Everything Wrong with the Presidents

I stumbled on a libertarian site which is running a series on Everything Wrong with Every Single President of the United States.

“This will be a sharp departure from your standard presidential histories, rankings, surveys, and biographies. Here, we have no interest in criticizing the man while maintaining ‘respect for the office.’ The office itself is the problem, after all, and practically anyone you could throw into it would make a proper mess of the whole affair… It’s high time to take on the myths, shred them, and finish the job by tackling each and every other president along with the ‘greats.’ No American president has managed to wield the power of their office and do so within the limits of both the Constitution and the rights, liberties, and interests of the people. Even those few presidents who have entered office with the best of records, the best of intentions, and the best of methods have been abject failures in their own ways… Every president was awful. Every president should be remembered as an infamous and immoral rogue who unjustly claimed to rule many millions by arguments no better than magic. Every president deserves either our scorn, our disgust, or at the very least, our criticism; some deserve trials for war crimes and others have escaped all scrutiny by hiding in relative obscurity. No longer.”

To date, these authors have skewered the following presidents:

William Henry Harrison (1841)
John Tyler (1841-1845)
Harry Truman (1945-1953)
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
John Adams (1797-1801)
James Buchanan (1857-1861)

While it’s impossible to take seriously the idea that all chief executives were equally abysmal, these analyses have more merit than those you will find in most books and online, which err on the side of uncritical praise.

The reader may compare these with my own list of scumbags, though I’ve done only three so far:

Abraham Lincoln (most overrated)
Andrew Jackson (most dangerous)
Woodrow Wilson (worst of all)

I also did the tenth president, whom I judge to have been excellent — the very best in fact — unlike the authors above who trash him:

John Tyler

“For me but not thee”: The TAFF Doctrine of the GOP

As we rev up for the 2020 election, remember: for the GOP elite, it’s all about me, not thee. I call it the TAFF Doctrine:

Tax cuts for me, but not for thee. (So the Trump tax “reform” benefiting business owners like him long term.)

Abortions for me, but not for thee. (So Tim Murphy and Scott DesJarlais.)

Free health care for me, but not for thee. (So Mitch McConnell.)

Free speech for me, but not for thee. (So President Trump: “for me” but “not for thee”.)

Regarding the last point, it’s true that the biggest threats to free speech come from the left. Liberals are in fact the worst offenders of “me but not thee” when it comes to the First Amendment. But Trump has given leftists a sure run for their money.

The Democratic Candidates

With the pool of 22 Democratic candidates to choose from, here are the ones I like. None is perfect, but I would be happy enough if any of the following four got the nomination.

1. Tulsi Gabbard. My favorite candidate so far. Her economic policies are progressive enough to pull us out of the neoliberal funk that’s been plaguing the Dems and keeping the lower classes shafted and the middle class forgotten. She’s superb on foreign policy, denouncing the necons and the neolibs impartially, and insisting on minimal military engagements abroad. She’s one of the few who gets Islam right and doesn’t hesitate to speak honestly about the problem. Unlike Bush and Obama, she won’t pander to leftist fears of “Islamophobia” while carrying on useless wars abroad; unlike Bernie Sanders, she won’t support pernicious left-wing Islamist activists like Linda Sarsour. She actively opposes radical Islam, and has denounced the hawkish regimes of Bush and Obama who toppled dictators (Hussein, Gaddafi, Sisi, Assad) which only paved the way for greater evils (ISIS-jihadists and sharia-enamored Islamists). (She describes herself as a hawk only when it comes to actual terrorism, and as a dove on everything else.) Her record on all the main issues is commendable. She supports the legalization of pot, universal health care, making community colleges free and other colleges more affordable. She’s pretty much my candidate all around.

2. Jay Inslee. It’s hard not to like him since he makes the number one problem his number one priority. If we don’t solve climate change, nothing else matters. He runs the danger of being a Johnny one-note, but if there’s any issue to be single-note about, it’s climate change. His record on other policies looks trustworthy in any case.

3. Elizabeth Warren. My third choice would actually be Bernie Sanders, except that Bernie is getting long in the tooth. Warren is cut from the same cloth, and she has most of her priorities straight: investing in education and research, reducing income inequality, helping unions, improving health care, etc.

