Of God and Memory

Forewarning: This is something of a stream-of-consciousness post, and thus an experiment. Whether it was a successful experiment I will leave to whomever stumbles across this.

The other day I was chatting with someone of my acquaintance who happens to be an Episcopal priest, and much enjoys theology. By “theology” I mean the formalized thinking – principally Christian, of course – about the nature of godhead, our relationship with God both as individuals and as members of the different overlapping and intersecting societal spheres we inhabit, and so forth. Given that Jesus was an observant Jew, of course, Jewish theology both at the time and as since developed provides not only a backdrop but also an important substantive cross-check and interpretive tool for pondering the Mysteries as revealed through the teachings of Jesus and the Church Fathers. 

[Aside: I must here confess that I am a bit leery of taking “theology” at least in its modern manifestation too seriously. It is on the one hand undeniably true that we live in a radically different world than the one in which Jesus moved and taught, and that we modern humans have utterly different relationships with many of the circumstances of our existence than did the people who flocked to hear Jesus (or Paul or any of the others) teach. Since “circumstances of our existence” includes each other – in fact you might make a very compelling argument that we are each other’s principal circumstances of existence and our relationships with each other define our existence, at least on a moral plane – that suggests also that the bonds between and among the people who heard Jesus teach and in the context of which they understood Him are of mixed utility in discerning the answer to The Great Big Question: How do I live my life in the world I confront now? Of course the response to that is that Jesus, being of one Substance with the Father, would have known all that before a word left His mouth, and would have taught the people accordingly. 

More importantly and on the other hand, and this is where I cannot avoid the niggling suspicion that way too many “theologians” are getting off the path, Jesus did not come to preach to the post-doctoral students. The people He taught were to a man, nearly, illiterate. They were dirt poor, hungry, and eaten alive with vermin, parasites, and pathogens. Huge numbers of them would have lived in what we today would describe as filth, their own and their animals’. As Mark Twain noted during his travels in the Holy Land, Jesus chose the most immediate and effective message he could have, among that people: He healed their sick. They also practiced slavery (and in jubilee years freed their slaves and forgave their debtors). Given the standards of medical care in antiquity and the reasonably foreseeable rate of death in childbirth, their domestic habits would likely not pass modern muster either. I’ll guarantee that, of the groom, bride’s parents, and others at the wedding feast where Jesus first manifested His divinity by performing His first miracle, nowadays the groom would be on his way to prison for at least statutory rape (and maybe rape of a child, if she was at the youngest end of the marriageable age spectrum) and the parents would be headed the same way for conspiracy and contributing. And does anyone want to bet how many people at that feast were 21 years of age or older and still managed to drink the wine casks dry? 

All of that is just to make a very simple point: Jesus was teaching to simple people whose understanding and ability to take His teaching and apply it in their own daily lives were extremely limited. Even though people back then spent what we today would consider a phenomenal amount of time and energy actively pondering and discussing theology, you can’t get away from the fact that these were not Learned People. All these modern esoteric doctrines of this-that-and-the-other, the mountains of what can only with charity be described as academic gibberish the principal aim of which seems to be the “proof” that practicing Christianity must necessarily dictate support for the farthest-left wing of the farthest-left parties, including political support for the most murderous and humanity-destroying philosophies ever devised by the mind of corrupted man and unqualified support for the legally-unfettered right to kill one’s unborn baby, and the rest of it really smacks as being presumptuous. Likewise even more outrageous is the suggestion that unless you can navigate the tomes of modern “theology” you can’t claim to understand Christianity in its essentials or details and therefore you should please shut up and do as you are told by the Deep Thinkers Who Understand Things Better Than You. Remind me again of how this differs from the insistence on keeping the Gospels available exclusively in a language not even spoken by an illiterate peasant mass. Jesus may have instructed His apostles to go forth and make disciples of all the world’s peoples, but that was only because He wasn’t going to keep mooning about the place. While Jesus walked among men, He taught directly to the lowest and meanest of the world’s poor. I cannot accept that He would have chosen to preach to them a message that they were unable to comprehend sufficiently to, as He invited, “Come and follow me.”] 

Having now unburdened myself of that little screed, I proceed on to my post. 

My interlocutor was discussing a funeral sermon to be delivered this Sunday. The subject of remembrance came up. As it was told to me, in Jewish understanding so long as any remains alive who can “call your name” (as we say out in the country), you are still a part of a living community of believers. That much seems reasonable and I’ll have to take it on faith, being personally unfamiliar with the nuances and so forth. Also brought up was the mythology of Isis and Osiris. They were brother and sister and also husband and wife (talk about ancient domestic arrangements, but then King Tut really was the product of just such an incestuous union). Osiris managed to offend the wrong sort of god, who slaughtered him and scattered his pieces up and down a long valley. Isis went looking for the pieces, weeping and lamenting; her tears formed the Nile. She found them all, it seems, except his . . . ahem . . . manhood, which seems to have come to grief in a marsh or something of that nature and been eaten by an animal. She put them back together and, being herself a goddess, managed to bring him back to life long enough to impregnate her (how that happened without . . . oh well, I suppose when you’re both gods you can arrange such things). In any event, the story was told in the context of reading the word “remembering” as “re-membering,” the re-assembly of fragments. 

While I’m not sure that’s sound etymology (Mr. Webster does not back the proposition), thinking about “remembering” in that manner does seem to make a bit of sense. For starts, our experiences of each other are necessarily fragmentary, even of those closest to us. Our recollective powers are likewise patchy and subject to the ravages of space and time. When one dies to us, all we have left are these piece-work glimpses, some fading, some remaining acutely vivid. In our re-membering the departed one, we re-assemble that person into a living presence, in the sense of a presence capable of offering joy, sorrow, hurt, hope, laughter, comfort, and all the other essentially human interactions. True enough: these interactions are no longer with a live human organism, but then the sensations which remain are no less real. When we communally “re-member” a person we gain not only just the number of points of recollection but also we restore, somewhat, the multi-dimensional character that person displayed while alive. What makes a diamond sparkle is not its surface but its depth. No one is the same person to everyone. Each of us, even if experiencing the same character attribute of a person, experiences that person as expressed in that attribute differently. 

Contemplation of these little snippets leads me to contemplate a subject that presents itself to me from time to time. The simple fact is that almost no one I know, at least not in my close circle of acquaintance — those in whose most immediate presence I spend my life — is interested in certain of the things which absolutely fascinate me. I know enough to accept that circumstance not as an indictment of anyone – why ought anyone find interesting what I do, after all? – but rather as a fundamental set of relationships with the world I move in. Well, perhaps a better way of stating that would be a lack of a set of relationships. Other people have their own interests, worries, hopes, and dreams, and it is unreasonable to expect them to respond the same way to the things which intrigue me. So over the years I’ve learned to enjoy what I enjoy and accept that I will likely never share the joy of it with anyone, or at least not face-to-face. Which is a pity, but the world is full of much greater pities. 

One of the sets of things which fascinates me is history in general, and the specifically human experiences that collectively make up “history.” Having a head which seems unfortunately suited to the retention of masses of trivial detail, it is packed solid (pun intended) with exactly that sort of detail. The names, dates, occurrences, and parallels to the world I know crowd around me. I can lose myself for long periods contemplating what the world looked like to the monks who first staffed up Cluny. I find intriguing pondering the sweep of a particular family, from the Habichtsburg above a tiny Swiss village in the 12th Century to the burial of Archduke Otto in Vienna in July, 2010. My home county is criss-crossed with the remains of old country roads. You can see them traced across open fields, a double line of trees about ten or twelve feet apart (trees don’t naturally grow like that, you know). I see them and instantly I’m transported back to 1910 or sometime, wondering what it must have felt like to be driving a horse-drawn farm wagon down one of those roads, lurching from hole to rock and back. What it must have sounded like, smelled like. Around here you can till up the ground for a garden and depending on where on the hill you’re working be pretty certain of digging up numerous fragments of arrow heads, spear heads, chippers, scrapers, and similar traces of long-ago camps. What were they talking about around that campfire as this chip was struck from the edge of this arrow head? Had the hunt been good that day? Could they have, perhaps in some religious trance or other halluncinatory interlude, have had the slightest inkling of Us, centuries later, stumbling across their hunting camp? A number of years ago I was in a museum in Freiburg, the Augustinermuseum. Among their exhibits are ecclesiastical carvings and so forth from around that area. One of them was an altar crucifix that had been carved sometime in the 1100s. I am unqualified to speak of the artistic merits of it, but what gripped me was the thought of all the thousands of people from that village and the surrounding farms who would have sat in front of that figure over the course of centuries. Through the Black Death; through the Reformation and the Peasants’ War; through the Thirty Years War and Napoleon’s invasions; through all manner of other wars, tumults, robber barons, famines, and festivals. Who were they? What were their worlds like, for them? 

I also and especially enjoy reading books written about then-current events. The author of course doesn’t know how the story ends; he cannot fully know which aspects of what he’s looking at may be Truly Significant. One such book that immediately comes to mind is Strong Man Rules, which went to press no later than June 29, 1934. The author was a professor at Hunter College, and the book is about this new political regime that’s just coming into focus, in Germany. It’s about who’s in, who’s out, who owes whom what favors, and so forth. Among the Rising Men (other than the Chancellor, of course) is mentioned Ernst Röhm, who is, the author opines, certain to be heard from further. Which is how I know the absolute latest date on which that book was turned over to the printers. But the whole thing is the author has no idea how the story ends. The crematoria, the thousands of starving prisoners, the corpse-filled trenches all across Eastern Europe, the embers of tens of thousands of houses, and the stink of the bodies buried beneath . . . those things would not, could not have occurred to him. Kristallnacht? What’s that supposed to be? 

And so on. 

I won’t say that such things and people are somehow “real” to me. In most cases I don’t – can’t – even know their names, or even when they might have existed, and my efforts to re-awaken by the feeble powers of my imagination are . . . well, feeble. I do know that they did exist, however, and in thinking about them and their world – the things they saw, heard, smelled, knew, and the things they couldn’t have known but I now do, just by having come along a matter of several decades or centuries later – I get the sensation of having them become a part of me, of how I greet the world. And by that feeble process of re-awakening them and their world it is as if, in some nebulous way, I am living not only today, the January of 2014, but all prior days, and all at once. Part of me thinks I can get on that road, now overgrown between its rows of bordering trees, and Go Where They Went. I can look at that crucifix and hear the sermons. I can re-create the sensation of not knowing, as the Duke of Wellington described it, what is on the other side of that hill. 

