01 / February
01 / February
Intolerance, California

The Berkeley city council terms U.S. Marine recruiters "uninvited and unwelcome intruders." Such hostile receptions come with the territory of being a Marine. The elected officials voted to give the Code Pink protest group a sound permit and free parking space in front of the Marine recruiting station. "I believe in the Code Pink cause," Berkeley's Mayor Tom Bates announced after the vote. "The Marines don't belong here, they shouldn't have come here, and they should leave." Can't one believe in the Code Pink cause and tolerate the presence of Marines?

I got shouted down and witnessed a book burning of my writings at Berkeley, so I know something about the local intolerance. I joined the Marines from Amherst, Massachusetts, so I know something about signing up for the military in a place largely hostile to it. One thread connects both: freedom of expression. What's so threatening about a guy giving a speech or a Marine talking to a young person about career options? If the speech is bad, disagree or leave. If the Marine is selling snake oil, the potential recruit has the right to turn down the entreaty. It's his life, not Code Pink's. Why do uninterested third parties care so much about the words of others that they go so far as to silence them? A lot paternalistic, no?

Berkeley boasts of being the home of the Free Speech Movement. Back in the 1960s, when Mario Savio histrionically implored fellow students "to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop," it's telling that the words, seldom quoted, that followed were: "Now, no more talking." It's also interesting that two years after Savio uttered those famous words, he was arrested when he, and a number of cohorts, surrounded U.S. navy recruiters in a sucessful attempt to block the servicemen's on-campus recruiting table.

Such tables, manned in 1964 as they were by activists Savio sympathized with, were a catalyst of Savio's red-faced exhortations. When people with a message he disliked manned such tables, Savio's knight-errant of free speech act changed dramatically. As Nat Hentoff put it, "free speech for me, but not for thee."

It is now as it was then: brownshirts masquerading as civil libertarians, hypocrites demanding the rights they deny others.

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31 / January
31 / January
Of Injections, Inspections, Detections, Neglections, and Elections

Every Thanksgiving at around noon, several Boston-area radio stations turn the airwaves over to Arlo Guthrie and his lengthy rhapsody against state harassment, Alice's Restaurant (I dare you to listen to it in its entirety). Hearing the song reminds me I am home, in New England. In keeping with the spirit of his libertarian anthem, Arlo Guthrie, yes, son of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, has endorsed Ron Paul. "I love this guy," Arlo explained. "Dr. Paul is the only candidate I know who would have signed the Constitution of the United States had he been there." As Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post Intelligencier noted, "Rep. Ron Paul has consistently voted against Amtrak subsidies, but that hasn't kept the Libertarian Republican presidential candidate from winning endorsement from the singer who put 'The City of New Orleans' atop the charts."

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The Worst Campaign Ever

Fred Thompson napped his way through a presidential campaign. Rudy Guiliani decided to punt on first down for several consecutive drives. Last June, Giuliani and Thompson were tied for the Republican lead. Now they're on the sidelines, never having won a primary or caucus between them. In a lifetime of observing politics, I can't recall any presidential runs done more horribly. Who ran the worse campaign, Sleepy Fred or Rudy the Reluctant?

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30 / January
30 / January
The Media ♥ Romney, Not

Do you get the impression that journalists don't like Mitt Romney? He's moved to the right, which makes me cynical but liberal-media types vindictive. After his close loss to John McCain in Florida last night, the Associated Press titled its story "Romney Vows To Carry on With Campaign"--as if Romney were Dennis Kucinich rather than a serious contender. The article remarkably states, "The defeat marked the third time the former Massachusetts governor and the Arizona senator had gone head-to-head in a major GOP contest, with McCain winning as he had earlier in New Hampshire and South Carolina." But Romney and McCain went head-to-head in Michigan, and Romney handed McCain his head.