4. Pete Buttigieg. He’s a bit vague on how he’d implement policies, but he has a lot of the right ideas, and clearly wants to help the causes of education and transportation infrastructure to provide more opportunities. On a few issues he’s actually better than Warren and Sanders, for instance, against their free college proposals (which I take to be misguided), Buttigieg proposes more affordable college tuition, like Gabbard does. I have the feeling this guy could be my #2 or 3 choice if here were more concrete and detailed about his proposals.

Honorable mentions

Bernie Sanders and Mike Gravel. I like them a lot, but when you get over 85 you should probably retire.

Automatic exclusions

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand. We don’t need neoliberal placeholders or shape-shifting Wall-Street buddies. It would be a repeat of the Obama era — more useless and costly military intervention abroad, more misguided economic policies, all of which will likely result in another Trump-equivalent down the line.

Unfortunately, I think Joe Biden is going to get the nomination. And we’ll be right back to the same dismal choice we had in the 2016 election.

Revisionist Affection: The Elder and Younger Bushes

Americans have been looking back on the two Bushes in absurdly glowing terms — the younger George since his grandiose speech on democracy (in which he blasted Donald Trump), and the elder since he died last week. I’m not generally one to take someone down in the wake of his demise, but I do make exceptions, not least when it comes to revisionist affection for very bad leaders.

In an earlier post I ranked the presidents who served during my lifetime — from Nixon to Obama — and I ranked them on the basis of their actual presidential record, not on the basis of charisma, management style, or reputation. My ranking was as follows:

1. Jimmy Carter — 49/60 (Good)
2. Bill Clinton — 42/60 (Average)
3. Gerald Ford — 38/60 (Average)
4. Richard Nixon — 28/60 (Poor)
5. Barack Obama — 20/60 (Bad)
6. Ronald Reagan — 15/60 (Bad)
7. George H.W. Bush — 12/60 (Bad)
8. George W. Bush — 4/60 (Atrocious)

Jimmy Carter was the best (and only good) president in my lifetime and the Bushes were the worst. I explained my scoring in detail here, but I repaste the explanations for the two Bushes below, since they are apparently needed in our age of alternative facts and absurdist revisionism.

George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993. Rating: Bad

Peace (3/20): Bush’s colossal failure was that he didn’t return to a policy of military restraint when the opportunity presented itself (like Ford did considerably after Vietnam, and as Carter did especially after him). There was no great power to take the place of the communist threat (when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89 and the Soviet Union dissolved in ’91), but Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. He invaded Panama for little reason. He went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, worried that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia (and threaten the oil supply), even though there was no evidence indicating Saddam had such designs. After the Gulf War he left behind an unneeded military presence in the Persian Gulf, which infuriated Osama Bin Laden (on his return home to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). We are still today reaping the consequences of the elder Bush’s pointless excursions in the Middle-East. Herein lies the biggest misperception of the elder Bush: he had the reputation of being wimp, but he was actually even more aggressive in using the military than Reagan, and he landed consequences more calamitous. His war against Iraq was an overnight success but a long-term disaster; because of it Osama bin Laden turned the jihad onto America; this in turn led to a second (and even more outrageous) war in Iraq by Bush’s son; and because of all that, Al-Qaeda morphed into the even worse Islamic State. As Ivan Eland notes, “Historians always give presidents credit for winning wars but never ask if the conflicts could have been avoided, or whether a long line of horrible consequences is worth the mesmerizing short-term military triumph.” (Eleven Presidents, p 242)

Prosperity (2/20): Because of Reagan’s unruly spending as a percentage of GDP, federal budget deficits ballooned to ungodly levels that would be superseded only under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It was left to the elder Bush to clean up Reagan’s mess, which he did not do, and ended up presiding over the recession of 1990-91. Setting a horrible precedent for both his son and Obama, he approved the largest federal bailout in American history, costing the government $300 billion over ten years. He should have followed the free market approach, at least to a degree, of letting savings and loans banks to go broke and allowing the economy to right itself as a matter of course.

