The Politics of “It’s Gonna Happen”

I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that by people with a great deal more political savvy than I have.  Not infrequently the folks I hear that from are people who in fact make their lives in politics, and more particularly the politics that plays out beyond the klieg lights, which is to say where the bulk of the sausage is made.  So-and-so is going to happen, so you may as well get the best bargain you can and wait to chip away at the more obnoxious aspects of whatever It is.

That point is valid for many issues at many levels.  I mean, other than to the guy who runs the local liquor store, does it really matter that they’re selling wine down at the local big-box grocery store?  As nearly as I can tell from the sidelines, a great deal of legislation introduced is driven by grandstanding or someone getting in a particular legislator’s ear.  Harry Reid and sundry others are trying, depending on which side one listens to, to ban online gambling except for poker, or to ban all forms of online gambling, or whatever.  Does it really matter a damned bit, except to the gambling addicts?  Yes, it’s a needless constraint on the inherent human right to do stupid things with one’s money, and any needless constraint on liberty is a precedent for other, future such constraints on liberty, constraints which actually do harm to ordinary people.  By making part of the socio-political background noise the assumption that anything which some subset of the legislature doesn’t like can be banned for no reason other than they think it’s (i) good for us, or (ii) good for their pet constituencies, we increase, at some marginal level, the likelihood of future passive acceptance of genuinely egregious intrusions on liberty.  Can’t recall off the top of my head who first made the point, but it is in fact correct that it is only seldom that a society loses all its freedom all at once.

However, it’s precisely these drip-drip-drip erosions of liberty that Are Going to Happen, because enough of the unthinking can be mobilized in their support.  Yes, you can fight them tooth and nail, every time.  But fighting them tooth and nail will burn bridges, use up political capital, and perhaps make the forces of freedom less able in the future to resist something that really is a die-in-the-last-ditch issue.  And of course other It’s Going to Happen issues don’t implicate liberty interests at all, like how the governing board of a local water utility district is selected, or whether the local school superintendent is popularly elected or appointed by a board of education.  Whether a particular interstate spur is built on one side of a hill versus the other just is not going to make much in the nature of permanent impact beyond the people immediately affected.

Other issues, Big Issues, that Are Going to Happen are different.  There are certain measures that once adopted become bells which cannot be un-rung.  I’m quite comfortable that not a few votes in Congress for that monstrosity of a health care “reform” act were cast on the assumption of let’s just get it on the books so we can say we supported “fixing the broken system,” and then later we’ll come back and fix all the potholes.  Except it’s not going to work that way.  Individual mandate or no, the inevitable consequence of requiring insurance companies to insure everyone for everything at any time, and at the same time prohibiting them from pricing adequately for it, will be to destroy the private health insurance industry.  Oh sure, the companies may survive, but if they do it will be as de facto public utilities, in which the operations and expenses of government are off-loaded onto non-governmental actors, but the policies and preferences are selected by people inside government.  Once you destroy the structures for the private payment of health care insurance you will never re-create them. 

Outright nationalization of industries also seems to work very similarly.  Once you take them over and run them as branches of the government it’s extraordinarily difficult to reconstitute them as private enterprises.  They never seem to regain the ground lost.

And of course we sometimes have the Truly Important occasions on which giving in to what someone else describes as inevitable is nothing short of disastrous.  I’d argue that Dear Leader’s take-over of the health care industry was one of those occasions, if only because it will wreck no less than 20% of the national economy, and maybe more.  But he’s really not the Exhibit A I was thinking about today.

You see, 80 years ago today, Paul von Hindenburg bowed to the “It’s Gonna Happen” of the National Socialists taking over the Germany government.  Oh, to be true there were others in the cabinet as well, non-Nazis, people who could be counted on to contain Adolf Hitler as chancellor, people who could show him how politics worked, how to go along to get along, how not to Upset the Apple Carts of People Who Mattered.  The Nazis didn’t have a majority (they never were voted an outright majority in any arguably free election) but they were the largest party, and certainly the loudest.  They were unstoppable; they were inevitable; the hour for the redemption of Germany had struck, and this funny-acting Austrian corporal was Going to Happen.  The Schleichers, the Papens, the Neuraths, the Brauchitschs, the Schachts . . . they all figured they’d go ahead and work with the man because he was Going to Be Appointed, and anyway once they had him penned up in the Chancellory they could draw his sharpest teeth.

What they didn’t appreciate until it was too late, way too late, was that they weren’t even playing in the same ballpark as Hitler.  Silly people, they thought they would absorb and digest him, and spit back out a nice, conforming, squishy-edged politician.  So why not go along with something that was Going to Happen?  Hitler had no interest at all in becoming a powerful chancellor of the German Republic; wasn’t even mildly curious about it.  He wanted to — had announced, years before, his intention to — seize the republic by the throat and strangle it, then erect himself and his movement astride its corpse.

Which is exactly what Hitler went out and did.  And all those people, the political sages, the Deep Thinkers, the nudge-nudge insiders, the people who — carefully preserving their airs of jaded weariness at the tumults of the masses and those ignorant sods’ belief that Their Boy was going to be any more than one more pebble in the pond — had assured each other that since it was Going to Happen Anyway, they may as well make the best of it and ride it for what it was worth.  Run a Wikipedia search on Kurt von Schleicher (who was instrumental in engineering Hitler’s appointment in the first place) and see how he fared.  Or the same on Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht, and see where he ended the war (and what he was doing in November, 1946).

Whenever I hear my friends and acquaintances who Know Better allowing that, well, so-and-so Is Going to Happen, so you may just as well get used to the idea, I want to beat my head against the wall.  Because nothing in politics is inevitable.  Tyranny is a choice, as is decline, as is prosperity, as is freedom.  In the end, nothing at all Is Going to Happen unless it is permitted to happen.

And sometimes, Letting It Happen, or not, makes all the difference in the world, as it did 80 years ago today.

Update (02 Feb 13):  Ilya Somin over at the Volokh Conspiracy has a spot-on post on What Happens When Illiberal, Anti-Democratic Forces Take Power Through the Democratic Process.  It’s about Egypt, which went to the polls and elected the Muslim Brotherhood to replace Hosni Mubarak, an outcome at which Dear Leader expressed “relief.”  Somin excerpts and links to some commentary in Bloomberg by Noah Feldman, identified as a Harvard Law School professor (which alone should alert Gentle Reader to the weight to be attached to it).  The money quote:

“If Egypt’s democrats want to avoid becoming another Pakistan, in which democracy is never more than a few shots from military dictatorship, they have just one path available to them: take a deep breath, go home, and let the democratically elected government try to do its job. Mursi and his government may do well or badly. But as long as they are up for re-election in a few years, they will have laid the groundwork for democratic transition.

Patriots of Tahrir, ask yourselves: You may not like Mursi. But would you really rather have the army?

You have to figure that some fellow who landed a job at HLS is pretty keen as a legal mind.  Feldman seems to fall on his face pretty hard as an historian, though.  Mursi simply decreed himself effectively unlimited power some time ago.  Oh sure, he’s promised to surrender it when the time comes.  And learned folks like Feldman bite down hook, line, and sinker on that promise.  I would point out to the Learned Professor Feldman that the Ermächtigungsgesetz — the Enabling Law — of 1933 was passed by a majority of the Reichstag and came with a built-in sunset clause of 01 April 1937.  Maybe the good professor could remind us how that worked out, again?

