Denial Is Doom

Thirty years ago, I sat inside a classroom in a hangar at a small airport, taking the ground school course required for my Private Pilot license. The air smelled of strong black coffee and jet exhaust; from beyond the walls of the classroom were the high whining sounds of the mechanics’ pneumatic wrenches and the rumble of the engines of Learjets and Gulfstreams. Our instructor was an old-timer, retired from flying the line, but with a thousand old hangar stories to tell, and much to the relief of all, he frequently interrupted the dry, FAA-approved curriculum with them. One of them in particular has stuck with me these many years, and seems worth retelling just now. In this age of the internet, I could look up the exact details of the story, but I’d prefer not to, and to repeat it to you exactly as I remember him telling it to us all those many years ago.

* * *

On a bitter cold night in a winter of the late 1950s, a DC-6 – one of the last generation of big four-engined, piston-powered airliners produced before the jet age began – lifted off from LaGuardia airport in New York City, bound for Miami. Seconds after takeoff, and at only a couple of hundred feet in the air, the plane began to fall back to earth, headed down toward the darkness of Flushing Bay. If it had crashed into the cold waters, all on board would almost certainly have drowned or died of hypothermia, but the quick instincts of the pilots guided it to a crash landing on Rikers Island, a small spot of land in the middle of the bay that for many years has been the location of the city’s main prison. As the plane impacted, the nose broke off and the wings ruptured, splashing aviation gasoline across the frozen ground. And yet, miraculously, few of the passengers had been killed in the crash. As soon as the stewardesses (whose primary job is to get passengers out of a wreck alive, not to serve drinks) came to their senses and realized what had happened, they began an emergency evacuation. Within a few short moments, the situation became even more urgent – flames appeared at the rear of the passenger cabin, and quickly spread forward. Yet the brave young women stood fast, guiding all of the surviving passengers out of the emergency exits and to safety.

Finally, only two living souls remained in the shattered hull of the airplane. One was the last of the stewardesses, and the other was a middle-aged gentleman, in a neat suit and tie, holding the newspaper he’d been reading when the plane took off, sitting quietly and not moving from where he was. Though she was right next to an emergency exit herself, and the flames were only seconds away, her courage and compassion got the best of her, and she went back to try to get him out in the precious little time remaining. She ran up to his seat, stood over him, and with all the firmness she could muster, said: “Sir, we’ve got to go! You have to get up and come with me through the exit.”

The man seemed eerily calm, yet his face wore a disquieting, blank expression. He looked at her and replied: “No, it’s fine. Everything is fine.”

By this point, the stewardess was practically screaming: “No, sir, it isn’t! The plane has crashed! You have to follow me out of here! Right now!”

“No”, he answered, “everything is fine. We’ll be in Miami soon. You’ll see. Everything will be fine.”, and then went back to reading his newspaper.

There was no more time left. She had done everything she could for him, and now she could only save herself. Climbing through the emergency exit, she took one last look back, just in time to see a ball of flame rushing toward her. She leapt out into the snow, running as fast as she could. Almost immediately, the whole wreck was engulfed. As she huddled with the other passengers and waited for the guards of the nearby prison to reach them with aid, all she could do was look back at it in horror.

* * *

Whoever the man in the suit was, he burned alive – needlessly, tragically – because his brain paralyzed itself with denial, and wouldn’t allow him to process the truth of what had happened to him. Denial is a natural part of our brain’s coping mechanisms, but of all the forms of self-deception, it is the most dangerous one, because it keeps us from clearly seeing dangers, rendering us unable to deal with them. And intelligence is a meager defense against it – in the 1950s, travel was an expensive luxury that few people could afford; the man in the suit was likely some sort of important executive off to a high-level business meeting. He was almost certainly a smart person, and spent a lifetime being nobody’s fool. Even the most rational of us most sometimes struggle to overcome the irrational impulses hardwired deep into the programming of our imperfect brains. Perhaps with a few more minutes, he could have done it – snapped the spell cast over his rational mind, processed the danger clearly, and done what needed to be done to save himself. But he didn’t have a few more minutes, and the reality of our world is that often life doesn’t give us that kind of time. Most dangers require some sort of immediate action. Time is of the essence, and self-deception means doom.

