Consider the butcher. He spends a lot of time killing animals. Do those who find this morally questionable tend to call butchers personally to account? I’ve not heard of that—though it may happen—but I do know that many direct their energy to education of those who demand meat.
Consider, say, a fireman on an old train. His job involved setting fire to a bunch of coal, thus soiling the skies. Did people blame him for this air pollution? Or did they think: “Hey, that’s just his job. It’s the result of the choices of many people that we have trains.”
In these examples and others I can think of, we tend to hold individuals less accountable for actions that are inextricably bound up with the successful completion of job-related tasks. A classic example is that of the soldier following orders; yes, we often tend to think a soldier should listen to his conscience, but we also often leave way for the explanation that the soldier accepts the moral authority of his superiors.
Sometimes, commentators inveigh against politicians—against practically all of them, as a class—on moral grounds, as in this example from several years back:
I challenge anyone to argue that the behavior of any of the major candidates…is admirable. Everyone knows that each serious candidate trims, waffles, is duplicitous, has his or her finger in the winds blown by polls, and wants to be President not because of any burning itch to help fellow human beings but because the job comes with all the trappings, and much of the power, of royalty.
I see two distinct complaints there: that politicians play games with words, and that politicians act from self-interest. Economists and wise liberals in general should dismiss the latter complaint out of hand; there’s often nothing wrong with acting largely out of self-interest. That would leave us with the first complaint, that politicians are tricksters.
What if it’s the case that we live in a world where there are some serious interpersonal conflicts that cannot be resolved via honest back-and-forth discussion to mutual agreement? For the means to bring about the necessary resolutions, then, we would have second-best choices such as violence and duplicity. I venture to guess that many of us would choose duplicity over violence as a means of resolving a dispute.
If those sorts of conflicts sometimes crop up, and if “politician” is the occupation of one who resolves such conflicts under a division of labor, then, well, it’s just a job, not a mark of moral inferiority. Can a commentator rightly challenge politicians to avoid duplicity when it seems needless or counterproductive? Sure, without a doubt. But one should also recognize that it’s intrinsic to much of their work.
Against a liberalism of pre-political foundations and historical destiny, Jacob Levy has been working hard to recover a vision of liberalism that appreciates the complex patchwork of social life, is historically contingent, and accepts the existence of irresolvable tensions. Though he has been influenced by Judith Shklar’s “Liberalism of Fear,” the character of his work could better be described as a Liberalism of Tragedy. After a year in which liberalism has taken a beating globally, Levy’s work provides an excellent starting point for a revitalization.
Each generation has its own idyll year. For my great-grandparents, 1927 was a good one: Lucky Lindy crossed the Atlantic, and his baby hadn’t yet been abducted in the dark of the night by nefarious German immigrant Richard Hauptmann (who insisted on his innocence until his execution by electric chair in 1936). My grandparents reveled in the post-war boom of the Truman years, probably getting the most out of 1947’s interbellum with idk, sock hops and soda fountains or whatever. For my parents’ generation, the Summer of Love in ’67 was the apotheosis by which the nadir of the entire decade of the 1970s was contrasted. For me though, the best year of my youth was 1985. Continue reading “Assimilation vs Integration”→
Not long after the needle dropped on the new Wilco record, Schmilco, I heard the pejorative lyric “Always afraid of those normal American kids.” It’s a good song, for those of us alt-rock, alt-country, noise-rock fans (which I think has now become “Dad-rock”), but I immediately reacted negatively: do we have to have another cultural critique? Jeff Tweedy is a little older than I am, a GenXer in his 40s (he’s 49), so I know he’s heard how bad America is his whole life. When it comes to American culture, I have never seen or heard anything but criticism. What cultural or popular fad, meme, or trend has there ever been, in my lifetime, that praises normal American kids? Still, it’s a great song, very appropriate, reflecting my own experiences, yada yada yada…
When I was 21, I visited my uncle, who lives in Munich, a large city in Bavaria which has its own nefarious near history. In fact, at the time, he lived in a large house, even by American standards, on the Starnberger See, very close to the Schloss Neuschwanstein, Crazy King Luey’s swan song, before he kinda sorta drowned/was drowned before he could drain all the money from all the pockets in Bavaria to build it, and which inspired Walt Disney. Before both my feet had crossed the threshold to his home, my uncle declared, in his very best broken English, “George Bush is evil.” Those were his first words to me; I’d never met him before. Here is my nephew, the son of my beloved sister. I shall greet him, I the son of two Nazis, by deeming his head of state evil.
