Don’t look now, but they tried to do journalism. It didn’t go well, as they didn’t even grasp the basics.
Today the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times published a very long story about homeless fires that does nothing to increase the public’s understanding and everything to reveal that the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times apparently live under a rock. They are shocked, you see – shocked! – to discover that the number of homeless fires has increased dramatically around the city and that with the increase has come increased damage, loss, and even death. In their El Segundo offices this fact, which pretty much everyone else in the city of Los Angeles not to mention the state of California has known for several years, qualifies as breaking news.
It is lost on them that the story does not come anywhere near qualifying as news to the vast majority of Angelenos, even in previously unaffected areas like Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills (don’t rest on the Garcetti Machine, Bel-Air, the homeless are headed your way, too). The only people who need a full color, illustrated, 5,000-plus word essay on the subject are, again, the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times themselves (as per all aspect report policy I won’t link to the story because I will not sully even a simple blog with inferior prose).
If the only sin committed by the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times was discovering reality a few years late, the story wouldn’t be noteworthy. Unfortunately, today’s story rehashes many of the lies people like Mayor Eric Garcetti and councilman Mike Bonin have been shoveling about the crisis for literally decades now, with devastating consequences.
Right out of the gate: After telling the horrific story of Dr. Courtney Gillenwater and her dog Togo, the story’s very first substantive point is how the crisis is partly caused by Angelenos’ “indifference” to homeless human beings. Let that sink in a moment. The writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times apparently believe that their fellow Angelenos – who have voted on three separate occasions to tax ourselves to the tune of more than $2 billion to help the homeless – are “indifferent” to the unspeakable human suffering on display on the streets of the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in human history. These news professionals believe we drive past the tens of thousands of human beings living in subhuman conditions in their own excrement and filth and think, “Meh.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the only reasonable response to the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times is, “Screw you. You don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about and at this point you’re just embarrassing yourselves.”
Make sure you’re not sipping a beverage as you read the story because there are plenty of other spit-take inducing moments. We are told – lectured, really – that the crisis is difficult to solve because of the need to balance “residents’ rights” with homeless peoples’ “constitutional rights” to destroy themselves slowly and hideously in said feces and filth. I wasn’t valedictorian of my law school class but I’m still pretty sure I’d remember learning about that right being tucked somewhere in the Constitution. Maybe it’s hiding in one of Justice William O. Douglas’s penumbras. Also, writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times, don’t think for a second that we didn’t catch the fact that residents enjoy vaguely referenced “rights,” while homeless people have full “constitutional rights.” You’re journalists, you know those details matter. And if you don’t you really need to find new work.
The story is replete with such tergiversation: “Business owners are left wondering if a random blaze will scar or destroy their property. For homeless people, the fear is much starker, as a fire could swallow up what little they have left.” Left unanswered is why a law abiding business owner’s fear of losing their property is somehow less “stark” than a homeless person’s fear of losing their property. To read (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times the daily fears of people like Dr. Gillwater’s neighbors are just paranoia.
The story rehashes the ultimate political get-out-of-jail-free card: Litigation. The Homeless Industrial Complex and its armies of lawyers in California and national – people like execrable Carol Sobel, who profits off human misery while accepting millions in PPP relief, but I digress – have effectively ground to a halt the public’s ability to fight the crisis with anything besides continuing to tax ourselves to buy $900,000 units of “permanent supportive housing.” That L.A.’s version of housing first is a catastrophic failure is a secret to no one, yet here come the writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times, giving councilman Bonin a platform to shill for the developers who bankroll his political career.
Let’s be crystal on one very important subject: Any news outlet that quotes Mr. Bonin on the issue – for that matter, on any issue these days – has zero credibility. None. Mr. Bonin is the epicenter of the crisis, and his outright sociopathic responses – including most recently his bloodcurdlingly cold public response to Dr. Courtney – have been documented more times than could be so much as summarized in a blog post. His place in city history has long been secure, and it’s not a pretty place. Allowing him a platform is nothing less than journalistic malpractice.
At this point media outlets like (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times are doing far more harm than good with their coverage of the homeless crisis. Tellingly, the 5,000 word, illustrated, interactive story makes nary a mention of the addiction, mental health, and crime issues that are absolutely fundamental. The story mentions health only in passing and the word “addiction” doesn’t appear at all. Again, that’s malpractice. The homeless people starting fires are either suffering from mental breakdowns or addiction, or they’re criminals. Period. It’s common knowledge that criminals use homeless camps, and homeless people, as shields and cover. It’s equally well-known that many homeless fires are intentional acts of revenge or intimidation – messages from those criminals.
The writers and editors at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times even flubbed the human interest angle: Dr. Gillenwater is straight out of central casting. She isn’t just a pediatrician, she spent years volunteering in relief camps in Africa, flew to Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, and is known around her neighborhood for helping homeless people. She rescued Togo barely half a year ago. Both she and her dog are extremely photogenic. Et cetera, et cetera. (What’s left of) the Los Angeles Times couldn’t be bothered with any of that.
Just like they couldn’t be bothered to learn the truth about homeless fires, they didn’t learn the full story behind the tragedy in Venice. And last but far from least, they accept the city’s numbers at face value, unquestioningly. Again, I’m a ocassional bordering on infrequent journalist, and I’ve learned more through interviews than the full-time (allegedly) professionals at (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times. One of the first thing I learned that the official number of homeless fires, like the official number of homeless themselves, is off by as much as a couple orders of magnitude. For example, I interviewed a LAFD crew on the west side several months ago. It was a Sunday afternoon around 5pm. Off the record I asked them how many calls they’d responded to so far that day. The number was nine. How many were fires? Eight. How many of those were caused by or related to homeless? Eight. At one station, in less than one day.
The death of local media is one of the great tragedies in recent American history. Today’s embarrassment from (what’s left of) the Los Angeles Times is another sad chapter.
Attempts to destroy the legendary rocker say more about the people engaging in them than the man himself
Particularly for a writer, I’m oddly dispassionate about most art. I’m a hard stone to move. I rarely finish a novel and have virtually no tolerance for the garbage that comprises the vast majority of movies and T.V. The only areas where I’m truly open-minded are visual (non-movie) arts and music, and within those admittedly narrow confines one of the very few artists for whom I would die on pretty much any hill is Van Morrison.
The first time I heard “Brown Eyed Girl” was in 1991 or 1992. I was in the passenger seat of a VW Rabbit convertible, top down crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a glorious blue sky summer afternoon with a beautiful girl named Daisy, upon whom I had a life-threatening crush, at the wheel. Given all the time in the world a roomful of Hollywood pros couldn’t come up with a better moment for a 16-year-old kid, particularly in the context of my life in those years. Later, Astral Weeks and Moondance were essential to the soundtracks of the two greatest road trips of my life, a week long epic from Boston to New Orleans and back with four best friends and a 12-day cross-country odyssey with another. Van Morrison’s music is as integral to my soul as the coyote cries in the sagebrush canyon where I grew up. I’ve seen him live three times, at the ages of 21, 33, and 40. He positively blew away Bob Dylan at double billing at the Boston Garden in ’97. His longevity and energy are rightly the stuff of legend, and at the age of 75 his voice has lost nary a note. In 2016, at the age of 69, he put out a single with legendary Dire Straits guitarist/singer/songwriter Mark Knopfler called “Irish Heartbeat.” If you can find a sweeter song I’m all ears. As recently as 2019 he put out a small jazz masterpiece called You’re Driving Me Crazy.
All of which is why, seeing him fall under attack for a late career addition to his repertoire – well, I can’t help but take it personally.
So overwhelming has been the pile-on, so utterly relentless, so completely out of proportion to the remarkable act of a man pushing 80 composing, performing, recording, and releasing nearly 30 brand-new songs, that even I approached his most recent work with trepidation. Cancel culture – which more properly ought to be called Memoryhole culture – has taken such hold of our nation’s collective consciousness that despite that three decade artistic relationship even I was rattled by the reviews of his most recent work, a 28-song double album simply called Latest Record Project. To hear the old hands at establishment outlets like Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times you’d think Van has completely gone of the rails, lost forever to some sort of Q-anon alternate reality (I really still don’t know what Q-anon is, by the way, nor do I particularly care to find out). The under-30 woke battalions have tossed him in the dumpster fire with no less than the likes of David Duke. I won’t link to any of the stories because I refuse to sully even a simple blog with bad prose, suffice it to say an internet search reveals several pages of roughly identical screeds against Morrison.
It is, in a word, insane.
Out of control vitriol
A mere sampling of the online rage being directed at the artist who gave the world Moondance: This morning the Los Angeles Times ran a particularly – if unintentionally – revealing polemic by someone called Ryan Walsh, who really ought to find something more productive to do with his time. He opened his fusillade with examples of songs that he called “eyebrow raising,” including “Where Have All the Rebels Gone,” “Why Are You on Facebook?” and “Stop Bitching, Do Something.”
Pause right out of the gate: At what bizarre crossroads in American cultural history did a rock and roller penning a song called “Where Have All the Rebels Gone” become so much as worthy of remark much less condemnation? On the contrary, it’s remarkable to find a rock artist who hasn’t sung a rebel song. A web search for “rock songs about rebels” yields work by, among many others, David Bowie, They Might Be Giants, Ashlee Simpson, U2, even Billie Holiday, and entire Ranker-style lists of such songs. Yet in the perverse alternate reality echo chamber of the modern woke, such lyrics are downright transgressive. Which raises yet another issue: The vitriol being smeared on Morrison boils down to a single bleat: He’s not conforming. The ultimate, essential role of a rock and roller is to do just that, and in our modern parallel reality for that he must be destroyed for his Wrongthink. It’s chilling, when you think about it.
Van Morrison’s sin is questioning the UK government’s COVID-19 policies. He believes the government’s emergency actions went too far and that the government impinged on civil rights. That’s pretty much it. He dares point out that certain millionaires and billionaires – himself, as he made clear in an interview with GQ Magazine (linked below), have done quite well while millions of average people have suffered. This is what transgressive artists do, challenge authority. Questioning authority was the hallmark of the counterculture. That Van Morrison is doing it at his age, when he could phone it in, is doubly remarkable. The fact that Rolling Stone magazine, once the vanguard of progressive alternative viewpoints, has unabashedly jumped on the corportist bandwagon, is triply remarkable. It’s also pretty much all you need to know.
I needn’t have worried – Van’s doing just fine
All of which I breathed a massive sigh of relief within the first thirty seconds of the intro title track. Not that I was worried about Van the Conspiracy Nut but because I was concerned Latest Record Project might just be bad. To be sure, it’s no Astral Weeks or Tupelo Honey, or even a minor masterpiece like Sorcerer’s Stone (currently playing in my office), but that’s like complaining that Picasso didn’t paint 500 versions of Guernica or The Old Guitarist. A couple tracks are duds. The title track is not terrible but it is forgettable, and songs like “Stop Bitching, Do Something” and “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” would have been better left on the proverbial cutting room floor or reserved for a deep-cut collection of oddities along the lines of Tom Waits’s three album Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards, of interest only to the most committed fans. A few songs are little more than spleen venting against various real and perceived adversaries.
But these are hardly mortal sins, much less severe enough transgressions to, as one particularly batty column claimed, sully his entire career and reputation as an artist. If we memoryholed every rocker who ever released a dud or engaged in self-indulgent self-pity the only bands we’d have left would be the likes of the Spin Doctors and 3 Doors Down, and no one wants to live in that world. The tracks on Latest Record Project are just not the great songs we have come (rather entitledly) to expect from Van Morrison. They’re not “embarrassments” or “depressing rants” that reveal him as a “male Karen,” to rattle off just a few of the more unhinged reactions. Even the normally staid Wall Street Journal got in on the throw-down, calling Latest Record Project (with a straight face) “songs in the key of conspiracy.” Whichever editor allowed the tired “songs in the key of” cliche past their desk ought to be fired.
What’s more, quite a few tracks, including “Only a Song,” “Upcountry Down,” “The Big Lie,” “A Few Bars Early,” “Diabolic Pressure,” “Deadbeat Saturday Night,” “Blue Funk,” “Double Agent,” and, yes, “Where Have All the Rebels Gone,” swing. “Duper’s Delight” is a sweet heartbreaker. I defy you to find a better track about the pandemic lockdowns than “Deadbeat Saturday Night” (The Rolling Stones’s effort, Livin’ in a Ghost Town, is a very close second and loses only because “Deadbeat” is less self-serious). The biggest beef with the album is that a lot of the lyrics are mundane. Some are downright lazy: “Stop bitching, do something” is hardly “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dream.” Artistically speaking many of the lyrics are too on the nose. There’s not much poetry in lines like “Why are you on Facebook? / Why do you need second-hand friends? / Why do you really care who’s trending? / Or is there something you’re defending?” And the track “Western Man” does appear to flirt with some dicey territory with lyrics like “Western Man has no plan / ‘Cause he became complacent / Stopped believing in himself / Let others steal his rewards / While he was dreaming.”