There is a reason why I am telling you this now. Something very bad has occurred, and many people are responding to it with denial and self-deception. These people are mostly neither stupid nor cowardly, and getting angry with them will accomplish nothing. But likewise it is doing them no favors to stand by silently and to not do everything one can to snap them back into reality so that they can rationally process the dangers we’re facing and develop an appropriate response to them. Like the brave stewardess trying to save her passenger from a horrible fate, there are some harsh truths that I must now tell, with all the compassionate firmness that I can muster.

* * *

This is all real. As hard as it is to believe that what we’ve seen in the past couple of months is actually happening to us, it is. The left has just stolen both the presidential election, and the election that decided control of the Senate. Having done so, they have flooded the nation’s capital with tens of thousands of occupying soldiers, who they have screened for political loyalty. On the 20th, Biden will assume power, and nobody is going to stop it. Trump is finished; he has effectively been out of power since January 6th, and on the 20th, he will be flown back to Mar-a-lago for a quiet retirement. Qanon was fake; there is not and never has been any plan to trust, and “The Storm” isn’t coming. The military isn’t going to overthrow Biden and reinstall Trump; their leadership are completely on-board with everything that has happened. The American Republic is dead; having gotten away with fixing two national elections, the Deep State will assume the permanent role of kingmaker. There will be no more free, fair elections at the federal level. For appearances’ sake, a nonthreatening Republican of the RINO variety – a Nikki Haley or Marco Rubio – may be allowed to hold the presidency again at some point, but they will never permit another real reformer like Trump anywhere near power. All the holes in the system that allowed his rise have been patched. He’s not getting elected again in 2024, and nobody like him is getting elected then, or ever again.

Speaking of January 6th, conservative pundits who say it was a disaster for the right are fooling themselves (and trying to fool you). It can’t do any harm to our political cause because there is no more harm to do. It’s obvious now that we’re not going to vote our way out of this. We’re not going to fundraise our way out of this. We’re not going to get out of this by dropping “truth bombs” on talk radio or going on National Review cruises with Victor Davis Hanson. “Vote harder” (at least in federal elections – there may yet be some value in at at a state and local level) is now a strategy that’s just as rational as sitting in a burning airplane waiting for it to reach Miami. Who cares if what happened on the 6th destroys the national Republican party, drives away big-money donors, gets all of Sean Hannity’s sponsors drop him, and makes the corporate media that already hated us hate us more? Any hope of victory that was ever invested in any of that has crashed and is on fire. It’s not going to get you to your destination. The only thing you can do is to get yourself to a safe place and plan your next move while you watch it burn.

As for what to do now, I have already covered first steps in previous columns, which I invite you to read. But to all of you who have spoken proudly of 1776 and what our ancestors did, and assured yourself that in their place, you would do the same, let me ask you: If not now, when? If not because of this, then because of what? I do not advocate acting rashly or even necessarily quickly – the hour must be right, and the proper occasion must present itself. Certainly, I do not advise any ill-advised or premature moves. We must act wisely and deliberately. What I am telling you is that the time is near and you must make yourselves ready for it.

But to do that, the first thing you must do is to engage with reality. There can be no more hopeful-but-implausible dreams, no more comforting self-deception, and no more denial about the truth of what is happening. Survival is at stake, time is running short, and we cannot afford it.

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The Christmas Bullet

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with airplanes, or really, with any man-made flying machine. Planes, helos, zeppelins, gyrocopters, what have you – I would, in those pre-internet days, spend hours reading books full of facts and figures and pictures and stories about them (that is, when I wasn’t busy building plastic models of them or watching reruns of Airwolf, Baa Baa Black Sheep, or Tales of the Gold Monkey). A few of the more colorful and interesting accounts of the early days of aviation have stuck with me through the years, and it has occurred to me that there is one in particular that may be of some relevance to my readers.