For me, it’s as though I get to live in all worlds up to now, and each day just adds to the pile. I don’t have to turn loose of anything that ever was; I can still hear the buzz of insects outside that village church door on an August afternoon. Wasn’t it Faulkner who said that around here, the past really isn’t even past? The old boy might have been on to something.


Chastised with Scorpions

Some weeks ago I ran across what was the beginnings of a book review, by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. I say “beginnings” because as he says, he only made it (listening in MP3 format) partway through one of the early chapters before he had to stop. As strong a stomach for portrayals of evil as he claims to have, he confesses himself revolted beyond endurance.

The book is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder’s 2010 history of a particular part of Europe during a very special period in its history. The “bloodlands” Snyder describes consist of the western rim of the Soviet Union (with reference to its pre-1945 borders), Poland, the Ukraine, and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This part of the world, largely cut off from the consciousness of the rest of the Western understanding first by war and societal collapse, then by revolution and civil war, then by war again, and finally by the Iron Curtain, got to experience its very own special kind of hell from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. During twelve of those roughly 20 years both Hitler and Stalin were in power, and both turned their blood-soaked attentions to it. 

Until comparatively recently few in Western Europe and fewer in the United States have known more than the bare outlines of what happened in the bloodlands, and even since the Soviet collapse the act of memory remains burdened by the purpose of memory, by which is largely meant the political purpose of memory. In terms of Getting the Story Out there were just too many people who had every reason to un-make the history. The only Western Europeans with any sort of broad personal exposure to what happened there – the Germans, both military, quasi-military, and civilians (even women civilians) – were understandably reluctant to call attention to what they did and saw in the bloodlands. The communists were likewise perpetrators on a grand scale, and thus for decades the white-washing of communist crimes by the Western intellectual elite confined their understanding of Stalin’s crimes to his purge of the Party in 1937-38 (Solzhenitsyn deals extensively with the myopia of the True Believers, as he calls them; for them the other millions of victims of the Great Terror just didn’t – and to this day don’t – pop up on the screen).  It’s not just the perps who have re-purposed the era, either. Even among the populations from whom the victims came, the martyr cult has been forced into a nationalist understanding of what happened and why. 

Just what did happen? The book opens with scenes from the destruction of the kulaks and the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. First came the “destruction of the kulaks as a class.”  And who was a kulak?  Anyone we say.  If you have two cows: you’re a kulak.  If your family has carefully tended its field for decades so that you produce more than the vodka-soaked farmer down the lane: you’re a kulak.  If you loaned a neighbor a few rubles to put a crop in this year: you’re a kulak.  A good proxy expression for “kulak” is “successful peasant.”  That’s important, because in the Russian village no less than anywhere else, it’s the successful to whom people look for leadership.  Those “kulaks” were not only in themselves objectionable from a class standpoint, they were also points around which resistance to Stalin’s further plans might coalesce. 

The “kulaks” thus had to be destroyed.  There were so many “kulaks” that it wasn’t even possible to shoot them all.  So what Stalin did was swoop down and pack the able-bodied men off to camps, then come back and sweep up the now-defenseless women and children to become “special settlers.”  Understand that these “special settlements” consisted of shoving the dispossessed farmers out of a train somewhere in Siberia, in a strange climate, with neither cattle nor seed corn nor farming tools, and telling them to (in an old white trash expression) “root hog or die.”  Hundreds of thousand did exactly that: die of cold, of starvation, of desperation.

Collectivization seems to have been an orthodox communist ideological policy of Stalin’s. He’s allowed Lenin’s New Economic Policy to run as far as he was going to, and dammit now we were going to embrace communism. That collectivization directly breached the Bolsheviks’ promise to the peasantry of land reform was immaterial. As Snyder points out in several places, the practice of “dialectics,” which in plain English means “the truth is what I say it is at this moment, without prejudice to my ability to declare its opposite ten minutes from now,” is a key to understanding the minds of the Soviet (and leftist in general) leadership.  So the remaining peasants were run off their land, by raw physical coercion or regulatory suppression (such as by denying permission to purchase seed), and forced into an agricultural factory (sorry, lefties, but “agri-business” is not an invention of Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland).

While collectivization of agriculture was a Soviet-wide policy, there was more at play in the Ukraine than just a turn away from the Right Deviationists and a lunge towards Socialism in One Country.  The Ukraine was not only the Soviet Union’s breadbasket but also the home of Russia’s traditional belligerent cousins. If collectivization was going to succeed, and if the “national question” was to be solved, then the Ukraine had to be subdued. Conveniently this also meshed with the economic needs of the Soviets, as grain and lumber were about all they had (at that time; the phenomenal mineral riches of Siberia had yet to be tapped extensively, although the Kolyma was beginning its flowering into a byword for brutality and hopelessness) that anyone was interested in buying. And so the grain expropriations came. And came. And came. The “law of seven-eighths” (so nicknamed, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, because of its promulgation on August 7) which criminalized possession of as little as an ear of corn, a moldy potato, or a handful of oats, sent tens of thousands to the Gulag. But more simply died. Stalin shut the peasants in the countryside, closing off the cities and denying the internal passports or the right to buy train tickets which would have been necessary for the peasants to go where there was food. Starving peasants who somehow managed to sneak their way to the cities were, if they survived long enough, shoved back onto trains and shipped right back to the howling wilderness of the countryside. 

By the simple expedients of taking all the food that was grown there and preventing the inhabitants from leaving, Stalin managed very intentionally to starve to death somewhere between 3 and 7 million Ukrainians — the numbers are all over the map — Snyder gives (working from memory here, so forgive me) something like 3.4 million; others, e.g. Robert Conquest, give much higher numbers) in about two years. The terror famine is now known as the Holodomor, and the Russian refusal to acknowledge it remains a sore spot to this day.  Walter Duranty, the NYT’s man in Russia, white-washed it for Western audiences and was rewarded with a Pulitzer, which the NYT has yet to disown.

De-kulakization, collectivization, and the Holodomor were just the start, however. By the late 1930s the Great Terror was in full swing. This is the Stalinist interlude that communists and their Western fellow travelers understand principally as the period during which the Party ate its own. And in truth the Party elites did manage to get thinned out. But even then the thinning was . . . mighty selective. Before it started, for example, the NKVD’s senior leadership was about a third Jewish. By the end it was less than 4% Jewish. And its other non-Russians had mysteriously gone away (for example, the Latvians had been a principal recruiting pool for the early Cheka). Don’t feel too badly for them, though; many of these chappies had zealously played their parts in the grain requisitions from the Ukrainian peasants.

It wasn’t just the Jews who attracted Stalin’s attentions during the purges. He was famously paranoid, and among his most ingrained fears was that of the national minorities. Here his personal demons intersected with communist doctrine.  The proletariat has no nation, no homeland.  Therefore in the dictatorship of the proletariat there can be no nationalities.  Those pesky Central Asian nomadic peoples are just going to have to give up their herds and settle down where the Great Helmsman chooses to put them.  [It’s impossible not to see some parallels between Soviet policy and the American reservation system for its aboriginal tribes.  Of course, in America the individual tribesmen were not compelled to remain with the tribe and settle.  While the tribes as tribes were confined to their reservations, on those reservations they were not forbidden to follow their ancestral ways (disregarding that the buffalo that was the foundation of those ways was nearly exterminated), nor were the tribes as social units extinguished.  Nor was the reservations’ produce expropriated and the people left to make shift.  So there are important substantive differences as well; however, honesty says we must still recognize the similarities.] The Soviet Union was home not only to the Ukrainians but also millions of ethnic Poles, Finns, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Kazakhs, Crimean Tatars, Koreans, and multiple others. Most of them lived in areas of the Soviet Union that were uncomfortably close to their “homelands,” at least by Stalin’s reckoning. And so he began to address the situation. Some he simply deported as a group, as with the Crimean Tatars, who within the space of a couple of days were shoved into trains and banished to interior. But how do you pack up an ethnic minority the size of Soviet Poles? You can’t. What you can do is shoot as many of them as you figure out a reason to, especially if they’re the kind of people who might be looked up to or take a leadership role among their fellows. Snyder points out that the ethnic minorities of the bloodlands were many times more likely than either ethnic Russians or Soviet citizens overall to die in an executioner’s cellar.

For several years by this point Hitler had been in power and devoting a great deal of thought to what he wanted to accomplish, and where. The over-arching scheme was set forth in the Generalplan Ost, the general plan of transforming the broad Eastern European lands into a land of German agricultural colonists. That those lands were already the homes of several million non-Germans didn’t matter. Some would have to be killed outright, some moved out of the way, some dragooned and worked to death, but many more simply starved. For nearly seven years, though, Hitler couldn’t lay hands on his victims.  And then came the war.

I’ve commented elsewhere on the collusion between Hitler and Stalin in carving up Poland and the Baltic republics.  The dialectics (q.v.) of the situation compelled the Western left to swallow its anger and grief, at least for nearly two years.  During that time the Angel of Death came to visit Poland and the Baltics . . . and settled down, hung up some prints and re-arranged the furniture. 

Where to start?  To the east of the Molotov-Ribbentropp Line, the Soviets set out to decapitate Polish society.  If you were educated, or wealthy, or a priest, or influential, or owned a business, or were an officer, teacher, policeman, professor, scientist, lawyer, prosperous farmer, engineer . . . etc., you were herded up and either deported or more commonly simply shot.  If you survived the shootings you might well yet end up crammed into a frozen cattle car to be deported to the wasteland of the Central Asian steppes.  The Katyn Forest massacre of the 14,000-odd Polish officers is just the best-known small part of a much larger story, one which the Western allies diligently suppressed even when presented with incontrovertible proof of it.  Janusz Bardach’s wonderful Man is Wolf to Man, his memoir of Gulag survival, starts with his experiencing the Soviet occupation of his native Poland.  In the Baltic Republics, Stalin was doing much the same thing: shoot everyone around whom society might coalesce, deport as many of the others as you can herd into the cattle cars, and call it a day.

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the line, Hitler was following a very similar course, although at the outset he wasn’t nearly as organized about it as Stalin.  Uncle Joe had many years and millions more corpses’ experience under his belt, you see.

