On Barbershops

This morning while brushing my teeth I realized I need a haircut.  I am convinced I am not alone in my whipsaw of never remembering I need a haircut until I have no time to get a haircut, and promptly forgetting all about when the time is there to do it.  One of life’s minor injustices, to be sure.

On those rare occasions when memory and opportunity intersect, I go to a barbershop.  A men’s barbershop.  Not a “stylist,” not a unisex, Top 40 playing in the background metrosexual personal expression facilitation operation.  A barbershop.  Since at least 1970 it’s been there, in that same location in the arcade (it’s a re-development, from back before the word was fashionable, of an old movie theater) down past the cubby-hole offices of the businesses that come and go, some on to better things, others towards the recollections of old men’s conversations that start with, “Hey; you remember when ol’ Joe Jones had that surveying business down here? ”  For decades two guys ran the shop — it’s two chairs, with a naugahyde bench running down the opposite wall — and one of them is still there.

The floor is red-and-white tile.  The red’s faded to a sort of dirty pinkish color, and the white is what some marketer at Sherwin Williams might think of as “Ancient Yellow.”  The naugahyde bench is held together in several places by duct tape (as it should be).  On the wall above the bench are (i) a pencil drawing of a much-younger Billy cutting a child’s hair; (ii) a price list for services that include things guys used to go to barbershops for but haven’t for decades now; and, (iii) a picture of some horse that seems to have won some accolade in a horse show.  They’ve been there, in precisely those positions, since I’ve been going there, which means since the mid-1990s.  On the far wall are two framed collections of arrow and spear heads.  Until a few years ago they also had one of those soft drink machines — it was an RC machine — where you put your money in, then opened a tall, narrow door and reached in to pull your selection out.  One day it was gone, and when I asked Billy said the compressor had gone out and it would have cost him too much to have it fixed or replaced.  I was crushed; so far as I know that was the last operational such machine in the county.  Now all that’s left are those ghastly behemoths with back-lit top-to-bottom plexiglas fronts and flashing lights with . . . buttons you push.  Coke machines are coke machines and pinball machines are what they are, and I disapprove of mixing media.

In election years there’s usually a piece of poster board (hand-drawn) with the local races and candidates listed on it, and boxes beside each name.  Purely on the honor system, you can go put an “x” in a box beside your candidate.  Historically it’s proven a not-unreliable indicator of the hopefuls’ respective outcomes.

Billy’s old enough to be my father.  I know that because his two children were a year ahead and a year behind me in school.  When I go I’m frequently the youngest customer by 25-30 years.  I’m turning 49 exactly six months from today.  “Bustle” is not a verb or noun you’d associate with the pace of business there.  I don’t mind sitting on the bench, waiting my turn, and I don’t mind spending 20 minutes on a haircut that a military barber would spend about 1:15 doing.  I listen to the other customers and Billy talk with each other.  I hear a lot of names, some of which I recognize, some of which are people I know, and a good deal of which are complete strangers.  At their ages the conversation is usually about who’s sick, who’s well, who just buried his wife, who’s finally too old to put in a garden this year, and so forth.  It’s the easy rhythm of sociability, of conversations that you realize are decades old by the time you hear them.  In fact, they’ve been having this conversation since the 1950s and you’re just hearing the latest 30-minute installment of it.  You’ll hear about people’s children and grandchildren, who’s married, who’s back from college, who’s in trouble and who’s taking over the family shop.  Sometimes you’ll hear about Local Characters and their doings over the years.  I still recall the time that everyone was reciting all the local businesses this one ol’ boy has been invited never to come back to.  It was priceless.

They give a pretty OK haircut down there.  I’ve worn my hair more or less the same way since about 1973 and so my standards are not very high.  In terms of self-expression I’m just happy if my hair doesn’t proclaim, “I am an idiot,” too loudly.

The boy who used to cut with Billy retired (around here we say “retarded”) and moved off to be closer to his boy who lives a couple of counties over.  I was worried because shortly thereafter Billy “taken sick” and it was an open question whether he’d be back.  But he found some younger boy (who’s actually younger than I am) who’s now got the other chair, and so it looks as though the Succession is safe for the time being.

[Aside:  Here I must pass some observations on the word “boy” and its usage.  A few weeks ago some boy name of Toobin wrote a disparaging article in the The New Yorker about how awful it is that Clarence Thomas doesn’t speak much if at all during oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court, and spends a great deal of time leaning back staring at the ceiling while $1,000+/hour lawyers drone on in front of him.  Ann Althouse, who teaches law at Wisconsin and runs an eponymous blog, linked to it and prompted a merry firestorm of vituperation in the comments section.  She’s got a pretty loyal crowd of commenters, some typically supportive, others less so, and some of whom seem to have their own axes to grind and do so, relentlessly.  Among the latter are some who are, shall we say, sensitive to issues of “race.”  A segment of the comments to that particular post circulated around the dynamic that this Toobin boy seems to expect that Thomas shall entertain him, like some minstrel show.  Within those comments the subject of “boy” came up.  As everyone knows, “boy,” like “son,” was an address of condescension employed by whites towards blacks, back in the day.  This is unfortunate, because around here every male under the age of about 75 is a “boy.”  I am my father’s boy and everyone in town knows me as such and will know me as such until I die.

I once had to explain to a lawyer from Minnesota the broad outlines of “boy” and its permutations, because they are not co-extensive.  Specifically, if you wish to understand and be understood around here, you need to know, among other intricacies, the distinctions between boy, ol’ boy, good boy, and good ol’ boy.  As mentioned, every male under 75 is a boy:  “Earnest that boy he just won’t get that no one’s gonna give him more than $1,500 an acre for that farm of his daddy’s.”  (Notice the triple subject, a common grammatical construct around here.)  An ol’ boy is generally (of course, context is everything, as usual) a boy who ain’t no account:  “Clarence?  That ol’ boy ain’t taken a sober breath since spring of 1963 and I don’t reckon he’s about to start now.”  A good boy will show up on Sunday afternoon after church and pressure wash his widow neighbor lady’s front porch:  “Junior’s a awful good boy; he’s been Real Good to his momma since his daddy passed.”  A good ol’ boy might have laid out of church because he had him a couple or fifteen too many Saturday evening, and he might be carrying a twelve-pack when he shows up, but he’ll still come over on Sunday afternoon and pressure wash his widow neighbor lady’s front porch:  “Shirley’s jus’ a good ol’ boy; he ain’t goin’ nowhere but he’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.”]

I recall when Barbershop came out.  I enjoyed it, sufficiently so that I bought the movie on DVD some time later.  In addition to being funny I thought it interesting how the character of the goof-ball white boy is handled.  Most of the time, of course, if there’s a black character in a mainstream movie he’s the one who sticks out, and it’s his mode of expression, of existence, that is “treated” as being the non-standard.  He’s the dramatic contrast, in other words.  Barbershop exactly flips that; it’s the white guy who’s the mustard splotch on the shirt front.  But most of why that movie resonated with me had Zero to do with the physical attributes of the actors and actresses.  I liked that movie because that’s where I go to get my hair cut.  And the social role the shop plays in that movie neighborhood is exactly what my barbershop plays here in my own county.  We don’t have a Checker Fred down at the arcade, but there used to be a barbershop just off Main Street here (curiously enough, the guy who ran that shop happened to be black) and there was some boy — when I met him he must have been in his 60s — who hung out there who’d bet you the price of the drink that he could finish a coke faster than you could.  I saw it done, too; he had the talent of being able to swallow without swallowing, so to speak, and he could kill a standard bottle of Coke in about ten seconds.  That’s not an exaggeration, by the way.  So when I saw Barbershop it felt like meeting a bunch of old friends.

Among the many reasons why I chose to raise my own boys back here is so that they will have — I hope — the chance to experience places like the barbershop.  They’re places which communicate, very subtly, the message that Here is Where You Belong.  You don’t have necessarily to stay here, but I suggest that everyone needs a hole, so speak, that fits his own shape perfectly, and into which he can ease himself. 

Nowadays they call it “alienation,” a fashionable name for the feeling you get when you realize that there’s no place for you, that you don’t belong anywhere.  Observe by the way that belonging everywhere is belonging nowhere.  “Alienation” is a hobby indulged in by people who spend a tremendous amount of energy contemplating how alienated they are.  I remember back in 2008, when Dear Leader was running against McCain.  I ran across a quotation from one of Dear Leader’s (apparently ghost-written, it seems) books . . . about himself, of course.  He talks about how “alienated” he felt, and I realized that there was no better contrast between the two candidates than that word.  John McCain grew up in the Navy, likely still keeps in touch with his Academy classmates, and survived years of torture (at the hands of people whose eventual victory Dear Leader celebrates) only by forging a tightly-knit web of surreptitious support and communication with his fellow prisoners (read In Love and War, Admiral Stockdale’s joint memoir with his wife; that’s what John McCain survived).  I wonder whether McCain even understands the notion of feeling “alienated.”

“Alienation” is, like so much else, something of a choice.  I have a very dear friend who recently departed from the Big City to a smallish town out in what he probably grew up thinking of as The Sticks.  Among his other hats, he wears one as Musician, specifically jazz/swing (although he also plays other stuff as well, those seem to be his home).  What with Life and All, I haven’t seen him in years, but keep up, more or less, via Facebook.  I’ve watched years of his posts now, and a great deal of them deal with the perceived contrast between Places Where There are Hep Cats, and places where there are not.  I gather his new home is a Place Where There are Squares, and he seems to lament that fact.  Poor boy.  He needs him a barbershop.  He needs to drop that Squares vs. Hep Cats shit and go volunteer at the local humane society shelter.  Get involved in Meals on Wheels.  Call the local high school band director and see if the drum line could do with a volunteer helper.  Join the Rotary or Kiwanis.  Show up at the booster club’s pancake breakfast. 

He needs to find his barbershop, and until he does, I’m afraid he’s doomed to feel “alienated.”

All Your Children Are Belong to Us, Chapter 2

I generally shy away from blogs that are too much about the author, his/her friends and family. Unless you’re Winston L. S. Churchill, the chances are that the internals of your life are of interest principally to you. Even “reality” television is anything but that; the producers spend a tremendous amount of time and energy concocting neat slices of “reality” that – mirabile dictu! – happen to fit into a standard television time-slot, net of advertising. Isn’t that just amazing from an evolutionary perspective? Human society, ancient as it is, has by some force of divine providence so developed that it will dove-tail perfectly into modern television’s business model.