Toward the end of World War I, a charming but eccentric man by the name of Dr. William Wallace Whitney Christmas founded an aircraft manufacturing company in Washington, DC. This was perhaps a bit of an odd thing to expect him to do, as there exists no evidence that Dr. Christmas, who was a physician by training, had any background or practical experience in aeronautical engineering, or in fact in any kind of engineering at all. He claimed to have built airplanes before that point, but no record has ever been found to support this other than his own word. Despite his complete apparent lack of qualifications in the field he was entering, he nevertheless managed to find a pair of wealthy brothers – Alfred and Henry McCorry – who he was able to talk into providing him with financial backing while he worked on his projects. Since he did not actually own a factory at which airplanes could be built, he traveled to Long Island to visit the Continental Aircraft Company, where, trading both on his remarkable powers of persuasion and on the still-palpable war fever in which the nation had been gripped, he was able to convince its corporate leadership that his newest design, which he had named the “Bullet”, would be the key to the success of a daring plan he had developed to bring an end to the war by secretly landing an airplane behind German lines, kidnapping Kaiser Wilhelm II, flying him to Britain, and forcing him to sign a surrender. Having secured Continental Aircraft’s agreement to build his airplane for him, Dr. Christmas next needed an aeronautical engine, which in those days (and especially with all available production going toward the war effort) were both expensive and not easy to come by. Undaunted by this, Dr. Christmas visited Army headquarters in Washington, on a mission to get them to loan him an example of the most powerful engine they had. Here once again a combination of his personal charm and wartime desperation worked to his advantage, and he was able to talk his way into possession of an experimental Liberty VI engine, which developed a then-incredible 215 horsepower. To the Army’s credit, they were sufficiently skeptical of the entire matter that the loan came with the proviso that their engine was to be used only for ground testing of the prototype Bullet; he was not to take it into the air until the Army had gotten a chance to inspect and do a full evaluation on the new aircraft. Eager to get his hands on a Liberty VI, Dr. Christmas agreed.

As for the actual design of the Bullet, what Dr. Christmas called “innovative”, others would call “ludicrous”. He claimed that its weird-looking, flattened-egg-shaped fuselage – made of veneered wood – was  going to provide unprecedented reductions in aerodynamic drag, and that its flimsy wings, which he said that he had deliberately designed to flex and bend, were more than strong enough to support its weight. In an article about the Bullet in the British magazine Flight (which still publishes today, as Flight Global), Dr. Christmas even went so far as to declare that the Bullet had “a safety factor of seven throughout”, despite the magazine’s observation that “it would seem that such construction would result in a low factor of safety”. The editors of Flight were not, however, the only people who knew a lot about airplanes and who began to voice serious misgivings about the Bullet. When Dr. Christmas finally submitted his blueprints to Continental Aircraft, the company’s in-house head of engineering (Vincent Burnelli – who would go on to make some genuine innovations in the area of “flying wing” type aircraft, of which the modern B-2 bomber is perhaps the most famous example) came up with a long list of changes that needed to be made before the Bullet would be airworthy. Not least among Burnelli’s concerns was Dr. Christmas’s insistence that the Bullet be made out of cheap scrap wood and metal, which the Doctor claimed would minimize both the cost of building it and the strain that its construction would place on supplies of critically-needed resources during wartime. Once again, Dr. Christmas was able to convince others that his plans were sound; Continental’s management sided with him over Burnelli’s objections, and the Bullet was constructed exactly the way that Dr. Christmas wanted.

And then, suddenly, the war ended.

While the rest of the world celebrated, Dr. Christmas found himself with serious reason to worry. The end of the Great War meant that generous wartime contracts for new weapons would quickly evaporate, along with the willingness of the Army, industry, and investors to try just about anything, no matter how strange it might seem, as long as there was the slightest chance that it might contribute to victory. At this point, the first prototype had been finished and a second, for which an engine had not yet been found, was under construction. Dr. Christmas knew that he had finally had to show what the Bullet could do, and show it fast, before both the interest and the money that his supporters had been giving to him began to dry up. Of course, Dr. Christmas had never actually flown an airplane himself, so personally test-flying the first prototype Bullet was out of the question. Fortunately for him, thousands of freshly-demobilized Army aviators were coming home from the war. The airline industry was not yet even in its infancy, and jobs flying the mail were scarce, so many of them found themselves unemployed and without any prospects of flying for a living. Dr. Christmas put out an offer of generous pay for any who would become a test pilot for his new airplane. Man after man turned up, took one look at the Bullet, spun around on their heels, and left, declaring that no amount of money was worth their lives. Finally, Dr. Christmas found one pilot – one Cuthbert Mills – who was either brave or desperate enough to try.

