Saturday, May 25, 2019

Book Review- 'Reagan: The American President' by Larry Schweikart

A Not-So-Distant Mirror
Remembering Reagan in the Age of Trump

May 24, 2019
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If I can understand to any extent at all why millions of Americans today harbor an irrational hatred for Donald Trump, it’s because I, too, at one time, bought into the media’s systematic misrepresentations of a first-rate president. In my case, the president was Ronald Reagan, the subject of Larry Schweikart’s magnificent new biography, Reagan: The American President. Yes, I voted for Reagan in 1980, after having cast my first presidential ballot ever for Gerald Ford in 1976, but I wasn’t giving either of them a thumbs-up so much as I was expressing my abhorrence of Jimmy Carter, whose sanctimony, smugness, and self-satisfaction turned me off from the moment I first got a look at him and whose execrable performance, once he took office, made it urgent to get him out of there after one term and let him get started on his real life’s work – that of being, as Schweikart puts it, the nation’s “Moralist in Chief.”
But, no, I wasn’t a Reagan fan. Why? Simple. I was a naïve kid who read the New York Times front to back every morning, watched the network news religiously, and believed every word spat out by these oracles, having swallowed the Watergate-era myth that journalists were noble, truth-loving souls. I even made my own contribution to the anti-Reagan propaganda, writing an opinion piece for Newsweek in which I, a snot-nosed grad student, sneered at length about his supposed simplemindedness. It would take years before I grasped the extent to which I’d been brainwashed and, in my Newsweek diatribe, had only been regurgitating lies. 
Some of Reagan’s biographers, too, have echoed the mendacious line taken by the mainstream media during his political career. The worst of these, Edmund Morris, who was designated by Reagan as his official biographer and given unprecedented access, spent fourteen years on the project only to publish, in 1999, a bizarre volume that mixed fact, willy-nilly, with fiction. Morris excused this irresponsible approach – a total betrayal of their agreement – by saying that Reagan had turned out to be at once weird and boring and, even after all their time together, remained a total mystery to him, thus obliging him to make stuff up. My own impression was that Morris’s exposure to Reagan revealed to him a man who, at once good and great, defied everything that the cultural establishment said about him, and whom Morris, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, dared not write about honestly for fear of being accused by his confrères of hagiography.  
As fate would have it, two years after Morris’s worthless tome came Reagan: In His Own Hand, a compendious collection of radio talks written by Reagan during the period between his years in Sacramento and his years in Washington. These scripts, which covered almost every imaginable topic, displayed a thorough grasp of the issues and an impressive writing talent, and blasted to bits the image of him as a lazy dolt. Now, in Schweikart’s biography – the first to be based primarily on the Reagan archives – we finally have a solid life by a professional historian who, gratifyingly, rejects the decades of fraudulent spin and seeks earnestly to capture the real Reagan.
And what to say about the real Reagan, as portrayed in these pages? First of all, he was, as his strongest supporters always recognized, a decent man. His mother instilled in him “an abiding belief in the triumph of good over evil.” When, after college, he began a career as a radio announcer, he sent ten percent of his salary to his older brother, Neil, who was still a student. When Reagan screen tested in 1937 for Warner Brothers, the studio bosses weren’t sure about his acting, but they put him under contract anyway because they were so taken by his “wholesomeness.” When, a couple of months into his presidency, he was shot by John Hinckley, he found, on the way to the hospital, that he couldn’t bring himself to ask God for help “while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed up young man who shot me,” and so he “prayed for Hinckley’s soul.”
The downside of this goodness was that Reagan, while no fool, was, like Anne Frank, ingenuous enough to believe that most people were essentially good. As Schweikart observes, his sunny view of humanity led to an “idealistic view that the US government was more or less pristine”; while he criticized faceless “bureaucracy” and “big government,” he was reluctant to confront the reality of “human corruption, lust for power, and petty jealousy,” not least in the inside-the-Beltway purlieus that we now, quite rightly, call “the Swamp.” As president, writes Schweikart, “Reagan all too frequently believed the liberals would in the end ‘play fair’ and let their humanity surface. One of the great ironies of Reagan’s presidency was that he had more success appealing to that human quality with the Soviets than he did with his Democrat opponents.” Brilliant point.
Reagan’s interest in politics took off during his Hollywood years, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild and a member of something called the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. Writing in Early Reagan (1986) about these groups, Anne Edwards bought into the left’s romantic myth about the blacklist, maintaining that Reagan was a traitor to his friends because he fought the attempt by CPUSA members – actual Kremlin tools, and bona fide traitors – to take over these organizations. Schweikart, by contrast, provides a frank account of Tinseltown politics at a time when New Deal liberals like Reagan and another gutsy anti-Communist, Olivia de Havilland, were denounced by fellow actors as “fascists” and “capitalist scum.”  
When Reagan’s film career waned, he found success in the new medium of television, serving as host of the anthology series General Electric Theater. As part of his deal (the biggest yet for a TV performer) he delivered talks at GE plants, where he revealed and honed a very particular set of skills that, it turned out, outshone his not inconsiderable acting talent – among them an ability to connect naturally with the common man and woman, to convey a genuine interest in their lives and concerns, and to communicate complex social and economic ideas largely by means of easily comprehensible anecdotes and jokes. Far from being a simpleton who, once in the White House, took direction from his cabinet, aides, and speechwriters, Reagan was, by his GE days, fully formed ideologically and very much his own man – one who’d concluded that appeasing the Soviet Union amounted to telling captive peoples to relinquish “hopes of freedom because we’ve decided to get along with your slave masters,” and who, having read the works of von Mises, Hazlitt, Hayek, and Bastiat, understood the vital importance of the free market.
