A Few Things We Can Do Without

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A new year is always hopeful — until you notice that it’s only the calendar that has changed; none of the problems has gone away. Word problems can be especially sticky visitors.

As 2017 changed to 2018, I was thinking about that old expression back in the day. I heard it once or twice when I was a kid. I thought it was charming, in a daft way. (Not that I knew the word “daft.”) It gestured vaguely toward some unspecified moment in the past on which something of vague, unspecified significance had occurred. It was quaint and silly. Then, about 1998, I heard the expression again — this time from college students, who had heard it from other college students, who had picked it up from somewhere. These students were saying it about anything that had happened before, well, 1998. “When I was in high school, back in the day . . .”

I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Soon the expression was everywhere. It was a fad. I thought that fads went away; they’re supposed to go away. But this one hasn’t. I hope that it will, eventually — although many other hoary old youth expressions — cool, hot, weed, hittin’ on, even hip, as in hipster — won’t give up their lease. Perhaps (who knows?) you can hasten the exit of back in the day by saying, the next time you hear it, “Pardon me . . . which day do you have in mind?”

And here are some other things, few of them as innocent as back in the day, that have overstayed their welcome. I’ve arranged them alphabetically, starting with:

All about, as in, “Libertarianism is all about freedom.” OK, I understand that statement, and there’s nothing especially wrong with it; it’s just a way of heightening an effect: instead of saying that “libertarianism is about freedom” you say “all about freedom.” Maybe it’s a little childish: you wouldn’t say, “War and Peace is all about the Napoleonic wars.” But it gets, and has gotten, worse. Usually, nowadays, it involves the pretense that human beings have themes, just as books and movements do. I recently told a colleague that something should be kept confidential. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m all about discretion.” I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Bible fakery. This is a perennial medium of political disinformation. Somewhere in history, there must have been a politician who used biblical references with some respect for their source, but I can’t think of one. Christmas is a dependable venue for Bible fakes. At Christmas 2017 the most popular type was the equation of illegal immigrants with the Holy Family. A few blocks from my home there’s a church that’s still flying a banner depicting Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem and proclaiming, “Immigrants & Refugees Welcome Here.” If any immigrants or refugees turn up at the church door, they’ll find out how much this kind of “welcome” is worth. But never mind; here’s something sillier. Martin O’Malley, decayed Governor of Maryland, whose campaign for the presidency was a ludicrous flop, has not ceased his quest for the limelight. On December 22, he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s TV show to say, “Merry Christmas. And remember that Jesus himself was a refugee child. What would you do if he came to the borders of your country?”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France?

Carlson’s comment was: “That’s so stupid, it’s hard to respond.” So I will respond. Jesus and his family were not immigrants, and they were not part of some “refugee” movement. They never crossed the borders of their “country,” which was the Roman Empire. According to one of the gospels, they came to Bethlehem by government order, to fulfill a tax regulation; according to another, they fled, a couple of years later, to another part of the empire, but soon returned. Notice, however, what Bible fakery depends upon: an audience that is impressed by “Bible” ideas but is unwilling to ask “What is this guy talking about?” — and then open the book and find out what it says. It’s easy. A child could do it. Millions of children have done it. It is not a good sign that churchgoers and media gatekeepers (there’s another term we can do without) can’t be bothered to do it. Tucker evidently did, but in the program that aired on Fox News just before his, it was assumed without contest that Jesus’ parents took him illegally across a border.

Culture of, toxic culture of. An online journal devoted to the topic of eating has become alarmed about reports “of a male-dominated ‘boys’ club’ environment that, in some ways, has become synonymous with restaurant culture as a whole. The restaurant world is known for late-night, loose, sometimes wild culture, but staffers told Eater,” the online journal, that so and so “epitomized the archetype of rich, powerful restaurateurs who party hard with beautiful women and celebrities, and indulge in what several former employees called the most debaucherous behavior they had ever witnessed.”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France? This stuff is pretty hard to take. But culture, used in an anthropological and yet judgmental way — that’s even harder. When it’s used about realms of lifethat I’ve had anything to do with, I feel like a native of New Guinea who is suddenly being “studied” by a bunch of ignorant people from America. I feel that these people are full of crap. I know that they’re full of crap. Since I don’t cook, and I have some money, I have visited many provinces of the restaurant world; I am fairly well acquainted with restaurant culture. I’ve had good friends who ran expensive restaurants. The most debaucherous behavior I ever saw was a waiter flirtatiously kissing his (male) manager. That’s restaurant culture for you! Was it toxic? I don’t know, but no hospitalizations were reported.

Grab. This word has traditionally, and rightly, been reserved for instances of haste, rudeness, or criminality: “Dude! He grabbed my wallet!” During the past year, however, I have seldom heard a waiter or barista or person in a store respond to a request by saying, “I’ll get that for you.” What I hear is, “I’ll grab that for you.” Right; first grab me a steak; then you can grab me my check; after that, I can grab my car and leave.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions: people who work in them need to communicate essentially the same information, hour after hour, day after day; they look for new ways of communicating it; they find them. Then they say these new thingsover and over, until even they get sick of them. In the meantime, multitudes of other people have heard the cute new things and have passed them along. This is what happened, for example, with the vile “You still workin’ on that?” The result is similar to the one we see when explorers introduce some quickly multiplying rodent to an island populated by a diversity of interesting but unprotected species. Now every person who intends to get something, find something, provide something, reach for something, or pick up something is saying, “I’ll grab that for you.” Our only recourse is to take the word seriously and reply with the appropriate warnings: “Watch out! You don’t want to spill that check!” “Don’t grab it too hard! Those Big Macs are delicate!” “If you grab your data like that, you’re just lookin’ for trouble!” “Be careful how you grab it; those salads can get violent!”

Historical fakery. On January 20, Eric Trump talked to Fox News’ renowned legal expert, Judge Jeanine, and confided inside information about the president: “My father’s workin’ like nobody ever worked before. . . . He’s gotten more done in one year than arguably any president in history.” “Arguably” is the weasel word, but it isn’t enough, unless nobody in his audience ever heard of Washington, Jackson, Polk, Roosevelt (both of them), Truman, Johnson (Lyndon), Nixon, Reagan . . . I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant, so ignorant that it amounts to fakery. A guy who writes you a check for a thousand dollars without bothering to find out whether he’s got a thousand dollars in his account — if he’s not faking you, he’s faking himself.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions.

In history is something the country should have tired of four decades ago, when Democrats in Congress endlessly reiterated the notion that Watergate was “the worst crisis in our history,” at least “since the Civil War.” But that was a true and moderate statement, compared with such recent claims as that of Trump fils, or that of a would-be Trump nemesis, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois), who is reported to have said that Trump is the first “racist” president in US history. By Gutierrez’ standards, if he has any, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and many others were all racists; and other presidents were racists by any standard. Depend on it: any public figure who uses the phrase in history knows nothing about the subject.

