathetic to the people on the Right — not the people on the Right who threatened me when I visited South Boston 40 years ago (they’re not there anymore), but the people on today’s Right who are basically (in my view) fighting a defensive battle against those who want to take their guns, their schools, and the power of their votes away from them. So the offended persons lash out, not just at the political establishment, but at all its heirs and assigns, including such heroes of the self-entitled cultural elite as actors and movie directors.

So I get it. But I’m not buying it. If you want to preserve traditional culture, a war of abuse is not how to do it, you slobbering, drooling, twerpy fakes. Neither is the home-family-“cops are wonderful” cant in which the Right has long been marinated. And, my leftist friends, if you want to assert your own values, try to do it by communicating something valuable, or at least plausible, and not such stupidities as “Trump is a traitor,” or the kind of talk one hears on the prison yard — you bitches.




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When Stupid Thinking Happens to Smart People

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An age-old question, pondered by those who think weighty thoughts, is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Many books have been written on the subject. It’s one of the first questions kids ask their parents after they’ve stopped wondering why the sky is blue. This libertarian Christian’s answer would be, “Because, unlike government, God doesn’t try to micromanage every aspect of human life.” I’m reasonably satisfied with that explanation, but an altogether different question has perplexed me: why do smart people think stupid things?

Anyone who pays attention to the political scene is bound to observe the prevalence of what those in Twelve-Step recovery call “stinking thinking.” When we hear a particular stupidity once too often, something in us snaps. My own “snap” comes not when a dumb oaf commits this infraction, but when the guilty party is someone whose intelligence I generally respect. It happened again only the other day. Since I enjoy a good outrage as much as anybody, I’m writing about it while my irritation is deliciously fresh.

Those who presume to control the lives of others think themselves smarter and morally superior to the poor dolts over whom they would rule.

In a theology study group, where the president’s name had no conceivable reason to be mentioned, a friend of mine enthusiastically shared what she was reading in her spare time. It was yet another allegedly damning expose of “how the Russians stole the election for Trump.” She told us about this as if it were a conclusion as inescapable as the fact that the sky is blue. Now, I’m no great fan of Donald Trump, didn’t vote for him in 2016, and have no idea whom I’ll vote for (if anyone) in 2020. But perhaps because I thought this particular woman too intelligent to fall for this “Trump-Russia is the New Watergate” malarkey, I’d had all I was willing to take.

As we were obviously no longer discussing theology, I asked her if she had the slightest clue why most of those who voted for Trump cast their ballots as they did. I noted that in the months prior to the election, few people thought him a man of sterling character. That people who voted for Trump weren’t voting for a best friend, or for someone to babysit their dogs, marry their daughters, or stand as godfather for their grandkids. And that nothing the Russians could have said or done would have made Hillary Clinton any less trustworthy, in the judgment of those voters, than she already was.

The conversation was quickly steered back onto the subject at hand, but I believe I made my point. Not that I changed my friend’s mind. She will probably go right on believing that Trump voters are all horrible sexists and racists who want the poor to starve to death and the elderly to get sick and waste away. In the partisan bubble in which she lives, she isn’t permitted to think anything else.

Progressive bubble-dwellers’ nutty notions about Trump’s victory can be traced to one primary cause: their own mountainous vanity. They cannot conceive of how dangerous and destructive millions of Americans believe Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party to be. Only a dastardly conspiracy of Republicans and Russians could keep voters from bowing before the shining wonderfulness of the Dems. Vanity, in general, goes a long way toward explaining why so many stupidities are so readily believed by people who really ought to know better.

We might also recall that vanity was one of Lucifer’s chief sins.

Vanity also explains the prevalence of statist thinking on both Left and Right. Those who presume to control the lives of others think themselves smarter and morally superior to the poor dolts over whom they would rule. In contemporary America, we don’t like to take the blame for anything. Because we’re too smart to ever screw up, every undesirable occurrence simply must be someone else’s fault.

This vanity encourages us to believe that we can run other people’s lives better than they can. We might also recall that vanity was one of Lucifer’s chief sins. He thought he’d make a better god than God.

As this is not a theology discussion group, I know I shouldn’t mention that. But such a lapse can’t possibly be my fault. I blame it totally on my progressive friend.