And so one cold day in January of 1919, the first Christmas Bullet took to the sky from the Continental Aircraft factory’s airfield. It climbed a few hundred feet in the air, at which point Dr. Christmas’s innovative thin and flexible wings broke off. What was left of the Bullet plunged to the ground, killing Cuthbert Mills instantly.

Vincent Burnelli was livid. Continental Aircraft was deeply embarrassed. The Army, which Dr. Christmas neglected to tell about the crash and the destruction of their expensive loaner engine, was beginning to get impatient. Dr. Christmas, however, was undaunted. Next time, he promised, would be a complete success – all he needed to do was make a few minor adjustments to what was an essentially flawless design. He turned on the charm again. Somehow, he managed to convince Continental Aircraft to finish the second prototype. Somehow, he managed to scrounge up an engine for it (this time, a much less powerful Hall-Scott model L-6). Somehow, he managed to find someone – this time, an Army pilot named Lt. Allington Jolly – to fly it. Somehow, he managed to talk his way into having the second Bullet displayed at Madison Square Garden as a way to gain publicity and public support. The display claimed that the Bullet had been demonstrated to achieve speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour – the fact that it had done so going straight down after its wings had fallen off was a detail that Dr. Christmas felt it unnecessary to mention to the gathered crowds.

And so one warm day in April of 1919, the second Christmas Bullet took to the sky. It climbed a few hundred feet in the air, at which point its wings broke off, and it plunged to the ground, killing Allington Jolly instantly.

Continental Aircraft walked away. The McCorry brothers walked away. The Army, which had thousands of now-unneeded surplus airplanes on its hands and no war to fight, and which probably wouldn’t have put any more money into the Bullet even if it had turned out to be everything that he had promised, walked away without even bothering to sue Dr. Christmas for the lost engine. The world moved on; only two minor pieces of the story remained.

One of them was the grieving families of Cuthbert Mills and Allington Jolly. The other was Dr. William Wallace Whitney Christmas.

Dr. Christmas never stopped telling anyone who would listen that the Bullet was just one minor alteration away from being a historic, world-changing success. When, in 1930, Flight published an article giving a full account of the affair, Dr. Christmas had his lawyer send an angry letter denouncing them, calling their report “false and scurrilous”, stating that the Bullet had been a tremendous achievement and that it had only crashed due to careless flying on the part of Cuthbert Mills (the letter made no mention at all of Allington Jolly or the second Bullet), claiming that mountains of evidence (none of which he actually bothered to provide) attested to all of this, and vaguely but unmistakably threatening legal action if any further “injurious and libellous” articles about the Bullet appeared in their pages. In fact, to his dying day, Dr. Christmas continued to insist that he had hundreds of patents to his name (of which no record exists or ever has existed), that he had designed dozens of successful airplanes (the Bullet is the only one that there is any real evidence for), and that he was on the brink of revolutionizing aviation. A New York Times article from 1950 records the 85-year-old Dr. Christmas still darkening the doorstep of the military, this time trying to sell the newly-created U.S. Air Force on his design for a massive “flying battleship” (the Pentagon, in an unusual bout of sanity, passed on the idea).

Dr. Christmas died in the spring of 1960, at the ripe old age of 94, forty-one years after he had killed Cuthbert Mills and Allington Jolly and well into a jet age that had materialized despite him rather than because of him.

And thus ended the story of the Christmas Bullet.

*  *  *

So why am I telling you this?

Machines are made by humans, and thus the machines that we create are, whether we intend them to be or not, an extension of our own heart and soul. They come from us; they are creations of our minds, and therefore their stories are our stories. And while many of their stories have no great meaning, some of them become parables that teach us about ourselves and how our minds work. The most famous of these is, of course, the Titanic, which serves as a warning against the dangers of hubris in the face of nature. Was it really unsinkable, as all the smart men of its day – all the engineers and shipbuilders and sea-captains – said it was? No, and none of us have to be engineers or shipbuilders or sea-captains to be able to say that with authority. All we need to know is that it actually sank; the wonderfully complex and informed reasons that the wise, educated, experienced, and smart offered as to why it could not sink came to nothing as soon as it did. History is reality, and reality is final – as the saying goes, “let reason remain silent when experience gainsays its conclusions”.