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Worth Repeating #85

"In Greece, schoolmaster Plato maintained that cities will never have rest until schoolmasters become kings. All through the ages schoolmasters seem to have had the delusion that they could order society as readily as they could a classroom. But it is probably the twentieth century that will be seen in retrospect as the golden age of the schoolmaster."
--Eric Hoffer, "August 16, 1958," Working and Thinking on the Waterfront, 1969

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The Frontrunner

John McCain emerged from Florida the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. The split in victories for Romney and McCain, and the slight margin of victory for both candidates, may make it seem as though the race is neck and neck. It's not. Romney's strengths include tenacity as a campaigner and an abundance of money. When the primary season allowed candidates to focus on one state, these attributes helped Romney. But next Tuesday doesn't allow for concentration on a specific state or retail politics. Delegates are up for grabs in twenty-plus states. Momentum and name recognition, two things McCain has over Romney, are king on Super Tuesday. Add the likely endorsement of Giuliani, and McCain's chances at securing the nomination seem much better than even.

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Worse Than Chappaquiddick, Huh?

The New York chapter of the National Organization for Women dubbed Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama "the ultimate betrayal" of women. For reminding everyone where the word "hysterical" derives, and reinforcing a stereotype, it is New York NOW that has betrayed women. "Senator Kennedy's endorsement of Hillary Clinton's opponent in the Democratic presidential primary campaign has really hit women hard." Are there women anywhere saying, "Damn that Ted Kennedy for endorsing Barack Obama! Damn him!" This is really the most ridiculous thing anyone has said, even in private, in a while.

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29 / January
29 / January
The Giuliani Pre-PostMortem

Rudy Giuliani trails badly in the polls going into today's Florida primary. Should he lose to John McCain and Mitt Romney, and perhaps even to Mike Huckabee, Giuliani's campaign will be over and myriad post-mortems will be offered. Certainly Giuliani's bizarre failure to campaign in the first six contests will and should be cited as a reason for the free-fall of the frontrunner. What should also be noted, but probably won't, are the left-wing positions--yes, left-wing--on abortion, immigration, gun control, and numerous other issues that Giuliani championed as mayor of New York City. America is not New York, and the Republican Party is not the Democrat Party--and certainly not that Liberal Party in New York that faithfully placed Giuliani's name on its ballot line in his three New York City mayoral runs.

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Super Bowl Pool

ASDF, at 3-1, is the football pool winner for the conference championship games. Make three picks for the Super Bowl: 1. The team that will cover the spread; 2. Whether the point total will go "over" or "under" 54; 3. Your final score prediction. Here are my picks:

1. PATRIOTS -12 over Giants; 2. Over 54; 3. Patriots 38, Giants 16.

Make your selections and your smack talk in the comments section.

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28 / January
28 / January
Book Bashers

It's interesting to see the sparks fly when a writer for a magazine gets a negative review from the home team. Ramesh Ponnuru dissed and dismissed David Frum's latest offering, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, in the pages of National Review as factually challenged. "Usually when I did check one of [David Frum's] claims," Ramesh Ponnuru writes, "it didn't bear out. Frum portrays himself as a bold truth-teller who is being pounced on by ideological enforcers on the right." In reality, the NR scribe contends, NRO's Frum is guilty of "pervasive sloppiness." Frum, for his part, counters that Ponnuru's criticisms suffer from a "weird combination of vitriol and grandiosity."

The Ponnuru-Frum spat is just one of several internecine fights on the Right over book reviews in recent weeks. It's lively again, and I like it. In several instances, the disagreements have gotten quite nasty. This is especially true of the dispute between Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism, and Austin Bramwell, author of a scathing review of said book in The American Conservative. "Goldberg does at times display a blush of shame," Bramwell writes. "He qualifies his conclusions to the point of taking them all back, insisting that he does not actually mean to say that liberals are dangerous totalitarians. He grants that some of his points are trivial and others may appear outrageous, so that nothing he says should be taken as both true and interesting at the same time. He claims that movement conservatives also suffer from the totalitarian temptation, so that we are 'all' fascists now. Why then link liberalism in particular with fascism?"

