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Explaining The Trump Voter

As I’ve explained before, one thing I try very hard to do, even though it is sometime challenging, is to humanize people who disagree with me about issues that I find important, or about politics in general, to understand what their actual positions are, and to not just dismiss their arguments without consideration or dismiss them personally as stupid or evil. I think that’s something that everyone struggles with. Or, more accurately, something that most people don’t even try to do, but should be struggling with, as it’s just not something that comes naturally to us. Most people don’t even attempt to understand others who disagree with them, and are blissfully content seeing such people in one-dimensional, villainous tropes, which makes it very easy and emotionally satisfying to quickly dismiss them as people, and what they say and believe.

Over the last few years, for example, many have found it impossible to empathize with people who voted for Donald Trump, to intellectually understand how they could do so, and to see them as real, thoughtful, decent human beings. I heard NPR and its listeners “struggle to understand” how Trump could have been elected with their special “First 100 Days” broadcast of “Indivisible,” a show supposedly designed to foster a “national conversation about America in a time of change,” a masterfully evasive euphemism for venting NPR’s and their listeners’ existential dread and frustration regarding Trump’s victory. This call-in show was basically a screaming pillow for liberals, designed for those inside a certain political echo chamber to give each other virtual hugs and validate each other’s outrage and confusion. Well, mostly outrage feigned as confusion and interest in “bipartisan understanding.” I heard a daughter call in and say that she hadn’t talked to her mother since the election because she had voted for Trump, and while the host did the responsible thing and (very, very gingerly) suggested that severing one’s ties with a parent was not a healthy or helpful response to losing an election, the bulk of such calls focused on the callers and hosts trying to “work through together” how to reconcile that people they know and love had voted for Trump, and how to continue to love them, respect them, and maintain relationships with them despite the horrible, evil, unforgivable thing they had done.

I found the whole exercise to be immature and self-pitying in the extreme: I don’t know if anyone told these people, but, get ready for a shock: people lose presidential elections every four years. Everyone on the losing side is pissed off for awhile, stays politically annoyed during the entire term of the winning president they don’t like, and then tries to win the next one. The attitude that this particular election and the loss of their particular preferred candidate called for some extraordinary measures and national grief counseling seemed self-indulgent at best and in some way deeply dishonest at worst.

Perhaps I shouldn’t insert my own judgmental critique in the middle of an essay claiming to be about understanding. But what I’m trying to illustrate with this example is that I heard people on the left purportedly try to understand Trump voters every day on NPR, and countless times over in other media, when really what they were doing was trying to validate and understand their own feelings, not those of the people they were claiming to try to understand and reconcile with. Truly understanding why someone would vote for Donald Trump, actually intellectually grasping it and being able to articulate it, even if you drastically disagree, was something I saw little to none of. That’s why I wrote an essay about it a year later, to help those who are genuinely interested understand why someone would have voted for Donald Trump in 2016, even though I did not. There were some other great articles that explained it for those who sincerely wanted to learn, like this interview with J.D. Vance, the author of the excellent Hillbilly Elegy (which you simply must read, if you’re a reader and interested in politics). A brief, uncomfortable foray into reading a justification for supporting Donald Trump is a very important intellectual exercise for those reflexively repulsed by him, and especially those repulsed by your fellow Americans who voted for him.

I belabor you with this lengthy preamble simply to tell you that I have found another fantastic article that can help the skeptical and confused understand how Trump supporters think and what their real, authentic views actually are, as opposed to the caricature you’ll get from CNN, The New York Times, NPR, or The Washington Post. This article comes from a guest writer spot on the page of the estimable Glenn Greenwald, a prominent left-wing journalist who, in his personal politics, is probably as far left and progressive as is possible in America. I will say much more about him later, and expose you to a lot more content and arguments from him, but for now, let me just recommend that you browse his page to find all sorts of excellent, detailed content regarding today’s politics.

This particular essay comes from the author of a recently viral Twitter thread, who Glenn invited on his platform to write a full essay to fully flesh out his argument. This thread and now essay succinctly encapsulate how people who do support Donald Trump view politics, the media, and the bureaucratic security state. Specifically the “Alphabet Agencies” and their role in manipulating public opinion, as well as their apparent enthusiasm for jumping into the mud of partisan politics for whichever side they happen to pick at the moment. So while I share this essay with you to give you an honest, detailed analysis of how a large number of Americans view our political world, this essay may actually be more important in that it should give you a sobering wake-up call to the lengths enormously powerful federal agencies are willing to go to in order to spy on and destroy the lives of citizens who are inconvenient to or in the way of their political agenda.

I’ll post excerpts on my Twitter page because I know not everyone has the time or interest to read a ten page essay, especially one on as dense a topic as this. One thing I want to do for my friends and readers is cut to the chase and give them the bottom line or most important parts of a book, article, or argument, so they don’t have to dig through it themselves, and can just get right to the point and the heart of the issue.