I’ve thus tried not to clutter up this ‘umble little blog with tales of my own woes and would-be triumphs. I won’t claim the widest or most rarefied circles of acquaintance, but by a pretty depressing margin I’m the least interesting person I know. My life and its ups and downs offers the fewest useful insights to my fellow passengers on this earth. 

So when I write this, my third post in four or five which deals with a vignette from my family, I think an apology is in order. Consider it offered. 

Yesterday whilst purging my spam filter, I noticed several e-mails from my boys’ school. I generally make no effort to pull them up and read them. We live sufficiently far away that much of what we can describe as the Social Calendar aspects of their parent communications just has no relevance to me. We access what information is there about the boys’ respective homework assignments and leave the rest to sort itself out. So I’ve never released or white-listed any of the school spam. Until yesterday, that is, when I saw something from a teacher whose name I recognized as being the art teacher, mentioning something about the fifth-graders’ “film projects.” This was the first I’d heard about this, and given the sometimes easy and unwarranted assumptions that today’s school teachers seem to make about what we have lying about the house (such as shoe boxes for dioramas; we don’t have the money around here to have so many pairs of brand-new shoes that we’re awash in empty shoe boxes to cut up and make into “projects” for school subjects) I figured I’d better give it a once-over to make sure they weren’t just breezily figuring all we parents had home media production studios. 

I was relieved to discover that this “film project” is something the children are doing in a “lab,” on the school’s computers. I was less relieved to discover the due dates are next week. Around our little house we (ahem!) sometimes have trouble with getting started soon enough to make deadlines. Mommy is of the “start at 9:30 the night before it’s due” philosophy; daddy is of the “start it as soon as you know about it” persuasion. You can imagine the conflicted signals our children get. 

And then I read a bit further, and my mood became unhinged. This is the guts of the assignment: 


Students will create a film using IMovie in the computer lab Macs. Your film must relate to the theme of the environment. The films theme should be taken seriously.No slap stick, no comedies allowed.

The film should focus on a problem that is taking place in our community, whether it’s a lack of recycling, community gardens, accessible education on caring for our environment etc.Step 1

: Come up with one problem that you see in the environment that you want to focus on in your film.Step:2

Research your problem and find out if there are solutions to helping eliminate or lessen the problem affecting the environment

Step 3

Create a StoryBoard. A storyboard looks a lot like a comic. It usually has four boxes and you draw what 4 major scenes you will cover in your film.

This assignment is for a class of fifth-graders, remember. They are supposed to “identify a problem that is taking place in our community” and which relates to “the environment.” It’s supposed to be “taken seriously.” No levity, children; remember art is never about using humor to make or illustrate a point. And what sorts of “problems” are suggested? Is the anthropomorphism of the world and non-human existence a possible problem? How about the difficult question of trade-offs and how do you keep six billion humans fed while maintaining a pre-lapsarian purity in the natural environment?

Oh no; those aren’t “problems taking place in our community.” Whose community again, sister? Out here in my “community” a lot of people still heat with wood cut from their own land. That’s not because they want to make some sort of statement but rather because they can’t afford the sky-high electrical prices which have resulted from the forced closure of scores of coal-fired electrical plants. They don’t have “community gardens” because their garden isn’t some hobby they indulge in to make themselves feel as if they’re cocking a snook at “corporate America”; it’s how they feed their families. A very good friend of mine had a father who “taken sick” (as they say out here) for the better part of a couple of years. The only meat the family had during that time was what my buddy – a teenager back then – could kill, in season or out. He got to where he could spotlight a deer, bring it down with a single shot, field dress it in the dark, and be gone before he could be caught. And so the family survived.

Apparently this goof-ball of a teacher thinks that “community gardens” have something to do with the environment, specifically that more of them would be good for it. Perhaps she thinks that you can feed much more than one family off a garden the size of the arable portion of a town building lot. Perhaps she thinks that thinning out urban population so that you have one garden per inhabited lot is a great thing for the environment. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to her that (i) having entire cities trying to feed themselves off quarter-acre gardens is about the biggest waste of human, physical, and financial capital you can imagine (it’s as if she never heard of Adam Smith’s observations about the division of labor); and (ii) when you thin the population by half you double the amount of land it occupies. That’s math, lady, and unless you can come up with some other solution to getting people co-located with their job sites, you just astronomically increased the fuel consumption associated with getting Americans to work in the morning. Remind me how this is a good thing?

“Accessible education” about “taking care of the environment” is a “problem taking place in our community,” it seems. Mind you, this is when you can’t pick up a magazine, or a newspaper, or turn on the television, or browse the internet without seeing something about how you can juice up ol’ Ma Nature. You can’t listen to a politician of any level gas on for more than five or ten minutes without witnessing some sort of genuflection to Saving the Environment. You’ve got everyone from coffee shops to your greengrocer to the hot air hand dryer in the men’s room reminding you to recycle this, use less of that, and Aren’t We Wonderful for Reducing Waste.  In short, today’s American as he moves through his day is greeted by didactic noise about “taking care of the environment” with the dreary repetitiveness and predictability of the monk scene from The Holy Grail.

My objection is of course to the transparent use of school as propaganda forum. The issues this assignment allude to are incredibly complicated, and to start the reasoning (to give it an undeserved credit) process halfway down the line – that lack of X or the prevalence of Y is prima facie a “problem” – is the height of dishonesty. Even more so do I resent the presence of this assignment in an “art” class. What does making a documentary have to do with “art”? What is artistic about a polemic? Ding-Dongs and Zingers bad; granola bars good. Whatever else you might call that, it is not art in any meaningful sense of the word.

This woman is not teaching art with this assignment, but rather schooling the children in a catechism.

If you really wanted to have this sort of assignment and have it be relevant to the subject matter of a specific class, it ought to be in social studies. It should be part of social studies because of all the inherently social, economic, and political issues it implicates. Social studies is (or ought to be, if taught honestly) about little more than the trade-offs that humans make in their effort to live with each other without devolving into a Hobbesian state of nature. “Lack of recycling” as a problem? Well, what are the alternatives with which recycling has to contend? What are the relative burdens and benefits of taking a used plastic trash bag and turning it into a usable something else? Where are those burdens felt and who enjoys the benefits, and how are those groups/places determined? Is there something to be said for answering the questions to those questions in one fashion rather than another? These are not questions of art but of human interaction. To treat them as properly the subject of art – which can have neither right nor wrong “answers” – is to divorce them from the realm of decisions which have measurable consequences for living humans. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the only reason we do not enjoy starvation – not mere hunger, but true starvation – on a massive scale in the United States is precisely because our agricultural system is so highly mechanized, centralized, and commercialized. If you’re looking for what a society of “community gardens” looks like, you needn’t look much past the nearest UNICEF fund-raising poster. Those bloated-belly stick children lying in the African dust, their eyes staring blankly as they feel themselves dying by inches? They’ve been fed from “community gardens.” Way to think it through, lady.

All of which to say is that the nostrums so loyally parroted by this art teacher are not self-evidently value-positive to society. But you wouldn’t know that from the approach this assignment takes, would you?

Finally, I object to this kind of assignment being foisted onto children much, much too young to understand the implications of the pat answers their teacher so obviously expects of them. There’s something more than just vaguely Komsomol about the whole exercise, when you ponder it. Let’s all have “community gardens” and every household on the block can raise three-sevenths of one row of string beans. That’s really going to feed the world. I don’t want to go too deep into the weeds of imagining what’s going through this commissar’s teacher’s mind, but is it too much to speculate that she sees herself as training this generation’s Pavlik Morozovs, lurking behind the living room drapes to see if mommy and daddy are engaging in Trotskyite counter-revolutionary failure to recycle last Sunday’s New York Times Review of Books? And then dutifully reporting that to their pediatricians when such questions are mandated by whatever amendments to the “Affordable” Care Act are cooked up by the lunatic fringe (don’t laugh; pediatricians are already being leaned on – hard – to pepper their patients about whether mommy and daddy have guns! in the house).

Not only is there the creepy recitation of Mao Thoughts aspect of this. In point of fact this assignment is not age-appropriate. As a group fifth-graders are not at the point where they’ve been exposed to enough of the world’s hard lessons to understand the nature of trade-offs. At eleven or twelve years old they’re still by and large in the phase of “it would be really neat to have X; therefore let’s have X.” [N.b. Sadly, we must point out that most government entities do their budgeting on precisely that basis, which explains way more about the state of our republic than is very comfortable to think about.] Don’t get me wrong, though; there are out there children of that age who understand that in order to have X you’re going to have to give up some Y, and maybe some Z as well. And while doing that you’re going to put yourself in a position that A, B, and a good bit of C are going to be out of your reach either temporarily or forever. There is an expression for children who have been sufficiently exposed to Life that they understand such things at that age: “old beyond their years.” They’re not to be envied, those children. The husband of a friend of mine was his family’s principal means of support from the age of twelve. That family had nothing – nothing – but what he could go out and break his back to earn. They didn’t have a “community garden”; they had their own garden and they had it in order that they did not starve. They didn’t recycle to propitiate Gaia; they recycled because they couldn’t afford not to use everything to the point of disintegration. They weren’t worried about “accessible education about taking care of the environment”; they were worried about accessible heat for the winter.

Years ago my mother, who was a junior-high English teacher for about 182 years or so, assigned her little scholars, in lieu of a “What I Did Over the Summer” essay, to interview an old person. I think 70 was the minimum cut-off. One of her students’ mothers was a nurse in a VA hospital in the area. Among the resident patients was the widow of one of the most famous American war heroes of the entire 20th Century. So this 8th-grade kid interviewed her. Riffing on that same notion, and if you want to assign the children something that is (i) true, (ii) relevant, and (iii) important, all while tying the task into another school subject area, assign the children to do an oral history project. Here are some suggestions for interviews:

  • a World War II combat veteran (they’re dying at the rate of over 10,000 per month, and just for example the last surviving Medal of Honor winner from D-Day just died);
  • a Korean War combat veteran;
  • a former prisoner of war;
  • a surviving German, Italian, Russian, or Japanese soldier from World War II (growing up a buddy of mine had a grandfather who lived one street over from us and who had been a machine gunner for the Kaiser; I still kick myself for not getting to know him);
  • a displaced person from Eastern Europe;
  • a Holocaust survivor;
  • someone who participated in a lunch counter sit-in during the Civil Rights struggle;
  • someone who was at Selma with King;
  • someone who grew up without electricity or running water.

