Does anybody remember "Impossible – Yet It Happened!"? When I was a kid, that was my favorite part of the comics page. It was a series based on the work of Charles Fort, the chronicler of the odd, all about – well, supposedly "impossible" events that nonetheless did occur. I delighted in the unexpectedness of it, the start it gave as one contemplated events so out of the ordinary that they seemed like visitations from another dimension. It was somehow reassuring, as if to say: there’s more to this world than you – or anyone – can possibly imagine.
I mention this because "Impossible – Yet It Happened" could well serve as a headline for several major news stories over the past week or so. First off, there was Vladimir Putin’s decision to renounce his (alleged) right to intervene in Ukraine. The Russian leader asked the Duma, or Russian parliament, to revoke its resolution granting authority to move troops into the former Soviet territory.
After months of listening to news announcers hype the prospect of an "imminent" Russian invasion – which came amid reports of fierce fighting between pro-Russian "separatists" and the Ukrainian armed forces (that is, those who hadn’t already defected to the Russian side) – this veers quite close to the Realm of the Seemingly Impossible. After all, isn’t Putin a "strongman," as he’s routinely described in the Western media? And strongmen, as we know, don’t back down, not even in the face of worldwide condemnation – which would surely have been the international reaction if and when Putin gave the Russian army its marching orders. But that’s not all….
Even more unlikely: after months of denouncing the secessionists as "terrorists," and treating them accordingly, Kiev has declared a unilateral ceasefire and is now engaged in talks with the self-proclaimed "People’s Republic of Donetsk" and its neighbors in Slavyansk. The negotiations include OSCE representatives, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, and Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician. The United States is conspicuous by its absence.
Gee, so I guess the eastern Ukrainians who don’t recognize the Kiev coup aren’t "terrorists" anymore. To which we might add: is Putin still a "strongman"? It seems like only yesterday that Hillary Clinton was likening him to Hitler – but can anyone imagine the failed painter and archetypal murderous tyrant renouncing his "right" to invade the Sudetenland?
Another episode in the recent slew of "Impossible Yet They Happened" anomalies is the prospect of US-Iranian collaboration to tamp down the Sunni jihadist eruption in Iraq. Apparently the issue was the occasion for a side meeting at the ongoing nuke talks. Although an Iranian spokesman immediately ruled out the possibility of joint military action, and the Americans chimed in with a similar disavowal, it looks to me like this was merely to fend off hardliners in both countries.
The Israelis aren’t buying it, either: they are so worried about this that their "Strategic Affairs" minister, one Yuval Steinitz, issued a public statement warning Washington they had better not let this soften their stance on Iranian nukes if they know what’s good for them. According to Steinitz, the US government has reassured Tel Aviv that they’re standing strong (i.e. just as unreasonable and arrogant as ever) – although the Israeli minister took the opportunity to complain that the US shouldn’t be negotiating with Tehran about anything other than the terms of surrender.
That there is now even a possibility of US-Iranian cooperation in bringing some kind of order to Iraq seems like "Impossible, Yet It Happened" material to me. First we’re on the brink of war, and then – suddenly – the gods intervene, and the world’s turned upside down.
Be warned, however, that these abrupt divine interventions don’t always augur well. Take the mysterious appearance at our southern border of more than 40,000 children, mostly under the age of fifteen, who’ve made the long and dangerous journey all the way from Central America. It’s The Camp of the Saints and the Children’s Crusade all rolled into one. These kids are being housed in hastily-constructed camps, and as I write Matt Drudge has put up one of the oddest headlines in recent years:
To which one can only respond: Really???
As to why this sudden influx of youngsters – mostly traveling without their parents – is happening no one seems to have the slightest clue. The anti-immigration folks are saying it’s due to an executive order forbidding the deportation of underage illegal immigrants. But if that’s true then why are the vast majority coming from Honduras and El Salvador – and not, say, Mexico or some other place? Pro-immigration liberals explain it by arguing they’re coming to join up with their parents, who are already here. Yet this is apparently not the case, as most news accounts I’ve seen aver the parents are staying put, and it’s the kids who are setting out on a scary odyssey all by their little selves.
Whatever is at the root of it – gang violence in El Salvador and Honduras, the lax immigration policies of the Obama administration, the phase of the moon, or some as yet unknown factor – it certainly seems as unlikely as it is shocking. We’re talking about unaccompanied children trekking thousands of miles – hordes of them. As to what the response of the US government ought to be – my libertarian ideology doesn’t give me a ready-made template to impose as a "solution" to the problem. I simply note, with no small degree of bafflement, that this is happening – an ominous portent of things to come….
