Mimsy Were the Borogoves

The Best of Mike Royko: One More Time—Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

Mike Royko is the proverbial study in contrasts. Pretty much his entire career was built on showing how government doesn’t work. Government is always captured by the powerful, not against the weak, because the weak don’t have anything worth taking, but against the middle.

“We’re supposed to take it on faith,” he said, about the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, “that this agency does its job.” He said the same thing in different words pretty much about every government agency that crossed his pen.

It isn’t surprising that Royko didn’t look to Republicans for solutions: at the time, Republicans meant people like Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, who were more progressive—more for big government—than Democrats. But he should have known better once Reagan was elected instead of somehow claiming that Reagan was wrong, and that the system that produced Leroy Bailey’s Veterans Administration and John Karpowicz’s Chicago should be given more unconditional power.

Yes, the Veterans Administration hospital system, that the left was praising just a few years ago in order to push the ACA on us. Mike Royko knew it was a mess of government sloth over forty years ago. And the very next article in this collection makes fun of Chicago politicians who say that the city government works, when instead it ignores hard problems (crime) and hounds the middle class when they are victimized by either crime from below or crime from above.

Mind you, Leroy Bailey was when Nixon was president. When it came to Democratic politicians, Royko tended to be more forgiving of government corruption. In Whitewater Almost Too Far Out There, he argued that the Clinton scandals were just what everybody did, and that the “McGoofy Group” talking about it should just talk about baseball instead. And then, after Representative Dan Rostenkowski was convicted of felony graft and illegal use of taxpayer money, Royko wrote, in Rostenkowski’s Sin Was Not Changing with the Times that graft was really a good thing. It was how politicians got things done for the little person. Royko writes that “The rules keep changing. Things we could once say or think are now taboo.” Which, while true, misses the point: paying people for jobs they never do and taking bribes may be common in Chicago, but for the rest of the United States we realized it was wrong back when Tammany Hall was busted.

Royko himself realized it when writing about Republicans. Nixon, for example, deserved whatever he got for his own corruption, and “the Republicans” deserved scorn for attending the same lavish balls that Democrats had during the Carter, LBJ, and Kennedy years.

We the Living—Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

I have now read two Ayn Rand books. Despite her reputation for tedium and flat characters, I found both The Fountainhead, which I read several years ago, and We the Living, which I just finished, to be very engaging works with very compelling characters.

The Fountainhead certainly had an ideological bent, but We the Living does not. Yes, it paints a poor picture of Soviet Communism, but that’s because the truth paints a poor picture of communism. From the eastern to western hemispheres communist governments have meant deprivation, tyranny, and fear.

The Fountainhead is an exaggerated view of people who really exist and whose motives seem unfathomable to those of us who have to live with them in power. We the Living makes little attempt to fathom motives. It shows the communists as they actually existed—some idealistic, some opportunistic, all harming the people they claim to be working to save.

We the Living is about three extraordinarily human people living through the soul-crushing chains of socialism: one person who helped create it to help the world, one who simply wishes to live well through it, and one who wants to survive it either by outliving it or escaping to freedom. Because the outside world, despite protestations to the contrary, mostly believed in the power of planned economies, all of the characters fail and succeed in their own way. No one outside Russia will help them.

We the Living is Rand’s first novel, after working for several years in Hollywood, and it is very different from The Fountainhead, which is either her second or third novel depending on how you count it. Where The Fountainhead echoed its main character’s spare and soaring lines, We the Living is filled with lush images of the pain and degradation that followed the socialist revolution in Russia.1

The Tyranny of Clichés—Monday, May 25th, 2015

The subtitle is “How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas” but it’s really “How politicians cheat in the war of ideas”. I’m not going to say it’s an equal-opportunity cliché-killer, because it isn’t. Goldberg focuses his analysis on the left. But he acknowledges that many of these “placeholders for arguments not won, ideas not fully understood” are used by politicians regardless of ideology.

His choice to focus on the left is that outspoken progressives tend to claim not to have an ideology more often than outspoken conservatives, who acknowledge their ideology and argue from it. The left often tries to claim that their ideology is simply the default position, and that only other positions are ideologies.

For example, in the introduction, discussing the progressive belief that “laws and words have no binding power on future generations, [living constitution, for example] but once Team Progressive puts points on the scoreboard, they can never come off”, in the context of someone saying that social security is a covenant that cannot be broken no matter what, Goldberg writes:

There is nothing wrong and a great deal that is right with having ideological convictions. What is offensive to logic, culturally pernicious, and, yes, infuriating to me is the claim that it is not an ideological tenet. Progressives lie to themselves and the world about this fact. They hide their ideological agenda within Trojan Horse clichés and smug assertions that they are simply pragmatists, fact finders, and empiricists who are clearheaded slaves to “what works.”

