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[Music clip: From Haydn's Derbyshire Marches]
01 — Intro. And Radio Derb is on the air! This is your hebetudinally genial host John Derbyshire with all the week's news, making the case for a weekend sunk in hopeless despair or alcoholic coma.
It was a bipolar sort of week, with activity at both ends of the civilizational scale: at the high end in the orderly processes of democratic audit and decision, and at the low end in the feral madness of mob rule. Let's start at the top and work downwards.
02 — Iowa debate. Yes, those orderly democratic processes were on display at Iowa State University on Thursday, when eight of the Republican contenders for next year's presidential nomination submitted themselves to two hours of questioning by a panel of four, two Fox News anchors and two reporters from the Washington Examiner, a mainstream-Republican freesheet for the ever-swelling population of our imperial capital.
Just to dwell on that panel for a moment: It seemed to me it was much better than the average for these events. By which I mean to say that there were no bubblehead media lefty types on it, staring in bewildered fascination as if the Republican candidates had just stepped out of the Matto Grosso wearing loincloths and bones through the noses and carrying spears and blowpipes. The questions were non-frivolous, the political expertise of the panel was at a high level, and the time management protocols were flexible enough to allow for good contentious exchanges.
The main excitement was the Bachmann-Pawlenty sparring. I concur with the general opinion that Mrs. Bachmann won on points, and that she comes out of this debate, as she came out of the last one, looking more and more like a real credible candidate. I also concur with the opinion, which I have now heard three or four times from professional political insiders, that for all his undoubted experience and abilities, Tim Pawlenty is a bit of a jerk.
Mitt Romney is still way the most professional and presidential of the candidates, and all he has to do at these presentational affairs is avoid falling over or picking his nose on camera. He did avoid those things on Thursday and comes away no better or worse off than he went in.
Herman Cain is plainly a decent guy and a capable businessman; but you need something more than that to get a vanity campaign up into the stratosphere of political reality. I'm not sure what that something is, but I am sure Cain doesn't have it.
Newt Gingrich I always hesitate to say anything about because for some reason I really should sit down and think through properly, I can't take him seriously. I just don't get Newt. He works on me like one of those novels you get four or five pages into then realize you haven't taken in a single word. I know some sensible and well-informed people who support Newt, so there must be something I'm missing, I just don't know what it is.
Ron Paul suffers from not being a good impromptu speaker. You can't parse his sentences and he is sometimes completely incoherent. That's not fatal to a candidate: if it was, there would have been less than two President Bushes — either zero or one, I'm not sure — and anyway, as a candidate, Paul has far worse handicaps than that.
The main one is that his message of personal liberty, self-support and mutual support, the withdrawal of government from our lives and the transformation of our nation back from a military empire to a commercial republic; that message is deeply unpopular with huge segments of our population, from defense contractors to welfare queens, from trial lawyers to public-sector unions, from bankers parasitic on the public debt to farmers locked into an irrational subsidy system.
Paul could never get elected President because the number of Americans who desire liberty is now smaller, much smaller, than the number who desire a dole. Still he was in a sense the most valuable of the candidates on Thursday night's stage, the Spirit of Christmas Past, croaking away there, however ineffectually, to remind us of what we once were: a nation of free citizens, trading whatever energies and abilities we had in a free marketplace. We are not like that any more, and never shall be again; but perhaps by reminding us of our old ideals of liberty, Dr. Paul is keeping a little flame burning in the gathering gloom.
Dr. Paul is cranky, tongue-tied, old, and unelectable. Didn't you feel though, as I did, that there were a couple of moments there, when he was talking about liberty, that he was the only American on the platform, the rest of them just stuffed shirt mandarins transported in a time machine somehow from Imperial China?
Ron Paul was the conscience of America in that hall, reminding the dwindling numbers of us that are willing to be reminded, that managerial bureaucratism is not the only possible style in internal governance, nor imperial aggrandisement the only style in external governance.
In this context, I note that the Swiss National Bank has just described the Swiss Franc as, quote, "massively overvalued" due to huge inflows from investors seeking a safe haven. But for heaven's sake, why would anyone want to emulate Switzerland in anything? That's not an important country! Why, they don't have a single aircraft carrier.