The Christmas Bullet, too, serves as one of these parables, and it has its own lessons to teach us about modernity in general and Marxism in particular. Certainly, the parallels to the latter are exceptionally strong. Like Dr. Christmas, Karl Marx was a crank who had no qualifications whatsoever in the field into which he inserted his ideas. Like Dr. Christmas, Karl Marx simply sidestepped this rather obvious criticism by claiming to be self-taught, even though the discipline involved takes years of study and practical experience (none of which either of them had a lick of) for men to to master (and, as the example of the Titanic proves, even then they are often wrong). Despite this, both men claimed to have hit on a scientifically incontrovertible answer to a difficult problem that the best and most qualified men of their time had all somehow overlooked. Like Dr. Christmas, Karl Marx told desperate people something they intensely wanted to believe – Marx that the terrible poverty of the early industrial age would inevitably give way to a workers’ paradise, and Dr. Christmas that the horrendous carnage of the Great War could be brought to a swift and easy end by a deus ex machina secret weapon. Like Dr. Christmas, Karl Marx’s invention crashed and burned every time it was tested in the real world, leaving an awful trail of death and destruction behind it. Like Dr. Christmas, Karl Marx’s defenders insist that if those ideas had not been interfered with by lesser men full of jealousy or malice, or if those who tried putting them into practice had not been incompetent, or if just a few more minor adjustments had been made, things would have gone exactly as they promised. But like Dr. Christmas, Karl Marx’s errors were not mere matters of detail; the whole concept behind their ideas was fundamentally flawed – their plans were ridiculous on their face, and any precocious schoolchild who wasn’t blinded by desperately wanting to believe in them could identify all of their glaringly obvious shortcomings.

There are two important differences, however. One is that the Christmas Bullet only killed two innocent people, while Marxism killed a hundred million of them (although there is no doubt in my mind* that Dr. Christmas would have, without a second thought, sacrificed that many, and more, to the cause of proving his ridiculous theories correct if only he had the chance to). The other is that precisely nobody in the field of aeronautical engineering still defends Dr. Christmas, whereas academia, media, and the arts are full of defenders of Marx’s ideas, and they never run out of reasons why history is not in fact reality and reality is not in fact final.

These reasons, of course, are ridiculous, as I can show by using the parable of the Christmas Bullet. Using the logic of these sophists, I can prove to you without a doubt that Dr. Christmas’s airplane never crashed. Let us start by offering a definition of an “airplane” that I believe we can all agree upon: An airplane is a device with wings that flies in the sky. Fair enough? Well then, as soon as the wings fell off of the Christmas Bullet and it ceased flying and started plummeting, it wasn’t an airplane anymore, because airplanes are things that have wings and fly in the sky. Thus, we cannot say that the crashes of the Christmas Bullet represent a failure of Dr. Christmas’s airplane, because at the moment it crashed, it wasn’t really an airplane anymore.

Ridiculous? Obviously so. But this same argument is used by the defenders of Marx. According to them, when Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot began to murder and oppress their people, then what they were doing became not-communism, because communism is defined as a thing that liberates instead of murdering and oppressing. Thus, we cannot say that what they did represents a failure of communism, because as soon as they did it, it wasn’t real communism anymore.

Dead-ender Marxists will also insist that, with just a few more adjustments, communism could be made to work. (A good example of this is the Venus Project, whose adherents serve up a warmed-over communism that they insist will work this time because computers). They will challenge you: prove that it could never work! And, to be fair, I cannot. But I also cannot prove that no way could ever have been found to make the Christmas Bullet work. I do know this much, however: There sure as hell isn’t any way that someone could ever talk me into getting into that thing and flying it. What about you?

Those who deny the validity of historical experience as a tool of epistemology and who insist that it does nothing to falsify their favorite theories ignore a truth that every adult should have a strong grasp of: Any crank, con man, or snake-oil salesman can make big promises – but it doesn’t matter what someone can promise, the only thing that matters is what they actually deliver.

(*Or perhaps I am being unfair to Dr. Christmas and he didn’t mean to kill anybody with his bizarre and unworkable theories (although I will note that unlike Howard Hughes, who flew, and sometimes crashed, his own designs, the good Doctor never did get in the Bullet and fly it himself). And perhaps neither did Marx. So what? What does it matter? Does it make any difference to Cuthbert Mills or Allington Jolly, or to the millions of victims of communism, most of whose names you will never know?)