Impromptus

Up with Kevin, Part III

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger has been writing about Kevin D. Williamson’s new book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure. (Available here.) For the first two parts of this series, go here and here. We conclude today.

There is a PBS slogan, or was: “If PBS doesn’t do it, who will?” Kevin suggests, “If the Pentagon doesn’t do it, who will?” That is “a fair question,” he says. Privatizing the U.S. military would be problematic.

Discoursing on the subject “What Government Is For,” Kevin says,

It would be impractical (and ugly) to try to fence off all of a city’s sidewalks and charge a dime at a turnstile for their use . . . Likewise, we cannot really exclude somebody from the protection of a missile-defense system . . .

I have been talking about something for a long time, and writing about it. Let me find an instance and paste. Okay, here’s one:

I remember back in the Reagan ’80s, when little places like my [hometown of] Ann Arbor, Mich., were declaring themselves “nuclear-free zones.” I used to think, “Yeah, but the American nuclear deterrent protects you regardless.” I also thought, “Wouldn’t it be kind of cool if places like Ann Arbor could actually exempt themselves? If there could be precise holes in the nuclear umbrella? Maybe Dr. Teller could set his mind to it?”

But, as I went on to say, “the American serviceman, the American nuclear deterrent, and all the rest protect Noam Chomsky and your Betsy Ross-like great-aunt, regardless. Ain’t it grand?”

Kevin asks us to imagine if Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi had said something like the following, during the debate over the Affordable Care Act:

“Many of our reforms will be controversial, slow to succeed, and fraught with uncertainty, and some may fail. The difficulty will come not because we were ill prepared or [because] we did not work hard, but rather because health care is complex, and reform is an imprecise process about which the experts as yet know little.”

I have a pretty good imagination, I think, but I can’t stretch it that far.

This passage, from Kevin, made my heart sing:

[Steve Jobs] did not feel the need to dedicate his life to charity because he believed that his contribution to making the world a better place was Apple’s products and the business itself. He did give away a great deal of money, but that was as a matter of course — it was clear that rather than “giving something back” out of his profits, he saw his profits as evidence of how much he had given.

A thousand times yes. Why can’t people understand this? Why can’t businessmen themselves understand it?

I expressed some of this frustration years ago, in 2004, when I was reporting from the winter conclave in Davos. See what you think:

[Carly Fiorina] is CEO of Hewlett Packard, and she speaks in crisp, clear English. It is almost completely devoid of international-conference-speak, which is refreshing. She is like a cool glass of verbal water.

But what is the content of that water? She says that “the fundamental objective” of her company — the fundamental objective, mind you! — is not “to make money” but “to do good,” “to be a good international citizen.” When she says “make money,” she makes it sound so dirty. She borrows the old Quaker business about not just doing well but doing good.

Fine and dandy, of course, but I find myself wishing — not for the first time — that businessmen would be a little less defensive and more self-confident. They have nothing to apologize for. Does Hewlett Packard want to do good? Then let it invent and manufacture products that people need — or want, or that make their lives better — and sell them at affordable prices. That is doing good.

I hate to be more pro-Hewlett Packard than the CEO of Hewlett Packard, but . . . I tell you, I would wet my pants with joy if one of these people, at one of these conferences, said, “You know? People like Henry Ford and Bill Gates have done more for humanity than any thousand soi-disant benefactors-of-humanity put together.”

Amen. (Oops, that’s not for me to say.) Just to be clear, I admire Carly Fiorina, and I dearly wanted her to win her Senate race in 2010. That’s when I kind of “gave up,” I think, on California: We put up Fiorina and Meg Whitman, and the public wanted retreads from the New Left (which is now elderly): Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown. What can you do?

It comes as no surprise, says Kevin, that

politicians and those who prefer to do their business through political processes back away from discussing the facts on the ground and retreat into arguments from morality. “Never mind what works and what doesn’t,” the argument goes; “this is the right thing to do.”

Yes, indeed. This is what we have heard, essentially, from Democrats in the wake of Obamacare’s rollout. What does it matter if the program actually “works,” you know? Do you hate the black and the poor and the wretched uninsured?

