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The Wright Bell Curve

April 29th, 2008 - 8:36 am

Let Me Get This Straight

A Rev. Wright gives a speech to the NAACP, an organization that has often fought a gallant battle against racists. But inter alia he insists that we are genetically different, and that our DNA is distinct by race, and to such a degree it explains cognitive differences and learning aptitudes.

Then he assures the audience that blacks have right-brains and whites left-brains (Asians something in between apparently). This genetic difference elucidates, Wright assures the audience, why blacks rap and sing and are so spiritual, and why whites are sooooo analytical and tediously rational.

Then, after spewing this pseudo-sophisticated race claptrap, Wright is given an ovation by the very organization that would have rightly crucified any white nut that had stooped to offer such a condescending racist diatribe. And you and I, in turn, are utter racists to question Wright, much less to suggest he and what he says have a bearing on the election.

All the while, Wright was gushed over by witless CNN commentators, who were apparently relieved (or disappointed?) that he didn’t go off on AIDs viruses and special Israeli bombs that target blacks and Arabs.

Then in his encore the next morning, Wright insults the liberal Washington press corps (always a dumb thing to do) for reporting his serial nonsense ‘out of context’. They sort of take his tongue-lashing even as larger excerpts from his rants prove that the longer one listens to him, the nuttier he becomes.

How odd that he claims his prior slurs were snippets, then at the Press Club expounds on them to assure the nation that they were not.

And our next would-be President has called all this “not particularly controversial?”

The wild enthusiasm that greeted Wright’s racist speech at the NAACP, and the packed sympathetic audience at the National Press Club that similarly applauded when he confirmed that his past offensive “loops” were in fact perfectly representative of what he feels, raise a disturbing thought: For 20 years various studies programs have insisted that victims cannot be victimizers, and the result seems to be that a great many African-American elites, who have met with success and live lives that millions of Americans could only envy, have become deaf to what is classically racist hate speech.

When Wright apparently referenced his hateful partial white ancestry (or at least I think that was what he was doing this morning), or genetic racial differences in brain chemistry, or caricatured Italians, or lumped together all whites as “rich white folks” and received ovations for that bombast from his audiences, the message was unmistakably clear and will have terrible ramifications for the nation at large.

Without sounding overly dramatic, I think Wright’s performance yesterday and today have cost Barack Obama the election. He cannot give yet another incomplete sermon on race (“Racial Relations Take 2?”), and will soon discover that his Hispanic, Asian, and white supporters suspect that he is either a racial chauvanist or tone deaf to those who are—and then will silently flee his candidacy, sort of like quietly getting up and leaving the theater half-way through a bad movie.

So Try a Thought Experiment …

If you wish to learn how morally confused the Obama campaign has become, how embarrassing Obama’s associates are, and how much harm his waffling has done to race relations, try this:

Example 1: John McCain’s pastor of twenty years and spiritual advisor addresses a large white convention and declares that whites have different brains than blacks, and then begins to mimic the supposedly different ways blacks speak.

Example 2. Hillary Clinton visits a white Midwestern donor base, and is caught on tape lamenting to her constituents that she can’t reach inner-city Chicago blacks because they are bitter and cling to their church and guns, don’t like those who don’t look like them, and scapegoat immigrants.

Example 3. While explaining his embarrassing pastor’s remarks, John McCain sighs that critics don’t understand white churches, don’t understand all the good that his church does, have taken remarks (“greedy black folks”) out of context, and is now being slurred by political hacks and opportunists.

Example 4. In explaining her comments, Hillary evokes her aged grandmother’s biases, who to be fair also said that “white people” scared her too. Meanwhile, Mark Penn pontificates that the black vote usually goes to liberal candidates anyway and so is not that important to the Clinton campaign. Then to rationalize what she has said, Hillary offers that a black friend of hers—in the manner of a “typical black person”—also has stereotyped white people.

Example 5: Meanwhile Cindy McCain says on two occasions that she never really had pride in America—since it was a “mean” country—until her husband staged his political comeback.

The ghosts of Howard Cossell and Jimmy the Greek, Don Imus, and Michael Richards apparently have now all been absolved by Barack Obama. Thanks to the bar he has lowered in reacting to racism, no one will ever be disowned for their racist remarks, but always contextualized and excused. Watch what follows as a consequence of what Obama has wrought.

Moral compasses

As I age, I have adopted a certain compass: the more I hear a Bill Ayers slam the United States, or a Rev. Wright slander America, the more I am convinced that what they hate was pretty good. And just as I find them odious, so too I find attractive the lost world that they now find odious. That said, I don’t think either Ayers or Wright are serious people. Ayers grew up a wealthy kid from the suburbs, went to prep school, and was the son of a multimillionaire CEO. He could have turned his angst at capitalism against his own family, or rejected his inheritance, rather than bored the rest of us with puerile rants, and occasionally criminal behavior. We used to call someone like that a simple “punk.”

