Butt It’s Clean (concluded)

When I bought the spouse’s bidet for the Brooklyn house, I got a three-for-one deal. I still had two more of the devices, and I took them to the Pennsylvania house when it was opened for the summer. It has two toilets, and it was clear that one could not be outfitted with a bidet. But one will do, or at least is better than none, I think. This won’t be too bad now that I have successfully installed two of the devices. This time before starting I go to my outstanding local country hardware store and buy both a flexible hose and long toilet seat bolts and set to work. Even with various difficulties in attaching the hoses, it gets done rather promptly, and it works. I am proud, oh so proud. I come back to the bathroom two hours later and find the tiniest amount of water on the floor next to the toilet. I wait and watch. A small–incredibly small–drop comes out of the connection to the toilet tank once every thirteen minutes. Really, it is not much. My first thought is that I can live with that. I will just put a sponge down and wring it out once a day. That should do. But I know that that attitude is wrong, oh so wrong.

I turn off the water and disassemble my work. I do not cry, not even a little. I remember that the directions warned not to overtighten the new connector to the toilet tank. I did not have this problem with my two previous efforts, but that must be what I have done. The kit came with some of the stuff that looks like adhesive tape but is much flimsier to help make good plumbing connections. I don’t know how to really use it and find I am ending up with a balled-up mess like my attempts to use Saran Wrap in the early days. What else to do but go back to the hardware store where I buy a slightly wider version of that white stuff and what might have been called in the old days pipe dope. But I still don’t know how to use either properly. Does the white stuff go clockwise or counterclockwise? Is that looking from above or below? Does the goop go on the male or female threads or both? How much should I use? Then I remember: this modern world has YouTube. I watch videos; all I really learn is that whatever I am doing is wrong. However, I boost my confidence by telling myself, more than once, that I have installed two of these gizmos successfully. A third cannot be far off.

I wrap and slather the connector and put it back on the toilet tank and hope without reasonable expectations that I have not tightened it too much. The flexible hose, however, has seemed to come alive. An animate force seems to be fighting me as I try to thread it on to the connector in the tight place near the wall under the toilet. Although I had done it before, I can’t line it up properly to get it started. There, I have got it, but that was delusional because a slight tug pulls it to the floor. Try again. Try again. And try again. My fingers no longer work well enough. Let me regroup and try again tomorrow.  I have another toilet to use, and I can still flush this one with a bucket of water.

The next day does not bring success. And the day after produces only compounded frustrations. Luckily, I am alone in the house, for I certainly could not show my face to anyone who knew of my failure. Finally, instead of acknowledging my ineptness, I put a positive spin on it and decide that it would be a good deed to help the needy local economy and call Karl the Plumber. It takes a few days for him to come, and I am not at the house when he does (for which I am grateful), but when I return, the thing has been installed—without leaks. I am pleased and grateful. God bless Karl.

The spouse pays the bill. I have not asked how much it cost to have this inexpensive device professionally installed.

Then, however, the NBP, who up until that time had adamantly eschewed one, wanted a bidet, and I still had one from my three-for-one offer. But, besides wanting the bidet, the NBP also reported that his toilet was making strange noises after it was flushed. I looked at it and determined that the mechanism inside the tank was malfunctioning, but I don’t understand this modern form of filling and flushing the tank (and neither would my 80’s edition of the Reader’s Digest Home Repair Encyclopedia). Instead of seizing on this new learning opportunity, I immediately gave the NBP the number of our Brooklyn plumber and said, “When you get him, ask him to install the bidet, too.” I wanted my bidet-installation days to be over.

But I can say that all of us now have very clean butts.

Butt It’s Clean (continued)

With not too much aggravation, I had installed a bidet on the top floor of the Brooklyn house. The spouse liked it and said that she would like one in the ground floor bathroom, three stories below. I ordered another kit, which came promptly. I had learned from my first experience and applied it when I set out to install the bidet downstairs. I first looked at the existing water connection to the tank. It, too, was rigid like the one upstairs and needed to be replaced. Proud of myself for having made that discovery at the beginning of the project, I got another hose from what I tend to think of as the all-too-often-disappointing hardware store.