Liberty (7/20): To Bush’s credit, he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, and had commendable views on immigration. But his sins outweigh these causes. He pardoned high-ranking officials who were involved in Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal. He escalated the war on drugs, demanding more prisons and jails and prosecutors, while of course maintaining the legal disparities that made African Americans ten times as likely to be incarcerated. He did nothing to help against the spread of AIDS, regarding it mostly as a contemptible issue. And on his watch the FBI covered up federal misconduct when residents were shot at the Ruby Ridge property in Idaho: the FBI snipers had been given illegal shoot-to-kill orders; the residents were acquitted of all crimes; and yet one of the shooters was promoted to the #2 job in the FBI hierarchy.

A total score of 12/60 isn’t the record of a good president by a long shot. Just because you can watch an old video clip that shows George H.W. making favorable remarks about immigrants, and contrast that with an overt racist like Donald Trump, doesn’t mean the former deserves to be lamented. Seriously.

George W. Bush, 2001-2009. Rating: Atrocious

Peace (0/20): The younger Bush was an atrocious president in every way, and in my opinion the second worst in U.S. history after Woodrow Wilson. He invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason at all, and bogged America down in a new Vietnam. Scholars are in wide agreement that the Iraq War was one of the hugest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. Not only was it a distraction from the critical task of focusing on the 9/11 attackers, it was based purely on Bush’s need to settle old scores with Saddam, and justified by manufactured evidence. He demanded that his advisors come up with proof that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked in cause, and that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — neither of which was remotely true — and when they couldn’t, he sent them back to the drawing board, saying “Wrong answer.” The biggest anti-war protests in history broke out across the globe. By removing Saddam, moreover, Bush empowered Islamists and jihadists to fill the power void, who are far worse than Saddam. (In Saddam’s Iraq you were at least mostly safe if you stayed out of politics and played by Saddam’s rules.) Ivan Eland’s indictment of George W. is a zinger: “If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S., he probably would have gone to war against Argentina instead of Japan or Germany.” He earns an absolute goose-egg in the peace category.

Prosperity (1/20): Bush’s economic and spending policies were hideous and the cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like Reagan he gave fake tax cuts while letting federal spending spiral out of control. He used the 9/11 attacks to dramatically escalate the defense budget, and most of this money didn’t even go towards fighting terrorism. On top of that, he used a bailout which killed the economy worse in the longer run.

Liberty (3/20): Bush tried expanding the powers of the presidency in ways that make the Caesar-presidents of the 20th century (esp. McKinley and Wilson) look benign. He (and Dick Cheney) disdained Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as war commander in chief he was not subject to the constraints of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Like Abraham Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. According to the Constitution only Congress can suspend this right, and only in times of invasion or rebellion. For the first time in U.S. history, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war don’t apply to terror suspects, and it took years for the Supreme Court to overrule him on this. Most notoriously, he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture in overseas detention centers. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Bush signed three bills that restricted abortions.

Those who conveniently forget why they were so infuriated by the above atrocities should pull their heads out of their asses. George W. was certainly not a “good president compared to Donald Trump”. He was appalling, pure and simple.

 

 

 

Dissing Muhammad, Historicizing Jesus

In the space of two days, two ridiculous decisions were made.

The first was a European court’s ruling that you cannot blaspheme Muhammad. A woman called Muhammad a pedophile because of his marriage to the six-year old Aisha. In 2011, an Austrian court convicted her of “disparaging” Islam and slapped her with a fine. She fought the conviction on several grounds. For one, her statements about Muhammad were absolutely factual. For another, she wasn’t defaming the prophet but rather debating him as a historical figure. Finally — and most importantly — even if she were defaming him, so what? Sacrilege and blasphemy should be perfectly legal.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the Austrian court’s ruling, writing:

“Presenting objects of religious worship in a provocative way capable of hurting the feelings of the followers of that religion could be conceived as a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance.”

Christ on a crutch. I realize the First Amendment doesn’t exist in Europe, but even so, this is a horrible dissent. Western societies outside America at least pretend to uphold some standards of free expression. Co-existing in a world with offense is something every mature person should expect. Here the court has made free expression a farce by effectively enforcing sharia (Islamic) law.