Rev. Wright, grew up solidly middle class, went to white schools, was the son of a high school administrator and minister, won subsidies and scholarships from universities and foundations, and then in Machiavellian fashion, honed a message of anger and resentment from borrowed black liberation theology that turned a tiny church into a mega-money machine—which finally won him a multimillion-dollar 10,000 sq. ft mansion in a gated white estate. He is about as authentic a representation of the black underclass as is Barack Obama ($4 million in income last year, similar mansion, etc.), or as true a victim of the other America as is multimillionaire trial lawyer and chronic litigator John Edwards.

Wright’s genius was to figure out how to turn Christianity and a religion of personal responsibility and brotherly love into a Sunday morning gripe session that offered psychological venting for angry African-Americans who could blame “them” for their own personal angst.

Ayers’s brilliance was to act contrite, turn himself in ahead of the posse, bite his lip and beat a terrorism rap on a technicality—and then to turn around and brag, exaggerate, and magnify his terrorist thuggish credentials in the hothouse of academia where he rose as a sort of suburban pet bad boy from the old days. Had we not suffered September 11, we would still be hearing about his terrorist exploits glorifying attacks on policemen and others of the working class he championed from the faculty lounge.

Thoughts on the so-called food crisis

To the extent that there is a food crisis, it has been brought about by (1) panic speculation predicated on the fact that a quarter of the nation’s corn supply is now devoted to ethanol production; (2) a falling dollar that has meant foreign demand for U.S. foodstuffs; (3) millions of new middle-class consumers in India and China now have dollars to buy grains, beef, fish, and vegetables on the world market, and wish to eat as we do; (4) depressed food prices for a half-century that has led to idle acreage or land diverted from foot production.

When I began farming in 1980 the price of raisins was $1200 a ton, labor was $6 an hour, and diesel fuel was about $1 a gallon. Today raisins are about $1200 a ton, labor runs over $10, diesel fuel $4 a gallon, and most chemicals are 5-6 six-times their cost in 1980. There are no more small or medium-sized family farmers in my vicinity, in which they once predominated as late as the early 1970s. Most acreage is rented out to corporations, or, like mine, to a few farmers who have cobbled together large acreages by renting from former small farmers.

Only lately have cotton, grains, fruits and vegetables seen any spike in prices. In 1980 we received about $10 per 23 lb box for fresh grapes, and when we quit producing them in the late 1990s the price was about $7. I sold Santa Rosa plums in the early 1980s for $5-6 per 28 lb. box and when my brother retired in 2004, he was getting $5-6. I note there were no farm subsidies for growers of fresh fruits and vegetables, and I believe that there should not be any for any other commodities as well.

In some sense, the current prices are long overdue and might allow enough profit to remedy years of neglected investment in machinery, infrastructure—and farmer compensation. I know farmers complain, but they have much to complain about. That said, grain-based ethanols are insane: they are not energy efficient; drive up prices for food; and are not nearly as ecologically sound as a comparable barrel pumped from Anwar or off the California coast.

The good news is that there is no country in the world that has more competent farmers, better farmland, and more agricultural knowledge and research than has the United States, which can readjust its policies rather quickly without long-term damage. So far we have only seen one side of the oil/energy equation: the enormous infusion of wealth into the nonproductive but oil-rich Middle East. But these countries have shot themselves in both feet: oil’s high prices are spurring a mad race to conserve energy and find replacements; and the oil-panic has set off similar stampedes in minerals, food, and finished consumer products—none of which the Middle East has in any great abundance, but dearly prizes.

Final Note on the Movies

I apologize to readers for glaring omissions: Tommy Lee Jones is a rare talent, and surely a throwback to a better age. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a work of genius, and one of my favorites.

I think most of us agree that something has been lost. The movies are a keyhole by which we look back through at an entire world that has been thrown away—and by which we are the worst for it. I think that yearning explains why a Robert Duvall or Tommy Lee Jones resonates with so many of us (cf. the reaction to Lonesome Dove). We simply want more of them to be around in our daily lives.

From Obama to the Wild Bunch

April 25th, 2008 - 10:21 am

Paradoxes everywhere

What strange paradoxes: the more the Democrats tried to show their egalitarian fides, they more they crafted an undemocratic nominating process; the more Obama talked of transcending race, the more he appealed to racial solidarity; the more Bill Clinton stumped and shook hands, the more he threw away his legacy; and the more Hillary and Barack slurred McCain as a right-wing nut, the more they repaired his relations with the his conservative base. And all this is only half-way through…

Obama and race

Lately a number of Obama’s African-American supporters have taken the airways to make the argument that his astounding percentages of 90% and above among African-American voters are not racialist because the community would not vote in such numbers for a Clarence Thomas or Condoleezza Rice.