Van can do better, much, much better. But at 75 who cares? He’s more than earned the right to vent his spleen at the state of the world, even if he’s wrong, and there’s plenty to vent about these days. He’s earned the right to phone in a few lyrics. And if he seems to dance with some dangerous ideas in “Western Man,” he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Yes, yes, the concept of “Western Man” is a dog whistle in some alt-right circles. But in a well-worth-five-minutes-of-your-time interview with GQ he explains his views on among other things the UK government’s coronavirus policies. In context even his more out there lyrics and statements assume a sort of logic:
The thing is, there are people much worse off than me, people who are never going to come back. I mean, who decides what’s essential? Apparently TV actors are essential, but theatre actors aren’t, musicians aren’t, but television luvvies, they are essential. Are you trying to tell me that they’re essential and I’m not? Why is John Cooper Clarke not essential? It doesn’t fly with me. It’s absurd.
I’ve definitely been anti-lockdown. I think if you don’t know the government’s lying by now, then where have you been? When they announced this lockdown, it said on their website – the government website – that Covid-19 was not a threat. It was still on their website a week later, because I told people to look it up. It may even still be up there. You can research this stuff, it’s dead easy. There is so much stuff concerning Sage [Scientific Advisory Group For Emergencies] that has been redacted; it’s all about politics. Anybody can look this stuff up, but I simply put it into song. There’s a song on my new album called “Where Have All The Rebels Gone?”, which is all about this.
You can disagree with his perspective, but you cannot deny that it is clearly couched in terms of impacts on real people, people “much worse off than me, people who are never going to come back.” He’s speaking from a place of empathy for the tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people around the world whose lives have been permanently altered and in all too many cases destroyed by policies that in retrospect even some political figures concede were unnecessary. On top of it all he shows the sort of self-awareness of his own privilege that is so glaringly absent in so many of the woke lunatics attacking him. When I hear his perspective I think of things like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s announcement less than 48 hours before Easter Sunday that all city parks would be closed, a move that directly targeted the city’s Mexican Catholic people. As Van said, that doesn’t fly. In that context, if he tosses in a conspiracy-ish reference to redacted government documents or sings about a song about “others” he gets the benefit of the doubt seven days a week and twice on Sundays.
It’s only if you’re a blind political sycophant to the modern lunatic Left that you see some dark conspiracy in Latest Record Project. I’m sorry, but if you believe Van Morrison has secretly been a Q-anon (again, don’t know don’t care) racist conspiracy nut who for more than half a century consciously cultivated the persona of an eccentric, prickly, at times downright unpleasantly mercurial artist to obscure his inner white nationalist, you are the conspiracy nut. Ditto if you hear something malevolent lurking in a line like “It’s only a song, nothing set in stone, it’s only a song.”
We’ve been down this road many times before
So a guy who spent his artistic life challenging authority has done it again. Who cares? Oh, but the woke hordes howl how he’s influential, he’s famous. Which is where I draw people’s attention to another insane spate of political attacks on the arts: Remember in the 1980s when millions of Boomer parents allowed a few nuts to convince them that heavy metal bands whose members sported mascara, eye liner, and permanented hair were hiding pro-suicide and other messages in their music, driving thousands of teens to kill themselves? That one got the attention of none other than the United States Congress, who decided at the height of the late Cold War and in the midst of a growing national crime wave to spend months subpoenaing rock stars to answer questions like, “Did you ever bite the head off a bat during a live performance?”
The woke war on Van Morrison is precisely the same thing. Nothing more, nothing less. If a kid offed himself in 1986 it wasn’t because Ozzy Osborne told him to. And if you base your opinions about the science behind a global pandemic on a rock star’s songs and tweets, that’s entirely on you. Rock stars are crazy, it’s practically in their job description. Are you going to live your life according to the Book of Courtney Love? Again, that’s on you.
One, necessary, substantive argument
There is one place Morrison’s legions of antagonistes – the vast majority of whom I’ll guarantee you had never heard anything other than “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” before they decided they hated him and knew enough about his work and life to act as judge, jury, and executioner – could have had even the scintilla of a point. Some (like the execrable piece at the L.A. Times) have gone so far as to claim that Latest Record Project reveals Van Morrison as anti-Semitic. Of course if that were remotely true it would be one of the few facts that could actually change my opinion of the man, for the same reasons I cannot watch some of the few movies I do truly love anymore because they were made by the likes of Roman Polanski or Kevin Spacey. Suffice it to say, rape is on that list of things that fundamentally changes one’s opinion of another person. So is anti-Semitism.
The claim, however, is ludicrous to the point of slander. It’s based primarily on one song in the man’s fifty-plus year career, on Latest Record Project, called “They Control the Media.” In the context of Morrison’s lifelong, open distrust of anything resembling authority figures and his well-publicized feuds with reporters over the years, this song is utterly unremarkable. It’s only if you buy into the Evil Van Morrison mania that it takes on a darker – and let’s call it what it is – conspiratorial hue. The notion of Jews “controlling” global media is an old anti-Semitic trope. Given that nothing in Morrison’s career so much as suggests racism or anti-Semitism it stretches credulity to absurdity to suggest he suddenly discovered his inner Joseph Goebbles at the age of 75. The fact that it even has to be argued reflects just how bonkers wokeness has gone.
That doesn’t stop the L.A. Times and others from engaging in guilt-by-association to bolster the case against him, such pointing out that there are 4Chan boards (a final time, don’t know don’t care) celebrating Morrison. The only reasonable reaction is a giant yawn.
The arguments are so nutty that the only thing they reveal is the mindset of the people making them. Van Morrison deserves the last word, and he nails it:
You thought you knew me But you were wrong There’s more to me than my song I don’t blame you You’re not the first There’s more than one way to call your bluff.
Governor Gavin Newsom and local leaders have failed. Only national, and even international, resources can meet the magnitude of their human-caused crisis.
[NOTE: A previous version of this story appeared on January 18, 2019. It has been updated, and is even more relevant and urgent two years later]
One of the first things you see after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis virtually anywhere on earth is the arrival of a United States Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster loaded with food, medical supplies, and personnel. Within 24 hours of the devastating 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia the United States dispatched Globemasters along with C-5 Galaxy and C-130 Hercules strategic lifters to the region. National Guard and regular service personnel immediately began providing shelter, clean water, food, medicine, sanitation, and search and rescue operations for millions of people from Indonesia to Madagascar. They were the first wave of what would become Operation Unified Assistance, the largest humanitarian relief effort since the Berlin Airlift. Within ten days of the earthquake the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier arrived in the region and began 24-hour-a-day flight operations, including search and rescue. The effort involved some 30,000 personnel, two aircraft carrier task forces, a Marine expeditionary unit, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, and hundreds of rotary and fixed wing aircraft and vehicles. Along with the offshore resources they established more than 500 individual relief camps and other sites throughout the region. At the peak the U.S. and a dozen other countries were delivering more than 100,000 pounds of supplies every 24 hours. Less than a year later, some of those same personnel and resources were on the ground in cities and towns throughout the southeastern U.S. providing relief to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The number of lives saved is well into the millions.
It would take a fraction of that response to aid virtually every single homeless person in California in a matter of weeks. If we could muster that kind of effort for strangers 10,000 miles away there literally is zero excuse to not do it for our own neighbors here at home. Of course, that’s not the profitable solution, nor the one that enables politicians to aggrandize ever more power over actual working people. So instead of taking the blindingly obvious course and declaring a national emergency, our political roll out multi-billion dollar plans for dozens of $9 million “bridge housing” and $900,000 units of “permanent supportive housing.” Governor Newsom’s current grand plan, the latest of many previous failures, is to throw another $2 billion at the problem, to go along with the billions already flushed away on what has become known as the Homeless Industrial Complex. Meanwhile, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti continues his Quixotic (but highly profitable) quest to spend a billion dollars to build 10,000 units in 10 years. In other words, housing sufficient for less than a third of the city’s current (official) chronic homeless population, in a decade.
These are not serious plans. These are not serious people.
In contrast, the military has a tradition of assisting in and coordinating humanitarian efforts in extreme circumstances, often performing heroically. Historians credit an Army general, Frederick Funston, for saving what was left of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. He was deputy commander of the division stationed at the Presidio. Within hours of the quake, his troops were throughout the city fighting fires, establishing relief camps, setting up kitchens to feed the survivors, providing medical aid to the injured, re-establishing sanitation, establishing security (there was a spate of looting), and assisting in rescue operations. They saved thousands of lives and prevented the complete annihilation of the city by fire and human mischief.
The military responds to human-caused disasters as well. Operation Tomodachiwas the U.S. response to the March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. It lasted two months and included 24,000 personnel, 189 aircraft, and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier task force along with two amphibious carriers, two destroyers, an amphibious dock ship, and other surface vessels. U.S. service members assisted in everything from harbor cleanups to freshwater delivery, search and rescue to decontamination.
The military often is the only entity with the experience, human and material resources, and discipline to respond to major crises, and they often are the most effective resources on the ground. Even as the George W. Bush administration and FEMA bungled their responses to Hurricane Katrina, the disaster was hailed as one of the National Guard’s finest hours for its rescue efforts. Certainly there were hitches, but as with so many other examples the military saved countless lives and properties and prevented the outbreak of mass lawlessness.
The scale of the California homeless crisis demands a national response
It’s time to call in those resources to tackle California’s homeless crisis. The magnitude of the catastrophe, which state leadership has allowed to metastasize for decades, is every bit as dire as any of the global examples mentioned above. The impacts on neighborhoods and communities are as devastating as anything you’ll see in actual war zones: Murder, rape, shootings, bombings, targeted assassinations, out of control fires, torture, disease, infestations, flesh eating bacteria, vandalism, assaults, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. In places like San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Venice Beach in L.A. conditions have devolved to post-apocalyptic mayhem. Anarchy doesn’t begin to describe many places in the Golden State.
The death toll is in the hundreds of thousands. Since 2000 at least 10,000 homeless people have perished in Los Angeles County alone. Officially, some 130,000 people were homeless in the state last year. The official number likely is off by as much as an order of magnitude. According to an authoritative 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research, in 2013 as many as 526,000 children experienced homelessness in California. And that was six years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. The report also ranked the state 49th in planning and policies related to child homelessness.
Approximately 1,833 people lost their lives during and after Hurricane Katrina. In 2017, the last year for which numbers are available, at least 2,000 homeless people died in California. In 2019, more than 1,000 homeless people died in Los Angeles County alone. That’s a death every nine hours, in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. And again, those are just the official numbers. The truth is certainly far more horrifying. Meanwhile it has been widely reported that diseases associated with the middle ages – typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis – are spreading in homeless camps across the state. There are legitimate fears of an outbreak of bubonic plague as soon as later this summer, and God help the Southland if coronavirus arrives. Police officers, firefighters, and volunteers working in homeless communities routinely report all manner of ailments, ranging from inexplicable coughs to influenza and typhus.
Homeless encampments also present terrifying risks of fire. In December 2017 a homeless cook fire got out of control in West Los Angeles and sparked a brush fire that consumed seven houses in Bel Air and threatened the Getty Center and its priceless art collections and research centers. A fire captain in downtown Los Angeles recently told The All Aspect Report that his crews are called to douse dumpster fires several times a day. He said they refer to one of their trucks as “the dumpster fire tender.” Homeless fires are a daily occurrence from the San Fernando Valley to the Bay Area, the state capital to remote Butte County. It’s a literal version of Russian roulette, and it’s only a matter of time before one of those fires gets out of control and becomes the state’s next Camp Fire.
The fires are just one aspect of the lawlessness that California’s homeless crisis has created. Vandalism, assault, drug sales, public intoxication, disturbing the peace, public defecation, even prostitution and attempted murder all have become terrifyingly commonplace. Meanwhile, thanks to laws like Prop 47, more than a dozen felonies including armed assault have been downgraded to misdemeanors. Prosecutors like San Francisco’s Chesea Boudin have all but stopped prosecuting so-called quality of life crimes. Even violent felons, attempted kidnappers, attempted rapists, routinely walk after a few hours in jail. As a result of these fundamental breakdowns in criminal law, many – perhaps most – crimes aren’t even reported anymore. Why bother calling 911 when you know no one’s coming, much less following up and prosecuting?
