September, 2018

Who Are You Going to Vote For?

September 22nd, 2018 6 Comments

 

On Friday, September 21, 2018, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article by David Luhnow under the headline, 400 Murders a Day: The Crisis in Latin America. Here are some of the highlights:

A chart on the front page showed the violent deaths (per 100,000 people) by firearms in 2016, by country:

El Salvador: 40.29

Venezuela: 34.77

Honduras: 20.56

Guatemala: 26.81

Brazil: 19.34

Mexico: 10.76

Latin America and Caribbean: 16.21

A sub-headline on the chart notes that some of the smaller countries lumped under the Latin-America-and-Caribbean category, notably El Salvador, have disproportionately higher rates even than the region generally

To put this in context, you would be safer living anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, where violent deaths by firearms per 100,000 are 1.22, North Africa and the Middle East (1.50), or Asia (0.77). Syria is safer than Latin America. So are Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Luhnow’s depiction of death rates per 100,000 as caused by firearms may actually be slightly off, as one of the murders he describes occurring on a typical day in Acapulco included a cabdriver who was hacked to death, while others were caused by garroting or dumping victims in vats of acid, but it is certainly close enough for the purposes of this article. Acapulco, in case you were planning to take your significant other there this winter, had 953 people murdered last year, more than in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal, and the Netherlands put together. That’s in a single city of 800,000.

Mr. Luhnow points out that in Latin America, every day, more than 400 people are murdered, for an annual total of 145,000, and that with just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for approximately one third of global murders, and that nearly one in four murders around the world are committed in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and Columbia. El Salvador’s 2016 murder rate of 83 per 100,000 was the world’s highest, nearly 17-times higher than America’s. (Note the disparity between this figure and the one cited above in the chart. I assume that is because this one is an updated figure reflecting recent unhappy events in El Salvador where things appear to be spiraling ever further out of control.)

A few more factoids: Violence cost Latin America 3% of its annual economic output, or twice the level of developed countries; 43 of the 50 most murderous cities in the world are in Latin America, including all of the top ten; between 2000 and 2017, approximately 2.5 million people were murdered in Latin America and the Caribbean, equivalent to wiping out the entire city of Chicago, which is frequently in the news for its own problems.

There are more fascinating—or horrifying—facts cited by Mr. Luhnow, but let me skip now to his findings.

Some of this violence is attributable to Latin America’s having the world’s greatest gap between rich and poor;

Much of the economy of those countries is off-the-grid, illegal family-run street businesses that operate without government control or taxation, which contributes to a culture of scoffing at the law;

What little law exists is so riddled with corruption as to hardly qualify as law;

Most Latin American cities have woefully inadequate services, particularly schools and honest law enforcement;

Law enforcement and the legal structure generally are both weak and corrupt;

The percentage of single-parent homes has skyrocketed in the last twenty years;

And, finally, the presence of powerful drug cartels and violent gangs is both pervasive and seductive, a world of crime that offers young men with few other options jobs, services, and an identity.

Does any of that sound familiar, Gentle Reader? As I have written multiple times before, study after study after study of American inner-city crime, by a wide range of impartial think-tanks and universities, have all come to precisely the same conclusions as to the causes of the problems we read about daily in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Newark, Milwaukee, and on and on.

So when you go to the polls this November, if a politician tells you he or she is going to get tough on violent crime by banning guns or passing newer, better, tougher, more draconian laws, just remember that in all those countries lumped under the banner of Latin America, from Mexico to Cape Horn, gun ownership is nearly impossible, limited exclusively to those with the financial means and political connections most people do not have. In some countries, notably Mexico, it is virtually and totally impossible, no matter what. Think of how well those laws are working down there, and then vote for someone else. Vote for anyone who has the wisdom and the courage to talk about:

The importance of family structure;

Changing a culture that glorifies the absentee father and encourages detachment from economic and cultural norms;

Better schooling and mentoring for at-risk youth;

Mental illness as balanced between threat to society and right to privacy;

Reconsidering some of the popular public policies that were well-intentioned attempts to relieve social ills, but which have in fact contributed to them by creating a socio-economic underclass;

And above all, it is time to rethink the war on drugs, because we’ve lost that one, baby.

I do not recommend anyone hold their breath waiting for a politician to address these issues.

Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

September 11th, 2018 5 Comments

 

Some events simply defy any and all attempts to understand, explain, or rationalize. The First World War is one of those.

The causes of World War Two are pretty straight forward: it was something that had to be done to stop the greatest evil the world has ever known. The Revolutionary War had a noble purpose, at least from an American point of view. The Civil War had a succinct and comprehensible rationalization behind it, incorrect on one side, but at least the doomed and gallant young men on both sides could have articulated what they were fighting for. Even America’s involvement in the Vietnam War had a rational—incorrect, as it turned out, but coherent and understandable—justification, one proven wrong by history, but understandable in the light of that time and those fears. But World War One’s causes, especially looked at in light of the ultimate cost, are simply incomprehensible.

First, consider that cost.

It is hard to pin down accurate estimates, in part because there were so many ancillary deaths, in part because some of those deaths (those caused by the 1918 Spanish Flu, for instance) would have occurred anyway (though probably in smaller numbers), and in part because people, ordinary people like you and me as opposed to the titled and elite, were considered so dispensable that accurate numbers weren’t kept even in the infrequent places and circumstances where they might have been.

But with all that in mind, somewhere between ten- and eleven-million soldiers were either killed outright or died on the front of war-related diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, cholera, or infection. Approximately seven- or eight-million (what’s a million more or less?) civilians were either killed outright or by disease or by famine. The Spanish Flu may have killed as many as one-hundred-million people world-wide, but how does one calculate how many of those would have died anyway if there had been no war? Roughly one-and-a-half-million Armenians and several hundred-thousand Greeks were killed in Turkey’s genocidal campaign against those people, but who can say if those atrocities might have occurred if there had been no war? Approximately six-million people just went missing and were presumed dead, but no one knows for certain. Somewhere between twenty- and twenty-three-million more were injured.

Let’s be conservative and take an average of the estimates, say somewhere between thirty-seven-million and forty-million dead. Surely such an enormous number, such an enormous amount of incalculable suffering, and the magnitude of such irrevocable loss and heartbreak should have some easily identifiable justification, at the very least a logical and rational explanation, if not some noble cause. Surely such unspeakable horror should not have been for anything as trivial as men’s cupidity and egos. Yet that seems to be the case.

As briefly as possible, the identifiable causes cited by historians are:

  • The Bosnians and the Herzegovinians wanted to be part of Serbia and not under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Bosnian Serb, which led to war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia.
  • A web of international military alliances meant:
  1. a) Russia jumped in to help their ally, Serbia;
  2. b) Germany jumped in to help their ally, Austria-Hungary;
  3. c) France, which had an unlikely alliance with Russia, jumped in to help their ally against Germany and Austria-Hungary;
  4. d) Germany responded by attacking France, but they did it by marching through neutral Belgium, which put up a surprisingly stout defense, which in turn annoyed the Germans, who committed some pretty outrageous (for the time; mild by today’s standards) atrocities;
  5. e) Great Britain had a long-standing alliance to defend Belgium’s neutrality and they immediately honored that by jumping into the fray;
  6. f) Great Britain had a more unlikely alliance with Japan, which was eager to flex its military muscles anyway, having earlier whupped Russia in a conflict over which of those two countries deserved to take over Korea and Manchuria (neither of which were consulted as to what their desires—such as being left alone—might be), so Japan rolled up its sleeves;
  7. g) Russia and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire; same difference) had already been at odds over both the Balkans and strategically important Constantinople, so that was a natural addition to the general bloodshed;
  8. h) Italy had just recently been at war with the Ottoman Empire, so they waded in;
  9. i) eventually America and other more unlikely participants (Brazil? Go figure.) all got involved and happily threw those so-expendable young men into early graves.
  • Imperialism was another primary cause for all this useless slaughter. All the major and some of the minor European powers saw the potential for easy wealth in Africa and parts of Asia, and happily devoted themselves to ruthlessly exploiting those countries with no particular concern for the local inhabitants. Germany, in particular, felt left out of the imperialistic looting because they had jumped into the imperialism game later than most, so they had their own greedy reasons for fighting everybody.
  • Nationalism: Apart from stealing, raping and pillaging various African and Asian countries, Germany and Russia, in particular, wanted to expand their borders and sphere of influence closer to home, so that was a handy excuse for war.
  • Germany, in part for the reasons cited in #3 and #4 (above), and in part because Kaiser Wilhelm II was a mentally negligible, megalomaniacal moron with severe inferiority issues and delusions of grandeur, had been rapidly and massively building up its military, which in turn made other European countries, especially Great Britain, feel a trifle nervous, so the arms race was another logical cause of the war. After all, if you’ve got all those shiny guns and cannons and destroyers and never use them, you might have some ‘splaining to do, Lucy, to your over-taxed citizens.