Feldman’s error is to assume that legitimacy of government has nothing at all to do with what that government does.  Over at Instapundit, Reynolds points out, “But those rights [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] are unalienable — incapable of being alienated, that is, bought, sold, or given away — which means that even if you live in a democracy, you haven’t surrendered them to the majority. A majority that wants to take away your unalienable rights isn’t a legitimate government. I’m gratified by how many Egyptians seem to grasp that; it’s more than I expected, though perhaps not as many as it needs to be. It’s clearly more than the Muslim Brotherhood expected, too.”

By the way, Feldman also tips his hand when he presents the Egyptian military as being the worst of all possible outcomes, even measured against the Brotherhood.  Is it, one asks, because of the Egyptian military’s actual track record, or is it because it is a military, and in Feldman’s world and lexicon “military” is co-extensive with “the most unspeakably brutal, oppressive, murderous thugs you could possibly imagine to yourself”?  He hints at the answer to that question when he starts his article by observing that he hates to agree with “an Egyptian general about anything.”  Is it the Egyptian he doesn’t want to agree with, or the general?  He obviously has no problem agreeing with the Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood that they ought to be running the joint according to their own visions (see the quoted langauge above; ought the SPD in February, 1933 have taken a deep breath, gone home, and let the new Reichskanzler try to do his job?), so what is the source of the repugnance of this Egyptian general’s opinions?

Feldman must be a perfect fit over at Harvard.

A Thought Experiment

Now that the U.S. has officially lifted the ban on women in combat roles, it seems that some people are willing to take another look at other sacred cows as well.  Specifically, Rep. Charles Rangel, tax cheat representative from New York, has come out and is plumping for not only a co-educational combat force, but a co-ed draft as well.  He makes half his point very well, but left out the other half of it.  Specifically, he points out that with an all-volunteer force, the flesh-and-blood burden of defending the U.S. falls on an incredibly thin slice of our population, less than 1%.  True enough; the other part of his point is that the 1% that serves is not randomly-selected.  It is, after all, a volunteer force and volunteerism in anything is never randomly-selected, whether it’s Delta Force (where a high school classmate served), or the 82d Airborne (where a law partner served), or the SEALs (where a cousin serves still), or the combat fleet (where I served), or helping out down at the local humane society.

Both parts Rangel’s point are entirely true and an acknowledgment of that truth must underlie any intelligent, morally defensible discussion of the issue of whom do we ask to give what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”  Where Rangel may go off the reservation a bit (or a lot, as some have argued, q.v.) is in the implications he draws from that.  Chief among them is his statement that, “Since we replaced the compulsory military draft with an all-volunteer force in 1973, our nation has been making decisions about wars without worry over who fights them.”  I would suggest that to the extent that by “our nation” he means “people inside the Beltway, the socio-economic elite inside the Northeast Corridor, and the same bunch in coastal California,” he’s probably pretty much correct.  To the extent that “our nation” can be read to include us out here in fly-over country, or those who do not work for “non-profits,” or in upper-level government positions, or in academia, or on Wall Street, I submit his statement is pretty demonstrably false.  We’re the ones who staff up the armed forces, after all, by a widely disproportionate margin.  When hell-holes like Iraq, or Somalia, or Mali heat up, we’re the ones who can tick off a half-dozen or more people within our families and close acquaintances who may or may not come back from it in one piece.

 Rangel’s suggestions have not met with universal approval.  Over at Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin has a principled objection to the notion of a draft of any kind under any conditions but those in extremis.  They’re by and large of a libertarian bent over at the Conspiracy, which means that I sympathize if not outright agree with them the vast majority of the time.  And when I don’t it’s usually because I think they weigh and balance things other than I think they should.  This is one of those times.

Somin’s right about the nature of the intrusion onto personal liberty which a military draft represents.  It’s coerced labor, plain and simple.  In terms of how it stacks up against other forms of governmental intrusion upon what you are pleased to think of as your personal liberty, if you think requiring a 24-hour waiting period before getting a third-trimester abortion is a monstrous intrusion of the state into the sanctity of your uterus, then you ought to try a 7.62mm round through the reproductive system, or a sizzling shell splinter through ditto.  Just sayin’.

Somin’s also entirely correct that all else being equal you’re not likely to get as high-quality a military through conscription as you would if you relied on an all volunteer force, at least not in American society.  For the counter-argument, I refer Gentle Reader to the examples of the Kaiser’s army and the Old Contemptibles in World War I.  The Kaiser’s was an enormous conscript army, and put huge numbers of reservists into front-line units right out of the gate (in fact, it was the Allies’ belief that you couldn’t feasibly do that which lead them woefully to underestimate the manpower which Germany was able to pour into Belgium in August, 1914).  The BEF was all-volunteer and, thanks to years of colonial warfare (not least the Boer War) had extensive combat experience; it also continued the British military tradition of being able to withstand incredible pounding without breaking (a point Wellington understood very well at Waterloo, but which Napoleon didn’t grasp until he saw it, by which time he was screwed).  No one who saw the oceans of feldgrau underway that summer would suggest that the conscripts gave anything away to the volunteers.  I will say this much, though:  There were (and are) important cultural differences between Anglo-American and German society which might well impeach the validity of my comparison.  On the other hand, I would suggest that different experience levels will dwarf other sources of qualitative difference, such that a conscript army with prolonged combat and related experience is going to be vastly better than a volunteer but little-used force.  In that connection it’s important to realize that right now and for the foreseeable future, the U.S. armed forces, however constituted, are predictably going to be the most experienced forces on the field, no matter against whom measured.

In any event, where I depart from Somin is not in his objections to the draft as an intrusion on personal liberty, or even in his concerns with what quality military we’d get from the exercise.  What I don’t think he’s adequately confronted is the speed at which modern war unfolds.  The only reason that the Old Contemptibles weren’t ground to mud before 1916 was because the French could field a massive (conscripted) army of their own and hold the overwhelming portion of the Western Front, and because until 1917 Germany had significant forces tied down in the East.  The only reason that the British Army was able to reconstitute itself after June, 1940 was because there was an English Channel between Hitler’s divisions and them, and because of Göring’s fatal abandonment of the assault against Fighter Command, right at the point he was about to win it, and so win air control over the Channel.  The only reason that Japan didn’t conquer even more of the Pacific than they did was the iron law of time and distance.  The only reason that Stalin was able to re-build the Red Army was because Germany ran out of steam literally at the gates of Moscow, and even then Russia damned near didn’t pull it off.

With all possible respect to Brer Somin, no future general war is going to grant us the kind of time Britain had in 1914-16, or in 1939-42, or we had in 1942-43.  With modern transportation and logistics there’s a decent chance that ol’ Graf Schlieffen’s vision of a war over in six weeks is going to be borne out in the event.  If the key to military victory is concentration of forces at the critical points in the decisive theater, then I’m going to state that there is no way the United States can with an all-volunteer force achieve that level of concentration sufficiently quickly as to stave off strategic set-backs if not defeat.  In 1990 we were able to suppress Iraq while we built up our attack forces in Saudi Arabia, but what if Saddam had been able to contest the C3 battle?  What if he’d been able to keep us from controlling the air?  Would we have been permitted the several months’ build-up?  With a peacetime draft we can cycle vastly more people though the training system, keeping them as reserves (as did Wilhelmine Germany), and recalling them to the colors as needed.  It would entail re-structuring the permanent, regular forces, as we diverted resources to increasing the reserve, but then that’s a cost I’d be willing to bear.

