A Vital Distinction

As Jonah Goldberg explains, the distinction between public and private is vitally important:

I hold no brief for Donald Sterling. My storehouse of sympathy runs bare long before I get to billionaire bigots and loudmouths. But it’s worth pondering the fact that Sterling’s loudmouthery was in a private conversation (unlike, say, Jesse Jackson’s “hymietown” remark which was made to a black reporter he just assumed he could speak freely to without being exposed). Mel Gibson’s damning remarks were made during a drunken rant. The Reverend Billy Graham, pretty much a moral hero and a great champion of religious tolerance in public life, said some awful things about Jews in a recorded conversation with Richard Nixon. Anthony Weiner, neither a hero nor a champion of much other than his own interests, never said anything bigoted, but he sent lewd pictures of himself to young women who were not his wife. Tiger Woods . . . well, you remember all that.

I’m reminded of a wonderful op-ed the (wonderful) late Leonard Garment wrote in 1999 as then-new transcripts of Richard Nixon’s taped conversations were being released. Garment recounted how Nixon appointed numerous Jews in his administration and then concluded:

Thus we must face the Nixon Paradox. His anti-Semitic outbursts in the private conversations found virtually no correspondence in his speech or actions outside those explosions.

At this point in our politics we should find this juxtaposition less implausible than we once might have. President Clinton was impeached, partly for reasons having to do with the administration of justice, but largely because of his private actions. Yet the country, with unmistakable clarity, declared that his private failings were not to determine our judgment of his public character.

Those who consider this verdict reasonable should consider how much more forcefully its logic applies to the private conversations of public persons. The best expression I have found of this logic comes from Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist whose country under Communism learned some lessons about the consequences of trampling the distinction between public and private.

”In private,” Mr. Kundera wrote in an essay, ”a person says all sorts of things, slurs friends, uses coarse language . . . makes a companion laugh by shocking him with outrageous talk, floats heretical ideas he’d never admit in public.”

Mr. Kundera argues that this difference is not a mere curiosity but a fundamental fact: ”That we act different in private than in public is everyone’s most conspicuous experience, it is the very ground of the life of the individual. Yet curiously this obvious fact remains unconscious, unacknowledged . . . ”

Mr. Kundera worries about this obliviousness, as we should, because an understanding of the distinction between public and private speech is indispensable to a decent politics — one built upon respect for individual privacy, a fundamental ingredient of freedom. What is on the Nixon tapes is undeniably ugly. It is for us to decide, however, what effect this private talk should have on our evaluation of Nixon’s public life.

It says something about Sterling that you cannot offer the same defense of him. There is far more congruity between the public and private Sterlings than the public and private Nixons. Similarly, it’s interesting and even significant to note that Lyndon Johnson said some terrible things about blacks, but they hardly have any weight on the scales when put alongside his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act.

One last point. A common expression goes something like “character is what you do when no one is watching,” though I always preferred “character is what you do when only God is watching.” Neither aphorism is entirely fitting since all of these instances involved at least one other person. But it’s worth noting and pondering the fact that in an era of ubiquitous cell-phone cameras, recording devices, big data trawling, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter etc. the realm of what is truly private is shrinking by the hour and will likely continue to shrink in one way or another for the rest of our lives. Character may remain what we do when we think no one is watching — or listening or taking notes — but the likelihood no one is watching is increasingly remote. What that means for decent politics is anyone’s guess.

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It’s About Control

My father-in-law, born and raised in Communist Romania, always said that everything done by the Communists — while ostensibly for the people — was ultimately about control of the people. Walter Williams shows how the Communists’ ideological brethren here are doing the same:

Some statements and arguments are so asinine that you’d have to be an academic or a leftist to take them seriously. Take the accusation that Republicans and conservatives are conducting a war on women. Does that mean they’re waging war on their daughters, wives, mothers and other female members of their families? If so, do they abide by the Geneva Conventions’ bans on torture, or do they engage in enhanced interrogation and intimidation methods, such as waterboarding, with female family members? You might say that leftists don’t mean actual war. Then why do they say it?

What would you think of a white conservative mayor’s trying to defund charter schools where blacks are succeeding? While most of New York’s black students could not pass a citywide math proficiency exam, there was a charter school where 82 percent of its students passed. New York’s left-wing mayor, Bill de Blasio, is trying to shut it down, and so far, I’ve heard not one peep from the Big Apple’s civil rights hustlers, including Al Sharpton and Charles Rangel. According to columnist Thomas Sowell, the attack on successful charter schools is happening in other cities, too (http://tinyurl.com/nxulxc).

