‘The people,’ &c.

Rodrigo Londoño, also known as Timochenko, at a rally in Bogotá, Colombia, January 27, 2018 (Reuters photo: Jaime Saldarriaga)
A phrase, a question about education, an amnesty (or two), an immigrant, a chess great, and more

When politicians start going on about “the people,” watch out. Hardly any term or concept in history has been more abused than “the people.”

The French revolutionaries were big on “the people.” So is a modern Frenchwoman, Marine Le Pen. Her slogan is “Au nom du peuple,” i.e., “In the name of the people.” From time immemorial, demagogues and power-graspers have claimed to be speaking and acting “in the name of the people.”

And if the people don’t go along, so much the worse for them.

The Communists had their “people’s republics,” “people’s commissars,” etc. Why do I say “had”? China today is known as “the People’s Republic of China.” It is, of course, a one-party dictatorship with a gulag (laogai).

In Stalin’s time, many, many people were put to death as “enemies of the people.” More innocently, President Trump has employed this phrase several times about the press. He also tweets things like “ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE.”

In Chile, there was a leftist song, “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” (“The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”). This was quite an anthem for many years, and you still hear it from time to time.

Stay in South America to consider Timochenko, who is running for president of Colombia. He is the longtime leader of the FARC, the narco-terrorist group, who has been brought into mainstream politics, thanks to a peace deal struck between the FARC and the incumbent president, Juan Manuel Santos.

Timochenko has more than the usual share of names. His given name is Rodrigo Londoño. His nom de guerre is Timoleón Jiménez. His nickname is Timochenko.

The name comes from the famous Soviet military commander, Marshal Semyon Timoshenko. (I pause to say that Stalin’s son Vasily married a daughter of Timoshenko — among other women, that is. I cover this in my book Children of Monsters.)

Timochenko was trained in the Soviet Union and Cuba. He has been a terrorist and trafficker since he was a teenager. The U.S. State Department has a $5 million bounty on his head. Yet, in Colombia, he has apparently gone straight.

And as this Associated Press report tells us, he has a campaign song, and a slogan: “For the people.” Of course.

•  Some years ago, Walmart was a bogeyman. I don’t think it has that status anymore because its power in the market has been reduced. Not so long ago, however, it had many attackers.

And some of us made a point: “No one who attacks Walmart has to shop there, or work there. They can afford to shop somewhere else, and they don’t rely on Walmart for employment. You never hear Walmart criticized by someone who shops there or works there.”

Bear with me, please, because I’m leading up to something.

Over the years, I have mentioned in this column one of my favorite political cartoons of all time. I can’t tell you who drew it. I wish I could find it. The cartoon must have appeared during the Clinton years, because President Clinton is the star of it, so to speak.

There are four panels. Some schlubby little guy is listening to Clinton — who says something like this: “I support affirmative action because I have a heart. Because I have a sense of history. Because I have a sense of justice. Because I have …”

Then the schlubby little guy breaks in and says “a job already.”

Okay. For many, many years, conservatives have made a point about education: “Too many people go to college. There are people who ought not to go to college.” I’m sure I’ve made, or mouthed, this point myself. I have certainly decried the overcredentialization of America.

But I would make a bet on this: Everyone who says that too many people are going to college, went to college. Everyone who says that some people shouldn’t go to college, went to college.

Everyone who says that college isn’t for everyone, wants his own kids to go to college — would move heaven and earth to see to it that they did. When you say, “Not everyone should go to college,” you probably don’t mean you and yours — you mean other people.

“We Smiths go to college. It’s just what we do. It’s natural. But the Joneses are another story.”

This may well be valid. The standard conservative point may be perfectly true. I suspect it is. But you’ll understand me if I say I’m wary of people who want one thing for others and another thing for themselves.

Also, there have been parents over the generations who have been hostile to college — but whose kids have gone anyway, to their benefit. There are all kinds of families, heaven knows.

Anyway, I’m playing around with these ideas, and if you have ideas you’d like to share, or related experiences, please let me know at Thanks.