Before long, national political figures got wind of Reagan’s rhetorical prowess. The result was “A Time for Choosing,” a speech he gave in support of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run. An instant classic, It marked the formal start of a political career during which Reagan, like Goldwater, would, because he preferred constitutional principles to social engineering, be repeatedly branded as a right-wing radical – often by people who were so lacking in a moral compass that they saw no ethical difference between the US and USSR. From the outset, moreover, Reagan’s opponents treated him as a genial boob. Thus Gerald Ford – a genuine mediocrity, party hack, and veteran D.C. drone who is best remembered, by me anyway, for denying in a debate that Poland was a Soviet satellite – at first responded to Reagan’s 1976 primary challenge by saying that he couldn’t take the ex-actor seriously. Sen. Jacob Javits (R-NY) called Reagan “extreme”; the now-forgotten Sen. Charles Percy (R-IL) predicted that a Reagan nomination would result in “crushing defeat.”
These are, of course, the same kinds of things said about Trump in 2016. But one difference is that the media, dishonest as they were, weren’t quite as bad then as they are now. It’s stunning to learn that after Reagan left Sacramento, Walter Cronkite offered him a twice-weekly five-minute slot on CBS to voice his views; later, under Carter, the same network gave Reagan free airtime to respond to a presidential speech on the Panama Canal, “something,” Schweikart rightly observes, ”that today would be unheard of.” As Schweikart sums it up: “Reagan in 1981 had a monumental edge that Donald Trump would not have in a similar situation thirty-five years later: while the media was overwhelmingly liberal and oppositional, it still played the game by the basic rules of journalism (or, at least, tried to appear to play by such rules).”
As this book counts down the years to Reagan’s presidency, it also gives us glimpses of the administrations he’s living through – of LBJ’s Great Society, which boosted welfare dependency and undermined the black family; of Nixon’s opening to the Kremlin, about which Brezhnev bragged in 1973: “We are achieving with détente what our predecessors have been unable to achieve using the mailed fist”; and of Ford, who, scared of offending Brehnev, refused to meet with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, leading Reagan (who generally eschewed even the mildest profanity) to refer to him as a “goddamned horse’s ass.” Then there’s Carter, who gets a whole chapter to himself – a delicious indictment of “the first president in American history to blame the American people themselves for whatever problems they faced.” Not only did Carter, in his inaugural address, congratulate Americans for shaking off their “inordinate fear of communism” (this, Schweikart points out, “at the very time the Soviet empire was expanding”); his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, actually bragged to Time that Carter and Brezhnev had “similar dreams and aspirations about the most fundamental issues.” In any event, it was the accumulated social and economic consequences of these predecessors’ policy blunders, capped off by Carter’s utter incompetence and passivity, that delivered the White House to Reagan – a beneficiary, as Schweikart puts it, of the same “populist boil against the ‘Establishment’” that would later lead Trump to victory.
The climax of this book, needless to say, is the account of Reagan’s two terms in office. Schweikart doesn’t ignore Iran Contra, the bombing of the Marines barracks in Beirut, or other dark chapters, but he recognizes that the heart of this story is the fact, that despite his illusions about human goodness, Reagan grasped the evil of Communism and the vital importance of individual liberty and free markets. Unlike such big-name economists as Lester Thurow and Paul Samuelson (the latter of whom pronounced in 1976 that “it is a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable”), Reagan – who, as president, spent weekends devouring mountains of raw intelligence on the Soviet economy – foresaw the Iron Curtain’s fall. And he know how to hasten that fall: George Shultz, his Secretary of State, would later testify that Reagan, in his dealings with Gorbachev, “combined a negotiator’s instinct and common sense with tough views and staying power”; Helmut Schmidt, the German chancellor, “found in 1981 that Reagan understood arms control perfectly, and better than any of his predecessors.” Yet even Schmidt considered Reagan’s hope of a Soviet collapse unrealistic, while reporter Lou Cannon, who would publish the condescending President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime in 1991, maintained that Reagan was near-delusional to describe the USSR of the 1980s as brutal and in crisis. And pretty much everybody in Washington agree with Reagan adviser David Gergen that it was “outrageous” for Reagan, in a March 8, 1983, speech, to call the USSR an “Evil Empire” (a phrase he famously kept re-inserting into his text after his aides removed it).
But here’s the thing: Soviet officials would later admit he was right: they had been running an evil empire. Know-it-alls in the U.S. thought Reagan’s rhetoric threatened to “destabilize” U.S.-USSR relations (“stability” being, then and now, the Deep State’s top desideratum); but in fact that very rhetoric shook Soviet elites’ self-esteem to the core. Similarly, the U.S. media mocked Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, which they nicknamed Star Wars – but it, too, unsettled the Soviets. So did the decisiveness with which he fired America’s striking air-traffic controllers in 1981 and responded to the 1983 Cuban invasion of Grenada. Schweikart quotes an internal Soviet document which acknowledged that Reagan had “restored Americas belief that it is capable of achieving a lot” and that he was “giving America what it has been yearning for. Optimism. Self-belief. Heroes.” How interesting that the Kremlin had his measure then – and feared and respected him accordingly – whereas many on the American left, even now, continue to dismiss him. For so effectively setting the record straight, and for giving Reagan the credit he deserves for setting aright the American Ship of State, Larry Schweikart deserves our immense gratitude.
[Order Larry Schweikart’s Reagan: The American President.]
Bruce Bawer is the author of “While Europe Slept,” “Surrender,” "The Victims' Revolution," and "The Alhambra." "Islam," a collection of his essays on Islam, has just been published.

HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Drives Home The Deadly Perils Of Statism

May 24, 2019

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The opening lines of HBO’s “Chernobyl” miniseries set the tone for what’s at stake during its terrifying, unflinching look at the worst nuclear plant disaster in history:
‘What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies then we no longer recognize the truth at all.’
On April 26, 1986, two explosions rocked the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Soviet Ukraine. The devastating event released 400 times the amount of radioactive fallout than the bombing of Hiroshima and at one point threatened the lives of millions of Europeans as far away as Germany.
Creator Craig Mazin’s dramatization of the crisis features exceptional acting, writing, and direction. The show’s haunting atmosphere lingers far after the credits roll. It is an altogether wrenching account of the disaster and the countless lives affected. But beneath the show’s retelling of the explosion and its aftermath lies an investigation of the perils of unchecked government power.
The Soviet Union may have been already on its way to the dustbin of history by 1986, but the regime’s poisonous effects are on full display during the miniseries. “Chernobyl” offers a glimpse into the crippling effects of statism. When the truth is needed to save lives, it is stifled. When recklessly misguided authority figures need to be questioned, they are shielded by the fear they instill and the political positions they hold.

The Fight of the Truth Seekers

At its core, HBO’s “Chernobyl” is a tragic tale of heroic individuals fighting against a government designed by its nature to thwart any who oppose it. In their search for the cause of the catastrophe, scientists are tailed by the Soviet Union’s KGB secret police. Members of the very commission tasked with investigating the Chernobyl incident have their phones tapped. They’re brazenly threatened in public. They’re temporarily detained. The scientists and nuclear experts Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet regime needs to be free to uncover the truth are repeatedly stymied and silenced by their own government.
Young men who should be apprenticing are thrust into engineering positions they are unqualified to administer. Concerns over the stability and safety of vital nuclear equipment—most critically, Soviet-made RBMK reactors—are shrugged aside or buried in layer upon layer of bureaucratic red tape.
The dosimeters available to plant workers for measuring harmful radiation are woefully cheap and inadequate. They can detect up to 3.6 roentgens per hour. The worst-affected parts of the plant contained radiation levels of more than 20,000 r/h. Chernobyl’s higher-quality dosimeter, capable of detecting up to 1,000 r/h, is locked away in a safe and the first personnel to think of using it don’t have the key. When it’s finally found, it burns out the second it is turned on.
One of the most chilling early scenes of HBO’s series comes four hours after the initial explosion. A lone dissenting voice of the local Pripyat executive committee says the city should be evacuated. He is treated like Chicken Little and told by party men that radiation levels are “mild” and “limited to the plant itself.”
An elder of the committee, brilliantly played by Donald Sumpter, rises and tells the gathering, “When the people ask questions that are not in their own best interests, they should keep their minds on their labor and leave matters of the state to the state.” At the conclusion of his speech, he implores the men to seal the exits of the city and to have faith in Soviet socialism. For this, the committee rewards him with a standing ovation.
Chemistry professor Valery Legasov heads the Chernobyl investigative commission and is one of the brave few to speak the truth in a society crippled by fear and complacency: “To them, a just world is a sane world. There was nothing sane about Chernobyl. What happened there, what happened after, even the good we did, all of it…all of it…madness.”
The evacuation of Pripyat and the surrounding area should have begun in the early morning of April 26. Instead, it would not start until more than 37 hours after the explosion. The number of cancer deaths and long-term health effects caused by this costly delay is incalculable. Given that more than 49,000 residents lived in Pripyat, contemplating the unnecessary death toll is heartbreaking.
In a meeting with Soviet leadership, career party officials shrug off the amount of radiation at the plant as “the equivalent of a chest X-ray.” In reality, single pieces of graphite debris from the exploded reactor core contain radiation worth more than 4 million chest X-rays. When Jared Harris’s Legasov relays this startling fact to the government, he is labeled an “alarmist” and a “hysteric.” Legasov is one of the chief nuclear experts in the nation, yet his words fall on deaf ears. He is initially ignored simply because his reporting went against the approved lies of the communist leadership.

