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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Case Against Liberal Compassion

Four years ago I wrote a book about modern American liberalism: Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State. It addressed the fact that America’s welfare state has been growing steadily for almost a century, and is now much bigger than it was at the start of the New Deal in 1932, or at the beginning of the Great Society in 1964. In 2013 the federal government spent $2.279 trillion—$7,200 per American, two-thirds of all federal outlays, and 14 percent of the Gross Domestic Product—on the five big program areas that make up our welfare state: 1. Social Security; 2. All other income support programs, such as disability insurance or unemployment compensation; 3. Medicare; 4. All other health programs, such as Medicaid; and 5. All programs for education, job training, and social services.

That amount has increased steadily, under Democrats and Republicans, during booms and recessions. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, federal welfare state spending was 58 percent larger in 1993 when Bill Clinton became president than it had been 16 years before when Jimmy Carter took the oath of office. By 2009, when Barack Obama was inaugurated, it was 59 percent larger than it had been in 1993. Overall, the outlays were more than two-and-a-half times as large in 2013 as they had been in 1977. The latest Census Bureau data, from 2011, regarding state and local programs for “social services and income maintenance,” show additional spending of $728 billion beyond the federal amount. Thus the total works out to some $3 trillion for all government welfare state expenditures in the U.S., or just under $10,000 per American. That figure does not include the cost, considerable but harder to reckon, of the policies meant to enhance welfare without the government first borrowing or taxing money and then spending it. I refer to laws and regulations that require some citizens to help others directly, such as minimum wages, maximum hours, and mandatory benefits for employees, or rent control for tenants.

All along, while the welfare state was growing constantly, liberals were insisting constantly it wasn’t big enough or growing fast enough. So I wondered, five years ago, whether there is a Platonic ideal when it comes to the size of the welfare state—whether there is a point at which the welfare state has all the money, programs, personnel, and political support it needs, thereby rendering any further additions pointless. The answer, I concluded, is that there is no answer—the welfare state is a permanent work-in-progress, and its liberal advocates believe that however many resources it has, it always needs a great deal more.

The argument of Never Enough was correct as far as it went, but it was incomplete. It offered an answer to two of the journalist’s standard questions: What is the liberal disposition regarding the growth of the welfare state? And How does that outlook affect politics and policy? But it did not answer another question: Why do liberals feel that no matter how much we’re doing through government programs to alleviate and prevent poverty, whatever we are doing is shamefully inadequate?

Mostly, my book didn’t answer that question because it never really asked or grappled with it. It showed how the Progressives of a century ago, followed by New Deal and Great Society liberals, worked to transform a republic where the government had limited duties and powers into a nation where there were no grievances the government could or should refrain from addressing, and where no means of responding to those grievances lie outside the scope of the government’s legitimate authority. This implied, at least, an answer to the question of why liberals always want the government to do more—an answer congruent with decades of conservative warnings about how each new iteration of the liberal project is one more paving stone on the road to serfdom.

Readers could have concluded that liberals are never satisfied because they get up every morning thinking, “What can I do today to make government a little bigger, and the patch of ground where people live their lives completely unaffected by government power and benevolence a little smaller?” And maybe some liberals do that. Perhaps many do. The narrator of “The Shadow,” a radio drama that ran in the 1930s, would intone at the beginning of every episode, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”

Well, the Shadow may have known, but I don’t. The problem with this kind of explanation for liberal statism is that very, very few liberals have been compliant or foolish enough to vindicate it with self-incriminating testimony. Maybe they’re too shrewd to admit that ever-bigger government is what they seek above all else. Or maybe they don’t realize that’s what they're up to.

Such arguments trouble me, however. The great political philosophy professor Leo Strauss insisted that it is a grave mistake to presume to understand important political philosophers better than they understood themselves, unless one had already put in the hard work necessary to understand them as they understood themselves. Perhaps this good advice can be democratized, I thought, and applied as well to Elizabeth Warren and Rachel Maddow as to Aristotle and John Locke. If we make that effort—an effort to understand committed liberals as they understand themselves—then we have to understand them as people who, by their own account, get up every morning asking, “What can I do today so that there’s a little less suffering in the world?” To wrestle with that question, the question of liberal compassion, is the purpose of my latest book, The Pity Party.

