Vacations bring perspective. This week's writing and podcasting. 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' by Pink Floyd.'
The Charles C. W. Cooke Newsletter
0043 December 7, 2022

Good morning,

Its been a while! As promised, I disappeared from the face of the earth for a couple of weeks. And boy was it glorious. I didnt manage to lock my phone in a drawer, as in 2016 — a sign, perhaps of how much more I use it now than I did six years ago: today, my phone controls my lights, my garage door, my speakers, and it has my movie tickets, my Disney World reservations, my credit cards, etc. — but I did manage to stay off Twitter and to ignore my work emails and to resist the temptation to check the news websites every few hours. And, in so doing, I remembered something that I remember whenever I step away for a few days, but that I can forget the rest of the time, which is that while there is of course a lot of important information in the news, most of what happens inside the journalist-media ecosystem on a day-to-day basis is not only irrelevant, self-indulgent nonsense, it is also inscrutable to everyone who doesnt follow it by the hour.

CNN publishes a new story every seven seconds. Politicians tweet every minute. Something marked “BREAKING! will hit the ether on the hour, every hour. But the ones that actually matter during a random fortnight? They can be summed up in a matter of minutes. As for Twitter? Signing back on to Twitter after two weeks away can feel like coming out of a coma after half a century has elapsed. Everywhere, there are references you dont understand (“its grub evening, folks); fights whose provenance you simply cant imagine (he wouldn't apologize for discanoning me!”); new terms that don't seem to comport with the standard rules of English (“nooo wutcat). And heres the thing: none of it matters. Its all insular fluff. If you want to understand the real world, one minute spent in the supermarket is worth two hours online.

Seriously, try telling someone outside the Twitter bubble whats going on on Twitter at the moment, and I guarantee that they will look at you as if you have nine heads. “Well, it all started when @BlueEgg liked a tweet by @UglyRazor that was a subtweet of what hed got ratiod for last week, and then @BrunchMeat, who is shadow-banned, piled on and . . .

What?

Leaving the maelstrom for a while is also useful for setting life in a useful context. That useful context: that most of the people who work in journalism and in politics are lunatics — myself included. I spent a lovely two weeks with my family swimming, going out to eat, taking boat rides, visiting amusement parks and museums, playing golf, watching movies, hanging out at the beach, chatting about sports, and then I came back to The Internet and was told almost immediately that the United States was on the edge of a civil war. This is absolute nonsense, and if you meet anyone who tells you this in the wild, you should kindly ask them to log off and go spend some time in physical America, where people disagree profoundly on some pretty important questions but simply do not talk or think in the way that people do on social media or on cable news or on the opinion pages of our major newspapers. 

Speaking of social media: while I was on vacation, I discovered to my horror that the Facebook account that I believed I had deactivated in 2016 was actually live, and that I had in effect been ignoring everyone on it for six years. I have a Facebook Page for my writing, but Id been managing it using a separate account that Id created for that purpose. As far as I knew, the old one, with 800 friends on it, had gone. Except, actually, it hadnt. And, because it hadnt, people had been sending me public and private messages on it for more than half a decade, and, I assume, concluding that I was unfathomably rude.

Oops.

Before I go, Id be remiss if I did not share some advice from my four-year-old, who has just finished giving me an earnest lecture about how, under no circumstances, I should “eat Play-Doh.” Its important not to eat Play-Doh, he explained, partly because it would be “bad for me if I did, partly because, while I may think otherwise, “its not actually fruit or breakfast or steak, and mostly because if I do, then there might not be enough Play-Doh left for me to make a giant “C” — which, of course, was the main thing I was hoping to achieve today. So, if you’re thinking about eating Play-Doh, that’s something to keep in mind.

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Writing

On Monday, I responded to the writer Adam Markowitz, who had said that he had “never understood the fear of an IRS audit. I tried to help:

Markowitz suggests that those who are worried about being audited by the IRS should just make sure that they are truthful on their return. “Don’t lie,” he suggests. “How about just don’t cheat on tax returns?” But this, of course, misses the point. I do not “cheat” on my tax return, and I never have. I don’t “lie,” either. But I’m still terrified of the IRS. Why? Because the process of being audited — especially in-person, which this funding will increase — is an absolute nightmare. It’s costly. It’s stressful. It’s invasive. It’s time-consuming. It’s easily manipulated by rogue political actors. And it is all of those things even if the saga concludes with a nice letter saying that everything is in order after all.

