The Most Nauseating Display in American Public Life

From Kevin D. Williamson:

The annual State of the Union pageant is a hideous, dispiriting, ugly, monotonous, un-American, un-republican, anti-democratic, dreary, backward, monarchical, retch-inducing, depressing, shameful, crypto-imperial display of official self-aggrandizement and piteous toadying, a black Mass during which every unholy order of teacup totalitarian and cringing courtier gathers under the towering dome of a faux-Roman temple to listen to a speech with no content given by a man with no content, to rise and to be seated as is called for by the order of worship — it is a wonder they have not started genuflecting — with one wretched representative of their number squirreled away in some well-upholstered Washington hidey-hole in order to preserve the illusion that those gathered constitute a special class of humanity without whom we could not live.

It’s the most nauseating display in American public life.

[…]

The State of the Union has not always been a grotesque spectacle. George Washington delivered his briefing in person, but he was dealing with a self-respecting Congress that understood itself to be his equal in government. When he wanted the Senate’s advice and consent for an Indian treaty, he visited the chamber personally to seek it — and was so put off by the questioning and debate to which he was subjected that he vowed never to put himself through that again. It was an excellent idea. Thomas Jefferson, ever watchful against monarchical pretensions in the federal apparatus, discontinued the practice of delivering the State of the Union in person before Congress, instead submitting a written report. For a blessed century, Jefferson’s example was followed, and, despite civil war and the occasional financial panic, the nation thrived without an ersatz Caesar to rule over it.

It will come as no surprise that the imperial model was reinstated by Woodrow Wilson, Princeton’s answer to Benito Mussolini and the most dangerous man ever elected to the American presidency, a would-be dictator who attempted to criminalize the act of criticizing the state, dismissed the very idea of individual rights as “a lot of nonsense,” and described his vision of the presidency as effectively unlimited (“The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can”). A big man needs a big show, and it is to Wilson’s totalitarian tastes that we owe the modern pageant.

The next Republican president should remember why his party is called the Republican party and put a stop to this.

The State of the Union is only one example of the deepening, terrifying cult of the state that has taken root here. Many heads of state — and some royals, for that matter — fly on commercial aircraft. Presidents of the Swiss federation and members of the federal council receive . . . an unlimited train pass. They have occasional access to a Cessna maintained by the air force, but are known to use mass transit — just like the people they are elected to represent. An American president stages a Roman triumph every time he heads out for a round of golf. The president’s household costs well more than $1 billion annually to operate. The president’s visage is more ubiquitous than was Vladimir Lenin’s in his prime, his reach Alexandrian, his sense of immortality (they call it “legacy”) pharaonic. Washington has become a deeply weird and alien place, a Renaissance court with armored sedans and hundred-million-dollar paydays.

It’s expensive maintaining an imperial class, but money isn’t really the object here, and neither is the current occupant of the White House, unlikeable as he is. Whether it’s Barack Obama or some subsequent pathological megalomaniac, Republican or Democrat, the increasingly ceremonial and quasi-religious aspect of the presidency is unseemly. It is profane. It is unbecoming of us as a people, and it has transformed the presidency into an office that can be truly attractive only to men who are unfit to hold it.

George Washington showed the world that men do not need a king. We, his heirs, have allowed the coronation of something much worse.

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Showman-in-Chief

From Thomas Sowell:

Those who have been marveling at Donald Trump’s political showmanship were given a reminder of who is the top showman of them all, when President Barack Obama went on television to make a pitch for his unilateral actions to restrict gun sales and make a more general case for tighter gun control laws.

It was beautifully choreographed, like a great ballet, and performed with consummate skill and understated eloquence. First of all, the scene was set with a room full of people who had lost loved ones to gun violence. A father whose son had been gunned down made a long introduction before the president showed up, walked down the aisle and up on to the stage to growing applause.

As political theater, it put Donald Trump’s rantings in the shade.

As for the substance of what Obama said, there was very little substance, and much of it false, but one of the signs of great artistry was that the presentation overshadowed the substance.