Let the work begin. I turned off the water to the toilet. The valve was a little tight, but even in my advanced age, I managed it and felt a little burst of not-really-deserved pride. I flushed the toilet to drain the tank. I disconnected the existing water line without too much effort. I installed the new hose to the water supply, put the new connector on the bottom of the tank, and set out to attach the new flexible water hose. This was a bit trickier. I had to get on the floor–always an adventure these days–to do this. Attaching the flexible hose’s coupling onto the connector with my increasingly less agile fingers took a while, but it was accomplished.

Then, as directed, I removed the toilet seat, which took a little effort in manipulating the bolts and nuts. The next step was to line up the new device over the toilet bolt holes, place the toilet seat above the device and those toilet bolt holes, and attach them both with the toilet bolts going through each. A problem. The bolts I had removed were not long enough to go through both the seat and the new device. I went to the all-too-often-disappointing hardware store only to be disappointed yet again. The owner did not have toilet seat bolts, but he fished out from his limited trove of useful objects some long bolts not specifically marketed for toilets. He assured me that they would suffice.

I returned home to find that they do not suffice. The heads and nuts are not big enough for the holes, and they drop straight through. I pause and wonder if I have some washers that could make the bolts work. I descend into the basement, which to many might appear a scary place. Moreover, no one would assess my basement “workshop” as kempt or well organized, but I pride myself in knowing where everything is. On occasion, my pride is misplaced. I search the cobwebby recesses in the dim light for quite a while and finally find some washers that have a chance of working. Up the stairs and back to the toilet. My brainstorm does not produce the desired results. The improvisation fails. My mind does not start spinning about a possible solution; instead, I begin to concentrate on all the times this hardware store, which may not be the worst in the world but is the worst of the many that I have frequented, has failed me, and I become increasingly infuriated, which I know from past experiences is generally not a good state for completing a project.

I decide to walk to a real hardware store a mile away and count it as my daily exercise. They have a selection of toilet seat bolts of different lengths, and I am so, so pleased to find longer ones than the ones I had removed. I trudge back home. I line up the device and the toilet seat, open the purchased package, and find out that, while long enough, the new bolts are too wide for the holes in the spouse’s toilet seat.

I try various remedies for a half hour. None is successful. Then I decide that with an electric drill I can enlarge the holes the bolts have to go through by running the edge of big drill bit around the holes’ edges. The drill is on the top floor, three flights up. I climb the stairs, retrieve the drill, and take it and the @#$&^* toilet seat to the basement a floor below the relevant bathroom. I experiment on enlarging the holes. I must find a way to hold steady the little piece of plastic on the toilet seat for the bolts. After some trials and errors, I find a method. I am making some progress on enlarging a hole when the drill’s battery runs out. I do own another charged battery. It is on the top floor now floor flights up. I retrieve it and go back to the basement. My method works and I enlarge the holes. Ah! Back to the bathroom.

I attach the bidet and seat to the toilet bowl. One more step. With surprisingly little difficulty, I hook up the bidet with the supplied flexible hose from the connector I had installed on the toilet tank to the bidet.

And now the breath-holding part. I turn the water to the toilet back on. NO LEAKS. I could hear celestial music. AND THE BIDET WORKS.

I started at ten in the morning. I finished at four in the afternoon. I thought: What else have you got to do?

It was just another successful day in retirement.

(concluded June 30)

Butt It’s Clean

We could afford the brownstone house only if we rented out part of it, and then it was still a stretch. The house was liveable, but it was, after all, 100 years old. Something always needed to be fixed or patched or painted or installed. We did not have excess money to pay someone for maintenance and repairs if I could do them, but my fancy Ivy League education had not prepared me to be a handyman.

I did what an Ivy Leaguer ought to do; in those days before YouTube, I bought how-to books, several of which, especially one put out by Reader’s Digest, were quite helpful. I tightened hinges attached to not-totally-reliable door jambs; installed door locks; changed washers in faucets; caulked bathtubs; repaired leaky toilets; hung closet poles; put up bookcases; and even installed windows. Our budget, not surprisingly, did not have a large allotment for furniture, so I finished and refinished wooden tables and chairs. I learned two important lessons from these efforts. First, by the time I finished a project, I knew how it to do, if not correctly, better than I had. The question was whether I would remember when or if I ever did a similar project.