Then came Barbarossa, the so-close-but-yet-so-far failure to knock the Soviet Union out of the war.  The Germans were taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners at a time.  They had no intention of feeding them at the expense of their own troops, who were told to live off the land.  And so they just herded the Soviet prisoners of war (other than the political officers, who were shot out of hand) behind barbed wire and left them to die of hunger in the open weather.  Millions died this way just in the first months of the war.

Right behind the front came the Einsatzgruppen and Einsatskommandos, roving groups of murderers who’d march entire villages into the woods and machine gun them over open pits.  The Jews of course were prime targets, and it was contemporaneously with Barbarossa that the truly massive-scale killing of Jews really got going.  One thing that I had not previously understood is that the mechanism of killing was different depending on which side of the Molotov-Ribbentropp Line one was.  East of the line the majority of killing was done by gunfire, either retail, with one shot per victim, or wholesale with machine guns hosing down lines of people.  West of the line was the more, errrmmm, technical side of things, with gas vans and gas chambers of various designs.

Everyone has heard of the Wannsee Conference, the meeting in early 1942 at which the “Final Solution” of liquidating the Jews as such was resolved as the, well, final “solution” to the “Jewish problem in Europe,” as the Nazis phrased it to themselves.  And when Westerners hear the expression “Final Solution” they think of Auschwitz. 

Snyder pays meticulous attention, however, not just to raw numbers killed but which groups were killed where, how, and in what order.  Auschwitz started as a slave-labor facility.  Granted, no one paid much attention to whether the slaves died of hunger or over-work, and so it was a tremendously lethal place from the start.  But it wasn’t until fairly late in the process that the famous gas chambers were built at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Even then the arriving train-loads went through “selection,” with the able-bodied sent to be worked/starved to death and the balance herded into the chambers.  So it never lost its industrial character.  But (and I confess I hadn’t known this until reading the book) it was principally Jews from outside the bloodlands who were sent to Auschwitz, well over half the total.  And Roma and Sinti.  And non-Jews from the occupied territories.  All in much smaller numbers, of course; over 90% of Auschwitz’s victims were Jews, and it accounted for about one-sixth of the total Holocaust victims.  And Auschwitz’s peak killing didn’t occur until beginning in 1944, by which time the Germans had been nearly completely run out of the Soviet Union and much of the rest of what they’d conquered.  As Snyder points out, by 1944, something like three-quarters of the Jews who would eventually die in the Holocaust had already been killed.

The Jews of the bloodlands were exterminated much closer to home.  As mentioned, east of the Molotov-Ribbentropp line, the predominating method was shooting, which seems to have occurred in the very near proximity to the places of residence.  West of the line the Nazis built special purpose facilities with gas chambers fueled (if that’s the right expression) by carbon monoxide, usually generated by captured Soviet tank engines.  Another thing about the special facilities was that they weren’t “camps” in any meaningful sense of the word, because all they did was kill, unlike Auschwitz.  There were some bunk houses for the prisoners staffing them, but that involved a tiny number of people.  “Operation Reinhard” was the name bestowed on the operations of these places, and their names remain largely unfamiliar in Western society:  Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Majdanek, Belzec.  They were set up, their target populations were exterminated, and then the Germans did their level best to destroy every trace of them.

A further point of distinction:  As Snyder points out, roughly 100,000 people survived Auschwitz.  Of the Jews who saw the inside of an Operation Reinhard facility, fewer than 100 are known to have survived.

But all those are technical points, so to speak.  One thing which Snyder properly does is remind the reader that it’s somehow dehumanizing to speak of so-and-so-many “millions of victims.”  What we must remember is that to say that there were roughly 5.7-6 million Jewish victims of the Germans is to say that there were 5.7 million times one victims.  For each of the dead was not just a component number but rather a distinct point of humanity.  The woman who suckled her infant as she waited to be shot at Babi Yar was not a statistic; she was a mother, a daughter, a wife, a friend.  She had once had hopes and dreams.  She knew the ecstasy of creation and the pain of childbirth.  And they gunned her down, together with her child.

Snyder has good chapters on both the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the physical destruction of the city itself.  And also some good material on how the post-war Polish communists did their level best to erase the specifically Jewish experience of the war from both.  In the service of nationalism.

And since the dying in the bloodlands didn’t stop with the guns, Snyder covers the ethnic cleansings that went on for another two years.  While not expressly exterminatory in intent, several hundred thousand people died in the course of creating ethnically homogenous national states.

Why the viciousness?  Some of it can be attributed to nothing more complicated than that the bloodlands were caught between two monsters.  There is a reason, after all, that more police officers die responding to domestic disputes than any other risk situation.  Hitler and Stalin both wanted those areas and they wanted them for very specific purposes, neither of which was compatible with survival of the societies who happened to live there.  But Snyder also points out two processes that played out, in slightly different patterns and at different times, on both sides.  Neither Stalin’s mass murder nor Hitler’s began as it ended up being. 

Stalin began by decapitating the rural population in preparation for collectivization.  He followed up with suppression of a long-time problem population.  But over time his blood-lust transferred itself to the national minorities as such, as (in his mind, at least) bearers of threats to Russia’s (and Russians’) political dominance in the Soviet Union and its border neighbors.  His paranoia required an object to focus on, and it found those objects in the Ukrainians, the Poles, the Baltic peoples, the Kazakhs, the Tatars, the Volga Germans, and so forth.  Their destructions, either physically or by wrenching separation from their homelands, became an end in itself (because of course not a damned one of them actually posed any threat whatsoever to the Soviet Union or Stalin’s rule).

Hitler’s extermination of the Jews in similar fashion transformed itself from something which was ancillary to the conquest of the Soviet Union and Lebensraum into a war aim as such.  Originally it was just part of de-populating the areas to be colonized once the war was won.  The Slavs were likewise to die, but they were to be starved/worked to death.  By December, 1941, so Snyder, it was apparent to the German high command that the war wasn’t going to be won.  Let’s see:  We went to war to conquer Lebensraum, and that isn’t going to happen.  We cannot say that we have failed in our war objectives, though; too many telegrams to mom back home about how her little Heinz had the honor to die for the Führer.  Thus:  The war is now about the smashing of Jewish domination of Europe.  This of course dovetailed nicely with the fact that all the other options to “solving” the “Jewish problem in Europe” that had been explored had played out and were no longer physically possible.

I will say that the least satisfying parts of Snyder’s book (once you’ve struggled through all the descriptions of the killing; I defy a parent to read of the killing of mothers and children without wanting to vomit) is the final chapter on comparison and comprehension.  I’m not sure that comparison of Stalin and Hitler is terribly useful.  It’s not like we’re running some cadaver sweepstakes here and in any event both Stalin and Hitler put together pale in comparison with the 45-60 million dead Chinese that Mao racked up in the Great Leap Forward . . . in four short years.  Comprehension and memory likewise both come up as not-quite-dead-ends.  There are multiple, partially-overlapping groups who died in their millions.  Each has a legitimate claim on the special aspect of what happened to them.  But for God’s sake!  They’re DEAD.  They’re all dead.  Each one of those victims is no more and no less dead than any other.  Each was no more and no less human.  Each one’s death is a gaping, suppurating wound of justice that heaven alone can remedy.

And can you even claim to understand What Happened?  Sure, you can punch through the archives, you can assemble pictures, documents, film footage, and so forth.  You can compile data.  You can, in some places at least, go see where it happened.  But we today have no more ability to stand at the edge of the ravine at Babi Yar than we do to fly a kite in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.  And it is in those moments when the bullets were slamming into that mother and her infant; when the little Ukrainian boy who imagined that he saw food and kept proclaiming, “Now we will live!” until one day he didn’t; when Tania in besieged Leningrad noted the deaths by starvation of her entire family until, “Only Tania is left,” and then she wasn’t either; when the Polish officer, writing in his last moments of life about his wedding ring, heard the click of the pistol as it was cocked behind his ear:  In those moments It Happened, and we are forever shut off from them.

If we cannot know, cannot understand, then we can at least defy forgetfulness.  Snyder’s book tells a story that all of us have a duty to hear.  So we can Not-Forget.  And we can mourn.  We can examine our own souls and hearts, and forever ask ourselves whether we harbor within us the death of humanity that starved, shot, gassed, beat, and burned the bloodlands for nearly twenty long years.  In this respect I would suggest that Ta-Nehisi Coates has it exactly backwards when he closes his piece with the observation that it’s chaos “out there” and always has been.  That “out there” springs from “in here,” and the only place that any of us has mastery of is our own individual “in here.”

All Your Children Are Belong to Us

A few months ago I excoriated someone named Allison Benedikt here, in response to her alarming article that if you send your children to a private school, you are a bad person.  Her reasoning, such as it was, boils down to the assertion that we have a duty to send our children to public schools, irrespective of whether the schools are good, bad, or frighteningly lousy, and notwithstanding any educational needs of the specific child in question, because herding all children into government-run schools will be good for . . . the schools.  It will be good for the schools because if parents have skin in the game (even if it’s actually their children’s skin), they’ll somehow “get involved” and whatnot, and magically the schools, the quality of instruction in which is driven by decisions made by far-off bureaucrats, will improve.  Among her article’s other shortcomings I pointed out at the time, she doesn’t explain how several generations of poorly-educated Americans (because they’ve been herded into lousy government schools) are supposed to recognize a bad school or figure out how to make it into a good school.

We may count among our blessings that Allison Benedikt is not in any position to enforce her Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz theories on the backs of our children.

To see, however, how thinking like hers plays out when cloaked with governmental authority, we offer a recent decision of a family court in Germany.  In that country it is illegal to home-school your children.  The government actually does assert an over-riding monopoly on one of the more important tasks of raising succeeding generations of humans.  There is a family there, living in a town called Darmstadt, called Wunderlich.  They wanted to home school their children (four of them).  The child care mavens swooped down and back in the fall physically carted the children off to whatever Germany does with neglected or abused children.

I might here add that, unless I’m overlooking something, there is not even an allegation that the children have been physically, sexually, emotionally, or mentally abused, at least not in any reasonably accepted sense of those expressions.  The government’s objection, and its sole objection, was that the Wunderlichs wanted to teach their own children in their own home.  Period.

The German “justice” system then swung into action, stripping the Wunderlich parents of their right to determine the children’s place of residence, their right to make educational decisions, and their right to make application to public authorities (it doesn’t say whether in respect of their children or on their children’s behalf).  Since the fall school holidays the children have been in “proper” schools.