This is the milquetoast George H. W. Bush, by the way.
Eventually, I shrugged it off, the offense redeemed by some grilled weisswurst and enormous pretzels. Oh, and beer.
It is my great fortune to work in Canada three days a week, but Canadian cuisine is not quite enough to redeem the same offenses, which are given on a weekly basis, especially now that Trump is threatening to take over the nuclear codes, surely damning the world to a nuclear winter. But even twelve years ago, long before Trump was a national political figure, the greeting was tinged with America is evil.
A student of mine this fall, even, a gentleman from Punjab, an immigrant to Canada, one of those fellows who really is smarter than the professor (and by a long shot), but who is kind enough not to shame me, said, when I first introduced myself to him, without any context nor any provocation, “America can’t be number one. No way, not with seventeen percent literacy. American can’t be number one.” Perhaps he said seventy-six percent; I don’t remember. I shrugged, being a guest in a very nice country Nevertheless, this unprovoked outburst against America was telling, and it did fertilize a few thoughts.
Why did he instantly refer to America’s literacy rate? That was interesting. His rhetorical move, there, was reminiscent of that notorious clip from The Newsroom, in which Jeff Daniels lists off all the things that demonstrably takes America down a few pegs. How long ago was that? Five years ago? Who was expressing pride in America five years ago? When was the last time you heard anyone of any intellectual or cultural capacity uttering the jingoistic “We’re number one!”? Donald Trump’s campaign slogan assumes the exact opposite! Jeff Daniels’ speech, of course, is an American Left wet dream, filled with metrics. America can’t possibly be number one. I mean, you’ve got to watch out for those normal American kids.
I was visiting other family over there, in Germany, which put me in the working and middle class neighborhoods throughout the region of Baden-Wurttemberg, you know, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Baden-Baden. Traveling back and forth to see grandparents (divorced), uncles, and cousins put me on the mass transit system many afternoons, where I could witness the behavior of normal German kids, just released from their literacy-building centers. Lookit, you’ve got to believe me when I tell you: German culture has never actually forsworn pagan culture. After seeing that unceasing cacophony day after day, I honestly don’t know how Western Civilization is going to survive, guided by those normal German kids.
Why literacy? Why did he glom onto that metric? How is literacy associated with greatness? When was America ever first in literacy? Was America ever great?
It must be discomfiting for the many non-Americans who must answer to this great nation, the United States of America, observing that it is truly ruled by stupid and superstitious people. And I know, for example, that my Punjab student, like so many who were given just a tiny advantage in birth, who took care of that advantage so that he might by careful living and hard work emigrate from a crowded, impoverished, violent hellhole to a great nation of peace and freedom like Canada, must be infuriated to see Americans laze about, scratching their full bellies, living like kings, and squealing about the unfairness of a little state redistribution, the hypocrites. There’s no way America can be number one, no way, not ruled by people like that. My God, they might even elect Donald Trump!
Is America great? It can’t be, can it? Not now, not run by those whose names appear on the first page of the Boston area phone book. It should be run by those whose names appear atop the Dean’s List at Harvard and MIT; then America would be great. In that day and at that time (may it hasten unto us!), policy would align with carefully investigated and researched university and foundation policy papers, and America could truly take its place in the pantheon of all the other run-of-the-mill social democracies, without error and with social justice. That would be greatness, greatness which can be measured according to so many delightful metrics.
As for me, I far prefer pursuing happiness, over against just about anything else. To me, true national greatness is a nation whose domestic policy is less policy, more distrust of government implementation, whose justice is worked out as locally as possible. I suppose the vestiges of that ideal are being cleaned up and swept away, regardless of whichever evil we choose this November. I think it is true now, as it was true then: “Always afraid of those normal American kids.”
As I’m certainly the least-popular and least-educated Sweet Talker, my ideas aren’t formed from a deep dive into the academic literature, they’re based on experience and observation. I won’t deny having read my fair share academic tomes, and like any good nerd I do read journal articles for pleasure. But that’s just my evening gig; by day, I’m a regular old beer-chugging Joe Sixpack who finds himself caught up in a volatile world, and who has occasionally been known to articulate his thoughts well. For my money, one won’t find real explanatory pay-dirt shoveling through the literature. Instead, we’ll find it in a person’s ability to fuse a workable and ever-updating narrative out of the details of his or her life. The more consistently one’s narrative anticipates and produces good real-world results, the more accurate it is.