The second case was Youtube’s removal of an informational video on the historical Jesus uploaded by Anthony Le Donne. On his Facebook page Le Donne wryly notes that “it seems that historical Jesus research is now illegal”. Just last week one of my videos was blocked by Youtube, also for objectionable content; it was an All in the Family clip in which Archie Bunker explained why Native American Indians don’t vote (“they sell all their horses for booze and can’t ride into town”). Youtube has a history of being capricious, but when it starts banning mainstream historical research and a classic sitcom that won numerous Emmy awards, it shows the degree to which the collective mentality doesn’t care a whit about free expression.

Of course, in the case of Youtube, free expression has not to do with its First Amendment sense, which is about governmental censorship, and it goes without saying that Youtube is a private company and can legally ban whomever it wants (as is proper: their house, their rules). But that doesn’t mean it should. Private colleges can likewise silence students in ways that public universities cannot — but again, that doesn’t mean they should. Social media platforms like Youtube, Twitter, and Amazon are omnipresent and have a a virtual monopoly today over the means of online communication, and when they ban people like this, they set a precedent that is inimical to free expression in other contexts. If I were the CEO of Youtube, I’d fire the twits who censored those videos.

Shame on both the ECHR and Youtube.

What All Winning Presidents Have in Common

Ali Rizvi has been saying this for a while now, and he’s probably right: the most charismatic candidate is bound to win any presidential election. It has always been the case since presidential debates were televised in 1960. Even when the victor had low charisma, his opponent had even less. It’s sobering:

John F. Kennedy was a charismatic, and Richard Nixon was not, in 1960.

Lyndon Johnson had more charisma than Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Richard Nixon wasn’t a charismatic, but even less so were Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and George McGovern in 1972.

Gerald Ford had zero charisma and could never have won the presidency. He simply inherited it as the vice-president when Nixon left.

Jimmy Carter had little charisma, but he had infinitely more than Gerald Ford in 1976.

Ronald Reagan was a strong charismatic; neither Jimmy Carter in 1980 not Walter Mondale in 1984 stood a chance.

George H.W. Bush had low charisma, but he had more than Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Bill Clinton was a strong charismatic, unlike George H.W. Bush in 1992, and Bob Dole in 1996.

George W. Bush had low charisma, but what little he had was more than Al Gore (panned as a robotic drone by even his fans) in 2000 and John Kerry (the monotonous professorial bore) in 2004.

Barack Obama was a strong charismatic, unlike John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012.

Finally, Donald Trump was a charismatic in 2016. An ass-clown charismatic, to be sure, and a toxic demagogue, but a charismatic nonetheless. So was Bernie Sanders for that matter. Had Sanders won the primaries, he could very well have beaten Trump (it was only because of Bernie’s thundering charisma that he did as well as he did in the primaries, against everyone’s expectations). Both Sanders and Trump were charismatics promising something better in the wake of a colossal failure of the two-party system.

Rizvi says: “When charisma comes into play, ideology doesn’t matter. Policy details don’t matter. Experience doesn’t matter.” I’ve been saying the same thing about charisma for some time now, especially when it comes to the way even academics and scholars get hoodwinked by a president’s charisma. But I didn’t realize how clear the pattern is until Rizvi laid it out.

What this means is that Trump will probably win the 2020 election unless the Democrats can produce an equally strong charismatic — someone like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Those two also happen to be very good candidates, which is what should matter most, but unfortunately does not. It doesn’t matter how good candidates’ policies are if they can’t win. The sad truth is that people are suckers for charisma.

Defamation and Free Speech: The Cases of Maajid Nawaz and Jordan Peterson

One is a progressive Islamic reformer. The other a quick-fix spiritualist. Each has threatened a lawsuit for defamation of character, and as usual, confusion settles like a cloud around those who don’t quite grasp the difference between free speech and other things, such as slander.

As a quick review: In the U.S. the First Amendment protects freedom of expression, and especially offensive speech (since inoffensive speech doesn’t need the protection of law). So for example, hate speech is protected, because to criminalize it would be to censor something solely on the basis of its offensiveness and opinion content, which is what the First Amendment is designed to protect. Other things, however — threats, defamation of character, inciting violence, harassment, child pornography, the use of copyright, disturbing the peace, threatening national security — are not protected by the First Amendment, because they go beyond offensive opinion content and translate directly into harmful action or violating the rights of others. Child pornography is illegal not because of how offensive it is, but because it involves exploitation of children. Threats are illegal, not because they’re emotionally upsetting, but because they cause a person to fear physical harm. Defamation — to our cases in point — is illegal, not because it’s disrespectful, but because it damages someone’s reputation.

