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The Case Against Conservative Pessimism By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, August 09, 2002


Conservatives are supposed to be the realists of the political spectrum. Liberals won’t face harsh facts, and leftists live in a fantasy world. (When, of course, they believe reality is objective at all, rather than socially constructed.) But we are supposed to have the temperament to call a spade what it is. There are any number of obvious truths about society that political correctness has made it nekulturny to speak; it is our job to speak them to the body politic. But as with all things, this can be taken too far. One can make a fetish out of the harshness of the truths one is willing to face. In fact, one can be so obsessed with one’s ability to face them that one makes up “truths” in order to have the manly right-wing experience of facing them. This leads to a kind of doppelganger of leftism: a right-wing fantasy world. It is akin to the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish” world usefully but inaccurately imagined by Thomas Hobbes. But it is still false.

Worse, it has horrendous practical consequences, because it imagines a world so black that conservative values cannot triumph, making it pointless for us to try. John Derbyshire’s recent article in National Review Online, “Unpleasant Truths,” is probably the single most pernicious thing I have ever read in a conservative journal. Under the guise of tough-mindedness and with a dollop of wit to make the medicine go down, he preaches nothing less than conservative despair. Make no mistake: the logical conclusion from what he says is surrender. It means giving the Left everything it wants in its dumb, dishonest, destructive vision for our society. It means all our nightmares. Forever. So it is certainly worth refuting point-by-point.

There is no thing of which I am more certain, than that in American politics today neither optimism nor pessimism is warranted. They are not warranted because our political future has not been determined yet. It will be determined by whether we, as conservative Americans, stand and fight for our ideals or whether we stay home and watch TV. If we fight, we have a chance to win. If we preemptively surrender because we think the other side is unbeatable, we are guaranteed to lose. The choice is ours, so let us systematically rid our minds of the siren lie of inevitability.

John Derbyshire’s text follows in boldface:

One of the disorienting things for an Old World conservative settling in America is that over here, even conservatives are optimistic. This really won't do. A conservative ought to be a pessimist, at least about human nature, human society, and the prospects for improving them.

Really, my English friend? “Pessimist” doesn’t sound like a description of Thatcher or Churchill to me. Both were supreme optimists who believed — against the prevailing wisdom of the day — that they could save their country in its moment of crisis. They believed that the old values – work, valor — endured and could still be the basis for setting things aright. Whatever deviltry human nature contains, and whatever bestiality human societies are capable of, they are still capable of such achievements as winning WWII and creating the prosperity of the modern Western world.

The facile cheeriness of the lefty world-perfecters are not for us, with their New Soviet Man, their Socialist Spiritual Civilization, their City of the Sun, their coming reign of peace, justice, and absolute equality.

On the contrary: it’s the Left that tends to be pessimistic today, with their endless whine about coming environmental catastrophe, inevitable inequality, and the uselessness of moderate solutions. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anything about a socialist utopia. The Left thrives on catastrophe, or the perception thereof, and they know it. After all, if there is hope, who needs extremists like them? And if people are happy, whither resentment, the Left’s driving emotion?

We are more of the temper of H. P. Lovecraft, who began one of his short stories with the arresting observation that: "Life is a hideous thing."

You can borrow my shotgun any time you want.

In an attempt to redress the balance, to tug my conservative American friends back towards a properly gloomy outlook on events, I have given over today's column to a list of unpleasant truths. This is stuff you don't want to hear, but that, if you are a true conservative, you cannot dispute. Remember the slogan of the 1964 Goldwater campaign: "In your heart you know he's right."

If I thought with my heart, rather than my brain, I might believe you.

Most of us will die in poverty. There is no way that systems devised to provide for mid-20th-century retirees will be able to cope in the mid-21st, with imploding demographics and a centenarian on every block.