"I'm not particularly interested in what Austin Bramwell has to say about anything, never mind yours truly," Goldberg, in turn, writes. Taking Bramwell to task for some specific points, Goldberg then dubs Bramwell "famously self-important." Think there was more than we know to Bramwell's brief tenure on National Review's board?

I've read Liberal Fascism, and I share a few of Bramwell's criticisms. But I am confused as to why he thinks there is nothing to commend there. The review, I think, comes off as player hating. Just because a book has an arresting title and a marketable cover doesn't automatically classify it in the conservative-quickie category. I thought the first four chapters, detailing Hitler and Mussolini as men of the Left, and Wilson and FDR as imbibers from the same stream of ideas, were quite good. At a time when National Review is being knocked for abandoning ideas in favor of political journalism, it's a welcome sign that one of its leading writers has sparked an intellectual debate instead of commenting on a presidential one.

The most disappointing of these reviews, for me, was Ronald Radosh's lame review of Stan Evans's Blacklisted by History in the pages of National Review. NR's choice of Ronald Radosh, raised in a Communist household to believe Joe McCarthy was Torquemada reincarnated, seems a case of an editor assigning a review to predetermine its slant. How many red-diaper baby recovering Marxists who wrote for The Nation well into their forties could ever write a positive review about a pro-McCarthy book? The review's cowardly insinuation (say it if you want to say it) that Evans plagiarized from Radosh's Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism was completely disgusting. I've read both books, and I find Radosh's charge narcissistic--much more narcissistic than my use of the first person earlier in this sentence (And his book on the Amerasia case wasn't particularly good anyhow--though Red Star over Hollywood and The Rosenberg Files were). Radosh's embarrassing piece is unavailable online, which is probably a good thing for him. But this hasn't stopped Ann Coulter, Paul Gottfried, and Wesley MacDonald defending, to various degrees, Evans.

What's interesting is that two of National Review's founding fathers, L. Brent Bozell and William F. Buckley, wrote the initial, canonical McCarthy defense, McCarthy and His Enemies, more than a year before founding the publication. The pages of the journal were opened up to the Wisconsin senator in its early days. One of NR's writers actually ghost wrote McCarthy's infamous speech indicting George C. Marshall's judgment as counter to American interests. It's more than fifty years later, and most of those guys are dead now. Times change, and so do magazines.

I've just finished Blacklisted by History, and I must say it is excellent in style and substance. If there is a quicker 605 pages, please let me know. From proving beyond doubt that McCarthy correctly identified Annie Lee Moss as a Communist to detailing the Army's punishment of whistleblowers but promotion of Communists, Evans makes a strong case that McCarthy was more sinned against than sinner. By relying on FBI files and wiretap transcripts, Venona intercepts, and released material from the Soviet archives, as well as interviews of a few of the surviving witnesses to McCarthy's famous Wheeling speech charging Communist infiltration of the State Department, Evans's book works from a much larger pool of information than did Buckley and Bozell's.

If any publicity is good publicity, these authors should be thanking their antagonists.

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26 / January
26 / January
With Friends Like These...

"She and John McCain are very close," Bill Clinton said of his wife. "They always laugh that if they wound up being the nominees of their party, it would be the most civilized election in American history, and they're afraid they'd put the voters to sleep because they like and respect each other." Bill Clinton's a shrewd operator, and his calculated praise of John McCain, as he knows, can't help the Arizona senator among Republican primary voters, who already scratch their heads at why McCain always seems to sponsor bills with people like Teddy Kennedy and Russ Feingold. Who do you think Camp Clinton doesn't want to face in November?

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Peggy Come Lately?

"George W. Bush destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart and set them against each other," Peggy Noonan writes in Friday's Wall Street Journal. "He did this on spending, the size of government, war, the ability to prosecute war, immigration and other issues." Ditto, but isn't the eighth year of a presidency a bit late to recognize this? Peggy Noonan, if you remember, took leave of her job at the Wall Street Journal to campaign for Republicans in 2004. No Child Left Behind, the prescription-drug giveaway, the Iraq mess, the amnesty bill--the most offensive items for conservatives on Bush's agenda--all were apparent in his first term. Why not oppose Bush, rather than campaign for him, when it mattered?