So definitely read that essay if you can, bookmark it for reference material or to read later, and for now, note the highlights I’ve posted. The points this author raises are honestly mostly about how the media and security apparatus operate, so while the subject and point of view seem partisan because the essay is about Donald Trump and how these organizations have been weaponized to favor Democrats for now, those with any historical memory will know that not too long ago the FBI was tracking and recording every movement of Martin Luther King Jr., persecuting and blackmailing him and anyone else viewed as “subversive” or in the way of the agency’s political agenda. If you’re comfortable with the FBI and other agencies being used this way against your political enemies at this moment, then don’t be surprised and don’t feign outrage if a few administrations or a few elections from now they are turned against you.

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The Federalist #3

As I alluded to in a previous post, I have never read The Federalist Papers in full, nor have I studied the founding era on my own, beyond what was assigned to me in various classes throughout my academic career. I am attempting to remedy this by starting with Ron Chernow’s riveting biography of Alexander Hamilton, a book I can’t recommend highly enough. I was actually inspired to read it because I just finished another excellent biography, on Napoleon, which I also give my highest recommendation. I thought it would be good to stick with this turn of the 19th century era, since my head is already in it, and since that helped me overcome the mental hurdle that I sometimes have when a topic or a historical era seems interesting to think about, but I assume it will be dry and boring to read about. I don’t know if that happens to anyone else, but it certainly happens to me. I also just listened to a fascinating lecture by Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson that I strongly recommend, and it too made the topic seem less dry and more accessible. It’s actually a very interesting era of history, just from a storytelling perspective. And history is all about stories.

I’m at the start of a process of slowly reading all of The Federalist Papers, and I am making notes on them to help my understanding and for future review, and I thought I would share some of them with you. There is no substitute for reading Federalist #1 in terms of an introduction to how the framers viewed the Constitution and the American Experiment, and how we should view it today, so definitely read that one if you have not, or if you don’t remember. It is short, sweet, and rousing.

I would like to start by sharing my notes on Federalist #3: Concerning Dangers From Foreign Force and Influence, by John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States. These are just my notes from reading the original text, which I think is an important part of deep and proper understanding of any subject. I know not everyone has the time or inclination to sit with these, so I would like to share my summaries of these texts as food for thought and a bit of an easier or lighter read than the original text itself. I hope you enjoy!

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In addition to drafting New York’s state constitution and being a former president of the Continental Congress, John Jay was an experienced diplomat, which is why he was enlisted by Alexander Hamilton to write The Federalist essays on foreign policy. His overarching argument was that a truly United States, a single national polity, would more efficiently, safely, and rationally ensure the diplomacy and international security of the colonies than many independent states or a handful of state confederacies. He believed that a united America will give fewer “just causes for war” to foreign powers than a disunited America, and that one national government will better observe the laws of nations than thirteen separate states, or three or four confederacies. This is almost axiomatic, as one political entity will have fewer flashpoints for contention and dispute, or simple mistakes, than numerous, nominally affiliated entities.

Jay was also concerned with the quality of leadership in the realm of diplomacy, and indeed I am recently thinking that picking the right person is the top priority for the success of any project, endeavor, system, or government. The Napoleon biography makes it clear how his chief failures were mistakes in appointing the wrong people to important positions, usually his family members. I am coming to the opinion that leadership literally makes or breaks any object you undertake, whether it is diplomacy, a departmental project, or a constitution.

Jay argued that a national government will have a larger talent pool to choose from, thereby attracting better leadership, men of more talent, reputation, and other qualifications than you will have in a single state, and therefore tending towards better and wiser decision making. It will be “more wise, sytematical, and judicious than those of individual states, and consequently more satisfactory with respect to other nations,” making it more safe for us.

When it comes to foreign policy, consistency and stability are key. Jay believed that treaties and accords will be more consistent coming from one government than thirteen states or several confederacies, which would have conflicting, inconsistent, and non-accordant relations with other nations. Not only that, but the short-term or immediate prospects of sudden loss or advantage may also sway individual states or confederacies to unwise, unjust, or dangerous decisions that threaten the others. And even when the governing body of a state is wise and just, there may be local circumstances in a state, and/or an overwhelming number of imprudent or bad actors that may cause harm without the state being able to control them, whereas a national government would have the power and inclination to do so. So there will be fewer designed or accidental violations of treaties and the laws of nations under a unified government than under multiple autonomous governments, which “most favors the SAFETY of the people.”

Likewise, when it comes to violations from “from direct and unlawful violence” undertaken by certain parties in a state, a national government is better able to secure against such dangers. Because “such violences are more frequently caused by the passions and interests of a part than of the whole; of one or two states than of the Union.” Interestingly, he cites the context that it had been the states, not the national government, that had up until this time initiated unprovoked Indian wars. “Not a single Indian war has yet been occasioned by aggressions of the present federal government, feeble as it is; but there are several instances of Indian hostilities having been provoked by the improper conduct of individual States.”

He also mentions that there are Spanish and British territories that border some states, but not others, and that quarrels may more quickly and easily arise from those states, again from what you might call “local passions,” and that a national government will be more prudent and deliberative, less susceptible to these.

He further claims that a national government will have more power and be more inclined to settle disputes quickly and amicably. The pride of states, as of men, may be hot in defending their honor, quicker to rise and slower to cool and make peace. A national government will not be influenced by such local pride, again leaning more towards an inclination to peace and settlement.