Local and state services are overwhelmed, and officials aren’t up to the task
If the scope of these issues doesn’t justify federal intervention it’s hard to see what would. California has hit rock bottom. It’s been clear for several years that state and local authorities are overwhelmed. As previously reported in these pages, under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “bridge housing” plan the City of Los Angeles is spending an average of $55,000 per bed for temporary dormitory style housing. Accepting the official count of 36,900 homeless in the city, it would cost more than $2 billion to provide rudimentary shelter to all of them. The shelters also cost an average of $50,000 per bed per year to operate, meaning the city would spend $2 billion to construct the shelters and then $2 billion a year to maintain and operate them. These are not real numbers.
In contrast, consider that an Army mobile hospital and shelter can be set up for a few hundred thousand dollars in a matter of hours. These facilities provide a range of emergency and supportive services, including sanitary and medical facilities, triage, accommodation, security, kitchens, pharmacies, storage, and communal gathering places. In a fraction of the time that city and state governments spend dithering over what color to paint a new bridge facility, the National Guard and other military elements could have shelters up and running statewide, helping people, saving lives, and rescuing communities.
The military branches collectively possess countless years of experience in confronting all manner of humanitarian disasters. Who better to solve California’s homeless crisis than the men and women who have been on the ground in places Paradise, New Orleans, Haiti, Indonesia, and hundreds of other crisis points? Would Californians rather continue to trust that the politicians will figure it out, eventually and given enough money? It is time to call in the professionals who have demonstrated time and again their capabilities under the most challenging circumstances.
Potential legal and constitutional questions
The President has authority to deploy military units domestically for certain purposes. Under the Posse Comitatus Act the military can conduct non-law enforcement operations including humanitarian missions so long as they do not act as a police or quasi-police force. Likewise, National Guard units can be activated by either their state government or the federal government. The differences are in who pays the bills and who’s in charge. When a state deploys its National Guard, the state pays and the governor serves as commander in chief. In contrast, the President or Secretary of Defense can call up units to support overseas military operations, in which case the federal government pays and is in command. Guard activation also can be a hybrid: Federally funded while remaining under state control, such as during Hurricane Katrina and the Camp Fire.
Suffice it to say it is highly unlikely that Governor Newsom will activate the Guard at the state level to respond to a homeless crisis he himself had a hand in creating over the last twenty years. It would be to admit the failure of state and local efforts to address the crisis. Moreover, in the current environment of Democratic politics it simply would be untenable: Before the first tent was erected the cries of “concentration camps” would begin from the party’s newly dominant Sandersnista Left wing.
There is, however, another alternative.
Precedents in the Civil Rights Era
There is at least some precedent for Presidents using the military and calling up the National Guard without a state declaration, under extraordinary circumstances and even in defiance of state government. For example, the President can use the military and activate a state’s Guard units when citizens’ civil rights are threatened by state action. The most famous examples were President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s use of the Guard to enforce public school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and President John F. Kennedy use of the Alabama and Mississippi National Guard to enforce desegregation efforts in those states in the early 1960s. In all cases presidents acted over the strenuous objections of governors.
Perhaps the most salient example is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to federalize the Alabama National Guard in 1965. Johnson had been deeply troubled by images of peaceful civil rights protestors being attacked by police dogs, doused with fire hoses, and tear gassed and beaten in the streets of Selma on March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday.” Infuriated after the state’s governor – the noxious Democrat segregationist George Wallace – reneged on a promise to use state authorities to protect the protests, Johnson unilaterally activated 10,000 Alabama Guard troops and dispatched them to the city. From March 20-25, 1965 some 3,000 Guard and regular Army troops escorted Martin Luther King, Jr. and 50,000 protesters on their march from Selma to Montgomery, where King delivered one of his most famous orations, “How Long, Not Long.”
The 1965 example is particularly applicable because Johnson’s legal and constitutional justification for taking control of the Alabama National Guard was civil rights. Albeit in a different context, today’s homeless are subject to routine civil rights and constitutional deprivations by the very authorities charged with preserving them. Hundreds of thousands of Californians live on the streets, in beat-up campers, in abandoned buildings unfit for human habitation. Hundreds of thousands of children languish in similar and sometimes worse conditions. Millions of innocent citizens also have their rights trammeled every day, from the handicapped little girl who can’t get down the sidewalk in Venice in her wheelchair because dozens of tents block her way to the average Jane or Joe who has to navigate sidewalks covered in human excrement while wondering if today will be the day the plague arrives.
It will require diligent research by constitutional scholars. A process may look something like this: President Trump could declare a national state of emergency over the homeless crisis (while California is by far the worst, states nationwide are grappling with their own versions of the catastrophe). He could demand that governors in the worst affected states call up their Guard units to begin immediate humanitarian operations. When those governors invariably refuse, the President could activate their National Guard units as a necessary to the preservation of millions of people’s civil rights and safety.
Of course, for many in this deep blue state the idea of giving Donald Trump authority to do anything is a non-starter. There would be inevitable comparisons to the President’s decision to send troops to the southern border. Then again, military professionals haven’t been shy about shutting down Trump’s more jingoistic tendencies in that arena. Moreover, Californians would do well to look at the Camp Fire as an example. Despite the occasional (and characteristic) inflammatory Tweet the President stayed out of the Guard’s way and let them do their job. That is what should be expected of federal efforts to deal with homelessness in the state.
Greed is the only thing standing between California and help
It’s time for Californians to acknowledge the state’s abject failure to solve the homeless crisis. It’s time to acknowledge that the bureaucratic amateurs had their chance and only made things worse. Californians are starting to make those demands. Governor Newsom faces recall largely for his inept, corrupt response to COVID-19, but a lot of people who signed that petition were fit to be tied long before the pandemic. Mayors have lost control of their cities, and a new generation of ideologically insane district attorneys is ensuring that failure meets no consequences. These “leaders” have had literally decades to solve a problem of their own creation. At this point it’s a minor miracle when people like Gavin Newsom tie their own shoes on the first attempt.
It’s time to declare a state of emergency in California.
It’s time to send in the military, before it’s too late.
“See you down the road.” At the Oscars, where actual nomads will be cleared off the streets ahead of time.
Nomadland is a beautiful thing to behold. For ninety minutes director Chloe Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards immerse you in a haunting, haunted, Whistler-esque landscape awash in deep blues, greens, and grays. It’s gorgeous and subtle, at times stunning. Rarely has a movie captured golden hour so well, the inverse correlative of Christopher Nolan’s use of endless twilight in the stunning (and underrated) Insomnia. It’s one of those rare non-CGI’d movies that makes you go, “I’ve never seen that before.” It’s art at a very high level. The images stay with you long after the credits role. The Ludovico Einaudi soundtrack is its own minor masterpiece that like the landscape becomes its own character. And of course there’s bona fide American treasure Francis McDormand giving a performance for the ages as the wayfaring Fern.
If the movie consisted of nothing more than the soundtrack playing over lingering shots of McDormand and panoramic vistas of nomadic vehicles wandering highways like herds of Pleistocene mastiffs, I’d have it on loop. One of the remarkable aspects of Nomadland is that it captivates despite lacking anything resembling a plot. You’ll search in vain for a three act structure. There’s no initiating incident, no plunge into conflict, no dark night of the soul, no character or story arcs. The movie ends as it begins. On one hand it makes for a masterful bit of film. I can’t remember the last time I was thoroughly entranced for 90 minutes by a movie in which virtually nothing happens. As a meditation on the human condition it’s transcendent.
All of which is why, to quote nearly every bad Yelp review ever, I really wanted to like this movie. I’ve loved McDormand ever since she stole the scene as the manic helicopter mom Dot in the Coen Bros’ Raising Arizona (“He’s just got to have his dip-tet right this very minute!”). Alas, Nomadland fails artistically and even morally – not because of anything that happens on screen (or rather, not really) but because of the machinations that led to its creation. The movie’s, indeed its fatal flaw, the transgression that renders the rest of it academic, is its kid-gloves treatment of working conditions in an Amazon fulfillment center. Actually, “kid gloves” is giving the moviemakers too much credit: Its outright corporate propaganda. The company’s labor practices are the stuff of hideous legend. Just last month it beat back the latest effort by workers to unionize. Yet in Nomadland the fulfillment center workers are passively content and neutered, dutifully packing boxes and tagging items in a warehouse that appears to be approximately the size of New South Wales.
A frivolous display of anti-capitalism capitalism
In the context of the rest of the movie – and indeed, in the context of our current historical moment – the Amazon scenes aren’t just gratuitous, they’re grotesque. The very first scene inside the fulfillment center is a carefully crafted bit of corporate public relations in which a floor manager leads her team in a safety review and a sort of looking glass version of the Walmart Cheer. Then there are a few non-feather-ruffling shots of Fern unhurriedly packing up boxes, lifting boxes, carrying boxes (no repetitive stress injuries, bulging disks, or crushed fingers in this fulfillment center!). She jokes around with coworkers and never seems in much of a rush to get anywhere. This is followed by a scene in the company mess where workers sit happily around a table eating a healthy lunch, introducing each other, and swapping stories. In one scene Fern sits in here camper watching a survivalist video, and the man in the video talks about “a support system for people who need help now.” The move cuts directly to a shot Fern on one of her happy walks through the fulfillment center. Not exactly subtle.
It’s as if Zhao is saying, “See, it’s safe and fun to work for Jeff Bezos! May we have our Oscars now, sir?”
Amazon’s centrality to the movie is apparent in form as well as spirit: The fulfillment center literally bookends the movie. It appears for the first time barely four minutes in, the first recurring character we meet other than Fern herself. Visually, Zhao and Richards consciously set the building in juxtaposition to the lowly storage unit where the movie introduces Fern: Her world is cramped and dark, full of old, used, and deteriorating stuff. In contrast the Amazon center is a warm, brightly lit, sprawling panoply of possibility, populated by conscientious floor managers and happy, smiling comrades – er, coworkers. Seemingly endless opportunity. The center appears a final time near the very end, the closest to a return home for Fern the movie offers. For all its visual and emotional subtly, Nomadland is anything but nuanced when it comes to economics: The people making this film knew exactly which side their bread was buttered on. All that’s missing is a giant picture of Bezos himself smiling benevolently over the work floor.
This is a movie about the shattered lives of millions of Americans whose jobs have been destroyed by the gig economy, first and foremost by Amazon itself. Yet the distribution center is portrayed the way John Steinbeck portrayed the Salinas Valley Hooverville in The Grapes of Wrath: An island of stability, safety, plenty, even hope for the future in an otherwise crumbling world. Again, all that’s missing is a closing shot of Fern wetnursing an infant in an Amazon shipping container (during golden hour, natch). The difference, of course, is that Hoovervilles were actual relief camps that (at least theoretically) provided actual help to actual out of work Americans. Amazon fulfillment centers exist largely to exploit those same kinds of people in the name of shareholder value. As I said, I love her as an actor. It is to her everlasting credit that she consistently cedes the spotlight to the other actors in the movie – many of whom are actual nomads. Still, it’s queasy to watch her pretend to suffer, knowing the reality behind the film.
How can a movie provide one of the world’s most ruthlessly exploitative corporations, not to mention one of the world’s richest individuals, with a few minutes of invaluable propaganda for free, then turn around and hold itself out as a realistic, even empathetic story about the very people that corporation exploits by the millions every day? According to a recent story in The Wrap, Amazon agreed to work with the filmmakers after Frances McDormand “wrote a nice letter” to amazon.com senior VP of business and corporate development, Jeff Blackburn. “It’s great that we show Fern working in an actual Amazon packaging place,” Richards told the magazine. Well, then. Keep McDormand’s A-list corporate pull in mind as you watch her making believe she’s a penniless gig working nomad.
The thing is, the Amazon scenes are utterly unnecessary. Artistically the movie would not change a whit were they left on the cutting room floor. Indeed, Nomadland’s very core is corporatist and capitalist. Last year, McDormand told The Hollywood Reporter that Amazon’s participation in the movie “a really smart move…we are telling a story about a person who is benefiting from hard work.” If I were Jeff Bezos I’d have fifty foot Nomadland posters installed in every single distribution center, complete with that quote, immediately. Try unionizing that.