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently stated that we must revisit the laws that ban convicted felons from voting. Why? According to a recent study by two professors, Marc Meredith of the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Morse of Stanford, published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (http://tinyurl.com/pgolu8x), three-fourths of America’s convicted murderers, rapists and thieves are Democrats. Many states restrict felons from voting; however, there’s a movement afoot to eliminate any restriction on their voting. If successful, we might see Democratic candidates campaigning in prisons, seeking the support of some of America’s worst people.

Decades ago, I warned my fellow Americans that the tobacco zealots’ agenda was not about the supposed health hazards of secondhand smoke. It was really about control. The fact that tobacco smoke is unpleasant gained them the support of most Americans. By the way, to reach its secondhand smoke conclusions, the Environmental Protection Agency employed statistical techniques that were grossly dishonest. Some years ago, I had the opportunity to ask a Food and Drug Administration official whether his agency would accept pharmaceutical companies using similar statistical techniques in their drug approval procedures. He just looked at me.

Seeing as Americans are timid and compliant, why not dictate other aspects of our lives — such as the size of soda we may buy, as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried in New York? Former U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman John Webster said: “Right now, this anti-obesity campaign is in its infancy. … We want to turn people around and give them assistance in eating nutritious foods.” The city of Calabasas, Calif., adopted an ordinance that bans smoking in virtually all outdoor areas. The stated justification is not the desire to fight against secondhand smoke but the desire to protect children from bad influences — seeing adults smoking. Most Americans don’t know that years ago, if someone tried to stop a person from smoking on a beach or sidewalk or buying a 16-ounce cup of soda or tried to throw away his kid’s homemade lunch, it might have led to a severe beating. On a very famous radio talk show, I suggested to an anti-obesity busybody who was calling for laws to restrict restaurants’ serving sizes that he not be a coward and rely on government. He should just come up, I told him, and take the food he thought I shouldn’t have from my plate.

The late H.L. Mencken’s description of health care professionals in his day is just as appropriate today: “A certain section of medical opinion, in late years, has succumbed to the messianic delusion. Its spokesmen are not content to deal with the patients who come to them for advice; they conceive it to be their duty to force their advice upon everyone, including especially those who don’t want it. That duty is purely imaginary. It is born of vanity, not of public spirit. The impulse behind it is not altruism, but a mere yearning to run things.”

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President Barack “Constitutional Law Professor” Obama Violates the Constitution, Again

From The Wall Street Journal:

“ObamaCare” is useful shorthand for the Affordable Care Act not least because the law increasingly means whatever President Obama says it does on any given day. His latest lawless rewrite arrived on Monday as the White House decided to delay the law’s employer mandate for another year and in some cases maybe forever.

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The Rural Way

VDH with a powerful piece on a way of life that is fast disappearing, at least in California:

Hard physical work is still a requisite for a sound outlook on an ever more crazy world. I ride a bike; but such exercise is not quite the same, given that the achievement of doing 35 miles is therapeutic for the body and mind, but does not lead to a sense of accomplishment in the material sense — a 30-foot dead tree cut up, a shed rebuilt, a barn repainted. I never quite understood why all these joggers in Silicon Valley have immigrants from Latin America doing their landscaping. Would not seven hours a week spent raking and pruning be as healthy as jogging in spandex — aside from the idea of autonomy that one receives by taking care of one’s own spread?

On the topic of keeping attuned with the physical world: if it does not rain (and the “rainy” season is about half over with nothing yet to show for it), the Bay Area and Los Angeles will see some strange things that even Apple, Google, and the new transgendered rest room law cannot fix. We have had two-year droughts, but never in my lifetime three years of no rain or much snow — much less in a California now of 39 million people. I doubt we will hear much for a while about the past wisdom of emptying our reservoirs and letting the great rivers year-round flow to the Bay to restore mythical 19th-century salmon runs and to save the Delta three-inch bait fish. As long as it was a question of shutting down 250,000 irrigated acres in distant and dusty Mendota or Firebaugh, dumping fresh water in the sea was a good thing. When it now comes down to putting grey water or worse on the bougainvilleas in Menlo Park, or cutting back on that evening shower, I think even those of Silicon Valley will wonder, “What in the hell were we thinking?”

I do all the yard work on my three-acre home site and putter around the surrounding 40-acre vineyard. Mowing, chain-sawing, pruning, and hammering clear the head, and remind us that, even in the age of the knockout “game” and nightly TV ads for Trojan sex devices, we still live in a natural world. In the rural landscape, you are responsible for your own water. So you must know about what level resides the water table, and how deeply exactly your pump draws from, and the minutia of well depth, casing size, and type of pump. You know roughly how much sewage you’ve deposited in your cesspool and septic tank, and whether your propane tanks is half or a quarter full. There is no “they” who take care of such things, no department of this, or GS9 that to do it for you. Those who help you keep independent — the well drillers, pump mechanics, cesspool pumpers, asphalt layers, and assorted independent contractors — remind you that muscles and experience, not always degrees and techie know-how, are still important in extremis.