He starts his examples with Voltaire’s most famous dictum:

There’s a kind of argument-that-isn’t-an-argument that vexes me… I’ve spoken to a lot of college audiences… During the Q&A session after my speech [a serious student] will say something like “Mr. Goldberg, I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Then he will sit down, and the audience will applaud…

…the kid is almost surely lying. He’ll take a bullet for me? Really?

Clichés like these are a way to earn bravery on the cheap, defending principles you haven’t thought through or perhaps only vaguely support. Or, heck, maybe he really would leap on a grenade so I could finish talking about how stupid high-speed rail is.

It would be interesting to try them out on their assertion: have someone bring out a gun and see if the student jumps in front of Mr. Goldberg. I’m going to go with Goldberg on this: I don’t think they would.

At my most cynical, I think they’d applaud the grenade—or at least start blaming Goldberg himself for its explosive nature.

All the President’s Men—Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

There is probably no event more foundational to the modern journalist’s self-image than that of Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post, shoe-leathering out the connections between a failed burglary and the President of the United States. All the President’s Men is an engaging and workmanlike look at what kind of shoe leather and stratagems were necessary (and what were, sometimes, unnecessary and, in retrospect, unreasonable) to get at the facts of the case: how the Committee to Reelect the President, with the explicit authority of President Nixon, broke some of the basic laws of both the country and general decency in order to ensure the reelection of the President and then to cover up their actions.

It’s a powerful story, and has entered the cultural lexicon mainly through the movie based on it.

One of the first things that struck me while reading the book is that the movie followed the book fairly accurately. Reading it after seeing the movie, it’s obvious when entering a section that made it into the film. Obviously the film had to cut stuff, and move a few things around, but what it kept, it didn’t significantly change.1

The other thing that struck me is just how deeply Woodward and Bernstein’s story have entered the national consciousness. Early in the book, describing how the Post works, they write:

The invariable question, asked only half-mockingly of reporters by editors at the Post (and then up the hierarchical line of editors) was “What have you done for me today?” Yesterday was for the history books, not newspapers.

That line was used verbatim when Jerry Hathaway discusses Chris Knights shortcomings in the great Real Genius.2

There are also some good tricks in here for investigative journalism. For example, the Washington Post had printed that one of the bugging participants had not yet been disclosed and had been granted immunity. Bernstein didn’t know who it was, but one of the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP) people he was trying to get information from thought he did. She kept guessing names. Bernstein, rather than let her know he didn’t know, just kept saying, no, it wasn’t him, and was able to then get the names of people this person thought it might be.

The definitional war on satire—Thursday, May 14th, 2015
Censor Charlie Hebdo

“It is necessary to censor satire,” saith the anointed.

When I started The Walkerville Weekly Readerback in January of 20001 I did so partly because I knew that satire was in for trouble. I’d already written in What Your Children are Doing on the Information Highway that there was no satire so crazy that someone, somewhere, wouldn’t believe it, and that the Internet ensured that that gullible someone would in fact read it.

My formula was and remains pretty simple: start with something that might, maybe, be true, and slowly bring the pot to boiling until the final line is completely ridiculous. Basically, juxtapose actions and intentions2; then, throw in a pop-culture reference or two.

Many satire sites make a good living doing nothing more than repeating real-world actions, comparing them to a person or organization’s stated goals, and then constructing the logical conclusion—perhaps tossing in obscure pop-culture references at the same time.

We here at the Reader wouldn’t know anything about that, as we do not make a good living.

What I did not understand was that the elite would start questioning the very purpose of satire. Certainly, I understood and understand that many people dislike the idea, but I would never have expected to see the following description of when satire is appropriate:

Normally satirical works would be welcome on our marketplaces. However, we feel that there are situations where satire is inappropriate. For example, we do not think that a game released today that satirizes police killings of minorities in the USA would be appropriate. Regardless of how one feels about an issue like that, we feel that it is too current, too emotionally charged on both sides, and too related to real-world violence or death to make it an appropriate matter for satire.

If satire is inappropriate for current events that people care about, there is no purpose to satire. If satire is only appropriate after debate has ended on a topic, then what is the use of it?

Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine—Thursday, April 30th, 2015

While the book is framed with the intern scandal, and Kurtz does include some of the administration’s stonewalling on the other potential presidential sex scandals, the thrust of his analysis is the long-running fundraising scandal.

Spin Cycle was published in 1998, which means it mostly predates the Lewinsky scandal, which is too bad because that was the Clinton’s finest spin, when they convinced feminists to support an abusive boss, Democrats to vilify a young woman, and reporters to ignore scandal and report as if the prosecution was the scandal.

It is an insider’s view, literally. Kurtz describes the world through what he takes as the view of each participant, giving both Clinton spinmeisters and press a charitable reading. With the benefit of hindsight this isn’t quite as effective now as it probably was in 1998. The same press that he characterized as feeling “guilty for not stumbling on the finance scandal until just before the election” and so allowing Clinton and Gore to delay until after the election, deliberately and blatantly ignored the Obama credit card scandal until the fifth of never two cycles later.