One suspects that, in any other circumstance, this would be intuitively obvious. Suppose that, tomorrow, the FBI announced that it intended to begin “auditing” millions of people to find out if they had committed any federal crimes. Would Markowitz and co. respond to this news by shrugging and saying, “don’t lie,” or “if you haven’t broken any laws, who cares?” I suspect that they would not. And they’d be absolutely right to decline to do so. The federal government is extremely powerful, and having it snoop around your life is distressing and scary even when you’ve done nothing wrong. In what other circumstances would Markowitz’s implication hold water? I’m not a domestic abuser. Should I therefore not care if the government wants to put cameras around my house? I haven’t murdered anyone. Should I therefore not care if the local police open a homicide investigation into me? The very idea is totalitarian.

There is no reason to treat the IRS differently:

One of the best things about the United States is that its constitution habitually preempts the “If you have done nothing wrong . . .” arguments that tend to prevail elsewhere. As a matter of course, Americans do not buy the idea that only a man with something to hide would cherish the Fourth Amendment or that only a man who is guilty would plead the Fifth or that only a man who wishes to demean others would wish to favor a robust understanding of freedom of speech. The broad opposition to a supercharged IRS that has so baffled Adam Markowitz and his fellow travelers is predicated upon a similar conceit: that this is a free country, and that those who wish to make it less so can shove it.

I also took aim at Joe Manchin, for apparently being all talk on inflation:

The Democrats know that their bill has nothing to do with inflation; they just don’t care. And why would they, when sleight of hand has worked so well for them of late? In March of last year, the party insisted that its “American Rescue Plan” was a vital and timely Covid-mitigation measure right up until the moment it was signed into law, at which point all mentions of Covid-19 were expeditiously dropped and the package was instantly recast as what it had been all along: the gigantic, inflationary, pork-laden, social-spending bill that Democrats had coveted for a decade.

And yet Joe Manchin happily signed on:

Demonstrating that he still possesses a little of the curmudgeonly spirit for which he has become so famous, Senator Bernie Sanders couldn’t help but point out during debate on the measure that the party with which he caucuses has been flatly lying about its work. On the floor of the Senate, Sanders mocked the “so-called Inflation Reduction Act” for being a cynical misnomer: “According to the CBO and other economic organizations that study this bill,” Sanders said, “it will, in fact, have a minimal impact on inflation.”

Sanders voted for the bill anyway — which is comprehensible, given that his primary objection was that it didn’t go far enough. But what was Joe Manchin’s excuse? Just three weeks ago, Manchin outlined his priorities: “Inflation, inflation, inflation. Gas prices, gas prices, gas prices. Food prices, food prices, food prices. And energy [prices].” Expanding on this, Manchin explained that, “For more than a year, leaders in Washington have ignored the serious concerns raised by myself and others about the rising cost of inflation,” and submitted that it was “past time we put our country first and end this inflation crisis.” A week later, with no improvement in the economic conditions about which he was so worried, Manchin signed on to a bill that did absolutely none of those things, that was loaded up with transparent accounting tricks, and that, because its spending is front-loaded and its supposed deficit-reduction measures are delayed, is likely to make inflation even worse.

There are two plausible explanations for this conduct. The first is that Joe Manchin is so chronically gullible that he was hornswoggled into supporting a bill he had insisted he opposed by Chuck Schumer’s last-gasp decision to change its name. (“The ‘Inflation Reduction Act’! Who could be against that?”) The second is that Joe Manchin is a fraud.

Joe Biden

On Tuesday, I noticed that a lot of pundits were arguing on TV that if the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago turned out to be unjustified, it would be a big problem, but then declining to define “unjustified,” or to say what should happen in such a case:

On CNN this morning, George Conway said that “they’ve crossed the Rubicon here. Not even Richard Nixon’s house in San Clemente was searched by the FBI, as far as I know.” Then he said, “You have to conclude there’s something behind the curtain that would surprise us.” On Twitter last night, David Axelrod said, “One thing is very clear. Garland would not have authorized this raid, and no federal judge would have signed off on it, if there weren’t significant evidence to warrant it.” This seemed to be the takeaway on most of the cable news shows, too.

Missing, though, was the second part of the thought. Namely: What if that isn’t true? George Conway says that the FBI has “crossed the Rubicon,” but that this must be because there’s “something behind the curtain that would surprise us.” Okay, but what if there’s not? Then what? I’d like to hear his thoughts. David Axelrod says that “Garland would not have authorized this raid, and no federal judge would have signed off on it, if there weren’t significant evidence to warrant it.” Okay, but what if they did? Then what? I’d like to know what Axelrod thinks that means. If this was obviously justified, Conway, Axelrod, and co. will be able to sit back and say, “see!” And I’ll join them! As I’ve written before, there’s nothing per se wrong with investigating presidential candidates, so long as it’s done even-handedly, and if Trump has committed a crime for which others in a similar position have been prosecuted, then he should be charged. But if it wasn’t justified, and the FBI “crossed the Rubicon” without cause, what happens next? Do we just move on — as if nothing ever happened?

