The Economist Gets It Wrong

This is almost becoming an evergreen post title.  Once upon a time, The Economist was a serious magazine (it describes itself as a newspaper, by the way), to be taken seriously.  It was not at all unusual to open an issue and see letters to the editor from senior sitting cabinet ministers of serious countries.

Not, as Inspector Clouseau would say, any more.  I let my subscription lapse quite a few years ago, and nowadays I mostly read it on the throne in the gents’, here at the office.  I forget just when they went to being a shill for the usual drearily predictable far-left wing causes.  I’ve commented on the style manual apparently in effect at the place, under which every article on no matter what topic has to be tied somehow back into How Awful Global Climate Change is and why it would be real swell if we all just blew up the entire world economy on the off-chance that we might influence the “average global temperature” by two degree . . . 125 years from now.  Or something.

This year they’ve gone all-in to elect Her Herness.  Every week’s edition is full of how horrible it would be if Donald Trump is elected because he says such Mean Things and he’s so tacky and “thuggish” and so on and so forth.

If The Economist has done any extensive reporting on Her signing off on 20% of U.S. uranium production to the Russians, at a time when Her husband was being paid several hundred thousand dollars to give a twenty-minute speech to a Russian bank in Moscow (I mean, for God’s sake, even The New York Times reported on it, it was so egregious), I’ve not seen it.

If they’ve seriously analyzed the detailed report of the FBI director, in which he very meticulously went down each and every element of multiple federal felonies, showing that She checks every single box . . . and then recommended no prosecution, the week after Her husband and the U.S. Attorney General just happened to have a lengthy pow-wow in a private jet (of course! “global climate change” is only a problem when one of the unwashed masses wants to let off a little carbon), it’s got by me.

If they’ve mentioned the time gaps in Her e-mails that she (falsely) represented as being Her complete work-related e-mails — gaps when She was documented as being overseas, and there are days when there’s not one single stinkin’ e-mail in the pile she produced (fancy that: the U.S. Secretary of State is overseas on official business, and not one solitary work-related e-mail is sent to Her or by Her for multiple days, when over Her tenure She averaged 21 per day) . . . I haven’t seen a word of it in their pages.

Just another example: At the same time that Her department is squeezing the government of Sweden on its joyfully doing business with countries which are among the strongest, most active sponsors of world-wide terrorism — including specifically Iran — Her husband sets up a fund-raising arm in Sweden that collects a cool $26 million, and Bill Himself pockets $750,000 from Ericsson, which had been selling communications equipment to Iran for use in that country’s security services.  Almost immediately after Bill pockets his three-quarters of a million dollars for a few minutes’ speech, the U.S. State Department backs off Ericsson, allowing it to “police” itself.

Look:  The Economist is perfectly entitled to pick a side and to toss away its 170-plus years’ reputation for the sake of the ideology of the moment.  I’d wager I’m not the only person who has watched what they’ve made of themselves over the past 20 years, and has decided their subscription just wasn’t worth it (it isn’t cheap and never has been).  They can do without me, and seem to be doing fine.

But I do get fatigued by their relentless propaganda.

The cover story of the July 30, 2016, edition is “The New Political Divide,” in which, in the editorial leader (for those unfamiliar with the magazine’s layout, they lead off each week with a series of editorials, the lead of which is the cover story; then there are the letters and news blurbs; then comes a longer article on specifically the cover story) for which we are informed:  “The conventions [Republican and Democrat] highlighted a new political faultline; not between left and right, but between open and closed.”  By “open” they mean specifically open borders and free trade.  They identify Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as being the hucksters for “closed” and  Her as at best “equivocating.”

I don’t necessarily disagree with the proposition that, all else being equal, the free movement of people and goods across what are, after all, only man-made lines is a Good Thing.  I don’t even disagree with this statement:  “The multilateral system of institutions, rules and alliances, led by America, has under-pinned global prosperity for seven decades.”

Where The Economist goes off the rails is in the bait-and-switch of its analysis.  The key word here is “global,” but not in the sense that they wish us to take it — that is, “world-wide”.  Yes, the post-World War II prosperity has become world-wide, and even over just my own adult life has accelerated beyond any measure that could reasonably have been hoped for it at my birth.  It’s just amazing.  But:  The mood that has fueled the rise of Donald Trump is not an antipathy for “open” but a resentment that the benefits of “open” have become, over recent years, anything but “global,” at least not in the sense of “commonly shared by everyone”.

You see, there is a wide perception — and one backed by reality, unfortunately — that the population has become separated into two groups.  One the one side are those groups who bear the chief burdens of “open,” and on the other those who enjoy the bulk of the advantages.  The floods of illegal immigrants from Mexico and points south, and who are supposed now to receive work permits, driver’s licenses, welfare benefits, public housing rights, and so forth, are not competing for jobs, housing, and economic stability with those who most strenuously advocate their continued tide.  It’s pretty safe to say that not a single staffer at MSNBC is going to lose out on a job or promotion to an illegal immigrant.  Nor will a single government functionary.  Nor will a professor at a college.  Or a lawyer.  Or a doctor.  Or an accountant.  Or . . . well, you get the picture.  But the guy who drives a truck delivering auto parts to dealers around Little Rock, for example?  His livelihood is at stake when someone able (because living with three generations of four separate families, all wedged into a three-bedroom house) and willing to work for 40% less than he’s been making now has a work permit and doesn’t have to fear deportation when he gets his commercial driver’s license.

By like token, it doesn’t take much persuading to convince our out-of-work former factory worker that the rules by which China is allowed to play “international trade” are so stacked that he’s just plain screwed, now and for all time.  The guy who used to work making machine components has watched his company shut down the factory because of over-regulation, higher taxes, increased labor costs (only a small portion of which our hypothetical worker can trace into his own pocket, by the way), or whatever, and then move production overseas.  Company’s now doing fine; our Worker, not so much.

And then, of course, he sees the wealthy and prominent scofflaws doing as they damn well please, while his kid gets ground up in the juvenile justice system over a playground fight.  He sees Her getting caught red-handed compromising our national security, and likewise getting away with it.  He hears stories of enormous banks pushing loans to people they know can’t afford them, and then when the borrowers go belly-up, the banks thoroughly gun-deck the foreclosure process . . . and nothing seems ever to happen to them.  They remain as big as ever, and he hears the sums of money — tax money, his tax money — shoveled out to them to keep them afloat.  He hears a presidential candidate dismiss his concerns as “clinging to his guns and religion.”  He hears his home, his family, the world he grew up in and would like to pass down, to some degree at least, to his own children dismissed as “fly-over country”.  He is told that he is a bigot if he dares to question the wisdom of the Elites.  He is — at least if he is white — constantly accused of something called “white privilege” and for the life of him he can’t understand what’s “privileged” about having gone to work at age 16 and paid for every damned thing he owns out of his own pocket.  He notices that the people pasting these labels on him seem to be doing conspicuously better than he and his family are.

Precisely how reasonable is it not to expect a population so treated to embrace someone who promises to Change It All?

What The Economist seems to forget is that once upon a time most of a country was pretty easy to convince of the benefits of free trade.  In 1906 the Liberals in Britain blew up the Unionist Party in a general election.  The Unionists had pinned their flag to protectionism.  The Liberals wrapped them in the issue and rode to a landslide victory.  People can understand the benefits of free trade . . . when those benefits can be shown to benefit themselves in ways they can see.  It’s when “free trade” is used as a cover for the Insiders to get fat while the rest of the joint goes without that people turn away from it.  It’s the perception — and especially when that perception increasingly tracks reality — that the world is rigged against them that will turn people against that system, time after time.

I suggest it’s not just generic “inequality” that has got Americans up in arms this year.  America has never really done envy very well.  For decades the socialists would complain about how they just couldn’t get much traction here, setting class against class.  In America, they found, even the poor were determined one day not to be poor, were pretty OK with a system that would let them one day not be poor any more, and in fact even become well-off, and expected one day not to be poor. And they expected their children would not remain forever poor, forever shut out from opportunity to better themselves.  But what Americans can’t stand is a scam, a fraud, a rigged game of heads-She-wins-tails-you’re-a-bigot-and-lose-your-job-to-someone-whose-very-presence-here-is-a-crime.

But then again, no one at The Economist is going to lose his job to some government-backed factory in China, or to some guy who gave the finger to the country’s immigration laws and now has a work permit and lives in public housing.  No child of a staffer there is going to be rejected by a college because X% of the class entering places are now reserved for children of a certain color, or from special places, or whose parents speak very specific languages, or who engage in peculiar — very peculiar — behavior.  They know how to work the system and its rules; their children will do just fine.  Our truck driver from Arkansas?  His 17-year-old daughter is trying to navigate a house of mirrors and he can’t help her and he knows it.  You really want to piss a man off?  Set his child up to lose out and then keep him from pitching in to help.  And then rub salt in the wound by lecturing him on how contemptible he is while you’re doing it.

Yes, there’s a political divide out there, but it’s got bugger all to do with the one The Economist preaches to us.

Sometimes You See it in a Single Card

[Ed. — Wow.  I haven’t put anything up on this humble little blog since spring.  What have I been doing?  I couldn’t tell you, for the life of me.  The time just sort of heaves and sighs, and poof! there are another few months gone under the bridge.  Is this what we have to look forward to, as we age?]

You can see it in the slightest things, sometimes.  Someone in whom a particular mind-set, a philosophy, a Weltanschauung is so stamped that it has become a part of who he unthinkingly is will sometimes do or say something and not realize that he has laid bare, to some degree, the most fundamental mechanisms of his soul.  Reporters, the overwhelming majority of whom in Western societies are hard-core leftists, are especially prone to do such things.  They’re so far to the left that they don’t even realize that they are leftists; that’s just how the world looks to them.  And so they’re forever turning cards face-up on the table so that the rest of us can see what’s going on behind their eyes.  They’re no more self-conscious about it than a dog licking his balls.