People like that are all over the place. Some years ago I did a will for an older fellow, a widower. He was ethnic Ukrainian, but his village ended up in the reconstituted Poland after the Great War. They were right in the path of the southern invasion from the former Czechoslovakia in September, 1939; he told me the entire countryside was littered with corpses, everywhere you looked. His village ended up just on the German side of the German-Soviet partition line. His eighteenth birthday was June 25, 1941; that night a German slave labor battalion swept through and grabbed every male eighteen and up. He’d never seen his village or his family again. The only reason he survived the war was that he was sent as a slave laborer to a farm in Austria. He stayed there for ten years after the war and married a local girl. In the mid-1950s he signed up for a DP program and ended up with a job at a meat-packing company near here. He’d since retired, but there was a former slave, who had lived through some of the most horrific times in Western history, right there in my office. I told him I wouldn’t charge him for the will if he’d promise me to sit down in front of a tape recorder.

I have an aunt by marriage who is East Prussian. She, her mother, and her three sisters (the father had long since been killed on the Eastern Front) made it out on the last airplane to leave the airfield. A friend of their father’s was on the local commanding general’s staff and hooked them up with an officer who would have an airplane available when the Red Army got there. The oldest sister married an American after the war and she and my aunt ended up living here permanently. When I did the sister’s will I got her memories fired up after we’d signed everything (I’d motioned our staff to sit tight and listen). She talked about looking back through the staff car’s rear window – before it was strafed by a Soviet fighter, killing the driver – and seeing the entire horizon lined with pillars of smoke and flame from burning farms and villages.

But let’s keep the fifth-graders’ minds focused on the important things, like “accessible education about taking care of the environment.”

Collectivists of all stripes have understood that you have to get them young, and you have to get a wedge in between them and their parents. My children’s art teacher gives all appearance of being a willing stooge in the Greater Effort. Maybe they’ll let her stand a few rows higher on the bleachers, next May Day parade.

Now It’s Getting Serious

BREAKING NEWS:  In the latest escalation of the sanctions and counter-sanctions imposed by Russia and President Mom-Jeans on each other’s citizens, the Road Superintendent of French Lick, Indiana has been denied entry into Russia.  President Putin announced this most recent measure in retaliation for President Mom-Jeans’s announcement that a week from Thursday he will freeze all assets of the Novosibirsk garbage collector.

O How Frightfully Clever and Witty

I can never quite make up my mind whether the spectacle of someone thinking he’s funny when he’s really not — but being encouraged by his bystanders who also don’t realize how not funny he’s being — is itself funny (call it meta-humor) or just uncomfortable.  I lean towards uncomfortable if only because a common thread in such situations is that the performer does not understand the subject of his would-be humor.  When you think about it, a central aspect of something we think of as funny is viewing a world in which the actors do not understand something about their own world which we, The Observers, do.  That’s true of a Three Stooges short; it’s true of an ethnic joke; it’s true of Lord Emsworth at his club simultaneously trying to order lunch and watch another member take enormous bites of his food; it’s true of a Monty Python sketch or movie.  We Know and They Don’t, and it’s the movement of the actors through a universe the rules for which they don’t know and the operation of which they cannot therefore predict which produces the humorous dramatic action.

Critical to the process is also that any intermediator — the author, teller of the joke, or director — is also in on the joke, in that he understands with us.  He’s one of us, and the set-up just doesn’t work if he buys into the subjects’ understanding rather than ours.

Which is why this The New Yorker piece fails so miserably as satire.  Satire of course is the straight-faced depiction of a world-state which the depictor does not believe valid, but which those depicted do.  Crucial to success is that the world-state ape, except for the point(s) of invalidity, a state of things that is True.  It’s the difference between a fly in the punch-bowl and a bowl of flies covered in punch.  Again, we are invited to partake of the mediator’s superior understanding that here’s this wonderful painting of a young woman by an open window reading a letter, and oh by the way, did you notice the tattoo on her neck? 

The linked piece is an attempt at satire of the argument that Government as such is not a desirable thing, and that less Government is, all else being equal, preferable than more.  The specific satirical device employed is one we can call Ironic Substitution.  One element is substituted for another; we are invited to conclude that the elements are equivalent and from highlighting the grotesque effects of the one we are to conclude that the other is likewise grotesque.  Ironic Substitution is of course a first cousin to Ironic Insertion.  In a thorough examination of the latter, Paul Fussell spends a great deal of time in The Great War and Modern Memory on the ironic use of the pastoral in World War I poetry to suggest the horror of the trenches, a horror so profound it cannot be Got At any other way.

The author of the piece in question sets about his goal by substituting in the argument something that, like Government, is as much a concept, a state of understanding, as a physical reality:  Texas.  He then, with an exaggeratedly straight face, descants on all the wonderful things to be accomplished by reducing Texas, by having less Texas rather than more.   The piece goes off the rails, however, in two respects:  First, the philosophical mind-set of the medium — The New Yorker — is profoundly in agreement with the alternate argument which we are supposed to conclude is invalid.  It would be like having Ernst Jünger as the narrator of Siegfried Sassoon’s war poems.  Doesn’t work, guys.  The element of We’re in the Know and They Aren’t fails in that set-up.

The second place this The New Yorker article gets off the reservation is that the substituted element is not, in fact, the equivalent of the original.  I’ll lay it out:  Texas has never required that the toilets in my house use so little water per flush that they do not function off a single flush.  Texas has never come knocking on my door to tell me I must part with even more of what little I can earn because . . . it knows better what to do with it than I do.  It wasn’t Texas who caused our firm’s health insurance carrier to send us a letter to the effect that our health plan, which worked well for the constellation of individuals in this office, no longer existed, but hey! your 78-year-old father now has maternity coverage.  Texas did not, in the wake of an economic crisis instigated by its own agencies, decide to destroy an entire industry which is a core constituent of our firm’s client base (community banking; Dodd-Frank is a slow-motion shot to the base of the skull to your locally owned bank, when 75% of all the toxic subprime mortgages out there were Fannie and Freddie).  Texas has not used its coercive power to shut down the participation of an entire segment of the political spectrum in the national argument.  Texas is not in possession of a single one of my e-mails.  Texas, as a place, actually creates wealth and opportunity (seriously: an enormous proportion of the total jobs created since 2009 are in . . . Texas), instead of expropriating it from some to hand over to others.  Texas did not steal General Motors and Chrysler from their respective secured creditors under personal threat of ruinous IRS and SEC audits.

In other words, the contrast between the alternate argument and the satired argument does not show what the author thinks it does.  The alternate argument can be shown to be idiotic, even on its own terms.  The argument we are invited to conclude is therefore likewise idiotic can be shown to be correct, or at least more correct than not and in more instances than not.  It’s why you cannot satire the Pythagorean Theorem or the periodic table.  Or The Federalist Papers.  The former can be proven correct by measurement and scientific method; the latter has been proven correct not only by the past 225-odd years of American history but by several centuries of world history.

Let’s nail this down as a Formal Proposition:  You cannot be funny about things you do not understand.  Our would-be o-so-sophisticated author does not understand his subject.


In Which it Gets Personal, Ch. 2

I’d thought of doing this as an update to my earlier post, but on second thought decided it needed its own separate billing.

My prior post was about the adult reaction to a playground scuffle.  This post is about the impact that reaction has had on the central participant in it.  I think it demonstrates how insidiously corrosive are the messages that the “educational” system desires to bludgeon into little boys’ heads.

Last night the wife was working late.  So after supervising supper and hectoring the boys through their showers, I addressed myself to the topic of homework.  Our middle child, No. 2, is in fourth grade.  Each week they have a “spelling packet,” consisting of a list of words to learn, all supposedly organized around some particular phonetic or orthographic principle(s).  There follows a set of exercises using those words.  The final item in the packet is a paragraph the young scholars are set to write on a specified topic; they have to use four of that week’s spelling words.  The completed spelling packet is due on Thursday.

No. 2 had mostly already finished his spelling packet when last night I asked him if he were done.  Almost.  Well, what is “almost?”  He wanted to wait until mommy got home.  I told him that mommy wasn’t going to be home until late, I was all he had by way of help, the work was due today, and get himself in to the kitchen (where I was) and let’s get this wrapped up.  So we did.  The paragraph topic was to write about someone the student knows or has read about “who was treated unfairly.”  Only stipulations were that it must be a real person and cannot be a family member.

After he’d drawn a blank, and I’d drawn a blank, and No. 1, whom we’d called in for purposes of inspiration, had likewise come up empty, I had an afflatus.  This is a Roman Catholic school.  Why not Joan of Arc?  I mean, leading your country’s armies to victory over the invader, personally seeing to it that your king is properly crowned in Reims, and then for your troubles getting turned over to that very invader who burns you at the stake:  If that isn’t “unfair” I’d like to see what is.  So we looked over the spelling words list and figured out which words we could work in to which parts of a paragraph.  At my suggestion he broke out a sheet of scratch paper to put his draft together.

Everything went swimmingly until the very end.  He ended the narrative by saying just that she “was killed,” without mentioning how or by whom or who enabled it.  You know, kind of the central part of the story about why she’s a saint and not just another military hero.  My fourth-grader’s explanation?  He was scared that if he wrote she’d been burned at the stake he’d get in trouble at school because of what’s been going on with him.  After I re-assured him that he wouldn’t get in trouble for it, he re-wrote the final sentence.

Can you believe that?  I mean, this little boy has so internalized the message that There’s Something Badly Wrong With Me and I’m just this horrible violent person and I’ll get in trouble if I even truthfully describe something that actually happened to a major historical personage that he can’t even tell the truth about France’s national saint.  What the hell?  I mean, what the everlasting billy blue hell?  Those hand-wringing bastards have wounded my boy’s soul, and for no other reason than that they don’t have enough spine to tell some over-wrought mother to get a damned grip on herself and be grateful her precious little DNA receptacle learned him a couple of important life lessons on the playground as opposed to some dark alley.

If you raise the next generations to be too rabbit-craven even to describe evil, treachery, and ingratitude, precisely how on earth do you expect them to engage and defeat it successfully?  Or does “Education” School theory now teach that we won’t have to worry about such distressing phallocentric oppressive behavior now that we’ve effectively criminalized being a boy?

Woodrow Wilson’s Long Shadow

So I recently finished reading Wilson, A. Scott Berg’s new biography of Woodrow Wilson – actually, Thomas Woodrow Wilson. It was a Christmas gift, along with Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 and Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia (in the middle of reading which last I now am).

This book was only my third extensive exposure to the life and thought of a man who comes as near to American beatification by serious thinkers as any politician since Lincoln. FDR’s reputation rests more on what he actually accomplished than on his character traits. Kennedy is mostly a media creation. Wilson is, in common with Lincoln and Jefferson, revered for what are represented to be his thoughts. What those thoughts might be are commonly – and vaguely – understood to be very high-flown notions of the unity of all men, the need for collective security, and of course at the center of it all his Fourteen Points. 