But none of that really has to do with my thought experiment.  Some time ago I announced (to thin air) on this blog that in future I would run all of my political thinking through the filter of which policy choices and candidates would minimize the likelihood of my sons having to fight to fix the balls-ups that Dear Leader and his fellow anti-Americans are preparing for us.  By the time my boys start hitting the age for military service I am quite convinced there will have been at least one nuclear exchange in the Middle East.  Someone has to clean that mess up, and the folks who get to enjoy that task are by and large the P.B.I., as the English used to call them — the Poor Bloody Infantry.  So let’s ask the question whether formally lifting a ban on females in combat positions will or will not increase that likelihood.

For starts, nothing about lifting the ban will make any such war more or less likely, so that criterion is a wash.  By increasing the theoretically potential numbers of combat troops relative to overall force size, it would dilute my boys’ statistical probability of finding themselves in a combat unit, in a combat role.  So that criterion argues in favor of lifting the ban.  On the other hand, if you assume that if my boys do end up in those units, and those roles, but with X% of their unit made up of females, will the females’ presence increase or decrease the likelihood of my boy stopping a round instead of one of them?  Here I’m afraid the answer relies on knowing how the males and females in those units are going to react.  This has little to do with hypothetical gender-norming of roles or whatever the hell you want to call it.  The males will take care of the females.  The males will end up shouldering increased burdens, either because they decide to, or because the females in fact cannot keep up.  The males will end up accepting the greater risks the unit faces.   In a specific combat situation, is it more likely to be the males or the females who get sent out to close with the enemy, as opposed to providing covering fire, or communications with the rear, or simply to provide the reserve (in World War I it was not unusual for units slated to go over the top to leave a certain percentage of the troops behind to reconstitute the unit if the attack waves were annihilated . . . as not seldom happened)?  I know, I know in my heart, that it will be the females who are left back, which means that my boys’ statistical likelihood of not being among the guys who have to cross the open field, or clear out the block of houses, or cross the canal, or whatever, will go down.  I’m not just making all that stuff up, sitting here at my desk.  Others with far greater knowledge and experience — close-quarters combat experience — seem to have the same reactions.

Thus I conclude that with females in combat positions I am more rather than less likely to get that folded flag, saluted, and thanked by the honor guard captain for my boy’s service to his country.  I am, therefore, opposed to females in combat roles, notwithstanding my visceral desire that all those women who dutifully trooped down and voted for Dear Leader because of what some MSNBC operative told them what Mitt Romney really in secret wanted to do to their uterus and their daughter’s as well — notwithstanding Romney had said nothing of the kind — ought to enjoy the spectacle of their daughter’s flag-draped coffin (assuming there’s enough left of her to fill a coffin; artillery fire will work hell on your mascara).  I realize that increasing the hypothetical possibility for that happening will actually in fact increase the likelihood of my own boys’ deaths, and so I must forego that pleasure.

If You’re Not Terrified, You’re Not Paying Attention

It really didn’t surprise me when last year the EU parliament voted to prevent ratings agencies from explaining exactly how lousy a credit risk it and its constituent governments are.  You sort of expect that kind of thing from an outfit that has elevated ramming things down ordinary citizens’ throats to an art form.

Dear Leader’s SEC has now gone down the same road.  Point out that, as Instapundit has observed in numerous contexts, things that can’t go on won’t; that promises that can’t be kept won’t be; and that debts that cannot be paid won’t be either, and they drop on you like a ton of bricks, and in exchange for a promise not to destroy your business they extort a vow of silence.  “Nice business you’ve got here.  Be a pity if it were litigated into oblivion, wouldn’t it?”

 As a side effect of what Prof. Reynolds describes in “Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime,” every last one of us is absolutely exposed to this kind of treatment.  In a world in which pretty much every person is committing something like, as the title of a book phrases it, Three Felonies a Day, then any of us can be prosecuted for any of them, more or less at the whim of the DOJ (the same outfit which brought you Operation Fast and Furious, the illegal gun-running scheme into Mexico).  As a precondition of not destroying your life through the cost of defending yourself — even assuming you win — the government may extort from you surrender of rights you otherwise would hold inviolate.

In the ratings agency case described at Zero Hedge, you would think that the company, Egan-Jones, which is in the business of reporting the financial condition of the U.S. as expressed through its debt issues, and expressing opinions based upon that news, would enjoy the same measure of press freedom that, say the NYT enjoys when it commits crimes like disclosing national security secrets which have been provided to it, and which it knows have been provided to it, in violation of numerous valid criminal statutes.  I mean, what is the meaningful distinction between Paul Krugman’s solemnly assuring us that infinite government borrowing to finance infinitely growing governmental spending is just wonderful . . . and Egan-Jones pointing out that you’d be something of a fool to believe that the U.S. will actually be able to pay the stuff back in dollars that haven’t been devalued to the vanishing point?  Perhaps they do.  On the other hand, I’m quite comfortable that if you press any company hard enough you will find something, somewhere, in some part of its operations, that is in violation of some obscure regulation.  It appears they found such a regulatory violation at Egan-Jones.  The federal government offered them a bargain:  You surrender your rights of press freedom and we won’t destroy your livelihoods.

Now, does anyone pay much attention to what Egan-Jones says about federal government debt?  Honestly, I’d never heard of them before I read the linked article.  But as the Chinese say, kill the chicken and make the monkey watch.  Does anyone think that S&P, or Fitch, or Moody’s weren’t paying attention to what happened to their smaller colleague?

What’s Next? The AMA Endorsing “Reasonable” Euthansia?

The ABA has decided to weigh in on the effort to subvert one of the specifically enumerated rights set forth in the Bill of Rights.  Yep; an organization that is supposedly all about preserving the integrity of the Constitution, and which regularly goes to bat for all manner of purely invented rights which appear nowhere in the document, either expressly or by necessary implication — such as the “right” to kill one’s unborn child for no reason other than one’s whim of the moment — and which solemnly pontificates about the “right” of enemy combatants captured in the field to be run through the same criminal justice system, and with the same procedural “rights,” as the guy who pulls a smash-n-grab down at the local jewelry store on Main Street, has now decided that those nasty ol’ dead white guys blew it when they actually went and wrote down, in black ink on white paper, that the right of “the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  The ABA is supposedly above mere politics.  The American Bar Association, like the ACLU, is not supposed to take sides against the Constitution.  For it to back a frontal assault on an enumerated right is no less outrageous, in its own context, that would be the American Medical Association’s endorsing a “reasonable” bill that provided for euthanasia of what a regime more honest than ours once described as “useless feeders.”

The bill endorsed — Sen. Feinstein’s laughably superficial effort to imposed a ban of a kind that has never stopped and will never stop a lunatic bent on mass killing — has absolutely zero to do with what is allegedly the ABA’s core mission:  the improvement of the American bench and bar.  The comments to the article are nearly uniformly hostile to the action, and I am pleased to note that a large number announce intentions to resign their ABA memberships.  I am a member of several sections of the ABA: the taxation, real property, probate and trust, and small business sections.  I do in fact get useful publications from those section memberships and of course were I no longer a member of the ABA I would not have that access.  On the other hand I would not be utterly deprived of the information; I’d just have to seek harder to find and digest it on my own or from alternative sources.

With this latest thrust, the ABA un-masks itself and reveals why it is one of the most pernicious organizations in the United States today.

Once Again: Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Which is the take-away from this Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article on the insoluble quandary for parents of schoolchildren:  To help with homework or not?