Knowledge is power. This phrase is submitted for your consideration by Mehmet Karayel, who says that he’s tired of hearing it — as well he might be. Knowledge is power is one of the Western world’s oldest clichés (it goes back to the Renaissance, anyway, though it smells like the Romans), and one of its most harmful. Every expert in ichthyology or Sumerian mythology treasures this silly aphorism, regarding it as his license to loot the world’s moral bank account: “I have knowledge; you are now required to give me power.” You see the fallacy, but the possessor of knowledge never does. So knowledgeable is he that he swallows the statement whole and spends the rest of his life in vengeful disappointment with the ignoramuseswho will not give him power. It never occurs to such wisepeople that their absolute trust in their own knowledge (of something or other) is itself a decisive refutation of their eligibility for power.

Legendary. We see examples of this one every day. The following happens to come from Mediaite (December 21), but it could be from anyplace: “Legendary anchorman Tom Brokaw took a hard swing against Fox News this morning . . .” Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw. And, if memory serves, Paul Bunyan could occasionally talk so as to make himself understood.

I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Eric Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant.

How does legendary get attached to people who are not even memorable? The reason is that it’s too hard to find another adjective for them; they just aren’t worth the effort, so to be nice, somebody makes them legendary. Notice that no one ever refers to “the legendary Abraham Lincoln.” It’s always “the legendary Meryl Streep” or someone like that.

Litigating, relitigating.This is a low-grade form of political flimflam. It’s the substitution of a high-class term that many people do not understand for simple terms that everyone uses all the time, in order to make simple events appear too complicated to be understood. Thus CNN, last November, on the goofy ways in which goofy Senator Alan Stuart (“Al”) Franken dealt with allegations of goofy sexual misdemeanors:“What Franken is doing here is obvious. He is letting the statement he released last week in the wake of the first allegations stand. He's not adding to it, re-opening it or relitigating it.” You’re an intelligent person; you’re a good reader; you know what litigate means. So tell me: how can someone litigate, let alone relitigate, a statement, let alone relitigate his own statement? The simple word, the word that relitigating has been used to replace, is “changing.”

Much worse than the passage just quoted is Senator Elizabeth Warren’s statement to the Boston Globe about her bizarre claim to be an American Indian:

These issues were extensively litigated in 2012 [when she ran for the Senate] and I think the people of Massachusetts made their decision. I think what the people of Massachusetts and what voters are concerned about is the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.

No, an election is not a litigation. And if it were, its purpose would not be to decide the issues of whether Elizabeth Warren and her employer, Harvard University, falsely claimed that she was an American Indian. Neither, unfortunately, would it be held to pronounce judgment on the illiterate syntax of Dr. Elizabeth Warren, darling of liberal “intellectuals,” a woman who says such things as “the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.” Diagram that, if you can. Her underlying idea is simple: she got elected, so she must be right, either about being an American Indian or about the morality of falsely claiming to be an American Indian. This idea is ridiculous, and that’s why she’s trying to make you feel that the situation is too complicated for you to understand.

Nation of immigrants. Everyone — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, whoever — constantly recites this article of the American Creed. That’s sufficient reason, in itself, to send nation of immigrants to the retirement home. But there’s another reason. It isn’t true that we are a nation of immigrants, and it hasn’t been true since the 17th century. The vast majority of Americans were born right here in America; they are native Americans in the true sense of those words. But even if we were a nation of immigrants, so what? What inference could possibly be drawn from that? It wouldn’t mean that more or less immigration should occur. The only thing it might suggest is that the original native Americans, the Indians, should have done more to prevent the growth of a nation of immigrants, in which they would become a small and persecuted minority.

Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw.

Perch. I mentioned Al Franken (boo!, hiss!). I mentioned Tucker Carlson (hurrah!). Here they are again, but not in a good way for either. During his December 6 TV program, the latter referred to the former as “a powerful person knocked from his high perch” by a sex scandal. That would have been all right, if Tucker hadn’t been echoing one of the media’s insta-clichés. During the past six months, every prominent social position has become a perch, and while it pleases me to picture former Senator Franken as a fat yellow parakeet being knocked from its little plastic swing, this cliché is like all the rest of them: it usurps the position of other expressions, many of them more exact or vivid or imaginative, that might be useful for the occasion. The plague of perch will get worse before it gets better, because it only started recently.

Tone deaf. Discussing the execrable behavior of federal prosecutors in the Bundy case, “Ian Bartrum, a constitutional law professor at University of Nevada Las Vegas, said he's struggled to understand what led to the prosecutors' ‘tone deafness’ to their obligations.” Contrary to current popular opinion, you can’t be tone deaf to something that’s not a tone. Obligations, for instance, are not a tone.

Under investigation. Here’s another phrase marked for condemnation by Mehmet Karayel. He notes its constant use as a charm to keep the peasants from storming the palace — in plain terms, to keep the public from learning anything about the government it pays for. Whenever some particularly atrocious official deed is perpetrated, the first response of every government agency is to begin an investigation. Of course, if something is under investigation, no information can be divulged. If, however, the investigation has been concluded, well, the investigation has been concluded — case closed; go away. The next thing you’ll hear is that the matter has been fully litigated, and this is no time to relitigate it; i.e., bring it up again.

These are sayings, by the way, that you will never hear from Word Watch. This column never refuses to give out information, and the public can stay just as long as it wants.




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Carrot or Stick?

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The EU's Death Sentence

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Americans tend to think French presidential elections are weird. Rather than picking the winner in one furious night of counting, the French first vote to eliminate all but the two leading candidates. Then, two weeks later, they pick the winner in a runoff election. And polls are forbidden during these two weeks.

Any voting system has flaws. If your political precepts favor truth, the French system has one indisputable virtue: the actual percentage of voters favoring the second-round candidates is exposed early on. Pro-EU Macron got 24% of the votes, while anti-EU candidate Le Pen got 22%. Yes, there are many other differences between Madame Le Pen and Monsieur Macron, but let's focus on EU and sovereignty here.

Don't you wish the US had a way to count people who voted for Trump only because they couldn't stand Hillary Clinton?

The French have to suffer two weeks of disgusting political contortions, while the nine(!) rejected candidates negotiate their support for one of the two contenders. The numbers guarantee that more than 75% of the voters will be disappointed, regardless of who wins the runoff. French political traditions also guarantee that the remaining 25% will quickly become 100% disenchanted with their winner, but that's another story.

These pitiful percentages result in a brittle legitimacy, which is actually beneficial for the cause of liberty. A French president has enormous powers, even compared to the ever-expanding US executive authority. The still-ongoing state of emergency, which was established by Socialist president Hollande after the November 2015 Islamist attack, further reinforces these powers. The constant reminder of a low approval is a welcome counterbalance to this immoderate power. Don't you wish the US had a way to count people who voted for Trump only because they couldn't stand the Clintonista?