Second, I learned the importance of a good hardware store. One was a few minutes’ walk from my house. I was there frequently looking for a flathead screw a little shorter than the ones I had or an angle bracket, spackle or a toggle bolt, shellac or an N battery. They always seemed to have it. In addition, the staff was a fount of knowledge. I would explain some house problem, and they would suggest a solution or find some device or equipment I was not familiar with that would be exactly what I needed.

I learned that this was not the only hardware store like that. I went to stores near my place of work at lunchtime or in other places in my travels around New York, and all seemed incredibly helpful. I was concerned when the building housing my local hardware store was sold, and the Germanic-sounding elderly couple (no doubt younger than my present age) sold the business. Happily, it was bought and moved across the complicated intersection (it is called Seven Corners for a reason) where it continued to give excellent service for several more decades. Eventually it closed, though, leaving me bereft but not as bereft as its long-time employees, some of whom were in tears in its last days. This complicated my home-improvement life as I had to seek out more distant establishments, but I managed.

I had gained much handyman experience living in a 100-year-old Brooklyn brownstone, so I felt confident in being able to install a bidet-like thing in the top-floor bathroom of the Brooklyn house. My previous handyman experience had taught me an important rule of thumb. So, I looked the device over, examined the instructions, and calculated that it should take no more than an hour for the job. Then I said to myself, “So it will take you two.”

The basic idea is to disconnect piping that allows water to flow into the toilet tank and then install a T-shaped metal device into the opening to the tank. The water is hooked up to the bottom of this connection, which allows the tank to fill, and the bidet is connected to the other side of the connector with a supplied flexible hose. A knob on the bidet, when opened, allows water to flow on command to the bidet permitting it to do its business.

But the original water connection to the tank on the upstairs toilet was a rigid tube cut exactly the right length. The new supplied connector that I had to thread onto the toilet tank was almost two inches in length. The original rigid tube would no longer fit, and the bidet kit supplied only one flexible hose. Off to the new hardware store which had opened in the neighborhood after the demise of the longlasting one. This was a trip I was reluctant to make because this is the only hardware store I have frequented that regularly disappoints me. It too often does not have what I consider the most basic things that such a business should carry. Even so I went there, and I was surprised that it had the flexible hose I needed. I finished fifteen minutes beyond the 2-hr time limit and considered myself a plumbing whiz.

(continued June 28)

Advice About Critical Race Theory

          From newsfeeds I receive together with my limited TV news watching, I could conclude that the most pressing problem facing the United States is critical race theory. One writer applauds mothers fighting back against the perniciousness of CRT that seeks to brainwash their children “to view the world through the lens of ‘whiteness,’ white racism, and white privilege. [These mothers] don’t agree that America was founded on racist principles. They reject the claim that hard work, self-reliance, objectivity, deferred gratification, family, respect for authority, and respect for the written word are intrinsically racist values exploited by white Americans to relentlessly suppress people of color.”

Such tendentious claims are often met with a rebutting diatribe that says that such a statement shows ignorance not only of critical race theory but of American history and society as well. Where do critical race theorists say that the family and hard work are racist values? And all but the most ignorant (or racist) would see that racist principles were embedded in the founding of the country and have dogged us throughout our history. And it is most certainly true that white people benefit from being white in all sorts of ways, and legal and societal structures frequently produce racialized outcomes.

And so the debate goes round and round.

          The invocation of “critical race theory” is not the opening to a reasonable discussion. Because few people can meaningfully define it, it lacks any specificity and becomes a code term that means different things to different people. It is a term of confrontation, not one that educates. While some of us think it important to assess our history from differing viewpoints (including racial), such a focus does not convince those who are not already convinced that our country has had a difficult racial history. Most people don’t like being called racists, and many feel as though advocates of critical race theory are doing just that. But, when people try to support CRT or rebut some of the outlandish claims made by those “against” it, they are not merely adding noise to the political discourse, they are harming racial progress by digging us into deeper adversarial trenches.