The article cites several pedagogical researchers all of whom agree that helping children with their homework actively impairs the learning process.  The child who knows that mother or father is going to sit them down and go over it all again anyway is less motivated to pay attention in the first place.  The child whose attentions to school work are directed at home does not learn the self-initiative and responsibility for learning — his ownership in his education is diminished.  On a more basic level, when parents ensure their children do their homework, help them do their homework, and even of course when they in effect do the homework themselves, they deprive their child of the vital life lesson that actions (and inactions) have consequences.  When parents do more than just help out with explanations, the teachers get a misleading feedback of their students’ progress.  Spending three or four hours a day on homework robs the children of play time, of sport time, of experiencing daylight hours (I’d observe that those objections go more to the amount of homework than the manner in which it gets done).  When the parents mix themselves into their child’s homework, in contrast, they acquire ownership of the child’s school progress and perceive the child’s difficulties and failures as their own.  The parent’s adoption of the role of cattle-driver also damages the parent-child relationship.  At least one of the parents quoted in the article is willing to consider not only a change in school (from a Gymnasium to the lower Realschule), but even a change in country, specifically England or America.  She mentions a friend of hers who took her son to England and the boy went from a problem child to star student . . . in a school where he had to learn in a completely different language.

And yet.  No one wants to be the parent of the only child in the class who’s getting no help at home.  In point of fact unless you are sufficiently fortunate to have a highly gifted, self-starter of a child who needs neither assistance nor supervision, allowing your child to go it alone in school, when all his peers are in effect doubling down on instructional time will put him at a competitive disadvantage relative to his classmates.

Behold the dark side of the societal paradigm of formal education as the path to advancement.  In any system, no matter for what purpose, those who most successfully master the system will experience, as a group, the best outcomes.  That’s true on a basketball court; it’s true in a military hierarchy; it’s true in the hierarchical churches.  It’s true in law skool (with the result that we get judges who are great law stoodints, but who all too frequently have only modest observable understanding of the actual world people actually have to live in).  It’s true in grade school. 

We in the West in general and the U.S. in particular have devised an excellent system for weeding out, on the path upward, children who do not do well in formalized school environments.  We have done this through requiring credentialling utterly unrelated to performance requirements or ability, with specific programs for specific sorts of children that have defined and narrowly circumscribed entry points and little or no lateral access, and with massive dilution of credentials that are available.  If every college degree provided reasonable hope of similar economic benefit, there would not be phrases like “higher education bubble” current in American discourse.

Overlaid on these winnowing mechanisms is the crushing weight of a thoroughly dysfunctional public education system, so that unless a child’s family is unusually well-off, or wiling to live on Alpo and wear sackcloth and ashes in order to send Junior to a half-way decent private school, Junior’s likely — not inevitably, by any means, but just very, very likely — to be extruded from the far end of the system having had minimal exposure to teachers who actually have studied in their fields, and who have been obliged to spend massive amounts of time on what can only be described as penny-ante administrivia, and who have through curriculum mandates and/or personal preferences devoted a good chunk of the remaining time to what is in essence political indoctrination.  As sad as it is to say it, your child in public school is much more likely to be well-versed in the Approved dogmas of “climate change” and the need for “diversity” (in everything except thought, by the way) than he is to be familiar with the grammatical structure of the ordinary English sentence which is, as Churchill noted, “a noble thing.”  I will state categorically that this situation is objectively harmful to the children and to our larger society.

Even if you can scrape together the money to send your child to a private school, he’s still only going to get X hours per day of the kind of instruction which will teach his mind to think critically, systematically, and logically — in other words, math.  So you get to sign the poor kid up for Kumon or its analogues.  When he gets home from that he’s got all his course work to attend to and all of his supplementary stuff.  Add into that the résumé-building of sports, “volunteer” (although how voluntary can something be when it’s done on the well-founded supposition that without it you haven’t a hope of getting into a college that will even begin to enable you to recover the cost of having attended?) activities, and so forth, and the next thing you know you don’t have a child any more.  As Petra, one of the mothers quoted in the article and herself a teacher, says of her son, “The child’s only just functioning; that’s not a childhood.”

And what if you haven’t the available time because in order to keep your family’s head above water both of you have to hold full-time jobs and maybe additional work as well?  What is the likelihood that your child is going to be able not merely to keep up, but to maximize his performance in the classroom?  If he doesn’t maximize that performance, and pretty early in his school career, then he will not get picked up for Program X, Y, or Z.  He won’t screen for certain programs.  And these programs tend to be accessible only at one end.  Miss that eligibility gate because maybe a parent’s lost a decent job and has to take two lousy ones so the family doesn’t lose its home while he or she looks for another, or because someone in the family got sick and mommy spent her evenings attending to the convalescent, or Junior just had a bad year in school . . . and while his future trajectory has by no means been determined where it will go, you most certainly have now answered at least some portion of the question of where he is not going to go.

All this builds feed-back loops, at both ends of the distribution.  Children of parents who have done well at The Game are much more likely to do well at it than children of parents who have not.  Children from either end of the spectrum are much more likely to marry and have children with each other than with someone from the opposite end.  And so the dynamic perpetuates itself and becomes more pronounced as the generations play out.  It is one of the chief benefits of capitalism, and indeed it is one of the principal moral justifications for it as a method of social organization, that alone among those systems devised by humans thus far, it permits and even promotes bi-directional changes in circumstance within individual lives and across generations of families, according to how useful individual people make themselves to other humans.  But the implications of the situation described here make that transmutation ever less likely, at least from the lower to the upper ends of the spectrum of human existence.  Yes, there will always be the occasional out-lier, but that’s exactly what those people are: out-liers.  Bill Gates was a college drop-out, but you know what?  It was Harvard he dropped out of, and it was no accident that he got there in the first place (I refer Gentle Reader to Malcolm Gladwell’s book on the subject for a better idea of how Bill Gates grew up).

Perhaps it’s no wonder that birth rates are dropping through the floor.

Opinions are Like . . . Well, Opinions

Which is to say, they’re all over the map.

When we first got Internet access in our office, a dozen or more years ago, I used CNN as my start page.  Come into the office in the morning, fire up the coffee machine, crank up the desktop, and see what’s going on in the world.  It was all the more helpful because I don’t have a television at home.  I very clearly recall that on September 11, 2001, I couldn’t get to their site for some reason.

And then came 2006.  If Gentle Reader will recall, that was the year Al Qaeda made a propaganda film.  We know it was a propaganda film because they announced it as such; they stated that they had compiled it and released it in hopes of affecting the outcome of the 2006 mid-term elections.  It was a compilation of video of terrorist snipers shooting American soldiers, marines, and airmen.  CNN, knowing what the film was, and why it had been produced, and understanding that Al Qaeda believed its release would product electoral effect favorable to it, ran the film.  And ran it.  And ran it. 

To get an idea of the morality of what CNN did, imagine if you will that, during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, the longest land battle the U.S. has ever fought, and which began in September, 1944, the Nazi camera crews had shot footage of American soldiers stepping on land mines, or being shredded by artillery shells bursting in the tree canopy, or hosed down with flamethrowers, or caught in interlocking machine gun fire.  I have a history of the battle (annoyingly, while the book is packed with place references, as any tactical level military history will be, there are almost no maps at all anywhere in the book, so unless you grew up in the place, or have handy some official map publication, you’re at sea trying to understand the ebb and flow of the battle), and it was impossible to avoid the impression that the American command seriously mismanaged it.  In the event, several infantry divisions got fed into the battle, piecemeal, and chewed to bits.  Over a quarter of the forces engaged on our side became casualties.  Now imagine that Goebbels decides he’s going to try to meddle in the 1944 presidential election by putting together this film in an effort to show the American people that Roosevelt’s a callous bastard who’s just Squandering Your Boys’ Lives and his party’s no better.  And now imagine that Movietone Newsreels decides to show that film in every theater in the country.  What would be the reasonable citizen’s reaction?