Alas, the truth doesn't crystalize for everyone at the same time. My disillusionment with Bush came around, say, 1999--when he announced that he would be running for president. Put another way, I never was disillusioned because I never expected much. He said that education, an area the previous party platform had promised to relegate to the states and localities, was his top federal priority and promised an enormous expansion of Medicare. Like Mike Huckabee, he generally had the right ideas on social issues but has no grounding on anything else.

For Noonan, the truth crystalized about six years later. "The beginning of my own sense of separation from the Bush administration came in January 2005, when the president declared that it is now the policy of the United States to eradicate tyranny in the world, and that the survival of American liberty is dependent on the liberty of every other nation," Noonan wrote last year. "This was at once so utopian and so aggressive that it shocked me." At the time, she memorably wrote of the speech: "It seemed a document produced by a White House on a mission. The United States, the speech said, has put the world on notice: Good governments that are just to their people are our friends, and those that are not are, essentially, not. We know the way: democracy.... The most moving speeches summon us to the cause of what is actually possible. Perfection in the life of man on earth is not."

But that wasn't Noonan in the hysteria of the Iraq invasion: "We are about to startle and reorder the world. We are going to win this thing, and in the winning of it we are going to reinspire civilized people across the globe. We're going to give the world a lift." In those heady days, George W. Bush was "President Backbone" and "The Right Man." Bush's big-government "conservatism" didn't matter according to Noonan. "Why will the base forgive Mr. Bush? Because they know it's all about the war."

Now that experience has shown the war to be a disaster rarely paralelled in the annals of American foreign policy, and Bush's popularity nears historic presidential lows, it's no longer "all about the war." The previously overlooked Bush Administration blunders now glare. But it's too late to stop No Child Left Behind, the Medicare expansion, federal funding of research on aborted fetuses, anti-First Amendment campaign finance laws, nationalization of airport security, and the other liberal causes enacted by the Bush Administration and a servile Republican Congress. It's not too late to get on the right side of history. Better late than never, I guess.

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25 / January
25 / January
Thanks for Our Money Back

With a sputtering economy, Democrats and Republicans have come together to refund taxpayers $600 to $1200 this season. Families may get more. "I can't say that I'm totally pleased with the package, but I do know that it will help stimulate the economy. But if it does not, then there will be more to come," Nancy Pelosi explained. What wasn't she "totally pleased" about? She wanted increases in food stamps and unemployment payments. She didn't get that, but the Speaker of the House did get direct payments--which differ morally from tax refunds--to people whose income is so low that they don't pay taxes. What's the difference between a tax refund and a welfare payment? The refund is money the taxpayer earned. The welfare payment is money another citizen earned.

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24 / January
24 / January
Reviewing the Reviewers

Among my Amazon.com reviews for Intellectual Morons are a few suspicious entries. It's not that they unduly knocked or praised my book that raised my curiosity. But that several reviewed Intellectual Morons alongside a half-dozen other works in the same week. I get paid, essentially, to read books, and I don't think I've ever read six real books in a week. These people are hobbyists (in other words, they hold down real jobs too), and in some instances are claiming to have read several dozen books in a week. J'accuse.

They get labelled "Top 1000 Reviewer" or "Top 50 Reviewer" by the book-selling behemoth. Judging by the content of their reviews, and the frequency with which they issue them, I have begun to question whether the "top" designation conveys an inverse meaning. Take N. P. Stathoulopoulos, an Amazon Top 1000 reviewer from Brooklyn, New York. The week he posted on Intellectual Morons, he reviewed nine other items including two books, a Noam Chomsky CD, and a Grand Theft Auto video game. I can't speak to the other items, but his review of Intellectual Morons reads more as a review of the dust jacket of Intellectual Morons.