I suspect that we will.

I also wrote an essay noting just how remarkably bored of Trump I am, six years in:

I’m bored of the man himself. I’m bored of his opponents. I’m bored of his supporters. I’m bored of the manner in which every last question that animates our politics is eventually plotted onto a graph that has his face at its center. You name anything Trump-related, I’m bored of it.

It’s utterly inescapable. Before long, every political topic, every prominent politician, every historical trend becomes about Donald Trump in some way, shape, or form. Every piece of journalism does, too. I haven’t yet published this piece, and I’m already bored by the responses that it will engender. That’s how bad it’s gotten: I’m pre-bored — by the emails, by the analyses, by the snark, by the desire to make every last thing in American life about Trump. Nothing is safe. Bring up something almost as old as the nation itself — the Fifth Amendment, say — and within a few minutes, people will be debating whether it is functionally pro-Trump or anti-Trump. They’ll ask if it’s Trump-adjacent, or Trump-resistant, or anti-anti-Trump, and then, without missing a beat, they’ll move on to the next topic. That Genghis Khan guy. Know who he reminds me of?

On and on it goes, until there’s nothing left except Trump:

“Trump broke us,” people say. Indeed. We used to talk about ideas, rules, positions, consequences. Now we talk about him. Previous generations argued about slavery or tariffs or free silver or the interstate commerce clause. We argue about Donald Trump. And even when we don’t, we end up referring to him obliquely, as if he were the Earth’s core. “What do you think of the governor of Maryland?” someone will ask, and, immediately, it’s back to Trump. What do you think of the decision in Dobbs? Because, you see, Trump did that — or didn’t do that, if you prefer. Nothing can ever be about what it’s actually about; it has to be about Donald Trump. A few years ago, someone told me that my opposition to Trump’s position on American libel law was “actually” driven by my snobbish dislike of his “Queens accent.” Me! A guy who was born in rural England. Does that really seem likely? Never mind.

The whole thing has become disastrously totalitarian. People who disagreed with a lot of Trump’s political positions now pretend to support them, lest their dissent be cast as disloyalty to the man himself. People who once agreed strongly with the positions that Trump chose to adopt now oppose them vehemently, lest they be accused of alignment with the man himself. During the Trump administration, I was frequently asked by the president’s supporters whether I had yet clambered aboard “the Trump train.” I had no idea what that meant. A blood oath? Fealty? An agreement to switch off my brain? All three, I now see. A similar trend is developing among my progressive friends, who have started insisting that I must “denounce” any politician in America whom they consider to be insufficiently hostile to Donald Trump. No, thank you. I don’t think I will.

On Thursday, I recorded the “richly deserved” news that voters are not buying the idea that to reduce inflation you need only write a bill called the Inflation Reduction Act:

As YouGov notes, “Americans are three times as likely to think the Inflation Reduction Act will increase inflation as to think it will decrease inflation.”

Among Republicans, the increase-decrease numbers are 69-4, with 13 percent thinking it will have no effect. Among independents, they’re 33-10, with 21 percent thinking it’ll be a wash. Democrats are the only group who say it’ll decrease inflation (21 percent) more than increase inflation (13), but if you add “will not change inflation” to the equation, that becomes 47 percent for increase/not change inflation and just 21 percent for decrease inflation.

And yesterday, I suggested that there really are only two sides to the question of free speech:

The stabbing of Salman Rushdie reminds me why. Because, really, there are only two sides to it. There are the people who believe in free speech, and there are the people who don’t. The person who does believe in free speech is currently in the hospital. The person who doesn’t believe in free speech stabbed him.

Certainly, the people who don’t believe in free speech have different reasons for their opposition: They want to protect people’s feelings or to aid public virtue; they think that the religion they believe in is too important; they fear the consequences of bad people hearing bad words. But, really, who cares? The root question is whether or not we are to have a clerisy of people who, via direct violence (murder, acid) or indirect violence (government) are able to tell everyone else what they may or may not say.

If we are not, then the arguments offered up by the would-be members of that clerisy are irrelevant. I don’t care why the person who stabbed Rushdie thought he needed to be punished for his writing. I don’t care why the men who attacked Charlie Hebdo felt upset with that magazine. I don’t care why the British government is trying to add yet more censorship powers to its already bulging stack. I don’t care why Charlie Kirk thinks he’s found the one true exception to the First Amendment. I don’t care why the wokesters believe they can remedy structural inequality with Red Ink. I don’t care. Pick a side.