When I rose from Penn Station into Manhattan late this July, I expected to be greeted by a horrible smell. With my two older boys in tow (Thomas, 13, and Jack, 10), I entered Manhattan for the first time in my life. Indeed, within seconds I did see one of the notorious mountains of garbage, a filthy homeless person, and the persistent grime all along the gutters and walks, but there was virtually no smell. Well, that’s not entirely true: the fragrance of halal food trucks wafted pleasantly, satisfying my desire for an exotic experience for myself and the boys. With the help of Airbnb and Adam Gurri, we had a blast. What a great city.
As for me, I was raised in the Southeast during the 70s and 80s, and I did my schooling in the Midwest during the 90s. All our previous family excursions, therefore, have been west of Buffalo (where I live now), and south. Moreover, I have been given an enormous prejudice against all things New York, which was, during my childhood, a toilet. And more than a toilet: New York City is the home of Woody Allen, that smarmy, condescending urbanite, the epitome of the intellectual counter-culture which expressed open disdain for American Exceptionalism. It turns out those of us who were offended by his ilk were exactly right.
New York City is also the home of National Review, still standing athwart history, gleefully yelling “Stop!”, to the disdain of liberals, leftists, and now, also Trumpists (whatever that is). My father, who, living in Springfield, Illinois at the time, danced a jig on Abraham Lincoln’s grave to celebrate my birth, had us read National Review throughout childhood, a habit I took with me to college and beyond. Therefore, I was daily formed by the founder of National Review, a snobbish Stamford denizen and Yale man who inherited enormous wealth from his father, an oil speculator and fomenter of revolution in Mexico, not quite the exemplar for Southern Gentility. Perhaps, then, my prejudices against Manhattan were due for a revisitation.
My wife and I were both raised in tourist towns, so we have learned how to enjoy tourist traps for what they are and also how to wander away from them. And wander we did. We boys hoofed it through huge chunks of Midtown and Lower Manhattan over the course of three days, exploring what we could, absorbing the sights, buying into the attractions. I was in particular attracted to the people. I wanted to lay eyes on exactly who it is that makes New York City the center of the universe, and thus proclaims it.
I rubbed my eyes in disbelief when I saw them: “These people are conservatives. This is a conservative town.” Capitalism lay naked throughout the city, one gigantic open market, freely flowing, constantly innovating. There was even a business which stored our luggage, for a fee, while we spent the day touring. I was especially dumbfounded by the women of the city. The women were wearing skirts and blouses, dresses, feminine frocks, with hairstyles evoking evolutionary responses commended by secondary sexual traits, not primary. Why, the women were almost as lovely to look at as the architecture and the high rises!
“Whence leftism?” I asked. Men and women alike are more conservatively attired than in any city I’ve ever visited or lived in, certainly more conservatively than Chicago, and I won’t do more than mention my little Buffalo. How is it that these conservatively-driven people are so bloody Marxist, a worldview which makes their lives (and mine) more difficult?
I did notice a weariness in the countenances of all these young people who were hustling for personal interest, pursuing happiness, so I asked Adam about it. He said, “We moved away from Manhattan to Brooklyn because even when we were inside, we felt like we had to be ‘on top of it.’ Even though we still work in Manhattan, we feel we have escaped for the evening when we come home.” I think Adam has expressed what is palpable: in Manhattan one must be diligently “on top of it;” otherwise, Manhattan lands on top of you. Indeed, of the millions who work in Manhattan every day, how many do not have a boss? And even those bosses, along with the many who are thoughtful enough to think it through, have shareholders as bosses, always demanding more profit, and, I can imagine from the Manhattanite perspective, those shareholders are fat, hayseed, ignorant do-nothings who weaseled their way into make-work union jobs somewhere in middle America, that vast wasteland between the Hudson River and LAX.
In other words, the pursuit of happiness is hard, and no other people experience the difficulties of achieving the American Dream within a well-regulated (such as it is) open market like those who labor and toil in Manhattan. To me, these people spearhead the American Dream with their tenacity and employ of personal talent. That much is readily apparent. The promise of Marxism (or Leftism, or Progressivism, or whatever you want to call redistributionist ideology) is seductive: this system can make your life a little easier; the unfairness of the open market–this system can equalize things; this system can ease the pain of the pursuit of happiness.