In the past 20 years or so, French politics have revolved around a simple question: who rules the French? Until the 1990s, almost nobody doubted that the French political class firmly held the reins, maybe with the help of some lobbies. Since then, the European Union, and especially the non-elected European commissars, have been given ever-increasing powers over the internal affairs of the EU-member states, and EU regulations have sunk their hooks ever more deeply into the daily life of citizens. In parallel, radical Islam is growing in France, thanks in part to proselytism financed by Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Accelerating immigration from the African continent supplies a growing number of French residents who, even after acquiring French citizenship, favor their religious principles rather than the French constitution when they clash. The vaunted French secular legal system is a dead letter in thousands of Muslim-majority suburbs. Like the EU regulations, the Muslim rules weigh ever more heavily on French daily lives: schools have debated banning pork from cafeteria menus, swimming pools have held "women-only" hours to accommodate Muslim women, traffic is blocked on Fridays by believers praying in the street, etc.

One look at Macron's promises shows a slew of spendthrift measures and a refusal even to talk about the deep problems that are ruining the country.

This is why the French can legitimately wonder if they are still able to control their own destiny, or if they are bound to become subservient to the commissars and the imams. This is the center of Le Pen's arguments, and the key to her success: let the French keep their identity by stopping illegal immigration and pushing back against the EU.

While Le Pen is an overt Euroskeptic, her rival Macron is considered "safe" by pro-EU businessmen and politicians, and also by a large percentage of the middle class. He is already considered the next president. One look at Macron's promises, however, shows a slew of spendthrift measures and a refusal even to talk about the deep problems that are ruining the country, much less solve them. Many believe that this milquetoast, once elected, will simply squander public funds and private productivity in vain attempts to conciliate opposite interest groups. Now, the French national debt is comparable to the American debt (about one year of GNP). However, France cannot set its own monetary policy, since it abandoned the franc for the euro and therefore does not control its currency anymore. Continuing economic troubles ultimately mean a Greek-like situation in which France asks for a bailout from the other two richer EU countries — that is, Germany and England . . . oops, there goes England, never mind. Bloody Brexit.

This leaves Germany, which is already reeling from several bouts of rescuing the Greek finances. France has 11 times the GNP of Greece, and bailing it out would presumably be 11 times more expensive. There is no way Germany could afford it. The result would be the expulsion of France from the euro zone. France would then attempt to weather the storm by printing its own devalued fiat money, like it did several times in recent pre-euro history, to the great chagrin of investors holding French bonds.

After Brexit, would the EU survive the departure of another main financial backer? Probably not.

So the French now have a choice when it comes to the EU. They can either elect Le Pen and leave the EU. Or they can elect Macron and be kicked ignominiously out of the EU in a few years. The only question will be to decide whether to call this a Frexit or an adiEU. This being France, the current favorite euphemism for leaving the EU is a pun on a rude Anglo-Saxon synonym of "go away" that cannot be printed here. Such is the state of French culture.

After Brexit, would the EU survive the departure of the second of its three main financial backers? Probably not. The EU administration is a gigantic money pump transferring hundreds of billions of Euros (1 E = 1.08 US dollar or so) between richer and poorer countries, aided by an army of well-paid bureaucrats. Without payers, the system collapses.

In either case, this will mean 300 million people freed from the EU Moloch and from its commissars, who look more and more like crushing, soulless, anonymous bureaucrats the Supreme Soviet would envy. And that will be a good day for liberty.




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Slam Dunk Me, Karma, Through the Basketball Hoop of Life

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Is it just me? Surely not. I can’t be the only person in America who has noticed that since the election of President Trump, huge numbers of both Democrats and Republicans have turned into raving twits. There must be something in the water that makes people forget everything that happened politically in this country longer ago than, say, six weeks.

George W. Bush was absolutely godawful for freedom. Then Barack Obama actually made the situation worse. Now along comes Donald Trump, going authoritarian like gangbusters, and many of the same conservatives who only a couple of months ago were complaining about the Stalinist direction of the federal government are euphoric about how masterfully he is steering the ship of state. And the “progressives” (sorry, I cannot bring myself to write that word without scare quotes), who so recently worshiped at the altar of the previous president’s might, have actually begun to lament the authoritarianism of the presidency.

Since the election of President Trump, huge numbers of both Democrats and Republicans have turned into raving twits.

If Rip Van Winkle were to awaken today, having fallen asleep just before November of 2016, he’d be so confused that he’d go right back to sleep again. Libertarians could explain it all to him, since we’re the only ones who understand what’s going on. I can only speak for one libertarian, but the whole mess makes me want to take a nap and not wake up ’til at least a few among my countrymen who’ve lost their minds come to their senses again. I’m being exceedingly optimistic, of course, in assuming that this will happen.

From the long perspective of history, that pendulum of power we always talk about is swinging to and fro like the bell-pull in the tower at Notre Dame. Poor Quasimodo is hanging on for dear life. And those of us who’ve managed to retain our sanity are hanging on with him.

What the Democrats are experiencing at the moment is karma. Not the good kind, which results from doing unto others as you would like to be done unto you. To paraphrase an old country song, they’re getting slam-dunked by karma through the basketball hoop of life. They care about nothing but winning the political game. But they’re getting trounced, and their Republican opponents are gleefully running up the score.

Democrats' hypocrisy has all but destroyed what little remained of their credibility.

It never occurs to the Democratic leaders that they’re losing precisely because they’ve turned politics into a game. Or that they’re being beaten so savagely because they’ve been playing so dirty. They’ve been doing dirt unto others, so now dirt is being done unto them.

They are currently beclowning themselves with artificially manufactured outrage over President Trump’s temporary ban on travel to the US from seven predominantly-Muslim countries. They uttered not a peep while President Obama dropped thousands of bombs on Muslim countries and instituted his own immigration ban on Iraqi refugees (see paragraph 5 here). Their hypocrisy has all but completely destroyed what little remained of their credibility.

And they keep coming at us with fresh outrages: Trump’s plan to deport known criminals who are here illegally was morphed into a pogrom against all brown people, his pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, was accused of plotting the end of all education everywhere in America, and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was thrust into the media hot seat because a “Make America Great Again” cap was spotted in his locker. I could go on with the examples, but why? Our nation reels from them, like a punch-drunk boxer on the ropes. Because we can absorb only so much outrage, the cumulative effect is that many of us are merely numb. The Democrats hunger for relevance, but the cruelest blow that karma is inflicting is that they have made themselves irrelevant.

The Democratic Party may have entered a death spiral. Its moment of defeat may, this time, prove to be permanent. It very possibly may not be able to rescue itself, because it can’t stop being itself. What is perhaps most gruesome about the whole spectacle is that America’s oldest political party has locked itself into its follies. It can’t admit them, and to desist from them would be to tacitly admit that they are foolish. So it sees no choice except to double down on them,even though these tactics may reduce the Democrats’ vote beyond the point of national electability.

The Democrats hunger for relevance, but the cruelest blow that karma is inflicting is that they have made themselves irrelevant.

Libertarians have been wondering if our own party might possibly move into such prominence that a three-party system might be established. What just might happen, instead, is that the Dems will go the way of their ancient enemies, the Whigs. In that case, Libertarians might be the ones squaring up against the GOP in the two-party head-to-head conflict that has almost always characterized US politics.