This is usually given as a back-door argument for more immigration, so I’m familiar with it. But if by “us” you mean likely readers of your column, or even Americans, it is nonsense. This question has been studied to death by demographers and economists, and what they have basically found is this:

  1. Raw numbers aren’t the issue. It’s not how many workers exist to support each retiree, but how much productivity. And productivity continues to grow.
  2. The increasing burden of people too old to work is largely set off, in mature societies like ours, by a decreasing burden of people too young to work. Our vast expenditures on schooling, suburban real estate, minivans, and college tuition are set to plummet.
  3. Because raising the retirement age both cuts the number of retirees and increases the number of workers, small changes make a big difference in alleviating the problem. That’s why we are already set to do this.
The age 65 was not handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. (It was set by Chancellor Bismarck, of all people.) In 1870, when the average worker was a skilled manual laborer and medicine was primitive, it was indeed unreasonable and inhumane to expect people to work past 65. Today, with the boom in soft white-collar employment and routine surgical marvels, it is not. After all, look at how active many retirees are. There’s no tragedy in being a programmer at 70.

"Defined-contribution" pension plans will have to be bailed out by the federal government, if private enterprise is to survive. The dollars we get from them will therefore be massively devalued.

Derbyshire is just over-reacting to the recent slide in the stock market, which will actually do us good in the long run because it has beaten some sense into the heads of the indulgence-addled baby-boom generation. In the historical long run, the stock market has sustained pretty good performance, and there’s no reason people have to invest in the stock market, anyway. There are other less risky investments out there. If this means that people have to sock away more money now in order to make up for the lower returns, well and good: we have too low a savings rate already, and people have been trying to retire rich on the cheap. Fortunately, this alarm bell has already gone off, so we won’t be surprised by this one, and we won’t carelessly privatize Social Security, either. (A misnomer, by the way, since one cannot privatize a wealth-redistributing program.)

Since there is no one to bail out Social Security, benefits will soon be restricted to citizens more than 80 years old. Similarly for Medicare. In fact...

This is a wild exaggeration. The retirement age will gradually go up, but it will not outpace the increase in the vitality of the aged. Medicine will be rationed, but it is rationed already, like every other commodity known to man.

Quality health care for all is not possible. Quality health care is what rich people get. (Actually, according to one of the depressingly tiny number of rich people I know, even they have trouble getting it.) The rest of us must wait on line to be misdiagnosed by ill-trained, paperwork-swamped, litigation-shy doctors, assisted by nurses imported from the less hygienic parts of the Third World, and unionized hospital staff with no-way-you-can-get-me-fired attitudes. This could only change if the USA devoted her entire Gross National Product to health care; and even then, it probably wouldn't stay changed for long.

This is just whining. I like my doctor, I like my health plan, and I like my local hospital. I must simply ask the reader if he or she feels the same way. The medicine available today is downright amazing – even for the poor — compared to what was there a generation ago.

Pop culture is filth. It is now completely degenerate. Why do you never hear anyone humming a current pop song any more? Because none of them is hummable, or even worth bothering to remember. What is the main topic on TV sitcoms and "dramedies"? You know what. Why do you stand in the aisle in Blockbuster muttering to yourself: "There isn't a single damn movie in here I want to watch"? Because Hollywood produces nothing but crap, crap, crap.

But who cares about popular culture? The classics – of literature, movies, music, art – are still readily available. The spread of Barnes & Noble, not to mention Amazon.com, has made them more available than they were 10 years ago, and somebody must be buying the decent stuff, or they wouldn’t stock it. I’ve bought volumes of the Loeb Classical Library in the most banal suburbs! And this country still has a taste for high culture: the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York had more visitors last year than all major-league sports teams in the metro area combined. And I don’t think all pop culture is filth: Tom Clancy isn’t Tolstoy, but he writes riveting stories about serious things.

Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait. The saddest true thing ever said (by Henri Estienne, 1531-98). Translation: "If youth only knew, if age only could."

This has nothing to do with politics.

The environment is collapsing. The U.S. will get the blame for it, of course, but the main culprit is the Third World. Take a trip to China: The air is a soupy smog, even in quite remote places. Vast dust storms sweep periodically across the north of the country, sometimes continuing right on across the Pacific. (And in one case last year, the Atlantic, too!) The rivers run purple, orange, and turquoise. People tell me India is worse. The inhabitants of Africa are busily stripping their continent of all vegetation, having already pretty much exterminated the fauna, except in a few tourist reservations. The oceans are being fished out, and near-earth orbit is filling up with lethal junk.