Different kinds of dishonesty
Nomadland is dishonest elsewhere. The various camps, parks, and safe parking zones where Fern spends most of her nights will be unrecognizable to anyone who has ever actually visited, much less spent time in actual safe parking zones, RV parks, or homeless camps. In reality those places are hellholes awash in drugs and alcohol, petty crime, violence, and a crushing sense of despair. In the movie they are safe, friendly places where people cook food, share road stories and tips, swap essential items, and even sing songs. At times it’s practically like summer camp for lost grownups. Everyone’s clothes are clean and pressed and they all seem to have just gotten haircuts. There’s not so much as a pimple to be seen. Just like in the amazon.com fulfillment center Fern wanders through the camps while people holler hello. Camp sites are tidy and clean and there is nary a bottle, much less a pipe or a needle, to be found. There’s a scene where campers give each other advice, like how to poop in a van or car and which size bucket to use. The most realistic scene in the camp is when Fern gets diarrhea.
It is in the camps, just like the long meditative shots of Fern’s van plying yet another stretch of highway, where the audience is invited to do their meditating. In one early scene she walks through a makeshift RV camp in the Arizona desert. Again, folks call out to her and invite her to “come sit awhile.” As a delicate piano etude plays, the sun sets over the desert mountains, a child rides past on a bicycle, a group of people perform t’ai ch’i (because again, of course), and another group return from a day’s ride in their off-roaders. No hint of the grim, life-and-death reality faced by millions of actual homeless people, millions of actual nomads.
Reality’s a bitch
The whatever-annual Oscar ceremonies will be broadcast tonight. In anticipation of Hollywood’s Super Bowl local media in L.A. are reporting that the city is quietly removing homeless people and homeless encampments from the area around downtown Union Station where the event will take place. Which is where the story of Nomadland comes full circle to Hollywood’s essential, elemental moral bankruptcy: Multimillionaire actors, writers, directors, and producers will descend on the station in fleets of luxury cars, dressed in gowns and tuxes costing upward of $8,000, to celebrate a movie about the underclass that authorities swept out of their path days, or even just hours, earlier.
A homeless man named DJ told Fox News L.A. that authorities removed scores of tents around Union Station in the week leading up to the big show. “They told us if we didn’t move they were just gonna demolish our stuff.”
Zhao, McDormand, Richards and the rest will smile and wave to the cameras, looking absolutely gorgeous. There will be no actual poor people, no actual homeless people, no actual nomads to sully the photo ops. Perhaps one of them will make some reference to poverty and Evil Capitalism during their acceptance speech. Maybe they’ll see a tent on the corner from the back seat of their limo on the way to the Vanity Fair party. Maybe they’ll reflect for a moment. Maybe.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Amazon has too much at stake for such humanity, and this is Hollywood.
Even President Biden’s male dog is an aggressive jerk
My initial reaction upon learning that the first family’s dogs have been sent packing back to Delaware after the newest addition, a German Shepherd rescue, was involved in an “aggressive biting incident,” was mild horror. I’m already concerned about Joe Biden’s mental acuity, and the uncharitable part of me wonders if a guy who whiffs on picking out a puppy should be making decisions regarding, say, multilateral defense treaties. The much larger part of me, the part that wants to see my country successfully navigate the hazardous waters of modern international relations, chalks it up to a staff mistake. After all, picking out first canines isn’t exactly a cabinet level assignment.
Choosing the breed and name is, however, a presidential responsibility, and in the context of the image the first family presents to the world a small but not insignificant one. First pets (or in the case of a certain recent ex-President, the lack of them) help project the family’s personalities, presidents’ most of all. The relentlessly fashionable and hypoallergenic Obamas had fashionable, hypoallergenic Portuguese Water Dogs. The Clintons burnished their aw shucks routine with a goofy Chocolate Lab named Buddy. The Reagans had working and hunting dogs fit for their California ranchers made good personas. My favorite First Pet has to be George Washington’s Coonhound, Drunkard. We should nominate Drunkard the Dog to be the new mascot of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms immediately. At the very least he needs to be added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But I digress.
Now comes Joe Biden, who named the family’s new German Shepherd Major. Major joined the family’s older German Shepherd, Champ. Which is where I sigh, shake my head, and mutter “of course.” Of course Joe Biden chose a breed famous for its physicality and martial prowess. Of course he named them Major and Champ. And of course one of them is an aggressive jerk. This is the same man who named one of his sons Hunter, who also turned out to be a toxically masculine reprobate. If the Bidens got a family hamster Joe would name it Patton and it would end up biting off a Secret Service agent’s pinkie.
Joe Biden is Exhibit A for the Democrats’ inveterate toxic masculinity, which boils down to a massive exercise in overcompensation. A while back I was talking with a friend about the 2020 presidential campaign, and the subject of Biden’s bizarre push-up challenge came up. During a town hall event in Des Moines, Iowa a man asked about Hunter’s activities in Ukraine and also inquired whether, at 77 years old, Biden was too old to be President. Uncomfortable questions to be sure, but hardly beyond the pale. Nevertheless, they triggered the former Veep, who jabbed the air with his finger and snapped, “Look, the reason I’m running is because I’ve been around a long time and I know more than most people know and I can get things done.” Then his boast shifted to the push-up challenge: “You want to check my shape, let’s do push-ups together. Let’s run. Let’s do whatever you want to do.”
It was peak Joe Biden, a career politician issuing a faux tough guy challenge to an average citizen while surrounded by machine gun toting Secret Service agents. This is a man who once dared a Detroit auto worker half a century his junior to “go outside” after the man questioned his gun control stance. He routinely told voters he wanted to “beat Donald Trump like a drum,” and even fantasized about traveling back in time to high school so he could take Trump behind the gym and “beat the hell out of him” (Trump, of course, gleefully responded in kind). Over the years he mused about “smacking him [Trump] in the jaw,” “popping him a good one,” and “throttling him.” The act is at once hilarious, pathetic, and toxic. It’s also dangerous.
Big Bad Joe’s Bat Shit Crazy Origin Story
Every super hero has an origin story. To appreciate Joe Biden’s tough guy routine, and to better understand the bigger problem of toxic masculinity that infects his party, you have to start with Big Bad Joe’s Bat Shit Crazy Origin Story. This is the infamous “Corn Pop” tale, in which Biden claims to have single-handedly thwarted four razor wielding gang members when he was a high school lifeguard. The story, which instantly joined Jimmy Carter’s killer rabbit in the pantheon of History’s Most Cuckoo Political Yarns, centered on a fellow named Corn Pop, whom Biden described “a bad dude” who “ran bad boys.”
I preface the story by saying that I grew up with an Irish grandfather. I know from blarney, and the Legend of Corn Pop meets the gold standard. It reminded me of exactly the kind of story John Patrick would tell at the bar at Honan’s in Tacoma, Washington after a couple-three whiskeys started to kick in. It’s so elaborately bonkers there’s even a slight possibility it’s true. I kind of hope it is, because it makes me like Joe Biden a little more. It is well worth two minutes of your life to watch him tell it himself.
The clash of the Wilmington, Delaware teen titans began when Mr. Pop violated a pool safety rule related to the diving board. Joltin’ Joe never revealed the specific transgression, but apparently it involved Pomade and a swimming cap. Because of course it did. His memory of his reaction, however, was crystal: He shouted, “Hey Esther! You! Off the board, or I’ll come up and drag you off!” He meant Esther Williams, the famed synchronized swimmer, in what is my new favorite epithet. From now on when someone cuts me off on the 405 I’m not going to yell “f**k you!” I’m going to yell, “Hey, Esther! You!” Mr. Pop, no doubt thrown off his own game by the audacity of the admonition, climbed down from the diving board as instructed. Crisis averted. Except not, for in the next moment he challenged his antagoniste to “meet him outside” (Biden’s heroic labors often begin with the gauntlet being thrown thusly, someone challenging him to step outside a la John Huston).
To Joe the Lionhearted it was game on. Manhood challenged, gauntlet accepted. Only Pop wasn’t taking any chances. He had three other guys with him and they all had armed themselves with straight razors. Rusty straight razors, Biden hastened to point out. Though he didn’t name the others I like to imagine they were a brand conscious gang, so we’ll call them Honey Smack, Alphabit, and in keeping with the story’s overall tenor, Fruit Loop. This is the story’s Act II break. Next, in what must go down as one of the longest build-ups to a fight in history, before stepping outside for the climactic battle Biden consulted his own personal Mr. Miyagi, a pool mechanic named Bill. Biden went out of his way to point out that Bill was “the only other white guy” (a whole separate essay could be devoted to the cringe-inducing race aspects of the Corn Pop story). He cut off a six-foot length from a chain that “went across the deep end” and instructed his young grasshopper to wrap it around his fist. In a final touch Sensei Bill suggested that Biden warn the four (rusty!) razor-armed gangsters, “You may cut me, man, but I’m gonna wrap this chain around your head!” Do not take martial arts pointers from Sensei Bill.
Nevertheless the story progressed to its climax, when Joe Biden completed his transformation from mild-mannered teen lifeguard to Greater New Castle County Man, and – hang on a sec, did he say he was going to wrap the chain around the guy’s head? Huh? What does that even mean? How would you physically accomplish that feat? Even if you did, what would giving a guy a chain link hat accomplish in terms of winning a fight? Threatening to wrap a chain around someone’s neck, sure. That’s how good guys have dispatched bad guys in the movies for decades. Very cinematic. But “I’m gonna wrap this chain around your head”? That sounds like a guy who doesn’t know how to sound tough trying to sound tough. It reminds me of the scene in The 40-Year Old Virgin when Steve Carrell’s character, who has never touched a woman’s breast, describes a woman’s breast as feeling like a bag of sand.
Despite their overwhelming superiority in numbers and weaponry, and despite all logic, rationale, and common sense Sensie Bill’s ploy worked. Joe Biden walked out to the parking lot, his righteous Fist of Justice clad in glittering chain link, and fearlessly confronted four (rusty!) razor armed toughs who at this point had had enough time to plan and carry out an armored car heist, much less prepare to fight a skinny lifeguard four-to-one. The crowd leans in as the story reaches a fever pitch. The newly emergent Big Bad Joe rights the earlier wrong by courageously striding up to Corn Pop, looking him dead in the eye, and …. apologizing for calling him Esther. They all walk off arm in arm, new friends, Biden’s character arc complete and fully realized as Big Bad (But Nevertheless Magnanimous) Joe.
Worst damn ending since Orson Welles resolved War of the Worlds with the sniffles. I take back the blarney award. Come on, man!
Big Bad Joe reflects a deeper pathology among Democrats
Joe Biden’s tough guy act would be easy to laugh off except that it’s in keeping with a particularly noxious brand of toxic masculinity that’s plagued the Democrats for decades. In the modern era it goes all the way up to the party’s standard bearers. Joe Biden has Corn Pop and Major the Maniac. Barack Obama has bragged about breaking a classmate’s nose in high school after the person used a racial slur.
The former president recently repeated the story during an interview with Democrat booster and admitted fake tough guy Bruce Springsteen, who has completed his own story arc from Dancing in the Dark and Working on the Highway to celebrity podcasting and political messaging. Laughing, Obama told the singer, “I remember I popped him in the face and broke his nose. And we were in the locker room.”
Like Bangin’ Biden’s story, Iron Man Obama’s is hard to swallow. For starters, it takes some doing to break someone’s nose. Unless it’s a sucker punch (not a good look on anyone, least of all a former leader of the free world) it’s extremely difficult to land that precise a blow. Professional fighters go entire bouts pummeling the stuffing out of each other without breaking each other’s beaks. Hell, Ken Norton shattered Muhammad Ali’s jaw in his 1971 upset of the champ, but not his nose. So the notion that Obama did it with a single, spontaneous swing – like Corn Pop, it’s possible but unlikely. Also, you have to hit someone hard to break their nose. As in violently. And a broken nose tends to be a fairly gruesome injury involving copious amounts of blood and often visible physical deformation.
Which is only part of the point. Obama wasn’t just laughing and bragging about violent behavior and inflicting physical pain on another human being, which is bad enough. He was bragging about doing it to a teammate and friend, a person he admitted probably didn’t even understand the significance of the word he used. Who does that, even if they’re in the right? Let’s assume the rest of Obama’s story is, erm, “true,” and that he at least had the moral high ground in the situation. It’s still positively demented to laugh about the violent consequences, much less about inflicting serious, potentially permanent physical harm, much less about doing it to a friend. It’s borderline psychotic.