          At the core of critical race theory is the observation that while many of our laws and societal structures appear racially neutral, they in fact affect different segments of our population in different—often harmful–ways. However, rather than battle over whether CRT should be banned from the classroom, advocates of racial equality would do better to focus on current strategies to address racial and financial inequities.

          The Fair Labor Standards Act offers a good example of what I mean. The law was passed in 1938 and gave us the forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, and overtime pay for more than forty hours of work. The Act, however, exempted various categories of workers from its coverage, and historians have said that the exemptions—primarily agricultural workers—were racially motivated: Southern congressmen at the time would not support the law if it wiped out the cheap workforce—primarily Black—from its fields. Hence, the exemption. A critic concerned that the FLSA produced racialized outcomes could speak about the law’s racist origins, but the response from many would be hostile: “So what?” they might ask. “That was generations ago, and I had nothing to do with its passage. Stop dragging race into everything.” This gets us nowhere.

          Instead, let’s talk about what would happen if those exemptions were eliminated. One could argue that not only individuals but society as a whole would benefit; A forty-hour week would reduce injuries that often lead to emergency room visits that drive up healthcare costs for us all; a higher minimum wage would reduce reliance on government food assistance, help to keep more families intact, infuse more money into the economy, etc. etc. So, let’s not talk about how a higher minimum wage would produce more racial justice (even if it would). Let’s talk about how having more workers get the minimum wage and increasing that minimum wage would help America as a whole.

          A vast array of data indicate that our healthcare system produces racialized outcomes, but instead of dwelling on that, let’s talk about possible changes in that system that would not harm people who think our healthcare is fine and would simultaneously produce a better system for a wide swath of Americans of all colors.

Rising income inequality may disproportionately affect people of color, but let’s talk about what we might do to change the causes of this phenomenon and how these changes could benefit all Americans (except maybe those in the top 0.1 percent).

The absence of social mobility for all in this country (something not known by a vast number of us) may be worse for Black and brown people, but let’s talk about what can be done about it that would help everybody, including minorities.

          Defenders of critical race theory seek to decrease racialized outcomes. Good. However, instead of defending a theory, let’s talk about substantive policy changes that would benefit a wide range of Americans. This will provide a better chance of success.

          If you happen to be one of those “intellectuals” who is called upon to respond to critics of critical race theory, say you don’t want to do that. You want to talk instead about changes we can make that will benefit America generally. Merely responding to CRT criticisms is not only not useful, it is harmful. I am reminded of a historian who once said that to discuss Millard Fillmore was to overrate him. To discuss the criticisms of CRT is to overrate them and give them a deeper purchase with many. Instead of responding in a way that will only further divide us, let’s change the topic to address areas where we can make progress for all America. Insist on debating possible reforms. That should be part of the definition of progressivism.

Snippets

In Lupin, the mystery drama currently on Netflix, one nefarious character said to another the notable cliché of financial crime dramas: “The money will be transferred to an offshore account in the Cayman Islands.” Are there onshore accounts in the Caymans?

I watched the delightful first season of Kim’s Convenience, also on Netflix. I learned that in spite of logic and experience, it is always delightful, summery weather in Toronto.

It seems years ago, but it was actually only a few seasons back, that conservative politicians and commentators were railing against “sanctuary cities.” These were localities that did not always obey federal requests to detain a person whom feds claimed was an undocumented migrant. In what was a common situation, a person driving to work was stopped by local police for a traffic offense. The detainee, call him Sean, would have his fingerprints sent off to the FBI. Someone at the FBI would conclude that Sean was not in the country legally and would send a request to the local police to detain him until the feds could get a legal detention warrant. The FBI detention request was just that—a request. It is not a legal order to keep someone behind bars. Sanctuary cities, acting within the law, did not honor such requests. Indeed, detention because of an FBI request beyond what was authorized by the local law might have proven illegal. Whether the locality’s policy was wise or not, it caused something akin to apoplexy among conservative politicians and commentators who claimed that the rule of law was ending and everyone in a sanctuary city was in mortal danger from a horde of undocumented aliens. Following the lead of at least eight other states, Missouri has recently enacted a law that threatens a penalty of $50,000 against any local policing agency that enforces certain federal gun laws and regulations. This is, of course, analogous to the policies of sanctuary cities, but don’t expect to hear a similar outcry about “sanctuary states” from conservative politicians and commentators.