The worst kind of alarmist guff, which plays right into the hands of eco-extremists. As documented by such rigorous books as Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, the environment, while under stress, is doing reasonably well. Because people saw the problems and did something about them. As we will continue to do. Pollution-control technology is galloping ahead. Electric cars are inevitable.

Science has stopped. None of the really major scientific advances that you have been reading about since 1970 as "just over the horizon" is ever going to happen. Cheap fusion power; the colonization of Mars; artificial intelligence; supersonic air travel you can afford; contact with extraterrestrial civilizations; the conquest of cancer, tooth decay, or the common cold; fuhgeddaboutit.

This one is just so dumb I don’t know what to say about it. I have a more powerful computer in my briefcase than NASA had in 1960. Genetic engineering is already doing useful work. The Internet has increased the accessibility of valuable information by several orders of magnitude. We have a telescope in space that can see practically the entire universe. In the pure sciences, there isn’t a real scientist on the planet who’ll deny that all areas of knowledge are exploding, not grinding to a halt. Why whine about what we don’t have when we have all this?

Not all groups are equally good at all things. East Asians will continue to win Olympic diving events, and runners of West African ancestry will continue to win the 100-meter dash. Similarly, nobody will ever be able to devise a test of knowledge or understanding on which groups with different population-genetic histories all record identical statistical profiles. You can have meritocracy, or you can have equality of outcomes by ancestry-group, but you can't have both.

Well, this much seems to be a bald empirical fact, unless some radically new evidence shows itself. The Bell Curve is probably true, even if social science is a slippery thing and there remain a few loose ends, like genetic drift, that aren’t adequately explained. But this is only a tragedy if you believe, a priori, that equality is a good thing. I don’t. Why should ethnic groups have the same abilities? No-one’s given me a satisfactory argument for this. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and if some are prettier than others, so be it. It’s civic equality, equality before the law, that we are all entitled to, folks. That’s it, and a conservative should know this.

Which one do you want? It seems we have already made up our minds. Corollary... Affirmative action is absolutely essential to social order. Think about it.

He’s answered this one himself by asking “which one do you want?” This is a political choice, and there is plenty of evidence, like California voters overturning affirmative action, that the masses can go either way on this. So this glass is at least half-full, and there’s nothing “absolutely essential” about it. But of course declaring it so could make it inevitable if everyone believes it so and stops fighting politically. As I said, that’s what I find so pernicious about this whole pessimism thing.

Socialism is popular. Practically all of the Socialist Party platform on which Norman Thomas ran in 1928 has been implemented. Thomas himself noticed this as far back as 1962, exulting that: "The difference between Democrats and Republicans is: Democrats have accepted some ideas of Socialism cheerfully, while Republicans have accepted them reluctantly." Yet the main negative factors in the national life today, according to spokespersons for this country's largest political party, are corporate greed, tax cuts for the rich, and poverty-stricken old folk crying out for life-saving medications. Plainly we need still more socialism. Don't worry, we'll get it.

Socialism isn’t popular; handouts are. Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave (and probably some who have, like Osama) since 1979 knows that socialism, in its classic postwar formulation, is dead or dying. But what’s taking its place isn’t capitalism in the classic sense, either: it’s corporatism, or socialism for the bourgeois. People want the lush material life that only capitalism can provide, but they also want it handed to them on a plate and guaranteed by government. Nobody really wants old-fashioned get-what-you-deserve capitalism anymore, even if they’ll write paeans to it in order to feel good about profits they make. But they don’t want government ownership of cornflakes factories, either. So both the socialists and capitalists lose; what we’ve got eerily resembles the (all but forgotten) economics of fascism.

Conversely... Conservatism is dead. No genuinely conservative policy will ever be enacted, ever again, by any U.S. government or the government of any important state.

Agreed, if conservatives preemptively surrender in despair. But not if we fight, even against apparently unfavorable odds. Remember how we thought we’d have to live with the Soviet Union forever? How we thought we could do nothing about inflation? How American military power was doomed to decline? How the streets of New York would never be safe again? How art was doomed to abstraction and architecture to concrete boxes? How God was dead?

Great masses of ordinary Americans believe that "conservative" means "repressed fundamentalist freak." Why would they not believe this? Every medium of mass entertainment and mass information has been preaching it to them, over and over and over, for twenty years.