I decided then that it was true what some were saying about the mainstream media in America:  They’re not anti-war; they’re just on the other side.  So I decided that if I was going to get my daily dose of hostility to America I would do so without the alloy of treason.  From then until now I’ve used the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s website as my start page.  It helps me keep up my German, acquired with such effort, and it provides a helpful cross-reference on issues that affect us all.  They’re usually described as a center-right publication, but in truth I’d say they’re left of center by a comfortable margin.  Not as much as most of the American media, but still perceptibly so. 

From time to time I’ll run across articles on things that don’t directly have anything to do with the U.S., but which relate to issues and arguments current here.  Not having the same historical and cultural reference points, you can find things said there which would be assiduously suppressed here (and vice versa, by the way).  I recall a report on a lengthy study done on what things have measurable positive effects on student performance in public schools.  If memory serves it was actually a European-wide study.  Among the things they found had no discernible positive effect on measurable student performance:  increased spending per pupil; increased teacher pay; reduced class size.  I can’t recall if technology spending was also examined.  Interestingly, one of the things the study did recommend was to leave the students together longer.  In Germany students are divided after a few years into those who will attend the Hauptschule and be essentially done after tenth grade, and go become blue-collar workers, farm hands, or whatnot; the Realschule, who attend I think through 12th grade and who are targeted for the lower white-collar jobs in industry, trade, and government bureaucracy; and, last, the Gymnasium which runs through a 13th year and in which in one’s final two years one selects two main subjects for concentration.  Those final two years really are more like the first two years at an American university (in fact they’re actually more demanding than that, by a good margin).  Only the Gymnasiasten are eligible to attend the universities and their technical equivalents, the technische Hochschulen.  The study recommended deferring the point of division for a year or two.  But for me what was interesting was its finding that the usual NEA-espoused nostrums just don’t seem to work.  As mentioned, stuff like that I find helpful because it’s a cross-reference that you can’t tar with the brush of Bush, or Halliburton, or, or the Koch brothers, or whoever is your particular bugaboo.

In this morning’s edition there’s a report on German opinions of America and Americans.  Specifically they report on what has every appearance of being an actual permanent shift in their perceptions of us, their liking of us, their willingness to emulate us, and their understanding of the nature and desired direction of their relationship with us.  The results discussed are the most recent results of a battery of questions that’s been asked periodically and to a greater or lesser extent since the 1950s (at least for some of the questions).

The article reports that since the early 2000s, particularly since 2003 and the invasion of Iraq, the Germans’ overall good opinion of the U.S., the percentage identifying the U.S. as Germany’s closest friend, the percentage seeing us as that country with which it is desirable to work closely, the percentage seeing us as a place of opportunity, have all plummeted, in some cases by two-thirds or more.  The Germans still think Dear Leader walks on water and parts it for those who can’t; he polls better than JFK after his visit to Berlin in 1963.  But the article reports what it bluntly calls markedly increasing anti-Americanism among the Germans. The percentage that perceives us as a land of high criminality, social injustice, inequality, superficiality, uncultured, a land with low quality of life, represents a majority, in some cases a huge majority, of the German population.  For example, only 19% described the U.S. as a place where one may enjoy a good quality of life.  Only 17% of the population expects to find gebildete individuals here (Bildung, in German means something quite different from “educated,” “accomplished,” or “talented”; I’m not even sure “refined” or “cultured” even quite capture what they understand by it; the topic gets a good airing in The German Genius, a book to which I’ve previously linked several times).  A high level of culture is anticipated by every bit of 8% of Germans.

The country which seems to have taken America’s place in German hearts, by the way, is France.  That’s encouraging.

Those last two data points cited by the article’s author are juxtaposed with what he calls the “enormous scientific and cultural achievements” of the U.S., together with, just as another example, the library system here which is explicitly favorably compared to that in Germany.  The author references those and then allows that the Germans’ perceptions of us an ungebildetes Volk and uncultured “can only indicate expression of a massively distorted perception” of the U.S.  This massively distorted perception exists side-by-side with the data point, also referenced by the author, that fully one-quarter of the German population has friends or relatives here.

The author proposes that the German-American relationship has been inadequately fostered in the last few years.  He notes that public expression of clichés and stereotypes of ethnic, religious, or other groupings in Europe is widely condemned.  “Apparently there is little contradiction when Americans are publicly and categorically described as dumb, asocial, and uncultured.”  Well, but of course.

Does this all matter, and why?  I think it does, because as the rest of Europe slides into insolvency and is swamped by would-be Islamofascists, among the continentals only Germany seems to be holding out for some degree of fiscal sanity.  Only Germany has taken the position that, well, yes, you’re welcome here and you’re welcome to practice your religion here, but you’re by Allah going to become Germans while you do it (note the diametric opposition of this position to the Nuremberg Laws, by which Jews could not ever be “German”).  Within the past couple of years a cabinet minister (I think it was the cultural minister, but I can’t recall exactly) came right out and said that separatism was to be resisted, that assimilation was and had to be the formal goal of public policy.  This is good; as American society and politics is driven ever further down the road of Balkanization by — among others — Dear Leader himself, we need a close friend who’s looked into that dark pit and decided not to jump in.

I’ve always thought that, after its language and literature, the most precious gift England gave us was the concept of “reasonableness.”  That does not mean reasoned.  Reason drives a concept to its logical conclusion, however absurd that may be when fitted around the odd shapes and contours of human nature.  It produces silliness like the French Revolution and its train of horrors.  Reasonableness tells us not to take ourselves so damned seriously; it reminds us that everything’s got its limits, and that if two is good three isn’t necessarily better.  Reasonableness reminds us that just because we can doesn’t mean we ought to.  It reminds us to seize the chance to shut up and mind our own business.

By like token, Germany has given the U.S. many precious gifts in its cultural legacy.  Too many to go into here, but there are more than sufficient to justify regarding America’s relationship with Germany as every bit as special, in its own way, as ours with Britain.  The coming years will be years of great trial, I am afraid, as we struggle against a world-view which thinks the Seventh Century is to be reimposed on the globe, and we try to maintain that struggle with the shackles of socialistic organization about our ankles.  We will need every bit of help from every willing hand.  With the degree of estrangement described the FAZ article one would be forgiven for questioning whether if we stretched our hand out to Germany, we would find theirs in it.

What is It, After All, with Them?

To borrow a line spoken by some proper Victorian woman, upon seeing the play Salome (I think it was; had to include the reference to ol’ Alexandrina Victoria on the anniversary of her death, by the way), “How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen.”  Another German cabinet member has been caught plagiarizing, with the result that the university duped is instituting proceedings to investigate and if warranted to strip her of her title.  And she’s the Minister of Education!!!  A couple of years ago the defense minister got busted and lost his doctorate, and if memory serves there’s been a third one out there as well, in the interim.

What gives?

Well, I’ll tell you what gives:  People will do anything to receive those imprimaturs which, in the society in which they operate, give them the best chances of advancement with the least corresponding effort.  Hayek wrote about the same dynamic, by the way, in The Road to Serfdom, in the chapter titled (I’m working from memory here, folks, so forgive me) “Why the Worst End Up on Top.”  He demonstrates, very briefly, why in any political system those people with the least scruples to use the hand-holds and points of leverage available within that system will always advance the farthest.  And since under socialism the stakes are little less than physical survival itself (there was a reason why Stalin’s henchmen fought so desperately for face time with him, after all), the encouragement is all the greater.  And it’s the ones with the least scruples of all who will do best at the game because there is that much less that they won’t do.