Fallout of the Modern Leviathan

Mazin’s “Chernobyl” depicts the nuclear and political fallout of what happens when an embarrassing disaster strikes in a one-party, authoritarian society. The Soviet Union is the communist, 1986 version of the all-powerful state Thomas Hobbes called for 300 years earlier in his work “Leviathan” (named after the biblical sea monster). For Hobbes, an absolute government was required to maintain law, order, and stability—unchecked by any separation of powers or mechanisms that would dilute the power of the state.
Taken out of the realm of theory and into the real world, Hobbes’s leviathan becomes so singularly focused on maintaining order that its highly regimented society is governed entirely through fear. Throughout “Chernobyl” we see fear of the state repeatedly drive good, smart men to doubt their instincts and follow nonsensical orders. Whether the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong’s China, or Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea, the results have been the same.
The nationality of the government leviathan is irrelevant—the size and control wielded by the statist monster is the ultimate issue. A theoretical North Korean response to a similar disaster as the one featured in “Chernobyl” is eminently predictable. Lies, obfuscation, and misinformation would abound. Outside help and assistance would be rejected, worsening the crisis. Those who would truthfully speak of the dire nature of the catastrophe would be suppressed, or worse. Like with Chernobyl, the blame would constantly shift, further clouding the truth.
The few North Korean scientists with the requisite knowledge to assess the situation would be ignored or silenced if the results weren’t what government officials wanted to hear. Many would understandably remain quiet to prevent reprisals against their family and loved ones. The more authority the government possesses, the harder it is to effectively fight back.
In a statist society, fear has a lot in common with radiation—it seeps into every crack of life. And like radiation, fear is a slow, painful killer. Bold heroes like Legasov are the exception in statist regimes, not the rule. When faced with the terrifying, omnipotent power of a leviathan like the U.S.S.R., resisting the state is difficult at best and a death sentence at worst.

Finding Hope Amidst the Despair

“Chernobyl” is at times hard to watch. This is partly due to its graphic depiction of the horrific effects of radiation sickness. But it is also difficult to witness the larger tragedy unfolding. Virtuous men and women lie trapped in a life-sucking, hopeless society—an evil empire dominated by dread and suspicion, governmental privilege, and crippling regulation. Few shows have been so bleak.
Still, “Chernobyl” offers its audience glimmers of hope. There is Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk, who helps stop the spread of the disaster. There are the hundreds of miners who worked round-the-clock to prevent the poisoning of Ukraine’s water supply. Then, there are the three volunteers who really did venture into the heart of the facility at great risk to prevent a complete meltdown that would have killed millions.
Yet the heart of “Chernobyl” lies with Valery Legasov. It is through Harris’s moving portrayal of Professor Legasov that we are reminded of the personal human cost of the lies weaved by an authoritarian state—and that it is possible to stand up to tyranny and corruption, even though we know it may cost us everything.
Joshua Lawson is a graduate student at the Van Andel School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He is pursuing a masters degree in American politics and political philosophy.