When it comes to making peace, Jay again believes that a national government is in a far better position to do so than a loose coalition of states or confederacies. He claims that the terms and substantive offerings of peace are “often accepted as satisfactory from a strong united nation,” in a way that they would not be, and would instead be “rejected as unsatisfactory” if offered by a mere state or confederacy.

Finally, he uses the example of King Louis XIV of France being offended by some action on the part of the state of Genoa, and demanding that they send their chief magistrate and four senators, to “ask his pardon and receive his terms,” basically grovel before him. He clearly sees this as a sign of humiliation and submission, as “[t]hey were obliged to submit to it for the sake of peace.” Here he appeals to the national pride of Americans, having just fought the first successful war against a colonizer in history, to not put themselves in a situation as to be humiliated by mere dint of raw power again. His final sentence eloquently evinces and appeals to the national pride of Americans who wish to see their new country strong and unbowed: “Would he on an occasion either have demanded or received the like humiliation from Spain, or Britain, or any other POWERFUL nation?”

This short but powerful paper is a clinic on persuasion and rhetoric, political or otherwise. It is masterfully impressive that he can so succinctly and powerfully encapsulate nearly the entire argument for a united rather than a divided nation for the purposes of foreign policy.

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The Federalist Papers

Recently, I have had the pleasure of reading Ron Chernow’s thrilling biography of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow is an excellent storyteller, and combined with the source material of Alexander Hamilton’s life being so dramatic as to be almost unbelievable, it is an exhilarating read. Of the many fascinating aspects of this book, one that has stood out to me is the truly staggering work ethic and output of Hamilton and other founding fathers. Men like Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison lived lives of constant, daily study and relentless, merciless self-improvement.

One example of this ethic is a tidbit I would phrase as a historical “Did You Know?” piece of trivia: Did you know that Alexander Hamilton wrote The Federalist Papers in his spare time, in between practicing law to support his family? I find this information truly staggering, when you consider the timeless historical feat that the Federalist Papers represent.

This is one of those short bits of information you actually have to step back and think about for a minute to appreciate. As impressive as The Federalist Papers are, as difficult as a philosophical and legal work of this magnitude must be to create, even as a full-time academic or theorist, imagine undertaking such a herculean feat of writing squeezed in between breaks at work, and when you’ve come home in the evening after practicing law all day. You may think you’re fried and need to watch some tv after a long day at the office. Hamilton wrote The Federalist Papers.

And not to besmirch truly great men and historical figures, but it is worth noting the contrast between the working man Hamilton and his writing partner, James Madison. Madison was yet another founding father of Newtonian intellect, who devoted his entire life to ceaseless study and enlightenment. But there is a stark contrast between his life and Hamilton’s, having been born and raised with every advantage and privilege of having his life made smooth and easy for him to be able to devote himself and all his energies to his solitary study. His father was the largest slaveholder in Orange County, Virginia, and owned up to ten thousand acres of land. To quote Chernow, “Until age fifty, [he] lived in economic dependence on his father and even in congress fell back on income from the family plantation.” This does not undermine respect for his work ethic whatsoever (in fact it may enhance it, how many us would work so hard born with such privileges?), but it does highlight how much more freedom men like he and Jefferson had to pursue their energies, interests, and talents, while others like Hamilton had to place their intellectual work in between the mundane toils of daily work.

Which brings me to this: as much as it embarrasses me to admit, I have never read The Federalist Papers in full. I have read the famous ones when assigned to me in school, which I hope most of us have. But as a proponent of full intellectual understanding of a topic and of reading source materials to form my own judgement, as well as a full-hearted believer in the American Experiment, this is a piece of research that I feel is a gap in my knowledge. A gap which I now intend to fill.

Theodore Roosevelt called The Federalist Papers “on the whole the greatest book” dealing with practical politics. They are certainly the foundational theoretical texts of our entire national and constitutional experiment. I am approaching my study of them somewhat in the manner of a bible study. They are just too dense, and of course in somewhat antiquated English, to simply read through like you would a normal history book, or even treatise. In fact, they weren’t even meant to be read that way, as they were written and published in newspapers at a rate of several per week over the course of about eight months. That is the rate they were initially intended to be digested, and I honestly believe that is probably still the best method by which to approach them. So my plan is to read a few of them every week, one at a time, to slowly and deliberately digest and contemplate them. This will be somewhat of a process, which I will approach methodically, and take it slow and easy over the year, contemplating lessons as you would a religious text, which to believers in the Constitution and American greatness, it is. I am also going to be taking notes, to reinforce my learning, and for my own future reference. I began this process last night, and I will be sharing my notes and takeaways from select sections of The Federalist Papers here. I will begin later today.

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A St. Patty’s Day Story

A coworker asked me this week what I’ll be doing for St. Patrick’s Day. I told him “Staying inside, locking my doors, and boarding my windows.” While I love and respect Irish culture, what this holiday has turned into is literally my least favorite day of the year to go outside and venture out and about. It is the ultimate “Bro Holiday,” and when it comes to being around wasted bros, young and old, yeah thanks, but no thanks.