I don’t know if this will happen, but I believe that such a development would be good for our country. It would certainly be better than the likely alternative, which is a continuous Republican ascendancy. Liberty loses when one party always wins.




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The Space Aliens Have Finally Come

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Movie reviews took a back seat at Liberty while the election dominated our pages. This was the most divisive election in recent history, with three flawed candidates being nominated by the three major parties. (Yes, I consider the LP a major party at this point, even if the chance of winning is still nonexistent.) The divisiveness only worsened after the surprise election of Donald Trump, with protests that quickly escalated into riots and derisive epithets of “Racist! Homophobe! Sexist!” that escalated into accusations (sometimes false) of personal attacks. College students, whimpering and wailing, were issued blankets, tissues, and even puppies by administrators more anxious to comfort their fears than to teach them how to cope with disappointment.

Sheesh.

As I decided to write my first review for Liberty in over a month, I wondered: which current film would provide the best opportunity to address these issues? Arrival seemed like a sure bet.

Most of us want to be kind, but we also want to know, “Why are they here?”

In this movie, 12 alien spacecraft enter the earth’s atmosphere and hover above locations around the globe, virtually knocking at the door and asking to be let in. But what is their purpose? Do they come in peace, or as galactic imperialists? That’s the question asked in every alien-oriented movie, and it was the key issue that drove Trump’s rise to the presidency. Do we build a wall — a yuge wall — to keep everyone out (at least until a thorough vetting has been performed), or do we open the doors and admit workers from Mexico, refugees from Syria, boat-people from southeast Asia, and anyone else who wants to come in? Most of us want to be kind, but we also want to know, “Why are they here?” Fittingly, that is the tagline of Arrival.

The opening moments of the film reinforced my intent to write a timely political review. I like the fact that the writers chose the neutral term “arrival” rather than the usual “invasion.” People react to the arrival of the alien ships with stunned silence and disbelief, followed by newscasters reporting riots, looting, and school closings — reminding me of what was happening not far from my movie theater in New York City. Our main character even references Fox News Channel while trying to calm her hysterical mother, saying, “Why are you watching that channel? How many times have I told you not to listen to those idiots?” She also admits to strategic lying in order to get her way: “The story isn’t true, but it proves my point, “ she mutters her sly justification.

But, as so often happens when I come to a movie already thinking about how I’m going to write my review, I soon let go of my preconceived plan and let the actual film envelop me. The film is slow for the alien invasion genre, more Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Independence Day. Leaders in the 12 nations where the spacecraft are hovering do bring in their military, but they do so cautiously. They have learned to be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, but they won’t slam the gates or start shooting the arrows until they’ve seen what’s inside this Trojan horse. What is the purpose of these uninvited arrivals?

Tension develops not so much from fear of attack as from an agonizing slowness that affects our perception of time; unnatural gravity that affects our perception of nature; a 60-beat, pulsating percussion that affects our perception of the aliens; and discordant, dissonant music that simply grates on our nerves.

People react to the arrival of the alien ships with stunned silence and disbelief, followed by newscasters reporting riots, looting, and school closings — reminding me of what was happening not far from my movie theater.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a respected linguist, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a first-rate mathematician, are called in to see whether they can communicate with the beings. An academic argument ensues over which is the core of civilization, language or math, but the film does not ask us to endure a cutesy, hormone-driven competition between the two attractive academicians. This is serious business, and they are serious partners in their mission to discover why the aliens have come and whether their intent is peaceful.

Guided by thoughts of her daughter’s birth and childhood, Louise turns to such non-verbal communications as touch, eye contact, body language, and facial expressions as she and Ian work out the “Heptoid” vocabulary. She points out the ambiguity inherent in words, and the consequent importance of understanding context in order to discover intent. “The Sanskrit word for war,” she offers as an example, “is desire for more cows.” Soldiers and bullets, she suggests, are a symptom of war, not the definition of it. I couldn’t help but think of the quote attributed to Frederic Bastiat: “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” And I again thought of our president-elect and his misguided determination to limit international trade.

For a film about language and communication, there is surprisingly little dialogue. Instead, the actors are asked to communicate their thoughts and emotions to the audience in the way their characters are communicating with the aliens — through body language, movement, and facial expressions. Director Denis Villeneuve couldn’t have asked for a better actress for this task than the brilliantly talented Amy Adams. She approaches the aliens with the same wonder and engagement as she expresses in her interactions with the daughter of her thoughts. We know how she feels about language, and about these aliens, because we know what it’s like to interact with a baby or a child. Language becomes a tool and an emotion. Linguistics become exciting and engaging. And the denouement of the film is wondrous because of all this.

This is a film that surprises you with unexpected stillness, unexpected wonder, unexpected fulfillment. It asks us to embrace life, even when it includes inevitable trauma or sorrow. In the end, I discovered, it is the right film for right now. But not for the reasons I expected. Go see it before you hear any more about it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve. 21 Laps Entertainment / FilmNation Entertainment, 2016, 115 minutes.



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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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Infinity in One Hour, 48 Minutes

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Biographical films, or “bioflicks” as they are often called, constitute a challenging genre for filmmakers — for a variety of reasons.

One major challenge is the difficulty of avoiding the extremes of hagiography and exposé. The temptation of a bioflick maker — especially one who is very sympathetic to the subject of the story, or who knows his audience is — may be to understate or omit relevant but unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or exaggerate the character’s good qualities or actions. One thinks of many of the biographical films of sports stars, artists, and political leaders from the 1930s through the 1960s. Conversely, the filmmaker — especially one who is very hostile to his subject, or who know the audience is — may be tempted to exaggerate the unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or to understate or omit the character’s good qualities or actions. There are even cases in which the bioflick maker is sympathetic to the perceived flaws of the real character and is tempted to exaggerate or accentuate them, in an effort to convince the public that they aren’t really flaws.

For these very reasons, bioflicks are often used as propaganda. Political regimes have long recognized the power of biographical film to advance their political causes, either by adoring portrayals of certain figures (such as key leaders of the regime, or historical figures whom the regime views favorably) or hateful portrayals of others (such as key opponents of the regime or historical figures whom the regime views unfavorably). For example, the Nazi Regime used bioflicks such as Hitler Youth Quex (1933) to convince people that the Party had among its supporters many noble young people.

The young Ramanujan apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers.

Another challenge is conveying what the subject of the film actually accomplished, together with its significance. This is relatively easy if the subject is (say) an artist: the filmmaker can inter alia show pictures of the artist’s work, while portraying the difficulty he or she faced in gaining acceptance (as is nicely done in Vincente Minelli’s acclaimed biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life [1956]). Again, if the subject is a composer, it is easy to make his major compositions part of the movie’s score (a successful instance is Richard Whorf’s popular biography of songwriter Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By [1946]). It can be more difficult if the subject of the film is a scientist, or worse, a mathematician. One sees these challenges, and a creative response to them, in an excellent new bioflick, currently showing in art houses.