Friday, May 24, 2019


May 23, 2019

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Though I have read The HobbitThe Lord of the RingsThe Silmarillion, and Tolkien’s other stories and books too many times to count, I never once lost interest in anything about or by the great Oxford don. Now, with the movie Tolkien out from Fox Searchlight Pictures, I’m seeing references to him everywhere. The more I see of him and know of him, the more I continue to be astounded by his mind, his creativity, and his tenacity. For forty-one years now, he has been a constant companion in my life, a friend, as well as a mentor and an inspiration.
As I’ve had the chance to mention before, I first encountered Tolkien through his painting, The Mountain Path, when Houghton Mifflin used it for the cover of the first edition of The Silmarillion in September 1977. I turned ten on the sixth of that month, but my oldest brother, Kevin, turned eighteen on the twenty-third. The Silmarillion came out on the fifteenth. My mom gave Kevin a copy of it, but I, more or less, confiscated it. I would stare and stare at the cover, finding it not only inviting, but irresistibly so. I loved the fold-out map of Beleriand in the back, and I loved even more the opening chapter, “The Ainulindale,” the creation of the universe. Those three things connected me to a world beyond anything I had yet experienced in rather idyllic Kansas. I so desperately wanted to escape into that mountain scene, explore every nook and cranny of that invented world, and meet a God who sang the universe into existence.
Obviously, September 1977 was a great month for the Tolkien-Birzer alliance, informal though it might’ve been.
To be sure, my brothers shared my love of Tolkien, though probably not to my obsessive degree. My older brother, Todd, even made Tolkienian things for me: maps of our farm in the style of Christopher Tolkien’s map; treasure hunts with clues written in Tolkienian ruins; and even, in his wood-working class and projects, a very nice version of Sting, the ancient Elven blade Bilbo and Frodo wielded.
After devouring The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, I also read everything available at the time by Tolkien—his poetry as found in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil; his short stories printed in The Tolkien Reader; and his paintings as printed in the annual Tolkien calendars. In 1980, of course, the mythology expanded dramatically with the author’s Unfinished Tales, giving much deeper histories of the three mythopoetic ages of the world.
Of those books about Tolkien, but not written or edited by members of the Tolkien Estate, I loved the works by David Day, especially his Tolkien Bestiary, featuring some of the best painted renderings of Middle-earth I have yet to overcome. My current students have the distorted images of Tolkien’s world by Peter Jackson stuck in their heads. For me, my images come from the paintings commissioned by Mr. Day. Just as important to me was cartographic treasure, Barbara Strachey’s The Journeys of Frodo.
All of this came together for me in the fall of 1980 when I discovered a role-playing game that allowed me to spend as many hours as I so desired in Tolkienian-inspired worlds, Dungeons and Dragons. Surviving a very violent domestic situation during the late 1970s and early 1980s, I can state with no hyperbole that my ability to enter in and out of Tolkienian realms at will quite definitely saved my life. I remember the bizarre motherly whisperings at the time that Dungeon and Dragons might open a child to Satanism and the dark occult. I can only laugh at such comments, especially in hindsight. For me, Dungeons and Dragons (as based on Tolkien’s mythology) not only sheltered my then pre-teenage collapsing faith from collapsing entirely, but it also allowed me sanity by giving me an escape from household terrors that so dominated those years. During my daily walks to and from Liberty Junior High, I often contemplated suicide, trying to decide not if, but when. Honestly, it sometimes seemed the only way to escape my stepfather. Tolkien’s characters and stories, as played in Dungeons and Dragons, strangely (or Providentially?) intruded, pushing aside the darkest thoughts and depressions. Fantastic worlds provided the healthier and healthiest escape in those sombre days. When my friends and I played Dungeons and Dragons, we challenged and conquered evil in all its manifestations, domestic and foreign. We had only one God, and that God was good, true, and beautiful. If some kids fell in the occult because of Dungeons and Dragons, I am truly sorry. In my case, though, it prevented the greatest darkness of all and helped me realize the precious value of life. While I might not be able to stave off the evil in my home, I could rescue others from abuse, even if only in my imagined kingdoms and fantastic republics.
In this context, I cannot help but think of the description of Gandalf (originally named Olórin) in The Silmarillion:
But of Olórin that tale does not speak; for though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts. In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.
Eventually, my love of Gandalf became my love of St. Michael, patron of law and good.
As I’ve had the privilege of describing elsewhere at The Imaginative Conservative, I came back to the Catholic faith in, of all places, the deserts of western Morocco, in February 1988. I was then spending my sophomore year of college (July 1987-July 1988) at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Filled with bursting faith upon returning to Notre Dame that fall, I (again, Providentially?) took a course from a then-famous Platonist entitled “Philosophy and Fantasy.” I wrote my term paper on the Catholicism of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the professor allowed me—as one of three—to deliver it to the class as an oral presentation. It is, at least by my own poor judgment, one of the three best papers I wrote in college, and I was—for better or worse—so proud of it that I wanted it to become better.
Jump forward ten years to my conversation with Winston Elliott, Publisher of The Imaginative Conservative, who asked me, “What would you most like to write upon?” as I explained to him my exhaustion with my dissertation topic (American Indians during the American Revolution and War of 1812). When I told him about my college paper on Tolkien and how I would like to expand it to a book, he not only encouraged me but he also promised me that he would do everything in his power to get it published.
While I am not a major author, I can state that my books have all sold well—at least by the standards of a non-bestselling author. Most importantly, though, I can state that my writing career began during that third week in September 1977, staring at The Mountain Path. Throw in some childhood horrors, some healthy escapes, some great classes, and the encouragement of a best friend—and a book and a writing career are born. How fitting. And, it all began with Tolkien. Or, maybe, God. Yes, the Tolkienian answer is the proper one. It certainly began with God.
Bradley J. Birzer is the co-founder of, and Senior Contributor at, The Imaginative Conservative. He is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and Fellow of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Dr. Birzer is author of In Defense of Andrew Jackson (Regnery, 2018), Russell Kirk: American ConservativeAmerican Cicero: The Life of Charles CarrollSanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson,J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth, co-editor of The American Democrat and Other Political Writings by James Fenimore Cooper, and co-author of The American West.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Socialism Destroys the Human Character