Yes, but there are signs that cultural liberalism has reached its natural limits and is even in retreat in some areas. Witness the collapse of feminist ideology, which we may soon see followed by a retreat of real-world feminism. And libertinism just does not make most people happy, because they can’t keep up with its ever-escalating demands for stimulation. People are figuring this out. Remember when cocaine was fashionable among the yuppies?

The Ronald Reagan of 1980, if he were to stride onto the national stage today, would be unelectable.

Sure, but this is only because we have different problems today. He was the right solution for his time; don’t ask him to be more.

Calvin Coolidge would be laughed out of public life,

Actually, the last president I really like wholeheartedly was Warren G. Harding, but that’s another article.

if by some bizarre accident he were permitted to wander into it. Even when large majorities of Americans favor a conservative policy, nothing will be done to implement it.

As long as the elite is paralyzed by political correctness, yes. But we’re working on that problem. Every article we print chips away at PC a little bit. Eventually, its structure will be so weakened that it will start to collapse of its own accord. If we make it so.

For example.... Nothing will be done about immigration. Business leaders and economic decision-makers all believe (perhaps correctly) that mass immigration is the main reason for this country's continuing economic vitality.

Half of them, who genuinely subscribe to globalism, believe this. The other half don’t care but are intimidated by political correctness. As for their being perhaps correct, immigration is the main thing dragging our economy down. Without it, we’d be essentially a poverty-free society in twenty years.

The Left sees poor immigrants as clients. Huge numbers of Americans are now "Hispanic," and believe that anti-immigration activists hate them.

But large numbers of Hispanics also agree that there are too many immigrants. They have eyes in their heads for the same problems the rest of us see, plus they’re not afraid of being called “anti-immigrant.”

The Joint Chiefs have no intention of letting their commands be used to police the southern border, understanding perfectly well that they would never be allowed to open fire on anyone — which is the main thing that trained soldiers are trained to do, and the inability to do which leads to collapsing morale and cratering recruitment. (It is also, of course, the only thing that would have any actual effect.)

True, and as I’ve written in my blog, after my being wrong on this issue, they are probably right. The army was not designed for border-patrol duty and wouldn’t be good at it. But all this means is that we have to beef up the Border Patrol. And they’ll get over their squeamishness about using firearms soon enough; (probably when the narcotrafficantes start firing on them) America’s police departments have.

Only Anglo-Saxon countries can do democracy.

Maybe it’s my Scots Celtic heritage, but I find this piece of ethnic narcissism so weird as to be beyond taking offense. Given that democracy was invented by the Greeks, that the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy is Iceland, that Switzerland is an older democracy than England, and that the Anglo-Saxons were actually a barbarian tribe from Germany whose historical significance in the development of England is heavily encrusted with pure myth, I think it’s time we laid Anglo-Saxon mythology to rest once and for all. There’s also too much monarchical and other bloodiness in English history for me to believe in any racial genius for the ballot box, even if I am perfectly willing to credit Britain with being one of the more civilized places in this grubby world and one of the last where they don’t hate Americans. Don’t discredit our wonderful heritage by making silly claims about it.

The natural state of human society is despotism.

True, but as Locke or even Hobbes could have told you, the essence of our system is that we don’t live in a state of nature.

If you tally up all the human lives that have ever been lived on this planet under organized systems of government, no more than five per cent were lived under consensual systems. Even to get up to five per cent, you have to include places like ancient Athens and Tudor England, which wouldn't pass muster as "democratic" by modern standards.

True; history is brutal. But we don’t live there any more.

In the last couple of centuries, practically all consensual systems have been Anglo-Saxon. Other cultures can fake it for a few decades, as France, Germany, and Japan are currently doing, but their hearts aren't really in it and they will swoon gratefully into the arms of a fascist dictator when one comes along.

An utterly baseless assertion, which shows utter brain-dead historical ignorance of the very real circumstances that brought fascist dictatorships into being. These things don’t just happen, and if you can’t tell the difference between the banal democratic Germany of today and the one of 70 years ago, go join the Baader-Meinhof gang. They couldn’t either. Not to mention this being an insult to the tens of millions of Germans and Japanese who have spent 50 years making democracy work in their countries.