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan was born in Erode, in the state of Madras, in 1887. He was of a Brahmin family (on his maternal side), but his parents were of limited means. His father was a clerk in a dress shop; his mother was a housewife. He survived smallpox when he was two, and grew up in a modest house in Kanchipuram (near Madras). The house is now a national museum in his honor. His mother — to whom he was very close, all his life — had three other children, all of whom died as infants. Raised as a devout Hindu, he kept the faith and Brahmin customs (especially vegetarianism) as an adult.

While Ramanujan went through secondary school and attended some college, he was largely self-taught. He mastered advanced trigonometry by age 13, discovering some higher-level theorems by himself. At age 14 he was able to pass in half the permitted time the high school math exit exam, and at age 15 he learned how to solve cubic equations. Then, by himself, he figured out how to solve quartic equations. A crucial year for him was his 16th, when a friend gave him a copy of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, a compilation of 5,000 theorems by G.S. Carr. He apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers, a subject on which he published a paper some years later. He was graduated from Town Higher Secondary School that year (1904), winning the K. Ranganatha Rao prize for mathematics.

Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as an editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

Unfortunately, although he was given a scholarship to attend college, he refused to focus on any studies besides mathematics, a refusal that resulted in his failure and dismissal. He subsequently left home and enrolled in another college, but again focused only on mathematics and was unable to get his bachelor’s degree. He left college in 1906 and worked as a poor independent scholar. In 1909 he married a very young girl, Srimathi Janaki — marrying very young was an Indian custom of the time — and after a bout of testicular disease, found work as a tutor helping students prepare for their mathematics exams.

In 1910, Ramanujan showed his work to V. Ramaswamy Aiyer, founder of the Indian Mathematical Society, who recognized his genius. Aiyer then sent him to R. Ramachandra Rao, secretary of the Indian Mathematical Society. Rao was initially skeptical but became convinced of Ramanujan’s originality and genius and provided both financial aid and institutional support so that Ramanujan could start publishing in the society’s journal. As the editor of the journal noted, Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as the editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

In 1913, Rao and some other Indian mathematicians tried to help Ramanujan submit his work to British mathematicians. The first few who received the material were unimpressed, but G.H. Hardy was quite struck by the nine pages of results he received. He suspected that perhaps Ramanujan wasn’t the real author, but he felt that the results had to be true, because they were so intricate and plausible that nobody could have dreamt them up. Hardy showed them to his colleague and friend J. E. Littlewood, who was also amazed at Ramanujan’s genius. Hardy and others invited Ramanujan to come to Cambridge to work. The Indian was at first reluctant, because of his Brahmin belief that he shouldn’t leave his country, and apparently also because his mother opposed it. To the disappointment of Hardy, he obtained a research scholarship at the University of Madras.

Nevertheless, in 1914 — apparently after his mother had an epiphany — Ramanujan agreed to come to Cambridge. He started his studies under the tutelage of Hardy and Littlewood, who were able to look at his first three “notebooks.” (Ramanujan’s fourth major notebook — often called the “lost notebook” — was rediscovered in 1976.) While Hardy and Littlewood discovered some of the results and theorems were either wrong or had already been discovered, they immediately put Ramanujan in the same class as Leonhard Euler or Carl Jacobi. Hardy and Ramanujan had clashing styles, personalities, and cultural backgrounds — among other things, Hardy was an atheist and a stickler for detailed proofs, while Ramanujan was a Hindu and highly intuitionistic — but they collaborated successfully during the five years Ramanujan was at Cambridge.

One of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is his personal friend.”

In 1916, Ramanujan was awarded a Bachelor’s of Science “by research” (a degree subsequently renamed a Ph.D). In 1917 he was elected a Fellow of the London Mathematical Society, and in 1918 to the extremely prestigious Royal Society. At 31 years of age, he was one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society ever elected, and only the second Indian so honored. In that year also he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Ramanujan became ill in England, his sickness perhaps intensified by stress and (as the film suggests) by malnutrition. He was increasingly depressed and lonely, receiving few letters from his wife. The film identifies the cause as his mother’s jealous refusal to mail his wife’s letters to him. In 1918 he attempted suicide and spent time in a nursing home. He returned to Madras in 1919, and died the next year, barely 32 years of age. The cause was thought to be tuberculosis, though one doctor, examining his medical records, has opined that it was actually hepatic amoebiasis. His young widow lived to the age of 95.

The film centers on the period of his life shortly before the point, shortly before his death, at which the adult Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is gaining recognition through his work at Cambridge. As the film opens in 1913, we meet Ramanujan in the temple of the goddess Namagiri, writing an equation. (The film rightly portrays him as believing that mathematical truths are divinely crafted.) We see him desperately trying to provide for his pretty young wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) and his proud but rather domineering mother (Arundhati Nag). While the film focuses primarily on the relationship between Ramanujan and his work, it does skillfully present his loving but difficult marriage (he was in England, separated from his wife for nearly half his married life) as well as the strained relationship between his wife and mother.

The main part of the film, which ends with Ramanujan’s death in India, concerns his time in Britain, following with fair accuracy the real timeline of his life. We meet Hardy (Jeremy Irons) as he is given Ramanujan’s first letter and asked to comment on the handwritten pages. Irons plays Hardy as a crusty old bachelor, but also as a person who is obviously sincere in his desire to help Ramanujan. The film capably explores the relationship between the two, showing the transition from a mentorship to a friendship based on deep respect.

We watch as Hardy and Littlefield (Toby Jones) try to get the rest of the faculty — especially the racist Professor Howard (Anthony Calf) — to recognize Ramanujan’s worth. The film explores at length the antipathy that many of the British, even the faculty and students, felt toward Indians, culminating in a scene in which Ramanujan is beaten up by some soldiers — an episode that has a dramatic function, since racism against the immigrants from the colonies coming into England at the later part of WWI (to work in a labor market that had been decimated by the war) was exceedingly common — though this specific episode may have been invented. It also shows Ramanujan battling poor health in the face of a cold climate and lack of nutritious food. But Ramanujan’s spirit prevails, and we see him elected a Fellow of the College, a satisfying vindication of genuine genius over jealous bigotry. As one of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is [his] personal friend.”

The film takes the mathematics quite seriously. Two distinguished mathematicians — Manjul Bhargave and Ken Ono — are associate producers of the film. Bhargava is a winner of the Fields Medal — often called “the Nobel Prize of mathematics” — and Ono is a Guggenheim Fellow.

How can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof?

Portraying Ramanujan’s work cinematically is of course especially challenging. Even if the audience were shown mathematical formulas he devised, few would comprehend them, much less see the genius it took to come up with them. And, unlike some scientists or other scholars that have a sudden dramatic “Eureka!” moment when they encounter the central theory or discovery for which they become famous, Ramanujan produced a continuing torrent of major work, even when ill — nearly 3,900 results during his short life (really, just 14 years of mature research).