By Theodore Dalrymple
May 16, 2019
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Oscar Wilde (Library of Congress/P & P)
True socialists do not want a better world, they want a perfect one. That is why they so often view piecemeal amelioration with disdain or even hostility, and why they are willing to sacrifice the happiness of a present generation for the imagined bliss of a generation to come in the distant future. To adapt the Fool’s words in Twelfth Night very slightly: Present mirth hath no laughter. What’s to come is very sure. In delay there lies plenty . . .
If you tell a socialist that hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in the last few decades by means the very opposite of those of socialism, he will immediately retort that many millions have also not been lifted out of poverty, as if there had ever been, or could ever be, a time in which all people benefited equally from improving economic conditions, or as if poverty were the phenomenon that needed explanation rather than wealth. Until everyone is lifted from poverty, no one should be. Oscar Wilde, in “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (1891), wrote that “it is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.” The only real solution to the problem of poverty, according to him, was the abolition of property itself; and until it was abolished, the person who used his money in this way was the very worst and most dangerous kind of exploiter, for he disguised the fact of exploitation from the exploited by rendering the exploitation bearable.
Wilde’s text is in many ways a locus classicus of a certain kind of thought that, though (or perhaps, more accurately, because) it is deeply adolescent in nature, retains its appeal in a world that is perennially unsatisfactory to its inhabitants, and not necessarily to the worst-off among them. Wilde — a very clever man, of course — had observed that the character of human beings was not always good but attributed this disappointing fact to the influence of the institution of private property. Abolish private property and “we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
This is obviously akin to the Marxist idea that man will become truly himself only after the institution of Communism. What exactly man was until then (which also means what he is now, since Communism has still not been instituted) is not quite clear, but it is nothing very flattering to him, indeed it implies a contempt for the vast mass of humanity past, present, and almost certainly to come. Speaking for myself, I have lived among or ministered to the wretched of the earth for much of my career, but it has never occurred to me for a single instant that they were anything less than fully human, every bit as human and individual as I was myself.

Wilde continues:
It will be a marvellous thing — the true personality of man — when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything. And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge. It will have wisdom. Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be.
It seems to me astonishing that anyone could believe such drivel, let alone a man as intellectually gifted as Wilde; but it is far from difficult to find intellectuals who concur, for example Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian superstar philosopher who is sure to draw crowds of young admirers to his passionate denunciations of the world as it is wherever he goes. It seems that utopian dreamers are like the poor, we have them with us always.
Having denounced the effects of private property on the human personality, Wilde (I take him only as an example) proceeds — in effect like Marx and Engels before him — to imagine the wonderful results that the abolition of private property under socialism will have for personal and intimate relations:
Socialism annihilates family life, for instance. With the abolition of private property, marriage in its present form must disappear. This is part of the programme. Individualism accepts this and makes it fine. It converts the abolition of legal restraint into a form of freedom that will help the full development of personality, and make the love of man and woman more wonderful, more beautiful, and more ennobling.
As it happens, I have closely observed this more wonderful, more beautiful, and more ennobling love of man and woman under conditions, de facto, of socialism, as well as the abolition of legal restraint — that is to say, all legal structure or social obligation in family relations — with its supposedly full development of personality, and it was not quite as lovely as Wilde (or for that matter Marx and Engels) imagined or depicted, to put it mildly. In fact it was appalling, for reasons that surely any moderately sensible person above the age of 20 would have expected and understood. The absence of restraint did not conduce even to liberty, as another Anglo-Irish writer, Edmund Burke, pointed out almost exactly a century before Wilde:
Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters. 
Clearly, there is a possibility of intellectual regress as well as progress. The people who lived Wilde’s dream whom I saw close up as a doctor working in a poor part of a British city lived under a socialist regime as complete as, though less authoritarian than, that of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Their housing, education, health care, and income derived from the collectivity, not from anything that they did themselves. They lived in the utmost security — the public services would always be there for them — except, perhaps, when they left their homes, when they might be attacked by their peers. It is true that they clung to a certain amount of private property, but it consisted mainly of clothes, a few white goods, the electronic apparatus of mental distraction, and some valueless furniture. Even Wilde could hardly have meant that people should not possess their own clothes; and in fact they lived in an environment that was remarkably equal. Their material standard of living had been successfully dissociated from any effort that they might make.
Their sexual relations were precisely as lacking in legal restraint as Wilde had envisaged. In this respect, he was a prophet; but unfortunately, the rest of his vision was sadly lacking in acuity or verisimilitude. The people being deprived of any economic or contractual reasons for the exercise of self-control and believing they would never be any better- or worse-off if they exerted themselves (except perhaps by crime), relations between the sexes, once subject to restraints of the kind that Wilde wanted removed so that the full beauty of the human personality could emerge, became fluid in the worst possible way. It was unknown for the father to remain present throughout the childhood of his offspring; serial step-fatherhood became a very common pattern. Jealousy, the most powerful instigator of violence between men and women, increased to an astonishing extent. Man was not so much a wolf as a sexual predator to man. Trust disappeared and violence took its place. A social environment was created in which a cycle of relative (if not absolute) poverty, which was a supposed justification for socialism in the first place, now existed as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If socialists so loved the poor that they wanted to preserve them in their poverty, they could hardly have done better.
Socialism is not only, or even principally, an economic doctrine: It is a revolt against human nature. It refuses to believe that man is a fallen creature and seeks to improve him by making all equal one to another. It is not surprising that the development of the New Man was the ultimate goal of Communist tyrannies, the older version of man being so imperfect and even despicable. But such futile and reprehensible dreams, notwithstanding the disastrous results when they were taken seriously by ruthless men in power, are far from alien to current generations of intellectuals. Man, knowing himself to be imperfect, will continue to dream of, and believe in, schemes not merely of improvement here and there but of perfection, of a life so perfectly organized that everyone will be happy, kind, decent, and selfless without any effort at all. Illusion springs eternal, especially among intellectuals.
THEODORE DALRYMPLE — Mr. Dalrymple, a retired doctor, is a contributing editor of City Journaland The New English Review. His next book, False Positive: A Year of Error, Omission, and Political Correctness in the New England Journal of Medicine, will be published in June.

