Roger’s Rules

A spoke in the news cycle: slow down and join a freedom brigade near you

One of the greatest strengths of the “blogosphere” is also one of its signal liabilities: I mean its velocity, its ability to intervene in the public conversation almost instantly. That is the source of its power; but because today’s intervention is tomorrow old news, it is also one of its chief limitations. If today’s bulletin must regularly retire before tomorrow’s equally imperative headline, an awful homogeneity is the result. What emergency is sufficiently forward that it can survive a few rotations of the news cycle?

In one sense, I suppose, the phenomenon is as old as the very idea of “the news cycle,” maybe as old as the very idea of “news.” Hilton Kramer, my colleague at The New Criterion, was for many years the chief art critic of The New York Times. He tells the story of weekly meetings at which the managing editor would go around the table asking department heads: “What’s new?” One day, Hilton replied, “Nothing: there’s nothing new in the art world this week.” To which the editor shot back: “Is that a trend?”

You have to admire the editor’s wit. But if he were presiding over a comparable consortium today, that editor would have to hold his meetings not weekly but at least daily. The problem — one problem — with the acceleration of the news cycle is that tomorrow’s crisis can be counted upon to displace today’s grave conundrum, which people have only dimly got their minds around before it is shunted off stage for the next emergency. Nancy Pelosi’s decision to shut up about her allegations that the CIA lied to Congress about waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques, cleverly takes advantage of this metabolism: if only she can keep her head down for a day or two, the public’s attention will flicker onward to the next calculated bit of ephemera and the question of the Speaker’s candidness will dissipate like a nasty smell on a breezy afternoon. Wouldn’t it be nice to keep the spotlight of public scrutiny focused a bit longer on a given subject?

I thought of this again this morning when reading Peter Robinson’s fine — and sobering — meditation in Forbes on Clifford Asness’s open letter to friends and colleagues about the outrageous interventions by the Obama administration into Chrysler bankruptcy. Mr. Asness’s communication briefly attracted a lot of attention. I wrote about it myself twice: here and here. That was only a week or two ago, but already it seems ages ago: as Samuel Goldwyn is said to have remarked, “we’ve passed a lot of water under the bridge since then.” But Mr. Asness said things that we would do well to keep in the forefront of our attention. “The President,” Mr. Asness wrote, “has just harshly castigated hedge fund managers for being unwilling to take his administration’s bid for their Chrysler bonds.”

He called them “speculators” who were “refusing to sacrifice like everyone else” and who wanted “to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout.” . . . The responses of hedge fund managers have been, appropriately, outrage, but generally have been anonymous for fear of going on the record against a powerful President (an exception, though still in the form of a “group letter”, was the superb note from “The Committee of Chrysler Non-TARP Lenders” some of the points of which I echo here, and a relatively few firms, like Oppenheimer, that have publicly defended themselves). Furthermore, one by one the managers and banks are said to be caving to the President’s wishes out of justifiable fear. . . .

The President’s attempted diktat takes money from bondholders and gives it to a labor union that delivers money and votes for him. Why is he not calling on his party to “sacrifice” some campaign contributions, and votes, for the greater good? Shaking down lenders for the benefit of political donors is recycled corruption and abuse of power. . . .

[T]he President screaming that the hedge funds are looking for an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout is the big lie writ large. Find me a hedge fund that has been bailed out. Find me a hedge fund, even a failed one, that has asked for one. In fact, it was only because hedge funds have not taken government funds that they could stand up to this bullying. The TARP recipients had no choice but to go along. The hedge funds were singled out only because they are unpopular, not because they behaved any differently from any other ethical manager of other people’s money. The President’s comments here are backwards and libelous. Yet, somehow I don’t think the hedge funds will be following ACORN’s lead and trucking in a bunch of paid professional protestors soon. Hedge funds really need a community organizer.

This is America. We have a free enterprise system that has worked spectacularly for us for two hundred plus years. When it fails it fixes itself. Most importantly, it is not an owned lackey of the oval office to be scolded for disobedience by the President.

In the course of his letter, Mr. Asness admitted that “I am indeed fearful writing this. . . . It’s really a bad idea to speak out. Angering the President is a mistake.”

“Angering the President is a mistake.” Really? What’s wrong with that sentence? “Angering the despot is a mistake.” We can understand that. But why should anyone fear angering the President in a liberal democracy? This is a theme Mr. Robinson takes in his Forbes piece. Businessmen he has spoken to are “outraged.” They are also cowed. They fear for their careers. “Everything’s on the hush-hush,” said one observer Mr. Robinson quoted. “But they’re looking for support. We’ve been thinking of starting a group like AA, only for people who believe in capitalism.”

That is amusingly put, but really what is needed is not a 12-step support group for damaged souls but a network of back-stiffening resource groups equipped to sound the alarm over the governments astonishing encroachments upon prosperity of the United States and the freedoms of its citizens.

As it happens, I am in the mid-West at the moment. A couple of days ago I addressed a group of businessmen, doctors, and ordinary concerned citizens in a suburb of Chicago. Outrage at what the Obama administration had done, and fear of what it was planning to do, to this country was a common theme in the questions I entertained and in the conversations I had with people at the dinner following my talk. Two emotions predominated among the men and women I spoke to. One was a disorienting astonishment at what was happening in the country: Chrysler. The government bail outs. The prospect of nationalized health care. The environmental follies even now being drawn up by the Obama administration. There was a palpable sense of shell shock: a sudden paralysis brought on by the inexplicable intrusion of the incomprehensible.

That was one emotion. The other was anger, inchoate, only half-articulate, but real, growing, and increasingly focused. Mr. Robinson called his piece “The Protest Of A Patriot.” The patriot in question was Clifford Asness, whose letter may well be a founding document of a nationwide movement to take back our freedom.

What we need now are additional recruits to the cause. “Two-and-a-third centuries ago,” Mr. Robinson notes,

members of the business class played a central role in preserving our freedoms. John Hancock. Tench Coxe. Gouverneur Morris.

Today we have Clifford Asness.

Is no one willing to join him?

I hope and expect that the more we learn about what the Obama administration has planned for us, the more people will stand up to oppose it.