The Wunderlichs (as well as one of their children who appears by reason of his age to have some sort of independent judicial rights) filed some sort of action (being thoroughly unfamiliar with German juvenile procedural law, I have no idea how one might characterize it in terms of an American analogue) seeking to have their stripped rights restored to them.  The department of children’s services (Jugendamt) in addition to opposing the parents’ and the child’s petitions filed a cross-petition seeking to have removed from the parents also the additional right to apply for what I’ll call child support services (“Hilfe zur Erziehung,” which transliterates as “help with raising”).  I should mention that the children apparently once more live with their parents.

The parents were quite frank that the reason they wanted to have their parental rights restored is so that they can apply to emigrate to France, where homeschooling is perfectly legal.

The Darmstadt family court ruled on December 18, 2013.  Here’s the original opinion in German; here’s an “unofficial translation” courtesy of the Home School Legal Defense Association.  There’s a bit of a write-up at the HSLDA site.

There are several striking aspects of the opinion:

Again, there is no hint that the children’s physical well-being is endangered.

There is no assertion or finding that the quality of education (in a purely pedagogical sense) the children are receiving is insufficient, by either German or any other standard.

There is no assertion or finding that the children’s emotional or mental condition has been adversely affected.

In the judge’s defense, he refers to a decision of a different court, the Oberlandesgericht Frankfurt am Main, which he alleges “extensively” established that the children’s welfare is “endangered” through the parents’ refusal to send them to a regular school.  Now, I am unfamiliar with the respective jurisdictions of the Darmstadt family court versus the appellate court in Frankfurt and whether they are in the same chain of command, so to speak.  I am unfamiliar with the extent to which the proceedings in that court are binding in any other proceedings under some equivalent to the doctrines of res judicata, collateral estoppel, or full faith and credit.  I do find it curious that a judge would fail to quote or describe at all any of the specific findings or any basis for them, or to explain why those findings are binding in the present proceeding.  Maybe that’s how judges in Germany express themselves; to this ol’ redneck lawyer it seems a mite strange to adopt someone else’s factual conclusions lock, stock, and barrel without even describing them.

There is no assertion or finding that the children are not able to engage in what Americans would describe as “extra-curricular activities.”  Here it’s helpful to remember that in Germany schools as such simply do not have nearly the array of non-classroom “activities” that form such a major part of what makes an American school the place it is.  In my own experience, German schoolchildren are every bit as likely and in some respects more likely to engage in non-classroom activities, but they’ll do so through either their own clubs or the youth divisions of an adult club.  And boy howdy! the Germans sure do like their clubs.  They have to be registered, of course (e.V., as in “eingetragener Verein,” a registered club; just by way of example, the long-time soccer champions from Munich are actually F.C. Bayern München e.V.), which means that you can look up the clubs in any city.  You’ll find clubs for chess, clubs for pipe smoking, clubs for specific card games, clubs for cross-country skiing and for downhill skiing, clubs for handball, volleyball, fencing, water polo, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, basketball, gymnastics, photography, painting, sculpture, theater, folk dancing, brass bands, chamber music, jazz, choral societies . . . .  If you didn’t have to make a living you could probably spend an absolute majority of your evenings each month at some function of an e.V. and never participate in the same activity twice during the month.  The family court judge doesn’t even hint that the breadth of age-appropriate activities is denied the Wunderlich children.

The judge acknowledges that the Wunderlichs and their children enjoy freedom of movement.  In fact this is a constitutional right under the German constitution (Grundgesetz).  But the exercise of that constitutional right is, according to the family court, overlaid with some nebulous examination of the children’s “best interests.”  No citation to authority is given, by the way; it would be like some judge ruling that an intact family could not leave Arkansas for Iowa without first examining whether the children’s “best interests” would be served or harmed thereby.  No, dim bulb:  Constitutional rights trump things like “best interests of the children”; if you want to infringe a basic right of being an American, you need to show something more substantial that a judge who disagrees with a decision.

Notwithstanding the complete lack of findings, or in fact even any mention of evidence — documentary or live — which might have supported any unstated finding, the dear old judge, after explaining what is being asked, by whom, and for what reasons, rules that the children’s services’ petition is well-taken and should be granted; in contrast, the parents’ and children’s petitions are “unfounded” (“unbegründet”) and to be denied.

According to the Frankfurt appellate court, and the family court endorses this finding, the “concrete danger” to the children lies in (i) keeping the children in a “symbiotic family system” (O! the horror of it all!!); (ii) the failure of the “form of education” that corresponds to “recognized” and “fundamental” standards for development in the societal order.  Get that:  It’s the “form” of education that matters.  The concept of the substance of what the children are actually being taught simply does not enter into this judge’s analysis. 

By his lights, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wanting to school his children (if he’d lived to have any) at home would have failed to provide them the recognized standards of fundamental development in the (ahem) societal order then prevailing.  Let’s just put it out there:  You have to permit the Wunderlichs of the world to educate their children contrary to the dictates of modern Germany so that you may permit the Bonhoeffers of the world to educate theirs contrary to the dictates of the next national socialist state to emerge.

According to the judge, the actual damage which consummates the danger to the children arises from the very fact that the children have not, except in recent weeks, attended a “regular” school.  They’ve been deprived of all the benefits of sitting in a classroom.  Oh my ears and whiskers.  Not only that:  The parents’ struggle has for its goal binding the children to themselves to the exclusion of others; the children have until now grown up in an “isolated family enclave.”  Only recently has this “straightjacket” been removed through the intervention of “pädagogische Fachkräfte.”  I can’t translate that phrase; there’s no English equivalent to “pedagogical technician.”

The parents’ emigration plans would set all this at naught.  In fact, in France the children would not only be “exposed to the insufficient influence” of their parents, but would also be isolated by being surrounded by a foreign language.  They would grow up in a “parallel society” without learning to integrate themselves or engage in dialogue with people who think otherwise than they, in the spirit of a “lived tolerance.”  Huh?  “Intolerance” is now a basis for the state’s intervening in the child-parent relationship?  Just whose “tolerance” is the benchmark, your honor?

The balance of the opinion consists mostly of excoriation of the guardian ad litem, whom the court takes to task for allegedly representing not the children’s interests but rather the position of the parents.  In truth it sounds as though he didn’t do a terribly diligent job of making an independent investigation and report to the court.  On the other hand, if all this stuff has been already decided in another court, what’s the point?

I will say one thing, and this may be just an oversight of expression by the dear ol’ family judge.  He refers in several places to the children growing up “isolated.”  That’s a pretty strong expression to use.  But the only specific form of “isolation” he refers to is isolation from the school atmosphere.  I mean, if I were a judge and wished to emphasize that my compelling parents to send their children to a “real” school was to get them out of the house, I’d sure as hell make specific findings as to the children’s not being permitted friends outside the family, not participating in activities outside the family, not appearing in public, and so forth.

The overall sense of the opinion is of course that the state has a legitimate interest in compelling not just education of children (there’s not a single word in the entire opinion that finds the children’s factual knowledge or reasoning skills to be deficient) but the education of the children in a particular fashion and to inculcate in them a particular mode of thought.  You would think that in Germany of all places making that kind of universal claim upon the formation of the human mind and spirit would be a shot no longer on the table (to borrow a favorite P. G. Wodehouse expression).  Apparently I am wrong.

All your children are belong to us.  Gleichschaltung!

A Most Superior Person

January 11, 1859:  George Nathaniel Curzon is born, the eldest son of a baron from Derbyshire.  His family had lived on the place he was born since at least the late 13th Century.

The arc of Curzon’s life and career is in many ways almost emblematic of the late-Victorian nobility.  He never got along with his father.  His childhood appears to have been blighted by conflict with his governess.  He was brilliant; so much so, in fact, that nationally prominent politicians took an active interest in and asked after his examination results when he was a mere school-boy at Eton.  He studied at Oxford, where his brilliance won him powerful connections.  His fellow students composed a bit of doggerel about him:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon./I am a most superior person./My face is pink, my hair is sleek;/I dine at Blenheim twice a week.

And that about sums up the reactions he was to inspire among his contemporaries all his life long.  He really was that brilliant, but he wore his mental accomplishments about as poorly as it was possible to do.  Gratuitous offense seems to have been nearly a compulsion.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s he travelled extensively throughout Central Asia and the Middle East.  Unlike most of his social peers, he seems genuinely to have been fascinated by the places and people he encountered, and to have expended a tremendous amount of energy actually to understand them, their history, their societies, and the worlds in which they lived.  Being a Most Superior Person, he wrote copiously about his travels and observations.  At least at the time, his books were the most detailed and accurate assessments of the places he went available to the Western world.  In short, over the course of his years spent in the area, he made himself by a wide margin among the best-informed public men on the challenges arising from those parts of the world.

That degree of comprehension was not unimportant, either, because of who he was.  In 1885 he had become assistant private secretary to Lord Salisbury, one of the dominant forces in British politics for most of the last 20 years of the Victorian era.  Curzon entered the Commons in 1886, and promptly began to display those personality traits that had made him so admired and disliked at Oxford.

Curzon became the last of Victoria’s Viceroys of India.  In many ways he was an ideal choice, because he actually cared about the place and its peoples.  In many ways he was a disastrous choice because of his tendency towards self-importance, condescension, and contempt for those who disagreed with him.  As is true of anything at all complicated, India was a breeding ground for issues over which reasonable people could have disagreed in good faith.  It was Curzon’s misfortune that among the people with whom he could disagree was numbered the Earl Kitchener.  Of Khartoum.  One of the most politically connected and savvy operators in late-Victorian Britain.  He and Curzon never got along, and in their fight over control and organization of the Indian army, Curzon never really had a chance.  Kitchener ran rings around him, and eventually maneuvered him into a position where resignation was all that was left.

Curzon’s private life was likewise unfortunate.  Like Randolph Churchill he married American money.  Twice, in fact.  His first wife, whom he loved dearly and lost tragically young, was from Chicago.  His second, with whom he fell out and from whom he separated, was from Alabama.  With his first wife he had three daughters two of whom later got themselves mixed up with (one of them married eventually) Oswald Mosley, the former far-left radical and later head of the British fascist party.  Curzon’s second wife also had an affair with him.  Curzon later spent his daughter’s money restoring (here my memory fails me) a home, whether Curzon’s own or the castle he bought in 1916 I can’t recall.