There are no neighbors across the backyard fence. At night there is no one out here, except the dogs that engage in howling wars with the coyotes. Nature abounds, both good and bad: squirrels that undermine the slab under your barn (I have shot them, gassed them, poisoned them for 40 years, and their burrows are larger than ever), and coyotes lingering out of range in the shadows by dusk. But also a red-tailed hawk in your redwood tree stands guard, and a great horned owl skimming across the vineyard that is strangely unafraid of humans. When I ride out in the Michigan countryside, I often stop and stare at octogenarians puttering around huge old clapboard farmhouses, determined in their final days to mow their lawns or paint their porches as if they were newlyweds — “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Still, let us not be romantic. Rural Fresno County has reverted to circa 1870, when my great-great grandparents first arrived. It is sort of anything goes after dark. I’ve had the following people show up at my house after hours: a group of caballeros in full festive regalia (with wonderful embroidered sombreros) asking to pasture their show horses on my lawn, given they still had 12 miles to go to Raisin City and feared being run over riding down the road in the dark; two young girls stopped in front, cell-phoning gang bangers that the coast was clear (it wasn’t) to go after copper wire; some lost Dutch bicyclists for some reason trying to cross the valley to get to L.A. from Big Sur, hopelessly confused and hopelessly scared (they stayed overnight intramuros on a summer night); five inebriated punks throwing rocks at the upstairs windows; and an exasperated Iranian national salesman who pulled in the driveway, two weeks after 9/11, in a pouring rainstorm, lost, and in need of direction (everything he claimed about his sad unlikely plight that brought him to the house at 11 p.. turned out to be true).

When the sun goes down, you are on your own, and in some sense are better for the challenge. At six I can remember sitting (in the very place I am sitting now) as my grandfather at 70 jumped up to “investigate” a couple of yahoos drinking by the barn. The difference in those days, aside from the absence of armed gang-bangers, was that there was some deference shown the owner, or perhaps he earned it in a way I have not. He was known as “Mr. Davis,” me nothing much at all. So he returned with a laconic, “I asked those trouble-makers to leave, and they did.” Not now necessarily.

Again, all is not so depressing. The other night I drove into the yard and a man was sitting on my driveway claiming the police had pulled his truck over for no lights and now he was stranded. Some story — and absolutely true as he showed me his fix-it ticket. He spoke no English; my Spanish is rusty. But he proved a good soul, and stayed here some hours while we phoned around looking for a relative (about ten years ago I quit driving the stranded to their homes, given that in one instance I was a bit outnumbered).

My 43 acres — what has not been sold off of the ancestral larger farm — still produce 85 tons of raisins (a nutritious, healthy food) for the nation. Mt. View Avenue lines up with Mt. Whitney and on some mornings you can make out its profile by the sunrise. The acreage is well kept, as is the 145-year-old house that I put most of my life savings into — why exactly I don’t really know, other than “I was supposed to.” Perhaps the house is in better shape than when it was first built. Rural life reminds us that we are mere custodians who don’t really own anything, given that the land endures as we turn to dust.

I like the people who reside in these environs — the 85-year-old woman who lives alone with her shotgun; my closest friend around the corner, Bus Barzagus of Fields Without Dreams, going strong at 73. None want to go to L.A. or San Francisco. Another neighbor who is a mechanical genius, and so on. One guy told me the other day, “What am I going to do, put my 150 acres on my back and pack it over to Nevada?”

Otherwise, all the farm families I grew up with but one are gone. There are no 40-acre or 100-acre autonomous farms left. Everything is rented out, small tesserae of much larger corporate mosaics. Looking out the window reminds me it didn’t have to end this way, but how and why not is well beyond my intelligence. (Count up the cost of tractors, implements, labor, chemicals, liability insurance, taxes, etc. — and anything less than 150 acres does not pencil out.)

The old farmhouses are all rented out to foremen, 100% of them first-generation immigrants from Mexico. The Punjabi farming class has become a sort of new aristocracy, if their huge three-story mansions that pop up every couple of miles are any indication.

I worry though not about the way we look or talk, but rather about the use of the land. It no longer grows people, or produces for the nation a 5% minority of self-reliant, cranky and autonomous citizens, who do not worry much about things like tanning booths, plastic surgery, Botox, male jewelry, tattoos, rap music, waxed-off body hair, or social media. I think our impoverished society reflects that fact of agrarian loss, in the sense that never have so many had so much and complained that they had so little while being so dependent on government — and yet they are so whiney and angry over their lack of independence. The entitlement state is the flame, the recipients the moths. The latter zero in on the glow and then, transfixed by the buzz, are consumed by acquiring what they were hypnotized by.