But that is a dangerous comparison that raises only more questions. So it’s politics, not race? Why then not a mere 60/40 margin over the ultra-liberal Hillary, wife of our first “black” President? The answer? Obama represents a certain racial chauvinism that neither a white liberal nor black conservative can convey. In other words, in the world of identity politics, he seems to reflect an authentic representation of grievance, and a perpetuation of the entire industry of racial reparations.

Most think the corpus of Rev. Wright’s sayings, comments like “typical white person”, and snotty condescension about white Middle American yokels were terrible gaffes. True, but such wedge politicking apparently ensures him the astounding margins in the African-American community that really are unprecedented—when not long ago there were concerns among his strategists that he might not capture the black vote in such numbers. That problem of authenticy was put to rest by his choice not to disown Rev. Wright.

Speaking of whom, the snippets from his interview with a fawning Bill Moyers were about as disingenuous as they come. He claimed they were out of context and his critics divisive, but never disowned what he said. He claimed he was a pastor outside of politics, but his attraction apparently hinges on his political views about everything from the AIDs conspiracy to apartheid. And on and on. The problem with Rev. Wright is, well, he loves the attention, makes a profit on it, and won’t shut up. And as long as he is not disowned by Obama, the more Obama has to explain why he continues to worship in that church, whether Wright is or is not really retired, and what exactly did Obama know and when did he know it. A fair reading of the Obama memoirs suggests he knew exactly what Wright was saying and heard a great deal of it.

It doesn’t help his cause that when CNN and Fox bring in analysts from the universities (e.g., African-American studies professors), they not only excuse Obama, but Wright too!—usually by the tactic of redefining a Martin Luther King not as a healer, but a proto-firebrand like Wright. That sounds catchy and may ooh and aah the white elite base, but in the general election the defense of Wright and what he stands for will prove catastrophic. To fathom the soul of the Obama campaign juxtapose Obama’s Pennsylvania comments alongside the recent Axelrod’s dismissal of the need to reach out to the white working class:

“The white working class has gone to the Republican nominee for many elections, going back even to the Clinton years. This is not new that Democratic candidates don’t rely solely on those votes.”

Now we wait to hear the “context” for “don’t rely”.

More on the Movies

I learned a great deal from the comments on the movie posting. I still maintain, as do many readers, that elements of physical ordeal and elemental challenges have vanished from the American middle-class lifestyle, and with their departure, the sort of actor who clawed his way up, and was familiar with the underbelly of the United States is disappearing as well.

Again, I sense the tell-tale difference is in the voices. Today’s male sounds metrosexual, ambiguous, nasal, sing-songy—feminized. Today’s Westerns are embarrassing, as Hollywood searches in vain for a southerner, or anyone who does sound like a Valley Boy from San Fernando. Sam Elliot made an entirely successful career out of having an authentic Western voice, or at least something that resonates experience outside the suburb.

In general, I don’t think we will ever see again the wide range of rich resonant and idiosyncratic voices of a Burt Lancaster, Frederic March, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, or Robert Mitchum, much less a Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones, or Richard Boone (one of my favorite actors). The ability of today’s wild young actors to drink, snort, party, go on rampages, work as a bartender, drop out of high-school, provoke—part of the Sean Penn profile— is not comparable to the masculine world of the 1930s and 1940s, where there was a brutal honesty and hard decency utterly lacking today. That said, there is something in the eye and voice of a Robert Duvall, Christopher Walken, Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, and a few others, which readers immediately noted, that reminds us at times of the old breed.

My interest in movies was inculcated by my father, who grew up outside of Kingsburg, California on a small farm in the Depression to Swedish parents, was a central fire control gunner on a B-29 for 40 missions over Japan, lost many of his teeth playing football for Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Pacific, and was never quite tame or predictable, despite his ability to both farm and become a successful junior college administrator—and remain gentle and gentlemanly at all times.

He took us to the movies quite often, roused us when a movie came on one of our three scratchy channels on a small black-and-white television in the kitchen, and shared with us his notion of the tragic hero, who either self-implodes as he eliminates the problem along with himself, or deals with an awful fate with a sort of resigned nobility. These are some of the great scenes I remember best—and I watched them all with my father from the 1950s to his death in 1998.

The Wild Bunch: The scene when Ernest Borgnine, Bill Holden, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates decide to give it all up, put on their guns, smile, and head off to take out the federales and meet their fate.

Shane: Brandon De Wilde yells “Shane” and runs after the gunslinger, who rides off into the sunset, leaving the viewer unsure whether his limp arm is a minor or fatal wound. The entire movie is one of unresolved tensions and a certain dignity shown in not giving into the temptations.