Indifference to Waste and Failure

All conservatives are painfully aware that liberal activists and publicists have successfully weaponized compassion. “I am a liberal,” public radio host Garrison Keillor wrote in 2004, “and liberalism is the politics of kindness.” Last year President Obama said, “Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. When I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it just about as much as anything. Kindness; empathy—that sense that I have a stake in your success; that I’m going to make sure, just because [my daughters] are doing well, that’s not enough—I want your kids to do well also.” Empathetic kindness is “what binds us together, and . . . how we’ve always moved forward, based on the idea that we have a stake in each other’s success.”

Well, if liberalism is the politics of kindness, it follows that its adversary, conservatism, is the politics of cruelty, greed, and callousness. Liberals have never been reluctant to connect those dots. In 1936 Franklin Roosevelt said, “Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” In 1984 the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, “Tip” O’Neill, called President Reagan an “evil” man “who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations . . . . He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.” A 2013 Paul Krugman column accused conservatives of taking “positive glee in inflicting further suffering on the already miserable.” They were, he wrote, “infected by an almost pathological meanspiritedness . . . . If you’re an American, and you’re down on your luck, these people don’t want to help; they want to give you an extra kick.”

Small-d democratic politics is Darwinian: Arguments and rhetoric that work—that impress voters and intimidate opponents—are used again and again. Those that prove ineffective are discarded. If conservatives had ever come up with a devastating, or even effective rebuttal to the accusation that they are heartless and mean-spirited: a) anyone could recite it by now; and, b) more importantly, liberals would have long ago stopped using rhetoric about liberal kindness versus conservative cruelty, for fear that the political risks of such language far outweighed any potential benefits. The fact that liberals are, if anything, increasingly disposed to frame the basic political choice before the nation in these terms suggests that conservatives have not presented an adequate response.

A first step in that direction is to note a political anomaly pointed out by Mitch Daniels, the former Republican governor of Indiana. Daniels contended that disciplining government according to “measured provable performance and effective spending” ought to be a “completely philosophically neutral objective.” Skinflint conservatives want government to be thrifty for obvious reasons, but Daniels maintained that liberals’ motivations should be even stronger. “I argue to my most liberal friends: ‘You ought to be the most offended of anybody if a dollar that could help a poor person is being squandered in some way.’ And,” the governor added slyly, “some of them actually agree.”

The clear implication—that many liberals are not especially troubled if government dollars that could help poor people are squandered—strikes me as true, interesting, and important. Given that liberals are people who: 1) have built a welfare state that is now the biggest thing government does in America; and 2) want to regard themselves and be regarded by others as compassionate empathizers determined to alleviate suffering, it should follow that nothing would preoccupy them more than making sure the welfare state machine is functioning at maximum efficiency. When it isn’t, after all, the sacred mission of alleviating preventable suffering is inevitably degraded.

In fact, however, liberals do not seem all that concerned about whether the machine they’ve built, and want to keep expanding, is running well. For inflation-adjusted, per capita federal welfare state spending to increase by 254 percent from 1977 to 2013, without a correspondingly dramatic reduction in poverty, and for liberals to react to this phenomenon by taking the position that our welfare state’s only real defect is that it is insufficiently generous, rather than insufficiently effective, suggests a basic problem. To take a recent, vivid example, the Obama Administration had three-and-a-half years from the signing of the Affordable Care Act to the launch of the healthcare.gov website. It’s hard to reconcile the latter debacle with the image of liberals lying awake at night tormented by the thought the government should be doing more to reduce suffering. A sympathetic columnist, E.J. Dionne, wrote of the website’s crash-and-burn debut, “There’s a lesson here that liberals apparently need to learn over and over: Good intentions without proper administration can undermine even the most noble of goals.” That such an elementary lesson is one liberals need to learn over and over suggests a fundamental defect in liberalism, however—something worse than careless or inept implementation of liberal policies.

