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A Drug Deal Gone Right
I’ve always thought it would be fun to get Joel Osteen to record some short videos that would play on ATMs when you’re trying to take out cash after 2 a.m. Picture it: You stumble up to the ATM, jam in your card, punch in your number, and up pops the pained and forbearing countenance of Joel Osteen, preacher of the prosperity gospel, illuminating the dim urban night like a pale televangelical moon, not prying too hard into what exactly has made you think you require $600 in cash at 4 a.m. but pastorally concerned by the possibility that you are not exactly Living Your Best Life Now.™ If some soulless multinational banking conglomerate can’t make that happen, then what’s the point of soulless multinational banking conglomerates, anyway?
In our digital times, cash has taken on a slightly disreputable odor. One of the occasions upon which I most expected to spend the rest of the day in jail involved a short trip with some tens of thousands of dollars in small mixed bills in a bag in a car belonging to an Italian-American gentleman from Philadelphia who really was, of all unlikely things, an honest-to-goodness legitimate businessman. I was carrying a .40-caliber automatic, as I generally did at that time, and had a license to do so. But when a state trooper pulled up behind us on the turnpike very state trooper-ishly, I did the math: Bag of Cash + Gun + Businessman with a Name Ending in a Vowel = Jail. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of that (my friend was a commercial landlord with a groceryman client who had requested to pay some seriously overdue rent in cash, which is totally normal and not at all suspicious), but a bag of cash and a gun almost always portends some mischief afoot. Hands at ten and two, use the lane-change signals. William Gibson calls manicured bundles of $100 bills “the international currency of bad sh**.”
I have seen some weirdness and sometimes been neck-deep in it.
But picking up a new dachshund puppy was a new one for me: It is the only transaction in which I ever have been involved that required both an envelope full of $100 bills and a letter from my pastor attesting to my good character. (Good enough for a dachshund, anyway.) Normally, it’s a bag of cash or a testament from a clergyman — never both.
But we live in strange times, just now. Buying a puppy in the plague years is like buying drugs was in the 1990s — yes, you could go down to a seedy strip mall across town or visit some weird dude working out of his basement and take whatever goods are on offer, but, if you want something particular, something special, then you’ve got to know a guy who knows a guy, get checked out, get on the list, and wait for a phone call, which will give you last-minute instructions about where to go and what to do. When John Bolton described Rudy Giuliani’s Ukraine shenanigans as a “drug deal,” I knew exactly what he meant. And so I spent some months living a Velvet Underground song, waiting for my man, albeit with way more than $26 in my hand. “First thing you learn is that you always got to wait,” the song says, and Lou Reed wasn’t lying.
We already had a dachshund, Katy. Katy is Living Her Best Life Now™ without any doubt, especially in this year of mandatory domesticity. Katy is a pack animal who believes two things — that breakfast is the most important part of the day, and that she has a divine mandate to keep the pack together at all times. My wife and I both work from home, and Katy doesn’t even like us to be in different rooms; she’ll sometimes even try to do something about it, unless the sunlight is hitting the sofa in a particularly attractive way, in which case she will instead bask and extend her post-breakfast nap. (Priorities.) Katy is a very sweet-tempered little creature but, though she was the runt of her litter, she doesn’t know she’s small: When the Amazon man comes to the door, she goes at him like she’s Cujo.
There’s always room for more of that.
My wife can be steely when she needs to be — she passes through an airport like hell on rails and never fumbles around for her passport — but she also cries at laundry-detergent commercials and Will Ferrell movies. (Seriously, she bawled over Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga like it was Where the Red Fern Grows.) She follows the social-media account of the dog-boarding service we sometimes use (because it has dog videos, obviously), and, learning about the mere existence of a very cute little sunshine-colored puppy called “Pancake,” fell in love with the name and decided that it was time for Katy to get a companion in the form of a cream dachshund puppy of our own, also to be named “Pancake.” Name first, puppy second: That is not a line of reasoning the thinking man would argue with even if he were so inclined, which I wasn’t.
