Belmont Club

A Degree of Malevolence

The most striking characteristic emerging from accounts of the IRS audits of the administration’s political enemies is the sheer, unbridled malevolence of them. It was, like a friend told me over dinner, as if we had suddenly awoken “in the middle of the third Obama term” to find everything that could never happen, all that was said to be impossible — indeed unthinkable — suddenly upon us. I ate another mouthful of pizza before realizing that, in fact, the events now being decried had happened in his first term.

The IRS inquisitors even demanded printouts of Facebook pages, the minutes of meeting back to whenever, a detailed description of every statement, political or otherwise, under penalty of perjury.

Some of the letters asked for copies of the groups’ Web pages, blog posts and social media postings — making some tea party members worry they’d be punished for their tweets or Facebook comments by their followers…. And each letter had a stern warning about “penalties of perjury” — which became intimidating for groups that were being asked about future activities, like future donations or endorsements.

Moreover, there was a kind of capriciousness about the pattern of inquisition that defied rational explanation. One Catholic professor — an eminent but hardly a household name — was audited in 2010 by the IRS, which demanded to know what her politics were.

Someone at the IRS was even passing the content of conservative application forms to liberal NGOs.

It sounded like people were running wild, doing what they wanted because they could.

And unsurprisingly, nobody can remember nothing about nothing. Eric Holder could not for the life of him recall who might have authorized such a wide-ranging investigation into the Associated Press. The seizure of an entire news agency’s phone records seemed like a dime someone had mislaid; a trivial something that happened “a long time ago,” like Benghazi, and ‘can you remind me,, Congressman, what that was about again?’

“I’m trying to find out who authorized the subpoena,” Rep. Sensenbrenner said. “You can’t tell me if Deputy Attorney General Cole authorized the subpoena. Somebody had to authorize the subpoena because the code of federal regulations is pretty specific that this is supposed to go as close to the top as possible.”

“No, what I’m saying is that I can’t say as a matter of fact,” said Holder. “I have to assume, I say I would probably 95%, 99% certain the deputy attorney general acting in my stead was the one who authorizes the subpoena.”

A little bit later, Holder said, “Let me say this: I’ve been given a note we have confirmed that the deputy was the one who authorized the subpoena.”

What the note probably said was you have to remember that you remember.

About two chews through the slice of pizza, it occurred to me that we were witnessing the uncovering of an entire parallel network, a kind of shadow operation that ran outside the normal channels. Somehow the atmosphere made certain people feel so empowered, so unaccountable, so free of restraint it was almost as if they had ingested the fictional drug Valkyr. They were invincible, and they could fly!

“And by so doing,” I blurted out, “they’ve left the square empty. The public spaces aren’t where it happens any more. The regular meetings where things are supposed to happen are now Potemkin processes.”

That is probably the single most disturbing thing about these scandals. The Valkyr-fueled rage has undermined the political mechanisms and trashed the processes through which persons of disparate political persuasions of the nation are supposed to come to an understanding.  America is a diverse place — and not necessarily diverse in the way some people insist on regarding it — and it works only when no one goes around intimidating people from the shadows.

Sarah Hoyt has an emotionally telling post exhorting everyone to “get off the floor” and fight for their rights. Look who she invokes.  Its a cry from the heart, and one never thought to hear it in these terms.

Get up off the floor. First, if you’re a believer, despair is a sin. And if you’re not a believer, despair is spitting on the graves of all the men and women who fought in much worse conditions than you face. The ghosts of Tiananmen Square rise up against you. The men who in the Gulags carried a hope of freedom accuse you. The victims of communism point fingers at you. The millions of dead at the hands of marching statism would like to remind you that to give up is to die. And that’s when you should give up. Not a second earlier.

Tiananmen Square? The Gulag? Can things be so bad that such parallels can be invoked in America? Perhaps the worst trespass  has been the violence to trust; such that one can’t dismiss Sarah Hoyt’s metaphors out of hand. After what’s happened, when the unthinkable has occurred then how do you laugh it off?

The task then is to make the unthinkable impossible again; to restore the belief that bad things won’t come in night. For in the end everyone has his turn at power; every party has its time in office.  Robert Bolt put the argument succinctly in A Man for all Seasons, when Thomas More explained why he would not trash the law. The law is all we have to keep us off each other’s throats. Destroy the law and all the bets are off.

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

And that really sums it up.  The challenge to resolving the scandals is not simply to leave someone holding the bag; to pin it on somebody and return to the same old bad behavior — but to convince everyone — both from the Left and the Right — that these things will never reoccur, that the remainder of second term will be different from the first, and that a third term, will all it implies, can never ever come.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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