When a religious fundamentalist powers down the window of his gigantic house on wheels, idling with the air-conditioner running in some Wal-mart parking lot, to scream epithets about the clutching squeeze put on them by East Coast Liberalism (you communists!), I can imagine that roughly zero inhabitants of Manhattan are persuaded to see the error of their ways. I would never have thought that any other class of American could have been perceived as more arrogant or rude than a Manhattanite, but my mind has been dramatically changed: the experience was almost entirely civil, with the exception of rambunctious guided tour barkers and shouting Pentecostals. Nevertheless, there is some truth to the caricature: the constant need to be “on top of it” with respect to the very tiny island of Manhattan creates a framework for dealing with the rest of the country, and with the power Manhattan wields, it’s easy to see how resentment waxes against the Big Apple. Leave us alone with your socio-economic impositions, whydoncha? What you think makes life easier for you I know impoverishes me, and not just of money, but also of institutions which you may not have ever had, and of freedoms.
All in all, though, New York City is a thoroughly American city, and I am proud of New York City, an earnestly nationalistic pride of which I am not ashamed. “Yes, New York City is the greatest city in the world,” I’ll say, “an American city, the template of the American experience, warts and all, the most beautiful city in the world, inside and out.” I don’t want to live there, but I can see why eight million people do.
The irrationally vocal proponents of the notion that ‘voting is instrumentally irrational’ have become perceptibly more vocal as it has become sure that there is a large difference between the two major-party nominees for President this year—which is unfortunate, since a large candidate differential weakens their claim.
What’s the basis for the notion that voting is an ‘instrumentally irrational’ activity? It’s that the expected benefit of a single vote to the voter herself is not substantial. That conclusion comes about from studying this equation:
Expected social benefit of a vote = (Probability of casting deciding vote)(Candidate differential)
There is no definitive method for estimating either of the values on the right-hand side, but the size of the probability value is less in doubt. Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin (2012) review the credible literature and persuasively peg the probability of deciding a contemporary U.S. Presidential election at one in 60 million for the typical voter.
How to estimate the candidate differential? Form your own. Do you think, say, that U.S. GDP would be one tenth of one percentage point higher, each year under a Clinton administration, than under a Trump administration? Well, U.S. GDP is $18 trillion a year, so over four years that difference amounts to over 70 billion dollars. GDP is far from everything that matters, but in a quantitative exercise, it gives one a starting point, from which one can make whatever adjustments one likes. Take your own estimate of candidate differential and divide it by 60 million to get the expected social benefit of a vote. Seventy billion divided by 60 million, for example, is over one thousand dollars.
The tension comes in with the recognition that the social benefit of a single vote is not paid directly to the individual voter. The voter bears the cost of making the decision and taking an hour to cast a ballot, but the benefits of each single vote are spread over the nation and world. One thousand dollars divided by 320 million persons is a quarter of an eighth of a hundredth of a cent, and so if the voter ‘acts alone,’ uncoordinated to others, she personally gains almost nothing. But all this is to say only that the voters face an ordinary free-rider problem—little different from any problem of providing public goods—and so voters can benefit personally from the overcoming of the problem.
Imagine that 20 million persons who had planned not to vote become otherwise coordinated, perhaps by a compelling meme that convinces them to vote for Clinton. The election swings from, say, roughly a tossup, to a sure Clinton victory, at the cost of, say, an hour for each of the 20 million voters. Counting that as a $50 cost for each voter, that’s a total social cost of $1 billion—but the increased certainty of Clinton’s election equates to an increase in expected GDP over four years of $35 billion, using the GDP-based hypothetical above. If the sixteenth part of that gain accrues evenly to the 20 million marginal voters, they will each eventually have about $100 in extra income—twice the $50 cost incurred in one’s casting a vote. In other words, 20 million fractions of a cent do add up.
I don’t much endorse this Downsian framework for purposes of understanding why 125 million Americans vote, but it is a worthy exercise in service of one’s own decisionmaking process. The kind of person who is enough engaged in political talk to be reading this blog post should be aware of the size of the expected social gain that one declines to confer, in return for an opportunity to ‘express’ one’s idealism through an also-ran candidate, or alternately for an hour of free time.
It is the nature of elites that they cannot be eliminated, but only replaced and contained. Elites compete with each other for power and influence in their sphere, and whomever has the most influence is the most elite. Those who opt not to struggle quickly find themselves on the outside looking in, as other hungrier competitors overtake them. Politics is the art of determining the rules that the competition will follow.