The careful reader will notice that all of those hazily understood concepts have one thing in common: the Great War. Specifically, they’re all outgrowths of Wilson’s contemplation of Europe’s four-year suicide bid. Lincoln, by the time he got to the White House, had spent years engaging with slavery, abolitionism, and the political tensions those forces generated. His 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas remain among the classics of Western political discourse, and that senate campaign was far from his first debate. With one portentous exception, Jefferson’s most creative political thinking was several years in the past by the time he got there. Until August, 1914, however, Wilson had never had occasion to devote much energy at all to international affairs and certainly none to the implications of an entire culture immolating itself. He came to the office with the expressed intention of spending his efforts on purely domestic issues. 

A further point of distinction is not insignificant, I suggest. Jefferson and Lincoln both had the experience of years of head-to-head engagement with ideological foes and allies who saw themselves, and with whom Jefferson and Lincoln engaged, as peers. Their thinking benefitted from the crucible effect of, in Jefferson’s case, his exposure to an historically unique constellation of statesmen, and in Lincoln’s his experiences riding the circuit from county to county, arguing and debating with peers, juries, and the public. I could not tell from Berg’s biography that Wilson ever really engaged with the welter of thought around him. The life Berg describes is one spent lecturing (remember this was an era in which the public lecture was very popular entertainment among most levels of society). As a classroom teacher he grew accustomed to being acknowledged as a if not the fount of wisdom by his pupils. Except for one brief period in Georgia in which Wilson practiced law – if having a single probate case as one’s entire professional experience counts as “practiced” – he never really held a job outside academic circles and elective office. Combined with his ecclesiastical family background his formation as the layer-down-of-rules seems to have left an indelible mark on how his mind worked. 

And it doesn’t appear to have been just that. Even as a child Wilson was big on setting rules for others to follow. One example is given of a group of young boys, his peers, who got together for I no longer recall what, and Tommy (as he was known until his graduation from college) makes it among his first orders of business to promulgate a written constitution for the club. “Promulgate” seems to be precisely the correct verb, too; in all of Wilson there’s not a whiff of his even seeking input, let alone consensus from anyone. Contrast Lincoln circulating his first inaugural address in draft to several of his prospective cabinet members, or Jefferson working as part of a committee to draft the Declaration. If Americans had coats of arms, Ipse dixit would be on Wilson’s. 

Wilson was greatly enamored of both his wives. After his marriage to Ellen, to the extent he needed human interaction, he seems to have derived nearly all he required from her, and then within a few months after her death he was consumed with ardor for Edith. While that’s enviable in some respect, it is also not necessarily a desirable character trait in a political leader. Certainly his interactions with adults seem to break down into two overall groupings: (i) those who fawned on him as the Sage of New Jersey, and (ii) those to whom he laid down the rules. Even the two men with whom he was closest, Edward M. “Colonel” House and John Grier Hibben, a fellow junior faculty member at Princeton, do not seem to have broken the pattern, although perhaps of all men Hibben came closest. 

In short, I get the profound impression that Wilson’s life experiences did not sufficiently expose him to the friction and concussion of dealing with men he regarded or had to regard as his equals. 

Largely if not entirely without actual adult friends, it’s hard to get a sense that Wilson ever had the daily experience of emotional closeness to another person whose ideas were not die-stamped by his own or just parroted back in hopes of a good grade. In all of Berg’s book I don’t recall a single instance of a peer acknowledged by Wilson as such telling him he was talking through his hat and kindly leave off gibbering. Predictably, he does not seem to have accepted the notion that reasonable men could disagree with him in good faith and were entitled to pursue their own notions of what was necessary or proper in any particular circumstance. When he was appointed president of Princeton he was treated as walking on water and parting it for those who couldn’t. That’s always a dangerous brew to serve to anyone and especially to someone whose resistance to it seems to have been roughly similar to the resistance to alcohol on display by the Indians in Betty McDonald’s The Egg and I. When the inevitable disagreements occurred, there was never any question of collectively making the decision and everyone living with the outcome cheerfully. 

The most dramatic instance of this (apart from the fight over the Versailles treaty) involved, as does so much else in academic settings, a tempest in a teapot. Wilson believed the off-campus clubs were fostering a spirit of elitism at Princeton. He believed they were exclusionary of the less-affluent students, the less-socially-gifted ones. So he set out to undermine them by denying them a recruiting pool. Wilson’s notion was to build large, self-contained student living facilities, what we today know as quadrangles. There the underclassmen would be obliged to live with each other, their company not self-selected but chosen for them by whatever mechanism the university chose to adopt from time to time. Hardly surprisingly this idea did not meet universal approval, and some intense politicking went on. Eventually Wilson couldn’t carry the issue. Hibben, by that time senior faculty, sided with Wilson’s opponents. Wilson never addressed another personal word to him for the rest of his life, and even in the White House tackily avoided meeting the man whom he had once described in almost amatory terms. 

How Wilson treated Hibben over what was, after all, a relatively trivial issue and one which was not a decision that could never be re-visited (there was no reason the trustees couldn’t decide at some later point to go ahead and build quadrangles and implement Wilson’s vision for them in whole or in part) demonstrates what I’m going to say was a deep character flaw in Wilson. His enmity was not at all feigned; when he had occasion to allude to Hibben in later years (nearly always elliptically, it seems) he never backed off from the accusation of betrayal. 

Compare and contrast Wilson’s treatment of Hibben with the relationship that grew between Jefferson and Adams. True, it took a number of years after both men were out of office, but once rekindled their friendship produced hundreds of letters and thousands of words over the course of many years. They wrote each other about nearly everything and although they still disagreed on many things, by the time they died, on the same day and within hours of each other, each died with the other’s name on his lips. And Jefferson had run the original dirty, slanderous campaign which destroyed Adams’s political career. Not that Adams wasn’t as prickly as they come, but he’d been a farmer, a courtroom lawyer, and a diplomat for decades before he came to office. Each and all of those provided him with the experience of contradiction, frustration, and engagement with fundamentally opposed and well-defended principles.

Wilson thought House got above himself at the Paris Conference in 1919. He wasn’t entirely unjustified, either. For several weeks Wilson had to come back to the U.S. to attend to matters for which the president was indispensable. While Wilson was gone House had very consciously made deals that he must have known Wilson would never have countenanced if present. Recall that House had no official position, at all; the White House porter was more a government official than he. House was only in Paris as Wilson’s alter ego; the actual secretary of state, Robert Lansing, was side-lined, treated as a cipher, a nullity. So while House must bear the blame for having exceeded his phantom remit, it was Wilson who put him in the position of being able to do so in the first place. Had Wilson not been so adamant on denying any scope to the feller who was, you know, the lawful official to discharge that function, Lloyd George and Clemenceau would have no more listened to Edward House than they would Wilson’s barber. Whatever the who-shot-Johns of the matter, the fact remains that after their return to America Wilson never addressed another word to House. 

After Wilson left the White House, his long-time aide, Joseph P. Tumulty, was scrambling to find some hand-hold. The country had swung wildly Republican in the 1920 elections. The Congress was solid Republican and Harding’s White House was dedicated to undoing as many of Wilson’s policies as it could. Tumulty had been with Wilson since his nomination to the New Jersey governor’s mansion ten-plus years before. He’d been loyal, self-sacrificing, incredibly hard-working, discreet – in short, everything you could possibly want in a confidential secretary. And now he was out of work and out of favor in the only town he knew how to navigate. Wilson wouldn’t lift a finger to help him, and when Tumulty finally went too far, publicly attributing to Wilson statements that Wilson had pointedly refused to make at Tumulty’s request, Wilson cut him out of his life. Yes, what Tumulty did was wrong, but how much a strain on common decency is it to see to it that the people who have sacrificed their existences and fortunes to advance your own are taken care of, once you no longer have need of their services? Fairness, however, requires that I mention two other prominent personages who are known to have sinned in this regard, viz. Churchill and Wm. J. Clinton. Churchill never obliged people to commit crimes and take the fall for him, as did the latter, but once Winston was done with you, you were pretty much done with (for a better look at this disappointing aspect of him, see Troublesome Young Men, Lynne Olson’s book about the small number of men who clustered about Churchill during his Wilderness years . . . which of course makes his treatment of them all the more unworthy). 

There are very few words that adequately describe someone who treats people like Wilson treated them. “Vicious” is one that will fit the bill. 

A good deal of Wilson is naturally devoted to the war years and their aftermath, and a central part of that period was Wilson’s growing dedication to the notion of what we now call “collective security.” At the Paris Conference he more or less insisted that adoption of the League of Nations and its incorporation into the final treaty itself (as opposed to making it a side bargain) be the first order of business. He carried that point; the League was adopted pretty much as he’d demanded it be. From that point things didn’t really go his way very well. 

Over the decades Wilson’s taken a good drubbing as some starry-eyed naïf, a little boy in short pants who blunders into a lion’s den with the idea that if they’ll all just take turns licking on his lollipop everyone will do just fine. There is a bit of truth in that. Wilson represented – very simplified – the notion of peace without victory. The problem was, the situation on the ground, both on the former battlefields and behind doors in the chancelleries, just would not admit of that resolution. Every one of the belligerents was a parliamentary democracy, and two of them – Italy and France – were notoriously unstable democracies at that. Even Britain was still operating with its makeshift wartime coalition (how cohesive could a government be that had both Lloyd George and Lord Curzon in it, after all?). Bluntly, they had to answer to their voters, and those voters had just watched most of an entire generation of young men be slaughtered, maimed, gassed, and shell-shocked into twitching bags of nerves. Two of the Allies, France and Belgium, had endured physical destruction on a scale never before seen in human history. Wilson doesn’t seem to have accepted that those populations were just not going to be satisfied with not having won the war. 

On the other hand, and in Wilson’s defense, the objectives of Lloyd George and Clemenceau were no less unrealistic. In a fight, you haven’t won until the other guy acknowledges you’ve won; until then the fight is still on, even though you might not actually be trading punches. The way the Great War came to a close, with an armistice instead of a surrender, with the German army marching home in formation and under arms, and with the social power structures – for which read: the pervasive dominance of the military – still intact, whatever the outcome was, Germany was not in a position of being compelled to acknowledge defeat. And it didn’t. We all know how the poisonous “stab-in-the-back” conspiracy theory came to be seized on in later years, first by the army and then by the Nazis. On a more immediate level, though, Lloyd George and Clemenceau were trying to impose the kind of peace that you would achieve after an unconditional surrender. In a supreme irony, “peace without victory” is not just what Wilson was advocating – it was exactly what Britain and France got. Which is to say that they got neither victory nor peace. 