I recently ran across a splendid example of it, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the newspaper I’ve used as my internet start page ever since CNN took to shilling for al Qaeda back in 2006.  [Remember the snuff film they produced, of U.S. soldiers getting killed by snipers in Iraq?  They made and released that film in an explicit, self-proclaimed effort to influence the outcome of the 2006 mid-term elections.  CNN took that film, which its own makers had announced as an intention to subvert the American political process, and ran it, again and again and again.  What would we have thought if the Germans had made a similar film in 1944 and then Movietone had run it with the newsreels before every showing of every film in the U.S?]

The article deals with a statute with a wonderfully German name:  the Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz, or the Federal Education Improvement Law.  With typical glee in abbreviation and acronym (the Gestapo’s nickname was also one: in truth its full name was the Geheime Staatspolizei) it’s universally known as Bafög.  In round numbers it provides for federal level financial aid  to German students who are attending university (and presumably the technische Hochschulen as well).  The process starts with filling out a standard form, much like the FAFSA form here in the U.S.

At least, the Bafög provides that financial aid to students whose families aren’t well-off above a certain threshold.

The article’s title — “Unity and Justice and Bafög” is a play on the first words of the German national anthem: Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit, unity and justice and freedom.  The point of the article is that our newly-minted Abiturient — the holder of the coveted Abitur, which allows you to attend college in Germany — looking forward to the freedom and Selbstbestimmung (self-determination) of adulthood, with the university years as joyful, stimulating, liberating, challenging, endlessly intriguing opening chapter, is in for a let-down when he sits down to fill out the Bafög application. You see, on page 3 of the form the student is required to state his parent’s income and resources.  Too much and you don’t get any Bafög assistance.

Oopsies!  Turns out the blossoming student isn’t viewed as being quite liberated from his parents, after all.  More to the point, his ability to be a care-free student —

is materially affected by attributes of his family.  Wait.  Isn’t one of the Big Points of university exactly the separation of the student’s identity from that of his background?

The article correctly states the issue implicated:  We are called upon to take a position in the “eternal conflict between freedom, equality, and justice”.  You see, the problem with Bafög is that it is taxpayer funded.  By all taxpayers.  Including the baker whose son is doing an apprenticeship at the local machine shop, whose daughter is a waitress at the restaurant down the street, and whose wife is a nurse’s assistant at the hospital.  His and their money is being taken from them to fund the heightened life prospects of our new student.  Remind us again how this is just and equitable, if the student’s ability to launch himself in life with recourse to the resources of those who — at this point in life at least, before spouse and children appear — have the No. 1 Biggest Stake in his future prospects, is not to be taken into account.  [Note that just making university “free” to everyone doesn’t address our baker’s objections.  He’s still having to fork out to give someone else’s child a leg up in life, irrespective of the ability to help of that child’s parents.]

The article suggests that from our hypothetical tradesman’s perspective, it would be much fairer to require the student and his family to borrow the money and then pay it back from his presumably greater earnings.  As they do it in America, the author points out.  But what has been the result of that system in America, the author asks.  “Mountains of debt” just at the outset of one’s career.

The other way to go is the Scandinavian model, in which everyone — including the children of millionaires — has a right to support from the state.  To treat the children of the wealthy differently would be “not to take them in earnest.”  Whatever.

And now, the tell.  “The liberation from the oppressing bonds of background, which it [the money-for-everyone system] promises the student, has another hook.  It only come as a package.  In other aspects of life as well the state prefers to work directly, without disruptive intermediaries such as the family, with people.”  It is a “großangelegtes Vereinzelungsprojekt” — a comprehensive atomization project — with “grave side effects.”

There you have it.  The socialist system rests upon what is in substance an unlimited claim upon the individual humans who make up society.  It cannot and will not tolerate any other locus of power or independence.

First and foremost is the nuclear family.  It is no accident that among the earliest “reforms” of every socialist dictatorship (and they all are, even the Scandinavian ones with the smiley face) is a programmatic subversion of the nuclear family.  Divorce laws are loosened, the legal privileges of married status are withdrawn.  Children are removed, sometimes by force (membership in the Hitlerjugend or the Young Pioneers was not optional), and often by enticement (universal “free” day-care, anyone?) from their parents’ supervision.  The adults from whom they receive their daily, drip-drip-drip of influence are no longer the parents (or grandparents, or older siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and so forth) but rather government functionaries, teaching lessons, values, and self-understanding chosen by the state.  Children are encouraged to spy and report on their parents.  Those who do (or who are said to have) are celebrated, publicly.

Churches come into the cross-hairs for the same reasons.  From the liquidation of the hierarchy under the Bolsheviks to Hitler’s co-opting the German churches — kudos to Bonhoeffer and the other organizers of the Confessing Church movement in Germany; they weren’t going along to get along — there is a remarkably consistent pattern in the subversion of religious organization by socialist government.

The Cultural Revolution was more of the same.  A couple of years ago I read a fascinating biography of Chairman Mao, and of course that period comes in for some close examination.  Traditional Chinese society is, of course, exactly that: deeply and abidingly traditional.  Although the Reds had completed their formal conquest of the country by 1949, and even though they had starved — very intentionally, by the way — somewhere between 45 and 60 million people — mostly peasants — to death during the Great Leap Forward (the link is to the Wikipedia article, which give a high of 42 million and a low of 18 million; on the other hand, this history gives the 45-60 range), Chinese society still remained in many of its core organizing principles the same traditional society it had been.  Mao realized that he had to smash, irretrievably, that hold which tradition had, because in traditional Chinese society the state, as such, played so small a part in everyday life.  Hence the Cultural Revolution’s targeting of everything which traditional China revered, first and foremost the teachers.

It was Mussolini who made famous the formulation: Everything within the state; nothing outside the state; nothing against the state.  This is the first and basic credo of the socialist.  You can pretty it up and say, “Government is just the name for the things we all do together,” but it’s the same thing.  You can stick a label on it — Gleichschaltung — so you can speak in catch-phrases.  You can even attempt to replicate it, to some degree, in the context of a free association, in such things as labor unions, with their ladies’ auxiliaries, athletic teams, children’s groups, and so forth.  But that doesn’t really work, does it, without coercion.  Witness what happened in places like New Harmony:  Without the coercive power of the state, the experiment in an all-encompassing socialism flew apart under the stresses of its own centrifugal forces.

Which is why, at bottom, if the premise of socialism is this unlimited claim upon the individual lives of the people, its essence is violence, physical coercion.

But how does this fascism-with-a-smiley-face play out in wonderful Scandinavia?  Let’s go back to that FAZ article for a reference to just one of those “grave side effects”:  “There are for example few lands in which so many people as in Sweden die completely alone, without any connection with their family.”  Or we can look at the WHO data on alcohol-related disorders:  For males, the rate in the U.S. is 5.48%.  In Sweden it’s 6.32%; in Finland 6.39%; in Norway (you know, that place we’re all supposed to be like) it’s a whacking 9.05%.  Here’s a link to an article in The Washington Post about the prevalence of diagnosed depression.  In the U.S., according to the map at the link, the rate appears to be in the 4-4.5% range.  It’s hard to tell from the map (there’s a further link to the underlying study, if Gentle Reader wants to read that far), but it looks like Sweden comes in at 4.5-5%, and Finland and Norway at 5.5-6%.  Those don’t sound like terribly bad numbers, until you consider that the jump from 4% (the U.S. low-end) to 5.5% (the low-end in wonderful Norway) is a 37.5% leap.

It looks, in other words, as though whatever else the intrusion of the state into every nook and cranny of its citizens’ lives is working for the better, it still seems not to do a very good job of avoiding your dying drunk, depressed, and alone.

Cheer up, Comrade.

Variations on a Theme by Ferguson

As I think I’ve mentioned on this humble blog before, the most interesting part of the U.S. Department of Justice report on the Ferguson, Missouri riots was not the racial aspect of what the Ferguson police department were or weren’t doing (and certainly not the conclusion that the officer was perfectly justified in shooting dead a violent felon who’d already made one attempt to seize the officer’s weapon and use it again him).  It was the degree to which Ferguson monetized its city court system and by extension its criminal law powers.

We are now seeing a variation on that theme, except that now we’ve got two rent-seekers fighting over the spoils.  “Rent-seeking” is what economists call the practice, as Wikipedia.org phrases it, of “seeking to increase one’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth.”  Among the most egregious rent-seekers are (i) government at all levels, and (ii) lawyers.  I still recall hearing a fellow lawyer gloating over some peculiarly ill-advised statute which our state legislative assembly had passed, with specific emphasis on what a boon it was going to be for lawyers such as himself.  It made for depressing listening, the more so when I considered that he was correct.  That statute was going to generate untold extra business for lawyers in situations where the world just doesn’t need lawyers to be mixed up in them.

There is a company in Utah, Corrective Education Company, which markets its services to retailers.  For retailers, Gentle Reader should understand, shoplifting is a non-insurable risk.  That means that when someone steals from them, they either get it back themselves or they eat the loss.  It is part of the reason that, as the (true) saying has it, “The poor pay more.”  They do.  They do that because in poor neighborhoods losses to shoplifting are greater, the margins are thinner, and the money to cover the losses has to come from somewhere.  So it comes from everyone paying more for the same product.

What Corrective Education Company (CEC) does is a species of what is known in civil litigation as “alternative dispute resolution,” or ADR.  The point of ADR is resolution of civil disputes is that it is faster that a full trial and the results are less subject to judicial screwing-up.  It is phenomenally popular among economic actors whose business existence is exposed to repeated risk of litigation.  CEC has taken that same concept and is applying it to criminal offenses, specifically shoplifting.

What happens is that when a perp gets caught shoplifting from a CEC client, he is offered a choice:  He can have them turn him into the police for criminal prosecution, or alternatively he can sign an admission of what he did, then go through what CEC promotes as a “life skills” course the point of which is to impress upon the perp why it’s not a good idea to be a criminal and some degree of how to avoid staying a criminal.  And the perp pays CEC, roughly $500 or so.  Some portion of that money goes to the victim, but most of course stays with CEC.  Oh, and by the way, the perp doesn’t end up with a criminal record.