That defect, I came to think, can be explained as follows: The problem with liberalism may be that no one knows how to get the government to do the benevolent things liberals want it to do. Or it may be, at least in some cases, that it just isn’t possible for the government to bring about what liberals want it to accomplish. As the leading writers in The Public Interest began demonstrating almost 50 years ago, the intended, beneficial consequences of social policies are routinely overwhelmed by the unintended, harmful consequences they trigger. It may also be, as conservatives have long argued, that achieving liberal goals, no matter how humane they sound, requires kinds and degrees of government coercion fundamentally incompatible with a government created to secure citizens’ inalienable rights, and deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.

I don’t reject any of those possibilities, or deny the evidence and logic adduced in support of each. But my assessment of how the liberal project has been justified in words, and rendered in deeds, leads me to a different explanation for why, under the auspices of liberal government, things have a way of turning out so badly. I conclude that the machinery created by the politics of kindness doesn’t work very well—in the sense of being economical, adaptable, and above all effective—because the liberals who build, operate, defend, and seek to expand this machine don’t really care whether it works very well and are, on balance, happier when it fails than when it succeeds.

The Satisfaction of Pious Preening

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latinate word “compassion” means, literally, “suffering together with another”—it’s the “feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.” Note that suffering together does not mean suffering identically. The compassionate person does not become hungry when he meets or thinks about a hungry person, or sick in the presence of the sick. Rather, compassion means we are affected by others’ suffering, a distress that motivates us to alleviate it. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in Emile, “When the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself.”

We can see the problem. The whole point of compassion is for empathizers to feel better when awareness of another’s suffering provokes unease. But this ultimate purpose does not guarantee that empathizees will fare better. Barbara Oakley, co-editor of the volume Pathological Altruism, defines its subject as “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” Surprises and accidents happen, of course. The pathology of pathological altruism is not the failure to salve every wound. It is, rather, the indifference—blithe, heedless, smug, or solipsistic—to the fact and consequences of those failures, just as long as the empathizer is accruing compassion points that he and others will admire. As philosophy professor David Schmidtz has said, “If you’re trying to prove your heart is in the right place, it isn’t.”

Indeed, if you’re trying to prove your heart is in the right place, the failure of government programs to alleviate suffering is not only an acceptable outcome but in many ways the preferred one. Sometimes empathizers, such as those in the “helping professions,” acquire a vested interest in the study, management, and perpetuation—as opposed to the solution and resulting disappearance—of sufferers’ problems. This is why so many government programs initiated to conquer a problem end up, instead, colonizing it by building sprawling settlements where the helpers and the helped are endlessly, increasingly co-dependent. Even where there are no material benefits to addressing, without ever reducing, other people’s suffering, there are vital psychic benefits for those who regard their own compassion as the central virtue that makes them good, decent, and admirable people—people whose sensitivity readily distinguishes them from mean-spirited conservatives. “Pity is about how deeply I can feel,” wrote the late political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain. “And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs.”

It follows, then, that the answer to the question of how liberals who profess to be anguished about other people’s suffering can be so weirdly complacent regarding wasteful, misdirected, and above all ineffective government programs created to relieve that suffering—is that liberals care about helping much less than they care about caring. Because compassion gives me a self-regarding reason to care about your suffering, it’s more important for me to do something than to accomplish something. Once I’ve voted for, given a speech about, written an editorial endorsing, or held forth at a dinner party on the salutary generosity of some program to “address” your problem, my work is done, and I can feel the rush of my own pious reaction. There’s no need to stick around for the complex, frustrating, mundane work of making sure the program that made me feel better, just by being established and praised, has actually alleviated your suffering.