China will get stronger and richer, without moving one inch closer to constitutional government. The Chinese Communist Party has got "over the hump" into a plateau of stability that, barring severe environmental catastrophe (see above), will last for decades.

Vast international evidence suggests that when nations develop significant middle-class populations, their people tend to want democracy. People said for years that Orientals wouldn’t do democracy unless it were imposed on them, but look at Korea and Taiwan today. And at some point, patriotic Chinese are going to figure out that their obnoxious government is an albatross around their neck from a power-politics point of view, because it makes everyone hate them. One of the keys to American world dominance is that everyone knows – regardless of what they say in public – that we are a tame liberal democracy that’s not going to hurt them. If China were a democracy today, do you think Japan would abase itself by being an American client state? Would India be developing ICBMs? Probably not. China would be the naturally dominant power in East Asia, and without anybody getting upset about it.

...Rich...

On a per-capita basis, not for a generation at least. Their economic growth will naturally slow down as they get more developed.

...and confident, unrestrained by electoral considerations or Judeo-Christian ethics, or any other kind of ethics, they will do all the things we dare not do: human genetic experimentation, culling of "useless mouths," militarization of space, minor wars of aggression, etc. In particular...

Granted, this is a possibility, but the communist government of China has already been through the exterminate-your-own-people thing, and seems to have decided not to do it again. I’m quite sure we will engage in human genetic experimentation, albeit on a sufficiently gradual basis that the forms of ethical deliberativeness can be preserved. We are currently leading the world in militarizing space (for whatever that’s actually worth) As for minor wars? Why should we care? As for major wars, China has too many serious enemies: a billion nuclear-armed Indians; Russia, with the toughest white people on earth and vast nuclear forces left over from the Cold War; the discreetly armed-to-the-teeth Japanese, with the world’s second-largest defense budget; Taiwan, the Israel of the Pacific; Vietnam, which whupped them in 1979; a number of smaller countries which can contribute to any effort against them. And their only solid ally, North Korea, is starving and ruled by a mental case. (Pakistan is a mess.)

Taiwan will be re-united with the Motherland by some combination of economic carrot and military stick. The U.S. will grumble ineffectually, up to the point where the Chinese ambassador loses his patience and asks the U.S. Secretary of State point-blank: "How many cities are you willing to lose over this? We ourselves are willing to lose three or four." Then we will stop grumbling.

I think the mainland Chinese are bright enough to realize that they will eventually get Taiwan back no matter what happens, so losing three or four cities in a nuclear war isn’t worth it just to speed the process along. Certainly not for a nation that has individual dynasties that lasted longer than the whole of American history. And they’re too materialistic to accept the economic collapse that nuclear war would entail. And if they nuke Taiwan, this would probably frighten Japan into nuclearizing itself and India into developing the H-bomb, which would worsen their security position.

Something inconceivably horrible will happen in the Middle East. Probably the following: The Arabs will commit some huge, gross atrocity against Israel. Surviving Israelis will respond by massacring the Palestinian Arabs, and perhaps erasing a couple of Arab capitals. 100 years of peace in the Middle East will follow.

Frankly, I wish the Israelis would just boot the Palestinians and be done with it. They were offered a reasonable deal, they spat on it; time to taste the consequences. The Arabs will squeal about it, but Israel has nukes and they don’t, so there’s not much they can do. We’d have to disown Israel, but this doesn’t mean we’d let them go down in a pinch, which is all that really counts. Our aid to Israel only subsidizes Israeli socialism anyway, which they should ditch for their own good. WWJD? (What Would Jabotinsky Do?)

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are saddled up and ready to ride. Just to remind you, their names are: War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death. No. 4 will presumably always be with us, but at least we have got Nos. 1, 2, and 3 pretty much fenced off in sub-Saharan Africa, right? The chance that you or me, or your kids or mine, will die in a genuine mass-mobilization-type, carriers-going-down-with-all-hands-type, flattened-cities-type war, or from starvation, or in some horrid medieval-type, communal-grave-type, 1918-flu-type plague, is actuarially insignificant, right? Well, believe it if you like, but your belief has no foundation more substantial than wishful thinking. History suggests that it is most likely false.