This idea has sparked outrage from entirely predictable quarters.  Remember Ferguson?  Well, there is an entire host of players who feed off the criminal justice system.  Police, prosecutors, court staff, judges, and then the whole tail-end process — the probation services companies (many if not most cities contract that out, either to private operators or to larger government entities, like the state itself), drug testing companies, counselors, and other busy-bodies.  The perps pay for them too, by the way, through the assessment of court costs, fines, and fees for all those private probation service companies, drug testing companies, counselors, and other busy-bodies.  Those outfits sure as hell don’t work for free, and the taxpayers have no interest in funding them.

What made the Ferguson system so pernicious, and I can vouch that their offense was distinct only in degree, not in kind, is that when the perp who’s copped a plea so that the prosecutor and police can tick that box off as being a closed case can’t find a job because of a criminal record, or can’t hold a job because its attendance requirements are inconsistent with having to run down to his probation officer every week or however often, and so can’t pay his court costs, fines, and fees, or he’s just not making enough money to pay them, he gets cycled back through the process, spending time in jail on the way (so he loses what job he had, and now can’t pay those court costs, fines, and fees), and on and on.  Plus, he’s now got a criminal record.

By the way, the court costs, fines, and fees for even a misdemeanor offense are uniformly a helluva lot higher than $500.

At any rate, in California (Gentle Reader knew that was coming, right?), the San Francisco city attorney has sued CEC, alleging that what it’s doing is extortion, false imprisonment, and so forth.  The case was filed back in November, 2015; I just saw a television news report of it yesterday on my way through a room where a television was on.  So I decided to see what I could find out about it.  Here’s the Los Angeles Times write-up, complete with link to the complaint filed.  And here Reuters, and SFGate, with their respective write-ups.

Let’s get an idea of the scope of the problem, from the LAT:  “Last year alone, retailers lost $44 billion to theft by shoplifters, employees and vendors, according to a national retail security survey. The CEC founders have said their ‘vision is to reinvent the way crimes are handled, starting with retail theft.’”  Forty-four billion dollars literally walking out the door.  Mind you, that’s not breaking-and-entering, or hijacking the trucks carrying product.  That’s broad-daylight theft.

Now let’s hear from the city attorney who’s filed the suit:  “But the civil lawsuit, filed in San Francisco County Superior Court, calls the tactics ‘coercive’ and ‘deceptive’ and says the program ‘has not been approved by any California court or prosecutor.’”  Well, of course it’s not been “approved”; this is a competitor to the other side of the criminal law industry.  They’re offering first-time perp a roadway out of his pickle for $500 and six hours pissed away in a seminar.  Versus dozens of hours spent with police, prosecutors, waiting around at cattle-call court dockets, then many hundreds of dollars in court costs and fines, followed by several thousand dollars to some private probation supervisor and drug-screening company (along with the hundreds of hours pissed away dancing attendance upon them).  Whom, exactly, does Gentle Reader think the owners, management, and employees of these third-party providers support come election time?

Even more to capture the motivation behind this lawsuit, here’s a longer extract from the LAT article:

“But legal experts said that particularly in California — where Proposition 47 has made petty theft a misdemeanor — it is unlikely that police and prosecutors would have pursued it.

That makes the threat of referral for prosecution problematic, said Stanford Law School professor Joan Petersilia, who with her students is surveying the increase in diversion programs — some of which partner with for-profit companies — that have resulted from shifts in California criminal justice policy.

Petersilia called CEC’s tactics ‘just so obviously wrong’ and said they do not fit the philosophy of restorative justice, which is based on empathy for the injured party and a solution that repairs the harm.

Most of the money under this model goes to CEC, not to the retailer or injured party, she said, adding that for those with money, it is not punitive enough, and for those without, it is unduly harsh.”

“Just so obviously wrong”; that is a characterization for use by someone who doesn’t really have an argument that will stand up against being pushed against.  What is the “tell” (to use a poker expression) for what is really going on here?  It’s in the bland phrase “increase in diversion programs — some of which have partnered with for-profit companies — that have resulted from shifts in California criminal justice policy.”

This is nothing more than a fight over the money that can be extracted from petty criminals.  Remember that, for starts, such crimes are at the bottom of just about every prosecutor’s priority list.  That’s just a fact of life, both for economic and political reasons.  No district attorney has a budget that will permit him to go hammer-and-tongs after every petty thief.  No district attorney won or kept office on a campaign platform of cracking down on the gal grabbing a lip-stick on her way out the door.

Most important to remember, in deciding how vigorously to wring one’s hands at the horrors of these perps getting nabbed not by the constituted authorities but by their own victims, is that even when they are prosecuted,  all that money in court costs, fines, and fees to those “diversion programs — some of which have partnered with for-profit companies” also does not go to “the retailer or injured party” either.  It sticks with the court officials, with the penal system, with those “partners” of the criminal legal system.  So Ms. Petersilia’s crocodile tears don’t move me much.

I long ago abandoned using the expression “justice system.”  No, what we have is a legal system.  In fact, it is more properly characterized as an industry.  It feeds multiple actors, some governmental, others private.  But what they all have in common is that they all pay their home mortgages, put tires on the car and shirts on their kids’ backs off the proceeds — we may call them the back-end proceeds — of crime.  They have livelihoods for so long, and only for so long, as an endless stream of perps is dragged through a legal system which is tailor-made to extract the maximum amount of cash from them for the minimum input in time.  Take away that cash and they’ll have to go get jobs and convince others to do business with them.

CEC is neither more nor less than threatening the rice bowl of an entrenched cadre of rent-seekers.  And so I have zero sympathy for their plight.

Harriet and Andy

The news in numismatics this week is that Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president, is to be booted from the face of the $20 bill in favor of Harriet Tubman, of Underground Railroad fame.

Jackson’s getting the axe for two reasons:  The present administration is determined to put a face on U.S. currency that is not a white male face, and Jackson owned slaves.  He is also warmly despised for ejecting the Five Tribes from the Eastern United States.  So he has to go.

Harriet Tubman was a leading figure in the organization and operation of the Underground Railroad, that system of hiding places and safe houses which conducted escaping slaves from their points of origin to Canada, where the fugitive slave laws didn’t apply.  It was work conducted, at least in the South, at peril of the parties’ lives, and once in the north, at peril of arrest and imprisonment.

Suffice it to say that Harriet Tubman was equipped with guts enough to equip a regiment.  If you were to set out to fill an auditorium with the Greatest Americans who have thus far lived, she’d have a seat somewhere.

And yet I do not favor kicking Andrew Jackson off the $20 to make place for her.

Why?

For starts, a portrayal on U.S. paper currency is, if you will look at it, presently reserved for people who did great deeds in their capacity as public officials, not for acts of private significance, however worthy.  The only even possible exception is Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill, but even then, Franklin was among the United States’ most important public servants.  The revolutionary alliance with France, that enabled us to win the war for independence in the first place, was a product of Franklin’s credibility at the court of Louis XV, of Franklin’s acknowledged place in world society (he regularly corresponded, as an equal, with the pre-eminent scientific minds of his generation).  Even before the war, he represented several colonies in London, and it was his personal experience of vituperation in Parliament which decided him that continued affiliation with Britain was not a workable long-term solution.  Later, he was a key player in the constitutional convention in 1787.  So even though he never held any public office under the United States Constitution, he was one of the men but for whom that compact would never have come into existence.

The other public servants scarcely need introduction.  Washington?  Father of the country.  Lincoln?  His deeds require no justification for the reverence in which we hold his memory.  Hamilton?  Father of our national economy (and also a key player in the constitution’s birthing).  Grant?  If being the key commander in winning the Civil War doesn’t merit his place, what might?  On coinage the pattern is similar.  Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson.  Eisenhower, who held together the Western allies in defeating Germany.  The two heads I don’t really understand are Truman’s on the dime and Kennedy’s on the half-dollar.

There is a single exception, and one that never took off:  The Sacagawea dollar (by coincidence I happen to have one in my pocket at this moment).  But even she has a claim to a service in the public interest:  It was she who guided the Corps of Discovery (better known at the Lewis and Clark Expedition) over the western mountains, who was valuable in securing for them the safe passage from the tribes whose lands they crossed.

Now let’s think of why Jackson might be on the $20 bill.  He was the founding light of the oldest continuing political party in American history.  Being a party hack doesn’t really merit a spot on the currency, though, does it?  Victor of New Orleans?  Well, as every school child knows, that battle was fought after the peace had been signed, although the point has been made that it in fact was not, in all likelihood, totally irrelevant for that reason.  There is strong reason to believe that Britain, had it been in possession of the mouth of the Mississippi, would not have surrendered it willingly after the war, which would have utterly changed the complexion of later American development.

No, I think Jackson earned his spot on the $20 bill when he stared down the South Carolina nullifiers.  As Gentle Reader will recall, a protective tariff had been adopted for the benefit of northern industrial interests.  The new imposts had the desired effect, of making imported manufactured goods more expensive than domestic production.  The burden fell hard on the Southern agricultural interests, because of their dependence upon their trade relationships with the British to move their cotton crop.  They bought a large proportion of their manufactured goods from Britain as a result of that trade.

Needless to say, the Southern interest was outraged at the new tariff law.  South Carolina announced an intent to “nullify” the federal statute.  It even passed an ordinance declaring the law to be unconstitutional and null within its borders.  It just was not going to apply in South Carolina (sort of like all these bullshit “sanctuary cities” that have announced that the federal immigration statutes don’t apply within their city limits — San Francisco is very much in the slaveholders’ tradition in this respect).

Let’s pause for a moment and take stock of where things stood during the Nullification Crisis:  In 1832-33 the United States was still a comparatively weak country, a comparatively small country.  Its parts were not yet bound by an enormous rail network, and outside the coastal plain there weren’t even all that many canals.  Large areas were still virgin wilderness (that situation applied far longer than one might expect: not far from where I live there is a county in which there were still over 100,000 acres of virgin hardwood in 1910).  The forces of cohesion in the country were still fragile, and there were still many powerful actors in the world who would have rejoiced in a failure of what was then known as the American Experiment.  This was still a world in which people’s demands for written constitutions were believed to be, and were treated as, an act of rebellion.  In fact, the Revolutions of 1848 in Central Europe were based in large part on precisely that — demands for written constitutions to tie down monarchs’ privileges.

