The Year of Four Emperors, so the ancient sources assure us, was one of the most chaotic, violent and frightening periods in all Roman history: a time of assassinations and civil wars, of armies so out of control that they had no qualms about occupying the city of Rome, and of ambitious men who seized power only to lose it, one after another.End quote. We don't have anything on that scale to fear, so far as I can judge. This week, however, can fairly be called the Week of the Two Presidents. Of course, our republic has only one President at a time, present incumbent Barack Hussein Obama. At this point, however, Obama is a very lame duck indeed, while Donald Trump is suiting up, getting his people into position, and making major policy pronouncements for his incoming administration. News-wise, the two guys have about equal weight this week. It's the Week of the Two Presidents. This symmetry was nicely reflected in the headlines. Both men addressed major gatherings this week: Obama to make his official farewell to the nation, Donald Trump to hold his first formal press conference since being elected. Each of these events was highly characteristic of the man on the platform. I'll take them in turn. 10 minutes longer than the farewell addresses of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan combined. Bush 41 did not technically give a farewell address, although his speech to West Point cadets, the last of his presidency, is sometimes cited as such. I don't know the duration of that speech, but the transcript runs to 3,300 words. The transcript of Obama's farewell address is just short of 5,000 words, so he left Poppy Bush in the dust, too. This is a guy who really likes the sound of his own voice. The gold standard in political speeches, so far as I'm concerned, was the one Calvin Coolidge delivered to the Massachusetts Senate 102 years ago last week, after being elected President of that body. It consisted of forty-four words, thus:
Honorable Senators: My sincerest thanks I offer you. Conserve the firm foundations of our institutions. Do your work with the spirit of a soldier in the public service. Be loyal to the Commonwealth and to yourselves, and be brief; above all things, be brief.End quote. That makes the Gettysburg Address, at 272 words, look positively flabby. It makes Obama's farewell address look morbidly obese. "Be brief" — is it possible for a two-word phrase to be more opposed to the spirit of Obama than "Be brief"? What did it actually contain, this great gassy Hindenburg of a speech? Well, there was lots of "hope" and "change": five "hopes" and sixteen "changes" by my count. So what did he have to tell us about hope and change? I couldn't actually pin down anything declarative about "hope", but there was definitely a consistent theme on "change." The theme was: Change is good! Don't be afraid of change! Representative quotes:
Constant change has been America's hallmark; that it's not something to fear but something to embrace … It [the antecedent for "it" seems to be the danger to us from terrorism and foreign dictators] represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently …End quote. Change is good! If you fear change you are a bad person! I'm sorry, Mr President, but that is inane. Some change is good, some isn't. Saying, "Change is good!" makes as much sense as saying, "Weather is good!" or "Vegetation is good!" If an asteroid were to strike the earth and wipe out the human race, that would be a major change, wouldn't it? Not many of us would consider it good, though. The strawberries in my wife's strawberry patch are good, but the crabgrass on my front lawn isn't. And just as change is not necessarily good, fear is not necessarily bad. We have the fear instinct for a very good reason: to preserve ourselves against dangers. We may argue about whether some one particular phenomenon is or is not dangerous, but fear itself is useful and valuable, not a failing or a weakness. Take for example that "fear of people who look or speak or pray differently." If people who look different from me in some one particular way have a homicide rate seven times that of people who look the same as me, and a robbery rate thirteen times, isn't fear of those people rational? If violent acts of terrorism against innocent civilians are almost exclusively committed by people who pray a certain way, is not fear of people who pray that way justified? And look at all the illogical and patronizing assumptions here. Quote:
If we're unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don't look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America's workforce.End quote. Note the patronizing conflation of "immigrants" with "brown kids." I'm an immigrant; my wife is an immigrant; neither of us is brown. Note also the meteorological approach to immigration. It's like the weather! Can't do anything about it! In fact immigration is just a policy, that we can change at will. We could, without any offense to the Constitution, stop all immigration and require all noncitizens to leave our territory. How would that be for "change"! To fear it would of course be weak and un-American. And then there are Obama's characteristic weasely little half-truths. Quote:
I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans who are just as patriotic as we are.End quote. I have no problem with the first half of that. I too reject discrimination against American citizens who are Muslims. At the same time, and without any inconsistency I can see, I think we have all the Muslims we need. Islam doesn't fit comfortably into non-Muslim nations. It creates problems that we'd be wise to avoid. Let's stop all further settlement of Muslims in the U.S.A. Again, I don't know of any constitutional reason why we can't do that. The second half, Obama's assertion that Muslims are just as patriotic as we are, is open to question. It's true in the sense that some Muslims, like some non-Muslims, are patriotic, while others aren't. The proportions in each case might bear examining, though; and the non-patriotism of Muslim non-patriots is of a seriously different kind from the non-patriotism of Episcopalian, Catholic, Baptist, Congregationalist, Unitarian, Jewish, agnostic, atheist, and Wiccan non-patriots. This slippery sleight of mouth is very Obama-esque, and I for one am glad we have heard the last of it. Personally, I could also do without all the girlish emoting that Obama went in for towards the end of the speech. By the time he'd gotten through gushing over all the hope and change he'd generated, and over his wife and daughters — who, to be fair, have behaved themselves decently well — and over champion Senate seat-warmer Joe Biden, and over the White House staff, and over all the "community organizer" pests Obama has let loose on our nation like a swarm of locusts — by the time Obama got through gushing over all that there was, as several news outlets noted, not a dry eye in the house. I hate this weeping and emoting. From time to time I make a resolution never to vote for any person who has shed tears in public. Then I recall that this is somewhat un-American of me, and feel a bit ashamed. My fellow Americans mostly like that kind of thing, and I ought to yield to their taste, even though I can't share it. Matter of fact, when looking up that West Point speech by Poppy Bush, I noticed that he had teared up at one point. Poppy Bush, the über-WASP! Of Bill Clinton it was said that he could weep out of one eye. Americans loved him for it, at any rate enough to give him two terms as President. It's an American thing, and as a naturalized American I ought to get used to it. I just can't, though. I'm from a nation and a time that admired reserve, fortitude, and the stiff upper lip. "I have lost my leg, by God!" Lord Uxbridge told the Duke of Wellington on the field of Waterloo, as cannonballs whizzed by. "By God, and have you!" replied the Duke. Those are my people. They're dead now, or old, even in the mother country; but they had something that's been lost, and the loss of which I regret very much.
03 — Revenge of the spooks. Obama spoke, as I said, on Tuesday evening. The next day, Wednesday, at Trump Tower in New York City, the other President in this Week of Two Presidents held a press conference; and the event was just as characteristic of Trump as Obama's gassy, weasely emote-a-thon was of Obama. Before I get to it, though, there's some background to cover.The presser came just a day after the latest attempted hit on Trump's reputation. The background here is a story that the Russian government has compromising information about Trump, presumably gathered when Trump visited Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant three years ago. The implication is that Trump's comparatively easy-going attitude towards Russia is motivated by his fear that the Russians have dirt on him which they may make public. That's the background, concerning which rumors have been floating around Washington, D.C. for months. Well, Tuesday this week CNN reported that Trump had been given a two-page intelligence briefing on those rumors, based on a 35-page file someone or other had assembled, the file itself purportedly based on memos from Russian intelligence. Right after the CNN report, the left-wing tabloid website BuzzFeed published the entire 35-page file. Along with descriptions of nonstandard intimacies Trump was said to have engaged in with honey-trap hookers in his Moscow hotel, the file alleged that Trump's people were secretly meeting with high-level Russian operatives. The plot thickened on Wednesday when Senator John McCain admitted that a copy of the file had come into his hands late last year. He hadn't known what to make of it, he said, so he'd passed it to the FBI. The ultimate source for the file seems to have been a Brit named Christopher Steele. He runs a consultancy in London, giving advice on