I haven't done justice to Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman, mainly because neither of them said or did anything that registered on my senses. No offense to Huntsman and Santorum supporters, and good luck to both candidates. You don't need to be interesting to be a good candidate, and indeed there's a case to be made for dullness in high office; but it really doesn't work in televised debates.
All in all, an above-average candidate debate. For those of us miserable wretches who have to pay attention to politics for a living, a lot of it was stale and corny. I sometimes think I shall hurl myself from a high window if I have to listen one more time to Herman Cain tell us he's a, quote, "business problem solver," or hear about Michele Bachmann's 23 foster kids, or watch Mitt Romney do his Houdini escape routine from a question about Massachusetts health care.
As that great political athlete Richard Nixon once told a staffer, though, quote: "About the time you are writing a line that you have written so often that you want to throw up, that is the first time the American people will hear it," End quote. Most citizens have lives, and don't bother much with politics. There are a million voters out there for whom Thursday was the first time they saw Romney wriggle out of the straitjacket or heard Ron Paul mistake a noun for a verb. If there is a case for democracy, which I sometimes doubt, this was it — civilized and serious.
Though I'll confess it left me with a lingering desire to see Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty in a mud-wrestling match … But that's just me. At least, I hope it's just me.
03 — Can Obama be beaten? Excellent discussion about Obama's beatability in The Corner, National Review Online's group blog.
This all started with Ramesh Ponnuru's Bloomberg column on Monday. Sample quotes from Ramesh. Quote 1:
Obama's strategy will … be to make it a choice election. He is going to want the small number of swing voters to think: No, I'm not satisfied with how things are going and I have my doubts about Obama, but I'm more worried about the radicalism of the Republicans on Medicare and their fealty to big business.
Since Obama's honeymoon ended, [his approval rating] has moved in a fairly narrow range, never going below 44 percent and rarely going above 51 percent [on] average. It doesn't put him in cinch-to-win or sure-loser territory.
End of quotes from Ramesh. Well, Rush Limbaugh picked up on that a couple of days later. Quote from Rush: "Ramesh Ponnuru who writes at National Review Online … had an opinion piece at Bloomberg in which he basically spelled out how Obama is a lock to win reelection …" End quote from Rush.
That wasn't quite what Ramesh said, as Ramesh politely pointed out on The Corner. That fired off a lively discussion on the comment thread. The most forceful lines of argument on each side were as follows.
The political optimists said that a Republican victory next year is pretty much inevitable: that the nation's in such a fiscal mess, and the indications for the next fifteen months so clearly pointing downwards, and the citizens so fed up, that the Republican Party could put Herbert Hoover's exhumated corpse on the ticket and still win next year's election.
The political pessimists, led by Ramesh, warned that Barack Obama has a big base of immovable support, bolstered of course by massed armored divisions from the liberal media, the universities, the foundations, George Soros, et cetera. Also that he is an exceptionally gifted political contortionist, adept at shape-shifting to meet the public mood. Also that the Republican field, for all its breadth and variety, lacks a candidate with irresistible appeal to the apolitical center of the electorate — the so-called "independents."
I'm over on the Ramesh side of the argument here. Yes, Obama is stronger than he looks. Even in these chaotic times, opinion polls of all kinds — asking whether people like him, or whether they approve his policies, or whether they'd vote for him — show a floor of forty or forty-five percent support. That's a high floor.
And the Republican field, as lively and fascinating as it is to us Republicans, consists of people who can easily be spun as scary by Obama's shills in the mainstream media. Newsweek magazine just got the ball rolling, with a cover story on Michele Bachmann painting her as a snake-handling holy roller who'll bring back Hooverville and Jim Crow. Of course it's ludicrous. I like Mrs. Bachmann and think she'd do fine as a President; but the media lefties know what they're doing, and they're going to be ruthless about doing it.
We conservatives tend to fixate on the general-purpose opinion polls that regularly show many more Americans describing themselves as "conservative" than as "liberal." You need to be careful with that word "conservative," though. The basic meaning is that people are wary of change. One manifestation of their wariness is a reluctance to dump a president after one term. If you don't count accidental presidents like Gerry Ford and third-party spoilers like Teddy Roosevelt or Ross Perot, we've only dumped a president after one term twice in the past hundred years. Betting on Barack Obama joining the sorry company of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter is not, in my opinion, a good bet.