No, Nancy. It's the Dems Who Are Engaged in a 'Cover-Up'

May 22, 2019

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Democrats are like a beehive that has lost their queen -- only, in this case, the queen is not Nancy Pelosi, but Barack Obama. He alone was able to hold this fractious cuckoo's nest together. And one wonders if he could do it now.

Nevertheless, Pelosi, anxious to do her part and stave off impeachment charges she knows are electoral poison for her party, did her best to damp things down by accusing Trump of a "cover-up" when she emerged from the Democratic caucus Wednesday morning.

Talk about projection!

Was it Machiavelli who said: When they accuse you of something, they're the ones who are doing it? No, it wasn't, not exactly anyway. But no question the brilliant Florentine saw that happening on a daily basis, as we do.

At this moment, since we know there was no Russia collusion, the big "cover-up" is the provenance of the Mueller investigation itself. And some of that, at least, is about to be revealed, as the Democrats are no doubt aware.

Trump called this investigation a "witch hunt," but that appears to have been an understatement. It was a "treasonous coup plot" -- unprecedented in American history -- with many of the secret conspirators beginning to be known to those interested (Stefan Halper, Joseph MifsudDeputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec). Doubtless, additional names are to come, adding to the more public ones already fired or conveniently laid off by the FBI and DOJ. (Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, Andrew McCabe, James Baker, James Comey, etc. As of August 2018, 25 were fired or "resigned." Not sure of the number now.).

Beyond mere spying (to coin a phrase), this is beginning to appear to be a case of entrapment of an American presidential candidate, rendering the word "unprecedented" rather apt and far from hyperbole.

Meanwhile, the inspector general report on the FISA scandal is about to come out, followed by various investigations supervised by William Barr.

No wonder the beehive is going crazy and Nancy was forced to channel Nixon with the "cover-up" card. It was an obvious ploy and a sop to the growing impeachment-crazy juvenile socialist wing of her party she knows to be self-destructive but can do little about.

In so doing, however, Pelosi shot herself in the foot as well as her party's, not to mention that she put any infrastructure deal on hold. (What did she expect to happen?) An impeachment investigation will only reveal more of this treasonous plot, informing the public as never before -- and already the vast majority believe the Steele dossier was a fraud (i. e. Clinton campaign instigated disinformation).

Not even the mainstream media will be able to help because impeachment hearings will be live on television with both sides able to ask questions. And Mueller won't help either because he is unlikely to want to open himself up to myriad questions about why he never looked into the predicate for his own investigation.

Of course, this won't stop many of the Democrats. Trump Derangement Syndrome is a disease akin to paranoid schizophrenia for them. The bees will be buzzing and stinging everywhere. Time for some serious insect repellent. Amazon recommends the Flowtron BK -15D.

Roger L. Simon — co-founder and CEO emeritus of PJ Media — is an award-winning author and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Socialism as Epic Tragedy

By Joshua Muravchik
May 16, 2019

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Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels,Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Joseph Stalin

The saga of socialism constitutes an epic tragedy. It was the most popular political idea ever invented, arguably the most popular idea of any kind about how life should be lived or society organized. Only the great religions can compare. Within 150 years from the time the term “socialism” was coined, some 60 percent of the world’s people were living under governments calling themselves socialist. Of course, not everyone who lived under such a regime shared its philosophy, but many millions did embrace socialism, join socialist parties, vote for socialist candidates, and even kill and die for socialism.

The powerful allure of socialism lay in its appeal to idealism. Every major religion affirmed the superior importance of the spiritual realm as compared with material things. Socialism spoke to this value system, promising a secular path to its fulfillment — and, even better, one that entailed little sacrifice. Socialists reasoned that if only property were owned in common, everything shared, and the fruits divided equally, people would no longer have cause to vie with one another. A new day of brotherhood would dawn. Freed from competition and invidious distinctions, individuals could enjoy a closeness they had never known before.
And there was more. No longer obsessed with the scramble for wealth, individuals could instead pursue self-fulfillment. I might hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and write criticism in the evening, said Marx. Individuals could thus focus on developing their talents. Every person, said Trotsky, could become a Beethoven or a Goethe.
There would no longer be want. Not only would the sharing of goods ensure sufficiency for all, but also, instead of wasteful production for profit, economies could be focused on producing for need. Schools and libraries might be built instead of casinos or brothels, mass transit or family sedans instead of thrill or prestige cars, and so on.
The early socialists, starting in the 1820s, created model communities, hoping to demonstrate the superiority of the system they espoused. These all fell apart, usually quickly. But the fact that the system proved difficult to put in place did not negate the beauty of the idea, and few socialists plumbed the question of why, exactly, it was so difficult to create and sustain this system.
In any event, Marx and Engels soon appeared and rescued hopes, dismissing the early experiments as “utopian” and thus devoid of meaning. Instead, the duo claimed to have discovered laws of history revealing socialism to be mankind’s more or less inevitable destiny. The deus ex machina that would dig the grave of capitalism was the “proletariat,” a fancy word for the working class. Ruthless competition would compel capitalists to squeeze the compensation of employees until the workers, finding themselves constantly more miserable and exploited, rose up and overthrew the system, replacing it with socialism.
Oddly, this prophecy did not induce complacency. On the contrary, Marx and Engels became intensely involved in socialist organizations and parties. In their footsteps, socialists thereafter balanced the confidence of being on the right side of history with political activism intended to help history along. But new disappointments were in store.