In Germany, with its traditions of the Bildungsbürgertum, the brass ring is the doctorate.  In the previous post I noted the peculiarly German usage that in written address each doctorate the addressee holds is mentioned separately.  I’ve actually seen on a brass plate outside someone’s office “Dr. Dr. Dr. So-and-So,” and it wasn’t a physician.  It’s that important that people will scramble to damned near any lengths to get one.  Politics attracting those of the least scruples in any event, is it surprising that politicians turn out to be more susceptible to the temptations of getting the ring the easy way?  In contrast, here in the U.S. yesterday we observed a national holiday established in honor of someone who got caught plagiarizing a dissertation, red-handed.  Our vice president is likewise a known plagiarist.  But here the doctorate is what your slightly weedy cousin went to get after college because he didn’t have a girlfriend to support.  It’s not a social rank here, so we just don’t care all that much if you gun-decked your dissertation.

By way of further contrast, and demonstrating my point, consider that in America’s grievance culture the highest imprimatur to have is that of victim, preferably someone who can claim to have been a victim of white males.  The descendants of African slaves can of course legitimately make that claim, but they’re a bit limited in that they were victimized by and large within a very narrow area of the country, and only for a limited time, and within that period only to limited extents (1619–1965, call it, with the last 100 years being a combination of mostly social oppression combined with — in that same limited area, legal ostracism).  Also, if you’re going to pretend to be someone you’re not, it’s sort of hard to pretend to be black if you’re actually of Asian descent.  While intermarriage between blacks and other subsets of the population is increasing and in fact has, so far as I can tell, passed the point where it’s even note-worthy, it’s still possible for the pretty untrained eye to tell.  Pretending to be black isn’t really a viable option for the American equivalents of the German Education Minister.

Ah, but the aboriginal populace has had centuries of interbreeding with other groups, to the point that in the Eastern U.S. you really have little idea whether the person standing next to you on the street corner does or does not have any ancestry in that regard.  It’s easy to fake, and the Indians have been getting it hard and fast since the 1580s.  And victimhood?  With all respect the Africans didn’t do too badly in comparison.  Sure, they were brought here in chains and worked like . . . well, like the slaves they were intended to be.  But their population actually not only reproduced itself, it flourished here.  Their descendants today, no matter how poorly they are treated relative to their fellow citizens or how they stack up on any socio-economic measuring points, are still miles better off than those left behind in Sub-Saharan Africa, on any material scale you care to pick.  Call it one of the ironic tragedies of American history — and I suppose African, too — that a system as monstrous as chattel slavery could have so benefitted its remote descendants relative to the descendants of those who escaped it. 

The aboriginal populations however got it good and hard from start to finish.  Begin with European diseases, which decimated their populations years before the whites even got to their part of the continent.  Enslavement was tried with them, and it just killed them off.  Unable to exploit them, the whites drove them ever-westward, away from the habitats they’d inhabited for generations, away from the game that was their source of life and culture, away from the climates where grew the crops they knew how to cultivate.  We destroyed their territory, their food sources, their social fabric.  We made war on them, continuously and mercilessly, from the 1580s until the 1890s.  We sent soldiers to shoot their old men, their women and their children, to burn their crops and their villages.  We took entire nations and shoved them into tiny corners of the once limitless lands they claimed as their own (and by the way, don’t hand me any nonsense about Indians not having any sense of ownership of the land; if you believe that then explain the wars they fought for the right to possess land — the Iroquois Confederation was not originally from where the white settlers found them, but had rather invaded and conquered the lands from their previous possessors; the Chickasaw and the Comanche likewise Did Not Play Well With Others).  To this day the Indians measure far, far below every other recognizable ethnic group in American society.  If you’re a black kid with a 1400 SAT, you can pretty much count on it that you’ll have your pick of colleges.  If you’re an Indian kid with that same score you won’t be able to cash the scholarship checks fast enough.

Easy to fake?  Check.  Spotless credibility as victims?  Check.  Open checkbooks and advancements if you can point to one in your organization?  Check.  The Indians are the perfect faux victims.

Exhibit A:  Elizabeth Warren, who lied about who and what she was, to get to Harvard and now the U.S. Senate.  Her “scholarship” has likewise been de-bunked as fraudulent as well.

Exhibit B:  Ward Churchill, about whom the less said the better.

Frau Schavan, meet Senator Warren.  You’ll recognize each other.  Mr. Churchill will be joining you presently.

And if This Doesn’t Cheer You Up

Andrew Klavan over at PJ Media has a thoughtful piece prompted by the sight of the reinauguration as president of the fellow who may be the most viciously anti-American, anti-Western, grossly in-over-his-head demagogue in public life.  The man’s political instincts are — proudly, and self-proclaimed — straight from the gutters of Chicago, a place that’s become a metaphor.  Back in the mid-1800s, they raised, physically raised, the city by about four feet in order to get it out of the slime of the lake-side swamp where it had been built.  They may as well have saved themselves the effort.  We as a nation have now twice wished that man, who has enthusiastically embraced the Chicago ethos, on ourselves as our leader.

Klavan — correctly, as I would suggest — sees the explanation for Dear Leader’s comfortable win after a campaign that strenuously avoided any discussion of his actual performance in office not in the usual analysing-the-horse-race of the television talking heads, but in something deeper, something much less comforting.  He sees it in human nature itself, and more particularly in the nearly universal craving for personal validation.  I’m good.  I want what’s right.  I am virtuous because I want what is virtuous.  These are ur-motives of modern human existence. 

Klavan spins his ruminations on this drive for validation in the context of thinking about a new(ish) play, The Party Line, written by PJ Media’s Roger L. Simon and his wife, Sheryl Longin.  [Note:  I haven’t read the play.  Yet.]  The play is an interwoven tale of two stories, both taken from events which actually happened.  The first is Walter Duranty, Stalin’s lick-spittle, whose cover-up of the Holodomor earned him a Pulitzer which The New York Times still has not repudiated.  The second is of Pim Fortuyn, who had the poor manners to point out the implications of the Religion of Peace permeating Dutch society, and was assassinated for his troubles.  Both of those stories and, just as important, the reaction of the people Thos. Sowell describes as the Deep Thinkers to them, are what gives Klavan pause.  The play, so Klavan, is about “the triumph of credo over truth, the ferocious commitment that decent, intelligent, educated people make to virtuous-sounding ideals and well-intended programs that are, in fact, the sure road to atrocity.”  He concludes:  “I’m embarrassed to say it, but in my youth I thought humanity stumbled slowly but surely toward the light of truth. Now I believe that we cling desperately, even violently, to the sense of our own virtue — and that the light of truth, which reveals us as we are, is our natural enemy. We would rather destroy the world than know ourselves.”

He’s right, of course.  We do cling violently to those things which we think make us virtuous.  The less effort and sacrifice it imposes on us, the more we like it.  This phenomenon is something of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was getting at in his notion of “cheap grace,” grace which asks little from its claimant.  Some — including some of my near acquaintance — have taken this idea and from it derived a duty of Christians to embrace socialistic preferences in public policy.  I admit I have difficulty making all the dots in those arguments connect.  As near as I recall, the injunction was to give one’s own property to the poor and follow Jesus oneself, not plunder one’s neighbor and give his stuff away, and imprison or beggar one’s fellow citizens if they do not follow Jesus, all the while standing around in evening attire drinking expensive liquors, eating fine foods, and enjoying the frisson of superiority with one’s equals.  I also must admit I do not fully understand how Christianity can be not merely consonant with, but can actually make obligatory, policy choices which can be mathematically shown to increase misery, want, and encroachments on humanity’s moral agency which is the very essence of our nature’s as God’s children.