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One year when I was living in New York City, I went out at night and was getting more and more pissed everywhere I went because I couldn’t figure out why there were so many douchebag bros everywhere I went. It actually took me a couple hours and a few bars to realize it was St. Patrick’s Day. About ten seconds after my “Ahhhhhh, FUCK!” moment, I bounced the hell out, ran to the subway, and zipped home as fast as I could.

That being said, while in my opinion there is not much to love about the holiday, there is MUCH to love about Irish people and Irish culture. The first time I ever met an Actually Irish Person was at a pub in a small town in Germany when I was 19. It was your standard fare Irish pub, small, wooden furnishings, a husband and wife acoustic duo playing on stage. I ended up chatting with a bearded Irish man in his 50s and his gorgeous blonde wife who was probably around 35.

Two things stand out to me from that conversation. One was when he put his arm around me and said “Son, if yeh ever want to learn how to drink and fight, come to Ireland and I’ll show yeh.” He was a pretty warm, friendly guy, and I’m pretty sure this was a serious offer. The second is a very strange and funny scenario that happened upon our parting. As I was leaving, his lusty, busty, gorgeous wife gave me a long, warm, dare I say sensual good night hug, which positively tingled my young virginal body with delight from head to toe. And I’m sure she knew it. After holding and squeezing my quivering, frail body for a few seconds, she smiled and let me go. When I then went over to her husband and shook his hand, he gave me a hearty handshake, smiled his big friendly smile, said something about how good it was to meet me, and then, still holding our handshake, lightly punched me in the jaw and said “And stop looking at me wife like that!!!” before laughing like a bear and pulling me in for a hug.

If that’s not Irish, I don’t know what is…

Many years later, when I was in my early 30s, I dated an Irish cop for awhile. Gráinne was the very definition of a bad ass bitch. How was she bad ass? Oh, let me count the ways. First, I should relate the story of how we met. I was drinking at my favorite neighborhood bar in New York, sitting alone and relaxing. I saw her and was just dumbstruck by her beauty. She was your classic Irish beauty, tall, slender, dark haired and fairest skinned. She also had a presence, an aura, a magnetism. She was with some friends, and it would have been the height of uncouthness to approach her this way. So, being sly, when I noticed one of her friends walking back into the bar after having a smoke outside, I gently touched her arm to get her attention, and said “I think your friend is gorgeous, can I ask if she’s single?” She told me that she was, indeed, recently single, divorced in fact. BUT, the group of people she was hanging out with were her husband’s friends, so unless I enjoyed receiving a good beatdown behind the bar, I should very much stay away from her tonight. So I just said “Well, tell her I think she’s amazing, and if she’d like to talk to me, let me know.” Not long after, her friend returned with a slip of paper and said “She likes you, she said to call her.” My heart went utterly aflutter.

So besides being gorgeous and having a magical aura, why was Gráinne so bad ass? Well first of all, she was married to a man for a long time, working and paying the bills while he went to medical school. I learned that she was divorcing him just as he was about to graduate. To me that speaks very highly of her honor, integrity, and self-respect. I don’t know if there are many women, or men for that matter, who would support a spouse through something as challenging as medical school, and when they feel it’s not working out for them, leave just before the payout, so to speak. This is really a high-caliber person sort of thing to do. I think that most people, even if they thought divorce was inevitable, would have lied to themselves and their loved ones for at least a few years in the expectation of more favorable terms should the divorce come to pass. I really can’t say enough about how much I respected her for this move. To this day this is one of the most honorable things I’ve seen a person do.

The other thing that made her so bad ass was her unicorn-like combination of beauty and toughness. She was all of 5’10”, yoga-slender, ephemeral…and also a New York City cop, working midnights in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. I must now relate another story that conveys both her beauty and her integrity. She was approached by a modeling agent at one point in her 20s, and picked up to model for Versace for a bit. She made about $25,000 that month. But she only lasted a month. She said the models were as shallow and vapid as you’d expect them to be, and being a smart chick, could not stand being around, in her words, “those dumb bitches” all day. So she quit. Again I ask, would you quit a high status, lucrative modeling job because you were annoyed by the people you were working with? Let me answer for you: NO. I sure as hell wouldn’t. I might tough it out for a few years and sock some cash away, but I’m pretty sure that’s a move I would not make.

On the other side of the coin of her beauty was her toughness. She would often text or call me at 3 or 4 in the morning telling me about how she just chased down and tackled some drug dealer in Washington Heights, or had to fight a guy who was resisting arrest. She absolutely loved that aspect of her job, and was thrilled every time it happened. She also used to send me texts from the gun range about how firing her pistol turned her on, how shooting a gun was so erotic, and could she please come over in an hour. I got an unusual number of texts from her about her guns, sometimes mentioning what a pain it was driving between states with her pistol underneath her seat, talking about her favorite gun and asking what was mine, or some other quirk about gun use and ownership. She was an ephemeral fairy who liked to fight drug dealers and was in love with her guns.