His later political career was marked by repeated disappointment as he was over-ruled while foreign secretary and later passed over for prime minister.  Once more he does not seem to have enjoyed good relations with his colleagues.

It’s been a few years now, but there’s a very good biography of Curzon which I am pleased to possess.  It’s a wonderful look at a profoundly troubled person, one whose tragic flaw (he was sharp enough to realize how talented he was, but he just took himself so seriously that he repulsed those who might have assisted him to realize his abilities) forever undercut him.

Contemplating Curzon one cannot help recall another fellow who even while a schoolboy was widely thought of as The Anointed One, who was just destined for the highest office.  This boy was told from his days in rompers that he was meant to be president.  Like Curzon, from a very young age he moved in extremely influential circles, and all the while he was told how brilliant he was.  Like Curzon he was famously dismissive of anyone with whom he disagreed.  Unlike Curzon, however, he really wasn’t very talented at all.  But like Curzon he took himself way too seriously; he actually believed all he was told about himself.  And like Curzon he was denied his foretold destiny, by o! so wafer-thin a margin.

On one point of distinction, the career of Al Gore, Jr. and George Nathaniel Curzon are completely different.  Curzon never sold out his country, while Algore took a half-billion dollar payoff from his country’s sworn enemies.  And of course, after being denied what he had all along been told was his by right, he chose to become a charlatan, peddling bogus “science” to enrich himself.

Battlespace Preparation: 2016

Yesterday I had lunch over at my parents’ house, mostly to commune with their dog.  My father was watching CNN.  They were reporting on the recent revelations that some official in the Christie administration seems to have induced the Port Authority (which has jurisdiction over the George Washington Bridge between Manhattan and New Jersey) to close several lanes of east-bound traffic back in September.  The result, as anyone who’s ever driven across that bridge can understand, was utter chaos on the New Jersey end of the bridge.  Massive traffic jams for three days.

It seems the lane closures had nothing at all to do with any operational or maintenance requirements of the bridge.  Rather, it appears that the closures were politically motivated and were intended to cause exactly what they did cause.  E-mails and text messages have come to light that show this.  Some of those e-mails and messages, which dealt with official government business, went out over private e-mail accounts and cell phones, which is a no-no.  It’s such a no-no, in fact, that Lisa Jackson, the former head of Dear Leader’s EPA, felt obliged to set up an entirely fictitious e-mail persona under the surname “Windsor” to conduct official business that she wanted to screen from Freedom of Information Act requests.  Several of her underlings did the same thing and for the same reason.  All highly, highly illegal under federal law.

A few days ago the assertion was made that Chris Christie as governor approved of or at least knew back in September, at the time, what was being done and why.  Yesterday he holds a press conference, nearly an hour and a half long, in which he announced that no, he had no knowledge at the time, and not only that, but he’d been mislead by his senior staff about the status and revelations coming to light in the New Jersey after-the-fact investigation.  He’s already fired his deputy chief of staff who, he says, lied to his face about matters.  Other heads either have rolled or are in the process of rolling.  Christie’s line was much like Reagan’s after the Beirut bombing:  It happened on my watch; I’m responsible.  I am in the process of holding accountable those who have done wrong.

You’d think that would be about the long and short of the matter.  The point has already been made that shutting down lanes of traffic to cause massive traffic snarls as an act of political revenge is remarkably similar to shutting down national parks as an act of political retaliation.

I mentioned that CNN was covering this “story.”  What I didn’t mention is that’s all they were covering, during the whole 45 minutes or so I was at my folks’ house.  As in:  They talked about nothing else.  They dragged Congressmen out, they had lawyers on there talking about potential criminal prosecution of . . . whom?  They had video of some shmuck at a legislative hearing pleading his Fifth Amendment privilege repeatedly.  On and on it went.

The contrast was too great.  I wondered how much time CNN had devoted to this non-story (unless you’re one of the people who actually got caught in the traffic jams) relative to how much time they’d devoted to the ooze seeping out of the IRS over the past 200-plus days.  You know, the revelations that someone from very, extremely high up in Dear Leader’s administration directed the IRS to use its investigatory and regulatory powers to shut down an entire segment of the U.S. political spectrum in the run-up to the 2012 elections.  Here we’ve got the IRS senior counsel — one of the exactly two political appointees in the entire organization — spending huge amounts of time visiting the White House.  Huh?  Why does anyone in the White House need to meet with the IRS’s lawyer?  I can see meeting with the commissioner; that makes sense and there’s a huge amount that could legitimately be discussed that a president would want to hear directly from that person.  But the lawyer?  We’ve had revelations of conduct with is flagrantly criminal: Lois Lerner, a senior IRS official, turning over taxpayer information to the FEC.  The division of which she was head turning over taxpayer information to private political organizations known to be hostile to the taxpayer(s) in question.  And those are just the things that have come to light in the past three or four months.  How much air time has been devoted to those crimes?

At any rate, we now have a partial answer to my question.  Alas it does not relate to CNN but to its broadcast competition.  Comparing the networks’ coverage within 24 hours to their total coverage of the IRS scandal over the six months since July 1 reveals . . . the story of someone setting out unnecessary traffic cones got 17 times the amount of coverage in one day that criminal conduct which threatens the entire American polity got in 6 monthsSeventeen times the amount of coverage in one day.  Update:  It’s not as if everyone is asleep at the switch, of course.  Right over here, at TaxProf Blog, Prof. Paul L. Caron remains on watch, daily compiling coverage of a scandal which in its implications cuts at the very heart of the American experiment in self-government.  So you see, Lamestream Media, it can be done.

Now here’s another compare-and-contrast question:  How much time have the broadcast media devoted to Hillary Clinton’s role in the Benghazi scandal in the past sixteen months, relative to those horrible traffic cones?

Stand by to stand by.  The 2016 presidential campaign has started.

Cui Bono? With a Vengeance

It’s a truism in the world of power politics and big money nothing ever happens by coincidence.

So here we find two newspaper articles, many miles apart, yet which are (dare one speak it?) closely related to each other.  The first is from The Globe and Mail, and reports an interview with one of the most powerful men in the world.  No; it’s not President Mom-Jeans but rather a Saudi prince who is worth several billion dollars not only by senior membership in the kleptocratic Saudi ruling house, but also through his successes in investment in the Real World (you know: the world the Saudi government actively subverts through subsidizing the most extreme forms of West-hating, Jewish-blood-craving Islamofascism).  He makes the mistake of honesty.  “The missive [a letter he sent to his kinsman the Saudi oil minister] warned that the American shale oil boom would soon threaten demand for crude from members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.  New shale oil discoveries ‘are threats to any oil-producing country in the world,’ he says. * * *  ‘It is a pivot moment for any oil-producing country that has not diversified,’ he says. ‘Ninety-two per cent of Saudi Arabia’s annual budget comes from oil. Definitely it is a worry and a concern.’”

Why is a Saudi prince, who just bought a five-star hotel in Toronto, sitting there talking about shale oil, fracking, and similar matters?  Well, you see, even though the U.S. now produces domestically 89% of the oil it uses — up from 70% just a few years ago and all thanks to the fracking boom — it’s Canada that is our largest source of imported oil.  Not only is Canada the U.S.’s largest foreign supplier, but now that Dear Leader has, in part to accommodate Warren Buffett’s railroad interests in hauling North Dakota’s production via inefficient rail car rather than efficient pipeline, scuppered construction of a south-bound Keystone XL pipeline, the Canadians are just going to build it westward to their coast and sell their oil to Red China.  So Canada has an enormous economic interest in continued production from its oil sands.  And if anything, its political stake is even higher.  At the risk of understatement, the U.S. has taken its neighbor much too much for granted for far too long.  Establishing a highly lucrative relationship with countries other than the U.S. will enable Canada to act with much less looking southward over its shoulder.

Canada’s drive for economic and political leeway beyond the U.S. orbit is Major Super Dooper Bad News for the oil tyrannies because it renders everyone to whom they ship that much less dependent on the Islamofascist regimes.  Which is why the Saudis have been funding, very quietly, a huge amount of the “green” opposition to the Canadian oil sands.  One would like to know how much of the U.S. “green” opposition to Keystone XL and fracking in general is being funded from Saudi and similar sources.  Recall that the major players in the “green” racket aren’t exactly forthright about their funding sources.  Recall also that Geo. Soros has an enormous financial stake in that super-deepwater Petrobras field off the coast of South America.  A field that will never be economically viable at $90 a barrel.  Recall that Soros was among those pushing very hard to keep Gulf oil production shut down in the aftermath of the BP spill.

And how do the Saudis, Soros, and their ilk fight against U.S. energy independence?  By funding every “green” opposition group they can find to engage in lawfare, fear-mongering, and disinformation campaigns.  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not suggesting that they’re not entitled to their opinion or to attempt to influence public opinion in their favor (spoiler:  I think Citizens United was spot-on accurately decided).  I do object, however, to their vilification of every attempt to wean the Western world from subsidizing the continuing rise of Islamofascism through petrodollars as being just toadying to “Big Oil” and those favorite bogeymen, the Koch boys.

And that gets me to the other newspaper article.  From AP (via ABC News) we have this article on how four states have confirmed contamination in wells.  AP went to the four states and asked for years’ worth of public records relating to well complaints, contamination confirmations, and so forth.  A good part of the article is about the patch-work response they got, and the active push-back from some of the states (apparently Pennsylvania was like pulling teeth, whereas Texas — you know, them mouth-breathing rednecks — immediately coughed up a 90-plus page spreadsheet with extremely detailed information).  The core of the article, however, is about insinuating that all them eeeevvilllll Big Oil shills have been Proven Wrong About Fracking, and that accordingly . . . well, you’ve heard the rest.

The lead sentence, in good newspaper practice fashion, sets the tone for the rest:  “In at least four states that have nurtured the nation’s energy boom, hundreds of complaints have been made about well-water contamination from oil or gas drilling, and pollution was confirmed in a number of them, according to a review that casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen” (my emphasis).  And how much doubt is cast?  Well, there’s this:  “And while the confirmed problems represent only a tiny portion of the thousands of oil and gas wells drilled each year in the U.S. . . .”  A “tiny portion” of the thousands of wells drilled each year seem associated with contamination.