[By the way, note what this understanding of constitutionalism has to say about the notion of a “living constitution.”  Until the U.S. Supreme Court got into it, everyone understood that a written constitution was written for the precise reason that its meaning did not morph over time into whatever you wanted it to say.  The U.S. Constitution was a revolutionary document for exactly the reason that it was written and its meaning did not change to suit the whims of the ruler of the moment.  The idea of a “living constitution” in which no provision has any permanent meaning does violence to the very concept of a constitution, and until the American left got at it, was universally understood to do so.]

The United States with its written constitution was a direct and immediate threat to all those crowned heads in Europe who fiercely resisted the pressure to shackle themselves to a written document with ascertainable substance.

Had South Carolina succeeded in openly defying the federal government as to Congressional action in respect of a matter unambiguously placed within its constitutional competencies — the regulation of trade with foreign nations — the American Experiment would have failed.  The country would not have survived, and there would have been no Underground Railroad because the borders would have been largely closed off.

Jackson was having none of it.  Congress authorized the Force Bill to compel South Carolina’s compliance with the law.  But of course, it would have been Jackson as commander-in-chief who would have been charged with implementing that, or not, and if so, how vigorously.  And what was Jackson’s position?  Well, a visitor from South Carolina asked him if he had any message he’d like to send to the good folks back home.  Jackson gave it to them with the bark still on it:  “Yes I have; please give my compliments to my friends in your State and say to them, that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.”

South Carolina knew he meant every last word of that promise.  Compare and contrast Dear Leader’s “red line” in Syria that wasn’t.  South Carolina knew what it had to expect from Jackson, and a compromise was reached.  Syria knew what it had to expect from Dear Leader, and it has acted accordingly.

Jackson, in short, did no more and no less than save the union in 1832-33, at a time when there was an immediate danger of its dissolution.  For that, he more than deserves his place on the $20 bill.  Whatever Harriet Tubman’s private courage and dedication to the cause of human liberty may have been, her life’s work simply does not rise to that level of national significance.  The Underground Railroad never would have changed a damned thing about the institution of slavery; there is no way on earth they could have spirited enough slaves out of the South to make any but the most minuscule dent on the institution.  It took a civil war to make that happen, and had it not been for Jackson’s stance in the face of the nullifiers in 1832-33, there never would have been the northern industrial and demographic powerhouse twenty years later which tore the poison lance of slavery from the national body by main force.  Just wouldn’t have happened.

If you absolutely want to have Tubman’s face on U.S. currency, bilge either Truman or Kennedy, preferably the latter.  But to degrade the man whose courage saved the country betrays a profound ignorance of American history.

My Own Identity

Gentle reader will have observed, perhaps, that I quite carefully avoid writing about topics, or mentioning searchable data, which would permit me to be identified.  This is not accidental; I decline to expose myself to the kind of internet harassment which is now a standard part of the generic toolkit which today’s leftist carries with him.

But today . . . today, I will reveal Who I Am.

Before we get there, though, I want to share a few thoughts on what has become (in)famous across America as “H.B. 2,” or House Bill 2, the legislative designation for the statute which recently became law in North Carolina.  Here’s a link to their legislative website that has the full text of the statute.

Several of my leftist Facebook friends have been feverishly posting all manner of tripe about how the thing is Just Such a Terrible Assault on the Very Humanity of these poor souls who once upon a time were more honestly called “cross-dressers” or “transvestites,” but now, in a dreary attempt at linguistic promotion to a scientifically valid category, call themselves “transgender.”  Now, mind you, they still have either an X and a Y chromosome, or two X chromosomes, just as they did the day they were born.  In many cases they will still be wearing a penis and testicles underneath their hot little black dress.  But they’ll be dressed to the nines to look like a woman.

They are to be pitied more than censured.  Dressing up to pretend like that is just pathetic, as it speaks to a self-dissatisfaction so profound that you have to wonder how they face the world each day.  You don’t have to be a narcissist, but how much would you have to hate yourself not even to like what sort of human you are, so much that you priss about in public wearing heels?

“Identify”:  That’s what we’re told these poor creatures are doing; they’re “identifying as” whatever it is they claim to be.  By which they mean “self-identify,” because of course biology has identified them as male or female.  Yes, I’m perfectly aware that there are children born with bits and pieces of both, but we call those sorts of things “birth defects”; there are a tiny number of those born per 100,000 live births; and there’s a very well-regarded organization — the March of Dimes — which takes it for its mission the avoidance and correction of such birth defects.  We’re not talking about adults with uncorrected birth defects.  We’re talking about adults who want to play-act at being what they’re not.

And of course, there are the cross-dressers who, for want of a more gentle expression, are neither more nor less than sexual deviants.  They don’t “identify” as this-that-or-the-other.  This is just how they get their jollies.  Excuse me if I’m not impressed.

In any event, North Carolina passed a statute which does three principal things.  It requires schools which have bathrooms, locker rooms, and other spaces in which it is reasonably foreseeable that a student will be in whatever stage of undress, and which spaces are capable of being used by more than one person at the same time, to designate such spaces as being for the use of either but not both males and females.  [Single-user spaces are not required to be so designated.]  And it requires them to permit the multi-user spaces to be used by, and only by, persons whose biological sex, as indicated on their birth certificate, matches the sex designation of the space.  The bill requires “public agencies,” which are defined so as to include pretty much every governmental actor other than schools, to make similar sex and use designations for their own multi-user bathrooms and changing facilities.  For both schools and public agencies there are exceptions — pretty narrow, to be sure — to the use restrictions.  Finally, the bill prohibits localities — cities, counties, and their respective agencies — from requiring private actors, principally contractors doing business with those localities, from establishing, as a condition of doing business with the local government, a duty to permit cross-dressers from using whatever multi-user space they please at the moment.

That’s it.  The legislature wished to exercise its absolute prerogative to centralize decisions such as that at the level of the state.  And then it exercised its authority to set the ground rules for the entire state.

I’ve read that statute through multiple times and I’m just not seeing the hatred in it.

Oh, but you see, the hatred is in my refusal to accept as legitimate your little game of “today I’m a girl.”  No you’re not, and I have zero moral obligation to play-act along with you.  If you’re so damned proud of who and what you are, then own it.  It’s like homosexuals who want you to call them “gay.”  No, you’re not “gay,” you’re homosexual.  If you’re so all-fired-up proud of it, then call it by its right name.  Don’t hind behind a euphemism.  More to the point:  You have no legal right to demand that I play your games, that I adjust my life to make room for what you do with your genitals to get yourself off.

To get an idea of just how horribly messed up things have got in this country, recently a fellow went to the University of Washington campus.  He’s a white male, roughly 5’10” tall, and obviously adult.  He asked people he ran into to explain to him, if they could, why he was not a 6’5″ Chinese seven-year-old girl.  No.  Seriously.  He did this, and those sad-sack “social justice warriors” (here’s a list of some of the most prominent, so you don’t, if you’re responsible for hiring in your company, accidentally hire any of them) couldn’t muster up the guts to tell him he was simply incorrect, that he was neither female, nor 6’5″ tall, nor Chinese, nor seven years old.  One girl politely questions whether he’s quite that tall, but that’s it.  Watch the whole video.  As the commentary accompanying the video at the link points out, these people are ripe for dictatorship.  Over at Ace of Spades, they connect the dots:

“People conditioned to accept outrageous falsehoods from people claiming to have a special right to their own reality are an existential threat to the republic. If a 5’10” white man can tell you he’s a 6’5″ Chinese girl, and you are required to believe him because each person constructs his own quantum reality moment by moment, it’s no difficult thing to also accept that killing the kulaks and putting the farms under inefficient state rule will result in a greater grain harvest.”

This is all the more true when you consider that there’s no logical boundary line between my quantum reality and yours.  You are a part of mine, and I of yours.  If I “identify” as a struggling member of the proletarian class, how am I not equally entitled to “identify” you as a member of the kulak class, whom I “identify” as my oppressors?  If I convince an entire nation to “identify” as the victim of a Diktat designed (ed: as it in fact was) for the indefinite future to suppress my people, to burden them in this world and the next with the responsibility for a war (which I “identify” as having been forced upon my reluctant Volksgenossen), where is the objection to my “identifying” whatever group I please as having sold me and mine down the river?

Do you see how hilariously funny “identification” can be?

I don’t have daughters, a fact prominent among my list of blessings.  I was terrified I might.  When, before the birth of our third son, the wife decided that with this one we were going to find out ahead of time (she was convinced her luck had finally turned and I was horrified she might be right), we went to the ultrasound clinic.  After doing the usual sorts of measurements and whatnot, the tech kind of rolled things around on the screen so we could see better and there was no doubt about what that was, showing between the femurs.  My relief was so great I exclaimed, “Hat trick!!”  That almost became his nickname.

People like the men who play-act as women are why my wife and I have not permitted our sons to go to public bathrooms unaccompanied until they were of an age to fight or flee on their own.  Remember, if this man “identifies” as a woman, then he views my son as fair game.  And for the heterosexual pervert who simply wants to prey on women and especially small girls, how much of a leap is it for him to dress up (hell: he needn’t even do that; he can just say he “identifies” as female and it’s open season in the girl’s locker room) in order to gain access to his victims?  He’s already a monster and knows it; why should a little rouge and eye liner upset him?

The retort is made that I’m tarring all the transvestites with the same brush.  I’m not.  In no way am I saying that every man who insists on using the women’s room is a pervert who’s just trolling for his next victim.  What I am saying is that there will be some.  And I cannot know, until it is too late, whether this particular man is or is not among them.  You know, we don’t screen every last passenger who gets aboard an airliner because we think everyone is a terrorist; we screen them because we don’t know that they aren’t.

So who am I?

Well, I “identify” as the Emperor Napoleon.