This assessment also provides an answer to the question of why liberals always want a bigger welfare state. It’s because the politics of kindness is about validating oneself rather than helping others, which means the proper response to suffering is always, “We need to do more,” and never, “We need to do what we’re already doing better and smarter.” That is, liberals react to an objective reality in a distinctively perverse way. The reality is, first, that there are many instances of poverty, insecurity, and suffering in our country and, second, that public expenditures to alleviate poverty, insecurity, and suffering amount to $3 trillion, or some $10,000 per American, much of it spent on the many millions of Americans who are nowhere near being impoverished, insecure, or suffering. If the point of liberalism were to alleviate suffering, as opposed to preening about one’s abhorrence of suffering and proud support for government programs designed to reduce it, liberals would get up every morning determined to reduce the proportion of that $3 trillion outlay that ought to be helping the poor but is instead being squandered in some way, including by being showered on people who aren’t poor. But since the real point of liberalism is to alleviate the suffering of those distressed by others’ suffering, the hard work of making our $3 trillion welfare state machine work optimally is much less attractive—less gratifying—than demanding that we expand it, and condemning those who are skeptical about that expansion for their greed and cruelty.


Those of us accused of being greedy and cruel, for standing athwart the advance of liberalism and expansion of the welfare state, do have things to say, then, in response to the empathy crusaders. Compassion really is important. Clifford Orwin, a political scientist who has examined the subject painstakingly, believes our strong, spontaneous proclivity to be distressed by others’ suffering confirms the ancient Greek philosophers’ belief that nature intended for human beings to be friends. But compassion is neither all-important nor supremely important in morals and, especially, politics. It is nice, all things being equal, to have government officials who feel our pain rather than ones who, like imperious monarchs, cannot comprehend or do not deign to notice it. Much more than our rulers’ compassion, however, we deserve their respect—for us; our rights; our capacity and responsibility to feel and heal our own pains without their ministrations; and for America’s carefully constructed and heroically sustained experiment in constitutional self-government, which errs on the side of caution and republicanism by denying even the most compassionate official a monarch’s plenary powers. Kindness may well cover all of Barack Obama’s political beliefs, and those of many other self-satisfied, pathologically altruistic liberals. It doesn’t begin to cover all the beliefs that have sustained America’s republic, however. Nor does it amount to a safe substitute for those moral virtues and political principles necessary to sustain it further.

“Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.”


WILLIAM VOEGELI is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Henry Salvatori Center

After receiving a Ph.D. in political science from Loyola University in Chicago, he served as a program officer for the John M. Olin Foundation. He has written for numerous publications, including the Christian Science Monitor, City Journal, Commentary, First Things, the Los Angeles Times, National Review, and the New Criterion.

He is the author of two books, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State and The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Heart and Soul of Science Fiction’s Appeal

What is it about science fiction that draws us into that world of part scientific reality and possibility and pure fiction with a dash of thrilling drama? Why do we even care?

I have spent my entire life living in the world of science fiction on various levels. In childhood it was being mesmerized by the literary works of writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and watching those works get translated into scratchy old black and white films from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Then it was onto that small ten-inch screen housed in a gigantic wooden box that brought the visual stories of Rod Serling, Arthur C. Clarke, Alfred Hitchcock, Philip K. Dick and Gene Roddenberry into my living room. As a journalist I have spent my adult life writing about it. And, in the beginnings of this 21st Century it is seeing great works of sci-fi on massive high definition screens that are stories tall while being engulfed in three dimensions and Dolby high-res digitized surround sound. However, regardless of how it is presented -- oral storytelling around a campfire, in books, e-readers or small and big screens there is something about science fiction that finds a level of appeal to human beings on this planet. Just what could that appeal be?