Two kinds of people fantasize and brag about violence: Lunatics and cowards. Actual, normal tough guys, at least the ones who aren’t paid professionally to wail on each other for others’ entertainment, generally go out of their way to avoid physical violence. When they do encounter it, it is not something boast worthy. And even in the rare instance when it’s justified, the average person is positively traumatized by inflicting physical harm on another person. Again, to brag about it is madness.
And that’s where the problem goes from the largely cosmetic to something far more insidious. By definition a president is going to kill people. Probably lots of them, in a variety of ways, many of them horrifying by any reasonable moral standard. A wartime president gives orders that lead to the deaths of tens or even hundreds of thousands in combat. As a citizen, I want that person, male or female, to at least have taken a real punch once or twice in their own lives. At the absolute bare irreducible minimum I expect them to respect violence enough to not make up stories about it to pad their own egos. A person in their 50, 60s, or 70s who treats the idea of violence casually should not be the one sending 18, 19, and 20 year olds into harm’s way.
Yet this preening machismo has long been a Democrat calling card, even among those with otherwise legitimate military experience. We can go back to John Kerry’s cringey speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, where he declared “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.” The haughty Boston Brahman never missed a chance to remind people that he didn’t just serve in Vietnam, he saw combat, leading a Wall Street Journal editor to dub him “John Kerry, who by the way served in Vietnam.” Again, most combat veterans, including those who have become presidents, don’t boast of their combat experience. And then there was the infamous “Dukakis in a Tank” picture that sank the campaign of the Massachusetts governor and Army veteran.
There are real world consequences to these Democrat men’s physical puffery. It leads to bad judgment, bad decisions, and bad policy. A telephone tough guy may actually start to believe his own schtick, particularly when he’s been coddled by enablers and surrounded by yes men. Andrew Cuomo clearly believes he’s a real life tough guy despite the fact that he’s probably never so much as been in a frat house scuffle. That’s not just a personal or political problem but a fatal weak spot for people in his position. Someone whose toughness is an act, someone whose scars are superficial if not applied like makeup is profoundly dangerous. When a leader doesn’t understand violence, violence is easier to unleash. It’s the difference between LBJ and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who spent a good deal of his presidency devising ways to avoid conflict with the Soviet bloc.
It leads to real life catastrophes the “red line” in Syria, one of the worst foreign policy blunders in recent U.S. history. When Bashar al-Assad called Obama’s bluff and unleashed chemical weapons on his own people Obama blinked, giving a giant green light to bad actors and adversaries not just in the region but globally. The consequences have been measured in hundreds of thousands of lives. Of course, Obama did prove a downright enthusiastic drone assassin. He ordered hundreds, possibly thousands of killings, including of American citizens, from the sanitized safety of the Situation Room. A literal telephone tough guy.
LBJ, a confirmed coward who lied about his one actual combat experience during WWII, felt enormous pressure to show his backbone in the escalating Vietnam crisis. Alas, becoming commander in chief did not surgically insert a spine into the bombastic Texan, who spent the next six years fighting a war via public opinion polls and surrounding himself with flattering toadies. By the time the war was over 58,000 Americans and some one million Vietnamese had paid the price of his constant indecision and contradictory policies with their lives.
The irony is that Bill Clinton, whose toxicity takes a different form, arguably was the most sensible modern Democrat president when it came to use of force. He never tried to convince anyone he was physically tough, yet his commitment to the air war against Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs in Kosovo almost certainly prevented a wider regional or even general war. Ironically, even his worst foreign policy blunder, refusing to dispatch a Marine Expeditionary Unit to Rwanda in the opening days and weeks of the genocide, was a result not of cowardice but over caution.
Creepy Cuomo and the coming reckoning
Which brings us back to Andrew Cuomo. As a princeling raised safe within the castle gates and eventually affianced to the daughter of another “royal” family, the Kennedys, overcompensation was all but inevitable in him, not to mention his little brother (the less said about Chris “Fredo” Cuomo and his fake weightlifting on CNN, the better). Toss in the unearned sense of entitlement and you have yourself the most toxic masculine sludge since Joe Kennedy taught his boys that beautiful women were prizes to which they were entitled by virtue of the wealth and privilege. In fact Andy of Albany may be the biggest telephone tough guy in recent political history, who postures himself as an old fashioned bare knuckled New York brawler. Which he was, kind of, as long as his people and a pliant media had his back.
It’s been nothing short of an object lesson to watch the Democrats fall over themselves to try and put their own personal spin on the situation. Like so many political legacies Cuomo stumbled badly when – with apologies to another pair of make believe Bad Boys – shit got real. His executive order to send COVID patients back into nursing homes caused as many as 15,000 unnecessary deaths, half of which his staff have since admitting to attempting to cover up. He’s been exposed as a serial harasser of women, an intransigent bully, and a political charlatan.
And yet. And yet, as of today there is an excellent chance that he will survive politically, and possibly even secure a fourth term. In the process the scandal is ripping open the civil war inside the Party of Women, with roughly half the party calling for his head and the other half pleading to “hear the facts.” I can’t help but think this is partly due to the fact that three years into the #MeToo era, the long overdue reckoning has claimed far more liberal careers than conservative ones. In Hollywood and Silicon Valley, bastions of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do feminism, it’s been a veritable bloodbath, and rightly so. The hypocrisy of the men in those industries was poisonous, their comeuppance long, long postdated (also, let’s be crystal: women are far from innocent lambs in all this – for every powerful male sexual predator there were women who eagerly assisted, enabled, and covered for them; some of those women, like the monstrous Ghislaine Maxwell, arguably are even worse than the men, because they are the ones who groom victims and earn their trust before throwing them to the wolves).
One could go a step further and suggest that the entire history of the modern Democrat Party is steeped in toxic masculinity. The Kennedys, who perversely remain the archetypal modern Democrats, were some of history’s most notorious abusers of women, culminating with one of the most grotesque chapters in political history, Chappaquiddick. Abuse and even sexual violence weren’t merely commonplace, they were as quotidian as breakfast. During his last birthday party, aboard the family yacht in May 1962, a stone sober JFK assaulted a female guest while Jackie was literally ten feet away. The woman described it firsthand as “a pretty strenuous attack.”
And of course there is an extensive list of modern Democrat luminaries who have been accused or proven to have committed all manner of sexual assault up to and including violent rapes, many of whom remained in the party’s good graces until the very end and some of whom remain in positions of power today: People like Harvey Weinstein, Ed Buck, Jeffrey Epstein, Anthony Wiener, Bill Clinton, Gavin Newsom, Eric Garcetti, John Edwards, Al Franken, Eliot Spitzer, John Conyers, and on and on.
Which is where the Democrats’ toxic masculinity problem becomes an existential one for the party itself: Many liberal men have used feminism as a cloak for their own personal bad behavior. Serial predator, Epstein pal, and credibly accused rapist Bill Clinton is Exhibit A. In spite of a well-documented, three decade track record of predation the Democrats nevertheless were willing – eager, even – to welcome him back into the White House as First Gentleman.
Like racism, misogyny and sexual exploitation are written into the Democrats’ DNA. Four of the seven Democrat presidents over the last century were not just philanderers, but confirmed exploiters and even abusers of women. Not once or twice, not isolated incidents. It was central to the identity and life experiences of FDR, JFK, LBJ, and Bill Clinton, all of whom remain not just in the party’s good graces, but essential to its identity and governing philosophy.
The question is, does a party with all that baggage have a future in the 21st century? It is increasingly difficult to see an affirmative answer to that question, much less a path forward.
I recommend they start with a guinea pig named Duncan.
Perhaps it was inevitable, but we’ve reached the point at which conversation has devolved to schoolyard taunts of “You’re a Nazi!” and “No, YOU’RE a Nazi!”
In the midst of a historic pandemic that’s killing millions worldwide, a spiraling economic crisis, record crime rates, riots in the streets and the Capitol, and social divisions not seen since the years leading up to the Civil War, it stands to reason that the political and media class have taken up the urgent question of who gets to compare their ideological adversaries to Nazis.
It wasn’t so long ago that anyone who resorted to what’s known among rhetoricians as the reductio ad Hitlerum – comparing your opponent and/or her arguments to Nazism – was laughed out of the room. From Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler” to the Blues Brothers’ feud with Illinois Nazis, for decades white supremacists of all stripes were little more than punchlines in modern society. No one debated the merits of National Socialism because it was like debating the merits of a flesh eating bacterium. Anyone with a reasonably functional frontal cortex knew as much.
The vapidity of the argument was captured perfectly in a scene from the Mike Judge classic Office Space. Jennifer Aniston and Ron Livingston are arguing over the awfulness of the companies they work for, in Aniston’s case a cheesy casual dining franchise called Chotchkie’s. The job is humiliating both for the insufferable Silicon Valley clientele and the fact that employees have to wear not only garish uniforms but a prescribed number of pins, buttons, and badges the company calls “employee flair.” Pounding his point home Livingston’s character declares solemnly, “You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair they made the Jews wear.” To which Aniston responds with an incredulous, “What?!“
I felt a lot like her character as I watched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s videotaped response to the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots. He posted it on the 9th, when Americans were barely starting to process the implications of the day. He started off innocuously enough, saying that as an immigrant he had a particular perspective. It took all of 15 seconds to go off the rails: “I grew up in Austria. I’m very aware of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.” At which point normal people heard a voice in the back of their heads asking, Where we goin’ with this, Arnie? Sure enough, the Governator declared that January 6 was “the Day of Broken Glass right here in the United States.”
He went further. In a too-clever-by-half turn of phrase he referred to the perpetrators of Kristallnacht as “the Nazi version of the Proud Boys.” Which is a new one: Using the reductio ad Hitlerum to reframe the baseline of evil as the reductio adPuerorum Superbus.
The riots of January 6 were many things, but they most assuredly were not a government approved and supported ethnic pogrom that killed more than 100, resulted in the destruction of some 7,500 businesses, and marked the beginning of the single worst crime in human history that ultimately led the deaths of six million Jews and as many as 11 million in total, not to mention the expansion of a global conflict that ultimately cost some 75 million lives. To compare that to a few hundred morons mostly taking selfies in the Capitol rotunda one has to be either catastrophically ignorant or irretrievably mendacious. That’s not to suggest there wasn’t terrible violence on January 6th, but Schwarzenegger was comparing the SS Minnow to the Titanic. [UPDATE 2/17/21 Over at Substack, Glenn Greenwald has written an excellent analysis of the media’s systematic exaggeration of the events of January 6, particularly the intentionally misleading (if not outright false) reporting of the circumstances surrounding Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick’s death]
As of today Schwarzenegger’s video has more than 50 million views on various YouTube and social media channels and has been shared millions more times. No one is calling for his cancellation; indeed quite the opposite. The media praised his “insight.” Vanity Fairgushed about his “level of understanding” and “righteous anger.” The New York Times, NPR, Newsweek, CNN, and other outlets reported with varying degrees of approval (It’s worth noting that CNN also ran a piece explaining how, no matter how much one may loathe Donald Trump, and there are plenty of reasons to do so, he was in many ways the opposite of a fascist; then again that piece wasn’t written by an American but a Scottish professor).
Compare the general approval, if not outright adulation, of Schwarzenegger’s video with the cancellation of another practitioner of the same logical fallacy. It involves someone named Gina Carano, who apparently stars in the Disney series The Mandalorian. At least she did, until she said more or less exactly the same thing Schwarzenegger said just a couple of weeks earlier and Disney fired her for it. The Mouse’s termination announcement was adorned with the usual pearl clutching and garment rending.
Ms. Carano’s sin was writing the following on Instagram: “Jews were beaten in the streets, not by Nazi soldiers but by their neighbors…even by children. Because history is edited, most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different from hating someone for their political views.” She included a graphic, disturbing black and white image of a bleeding, half-naked woman running from what appear to be children attacking her. The picture presumably is from 1930s Germany
We can all agree that this is an incandescently stupid, insensitive thing to say and post. Conservatives, even of the noxious white nationalist stripe, are not being beaten in the streets much less rounded up and sent to camps to be worked, tortured, and gassed to death. The second failed impeachment of Donald Trump was about as close to the Night of the Long Knives as January 6 was to Kristallnacht. Even people who recognize the hypocrisy in the political and media classes’ disparate treatment of Conan and Cara Dune don’t defend the latter’s comment.