How this all relates to St. Patrick’s Day is one of the best comments she ever made when I took her to my favorite Irish pub, on 72nd street. It was an off night, say a Tuesday perhaps. We were chilling in a corner eating and drinking at a table, and in walked a gaggle of bros wearing green and being all “We’re so wild, and so IIIIIIRISH!!!!” She looked at them the way you’d look at a maggot in your cheese and said “I fookin’ HATE plastic patties….” I had never heard this term before. After I stopped crying from laughter, I had to ask her what a plastic patty is. A plastic patty is someone who’s not FROM Ireland, but is more Irish than any person who actually IS. This is fucking brilliant, and perfectly describes what it is that I personally hate about St. Patrick’s Day, and many Irish pubs in general. For me, to be on a date with the most quintessentially Irish woman I could imagine, and hear this coming out of her mouth, followed by a litany of profanities, was the most wonderful thing that could happen to me.

I’ve since met other fine folks from Ireland while out and about, but these experiences are the ones that made me really develop a love and fondness for Irish people and Irish culture. While I find the whole get-up about the holiday pretty shallow and fabricated, I do love that the Irish people have a rich culture, a sense of honor and tradition, and most of all, a sense of humor. If I ever find myself invited to celebrate with true Irish people on this day, then you can absolutely count me in. Until then, you can summarize my feelings on St. Patrick’s Day as this:

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone, have fun out there!

 

Are Farmers Capitalists or Socialists?

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This is a question that’s been on my mind for a long time.

Typically, when you envision an American farmer or farming family, you tend to picture rugged individual, self-reliant, conservative types, who pride themselves on knowing how to survive with minimal interaction with the outside world. Partly, it’s our strong and primordial emotional reaction of respect and admiration for growing your own food, the aura of grit and independence that radiates from such an endeavor and lifestyle. Partly it’s the romantic mythology of our agrarian past, both from our actual history and from its longstanding portrayal in American culture.

But there is another side to American farming that is much less discussed, and far less romantic: government subsidies. In 2020 alone, the government paid out around $46 billion dollars in farm subsidies. Just over $35 billion of that was for “emergency aid” to help bolster farms struggling with the economic effects of Covid (without even vetting the allocations based on need, of course, like most government programs). But the rest, over $10 billion, was for “traditional farm subsidies that were already in place.”

A theme that you’ll notice from me, from the very beginning and which you’ll see more and more over time, is that I believe in principles, and in philosophical consistency. And I expect that from everyone, from you, from me, “my side,” “the other side,” without exception. I consider it a requirement for me to view an individual, a group of people, or an organization as rational actors who can be engaged logically on a topic, and who can be given the benefit of the doubt as being generally fair and reasonable. And I will hold the people and groups with whom I align to the same standard, I will expect them to be logical, principled, and consistent just like everyone else. Which is why I have to call out as unprincipled and myopically selfish any person or interest group who asks or lobbies for government handouts and corporate bailouts, no matter which party they’re in, no matter how they vote, and no matter how much people hate me for it.

A true capitalist, a true adherent of free markets, and in my opinion, a true believer in the American philosophy of self-sovereignty and self-reliance, would not believe in or advocate for subsidies or bailouts for businesses, of any kind. This is no less true for a farmer than for a banker or someone engaged in any other type of business.

I would say this to a farmer or any other businessperson who thinks that they’re entitled to corporate subsidies or government bailouts: if you think you are entitled to them, then why not the guy who runs the sandwich shop down the street, the restaurant that just closed, or the bank that needs a billion dollar bailout? If we make an allowance for you and your business, we have to make one for everyone. If you have a right to a government subsidy, then so does everyone else involved in every other type of business. And now you have justified unlimited government expansion and interference with the free market, and all of the unintended and nasty consequences, like the government picking winners and losers, like central planners directing the behavior of businesses through financial incentives, and like bureaucrats punishing businesses or industries they disapprove of by cutting off their funds. You justify and unleash the full force of Leviathan if you can justify it for yourself to subsidize your business.

So are farmers capitalists or socialists? For me, this question usually comes to mind when the topic of health, sodas, and high fructose corn syrup comes up. By now, everyone knows that the cause of our obesity epidemic is the processed carbs and sugars that are the unfortunate staples of the American diet for most people. I’m a free market person, and I by no means want the government telling us what to eat or drink or do with our lives, not by “educating” us, or by force. (Side note: do you trust government education and social engineering? If you do, I would ask why, and ask you to think about the government’s track record of societal programming and reconsider). I want no part of Bloombergian soda bans or calorie counts. Not only do they do no good and have no practical effect, they are an untoward imposition on people’s liberty. Freedom means, it has to mean, the freedom to do dumb things and make bad choices as well as to do smart things and make good choices. These sorts laws also impose yet another undue compliance burden on businesses, another unnecessary cost that diverts resources from investing in research, improvements, and employees.

But at the same time, I admit that if we could snap our fingers and make soda or high fructose corn syrup disappear, it would go a long way towards improving people’s weight and health (assuming no replacement was found, etc…this is a utopian hypothetical, so we can imagine a single factor changing without having any other factors change in response, which is useful for thought experiments, but does not happen in the real world). Right now, a main if not the main culprit that is destroying people’s health in America is high fructose corn syrup, sweetening everything from soda to bread to yogurt to granola bars. It’s used as a sweetener because it’s a cheaper substitute for sugar, and because for taste purposes we do need at least a little bit of sweetener in most of our processed foods. And while a little bit of it seems to be in almost everything, it is of course far more concentrated in snacks, candy, and soda, which Americans consume far too much of.