High Noon. A worried Gary Cooper accepts that his town has abandonded him, as he walks down main street, sweating and watching the clock as Tex Ritter sings ‘Do not forsake me…” Never understood Howard Hawks simplistic critique of this brilliant movie.

Breaker Morant: Breaker and Handcock sit waiting for their bullets in their head, and Morant yells, “Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!”

Das Boot: The submarine somehow blasts to the surface of the Mediterranean, the crew opens the hatch, and races to the Atlantic, as the crew signs, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

The Magnificent Seven. Steve McQueen and Yul Brenner climb on the caisson to drive it up to boot hill—to the cut-in of the famous soundtrack.

Pat Garret and Bill the Kid: Katy Jurado watches Slim Pickens hold his guts in, sitting on the riverbank as he dies to “Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.” Great cinematography. My paternal grandfather, a disabled WWI veteran and cowboy of sorts who spoke in a thick accent, once sold a horse to Slim Pickens in Traver, California (Frank Hanson broke them for a living), and claimed he was the most decent person he had encountered.

Twelve O’clock High: Dean Jagger snaps out of his long flashback of the awful B-17 missions, and rides off on his bike from the weed-filled airfield at Archbury.

The Vikings: the Viking music cuts in as the Norsemen send their fire arrows into the funeral ship taking Kirk Douglas’s body out to sea.

Hombre: Richard Boone shouts out to Paul Newman who has come down the hill on a suicide rescue mission, Mister, you have got a lot of hard bark on you coming’ down here like this.”

The Searchers: the loner John Wayne walks his walk out the door to shadows and music—and a solitary existence after his work is done.

Zulu: the survivors of Rorke’s Drift look up and suddenly see thousands of Zulus chanting on the hilltops—saluting their bravery and their survival.

What’s Wrong With Hollywood?

It is more interested in political correctness than profits, as the Iraq War movie bombs attest. Talent is no longer gravitating to Hollywood, but staying put in Europe and Asia. Alternate media, from the Internet to video games to cable television, mean that fewer go to the movies anymore (I went once in the last 12 months). The old bread-and-butter genres—like the Western or the war movie—are either moribund or merely landscapes for political revisionism.

One difference is the steady decline in the quality of male actors. We simply do not have a James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Bill Holden, or John Wayne any more, much less brilliant against-the grain actors like a Robert Duvall, Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, or a Yul Brenner, nor character actors like a Slim Pickens or a Ben Johnson.

Today’s he-man actors don’t even sound the same as the old breed. Compare the speech patterns and intonation of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Spencer Tracey, Henry Fonda or Bill Holden to those of a Sean Penn, Tom Cruise, or Tom Hanks—and there seems to be a new, but separate species of male. The appeal of a Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, or Daniel Day-Lewis is that they sound like, well, the old breed rather than sensitive metrosexuals.

Some of you will sigh: Victor, Victor, actors only reflect the society that produces them. We don’t have a Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart because we aren’t Fondas and Stewarts any more.

Perhaps, but what I also don’t understand is that we know that excellent war films—Breaker Morant, Saving Private Ryan, and Das Boot—win over critics and audiences. Why then do we keep seeing snoozers like Redacted, Lions for Lambs, or Stop Loss? Is there that little talent left?

Obama’s Problems—Let Me Count the Ways

I continue to get barrages of furious mail from Obamiacs, full of self-righteousness, and outrage that anyone might dare criticize the next Messiah. So some additional thoughts:

By any standard measure, Democrats should win the November election by a landslide. The dollar is collapsing. Fuel is sky-high. The deficit is too large, the economy stagnant. The war goes on; real estate prices have nosedived. Food is climbing each month. Many of these problems are due to the entry of China and India into the world economy, as hundreds of millions of new consumers are demanding the consumer lifestyle that Americans take for granted, and resources are now bid upon by the entire globe. Nonetheless, the American political tradition mandates that a President gets the credit he doesn’t deserve for good times, and the blame for the bad he didn’t completely earn.

So instead of McCain running even or better against Obama or Clinton, he should be polling 10-15 points behind. Why, then, is McCain doing so well? Much of the answer is the Obama-Clinton cat-fighting; but Obama has also shown an inability to come clean the first time after an embarrassing disclosure or gaffe. By now the public expects instead that more of his serial half-truths will follow ad nauseam.

Rev. Wright. Because Obama never distanced himself from the Rev., the latter will come back to haunt him again and again. Just these last two weeks, examine three ways in which his ghost did so.

