The Left Won’t Let the Amtrak Tragedy Go to Waste

From Charles C. W. Cooke:

It took just a few sorry hours for the news to become politicized. On Tuesday evening, we were told of a tragedy. An Amtrak train running between New York City and Washington D.C. had derailed disastrously at Philadelphia, killing eight and wounding two hundred. By Wednesday morning, tragedy had become transgression. Speaking from the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest explained that he didn’t know for sure why the train had crashed, but that it was probably the Republicans’ fault. “We have seen a concerted effort by Republicans for partisan reasons to step in front of those kinds of advancements” that would have prevented crashes such as this one, Earnest proposed slyly. His message: “Yeah, the conservatives did it.”

Before long, this theory had become omnipresent on the Left. At PoliticsUSA, Sarah Jones complained that, “gambling with Americans lives,” “reckless Republicans” were planning to respond to the “deadly derailment with more proposed cuts to Amtrak.” At MSNBC meanwhile, erstwhile transportation expert Rachel Maddow contrived to play Sherlock Holmes. “There’s no mystery about this disaster in Philadelphia,” Maddow submitted, ‘and there will be no mystery when it happens again.” The culprit, she proposed, was a lack of infrastructure spending. “This is on Congress’s head.” Not to be outdone, Mother Jones got in on the act, too: “The Amtrak Crash,” Sam Brodey declared excitedly, “Hasn’t Stopped Republicans From Trying to Cut Its Funding.” Well, then.

In all cases, the implication was clear: The dead were dead and the injured were injured because old rails had buckled under new weights; because underserviced wheels had locked up and given out; because the electrical wires that undergird the information systems had finally disintegrated and gone back to seed. Thus was a new tragedy ghoulishly recruited to an old cause. Rare is the day on which we are not told that America’s bridges are crumbling and that its roads are cracking, and that selfish and unimaginative politicians in Washington are rendering the United States as a shadow of its former self. Rare, too, is the day on which it is not asserted by someone that if we would just have the good sense to funnel more money to our favorite groups, we would be able to escape our present economic mess. With the news of a terrible crash, the would-be spenders were given a chance to wave the bloody shirt and to put a face on an agenda. Disgracefully, they took it.

In a sensible world, this execrable line of inquiry would have been abandoned at the very moment that it was revealed that the train had been traveling at almost twice the rated speed limit when it flew off the tracks, and thus that physics, not funding, was the proximate cause of the crash. But, alas, we do not live in a sensible world. And so, rather than conceding that we should treat the questions of infrastructure spending and of Amtrak’s subsidies separately from the questions surrounding this incident, the partisans scrabbled around to find an alternate — and conveniently non-falsifiable — theory: To wit, that if more money had been available to Amtrak’s engineers, they would probably have been able to find a way of saving the deceased. Never mind that the money is already there, but is being spent elsewhere; never mind that the reason that existing “crash-preventing” technology has not been implemented has more to do with “unique” “logistical challenges” than with an absence of funding; never mind that new technology is as capable of failing as old technology. If Amtrak had just had some more money in the bank, something would have been different. If we had rendered unto Caesar what his acolytes had demanded, the laws of physics would have smiled more kindly on the Northeast.

At the Federalist yesterday, Molly Hemingway argued persuasively that this sort of magical thinking is ultimately born of a peculiar form of secular theodicy, in which money has taken the place of piety and in which all accidents, hiccups, and human mistakes can be blamed squarely upon the unwillingness of the American taxpayer to pay their April tithes with alacrity. On Twitter, Red State’s Erick Erickson concurred, writing pithily that “the leftwing reaction to the Amtrak derailment” reminded him of televangelist “Pat Robertson’s reaction when a hurricane hits somewhere.” There is, I think, a great deal of truth to this. In our debates over education, healthcare, energy, and . . . well, pretty much everything, the progressive instinct is invariably to call for more money, regardless of the nature of the problem at hand. Naturally, there is a cynical pecuniary aspect to these entreaties: behind every “for the children” plea, it seems, is a union that is looking to get its claws into your wallet. But there is also a bloody-minded refusal to accept the world as it really is. We do not, pace Thomas Paine, “have it in our power to begin the world over again,” and we never will — however many zeroes the Treasury is instructed to scrawl on its checks. Accidents happen. Humans err. Evil prevails. Perfection is a pipe dream. The question before us: How do we deal with this reality?