I demand that I be treated as the Emperor Napoleon, conqueror of Europe, may rightfully expect to be treated.  I demand that I be given whatever works of art I demand for my imperial collection (got my eyes on a couple of Vermeers from the Met).  I demand that the commanding officers of the armed forces recognize in me their commander-in-chief.  The laws of course do not apply to the emperor, so we may dispense with that.  And every, but every woman is mine by right of sovereignty.  You, o peons, may address me (while averting your plebian eyes, of course) as “Your Imperial Majesty” or simply, in later conversation, just as “Your Majesty.”  I demand that airplanes, buses, elevators, and all other forms of public accommodation shall await my pleasure.  You must treat me according to my royal station; we royalty suffer untold pangs of degradation when our sacred persons are denied the recognition that is lawfully ours.  You non-royals simply don’t understand.

If some nasty ol’ 6’4″ hairy-legged man in sensible shoes has the right to cop a squat beside your eight-year-old daughter, then I have the right to be the Emperor Napoleon.  There is no defensible moral or functional distinction between those positions.

Gödel and Washington

Among the very earliest posts on this humble little blog was one on Washington’s Farewell Address, posted on the occasion of its anniversary. In truth I’d not read it until then, an omission which I now very much regret. The Farewell Address must be one of the most extraordinary documents in American political history, and it is worthy of tremendously more attention than gets paid to it these days. It should, rather, be required reading in just about every level of American education.

For the moment I’d like to return to a part of it, specifically the following passage:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.“It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”

I’d like more specifically to drill down on the statement, “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Let’s just say that modern American public discourse is obliged to discount that thought. Religion, or perhaps better stated religiosity, is thought to be in bad taste at best, oppressive by merely allusion to it at worst.

Some time ago while ruminating, what I am pleased to call my mind began studying on the question of exactly on what basis do I require of my fellow humans that I be treated as anything other than an instrumentality. We’ve all heard of Kant’s categorical imperative, but I mean, really? If you, dear reader, have an objective and I am in the way of its achievement, by what right do I claim that you must, to borrow a line from one of my favorite Abe Lincoln stories, “plow around” me? It can only be that I claim some peculiar status in the world which you inhabit.

You say we are all equals, in some moral sense. How is that? Do we see non-human life exhibiting this same recognition of abstract equality? Or do we see, even among pack animals, behavior which cannot be explained except upon purely utilitarian grounds? The alpha male drives the juvenile male from the herd, to wander alone in a world in which he is not at the top of the food chain, until either he is eaten or finds another herd in which he can with violence establish himself. Males battling each other for the privilege of mating with the females, and the females not observably having any choice in the matter. Males preying on their own off-spring. The sick or the old or the lame abandoned to the predator. It all makes sense if you view those animals’ existence from an amoral perspective. Not so much if you apply Kant’s imperative as among them.

What is it that makes humans different? Why should you extend to me any greater consideration than you would a tree, or a rock in your garden, or raccoon who wants only to feed from your garbage? Turning Lincoln’s critique of the slaveholders’ racialist apologia on its head, it cannot be because I am your equal in intelligence, because as like as not you’re sharper than I am. It cannot be that I have some unique talent for any particular task or form of expression, because again, you probably excel me there and besides, on what basis do I assert that my talent for X is somehow more worthy than yours for Y? Strength? No. Leadership? Not there. Looks? Not even in the park. Am I more useful than you? Highly doubtful. No, the only this-worldly basis that I have to demand your recognition of me as your equal is because I can compel it. But that’s nothing more than a catch-all description of the lone male wandering the brush and forcing himself into a new pack, pride, herd, family group, etc. Or, even more bluntly stated, it is the proposition that Might Makes Right.

Thomas Hobbes famously grounded his conclusion that all men are equal in the fact that every man can kill any other man, for each man must at some point sleep. Very true, and very much of a piece with his characterization of the natural condition of man: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. But that’s not an identifiably moral basis for asserting equality.

I defy anyone to enunciate a anthropocentric basis upon which you must address me as your equal and which does not on closer examination boil down to expedience or force (which is itself little more than a specific application of the principle of expedience). Expedience of course cannot be reconciled with Kant’s imperative. And what if in fact I am not useful to you, if my existence athwart your path is inexpedient to you? Oops; I’m not sure I like that outcome one bit.

No, if I want you to recognize in me anything more morally compelling than that raccoon knocking over your garbage can, I must refer to a morality that confers that claim on me from outside our shared humanity. That “outside” can come only from a supra-human source, from a source that we by its very nature as supra-human characterize as “divine,” as in partaking of divinity, the attribute we reserve to Him whom we confess to be God. Only by recognition of the divinity of God may you recognize a small portion of that divinity in His creature, in me. Small it assuredly is, but it is enough, it is a basis to which you can point and acknowledge my claim upon you for no other reason than the fact that I am.

I am. Only a confessing believer in a higher being can logically recognize that as being a perfect statement of claim. Without that belief you must necessarily ask, “You are what?” and adjudge that “what” to be or not be sufficient.

Or so I reasoned. Seemed tidy enough, and explained enough to me for my own purposes. I am no mathematician. My D and D- in two semesters of calculus resolved that much if nothing else. So I beg indulgence from those whose abilities in that regard extend beyond those of the great apes. As better explained in a book later on lent to me by one who actually enjoys theoretical mathematics as a hobby (de gustabus non disputandum est, and leave it at that) Kurt Gödel (rendered in English, happily deprived of diacritics, as “Goedel”) demonstrated that you cannot prove a system from within that system. I won’t go further into the particularities of his proof for knowing that I would misstate something, but suffice it to say that he showed that you cannot bootstrap a logical system. I was mighty proud to find out that my stewing wasn’t so wildly off the mark after all: you cannot prove up a logical system of morality from within that system. Kant’s categorical imperative seems to be a “big bang” analogue, but respectfully I’m not having that.

Washington was, in other words, dead-on right when he reminded his fellow citizens that the maintenance of a republic over time could not succeed without virtue, and that virtue cannot exist without religion. For without religion, without the acknowledgement of a mind, purpose, and power above all human comprehension, there can be no morality but only the expedient of the moment.

I’d also observe that the truth of the above can be demonstrated by observing the tragi-comedy of “international law.” In point of fact there is no such animal, because there is no authority to which the nation-states are willing absolutely to concede the right and power of enforcement against themselves. So we get treated from time to time to the spectacle of some professional bloviator allowing that such-and-so is plainly contrary to “international law,” by which is meant that Country A has done something to Country B to the speaker’s vigorous disapproval, but which will go entirely unpunished. The only source of “international law” is the same source which Chairman Mao identified as the source of political power.

I first turned my attentions to the Farewell Address in the fall of 2012, as America was about to go to the polls and re-elect to the presidency a man who is about as close to the antithesis of George Washington as a citizen could imagine. This is a man who, when asked point-blank in an interview to define “sin,” replied that “sin” was when someone did or desired something that was inconsistent with his own thoughts and positions. All the hoo-hah about whether he’s a Muslim or not is really mis-guided, as I saw it observed once: This is a man who does not recognize any being as superior to himself. He can have no religion because he truly believes himself to be a latter-day messiah, but the Good News He brings is solely that of His own advent among us.

Today, in 2016, we get to observe the spectacle of two candidates, one of whom is – barring divine intervention – going to be our next president, neither of whom brings anything to the table other than a firm conviction that he or she, as the case may be, is entitled to the office because. And neither of whom has any known floor below which he or she will not stoop.

Four dead Americans, one of them a serving U.S. ambassador? What difference does it make “at this point” that She lied to the American public, lied to the dead men’s families, about why those men died? They’re dead and her political party won the election; that’s what’s important. The formal representative of his nation to a sovereign country slaughtered like a wild animal and his corpse dragged through the streets? That’s just chaff, at this point.

A man who has bragged, in writing, about buying his way to influence with politicians? Whose entire public persona is built on the practice of saying or doing anything necessary to close the deal on his own terms? This is the same thinking that got us the Tonkin Gulf Resolutions. Those were built on fraudulent representations of an attack that simply never happened (don’t believe me? read In Love and War, the book by Vice Admiral Stockdale, who was in the air over the Maddux and Turner Joy when they were supposedly attacked, and who point-blank states it never happened).

Back in the day, when it first became undeniable that Wm. Clinton had shamelessly perjured himself in deposition about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, I had a conversation in which my interlocutor repeated the New York Times-approved talking points that it just didn’t matter because it was purely and private matter and besides shut up. I very vividly remember telling him that it very much mattered when a president perjures himself because the only thing that stands between us and – well, at the time the most prominent failed state was the former Soviet Union, but now you’ve pretty much got your pick – was the notion that when someone raises his right hand and swears to tell the truth, that he will do so. Without that presumption the court system is meaningless. And when the court system is meaningless, people will implement their own justice and seek redress on their own.

I refer Gentle Reader to President Washington’s observations, all those years ago.

As the anniversaries of Washington’s Farewell Address succeed each other, we the posterity to whom he addressed himself blunder on, heedless of his wisdom. Re-learning lessons tends to be more difficult than learning them the first time around.

 

Of Green Bananas

If I were Amr Adeeb, host of the — apparently popular — Egyptian talk show “Cairo Today,” I’m not sure I’d be buying any.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has an article in today’s edition about a rant Adeeb recently went on.  He took the opportunity to speak some home truths about Islam.  Not “extremists” or “people who are abusing the name of Islam,” or such claptrap, but Islam itself.  His co-host, Emad El-Din Hussein, tried to stem his tirade, without success.

They were right in the middle of their show, and, almost like those first rancid burps and watering mouth you get right before you begin to vomit up everything you’ve eaten since last Tuesday afternoon, he bubbles up:  “This won’t make many people happy, but these perps were quite clearly Muslims.  Everyone is saying these terrorists weren’t Muslims.”  Then the first projectile irruption:  “No!  You lie!  They are Muslims and they are among us!”  His co-host interjects:  “But who taught these attackers?  Where do the Muslims in Britain and France get it from?”

Another plume erupts, spattering the far wall of the room with great gobs of stinking Truth:  “They get it from Islam!  These horrible things come from our religion; our religion is full of these inhuman things.”  His co-host tries the PC-approved approach:  They were individual perps.  Not true, counters Adeeb.