This is something we mostly grasp intuitively in the world of commerce. Businesses compete amoungst themselves for profits and market share, identifying or creating needs and filling them. When the customers care mostly about price we get business elites competing to cut costs and wring out efficiencies. When customers care mostly about quality and reliability we get competitions around warranties and MTBF. When customers care about novelty or function we get competitions around product development and research. Mostly we get competitions involving trade-offs between all three and more besides. The world is full of stories of firms who let themselves get flabby and were overtaken by lower cost competitors, or became sloppy and lost business to more careful enemies, or made bad bets about what customers really wanted and found themselves cut down by more responsive firms.
When the system works well we get benefits for everyone, as some of the smartest hardest working people in the world turn all their brainpower and organisational know-how into shaving 3% off the cost of widget by reorganising the work floor, or the best algorithm builders in the world compete with each other to fine tune music recommendations for the masses. But not all the competitions are socially beneficial, and so we have developed rules which ensure that the competitions are contained within socially beneficial channels. You can’t shave costs by dumping your untreated waste into rivers or water basins, or by not paying your workers, or refusing to make reasonable changes to improve their safety.
An executive at an pipeline firm wants to be environmentally responsible and build his pipelines in a manner that keeps product from leaching into groundwater, but the cost of upgrading is higher than the cost of lost product and the resulting price increase in transport fees will drive business to his less scrupulous neighbour who runs an even leakier operation, and so the executive does nothing. His leakier neighbour also wants to run a leaner operation, but he has activist shareholders who won’t let him make such a large capital expenditure with no prospect of return. A tax on leaked petroleum or a rules about maximum leakage means that though they will still compete on price, that competition won’t be in the form of indifference to the environment, which neither of them really want to compete on anyway.
The danger is that there’s lots of things the executives don’t really want to compete on, many of which are actually socially beneficial. The market forces them to compete on cost, but they would much rather keep prices relatively high. The market forces them to compete on quality, but they would much rather force their customers to buy a replacement regularly. Absent some accountability, rules quickly come to serve the elites instead of the customers.
Now this is a very familiar story to a largely libertarian audience, but of course governance is largely the same. One function of democracy is to tie the game of power to the interests, goals and expectations of the body politic. An electorate that cares mostly about inequality, and which votes accordingly, will produce a politic class obsessed with inequality. An electorate that cares about the state of the economy, or crime, or protecting the culture against outside influence will result in a political class obsessed with being seen to do the same, or again a mix of all those and more.
Ultimately however, many of these competitions will not be socially beneficial. Two politicians, both fully aware of the costs of tariffs will none-the-less be forced to campaign for high tariffs by an electorate that falsely believes helping incumbent firms is the same as helping the economy. Despite knowing the electorate is giving in to dark impulses they would do better to avoid, they none-the-less are forced by the logic of zero sum competition to try to out do each other in denouncing an unpopular ethnic minority, or people with disfavoured religious beliefs. Perhaps fully aware that the public does not possess the expertise to assess the technical aspects of monetary policy, they are none-the-less forced to campaign for crank gold bug schemes, or below (or above) socially optimum interest rates. The solution, from the perspective of the elites, is, by norm or law to effectively prohibit certain kinds of competition that they would rather not be doing in any case.
Instead of setting tariffs in congress or parliament on a country by country basis they sign treaties that bind themselves to the level they wanted anyway. Instead of seeking to crush faiths that their constituents find unsettling, they invent a right to worship, enforced by a third a party, which effectively allows them to ignore faith in practice. Instead of setting monetary policy amoung themselves they give a mandate to an independent third party, which again allows them to compete along axes they find more amenable. Once again of course, it is often the case that elites will bind themselves in ways that serve themselves and not any greater social purpose. The practical effect is that elites can launder their preferences, good and bad, through a judicial and legislative system which insulates them from accountability for the decisions made.
This is the key, to the extent possible to ensure that competition happens on issues where elites should be competing, with enough democracy (and intra-elite accountability mechanisms) to hold elites accountable for the outcomes of their decisions. The problem is that, above a low baseline, calls for more democracy almost always have the opposite effect. A politician who runs and is elected on a platform cannot be held accountable for implementing the contents of the platform, no matter how poorly thought out – it is after all the will of the voters, whether the voters voted the way they did because of or in spite of or indifference to that particular plank. Trump, being elected directly by the primary voters, cannot be held accountable by official party organs for his performance. Jeremy Corbyn, being directly elected by the party members, and so owing nothing to his caucus, cannot be held accountable by them for his failures of leadership. Rather than risk the direct fallout of a decision to leave the EU, or the continued damage of a refusal to do so, David Cameron calls a referendum so that he cannot be held directly responsible for the decision to stay or leave. It is this shirking of responsibility for the governance of the nation that leads to an elite culture devoid of consequence for failure, and complete disconnect between the governors and the governed.