•  So, we’re going to have another amnesty — another immigration amnesty. It was inevitable, evidently. (That’s a strange succession of words.)

Let me try something out on you (something else): When you’re young, you’re inclined to grant an amnesty. A one-time amnesty. Then, after you’ve done it, you’re a lot less inclined.

In 1987, I was in my early twenties. And the line went, “Let’s just hold our nose and do it. They’re here already. What are you going to do, kick ’em out? So we grant an amnesty — a one-time amnesty — and then we get our act together. We straighten up and fly right. We’ve made a mess of the border and of immigration policy. We do amnesty, just once, and then it’s a new day. A fresh start.”

Made sense, to a lot of us.

I’ve just looked up an article in the New York Times — from May 5, 1987. It speaks of “a historic experiment,” “an amnesty program bigger than any ever attempted.”

So, on to another historic experiment? I suppose so. Will we ever get our act together? Will we ever straighten up and fly right? Or will it be periodic amnesties from here to eternity?

By the way: I have a similar feeling about debt ceilings. I mean, raising the debt ceiling. We’re always going to do it one last time, then get our act together …

•  I’ve gotten to know a man who works at my corner store (or the modern equivalent of the corner store). Speaks several languages: Italian, French, German, English, one of the Senegalese languages. Is Senegalese. Worked in Italy for 14 years, as so many Senegalese do. Has French from Senegal, obviously. Worked in Germany for a bit too, or with Germans (I forget which). And is now here, of course, and speaking very good English.

Works his tail off. Is he legal? I suppose so. Is he taking someone’s “spot”? The spot of some deserving, disadvantaged native-born person? I doubt it. Is he a benefit to America? This much-traveled, polyglot man from a sh**hole country? Looks that way.

Anyway, these questions are the kind that now haunts the country, and particularly the Right.

•  Was reading about the Detroit Tigers, and was charmed by something that Ron Gardenhire said. He is the new manager of the Tigers (who are lowly). Talking about his own playing career, he said, “From starter, to utility, to futility.” He then said, “The slider put me in coaching at 28 years old. I couldn’t hit it, and I couldn’t lay off it.”

•  After a long hiatus, Tiger Woods has returned to the PGA Tour. He had a round in which he scrambled like mad and scored pretty well. His driver was errant. But he did other things that salvaged the round.

The way he put it was, “The only thing I have is my short game and my heart, and that got me through today.”

I loved that. And it reminded me of what a golf instructor once said about Mark Calcavecchia, who won the British Open: “All guts and a putter.”

I think he meant that Calc’s swing wasn’t very sound — but he could putt he lights out, and had heart to burn.

•  Shall we have a little language? I was watching a Pistons-Knicks game, and Clyde Frazier was providing commentary. He said “coup de grâce” — and pronounced it right, which warmed me. Ten or fifteen years ago, people started to say “coup de gras,” for reasons I don’t understand.

Actually, “coup de gras” is a funny concept …

While I’m singing this tune: Does anyone know why people pronounce “voilà” with an initial “w”? I wonder how that started.

And why do so many of us Midwesterners say “vanella” instead of “vanilla”?

•  Garry Kasparov, the chess great, tweeted, “I’ve always said it was great luck that I encountered chess so early since it fit me perfectly. It was like discovering a second first language.” This is just how musicians — the natural ones — feel.

•  I’d like to end with a dose of Raymond Aron (the French philosopher and journalist). I got it from Mona Charen, who got it from Peter Wehner. Here goes:

To me loyalty to one party has never been a decision of fundamental importance. … According to the circumstances I am in agreement or disagreement with the action of a given movement or a given party. … Perhaps such an attitude is contrary to the morality (or immorality) of political action; it is not contrary to the obligations of the writer.

Those words come from The Opium of the Intellectuals. Do you know Aron and Jean-François Revel, those mighty, invaluable Frenchmen? If I could find the time, I would re-immerse myself in them, “now more than ever,” to borrow an old political slogan.

Have a good week!


Trump’s Disappearing Populism

Populism & Conservatism Are Incompatible

The Misunderstood Nature of Populism