Old saying: It’s not fair to have a battle of wits with an unarmed man.

If you are a non-conservative, shouldn’t you reconsider leftist politics and actions when you learn what has happened in Portland, Oregon?

I wonder how many people who have opinions about the 1619 Project have read at least a quarter of it.

In one of my first post-Covid trips onto the subway, I was greeted by a usual sight. A young man, speaking so that the entire car could hear him, said that he was staying out of trouble by selling M&M’s and other sugary snacks for a buck a pop. As the train approached the next station, he got ready to exit and move to another car. He then enjoined, “Don’t buy a Lotto ticket. Don’t go to the liquor store. My candy is guaranteed.” And I wondered what that guarantee was and how I would ever collect on it.

Two Miami men sat at the next table after a round of golf. After introductions, my companion asked them if they were concerned about the rising water levels in Florida. They said that Dade County was taking some steps to alleviate high water, but nothing as drastic as a sea wall. One of them continued, “I’m not really that concerned; I’ll be dead.” I wondered if I would adopt that attitude if I lived in Miami.

Let’s Talk About Secrecy, Too (concluded)

Leaks can cause harm, but we need to understand that so much secrecy actually damages the country. Secrecy leads to claims of conspiracy. If we have classified information about the Roswell incident, an almost inevitable result will be assertions about UFOs and aliens. If everything is not disclosed about the investigation into JFK’s death, conspiratorial claims about the assassination proliferate. You might think you are above that kind of thing, but what was your response when you found out that Jared Kushner, during the 2016 Presidential campaign, had a secret meeting with the Russians? Doesn’t at least part of you think something nefarious was going on?

And once information has been kept from the public, simply disclosing it does not cure the conspiracy problem. If the government claims that every bit of stuff about Roswell has been disclosed, many will not trust that pronouncement. If they hid something once, why should I trust that they are not hiding something now? Secrecy leads to a distrust of government, and the country is harmed when the government is not trusted. The recent disclosure by the government of information about unidentified aerial phenomena will be an interesting test. Will all those UFO and alien theorists disappear, pack up their hairspray, and disappear from the History Channel?

Government secrecy, in a subtle and insidious way, also tends to corrupt the holder of the secrets. The official with a secret feels powerful. The secret becomes a form of currency, a coin that can be held for ego purposes—I know more than you do—even if that information should be exchanged or that coin spent to enhance the prestige of the leaker or to gain an advantage in an internal government dispute.

Secret information presents another danger. Because access to the information is limited, it cannot be analyzed by all those who might have useful insights about it. Our country has had notable intelligence lapses. Our intelligence agencies, for example, were not aware of the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union or of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah. We cannot know–but it is possible–that the analyses would have been different if more of the classified information had been available to academics, businessmen, NGO representatives, and others who knew or had studied Russia and Iran. Senator Patrick Moynihan may have been right in his belief that the demise of the Soviet Union would have been forecast if the intelligence agencies had kept less information to themselves. Moynihan also maintained that the United States significantly overspent on military budgets because excessive secrecy allowed intelligence agencies to overestimate Soviet military strength.

There is a related danger. Policy makers who have already decided on a course of action can pick and choose classified information to disclose to support their predetermined path. With other information remaining secret that might undercut the chosen course, the proposed policy cannot be properly examined or challenged. In other words, Hello, Iraq War.

Another aspect of human nature also comes into play. We humans assume that information that is secret must be especially valuable. Why else would it be secret? Where secrecy predominates, what is not secret is too easily disregarded or dismissed.