Many people have died in fulfillment of the oath they took according to the Constitution of the United States, which remained unchanged from 1789 to 1950, when it underwent a slight revision, but has remained materially the same for 227 years: namely to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the orders of the President of the United States. Thus many would rather die than swear falsely this oath.
Glancing through the history of the United States, World War II serves as the emblem of that loyalty, wherein hundreds of thousands perished defending the Constitution from what was perceived to be an existential threat on two fronts: from Asia and from Europe. I equivocate because I sit in the luxury of being removed two generations from that perceived threat; moreover, the question is before us today, given the intricacies of international relations: can there even be such an existential threat?
Well, was there ever such an existential threat to the Constitution of the United States? Let’s say yes there was, and World War II is it. I hearken to the opening dialogue of the wonderful HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which is a dramatization of interviews conducted first by historian Stephen Ambrose, drawing from a few of his books, and supplemented by interviews conducted by the producers of the TV series.
“Get your uniforms,” someone shouts in a marketplace.
“America is in a war with Japan.”
And so it began. I am struck by this introduction: America’s population was largely surprised by the onset of war. Studying the decade leading up to Pearl Harbor, it seems obvious to me that the United States was basically inviting itself into a historic conflagration just by sheer policy moves made by a cynical government overseen by the architect of the New Deal and the packer of the Supreme Court, FDR, who, despite his pernicious ways, remained popular enough that he was in his third term as president, inviting, as I say, foreign attack. How could those who were living in that time be surprised?
Well, some were, and some weren’t. Roosevelt wasn’t that popular, and his critics were quick to point out, especially as the Pacific theater quickly turned hopeless, that this was Roosevelt’s War, that he needed it to hide his nefarious, anti-American, pro-Socialism, domestic policies, among which critics was ensconced the hero George S. Patton, named by Carlo d’Este as A Genius For War, to whom we will return momentarily.
In the meantime, our national identity given by WWII pours from the bloody victories earned at Iwo Jima, and, in particular, in the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, which was won by the Battered Bastards of Bastogne, bloodied but unbowed. In oft-depicted scenes, we find our heroes throwing back the fierce German Wehrmacht without proper food, clothes, shoes, ammunition, weapons, or even winter coats, withstanding one of the coldest Decembers on record without the luxury of a mere campfire.
When we celebrate these heroes, for surely they were, we see them fighting against all hope, victorious by sheer American grit and fortitude, as Ambrose puts it, pitting the ideals of American freedom against the tyranny of fascism, and we won.
But why were our heroes essentially naked? Couldn’t we have won more easily with our vast resources producing fully, protected by two gigantic oceans? Why did they have to suffer, and why for so long?
Let me introduce to you one Major General John C. H. Lee, the commander of the supply army for the European Theater, disdainfully called “Jesus Christ Himself,” a man notorious for seeking the pleasures of conquest and aggrandizing all things earthly unto himself. In September of 1944, when he should have been supplying the combat armies with winter materiel, he was instead shipping tons of prefabricated housing for his officers and men, whose job it was to acquire for themselves, kicking up a share through the officers to their commander.
In other words, there was an entire army of thieves, scoundrels, and crooks given solely to creating a black market, siphoning off anything of value for their own enrichment, and at the expense of 1) the American laborer and 2) their comrades-at-arms holding the line. I repeat: an entire army of American soldiers were happy denizens of a rear-echelon empire of thievery.
Why were the 101st and the 82nd divisions rushed to Bastogne in the first place? Another army of American soldiers was in panicked retreat, wild-eyed with fear, throwing down their arms and ammunition in a bid to escape the horrors of warfare as quickly as possible. I repeat: an entire army of American soldiers was in retreat.
Patton’s rescue of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne (which has never been acknowledged as necessary by those battered bastards) is another tale of heroism. The genius for war saw that his superiors were far too complacent with the progress of war, and that their bungling of the battlefield, for political reasons, was percolating toward a sudden reversal of fortune; indeed, fortune had allowed the Allies to progress in spite of many terrible decisions, not the least of which was removing Patton from command.