In the next few paragraphs, the AP gets even more specific, using Pennsylvania’s data.  In 2012, a total of 499 complaints of water well contamination was made; in 2013 the number was 398.  And how many turned out actually to be contaminated?  Well, let’s quietly move the goalposts a bit by expanding our field of vision.  “More than 100” cases confirmed contamination.  Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?  Yes it does . . . unless you read the rest of the sentence, which (using words, not numbers, so the eye that has been caught by numbers like “499” and “398” is going to have to re-calibrate) reveals that those “more than 100” (actually 106, a number which you have to keep reading substantially into the article further to find) confirmed contaminations were spread over five (5) years.  The actual 2011 and 2012 numbers were five in the first two-thirds of 2012, a total of 18 in all of 2011, and 29 in 2010.  So the number of complaints concerns a “tiny portion” of the thousands of new wells drilled each year (over 5,000 new wells in Pennsylvania during those five years) and even among the complaints that are actually made, only just over 2% of the complaints turn out to be actual contamination.

And by the by, most of the contamination involves methane, a gas which at atmospheric pressure will not remain in solution in water (according to a friend of mine who happens to enjoy a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, and has spent over ten years in water treatment and related fields).  In other words, if you want to get the methane out of your water, it’s scarcely rocket science to remove it.

The more you read, the more diluted becomes the suggestion that the AP’s research legitimately “casts doubt” on “industry suggestions” that such problems “rarely” occur.  Fracking isn’t the only kind of drilling occurring, you see, and “some conventional oil and gas wells are still drilled, so the complaints about water contamination can come from them, too.”  So we really don’t know how many of that 2.12% (max) of confirmed contamination is even actually associated with a fracking well.  Over in Ohio, out of a mountain of six — count ’em — confirmed cases of contamination, the state department of natural resources allowed that, “None of the six confirmed cases of contamination was related to fracking.”  In West Virginia over four years, 122 complaints were made, of which all of four were genuine enough that the driller had to take action.  In Texas, out of “over 2,000 complaints,” only 62 even alleged drilling-related contamination, and of those, they were able to confirm . . . exactly zero, over the course of 10 years.

If you keep slogging through the article all the way down, you get to this nugget:  “Experts and regulators agree that investigating complaints of water-well contamination is particularly difficult, in part because some regions also have natural methane gas pollution or other problems unrelated to drilling. A 2011 Penn State study found that about 40 percent of water wells tested prior to gas drilling failed at least one federal drinking water standard.”

All of which is to say that the AP article’s author wrote a lead paragraph for an entirely different article than the one he actually wrote.  Here, let’s try to help him out and match the introduction with the substance:

“A survey by AP of four states shows that well-water contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” in common parlance — is in fact extremely rare, as oil and gas industry companies and organizations claim.  Just how rare remains difficult to determine, because even confirmed contamination in water wells may be traceable to conventional oil or gas wells or even to entirely naturally occurring sources.  AP surveyed up to five years’ data about complaints of alleged well contamination, confirmed cases of well contamination, and determination of source of contamination in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas.  The data show that of the complaints of contaminated wells — up to 499 in Pennsylvania in 2012 — only a minuscule proportion reveal actual contamination — a total of five in the first nine months of 2012, or almost exactly 1%.  In Texas, despite hundreds of complaints over the years, not a single case of driling-related contamination has been confirmed in the past ten years. In comparison to actual or potential drilling-related contamination, natural contamination is a much more serious problem.  Over 40% of Pennsylvania wells tested pre-drilling failed at least one federal drinking water standard.”

That’s my effort.  Let’s see how ThinkProgress re-writes the article.  Actually, they do a better job, I think, in summarizing the data than the AP.  And they do come on out and say, “It’s unknown what sort of pollution caused the complaints that were confirmed to have been due to fracking,” and in the lead sentence of its paragraph no less.

Further on in the ThinkProgress article they mention a study which is alleged to shed some light on the overall effects of oil and gas drilling.  The study, yet to be published by some organization of economists, is represented to have found that “living close to a fracking operation increases the risk of low birth weight in a newborn baby by more than half, and doubles the baby’s risk of a low Apgar score, a scale that summarizes of the health of newborns.”  Here the reader is asked to confuse the concept of actuarial “risk” with causal “risk.”  The economists are plainly talking about the former, as (again, to their credit) ThinkProgress makes clear:  “However, water contamination wasn’t the likely culprit in the study: the mothers in the study who had access to monitored public water had babies that were of similar health as mothers who relied on private wells, which are more likely to be affected by fracking.”

In other words, about all you can truthfully say about oil and gas drilling is that people who live near them tend to have babies with low birth weights and Apgar scores.  Was any multivariate regression done to account for other known correlates of those measured outcomes?  Like smoking, female-headed single-parent household, failure to complete high school, or so forth?  Because oil and gas extraction is heavy industry, and people who can afford not to live near to heavy industry tend not to live next to heavy industry.  And curiously enough, they tend to experience lower rates of low birth weight and/or Apgar scores.

[Update 31 Jan 14:  For a further item on the don’t-jump-to-conclusions list, here (note: at the website of what appears to be some energy-industry organization) we see a response to a study from Colorado which alleges to find positive correlation between natural gas fracking and sundry birth defects.  This study is apparently popularly cited by opponents of fracking.  The Colorado Department of Health is not impressed with the study’s design, however.  Among its other shortcomings (like failing to distinguish between active or inactive wells, conventional vertical or fracking wells, or even oil and gas wells), the Colorado health department’s chief medical officer pointed out:

“For birth outcomes with very few cases, such as neural tube defects, the authors  did not consider the effect that other risk factors may have played (examples: smoking, drinking, mother’s folic acid intake during pregnancy, access to prenatal care, etc).  For these rare outcomes, such as neural tube defects, they only considered the effect of elevation. The personal behaviors of the mothers are very important risk factors for all birth defects. Without considering the effect of these personal risk factors, as well as the role of genetic factors, it is very difficult to draw conclusions from this study.

As the authors noted, they don’t necessarily know where the mother lived at the time of conception or during the first trimester of pregnancy, when most birth defects occur.  This makes interpretation of their study difficult.”

Ask whether momma was doing crank or popping pills?  Confirm whether momma actually had, you know, any sort of proximity to an oil or gas well when the defects are most likely to have occurred (seriously, check out the paper’s title; it contains the expression “maternal residential proximity”)?  Nah; that might cloud the issue, and the issue is to defeat the Koch brothers, rights?  The full text of the statement is at the link.]

To illustrate that last point a bit further:  Let’s say that you do a study on people who wear bicycle helmets and neck injuries.  You find that lo! people who wear bicycle helmets while riding experience a high number of neck injuries.  So you conclude that wearing a helmet increases the “risk” of neck injuries.  Well . . . no, it doesn’t.  Helmet-wearing correlates very strongly with (a) youth, whose parents make them wear helmets, and (b) sport bicycling, which involves high speeds and low tolerance for mistakes.  Young riders make more mistakes; mistakes made by competitive or sport riders occur at higher speeds, on rougher terrain, and produce more severe injuries.

I seem to have wandered from my original point:  Fracking is held up as a bogeyman.  The people who are holding it up as a bogeyman are receiving funding from people who have a very important — in some cases, life-or-death — financial and/or political stake in maximizing the dependence of the U.S. on imported oil.  The truth is that while it is true that “fracking can cause contamination of water wells,” that’s not really the appropriate question, is it?  That question is, “Given the rarity of contamination of water wells by fracking, is the U.S. — and for that matter, are other countries as well — better or worse off starving the Islamofascists of petrodollars by promoting an extraction technology that in a tiny number of cases may be causing a remediable problem?”

Ask yourself:  Who benefits from each of the answers that can be given to that question?

Update [27 Jan 2015]:  This just in.  Seems the Russians have been bank-rolling the anti-fracking movement here in the United States.  This is obviously because their environmental concerns are so acute.  After all, oil and gas extraction in Russia is done so much more cleanly than it is here.

Carthago Delenda Est

For quite a few years, some time ago, I subscribed to The Economist.  I liked several things about the newspaper (they describe themselves as a “newspaper,” which I also find charmingly old-fashioned).  I liked that they don’t have bylines, so while I have to assume their writers are no more immune to pride and vainglory than anyone else, at least they don’t indulge in the kind of fashionable byline that, for example, The New York Times does (I mean, seriously: would anyone with more than just bare walking-around sense pay attention to a column written by Paul Krugman if it didn’t have his name on it, trying desperately to steal the credibility that comes with a Nobel?).  I liked that they weren’t afraid to stake out a clear position, and didn’t hide behind a false façade of impartiality (like most of the lamestream media); I still recall their cover back in the late 1990s when Clinton got caught committing perjury.  It was a picture of him, and the legend, “If It’s True, Go”.  Mostly I liked that they still held to the basic outlines of their founding world view from 1834: classical liberalism.  Their reportage, their opinion leaders, their whole package seemed to take a presumption in favor of human liberty and the ability of private persons, voluntarily organized as they see fit, working through the mechanisms of the free market wherever possible, to address the restrictions and failings of the human condition.

And then things seemed to change.  Looking back I can no longer recall just when I first noticed it.  It might have been when they decided that George W. Bush really was as stupid as all the Deep Thinkers made him out to be.  Or when Bush refused to apologize for wanting to win the West’s war on terrorists (notice I did not say “terror”; you cannot wage a war against an ideology; you can only exterminate as many of its exponents as you can lay hands on).  All I distinctly recall is that by the time ol’ Hopenchange came along, The Economist had truly drunk the Kool Aid.

One of my partners now subscribes, and so the gents has a healthy supply of back issues for reading.  I predictably get to read about how wonderful socialized medicine in the U.S. will be (presumably because it’s worked out so damned well in the U.K.), or how U.S. politics is now “polarized” and both sides are at fault (although curiously acts of polarization are only mentioned in any detail if it’s just the one side going partisan) as if it’s unreasonable for a huge slice of the American population to react badly to years’ worth of being slimed as stupid, racist, parasitic leeches by the other party and its adherents. 