While science fiction as we know it has been around for at least two hundred years the founder of science fiction fandom, Forrest J. Ackerman is credited with coining the phrase “sci-fi” and made it part of the vernacular in the early 1950’s. Even though he is considered to be the Moses of sci-fi he really never made a serious attempt at trying to define what the genre was, mainly because he felt it to be too many things to too many people for a one liner hook. However, other greats from science fiction have tried. A study of the genre by Princeton University cited several science fiction authors in their look into the subject. Their study revealed that probably the most prolific writer of the 20th Century, Robert A. Heinlein defined the genre as a “Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” While being a bit long-winded, as Heinlein often became in his tomes, his definition is probably the best all around and gives us a clue as to the world-wide appeal of the genre. Rod Serling gave the shortest and most concise determination when he stated that “Science fiction is the improbable made possible.”

When these two interpretations are looked at closely we can begin to understand what it is about science fiction that tends to draw many of us in.

If sci-fi is based on both speculation and realism as Heinlein suggests and allows for equal parts imagination and astute discourse by the above average intellect then the appeal would be near impossible to ignore by those with a creative and perceptive mind. That kind of discerning mental palette simply cannot ignore it and will be drawn in, but only if what is being read or viewed is both intellectually stimulating and emotionally profound, allowing for both lively discourse and experimentation.

Those drawn to science fiction that comes on the inventive level of an Asimov, Herbert, Clarke, Bradbury or Robinson will also be sufficiently peaked as well due to its Serling nature. It will be seen as a challenge to the psyche, particularly if what is being presented in the work; be it a novel, short story, television spot or film, is by all appearances “improbable.” The brilliant among us love nothing more than making what the average citizen of the world considers impossible, probable and beyond that -- doable!

Without science fiction and those minds pulled into its web of genius nearly all of those modern day inventions we now take for granted would have never come into reality but would have remained locked on the pages of books or in the dialogue of characters on film. Diseases, now considered obsolete would still be running rampant, communications, distribution of power to individual homes and places of business, travel by land, air and sea would likely have remained a dream in the minds of great writers of the past and space would continue to be something humans could only speculate about.

Science fiction made all these things possible because someone read or saw the works of these great men and women in their books and films and decided the improbable could be made possible. That, above all else, is the appeal of this genre we call science fiction.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Vicious Brothers Debut "Extraterrestrial"

The Vicious Brothers (Grave Encounters) are back to scare the bejesus out of everyone with their new film titled Extraterrestrial.

This one combines the elements of horror and sci-fi and stars everyone’s favorite — Michael Ironside (Total Recall, Terminator Salvation, Starship Troopers).

Still reeling from her parent’s divorce, April (Emmy winner Brittany Allen) is dragged back to the vacation cabin where she spent fond summers as a child. She is accompanied by a group of friends, however, her trip down memory lane takes a dramatic and terrifying turn when a fireball descends from the sky and explodes in the nearby woods. The group, led by April’s boyfriend, venture out toward the explosion only to find what appears to be the remnants of a ship from another planet along with footprints that suggests its alien occupants are still alive. The college friends soon find themselves caught in the middle of something bigger and more terrifying than anything they could ever imagine.

The film co-stars Freddie Stroma (the Harry Potter films, Pitch Perfect), Gil Bellows (The Shawshank Redemption, House at the End of the Street), Jesse Moss (Final Destination 3), Melanie Papalia (Smiley), Emily Perkins (Ginger Snaps Trilogy), Sean Rogerson (Grave Encounters) and Anja Savcic (I Love You Beth Cooper).

Extraterrestrial is available on VOD and will make its theatrical debut on November 21, 2014.

Phone Tree Economy

I’m sure you’ve had the same experience: calling a large bureaucratic entity and getting trapped in a never-ending phone tree. Press 1 for this, press 2 for that, press 7 for this, press 4 for that—sometimes the numbers aren’t even told in order. Personally, I can’t stand it. After 2 or 3 tries, I’m done.

In the name of organization and efficiency, some large bureaucracies avoid dealing with you directly. Cumbersome phone trees are one consequence of entities that grow very large and lose touch, perhaps by design. While this might be measurably efficient, the short-term gain is offset by decreased loyalty and diminished customer relations. On a deeper level this is symptomatic of a larger negative dynamic in the economy that is worth some examination.