It is, you see, that moral agency which alone separates us from the beasts of the forest in any meaningful sense.  We are not the only creatures to use language (whales communicate over vast distances with aural methods).  We are not the only  ones who use tools (other primates do).  We are not the only ones who are socialized into intricate and closely bound organizations for our mutual benefit (most canids are, ditto lions, elephants, and other species).  We are not even the only ones which engage in warfare (chimpanzees and, if memory serves, bonobos as well do).  Now, it’s true that thanks to opposable thumbs we have very advanced fine motor skills across a whole range of activities, but in terms of the basic locomotions of existence, whether running, swimming, or flying, we are out-classed by enormous numbers of animals.  No.  What makes us as humans special among the beasts is our moral agency; we alone have the ability to choose between virtue and iniquity.

What makes marxism and socialism so monstrous is not the mere fact of the heaps of corpses which those ideologies have piled up in less than 100 years.  What makes them abominations is that in their determinism, both as an historical understanding of human history and as prescription for action, they negate the moral agency of the person.  I am not good or bad, my existence is not a blessing or a curse to my fellow men, based upon what I do but upon my “membership” in something they call a “class” the existence, extent, and characteristics of which is defined by something they describe as “production.”  I am not to be dealt with, either by my fellow citizens individually or by the state in which we exist, as an independent moral actor, attempting in the flawed way of human nature to discern the Truth, the Right, and act upon it in my daily existence.  No: I am to be allocated, slotted, constrained, confined within channels that others have chosen for me based upon what they determine — at the level of millions of individual humans — to be abstract “justice”.  This nirvana-like end-point of their thinking shows how sloppy it actually is.  Marxism and its milque-toast bastard daughter socialism proudly describe themselves as being objectively materialistic.  “Justice” is, however, not an external material state but an internal moral condition that is inherent, present or absent, in the human being and his conduct.  Justice is not something you have but rather something you do.

Klavan’s musings put me in mind of a film I saw a couple of years ago, Good.  The protagonist is a professor in 1930s Germany.  At the film’s beginning the Nazis have just come to power and, in the middle of a class, there is a disturbance outside.  He goes to the window and it’s the students piling up books to be burned.  If I recall the scene correctly, all his students but one, a drop-dead gorgeous girl, go streaming out to join in.  He’s horrified.

The rest of movie takes you through his evolution.  Of course he gets involved with the girl, and it’s she who, during a walk in the park, suggests that maybe they attend a function just to see what it’s like (or something of that nature; I’ve slept since I last saw the movie).  The professor also has a mother who’s in the advanced stages of senility and must be Dealt With; a book of his speculating on the subject of euthanasia is picked up on by the authorities and he’s invited into the orbit, so to speak.  Eventually he becomes what is spun as a “consultant” to the SS, which works out to be what you’d expect: about as independently affiliated as an “adjunct” member of the Gambino family.  At some point he protests (feebly) when someone identifies him as associated with the SS that he prefers to be known as a professor.  Ho-ho, the viewer is tempted to say.  And of course being a professor he starts the movie with a very learned, very successful Jewish friend.  By the end of the movie he’s looking for what happened to his friend, and all he can find is that he was deported to a specific camp on a particular date.

But that is, as they say, only the plot.  Several reviewers at take the movie to task for showing the supporting characters as being too one-dimensional, too wooden, too stock.  I suggest that the subject of the movie is the progressive degradation of one specific man’s soul from righteous outrage to willing if unthinking bureaucrat drudge pushing papers into files, across desks, into drawers, heedless of the fact that it’s people he’s destroying.  It’s not about the character development of the others; in the universe of the movie they are not loci of action but functional devices.  The girl is of course a siren, a beautiful woman who softly purrs into Our Hero’s ear that, oh come on, it can’t hurt just to look.  The Jewish friend is not just A Friend; he’s the human face of a catastrophe.  He’s the face, the voice, the soul, the human connectedness which the protagonist must abandon on his journey into savagery.  The professor does try to help his friend Get Out; even fraudulently buys him train tickets to leave.  Of course it doesn’t help and the friend is swept up in a pogrom; it’s the professor’s new wife who’s ratted him out. 

The professor lamely tries to hold onto his identity as such, and both his interlocutor and the viewer know it’s much, much too late in the game for that.  One of the reviewers at IMDb specifically mentions that line, but doesn’t give it the dramatic weight it deserves.  You have to understand that “professor” in Germany means something quite a bit more than “I teach at a post-secondary institution.”  This is a culture in which “professor” is not just an academic but a social rank as well.  When greeting a senior academic and a junior academic in each other’s company, do not dare address the elder and the younger both as “Herr Professor”; that would be perceived as grossly insulting.  The elder is “Herr Professor Doktor,” and the younger would be simply “Herr Doktor.”  If writing to someone who has doctorates in multiple areas (not at all uncommon in Germany), one would address the envelope to “Herr Professor Dr. Dr. So-and-So.”  Thus it’s extremely significant when the Good Professor vainly tries to clutch on to his pre-Nazi identity.  You understand that his boat has long since pulled away from the pier, and there is no way back.  The poor sod doesn’t get it himself until the last scene in the movie.

 What Good is about is the ease with which we humans adapt ourselves to, internalize, what is convenient, what is aggrandizing to us, what we are told is Truth and The Right, rather than what we know to be true.  The professor starts the movie understanding the repugnance of the Nazis; he knows it without engaging in any complex critical exercise.  By the end he’s just one more cog in a machine that grinds out dead bodies at a rate unmatched anywhere outside Stalin’s domains.  And each step of the way there was someone with him to usher him onwards, someone to pat him on the back, someone to compliment him on his learning and erudition.

So Andrew Klavan is, I’m afraid, terribly, awfully, depressingly right.  The worst of it is that I’m not sure that, having climbed down we as a polity can ever rise again.  It’s much easier, after all, to blow up a building than it is to erect it.  At 10:00 p.m. on February 13, 1945, the Frauenkirche in Dresden was one of the architectural treasures of Europe.  Thirty-six hours later it was a very tall pile of smoking rubble, and so it stayed for 45 years.  Having embraced a principle of social and political organization that panders to the most corrosive instincts of the human soul, can we truly expect the broad mass of humanity to turn away from it?  Can we un-ring that bell?

Think It Can’t Happen Here?

It can, and it has.  The title of the linked article, “Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime“, by Glenn H. Reynolds, better known to the Blogosphere as the Blogfather or more technically as Instapundit, sums up the conundrum.  How meaningful is the notion of “due process of law” when the government (i) can make pretty much anything it pleases into a crime carrying multiple years’ imprisonment and millions of dollars’ fine as its punishment, and (ii) has zero, as in none at all, restraint on which persons it chooses to drag through the hedges backward, and how fast, and for how long?

I don’t practice criminal law, and so I’m not personally exposed to the prosecutorial dynamics that Reynolds describes.  I do know for a fact that it occurs, and not just at the federal level.  My friends who practice in that area routinely describe the kinds of over-charging and grand-standing which produces prosecutorial outcomes driven less by the answer to the question, “What harm has been done to the peace and dignity of the State and its citizens?” than by the questions of, “How much juice does this guy have and what kind of ink will the story get?” 