The German Army never believed for one second that Eisenhower had removed Patton, the greatest general of the entire war, for the misdemeanor of slapping a soldier, considering the entire media storm to have been manufactured as a deceptive ploy. In fact, the political sensitivities of the Allies had prevailed against Patton, and the Allied advance stalled, festered, and nearly broke under the German counteroffensive.
Nevertheless, Patton, singular among the entire European command, had foreseen the counteroffensive, almost to the day and place; not only that, but he had prepared his army for it, from the top brass all the way to the common foot soldier. This “pivot,” as it is called, disengaging from the enemy on one front, marching without ceasing for forty-eight hours, and re-engaging the enemy on another front, is a marvel of warfare.
It was a few men, then, under the duress of a fanatical enemy and also in defiance of their own bureaucracy, who won the war. I’m sure there are many veterans of that war, and many fallen comrades, who fought ably and heroically, sandwiched between General J. C. H. Lee and the Battered Bastards of Bastogne who welcomed George S. Patton’s 3rd Army to the party, but without the few, the many would have foundered and failed.
Let’s say we are surprised by the perception of an existential threat in the near future. Looking around at our culture, which seems dangerously preoccupied with its genitalia and the free stuff from the government to stimulate the same, it might be difficult to believe that we would even stop gazing at our crotches long enough to raise an army for the battle. Ah, it is not the many who prevail, but the few, who carry the many, and the many thank them for preserving them in spite of thievery and onanism and cowardice.
You’ve met my friend Rafe in previous posts. He’s a real person, and he really is my friend, whom I consider to be a thoughtful eccentric, of no particular philosophy or commonly held worldview. He’s the youngest of four brothers, and he’s my age, so he won’t be one of the few of those thoughtful warriors, but a decade or two ago he would have been. He has three sons of his own, chips off the old block (with normal names), but with the same ideals, and, I think, a willingness to spearhead an assault to preserve the ideals of freedom for us who might not be so willing, and, if willing, less able.
I mentioned to Adam Gurri recently that Rafe has no air-conditioning in his home, and he heats his home with a wood-burning stove. And look: while Western New York might seem rural to many of you, it’s not rural. His house is situated in the country between Rochester and Buffalo, and he has five neighbors within a literal stone’s throw of his front door. Every year he has an argument with his one neighbor about whether he can track a wounded deer onto his fields, which his neighbor refuses to grant, illegally harvesting, then, the deer which Rafe shot. I digress. But it’s so un-neighborly…And in God’s America!
Anyway, I mentioned to Adam Gurri that Rafe has no AC and heats his home with a wood-burning stove, and we both thought it was hilarious that anyone would want to live like that, what with affordable thermostat-controlled environments and all.
Rafe heats his home with a wood-burning stove because he likes it, not because he’s some backwater oaf. The house, nevertheless, is unevenly heated, but such actuality creates a pattern of living in which his family thrives. And he’s not entirely brutish: he recently bought an air-conditioner, one of those interior wall-mounted doohickeys, under which we sat all day this past Sunday while Western New York roasted in temperatures rising to almost 90° (the agony!). Later on, we went outside and did some firearm target practice.
We will look to such people, in the case of a surprise existential crisis, people who are intelligent, well-read, thoughtful, morally stable, and violent. People like Rafe are like me in that they are both pessimistic about the ability of society to preserve itself and aware of the caprice of the ribbon of war. They are more than me in that they will prefer to die in spite of its caprice, hoping.
It surprises me the extent to which people recoil at the idea of a President Donald Trump.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Donald Trump would be a terrible president. But to hear the way some people talk about it (and I don’t just mean David or Adam), he’s an entirely new level of monster. He’s something we’ve never before encountered in American politics, at least not recently. One Sweet Talker even suggested to me that those who vote for Donald Trump are more morally culpable than those who don’t.
And it’s not just us. Everywhere you go in the media, there’s some dumb article about which public figure recently vowed to move to Canada (or wherever) if Donald Trump wins the election. Many of my personal friends – especially the Muslims among them – think that The Donald’s rhetoric toward practitioners of Islam is many orders of magnitude over and above what we’ve seen in politics up to now.
Forgive me, I just don’t see it. But let’s be clear: I’m not saying Donald Trump isn’t terrible, I’m saying all those other politicians that nobody ever worried about have been exactly as terrible as Donald Trump all this time, and nobody really batted an eye at that. And they’re still not batting any eyes.