For my full archive at National Review, you can click here.

Podcasting
The Editors

I was on two episodes of The Editors this week. On the first, we discussed the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, the IRS’s expanded workforce, and Joe Biden. On the second, we discussed the optics of the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search, Trump’s hold on the GOP, and the closing of Tavistock. You can subscribe to The Editors on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, and more, or listen online at National Review.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

On this week’s episode of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Kevin and I talked about the IRS. You can subscribe to Mad Dogs and Englishmen on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, and more, or listen online at National Review.

What I'm . . .

Listening To: 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Pts 1-9)' by Pink Floyd

I discovered Pink Floyd all at once. I was about 11, and I took all the vinyls from my Dads collection and played them back to back. Growing up, Id been told by everyone that the obvious classic in the canon was Dark Side of the Moon, but, while that is indeed a spectacular record, the idea that it was the best seemed obviously wrong to me from the start. The classic was clearly Wish You Were Here, and, in particular, its split-into-two anchor track, Shine On You Crazy Diamond.

Pink Floyd first tried to do something like Shine On You Crazy Diamond in 1971, on Meddle. The first half of Meddle has a bunch of shorter post-Syd Barrett songs. The second half has just one: a glorious and terrifying soundscape called Echoes, which opens with the line, Overhead the albatross / Hangs motionless upon the air” and proceeds precisely as youd imagine it would from that point. Echoes isn't a song — its a symphony. Today, it would be lazily described as prog rock, which, technically, I suppose it is, but which I tend to reject because of the pretentious connotations that attach to that term. Echoes isn't recorded in the way it is because the band said, let's make an epic; its recorded in the way it is because, as they kicked around the touring circuit, and then Abbey Road Studios, it just sort of happened that way. In other words, Echoes . . . evolved.

The same is true of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. If you read books about Pink Floyd, you'll hear talk about the track being “written.” But it wasn’t really — at least, not in the usual sense of that word. She Loves You was “written.” Lennon and McCartney sat down at a piano together, and they worked the whole thing out — the lyrics, the melody, the chord changes — and then, as was his wont, George Martin moved the pieces around a little. Shine On You Crazy Diamond? That's a sketch, a prompt, a skeleton. It's an invitation — first for Rick Wright to show off his unfathomably delicate keyboard skills; then for David Gilmour to prove, in the space of just a few moments, that he can play blues, that he can write haunting riffs with the best of them, and, finally, that he has a physical control of the electric guitar that is probably unmatched (Gilmour’s secret is the strength of his left hand); and, after eight-and-a-half minutes, for the whole band to fire as one.

And when they finally do — oh man. There's a brief moment of suspense, the organ moves to G minor (which is silver, by the way), and then in comes the vocal: “Remember when you were young.” It’s one of the finest moments in the history of rock music. And then, somehow, it gets better. With a clever little bit of jujitsu, the chords move from G minor to F# major to Bb major, which opens up the move over to Eb major, and a huge, chromatically descending “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” chorus, which is made all the better by the addition of that  unique stacked-harmony sound that, for some reason I will never quite understand, you could only get out of 1965-1977-era Abbey Road Studios. (The Beatles achieved it. So did The Hollies.)

And that’s that. Except, actually, its not, because, after three more tracks (Welcome to the MachineHave a Cigar, and the peerless Wish You Were Here), Shine On You Crazy Diamond comes back for a second shot. I almost typed “reprise,” but its not a reprise; its a second movement. Unlike the relaxed, suspenseful opening to the first go-around, this one is immediately frenetic, such that, by the time it resolves back into the verses — “Nobody knows where you are / How near or how far — youre exhausted and relieved, worn out by all those screaming, recklessly sliding guitars and the relentless bass line, which never quite seems to move off the same note. In its musical effect, the sonic trick that Pink Floyd pulled here at 4:40 is similar to the one that the Beatles pulled at the end of the second side of Abbey Road, when the chanting chorus and heralding brass of Carry That Weight drops down for a moment and, providing a brief break from the near-unbroken medley that is the second side, George Harrisons guitar comes burning through the clouds.

Except this time, when the cacophony ends, the cacophony ends. This time, the resolution is real, and were back to the beauty of the song, back to David Gilmour’s sympathetic guitar playing, and, eventually, back to where we started: to those hovering synths, to Rick Wrights elegant synthesizer lines, and to the most satisfying, and well-deserved, final chord outside of A Day in the Life.

“You wore out your welcome with random precision.” Indeed.

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