On the bright side, things do change, and the school of fish can suddenly all reverse course all at once. I recall the 1976 campaign, when I was doing office work in New York. Among my office colleagues was one lone Ronald Reagan supporter, a guy who'd escaped from communist Eastern Europe. We all thought he was slightly crazy. We teased him mercilessly for supporting that extremist crank Reagan. Five years later Reagan was president. Stuff happens: but you have to fight, and keep fighting, to make it happen.
04 — Comment threads. Having mentioned the comment thread on Ramesh's piece, just a word here about comment threads in general. A thing I get asked a lot is: Do you read the comment threads on your articles and posts? Or on colleagues' posts?
I have to confess that reading comment threads is not high on my list of priorities. No offense to anyone, but I'm a freelancer on piecework rates. Writing and commentary is my only living; time is money; and when sitting at the computer reading stuff, I try to ration out the time to maximize the quantity of useful news and information per working minute. Comment threads are sometimes entertainingly colorful, but useful-news-and-information-wise, they're just not that rich.
There's also the rudeness factor. A lot of people write in to comment threads just to be rude to the writer, or to other commenters. At least one popular blogger known to me tells me he never reads his comment threads just for that reason. As he put it: "Why risk indigestion?" I have thicker skin than his, but I still have better things to do with my time than read insults from anonymous misfits.
Those are the dis-incentives. When time permits, though, and I'm through with my other chores, I do glance over comment threads, looking for certain particular kinds of comments.
One irreducible fact about being an all-purpose commentator is that on practically any subject you write about, there are people out there who know more about it than you do.
We all have our own areas of expertise, of course. There are topics I'm keenly interested in and constantly reading about — the human sciences, for example — in which I'll hold up my own knowledge against anyone's, so I'm not much interested in what others have to say, as the odds are long against them being better-informed than I am.
The journeyman writer has to cover subjects he's not so sure about though, and there I look to comments to see if I've made an obvious blooper, or left out something critical. That's the strongest case for comment threads — to keep us honest.
And speaking of honesty, I'm going to be brutally honest and admit that there's another kind of comment I allow my eye to linger on, and that's the flattering ones. Every blogger has his own little fan section, and occasionally a fan writes in on a comment thread with a word of praise. As thick-skinned as I am, I'll confess to a warm glow of gratitude for those.
So bottom line: If you have a good point of fact, send it in. There's a good chance we'll spot it and come away wiser, in proper humility. That aside, follow the advice your grandmother gave you: if you don't have something nice to say, say nothing at all. When you've been writing for the public prints as long as I have — coming up to thirty years — I'm afraid that withering barb you spent fifteen minutes crafting with so much care just bounced right off our thick, knotty old hide.
05 — Riots in England. Down at the other end of the civilizational scale, there were the riots in England. Police in North London shot a black drug dealer dead on Saturday. That ignited a race riot, and that in turn led to a cycle of rioting that soon got ethnically complicated. There was a big black cadre in all the subsequent riots, but elements of the white and Pakistani-Bangladeshi welfare underclass quickly joined in.
Soon there was open fighting between smarter, more entrepreneurial ethnic minorities — notably Sikhs, Turks, and religious Muslims — and the disorganized underclass rabble. The shopkeepers and small business owners closed ethnic ranks to defend their property and their kin.
The worst incident was in the West Midlands city of Birmingham, where I spent a fair part of my childhood, and where some of my relatives still live. A car with three black men in it went full speed at some Pakistanis guarding a gas station. Three of the Pakistanis, all young men who had just recently come out from services at a local mosque, were killed. That opened up the fault line between inner-city blacks and Muslims. The blacks resent the entrepreneurial success of the stricter kinds of Muslims; the Muslims despise the blacks for their loose morals, shoplifting, and drug dealing. It got very inflammatory, with Pakistanis arming up with baseball bats and cars full of blacks cruising past local mosques shouting "Burn! Burn!" At the time of recording here, things are calm, but to quote the London Daily Mail, quote, "feelings remain high."