Suspicious, perhaps, that the inevitable post-mortem investigations and revelations will reveal her to be an imbecile, co-host then trots out the canard that These Poor Muslims are Just Being Misused.  Adeeb coats the carpet eight inches deep in Honesty, well over his co-hostess’ dainty shoes:  “Nonsense.  This is an integral part of Islam.  We grow up with these lessons, that is a part of our diseased psyche.  For these people it is OK to kill non-Muslims.  Don’t tell me that the IS aren’t Muslims; no one can misuse you when you are healthy.”

And it goes on:  “Why does this only happen with Islam?  Always it’s us, Islam.  We have a problem with our religion.  We cannot live in harmony with our religion.  Wake up finally and recognize this reality.”

Adeeb and his wife are both television co-hosts, and very popular it seems.  They came to prominence in the latter days of Mubarak’s regime, and were vehemently opposed to his Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored successor, Mursi.  When Mursi was toppled they were vocally supportive of it.  Wonder what they’d have to say about our would-be president’s Muslim Brotherhood operative whom she keeps at her side.

I don’t speak the language, but this appears to be the video of his rant.

This is what “speaking truth to power” sounds like.  Not the crybully whine of Someone Chalked a Political Candidate’s Name on the Sidewalk and now I Have to go Suck my Thumb in my Safe Space.  Not piling on some plumber who dared suggest that a candidate’s promise of re-distributive Marxism might not be a good idea.  In going off as he did, Adeeb did neither more nor less than quite literally render himself a marked man.

Given how Islam reacts to people who dare — even indirectly — to suggest it may, in the language of the American kindergarten, “have issues” (ask Salman Rushdie if you don’t believe me, or Ayan Hirsi Ali), were I this ol’ boy I’d make sure I re-ran all the background checks on my personal security detail.  I’d update my estate planning documents.

And I might reconsider whether I wanted to buy that next bunch of green bananas.

Oh, Well, but Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln

What’s the play actually about, anyway?

Sometimes you come across something that, almost in passing, so glaringly reveals an underlying truth about its subject matter that it takes your breath away.

This week some random guys who adhere to no identifiable ideology or religion just randomly decided to light off a couple of bombs in Belgium.  It was a bad week for workplace violence, in other words.  And in other news, the president enjoyed yukking it up at the ballgame with a murderously oppressive regime.  But I digress.

In follow-up to the Brussels bombings, this article ran in USA Today.  The headline sort of tips the author’s hand:  “The Quran’s deadly role in inspiring Belgian slaughter,” by a fellow identified as Nabeel Qureshi.  From his self-description and how he relates his family background, he seems to be one of those adherents of the Religion of Peace that is being referred to on that silly “Coexist” bumper sticker.  His father spent a career in the U.S. Navy, starting as a seaman and retiring as a lieutenant commander (which, by the way, tells you his father must have been pretty hot stuff, to make it that far up from that far down).  “As a Muslim growing up in the United States, I was taught by my imams and the community around me that Islam is a religion of peace. My family modeled love for others and love for country, and not just by their words.”

All to the good.  I’d have no problem with him, or his family, for my next-door neighbors, any more than I’d object to any other American family.

But let’s let Comrade Qureshi tell it himself:

“As a young Muslim boy growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, it was impossible for me to look up a hadith unless I traveled to an Islamic library, something I would have never thought to do. For all intents and purposes, if I wanted to know about the traditions of Muhammad, I had to ask imams or elders in my tradition of Islam.”  That is, as he notes, no longer the case.  Just as the Bible’s translation into the vernacular enabled the masses to access for themselves just what exactly scripture has to say about any particular thing, without the interposition of the clerisy, so today’s Muslim masses can look it up for themselves.

And just what are they finding?  Why, they’re finding the same things that Qureshi did, once he no longer was reliant upon his elders and imams.  “Yet as I began to investigate the Quran and the traditions of Muhammad’s life for myself in college, I found to my genuine surprise that the pages of Islamic history are filled with violence.”

Do what?

“When everyday Muslims investigate the Quran and hadith for themselves, bypassing centuries of tradition and their imams’ interpretations, they are confronted with the reality of violent jihad in the very foundations of their faith.”  “The Quran itself reveals a trajectory of jihad reflected in the almost 23 years of Muhammad’s prophetic career. As I demonstrate carefully in my book, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, starting with peaceful teachings and proclamations of monotheism, Muhammad’s message featured violence with increasing intensity, culminating in surah 9, chronologically the last major chapter of the Quran, and its most expansively violent teaching. Throughout history, Muslim theologians have understood and taught this progression, that the message of the Quran culminates in its ninth chapter.”  [N.b.  The foregoing quoted language has links in it over at the USA Today website.]

Qureshi then pulls a few chestnuts out:  “Surah 9 is a command to disavow all treaties with polytheists and to subjugate Jews and Christians (9.29) so that Islam may ‘prevail over all religions’ (9.33). It is fair to wonder whether any non-Muslims in the world are immune from being attacked, subdued or assimilated under this command. Muslims must fight, according to this final chapter of the Quran, and if they do not, then their faith is called into question and they are counted among the hypocrites (9.44-45). If they do fight, they are promised one of two rewards, either spoils of war or heaven through martyrdom. Allah has made a bargain with the mujahid who obeys: Kill or be killed in battle, and paradise awaits (9.111).”

According to Qureshi, the implications of Surah 9 are acknowledged by modern Muslim theologians.  “Muslim thought leaders agree that the Quran promotes such violence.”  And there’s the rub:  The most potent recruiting tool and mechanism for radicalization available to ISIS is . . . just quoting the foundational documents of their religion.  “With frequent references to the highest sources of authority in Islam, the Quran and hadith (the collection of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad), ISIL enjoins upon Muslims their duty to fight against the enemies of Islam and to emigrate to the Islamic State once it has been established.”

And that, folks, peels away quite a bit of bullshit that’s being peddled by self-loathing Westerners.  The “extremists” among the Muslims have the theologically better argument of their “moderate” or assimilated co-religionists.  That is the irreducible fact that stares us in the face over the shards of glass and spattered bits of airline customers.

Pity the Muslims don’t have the theological equivalent of modern U.S. Supreme Court jurists to explain to them that all those words simply don’t mean what they say.  No, when ISIS wants to convince a young Muslim man that his most solemn duty is to fight, kill, and maybe die in order to subjugate practitioners of any religion other than strict-form Islam, they perversely go out and just show him the actual words and have the temerity to suggest to him that they mean precisely what they say.

Deconstructionism, in other words, hasn’t made very deep inroads into Islam.

A couple of quick points.  Islam appears to be enjoying something of the same process that Christianity went through, at least in its early phases, with the Reformation.  There was a reason, after all, why for so long either translating the Bible into the vernacular, or even possession of a translated Bible was a capital offense.  Literally.  Get caught with a Wyclif Bible and they’d make short work of you.  Step 1 of the Reformation was therefore what is now known as “disintermediation.”  It’s really not much more than the same process as online commerce.  The internet has largely dissolved the barriers between the ordinary Joe on the “Islamic Street” and the authoritative pronouncements of his faith’s founding documents.  Generally disintermediation is a very good thing.  Anything which undercuts the ipse dixit hierarchy of any one group (priests, imams, broadcast network news shows, judges) over another, by providing the people that walked in darkness direct access to ultimate authority (Holy Scripture, the Koran, multiple independent news sources, or the actual words of constitutions and statutes) is to be praised on that ground alone.  I’ll state that as a categorical.

So what is to be done if the ultimate authority commands, in pretty plain language, behaviors such as we have seen in Brussels, Paris, New York, Madrid, London, and so forth?

I honestly don’t know.  It seems to me that the fellow quoted by Qureshi has a long, hard slog ahead of him, and whether the thing is to be done at all must be seen as wholly questionable:  “Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation in the United Kingdom, has said, ‘We Muslims must admit there are challenging Quranic passages that require reinterpretation today. … Only by rejecting vacuous literalism are we able to condemn, in principle, ISIS-style slavery, beheading, lashing, amputation & other medieval practices forever (all of which are in the Quran). … Reformers either win, and get religion-neutral politics, or lose, and get ISIL-style theocracy.’ In other words, Muslims must depart from the literal reading of the Quran in order to create a jihad-free Islamic world.”  By his own words he may well be chasing a will-o-the-wisp.  What Nawaz calls “vacuous literalism” the boys of ISIS can call “the words’ plain meaning,” without strained or sophistical reading.  And slavery, beheading, lashing, amputation, and “other medieval practices” are “all . . . in the Koran.”  Well, of course they are; that’s what makes it so straightforward to convince the jihadisti that they are commands of Allah. Just read the damned words, boy, and make up your mind for yourself.

And what is this about creating a “jihad-free Islamic world” in the first place?  If jihad is part of the central framework of Islamic existence in this world, then how can you excise it and still call what you’re left with “Islamic”?  I recall once, a number of years ago, this billboard alongside the interstate in a city near where I live.  It was from one of these First Church of What’s Happening Now, where Christianity is on offer as a practical therapeutic lifestyle option.  The billboard encouraged the wanderer to come discover “a non-religious path to God.”  That is an oxymoron plain and simple, folks.  It seems as though what Qureshi is positing is the same sort of oxymoron.

The Protestant movement’s most powerful arguments rested on the elemental fact that, once translated and accessible, Holy Scripture was seen not to provide authority for quite a bit of what had grown to encrust the Roman Catholic church as an institution.  The problem today is that what the ISIS recruiters are propounding can be seen to be very much in the Koran, in exactly as many words as they’re saying.

Islam is not, in other words, a Religion of Peace, not on its own terms, read in the ordinary sense of the words actually used, without contorting them into their opposites.