On a final note of irony, given the personality of the man – remember how he treated Hibben, the closest he ever had to a friend other than his wives – how would Wilson have fared if the U.S. had ratified the Versailles Treaty and joined the League? He couldn’t bear contradiction or defiance. Wilson couldn’t take it when the Princeton trustees wouldn’t let him build residential quadrangles, fer cryin’ out loud. How would he have reacted to the post-war chaos in Eastern Europe? Would he have quit communicating with his fellow heads of state? Would he have recalled the American representative to the League? Would he have taken the U.S. right back out the first time the steeped-in-gore-up-to-the-shoulders politicians of Europe heard one of his sermons and either laughed in his face or gave him the Bronx cheer? How would he have dealt with the Imperial Japanese delegates, men representing a society both incomparably more ancient than Wilson’s own and at the same time aggressively expansionist? 

I understand that in writing a one-volume biography of someone who lived a life such as Wilson’s there’s a tremendous amount that you’re simply not going to get in. So I don’t say this by way of faulting Berg (what I do fault him for are his not-terribly-subtle digs at one end of the modern partisan spectrum, such as by pointing out that Wilson played more golf while in office than any president before or since, or his reference to the second Iraq war), but one thing I looked forward to reading more about were Wilson’s ideas about government, the relationship between the citizen and the state, and the nature and proper purposes of political power. 

Because you see, there are some dissenting voices, even here in America. Not everyone agrees that Wilson was Solomon reincarnate, a veritable saint of equal parts brilliance and compassion. A few years ago I read Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, his 2007 tome on the intellectual roots and modern manifestations of the ideas which gave us most famously Mussolini and Hitler. The book’s dated, however, by including a great deal of material on the intellectual antecedents and pronouncements of one Hillary Rodham Clinton, who back then was “inevitably” going to be the 2008 Democrat nominee. Don’t get me wrong: Goldberg’s done his work on Clinton’s intellectual and moral background, and what he lays out is pretty sobering stuff. But unless she’s nominated and elected in 2016 those portions of the book will not age very well. 

For me the by-far most interesting part of Goldberg’s book is Chapter 3, “Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of Liberal Fascism.” You see, before Wilson was appointed president of Princeton, he was a prolific writer on political subjects; in fact, he’s got a good claim to be godfather of “political science” as a specifically academic subject. Among his most famous works is an 800-page doorstop entitled The State. As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins he produced Congressional Government. Other significant works include Constitutional Government in the United States. Wilson also wrote numerous essays, and his speeches were, in the fashion of the times, compiled into book form. Among the former Goldberg mentions “Leaders of Men,” an 1890 effort, and among the latter The New Freedom, consisting of his 1912 campaign speeches. I’d wanted to see some significant time spent by Berg on those writings, because Goldberg actually quotes from them and from Wilson’s speeches. What he quotes is, to put it mildly, unsettling. 

“No doubt a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as a fundamental principle.” Compare and contrast: Independence, Declaration of. 

The constitutional structures of what we know as checks and balances among the three branches among which coercive power is divided had “proven mischievous just to the extent to which they have succeeded in establishing themselves as realities.” 

“[L]iving political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of Life . . . it must develop. . . . [A]ll that progressives ask or demand is permission – in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word – to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.” Substitute the German völkisch for Darwinian and you’ve got the “national” part of “national socialism” in a nutshell. 

The “true leader” uses the masses “like tools,” Goldberg quotes. Further, from the same source (“Leaders of Men”): “Only a very gross substance of concrete conception can make any impression on the minds of the masses. They must get their ideas very absolutely put, and are much readier to receive a half truth which they can promptly understand than a whole truth which has too many sides to be seen all at once. The competent leader of men cares little for the internal niceties of other people’s characters; he cares much – everything – for the external uses to which they may be put.” Oh dear; that sounds distressingly like a first cousin to Hitler’s große Lüge – the “big lie.” It also stands in a straight line with “fake-but-true,” the mantra of the modern American legacy media. 

From a speech given in New York during the 1912 campaign, we have, “You know that it was Jefferson who said that the best government is that which does as little governing as possible . . . . But that time is passed. America is not now and cannot in the future be a place for unrestricted individual enterprise.” Tell that to Steve Jobs. Hell, tell that to Oprah Winfrey, for that matter. 

Except for that last one I cannot recall seeing any of those quotations mentioned in Wilson. Goldberg’s endnotes suggest a wide range of further reading on the subject. Not having the time to parse through all of them myself (or maybe not; many are still available on Amazon.com), I was hoping that Berg would do the heavy lifting for me. He didn’t. Again, as the author he’s got to leave something out or he’d never finish the book. On the other hand he does spend a great deal of space on Wilson’s moralistic approach to his political thought. And of course Wilson made his name first as precisely a political theorist. The last line of Berg’s book refers to “the lengthening shadow of Woodrow Wilson” over Washington, DC. It’s exactly because I think Berg’s got that observation just right that I find his omissions in respect of Wilson’s expressions of theory to be especially unfortunate. 

Maybe it’s time for me to mich auseinandersetzen (that wonderful German reflexive verb for which I can’t think of an English equivalent; transliterated it means “to take oneself apart,” and it means to engage in a subject or person fully, by completely unpacking all the components and examining them in the closest detail) with Wilson’s actual writings. Notwithstanding our present Dear Leader’s self-description, no one has come to high office a blank slate. Each person’s road there formed how he or she thought about the world, how it works, how it ought to work, and what measures are necessary or permissible to make it conform to one’s own vision. Wilson was no different. 

My very last semester in college I took one of the most interesting courses I’ve ever taken at any level. History 366 it was, “20th Century American Wars as a Personal and Social Experience.” Two observations by the professor I still remember. The first was that, until the Great War, most Americans’ only exposure to the federal government was in the form of their local post office. The second was that a huge number of the men who made the New Deal cut their teeth in the World War I mobilization effort. Jonah Goldberg makes the argument – which if perhaps a tad overdone isn’t so by much – that World War I was America’s first taste of totalitarian government. 

By “totalitarian” Goldberg means a frame of thought and action which does not view any aspect of human existence as not being appropriately the subject of political (and therefore coercive) control. The war years were years in which Americans were encouraged and recruited to spy on each other. The post office was given carte blanche to monitor and censor Americans’ communications with each other. Loyalty oaths were imposed. Industrial relations were controlled, as were entire swathes of the economy (the railroads were outright seized for the duration). You can make a valid argument that most of those measures were in fact necessary in order to take an economy from peacetime to war mobilization in a matter of months.

The point is that men such as Wilson – “Progressives,” they called themselves – viewed the mobilization effort not as a temporary disruption of an otherwise largely unguided constellation of private arrangements, but as a template for human existence. Remember Wilson’s comments from 1912, well before the war, about how America cannot any longer be a place of unrestricted (highly important word selection there, by the way) individual enterprise. A good deal of the wormwood of the 1920s for the American left was watching the policies of the Wilson years get unwound, first by Harding out of corruption, and then by Coolidge out of principle. You can’t more clearly draw the contrast between Wilson and Coolidge than Silent Cal’s speech on the Declaration’s sesquicentennial (which should be mandatory reading in every American high school, I suggest).

Compare Wilson’s statements on the need for a völkisch Darwinian interpretation of the Constitution and the “nonsense” of inalienable rights with Coolidge’s observations of the same questions, in the context of the Declaration:

“About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”

This has turned out to be a bit more than just a book review. I’ve spent more time on other’s treatments of Berg’s subject than is properly done as a general rule. It wasn’t done to suggest that Berg’s written a poor book, but rather to observe that I wish his publisher had let him write a longer one. Berg does a very good job showing us the gauges and needles on the dashboard and how the windows silently slide up and down and where the heater vents are, but I wish he’d popped the hood a bit wider open for us, and shone a stronger drop-light into the engine compartment. I still highly recommend the book, to be read together with Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (speaking of Margaret MacMillan), and Chapter 3 of Liberal Fascism.


In Which it Gets Personal

As I think I’ve mentioned here before, my internet start page is the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s website. I switched from CNN back in 2006. That was, if one will recall, when that network willingly showed, and re-showed, and then showed some more, the Al Qaeda films of American soldiers being shot by snipers in Iraq and elsewhere. They’d announced they’d made and released the films in the hope of influencing the outcome of the 2006 mid-term elections. And CNN enlisted in their goals (successfully, too). I also wanted to use the newspaper to keep my German skills from atrophying to the vanishing point.

Among the many things I find interesting about reading the articles on that site (unfortunately I seldom have time to read more than one or two in a day) is that from time to time they’ll have an article on some theme or issue that’s also current here in America. Only it will not be examined from the reference point of anything having to do with America. Principally this means that their treatment of these issues is pretty much free from distracting baggage like the racial implications of Issue X or Solution Y. There’s no such thing as a surviving aboriginal population in Central Europe to raise all the issues that ours does. While there are immigration issues over there (and boy howdy! are there ever), they’re by and large not illegal immigration issues, and so you don’t have this enormous group of people who, by their very residence, constitute a criminal class (by “class” I mean “a group discernible by its commonly shared attribute X which is not shared by people not of that group”). 

I recall once reading about a study – and it’s been so long now I can’t recall whether it was just within Germany or Europe-wide; I seem to recall the latter – that was done to ask and answer the question of what varying measurable inputs correlated positively with measurable results in the school classroom. It was fascinating. They found that most of the nostrums advanced by the “education” establishment, like smaller class size, higher pay for teachers, more teachers per student, overall spending per student, longer school years, longer school days, spending on gee-gaws in the classroom, and so forth, had nearly no identifiably positive effect on measurable student achievement. Wow. I mean, just wow. Unless you accept that European children are biologically wired to learn differently than Americans, what does that say about the incessant demands to pour ever-greater sums down the public “education” rat hole here at home? 

Reading that site also serves the glumly-encouraging purpose of reminding one that we do not blunder alone, nor are we necessarily the inventors of every crazy notion that boils to the surface. 