The film, however, is rather effective at conveying Ramanujan’s work directly, as in the scene in which Hardy describes to his valet what “partitions” are — the number of ways a number can be the sum of others, as “4” is the sum of “4,” “2 + 2,” “2 + 1 + 1,” and “1 + 1 + 1 + 1” — as well as the scene in which Hardy and Ramanujan are waiting for a cab, and when one pulls up, Ramanujan immediately observes that its ID number (1729) is unique in that it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. The film even more successfully conveys his genius obliquely by showing how the other great Cambridge mathematicians received it: Hardy and Littlewood immediately recognized the genius in his work, and we see how the other mathematicians (who are initially governed by their prejudices) are eventually compelled to recognize it. Still, this is not a movie for the completely innumerate.

The acting is outstanding across the board. Dev Patel — well-known to American audiences from his leading roles in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) — ably conveys Ramanujan’s earnestness, integrity, and perseverance. Toby Jones is also superb as Littlewood, and Jeremy Northam givers a good supporting performance as Bertrand Russell. The supporting actresses are also excellent — Devika Bhise as Ramanujan’s young wife and Arundati Nag as his mother. But especially noteworthy is Jeremy Irons’ performance as Ramanujan’s sponsor, mentor, and friend G.H. Hardy.

Director Matthew Brown does an outstanding job conveying Ramanujan’s story, with descending into melodramatic hagiography. Really, he doesn’t need to because the true story — a modest, decent, indigent, largely self-taught genius in a colonized, poor country rises to the very top ranks of mathematics, in the face of considerable hostility, becoming a hero in his native land, before dying tragically young — is the very stuff of legend.

This film explores a number of issues of philosophic interest. Regarding the philosophy of religion, the exchanges between the avowed atheist Hardy and the devoutly religious Ramanujan on whether the gods give Ramanujan immediate access to mathematical truth are illustrative of how atheists and theists see the world in significantly different ways.

Regarding epistemology, Hardy is portrayed working hard to convince Ramanujan of the need not merely to recognize that a mathematical theorem is true, but to construct a proof that it is. This is an issue among other things about epistemic style: does any science advance more from bold broad conjectures, or by exact argumentation? (The movie interestingly presents Russell as counseling Hardy to let Ramanujan “run”; i.e., to let him do math as his heart dictates, which is by intuition instead of meticulous proofs. But considering the detailed constructive logical proofs that Russell — along with his mathematician coauthor Alfred North Whitehead — created in their seminal logical treatise Principia Mathematica, one is surprised and puzzled at this.)

Regarding history, the film nicely shows the effect that World War I had on the British intelligentsia, with some, such as Russell — and here the film is undeniably historically accurate — being opposed to the war, and having meetings on campus to organize opposition, while the rest of the faculty is outraged at what was taken to be a lack of patriotism.

Regarding psychology, the film invites us to think about the nature of mathematical genius: how can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof? Here we should observe that many of Ramanujan’s conjectures on prime numbers were proven incorrect — however insightful and reasonably accurate they may have been — by Littlewood and others. I would suggest that his tutelage by Hardy was of great use in getting him to provide more proofs, and that most of his 3,900 results have been proven, including work that is being used today to understand black holes.

Finally, regarding an issue of concern in America today, The Man who Knew Infinity helps the audience understand the value of immigrants. The vicious discrimination that this estimable and amiable genius from India faced at the hands of the British makes one wonder why immigrants to our own country today are being targeted for systematic abuse. This is as counterproductive as it is immoral.

In fine, this is a bioflick of rare insight, and not to be missed.[i]

 


[i]It should be noted that in 2014 an Indian company produced a major biographical film, Ramanujan. It ran two and a half hours, was shot in multiple languages (including some pidgin languages, such as Tamenglish), and had a mixed reception. I don’t believe it was generally released in America.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "The Man Who Knew Infinity," directed by Matthew Brown. Pressman Film/Xeitgeist Entertainment Group/Cayenne Pepper Productions, 2016, 108 minutes.



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Asian Immigration and Trumpeterian Fabulism

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I have always viewed with disgust the pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment that has plagued this country for decades, and is now reaching a fever pitch. It is most on display in the Republican Party — as I, a long-time supporter of the party, am ashamed to say. You can see the nativist hatred in its full intensity by watching the followers of our latest populist demagogue Donald Trump — people I call “Trumpeters” — exhibit orgiastic glee when he tells them he will deport 11 million illegal aliens, together with any American-born children they may have.

Trump — a man in the populist mold of Huey Long and Father Coughlin — already promises he will set up a “deportation force” to enter the immigrants’ homes and arrest them en masse. Since the immigrants are all entitled to court hearings, a President Trump will have to set up internment camps to house the millions of arrested immigrants until they can be tried.

Trump’s immigrant-bashing is all the more outrageous when we remember that when Romney was running for president, Trump bashed him for suggesting that illegals “self-deport.” Trump has no compunction about the illegal immigrants’ children born here being included, advancing the unusual legal theory that the Constitution does not (as the 14th Amendment seems clearly to do) make the children of illegals born here legal citizens.

You can see nativist hatred in its full intensity by watching the followers of Donald Trump exhibit orgiastic glee when he tells them he will deport 11 million illegal aliens.

Trump has repeatedly promised us a “fabulous wall,” to be paid for — by the Mexicans themselves! All we will need in addition are fabulous concentration camps. This is fascism of a new kind — fabulous fascism. And we need a new word for it. Perhaps the Orwellian neologism “fabulism” best captures Trump’s political program.

Of course, as readers of this estimable journal know, I don’t think that this resurgent nativist tide is — as the mainstream media portrays it — solely a Republican phenomenon. We must remember that Obama himself, when he was a US Senator, play the key role in scuttling the Bush comprehensive reform plan; moreover, after winning the presidency and having near-dictatorial control of Congress, he refused to introduce any immigration plan, or even discuss the topic for two years. He started to feign interest in the issue only after the Republicans took back the House, and intensified his charade when they took back the Senate.

The reason is, as I have suggested, that two key components of the Democratic Party base are deeply anti-immigration: organized labor, and the African-American community. The former dislikes immigration because it fears that immigrants will lower native-born workers’ wages and compete for their jobs, and the latter fears not only competition for jobs but losing its status as the main victim group entitled to governmental support.

But the joke is on the nativists, because the most recent wave of immigration is in fact rescuing this country.

Demographers love the cliché, “demography is destiny,” no doubt in great part because it accentuates the importance of their profession. But there is a fair amount of truth to it. For this reason, the most recent Pew report on recent trends in American demographics is well worthy of comment.

This resurgent nativist tide is not solely a Republican phenomenon. We must remember that Obama himself scuttled the Bush comprehensive reform plan.

As most of the European and Asian countries face contracting populations, our population is slated to grow robustly. The Pew report projects (on the basis of the most recent US Census data) that the American population will grow by an estimated 36% over the next half-century, reaching 441 million in 2065. The main driver of this projected increase in population is immigration. The report notes that nearly nine out of ten of the additional 103 million people will be immigrants or the children of immigrants (both legal and illegal). In fact, the percentage of immigrants in America’s population will rise from the current 14% to an estimated 18%.