You can see why most of the books I’ve read about World War One (The Guns of August; The War that Ended Peace) run to five-hundred and almost seven-hundred-pages respectively, and that doesn’t include other, almost as lengthy but more narrowly focused historical accounts. I’ve tried to condense all of it and put it into baby talk. In reality, it was a good deal more complicated, but at least you have the broad strokes, and with those broad strokes in mind, tell me now, please, which of those casus belli was worth all those lives?

Which is, in a graphic, chilling, moving, and much more intimate way, the thrust of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s extraordinary masterpiece.

Erich Maria Remarque was a perfectly typical conscript, a student at the University of Münster, drafted into the war when he turned eighteen, shipped to the Western Front at a time when it was becoming clear to perfectly typical conscripts that, from Germany’s point of view, the war was already lost. Remarque’s protagonist, Paul (Remarque’s real middle name; he changed it to Maria in honor of his mother) is a perfectly typical conscript, drafted into the war at eighteen and shipped to the Western Front at a time when it was becoming clear to perfectly typical conscripts that, from Germany’s point of view, the war was already lost.

The novel is so autobiographical in so many aspects, and so graphic in its depictions of (to paraphrase a famous line adapted from the writing of Hannah Arendt) the banality of horror and terror, that it came as a shock at the very end to be reminded I had been reading a novel. Remarque captured the insanity of war and the numbness that protects soldiers (at least, those who don’t go mad, which has been known to happen) even as they are witnessing or doing things that in civilian life would be inconceivable:

“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it all more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterward? And what shall become of us?”

And against the unrelenting terror and fear and horror, to which they become benumbed; and the routine of killing—with rifles, grenades, spades, knives, and bayonets—other young men just like themselves, to which they also become benumbed; the rats and poison gas to which they also become benumbed; the shells, the bombs, the blood and shattered bones and intestines to all of which they become benumbed; against all that is contrasted the rare and simple joy of a good meal from stolen food even as bombs rain down around them; the pleasure of wearing a pair of good boots, even though they came from the death of a comrade; the satisfaction of picking lice off their bodies; the jokes and black humor; the concern for comrades who begin to lose their protective numbness; the delight of seeing on a wall a poster of a beautiful actress; the pleasure of quiet conversations in the trenches where they argue about the causes of the war, who started it, what they are fighting for, conversations that make it clear they haven’t a clue.

And they talk about the weary knowledge that their substandard uniforms and boots and food are making someone rich at home:

“But we are emaciated and starved. Our food is bad and mixed up with so much substitute stuff that it makes us ill. The factory owners in Germany have grown wealthy; dysentery dissolves our bowels. The latrine poles are always densely crowded…[we] grin at one another and say: ‘It is not much sense pulling up one’s trousers again.’”

Nothing has changed, nothing will ever change, in any and every army that ever was or will be. It is easy to understand why another mentally negligible, megalomaniacal moron with severe inferiority issues and delusions of grandeur, Adolph Hitler, had All Quiet on the Western Front banned and burned.

The only other accounts I have read that come close to this for catching the banality of horror in combat are some of Tim O’Brien’s brilliant semi-autobiographical novels about the Vietnam War, The Things they Carried, Going After Cacciato, and—somewhat more obliquely—In the Lake of the Woods.

Read All Quiet on the Western Front and remember Rudyard Kipling’s bitter poem, written after his eighteen-year-old son was killed in action at the Battle of Loos:

Common Form

If any question why we died

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Music, Sweet Music

September 8th, 2018 11 Comments

 

“Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act III, scene ii.

We live in a radically divided nation, with a radically divided congress more devoted to enriching itself—on both sides of the aisle—than serving the public, but every now and then something happens that makes me realize how picayune our differences are.