The Clintons pioneered some unique defenses, defenses that only really work if the press is with you. For example, when Dick Morris was caught having had—and ignored—an illegitimate child, they simply refused to talk about whether the President, who had voiced “strong concern about child support” (read: deadbeat dads) knew anything about Morris’s troubles.

…the press secretary’s ploy paid off. Unable to confirm that Clinton knew of the relationship… none of the networks reported on Morris’s triple life. Nor did the New York Times or the L.A. Times or USA Today… Now that reporters knew the president had knowingly employed a political strategist who had fathered an illegitimate child—well, it was old news.”

“Old news”, however, doesn’t work if the media doesn’t play along.

The Clinton administration also used time-honored strategies, such as blatant threats. For example, there was a charge that “Craig Livingstone, a low-level White House aide… had once issued a memo chastising White House staffers for writing bad checks.” New York Post Reporter Deborah Orin asked about this memo at one of the “gaggles”, morning briefings at the White House, and was brushed off as having come from a proven unreliable source.

The Best of Omni Science Fiction No. 2—Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

I bought this magazine-sized collection of Omni fiction mostly out of nostalgia—while I loved reading Omni back in the day, and always looked forward to the next issue, I was never impressed by its fiction. Unlike its sister publication, which of course one bought for the articles, Omni was famous for its graphics and its science interviews and articles. Of all the science fiction I remember reading from that era as really affecting me—David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz come to mind, as well as pretty much the entire contents of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame—none are from Omni. But I also considered that perhaps they were simply over my then very young head and that they would thus be more interesting now; and also, of course, that this, being the best of Omni, would indeed be worth reading.

But Robert Sheckley’s introduction did not bode well. Sheckley was smarter than this:

Before the Eighties we lived in an apparently inexhaustible earth; now the end of our resources is in sight… American hegemony in space, once taken for granted, is now uncertain as the Russians move ahead of us in the exploration of space.

Malthus and Malthusians had been talking up the end of our resources since 1798 and science fiction has taken up Malthusian pessimism almost since it existed—from the moment Morlocks began feeding on Eloi.

In more modern science fiction I have, sitting right next to this collection in my to-read pile, Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! from 1966, so obscure it was turned into the oft-quoted 1973 movie Soylent Green, in which, spoiler, the end of our resources results, yet again, in humans feeding on humans.1

And if “American hegemony in space” had ever been “taken for granted”, it must have been a very temporary window in the seventies—the space race began with the Russians snagging an early lead on us. And the fear remained even during and after Apollo that they might be ahead of us on the military applications of satellites and space travel while we were focused on moon landings and Tang.

Dr. Kookie, You’re Right!—Monday, April 6th, 2015

Dr. Kookie, You’re Right! includes a smattering of Royko’s Chicago Tribune pieces from 1984 through 1989. This would be immediately following his leaving the Sun-Times because he couldn’t stand working for Rupert Murdoch. In order to avoid working for Murdoch, he went to work for the “conservative” Chicago daily, and I have a suspicion his work here is extra-shrill because he wanted to distance himself from the paper for which he’d once promised he would never work.

But even given that there is a lot in here that makes me realize Royko was part of the Democratic media machine, at least nationally. At one point he takes Reagan to task for praising Truman and FDR on the national campaign trail rather than, say, Lincoln. Nowadays, I recognize that Republicans praising Lincoln for being a Republican is mostly unreported because it is against narrative. The press seems to want to think Lincoln was a Democrat. So it is possible that the same media filter was active in the eighties.

Royko, however, blames this praise for Truman and FDR on a racist Southern strategy; he does this in a passive-aggressive way to make it harder to call Royko on the accusation. But this was more likely a Democrat strategy, to the extent that it was a strategy at all. You don’t get Democrats to vote for you by praising Republicans. You get there by praising Democrats. And while, certainly, in those parts of the South where Democrats still dominated racism still abided, attracting them by praising Truman and FDR hardly seems egregious.

But take Royko at face value that hidden racism was worth mentioning. A few essays later, Royko talks about Senator Byrd. Now, I had no idea Byrd founded his own KKK chapter until long after the eighties, when the Internet ran an end-run around the media. But it wasn’t a secret from the media. Royko doesn’t go against narrative here either; he simply doesn’t mention it. Real racism by Democrats is less important than manufacturing racism by Republicans.

I remember Royko as more independent than this, and checking the previous collection on my shelf, my memory isn’t deceiving me. Of course, in Chicago, if you’re going to criticize politicians you have to criticize Democrats, because that’s who runs Chicago, especially in the era of the Daley machine. But this book was disappointing compared to Sez Who? Sez Me and Like I Was Sayin’. His criticism of national Republicans vs. national Democrats seems much more blatant in this selection.

Older posts.