And yet. Ms. Carano’s post arguably is relatively more on point than Schwarzenegger’s (the wishy-washiness of that sentence is intentional; we’re still talking about idiotic and hurtful statements). She referred the political environment in Germany prior to the Holocaust, the social forces that ultimately led to millions of Germans embracing National Socialism policies. Yes, that’s likely giving her far more credit for nuance than she deserves, but nevertheless it’s inarguable that the Final Solution was presaged by a decade of anti-Semitic agitation not just in Germany but throughout Europe. Indeed, it’s one of history’s most tragic ironies that prior to the rise of the Third Reich European Jews had seen Germany as one of the few relatively safe havens on the continent. Ms. Carano is accurate insofar as demonization and outright dehumanization were essential precursors to the Holocaust.
LucasFilm, which produces The Mandalorian, said in its press release announcing Carano’s termination that “her social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.” Once again the only sane reaction is, What?! To understand LucasFilm’s (or rather, their woke PR department’s) transmutation of an ill-advised, insensitive political statement into an intentional and conscious act of cultural denigration requires unpacking several levels of woke postmodern abstraction. It also requires one to reckon with the mind-altering history of anti-Semitism in Hollywood (it’s worth noting that far bigger stars with histories of intentionally anti-Semitic tweets, including John Cusack, Chelsea Handler, Ice Cube, and others remain firmly in Hollywood’s and the media’s good graces because they dutifully toe the woke PC line). By the same token, while Schwarzenegger’s Nazi comparison was exaggerated to the point of absurdity there’s not the slightest indication he intended to denigrate the victims of Kristallnacht.
Which makes her post at least relevant and worth discussing, particularly in light of subsequent reactions. Regardless of how one feels politically it is undeniable that large swathes of America’s media, technology, and entertainment industries routinely – at this point, reflexively – vilify conservatives, with a strong assist from academia. People are being shamed, silenced, deplatformed, even fired and criminally prosecuted for having the wrong views or acting the wrong way. Chillingly, more than a few mainstream Democrats have called for some form of “deprogramming” or “reeducation” of their political opponents. It’s not difficult to imagine a slippery slope (in that regard Ms. Carano would have been better advised to compare the current climate in the United States not to anti-Semitic violence in interwar Germany but to the ideological warfare of 1920s Russia – including demonization and dehumanization of disfavored classes and violence against them – that paved the way for Stalinism and the gulag archipelago).
Take it a step further: For the last seven months scores of American cities have endured unprecedented violence from the political left, from the so-called “autonomous zone” in Seattle where three people were murdered and dozens were beaten and raped, to the flames that consumed places like Kenosha, Wisconsin. In the week after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police more than 20 people died in riots. In Santa Monica during the May 30-31 riots an elderly man was dragged from his car and beaten nearly to death in the middle of the street, more than 50 others were injured, some severely, and more than 200 businesses were looted, ransacked, and burned (the riots of that weekend literally hit home: looters broke into lobby of my building in Santa Monica, emptying the mail room and breaking into several cars).
The violent felons behind the nationwide riots received constant encouragement from prominent Democrats, who praised the “mostly peaceful protests” and prostrated themselves before Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA. The support went all the way to the top: As a Senator Kamala Harris urged people to donate to a bail fund in Minnesota that ultimately helped free accused murderers, rapists, even gun dealers (oh, the irony).
In short, regardless of one’s politics it is undeniable that Leftist shock troops have engaged in far more violence and mayhem than the Trump flag waving idiots did on January 6. Yet even as they fomented and encouraged their own brand of political violence and murder Democrats, liberals, and progressives spent much of the last five years comparing Donald Trump to Hitler and his supporters to the brown shirts. A quick web search for “Donald Trump Nazi” returns thousands of hits, including stories in CNN and BBC from just last week.
With the exception of monsters like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin no one – repeat no one – can be compared to Adolph Hitler. To do so merely reveals the speaker’s ignorance. The reductio ad Hitlerum is insidious precisely because it minimizes the Holocaust. Staged speeches like Schwarzenegger’s, complete with his Conan the Barbarian prop sword and his own life size Muscle Beach self-portrait hanging conspicuously in the background, outright belittle it. If we’re going to cancel people for making stupid, hurtful, and historically illiterate comparisons, we should cancel them all.
Or, alternatively, this being a free country in which anyone can make a complete ass of themselves in front of millions, don’t cancel any of them.
Last week’s Capitol Hill riots drew condemnation from the very folks who have spent decades encouraging and engaging in far worse behavior
The usual suspects on the new corporatist American Left – politicians, billionaires, corporate executives (especially in Silicon Valley and Hollywood), Wall Street investors, journalists, activists, entertainers, and “influencers” of various stripes – have spent much of the last few days expressing shock – shock! – at the violence that consumed the nation’s capitol for a few hours on January 6, 2021 as Congress convened to certify the results of the presidential election. The same people who for more than a century weaponized ideology by encouraging and using political violence and intimidation as standard operating procedures suddenly discovered that political violence and intimidation are bad. To paraphrase Lieutenant John McClane, welcome to the party, folks.
Here we insert the obvious caveat: What happened in Washington DC last week was beyond the pale. People who fancy themselves “patriotic Americans” engaged in a pattern of behavior that wouldn’t pass muster in a mid-century banana republic. By following an individual politician who by all appearances is increasingly disconnected from reality they betrayed the most fundamental values of the U.S. Constitution they claim to cherish. They were a dangerous ship of fools who should be counting their blessings that they “only” got four people killed. Like their counterparts on the Left they set their cause back by years if not decades, and their arrogance was matched only by their ignorance. They would have fit in perfectly at an Occupy rally.
It also must be added that there is a distinction – albeit an ever shrinking one – between mainstream Democrats and Leftists. Mainstream Democrats respect the rule of law whereas Leftists seek to tear it down. Mainstream Democrats value American history and culture. Leftists’ primary goal is nothing less than their complete extermination. Unfortunately Leftists increasingly control the power centers in this country, from the Democrat Party itself to technology, media, and entertainment to corporate boardrooms to athletic fields. Indeed, the infiltration of seats of power at every level by radicals is one of the central narratives of the last half century of U.S. history. The normalization of political violence was inevitable.
Which is the proper lens through which to view last week’s events. Ignore the histrionics of people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who compared an Animal House like riot to the Nazi pogroms on Kristallnacht (note to the Governator: if you have to resort to the reductio ad Hitlerum you’re losing the argument). Ignore the breathless invocations of the woke crowd when the call January 6 an “insurrection” (again, note to the woke: before making an assertion you should check your Funk and Wagnalls). It was no such thing. It was, with apologies to Eric Stratton, a really stupid and futile gesture.
Despite the violence of the day January 6 also was an exception to the rule, and a pretty minor one at that. The fact remains that for at least the last 100 years political violence in this country overwhelmingly has been a product of the Left. In fact it’s close to an unbroken lineage, from KKK lynch mobs and Socialist bomb-throwers in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s to Baby Boomer “militants” in the 1960s and 70s to the tediously combative Occupy movements of the early 2000s and today’s ANTIFA. Much of the Democrat Party’s leadership can trace their personal political journeys to practitioners of political violence. Barack Obama infamously studied for decades at the feet of a racist, anti-Semitic Black Liberation preacher who routinely called for violence against the U.S. government (remember “God damn America”?). Hillary Clinton’s political mentor Senator William Fulbright was a segregationist, as was Al Gore’s father. The former rabid Klansman Robert Byrd served more than 60 years in various elected positions including 51 years in the Senate, 30 of which he was the Democrats’ majority/minority leader. Put simply, it’s rather rich for the very people who gave the most violent political group in U.S. history a prime seat at the table in Washington, D.C. for the better part of a century to now take to their fainting beds over a brief – albeit deadly – right-wing melee in the Capitol.
The irascible septuagenarian Bernie Sanders is a living fossil record of the Leftist tradition of political violence. At various points in his political career Bernie has sounded and behaved like a full-throated Stalinist, an old-school New Dealer, and a standard-issue New Democrat. In the 1976 and 1980 presidential elections, as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont he “proudly endorsed and supported” a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) presidential candidate named Andrew Pulley, a man with a long history of violent rhetoric. During the ’76 campaign he railed, “if America don’t come around…it should be burned down to the damned ground, it should not exist to see 1980….We advocate a Socialist Revolution in America by any means necessary.” He encouraged soldiers to “take up their guns and shoot their officers.” Mr. Sanders, on the cusp of a Cabinet position in the incoming Biden administration, has never disavowed these statements.
The tradition, such as it is, continues: Today’s Leftists get positively fizzy when the likes of anti-Semitic Minnesota Representative Illhan Omar (D) says, “My work has been to figure out where I’m going to burn down everything around me.” They Twitter cheered when a journalist said Democrats would “burn the entire f****g thing down” if Republicans confirmed a successor to their diminutive heroine Ruth Bader Ginsberg. They celebrated when groups like Code Pink stormed and disrupted Congressional hearings and – wait for it – overran House and Senate offices. They lionize celebrities who truck with murderous dictators like the Castro brothers and Hugo Chavez. At the conservative website The Federalist the aptly-named Tristan Justice has compiled a list of 28 times Leftists excused or encouraged violence in just the last six months. It is far from exhaustive: USA Today identified more than 700 instances of political violence nationwide between June and December 2020. Meanwhile, Vice President Elect Kamala Harris infamously established a legal fund for ANTIFA protesters to fight their arrests and criminal charges.
Ms. Harris knew what she was doing: Frighteningly, at this point Leftists have succeeded in installing hundreds, maybe thousands of practitioners of political violence directly into the system itself. With a little help from friends like George Soros they elect people like Chesea Boudin. Mr. Boudin, the new San Francisco District Attorney, is the son of political terrorists and convicted murderers. Both served decades in federal prison for the cold-blooded, cowardly killing of three people during a botched bank robbery attempt in 1972 as part of the “Weather Underground” group (apparently radical anti-capitalists still like the greenbacks, who knew). Mr. Boudin, who has never renounced his parents’ adherence to violence, was raised by another pair of terrorists in Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorn. He’s now in the process of unleashing a novel kind of political violence at the county level by refusing to prosecute thousands of felons, instead turning them loose on a daily basis to terrorize the innocent people he swore to protect. His mentor, George Gascon, is doing the same in the nation’s second largest county, Los Angeles. Leftist D.A.’s in Philadelphia, Houston, Seattle, Minneapolis, and elsewhere also are on board. As a direct result of their politically-motivated policies many people already have died, such as the two San Franciscans killed by a career criminal on New Year’s Day. He’d been arrested barely a week earlier for a violent carjacking, but Mr. Boudin turned him loose. Because progress. In yet another example of the institutionalization of violence on the Left, Mr. Boudin’s mom – again, a confessed, convicted triple murderer – is these days the co-director and co-founder of the Center for Justice at Columbia University.
Here we pause while your heads explode.
When Leftists aren’t actively engaged in political violence they’re encouraging it. Less than 48 hours after violent riots destroyed entire neighborhoods in Los Angeles in May 2020 Mayor Eric Garcetti – the son of a former L.A. District Attorney – was taking a (non socially distanced) knee among protesters outside city hall, literally bowing to the violence. In the next week the riots claimed 19 innocent lives, with nary a peep from the man who would be president. A few days after that, with fires still burning in the streets of dozens American cities the entire Democrat leadership in Congress took a knee in the Capitol rotunda while dressed in traditional Ghanian kente cloth – a bizarre spectacle that even the Washington Post called a “mess of contradictions.”
Regardless, the message from Democrat politicians, media figures, and coproratists was clear: The riots and destruction are justified, have at it, we’ll keep law enforcement at bay. Countless thousands of Americans paid the price of that perverse moral certainty with their livelihoods and even their lives.
It was no surprise to witness Democrats fall over each other to throw their support to violent Leftist rioters and criminals over the last six months. They treated the laughable-if-people-handn’t-actually-died temper tantrum that was the “autonomous zone” in Seattle as if it was the Bastille. They flat-out rationalized violence and looting, as when the architect of the New York Times’ historically illiterate “1619 Project,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, explicitly rejected the idea that destroying property even constitutes “violence” in the first place. She said, ““Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence,” which will come as news to the thousands of business owners nationwide whose lives and livelihoods were destroyed by violent rioters.
The Orwellian spin ultimately, inevitably, devolved into self-parody when a CNN reporter wearing protective gear stood in front of rioters and a row of burning vehicles in Kinosha, Wisconsin while the chryon on the screen read “fiery but mostly peaceful protests.”