Islam comes in for a healthy dose of kowtowing.  A socio-economic system that — and here I’ll go out on a limb — has Absolutely Bugger All to offer the West in terms of advancing either the moral stature of mankind or his physical circumstances of existence is routinely presented as something that we here in the West are just going to have to understand and get along with.  Those few who are willing to characterize them by their actions, as opposed to their activists’ words, are painted as beetle-browed would-be SA thugs who just don’t like people with darker skin (ignoring that the African slave trade is still alive and well, with Muslim lands a principal destination for the captives).  A recent low point was reached in their opinion leader on how wonderful it was that Dear Leader has effectively blessed Iran’s race to acquire nuclear weapons.  No, seriously; as the Blogfather would say, Read the Whole Thing.  The Economist thinks it’s wonderful because, if you assume that the theocracy of Iran, which has as its stated public policy objective to “wipe off the map” the nation of Israel, suddenly makes nice, then . . . well, nice will be made.  “But the deal matters mostly for what it heralds. If Iran shows restraint and the world rewards it, the negotiators might generate sufficient goodwill to reach a more durable and comprehensive agreement.  And that would open up the possibility of America and Iran co-operating more, or at least feuding less, in the world’s most troubled region.”  And so forth.  Transpose a few names and dates, and it might have been an opinion leader ghost-written by Neville Chamberlain in early October, 1938.  If Hitler is satisfied with the Sudetenland, and he says he is, then this might open the door to more comprehensive agreement on re-armament in Central Europe.  Pathetic.

But mostly I get to read, with the regularity of one of the magnificent wristwatches they advertise, about how “climate change” is right up there at the top of what ought to be Everyone’s Agenda.  Really; it’s as though they can’t let an issue get out the doors without shoving something in on how vitally important it is that we hand unparalleled powers over to multinational bureaucrats (you know, because they’ve done such a bang-up jobs running the EU and — in their free time from running drugs, narcotics, and sexual slavery rings — as “peace-keepers” all around the world) in order to stave off “climate change.”

One reads, well nigh week in and week out, the mantra that “the science is settled” (I’d also remind them that at one time the theories of Gobineau were “settled science”) that the world is warming up and it’s pretty much all humans’ fault and what we really need is to siphon trillions of dollars away from productive uses (you know, the stuff that’s got to keep 6-plus billion humans housed, clothed, and fed for the foreseeable future) in order to stave off something that computer models say will happen 100 or more years out.  These would be the same computer models that cannot explain the last fifteen years of minimal if any “global warming.”  The writers there also don’t seem to bear down much on the extent to which the “science” being “settled” was the result of a highly orchestrated effort among the one side to suppress publication of any contrary views or evidence.  By the way, this was after having so thoroughly cooked the evidence that their own computer guru, after something like three years’ effort, eventually threw up his hands and stated, in precisely so many words, that the raw numbers had been so manipulated and compromised that there was no way to reconstruct what the data had originally been.

Here we’ve got their leader for the 2013 holiday double-issue.  This year is the centenary of World War I’s outbreak.  The Great War happens to be a fetish of mine, and so for the next four-plus years I’m going to have a great number of anniversaries to contemplate, both on their own merits and for what they have to suggest to us today.  And what does The Economist have to say to tee it up?

“The most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency. Businesspeople today are like businesspeople then: too busy making money to notice the serpents flickering at the bottom of their trading screens. Politicians are playing with nationalism just as they did 100 years ago. China’s leaders whip up Japanophobia, using it as cover for economic reforms, while Shinzo Abe stirs Japanese nationalism for similar reasons. India may next year elect Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who refuses to atone for a pogrom against Muslims in the state he runs and who would have his finger on the button of a potential nuclear conflict with his Muslim neighbours in Pakistan. Vladimir Putin has been content to watch Syria rip itself apart. And the European Union, which came together in reaction to the bloodshed of the 20th century, is looking more fractious and riven by incipient nationalism than at any point since its formation.”

The only place the Religion of Peace even gets a mention is that some Hindu politician has refused to apologize to them, and might get into a nuclear exchange with a Muslim state that — of course it’s not mentioned — is among the most unrepentant sponsors of violent religious-based warfare out there.  Really.  Apparently a nation that sits atop a vast fund of fossil-fuel wealth and has for its stated objective killing every Jew it can lay hands on, and has now been given the go-ahead to pursue its nuclear ambitions is not sufficiently disturbing to enumerate among the things about which people ought not be complacent.  The Economist isn’t complacent about it, after all: they’re whole-heartedly for it (q.v.)

Not to worry, though.  There are two things suggested that will head us off from going over the cliff like the grandparents and great-grandparents of The Economist’s writers and editors.  “One is a system for minimising the threat from potential dangers.”  The two specific instances that are mentioned are (i) China and the U.S. figuring out how to address North Korea’s eventual collapse, and (ii) figuring out how to defuze China’s regional aggressions.  Dealing with a nuclear war of extermination against Israel (and the Sunni peoples) again doesn’t make it onto the radar screen.

“The second precaution that would make the world safer is a more active American foreign policy. Despite forging an interim nuclear agreement with Iran, Barack Obama has pulled back in the Middle East—witness his unwillingness to use force in Syria. He has also done little to bring the new emerging giants—India, Indonesia, Brazil and, above all, China—into the global system. This betrays both a lack of ambition and an ignorance of history. Thanks to its military, economic and soft power, America is still indispensable, particularly in dealing with threats like climate change and terror, which cross borders. But unless America behaves as a leader and the guarantor of the world order, it will be inviting regional powers to test their strength by bullying neighbouring countries.”

It’s hard to know where to begin unpacking this nonsense.  It was a “more active” foreign policy, of going after the Islamofascists where they live and breed, rather than sweeping up the wreckage and burying the bodies after attacks on our home soil, that turned The Economist against the U.S. and freedom.  Dear Leader’s “interim agreement” with Iran is going to turn out pretty much precisely as well as Chamberlain’s “interim agreement” on the Sudetenland.  And precisely what about illegally bombing Libya and then abandoning it to the Islamofascists, hectoring a U.S. ally from office and then rejoicing when the Muslim Brotherhood takes over, and then gratuitously mixing himself into Syria (only to get his mom-jeans-wearing ass handed to him by a leader — Putin — who knows how to play hard-ball beyond the kind of bullshit ward-heeler politics of Chicago) is “pulling back”?  No, he’s getting in, in over his head.  He’s “done little” to bring China into the global system?  Really?  China?  The joint which has pretty much bought out the U.S. economy?  The place which is eagerly buying up every drop of oil from whatever kleptocracies and anti-U.S. Islamofascist dictatorship it can?  The ones who just launched an aircraft carrier?  Short of having the Politburo over for a fish-fry on the South Lawn, exactly what more needs China to become part of the “global system”?  Or India, the world’s largest democracy and one which is bursting at the seams with human capital and entrepreneurial spirit, all of which it gleefully either exports to the far reaches of the free world or brings in-house to its own educated class?  I have an idea:  Why don’t The Economist’s writers call up the technical support lines for their laptops and see what sort of English they hear on the other end of the line?

But Cato saves his tired exhortation for last.  Yep, the U.S. needs to squander what little influence is left after five years of insulting our allies, accommodating our enemies, making a pig’s breakfast of pretty much everything we try overseas, and taking dead aim on blowing up our own economy . . . on fighting “climate change.” 

He’s just phoning it in at this point.

Bad Little Rich Girl! You Stay on Your Plantation!!

A couple of months ago (October 20, in fact), a post appeared on Thought Catalog, authored by someone identifying herself as Rachael Sacks. Miss Sacks describes herself as being a 20-year-old college student fortunate enough to have been born to fairly well-off parents, and even more so to parents who like to keep the girl who is the apple of their collective eye in a manner to which most of us would like to become accustomed. I have to assume that her self-description is accurate.

Miss Sacks lives in New York City, in the West Village. Comfortably, we are given to understand. She enjoys shopping at swanky clothing stores, but will admit to enough humanity to let on that she also enjoys getting a deal at such places (at least to the extent that paying only several hundred instead of many hundreds of dollars for – just by way of example – a hand-bag can be called a “deal” by any reasonable standard). So far, so good. 

The subject of her post was a brief encounter she experienced in the check-out line of a store near where she lives. As she approached check-out, the cashier (also a young-ish female) was chatting with an acquaintance (ditto), and one of them observed to the other that she had gone to college in-state in order to save money. The other agreed that was a good idea. Miss Sacks interrupted the chat with her purchase. Let’s roll audio and hear (so to speak) Miss Sacks tell it like it was:

“I get to the checkout and there’s this girl in front of me probably a little older than I am talking to the cashier. The girl says to the cashier, ‘I went in-state to save my parents money for school.’ The Cashier then replies, ‘That’s smart.’ They then both glare at me with my shopping bag and my Coco Lite snack cakes and Diet Coke as if to say here’s daddy’s little princess wasting money, that little piece of shit. They exchange words and then the girl leaves. I try to be chipper and ask the cashier how her day is and she doesn’t answer me. She just looks down and scans my items not saying a word or even glancing in my direction. I say have a great day, as happily as I can and walk out feeling like a turd.” 

At this point in her essay Miss Sacks begins to sin. And also to dole up what is very likely a heaping plateful of unintended irony. I use the expressions “sin” and “very likely” carefully, because my irony sensors went off so spectacularly in response to what is after all an assumption about Our Author. You see, unless Miss Stacks is among the fewer than one-in-five of her age, sex, marital status, and socio-economic stratum who voted for Romney this last time out (I just typed and then deleted “McCain”; Miss Sacks at 20 is too young to have voted for the grumpy old guy), then she proudly pasted Hopenchange slogans about the place, pouted up her (attractive, from the pictures that have since appeared online) face in disgust at the very thought that someone could be so [insert term of derision] as not to be heart and soul for Dear Leader, and generally wore herself a callous on her own shoulder congratulating herself on her own Intelligence, Tolerance, Enlightenment, Sophistication, and Moral Superiority, all just by virtue of rooting for a political candidate. Who knows? She might even have “liked” him on Facebook, re-tweeted the most current Soros-sponsored talking points, and have proudly held up a union-printed sign demanding that the low-skilled unemployed be kept out of work by artificially high wages for those with jobs. Or something like that. I could be completely out to lunch on my supposition, but just by random selection there’s something like an 80% chance I’m right about her political preferences. 