History is indeed important. But there is one thing more important than history: present-day reality. One can’t make wild linear generalizations from the past to the present. This is just screenplay stuff, for a number of reasons. First of which is that we’ve been through such things in the past and have done things to prevent them from happening again, like developing public health and nuclear deterrence. I do grant that if AIDS mutates into a casually-transmissible form, there will be pogroms against homosexuals.

Poverty and hardship build character; prosperity and security destroy it. Look around you.

If this were the case, Afghanistan would be the world’s capital of moral virtue.

The U.S. constitution is incompatible with a war on terrorism. It is absurdly easy to commit a terrorist act in the U.S.A. This state of affairs could be changed only by abandoning key constitutional protections. We shall be very reluctant to do this; but if deaths from terrorism reach a certain number, we shall do it anyway. That number has either seven or eight digits.

A wise man once said the Constitution is not a suicide pact. If we managed to beat Hitler and Stalin without abandoning the Constitution, we should be able to beat these thugs. There’s nothing unconstitutional about some of the things we should be doing and aren’t, like meaningfully guarding our border and ending immigration by ethnic groups that hate us. The obstacle is our own sentimental stupidity and political correctness, not the Constitution.

Justice is dead. As the last of the generation of judges who actually believe in the law heads into retirement, the administration of justice will be divvied up between avaricious trial lawyers and ideology-addled graduates of lefty law schools.

Agreed, trial lawyers are pond slime, but tort reform is coming. Agreed, graduates of lefty law schools are gutter slime, but the Federalist Society seems to be able to find enough judicial candidates who aren’t hopeless. We just need Republican presidents to put them on the bench and a Republican Senate to confirm them. This is another fight whose outcome is political and not yet determined.

Their morale destroyed by "brutality" and "profiling" hysteria, police forces will sink into corruption and paper-pushing.

A year ago, I tried to persuade David Horowitz to let me write an article arguing that racial profiling was OK if based on a scrupulously accurate racial profile of crime rates by ethnicity for the crime concerned. He said no, this has some logic but it’s outside the pale of respectable discourse. Since 9-11, I read people all over the place defending racial profiling without even my careful scruples. So I think profiling just isn’t going to work as a stick to beat up the police with, so long as the police behave themselves, which camcorders will frighten them into doing. And police brutality is rare, half the time is in response to provocation by the victim, and the victim is usually an unappealing degenerate with a long rap sheet. Sooner or later, people are going to realize this, because the liberal media can’t censor these stories anymore. So that whole hustle is a declining industry. Again, only political correctness and sentimental stupidity keep it alive.

Ambitious public prosecutors will concentrate on framing up law-abiding citizens with "hate crime," "corporate corruption," "dangerous product" (guns, fast food) or "child abuse" charges.

Only if the public is dumb enough to allow the demonization of these charges, so that it becomes impossible to defend against them. But the ability of the Internet to spread subversive information will severely curtail the ability of the Left to create any new hustles to replace the ones that are dying, because it will kill the myths that need to be propagated to support these hustles.

Actual crime — murder, rape, robbery, burglary, and assault — will skyrocket, but it will be illegal to talk about it.

So long as I have a website and a gun, I’m not worried. But they couldn’t get away with this without some rationalization, and I don’t see what they can use that I haven’t discussed already. The public expects safety, and will vote out of office politicians who don’t deliver it.

We are living in a golden age. The past was pretty awful; the future will be far worse. Enjoy!

Oh, I will, but don’t depress yourself so much thinking about the awful future you expect that you fail to enjoy it when it doesn’t come true!

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to stop worrying and get to work. The future will be what we make it.

Note: I have heard some people try to refute Derbyshire’s piece by saying it’s “not Reaganesque.” It isn’t, but this doesn’t strictly speaking prove anything. That optimism is useful for motivating the nation to get things done, as Reagan showed, is true, but this doesn’t mean that things will actually turn out well. Calling the glass half-full doesn’t change the amount of water in it. Optimism is an attribute of personality, not an epistemic principle. It proves nothing about the external world.

Note #2: I will be posting my own list of “10 Harsh Facts Relevant to Politics” over the next two weeks on my blog, at www.robertlocke.com.




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