That was a bit more than a year ago. Mrs. Williamson asked around and found someone who knew a guy who knew a guy, and we put up some earnest money and got on the dachshund list. The call came a couple of weeks ago. Operation Pancake was green-lighted.
In normal times, we both travel a lot for work, and it was nothing to go to Atlanta or Chicago or Los Angeles and back in a day. But these are not normal times, and we both are pretty risk-averse vis-à-vis COVID-19. Pancake came into the world deep in the Carolinas, which meant a round trip of just under 2,000 miles, about 15 hours of driving each way. But modern over-the-road travel is pretty easy, with comfortable and reliable cars and inexpensive audiobooks (Tim Keller and Mohandas K. Gandhi on deck) and satellite radio, with heated seats and navigation and picnic provisions from Whole Foods (we ain’t stopping at Cracker Barrel), and the generally unsung glories of inexpensive American hotels, which are remarkably comfortable and well-appointed compared with their European counterparts. And so we packed up and rolled out, doing the first 15 hours at a go, stopping only for fuel and coffee and necessities.
Other than the Third World traffic of Atlanta, it was a pleasant trip, with only the billboards advertising distasteful products — slimy lawyers, casinos, porno emporia, Jon Ossoff — proliferating endlessly “to defile man’s art in road-making and the natural pulchritude of the vegetation.”
Katy is of two minds about getting in the car. She’s always a bit suspicious at first. Sometimes, getting in the car means a trip to the nature trail, which Katy heartily endorses, but sometimes it means a trip to the veterinarian, to which Katy strenuously objects. Dachshunds are not what you’d call real smart dogs, but Katy understands what packing means. She knows what the leash is for, and what it means when her food scoop goes from the big food bag into a smaller plastic bag. She’ll give me a skeptical look when I put her in the passenger’s seat. But, once she is satisfied that the pack is staying together and that she’s not in for dental work, she is a pretty good trouper, a happy road warrior. She approves of the togetherness. She is especially fond of riding in a convertible with the top down — lots of interesting things to smell. The electric blanket — because of course we have an electric blanket for the dog that plugs into the 12-volt outlet in the car, why wouldn’t you? — improves her outlook, too.
The breeders turn out to be nice people and not drug-dealerish at all. They are a retired couple who do a lot of international travel and raised a big family of adopted children, and they love dachshunds. It is all kind of strangely formal: We sit in a parlor and are introduced to Pancake’s parents, who are a stately couple, indeed, and then sign some paperwork, and, finally, meet Pancake herself. She crawls into my sweater and goes to sleep, and that’s that.
Since you asked:
Dachshunds don’t do very much. The legend is, they were bred for badger-hunting. I don’t think Katy would have a very good time of it if one of the squirrels she barks at decided to get squirrelly, much less facing a badger. And she is not entirely sold on Pancake yet: When it comes to treats and sunny spots on the sofa, Katy is a Malthusian. But I think she’ll enjoy having somebody to boss around. Life is about tradeoffs, even for a dachshund.
In Other News . . .
Politicians and journalists are inferior to dachshunds in many important ways, beginning with the fact that a dachshund will never lie to you. Politicians and journalists, unhappily, are a different story.
I recommend to you this Twitter thread from Thom Lambert, a Missouri law professor, about his former colleague, Senator Josh Hawley. Senator Hawley, who is looking to take over the conspiracy-kook caucus from Donald Trump before Marjorie Taylor Greene can get full control of it, is none too careful with the truth. Senator Hawley, in fact, “is lying,” Professor Lambert writes. “I hate to say that of a friend, but it’s true. He’s saying things he knows are false.”
The specific issue here is Senator Hawley’s false claim of a conspiracy by stock-trading platforms to protect hedge funds in the GameStop matter. But it could have been anything — and it could have been all too many politicians. Senator Hawley’s lies, Professor Lambert writes, are part of his “campaign to rail against the sort of coastal elites that, like him, went to schools such as Stanford and Yale and now, like him, have amassed power. This campaign, he hopes, will endear him to regular folks.” Perhaps Ted Cruz of Princeton and Harvard Law could give him some tips on how “regular folks” do things.