There was some comedy amidst the tragedy, most of it arising from the dogged determination of Britain's liberal media to try to ignore the race aspect of the riots. My own favorite instance was where a lady reporter on Sky News, a satellite TV channel, interviewed a white English fellow whose stores had been looted. You can see the clip for yourself on YouTube: put the words "Man comments live on Sky News" into the search box. The sound quality is poor, but here's the essence of the exchange.
The lady reporter asks what happened. The man says, quote: "At ten o'clock I got a text saying one of my other stores was being raided. I came down. By eleven o'clock there was at least a hundred, two hundred black youths with hoodies and stuff, just rampaging, every shop." The lady reporter interrupts him, saying: "You're not being stereotypical now? Are you sure they were black?" The man tries to protest: "I was there," he says; but the lady is determined to get him back on the P.C. rails. "I'm sure they weren't all black, were they?" she prompts. "OK," says the man, "let me just say they were not all black. I was the white guy there." The lady reporter of course misses the joke and forges ahead with telling this eyewitness what she just knows he must have seen, quote: "There was probably other white guys there as well."
Watching that clip, you find yourself wondering why media lefties bother with eyewitnesses at all. Why don't they just make up the stories to suit their prejudices, and call in one of their lefty film-maker friends to fabricate some footage?
The response of the authorities was just what you would expect in the lunatic asylum that is multicultural Britain. The basic strategy was to reward the guilty while hunting down and punishing the innocent.
The police mainly focused their attention on anyone who tried to resist the rioters. Here's a sample quote from Wednesday's edition of the Guardian, long quote:
"We were outside ready and expecting them," said the manager of Turkish Food Market, who asked not to be named.
End long quote. Our Turkish friend is quite right to fear the police equally with the rioters. Look up the story of British farmer Tony Martin, who shot a burglar dead in 1999. Martin lived by himself in a lonely farmhouse that had been burgled multiple times. The deceased was a career criminal. Martin was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Martin's defense attorney — his defense attorney, mind! — argued that he suffered a paranoid personality disorder specifically directed at anyone intruding into his home. Heaven forbid an Englishman should have negative feelings towards the stranger climbing in through his living-room window!
As for rewarding the guilty, under Britain's juvenile justice system, most of the underage offenders — under age 18, that is, which means a high proportion of the looters and rioters — will be sentenced to an Intensive Surveillance and Supervision Programme (ISSP). What does that mean? It means they'll be escorted by youth workers on trips to gyms, adventure centres, theme parks, and training courses for disc jockeys. The idea is to show them what fun they can have without being criminal. A few of the really hard cases might be given custodial sentences, which will mean, according to the Daily Mail, that they will spend their days watching TV and playing video games.
"Liberalism," said James Burnham half a century ago, "is a philosophy of consolation for Western civilization as it commits suicide." Burnham never wrote a truer thing; and he wrote a great many true things — many of them, I'm proud to say, for National Review.
06 — Wisconsin: High and Low. So there you are: At the high civilizational end, the orderly processes of representative democracy, while at the low end, the baying mob.
The state of Wisconsin this week managed to offer illustrations of both.
At the high end, the issue in Wisconsin was control of the State Senate. It has 33 seats. At the beginning of the current session in January the Republicans held 19 of those seats against the Democrats' 14. You may recall how back in February all 14 of the Democrats fled the state to deny the Senate a quorum. The reason they wanted to do that was that Republican Governor Scott Walker was moving a budget bill that would save the state money by curtailing the power of public-sector unions.
Walker got a modified version of his bill through anyway, but the political repercussions have rippled down through the months since, and will continue to do so. This week was critical, though, as six Republican state Senators were subjected to recall elections, after petitions by the unions and various of their leftist allies. If you do the math there, the loss of six Republican seats would swing the Senate numbers from 19-14 Republican to 13-20 Democrat. The loss of five would mean 14-19, four would mean 15-18, three would mean 16-17, two would mean 17-16 leaving the Republicans still in control.
Two it was, so the Republicans still control the state Senate, and therefore the entire legislature, as well as the governorship.
The fighting isn't over. Two Democrat state Senators next week face recall; but even if both survive, the GOP will remain in control. Further down the road, the unions and their allies are aiming to subject Governor Walker himself to a recall as soon as they legally can, which would be next year under the state constitution.