All of which is why it’s been so entertaining to watch those same Leftists wedge their underwear into their cracks in response to last week’s flash riot in the Capitol. Suddenly the same “progressives” who thought it was dandy for hooligans to take over parts of American cities are clutching their pearls at a brief (albeit historically stupid) riot. The same Leftists who’ve spent years braying about police brutality turned on a dime and lamented the lack of police brutality. The folks who want to defund the police were screaming for more police.
These are the same Democrats who in June unanimously voted against Florida Republican Representative Greg Steube’s thoroughly measured resolution condemning the violence (hat tip: Instapundit) and rioting that consumed the country following the death of a career drug dealer and violent felon named George Floyd while he was in police custody. This, even though the resolution condemned Floyd’s death. That’s the Left for you: Riots for me, but not for thee.
There’s no question that, by their refusal to condemn violence over the last six months Democrats sent an unmistakable signal to the cowardly thugs and ANTIFA types in the streets: Violence by the left in pursuit of its political goals is acceptable. Indeed, it’s not just acceptable, it’s a form of “social justice.” If a few innocents are beaten and killed along the way – and Leftists have beaten and killed hundreds at this point – well, then, those are just the eggs that need to get broken to make the Utopian omelet.
There’s an old Jewish saying that the definition of chutzpah is the man who murders his parents then begs the court for sympathy because he’s an orphan. This week the American Left’s chutzpah is on full display as Democrats fall over themselves to re-impeach President Donald Trump for encouraging the riots. That’s right: With tens of millions of Americans still unemployed and struggling, and even as they botch the second stimulus, Leftist political class is obsessed with scoring a few last political points.
If that’s not political violence, what is?
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The state’s political class will never solve the homeless crisis. In fact, they depend on it.
History is replete with tragic examples of powerful rulers sending citizens to die in futile wars, often with little more at stake than the rulers’ own egos. The term “cannon fodder” was coined by François-René de Chateaubriand during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1814, as Napoleon Bonaparte grew ever more desperate to preserve his collapsing empire Chateaubriand wrote a pamphlet called “Bonaparte and The Bourbons” in which he excoriated the French dictator: “The contempt for the lives of men and for France herself has come to the point of calling conscripts ‘raw material’ and ‘cannon fodder.'” Thousands of young men were killed or wounded on the battlefields of Nivelle, Bayonne, and Toulouse in a vain effort to sustain a dying imperium. The most visceral example of cannon fodder is the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, in which the combined megalomania of Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler led to the deaths of some two million combatants and tens of thousands of Soviet citizens in the bloodiest military confrontation in history. Two million deaths in the name of two men’s imperial ambitions.
In the twenty-first century California’s political class has created a new kind of human silage: Bureaucracy fodder. The state’s homeless population supports a head-spinning array of well-funded government agencies, nonprofits, charities, foundations, think tanks, law firms, consultants, and developers, all funded and enabled by the state’s (allegedly progressive) political class. As people suffer and die on the streets by the thousands these Brahmins rake in the paychecks, plan scores of multimillion dollar “affordable” and “low income” development projects, hold extravagant galas, and attend posh retreats and “team building” events while clothing themselves in the guise of altruism and community.
While developers vie for literally billions in project funds, many executives on both the public and private side of this archipelago make handsome six-figure salaries, such as disgraced former Congresswoman Katie Hill. Before leaving to run for office she was making nearly $200,000 a year as deputy CEO of a nonprofit called People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) – at the age of 27. That organization itself has grown its revenue from $8.3 million in fiscal year 2012 to $45.8 million last year. The organization’s CEO, Joel Roberts, made $241,370.
In Los Angeles County, homeless services are coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). According to Transparent California, in 2014 LAHSA had 118 employees, nine of whom made over $100,000 a year. As the homeless population grew so did LAHSA’s staff: By 2018, the agency had grown to 424 employees, with 31 earning six figures and another 16 earning more than $90,000. The Director pulled down $242,242 (coincidentally nearly identical to Mr. Roberts’s salary at PATH). Assuming an average salary of $50,000 LAHSA spends $21.5 million annually on salaries alone. As LAHSA has grown so has the county’s homeless crisis. Coincidence?
At the state level, the Department of Social Services employs more than 4,200 people whose jobs – theoretically – are to help California’s poorest residents get back on their feet. Nearly 100 employees make more than $200,000 a year, with the Director, William Lightbourne, receiving $313,760. And the state’s homeless crisis grows. Coincidence?
These numbers, which are just a few of myriad examples, raise obvious questions: What would those 424 LAHSA employees do for a living if they were to actually end homelessness in Los Angeles? The answer is equally obvious: If they were to eliminate homelessness and poverty, they’d have to find new jobs. And no one in their right mind intentionally puts themselves out of work.
It’s important to understand that these people are not contractors, nor consultants hired to solve a problem and then move on to the next one. They are full-time, salaried employees. Public employees also receive generous benefits packages and as many as 45 days of paid vacation annually (many take even more time off). Presumably most of them expect to have their jobs for years and decades, and many will retire with their nonprofit or government agency. For that to happen the homeless crisis must continue in perpetuity.
Equally important is the fact that the public employees are dues paying union members. LAHSA’s employees are part of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most powerful in the country (their most recent collective bargaining agreement is quite the read). Those unions are among the most important sources of campaign contributions for California’s Democrat majority, adding yet another layer of self-interest.
The famed economist William Niskanen developed the budget maximizing theory of bureaucracies. He showed how bureaucrats acting in their own rational self-interest seek to increase their budgets in order to increase their power. It’s axiomatic that success in government is a matter of raising your department’s budget and headcount. In the context of homeless services this phenomenon creates the ultimate paradox: The only way for an agency whose mission is to end homelessness can justify increasing its staff and budget is if there are ever increasing numbers of homeless people in the state. Perhaps that’s why Governor Newsom said during a recent tour of a homeless shelter in L.A. that, “Many [homeless people] see California as a place of compassion. If that’s the case, we match our values with action, and as people of faith, we have a responsibility to all of them, regardless of whether they got here last week, last month, or were born here 30 years ago.” That statement amounts to a blank check thrown at the feet of bureaucrats and nonprofit executives.
As barbaric as tyrants’ use of human beings as cannon fodder was, it arguably was more humane than California’s bureaucratic fodder. Soldiers died relatively quickly from combat wounds or – more frequently – illness and exposure. In contrast, California’s bureaucratic fodder suffer excruciating circumstances for months, years, even decades. So long as the solutions are in the hands of self-interested bureaucrats, nothing will change.
His scandal-plagued tenure in L.A. doesn’t merit a national promotion, and his departure would throw the entire southland into disarray at the worst possible moment
Don’t do it, Joe. Don’t offer Eric Garcetti a job. You ran on a platform of competence and decency. Mr. Garcetti is neither. Americans can disagree whether you are as beyond reproach as you portray yourself – but they can agree that the L.A. mayor has no business in Washington, DC.
It’s hard to find anyone in Los Angeles who thinks much of their mayor these days. By every conceivable metric, life in the City of Angeles has gotten worse during Eric Garcetti’s seven and a half years in office. Not a little bit, not marginally, not just here and there. Huge swaths of the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in human history have descended into post-apocalyptic anarchy – and that was before the riots and looting he all but cheered forin May and June. Homelessness, poverty, addiction, crime, traffic, pollution, and living costs all have spiraled on Mr. Garcetti’s watch, with no relief on the horizon. Walking the streets of L.A. in 2020 is like living through an episode of The Walking Dead. Every day at least three homeless people perish on the streets, while tens of thousands more languish in unthinkable conditions. Diseases that humankind eradicated decades and even centuries ago are making a comeback in Mr. Garcetti’s own city hall, which had to be closed and cleaned last year due to an outbreak of typhus. Public defecation, urination, and masturbation have become daily facts of life.
The City of Angels recently passed the grim milestone of 300 murders for the first time in more than a decade – with a month of 2020 yet to go. In September a 23-year-old graduate student was assaulted, beaten, and raped on the Venice Pier. Her assailant left her for dead outside a public toilet and last reports were that she remains in a coma. The horrifying story didn’t even make local news broadcasts or the Los Angeles Times, and was barely mentioned in a couple of local blogs. It was just another Tuesday in Eric Garcetti’s L.A.
Even before the COVID-19 economic shutdown businesses were fleeing and the city’s budget was in shambles, with serious people seriously discussing the possibility of bankruptcy. Now, with countless thousands more businesses – and their tax receipts – gone the city faces financial Armageddon. Mr. Garcetti has played a central role in this decline, first as a city councilor elected in 2000, later as president of the city council, and for the last seven years as mayor. The city’s finances have literally gotten worse every year that he’s been in public life. And while obviously it’s not all his fault he’s proven either unwilling or unable to tackle the increasingly dire situation.
Meanwhile his administration has been a prime source of the stench of corruption that, along with homelessness and crime, has become L.A.’s grim calling card. On Monday the FBI indictedhis former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Raymond Chan, on charges of bribery, racketeering, and other charges. As Dan Guss wrote in CityWatch earlier this month, “In elected office in LA since before 9/11, Garcetti planted, watered and grew the seeds of LA’s ongoing FBI corruption troubles with his cronies, and their pals.”
Despite this near-perfect record of failure it’s widely reported that President-elect Joe Biden is considering Eric Garcetti for a cabinet position, likely in either the Department of Transportation or Health and Human Services. You can’t make this stuff up: The mayor of the city with the worst traffic congestion on earth and the worst homeless and poverty crisis in United States history apparently is being considered for national transportation and housing jobs. In another layer of irony, in January Mr. Garcetti told a writer for The Atlantic he didn’t want those two jobs specifically: “To be HUD secretary or Transportation at some point might be interesting—but not at this point in my career, because it’s kind of like the last job that you have.”
Mr. Garcetti’s national aspirations are no secret. After L.A. voters reelected him in 2017 he repaid them by spending much of 2018 outside California trying to gin up support for a presidential run (with his L.A. taxpayer funded staff and security in tow, natch). He incessantly toured primary states where no one had ever heard of him and spent lavishly on consultants, focus groups, even testing campaign jingles.
Joe, don’t haul Mr. Garcetti’s many skeletons with you into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, especially when there are plenty of equally or more qualified candidates.
The moral arguments against “Secretary Garcetti”
Despite his myriad failures and scandalsa, until recently Mr. Garcetti skated through his political career on a carefully cultivated image as a good guy. He emotes like a Beyond Meat version of Bill Clinton and embraced the moniker “Mayor Yoga Pants” in a nod to his Mr. Sensitive act. He makes a big deal out of his fondness for urban gardens, organic tea, and Coldplay (that last one ought to be disqualifying in and of itself). His speeches and public comments brim with touchy-feely language and allusions. He’s known to leave the less palatable aspects of politics governance to staffers and loyalists, allowing him to float above the fray unsullied.
Unfortunately for the ambitious young mayor reality has a way of catching up with imagery, especially in the digital era. In July an LAPD officer who worked on the mayor’s security detail sued the city, alleging years of sexual harassment by top Garcetti aide Rick Jacobs. Insiders say that Mr. Jacobs is Mr. Hyde to the mayor’s Dr. Jekyll, one of those bare knuckle political hacks who does the dirty work. The allegations include forcible kissing, grabbing, groping, sexually explicit comments, and objectification. In a sworn pleading the officer claimed that Mr. Garcetti not only was aware of Mr. Jacob’s behavior but brushed it off and even laughed at the antics. At least four other individuals subsequently came forward with similar claims even as the mayor continued to plead ignorance, including freelance journalist Yashar Ali. In October Mr. Ali published a detailed account of his alleged experiences with Mr. Jacobs. Another man claimed Mr. Jacobs grabbed his buttocks at a party at Mr. Jacobs’s house in 2012, while another said Mr. Jacobs approached him at a party in 2019 and “tried to hug and kiss me forcibly.”
Garcetti’s denials were dealt a major blow last week when the Los Angeles Timespublished a 2017 group picture that shows Mr. Jacobs making a crude gesture at another man’s crotch while the mayor grins into the camera inches away.
It might be one thing if Mr. Jacobs were the sole source of taint in Garcetti’s world. If that were the case the mayor’s protestations of ignorance at least would be more plausible (despite the above picture).
Quite the contrary: Mr. Garcetti wears scandal like one of his dark skinny suits. Despite his dismal showing early in the Democrat Party primary he doggedly remained in the race. That is, until he called a bizarre Tuesday evening press conference on January 19, 2019 to announce he was dropping out. The announcement was attended by none of his senior advisers nor his family. He was flanked by city hall staff and secretaries who looked positively baffled to be there. By way of explanation he gave the standard political pablum about finishing the job at home. However, his announcement came less than a week after the Los Angeles Times had reported that the FBI’s ongoing investigation into corruption in L.A. politics had ensnared two top members of the Garcetti administration, including his Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Raymond Chan. This past Monday the Times reported Mr. Chan has been indicted on charges ranging from bribery to racketeering.