On the left, the usual answer is to deny that there is any such reality. Just as conspiracy theorists prefer to take shelter in the comforting belief that 9/11 was the product of omnipotence and not of the unavoidable combination of evil, luck, and incompetence, the progressive mind tends to find calm in the heartfelt conviction that if we adjust our spreadsheets in the right way — and if we elect the correct people to public office — we will be able to plan and spend and cajole our way into the establishment of a heaven on earth. Thus did the arguments yesterday so dramatically shift and bend in the wind. Thus were their progenitors willing to say anything — yes, anything — in order to avoid the conclusion that the world can be a scary and unfair place and that there is often little we can do it about. The crash was caused by a lack of infrastructure spending that has left the railways in a dangerous shape! No, it was caused by a lack of interest in finding a way to prevent human error! No, it was caused by a general American unwillingness to invest in the sort of trains they have in Europe or Japan! Republicans did it! Midwesterners who don’t use trains did it! The rich did it! Quick, throw money at the problem, and maybe it’ll go away!

Throwing money at a problem is not always the wrong thing to do, of course. But one has to wonder where the limiting principle is in this case. There is no department or organization in the world that would struggle to find a use for more cash were it to become available. If our standard is a) that more funding might potentially equal less death, and b) that all death must inevitably be assuaged by more funding, we will soon run out of treasure. Alternatively, if the conceit is less absolute — i.e. if we accept that we do not have infinite resources and that this debate is there about priorities — one will still have to question the choices that Amtrak’s boosters would have us make. To support federal spending on Amtrak is by definition to suppose that every dollar spent on the trains is money that could not be spent better elsewhere: not by taxpayers; not by businesses; not by other parts of the government; not on paying down the debt; not on anything else on this earth. This, naturally, is highly debatable. Per the agenda-less, data-driven denizens of Vox, Americans today are 17 times more likely to be killed in a car accident and 213 times more likely to be killed on a motorcycle than they are to be killed on a train. Trains, in other words, are relatively safe. That being so, one has to ask why anybody would advocate increasing the train budget. By rights, shouldn’t that money be going to General Motors or to Harley Davidson or to the various DMVs up and down the land? Shouldn’t it be “invested” in areas where it will be 17 and 213 times more useful? If it should not, why not? Why do those who wish to spend money on the trains and not on motorcycle safety not have blood on their hands, just as we are supposed to believe that those who wish to cut Amtrak’s budget do? Surely if Harley Davidson had a little more money, they could develop systems to save lives. Why, pray, are they being denied that money?

One’s answers to these questions will vary according to one’s ideological outlook and one’s broader political judgment. For my part, I am not wild about the idea of subsidizing Amtrak at all. Others, I know, want the state to underwrite a much wider network of trains, the better to discourage Americans from flying or from driving their cars. Such disagreements are reasonable and, perhaps, inevitable. And yet they are only instructive when indulged dispassionately. It may make us feel good to hover over rapidly cooling bodies and, searching for anything that might assuage our grief, entertain our “what ifs” and nominate our villains. But it is certainly no grounds for the establishment of public policy. Whether they are broke or they are flush, terrible — yes, even fatal — things happen to good people all the time. Accepting that this is inevitable is the first step toward maturity. In Philadelphia, the inevitable happened; and “shoulda, woulda, coulda” were the last words of the charlatans.


The Moral Asymmetry of Progressivism

From VDH:

Hillary Clinton in recent months has done the following:

She charged UCLA somewhere around $300,000 for reciting some platitudes. That works out to over $165 a second for her 30 minutes on stage — meaning that she made more in one minute than a student barista does in a year.

Ms. Clinton acknowledges that, while secretary of state, she solicited donations from wealthy foreign nationals for her family foundation, whose funds she and her husband have frequently tapped for exclusive travel and other expenses.