Garth Risk Hallberg writes about the phenomenon of phantom reviewers on Slate.com in an article called "Who Is Grady Harp?" The title refers to a an Amazon reviewer who not only praised Hallberg's recent book on the popular online store, but "reviewed over 3,500 books, CDs, and movies for Amazon. In turn, he has attained a kind of celebrity: a No. 7 ranking; a prominent profile on the Web site; and, apparently, a following." Hallberg notes that Amazon's number one reviewer has averaged 45 book reviews a week for five years, which, he kindly notes, is "a pace that seems hard to credit, even from a professed speed-reader." This is a nice way of calling the woman a fraud, which she is. "John 'Gunny' Matlock," Hallberg points out, who "ranked No. 6 this spring, took a holiday from Amazon, according to Vick Mickunas of the Dayton Daily News, after allegations that 27 different writers had helped generate his reviews." Mr. Matlock gave Intellectual Morons five stars on Amazon, but his review leaves little evidence of actually having read my book.

Leave it to me to go after someone giving me a five-star review. It's not just that I've benefitted from Mr. Matlock's generous review. I've benefitted from the online culture that gave rise to it. My sales figures, from what I can gather, tend to swing disproportionately to Amazon vis-a-vis the competitors, i.e., Barnes & Noble and Borders. Certainly Amazon reviewers have been more generous than reviewers in mainline publications, who, when not ignoring my books entirely, generally can be counted on to trash them. There are worse things then a world where book reviews have become democratized. In the pre-Internet dark ages, the not-so-elite "elites" imposed political litmus tests on book reviews. It's not that they've stopped doing this. It's just that their power has been diminished. In extreme cases, a "nobody" on Amazon can have as much influence on book sales than an approved "somebody" at, say, the New York Review of Books. This is, as the phenomenon of drive-by Amazon reviews demonstrates, sometimes a bad thing.

Why would anyone post reviews of books they haven't read? Part of it seems to be the freebies, which, as the Slate piece points out, goes beyond books into electronics, movies, and other items hawked on Amazon. Publicists are willing to exchange free products for free publicity. A second, more psychologically interesting motivation involves narcissism. With tens of thousands of reviewers, there is, apparently, an ego boost by being recognized as a "Top 1000" reviewer. Some of these people, no doubt, just like books and wish to share their opinions. But many, many others like something else--cyberfame--and are willing to pass off hastily composed reactions to titles or promotional copy as book reviews.

My perspective is not only as an author, but as a book reviewer. I get review copies of books, but my intent is always to review them. There is no quid pro quo. The publisher doesn't give the product on the condition of a positive review. But there is an understanding that you will, at the least, read the book and make an effort to review it. I have received four review copies since finishing my own book, and I'm on the fourth one now. I've reviewed one. I'm currently writing a review for the second. I will likely take a pass on the third (and promote it some other way). And I'll review the fourth in March. I set, as a sort of New Year's resolution, what I thought to be a lofty goal: twelve published book reviews by year's end. For the "top" reviewers on Amazon, that's all in a day's work.

What disturbs most about the Amazon review-mania is the shift in focus from book to reviewer. In normal instances, the subject matter is the book. It's flaws, it's strengths, it's revealing facts, it's revealing errors get exposed for potential readers to see. Even if the review's reader doesn't opt to read the book reviewed, he generally learns something from merely reading the review. With the would-be cyber-celebs on Amazon, the book is secondary. Instead, the focus is themselves. Reviewers post drive-by reviews, ocassionally based on as little as Amazon's book description or the other featured reviews, for the purpose of boosting statistics: "Look at me. I've reviewed 3,500 books."

Were they rock stars they would stuff their trousers with socks. Were they book reviewers they would read the books before reviewing them.

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23 / January
23 / January
Worth Repeating #84

"A nonnegotiable maxim emerges from a fixed Idea, or many fixed Ideas, often parading as 'principles,' but when these are excessively abstract they become ideology, the lethal enemy of thought."
Jeffrey Hart, The Making of the American Conservative Mind, 2005

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