There may be an even darker reason behind the mayor’s decision not to run. According to city insiders he has been dogged for nearly two years by rumors of a domestic incident at his private residence in January 2019, an allegation the Times mentioned in passing in its Monday story. Earlier in his political career insiders raised troubling questions about he and his wife’s treatment of the seven children they fostered before adopting their daughter. There was wide speculation in L.A. political circles that the couple were literally auditioning kids for the role of first child.
Mr. Garcetti is rapidly running out of friends in his hometown. In order to placate his party’s left flank he has all but declared war on the Los Angeles Police Department – a move that Black Lives Matter most recently rewarded with a ten day’s worth of protests at the mayor’s mansion in Hancock Park (the protests continue). To say his COVID-19 policies have alienated the city’s business community is an understatement. With just under two years to go in his term he is rapidly approaching lame duck status.
The worst possible time for L.A. to lose a mayor
To be sure, few Angelnos would shed a tear should Mr. Garcetti leave for Washington. The fact of the matter is, however, he must serve out his term. His departure in January would throw the City of Los Angeles, and consequently the entire Southland, in to political disarray in the midst of an historic public health and economic crisis. It would result in either the appointment of an interim mayor by the city council or a special election. It would throw the city’s coronavirus response into (greater) disarray precisely as the virus’s second surge reaches its apex. It would paralyze L.A. politics as the viper’s nest of city council jockey for advantage to succeed him.
Last bu not least, Mr. Garcetti should stick to his own pledges. In October he told the Los Angeles Times that “it’s more likely than not” he’ll serve out his term. A week after the election he told ABC7 that a cabinet position is “not something I’m weighing right now, quite frankly.” And of course there were his statements about the importance of finishing his job in L.A. back in 2019.
Eric Garcetti personifies the California political tradition of the privileged failing upward. He’s a scion of Los Angeles royalty whose father served as Los Angeles District Attorney and had the dubious distinction of losing the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. Garcetti fils attended the exclusive Harvard-Westlake School before matriculating at Columbia University. He spent his early and mid 20s amassing various graduate degrees, culminating with Ph.D. studies at the London School of Economics. Before launching his political career at the age of 29 he’d never held anything resembling a real job, though he apparently was briefly an assistant professor of diplomacy at Occidental College between 1999-2000.
For all his privilege, for all his advantages Mr. Garcetti cannot point to much of anything in the way of accomplishments for the people of Los Angeles. His skeletons could burst out of the closet at any moment, potentially tainting the Biden administration before it even gets started.
So, Joe, please. For the good of the people of Los Angeles, for the good of the country, don’t bring Eric Garcetti to Washington.
Mark Twain copied a friend’s remark into his notebook: “I am not an American; I am the American.” That is a claim—to be the American, the exemplary or representative American—that very few Americans could plausibly make. Twain himself could. Benjamin Franklin could and did. Abraham Lincoln could but didn’t, though admirers made the claim for him. Surely some number of others could, too. But among all Americans past or present, no one could make such a claim more compellingly than Frederick Douglass.
Like his country, Douglass rose from a low beginning to a great height. Like his country again, he won his freedom in a revolutionary struggle, by his own virtue and against great odds, and he matured into an exemplar of universal liberty, admired the world over. And like his country, finally, Douglass the individual was divided by race.
Unlike America, Douglass could hardly think of himself as “conceived in liberty.” But even in this respect—especially in this respect—he represents a larger American promise. The son of a white slaveholder and a black slave, Douglass became, along with Abraham Lincoln, post-Founding America’s most important exponent of the natural-rights argument summarized in the Declaration of Independence. Pursuant to the same principles, he became America’s most prominent representative of the aspiration toward racial integration, reconciliation, and uplift.
One must emphasize: he became that. It didn’t come naturally to him. To become the great apostle of those aspirations, Douglass had to overcome a sentiment about and among black Americans that is recurrently present in U.S. history, powerful in his day and again in ours—the feeling or conviction that to be black is to bear an identity antagonistic to American identity.
This sentiment received its most memorable expression from W. E. B Du Bois, now a larger presence in the minds of many educated Americans than Douglass. Du Bois wrote, in the most famous passage in his book The Souls of Black Folk, that as a black American, “one ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring idealsin one dark body.”
In his younger years, Frederick Douglass felt that psychic dividedness every bit as acutely and painfully as Du Bois did. In an 1847 speech, Douglass askeda troubling question and provided a dispiriting answer. Speaking for black Americans as a class, he asked: “What country have I?” He answered: “I have no patriotism. I have no country.” Then 29 years old, for nearly his entire life recognized in American laws only as an article of property, Douglass here lamented that even as a legally free man, he had no country that honored and protected him, no country to which he belonged and none that belonged to him.
He made that speech at a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, an association founded by America’s leading abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. In 1847, Douglass was a faithful Garrisonian. When he declared his profound alienation from the country of his birth, he was rendering a personalized expression of what was standard Garrisonian doctrine.
What alienated the Garrisonians from America, most of all, was their opinion that the U.S. Constitution was decisively pro-slavery. Garrison near the beginning of his career calledthe Constitution “the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth.” From that premise he drew what seemed to him the necessary inference. “Henceforth,” he announced in 1845, “the watchword” of abolitionists must be disunion: “NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS!”
According to William Lloyd Garrison, then, the destruction of slavery required the destruction of America—of the American constitutional union. And in 1847, that was Douglass’s position, too. Given Douglass’s life experience, there is nothing very surprising in this. What issurprising, though, is how quickly and decisively he came to reject the Garrisonian position. Douglass launched his own abolitionist newspaper in early 1848, and after spending a few years reading and rethinking, he announced that he had come to reject the Garrisonian doctrines of disunion and the pro-slavery Constitution.
His turnabout came partly for prudential reasons. First was the realization, as he put it in his speech on the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott ruling, that “it would be difficult to hit upon any plan less likely to abolish slavery than the dissolution of the Union.” The disunion strategy would strengthen, not weaken the forces of despotism in America. Again from the Dred Scott speech:
If I were on board of a pirate ship, with a company of men and women whose lives and liberties I had put in jeopardy, I would not clear my soul of their blood by jumping in the long boat, and singing out no union with pirates. My business would be to remain on board.
Even among slavery’s adversaries, the Garrisonians were not alone in wanting to jump ship. The counterparts to Garrisonian advocates of disunion were black advocates of emigration, led in the 1850s by Douglass’s sometime friend, colleague, and rival, Martin Delany. Emigrationists were never a majority of black Americans, but their arguments gained influence in those periods when the prospects for freedom and equal rights appeared especially bleak.
The decade of the 1850s was such a period. So Douglass felt the need to respond to the Garrisonians and the emigrationists, and an invitation from the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society provided the opportunity. The occasion was the commemoration of Independence Day in 1852. Douglass’s Fourth of July oration, which has been called the greatest of all abolitionist speeches, presents his fullest reflections on the meaning of America and on the question Du Bois would pose a half-century later—the question of black identity in relation to America.
It’s a very complex speech. Douglass biographer David W. Blight aptly compares it to a symphony in three movements. One way Douglass divides the speech is temporally, as its sections move from past to present to future. Another way is by sentiment: he begins with a somewhat cautious, reserved expression of hope, then shifts to outrage mixed with something approaching despair, and concludes with a more confident expression of hope. A third mode of division appears in his adoption of three distinct perspectives: he considers the Fourth as it appears to white Americans, then as it appears to black Americans, and finally from a universal or fully integrated perspective.
For much of the speech, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that Douglass had joined Delany in the black-nationalist camp. First addressing the white members of the audience, he told them, in effect, this is how your national holiday appears to you. He addresses them in a chain of second-person pronouns: not our but “yournational independence”; “your political freedom”; “your fathers”; “your nation.” The driving spirit seems little different from what animated his 1847 renunciation of patriotism. While admiring the “revolutionary fathers,” he yet declared: “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”
Coming to the present, he excoriated post-Founding America: “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
Perhaps the worst of the nation’s crimes, to that point, was the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850—“that most foul and fiendish of all human decrees,” Douglass called it, a law that “stands alone in the annals of tyrannical legislation.” For free black Americans, the effect was essentially to legalize kidnapping, leaving many to conclude that there was no protection by law for them anywhere in the U.S. What followed were upsurges in pro-emigration sentiment and in actual emigration.
Douglass fully understood that sentiment, but he believed it to be self-destructive and rejected it repeatedly over the course of his career. He understood, too, however, that the case againstemigration, like the case against disunion, had to be buttressed by a case forAmerica. He concluded the July Fourth oration, as he concluded virtually all his speeches, with an expression of hopefulness.
This was not mere wishfulness. Douglass thought hopefulness in America was rational—grounded in evidence and reason—in part because of America’s Founding. America’s revolutionary fathers were “brave men,” he remarked. They were “great men”; they dedicated the country to eternal principles. Against the Garrisonians, also against those debauched (as Lincoln put it) by John Calhoun, he maintained that the Founders’ Constitution was not pro-slavery; it was “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.”
The case for hopefulness required that and more. At the conclusion of the Fourth of July speech, Douglass said something particularly interesting about the further grounds of his hopefulness. “A change has now come over the affairs of mankind,” he said. Developments in the modern world, crucially enabled by modern philosophy, were making slavery increasingly impossible.
“The arm of commerce,” he continued, “has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.” We are living in an age of commerce and enlightenment, he believed, and those developments were closely related.
So monstrous an injustice as slavery could only survive in a condition of seclusion, and in the modern world the seclusion it needed was becoming impossible. “No abuse,” said Douglass, “no outrage . . . can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.” Douglass believed what Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine believed: the principles of natural right held irresistible power for minds uncorrupted by interest, and freedom of speech, if properly protected, would propagate those principles throughout the world.
Douglass was a strong believer in the power of speech. This was a man who almost literally talked his way from the bottom to near the top of American society. But he didn’t think speech was all-powerful, and he didn’t think that the fostering of a healthy sense of American identity was merely a matter of persuading people, white or black, to believe in American principles.
To cultivate a genuine sense of American identity requires more than agreement with its principles. It requires a sense of belonging and affection. It requires a loveof America as one’s own. On this point and others, Douglass was a good American disciple of John Locke.
In Locke’s well-known reasoning, we own our own labor, and we own what we make. This can apply, however, not only to material property but also to political and patriotic affiliation. What Douglass wanted to teach his fellow citizens, his black fellow citizens in particular, was that we can buildAmerica, and in building or rebuilding it, we can make it our own. We can improve it by our labor, he argued, culturally and morally no less than materially. And to do this, we need first to improve ourselves. We need to cultivate what he called the “staying qualities,” fostering a faith in ourselves and our country. This is why hopefulness is a moral imperative, for Douglass, and why a spirit of alienation is so dangerous.
We are now just over 200 years from Frederick Douglass’s birth. In remembering him, we must certainly say today what he said in 1852: Our business is with the present. Republics, he liked to say, are proverbially forgetful—most importantly, forgetful of their own first principles. We live, as Douglass lived, in a period when the first principles of American republicanism are increasingly neglected and even maligned.
We live in a time when many Americans have forgotten our principles, or never learned them, or learned to revile them; when many young people, young men especially, grow up in the belief that they have no grounds for hope for their future and no reason to identify with their country; when many of our educational institutions have become purveyors of alienation and disintegration, teaching that America is an evil, hateful society and that speech to the contrary must be vilified and suppressed.
At such a time, as we search for models of understanding and inspiration, it is a vital imperative for us to recover the moral and political vision of Frederick Douglass. In the long history of African-American political thought, there is no more forceful proponent of the cause of integration, and there is no more insightful analyst of the varieties and dangers of national and racial disintegration.
“No people can prosper,” Douglass reiterated late in life, “unless they have a home, or the hope of a home”—and “to have a home,” one “must have a country.” America, in Douglass’s abiding vision, was black Americans’ proper home, their only realistic alternative and also the locus of their highest ideals. By its white and black citizens together, America must be cherished and perfected as a genuine home for all, not merely by the accident and force of necessity but as an object of rational and sentimental identification. For Douglass as for Abraham Lincoln, their common country was, through it all, the last best hope of earth.