So when I’m discussing health and obesity with my friends, the first obvious policy step when working on this issue is: stop subsidizing high fructose corn syrup. And while we’re at it, why not stop subsidizing, well, everything? In fact, the inspiration to write this article came from a snippet a friend sent me this week:

I’m not saying it’s a magic bullet, or that it would solve all our problems. But it’s an easy and obvious first step to try. And why wouldn’t we?

The answer to that is: the farmer’s lobby.

When you look into the matter, you get varying estimates on how much the U.S. spends on farm subsidies every year, ranging from $10 billion in the article I linked to above, to $14 billion, to $20 billion. In a longer view, we see that in a 15 year span $170 billion was spent in aggregate on these subsidies, and in a 25 year span, $116 billion on corn subsidies alone. Now I’m not getting into the weeds on farm subsidies, and for the purposes of this analysis, there’s no need to. As someone else said so eloquently, “The inner workings of subsidy programs is a subject best left to PhD economists.” We don’t need to know the details of these subsidies to know that they distort the marketplace and the choices that individuals and businesses would make if left to decide their preferences and best interests themselves.

The point that I’m making is that the very existence of these subsidies is anti-free-market, anti-self-sovereignty, and if you want to be dramatic about it (and why not?), anti-American. It is also apparent that the cost of these subsidies is not insignificant, year over year, and cumulatively over time. As the saying goes, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” There is real money on the table here for farm subsidies, and the ethical and economic questions surrounding this practice affect our pocketbooks, distort the market, and incentivize public consumption and business production of patently unhealthy goods.

As an average taxpaying citizen, not involved in farming or distribution of agricultural goods, I am opposed to government subsidies of farms just as much as banks or any other business (and I hope you are too). As a free market, economics-minded conservative, I am opposed to these subsidies on principle as much as I am on pragmatism (i.e. I would still oppose them if the cost were trivial).

My question is: if you are a farmer, or involved in the distribution of agricultural goods, are you willing to reject the idea of corporatism and government subsidies for your industry, just as much as for any other, and if you’re not, are you honest and transparent enough to admit that you prefer socialism for thee, and capitalism for me?

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Remembering Rush

In 1996, I was a 21 year old junior enlisted MP deployed to Croatia and Bosnia to enforce the Dayton Accords under the NATO peace treaty. Some of the words I would use to describe myself at the time are the same I would use now: “Political.” “Opinionated.” “Argumentative.” “Extroverted.” One word I would not use to describe myself today that applied then is: “Liberal.”

For those who know me just a little, or who only know my writing, this may seem surprising if not downright shocking. But I have chronicled my transformation from a dedicated Democrat to recalcitrant Republican before. What’s even more strange about this story is how fundamentally different a person I was back then apart from mere politics: imagine me, the me you know and read now, minus 25 years of getting my ass kicked by life, minus the humility that age, mistakes and being wrong about any number of things has taught me. In other words: imagine the worst possible version of me, young, arrogant, full of myself, a supremely confident know-it-all. Or to put it another way: an average 21 year old.

Right about then, as I was deployed working long hours 7 days a week, with little to do when not actively patrolling a supply route, escorting a convoy, or guarding a blown up bridge, I needed reading material, desperately, and my Main Man From Minnesota, Al Franken, offered me just the sort of thing I was looking for: Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.

At the time I knew as much about Rush Limbaugh as most of his critics know today: basically, that he’s like, a big fat idiot, who says dumb stuff, and is, you know, really offensive. And is hateful because, you know, he’s a conservative a-hole, & stuff. That about covered it.

Of course, I had never listened to him. Why would I? Like I said, I thought I already knew everything about him, so I didn’t have to stoop to listening to what he said to know he was wrong, that he was dumb, and that I hated him. Of course, this was in The Before Time when you literally could not listen to someone on the radio or watch someone on tv unless you caught them live in the act, so it’s not like I could have just gone to YouTube and looked up what he said that day, or any day, on any subject, or just browse his content to see what he was about. I just knew what I heard in the news outlets I listened to and read, snippets of outrageous or offensive things that happened to make the news when I happened to catch it. But I knew enough to have a pretty strong opinion of him. We didn’t use the word “trending” in The Before Time, but the concept and phenomenon were still the same, just with different media.

Now on this deployment, I had a good friend, one of the sergeants in my platoon, who was in some respects my political mirror image. If I was a snarky, atheist liberal, he was a sincere, christian conservative. While we were deployed together for nearly a year, we talked about politics a lot, and were kind of the political wonks or nerds of the platoon. And since it was an election year, we had a lot of good material to discuss, debating Clinton vs. Dole vs. Perot (I was ardently pro-Clinton, but I also as a rule like outsiders and anti-establishment types, so was open to listening to Perot and hearing arguments for him). Also, while my book from Al Franken was keeping me company during downtime and after patrols, he happened to have with him on our deployment a book by the subject of Franken’s mockery: Rush Limbaugh’s second book, See I Told You So.