The situation outlined by Qureshi makes it doubtful whether anything like a Protestant Reformation can ever be in the cards for Islam.  Accomplishing that would require millions of Muslims all over the world to believe in the in-most recesses of their hearts that the ordinary words of the foundational texts just do not mean what they so obviously say.  How do you convince people of an argument the unspoken subtext of which is: “Mohammed didn’t know what he was talking about”?  My understanding of Islamic dogma is that the Koran’s words are not actually those of the prophet, but rather of Allah himself.  Quite different from even the most literalist Christian fundamentalist, believing every word in the King James Version to be divinely inspired.  To “interpret” the Koran in a way which would allow peaceful coexistence requires you to accept either that, to some extent, Mohammed was a false prophet because he failed accurately to transmit Allah’s pronouncements, or alternatively, that Allah knowingly allowed his words to be mis-transcribed.  How can either of those suggestions be acceptable to a devout Muslim?

Not all problems have solutions.  I very greatly fear that Islam is among the problems that don’t.

And This, Dear Children, is Why You Must Travel

Or at least read about different places, times, and peoples.

Here is a chart published over at The Washington Post.  It breaks down alcohol consumption by adult Americans into deciles, according to “number of drinks per week.”  It’s an interesting chart, not only for the reasons obviously being pushed by the newspaper (“if you do much more than sniff a cork, you’re a drunk”), but for several others.

For starts, it demonstrates pretty well what the article refers to as the “Pareto Law.”  I’ve not heard that particular expression, although I am familiar with the concept of “Pareto efficiency.”  I have heard of the concept before, expressed as the “long tail” effect, which applies not only in purchases of consumer goods but across pretty much all human activity.  According to the Pareto Law, it seems, the top 20% of purchasers of a particular class of consumer goods generally account for 80% of all sales of those goods.  Do you have a friend who’s got not just one or some, but all the most recent versions of Apple’s i-this-that-and-the-other? He’s the guy they’re talking about.  The article presents this pattern in the alcoholic beverage industry as being of peculiar concern, because if you drink that much (so as to get into the 80th percentile or higher) “you almost certainly have a drinking problem.”

By the way, I love that expression: “a drinking problem.”  According to what standard?  Different people’s bodies tolerate different levels of alcohol consumption.  Different other life behaviors affect how well your body tolerates different levels of alcohol consumption.  Different patterns of alcohol consumption affect what alcohol does to your body.  All of those factors also affect in profoundly different ways how your consumption of alcohol affects your life, your work, your patterns of friendship, how you perceive and deal with the world you move through.  And on and on.  But for some reasons Americans just love them the notion of “a drinking problem.”  I know someone who is, with a few pretty glaring exceptions, of unusual discernment and reasoning capacity.  And yet this person parrots without batting an eye the old saw that “if you have more than four drinks ‘at one sitting,’ that’s ‘binge drinking.'”  To which the only possible response is, “Bullshit!”  What’s “a sitting,” for starts?  Is it without getting up from the same table?  Is it at the same event?  Or does it mean just sitting down to watch a football game and drinking four beers over the course of the three or so hours it takes for a professional football game on television?  And is four Miller Lite “beers” the same as four George Dickels?  Anyone who asserts they are equivalent is not entitled to be taken seriously on the subject.

My point is not that it’s not possible to drink indisputably too much, too frequently.  It’s certainly not that doing so over any length of time is going to harm the drinker and very likely those around him, in some physical or moral manner.  My point is that all this pseudo-scientific “measurement” nonsense is exactly that: pure bullshit, from start to finish (here’s a link to a National Institute of Health article, in which much is made of exceeding the “recommended limit” on drinking”; on what scientifically defensible basis is that “recommended limit” based?).  It’s like the notion of a “best college.”  Are there colleges that are undeniably better than others by most relevant standards?  Of course.  But is there a “best college”?  Anyone who asserts there is such an animal and he knows which one either is lying to you, or he is so foolish that you are within your rights to question whether he’s smart enough to judge a college in any event.  As Thomas Sowell pointed out decades ago, the question to investigate (and it does take digging; a lot of digging to find the answer, because the education industry goes to outrageous lengths to hide such information) is not, “Which is the best college?” but rather, “Which is the best college for this student?”  The same with “a drinking problem.”  You simply cannot answer the question whether someone drinks too much by reference to counting the “number of drinks” per day, or per week, or per month, relative to some manufactured-from-whole-cloth “recommended limit,” and then declaring that if that number is greater than X, he has “a drinking problem.”  You have to ask whether that person drinks too much for his own life.  But that doesn’t make for very large research grants, does it, or for splashy headlines, or invitations to let an opinion in a 30-second spot on the evening news show?

So just what does this chart show?

It shows how little Americans drink, most of all.  Fully 30% of American adults drink exactly nothing alcoholic during the course of a week.  Go find another Western country in which that is the case.  Remember, “nothing” is a pretty stiff standard to meet.

Another 30% of adults drink (on average) less than one “drink” per week.  That’s per week, Gentle Reader.  So if you have a single glass of wine on Friday night with your wife, congratulations!  You drink more than 50% of the American adult population.  If you on top of that have one (count it! one) beer at the turn, and then — O! the dissipation!! — a second beer at the 19th hole on Sunday afternoon, that makes three “drinks” per week, and you are north of the 60th percentile.

Now let’s suppose each day during the week you have a single glass of wine with your supper each evening (you know, like the damned doctors tell you is good for you), then a single beer while watching television over the balance of the evening.  That’s ten “drinks” per week; you’re above the 70th percentile.  And now let’s add those two (you lush!!) beers at your Sunday golf round (up to twelve now), or maybe while bowling on Saturday evening, or perhaps after working outside all day long.  And now let’s add in, at some point during the 168 hours comprising that week, another four random Miller Lite “beers.”  That’s sixteen “drinks” in the course of a week.  You may well never have had, depending on whether you were eating at the time, any measurable blood alcohol content at all.  But you’re above the 80th percentile now.  You drink more than 80% of all other American adults.

I spent two full years living in Germany as an exchange student, among Germans.  I have travelled there in the interim.  I have also travelled, although much less, in a not unrespectable portion of the balance of Europe.  And I read, and have read, copiously about other places, peoples, and times.  And I’m here to tell you, three “drinks” per week doesn’t even get you in the gates in the vast majority of other cultures, other places, other times.  Fifteen “drinks” per week likewise won’t raise an eyebrow, particularly not if it’s in the form of beer, “in the manner of a Christian” (to borrow one of my favorite Charles Sibthorp expressions).  At least as of 25 years ago breweries in Germany still either by law or custom were obliged to provide their employees with a liter or two of beer per day, which had to be consumed on premises and during working hours (back in the day the draft horses delivering the barrels also got a daily ration).  And how about France, where a half-bottle of wine with lunch is neither more nor less than what any civilized man would expect?  Or Italy?  How about Eastern Europe, where alcohol consumption is more skewed towards hard liquor (and beer, of course, as well)?

And let’s go back in time, Gentle Reader, to a time when only a fool would drink the water anywhere outside a pristine forest.  Wine and beer were what you drank because the water would kill you.  Literally.

I categorically refuse to recognize behavior at levels indulged in by hundreds of millions of people all over the world, places which are highly civilized, pretty damned prosperous by any historical measure, and overall desirable places to live as being either aberrational or objectionable.  Period.  I likewise refuse to consider those levels of behavior, when indulged in across centuries of civilized culture, as being objectionable.  Period.

Let’s look at that 90th percentile and up, the tenth decile.  It’s hard to imagine consuming ten “drinks” per day, on average.  On the other hand, there’s a huge difference between the 15.28 “drinks” per week averaged within that ninth decile (80th to 89th percentiles) and the 73.85 of the tenth decile.  It’s almost a factor of five, in fact.  Which suggests to me that there is a curve hiding in there somewhere.  I’d be mighty curious to see the numbers of the constituent percentiles of that last, highest decile.  Because if the pattern of the long tail still holds within that last decile, then the bulk of that 73.85 “drinks” per week is accounted for by the very top-most percentiles.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of this writing the U.S. population is just over 323.1 million.  As of 2014, the gross U.S. population was estimated at 318,857,056, of which 82,135,602 were ages 19 and down, leaving 236,721,454 ages 20 and up, which I’m going to suggest is a usable proxy for “adults” in that drinking study.  Ten percent of that is 23.672 million people, a lot of people.  But if my hunch is correct that we’re looking at long tail pattern, then maybe only about 3% of the people are still accounting for the vast majority of whatever it is we’re interested in looking at, in this case alcohol consumption.  Three percent of “adults” still works out to 7.1 million people, which is a lot of people to round up.

On the other hand, if my hunch is right (and I’d be very surprised if I’m all that far wrong) it means that 97% of “adults” are consuming “drinks” at a rate which, except in the fevered imaginations of the National Institute of Health, The Washington Post, and this breathless fellow who wrote the book referenced in the WaPo article, just aren’t and have never been viewed as being at all out of the ordinary in the balance of the world, either now or at any point in recorded human history.

Perhaps what this chart and its attendant newspaper article are really telling us is that in a population of 323.1 million people, even a pretty large number of people with undeniably destructive behaviors still works out to be a fart in a hurricane as far as the societal scope of the problem represented.  But that the huckster and the demagogue can easily make it out otherwise.  And that we as citizens and voters would be very well-advised to examine very closely all such sermons and exhortations.

 

Verdun

One hundred years ago this past Sunday, in the early morning hours, hundreds of German artillery pieces, ranging in size from field guns to enormous siege guns, cut loose on the forts protecting the French town of Verdun.

The objective of the German army was, in the words of the chief of the General Staff, to “bleed France white.” In other words, as originally conceived, it wasn’t really so much designed to capture the town of Verdun – the Germans really had no pressing need for it – as to draw as many French soldiers as possible into a massive killing zone. Because Verdun was much more important to the French not to lose than it was to the Germans to take, it introduced a fundamental asymmetry into each side’s calculations. At least that was Falkenhayn’s plan originally.