None of the things proposed by the president is likely to reduce gun violence. Like other restrictions on people’s ability to defend themselves, or to deter attacks by showing that they are armed, these new restrictions can cost more lives on net balance. The most we can hope for is that the effects of the new Obama-created rules will be nil, rather than harmful.

Like most other gun control advocates, President Obama invoked scenes of mass shootings, as if what he is proposing would have prevented those tragedies. But, almost invariably, mass shootings occur in gun-free settings. Yet gun control zealots seem determined to create more gun-free settings.

How often have supposedly mentally unbalanced shooters opened fire at a meeting of the National Rifle Association? They are apparently not that mentally unbalanced. They pick places where people are not likely to shoot back.

A mass shooting at a movie theater a few years ago took place at a theater farther away from where the shooter lived than other theaters in the area that were showing the very same movie. The difference was that this theater had advertised that it was a gun-free zone.

Who is more mentally unbalanced, those who are doing the shooting or those who refuse to examine the facts about what kinds of places attract such shooters? Schools and religious institutions are sitting ducks, and the shootings there have gone on until someone else with a gun showed up on the scene. That is what puts an end to the carnage, not gun control laws.

People who are prepared to defy the laws against murder are not very likely to be stopped by laws against guns. Only law-abiding citizens are likely to be stopped by gun control laws, and to become sitting ducks.

As for facts and statistics, the only ones likely to be mentioned by gun control zealots, including the media, are those on how many people were killed by guns. How many lives were saved by guns will never make it through the ideological filters of the media, the political establishment or our educational institutions.

Yet factual data on how many threats or attacks were deterred in a given year by displaying a firearm have long been available. Seldom is it necessary to actually pull the trigger to get some thug or criminal to back off and go elsewhere, often in some haste.

Are the only lives that matter those that are lost, usually because there is no gun immediately available to protect them, but not the lives saved because they did have a gun at hand to protect them?

Gun control zealots seem especially opposed to people being allowed to carry their guns concealed. But concealed weapons protect not only those who carry them, but also to some extent those who do not, because criminals have no way of knowing in advance who does and does not have a gun.

Muggings and rapes become much more dangerous activities for criminals where many law-abiding people are allowed to carry concealed guns. It can take a lot of the fun out of being a thug.

President Obama said that we are the only “advanced” nation with so much gun violence. But there are a number of countries with higher murder rates than ours and stronger gun control laws. But that leaves the definition of “advanced” to Obama — and makes for clever political theater.

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The Joy of Outrage

From Theodore Dalrymple:

There is no racist like an antiracist: That is because he is obsessed by race, whose actual existence as often as not he denies. He looks at the world through race-tinted spectacles, interprets every event or social phenomenon as a manifestation of racism either implicit or explicit, and in general has the soul of a born inquisitor.

That is why a recent cartoon in the Australian newspaper aroused the ire—I suspect the simulated ire, the kind of pleasantly self-righteous ire that we can all so easily work ourselves into if and when we want—of the guardians of racism purity.

The cartoon in question was by Bill Leak (who is no respecter of persons), and it showed a group of impoverished Indians sitting on the ground trying to eat some shards of smashed-up solar panels that had been given to them by the United Nations. One of them says, “It’s no good, you can’t eat them.” Another replies, “Hang on, let me try one with a bit of mango chutney.” The title of the cartoon was “Aid à la Mode.”

It was obvious to me that this was intended as a satirical comment on the deliberations of the recent climate conference in Paris, and not on poor Indians. The cartoonist meant to imply that climate change was principally the concern of the spoiled political class of rich nations, and that efforts to reduce worldwide carbon emissions from energy consumption would not benefit the desperately poor, quite the reverse: Rather they would inhibit the breakneck industrial growth that has lifted and is lifting so many millions out of abject poverty in countries that not long ago were deeply impoverished. There is even the suspicion that rich nations want to inhibit the breakneck industrial growth not so much to save the planet as to preserve their position relative to poor nations. At the very least, the cartoon was a variation on the old English proverb that fine words butter no parsnips; but it could also plausibly be interpreted as a protest against dishonest Western moral and intellectual imperialism.