Wright himself gave a speech caricaturing the Founding Fathers, and using the old Jefferson-as-pedophile trope, while the cable news channels showed his 10,000 sq. ft. gated estate (a dividend of the hated “black middleclassness”?); second, Obama’s Pennsylvania comments immediately called for (Wright) analogies that Obama is so famous for: if white Middle America “clings” to its religion in fear and in bitterness, what then were the Obamas doing for 20-years at the Wright ministry?; there has been a number of racial “slips”, from Rev. Lee in Los Angeles and his anti-Semitic outbursts to Congressman Geoff Davis’s “That boy’s finger does not need to be on the button.” But in these cases and those to come, Obama has lost the moral high ground of commentary, and instead has in advance offered the cover of contextualization for any future perpetrator. Now anyone can say, “But, I did a lot of good things; and you’re just using snippets; and you’re just playing this over and over again for political purposes; and we all say things like this from time to time; and you don’t understand the milieu in which the insensitivity was uttered.”

Michelle Obama. After the “no pride” and “mean” America speeches and interviews, someone should have given her a written script, lest she trumps Mrs. Kerry’s wacky performance in 2004. But she’s back at it again with her “raise the bar” and “had to pay back those college loans” shrillness. Yet once again, new events always overtake a problem not solved. So this week the 2007 Obama tax returns revealed over $4 million in income. In that context, the same old whine about Ivy-League student loans, summer camp costs, piano lessons, et al. are becoming even more tiring. The Obama campaign’s challenge: can Michelle give a single uplifting speech in which she sounds the theme of America as a land of opportunity—or at least the notion that she is hopeful and confident, given that she received an Ivy-League education, bought a $1.6 million house, and makes over a third of a million dollars in salary? If not, by September she will become a Saturday-Night-Live caricature of the proverbial whiner, and by November a would-be, post-modern First Lady who travels the world explaining to others what’s wrong with the United States.

Jimmy Carter. At first, Obama said Carter’s Hamas’ gambit was none of his business. Then he said Carter should not meet with a group that advocates the destruction of Israel. So why then does Obama wish to meet with Ahmadinejad, whose position is identical to that of the Hamas leadership? In short, he should simply assume that whatever Carter is for, he is against.

Cut out the analogies. They are usually false and such similes only reveal a disturbing pattern of mendacity. Sen. Coburn is not similar to Bill Ayers: the former is a US Senator who offered the idea of a hypothetical death penalty for the abortionist should abortion ever become a capital crime; the latter was an unrepentant terrorist in deed.Obama’s grandmother is not analogous to Rev. Wright: what she says in private is not the same as what Wright declaims in public; suggesting that black males might frighten solitary women has a basis in the fact that black young males have higher than average incarceration rates; there is no basis in fact for Wright’s claims that the US government created the AIDs virus or that Israel and South Africa created a special racial bomb. Wright is not like a typically eccentric “uncle”, since we pick our pastors, not our relatives. Anytime Obama tries to talk in the abstract or evoke similes to excuse a lapse (the “everyone does it” defense), he only makes things worse.

Cut out the use of “they”, as in the yokel “they” who cling to guns, or Michelle’s “they” who raise the bar on her. Who is this “they”? A President leads “us”, not “them”. When the Obamas are in charge, will they be “they”?

But no matter. We are in the realm of prophets and holy men, and we must trust in Lord Hope and God Change that are immune from answering bothersome facts. Trust what I really think, rather than what I say and do, is the new Obama creed.

Is There a Pattern Here?

April 10th, 2008 - 6:55 am

Here we go again with Wright Redux.

By now no one is surprised by what is said by a Rev. Wright (“KKK of A”, Israel is a “dirty word”, etc.) or a Rev. Meeks (“white people” as “slave-masters”), or that they have figured prominently among Obama supporters.

Now the latest is apparently Rev. Eric Lee (“What other kind of Rabbis are there, but Jews?” “The Jews have made money on us in the music business and we are the entertainers, and they are economically enslaving us.’”), one of the designated co-sponsors of a Feb., 2008 “Obama—Get Out and Vote Rally” in Los Angeles, who on April 4th went on a public unhinged anti-Semitic rant about Daphna Ziman, the recipient of the Tom Bradley award.

The point is not to what degree Rev. Lee is directly involved in the Obama campaign (the usual official distancing will follow), but rather three other considerations:

First, once Obama failed to condemn Wright and offered contextualization, the flood gates of extremism were thrown wide open. Now any hate-monger, it seems, can go on a public racist rant, with the expectation that there will be no credible and absolute public condemnation. You see, our potential next President has already weighed in on Rev. Wright’s hate speech by citing his past good works, the commonality of such talk among all our religious figures, the special nature of the black church, and the unfair snippets that are replayed–all of which, of course, will offer the same “context” of mitigation for the Eric Lee hatred. We can imagine the accolades to come in the next few days concerning Lee’s public benefactions.