These political ructions in Wisconsin, and their results so far, demonstrate two important things: that socialism will defend itself with unrelenting tenacity and ingenuity, and that it is widely popular. Even when the power and privileges of the public sector are bankrupting a state and crushing the private sector to death, the public sector enjoys wide support, and will fight in the last ditch, employing every legal and constitutional dodge they can uncover, to maintain their power. Polls indicate that if Governor Walker is subjected to a recall election next year, he may well lose it.
Moral of the story: once socialism has a foothold anywhere, it is fearsomely hard to dislodge it.
Down at the other end of the civilizational scale, at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee last Thursday night, a mob of four or five hundred young people attacked other people leaving the fair. Most of the news reports observed the niceties, referring to the mob as "teens" or "youths" in the approved fashion, but I did spot this quote from the local TMJ4 news channel, quote: "Police have released a statement highlighting what took place during the first night of the fair. There are currently nine assaults, one robbery without a weapon and one attempted robbery with a weapon on the docket for investigation. Currently, the suspects are being described as African Americans and the victims are reportedly Hispanic and Caucasian." End quote. I guess TMJ4 didn't get the memo from PC Central. Better call London and get a Sky News reporter over there ASAP.
07 — Miscellany. And now, our closing miscellany of brief items.
Item: I've been grumbling for years that the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act was the stupidest piece of legislation ever passed. Among other things, it demands that all students nationwide be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The Act has completely corrupted out public schooling, since when the law demands that you do something that can't be done, your only choice, if you want to keep your job, is to cook the books. Today's American educational landscape is mephitic with the smell of books being cooked.
There have been innumerable other malign consequences of this monumentally stupid and evil law, of which the one that most irks me personally has been the concentration of effort on the slowest and least educable students, leaving smart and gifted students neglected and unfunded. The strongest argument for public schooling is, in my opinion and personal experience, the opportunity it offers for smart kids from poor backgrounds to rise in the world.
Well, the absurdity of it all is coming to a head. With 2014 approaching and the legislated universal proficiency nowhere in sight, Arne Duncan, the Education Secretary, has announced that all 50 states will be given waivers from the law. Quote from the news service wire, quote: "Duncan has warned that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled failures next year if No Child Left Behind is not changed." Eighty-two percent. For their next trick, the U.S. Congress will pass legislation to make the sun revolve around the earth and water flow uphill.
Item: Sixteen nations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs against Alabama's new law permitting state law enforcement to inquire into suspects' immigration status. The sixteen countries are as follows: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. The U.S. State Department immediately expelled the ambassadors of those countries and recalled our own ambassadors from their capitals. The U.S. Justice Department then ordered all nationals of those nations to leave U.S. territory within 48 hours with severe penalties for any failing to do so. The U.S. Treasury Department froze all bank accounts belonging to these nations pending efforts to recover any foreign aid we may have given them. The U.S. Department of Defense …
No, wait a minute: those things only happened in a bizarro world where the U.S. administration and Congress have a pair of gonads between the lot of them.
Item: When we were little kids back in England we used to amuse ourselves by asking: "Should a married couple be frank and earnest? Or should one of them be a woman?" Well, it was pretty funny back in 1955. Nowadays the PC patrols will come along with a SWAT team and break down your door if they hear you've been snickering at quips like that. Hence the solemnity with which Sesame Workshop, creators of PBS's long-running kids' show Sesame Street, quashed rumors that characters Bert and Ernie will be getting married some time soon.
The two muppets have been sharing a one-bedroom apartment, apparently in New York City, since the show first aired in 1969. Now that same-sex marriage is legal in the Empire State, there had been speculation that Bert and Ernie might jump the broomstick. Not so, say the producers. Quote: "Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics … they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation." End quote.
Well, thank goodness for that. Although, knowing as an Englishman does certain regrettable tendencies common among sailors, the couple I've always wondered about are Popeye and Bluto. I mean, you can't tell me either of them really found Olive Oyl attractive. Come on! …
08 — Signoff. That's it, folks — another week of madness, mayhem, and downgrade. No, I didn't get to mention the downgrade; I was having too much fun with the politics and the riots. Somehow I feel sure I'll have more opportunities to talk about downgrades in the future — many, many more …
[Music clip: From Haydn's Derbyshire Marches]