Let me quote a congressman, James Clyburn: “If we were to look at what we were attempting to do with the Affordable Health Care Act, you will know that what we’re trying to do is change a values system in our country.”

Yes — give him points for candor, I say.

Kevin quotes Daniel Cloud, who wrote, “Classical civilization as a whole died a very long and gruesome physical death once there was no longer any place you could sail to if you wanted to get away from Caesar.” I thought of Ted Cruz — of his dad, actually.

Ted has said a thousand times, on the stump and off, “My dad always told me, ‘When we had to leave Cuba, we had someplace to go to, someplace to flee to — America. But if we lose our freedom here, where would we go?’” America is the last hill, it seems. (Till the next one?)

I heard Ted say this for many years before he ran for office. It is not a campaign line, but very much part of his mental makeup.

Kevin tells us that the word “czar” came from “Caesar.” Never knew that (though it seems obvious).

The things Kevin knows! More than once I’ve said to him, “How in the world did you know that?” or “How in the world did you know all that?” Usually, he just smiles.

Kevin refers to “the wisdom of the three great Johns”: Locke, Mill, and Milton. I will try to think of them that way from now on (and we could name many more great Johns — beginning with the Biblical ones).

I’m not sure I entirely buy the following, but I mainly buy it, and I love the sentence:

Leaving people to make their own decisions under their own standards means you get T. S. Eliot and Larry Flynt, while putting politics in charge means you get the National Endowment for the Arts and People’s Daily . . . and the guillotine.

Kevin makes much of the idea of exiting — the importance of Exit. You have to be able to leave something, especially a corrupt, stifling, or tyrannical system. I got to thinking that the main problem with illiberal societies is No Exit. (“No Exit,” as you well know, is the English title we give to Sartre’s play Huis clos.)

The worst regimes don’t allow their citizens to leave. These people have to remain slaves forever. They can’t even vote with their feet, by absenting themselves from the country. They can’t even take a pathetic raft, with maybe some tires underneath it. Think of the Cubans, gunned down in the water, within sight of the shore. This is — to reach for “the strongest of all epithets,” as Norman Podhoretz says — evil.

Speaking of evil, I once decided not to buy products from China, after reading one too many stories about slave labor. Political prisoners are made to work in laogai, the Chinese gulag. My resolve lasted about two days. The rain melted it away. It was raining in New York, and I needed to buy an umbrella. I went to several stores, getting soaked. There wasn’t a single umbrella not made in the PRC.

I know that international trade has done a world of good for the average Chinese person. I understand this full well, and I rejoice in it. But I wish there were a way for us to know whether a particular product is slave-labor or not.

(I once interviewed a former political prisoner who was made to do two things, between bouts of torture: assemble Christmas lights and sew Homer Simpson bedroom slippers. You put your foot into Homer’s mouth.)

Why do I bring this up? Oh, yes: Kevin has some words about boycotting, and very interesting they are, too.

You remember the Chick-fil-A controversy, I trust. The people who run this fast-food chain oppose gay marriage. Therefore, some people thought that Chick-fil-A should die (in a nutshell).

Kevin writes, “The mayors of Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco all threatened to use their official powers to impede Chick-fil-A’s business operations in their cities.” He then says, “There were many who opposed Chick-fil-A’s position and supported gay marriage who nonetheless thought this improper.”

Really? I’m glad to hear it. There are “many” of them? I just seem never to meet them.

(Incidentally, if I decided to boycott companies that are run and staffed by people who support gay marriage, I’d be seriously SOL. Might have to go around wearing a barrel — if I could find a “traditionalist” barrel-maker. Which he would be, right?)

I could go on and on, and already have, I’m afraid. Do you think three parts is enough? And this third installment has been longish.

Bottom line, it is simply a joy to be with Kevin Williamson — the mind and the spirit. Reading his book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, is the next best thing to hanging with the man himself. (And hang is what we’ll do, if the more excitable of our opponents seize power.) 

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