But defamation (slander/libel) has to meet specific criteria, otherwise virtually anyone could be criminalized. After all, we “defame” people all the time. Certainly I do. The rule of thumb is that the more public a person you are, the less protection you have against defamation, for the simple reason that being criticized (and even maligned) is “part of your job”. It’s especially true of government officials, but also true of any speaker, author, blogger, show host who gets wide attention. You can say almost anything you want about the President of the United States, because he’s, well, the president. Government officials are bad-mouthed by everyone under the sun; it comes with the turf. Movie and TV celebrities, same deal. We seldom see famous celebrities suing for the mean-spirited slander that fills the tabloids, because the celebrities know the courts would never find for them. “Defamation”, to a large degree, is the price of fame.

The cases of Maajid Nawaz and Jordan Peterson are rather interesting in this light. Each is a well-known public speaker and author; each has been ludicrously maligned. (For the record: I have the utmost respect for Maajid Nawaz, while I think Jordan Peterson is rather hollow. My personal feelings are irrelevant here.) Maajid Nawaz was blacklisted by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hateful anti-Muslim extremist. That is certainly slander, and an outrageous lie. He’s an Islamic reformer, a believing Muslim no less, who rightfully draws attention to inherent problems with the Islamic religion, and calls for a reform without which Islam will remain (in all its official schools of thought) violent and toxic as it always has been. Unlike disingenuous Muslims who pretend that reform is unnecessary, and that all religions have about equal potential for harm and good, Nawaz has been actually doing good, working progressively at a grass-roots level within Muslim communities to effect change, not least on behalf of oppressed women, gays, and other Muslim “heretics”. What the SPLC did — and I still can’t believe it after all this time, even for a group as backwards as the SPLC — was to take the Martin Luther King Jr. of the Muslim world and brand him a hateful bigot. Even though Nawaz is a highly public figure and should expect to live with a lot of trash talk and maligning, the SPLC is a high-profile organization that carries authority. When it blacklists people, reputations suffer. Institutions take the SPLC seriously. Nawaz had solid grounds for a defamation lawsuit, and it’s no surprise that the SPLC ended up publicly apologizing and paying Nawaz a tidy sum in order to end the matter before it ever went to court.

I should note in passing that the SPLC had other names on their “anti-Muslim extremist list” which were just as offensive — Aayan Hirsi Ali and Robert Spencer, to name the most obvious. Ali is a human rights activist, a victim of FGM, and like Nawaz has spoken courageously against Islam from first hand experience. For her intelligence and compassionate activism she has been rewarded with death threats (from jihadis) and branded an “Islamophobe” (by the hard left). Robert Spencer is the author of Jihad Watch and many insightful books on Islam, but his politics are conservative and for that reason alone he is considered hateful. Some of the individuals on the SPLC blacklist may be genuine anti-Muslim bigots and hateful, but people like Nawaz, Ali, Spencer (and David Horowitz) are not.

Nor is Jordan Peterson hateful. Only in a world dominated by hard-left rhetoric and identity politics can Peterson be classified as some of kind of Nazi. I don’t consider Peterson to be an intellectual on the level of someone like Maajid Nawaz, but that certainly doesn’t make him Naziesque. Most of what he says frankly isn’t all that original, and he comes across — to me, anyway — as a quick-fix spiritualist, sort of a Deepak Chopra for those who lean more right than left. But to his credit, like Chopra, he can present important subjects — like personality psychology, the psychology of religious belief, free speech, and identity politics — in a very accessible way, and which has gained him popularity. The point is that he was defamed by university officials of the Wilfred Laurier University, not by students, book readers, or internet trolls. Many people will see that as carrying authority. That’s often grounds for a defamation law suit.

Or at least it is in the U.S. Neither Jordan Peterson nor Maajid Nawaz are American citizens (though in Nawaz’s case, the offending defamer is an American organization), and the laws regarding slander may be substantially different in Britain and Canada. The examples of Nawaz and Peterson are nonetheless useful as a reminder of the difference between free expression and defamation, and why the latter isn’t necessarily protected by the former.