Last but certainly not the least of my concerns is the news that the release of top secret National Security Agency files showing the agency spied on well-known "controversial" political figures is "imminent." In an appearance on Fox News, Glenn Greenwald stated "You will definitely recognize some of these names and some of these people."
I’ll understand if you knit your brow and wonder: how is this "impossible"? Well, let me tell you: it once did seem impossible, at least to me. Which brings me to the realm of the personal.
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, one morning in class – it was the first day of school – I refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. At the teacher’s command, all the other students rose but there I was, slouched down in my seat like a juvenile delinquent, arms crossed over my chest as if to underscore my defiance. I won’t go into much more detail – it was quite a scene – but suffice to say that this just wasn’t done in the late 1950s. A few years later, perhaps – but not then, and certainly not in the upper-middle class neat-as-a-pin community where I was brought up.
After class, the teacher took me aside: from my shouted comments during the brouhaha he could see that I had some radical if inchoate political concerns (yes, even at that young age). Asked why I refused to stand the best I could come up with was "This country is no better than the Nazis!" or words to that effect. We then got into a political discussion, and it was plain to see that here was a very opinionated if fitfully-educated boy who didn’t really know what he was talking about – or did he?
I had many discussions with Mr. Poli, who was also the Social Studies teacher, and he educated me about the American system: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the history that led to these great achievements unparalleled in human history. I learned from him that America is not the equivalent of Nazi Germany, that we don’t live under arbitrary rules set down by tyrants, and that we are blessed to live in freedom as long as we vigilantly guard these rights which are inherent in our nature as human beings. We might not like what’s going on in society, but instead of declaring war on The System the really radical path to take is to set out to change it.
Yes, I realize that even at that moment J. Edgar Hoover was spying on commies and others who supposedly threatened to subvert the country and inject our precious bodily fluids with ideological poison. My point is that they didn’t do it under color of law – Hoover and his cronies simply went ahead and did it. The Church Committee exposed these abuses and supposedly corrected them – unfortunately, the "reforms" it institutionalized morphed into the "legal" justification for the radical extension of Hoover’s crimes exposed by Edward Snowden.
I’ve always held to what Ayn Rand called "the benevolent universe premise," as applied to the country in which I was born: that America is basically a healthy, relatively free society in which the promise of the Founders hasn’t been irretrievably lost. This belief was severely shaken by the Snowden revelations – and yet still I retained my stubborn faith in the basic solidity of the American system as originally conceived. After all, there was no evidence the Surveillance State had taken out after American political "dissidents" – if we can use a word that has previously described opponents of the old Soviet dictatorship.
Which brings me back to the imminent Greenwald revelations: as cynical as I pretend to be about the degree to which our Old Republic has degenerated, I’ve never really shaken the lesson Mr. Poli taught me. It has retained its persuasive power, in spite of everything, after all these years – until now.
Although we’ll have to wait and see what Greenwald has to report, from his hints it seems like my American faith has been grievously misconceived. It could be that Mr. Poli was wrong – or, perhaps, that he was just behind the times.
This is important to me because it has everything to do with my decision to become a writer, made when I was still sitting in Mr. Poli’s classroom. I had so many issues with the world at large that I had to learn to express them in language others could understand – instead of making futile gestures and getting in a world of trouble. In the framework of the free society Mr. Poli laid out for me, this strategy made sense: if I could convince the rest of the world of the utter wrongness of its philosophy, then being a writer – a political writer – was the rational course to take.
But does it make sense if the government is spying – and targeting for harassment – people such as myself? This question first arose when I learned of the FBI’s investigation into myself and Eric Garris, our webmaster – but even that did not shake my faith. Since we don’t know any of the specifics – they still refuse to release any significant documents, aside from the one already in our possession, in spite of ongoing legal efforts – I couldn’t really make a case in my own mind that countered the "benevolent universe" premise instilled in me in my youth.
If what Greenwald has to reveal is that well-known political figures, whose views are "controversial," have been subjected to systematic surveillance by the National Security Agency – or that these actions by our government have actively undermined them in any way – then the degeneration of the American system has gone beyond anything I ever imagined.
Under these circumstances, it is impossible to be a political writer – or a political activist – whose views are outside the "mainstream." If what Greenwald has to tell us is what I fear it is, then Mr. Poli’s lesson – that it is possible to do battle for your views and win in a fair fight – no longer applies. I might as well go into real estate, because to write and agitate on behalf of a cause considered "radical" by some is to place oneself in danger.
"Impossible – yet it happened!" Life in our "modern" world is straight out of the comics – although there are those, such as myself, who would characterize it as tragedy.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.