At any rate, I also recall reading, within the past year or so, an article about the feminization of the school systems. By which is meant a systematic hostility to males and male behavior, and the effect that this shift in outlook has had on its targets. My antennae went up when I saw that article for two reasons. The first is that there is increasing attention being paid to the growing observable tendency of the structural and normative environments of the American school to treat as quasi-criminal common behaviors that I grew up in the 1970s recognizing to be ordinary male juvenile behavior. The Blogfather regularly links to articles, interviews, and books treating of this problem.  Let’s be clear that it is a major problem.  The more hostile the school environment becomes to boys, the worse they do and the further they fall behind.  The further behind, the less they’re able to achieve later in life and the lower their chances – given the female behavioral fact of not just assortative but hypergamous mating – of forming stable families to raise the next generation, the males of whom then not only have to grow up being told they’re psychotic violent sexual predators because they made the mistake of standing in the Penis Line, but also will so grow up without positive male role models, and so forth. 

The other reason I read that article carefully is because I have three boys. Right now they’re eleven and a half, just over ten, and seven and a half. They’re all in the same private, Roman Catholic school, at least for the time being. As a Catholic school this one is pretty laid back. Nominally we’re Protestant, and there are Jewish and Hindu children there as well. I’d suppose a majority of the children are in fact R.C., but I’d be surprised if it were a large majority. At any rate, from an instructional standpoint we’ve been absolutely thrilled to bits with the place. Our oldest especially presents some challenges to traditional lock-step instruction, and being free from the strictures of government regulation the school has done a splendid job accommodating him. We are both profoundly grateful for the chance they were willing to give him, when no one else would.  I mean that.  No matter how the story I’m about to share plays out, I will always recognize that school for what it was willing to do for my family

Our middle child has a pretty pronounced case of Middle Child. He feels very close to his older brother (they’re just barely seventeen months apart), sometimes we suspect to the point of near-idolization. That’s not to say they don’t get good and pissed off at each other, from both directions, every so often. But when No. 2 is deprived of No. 1’s company he really feels it keenly. No. 2 is also close to No. 3, even though there are almost exactly 30 months between them. All three brothers play with their Legos and other toys together, they engage together in sundry imaginative play (and narration, too; they can go on and on and on about these perfectly imaginary and incredibly detailed worlds; the ancient bards who could recite hours of Greek poetry from memory don’t have much on my boys), and . . . they rough-house. All three of them get into it from time to time, but the most frequent dyad is what we can call the 2-3 split. It’s hard to tell sometimes who the instigator is. Sometimes No. 2 just seems to get bored and figure it’s time to come off the turn-buckles onto No. 3. But a great deal of the time No. 3 will go out of his way to stir up his next older brother. It’s not at all unusual for me to be awakened on a weekend morning by the concussion of our house’s frame as someone’s body slams onto the floor. No. 3 will usually end up howling to the heavens about whatever. To listen to him you’d think he was being torn limb from limb. And then you look at his face and he’s smiling through it all. Go figure. But from time to time they get undeniably out of hand, someone passes a serious lick, and when they do it’s time to squash things. Mommy tends to negotiate a peace process with them; daddy goes for the Carthaginian Peace approach to matters. Twenty minutes later they’re sitting side-by-side in the same armchair, collaboratively playing MineCraft. 

By any measure it’s fair to say that No. 2 is very physical in his expression of “What’s Going on in My Head.” He’s affectionate, and it does a father’s heart great joy to see him roll around on the floor with his grandparents’ dachshund getting his face polished. As with all our family’s dachshunds, she’s extremely affectionate herself (we’ve only had one who ever met a stranger), but even by that standard it’s obvious that No. 2 is Her Special Boy. And he just laps that stuff up. Unfortunately, he’s also very physical in expressing “I’m upset,” or “I’m bored,” or “I’ve enjoyed about enough of your presence.” He also has a pronounced speech impediment. We’ve ruled out any structural difficulty; he’s just got a lisp and problems with his “r.” I grew up with other children and I know what has to go on when the adults aren’t there to stop it. No. 2 also has been diagnosed with dysgraphia, which is a difficulty in expressing oneself coherently in words. It’s not dyslexia, although the two almost invariably are found together; in a way it’s the opposite. Dyslexia results in the printed word making a jumbled impression on the mind’s receptors; dysgraphia results in the words you want to say coming out a jumbled mess. So let’s add some serious frustration issues to his speech impediment, and filter all that through a physical kid who just happens to be a Middle Child. 

After several “incidents” at school involving other children (I’ll observe that most of them seemed to be mostly-manufactured “incidents,” in which the seriousness of, you know, what actually happened was more a function of adult hyperventilation than any serious conflict issues between the children involved), last year we put him on Concerta. I was opposed at the time, largely because God only knows what the long-term effects of this drug are on a child’s developing brain. For the time being, however, it seems to have the desired effect of making him much less apt physically to express what’s eating at him.

At least, it did until one day a couple of weeks ago. The boys were in after care (their mother picks them up after she gets off work; I work 35 miles away and it’s just not a realistic option for me to make a habit of it), and the boys had been there by that time for getting on for two hours. No. 2 got a little bored and decided it was time to mix it up with No. 3. So he goes and seeks out his brother and they end up where little boys on playgrounds have ended up since time immemorial: on the ground. No. 2 has No. 3 on the ground, and at some point got his hands about his neck. No. 3’s hollering that he “can’t breathe,” which one knows to have been untrue because he was able to say it. That evaluative process is beyond your typical first-grader, however, and on this occasion it was beyond the first-grader who is No. 3’s buddy and who was witnessing this scuffle. So – and you’ve got to hand it to him; his motivation was simon-pure and his guts beyond reproach; it was his judgment that let him down – this kid decides he’s got to rescue his friend. And so he passes a lick on No. 2. 

Now, let’s freeze-frame this vignette for a moment and examine it from No. 2’s perspective. There he and his brother are, disporting themselves as is their wont. No. 3 is howling to the world and possibly even half-laughing while doing it. “Oh! I’m dying! You’re killing me! I can’t breathe!!” You get the picture. And then suddenly along comes some stranger and jumps No. 2. What is the normal reaction? Why yes, one defends oneself. He put a scratch on this kid’s face, which I actually find the most alarming part about the whole story. No. 2 is old enough to know how to make a fist and use it as designed; scratching is for girls. 

I will here observe that there is a legally-recognized term of art for this little kid who thought he was doing a good turn: officious intermeddler. Two of the first rules of survival on playgrounds are (i) if it’s not your fight, stay out of it; and (ii) never get between two family members. If you really must get yourself mixed up in it, do so in the context of Going to Get Adult Assistance. 

Cue the Concerned Adults. Mommy gets called at work to come pick up No. 2, which she does. But from here it gets worse. The other child’s mother goes stooging into the principal and assistant principal, demanding that Something Be Done about this Horribly Dangerous Child. Yes. This mother truly believes No. 2 presents an imminent danger of severe physical harm to his fellow students. So the powers that be call in my wife and they have a Great Big Meeting about what to do about No. 2. The obvious step of kicking him out of after-care for the balance of the year is already done. They want a Formal Written Plan.  What else is expected, short of kicking him all the way out of the school? That is, of course, what Intermeddler’s Mommy is effectively demanding. The assistant principal, who used to be principal of a parochial high school up north, told the wife that while he’s familiar with the roughness of boys, he’s never seen a child so “persistently violent” as No. 2. If he was able to hang around a high school of boys and not see it, then either he was teaching a bunch of nancy-boys, or he was singularly unobservant, or he’s looking back with rose-colored glasses. By high school most boys of average or better intelligence have sense enough to settle matters out of view of the authorities.  And do so.

A few days later this mother and the wife had a prolonged telephone conversation, which is why I know so much about the position this woman is taking and why. I heard my wife ask her whether her boys (very awkwardly, her older boy happens to be No. 1’s only real friend in school) ever fight. No. Well. Ain’t that just sweeter than all get-out? This mother expressed the opinion that her children “ought to be able to go to school without having to be exposed to what her child saw” going on between No. 2 and No. 3 that day. She allowed that this school “is not a special-needs school.” Huh? Two brothers getting straight on the playground makes one of them a “special needs” child? What color is the sun on this woman’s planet? By the way, she’s a doctor and very successful at it, so she can’t even claim stupidity as explanation for her over-reaction. She already several months ago put the ka-bosh on her older boy coming to stay the night with No. 1, on the stated reason (No. 1 got this out of his friend) that she was afraid that her precious little chickabiddy might be harmed by No. 2. She also told the wife that she’s been “documenting” these things about No. 2.

Really. You can’t make this up. This woman who’s got a family to raise and a medical practice to attend to can’t find anything better to do with her time than play NKVD with my child. Assemble a dossier on him. Maybe I should get on Amazon.com and order her their largest size Dick Tracy Sooper Sleuth kit. Let her prowl about our back yard with an oversized magnifying glass and note pad.  Jesus Christ and General Jackson!  This gal’s got issues

I started school in September, 1971 at a tiny Catholic school near here (there were six children in my third-grade class, and two grades per room). Most of my classmates were pretty rough-and-tumble. The overwhelming majority of them lived on farms, had been up for several hours before school doing chores, and the boys not infrequently came to school still smelling a bit like cow shit and diesel fuel. By the fourth grade most of the boys had been given at least one shotgun for Christmas (most frequently a .410, although the .22-cal. was also a favorite). Back then recess was a big chunk of the middle of the day, unless it was actually coming a tornado outside. Fighting was a big part of what went on. Some of it more in earnest than others, but you know what? We learned to take a lick and pay it back, with interest where appropriate. I still remember one of my most glorious shots, ever. This group of little peckerwoods, most of them a grade behind me, had been all over me all day long. This one was actually standing behind me and must have been confused when I started my wind-up from a full back-turned-to-the-target position, because he took no evasive action at all. I caught him right under the eye socket and literally lifted him off the ground. Not bad for a fourth-grader.  That wrapped up proceedings for that day. And you know what? I went on to graduate from an Ivy League law school and he’s got a Ph.D. in microbiology. One of the other little boogers that day has been a state park ranger for decades and adores it. 

I know a family of four brothers. They’d get into fights that lasted all afternoon long. Fights that involved people’s heads going through sheet-rock. The oldest went on to serve two tours in Delta Force, was a ranking officer in the 5th Special Operations Group when they took down the Taliban in 2001, and retired as a Lt. Colonel. His next younger brother is a full-bird Air Force flight surgeon and was recently personal physician to the Air Force chief of staff. The third brother is a surgeon in Indiana. The youngest brother, after a very rough spell, settled down and is now a lawyer. 