And that’s what makes (assuming I’m correct) her essay ironic. Because she tilts her shapely chin back and emits what can only be described as an enormous belch in chapel (or temple, in the event she happens to be Jewish . . . which of course has even less to do with the merits of her thoughts or how she expresses them than how she chooses to get her jollies (q.v.); I just don’t want to place her out of her element, f’rinstance at a stock-car race). She doesn’t think she ought to have to pretend to be poor in order to be thought well of by people like the cashier and her friend. She thinks that people ought to be able to spend their money as they please, without being judged by the world around them. “People shouldn’t make others feel bad about their own personal finances. How people spend their money is their own choice.”  She bristles at what she perceives as hatred, contempt, and/or envy welling up against her solely by virtue of the fact that she’s carrying a shopping bag from some swanky retail store. She goes so far as to suggest (O! the horror, the humanity of it all!!) that people ought not be judged by the thickness of their wallet.  “It should not be made to define who people are, even though we do it all the time.”

Well, y’know what, Miss Sacks? You are absolutely, 100% correct. Seriously. You have now the experience of having been spot-judged by purely superficial criteria, and you find that it rankles. [N.b. I’m the last person to read body language and non-verbal cues correctly, but there’s always the outside chance you mis-read Cashier’s and friend’s.] You may well be the kindest, most personable, biggest-hearted, most inquisitive, even-tempered person we all could hope to meet. But because you don’t choose to hide one aspect of your existence – the relative freedom from financial worry and the relative ability to choose the objects with which you surround yourself – you perceive yourself to have been damned for all time by people who do not share that one characteristic with you. You are in their eyes unredeemable. You are for them The Eternal Other. 

If my hypothesis about your political leanings is correct, then what makes your essay deliciously ironic is that this cashier’s attitude towards you is the very essence of your own politics. You think people ought to be able to spend their money as they choose? Guess what? At its most stripped-down, the politics of today’s elite – including the bulk of the people you share your island home with, who just voted overwhelmingly for ACORN’s knight in shining armor – come down to the assertion that they may tell you what you may or must spend your money on (individual mandate, anyone? illegality of catastrophic coverage insurance policies? someone else’s birth control? compact fluorescent lightbulbs? trans fat bans?  magazines that allow you fourteen chances to defend your life against a violent criminal rather than only six?  vast amounts of wasteful “biofuels” subsidized by artificially high gasoline prices? intentionally bankrupted coal industry?). What’s more, they assert the right to tell you when you have enough money for any purpose at all, and to expropriate from you the “excess.” The fellow behind whom you choose to march (again, if I’m wrong about your politics, please forgive me) has done little more than preach the doctrine of hate and envy you felt washing about your knees in that check-out line. You’re buckled firmly by your own petard; stand by to hoist away. 

Don’t feel badly about your situation, though. You’re far from the first to have sensed that things aren’t working out for you quite as you’d thought they would. The Russian aristocracy that had supplied the Bolsheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries for all those years with money, guns, safe houses, and social respectability probably went through most of the feelings you have. Only they were waiting for their turn in the Cheka’s execution cellars as they pondered how anyone could hate them for having too large a house. All you had to endure was a snotty interlude from someone who feels herself no more superior to you for her poverty (relative to yours, of course; if you want to see truly grinding poverty, take a spin through southern McDowell County, West Virginia) than you likely do to those slopey-headed in-bred mouth-breathers in fly-over country by virtue of your political enlightenment.

It gets better. Miss Sacks’s essay is not useful just for its own substance and its merits. What’s every bit as delightful (at least for the cynic) is the hateful tenor of the comments she smoked out. She’s excoriated for poor writing (guys: it’s an internet post, fer cryin’ out loud). She’s damned for being “arrogant.” She’s damned for being rich in the first place. And so on. I’ll just go on record and state that I didn’t find her reaction to her experience to be arrogant at all (assuming she “read” the cashier’s reactions correctly; if she read those reactions into the situation, that might be different, but then of all the people who’ve weighed in on this subject, exactly one of them – Rachael Sacks – was present that day). Oh sure, she might have expressed her experience and her own reactions to it more artfully or gracefully. But hell’s bells; she’s 20 years old and admits that she’s got growing yet to do. That degree of self-knowledge alone sets her apart from the run of humanity at that or any other age. 

Miss Sacks might have spent her creative energy pondering the implications of class hatred for the future of America. Twenty-four years ago, when Paul Fussell led off Class: A Guide Through the American Status System with a chapter entitled “A Dirty Little Secret,” you could still joke about it. [Per Fussell, when asked and he confessed that he was writing a book about class in America, people looked at him as if he had just said, “I’m writing a book advocating beating baby whales to death with the dead bodies of baby seals.” That’s still one of my all-time favorite lines, anywhere.] For decades European socialists fretted about the relative impermeability of American politics to class hatred as a organizing principle. If Miss Sacks’s cashier is a bellwether, their dreams might be close to realization. But the essay wasn’t set up as a disquisition on such things. It was her relation of her own experience in a specific time and place. 

All in all, the blistering Miss Sacks has taken from her commenters and the media puts me in mind of a retort a friend of mine gives under such circumstances: “Thank you for making my point for me.” 

Not only has Miss Sacks got to see up close the street-level application of politics which may well be her own, but she’s also got to experience the special sort of viciousness she maybe laughed off, five years ago, when directed at this guy known to history as Joe the Plumber. Remember him? He made the mistake of asking the Anointed One an awkward question on camera. And the next thing you know, within hours nearly, non-public financial information about him, available only to people with access to official records and computer systems, had been fed to the press. Or consider for a moment a certain former governor of a northern state. She got to have someone literally move in next door and peer into her back yard (again, literally), hoping to see something titillating, or prurient, or embarrassing. Did Miss Sacks cackle with glee at the hectoring of those stupid knuckle-dragging Tea Partiers? How about when the union thugs come to demonstrate in front of the homes of corporate CEOs? Did she puff up and sniff, “Serves ‘em right!” when she read about how the IRS targeted groups so retro-grade as to suggest that only people lawfully entitled to vote be permitted to do so, and then only once?  Did she vote for Bill DeBlasio for mayor?  Did she? Whether she did or not, what’s happened to her since October of last year is just a tiny little slice of how the present administration and its allies conduct business. Someone dug up pictures of Miss Sacks on Facebook (which is how I can state that she appears fairly attractive); they hunted up her childhood home and put pictures of that up on the net. Reporters began to moon about the front door of her apartment building in the city. 

To her credit, she doesn’t back down on the basics of her original essay. Which is good. To borrow another favorite quotation from history, she has done no more than “make a plain statement of an obvious truth,” and no apology is called for. And as mentioned, she admits her comparative lack of life experience and perspective, and that her acquisition of same is likely to change how she perceives and thinks about things. Again all to the good.

After another few months of getting the Full Treatment from the thought police, Rachael weighs back in.  This time what annoys her is that no one mentions how she gets her jollies. You see, Miss Sacks identifies herself as homosexual. As if that had a damned thing at all to do either with the merits of her original arguments, the vitriol hurled at her from the sidelines, or the inappropriateness of the invasion of her privacy. I have to say I fail to understand her objection. Her original essay and the points she makes in it have nothing to do with how she disports herself in her bedroom (and she points that out). I didn’t notice in any of the excoriation she took anything substantive that relates at all to whom she prefers as a bedmate.

What’s interesting, and where Miss Sacks sort of gives away the game, is precisely by pointing out how the mention of her preferences would have politicized the public reception of her essay. The lamestream media would have leapt to her support, because the homosexual lobby is so influential. And the troglodytes would have emptied their magazines (metaphorically speaking) of every cacophemism they have, precisely because of those same preferences. It would have become a sliming match based on what she does with her genitals, instead of a pissing contest about her comparative wealth, how Us Proles react to her not feeling obliged to hide it, and what those reactions have to say about us individually and as a society (which is to say, about the substantive merits of her essay). Miss Sacks sure gives the impression of being disappointed in the missed chance to drag her amorous predilections into an argument where they had no place. 

Rachael objects to the media making hay of her background, her family, and the physical circumstances of her existence, but of omitting to mention her homosexuality. Errmmm . . . Rachael, those sorts of reference points people have dug up are precisely illustrative of the central point of your essay: People judge you (negatively) because of the financial circumstances of your birth and your parents’ willingness that you should at age 20 reap the tangible benefits of that. Yes, it was tacky (and by the way I’m proud you used that word correctly in your follow-on essay; so few of y’all Yankees know how to) of everyone to jump all over your personal circumstances. But it wasn’t so because they were personal but rather because they didn’t affect the validity of your argument one way or the other. Put differently, suppose you’d been, not the girl with the swanky shopping bag, but the next cashier over, making your rent on damn-near-nothing-net-of-taxes-per-hour, watching the girl with the swanky shopping bag and how your colleague treated her, and describing what you saw. What exactly about your observations would have been either more or less valid? What about the discussion we could have about what you saw would be more or less pertinent to life in today’s United States? 

Not good enough for Miss Sacks. “While my sexuality is irrelevant to the topic of my article, it is still part of who I am and should not be ignored.” If, she bemoans, they could delve into where she grew up and where she lives, why can’t they trot out her sexual habits? She thereby goes a long way towards giving up match point: She wants the personal to be political, as and when she wants it to be so, on her terms, not the cashier’s. Which gets us right back around to the irony of the first essay. People should mention that I’m homosexual, because then some would be more frightened to attack me, others would more readily leap to my defense, and in any event I could deflect criticism by pasting the label “homophobic” (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) on my detractors. But people should be able to spend their money as they choose (which of course necessarily presupposes that they should have their money as they choose in the first place). People should not think badly of me because I’m rich; rather they should consider me sacrosanct because I like to sleep with other women. Either the personal is political or it’s not, Rachael. You can’t have it both ways. You chose to put up an article about something that is extremely important, and you are disappointed that a triviality – and by your own statement, an irrelevant one at that – was not made part of the centerpiece of the controversy. 

In closing, let’s hear it one more time for the Decalogue: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his servant, nor his maid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

[Updated 14 Jan 13 to correct some stoopid typos.]


Want a War on Women?

We got yer War on Women, right here. Back in October, in eastern India, a 16-year-old girl complained of a gang rape. The perps were actually arrested, have been charged, and were to go to trial.

Enter on the scene another group (six of them, according to the article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) of men. They threatened the girl, to get her to retract her accusations. Nothing doing.  So they raped her again. 

Among the second group of rapists was the family’s landlord. She appears to have complained; they were arrested.  So two of their friends doused her in kerosene and set her alight. She has now died. 

This, Sandra Fluke, is what a war on women looks like. It’s not people’s objecting to subsidizing the intimate amusements of able-bodied adult women who have the wherewithal to enroll in Georgetown University’s law school.

[Update:  English-language (and a bit more extensive) coverage here.]