I don’t remember whose idea it was, I honestly think it was his, because I’m pretty sure it would never occur to me to read something by a person I’d already completely made up my mind about, and I’m also equally certain I would have been horrified by the idea and laughed in someone’s face if they suggested it (in fact I think I might have). But in any case, me and my Republican friend did something rare in any age of politics, and certainly virtually unheard of now: in a truly gentlemanly exchange of ideas, we agreed to read each other’s Rush Limbaugh books, and dedicate the time to read an entire book by someone diametrically opposed to us politically, and of course, discuss it afterwards.

I can’t say that reading his book entirely changed my mind about Limbaugh, or suddenly made me conservative, or even changed my opinion about any particular political topic. But what it did do was something maybe more important: it humanized him to me, it made me see him as a fully-dimensional human being, instead of the partisan caricature I had been holding in my mind of who Rush was as a person. It turned him, in my mind, from a simple political punching bag, representing not just himself but the entire political right that I disagreed with, but a person with strengths, weaknesses, intelligence, and flaws, just like any of us.

It was an important step for my own personal development as a human being, in forcing myself to listen to someone I very easily could say I “hated” as a person and political figure before I had done this, someone I considered vile and loathsome, and not really worthy of thinking of or listening to as a human being. I think this is a very important step that everyone can take to understand people who may seem entirely alien to them based on their view of the world, which is usually based on politics these days, but it can easily apply to someone of a different class, from a different part of the country, or with different interests.

The thing that stood out most to me was Limbaugh’s brutally self-critical honesty about his journey to broadcasting fame. It’s been a long time, and I don’t have the book handy, but something he said really stood out to me and has stuck with me through the years. To paraphrase, it began something like this:

I’ve had many different jobs, and many different careers…and I failed at all of them. I had been fired from almost every job I ever had [he listed maybe five of them], and I started to gain a suspicion that I had no talents to speak of with which I could have a successful professional career or even gainful employment.

In what I thought was a very open and vulnerable passage, detailing at length his many professional failures (which couldn’t have been that far behind him when this book was written), and his personal sense of complete worthlessness, feeling that he had no talent and nothing to offer, he went on to conclude in the following way:

I began to work in overnight radio programs, the only gig I could get, and I would say a few words or make a few comments about current events in the middle of the night and in the morning at the end of my shift as people were driving to work. I eventually started taking calls and having discussions with callers, many of whom disagreed with me or were angry about what I had said, some of whom wanted to actually fight and argue with me. It was then that I discovered that I do have one talent: insulting people. For some reason, for better or worse, this is my gift and my talent.

Of course that is a vast simplification and paraphrase, but to me, that was a startlingly human and relatable moment, and I was impressed with the fact that he was willing to be that open and say that about himself, both admitting that about himself as a human being, and being frank about the true cause of his personal success. I thought then and think now that is an incredibly brave and impressive thing to do. If you don’t agree, ask yourself this: how willing would you be to publicize the most embarrassing thing about yourself, your deepest flaw as a human being? Is that something you think you would be willing to do, especially in a book that will be read by millions, talked about by millions more, in an environment where you have millions of enemies who hate you and who live to destroy you? This one part of the book made me respect him as a man, even if I still believed that all of his political ideas were insane.

I think a modern equivalent of this sort of exercise could be what I call “The Donald Trump Challenge,” in which I ask people who hate Donald Trump to say three nice things about him, or three things he’s done right as president. To me, this kind of question gets to the heart of people’s willingness to see a political opponent, or even a legitimate political enemy, as a human being. A corollary for myself would be my one-sentence opinion of Barack Obama: “He’s a really nice, cool guy who’s a good family man and who I would love to hang out with, who has terrible, naive, misguided political beliefs.” The form is a little bit different, but the point is I can say several nice things about Barack Obama as a person, and even a few as a politician, even though I vehemently oppose his overall worldview, politics, and agenda. It’s important to me to do this, for myself as a human being, to keep a sense of perspective that politics is not everything, and to force myself to see my political opponent as a person too. I find it personally important to be able to prove to myself, on an ongoing basis, that I can see my political opponents as people, and find what common ground there is with someone I disagree with like Barack Obama, and not just view him as a faceless, one-dimensional enemy. I want to know that I can still see a president whose politics I hate as a real person, and forcing myself to think about things I like about him is something I can do to help prove that to myself (besides, you know, voting for him against my own party in 2008).

Apart from reading this one book of his, I was never a lifelong “Dittohead” or Rush follower. I didn’t listen to him on a regular basis, or read his regular columns. But there is another aspect of his persona and his work that stood out to me: his near limitless capacity to inspire outrage among his critics and enemies. Perhaps this helped prepare me for Donald Trump, but I long ago dispensed with being shocked and outraged by what media personalities say. I had an important realization on this topic when I was attending college in New York in my mid-20s, when some campus controversy had sprung up about Ann Coulter. She had been invited to speak at my campus, and, predictably, there was a group of students who were “outraged!” and “offended!” that she was even allowed to speak, and somewhere around that time, someone had tried to pie her in the face at another school.