Professor Lambert’s basic criticism is all true enough, and the professor might have stopped there. But there’s more:
It’s an “end justifies the means” thing. The problem is that the end doesn’t justify the means, at least not for Christians. Jesus clearly taught that his followers are to be certain sorts of people, not to achieve certain ends. And a smart person who misleads others to gain power isn’t who we’re to be.
Which brings me to [First Things magazine]. The name “First Things” refers to a C.S. Lewis essay emphasizing the importance of keeping matters in their proper place, of not overvaluing (admittedly good) things that are of secondary importance to other things. Doing so, Lewis warned, may ironically destroy the value of the second thing that was improperly elevated above the first thing.
As Lewis elsewhere put it, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.”
For the Christian politician, electoral success and advancement is a second thing. Christian virtue—truthfulness, kindness, humility, peacemaking—must come first. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
This new breed of Christian nationalist may retort, “Yeah, that’s a recipe for continued electoral defeat and ultimately anti-Christian policies.” To which Jesus responds, “What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?”
[First Things] used to understand this. Its founder, Richard John Neuhaus, famously said that “culture is the root of politics and religion is the root of culture.” Get that? Religion (Christian virtue) is the first thing. Culture, and ultimately politics, follow.
The sort of “muscular” Christian who views political success as paramount for protecting religion, and thus as an objective to be achieved however necessary, puts second things first. As Lewis warned, we’re likely to lose both first things (virtue) and second (elections).
Some Trump-aligned Republicans have turned Cicero’s advice — Esse quam videri, “Be, rather than seem” — on its head. It’s an old con-artist strategy, a variation on the theme of “Fake it ’til you make it.” Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, the defunct medical-technology company, seems to have believed that she could lie a successful company into existence: The lies would attract capital and influential friends, and these would enable her to actually build the company she pretended to have built. She wasn’t entirely wrong: The money came, and so did influential advocates and board members, including the late George Schultz. Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was the Theranos of presidential runs, attracting money and influential friends — friends who would, out of shame at being conned or perverted loyalty, fight on the lie even when they knew it was a lie, knowing that the promises that were being made were based on nothing. Trump is a strong believer in his own ability to lie facts into existence: He describes the New York Times as “the failing New York Times” not because it is failing — far from it — but because he believes that creating the perception of failure at the New York Times may create the reality of failure, too.
Trumpists have been doing the same thing with National Review for years, albeit weirdly incompetently: Most of them seem to think that Bill Kristol is the founder/editor of NR (he ran the late lamented Weekly Standard), and they often advise yr. obt. cst. to spend some time “outside of the Beltway.” The Beltway is a loop road in Washington, D.C. National Review is based in New York City. I live in Texas. (I think there must be a few NR writers who do in fact live inside the Beltway, but I can’t think of any offhand.) The Federalist reported that House Republicans were ready to oust Representative Liz Cheney from leadership and that she was trying to prevent such a vote. Federalist publisher Ben Domenech sneered: “If National Review wants to die on the 197-10 hill with douchebro Adam Kinzinger, be my guest.” But Representative Cheney did not lose in a 197–10 vote. She did not, in fact, lose at all, but won easily — and, in spite of the entirely fictitious claims published in The Federalist and circulated by the likes of Representative Matt Gaetz and Steve Bannon, Representative Cheney was agitating for having a vote, rather than against it. Matt Gaetz would like to have Representative Cheney’s leadership position, and The Federalist would rather be something other than third-rate, and they believe that they can advance their interests by convincing others that their rivals are losers.