These days economic wellbeing is on everyone’s mind. There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety, even some hopelessness, in our uncertain times. While the stock market has rebounded from the financial crisis and corporate profits have soared, many families face downward mobility, decreased opportunity, the feeling of disenfranchisement, and the inability to achieve financial security.

Part of the problem is our country’s damaged micro-enterprise sector—the entrepreneurial space where most jobs are created. According to certain measures, America is now losing more than 100,000 small business jobs a year among shops that employ one to five people.

Research has determined two main causes for the decline: regulations and health care. The complexity of entering the marketplace has depressed the ability of smaller entities to take risks and open opportunities. While reasonable regulations are necessary for safety and wellbeing, burdensome regulations force out small businesses by unfairly tilting the playing field to large bureaucracies and disrupt basic initiatives that reinforce the ideals of an economic community. Clearly larger entities are necessary for economies of scale that deliver certain types of goods, but when corporations are too big to fail, they are sometimes too big to succeed. The social dimension of the market suffers when companies are too large to care.

Fortunately, micro-economies and economies of scale are not mutually exclusive. Markets are enriched when larger businesses are embedded in communities and embrace local responsibility.

In Lincoln, an innovative startup that grew into a great success has retained its interpersonal and communal values. Now serving customer needs across the country, the company’s headquarters remains in the Haymarket, where it has triggered a small startup boom. By way of example, the company each day offers its young entrepreneurs the opportunity to eat lunch together. Instead of dispersing and possibly losing energy and focus, employees join one another for a shared meal.

Our country needs a new 21st century vision of economic success. Benign competition with a robust small business sector creates the conditions for sustainable dynamism. A humane economy that prioritizes personal relationships and community ties fosters stronger entrepreneurialism and forges better consumer products. Just as a healthy society and self-responsibility are preconditions for prosperity, properly ordered markets support social cohesion. Markets at their best are driven by startup innovation and sustained by widespread ownership. The return of small businesses within a new participatory economy can extend the dignity and just rewards of meaningful work to all, fight poverty, and help us rebuild the country.


JEFF FORTENBERRY has served as the U.S. Representative for Nebraska's 1st congressional district since 2005. He is the Chairperson for the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry. Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights and has a seat on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a member of the following Caucus groups: Civil War Battlefield Caucus - Congressional Biofuels Caucus - Congressional Farmer Cooperative Caucus - House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus - International Conservation Caucus - Sportsmen's Caucus.

Congressman Fortenberry has become the most knowledgeable representative on Capitol Hill for nuclear security issues.

Friday, October 10, 2014

“The Killer Shrews” Coming to DVD

So Bad …. It’s Good!

On an isolated island in the midst of a hurricane, a small group of people are terrorized by voracious, mutant creatures in The Killer Shrews, digitally restored and available on DVD November 11 from Film Chest Media Group.

The Killer Shrews was released in 1959 and is considered one of the best low-budge B-Movie horror flicks of that era of filmmaking. Horror master Stephen King has it on his short list as a favorite.

The movie stars James Best (The Dukes of Hazzard), Baruch Lumet (The Pawnbroker), Miss Sweden 1956 Ingrid Goude and Ken Curtis of Gunsmoke and The Searchers fame.

Fully remastered the DVD for The Killer Shrews is presented in full screen, original sound to capture that 1950’s feel with an aspect ratio of 4 X 3 and is a must have for all B-Movie aficionados.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Palestinians Actually Despise the Holy Mount in Jerusalem

It is quite obvious from the behavior of the Palestinian Arabs living in Israel that they have no real love, respect or appreciation for the Temple Mount in Jerusalem but are using it as an international political tool. If you considered a place such as the Dome of the Rock a sacred one would you do the kinds of activity portrayed in this video. Would any Arab ever do these kinds of things at Mecca?

One can see why many Palestinian Arabs want this video removed from the internet. It clearly displays their total hypocrisy and disregard for the holiest place on planet Earth.