In the 1890s, half a century after Marx and Engels set forth this vision, their intellectual heir, Eduard Bernstein, the one who had been chosen by Engels to produce volume four of the socialist bible, Capital, just as he himself had produced volumes two and three from the notes Marx had left, confessed to the observation that events were not bearing out the Marxian prophecy. The workers exhibited no interest in revolution for the apparent reason that they had been experiencing steady improvement in their material conditions rather than the forecasted deterioration. Economic historians now estimate that the standard of living in the advanced countries roughly doubled over those 50 years. Bernstein had access to no such data, but in contrast to Marx and Engels, he hailed from the working class and was intimately familiar with its vicissitudes, and thus was well equipped to assess changes in diet, wardrobe, and the like.
Bernstein drew the logical conclusion. He abandoned socialism. He determined to continue struggling to wrest better conditions for the workers, but he said, “The ‘final goal of socialism’ is nothing to me.” Others, however, were not ready to abandon the “final goal.” Although workers’ lives may have improved, their lot was still harsh. More important, the point of socialism was not only to ameliorate the plight of workers; the larger goal was to build a new society more harmonious and humane than any before.
In sum, socialism had reached a crossroads. If the workers were not going to create the revolution as predicted by the Marxian model, then a socialist had to choose. One could choose, as Bernstein did, to stick with the workers but give up on the revolution. Or one could choose to stick with the revolution but look to people other than the workers to bring it about. That was the choice of Lenin.
He shared Bernstein’s premise. In his terminology, history had shown that, left to their own devices, the workers would achieve only “trade-union consciousness,” not “revolutionary consciousness.” In other words, they sought higher wages, not bloody upheaval. But Bernstein’s conclusions enraged him. The majesty of socialism could not be forgone just because workers’ standards of living had risen. If the workers would not make the revolution, someone else had to.
Lenin hit upon the idea of creating a party of professional revolutionaries who would fill this role. They would not merely act in the name of the workers or for the benefit of the workers. They would collectively constitute the “vanguard of the proletariat” even though Lenin acknowledged that individually they would not be, or would not mostly be, proletarians.
This metaphysical leap may have been hard to follow, but it worked — at least insofar as Lenin’s band succeeded in seizing power and proclaiming the world’s first socialist state. Knowing that he commanded the allegiance only of his “vanguard,” an armed minority, Lenin then felt, with reason, that he had little means of ruling other than to prohibit opposition and cow the populace into obedience. He exhorted his followers to exert “merciless mass terror against kulaks, priests, and White Guards; persons of doubtful standing should be locked up in concentration camps.”
Lenin, to be sure, harbored an extraordinary thirst for power, but he was not merely out for power. He had a mission: socialism. In Russia, where the economy was predominantly agricultural, that meant collective farming. But the farmers, wanting nothing of the sort, resisted passively. Faced with economic disaster and civil war, he backed down on collectivization. But his successor, Stalin, renewed the struggle, engineering a famine, in which some 5 to 10 million starved to death, in order to secure the peasantry’s capitulation.
If Stalin was a tyrant of stupefying brutality — what previous despot had deliberately starved his own population? — he was matched or even outdone by such other Communist rulers as Mao and Pol Pot. Of this dynamic, Milovan Djilas, once a top leader of Yugoslav Communism, said: “How could they . . . act otherwise when they ha[d] been named by . . . history to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in this sinful world?” Had these men wished only to rule and enjoy the perquisites of unbridled power, they would have killed fewer. It was their devotion to an ideal that prompted them to slaughter millions of unresisting innocents.

Nor was this all. The idea propounded by Marxism of a redemptive future toward which history is trending but that can be helped along by mass violence proved open to permutation. Just as Lenin substituted the vanguard for the proletariat, Mao and Pol Pot added the wrinkle of substituting the peasants for the workers and then the vanguard for both. Mussolini, who was weaned on Marxism, spun another twist, replacing class with nation. He argued that downtrodden Italy belonged to the “proletariat” among nations while the wealthier states of northern Europe were the “bourgeoisie,” the enemy. Then Hitler replaced the nation with the so-called Aryan race and identified the Jews as the enemy class of his National Socialism. Thus, the ideal of a new brotherhood yielded one episode of mass murder upon another, altogether sketching as sanguinary a chapter as history has ever known.