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If You Can Keep Your Head

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Recently I saw an article with a headline that went more or less like this: “I’m a Conservative: I Care About Character.” The thesis of the piece was: “That’s why I can’t support Trump.”

I didn’t finish the article. I didn’t need to. I felt that I could have written it myself — or a hundred articles like it. Not because I’m a conservative (I’m not) or because I habitually care about politicians’ “character” enough to vote for or against them because of it. I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils. But I understand that everyone has some particular issue that he or she cares most about, at least right now; and for the conservative gentleman or lady it’s “character.” Some people care, or think they care, about only one issue, ever. And an article written from that point of view would be simplicity itself.

I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils.

But I look at the world in a different way, and I believe that the year of the Trump presidency has taught a lot of other people to see things that way too. Here it is: there are many possible reasons why intelligent people vote or refuse to vote for someone; these reasons are pretty much apples and oranges, with economic concerns being somehow “weighed” against character concerns or constitutional concerns or the horribleness of the opposing candidate; this is an imperfect world, but somehow one makes choices on the basis of those various concerns, because one has to choose (not voting being a choice like any other). All of this seems self-evident, when you think about it, but I believe that many people have become more conscious of it because of the Trump presidency.

If you’re a libertarian, as I am, you may hail or detest Donald Trump because of his positions on taxes or immigration or trade or “infrastructure” or his lack of traditional gravitas . . . You can expand this list pretty far, and it’s unlikely that you will hail or detest him on every available front. But you get to choose which of them are most important, and you get to change your mind later on. You may, for instance, like his financial policies, and if enough of them are implemented, you may not like him so well afterwards. He gave you your way on your most important issue, so fine; but now you’re looking at his other ideas.

This messy way of thinking operates throughout life, not just in politics, although many true and upright people do not realize that it does. Others believe it is a sin to realize that, and to act upon it. These good people may be purists who cannot bring themselves to make any political choices, because all of them seem dirty. Or they may be rationalizers who make a messy decision and then suddenly discover that what they chose was entirely and uniquely moral and necessary, and if you don’t agree with it, you are a deeply flawed human being.

It’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various.

To many of these people, however, Trump has provided a memorable lesson. He has presented them with a concrete problem — the assessment of his presidency — that cries out for them to see the complexity of choice. He has given them the chance to practice thinking like, well, good economists. He didn’t intend to do that, but he did.

He also gave them practice in distinguishing sane thinking from insane thinking. When we see someone attributing every wrong characteristic to Donald Trump, ignoring any of his successes and inventing, if necessary, failures, we have identified someone who has not only made a choice of values about the world but is using it to create a world. In what other area of life do people feel impelled to say that a person whom they dislike for one reason is also unlikable for every other reason in the cosmos? The same goes for the zealots who simply cannot get enough of Trump, his tweets and rallies. In what other area of life do people wait in line for hours to hear strings of clichés, most of them meaningless, and cheer them to the rafters, imagining that now they can depart in peace, having seen all the greatness and the glory of this age?

The fact that politics turns some into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents.

I know, it’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various and difficult, and that they don’t seem likely to recover. One might imagine that their world, because it’s simpler than the real world, is also easier and therefore better to live in. Actually, the reason it’s simple is that there’s practically nothing in it, and this can be an inconvenience.

Yet these people are, like Trump, good lessons to us all — in two ways.

One is obvious: let’s not be like them. The other is not obvious, but it needs to be learned, so that we don’t end up in the same world with them. It starts with the recognition that outside the political realm, most of these people are eminently sane and well intentioned, and blessed with some practical success in life. When we recognize this, we see how important it is to refuse the temptation to make reductionist judgments on their lives, as they do on the lives of others. The fact that politics turns them into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents. It’s true, we may need to lead the conversation to something outside the realm of American party politics, but even this act may, just possibly, show them that there is a way back to the messy but vital world of actual thought, that we are taking it, and it makes us happy.




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Caracas Dispatches

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Mercedes Flanagan — I’ll call her that — a Venezuelan lawyer, television executive, and jurist, and most important, this author’s first cousin, arrived in Miami on December 15, 2017.

Flanagan. A good Latin American name, like O’Higgins or De Valera.