Out here is the antithesis of where I work in Silicon Valley. Each week I leave at sunbreak, and slowly enter a world of Pajama boys in BMWs and Lexuses, with $500 shades and rolling stops at intersections as they frown and speed off to the next deal. Somehow these techies assume voting for Barack Obama means that they are liberal. They are not. By proclaiming that they are progressive, they feel good about themselves and do not have to worry about why their janitorial staffs are not unionized, or why no one but they can buy a house, or why they oppose affordable housing construction along the 280 corridor, or why they fear the public schools as if they were the bubonic plague. Their businesses don’t create many jobs in the area; they don’t live among the Other; they seek to get out of paying income tax as they praise higher taxes; and they use money to ensure their own apartheid. And so they are “liberal.”

No wonder millionaires like Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer represent such a culture. How odd that the power, the water, the food, the lumber, and the minerals that fuel Silicon Valley all come from distant invisible people, the uncool who are overregulated, overtaxed, and over-blamed by those they never see.

Every six months or so I crawl under the house to check the wiring, plumbing, foundation, and assorted repair work. I did it last week. In the dirt is the weird detritus of 140 years: some square nails, a strange, ancient rusted pipe wrench, 1930s newspaper stuffed into some sort of mouse hole, penciled-in runes of weird numbers and notes scrawled on the redwood beams by some unknown carpenter, a fossilized carcass of a long dead cat, a few rat skulls and ribs. It is also sort of like archaeology, trying to sort out the layers of improvements per good farming years: the foundation raised on redwood beams after the boom of World War I, the metal conduit wiring installed in the 1940s when raisins were again high, the heating ducts put in during the brief boom of the early 1980s, and so on.

Is there a future to any of this?

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on the meaning of future. None of my children will farm; even if they wanted to, the remnant 40 acres of the original 140 are too few to be viable. The local schools are poor, at least in statistical rankings. There are no pre-Stanford preschools out here. My great-grandparents and their parents got here before the schools; my grandfather graduated here in 1908, my mother in 1939, me in 1971, my children in the 1980s — after that comes the end, I think, of the continuity.

Most of the area’s youth under 30 have long fled to L.A. or the Bay Area. They are sort of the bookends to illegal immigrants who left Oaxaca for places like Selma that they see as heaven in comparison with Mexico. The youth left Selma for tiny apartments in Westwood or Mountain View that they see as heaven compared with what they left.

The land left behind has soared in value, not because it is a necessarily desirable place to raise a family, but due to the fact that in a California of 39 million, in a third year of abject drought, and with the world in need of our state’s fruit, nuts, and fiber, there are not too many places left with such good loam soils, a long growing season, and a water table still about 50 feet.

What keeps a person sane when writing about the Chris Christie road show; the Benghazi, AP, NSA, and IRS scandals; the vast expansion in the government and its never-ending deficits; the insanity on campus; and the world of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton?

The refuge of the rural world, and the remembrances of a wonderful world gone and now beneath our feet.

Yet I can hear them still.

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Our Lawless Constitutional Law Professor

“I was a constitutional law professor, which means unlike the current president I actually respect the Constitution.”
Barack Obama, March 30, 2007

From CNSNews:

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopolous” that President Barack Obama’s presidency is becoming “increasingly lawless,” because the president is “actually contradicting law” or “proposing new laws without going through Congress.”

“We have an increasingly lawless presidency,” said Ryan.

“We have an increasingly lawless presidency where he is actually doing the job of Congress, writing new policies and new laws without going through Congress,” Ryan said. “Presidents don’t write laws. Congress does, and when he does things like he did in health care – delaying mandates that the law said was supposed to occur when they were supposed to occur, that’s not his job.”

“The job of Congress is to change laws if he doesn’t like them – not the presidency. So executive orders are one thing, but executive orders that actually change the statute, that’s totally different,” Ryan said.

Stephanopolous asked Ryan if he really thought Obama’s proposals are unconstitutional, pointing out that the rate of the president’s executive orders is far behind Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

According to the National Archives Federal Register, Obama has signed 167 executive orders as of Dec. 23, 2013. President George W. Bush signed 291 executive orders, and his father, President George H.W. Bush signed 166 executive orders. President Bill Clinton signed 364 executive orders.

“It’s not the number of executive orders. It’s the scope of the executive orders,” said Ryan. “It’s the fact that he’s actually contradicting law like in the health care case, or proposing new laws without going through Congress, George. That’s the issue. So this is a big concern. We have an increasingly lawless presidency.”

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