Being spared the baleful effects of demographic decline puts us in much better economic shape than virtually all of our trading partners — indeed, most of the world. Social scientist Joel Kotkin has recently explored the idea that most countries will be facing demographic implosion. He points out that half the world’s population is now living in countries that are at negative population growth and suggests that by 2050, 139 countries (representing three-fourths of the world’s population) will be at negative population growth. China is just the most recent country to face this problem — which is why it has now frantically reversed its “one-child” policy. (What a surprise: government planning that results in failure! Who could have imagined it?) China is facing the same problem as Japan, Korea, Singapore, and most of Europe: increasingly fewer workers to support the elderly population.

Japan in particular is the paradigm case of a country struggling with deep demographic distress. The current population of 127 million is predicted to shrink to 108 million by 2050 — at which time there would be three Japanese over 65 for every one under 15. By 2100, the U.N. projects that Japan’s population will shrivel to 84.5 million, while Japan’s National Institute of Population projects it will plummet to 60 million — less than half its present size.

Exceptional in the Asian context is India. India continues to experience population growth, and is predicted to overtake China to become the world’s most populous country in just seven years. India faces no labor shortage in the foreseeable future — its population is not expected to peak until about 2060.

Being spared the baleful effects of demographic decline puts us in much better economic shape than virtually all of our trading partners — indeed, most of the world.

Even more interesting information from the aforementioned Pew Report is that there has been an historic demographic shift in the pattern of American immigration. Up to the 1970s, most immigrants to the US came from Europe. Starting in the 1980s, and peaking in the 1990s, most immigrants hailed from Mexico (and elsewhere in Latin America). But since 2011, most immigrants have come from Asia.

Nearly two-thirds of Asian Americans today are foreign-born, compared to only 37% of Hispanic Americans. Asians are predicted to surpass Latinos as the biggest foreign-born group in four decades — at which point, if the predictions are accurate, a higher percentage of Americans will be Asian than Black.

As Asians increase their numbers in America’s population, they will increase the wealth and productivity of this nation. Why? Because more than any other ethnic group — whites included — they embrace traditional marriage and education. Consider first the rates of American children born out of wedlock. As of 2013, the statistics are stunning: 72% of Black children are born outside of marriage, 66% of American Indian children, 53% of Hispanic children, and 29% of white children. The figure for Asian children is only 17%.

Now consider educational attainment. Looking at American ethnic groups, the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2014 was: American Indian 5.6%, Hispanic 15.1%, black 22.4%, and whites 40.8%. Asians were at a whopping 60.8%.

Obviously, we should hope that the immigration of Asians only accelerates — the proliferation of scholars and entrepreneurs that would result would be of enormous economic and social benefit to all of us non-Asians.

Part of the reason for this historic shift is that the number of Asians seeking citizenship keeps rising steadily, in large part because Chinese and Indian students in American universities apply for citizenship upon graduation. Given the fact that most Asian countries — including China, but excluding India — are in demographic decline, we can expect that India will more and more be the supplier of our immigrants.

But another reason for the historic shift to Asian American immigration is the recent reversal of Mexican immigration. As a recent WSJ article reports, over the last five years, more Mexicans headed back to Mexico than moved here — 1,000,000 Mexicans decamped, compared to 870,000 coming in.

Trump’s fabulist fascism targets immigrants as a way to appeal to neurotic and psychotic voters who made bad personal life choices.

There are two major reasons why the flow of Mexican immigrants has reversed. First, over the past two decades, the Mexican birth rate has plummeted, and is now at about replacement level. But second, while the economic boom times from the 1980s until 2008 created lots of jobs for Mexican workers, the slow growth of jobs during the Obama “recovery,” along with the higher rate of growth in the Mexican economy, has drawn many Mexicans back home.

So Earth to Trump:

The Mexicans are already self-deporting, and the new wave of immigration is from Asia, not the Middle East.

And me to Trump:

I am a classical liberal, i.e., one who favors modern free market capitalism. This system, which involves the free movement of financial capital, products, and labor (human capital) across the world to find their most productive uses, isn’t just the right thing to do from the perspective of economic theory. During the modern era, and during the past half-century in particular, it has proven empirically to be the only force able to lift massive numbers of the absolute poor out of their misery — something that no other force (including religion) has ever been able to do. And this system is also morally superior because it allows the maximum amount of personal liberty: unless it threatens the security of the nation, every person should be free to invest his money where he believes it will give him the best return; unless it threatens the nation, every person should be free to buy products he finds it in his interest to buy, from anyone else on the planet; and unless it threatens the nation, every person should be free to employ anyone it is in his interest to employ.

Hence I hate interventionism (i.e., welfare statism), despise socialism, and loathe communism. But I both loathe and fear fascism. Forinterventionism, socialism, and communism are based on relatively weak psychological forces, to wit, envy of the rich and pity for the industrial working class. I say that these psychological forces are weak, first because the world is moving with increasing acceleration toward a global post-industrial (or more specifically, an epistemic) economy, with low-level factory work disappearing not just in America, but in every other industrialized economy (including China’s). So the appeal to pity for the proletariat is losing power, as the proletariat itself disappears. (Witness the precipitous decline in union membership in the private sector over the past half-century). And second, envy can always be countered by self-love: show an envious man that he, too, can become wealthy and the envy dissipates as “greed” (self-interest) grows.

But fascism — while it certainly does exploit envy of the rich and pity for the proles — appeals mainly to the love of one’s own tribe and the hatred of other tribes. Its power to pervert patriotism and intensify it by demonizing other groups is potent. Trump’s fabulism targets immigrants as a way to appeal to neurotic and psychotic voters who made bad personal life choices — failed to graduate from high school, had kids without first having jobs and husbands, got into drugs or booze too deeply, refused to work hard, whatever — and are profoundly unhappy. Trump, like all demagogues, is a master manipulator of pathological politics — the politics of projection of one’s own failures upon innocent people.

That is why Trump is to be feared, as well as despised.




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Refugee Screening

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Europe’s Migrant Crisis: Culture Matters

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Almost a decade back, at a Liberty magazine conference in Las Vegas, a speaker asked the audience what they see from the windows of their planes slightly after takeoff. He was alluding to the vast empty spaces in the US. Why not be more inviting to outsiders?

I shuddered. It had been a painful process to leave India and the last thing I wanted was the prospect of having millions of Indians living around me, again. I was even trying to run away from one Indian I couldn’t run away from: me.

It was not turning out to be easy to wean myself from the indoctrination. I had decided not to return to India for a few years, to avoid falling back into the old patterns of thinking and living that I had earlier succumbed to. Muscles have memories. Old habits don’t go away easily, even if the bad one can be recognized — for those living the bad patterns don’t see them.

Only someone heartless would not feel empathy for the sufferings of these migrants. They have starved. They have been abused. They have lived under totalitarian systems.