And, of course, we can never really trust a leak. Not only does the leaker have some sort of motive for disclosing the particular information and for not disclosing something more, there is a natural inclination to make his own additions to the leaked material. Or at least this is a normal impulse if Seneca is right when he said, “Nobody will keep the thing he hears to himself, and nobody will repeat just what he hears and no more.” We hear about leaks with the complainer wanting us to assume that the disclosure has endangered the country. We should challenge that assumption. The dangers should not be accepted merely because someone in government asserts it. And even though making some government information public can be harmful, we should never lose sight of the fact that secrecy harms our nation. We should start from the position that a culture of secrecy is un-American.

Let’s Talk About Secrecy, Too (continued)

Leaks can cause harm, but we need to understand that so much secrecy actually damages the country. Secrecy leads to claims of conspiracy. If we have classified information about the Roswell incident, an almost inevitable result will be assertions about UFOs and aliens. If everything is not disclosed about the investigation into JFK’s death, conspiratorial claims about the assassination proliferate. You might think you are above that kind of thing, but what was your response when you found out that Jared Kushner, during the 2016 Presidential campaign, had a secret meeting with the Russians? Doesn’t at least part of you think something nefarious was going on?

And once information has been kept from the public, simply disclosing it does not cure the conspiracy problem. If the government claims that every bit of stuff about Roswell has been disclosed, many will not trust that pronouncement. If they hid something once, why should I trust that they are not hiding something now? Secrecy leads to a distrust of government, and the country is harmed when the government is not trusted. The recent disclosure by the government of information about unidentified aerial phenomena will be an interesting test. Will all those UFO and alien theorists disappear, pack up their hairspray, and disappear from the History Channel?

Government secrecy, in a subtle and insidious way, also tends to corrupt the holder of the secrets. The official with a secret feels powerful. The secret becomes a form of currency, a coin that can be held for ego purposes—I know more than you do—even if that information should be exchanged or that coin spent to enhance the prestige of the leaker or to gain an advantage in an internal government dispute.

Secret information presents another danger. Because access to the information is limited, it cannot be analyzed by all those who might have useful insights about it. Our country has had notable intelligence lapses. Our intelligence agencies, for example, were not aware of the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union or of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah. We cannot know–but it is possible–that the analyses would have been different if more of the classified information had been available to academics, businessmen, NGO representatives, and others who knew or had studied Russia and Iran. Senator Patrick Moynihan may have been right in his belief that the demise of the Soviet Union would have been forecast if the intelligence agencies had kept less information to themselves. Moynihan also maintained that the United States significantly overspent on military budgets because excessive secrecy allowed intelligence agencies to overestimate Soviet military strength.

There is a related danger. Policy makers who have already decided on a course of action can pick and choose classified information to disclose to support their predetermined path. With other information remaining secret that might undercut the chosen course, the proposed policy cannot be properly examined or challenged. In other words, Hello, Iraq War.

Another aspect of human nature also comes into play. We humans assume that information that is secret must be especially valuable. Why else would it be secret? Where secrecy predominates, what is not secret is too easily disregarded or dismissed.

And, of course, we can never really trust a leak. Not only does the leaker have some sort of motive for disclosing the particular information and for not disclosing something more, there is a natural inclination to make his own additions to the leaked material. Or at least this is a normal impulse if Seneca is right when he said, “Nobody will keep the thing he hears to himself, and nobody will repeat just what he hears and no more.” We hear about leaks with the complainer wanting us to assume that the disclosure has endangered the country. We should challenge that assumption. The dangers should not be accepted merely because someone in government asserts it. And even though making some government information public can be harmful, we should never lose sight of the fact that secrecy harms our nation. We should start from the position that a culture of secrecy is un-American.

(concluded June 18)

Let’s Talk About Secrecy, Too

Investigations are underway to determine how the Big Loser’s administration secretly accessed communication records of journalists and Congress members, their aides, and families. Well and good. We should know whether the Has Been Guy’s actions were targeting those he saw as political opponents and whether he was assaulting First Amendment freedoms. But we also ought to be considering the important topic of governmental secrecy in general.