doing business in Russia. Mr Steele previously had a career in British intelligence, where he acquired contacts in the FSB, Russia's main intelligence agency. Those contacts gave him the information in the file. So we have a lefty website looking for mouse clicks, a Trump-hating establishment Republican Senator, and a British ex-spook of unknown veracity, retailing unsubstantiated stuff out of the FSB, successor to the KGB. This is very dodgy stuff, which is why no outlet, even in the rabidly anti-Trump American media, had hitherto published it. This is low-quality material, even by anti-Trump standards. I suppose one can't rule anything out. The way the FSB works, if they really do have compromising information, it's in video form. That would certainly be a very handy item for Vladimir Putin to have in his desk drawer during a Trump presidency. The balance of probability, though, has to be that the whole thing is fake. There are plain factual errors in the file; and the activities Trump is supposed to have paid for from the FSB honey traps are seriously atypical for the man, as he himself pointed out at his Wednesday press conference. The file probably started its life as a clumsy disinformation effort by Trump's political enemies here in the States. As any reader of spy fiction knows, intelligence is a hall of mirrors, with layer upon layer of duplicity. Anything's possible in this zone. Our own intelligence agencies may even be involved. That possibility was floated, in fact foreseen, by a different Senator, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. In a TV interview January 3rd, before all this blew up, Schumer said the following thing, quote:
Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday to get back at you. So, even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he [that is, Trump] is being really dumb to do this.End quote. The interviewer asked Schumer what intelligence people could do to Trump. The Senator replied, quote:
I don't know, but from what I am told, they are very upset with how he has treated them and talked about them.End quote. Now, I don't have a lot of time for Schumer as a rule. He's an open-borders lefty, a tool of the public-sector employee lobbies — I refuse to call them "unions" — and an all-round obnoxious jerk. He's no fool, though, and I believe he got this one right. If you tick off the spooks, they have many, many ways to strike back at you; and Trump has certainly been ticking them off. So: a hit job on Trump by his political enemies, either the Clinton people or establishment Republicans, or both, and likely in collusion with disgruntled American spooks, using authentic-looking material cooked up by a shady British ex-spook, presumably for cash payment, put in the news by anti-Trump news outlets CNN and BuzzFeed the day before Trump's big day on stage. How did our man deal with this? Masterfully! Trumpishly! Next segment.
04 — The rumbustious Mr Trump. Naturally the reporters assembled in Trump Tower for Wednesday's presser were keen to ask The Donald about the allegations in the BuzzFeed report. How did Trump deal with those reporters? He chewed 'em up and spat 'em out!The presser was comparable in wordage to Obama's farewell speech. The questions and answers, not counting the nested presentation by Trump's lawyer, were seventy-four hundred words, of which by far the majority were Trump's; so chances are Trump spoke more words than Obama's five thousand. The spirit of Calvin Coolidge is as well and truly dead as the thirtieth President himself, more's the pity. In Trump's defense, though, this was a press conference, with questions he was bound to answer, so perhaps the comparison with Obama is unfair. The words he did speak were pure Trumplish: unfiltered, demotic, boastful, pugnacious in self-defense, hyperbolic in praise, brutal in scorn, sometimes contradictory, occasionally nonsensical. When he didn't want to answer a question he just blustered. Would Obamacare guarantee coverage for current beneficiaries? Trump, selected quotes:
You're gonna be very, very proud … of what we put forth having to do with health care … We're going to be submitting, as soon as our secretary's approved, almost simultaneously, shortly thereafter, a plan. It'll be repeal and replace. It will be essentially, simultaneously. It will be various segments, you understand, but will most likely be on the same day or the same week, but probably, the same day, could be the same hour. So we're gonna do repeal and replace, very complicated stuff. And we're gonna get a health bill passed, we're gonna get health care taken care of in this country … The plan will be repeal and replace Obamacare. We're going to have a health care that is far less expensive and far better.End quotes. The information content of that answer is, let's be frank, zero. You could in fact, in the spirit of Coolidge, you could make an economical translation of that 430-word answer from Trumplish into Coolidgean using just three words: "Wait and see." That's OK, though. Donald Trump is by no means the first President to answer a reporter's question with blustery evasion — by no means. It was Trump's style and demeanor at the presser that had us Trumpians clapping along with him. Those, and his one-liners. Four sample one-liners:
One of the reasons low-income Americans admire rich people is that they are do-ers who seem to live gilded lives, and not on the backs of the poor. It's the professional classes they don't like — the lawyers and doctors and teachers, who invade their lives with bills and lectures. The people who look and sound like Hillary Clinton. Trump was showing that he, too, was under the cosh of the miserable lawyers — he even had one come to the podium. And he was demonstrating that, despite this, he had admirably emerged with his businesses intact. I am no psychology professor, but this seemed to me to be playing to the gallery — i.e. those "ordinary" Americans who are so fed up with the political class — with something bordering on genius.End quote. Webb then goes on to warn that Trump might be too combative, too much the alpha male, for the suits in D.C. to put up with for long, so that they will find a way to force him out. That leads Webb to his concluding sentences, quote:
If they succeed, it would be a bitter blow to the millions of working-class Americans who voted for Trump, folk who felt he alone among politicians understood their aspirations, and who would have been thrilled by his extraordinary, rumbustious performance this week. It would again confirm their view that the political establishment looks after its own — while the "little people" are brushed aside.End quote. I don't think I count as working-class. My hands are rather soft, and I only wear boots for hiking or shoveling snow. I'll admit that I was thrilled by Trump's performance on Wednesday, though, just as much as Justin Webb's hypothetical working-class Americans. And yes, like Webb, I worry that Trump's don't-give-a-damn rumbustiousness may be too much for the seat-warmers and log-rollers of Washington, D.C. — among which category I would include our intelligence agencies — to the degree that they will find some way to unseat him. Watch your back, Mr President-Elect. Richard Nixon was way less rumbustious than you are; but they took down Nixon. And in case you're wondering, listeners, "rumbustious" is indeed a word — I looked it up. graded F-minus by NumbersUSA on reducing refugee and asylum fraud, even as his state fills up with Somalis. Franken caught Sessions out on having overstated the number of civil rights cases he'd filed as a U.S. attorney. The number was, Sessions conceded, smaller than the "20 or 30" he'd quoted to National Review seven years ago. I'm willing to bet that, however much smaller the number was, it is nothing like as small as the number of people in the U.S.A. who give a damn. Much of the questioning of Sessions made no sense, except as an advertisement from the questioner to some voter segment. Patrick Leahy, who is from Calvin Coolidge's home state of Vermont, and who has been sitting in the Senate wellnigh since then-Vice President Coolidge presided over it, Patrick Leahy asked the following, quote: "Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without her consent sexual assault?" Sessions replied, "Clearly, it would be." What did Leahy think he would say? The question was of course meant to keep alive the fake news story that Donald Trump had grabbed some woman or other by her genitals, or had recommended doing so as a courtship move. In fact Trump had been marveling aloud, in a private conversation, about the outrageous things women would willingly let you do if you were rich and on TV a lot. There's a clear difference; though I'll allow it may not be clear to a dimwitted old maid like Leahy. The only remotely newsy event out of the Sessions hearing was the contribution of a fellow senator, the black Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who rather obviously nurses the ambition to be the next Barack Obama. It's unusual for one senator to testify against another in the nomination process, but Jeff Sessions' ripe Alabama accent, probably along with his forenames, Jefferson Beauregard, were irresistible to Booker, as was the opportunity to get some national attention preparatory to Booker's 2020 presidential run. Booker thus spent five minutes accusing Sessions of not caring enough about civil rights. This was on the second day of the hearing, when Sessions himself was not present. I doubt Booker's testimony had any effect on Sessions' confirmation, but that wasn't the point of it. The point of it was, to accumulate some news coverage towards that 2020 presidential run. Yo, Cory: We did the black President thing, won't be doing it again for a few decades, m-kay? And by way of demonstrating that to black activists it's always 1965, a different black