Second, when one collates what Wright, Meeks, Lee, and Sharpton have said, and then compares those “snippets” and “loops” with the cheery characterization of the unique protocols of the black church by Obama, then one realizes that the public is supposed to accept that African-American pastors are exempt from the sort of no-go speech zones that everyone else rightly accepts. It seems that we are rapidly reaching a sort of scary situation in which the black pastor will say whatever he wishes, no matter how anti-Semitic and racist, and then almost dare anyone to challenge that hatred, knowing that his congregation will support him, African-American intellectuals will contextualize him on television, and politicians like Obama (cf. Hillary’s past hugs of Sharpton) will defend him.

Three, these incidents will only continue until someone of stature in the civil rights community issues a zero-tolerance speech of the sort Obama should have given but failed at. In isolation, each subsequent outburst is explicable; in the aggregate they paint a picture of a deep-seeded racism and hatred that have been encouraged by the absence of any censure—the appeasement that we know so well from the Obama/Wright controversy.

Three weeks ago I wrote, in a number of postings, that we would see more of such Wright-like hatred in response to the widely-praised Obama race speech, which was, in fact, one of the great regressions in civil rights history. I don’t think that anything I have written has received more angry emails in response; but the Lee case, I think, shows that I was correct—and we can expect more still to come in the next six months. I also stand by my second prognosis—that in Obama we are witnessing the slow formation of a McGovern candidacy, a disaster to come that won’t be fully appreciated by now starry-eyed Democrats until September or October when, as in 1972, it will be too late.

Liberalism—a Strange Thing Indeed

April 7th, 2008 - 1:39 pm

Where Art Thou Democrats?

With the release of the Clintons’ combined $109 million post-presidential aggregate income (cf. Hillary’s call for the creation of a poverty czar), we are a long way from clips of Harry Truman strolling around Independence, Missouri in his retirement. John Edwards’ 30,000 sq ft. castle (apparently part of one of his “Two Americas”) is a far cry from the hole in Adlai Stevenson’s shoe. And John Kerry’s various mansions are not quite like Hubert Humphrey’s tract house in the DC suburbs. But then the Rev. Wright’s gated estate and the Obama income aren’t quite like Martin Luther King’s either.

The point? In the general enrichment of the United States over the last quarter-century of globalization, it is hard to ascertain one’s politics by one’s financial circumstances. Being a Democratic leader now does not suggest any greater intimacy with poverty than a Republican’s, or any greater reluctance to indulge in the rarified good life. If anything, the Democratic party (cf. the Obama nexus) is increasingly an alliance of those who want federal entitlements, combined with the elite who are willing to hand them out—precisely because their own financial circumstances mean that tax increases hardly affect their standard of living.

Indeed, whereas indulgences in gambling, sex, or drugs may have embarrassed conservative Republicans, the hypocrisy for Democrats lies in the combination of high living and condemnation of the present economic system. Al Gore leaves a bigger carbon foot-print than most of those he condemns. Rev. Wright disdains the middle class—perhaps because he lives as if he were in the upper-class. The Clintons talk ad nauseam about “fairness,” but weren’t about to stop at $50 million when $100 million could buy so much more.

The Academic Morass

One can collate all the various reasons that have embarrassed the current university—the politically correct curriculum, the relaxation of standards, the political imbalance, the intolerance for diversity of thought, etc. But the one charge that proves the most lethal is this same hypocrisy, or the notion that well-paid tenured professors, with life-time assurances of employment of being on the job only 30 weeks a year, and usually accountable for only 6-12 hours of teaching a week on campus, harangue cash-strapped, working students with sizable loans, about the unfairness of society.

I have never quite encountered an intrinsically less fair institution than the university, at least in liberal terms of egalitarianism and respect for the underclass. A full professor may damn Wal-Mart, but Wal-Mart would never get away with the two-tier system that the university in built upon: the PhD part-timer has no job security, sometimes no benefits, no privileges, and earns usually about 25% of the compensation that is paid to the full professor to teach the identical class.

When one factors in the use of graduate assistants not merely to TA courses, but to teach them in their entirety, then you can appreciate the level of exploitation that the university is built on. And add to the notion that tuition has climbed higher than the annual rate of inflation, and the picture is complete of an institution that is entirely immune from public scrutiny.

I have a modest prediction—just as the bloggers, talk-radio, and cable news began to make irrelevant the grandees at the New York Times and the likes of Dan Rather at CBS, so too online colleges, web-based data archives, and junior colleges are starting to question the notion that one pays $40-50 thousand a year for university training—and often gets biased professors, part-timers and TAs, and a curriculum imbued with popular culture and politically-driven therapeutic courses. Learning and the university are not any longer synonymous, and the divide is ever widening.