This sort of thing happens in matters great and small. Lou Dobbs has just entered a sudden retirement, and Fox News corporately and several of its current and suddenly former hosts are facing the potential of paying a very large settlement to Smartmatic, a company Dobbs and other Fox News conspiracy kooks plainly and unquestionably libeled, repeatedly. “Libel” generally is understood in U.S. law as statements that are (1) false (2) defamatory and (3) published with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth. Reckless disregard for the truth may as well have been Fox News’s corporate motto during the Trump years. Fox News claims that Dobbs’s cancellation was part of a series of long-planned changes at the network — which is transparent corporate bullsh** on top of Dobbs’s transparent bullsh**. I used to appear on Dobbs’s show regularly, and he never has been anything but gracious to me, personally, but there’s no pretending that this bullsh** isn’t bullsh**. These lawsuits will, I hope, provide a welcome reminder that bullsh** can be expensive. It should be.
As I said, great and small. I still hear pretty frequently about a supposed episode in which I went on Morning Joe and delivered an unhinged rant about executing women who have abortions. It never happened (I’ve been on the show a few times, and abortion never has come up) but NARAL claimed it happened, and some people want to believe such things. Great and small: There is a puzzling legend among certain social-media-centered progressives that I am in the habit of wearing capes. I have no idea where this comes from and assume that it is the usual middle-school taunt so readily resorted to by our intellectually sophisticated friends on the left. But it has been repeated far and wide, most recently by Elizabeth Bruenig of the New York Times. This is, for the Bruenigs, a kind of bizarre family tradition: Elizabeth’s husband, Matt Bruenig, himself an occasional New York Times contributor, once manufactured a quote that had me defending the racist antics of Donald Sterling, of whom I had never heard and about whom I’d never written a word. This wasn’t something “taken out of context” or misconstrued — it was simply made up, a pure fabrication. Why? Because he can. That’s not the sort of thing that keeps a writer out of the pages of the New York Times. Nobody who matters very much cares.
These are little things, but, of course, it does matter that people who write for the New York Times make things up and publish them. Taylor Lorenz of the Times recently smeared the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, accusing him of having used the word “retard” as a pejorative in a conversation. This never happened. Andreessen never said any such thing in the conversation in question, and the only use of the word “retard” was from Felicia Horowitz, in the context of describing a group of stock-market enthusiasts who call themselves the “retard revolution,” ironically embracing the term of abuse Wall Street types have thrown at nobody investors on the Internet. How can you have a conversation about a group of people who call themselves x without mentioning x? This is what commands the attention of the New York Times.
Lies don’t matter, but the truth can get you fired.
Lorenz knows what she is doing: The Times recently fired a reporter for speaking aloud a racial slur in a conversation about a controversy involving the use of the same racial slur by a child. Lorenz perceives Andreessen to be a cultural and political enemy, because he has an independent streak, and so she sought to subject him to the form of ritual humiliation that currently masquerades as journalism at the New York Times and elsewhere, and perhaps try to ruin him financially. (Good luck with that.) It is a cult of conformism, and it is purely vindictive.
It matters that New York Times writers publish lies. It also matters why they publish lies. It matters that First Things publishes lies. It even matters, a little bit, that The Federalist publishes lies, if only because some people might be under the misapprehension that it has something to do with the real Federalist. As a matter of intellectual honesty, there’s no difference between what Elizabeth Bruenig does and what Donald Trump does: It is the same dishonest strategy pursued to the same end.
Words About Words
Cicero’s “Esse quam videri” comes from a meditation on friendship, although it applies equally to other kinds of relationships — between politician and supporter, for example, or between writer and reader. Here’s the context:
Many wish not so much to be, as to seem to be, endowed with real virtue. Such men delight in flattery, and, when a complimentary remark is fashioned to suit their fancy, they think the empty phrase is proof of their own merits. There is nothing, therefore, in a friendship in which one of the parties to it does not wish to hear the truth and the other is ready to lie.
Don’t use equity when you mean equality. Equity means “freedom from bias,” a criterion for legal and political justice. To be treated with equity means to be treated fairly, in accordance with one’s rights and due process. Equality means “the state of being equal.” Two men who both have been wrongly convicted of a crime by crooked juries have been treated equally, but they have not been treated with equity. Equality under the law is part of equity.
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Home and Away
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