I know two other families of brothers who lived right next door to each other. They’d get in BB-gun fights, both in teams and every-man-for-himself. Ditto with roman candles.  They’d play chicken with darts (the object being not to dodge until the last split second; occasionally someone took a dart in the pectoral . . . and so it goes). Yes dear, I know all that was stupid, and not something as a parent you’d permit if you caught wind of it. But my point is not that it wasn’t dangerous; my point is that having done so was neither evidence of, nor did it accurately predict, a violent, warped personality in any of them. One is now a Baptist minister. One is an elder in his church (granted, he went through a spell when he was rougher than a cob; I once drove his car home for him after he’d been stopped for his ninth D.U.I; he much later married his high school sweetheart and she jerked a knot in that ass for him). One is a senior manager with the IRS. One is very a successful commercial and industrial insurance agent, the chairman of our local water and wastewater utility, and a very successful (and highly inspirational) coach of youth basketball teams. In fact his teams of half-pint little redneck boys used to go up the road and routinely kick the shit out of teams of snotty little rich kids like this doctor woman’s. A twenty point margin was a close game. 

Another couple of brothers I knew were wild as bucks growing up, as they say. One was such a frequent customer with the city court that the local force didn’t even have to ask for his license number when they’d pull him over. The younger brother was truly off the reservation. He’d disappear into the woods (this is while he was still in junior high, by the way) in the middle of the night with a bow-and-arrow and a bottle of whiskey. They too would get into epic battles with each other. The older is now a principal in one of the largest health insurance agencies in the state; the younger has not had the occupational success of his brother, but he’s a more-or-less law-abiding guy and is precisely the kind of person you’d want by your side in a foxhole. 

We grew up playing Army. As in bang-bang; you’re dead. I’m going to sneak around the flank and wipe you out. This stick is my flame-thrower and you’re toast, son. And so forth. Interestingly enough, we never played Vietnam, even though it was on the news every night. It was always World War II, and we had to take turns being the Germans because no one wanted to be them. When the city ran public sewer service through our area of town in the early 70s, the whole place was trenched up, with enormous piles of stinking red clay to match. So we had dirt clod wars. 

In the winter (this was before Geo. W. Bush, so we got to have winters back then, dontcha know), when school would be out for weeks on end, with all the streets coated in several inches of hard-packed ice and the entire state out of salt, we’d go sledding down the enormous hills that are a feature of our part of the world. And we’d have sled fights. Loser ends up in the ditch, and everyone goes for hot soup afterwards. When it wasn’t snow and ice we played football. Sometimes touch but not infrequently tackle. In the fall when the ditches were full of mountains of leaves we used to play a game where one kid would have the football, and the other two or three would try to keep him from getting from one end of the ditch to the other. 

This woman, with her irrational hang-ups, is determined to destroy my son’s life. Get kicked out of this private school and he’ll never get into another. Put him in public school and, with his educational needs and speech impediment, he’s going to sink. There’s no way a public school system can be set up to address his needs. She’s determined to do this not because of anything he’s done (so she says) but because of what she’s afraid he might do. Might. As in, might not. I wonder what’s going to happen to her own children when they’re out beyond the playground and they’ve got to “be exposed to” a great deal of things much more significant and profoundly disturbing than watching a couple of brothers adjust affairs between themselves. 

I really want to write a letter to the principal (they call him a headmaster, if memory serves), outline my recollections of growing up wearing a penis, and point out to him that, using males raised doing things my way (and my sons’), we (i) won our independence; (ii) fought and won a civil war to end chattel slavery; (iii) fought and won two world wars and a cold war; (iv) built the world’s premier transportation system; (v) broke to the plow a virgin continent; and, (vi) put men on the moon. When they can point to similar achievements by several generations of constructive eunuchs who’ve been raised to think and act like fourth-grade girls, then I’ll accept that their standards of behavior for my sons might have some validity.  Until then, I vote for my way. 

Of course, if I were to write that letter the result would only be all three of my boys get uninvited back for next year, and as badly out of water as No. 2 would be in a public school, No. 1 would be destroyed by the experience.  By a small irony, it would be No. 3 who would grin and go on.  He’s a born politician.  When he was in pre-K at this school, it seemed like almost everyone in school, all the way up to the 8th graders, knew him by name, and he them.  He’s just a happy-go-lucky kid, and his wild mop of hair and flair for whimsical language (he nicknamed chicken marsala, which my boys love, “chicken marsupial,” as a four-year-old) perfectly capture his personality.

What kind of men are we teaching our boys to be?

On Crypto-Currencies and Coal Mines

I’ll start this post with a confession: Until yesterday I’d not paid a great deal of attention to precisely what Bitcoin is or how it works. I ran across a link on Instapundit, however, to a Colorado representative’s tongue-in-cheek response to Sen. Joe Manchin’s call to ban Bitcoin because it’s hard to track and is widely used in certain criminal enterprises. The Colorado fellow’s response was to call for a ban on dollar bills, because they’re hard to track and are widely associated with criminal activity. I shared the post to my Facebook page and got a comment from a very good old friend of mine who now lives in Colorado and – let’s just say it politely – isn’t bowled over with admiration for this congresscritter. He’s also forgot more between breakfast and lunch about the details of how computers work and talk with each other than I’ll ever hear, let alone understand with any reliability.

I’ve seen for several years now references here and there to Bitcoin, and to the consternation it’s causing among those who are in the business of buggering us around watching out for our health, safety, and welfare. Since I’m not in a position to invest in a new set of brake pads for my Chrysler minivan with 269,700+ miles on it, I’ve never taken the trouble to learn how it works or why it’s so nefarious or wonderful (according to who’s in your ear at the moment). Thanks to the miracle of Google I’ve now patched, somewhat, my Ignorance Gap on that subject. 

For the uninitiated, Bitcoin is a “crypto-currency,” meaning: (i) It’s not issued, backed, or regulated by any constituted government or any agency or instrumentality of any such, but rather was cobbled together out of thin air (much like the Fed’s “quantitative easing,” when you get down to it) by some fellow who until literally the last couple of days had successfully preserved his anonymity (or not? according to this report in the FAZ, the Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto whom Newsweek outed as the inventor now denies any involvement at all . . . although given his previous statements I’m going with Newsweek on this one); and, (ii) Its individual units are created (in the slang, “mined”) by applying fairly substantial computing power to the solution of very difficult mathematical problems and protocols. Every time your computer (or more frequently, group of computers, as the computational power now required has long exceeded what’s available on single machines, at least desktops) solves one of these problems, it’s rewarded with the issue of a number of bitcoins. Each bitcoin, which is divisible up to eight decimal places, has a lengthy numeric key associated with it, and possession of that key, along with possession of the private key of the current possessor, allows the bitcoin to be transferred. Now, here’s the part that makes the whole system tick (and how it ticks is what generates a great part of the controversy): The mathematical problems required successfully to “mine” new bitcoins are intentionally made increasingly – exponentially so – more difficult, and on top of that, the number of bitcoins you’re issued with each successful “mining” is reduced. The system is set up so that a total of 21 million bitcoins can be issued . . . or at least that’s what is claimed. Is there anything out there to prevent jiggery-pokery to dump bazillions of bitcoins into the system? Nope. There’s nothing out there to prevent the powers that be behind Bitcoin from doing what the Fed has been doing for years now, namely just making the stuff up. 

So are bitcoins backed by anything at all? Nope. They’re backed by precisely what the federal reserve notes in your wallet are backed by: thin air. Seriously. Try going to a federal reserve bank and demanding anything for that C-note on your hip other than a spanking brand-new C-note, and see far you get. Likewise with Bitcoin. There’s nothing there; there are no assets at all; no collateral; no enterprise; no brand name; no goodwill. A bitcoin is “worth” only (i) what it costs you to acquire one, or (ii) what you can acquire with bitcoins. 

Whenever anyone anywhere completes any transaction involving bitcoins, there is supposedly updated a master, public database showing where every bitcoin has been traded thus far. This list is alleged to be run on multiple, decentralized servers, none of which is beholden to any governmental authority. So theoretically, if I’m understanding this correctly, everyone and his cousin can track precisely who’s got how many bitcoins. 

How much is a bitcoin worth? Well, that’s pretty flexible. The schoolhouse answer is that it’s worth whatever people are presently willing to pay to acquire one. Recently the price has been north of $1,100 per; it’s also within the past month or so crashed to below $300, and it’s been everywhere in between. The problem is that, as the computing power required to “mine” each issue of bitcoins gets more demanding, and therefore more expensive, the effective “purchase price” of each new bitcoin increases massively relative to all the previously “mined” bitcoins. Now, if you’re someone who’s looking to acquire additional bitcoins, you can either attempt to “mine” them yourself, or you can buy them off someone who’s already “mined” some (or that person’s assignee). Why would you pay more money to “mine” than you could pay to buy? And if you’re selling bitcoins, why would you sell at a price much less than what your putative seller would have to spend to “mine” his own? Thus all else being equal there ought to be some convergence between what the trading price is and the “mining” cost. 

Bitcoins are traded and warehoused, for want of a better expression, on exchanges dedicated to the purpose. They’re unregulated, uninsured, and (as recently demonstrated by the implosion of Mt Gox, one of the largest), not terribly secure. I’m not too sure about the mechanics of the trading/cash-out procedure, but there are – politely stated, again – some issues there as well. If you have your bitcoins housed at an exchange that goes belly-up . . . well, you’ve lost pretty much everything you have. Sort of like if you have more on deposit at an FDIC-insured bank that goes bust than the FDIC will cover. These exchanges, by the way, aren’t set up on Main Street in your friendly mid-American home town. They’re run out of places like Bulgaria and Rumania, notorious for having very fuzzy notions of the distinctions between meum and tuum, and also widely known for spawning armies of computer hackers. Just the winning recipe for the security of your investment in Bitcoin, in other words, right? More to the point, the entire system is no more secure against massive theft than the security mechanisms at these places. I’m not sufficiently computer-savvy to understand the precise sequence, but once the hackers get at the bitcoins’ keys and the private keys of the current owners, it’s only a matter of a few keystrokes to clean the place out. As in fact happened, it seems, at Mt Gox to the tune of many millions of dollars. 

What can you buy with Bitcoin? Well, pretty much anything that’s for sale by people who are willing to accept payment in Bitcoin. The concern arises from the fact that prominent on that list are things like international shipments of illegal drugs and weapons. This makes Bitcoin a burr under government’s saddle. 