But that is not how the entrepreneurs of outrage chose to interpret it. Instead they chose to interpret it as a deliberate slur on the capacities and intelligence of ordinary Indians, who (they claimed) were depicted as so stupid and backward that they did not understand the benefits of harnessing and using solar energy. The fact that, even after so much rapid economic growth, millions of Indians would understandably be more concerned with obtaining their next meal than with the alleged fate of the planet was missed by the deliberate obtuseness of these entrepreneurs of outrage, an obtuseness motivated by their desire to “maintain their rage” (to quote a former Australian prime minister addressing his supporters on being deprived of office).

Now, I have no idea whether the harnessing of solar energy is a sensible policy for India, or whether it would merely be an opportunity for corruption and illicit private enrichment on a vast scale—or both, of course, since they are not diametrically opposed.

No one who has experienced the pollution in India or China could doubt that it is a very serious problem (as it is, to a lesser degree, in the South of France, where one can detect the pollution by the smell and gritty quality of the air as one approaches within fifty kilometers of Marseille), though whether such pollution can be dealt with only or even significantly by the use of solar energy is another question. But it is not the function of cartoonists to present a balanced view of a complex question; their method is the reductio ad absurdum of the side with which they disagree.

The reaction to the cartoon, however, was indicative of what one might call the will to outrage. This will precedes any object to which it might attach, and many people wait as if in ambush for something to feel angry about, pouncing on it with leopard-like joy (the leopard, so I was told in Africa, is particularly dangerous, for it kills for pleasure and not only for food).

Outrage supposedly felt on behalf of others is extremely gratifying for more than one reason. It has the appearance of selflessness, and everyone likes to feel that he is selfless. It confers moral respectability on the desire to hate or despise something or somebody, a desire never far from the human heart. It provides him who feels it the possibility of transcendent purpose, if he decides to work toward the elimination of the supposed cause of his outrage. And it may even give him a reasonably lucrative career, if he becomes a professional campaigner or politician: For there is nothing like stirring up resentment for the creation of a political clientele.

Antiracism is a perfect cause for those with free-floating outrage because it puts them automatically on the side of the angels without any need personally to sacrifice anything. You have only to accuse others of it to feel virtuous yourself. There is no defense against the accusation: The very attempt at a defense demonstrates the truth of it. As a consequence of this, it is a rhetorical weapon of enormous power that can be wielded against anybody who opposes your views. It reduces them to silence.

I once used the accusation myself in a most unscrupulous way, just to see its effect. About twenty years ago I was in the company of right-thinking people (that is to say, people who thought differently from me), among whom was an eminent human rights lawyer of impeccably internationalist outlook. She was speaking with characteristic self-righteousness about a case in which someone’s newly discovered human rights had been infringed. It was shortly after the Rwandan genocide had taken place and, fed up by her moral complacency, I accused her of racism. How could she concern herself with this case, I demanded to know, when half a million people or more had just been slaughtered and the perpetrators were unpunished (as at that time they still were)? Was it because she was racist and did not consider that all those lost lives were important because they were black?

It was a preposterous thing to say, of course, completely unjust and without any foundation, and I knew it. What interested me, however, was the panic on the face of the lawyer as I accused her. It was as if I had accused St. Simeon Stylites of harboring secret sexual desires and proclivities on top of his pillar, particularly at night. She was rattled, not because what I said had any truth in it, but because it was difficult or impossible to demonstrate to the assembled company that there was none. They might therefore have thought, because there is no smoke without fire, that she was indeed not entirely free of racism. For a moment—but, of course, not for long—she feared for her auto-sanctity.

I have not used the rhetorical trick since, but something similar might be usefully employed against the detractors of Bill Leak. They are the racists, because they refuse to believe that Indians may have different interests and opinions.

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