Most Indians I know in the US earn top salaries. They pay massive taxes. But alas, virtually all vote for things that contribute to making the US the mirror image of India. They vote for big, nanny governments. They vote for an increase in regulations to control the lives of others.

Culture matters. Our public institutions are nothing but a reflection of the underlying culture.

Indeed there is tyranny in Syria, Afghanistan, northern parts of Africa, and many other places. Only someone heartless would not feel empathy for the sufferings of migrants from there. They know what tyranny is. They have starved. They have been abused. They have lived under totalitarian systems.

A rational mind might easily conclude that such immigrants would fight for their liberties, and ours, once they were in Europe or elsewhere in the West.

But I still recall with anger and frustration the fact that when anyone among my colleagues from my engineering college in India — people who were elite students, having gone through an extremely competitive examination to gain admission — was abused, he almost never retaliated. Instead he looked for someone weaker to abuse. That was his release. I never managed to make even those proficient in math and science see reason.

Worst of all, why should they fight among themselves — kick and beat one another — in exactly the way they seem to be forever fighting among themselves in Syria and northern Africa?

A man of faults projects his faults on others. A man of virtues projects his virtues on others. That second principle defines the erroneous zone of empathetic Europeans. The European thinks that any rational immigrant would feel grateful for new opportunities and would be a frontrunner in any effort to preserve the liberties that Europe offers. Such a European erroneously projects his rationality on others, assuming it to be a natural state of being. Alas, it is not.

A look at the videos of migrants offers a glimpse that very likely leaves a rational observer uneasy and confused. Why should these migrants, instead of feeling and showing gratitude, create an angry nuisance? Why should they destroy public property? Why should they steal from their kind hosts, and abuse them? Worst of all, why should they fight among themselves — kick and beat one another — in exactly the way they seem to be forever fighting among themselves in Syria and northern Africa? A rational observer thinks that once in Europe, these people will give up the ways they have apparently been trying to leave behind. But that isn’t happening.

It is from rationality that morality emerges. It is from rationality that a society knows what is truly right or wrong, what is a virtue and what is a vice. The irrational society is immoral and incapable of respecting virtues. Irrational people see no need of being grateful or being virtuous in a thoughtful way. Rationality must be learned. But the European, nurtured in a culture of basic reason, thinks that rationality is a natural state of being. Certainly, they don’t always live up to it — but the claims of impartial reason, reason that transcends and judges the claims of tribe and superstition, do not have to be explained to them.

Unfortunately, the concept of reason has hardly made itself popular outside the West. These, the Rest — in Africa, in the Middle East and most of Asia — still exist in superstitions and tribalism. In a nonrational operating system, a person responds very different from the way in which a rational person would respond. The nonrational behavior you see on your TV screens in foreign news reports therefore comes across as strange, unbelievable, and uncomfortable in many ways.

They fail to shake off a deeply ingrained meme that money is “created” through political connections and positioning themselves in a certain way socially, rather than through wealth-creation.

The gem of analytical and skeptical reason is mostly and predominantly a Western phenomenon. Despite almost 500 years of trade and interactions with the Rest, and over the past decade, with immediate, worldwide access to knowledge through the internet, one would have expected wisdom and rationality to have percolated through to the Rest rather quickly.

It hasn’t.

The truth is that the concept of reason needed 2,500 years and the vehicle of Christianity, and a lot more, to come to the visible changes that happened in Europe in the past 500 years: the Reformation, the age of reason, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution.

But shouldn’t the culture of migrants change over time? Indeed, there are people who left their homelands because they were desperately tired of their irrational societies. These people appreciate the freedoms they experience when living in the West. They feel grateful for their hosts, for they have or at least had the inkling of the concept of reason before they arrived. But these are a small minority. Most modern day immigrants stay irrational, and never gain respect for their hosts. Moreover, processing their experiences — the compassion, opportunities and liberties they face in the West — but still using the operating system of the society they left behind, many immigrants learn to disrespect their hosts. They came not for freedom but for the material prosperity they had seen on TV. They are incapable of understanding what made the West what it is. They gravitate toward areas — Germany, for example — that offer the most welfare payments, for they fail to shake off a deeply ingrained meme that money is “created” through political connections and positioning themselves in a certain way socially, rather than through wealth-creation. They fail to see that when people continue Syrian or African ways of interaction they will evolve institutions in Europe that mirror what they ran away from.

Today in Europe there are many urban areas that are barred for visitation by those from outside the ethnic or religious ghettoes. When I lived in England, I had to pass through a Muslim area and then a Hindu area. I had made up convenient names for myself, rehearsed in my mind to tell them if I were accosted. This is not life lived according to reason. A rational person — projecting his virtues on others — would be in his erroneous zone if he expected that this predicament can change with time or with increase in prosperity.

It was in my early teens that I finally realized the cultural milieu that I was growing up in was utterly corrupt and irrational. Thirty-five years later — a span that includes a couple of decades spent in the West — I still feel envy when I see Western kids not suffering from habits and patterns that I still cannot shake off, after huge amount of work. Even a passionate person who realized his problems early on has found it almost impossible to surmount the problem of releasing himself from the shackles of his culture and indoctrination. When it is so difficult for someone keenly interested in changing himself to change, how difficult it must be to change those who don’t feel the need to change themselves! How doubly difficult it must be to change those who exist in a society, or ghetto, that won’t let them change even if they want to. Moreover, my indoctrination was Indian. A Syrian or North African indoctrination is probably much worse.

But isn’t the US a good example for Europe? Isn’t the US a cultural melting pot? Can Europe not do the same?

It pays to remember that virtually all the early immigration to North America was from Europe. The migrants were people who had Europe, and reason, in their genes, memes, and cultures. It is not necessarily the same with the new immigrants, either to Europe or to North America.

As a corollary, imposing what are products of enlightenment in the West — democracy, the nation state, public education — on culturally alien countries won’t work. It is for this reason that the removal of Saddam Hussein, after a lot of pain, chaos, and crisis, will end in a situation in which Iraq, some day, has to restart with a tyrant similar to Hussein. The same is the case in Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere.

Syria and Iraq should be left to develop their own social capacities for change, and even before that they have to find an internal feeling of a need for change.

The US government, perhaps influenced by lobbies from the military-industrial complex, wants to be forever embroiled in conflicts abroad. In the meantime, the rational American, projecting his virtues on alien cultures, thinks that such institutional impositions can effect changes in such places as Syria and Iraq. Such a rational American very erroneously sees the individuals in Syria and Libya as isolated innocents — but they are, very unfortunately, part and parcel of the problem.

It is best not to destabilize other countries. Syria and Iraq should be left to develop their own social capacities for change, and even before that they have to find an internal feeling of a need for change. This is the only possible way for a change in their societies, and Europe’s only chance to avoid getting too many migrants. Should the migration continue, it will almost certainly make an end, in Europe at the least, to the biggest achievement of humanity: the culture of reason, and hence the future of liberty.




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