I don’t know how you miss this, I guess I had until then, but it’s really very, very obvious once you point it out: when a media personality, whether a political pundit like Rush Limbaugh or a shock jock like Don Imus or Howard Stern says something “outrageous” that “offends” people, and a million articles start circulating about the “terrible!” and “insensitive!” things they said: that’s the bloody point. That’s what they’re trying to do. It’s such transparent manipulation, it’s kind of embarrassing when you take just one step back and look at it. Creating shock and outrage is what they do, it’s part of the formula.

I’m not in their heads, but it seems pretty apparent that these situations and comments are entirely calculated, that these folks are saying things they know are “offensive” (to some people) in order to provoke outrage, create some heat, get people talking about them (“get clicks” these days), and to promote themselves. It’s just a big media game, where the “offensive” person makes some news, the “news” outlets and pundits get their ready-made talking points for the day, the “offender” gets mountains of free publicity, and the “shocked and outraged!” columnists and pundits get some easy, ready-made content where all they have to do is talk about how people are offended, maybe run a short clip of the “controversial” content, talk to a guest about why it’s offensive and just how offensive it is, and *BAM*: you have x number of pre-packaged minutes of cut & paste content, possibly hours spread throughout a 24 hour news cycle, or over the course of a few days or a week. I’m not in the media business, but it frankly just seems like a big, transparent game when you look at it that way.

Once I noticed this pattern (the comments, the outrage, the media talking about it, the “controversy of the minute” with my friends, the demand for cancellation or apology, etc.), I really just stopped caring about any of it. And whenever Rush or anyone else said something offensive, and I’d see articles about it or hear my liberal friends talking about “Did you hear what RUSH said this week??,” I just wanted to ask them “Don’t you feel silly, when he deliberately says something to offend you and get you talking about him, then you spend a week running around like a chicken with its head cut off doing exactly what he wants you to do??” It’s like people couldn’t help themselves but react exactly how he wanted them to react, and do exactly what he wanted them to do: talk about him. Once I realized what a calculated ploy it was, I could no longer take any of the outrageous comments Rush or any of the others made seriously. Would you take Howard Stern seriously when he says something gross or offensive, or would you know that he’s doing it on purpose to get a reaction out of people and generate some publicity? It’s interesting to me that people on the left who would mock the outrage of conservatives and could see the obviousness of the ploy when done by Howard Stern fell right into the trap for Rush Limbaugh, and vice-versa.

One final point: as I admitted above, I was never really a big consumer of Rush Limbaugh, so as I got older and learned to be more circumspect with my opinions, I refrained from having an opinion about him, as I do now on all topics about which I know little or nothing. But there was a point about ten years ago where my curiosity got the better of me, and I spent some time reading some articles written by Rush and Ann Coulter. You know what I found? They were really good writers, really smart people, and they made really tight, highly logical arguments. All things you would never know if all you know about them was some offensive comments you heard about in the news. When you take the time to actually read their arguments, they are far more intelligent and nuanced than a handful of prime-time soundbites. What I gathered from reading their articles was that their formula for writing was something like this:

*Headline
*Argument
*Supporting Facts
*[insert some hyperbole or offensive comment or terminology to trigger liberals]
*Summary
*Conclusion

It seemed like that was pretty much it: in every well-formed, intelligent political article about immigration, or health care, or taxes, there was a pre-made section designed to insult or offend liberals, like it was literally in the format of the outline or Word document. You may think it’s gross, or less than classy, I might not to do it in my own writing, but ask yourself this: did it work? I think the results speak for themselves, in their notoriety, their influence, and in their bank accounts. And in the very fact that we’re here talking about them, right now.

It’s not the most high-minded approach, but then again, I’ll bet neither is most of the news you consume. A writer hates to use cliches (a cliche in itself, I’m so meta), but I think this the perfect time to use the expression “It is what it is.” Human beings are just not always high-minded, or sophisticated, in our news and media consumption as much as in anything else. That’s our social and political reality, as much as our media reality. But if you take the time to really investigate the arguments of a person like Rush Limbaugh, you will find a lot more intelligence, nuance, sophistication, and humanity than you would expect as a mere headline-consumer of news. But really, who does that anymore? And who really did that to begin with? Rush Limbaugh gave conservatives what they wanted, cogent arguments for their positions, red meat in his rants against liberals, and a voice to a worldview many could not express for themselves. And he gave liberals what they wanted, a conservative boogeyman to rage against, and to caricature all conservatives with by his worst, most public, most offensive comments. So in a way, you could say that he did as much for liberals as he did for conservatives, that he was as important to them as he was to his fans.

Rush’s larger-than-life influence on politics and media is well-known, and has been well-chronicled by people far more familiar with his work and better qualified than I. But being a politically interested American in the last 30 years, I could not help but have been touched by his influence and his work, and I just wanted to share some of my own thoughts and experiences with his influence. I think the only thing I can comment or ask further at this point is: who will take his place in the domain of our politics, if anyone?

RIP to a great American.

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