Bitcoin is nearly ideal for things like “money laundering” and other “financial crimes.”  In pondering those, it’s helpful to bear in mind that those don’t necessarily mean “theft,” “wire fraud,” or other activities in which an innocent private party is separated from his hard-earned through force or trick.  In fact, “money laundering” is nothing more than making illegal proceeds ape in appearance those of lawful commerce.  The proceeds are not evidence of the crime itself, and if you look, for example, at the definitions of drug-smuggling crimes you won’t see that “possession of a boat-load of cash” is an element of any of them.  If you’re caught with $23,000,000 in $20s and $100s, and the man’s got nothing more on you, you’re not getting convicted of anything.  Rather, most of what falls under those concepts relates to doing the government out of what it has decided it’s entitled to . . . from you.  Viewed that way, government’s objection to crypto-currencies comes down to tax evasion. Government’s real dog in the hunt is tax revenue.

Demonstrating the truth of my last assertion above, consider how vanishingly small is the scale of money that needs to be, and is susceptible of, the kind of large-scale “laundering” that allegedly has governments all a-twitter.  Folks, the U.S. economy is cooking along at something like $14 trillion annually.  Even if every last dime made in an illegal operation of any sort, anywhere, by any person were successfully “laundered” that would still be a grain of sand in a very large ocean.  Add in the economies of all other Western countries and you rapidly figure out just how unimportant the supposedly monkey-shines in Bitcoin actually are to the proper functioning of the world. The trumpeted fear of “money laundering” and paying for coke and RPGs in bitcoins is a red herring.

So those are the results of my afternoon’s rambling through the Google results on “how does bitcoin work”. Here’s a description that seems pretty up-beat about the whole deal, and here’s a write-up that describes it as a “scam” and a “ponzi scheme.” All things considered, I think the stronger argument is the scam and ponzi scheme take, at least for the time being. So long as Bitcoin is not widely accepted and therefore not readily convertible into either “hard” currency (you have to try not to blow a snot bubble while describing the Fed’s funny-money as “hard” currency) or other tangible or intangible property, you as the owner of a bitcoin are sort of trapped in the system, and the later you got in the less likely anyone is to be willing to pay you a price for your bitcoin that gets you out whole. Your only likely market is the ever-fewer owners of later-mined bitcoins. And in fact that’s one of the defining characteristics of the classic ponzi scheme.  Adding to that aura of hucksterism is the fact that most of the early-mined bitcoins are not being actively traded.  So the price is being manipulated by hoarding as well, and a good deal of that hoarding appears to be by the inventor himself (his “worth” in bitcoins is estimated at anywhere up to $400 million).

But what if one day you really can take a card, or a flash drive, or some other storage mechanism out of your pocket, and swipe it, plug it in, or scan it down at the hardware store? And get ten bags of mortar mix for some decimal fraction of your bitcoin? At that point you’re not trapped in the system and what you have is a non-regulated medium of exchange. Government hates that notion. Very simply put, the modern income tax system cannot abide the existence of a competing medium of exchange. If Bitcoin outlasts its ponzi-scheme phase (and the writer at Market Sage does not think it will; I’m willing to accept that he may well be right) then the Internal Revenue Code blows up. 

So what, other than its structural flaws, can keep Bitcoin, or any other exchange medium, from achieving that result? Well, the answer starts with two little words printed on that C-note in your pocket. Remember that it’s worth more than the paper it’s printed on only because someone says it is – that is, after all, the reason it’s called “fiat” money. The two little words that make that C-note “worth” what the Fed says are “legal tender.” As in, tender of that C-note is a legally sufficient tender of performance of a monetary obligation up to $100. And no one is legally permitted to dispute that. If I assert that you owe me $100, and you toddle along and shove your C-note across the table at me, I am no longer entitled to deny that you performed your obligation. Your handing me that scrap of paper extinguishes $100 of your duties to me. Period. Bitcoin and its like will never enjoy the same status as “legal tender.” 

A further advantage that “government money” enjoys over the Bitcoins of the world is that they have the coercive resources of government behind them, theoretically to stabilize their values. Of course, anyone with any more than a fourth-grader’s understanding of history knows good and well that the stability function is not at all an inherent attribute of government money, or a necessary outcome of its being “government backed.” In fact currencies have been intentionally debased since ancient times, and they’re at it to this day. One of the perennial knocks on Red China is that they intentionally manipulate the “value” (meaning the exchange rates) of their own currency to make their products artificially “cheaper” to foreigners and domestic markets alike. Closer to home, since 2008 the U.S. economy has been about as anemic as it could be without actually collapsing. It’s “grown,” but it’s barely grown enough to keep up with population increase . . . which means it’s not really grown at all. During all this time the Fed has been dumping trillions of dollars of “money” into the economy in the form of buying Treasury debt. At one point the Fed was buying 91% of all new long-term debt issued by the Treasury. To borrow a line from Mitt Romney during the 2012 election, “At that point you’re just making it up.” He was right. How many trillion dollars can you dump into an economy that’s effectively not growing at all without destroying the value of each individual unit of it? 

A third advantage that government money enjoys over a Bitcoin is that the government is able, willing, and in fact diligent about deploying its coercive power to punish the kinds of monkey-shines that scuppered Mt Gox. I’m not aware that the computer security at the First Bank of BLANK is any tighter than at Mt Gox. What I do know is that if you hack your way into that bank and make off with several million dollars, Uncle Sugar will spend an enormous amount of resources to lock your country ass up for a very long time. That effort will never be expended to preserve the integrity of Bitcoin. 

So if the Bitcoins of the world are subject to wild fluctuation in value, and are not legal tender, and you’re pretty much on your own in protecting the integrity of the system, why would anyone with any large amount of skin in the game choose to do business in Bitcoin? The answer has already been mentioned, up above: taxes. As government grows ever larger, ever more expensive, ever more intrusive, it has to siphon an ever-increasing share of its population’s wealth to fund itself (just by way of example, since Dear Leader took office, U.S. federal spending as a percentage of GDP has been at levels not seen since 1946, when we’d just finished fighting and bankrolling a world war). In plain English that means the taxation system must become ever more burdensome and, in the dynamic of modern larcenous politics, ever more exploitative of precisely those actors who will have the greatest ability to choose the medium in which they conduct business. I mean, some Joe on the swing shift is probably never going to find it worth his time to plop down $500+ for a bitcoin. He’s already just barely taxed at all (at least to his knowledge; his actual indirect tax burden is pretty massive, but he’ll never realize it which is the entire purpose of making it an indirect burden, right?), his income covers his living expenses, just barely, so he’d be significantly exposed to a major slump in his bitcoin’s value (in the submarine service they call it an “uncontrolled depth excursion”), and he probably is not going to be doing business with third parties who are going to accept payment in bitcoins. So Joe’s got very little incentive not to support a tax system that loads ever more onerous burdens on “the rich,” “the 1%,” or whatever the demagogues of the day label them. A lumber supply house dealing with a French mill for several hundred thousand board feet of red oak? That’s a different story entirely. Congress is constitutionally prohibited from taxing the exports themselves. But it can tax the proceeds. But how do you document what the proceeds were, or are, if they’re paid in bitcoins?  The same attributes that make Bitcoin an ideal medium to “launder” the proceeds of your 250 kilos of smack also make it a really neat way to disappear the proceeds of that lumber.

And this, ultimately, is the core of government’s objection to Bitcoin: The existence of a viable medium of exchange over which it has no control is the final check on its ability to plunder its population. 

All of which suggests the question of why the government ought to have a monopoly on the medium of exchange. It’s not as if that’s always been the case. In colonial Virginia the standard medium was tobacco. On the frontier it was (among other things) whiskey. In post-World War II Germany cigarettes served the same function. Until 1913 there wasn’t such an animal as a federal reserve note. There was gold and silver coinage (and by the way, Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech was in favor of the free coinage of silver, which would have had the effect of devaluing the currency), and there were rafts and rafts of private bank notes, all trading at greater or lesser discounts from face value. A great deal of where you banked depended on how current your bank’s paper was. In all those cases the informal exchange media existed even though the respective governments of the time and place had “hard” currencies established. 

What is interesting is that existence of these private (that is, non-governmental) media was largely a function of the lack of adequate levels of hard currency. In some instances that was very much a consciously pursued policy goal. The British government intentionally starved its colonies of specie. In other cases it was a result of the government’s inability to keep up. Once the War of 1812 was over there was nothing to bar the American population from exploding, both numerically and geographically. And so it did. There just wasn’t any way to coin enough currency to satisfy demand. My, how times have changed. Now government is flooding the world with fiat money so fast that only the economically destructive policies being pursued by the same administrations can destroy wealth fast enough to avoid hyperinflation. In other words, people resorted to things like paper issued by the Second Bank of Nerts because they couldn’t do otherwise (the SBUS jerked down the house, sparking the Panic of 1837, by suddenly demanding payment in specie only . . . which then drove its corresponding banks to do likewise, which then drove their debtors under because they didn’t have it and couldn’t get it). Given the choice people would take hard currency in a flash. 

So why would human behavior change so drastically? Why would people nowadays willfully abandon what they so eagerly sought for generations? Once more I suggest the answer is in how government taxes its population now versus how it used to. Until the rise of what we can call the Ideal Gas State (that is, a state which expands to fill every crevice in human existence), there was little or no penalty to participation in the government’s exchange medium. Sure, you had taxes, but they were typically low and were mostly excises and imposts on identifiable things which, within very broad limits, you could choose to possess or not, at your pleasure. For example, at one point a popular way to impose property taxes was on the number of panes of window glass in a structure. One of the reasons that you see in old mansions a large number of tiny panes of glass is what Thorstein Veblen described as “conspicuous consumption.” On the other hand, you were also frequently taxed based on the number of rooms you had in the house, so those very same mansions typically had no built-in closets (and thus fewer rooms). Cynical, isn’t it? Show off how much you can afford to pay in taxes with hundreds 5×7 window panes, but clutter your living quarters with a forest of free-standing cabinets. All those things were, however, not taxes on the exchange of money itself. The income tax changed all that. Suddenly your tax burden was being driven not by what you had or did not have, but on your receipt of compensation for your economic activities. Add in the voracious appetite for spoil of the modern kleptocratic state and you have exactly reversed the incentives of 200 years ago.

I will humbly offer a few predictions: Bitcoin and those like it will prove to be most widely adopted in those countries which have the most larcenous tax regimes and the most corrupt governments. And in those places where such media are most widely adopted, we will see rapid spirals into something resembling anarchy. It is, after all, a characteristic of government plunder that the more people it drives out of the above-board economy, the more it must exact from those remaining. And no one will stand there and endure indefinite robbery. Modern governments can build things like the Berlin Wall and the sundry apparatus of the Iron Curtain, but all that does is ensure that when things do break loose, the result is catastrophic collapse. 

For us here in the U.S., Bitcoin and its cousins are going to prove canaries in the American coal mine. I am interested, and not a little alarmed, to see how it all works out.