The Morality of Environmentalism

The idea that we were going to devote 25% of America’s prime corn acreage to ethanol (while supplying millions of dollars of subsidies to large farms) was always absurd. And now we see the wages in increased prices for meat, rice, soy, corn, and wheat, as food for fuel means less food for eating. At some point someone is going to say that an oil well in a tiny patch in Anwar is a far more humane proposition than taking out hundreds of acres of food land to produce the same amount of energy, or sending millions over to terrorist-sponsoring nations for comparable oil production, or allowing Russia or Nigeria to desecrate planet earth through far less careful protocols of extraction to produce the same amount of petroleum.

Who’s What?

Close your eyes and imagine. You hear one party demand tariffs and an end to free trade. Its supporters talk in terms of racial values and racial separateness, as it leaders calculate the white versus black vote state-by-state. It denounces the idea of protecting a democracy abroad from thugs and terrorists. And it has out-raised its counterpart over 3-1 in cash donations for political campaigning. Its nominating process is Byzantine and ultimately determined by the undemocratic votes of unelected Superdelegates accountable to no one. And this is all deemed “liberal.”

Airline absurdities #3

In two past postings I listed the sort of craziness that follows when you cram dozens of people on transcontinental flights, from cell-phoning in the aisle to smashing two gigantic carry-ons into tiny overhead compartments.

I noticed three others today flying back from New York.

1. The seats are so small and Americans are so large that it is almost impossible to walk down an aisle without hitting a knee or ankle. The stewards have a strange solution: they simply slam their mega-food carts full speed ahead and hardly worry how many bruises they inflict on the way, the theory being that once your foot is run over by a stainless steel cart you won’t put it out there again.

2. Boarding is a joke. A huge crowd assembles in a circle. The various zones are announced, and then everyone feeds his own self-declared line into the fray, from all sides–the duration one has been there waiting mattering little. The poor ticket gatherer sometimes rejects a Zone-4er trying to get into Zone 1, sometimes not. The theory is that the crowd swarms to ensure claim to the rare on-board carry-on space above the seats?

3. I don’t understand the protocol of “lounge” position of the seats. I try never to use it, since the person ahead of me almost destroys my computer or knees when he goes into full “relax” position and leans back, and I wouldn’t wish to do that to those to my rear. I thought, to paraphrase Aristotle about land alienability, that while it is legal, “it is not done” out of deference and manners? True or not?

4. I think airline pilots should be hired by politicians. With a simple mike and ad hoc, they can so spin and reconstruct terrible delays due to mechanical slips, weather, incompetence, or simply traffic that one hardly objects. Usually a calm, slightly southern male voice comes on, notes a sense of frustration at the incompetence of others that has made us all late, and then in JFK-fashion assures us of a terrible, but necessary “10 minute delay” or “15 minute hitch”—and then one hour later we still are not mad when the voice returns to comfort us that “we are now on our way” (10 more minutes follow). These are pros and natural press secretaries—at least far better than a Scott McClellan.

Interesting Times

April 2nd, 2008 - 5:04 pm

What’s Real?

There is a mini-gold rush in California. Companies and individuals head to the old Mother Lode in the Sierra Nevada mountains to rework old sites in search for $1000 an once gold. There is a big oil rush to Western Canada and North Dakota where companies are busy discovering new oil and oil shale finds—in hopes of capitalizing on more $100 barrel oil. There is a land rush, as well, as corn and wheat prices have reached historic highs. Food prices are outpacing inflation. We could add booms in copper, steel, aluminum, and nuclear power.

Suddenly the 6-billion-person planet is realizing again that it is not hedge funds, currency trading, or even stocks that make the world run, but food, fuel, and metals. Suddenly the world needs more wildcatters, farmers, and miners and less investment bankers and stock traders. We can’t live in cyberspace, but apparently need to eat, keep warm, and find shelter for a bit longer. A trader and speculator at Bear Stearns won’t keep us fed and fueled, but more likely someone a bit more uncouth and tougher on a tractor or derrick.

The most ostensible reason for this rush for food, fiber, is usually cited as two billion Chinese and Indians, and another billion together in South America and Asia, wanting the same lifestyle as Westerners enjoy and they now are starting to have the money to bid for the resources to make it happen. I hope our children get the message as their high school test scores plummet, college remediation classes spread— and I-pods and DVD sales keep strong.

Lessons (So Far) From the Campaign

While this has been a particularly nasty, long campaign, we have also learned a lot about the current state of America, both bad and good. Let’s start with the Republicans.

We learned no one quite knew, ‘What’s a conservative?’ It was easy to grumble that John McCain—after his McCain-Feingold campaign legislation and McCain-Kennedy immigration reform package—was not. But who was? Gov. Romney had governed Massachusetts from the center. Mike Huckabee was more a populist than a tax-cutter. All evoked Ronald Reagan; none remembered that Reagan has signed amnesty for illegal aliens, increased the size of government, and at times raised taxes.