I rarely do any of our banking or handle the checkbook. This is primarily a result of Darleen’s persnickety insistence on meaningless trifles, such as two-plus-two always equaling four. I take the big, broad, flexible outlook on math, and that tends to drive my wife and our accountant into frenzies. It used to drive my teachers into an unwarranted use of red ink.

But the other day, due to circumstances beyond my bride’s control, I had to spend an inordinate amount of time standing in an interminable line at the bank. Our little town is largely blue collar, and the line of people waiting reflected that: there were men and women of all ages, sexes, sizes, and demeanors, but the common denominator was dress that reflected a people who work with their hands, the kinds of people who, as someone once put it, take showers after they get home from work, not before they leave for the office.

Banking is not my favorite activity, and for most part my brain was approximating that rarest thing in nature: a complete vacuum. Mostly, I was gazing around at the overworked tellers and too numerous customers, and wondering if I might die of old age before I got to the head of the line.

And it was then, at that moment, that I became aware of two things simultaneously.

The first was the realization that the woman ahead of me, a lady at least in her seventies, appeared to be vibrating or twitching very slightly. There was that brief instant when I thought she might be having a fit, or suffering from some neurological disorder, but almost as instantly, I realized her whole body was moving rhythmically, and that made me aware of the second thing. I could hear, very faintly, an old James Brown song on the piped-in music system.

Then I saw a woman and her teenaged son at one of the teller’s windows. She was moving her head in time to the music, and the boy’s knees were also bopping along in time. I looked around.

Behind me was a couple tattooed to the max; he looked like a Hell’s Angel in mufti, and she looked like the kind of girl you might expect to see hanging out with a Hell’s Angel. They were both smiling happily and their bodies, like the woman in front of me, were doing barely visible dances. A massive woman behind them, built along the lines of a draft horse, was tapping a foot. A very old man, easily the oldest man there, somewhere well north of eighty, was tapping his fingers against his leg. An exceptionally skinny girl in floral yoga pants was moving her hips in a subtle but full-out dance. A squat fellow in baggy shorts, who looked like a body-builder gone to seed, was moving his shoulders. People sitting on the sofas on the far wall were tapping feet and snapping fingers.

Practically every single living thing in that crowded bank, with the exception of a service dog, was responding to the wild and joyous music of a man who has been dead for twelve years, and whose musical heyday ended over forty years ago. But music lives forever, and with the exception of radical Islamic barbarians, it speaks to all of us. I had a brief, wild desire to grab the lady ahead of me and start to dance, an image of the whole bank, customer, tellers, executives, perhaps even the dog, all joining in, a semi-choreographed group-dance number similar to any one of scores of Hollywood musicals, from Fred and Ginger to Gene Kelly dancing with an immensely stout, elderly woman in a café early on in An American in Paris, to Grease, to Chicago, and on—he says hopefully—to yet unmade movies of quality and joy and hope.

I refrained, partly out of some vestige of common sense, and partly because the only thing worse than my singing is my dancing, and that was when I was young and sound. Now, held together by baling wire and duct tape, with enough artificial parts and titanium reinforcements to qualify me as the K-Mart Blue Light Special version of the Six-Million Dollar Man, wild and joyous dancing would probably put me right back in surgery. Or at least back in surgery right after I got out of jail.

But it was wonderful to see all those people bopping along.

Book Review: The Intimidation Game

September 5th, 2018 1 Comment

 

Joseph Stalin once said: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns; why should we let them have ideas?”

I don’t have much interest in topical political books churned out to satisfy an immediate curiosity about this issue or that, but a dear friend whom I greatly admire recently gave me a copy of Kimberly Strassel’s The Intimidation Game: How the Left Is Silencing Free Speech, and since I am also a great admirer of Ms. Strassel, I dove in.

In case you are unfamiliar with her work, Kimberly Strassel is a journalist and editorial board member for the Wall Street Journal, where she writes a weekly column called “Potomac Watch.” She also appears regularly on Fox News.

Right-wing pundits, both on television and in print, have been railing against the attempts to stifle free speech, condemning various radical groups’ use of violence (think Antifa, Black Lives Matter, B[oycott]D[ivest]S[anction], a confusing plethora of other far left extremists) whether on college campuses, or on the streets of Washington, DC or Portland or wherever. And like many of President Trump’s tweets, those mindless and violent protests tend to suck up all the attention. As Ms. Strassel eloquently shows in The Intimidation Game, those slack-jawed protesters are just a meaningless nuisance; the real threat is much quieter, much more insidious, much more duplicitous, and far more powerful.