Mercedes was able to get here after acquiring a six-month US visa (months in the making and a miracle) and flying a convoluted route that included Trinidad and Panama City. Direct flights — or flights of any sort — have become increasingly difficult to book because of Venezuela’s paucity of convertible currency. Five days after her arrival we met at her sister’s house in Boca Raton to celebrate the holidays together. Two of her granddaughters were there, having left Venezuela three months before. They too were seeking political asylum. Mercedes had lost a lot of weight but looked good, a result she attributed to the “Maduro diet,” as Venezuela’s food shortage is nicknamed, after Nicolás Maduro, the current president. She dreads returning.

Please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality.

“Behind the scenes,” she said, “Cubans run everything.” A surprising revelation for what was once one of South America’s richest, most sophisticated, and modern countries — and a dark irony. During the 1960s, Cuban military and guerrilla leaders funded and aided leftist insurgents. Though thoroughly defeated, they’ve made a latter-day comeback.

I asked Mercedes about the state of her finances. She answered that she was still receiving her government pension but that one-third of it had been converted into nonconvertible “economic war bonds,” useless savings certificates.

In 2017, the mismanagement of Venezuela’s socialist economy — please forgive me for that absurd phrase: “mismanaged socialist economy,” as if a well-managed socialist economy could be a reality (a socialist economy is, by definition, a mismanaged economy; to actually mismanage a socialist economy would be to insert market mechanisms into it) — drove the inflation rate of the Bolivar (Venezuela’s currency) to somewhere above 4,000%. Mercedes reported a black-market exchange rate of 102,000 Bolivares to the dollar, circa December 1. CNN now (mid-January) reports 191,000 Bolivares to the dollar.

In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check.

Let’s take a closer look at this money thing. Each day, Venezuelan banks are given a fixed budget dictating how much cash they’re allowed to disburse to clients. Electronic transactions are allowed, but forget ATMs, they’re all out of cash. Outside the banks, the lines of customers waiting to cash checks in order to acquire cash are already long by opening time — translating to about an hour’s wait. In order to conserve cash, banks are sticklers at enforcing check cashing procedures and creating on-the-spot, arbitrary rules to deny a check. But here’s the kicker: the daily per client check-cashing allotment set by the government is the equivalent of between 6 and 18 US cents — often not even enough to buy a “tit’s” worth of groceries.

Yes, a “tit” or teta, as it is called, because it resembles a droopy breast. Officially, they are CLAP bags. They hold a month’s worth of groceries and toiletries that cost the equivalent of 18 US cents. The government makes them available to the poorest Venezuelans at heavily subsidized prices. But, as CNN reports, “Recently, CLAP bags have gotten smaller or been delayed as more Venezuelans slip into poverty and as the government runs out of money to import essential goods.” How ironic: a shortage of worthless cash.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month, according to Mercedes. One enterprising “Chávista collective” in Caracas representing about 4,000 families has issued its own, parallel currency, the panal, and its own bank, El Banco Panalero, to ease the shortage of cash. The pudgy face of the demagogue former President Hugo Chávez graces one side.

Speaking of iconic faces, renditions of Simón Bolívar’s face have been subtly altered to make him look more creole than European white by pugging his nose and darkening his skin — in other words, to have him resemble Chávez and Maduro.

Salaries are unpredictable, even for government employees. So garbage is collected perhaps once a month.

On the plus side, gasoline runs at about 60 cents a gallon — up from 4 cents a gallon not very long ago — a price that has allowed a lucrative smuggling market to thrive at the Colombian border. And Venezuelan day workers — mostly prostitutes — are now allowed into Colombia to earn some real money.

N.B.: Mercedes requested that her true identity not be revealed, writing: “The situation in Venezuela is now much worse with the cold-blooded assassination of the soldier officer for ‘desertion’ for disagreeing with the dictatorship of ‘twenty-first century socialism’ along with three civilians, one of them a pregnant woman . . . and they're not allowing family to see, identify the cadavers, or bury them. We're awaiting Maduro's announcement of the suspension of all civil rights. . . There the raids by armed ‘collectives’ controlled by the government continue with orders to spread panic so that the real, suffering population won't continue to demand their rights to food, medicine, security and free elections."




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