We don’t disagree about Trump. We disagree about everyone else. While everyone seems shocked and scandalized by Donald Trump’s ideas, I’m not seeing anything new or alarming that I haven’t been witnessing for the past twenty years. (Incidentally, I see that David R. Henderson has scooped me on this by a few hours.) So, I must ask: What makes Donald Trump uniquely morally reprehensible here?
Consider the proposed wall. We’re supposed to believe that building a wall along the US-Mexico border is a “Donald Trump thing.” If so, how would we explain the fact that recent interest in such a wall seems to have peaked almost ten years ago?
Or, consider the question of banning Muslim immigration to America. To articulate such a thing is to make most Americans’ skin crawl, but one has to wonder about the intellectual honesty of many of those whose skin is crawling. Before my wife got a new passport and started using my last name, she was subject to more “random” airport security checks than I’ve ever seen. Her father, a well-traveled man, an expert in his field, and a Fulbright Scholar, was placed on the “no-fly list” for sharing the name of a suspected terrorist; but if you know anything about Muslim names, you know that virtually every Muslim shares the name of a “suspected terrorist,” because there are over two billion Muslims worldwide and only several thousand Muslim names. Do the math. Anyone comfortable with the state of Muslim profiling in America, but uncomfortable with Trump’s immigration ban, isn’t thinking straight.
But let’s set aside my personal experience any appeals to logic and look at the facts. Three years ago, The Atlantic reported:
The Associated Press brought the NYPD’s clandestine spying on Muslims to the public’s attention in a series of vital stories. Starting shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, officers infiltrated Muslim communities and spied on hundreds or perhaps thousands of totally innocent Americans at mosques, colleges, and elsewhere. These officers “put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity,” the news agency reported, citing NYPD documents. Informants were paid to bait Muslims into making inflammatory statements. The NYPD even conducted surveillance on Muslim Americans outside its jurisdiction, drawing a rebuke from an FBI field office, where a top official charged that “the department’s surveillance of Muslims in the state has hindered investigations and created ‘additional risks’ in counterterrorism.”
The author of that piece ends his article with a good question:
What does it say about American liberalism today that two of the most significant municipal programs abrogating the civil liberties of racial and ethnic minorities thrive in a deep blue city that also happens to be the media capitol of the country … and the guy presiding over it remains popular?
He’s talking about Bloomberg, and let’s make this as clear as possible: Bloomberg isn’t popular among alt-right racists; he’s popular among the urban elite who see themselves as tolerant, diverse, and enlightened. The very people who react with indignation at hearing Donald Trump’s proposed ban have virtually no problem at all with local law enforcement enacting a ubiquitous surveillance apparatus to ensure that innocent American citizens who happen to be Muslims aren’t actually up to something. And that’s not even considering the profiling that has been done to blacks and Latinos for decades. Trump is beyond the pale? Not hardly.
We could take a long look at the semblance of economic policy Donald Trump seems to espouse and poke all kinds of holes in it. But: trade restrictions, investments in domestic manufacturing, lukewarm support of minimum wage increases, and so on… Would it really be shocking to discover that this set of policies is common to a fairly large swath of both Democrat and Republican politicians?
Wrack your brain, pore over the platforms, the advertisements, the interviews, the media articles, and the research. Once you set aside Trump’s rather abrasive personality – an abrasive personality that is not only no secret to anyone (nor has it been at any time over the past 40 years of Trump’s fame), but that has succeeded in creating a rather successful brand of business for him – the actual policies we’re left with really aren’t that different from what we’re getting from any other politician in the landscape.
So what is everyone complaining about?
Nota bene, my point here is not to suggest that there aren’t people out there who have disagreed with these policies all along. Of course there are. But the visceral reaction against Donald Trump is many orders of magnitude above and beyond our reaction to politicians who support Trump’s policies (or worse) in deed, even if they fall short of doing so in words.
Regular readers will understand why I choose to focus on this: It’s because, in my opinion, results matter much more than words. That politicians lie is nothing new, and the results of our politics are there for all to see. Why, then, all the indignation over a politician whose rhetoric is, for once, consistent with the results?
What do we make of a society that reacts angrily to being told the truth? Is the problem that it prevents them from being able to lie to themselves about what’s going on out there? This isn’t a politics problem; it’s an ego problem. The solution here is not to lambaste Trump, but to lambaste ourselves and our own failure to recognize any of these horrors when they come out of the mouths of pretty much anyone else. If it takes someone like Donald Trump for you to recognize how abominable these policies are, then perhaps a re-calibration of your abomination-detection-device is in order.
Until we realize that, it’s plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.