Without boring Gentle Reader with a recitation of all the back-and-forth which reduced the landscape around Verdun to a pock-marked wasteland where the very soil itself was poisoned by the chemical residue of all the explosives, to say nothing of being an enormous bone yard, let us just say that Falkenhayn lost sight of his initial strategic insight, which was to break one of two Western Front opponents, by inflicting on it casualties it was unable to bear, enabling him then to defeat the other. Had he stuck to his original concept of the battle he might well have accomplished just that. The French were willing to squander any amount of their soldiers’ lives to hold that place, and had the Germans sat back and shelled them into oblivion while keeping just enough ground pressure to bear to make sure the French remained engaged, they might well have inflicted the kind of grossly disproportionate casualties necessary to make it all work. Recall that while Germany outnumbered the British or the French separately, they never between fall 1914 and March 1918 had overall numeric superiority over both together. Hence the idea of crushing one and then the other (this wasn’t especially original; Napoleon tried the same gambit in the Waterloo campaign, Jackson illustrated it masterfully in the Valley Campaign in 1862, and Ludendorff tried it in the spring, 1918 offensives).

But Falkenhayn, encouraged by the amount of ground and the number of forts his troops in fact did capture in the battle’s early phases, changed his objective. Instead of contenting himself with slaughtering Frenchmen at a highly disproportionate rate, he decided he’d grasp the territory. He of course managed to kill enough Frenchmen that, by the time the battle was over in late 1916, the French army had only one offensive left in it (the Nivelle offensive of 1917), after which time it mutinied and was more or less finished as an offensive force. But he also managed to slaughter a vast number of his own troops trying to take a place he’d initially had enough sense to realize he didn’t need to take. And in doing so he finished the German army in the west as an offensive weapon until it was reinforced with the troops from the Eastern front released by the Soviet surrender in 1918. The difference, as we now know, was that the horrific French losses, and the terrible British losses on the Somme in 1916 (which offensive was launched in no small measure precisely to take the pressure off of Verdun) were to be made good by hordes of American doughboys. Germany’s every loss was a soldier who wasn’t going to get replaced.

Put a bit metaphorically, Falkenhayn originally conceived the notion of tossing a hand grenade between his enemy’s legs from a distance, but then decided he’d just as well hand-carry the same to its target. With predictable results.  The battle blunted the offensive power of the western Germany armies and cost Falkenhayn his job.  As his replacement the kaiser ushered in the team of Ludendorff and Hindenburg to the top of the German command structure.  Once there they dug themselves in, so to speak, and so consolidated their control over Germany and its war effort that by the end of the war the kaiser was no more than a cipher, rubber-stamping decisions handed to him, passing out medals to the survivors, and going for rides in the countryside around headquarters.

With Hindenburg and Ludendorff in place, the last chance for a conclusion of the war other than one through collapse (by one side or the other) vanished.  Those two were true believers in ultimate victory; they believed their army could do anything.  It was the army which assured the kaiser that it could win the war before American troops arrived in large enough numbers to make a difference, leading directly to the approval for resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February, 1917.  It was the army which propped up Austria-Hungary as that nation collapsed in on itself after the Brusilov offensive in summer 1916. And in the end it was Hindenburg’s statement that he could no longer guarantee the loyalty of the army which induced the kaiser to slip across the border to the Netherlands on November 9, 1918.

On the French side, the “victory” at Verdun became one of the — I’m tempted to say “founding myths,” but really it wasn’t a myth — loci of inter-war French politics and society.  It’s no accident that it was the victor of Verdun, Marshall Petain, who was dragged out of retirement to head the Vichy government.  For a good treatment of the battle and what it meant to the France of 1916 and the France that survived the war, you can do much worse than this.

So the failure of Germany at Verdun has a claim to be among the most momentous results of the Great War, not so much for the tactical decision obtained (the French kept the town and what was left of the surrounding forts) as for the changes it wrought in the overall complexion of the war.

Verdun is now firmly established as part of that infamous group of battles in which the commanders blindly fed men into a meat grinder on the supposition that if they stuffed enough in, fast enough, eventually they’d jam the works and bring it to a stop. Loos, the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, Gallipoli, the Nivelle offensive: Their very names have become bywords for callous disregard of the human lives entrusted to one. The commanders who kept those offensives going for weeks and months after it was abundantly clear that there was no prospect of victory on any basis justifying the slaughter have rightly been damned by posterity.

And this gets me to a quibble about what I suggest is the historical revisionism of General Grant’s talents as a strategist and/or a tactician. Once upon a time Grant was viewed as a plodding butcher, a Douglas Haig with a cigar sticking out of his face. That view arose chiefly as a result of his campaign in Virginia from 1864 through the end of the war. That’s not the fashionable view of him, these days. More recent books tend towards a much more hagiographical approach to his conduct of the war in the East. I freely concede his resolution of the Vicksburg campaign was every bit as audaciously brilliant as it has ever been made out to be. But of his signal victories other than Vicksburg – Ft. Donelson, Shiloh, and Chattanooga – the first was a siege where he was ferried to within a few miles of his objective by the navy; the second was a “victory” only in the sense that he didn’t get his ass run backwards into the Tennessee River by the end of the first day, and then when he was reinforced overnight outnumbered the Confederates by a sufficient margin that they weren’t able to remain on the field; the third wasn’t really his doing anyway (or any other general’s, for that matter), but rather that of the private soldiers in the Army of the Cumberland (which hadn’t been Grant’s army in any event) who, at Missionary Ridge, decided they’d had enough of looking at the Rebels on that damned ridge and took matters into their own hands, driving them from the field in disarray. [N.b. The only two times in the entire war that a Confederate army was driven from the field in disorder – Chattanooga and Nashville – it was the Army of the Cumberland both times, under the command of General George Thomas, whose talents Grant apparently went out of his way to disparage, unfairly in the opinion of at least one biographer of Thomas.]

I will also give Grant full credit for understanding that the war was not so much about conquering territory as it was about destroying the South’s ability to continue resistance. This was an insight which seems largely to have escaped the powers running the war in the East. I won’t excoriate the commanding generals alone, because they were working under the intrusive gaze of the entire Washington power establishment. It might well be that, although any one or the other of them had it figured out, the geo-political reality of the relative situations of Richmond and Washington effectively prevented any such general from transforming that strategic insight into operational plans. Or maybe not. Sherman in the West also understood the war in that sense, but he then took that comprehension to the next level after Atlanta. Neutralizing Atlanta as a transportation, supply, and communications hub effectively destroyed the Confederacy as a going concern west of the mountains. Sherman’s sequel, the March to the Sea, was nothing else than a conclusive demonstration to the people of the South, in the most immediate manner possible, that their country had lost the ability to keep a massive army from strolling across an entire state, taking its sweet time to do so, and burning and plundering everything in its path. Any Southerner who did not, by the time Sherman reached Savannah at Christmas 1864, understand the war was lost had to have been singularly obtuse.

So how did Grant go about realizing his strategic insight on the battlefield? Well, at some point during the year, more or less, that Grant was in the East, someone pointed out to him that his army and Lee’s were like the Kilkenny Cats, who fought so viciously that each ate the other up. Grant famously observed, “My cat has the longer tail,” meaning, of course, that he could consume Lee’s army and still have some of his at the end of the day. And that is exactly what he set out to do. He was entirely willing to accept horrendous casualties (by spring, 1865 the Army of the Potomac had suffered over a 100% casualty rate) on the only condition that his soldiers in dying kept killing Confederates. Which they did.

And in the end, the longer tail of Grant’s army won out.

Were there other ways to have accomplished the destruction of Lee’s army without grinding his own into a bloody pulp? There must have been; there almost always is. Grant’s preferred method to keep Lee too busy hemorrhaging soldiers to get up to mischief was to keep him engaged, day after day, week after week. Sure, that works. But you can tear an army to pieces by keeping it on the move and denying it any opportunity of rest and re-supply.

Much of Lee’s strategic maneuvering in 1862 and 1863 had been a direct response to his inability to supply his army without continual fresh territory to plunder. He couldn’t stay in one place more than a brief spell because his men would strip the countryside bare, and the Confederate government had no way to provide him the supplies which would have permitted him to live other than off the immediate vicinity. By 1864 nearly all Virginia was stripped bare. Grant had the men to move on sufficiently broad and widely dispersed fronts that there is no way Lee could have responded to all of them and protected his supply base at Richmond (which was, in addition to being the capital, a major center of what little industrial capacity the South enjoyed). Grant also had the massive transport and supply systems of the North at his back. Is it so unthinkable that by launching offensives on enough different fronts he could have leveraged Lee out, away from the Richmond-Petersburg line, and forced him so to divide his forces that, even with Lee’s famous defensive capacities, his army would have collapsed by division, and all the while trying to live off land that had repeatedly been plucked clean during the war up until then?

Such a strategy of maneuver would have taken a great deal of shoe-leather, and not a few trains and wagons. But by that time the North was cranking out such things in quantities never before seen in human history. No. Grant chose the simple method of making Lee out-bleed him. In contrast, after Kennesaw Mountain (for a good working description of what that fight was like, read Ambrose Bierce’s description), Sherman never again launched his men in a frontal assault.

All of which is to say that I don’t buy the recent praise for Grant’s abilities as a field commander. As a strategist, yes. As an organizer of the movement of some of the largest field forces in history (I think Napoleon’s Grand Army that invaded Russia in 1812 may have been larger than the U.S. Army in the East, but not by much), certainly. But as a commander who understood how to accomplish his purposes by other means than drowning his opponent in his own men’s blood, not so much.

A good friend of mine went, a number of years ago, to the battlefield at Verdun. Large areas of the countryside are still pock-marked by interlocking shell craters. It’s grown up now, but there are still places where the soil is too contaminated to till. My friend went to the ossuary they built. As you might imagine in a battle in which so much of the action consisted of massive artillery bombardment, huge numbers of the dead were so blow to shreds that there is no way ever to sort them out. In many case of course there wouldn’t even have been enough for a burial. So they brought all the miscellaneous bones together and built a large hall over them. There are windows, through which you can peer at the remains of some 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers.  As more bones are discovered each year, they are added to the pile.

My friend described the ossuary at Verdun as being the most eery place he’d ever been. I can image; it is not in many places in the world, or at many times, that such massive collective evidence in presented of the horrors of which mankind is capable. The liberated Nazi concentration camps would have been such places. The killing fields in Cambodia might have been. Verdun is another.

And so we pass another grim anniversary date.