congresscritter, Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, told the senators that he was microaggressed about Booker and himself and some other black guy having had to wait until the end of the confirmation hearing to testify. Quote from him: "To have a senator, a House member and a living civil rights legend testify at the end of all this is equivalent to …" wait for it … "is equivalent to being made to go to the back of the bus," end quote. It's 1965, it's always 1965. Fifty years on, God knows how many trillions of dollars spent, and nothing has changed. The poor black man still can't get a break. [Clip: Paul Robeson, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."] the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year concert. Ira Madison is a black guy, in fact a blackety-black guy — a sort of junior-league Ta-Nehisi Coates, with a nice little gig there at MTV News writing about black people struggling heroically against white supremacy, doing black things, being blackety-black, and blackety-blackety-blackety-blackety-black-black-black-black-black-blackety-black. Well, Jeff Sessions had showed up for the Tuesday confirmation hearing in company with several family members, including four of his ten grandchildren. These four were all from Sessions' younger daughter Ruth. While waiting for the hearing to start, Sessions was photographed with one of these grandchildren on his knee. Now Ruth Sessions is married to an East Asian guy, so this tot on Jeff Sessions' knee is half Asian. That's what got Ira Madison's attention. The infant was, he tweeted, a "prop," He further tweeted, quote: "Sessions, sir, kindly return this Asian baby to the Toys R Us you stole her from," end tweet. That wasn't very nice, and Madison took a lot of flak for it. He in fact deleted that tweet, though screen images of it had been captured and are easily found on the internet. Now, I love Jeff Sessions as a man and a brother, and I'm very happy indeed that he's going to be the U.S. Attorney General. However, I have to admit to a twinge of suspicion here, just a twinge. Could it be that the senator was, in fact, doing some clumsy virtue signaling, knowing that he was going to be accused of racism in the hearing? It wouldn't actually be that shameful if he was. Nominees routinely show up with family members, as a mild form of virtue signaling by itself — telling the world: "Look, I'm a family guy!" Upping that to: "Look, I'm a family guy with half-Asian grandkids!" is only adding one more coat of paint to the virtue signal. If that was the case, Senator Jeff needs to read up on his Derb. As I've been telling the world for at least fifteen years, there are, to a very good first approximation, only two races in the U.S.A.: black, and nonblack. Everything else is a bagatelle. The functional meaning of the word "racist," for example, is: "a nonblack person who has negative thoughts about black people." Nobody cares what you think about yellow people or red people. I repeat, just to be clear: I'm not saying that Jeff Sessions necessarily was virtue signaling with his granddaughter there, at any rate not any more than politicians habitually are when parading their families in public. I'm only saying that if he was, it betrays a certain naïvety on his part in the matter of race. The more I think about it, in fact, the better disposed I am to Senator Jeff, even if he was virtue signaling. Naïvety about race is kind of endearing in this day and age. It would speak well of Sessions if he were indeed so little interested in race or bothered by race to be that naïve about it. Or maybe I'm just so happy about having Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department, I can't summon up any negative feelings about him on any account. This Ira Madison bloke is the opposite thing. Far from being so little interested in race as to be naïve about it, he is interested in little else. The reaction to his Toys R Us tweet seems to have flustered him, though. In a subsequent tweet he seems to be accusing Jeff Sessions of having voted for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, tweet: "Sessions argued for policy that in the 1880s was used to discriminate against Asian Americans," end tweet. No, sorry guy, Jeff Sessions wasn't around in the 1880s. You may have him confused with Patrick Leahy, who arrived in the Senate sometime around then … I beg your pardon, listeners: After scrutinizing Ira Madison's tweets more carefully, and making due allowance for the fact that he is only semi-literate, I see that what he is referring to in that particular tweet was Jeff Sessions having argued, back in 2013, against our post-1965 policy of giving immigrant visas to family members of persons already settled here — the expression "family members" including siblings, parents, and adult children. Sessions was of course right about that. Just because we've decided that you are a person we want to accept for permanent settlement, it by no means follows that we also want your schizophrenic brother, your 33-year-old alcoholic daughter, or your Alzheimer's-afflicted Dad. If that's bothersome to you, by all means stay in your own country. Immigration-wise, "spouse and dependent children only" is a pretty good rule. As to what any of that has to do with the Chinese Exclusion Act — which was, by the way, a perfectly reasonable effort to protect American laborers from competition — … Ah, the hell with it. Ira Madison is a moron. Imprimis: How could I resist this one? Headline from the London Independent, January 10th: Right-wing people are better looking than those on the left, study claims. From the story, quote:
A recently published study in the Journal of Public Economics concludes that the attractiveness of a [political] candidate does correlate with their politics. They find that politicians on the right are more good looking in Europe, the United States and Australia.End quote. Now really, who didn't know this? I certainly did, and I have documentation to prove it. Back in February 2001 I recorded my own education in this matter. I grew up, I explained, in a small English country town with only two political scenes interesting to an intelligent teenager. One of them was the Young Conservatives / Young Farmers crowd. The other was Young Socialists. Quote from myself, quote:
The main thing that caught my febrile adolescent attention was the very striking difference in the female population of these two political tribes. The conservative women were much prettier, but the socialist girls were much looser.End quote. Now, if I noticed that back in 1962, how come it took social scientists until now to figure it out? What are they, stupid? Wait a minute, though: The authors of this study are not precisely scientists, only economists. That answers my question, I guess. Item: Just a footnote on the confirmation hearings for Trump's cabinet choices, and on my remarks about Senator Cory Booker. Elaine Chao, who is Trump's nominee for Secretary of Transportation, was also up for confirmation on Wednesday. Ms Chao is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She was Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush, and Deputy Secretary of Transportation under Poppy Bush. The lady is 63 years old. Being Chinese, however, she only looks 25. Furthermore, in accordance with the previous item, she is pretty. That caused some interesting dynamics in the hearing room. Senator Booker began with some mild flattery, thanking Ms. Chao for her willingness to serve in yet another presidential administration. Then he opened the sluices wide and let the oil gush out. Quote:
I have to say that I have a great deal of respect for you, although I have some frustration with Mitch McConnell. Being a young, single member of the Senate. He's never taken me aside and told me how to marry out of my league.End quote. Now that is smooth. It might, I suppose, be more cold political calculation on Senator Booker's part — planting a marker for the Asian-American vote in 2020 — but I'm going to give Booker the benefit of the doubt here and credit him with great natural game … While simultaneously recording a note to myself that in the case — admittedly very unlikely — that I get invited over to New Jersey for dinner with the Senator, I should leave Mrs Derbyshire at home. Item: If you like graphs, there are some cool ones over at the Pew Research Center website. Pew is a polling company, like Gallup. This week they put up a long post titled How America Changed During Barack Obama's Presidency. The post records changes in public attitudes about various things, as revealed by polling, across the past eight years. Obviously I can't do graphs well on a podcast, but I urge you to check out the page for yourselves at pewresearch.org. For example, there's a good graph showing how we've gotten more partisan over the past eleven presidencies, from Eisenhower to Obama. The graph shows, for each president, approval ratings across his term among his own party supporters, and approval ratings among the other party's supporters. You can see the gap widening before your eyes. Another graph shows the increase, across the Obama presidency, of Americans identifying with, quote, "current religion as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular," end quote. Overall the percentage has risen from 16 to 23. Among millennials it's gone from 25 to 35 percent. I predicted that change, and explained the reasons for it, in my 2009 book We Are Doomed. Why don't you listen? An even more depressing result from the Pew polls, this one a table not a graph, shows that a majority of Americans think diversity makes the country a better place. More liberals than conservatives believe this, of course; but even among conservatives the percentage of believers is 47. What was the name of my book again? Oh, right: We Are Doomed. Pastor Archibald Carey Jr., 1952.]