Everything Ms. Clinton has said recently seems to be demonstrably untrue: Only one of her grandparents, not all four, was an immigrant. One does not need to have two smartphones to have two e-mail accounts. She did not regularly e-mail her husband. One does not secure a server by having a guard on the premises. A cabinet officer does not communicate exclusively on a private e-mail account via a private unsecured server. High government officials do not themselves adjudicate which e-mails are private and which public — and then wipe clean their accounts to avoid an audit of such decision-making.

The multimillionaire Ms. Clinton, fresh from jabs against hedge funds and inordinate CEO pay, also just bought lunch at a fast-food restaurant and left no tip in the jar, before parking her car in a handicapped zone at another stop. How is all this connected?

Ms. Clinton’s private ethics are, as usual, a mess, both in the sense of failing to follow legal protocols and tell the truth, and in the less formal sense of price-gouging cash-strapped universities, failing to show some tiny generosity to the working classes, and abusing accommodations intended to help the disabled.

But Ms. Clinton’s public ethics are loud and clear: She damns the effects of private money in polluting politics; she is furious about Wall Street profit-making; she is worried about the compensation of the struggling middle class. Indeed, so concerned is Hillary Clinton about the pernicious role of big money and the easy ability of our elites to make huge profits without traditional sweat and toil that she might well have to lecture her own son-in-law, who manages a multimillion-dollar hedge fund. Or better yet, Ms. Clinton’s advisers might warn her that in order to stop the pernicious role of big money in politics, she may be forced to top Barack Obama’s record fund-raising and rake in an anticipated $2.5 billion for the 2016 election.

Is there a pattern here? The more Hillary Clinton sounds cosmically egalitarian and caring, the more she acts privately like a stingy 1 percenter who does not consider that the laws and protocols that apply to other people must apply to herself. This is probably no accident, given that the quest for cosmic justice usually empowers private injustice.

The provost of Stanford University recently wrote a letter to campus faculty and staff to address a perceived epidemic of student cheating. One report had suggested that 20 percent of the students in a large introductory course were suspected of exam misconduct. At about the same time as this new alarm, Stanford students had one of their customarily raucous meetings, in which student-body officials voted to urge the university to divest from many companies doing business with Israel. Does democratic Israel pose a greater moral challenge to Stanford students than their own propensity to lie and cheat in order to promote their careers? Are there more courses taught at Stanford on Aristotle’s Ethics or on race/class/gender -isms and -ologies?

I just received another of the periodic reminders from the university that all faculty and staff who have assistants must complete sexual-harassment training. Indeed, walk across the Stanford plaza or peruse the catalogue of courses, and it is clear that Stanford students are inundated with therapeutic instruction on how to think properly about race, class, gender, and global warming — on how to think correctly about everything in the abstract, but not on how to think about how to take a test honestly. How can such sophisticated moralists be prone to such unsophisticated sins as cheating? In such a postmodern landscape, how can there be vestiges of pre-modern wrongdoing? Anyone who regularly parks a bicycle on the Stanford campus — renowned for its efforts to encourage green energy — with a modest bike cable, rather a heavy steel security system, in due time will have it stolen. Is that called postmodern theft?

As a professor in the California State University system for 21 years, I noted two developments. Therapeutic-studies courses increased at a rapid clip, but even more so did cheating — especially with the advent of new technology. Nothing is more surreal than reading a student’s boilerplate critiques of traditional American culture — and with a brief Google search finding his sentences lifted word for word from the Internet.

I am not suggesting that there is a direct connection between the new political correctness and an epidemic of personal dishonesty — only that at best the former has done nothing to discourage the latter, and at worst PC seems to delude students into thinking that if they are morally correct on universal issues, then they deserve some pass on what they consider minor fudging in their own particular lives. How can one effectively fight racism or global warming if one does not use the tools at one’s disposal to get an influential job upon graduation?

Of course, everyone can be hypocritical at times. But this new epidemic of progressive personal asymmetry is a bit different from what we were accustomed to not so long ago. Bill Clinton can hang with a man convicted of soliciting an underage girl for prostitution, and fly on his private plane, which is customarily stocked with bought pleasure girls — but only if he reassures us that he is a committed feminist. Harvard faculty can lecture us on our ethical shortcomings, while they outsource classes to grad students and adjuncts who are making a fraction of their own compensation per course. They are loud supporters of unionization everywhere but among graduate students and part-timers at Harvard.