The Big Loser was concerned about “leaks,” a broad term that—when invoked—seems to imply that the disclosure of the leaked information is an existential threat to the Republic. Instead, we should start any such discussion with the question of why the information was secret in the first place. For a proper democracy with accountability, the default position should be governmental openness. There should only be secrets if there are strong justifications for them. Instead of railing against leaks, we should first consider how, if at all, the now-public information was justified as being deemed secret and what harm has come from the information’s exposure to the cleansing power of sunlight.

The disclosure of confidential matters that harm national security should be prevented, but how often has that happened? Should we really put into one basket a leak about clashes among White House advisors, a leak of our president’s conversation with his counterpart from Mexico, and a leak about troop movements during wartime? If you follow the news, in your lifetime you have heard about leaked information thousands, probably many thousands of times. Think back. How many of them have truly harmed the United States? Quick, name ten. How about five?

Many politicians have an instinctual desire to keep hidden from the public all sorts of information even when it does not contain national security secrets. We should realize that a disclosure that embarrasses a government official is not the same as a disclosure that harms national security.  We should be skeptical of why such non-classified information is secret.

We should look into the elaborate classification industry that keeps information hidden from us. The first reaction by many to the disclosure of classified information is that it is shameful, criminal, harmful, and unpatriotic, but we, especially those who proclaim to be conservative, should have another response to the classification industry. A generation ago, a commission studying government secrecy gave a perspective, which while true, is seldom considered. The commission stated, “Secrecy is a form of government regulation. Americans are familiar with the tendency to overregulate in other areas. What is different with secrecy is that the public cannot know the extent or the content of the regulation.”

If we saw every government secret as a regulation, if we saw the classification industry as a giant government bureaucracy, we might question secrecy more. Is it really possible that so much must be classified? According to an annual report from the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives and Records Administration a few years back, over 55 million items were classified—mandated to be kept confidential–in whole or in part in one year alone. If you believe that the federal government overregulates in other areas, surely you should think it also does so in the secrecy business.

Commissions studying our classification regime have time and again found rampant overclassification, with some of the studies concluding that 50% to 90% of what is classified could safely be released. And here is a striking fact about overclassification: while we hear concerns about the disclosure of classified information, students of the classification industry have reported that they know of no instance when a government official has been disciplined for classifying information that should not have been.

Our most famous leak may have been of the Pentagon Papers. The government went into hyper-crisis mode. It tried to upend the First Amendment and suppress the Papers’ publication. It brought criminal charges against those who brought them into the public light. It, in essence, said that if ever a leak harmed national security and put the country into danger, this was it. After all we were then fighting the Vietnam War. Later, however, President Nixon’s Solicitor General confessed that the Papers were an example of “massive overclassification.”  The Papers were analyses of documents that had been written years before the Papers’ publication and posed “no trace of a threat to the national security.”

I am hardly the first person to note what we all know: that secrets have a way of getting out; that keeping secrets has never been easy; that secrets are like organisms that find a way to get free. Centuries ago Dr. Samuel Johnson said what still remains true: “Secrets are so seldom kept, that it may be with some reason doubted whether a secret has not some volatility by which it escapes, imperceptibly, at the smallest vent, or some power of fermentation, by which it expands itself, so as to burst the heart that will not give it way.”

Because so much is labeled secret and because human nature apparently abhors secrecy, it is not surprising that classified information finds a way to escape. Add to that that about 4.5 million people have access to classified information, it is hardly surprising that there are leaks of classified information. Indeed, it is surprising that there are not more. Moreover, since so much of the information is needlessly labeled secret, it should not be surprising that even leaks of classified information will often not harm national security.

We do, however, pay a lot for this bureaucratic secrecy system. The Information Security Oversight Office estimates that the federal government spent over $16 billion on our classification system. But wait. There’s more. The ISOO estimates that private industry spent an additional $1.27 billion because many defense contractors and other industries are part of the wide-ranging secrecy business. (Why isn’t this regulatory, expensive bureaucracy a target of conservatives?)

(continued June 16)

First Sentences

“In a broad valley, at the foot of a sloping hillside, beside a clear bubbling stream, Tom was building a house.” Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth.

“Sir or Lady (as I shall call him) sits on the promontory in our village, deep in movie love.” Hilton Als, White Girls.

