In human affairs, people do not necessarily say what they mean, and things are not necessarily what they seem to be at first impression. Here are three things that are related by these measures; see if you agree.
The Shoeless Homeless Guy
It started with a story in the NY Post on November 29: A kindly New York cop came upon a shoeless homeless guy in Times Square on a cold night, and went and bought the guy a pair of warm boots with his own money. A tourist took a picture of the gift and the picture and the story then went viral.
A few days later, the story wasn't quite what it had seemed at first impression. Here's a report from the Daily News of December 3. The homeless guy, Jeffrey Hillman, wasn't homeless at all. He lives in the Bronx in an apartment paid for by Federal Section 8 vouchers. He also had a rather substantial income from two founts of government benefits, Veterans' Benefits and Social Security Disability. And then, just a few days after the generous gift of the shoes, he emerged back in Times Square in bare feet again!
So what is actually going on here? I can't rule out the possibility that he is just completely deranged, but there is rather obvious alternative hypothesis, which is that the begging is a lot more lucrative with bare feet. If that hypothesis is correct, then the gift of the shoes, and the publicizing of the gift, are not a kindness at all. Instead, they are a mortal threat to the poor man's source of discretionary income. Well, maybe people will forget soon enough and he can go back to his regular gig.
The People's Daily Gets Taken In By The Onion
The Weekly Standard (and others) have been having a great time with the story: The satirical newspaper The Onion runs a ridiculous article naming North Korean dictator Kim Jong Eun the "Sexiest Man Alive." The story is picked up the the People's Daily, official organ of the Chinese Communist Party, and reported with complete credulity, including no less than 55 pages of photographs.
What conclusion to draw? Here is the take of the Scrapbook at the Weekly Standard:
[T]he editors of the People’s Daily Online read English and must surely have seen the Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive feature fully in context with other Onion features. And yet they seem to have taken it entirely at face value, and seen it not for the obvious joke that it is but a rare Western compliment to the dictator of a Chinese client state.
I don't think so. I think it is very difficult for us in the West to comprehend what it is like to live in a world where no one is allowed to speak their mind. But let's try to imagine. To work at the People's Daily, you must always present the facade that you believe everything about the Party Line and all words out of your mouth must evidence that belief. Everyone knows that the Party Line is ridiculous in a thousand respects, but no one must ever give the slightest hint of what they are thinking. If they give such a hint, they are immediately gone. Their career totally depends on maintaining the facade.
The line people who selected the article from the Onion to highlight were sharp and knew English well. I think they knew exactly what they were doing, and were playing a clever prank on their superiors and/or their censors., who are likely to be humorless people with a weak grasp of English. In a world where the line people must mouth pieties all day and never crack a smile, they would now burst into a fit of giggling as soon as they had a moment outside the eyes of their watchers.
But, you protest, this couldn't be right because they wouldn't take the risk that the major media in the West would catch them and subject the Party to ridicule. Perhaps, but now imagine the goings on in the People's Daily news room after the Weekly Standard article. Everyone must pretend not to know about it! They all must go about their business as if nothing has happened and not say a word or, God forbid, crack a smile. For the superiors or censors to criticize the line people who created the article would be to admit that they themselves were idiots and subjected the Party to ridicule. Won't happen. And the superiors and censors are highly enough placed and have enough clout to maintain their own position; except, of course, if they admit that they subjected the Party to ridicule, in which case they are gone.
They do understand our satire, but can't admit it. But we do not understand theirs. I do not necessarily think it's a flaw on our part to not understand what it must be like living under thought control, but we need to make the effort.
The Federal Bar Council Lunch
On the day before Thanksgiving the Federal Bar Council held its annual lunch at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel grand ballroom. In attendance (along with myself and several colleagues as well as many private practitioners) were the large majority of Federal judges in the area, and most current and former Unites States Attorneys and Assistant U.S. Attorneys. These are the best and the brightest of the legal community, a who's who of well-known names.
Our table was on the balcony, and as I sat looking out over that large room of a couple of thousand people, I was wondering, has any one of them actually ever spoken out against the drug war? Many may question the orthodoxy in their own mind, but you'll never find it out by talking to them, because fealty to the drug war is the only way to get a job in the U.S. Attorney's office or on the Federal bench. So every one of them conforms. I guess they view it as a small price to pay for the lucrative career advancement. It's not as bad as working for the People's Daily, but also not so entirely different.