How powerful? How do you feel about Joseph Stalin?

Your right to freedom of speech, as expressed in the First Amendment, doesn’t just mean that you have the individual right to stand on a box and harangue passersby with your views, or write an opinion piece in your local paper. It doesn’t just protect the rights of neo-Nazi wingnuts to strut around espousing hateful and moronic racist beliefs, or the rights of equally hateful Antifa or BDS or BLM types to march with equally hateful racist anti-Semitic or anti-police posters provided by wealthy backers, as long as both sides refrain from violence (and a good rule of thumb to remember is that the moment anyone or any group has to wear masks and resort to violence, it means they have nothing intelligent to say). Your First Amendment right to freedom of speech, as laid out in multiple Supreme Court decisions (Citizens United, NAACP vs Alabama, Bates vs Little Rock, McIntyre vs Ohio Elections Commission, as well as lower court rulings such as Mobley vs Harmon) also protects and guarantees your right to donate money to a cause or candidate or party whose views you agree with, and to be able to do so without fear of retaliation from anyone. Furthermore, as multiple lower and Supreme Court decisions have spelled out, it also protects your right to band together with your neighbors and other like-minded individuals to create a group to try and influence government as you see fit.

And that last is where Kimberley Strassel’s book begins.

Lois Lerner (late of the IRS) was just the arrogant and ugly tip of the iceberg. As anyone knows who watched any of the news at that time (2013-2014) she and others in the putatively non-political and unbiased IRS effectively shut down numerous conservative non-profit groups by denying or delaying applications with tactics like stonewalling, holding in mothballs, demanding endless redundant iterations of forms and questionnaires and itemized lists of everything you can imagine, plus a bunch of stuff you would never dream of.

The IRS and the merry Ms. Lerner had this power because, by law, the moment you form a group and begin to raise money or spend money, you have to account for those sums to the IRS and pay taxes, whether all you are doing is having posters made up for a rally, or buying food for the homeless in your small town, or whatever, and none of the groups that began to spontaneously spring up across the country had that kind of money.

If your group “operates primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community” (the IRS’s words) you fall into the non-profit, tax-exempt 501(c)(4) category. Simple, right?

Let’s say your state’s public utility company starts a fire that burns down much of the northern part of your state. Let’s say your state legislature decides to bail out the utility company by allowing them to raise their rates, already the highest in the nation, making taxpayers foot the bill for the utility company’s negligence. You form a group dedicated to the belief that it is for the common good not to have your rates raised even higher. The IRS can’t prove fighting taxes or rate hikes isn’t for the common good, so your tax-exempt status should be a shoo-in, right? But with the ever charming and delightful Ms. Lerner at the helm, your application for tax-exemption can be buried indefinitely.

How indefinitely?

Just so you understand how your right to freedom of speech is being denied and your voice silenced, some of the conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status back in 2009 are still waiting for their paperwork to be processed.

And that’s just the beginning. What Kimberley Strassel does is lay out, clearly and simply, with her customary fine writing, the step-by-step process, connecting the dots along the way, showing just how far up the progressive political food chain that corruption goes (because many of those folks are still in power and still devoted to making sure you keep your mouth shut).

Is this a book by and for conservatives? Oh no. Let’s assume you are a far-left progressive socialist who dreams of an America where the government handles all the money and doles it out as the various governmental bureaucracies see fit. You better read Kimberley Strassel’s book, because the dirty tactics that were and are being used against the right might be turned against you someday. The same bureaucracies that were weaponized against conservatives under the Obama administration could equally be weaponized by the current administration. And that is probably the worst condemnation of the progressive left that can possibly be made: a complete absence of forethought. Consider the current Supreme Court hearings that are causing such anguish on the left. Harry Reid and the Democrats were more interested in getting what they wanted in the short term, rather than thinking about what was best for the country in the long term, and they changed the rules for Senate approval of a nominee from a required sixty votes to the current fifty-one. Now they are howling because Republicans are using the rules Harry Reid forced through.

Politicizing and weaponizing the government is an evil right out of Stalin’s playbook, no matter who does it. Just read The Intimidation Game.

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