In our own little corner of paradise, if you bounce a $75 check at Tractor Supply Company you’re going to be arrested.  If you steal $500,000 of construction loan proceeds from a bank (which our legislature has specifically defined as within the theft statute, punishable by the amount misappropriated) by spending it on your own unencumbered project, or by chasing women, or by paying your credit card bills from Bass Pro Shops, our local district attorney will look at you and say, “That’s a civil matter.”  No it’s not, jackass; it’s a crime and at a half-million it’s well into Class B felony range.

Around here, if you get caught with a half-burned spliff in the ashtray of your car, your next stop is the grand jury.  If you’re moving cocaine by the brick, and your wife and the prosecutor’s wife happen to be buddies, when the drug squad drops on your house out of the blue, they’re not likely to find a single trace of the stuff.  If you’re the county mayor and a long-time elected official, and you gaze upon the employees’ health insurance add-on coverage premiums, withheld from the employees’ wages for the purpose of paying for additional insurance coverages beyond the basic package paid by the county and you plunder those premiums to pay ordinary operating expenses of the county because you and the county legislative body can’t get off your butts and balance a budget (or even pass one), and then the premiums get three months in arrears with threats of cancellation for non-payment being made, not only do you not get prosecuted, it’s not even reported in the local birdcage liner.

Don’t even get me started on the boondoggles of the various “drug interdiction” squads.  They’re the guys you see hanging about the interstates in brand-new vehicles with more stuff sticking out of them than you can say grace over.  No kidding; I was in the navy in the late 1980s and our battle groups got regularly trailed by Soviet “fishing trawlers” that never seemed to put a net in the water, yet had so many antennae poking out that they looked like a porcupine.  In our state, most of the cash they seize the specific squad gets to keep to fund itself.  I’ve heard from several people with first-hand knowledge that what I had suspected would go on in fact has gone on and continues.  They’re not interested in actually breaking up the drug transportation networks.  What they do is seize the cash, give the driver a nice lenient bond, and then when he skips make no terrible effort to go get him.  In the meantime they keep up-grading all their vehicles and gee-gaws, building brick-and-mortar headquarters offices well-furnished with all the latest gimcracks, hiring all their buddies, and getting nice raises and benefits.  Well.  Congratulations to us; we’ve now given law enforcement officials a direct, immediate cash interest in the continuance and expansion of criminal activity.  How’s that likely to work out, over the long run?  How long will it be until the drug cartels figure out that all they’ve got to do is set up patsies with sufficient cash to keep the Drug Task Force folks in new SUVs, write it off as a cost of doing business, and go on their merry ways?  Have they already figured it out?  Not to sound too tin-foil-hat about it, but have Arrangements Been Made?  Drop a dime on a particular vehicle, to the effect that it’s carrying $35,000 in small bills, then when the photo-op is going on quietly send through the $1.4 million, or the forty kilos of smack.  Based upon scandals that are known to have occurred in law enforcement, can anyone say in good faith that such a thing would not be thinkable?

Among Reynolds’s suggestions, I particularly like the suggestion of requiring the government to bear some portion or all of the defense costs for bogus charges which they have no reasonable basis to think can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  I question, however, whether that would truly work any change in behavior so long as District Attorney Schmuckatelly gets to send the bill up the chain for someone else to pay.  Make the prosecutor’s office pay for it out of that office’s budget, including the salaries of the district attorney general, his assistants, and all others in that office who exercise any discretionary power in respect of prosecutorial decisions, including the rent for the space, including pension benefits and insurance benefits, so that the stakes on either side of the game are more similar, and then you might see some greater attention paid to the issue of whose life do we choose to wreck.  It’s a sad commentary on human nature, but the basic truth is that people at all levels make different decisions when they think they’re spending someone else’s money.

Finally, I wanted to observe the irony of Reynolds’s opening his article with a quotation from Robt Jackson.  The man knew whereof he spoke.  As chief counsel for the IRS under FDR, it was Jackson who was instructed to bring criminal charges against Andrew Mellon, who’d been Sec’y of the Treasury under Hoover, for having claimed certain deductions from his personal income tax liability.  Jackson did it.  He actually indicted the former Treasury Sec’y and dragged him through the hedge backward and very, very publicly.  FDR got huge amounts of fawning press.  There was only one little ol’ problem with the situation:  The actions for which Mellon was prosecuted were expressly permitted as legal under the income tax laws then in effect.  And Jackson conceded as much (in writing, if I recall correctly), but went ahead with the prosecution.  His payoff a few years later was an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The whole sordid tale is told in Amity Schlaes’s The Forgotten Man.  I read it and my admiration for Jackson, whom I’d previously held in pretty high regard, evaporated.  I mean, that’s not even a close call; he should have been disbarred.

Unless and until something changes, we none of us have any greater protection from what Reynolds describes than our own obscurity.  Until then, we live in a piss-off-one-wrong-person universe, where all its takes is one person with enough juice and an axe to grind to go see the prosecutor, and the next thing you know you can’t make your mortgage payment because it was either that or pay your defense lawyer, or the forensic accountant, or the DNA analysis, or the independent investigator.

P. G. Wodehouse, Clairvoyant

Not only was P. G. Wodehouse the accomplished master of the English language, at least among 20th Century practitioners, but it appears that he was also clairvoyant. In re-reading (for the however-many time it is . . . my copy is getting pretty ratty around the edges) A Prefect’s Uncle, first published in 1903, Wodehouse sets up, and then spikes, the entire cryptic-pretentious edifice of late 20th Century poetry in particular and English-language literature in general.

It’s important to remember in this context that at the time Wodehouse was writing, poetry, its composition, publication, and public recitation, was taken seriously in England. Promising poets were widely and highly regarded, moved in Society, and among the educated the ability to compose half-way respectable verse was taken if not for granted then certainly to be something one was expected to be able to do. Poetry was publicly recited and was listened to, seriously, by its listeners. People expected the Poet Laureate to weigh in with appropriate verse on important occasions (this expectation was not universally met; some of the poets’ offerings were ghastly treacly throw-away lines). 

Nowadays? Well, poetry now seems to be all of a mish-mash of grievance bleats, attempts at disgusting one’s readers (and who listens to this trash, anyway, outside the irrelevance of a Humanities Department meeting? have they forgot that the original function of poetry was to perpetuate memory and transmit culture in a pre-literate world?), and neo-Stalinist celebrations of The Proletariat. If your skin, or your genitals, or your politics, varies in the least from the writer’s chances are you will be left with nothing at the end of the piece but that many more minutes of your life gone beyond recovery. I admit it’s more than a little like reading this blog, but then I’m not demanding that everyone and his cousin Stand in Awe of Me because of my courageous engagement on the subject of what I do for jollies behind closed doors, or how wonderful (or unfortunate) it is to look like me, or how wonderful the world would be if only everyone would turn over the fruits of his labors to me to dole out to my buddies. 

Wodehouse, in other words, could not be expected to have foreseen the sort of tripe which we now take for granted when someone mentions the subject of “poetry.” And yet, 110 years ago, he absolutely nailed the whole exercise in late 20th Century English-language literature. On the subject of the batting, in a cricket match, of his classmate named Pringle, a character tosses off a limerick: 

“A dashing young sportsman named Pringle,

On observing his duck (with a single), 

Observed with a smile,

 ‘Just notice my style, 

How science with vigour I mingle.’

‘Little thing of my own,’ he added, quoting England’s greatest librettist. ‘I call it “Heart Foam”. I shall not publish it.’”

 And there you have the entire ludicrous venture, in fewer than ten lines. “Heart Foam”? Priceless.