Is the Republican Party running against, for, or parallel to incumbent President George Bush? Government grew 30% under his watch. We embraced a neo-Wilsonian idealism abroad of fostering democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at home wanted to offer amnesty to illegal aliens. And yet he was tough on terrorism, cut taxes and opposed stem cell research, abortion, gay marriage, and liberal judges. Was he a centrist, moderate, or wayward conservative Republican?

Democrats? Plenty of lessons. Bill Clinton (even before the release of his tax returns) threw away his carefully reconstructed legacy. It took him nearly eight years to recover from impeachment, Monica, and the pardons, by smiling, holstering his pointy finger, suppressing tantrums, touring with George Bush, Sr. and becoming a “citizen of the world.” And now he is back as the old partisan hack, with infantile temper tantrums, trying everything from the race card to the loyal spouse of Hillary to “I suffered all this for you” complex. All and anything to get back in the limelight. Too late, it’s over.

Hillary was proven almost pathological in not being able to tell the truth—odd, since a cornerstone of her campaign was the supposed duplicity and mendacity surrounding Iraq. She has played hardball and so will end the Clintons, for a while at least. Her legacy? By running as she did, she turned all her leftist apologists into Clinton-haters and rewrote the history of the 1990s. But wait—is that fair? Rather her identity campaign was out-identied by race, which always trumps gender preference. Her erstwhile liberal constituents simply dropped her like a stone weight that she had become, an obstacle to their dreams of finally being liked at home and abroad.

There are no more lines anymore?

Obama is a complex figure. Few know anything about him. Michelle and Rev. Wright are now somewhere in the campaign gulag, missing or in limbo. Gone are the fiery, whiney speeches of both.

But the damage has been done. The standing ovation Wright now receives, and the angry defense offered for him by black intellectuals, has sent a chilling message that his speech is not eccentric, extreme, or even embarrassing, but spot-on and “get used to it!”

Obama’s rationalization and contextualization of Rev. Wright is little more than a vast IED that will soon explode on the national scene. Either the Wright corpus will leak out another hate-filled speech that Obama will tsk-tsk, or someone like an Imus or Michael Richards will blow up, and the nation will suddenly stare at Obama for his response. And if he condemns the one-time racist outburst unequivocally, the nation will brand him a hypocrite for not considering contexts—What was the occasion? Had he said this before? Do we understand the genre in which he navigates? Is he from a group that has historical grievances (woman, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, gay, Native-American)? Don’t we all have such loose-cannons in our family, an uncle, rabbi, or pastor?

That is the racialist legacy of our first transracial candidate, and it’s only a matter of time before the proverbial chickens come home to roost.

His second bequest is the notion that he may be elected President without ever saying what he is for. He does not articulate or defend the policies that are written on his website; I doubt he even reads it. He says he is not a liberal, but outside adjudicators rank him the Senate’s most liberal. He ignores associations, and charges McCarthyism when other don’t—but he is intimate with gay-bashing reverends, racist preachers, and unapologetic 60s terrorists. When I see clips of Palestinians trying to raise money for him, there surely is a clear reason. “Hope and change”, the desire for racial atonement, eloquence and charisma–he hopes all that will be enough.


We have not yet had one quarter of negative growth, much less two in succession. Inflation, unemployment and interest rates are low. It’s not yet like the 70s when inflation ran 12%, unemployment 7% and interest 18%, despite cheap gas and housing. I’ve gone to two restaurants this week to (very unscientifically) check consumer habits—they were packed with waiting lines., even though Fresno and Selma are not exactly Carmel and Westchester. Weekend traffic remains brisk. I got a bike part the other day, behind someone buying a $1500 bicycle. Hesitation there is, but it seems mostly psychological rather than a result of massive job losses and liquidity.


I and severals others debate at Yale on Thursday and Friday, some of us defending what is known as “hoplite orthodoxy” (war was frequent in ancient Greece, there were rules in theory even if not always followed in hoplite battle, hoplite warfare and the phalanx emerged in the seventh century, there was a push or literal othismos, running to the clash, the breaking of spears, and limited pursuit, there were mesoi, or middle-class agrarians who made up the bulk of those in the phalanxes, etc.) against a new cohort of revisionists who argue: hoplites and phalanxes were late; there was no middle class or much connection with agriculture; no push, no run or collision, no breaking of spears, etc. Much of the revisionism rests on contextualizing the literary evidence we have.

In New York on Monday, I speak on “unclassical education” and what happened to traditional learning in the university. When Obama calls Wright “brilliant” and a “scholar”, you can see what we have wrought.