Frequent White House guest Al Sharpton is a tax cheat, a homophobe, and an inciter of riot and mayhem, with a long history of racial disparagement. But he knows that all that private sin is contextualized by his loud sermonizing on the supposed racism of white America. Eric Holder can fly his daughters and their boyfriends to the Belmont Stakes on a government jet — but only because he is Eric Holder, who periodically blasts America’s supposed ethical reactionaries. Is progressivism among our elites now mostly a careerist con game? Ask departed cabinet officers like Lisa Jackson or Hilda Solis whether their own ethical lapses were overshadowed by their politically correct politics.

According to the laws of feminism, women should not latch onto ambitious alpha males to enhance their own professional trajectories; certainly they do not put up with chronically two-timing husbands either for the continuance of financial security or because of worries about the viability of their own careers. Yet Hillary seems to think that her loud feminist credentials are a sort of insurance policy, preventing anyone from daring to accuse her of accepting the gender roles of the 1950s.

The danger of the new hard-left progressivism is that the old sins of greed, connivance, and malfeasance are now offset by assertions of cosmic morality. The ostentatiously green Solyndra could hardly be thought of as shaking down operators in the Obama administration to provide a sweetheart loan for the crony-capitalist architects of a money-losing mess. Al Gore is so worried about how corporate culture promotes damage to the planet that he was forced to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars for his own green corporations to warn us about other such cynics. He is so shocked about CO2 emissions and the global petroleum culture that he unloaded his underperforming and overpriced cable channel to a carbon-exporting, anti-Jewish autocratic sheikhdom that paid him handsomely with its petrodollars.

Michelle and Barack Obama are so concerned about global warming that not long ago they left two huge carbon footprints, when simultaneously they took separate government jumbo jets to fly out to Los Angeles to appear on separate talk shows. This was worthy of Leonardo DiCaprio, who on his private jet flew to conferences on the carbon excesses of hoi polloi. Elizabeth Warren is so committed to a fair and just society where egalitarianism is the shared goal, and where we assume that no one creates anything without the government, that she and her husband often augmented the generous incomes from their Harvard law professorships with lucrative corporate consulting to achieve 1 percenter status, with nearly $1 million in annual income.

The avatars of modern progressivism are not distinguishable in the lives that they live from the targets of their attack. Those on campus who talk the most loudly of the bane of white privilege at Harvard or Stanford do not live like poor whites in Tulare or El Paso, who have no privilege, racial or financial. The pajama-boy progressives of Cambridge or Menlo Park can enjoy their white privilege freely — but only by damning it in others. (Do such young campus auditors ever drive down to a Bakersfield brake shop to explain to its grease-smeared mechanics in the pit that, being white, they enjoy too much racial advantage?) The Obamas and the progressive black elite have to decry stereotyping, profiling, and the prejudices of low expectations; only by such preemptive doublespeak can they jet to horse races with impunity or put their children in Sidwell Friends rather than in the Washington, D.C., public schools.

The Left created a culture of pajama-boy elites, one that sought cosmic absolution for its own privilege by attacking the less privileged — and then they called this ethical desert progressivism.


On the Death of Abraham Lincoln

“All over the city, people have been at work all day, draping street fronts, so that hardly a building on Wall Street, Broadway, Chambers Street, Bowery, Fourth Avenue is without its symbol of the profound public sorrow. What a place this man, whom his friends have been patronizing for four years as a well-meaning, sagacious, kind-hearted, ignorant, old codger, had won for himself in the hearts of the people! What a place he will fill in history! I foresaw most clearly that he would be ranked high as the Great Emancipator twenty years hence, but I did not suppose his death would instantly reveal — even to Copperhead newspaper editors — the nobleness and the glory of his part in this great contest. It reminds one of the last line of Blanco White’s great sonnet, “If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?” Death has suddenly opened the eyes of the people (and I think of the world) to the fact that a hero has been holding high place among them for four years, closely watched and studied, but despised and rejected by a third of this community, and only tolerated by the other two-thirds.”

George Templeton Strong, April 17, 1865