“It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more years as the dean of the faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.” Philip Roth, The Human Stain.

“The crowd began to cluster at the corner of Hoffman and Bolton, near the entrance to the Armory, in the late afternoon—a quiet, orderly crowd, more women than men.” Jeff Shesol, Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.

“The open door was only yards away, and beyond it lay the outside world, eerily unaffected by anything happening inside the abandoned snooker hall.” Ian Rankin, Doors Open.

“The scientists of the Simulmatics Corporation spent the summer of 1961 on a beach on Long Island beneath a geodesic dome that looked as if it had landed there, amid the dunes, a spaceship gone to ground.” Jill Lepore, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

“He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor that swung from the rafters.” Virginia Woolf, Orlando.

“The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree.” Robert Macfarlane, Underworld: A Deep Time Journey

You now have one choice.” Scarlett Thomas, The End of Mr. Y.

“Subrata Roy was reclining on a sofa in a pink shirt, orange pocket square, and plaid blazer, his outfit contrasting sharply with the spare, all-white living room.” Julie Satow, The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel.

“The discourse which follows may appear to the reader as mere fancy or as a dream, penned on waking, in those fevered moments when one is still mesmerized by those conjuring tricks that are produced in the mind once the eyes are closed.” Thomas E. Lumas, The End of Mr. Y.

“Laura Glass was thirteen years old and entering the eighth grade at Jefferson Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when she looked over her father’s shoulder to see what he was working on.” Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

Snippets

She had served the NBP and me at a local restaurant for a year, but then she disappeared. We had assumed that she had moved on, but another server told us that she and the restaurant owner were living together. A week ago, the NBP and I went to the restaurant for the first time in over a year, and we learned that the owner and the server had become engaged. “I gave her a ring last month,” he said. I asked when the wedding would be. He confused me by indicating that the two were not going to have a wedding, but eventually I realized that “wedding” to him meant the reception. Instead, they were planning a City Hall marriage. When she had waited on us, she was studying for a graduate degree in international relations. The owner told us that after an unpaid internship for a year, she now had a job at the United Nations and was thrilled. “She even thinks the UN pens are marvelous,” he said. The owner is stocky and dark. He was born in Jordan. The former server is tall, willowy, and blonde. When years ago we had asked where she was from, she replied, “From Siberia. Near Kazakhstan. The best part.” The Siberian and the Jordanian falling in love at a neighborhood Mideast restaurant in Brooklyn is perhaps something that could happen in many places, but to me this is a New York story.

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking together in the same direction.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

The friend confidently reported that if the HBG (Has Been Guy) were convicted of the crimes for which he is being investigated, he could not become president again. I asked why he thought that, and replied, “A convicted felon can’t be president.” I told him—in the nicest way possible–that he was wrong. The Constitution does not forbid a felon from the presidency. Instead, it has three restrictions: the president must be a “natural born citizen”; the president must be at least thirty-five years old; and the president must have been a resident of the United States for fourteen years. The friend, convinced that I was blowing smoke, pulled out his phone and said, “I am going to look that up.” I said, “Go to Article II of the Constitution.” (The qualifications provision is Art. II, Sec. 1[5].) He could not get a signal and that ended the discussion, but I still wondered how he got this piece of “information.” I considered that he must have thought that because convicted felons could not vote, they could not be president. I had said that the BL (Big Loser) might not be able to vote if he were a convicted felon, but he could be president. He said that I was wrong; felons could now vote in Florida. (In all but two states, felons are disenfranchised, but the length of disenfranchisement varies. As I understand Florida law, felons can now vote once they have completed all the terms of their sentences. If the BL is in jail or on probation or parole, as I understand Florida law, he could not vote.) Apparently, the friend’s belief that a felon was ineligible to be president was not a mere extension of the fact of the disenfranchisement of felons, but I did not find out the source of his “knowledge.” I did learn, yet again, however, that misinformation is not the monopoly of the right.

In the fair and balanced department: I wrote recently that reading A Farewell to Arms in my maturity, I found it unreadable—vapid, jejeune, and simply bad. However, I recently reread Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is a good book. Perhaps a very good book.